Sad but not strange

Jesus-Reaching-Out

photo: iStock

It is sad that Jesus finds it necessary to exhort the followers closest to him to believe his words, and therefore to believe that he is himself the revelation of the Father. Sad, indeed; but not strange. Is not our own unbelief proof enough of the commonness of unbelief? Even after we have been assured of God’s love for us again and again, of his sovereign pleasure to bless his people with what he judges good for them, do we not retreat to practical skepticism when difficult circumstances seem to call in question his goodness or his power?

Jesus’ first disciples in John 14 are experiencing difficulties of several kinds. They are perhaps intellectually slow to believe the daring claim on Jesus’ lips, made repeatedly, that he is in the Father and the Father in him. Worse, they are bound up emotionally as well as intellectually as they wrestle with talk about death, betrayal, Jesus’ departure, their inability to follow him at present, and the like. What they need more than anything else is to believe Jesus, to believe that what he is saying is true. If only they believe, then the uncertainties surrounding these other large matters will be swallowed up by confidence that Jesus is none other than the revelation of the Father. There is no belief more basic to spiritual triumph than that.

D.A. Carson, The Farewell Discourse and Final Prayer of Jesus

“It fell to be seen no more.” Pilgrim’s Progress conversations (2)

He ran till he came to a small hill, at the top of which stood a cross and at the bottom of which was a tomb. I saw in my dream that when Christian walked up the hill to the cross, his burden came loose from his shoulders and fell off his back, tumbling down the hill until it came to the mouth of the tomb, where it fell in to be seen no more.1

Personal reflection

A friend once told me one of his frustrations with The Pilgrim’s Progress was the placement of the cross—we don’t find Christian relieved of his burden until chapter three, which seemed oddly placed:

He’s already on the path to the Celestial City. He’s passed through the slough of despond, although not without being trapped in it for some time. He went astray following the devilish advice of Mr. Worldly-Wiseman, who encouraged him to take an “easier path,” that of morality and legalism…

So why do we have the cross here?

As much as we might prefer the book begin with Christian’s burden dropping from his back, we need to stop and consider whether or not this reflects our own experience? When you first became aware of the burden you carried—the weight of your sin—did you immediately know to run to the cross? Perhaps, perhaps not.

The journey itself is reflective of Bunyan’s own walk with Christ—one which was mired with despondency and futile attempts to justify himself through legalism and moralism, things “intent to rob you of your salvation by turning you away from the way in which I directed you,” as Evangelist told Christian.

As an adult convert, I certainly resonate more with Christian’s journey—one of haphazardly walking the path to the cross, and not finding relief until I stood at its foot. But the point, arguably, is not when Christian finds relief from his burden, but where.

Relief, true relief, is found only at the foot of the cross. Run to it!

Reading with Ryken

The importance of this leg of the journey is disproportionate to the small amount of space given to it. Losing the burden of sin at the foot of the cross is one of the two most important events in the first half of Pilgrim’s Progress (the other being Christian’s entry into Heaven). Whereas the obstacles to spiritual progress that have befallen Christian up to this point have painted a picture of the life before conversion, the ones that happen now represent impediments in the spiritual progress of someone who has been converted to the Christian life.

At the level of travel story, the physical events in this episode are threats to someone who needs to reach a destination. Viewed thus, the events in this chapter resemble those that any traveler encounters—distracting characters, people who give bad advice, the physical ordeals of traveling, losing time by falling asleep, and needing to backtrack to find a lost passport. On this plane, this unit is one of Bunyan’s nightmare passages.

But of course the second level at which the journey unfolds is the spiritual. We should view all the people whom Christian meets in this unit and the physical difficulties he undergoes as pictures of the temptations that befall Christians in their spiritual walk.2

Next week

Next week’s discussion of The Pilgrim’s Progress will be centered around chapters four and five.

Discussing together

This reading project only works if we’re reading together. So if there are things that stood out to you in this chapter, if there are questions you had, this is the time and place to have your say. A few questions and points to consider:3

  1. What spiritual realities did you resonate with in reading these two chapters?
  2. How are the early days after Christian’s conversion like the experiences of other people you have known?
  3. Why did Bunyan choose the specific spiritual vices that he did, as represented by their allegorical names?
  4. What real-life experiences or observations are embodied in Bunyan’s personified vices?

Post a comment below or to link to your blog if you’ve chosen to write about this on your own site.

