You’ve got to know God’s character

character

One of the things that’s always astounded me is how we don’t seem to really think deeply about God’s character. We might look at attributes such as God’s love–which is absolutely essential to our understanding of him—but if we do, we tend to elevate that to his essence. We don’t bother to get to the core of who God is.

But the thing about God is, he wants us to know his character and rejoice in it.

The chief attribute of God

Just think about Abraham for a moment. Abraham is one of the only men to be called a friend of God. He is the one to whom the great promise of an offspring who would be a blessing to all the nations was given. He was the one who miraculously was given a son when he and his wife were well beyond childbearing years. He knew God—he understood his character. And he wasn’t afraid to approach God on that basis. Consider Genesis 18:22-26:

So the men turned from there and went toward Sodom, but Abraham still stood before the LORD. Then Abraham drew near and said, “Will you indeed sweep away the righteous with the wicked? Suppose there are fifty righteous within the city. Will you then sweep away the place and not spare it for the fifty righteous who are in it? Far be it from you to do such a thing, to put the righteous to death with the wicked, so that the righteous fare as the wicked! Far be that from you! Shall not the Judge of all the earth do what is just?” And the LORD said, “If I find at Sodom fifty righteous in the city, I will spare the whole place for their sake.”

This is astounding isn’t it? Look at what he says in this bold appeal: “Far be that from you that the righteous be swept away along with the wicked,” he says. “Shall not the Judge of all the earth do what is just?”

What is he basing this appeal on?

God’s character—he knew God was (and is) just. We know of his hatred of sin from Genesis 18:21, a sin so great that he came to personally judge it. Because he is a holy God, he would administer justice. He could do nothing else.

This is one of the attributes Abraham recognized—the attribute which is arguably the defining one of God. It is the one angels sing of (Isaiah 6:1-3), which prevents him from even looking at sin and not taking action (Habakkuk 1:13), of hating wickedness in all its forms (Psalm 5:5; 11:5).

But this same holiness also undergirds his compassion.

Holiness and compassion

That’s why Abraham could ask with complete integrity, “If there are fifty righteous people in the city, will you spare it?” And then again presume to ask about sparing the city for the sake of 45, 40, 30, 20 and 10. God in his compassion, his merciful loving kindness, would execute justice, but he would not destroy the righteous along with the wicked—and in fact, he was even willing to spare the wicked for the sake of the righteous!

That’s the sort of amazing God we serve—one who is generous as to extend mercy to the wicked for the sake of the righteous.

And that’s the gospel, isn’t it? For the sake of the true righteous one, Jesus Christ, wicked people such as you and me are spared what we are due and instead not only given pardon, but welcomed into God’s family. We are declared more than friends—we are children!

But that’s the thing about God: if we don’t do our best to grasp what we can of his character—understanding the natural limits we all face—we wind up with a lopsided view of him, one that doesn’t represent him at all. You and I, we have got to know God’s character as best as we are able. We have got to do our best to know and be thankful for every aspect of him, his overwhelming love and his perfect justness. His incomparable holiness and his unimaginable kindness.

We need it all. All the time. No matter what.

Planned Parenthood: There, But for the Grace of God…

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You walk into your doctor’s office for your annual check up—flu shot, cancer, cholesterol and blood sugar screening, blood pressure check—you know, routine maintenance on the ol’ bod. You’ve chosen this doctor because you don’t have health insurance and he’s kind enough to lower his prices and work with you on a payment plan. His office is clean and bright, beautifully decorated, and the staff is always friendly. You even get a lollipop at the end of each visit.

But this year, as you’re walking down the hall to exam room four, you happen to notice that in exam room three, there’s a playpen in the corner with an adorable baby girl in it, cooing away and playing with a toy.

“Odd,” you think, since this is not a paediatrician’s office. You continue to your own room, don that scratchy paper gown, and wait for the doctor. By the time he comes in and begins the exam, you can no longer contain your curiosity. Whose baby is it? Why is there even a baby in the office?

“Oh, yes,” the doctor says matter of factly, “that baby was abandoned by her parents. Nobody wants her, so when I get finished with your check up, I’m going to torture her to death and then sell her organs to medical researchers.”

Your jaw hits the floor. Your stomach turns. You can’t believe the monstrous words you’ve just heard.

“How could you do such a horrible thing?” you scream over your revulsion. The doctor looks surprised that you should ask.

“It’s really no big deal,” he says. “We only do a few of those a week. The vast majority of my practice is providing health care and counseling for patients like you.”

Let me ask you something—would you use that doctor and think that the care he provides you mitigates his atrocious behavior? I hope not. Yet I have heard people defend Planned Parenthood (an organization which has been torturing babies to death for decades, and, we recently learned, profits from the sale of their organs) because Planned Parenthood ostensibly performs a minimum number of abortions and mainly provides health services, such as the ones mentioned above, to women who need them. Somehow, in these people’s minds, the health care Planned Parenthood provides makes up for the heinous murders they commit day after day.

Does it really all balance out? Of course not.

In fact, let’s say, Planned Parenthood had only ever tortured fifty babies to death (instead of the millions they’ve actually killed). And let’s say they provided free health care to everyone on the planet, cured cancer, and brought about world peace. Those are some wonderful things, but does it erase the fact that they brutally ended fifty innocent lives? Do all those good deeds make up for even one murder?

No. They don’t. Good deeds can never make up for heinous crimes. Planned Parenthood’s hands are drenched in blood that all the free health care in the world can’t wash away.

They’re hopelessly guilty. Just like we are.

Apart from Christ, we are Planned Parenthood. We come before God with blood on our hands. Not the blood of millions of babies, but the blood of one child. God’s child. Jesus. We are responsible for His death. It was our sin that caused Him to be tortured to death. Our sin that brutally murdered Him.

“Oh, but it’s no big deal. I’m mainly a good person. The vast majority of my life is spent doing good things and helping people. That totally makes up for those few sins I’ve committed. My good deeds outweigh the bad.”

No. They don’t. Good deeds can never make up for heinous crimes.

