Believing while waiting

Alpages

Just believe in God and your sins will fade away. Doesn’t that make it sound easy? Sure it takes work. Sure it will be a challenge. But over time things will steadily improve. If only.

Christians live in a gap. We give our lives to Christ, and we step into it. On the other side of the gap is glory. “Glory” may sound old-fashioned, like something a TV preacher shouted about or old hymns were sung about. I can still hear my grandfather, a travelling evangelist of the revival and crusade era, saying “glory” with that inimitable southern preacher emphasis—Glaw-ray! But think of glory like you would a stunning sun set, a litter of puppies, the vastness of the Milky Way, the detail on a Monet painting, July fourth fireworks, crashing surf, a crescendoing symphony, or the beauty of fresh fallen snow. Each is glorious in its own way and lifts our minds and fills our hearts with … something. That something is the yearning for the perfection to come. We are not there yet. But one day Christ will bring it with Him. Revelation 21 says:

And I heard a loud voice from the throne saying, “Look! God’s dwelling place is now among the people, and he will dwell with them. They will be his people, and God himself will be with them and be their God. ‘He will wipe every tear from their eyes. There will be no more death’ or mourning or crying or pain, for the old order of things has passed away.”

He who was seated on the throne said, “I am making everything new!” Then he said, “Write this down, for these words are trustworthy and true.”

Belief does not mean sin will go away. As long as the gap exists we cannot have that. What we can have is trajectory. True belief is that which perpetually, magnetically pulls us toward the “not yet” of Revelation 21. It finds hope when things are hard by knowing there is greater happiness, perfect happiness to come. The suffering of right now hurts, without question. Looking to the future does not deny that or shy away from it. It simply offers a way through.

When we sin it is forward-looking belief that leads to repentance because we know that leaving what is wrong and pursuing what is right will bring us closer to real peace and joy. We hear the call of Jesus’ voice and we go toward it, the very nature of repentance. And it is repentance that keeps our trajectory on course, constantly nudging us back on course when we wander and yanking us back on course when we flee.

We will struggle. We will do things we know are wrong. We will battle persistent sins. But it is belief that makes us battle instead of just giving up. That porn addiction is not greater than what is to come; it may feel like it right now, but belief lifts your eyes to “making everything new”. The not yet is a reason to fight your apathy and laziness at work. Your work may seem pointless, but it was given to you by the one who will bring in a new creation. Doesn’t He want you to be part of working in His image and toward that end? You find yourself fighting anger or bitterness? Grace has been poured out on you and one day justice will come, so you can be filled up with grace and look forward to wrongs being righted. And as long as we are fighting, refusing to surrender our lives to sin, we are moving toward the “not yet” and even exemplifying it to the world around us.

Some folks do right things without belief. Some folks claim to believe without doing right. From the outside it can be very hard to tell who believes what. In fact, it can be very hard to tell from the inside too. I spent a long time assuming I “believed” rightly, not fully realizing that my belief was hollow, missing vitality and life. I think many people who grow up Christian are the same way. They can say all the right things, answer all the questions, and do enough good to feel comfortable in their belief. But do they really believe? Did I? Yes and no. I was in the gap. I believed in Christ, but had not believed to the point of giving Him everything in my life.

That is the process toward the not yet. That is the evidence of belief. Are we giving ourselves to Christ in new ways? Are we trusting parts of our life to him we had not previously? A Relationship, a bank account, a secret sin, a secret shame, a secret pride—are we believing his goodness and authority in such a way that we offer them up?


Barnabas Piper blogs at The Blazing Center, is the author of The Pastor’s Kid: Finding Your Own Faith and Identity and Help My Unbelief: Why Doubt Is Not The Enemy Of Faith, and co-hosts The Happy Rant podcast. Piper writes for WorldMag.com, contributes to numerous other websites, and speaks frequently at churches and conferences. Barnabas serves as the Brand Manager for the Leadership Development team at LifeWay Christian Resources in Nashville where he lives with his wife and two daughters.