God might call you to be ignored

word-balloons

In Isaiah chapter six, in one of the most stunning pictures of the pre-incarnate Christ recorded in the Old Testament, the prophet Isaiah experiences a vision of the Lord sitting on His throne. When he lays eyes on Him, he cries out, “Woe is me! For I am lost; for I am a man of unclean lips, and I dwell in the midst of a people of unclean lips; for my eyes have seen the King, the Lord of hosts!” (Isaiah 6:5)

Isaiah is so distraught that he curses himself—he knows that no one can see the Lord and live (Exodus 33:20). But he doesn’t die—instead, an angel takes a piece of coal from the altar and cleanses him, touching the burning coal to his lips. His guilt is taken away; his sin atoned for (Isaiah 6:7).

And then the Lord speaks: “Whom shall I send, and who will go for us?”

Isaiah responds, “Here am I! Send me” (Isaiah 6:8).

Almost every time this story is shared, this is where it stops. We get to see Isaiah boldly answering the Lord’s call, in what I always imagine is a rather heroic fashion, as though he’s saying, “Don’t worry, I’ll handle this!”

And this is how so many of us treat this passage—as though it’s a call to “our” moment to go and do great things for God. To move mountains and make the sun stand still.

At least, if we stop reading at verse eight and totally ignore Isaiah’s marching orders. This is what God commands:

Go, and say to this people:

Keep on hearing, but do not understand;
keep on seeing, but do not perceive.’
Make the heart of this people dull,
and their ears heavy,
and blind their eyes;
lest they see with their eyes,
and hear with their ears,
and understand with their hearts,
and turn and be healed” (v. 9b-1o).

Essentially, Jesus tells Isaiah he’s going to be ignored by the people to whom he will be sent. He will preach judgment upon Israel, and promises of the coming of the Messiah to rescue His people…

And they’re not going to listen to a word of it.

Isaiah’s ministry, like so many of the prophets, is marked by stubborn disobedience that comes as a response to his preaching. The people won’t hear, because they cannot. That’s the point. His ministry is to “make the heart of this people dull.”

Can you imagine how difficult that would be? To know that your calls to repentance will have the exact opposite effect?

Maybe this is what God’s calling you to, as well.

This isn’t a pretty thought for many of us. This is not the stuff mega-churches are made of. And yet, it’s probably the reality for more of us than we realize. We speak, we pray, we plead… and there’s nothing. For many, your words are nothing more than the incoherent mutterings of Charlie Brown’s school teacher.

This is the reality I deal with on a regular basis, in fact, as I try to share the gospel—it’s like it passes right over them. And it can be unbearable, if you don’t remember where to find hope in the midst of discouragement. Again, Isaiah helps us:

…so shall my word be that goes out from my mouth;
it shall not return to me empty,
but it shall accomplish that which I purpose,
and shall succeed in the thing for which I sent it. (Isaiah 55:11)

There’s a confidence here that grounds the exuberance of Isaiah’s cry of “send me!” It puts flesh on the bones of Isaiah’s cry, if you will: God’s word does exactly what it is purposed to do. It means some hearts will be hardened by the unapologetic proclamation of God’s Word, while others will turn and be saved. As Spurgeon said so well, “The same sun which melts wax hardens clay. And the same Gospel which melts some persons to repentance hardens others in their sins.”

This truth should cause us not to despair, but to rejoice. We need not be ashamed of the gospel, and we need not be despondent when its truth goes unheeded. God’s word will still accomplish all that He purposes. Whether we’re heard or ignored, that has to be enough for us.


An earlier version of this post first appeared in May 2009.

Being present, as Christians, with lost people

Jeremy Writebol (@jwritebol) is the husband of Stephanie and daddy of Allison and Ethan. He lives and works in Wichita, KS as the Community Pastor at Journey the Way and the director of Porterbrook Kansas. He is a graduate of Moody Bible Institute and The Resurgence Training Center. Catch up with him at jwritebol.net.


everPresent

For years in ministry I’ve struggled with how to get the gospel to the lost. I’ve wanted to be a good evangelist and share my faith. I’ve wanted to help people who don’t know Christ to see how great and gracious he is and come to faith in him. I’ve wanted to see new-birth, conversions, life-change, salvation or whatever you want to call it. The problem for me, however, was that I was paralyzed in living on mission. I was stuck trying to wade through the mountain of techniques, methods, and skills required to find, invest in, and hopefully convert a non-Christian to Jesus. I was frustrated with my lack of ability and felt disobedient to the call of Christ to “make disciples of every nation.” Theologically, I knew how it worked. God is the one who draws and saves at the declaration of the word of Christ. Practically, however, it was not happening.