But, grace… But, mercy… But the goodness and loving kindness of God our Savior intervenes and wipes away the guilt. Washes our hands of Christ’s blood. Cleanses us from all unrighteousness, if we only turn to Him in the repentance and faith that He is gracious enough to give us.

Good deeds can never make up for heinous crimes, but the grace of God can.

But when the goodness and loving kindness of God our Savior appeared, he saved us, not because of works done by us in righteousness, but according to his own mercy, by the washing of regeneration and renewal of the Holy Spirit, whom he poured out on us richly through Jesus Christ our Savior, so that being justified by his grace we might become heirs according to the hope of eternal life. (Titus 3:4-7)


Michelle Lesley is a ministry wife, home schooling mom, and women’s Bible study author. Her goal in writing, speaking, and teaching is to train church ladies to be “Mighty Amazon Women” of God. Michelle blogs at MichelleLesleyBooks.com. Follow her at @MichelleDLesley.

Photo credit: Me, myself and my cellphone. via photopin (license)

The Downside of Digital Bibles

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William Tyndale was the first to translate the Bible into English from the original languages. When he began this long and difficult task, he stated that it was his desire that a plowboy could know the Scriptures better than a bishop. Although he was martyred for it, he was successful in giving common believers access to God’s Word.

I wonder what Tyndale would think of our own day. Though it is tough times for professional plowboys, the Bible is more available than at any other time in history. On top of Bibles in our churches, homes, and bookstores, we have apps for our smart phones and tablets that make it so that we can read, study, and even listen to Scripture at all times.

Though we may not be disciplined enough to be reading the Psalms while in line at the drive-thru, Bible apps are becoming more prevalent in our lives. A quick scan of the congregation on Sunday morning reveals that some people have begun to use devices as their primary means of reading Scripture.

There isn’t anything inherently bad about using digital Bibles as opposed to printed ones. I personally use my tablet all the time. However, we shouldn’t rely on them as our exclusive means of reading Scripture.

The difference between a digital Bible and a printed one extends beyond the difference between pixels and ink. As much as they are a help to us, we lose something when we rely solely on a Bible app instead of a “real” Bible.

3 Reasons Why a Digital App Shouldn’t Replace Your Physical Bible

1. Print is Permanent.

In today’s digital culture, technology is always changing and the old is tossed aside. We are quick to ditch the barely old in favor of the slightly new. Our favorite apps are constantly updating and upgrading, and our homes are filled with temporary technology.

Meanwhile, God’s Word is eternal and unchanging. Having an app be our primary means of accessing Scripture robs us of its weightiness. The Bible is so much more than our favorite app – it is the Word of God.

Yes, Scripture is still Scripture regardless of format. But a printed Bible allows us to better recognize this sense of permanence than an app does. If we rarely use a printed Bible, Scripture can start to seem like just another app – especially to our kids.

2. Digital Distractions

While Scripture is a goldmine of timeless wisdom and spiritual truth, our smart phones are kitchen junk drawers of random odds and ends. When you’re on a device, it’s all too easy to bounce from Ephesians to email and from Titus to Twitter.

App notifications, text messages, and phone calls can be constant distractions when attempting to study the Word on a digital device. The important things in life are constantly being crowded out by the inconsequential, and our phones and tablets are a huge factor in this reality.

So the next time you’re headed into church, leave your phone in your pocket and grab an actual Bible. You may be surprised at how much more you get out of the sermon. Besides, we spend enough time staring at glowing rectangles throughout the day.

3. Resource Overload

There are hundreds, if not thousands, of helpful resources for studying Scripture on your device. But even these can be a distraction during a church service or Bible study. We’d be better off focusing our attention on the message and the text and leaving the exploration of parallel verses, maps, and commentaries for after lunch.

In times of personal study the abundance of resources available at our fingertips can begin to overshadow the biblical text. If we are not careful, we will spend all of our time reading what others have found helpful in a particular passage rather than studying it ourselves. Yes, this can happen with a printed study Bible as well, but it is not likely that you will have access to dozens of commentators and hundreds of years of commentary on the page in front of you like you do on a tablet.

Try reading only the text for the majority of your time in the Word. Think through what the passage tells us about our Redeemer and what it means for us as His redeemed. You’ll get more from your study and better familiarize yourself with Scripture.

Don’t Ditch Technology Altogether

I am in no way opposed to the use of digital Bibles and other resources. In fact, here are 16 apps that I’d recommend that you add to your iPad right now. We just shouldn’t let these digital resources distract us from reading the text itself.

In Tyndale’s day even having the Bible in your native language was impossible, so we should be especially thankful for the ability to carry Scripture with us in our pocket. But if you’ve found yourself using a phone or tablet as your primary means of reading the Bible, consider the points above.

Try putting away your device and see if you’re able to dig deeper into the text when the text is all that is in front of you. Besides, you won’t need wi-fi and you’ll never run out of batteries.

What Do You Think?

Where do you stand in the ‘print vs. pixels’ debate? Leave a comment with which format you prefer for Bible study and why. I look forward to reading them and interacting with your thoughts!


Clayton Kraby is a husband, father, and an M.Div. Student at Reformed Theological Seminary in Orlando, FL. He writes at Reasonable Theology, which helps believers think about and apply sound theology to their everyday lives. Follow him at @ClayKraby.

Photo credit: Exodus via photopin (license)

Five lies I believed about faith and work

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Ever since I turned fifteen and could get a worker’s permit for a summer job at a pool concession stand, I have loved to work. My work history includes time delivering mail, as a garbage collector on my college campus, in marketing sound systems, and now as a missionary with an organization training pastors in expository preaching.

Even though I had wonderful Christian parents who taught me the value of working hard, I didn’t always see work as a major element of Christian discipleship. In my head, I knew some truths about how my Christian faith informs my work, but those truths didn’t make the journey down to my heart.

Several times I had to learn the hard way of how God wants us approach work as a Christian. God, in His grace, revealed to me several lies that seeped into my work life. I pray that the lessons I learned will give you a greater view of God and His purpose for your work while strengthening you to work for His glory.

Lie #1: Work is not a part of God’s perfect plan.