Photo credit: Alpages via photopin (license)

God doesn’t need an invitation

 

calling-god-down

There’s a peculiar thing I’ve noticed in some of the songs in popular Christian praise and/or worship music—typically the ones you hear at the beginning of the “set”1 intended to warm everybody up and get everyone excited. It’s this idea that we are somehow summoning God into our presence. Songs about inviting him into our midst, calling him down, telling him to show up in power, and show us his glory, and all this kind of stuff…

Now, depending your congregation’s proclivities, you’re probably going to sing a song like this today. And I’ve gotta say, to me at least, it’s really weird. It’s not that I’m against being aware of God’s presence, nor am I against praying—or singing for that matter—for true, Spirit-wrought revival. But I’m not sure this is what these songs are talking about. Instead, they seem to be putting us in the drivers’ seat, making us the ones in control during the our time of corporate worship.

In a chapter of The Prodigal Church at least 75 percent of worship leaders will skip, Jared Wilson calls our attention to the heart of this peculiar problem:

The danger we face when we worship is coming into the experience assuming we are summoning God. Assuming worship is our initiative. Assuming we are somehow the ones in control, that we are bringing the best of ourselves and our holy desire to worship. But the reality is, worship does not begin with the worshipper. It begins with God. It is a response to God’s calling upon us. (97)

This is the danger of experientialism. It moves us by inches away from the center, from the reality of who God is, of what the purpose of worship is—of who the object of worship is. And if we’re not careful, and the slide continues, our worship songs may wind up more closely resembling the frantic cries of the Baal-worshippers on the mountain than those of Christ’s disciples.

You’re not calling God down this morning. He doesn’t need an invitation. But I have some better news for you: He is already here. The Holy Spirit dwells within all of his people, every moment of every day. He is the one who empowers our worship, who gives us the desire to sing God’s praises. His power has already shown up—and it resides in us. Should we not rejoice and be glad of this?

What to expect when we preach the gospel

friends-gospel

In modern times, we tend to look at the world around us and say, if only we were X—whether X is hip, trendy, socially active, or whatever—then we’d win the culture to Christ. We act as though there’s some magic formula to this. That somehow we can make everything go exactly our way if we could just unlock the secret.

Now, imagine having these sorts of aspirations—of winning your people with your powerful and prophetic preaching—and rather than turning to God in repentance, they turn on you with murder in their eyes. That those plotting your demise are not strangers, but your childhood friends.

And not your friends only, but your family: your parents, siblings, cousins, aunts and uncles…

They all want you dead.

What would you do?

Jeremiah, often described as the weeping prophet, didn’t need to imagine this, for it was his experience. He wrote in chapter 11 of his book of their scheming. For he heard them say,”Let us destroy the tree with its fruit, let us cut him off from the land of the living, that his name be remembered no more,” not knowing that “it was against me they devised schemes” (Jeremiah 11:19).

How would you respond to opposition of this degree? Would you flee? Would you be tempted to retract your message? Or would you turn to the Lord to defend your cause as he did, pleading, “But, O LORD of hosts, who judges righteously, who tests the heart and the mind, let me see your vengeance upon them, for to you have I committed my cause”? (Jeremiah 11:20)

While many around the world don’t have to wonder, for it is their daily reality, I hope none of us here in North America will ever have to experience exactly what Jeremiah did. None of us should ever desire persecution of this nature, or actively pursue it. Nevertheless, it’s important to remember as we consider the experiences of Jeremiah, the Apostles, the Reformers, and so many others right up to our own day is that the gospel is offensive. If we preach the truth—if we preach that Jesus Christ, God’s only Son, died for our sins on the cross and rose again on the third day—we are preaching “a stone of stumbling and a rock of offense” (1 Peter 2:8).

The gospel shows us as we truly are—lost, depraved, unable to save ourselves no matter how good and moral we attempt to be. Thus, it confronts us with uncomfortable realities. We know we can never be good enough (even by our own standards, to say nothing of God’s). We know the deeds and thoughts done in private. The gospel shatters our self-image, and so we are left with two options: repent or retaliate.