As I spent time reflecting on my problems, I had to take a look at all the methods I was relying on to make me a better missionary. As I processed through the “how” of making disciples, the Holy Spirit brought into focus the real issue. I was lacking presence with unbelievers. I didn’t know any of them. And they didn’t know me.

Then I had a moment. A friend one day was pressing me on what it looked like practically to live on mission in the midst of unbelievers. We were discussing sports and how we can build relationships based around the common interest of sports. My friend challenged me to come up with practical ways that the sporting-life would transfer to Christianity. I had to admit, I was a bit stumped. The only thing I could come up with was the opportunity it created to be present with lost people. And that idea, of being present with lost people, became a watershed moment for me.

The watershed moment brought a further insight about the nature of God. He is a God who is present everywhere. Theologians have labeled this attribute God’s “omnipresence.” Wayne Grudem defines omnipresence: “God does not have size or spatial dimensions and is present at every point of space with his whole being, yet God acts differently in different places.”1 As I reflected on this truth about God, I had to move the theology of God’s presence into the practice of my life. As image-bearers of God, we are called to reflect who he is to the world. This includes attributes like omnipresence. This is where the watershed moment was for me. How do I, as a limited, finite creature, reflect God’s omnipresence? By being present.

Understanding God’s presence throughout the Bible and our relationship to him as the ever-present God has transformed my understanding of missional living. Once I realized he is present everywhere, in and through his people, I discovered that the method for being on mission to the lost was really simple. I had overanalyzed it. The method is: be present, as a Christian, with lost people.

My goal in everPresent is to help you see how being present in the everyday places we inhabit is missional living. You don’t need amazing practices or innovative techniques to help you live on mission. If anything, I’ve already told you what the technique is. Be with lost people. Even that is difficult in today’s world. We are promised the ability to be everywhere through technologies that replace face time with Facebook. At a recent birthday party for one of the children in my daughter’s school, I observed several parents who were present, but they weren’t engaged. They were lost in their smartphones and Instagrams. Even though they are physically in the room, mentally they have left it altogether. As we consider the theology of God’s presence and place, that theological reflection should lead to practical application. My purpose in this book is to help you understand God more fully so you will live as his people more faithfully. I want to bring the technique of disciple-making down a few notches to show you how God equips everyday, ordinary people to be his “sent ones” as they live their lives in the presence of unbelievers.

I am eager for you to see God’s presence in your life so that we can go and be present in the lives of unbelievers for the sake of the gospel. When this happens, we will reflect an ever-present God by holding out an ever-present gospel.


Jeremy’s new book, everPresent: How the Gospel Relocates Us in the Present is now available at Amazon (paperback) and Gospel-Centered Discipleship (eBook).

The church is closest to heaven-sent revival when…

Jesus-Reaching-Out

photo: iStock

The authority of Jesus to heal and transform is implicit in his person and mission. The authority is already his. He needs only to will the deed, and it is done. Few lessons are more urgently needed in the modern church. Hope for reformation and revival lies not in campaigns and strategy (as important as such things may be), but in the authority of Jesus.…

Our generation is in danger of forgetting this.… The church is closest to heaven-sent revival when it comes to an end of its gimmicks, and petitions the great Lord of the church, who alone has the authority to pour out blessing beyond what can be imagined, who alone opens doors such that none can shut them and shuts them so that none can open them, to use the full authority that is his (Matt. 28:18) to bless his people with repentance and vitality and thereby bring glory to himself. Only his authority will suffice.

Are Christians really free to smoke pot?

marijuana

Yesterday, Andy Crouch wrote a thoughtful piece on marijuana and Christian liberty. In it, he explains that while the editorial position of Christianity Today is that Christians are free to smoke marijuana recreationally where it is legal, ”when it comes to pot in our particular cultural context, we think it would be foolish to use that freedom.”

This subject is not an easy one to deal with, but it’s an important one. Marijuana is legal in several states, and its legal status has been disputed in my homeland for well over a decade1—so it’s a subject we’re all going to have to deal with sooner or later.

Now, there’s a lot I agree with in Crouch’s article, particularly its conclusion that Christians shouldn’t smoke weed, even if they’re free to do so.

“The Christian’s freedom is a gift that leads to serving others, with care, attention, skill, and singleness of heart,” Crouch writes. “It’s a freedom that willingly sacrifices easy pleasures in order to serve. And by that standard, it’s hard to imagine that pot will be helpful any time soon.”