For a long time I believed that the necessity of work was a result of sin and not part of God’s original plan and good design. This probably entered into my brain as a kid watching TV characters complain about work or hearing the constant whining of peers complain about their homework. “In a perfect world,” I would think, “Nobody would have to work and I could just sit around all day doing what I wanted”—which in those times was playing video games, eating junk food, and watching sports. (Funny, I didn’t think about the thousands of people whose work made enjoying food, video games, TV, or even sitting on a couch possible for me!)

The Scriptures show a different reality, one that says work is a fundamental part of God’s good plan for the world. God gave Adam what theologians call the “Creation Mandate”—the command to subdue the earth and have dominion over every living thing (Genesis 1:28). This command for purposeful work to cultivate the earth came before humanity’s fall into sin. Sin tarnished God’s good design, making our work toilsome (Genesis 3:17-19). While sin changed many elements of work for us today, it did not change the fact that we are image bearers created to reflect the image of a working God.

Lie #2: Work is all about me.

I believed this lie for a long time. In my mind and heart, I was the one I worked for. I wanted the money, opportunity, and status that came from my work. When something at work made getting what I wanted difficult, frustration would overwhelm me, causing my attitude and motivation to suffer.

Scripture says that our work should be done, “as to the Lord” (Ephesians 6:7). This means that He is our ultimate boss, the One we will ultimately report to for our work. Our work also touches many other people because in God created work to be a means of blessing others. This goes for the barista, the car salesman, the truck driver, the teacher, and the banker. This new focus away from ourselves helps us obey the two great commandments of Scripture: to love God and love others.

Lie #3: Full-time ministry is the only work serving God.

I struggled finding my calling in work for a while because I believed the false dichotomy that said I couldn’t serve God while working a “normal job.” Sure, a ministry job like pastor or a missionary uses your skills to more directly advance the Kingdom (which is an honorable thing!). That doesn’t mean a job other than pastor or missionary doesn’t serve God as well. If you do your job for the Lord, it is serving Him.

Think of Joseph, who by faith honored God as a shepherd, prisoner, overseer of Potiphar’s house, and eventually the second in command of all of Egypt. By faith, Daniel similarly served in the Babylonian government and stood for his God against strong cultural pressures and even death warrants. By faith, Obadiah, as an official of the king, protected and fed God’s prophets in a cave while they ran from the queen who sought to kill them (1 Kings 18:3-4). Time would fail me to tell of all of the other brothers and sisters throughout history who were faithful gospel witnesses in their workplace, stood compassionately for biblical truth, fought for justice, showed mercy, cared for the poor, and stewarded the resources God gave them in service to His Kingdom. Bottom line: we are servants of God no matter if we serve in “official” ministry positions or not.

Lie #4: Rest is optional.

One summer during my seminary days, my boss gave me a great offer: “Kevin, this summer you can work as many hours you want—even if you go into overtime.” Overtime and overtime pay? The ears of this cash-strapped seminary student perked up and I soon made it my goal to cash in on this offer. After a few weeks filled with 55+ hours of work while trying to balance responsibilities at church, I realized that I slowly began to dread work, serving at church, and spending time with friends. I was drained both physically and spiritually—I needed a break!

I was missing a vital part of God’s plan for work. In God’s design, man is to work and to rest from his work. This imitates God’s rest in creation (Exodus 20:8-11) and in the words of Tim Keller is “a celebration of our design.” True rest refocuses our hearts on the Creator and rejuvenates us for more work.

Rest has many dimensions and doesn’t only refer to physical rest. Spiritual rest is found in Christ and obtained when we put our faith in Him. In Christ we rest from trying to earn God’s approval through works (Matthew 11:28-30; Hebrews 4:3). This means we need the rejuvenating effects of spiritual rest in communion with God through prayer and the Scriptures, solitude, and fellowship with other believers.

Lie #5: My work gives me an identity.

This lie is actually more of a half-truth—work does shape part of our earthly identity. But if I bank my life and entire identity on my work, my self-worth and emotions will be dependent on my performance. If work is going well, it quickly becomes an idol. That idol will eventually disappoint me, leaving me disappointed until I have reason to hope in myself again. And when things get difficult, I question my identity and if I’m doing what God called me to do.

Jesus wants us off of the emotional rollercoaster that comes with finding our identities solely in our work. First and foremost, we are forgiven sinners, bought by the blood of Christ and are children of God. The very reason Jesus died was “to redeem us from all lawlessness and to purify for himself a people for his own possession” (Titus 2:14). If you believe in Christ, your core identity is no longer in your work but is in your new identity as belonging to Christ. This fundamental aspect of your identity should be weaved into the very fabric of your being both today and 100,000 years into the future.

Working in the Gospel’s Power

Christ’s death and resurrection gives believers a new identity and a new power in the Holy Spirit for our work. Instead of separating work from worship, we can fuse them together for the glory of our King. Instead of focusing on the frustrations of work in a fallen world, we can rejoice that Christ’s work on the cross makes it so it won’t always be this way. And instead of striving to achieve worth, you can rest knowing that you are of infinite worth in your Father’s eyes.

When you are tempted to believe lies about work or who you are in Christ, may these truths serve as a steady anchor for your mind and heart.


Kevin Halloran is a servant of God, husband, and blogger at Word + Life. Serves with Leadership Resources International training pastors worldwide to preach God’s Word with God’s heart. You can follow Kevin on Twitter.

Photo credit: Work sucks via photopin (license). Designed with Canva.

An unshakeable foundation for human dignity

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One of the most dangerous things about fudging on the first few chapters of Genesis—or really, on any part of the Bible—is what you lose. See, I do believe that genuine Christians can continue on in their faith in error, sometimes even in serious error. And I’m the first to admit there are undoubtedly some things that I am in error on, perhaps even seriously.

But one of the things we can’t back away from, even when we consider all the weird and wonderful stuff we read in the Bible, is this important passage in Genesis:

Then God said, “Let us make man in our image, after our likeness. And let them have dominion over the fish of the sea and over the birds of the heavens and over the livestock and over all the earth and over every creeping thing that creeps on the earth.”