And that’s the hard thing for so many to get, I fear: generally speaking, we’re not going to win any popularity contests when we’re preaching the gospel in a culture that runs contrary to it. The hard-hearted Israelites to whom Jeremiah preached would not hear him, and in their rebellion sought his death. Today, we’re called bigots for upholding biblical truths and not being able to bless actions that run contrary to them. We’re called intolerant for our exclusive claims. Even when people think we, individually, are very nice, collectively, Christians are personae non gratae.

This is what we should expect when we represent Christ, no matter how well we represent him. Some will be drawn closer, but others—many others, perhaps—will be repelled. That’s what we should expect, because it is what we’re told will happen. So do not lose heart if social action doesn’t win the affections of the lost, or being culturally relevant still results in us being left out in the cold. Give thanks to God and carry on.

Links I like

Links

Kindle deals for Christian readers

Sex Trafficking: What it is, why it matters, and what you can do about it

Barnabas Piper interviews Stephanie Clark, executive director of Amirah.

Why We Need a Christian Counter-Culture

Ivan Mesa shares a few excerpts from the following video:

Saint Samson

David Murray:

Following my attempt to resurrect Jephthah’s reputation, I now turn my attention to Samson. In some ways, Samson is even harder to rehabilitate due to his popularity (or should I say “infamy”) in children’s Bible story books. We’re all familiar with the narrative and the moral: “Don’t be like Samson who committed adultery, murder, and suicide.” …Is resuscitating Samson a lost cause? I don’t think so, for the following reasons.

Four Keys for Avoiding the Anger Trap

Mark Dance:

The more vocal our critics become, the more vocal we should become in prayer. I realize that this concept is both counterintuitive and countercultural, but it really works! Have you tried adding your enemies to your prayer list?

5 Ways to Keep Church Discipline from Seeming Weird

Jared Wilson:

Recently, the subject of church discipline has hit the radar in many circles due to some high profile controversies and scandals.  The way some churches appear to poorly exercise church discipline is as distressing as the way many Christians reacted to the concept. There has been a collective incredulity about church discipline as some kind of “strange fire” in the evangelical world.

I can’t help but think that this aversion is partly because, as God has built his church, his church leaders have not always kept up with what makes a church a church. So even to mention the idea of a church disciplining its members strikes tenderhearted and undereducated Christians as weird, mean, and legalistic. How do we work at keeping church discipline from seeming weird?

 

They will argue your experience, but share it anyway

share-your-story

A few years ago, a couple friends and I were hanging out with colleagues of ours from the Netherlands. As we enjoyed some chicken wings and soda, one of them asked me, “So how did you get saved?”

I hesitated for a moment, and then told him the short(ish) version: that both my wife and I were attacked by demons, I asked Jesus to save me (which he did), and it all stopped. After what seemed like several minutes of stunned silence, one of my friends said, “And if I didn’t know him, I’d think he was crazy, too.”

This wasn’t the first time that’d happened, either. A couple of years prior to that, back when I used to frequent the message boards of a couple of big name comic book writers, an artist named Alex wanted to hear from people who’d had a conversion experience (he was and is not a believer, to the best of my knowledge). I offered to share what happened, which he was glad to hear about… but then suggested it probably wasn’t actually something supernatural that happened, but sleep paralysis. And then there was the time when… You get the idea, right?

As you can imagine, I have a hard time telling people about how I came to faith. Now, it’s not that I’m ashamed or embarrassed, but because there’s some freaky deaky stuff in there, I’ve come to expect people to back away slowly. And to be honest, it gets a little disheartening when people look at me as though I’ve got two heads and one has spinach in its teeth. And it frustrates me to no end when I see the cavalier attitude with which some charismaniac nitwits brag about such thing because I’ve had experiences that would make them tremble in their biker boots.

Some well-meaning people will tell you that the best tool in your evangelistic arsenal is your testimony—no one can argue it. They can’t tell you that isn’t really what happened… y’know, except for when they do. And make no mistake: they will. But you know what? I still try to tell it, awkwardness and all. Why? Because it’s how God saved me.