So while I agree with his assessment that if we are free to do this, we still shouldn’t, I’m honestly uncertain about the if itself. In other words, I’m not certain the Bible actually allows for this to fall under the domain of Christian liberty. Here are two points to consider:

1. Is it really lawful? The Christian liberty argument centers on Paul’s words in 1 Corinthians 10:23: ”‘All things are lawful,’ but not all things are helpful. ‘All things are lawful,’ but not all things build up.” One of the challenges we face is with how to read Paul’s words. His quoting of the Corinthians insistence that all things are lawful or permissible may not have been approvingly. In fact, based on his response, “but not all things are helpful… not all things build up,” it could well be that he was outright refuting their claim.

Further to this, we see Paul’s insistence on a life of Spirit-fueled self-control (Galatians 5:22; 1 Timothy 3:2; Titus 1:8; 2:2, 8). While we should be careful to not read into this an outright prohibition of substances that can impair our self-control (after all, the Bible does not forbid the consumption of alcohol), we should take it seriously: If something impairs my ability to think clearly or to practice moderation, am I really free to partake?

2. Is it really good? This is probably the more fundamental issue. Crouch writes that, “Christians despise no created thing. The marijuana plant is a part of a world that was declared good by its Maker every step along the way.”While God certainly did create everything “good” in the beginning, we also have to recognize that all things are not as they should be.

In the beginning, the first man and woman were free to eat of everything in the Garden—everything but the fruit of one tree. But when they sinned, the entire world was affected, and today it groans under the curse, as it awaits the inauguration of the new creation (Genesis 2:16-17; 3:17-19; Romans 8:22). As a result of the curse, we see that plants that were once created “good” are now “bad” for us.

Before the Fall, no mushroom existed that would poison us if we ate it, and no leaf would cause a rash if it touched us. Simply, we need to recognize that—just as with certain types of wild mushrooms and Poison Ivy—the effect of marijuana on the mind is likely not the original intent as seen in God’s good creation . In fact, it is more likely the result of the curse! Thus, we should be careful about classifying it as “good,” lest we inadvertently call something “evil” “good” (Isaiah 5:20).

Which takes us back to the beginning.

I agree with Crouch that even if Christians were free to use marijuana in moderation for recreational purposes, they should not—but, I’m uncertain that the if in this case is really an if at all. I’m just not sure the Scriptures support such a position.

What are your thoughts on this?

“What shall I do?” Pilgrim’s Progress conversations (1)

As I walked through the wilderness of this world, I came to a certain place where there was a cave; and I lay down in that place to sleep. As I slept, I dreamed a dream, and in this dream I saw a man clothed in rags, standing in a place with his face turned away from his own house. He had a book in his hand and a heavy burden upon his back.

I looked and saw him open the book and begin to read; and as he read, he wept and trembled. Not being able to contain himself, he cried out in a loud voice, “What shall I do?”

It’s impossible to overstate the power of the opening words of The Pilgrim’s Progress.1 Bunyan masterfully captures the plight of man in his description of Christian—he is a man burdened, weeping, utterly destroyed by the book he carries. But he cannot turn away from its pages.

He can only read and cry out, “What shall I do?”

Personal reflection

How many of us have faced a similar crisis in our own hearts? Conviction comes—and what shall we do?

Many of us, like Christian, keep it to ourselves for as long as possible. We pretend everything is fine, even though we’re troubled to the core of our being. Sooner or later, though, we reach a breaking point and can no longer keep what’s going on hidden—”For nothing is hidden that will not be made manifest, nor is anything secret that will not be known and come to light” (Luke 8:17).

And, as is so often the case, when we speak, people begin to reject us. They find our message absurd, laughable, ignorant. Family rejects us. Friends scorn us. Some come alongside us and encourage us to stay on the path; others seek to draw us away. We have moments of joy, from which we quickly slip into the slough of despond…

This is how the journey to the celestial city begins for so many of us.