So God created man in his own image,
in the image of God he created him;
male and female he created them. (Genesis 1:26-27)

Upon these verses, Christianity’s concept of human dignity cling. They are central to what we believe about human beings (even the awful ones). And the fact that Jesus—God the Son, the second person of the Trinity—would come to earth and take on human form… well, my goodness, that just compounds humanity’s value, doesn’t it? God’s plan of redemption stems even from these verses—they give us the reason why he would send Jesus. He redeems because he loves us in a way that is unique from all the rest of creation. He loves us because of how he made us. And he redeems us in order that we might be as he intended us to be. Russell Moore captured this truth so well in Onward. This is how he puts it:

A Christianity that doesn’t prophetically speak for human dignity is a Christianity that has lost anything distinctive to say. The gospel is, after all, grounded in the uniqueness of humanity in creation, redemption and consummation. Behind the questions of whether we should abort babies or torture prisoners or harass immigrants or buy slaves is a larger question: “Who is the Christ, the Son of the Living God?” If Jesus shares humanity with us, and if the goal of the kingdom is humanity in Christ, then life must matter to the church. The church must proclaim in its teaching and embody in its practices love and justice for those the outside world would wish to silence or to kill. And the mission of the church must be to proclaim everlasting life, and to work to honor every life made in the image of God, whether inside or outside the people of God. A vision of human dignity can exist within the common grace structures of the world, but a distinctively Christian vision of why humanity should be protected must emerge from a larger framework of kingdom and culture and mission. (138-139 [ARC])

You don’t have to be a Christian to be opposed to abortion, for alleviating the suffering of those living in poverty, or wanting to see the end of sex trafficking. But what that conviction is grounded in matters. For the pro-life—and whole life—Christian, we truly do have an unshakeable foundation. Let’s not forget that.

Snakes on a plain

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For my daily Bible reading, I’ve been following the M’Cheyne plan and working through D. A. Carson’s For the Love of God (you can do so as well at this blog). In April, it brought me to Numbers. Numbers is not usually high on anyone’s list of anticipated devotional reading. I can generally sympathize with this, but I think Numbers gets a bad rap for at least a couple of reasons.

First, most people encounter it after committing to read the Bible in a year, and they’ve gotten to Numbers after all the rules and regulations in Leviticus. The excitement of the Exodus is long gone, and the story seems stalled. If this is the only Bible reading you’re doing every morning, it can seem tedious and boring.

Second, the book starts off with the type of Scripture we seem to cherish the least: lists of names. Most people don’t relish reading genealogies and organizational flow charts, but the early chapters of Numbers seem to be very much that. Censuses and camp layouts are not exactly something I feel like I can apply to my life today.

But, as you continue reading, Numbers has actually has some pretty interesting and important stories. While everyone’s familiar with John 3:16 , not everyone may realize the story involving Moses in John 3:14-15 comes from Numbers. In chapter 21, because of their continual grumbling, the Israelites are dealing with very deadly snakes on the plain. In order to be saved they must look to a bronze serpent that Moses has been instructed to lift up on a stick. Those who look to the serpent will be healed from their bites. The name for this serpent on a stick is the Nehushtan, and it may be an underlying source or inspiration for the Rod of Asclepius, which you might recognize from being on the emergency services star of life (among other places). If that’s the case, the symbol of healing in our medical services is also the symbol John said represents true healing found in Christ.

Further, consider what Paul says in 1 Corinthians 10:

For I do not want you to be unaware, brothers, that our fathers were all under the cloud, and all passed through the sea, and all were baptized into Moses in the cloud and in the sea, and all ate the same spiritual food, and all drank the same spiritual drink. For they drank from the spiritual Rock that followed them, and the Rock was Christ. Nevertheless, with most of them God was not pleased, for they were overthrown in the wilderness.

Now these things took place as examples for us, that we might not desire evil as they did. Do not be idolaters as some of them were; as it is written, “The people sat down to eat and drink and rose up to play.” We must not indulge in sexual immorality as some of them did, and twenty-three thousand fell in a single day. We must not put Christ to the test, as some of them did and were destroyed by serpents, nor grumble, as some of them did and were destroyed by the Destroyer. Now these things happened to them as an example, but they were written down for our instruction, on whom the end of the ages has come. Therefore let anyone who thinks that he stands take heed lest he fall. No temptation has overtaken you that is not common to man. God is faithful, and he will not let you be tempted beyond your ability, but with the temptation he will also provide the way of escape, that you may be able to endure it. (1 Corinthians 10:1-13, ESV)

While most people might be familiar with the last verse, the stories that Paul alludes to mostly take place in Numbers. He says in verse 6 that these stories took place as examples for us. The “us” in the original was Paul and the Corinthians, but it also applies to “us” today. Especially considering how often we draw correlations between the Corinthian climate and our American culture, it seems like what Paul thought was applicable for them is easily applicable for us. As Gordon Wenham comments,

For the writers of the New Testament the book of Numbers stands as a great warning. Despite the miraculous deliverance from Egypt, and the daily evidences of God’s provision for their needs, Israel refused to believe and rebelled against their Saviour. Numbers records a trail of spectacular judgments that ought to provoke caution in every believer.

In this passage Paul describes the experiences of Israel in the wilderness in such a way as to make clear the parallels with the situation at Corinth. Most of the sins of Corinth are thus prefigured in Numbers, and if Israel was punished so severely, what can the church of the new covenant expect?(Numbers, 56-57)

In their Introduction to The Old Testament, Longman and Dillard suggest “Each generation of Christians should place themselves in the position of the new generation of the book of Numbers. God has acted redemptively in our midst, and by so doing, he has given our lives meaning and hope. Just like the Numbers generation, we are called upon to respond to God’s grace with obedience” (100). Reading Numbers in that light, genealogies included, can surely prove profitable to the Christian life. At the end of the day, the struggle may simply be that reading Numbers well requires thought beyond the time it takes to read the chapters in order to see Christ more clearly and understand how this part of Scripture can be profitable for teaching, reproof, correction and ultimately training in righteousness.


Nate Claiborne an avid reader, musician, and high school Bible teacher living in central Florida. He writes regularly at NathanielClaiborne.comFollow him at @nateclaiborneThis post originally appeared on Nate’s blog in April 2015. It has been lightly edited for timeliness.