The same is true for you. Whether it was a seemingly mundane experience or a terrifying one, how God saved you is how he saved you. You might feel awkward, but you know what? Share it anyway.

Love in the time of clickbait

 

heart

Nearly three years ago, my wife deleted her Facebook account and hasn’t looked back. She’s now on her second Twitter account, having deleted the first after she found the people she was following were a little too intense (and sure) in their belief that Obama is letting America go to pot so he can declare martial law, thus becoming Barack the First. Now, even though she’s occasionally tempted to pack it all up, she routinely unfollows people when they’re getting consistently cranky.

She is a reluctant social media user. And she is wiser than many of us, I suspect.

Part of the issue for her—and for me, too—is the clickbait we Christians keep shoving at one another. Now, it’s usually not the “Someone ate a sandwich and YOU WON’T BELIEVE WHAT HAPPENED NEXT” all-caps type of nonsense promoted by Buzzfeed and Answers and the like.

No, ours is of a different sort. It’s outrage (and fauxtrage) and open letters and op-eds—some helpful, most not—about everything from a theologically liberal Christian coming out in support of something most people already assumed he supported, or a celebrity who is deeply confused about his identity, or issues that were handled wrongly at one church or another, or blog posts carefully examining every word a pastor has to say, looking for the one thing that could discredit him…

These are the really tempting stories to share because they get attention. (They got your attention, right?) And many of us feel a particular need to bring to light the injustices that happen when church leaders handle situations wrongly or we feel it’s important to shine the light on wolves in sheep’s clothing. And certainly, there are times when this is necessary (so please don’t hear me as saying the sins of churches and their leaders should never be spoken of publicly).

But maybe it’s not a good idea to be sharing these all the time. I wonder if we’re being just a little too liberal with it and not considering its effect on other believers. After all:

  • What does it do to a believer when he or she feeds on a steady diet of stories detailing the faults of church leaders they may not have heard of otherwise?
  • What does constantly being inundated with story after story after story of things they can’t do anything about do?

Now, I again, I don’t want to be so crass as to suggest that sin should remain hidden, for what is hidden will always come to light (as we’ve seen time and again). But is it not helpful for us to consider whether or not what we’re sharing demonstrates love for those who follow us on Twitter or Facebook, or read our blogs? Should our greatest concern be not to point out faults, but to encourage and build up believers in the faith?

Love doesn’t conceal truth, nor does it treat sin lightly. But it also doesn’t leave us wallowing in the muck and mire. And this is what I see lacking in so much of the conversation around so many issues. There are so few pleas to not lose heart. There seem to be no exhortations to think upon whatever is good and true. No appeals to consider what is honorable and just. No pleas to press into what is pure and lovely. No giving thanks for what is commendable and praiseworthy. Of all these Paul instructs us to think on, and yet publicly we spend so much of our time considering the exact opposite.

We speak with so much fire, but seem to do so with so few tears.

Friends, this should not be said of any of us.

Around seven years ago, I was having lunch with my former pastor, and we were talking about my tendency to wield truth as a hammer, smashing falsehood indiscriminately, without considering the collateral damage. My actions and my words were inconsistent with the grace I’d been shown in the gospel. I wasn’t acting out of love for those around me, even when I was right in what I was saying. I wasn’t speaking out of a desire to build others up, but to tear someone down—or more often to build myself up.

And that’s a dangerous place to be. It’s lacking in love. It’s barren of joy. It’s out of step with the Spirit.

My fear is that many of us are saying so much and not paying attention to the effect we’re having on those around us. We are rightly concerned about the piles of dead bodies left by domineering pastors, but we’re not checking to ensure we’re not creating piles of our own in the process.

How healthy is our growth?

healthy-cancer

Any time I hear a pastor speak about church growth—whether in a book, a podcast, or a conference message—I want to cringe. Not because I’m against having a large number of people as part of a congregation, but because congregation size is so often used as a defense: What we’re doing must be working since people are showing up, so God must approve, right?

And yet.