Reading tips from Ryken

But the first chapter of The Pilgrim’s Progress is equally as demanding as it is captivating. As Leland Ryken puts it well in his guide to this classic book, “Part of the genius of Pilgrim’s Progress is that it requires readers to analyze the symbolic level of the story and in particular to figure out the nuances of the theological truth that is embodied in the narrative details.”2

So as we feel our way around the first chapter, we need to consider what each detail symbolizes and what it teaches us about the Christian life at the point at which Christian finds himself on the journey. But even so, we would do well to heed Ryken’s advice as he offers four tips for reading this book:3

(1) The most important prerequisite for enjoying this book as literature is the ability to abandon oneself to the travel motif and the adventure genre. At this level, the book is like Homer’s Odyssey or Tolkien’s Lord of the Rings—a continuous series of narrow escapes and threatening ordeals. (2) Equally, we need to relish the technique of allegory in which places and characters bear the names of abstract qualities. But the word allegory does not quite do justice to what is happening, so we need to add the concept of symbolic reality, which results when we enter a realm of the imagination in which the leading ingredient is a “forest” of symbols. (3) Putting the previous two points together, Pilgrim’s Progress requires us to read at a physical level as the basis of everything else, but also to see that the two protagonists have undertaken a spiritual and psychological journey in addition to the physical journey. (4) The primacy of the spiritual governs everything that Bunyan does in the story and determines his storytelling techniques and choice of material.

Discussing together

This reading project only works if we’re reading together. So if there are things that stood out to you in this chapter, if there are questions you had, this is the time and place to have your say. Two points to consider:

  1. How does this chapter portray the lost state of man?
  2. How does what you’ve read in this chapter reflect or differ your own experience?

Feel free to post a comment below or to link to your blog if you’ve chosen to write about this on your own site.

When church people are nice like Canadians…

canadian-flag

If you’re from any other part of the world, you’ve probably heard stories of how nice we Canadians are. Like painfully, ridiculously, apologizing when you do something wrong nice.

While we do (strangely) apologize for things we didn’t do all the time, can I let you in on a secret?

Canadians aren’t really that nice. 

Canadians are actually a pretty passive aggressive lot. We generally avoid eye contact with one another. We don’t really speak to people unless we have to. We enjoy the benefits of being in close proximity to America while projecting our own issues slamming its people/government/fatness endlessly. We convince ourselves our “free” healthcare system1 is pretty great when a trip to the ER usually requires a minimum five hour wait unless you’ve got a knife sticking out of your chest2

And we don’t really like it when people tell us the truth. 

One of the things we desperately need in our church cultures is a willingness to tell people the truth—people who are willing to speak plainly, rather than waffling about trying to find a “nice” way to say something, or outright lying to people altogether. This doesn’t mean we should be going about blasting people willy-nilly, nor does it mean we should be unnecessarily hurtful or rude…

It just means being honest people, and it’s something we clearly need more of. Church leaders need honest people around them who have the chutzpa to tell them what’s really going on. Church members need honest pastors willing to discipline them when they sin. And the lost need Christians who are willing to tell them that sin really does have consequences—that these ideas in the Bible about wrath, judgment and eternal damnation aren’t figurative, but the certain fate of those who remain apart from Christ.

And we also have to be honest about the good stuff, too—we need people willing to encourage pastors who struggle with a heavy burden. We need pastors who are capable of comforting grieving church members with the hope of the gospel. We need Christians willing to share the glorious benefits of the gospel—that it’s not simply a “get-out-of-hell-free” card, but a new identity and new life in Christ.

But what we really don’t need are more church people who are “nice” like Canadians.

Three assumptions of sound theology

everyone-theologian-sproul

Whether we admit it or not, all of our opinions and ideas are based on certain assumptions (or presuppositions). These are basic principles through which we view what we read, what we study, how we think, etc.

In studying the Bible, it’s no different; we all come to the study of the Bible with certain basic assumptions. In fact, the basic assumptions guiding our study drastically affect how we read it and comprehend what we find in its pages. In his new book Everyone’s a Theologian, R.C. Sproul introduces readers to three basic assumptions he finds necessary for sound theological thinking:1

1. God has revealed Himself not only in nature but also through the writings of the prophets and the Apostles.

In other words, Sproul says, “the Bible is the Word of God. It is theology par excellence. It is the full logos of the theos.”

2. When God reveals Himself, He does so according to His own character and nature. “Scripture tells us that God created an orderly cosmos. He is not the author of confusion because He is never confused. He thinks clearly and speaks in an intelligible way that is meant to be understood.”

3. God’s revelation in Scripture manifests those qualities.

There is a unity to the Word of God despite the diversity of its authors. The Word of God was written over many centuries by many authors, and it covers a variety of topics, but within that diversity is unity. All the information found in Scripture—future things, the atonement, the incarnation, the judgment of God, the mercy of God, the wrath of God—have their unity in God Himself, so that when God speaks and reveals Himself, there is a unity in that content, a coherence.