Three pitfalls of suffering

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Concerning the subject of suffering, CS Lewis famously said, “Pain insists upon being attended to. God whispers to us in our pleasures, speaks in our consciences, but shouts in our pains. It is his megaphone to rouse a deaf world.”

Countless people, including my family and I, would affirm the truth of that statement. Pain opens the door to intimacy with Jesus. It’s through pain we grow, mature, and even find some previously unintended avenues for ministry. These are all examples of redemption – the Lord taking the broken pieces of our lives, crumbled under the weight of a corrupted creation, and creating a mosaic of something beautiful from it.

From a scriptural standpoint, there are numerous places we might point that show us the good that can ultimately come from pain. Take, for example, James 1:2-4:

Consider it a great joy, my brothers, whenever you experience various trials, knowing that the testing of your faith produces endurance. But endurance must do its complete work, so that you may be mature and complete, lacking nothing.

Suffering produces the good of maturity which, according to this verse, is a key to spiritual maturity, which is a good, good thing. Or take another example from 2 Corinthians 1:3-7:

Praise the God and Father of our Lord Jesus Christ, the Father of mercies and the God of all comfort. He comforts us in all our affliction, so that we may be able to comfort those who are in any kind of affliction, through the comfort we ourselves receive from God. For as the sufferings of Christ overflow to us, so through Christ our comfort also overflows. If we are afflicted, it is for your comfort and salvation. If we are comforted, it is for your comfort, which is experienced in your endurance of the same sufferings that we suffer. And our hope for you is firm, because we know that as you share in the sufferings, so you will share in the comfort.

Suffering creates an avenue for ministry, for we are able to extend the comfort we receive from the Lord to others. This, too, is a good and right after effect of suffering.

These are just two examples of how it’s supposed to work. But like all things, it doesn’t always go that way. In as much pain and suffering can, in the end, have positive and redemptive effects, there are a number of ways that our pain might have negative effects. Though there are many such pitfalls, here are three:

1. Callousness. If you go back and look at the passage above from 2 Corinthians, you can glean that pain in our own lives is meant to soften our hearts toward the pain of others. We can truly sympathize with what they’re walking through; we can shoulder the burden along with them in a very true and honest way. But sometimes we find that instead of making our hearts pliable and soft, our pain actually causes us to have a sense of callousness toward others. We spend so much time looking inward at what’s happening in our own lives that we find we have little interest, emotion, or empathy left to look outside of ourselves.

2. Entitlement. Pain is the great equalizer. In the hospital waiting room, everyone seems to be on equal (albeit it shaky) footing. That’s because all of us live in a world broken by sin, and because we do, none of us are immune from the effects. But when you suffer and suffer greatly, there is sometimes a temptation to think that you have “paid your dues.” You’ve done your time in the prison of pain, and because you have, God owes you some measure of peace and comfort. In a perverted kind of way, your pain becomes your pride, proof of the fact that you have been tested and tried. Having earned that badge, you are now entitled to live above such things.

3. Comparison. Suffering is relative. A scraped knee isn’t going to mean the same thing to a 35-year-old man as it does to a 5-year-old boy; that’s because that man has been though a lot more life than that boy has. That doesn’t mean, however, that a father can’t stoop low and sympathize with a boy. And yet sometimes the ugliness of comparison rears its head even in the midst of our suffering. We walk through a season of pain and then must battle the temptation to look at what others might be going through and compare their struggle to our own. We look with contempt on the suffering of others, bolstered by a sense of our own superiority because, ironically, of something that we did not control and something that caused us so much grief.

How, then, can we recognize these pitfalls and do the thing that none of us wants to do, but all of us will have the opportunity to do, and suffer in a God-glorifying and honorable way? I’m sure there are 3 or 4 good steps to doing so, but mostly, we can look to Jesus.

Jesus, who suffered more than all, and yet even with the knowledge of His own suffering wept at the tomb of His friend. Jesus who emptied Himself and befriended and had compassion on the dregs even when He was the only truly superior One. Jesus who did not compare the suffering of His cross to the suffering of others but instead willingly took it upon Himself for the sake of others. We can look to Jesus and see a Savior who did it the good and right way, and we can be humbled under the weight of His sacrifice and emboldened to feel deeply for others in light of His compassion.


Michael Kelley is director of groups ministry at LifeWay Christian Resources and the author of Wednesdays Were Pretty Normal and Boring: Finding an Extraordinary God in an Ordinary Life. He holds a Master of Divinity degree from Beeson Divinity School and lives with his wife and three kids in Nashville, Tenn. Follow him at @_michaelkelley.


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Wilberforce didn’t quit. Neither will we

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Forty-six years.

That’s how long William Wilberforce labored to see the end of slavery in the British Empire. His work began in earnest in 1787 when he first came into contact with abolitionists such as Thomas Clarkson, Hannah More and Charles Middleton. These activists found a kindred spirit in Wilberforce, whose conversion to the Christian faith had given birth to an abiding concern for social reform—so much so, in fact, that he wrote in his diary, “God Almighty has set before me two great objects, the suppression of the slave trade and the reformation of manners.”

The long road to abolition

The dark and dehumanizing practice of slavery weighed heavy on him. He first introduced a bill proposing the abolition of slavery in 1791,1 which was soundly defeated. He brought it forward again in 1792, and it was again defeated. And again in 1793. And again in 1794. And again and again and again, each time finding new support and gradually making more and more progress until in 1807, the Slave Trade Act was finally passed by the British Parliament, which put slave trading to a formal end. But that victory was only the beginning—slave trading was not yet truly illegal. So Wilberforce’s campaigning continued through the end of his time in politics in 1826, until his death on July 29, 1833.

One month after his death, the Slavery Abolition Act was finally passed into law and the slave trade was truly finished in the British Empire.

How Wilberforce’s example can encourage us today

On August 3, 2015, the United States Senate voted on a bill to defund Planned Parenthood, the corporation responsible for the deaths of more than 300,000 babies every year. The bill was narrowly defeated, falling only seven votes short of the 60 needed to advance.

The events leading up to this bill even being voted on have been incredibly dramatic (and terrifying), as Westerners have increasingly been forced to realize they cannot turn a blind eye to the abominable practices of the abortion industry. And despite the unlikely event that this first bill would have advanced, today’s pro-life advocates, like their abolitionist forbearers, should not see this as a defeat.

Rather, it is a beginning.

The whole deal with a Wilberforce moment, as my friend Josh called it, is it’s not a one-and-done event. One can only imagine how many sleepless nights Wilberforce endured during those 46 years; how each defeat led to new renewed vigor because the cause was just. Wilberforce didn’t quit, and neither will we.

His moment, like this one, was a first step—the beginning of a long road which will see many defeats. In our day, another bill will come. It might be defeated. If it does, another will come forward. It might advance. If it advances, the President (whomever is in office) may veto. But another will come. And another. And another. Until eventually, we will finally see the end of one of the greatest atrocities committed of our age.

And make no mistake, it will end.

It’s just going to take a little while.

Lord, renew our taste for true “spiritual food”

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One of the things that absolutely terrifies me as I look across the popular landscape of Christian music, publishing and preaching is the… fluffiness of it all. We act as though there is a profound resurgence of robust Christian belief and practice—and truth be told, I genuinely believe we may be on the cusp of such a thing—but every week, hundreds of thousands of professing Christians only hear a legalistic and anemic message about how they can have their best life right now—better finances, a better marriage, a better body—but never actually hear about the one from whom all blessings flow.

Fed on a steady diet of such gobbledygook, we’ve lost our appetite appetite for true spiritual food. We are like small children who prefer processed chicken-like meat over the real thing. This simply will not do. We need our taste for spiritual food to be renewed—and we must plead with the Lord that he would bring such renewal. But as Charles Spurgeon said when preaching on Psalm 28:9,1 the need goes beyond simply recognizing our need for sound doctrine:

Ask the Lord to illuminate His people’s minds as to the doctrines of Covenant Grace, that they may see into the ancient things—that they may get to the depth that lies under and that rolls beneath, and may reach to the precious things of the everlasting hills. Why, half of the Lord’s people do not feed because they do not believe that that is bread which God puts on the table! They are afraid of some of His Truths because they have been told, “Oh, they are so high—it is such high doctrine.” “Savory meat,” I say, “such as my soul loves!” O that these people had but an appetite to feed upon these things from which they are kept back—not because the things are not good—but because they have been warned against them! Whatever is in this Book is fit for our souls to live upon! If God has revealed the Truth, O Believer, be not ashamed to accept it and to make it the nutriment of your soul!

Still, even if we had the prayer answered as to good pastors and sound doctrines, that is not all we need—the soul’s food is to really feed upon Christ Himself. Jesus Christ is received by the heart through communion with Him, and it is only by fellowship with Jesus that, after all, we get the marrow and the fatness of the Gospel. “The truth as it is in Jesus” is the only truth which really nourishes the spiritual man.

Lord, renew our taste for true “spiritual food” of the only true sort—and for One who truly nourishes our souls, Christ himself.


Photo credit: Recreation of Easter at Canterbury Cathedral via photopin (license). Designed with Canva.

Christian movies, artistic integrity and damning with faint praise

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I don’t really like “Christian” movies. I’ve tried really hard to watch some, believe me. I’ve even tried to like some of them. My wife asked me to go to Fireproof when our old church screened it. I did and did my best not to make fun too much. I saw Courageous during an advanced screening and found it okay, but super-cheese (and the end part was unintentionally creepy, with all the dudes thrusting their hands up at church—it reminded me why we need to study history more). God’s Not Dead looked like a Christian revenge fantasy, so I passed on that entirely. I couldn’t handle super-model Jesus from Roma Downey and Mark Burnett’s series. Heaven is For Real is a fraud (because all heavenly tourism books and movies are)… Are you sensing a trend here?

The problem with most of these is, whenever I see them praised, an important qualifier is added—”Christian”:

“This is the finest Christian movie ever made,” or “The best Christian film of the year,” or my personal favorite, “It was really good… for a Christian movie.”

I really hate that. I hate it when we talk about movies, books and music with that particular qualifier. Not because I dislike the word Christian, obviously. But just imagine for a second that you replaced “Christian” with “golden retriever”, what would you think? Oh crap, it’s Air Bud 17!1

And that’s the thing: I hate when we say “it’s really good for a Christian movie” because we’re really saying it’s not very good at all or it was almost good. It’s damning with faint praise, friends.

Which brings me to a recent experience: Not too long ago, I received an invitation to an advanced screening of Beyond the Mask, a Christian action adventure film set in the opening days of the American revolution. The producers invited Christian influencers from my town (and probably yours, too), in the hopes of generating some buzz and showing the audience a “different” kind of Christian movie—one which they promised had great special effects and action, as well as a compelling story, romance, and the hope of the gospel weaved throughout. I’ve spent the last few days thinking about the film and wondering what I should say about it, if anything. So here are a few things I’ll say, both positive and critical (hopefully constructively so):

1. The movie’s fight choreography, particularly in the early scenes was legitimately good. It was pretty tight and didn’t have that feel of dudes who don’t know how to throw a punch trying to hit one another:

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2. They had a number of actual professional actors among the cast.While I don’t mean to sound like being “pro” matters, it seems that the producers were actually trying to get talented and experienced people working on their film. They were clearly not trying to settle for the director’s friends from church or the guy who really loves to be in the drama on Sunday. Particularly worth noting is the always enjoyable John Rhys Davies as the villain, Charles Kemp, best known as Gimli from The Lord of the Rings, Sallah in Indiana Jones, and, of course, the beloved Maximilian Arturo from Sliders.

3. There were a couple of effects scenes that were actually impressive. These happened fairly early in the movie, unfortunately. I really wish they’d been able to save some budget for the end because the final FX scenes are really rough, such as the every end of the film when two characters are jumping away from an exploding windmill. But you could see that they wanted to make something that looked better than your average episode of Power Rangers, which is important.

4. The post-production on the end credits was top-notch. I know it sounds ridiculous to point this out, but seriously—they did a really nice job on the end credits sequence, which was clearly influenced by Guy Ritchie’s Sherlock Holmes films.