What would systematic theology look like if we did not hold to these basic assumptions? Ultimately, it would look like much of the confusion we see in the world around us, and especially in many churches. Where we lack consistency, it’s because at a foundational level, we’re not really sure of these things:

  • We question (in the negative sense) the Bible because we not certain it’s truly God’s Word, even if we would say otherwise.
  • We waffle on notions of God’s wrath because we’re not sure it fits with our notion of good (as opposed to God’s).
  • We reject particular patterns or emphases because we don’t know that God is consistent in His actions and character (which therefore means His Word would be as well).

While certainly, no theologian has ever gotten everything right, we can easily see the fruit of theology gone awry. One does not need to look hard for examples. Nevertheless, we’re all called to engage in the task of theological thinking and exposition. This is a basic part of what it means to be a Christian—to think Christianly. When our assumptions are sound, our theology will be as well. So the question we all need to ask is: what am I bringing to the table?

Where is Jesus Christ?

Jesus-Reaching-Out

photo: iStock

At the Christmas break in 1963, I brought home to the Ottawa area a friend I had come to know and enjoy at the university I was attending. Mohammed Yousuf Guraya was a Pakistani, a devout Muslim, a gentle and sensitive friend. He was trying to win me to Islam; I was trying to win him to Christ. He had started to read the Gospel of John when I took him to visit the Parliament Buildings in Ottawa. We enjoyed a guided tour of those majestic structures and learned something of their history and symbolism. Our group had reached the final foyer when the guide explained the significance of the stone figurines sculpted into the fluted arches. One he pointed to represented Moses, designed to proclaim that government turns on law.

“Where is Jesus Christ?” Guraya asked with his loud, pleasant voice, his white teeth flashing a brilliant smile behind his black beard.

“I don’t understand,” the guide stammered.

“Where is Jesus Christ?” Guraya pressed, a trifle more slowly, a little more loudly, enunciating each word for fear his accent had rendered his question incomprehensible.

The tourists in our group appeared to be embarrassed. I simultaneously chortled inwardly, wondering what was coming next, and wondered if I should intervene or keep my counsel.

“I don’t understand,” the guide repeated, somewhat baffled, somewhat sullen. “What do you mean? Why should Jesus be represented here?”

Guraya replied, somewhat astonished himself now: “I read in your Holy Book that the law was given by Moses, but grace and truth came through Jesus Christ. Where is Jesus Christ?

I think my friend Guraya had felt the impact of John’s Gospel more deeply than I had. It is in line with the framework of John’s prologue (1:1–18), where the eternal Word becomes the incarnate Word, that Jesus himself claims, “I am the truth.”

D. A. Carson, The Farewell Discourse and Final Prayer of Jesus: An Exposition of John 14–17 (28-29)

Is this authentic authenticity?

word-balloons

A young man walked onto the stage at the front of the crowded room. All eyes were fixed on him. He smiled awkwardly and wondered, can I really do this? What will people think?

Heart racing and palms sweating, he gathered up his courage and began to speak softly into the microphone.

“I’m a Christian,” he said, “and I have a confession to make.

“I apologize for the Crusades and political action being confused with Christian faith. I apologize for hate crimes being perpetrated in the name of Christ and for slavery. I’m sorry for everything that we’ve ever done that has made life difficult for anyone.

“But I want you to know something. We’re really not all that bad. I hope you’ll forgive us.”

As he exited the stage, people came up to him, congratulating him on his effort. “I don’t know if I would have had the courage to say that,” they said. “That was so humble of you.”

The young man blushed and thanked them for their kind words. “I just want to be real. Authenticity is important to me.”


You’ve probably seen, heard or read something similar to this before. The Christian confessional.

This idea was most recently popularized by Donald Miller in his too-young-to-write-a-memoir memoir, Blue Like Jazz. Miller describes setting up a confession booth on a college campus where he and others would confess the sins of Christendom and ask for forgiveness.

Since the book’s release a number of similar things come out of the woodwork, whether it’s a video of a guy confessing the institutional sins of Christendom on youtube or a pastor publishing letters he wrote to people he’s sinned against in a book.

While I don’t want to judge the motivations of people who have done things like this, I have to ask the question:

Is it really authentic to publicly confess sins you didn’t commit to people who were not sinned against?

Is it really even confessing when you’re stating something that you haven’t done?

Something I’ve been reminded of in my own life of late has been the deceptiveness of pride.