5. The gospel content was ham fisted, and the lack of chemistry was noticeable. When the lead character suddenly “gets” the gospel before the climactic battle, it just didn’t ring true. The same can be said of the romance storyline. I didn’t buy them as star-crossed courters.

6. The direction and editing was a bit muddled. About two thirds of the way through the film, it felt like the director had been replaced or had gotten bored and was trying to introduce some new elements that he’d seen elsewhere because they looked cool. This was particularly noticeable with scenes where the frame rate was altered, which come across as a choppy accident rather than an intentional stylistic decision (again in part because they don’t appear anywhere else). The climatic battle also has a rather abrupt edit that sees the hero surrounded by Davies’ minions, only in the very next shot to be in Davies’ lair, ready to defeat him. The cumulative effect of these issues left me with the impression that the director wasn’t terribly confident in what he was doing. Perhaps it’s because he’s new to the game, or because his reach exceeded his grasp. I’m not really sure.

7. The attention to little details was lacking. Killmer’s hair and make-up, for example, was just right for her—if the film were set in 2015. But she didn’t look like she belonged in  1776. The actor playing Benjamin Franklin’s make-up was noticeable (in the same way that the “aging” make-up on Star Trek was noticeable, and that’s not a good thing). The accents for the time period weren’t quite right for colonial America (I’m pretty sure no one spoke with a Tennessean twang in 1776 Philadelphia). The hero uses a modern bar dart to send a message to his lady love. And the historical revisionism to make everyone less racist stretched credulity…

There were a few other things I noticed but I think you get the idea. I mention these not to be nitpicky but because they take you out of the experience. You can’t be immersed in an experience when you’re constantly reminded that it’s all pretend by little hints of the present.

8. The script needed a serious polish. The story was trying to do too much, and the dialogue was serviceable but wasn’t great. The basic building blocks were all there, but the screen writers could have used a little extra help from a really strong script doctor.

Would I call this a good movie? I’d say it’s not bad. I’ve seen worse movies come out of major Hollywood studios than this, just as I’ve seen stronger indie films. There were even a few flashes of greatness in this movie, just not enough to make me say “wow.”

Mostly, the film reminded me that there is the potential for people to make legitimately good movies that are faith-based if they so choose, which is important. After all, Christians ought to be concerned with telling the best stories, making the best music, producing the best films… this is not an option for us as our God is the Creator, and we are imitators of him. God is excellent in all he does, and so we ought to pursue creative excellence.

It also reminds me, though, that “faith-based” or “family friendly” can sometimes be more of a hindrance than a help. Being “family friendly” can get in the way of telling a good story. And if you had any doubt, remember: the gospel isn’t safe. The story of redemption is quite bloody at times. But it’s also true. And it’s always true, regardless of the rating system. Every other story is echoing the one true Story. Every hero is a shadow of the true Hero. So let’s own that. Let’s tell great stories. Let’s try to have the best special effects when we need them.

Let’s make great films, not just great “Christian” ones.


photo credit: Marunouchi Piccadilly 1 via photopin (license)

The most important word in your vocabulary (but hardest to say)

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One of the things I learned very early on as a believer is that people expect you to say “yes” to things. A lot of things.

Possibly all the things.

And the more you say yes, the more they expect you to keep it up. Now, I wasn’t entirely unfamiliar with this—I was, after all, the lord mayor of the friend zone in high school (let the overlooked brothers understand). But there’s a different kind of pressure to say yes to things at church:

  • To say yes to taking an extra Sunday in children’s ministry
  • To say yes to joining the set up team
  • To say yes to joining the local missions team
  • To say yes to filling in on the greeting team (and never leaving)

Am I the only one who has been there?

The thing about saying yes to good things is we actually want to. We want to say yes to doing more to help people know Jesus. We want to do more to serve in our churches and show our love for our fellow believers. If we love our jobs, we want to do more there because we enjoy it.

But then the turn happens, and those things we loved so much… well, we maybe start to hate them, at least a little. I don’t think I’ve ever gotten quite to that stage, though I do know there have been times when I’ve been more resentful than I needed to be. And what helped me was being reminded of a little word—one I forget all too frequently—that might well be one of the most important in my vocabulary:

No.

I’ve had to learn and relearn this lesson: sometimes I have to say no to things. I have to do it at work in order to actually get the work I need to do accomplished. I need to do it at home with my outside work (let me tell you, it’s a bad idea to be doing a ton of freelance while writing a documentary and also doing sermon prep and maintaining a regular blogging schedule). I need to do it sometimes even with church (though that’s pretty rare). I’ve had to do it when I’m asked to preach during a particularly difficult season (like when I was trying to write a term paper).

And I’ll probably have to do it again.

So why is it I hate saying no so much? Because I, like so many others, tend to value myself by what I do—both in quantity and quality. I want to do an ever increasing number of things at an ever increasing level of ability. But that’s just not possible. So I’ve had to learn to say no.

Or rather, I’m trying to learn it. Again.

The thing I need to remember is that ultimately, my value isn’t determined by the amount of stuff I do, the blog posts I write, the number of sandwiches I make, or any of that. It’s determined by God, and more specifically, who he has declared me to be in Christ. If I am redeemed, renewed, forgiven, restored, and adopted as his son, what more do I really need? Is burning the midnight oil  all the time really going to make me more redeemed-ed or be adopted harder?

So here’s a little exercise for all of my fellow overachievers reading this: Write a post-it note, record a voice memo, send a recurring reminder to yourself… whatever you have to do, do something to remind yourself that the most important word you can say, sometimes, is no.

 

A key point we miss in defending the faith

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One of the classic texts for apologetics is 1 Peter 3:15, where we read that we should always be “prepared to make a defense to anyone who asks you for a reason for the hope that is in you”. Certainly this is true, but we’re missing something kind of important. I was reminded of this afresh as we studied this text together at church on Sunday, and our local missions pastor made an important point:

The primary action in this text is not to make a defense, but to honor Christ in our hearts. Remember, the verse in full reads, “In your hearts honor Christ the Lord as holy, always being prepared to make a defense to anyone who asks you for a reason for the hope that is in you” (emphasis added).

The heart, as many Christians have been told time and again, does not refer to the physical organ, but the seat of the will, or the central being of the person. It’s what makes you, you. When Peter commanded us to honor Christ in our hearts as holy, he was saying this is something we do with the entirety of our being. Our words, our lives, our all is to be committed to honoring Christ are the foundation of apologetics (and arguably our greatest apologetic).1

This is where I see so many “discernment ministries” go awry. They seek to defend the faith, but with their words tear it down. They often lack gentleness and respect,2 and so fail to honor Christ as holy. And in some cases, their “defense” puts them to shame as in their apparent zeal for the truth, they misrepresent those they are supposedly defending against.

But this is not a problem for “those guys.” It’s a problem for all of us. It is a struggle for every one of us to honor Christ as holy in the every day. When we’re at work, we want to be liked by our co-workers, and not seen as the weird Christian guy or gal. We don’t particularly want to ruffle feathers. We just want to live at peace with everyone in Mr. Roger’s Neighborhood.

Sometimes, though, we’re called to step out and be weird. For example, when Abigail was still in public school, we had to have conversations about yoga with two of her three teachers. The first was her junior kindergarten one, to whom I simply explained that because of religious convictions as Christians, we didn’t believe it was appropriate for Abigail to participate. The teacher (who was great) was totally cool and respectful and agreed. Problem solved. A couple years later in grade one, we had the same conversation with a different teacher. This one was less agreeable, instead saying, “Well, I’ll just call it stretching then.” (Never mind the chanting at the beginning of class about being loved and at peace with everyone.) She wasn’t belligerent; she just didn’t get where we were coming from. And so we seemed a bit weird to her, which is par for the course when it comes to the Christian life.

But no one said the Christian life was easy. The Christian life is one where we’re going to constantly be seen as out of step, on the wrong side of history, backwards, archaic or simply weird. But this is what will happen when we choose to honor Christ above all, even as we choose to be gentle and respectful. Defending the faith starts with living holy lives, pleasing and acceptable to God. It means using our words, correctly. It means living in step with the commands of God. And sometimes it means seeming kind of weird. So onward Christian soldier—go forth and be weird to the glory of God.

The only truly good sermon you will ever hear

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“Did he tell us where we can see Jesus in the text?”

It’s a question I’ve asked on more than one occasion after hearing a message. It’s hard to hear someone speak—even when they explain the text more or less correctly—and wonder, “Did he say anything about Jesus here?” It’s common to wonder this if you’re used to messages that involve five points beginning with the letter “p,” but I’d argue that a commitment to preaching verse by verse does not guarantee we’ll keep Jesus front and center. In fact, I sometimes think it’s easier for us to lose sight of Jesus as we examine the veins on the leaves of a particular tree in one section of the forest.

Truly, there is no worse sermon than one that misses Jesus. By that, I don’t mean ham-fisted attempts to force him into the message, or a tacked-on memorized gospel presentation at the end of the message. What I mean is to always show the connection to Christ. Charles Spurgeon reminds us of this in the following story, previously told by a Welsh minister:

A young man had been preaching in the presence of a venerable divine, and after he had done he went to the old minister, and said, “What do you think of my sermon?”

“A very poor sermon indeed,” said he.

“A poor sermon?” said the young man, “it took me a long time to study it.”

“Ay, no doubt of it.”

“Why, did you not think my explanation of the text a very good one?”

“Oh, yes,” said the old preacher, “very good indeed.”

“Well, then, why do you say it is a poor sermon? Didn’t you think the metaphors were appropriate and the arguments conclusive?”

“Yes, they were very good as far as that goes, but still it was a very poor sermon.”

“Will you tell me why you think it a poor sermon?”

“Because,” said he, “there was no Christ in it.”

“Well,” said the young man, “Christ was not in the text; we are not to be preaching Christ always, we must preach what is in the text.”

So the old man said, “Don’t you know young man that from every town, and every village, and every little hamlet in England, wherever it may be, there is a road to London?”

“Yes,” said the young man.

“Ah!” said the old divine “and so from every text in Scripture, there is a road to the metropolis of the Scriptures, that is Christ. And my dear brother, your business in when you get to a text, is to say, ‘Now what is the road to Christ?’ and then preach a sermon, running along the road towards the great metropolis—Christ. And I have never yet found a text that had not got a road to Christ in it, and if I ever do find one that has not a road to Christ in it, I will make one; I will go over hedge and ditch but I would get at my Master, for the sermon cannot do any good unless there is a savour of Christ in it.”1

There is no worse sermon than one where you cannot find Christ in it, no matter how good the explanation of the details of the text. There is no worse devotional thought than one devoid of the presence of our Lord and Savior, no matter how encouraging or motivational it may be. The only truly good message is one where we’ve shown Christ in the text. Every text, every road, as the old divine said, leads to him. Whether we go over hedge and ditch, it is worth it, for good of all who hear—and ourselves—to point the way.

The easiest of God’s promises to forget

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God is here. God is actually present right now. With me as I type this. With you as you read it.

It’s so easy to forget this, isn’t it?

God’s promise of his presence is one of the greatest of all his promises. It is, as Joe Thorn puts it in Experiencing the Trinity, “one of the great gospel promises given throughout Scripture.”

God has always held this truth out as one of the great blessings of being reconciled to him: “The Lord your God is in your midst” (Zeph. 3:17); “I will make my dwelling among you, and my soul shall not abhor you. And I will walk among you and will be your God, and you shall be my people” (Lev. 26:11-12). Jesus ended his earthly ministry with this promise: “Behold, I am with you always” (Matt. 28:20). With such promises, why are you so often going at life as if you are alone? (31-32)

When “teachers” spew heresy and babies’ organs are treated as commodities, he is there. When “discernment” bloggers misrepresent Christians and complacent Christians forget what really matters, he is there. When one friend gets a new job, and another learns she can’t have children, he is there.

In every situation, in every circumstance, whether we feel like he is or not, God is there with us. And he will never, ever abandon us. It’s easy to forget this. The circumstances we face easily crowd out the truth. But don’t forget. He is there, and because he is there, there is rest for our souls.