For me, one of the ways it manifests is by the confession of generic sin, with no concrete example. “Gosh, I really struggled to guard my words today. Pray for me about that, won’t you?” That kind of thing.

But am I that proud to honestly believe that I don’t have a specific instance of sin which requires repentance?

Is it really authentic for me to say that I struggle with guarding my tongue, but not say how I realized this when I’m speaking with the men I do life with?

Maybe I’m just projecting my own junk, but I wonder if our quest for authenticity isn’t a cover for doing the hard work of pursuing genuine humility?

In Luke 18:10-14, Jesus tells the following parable:

“Two men went up into the temple to pray, one a Pharisee and the other a tax collector. The Pharisee, standing by himself, prayed thus: ‘God, I thank you that I am not like other men, extortioners, unjust, adulterers, or even like this tax collector. I fast twice a week; I give tithes of all that I get.’

But the tax collector, standing far off, would not even lift up his eyes to heaven, but beat his breast, saying, ‘God, be merciful to me, a sinner!’ I tell you, this man went down to his house justified, rather than the other. For everyone who exalts himself will be humbled, but the one who humbles himself will be exalted

The Pharisee thanks God for the righteousness that God has given him; that He has made him not like other men who are “extortioners, unjust, adulterers.” He even points directly to the tax collector and thanks God for not making him like him.

Think about that for a second. That’s a cold bit of business right there.

The Pharisee slams the tax collector. Right. To. His. Face. All while he’s thanking God and declaring how he fasts and tithes faithfully.

Is that any different that you or I apologizing for sins committed under the banner of Christ?

“God, thank you for not making me like the Crusaders, the slave traders, and the fundamentalists. I live in a monastic community and only buy products that reduce my carbon footprint.”

Is it possible that in the name of authenticity, we blind ourselves to our pride? That we forget our need to personally cry out, “God, be merciful to me, a sinner!”

The problem is, there’s only one man who is perfect. And we’re not Him.


Originally published in 2010.

Have the courage to apologize

Photo by Zsuzsanna Kilian

Photo by Zsuzsanna Kilian

So yesterday news broke about yet more unethical behavior from a celebrity pastor, this time buying his way onto The New York Times bestseller list.

There is so much wrong with this kind of behavior that I don’t even know where to begin. Frankly, I’m not sure I could say it any better than has been said here. But since reading about this latest in a series of life lessons on the dangers of unchecked hubris, there’s been one thing I’ve felt I’ve needed to say:

If you’ve done this, have the courage to apologize. 

Look, I know none of us are perfect. Anyone who says they’re without sin is a liar and a fool, and I am chief among them. But you know what I do expect? I expect that if we’re people who claim the name of Christ, we’re people who apologize and mean it.

What do I mean when I say we “mean it”? Simple: we’re genuinely repentant.

So a true apology is not immediately pleading Jesus, saying how thankful you are that He’s forgiven all your sins, past present and future. That’s spiritual and emotional manipulation, not asking for forgiveness. And it’s not a political non-apology, something akin to “mistakes were made.” That’s acknowledgement, not contrition.

What I mean when I say apologize is simple:

  • specifically name your action or attitude
  • own your personal error
  • explain how you are making restitution
  • ask for forgiveness

But all of this, of course, hinges on a critical truth: you have to actually think what you’ve done is wrong.

My fear for many who engage in shenanigans of this sort is they really don’t care. As much as they want to say they’re trying to boost the name of Jesus, they’re really out for themselves. They’ve traded integrity for influence. So the ends justify the means (even when the means are wrong). Their consciences may be so seared that that they’ve become blind to their own folly. They are like those leaders who sat in Moses’ seat, whom Jesus commanded the Jews to listen to but not imitate, for they do not practice what they preach.

They talk a good game, but it’s all talk.

“What will it profit a man if he gains the whole world and forfeits his soul?” (Matt. 16:26)

Your integrity is worth more than your celebrity.

Your ministry is more important than your influence.

Your reward with Christ is better than the riches of this world.

If you are truly in Christ, you know this to be true. Now act like it. Have the courage to apologize.

Being disciplined about disciplines

holding-bible-lr

At the beginning of the year, I decided to try out a couple of different ideas on how to read my Bible this year. All of these have revolved around short, attainable goals (something my friend Steve McCoy has been strongly advocating of late).

The whole purpose of this isn’t to make life easier when it comes to disciplining oneself, but to create momentum. So many of us set goals planning to read the Bible in a year and wind up throwing in the towel within three to six months for one reason: the long-term goal doesn’t create check-points along the way. So if you miss a day, it’s harder to adjust. If you miss a week, it’s a lost cause. It’s hard to keep up any sort of momentum without having somewhere to stop, catch your breath and say, “Yep, I accomplished this thing.”

This has been really helpful for me since it’s allowed me to be a little more focused and intentional with my reading of Scripture. So, I fired up Logos and started making a couple of different plans:

In January, I did an overview of the Bible’s big story, hitting key points from Genesis through Revelation. Although the plan’s choices of passages weren’t always my favorite (I think it missed a few key ones, like most of Isaiah), it was still super-helpful, not because I don’t know the big story, but because it’s so necessary to keep it fresh in my thinking. All of us can become so consumed with minutiae or on a particular cause that we forget that the Bible really is a story about God’s redemption of His people.

Take the issue of poverty, for example. When we’re focused on the cause—caring for the poor—we tend to read passages in isolation. But if we don’t read Isaiah 58 in light of Israel’s idolatry problem and the economic aspects of the Mosaic Law, or Isaiah 61 as being explicitly Messianic, or the Beatitudes without the backdrop of Genesis 3, what do we have? Moralism. We wind up putting ourselves at the center of the story, and determine that it’s our job to fix the world . In other words, we have a thoroughly gospel-less—and therefore thoroughly anti-Christian—approach to the subject.

But putting the issue of poverty into the context of the redemptive story changes how we approach it—we see ourselves as being poor, and Christ being extravagantly generous, pouring Himself out on our behalf. We begin to have less concern for trying to save the world (for the world is not ours to save), and greater concern for how caring for the poor is a matter of worship, something we do in response to how great and wonderful Christ is.

(And for more on that, I’ll direct you to this book over here.)

In February, I started a pretty aggressive reading goal: to read the entire New Testament in 31 days. (I’m a couple of days behind, but hey, 33 days is pretty darn good, I think…) This has been a really great exercise, not because I’m trying to retain anything in major—when you’re reading between up to 16 chapters in a day, you’re not really shooting for comprehension—but because it allows you to see the consistency of the New Testament.

By reading Paul’s epistles in big chunks, you get to see patterns and particular emphases you might miss when reading in isolation. You get a better sense of the challenges he faced as a minister of the gospel, and the delicate balance he strikes on so many issues that we find offensive in our day. Just as importantly, you get to see how consistent Paul is with Jesus in the gospels. If you want to put silly notions of pitting Jesus against Paul, all you have to do is read the New Testament. It’s seamless in what it presents. And this is a very good thing indeed.

I haven’t settled on what I’m going to do after I finish my read through of the New Testament (I’m guessing I’ll wrap it up by Friday)—I’m currently leaning toward reading through Isaiah or Jeremiah in four weeks. But wherever I wind up, it’s going to be fun. Setting short, attainable goals has been incredibly helpful and rewarding for me, even at this early point in the year. Being disciplined about spiritual disciplines really matters, and I’m really looking forward to seeing where things go as the year continues.

A responsibility that cannot be ignored

pastor

…bringing the people of God to consistent Christian living in the light of the gospel of the crucified Messiah is so important to Paul that he will not turn from this goal. If he moves people in this direction by encouragement and admonition, all to the good; if severer discipline is called for, he will not flinch. So Paul offers the Corinthians a choice: “What do you prefer? Shall I come to you with a whip, or in love and with a gentle spirit?” (4:21). He does not mean, of course, that if he comes with a whip (literally, a “rod” of correction, continuing the father/son metaphor) he will not love them. The contrast refers to the manner or form of his coming, not his motives. But spankings still hurt, even from a father who insists that he is spanking his son because he loves him. It is much better for the son to change his behavior, so that the manner of the father’s coming will be not with discipline but with a gentle spirit.

In short, Christian leaders dare not overlook their responsibility to lead the people of God in living that is in conformity with the gospel. That is why Paul urges people to live a life worthy of the calling they have received (Eph. 4:1). It is why Paul prays that believers may live a life worthy of the Lord, the crucified Messiah, and may please him in every way (Col. 1:10). And if the people of God dig in their heels in disobedience, there may come a time for Christian leaders to admonish, to rebuke, and ultimately to discipline firmly those who take the name of Christ but do not care to follow him. The sterner steps must never be taken hastily or lightly. But sometimes they must be taken. That is part of the responsibility of Christian leadership.

D.A. Carson, Cross and Christian Ministry, The: Leadership Lessons from 1 Corinthians