The thing I wonder about among many of these apparently healthy churches—and perhaps it’s just me being me—is how healthy are they, really? And how would you know if the growth experienced is actually beneficial? Based on what I’ve read so far in The Prodigal Church, Jared Wilson shares this concern. He writes:

It is a customary mantra of ministry that healthy things grow. And yet sometimes healthy things shrink. This is certainly true of our bodies, when we’re eating right and exercising. I mean, the formula doesn’t always work in every circumstance. “Healthy things grow” sounds right. But cancer grows too. (40)

Now think about that for a second: healthy things grow—but you really need to qualify what you mean by healthy growth. Are the people attending growing in godliness, or are more people simply showing up? Are more people being invested in so their gifts can flourish, or do they have to look elsewhere in order to exercise their gifts? Are leaders growing more deeply in their love for the people they serve—or are they beginning to hate them?

This is the danger of the unqualified (and unhelpful) mantra of “healthy things grow.”

If having a large number of people show up every week is our primary goal, we will inevitably do whatever it takes to make it happen. And as more people show up, while we might enjoy the high of it, we’ll eventually grow bitter toward some—perhaps many—of them because they don’t give, serve, or contribute to the life of the body in any discernible way.

The thing we want risks becoming the thing we hate.

The body will be ravaged by cancer, and we’ll be hard-pressed to do anything about it.

So what’s the solution? Having people show up on a Sunday isn’t bad, obviously, and if people are legitimately meeting Christ, we should praise God for his use of crooked sticks such as us. But maybe the best place to start, perhaps, we sit among the congregation on Sunday morning or we serve them as our vocation, is to begin asking ourselves not “are we growing”, but “are we growing in the right way”? Is our growth helping us—or is it hindering us?

There isn’t an easy answer to the question—even if that difficulty is merely accepting the truth—but it is worth asking.

You know they’re not in conflict, right?

large_3981364314

It’s probably safe to assume that any time the “religion vs. Jesus” thing comes up, I’m going to wind up annoyed. Some Christian gobbledygook of this persuasion popped up in my Twitter feed the last night, this time on how to use the Bible—find out what it says and follow that, or find out how it points to Jesus and follow him.

Now, before I go any further, I agree with the whole “do vs. done” element of the general argument. And I also firmly believe you should absolutely read the Bible with an eye to how it points to Jesus because he is the one we not merely follow, but worship as God. If you don’t read your Bible this way, you’re not reading it as a Christian (he says, preaching to the choir).

But this whole “follow the Bible” vs “follow Jesus” thing… Can we just not, please?

Let’s be honest, this sort of either/or—either follow what the Bible says or follow Jesus—isn’t really all that helpful. It’s actually kind of dumb. Let’s not forget:

Jesus followed commands in the Bible. Jesus was a devout Jew. Devout Jews kept the Law. Jesus kept the Law perfectly, as no one else did or could.

Jesus gives us commands. It’s true. “Follow me”, and “abide in me” are commands. Not only that, he tells us to pray (and even says “like this”), to love others, to give to Caesar what is Caesar’s and give to God what is God’s… He even says “if you love me, you will obey me.” Those don’t sound like suggestions, do they?

The commands Jesus gives us are in the Bible. At least, that’s where they were the last time I checked. (Yep, still there.)

We are expected to do what we’re told in the Bible. When we read that we are to “love your God with all your heart, soul, mind and strength” and “love your neighbor as yourself”, it’s not a suggestion. It’s an imperative, which means we are to do it. Repent and believe? Yep, that’s another one we are expected to do. Make disciples? That one too. Submit to one another out of love for Christ? Ditto. Have nothing to do with false gods? You know it. These are things we are to do, as obeying the commands of God1 is evidence of our love for Christ.

Pitting Jesus against the Bible comes across like a kid trying to pit mom and dad against one another. The only one it’s going to go badly for is the kid.

So, yeah.

If we could never do that again, that would be super.

“Who am I to judge?”

judgmental

Some time ago there was a young guy who was hanging out with my neighbor at the time who was a professing Christian. Really nice, sweet guy—the give you the shirt off his back type. One morning I drove him over to the Tim Horton’s on the corner (because, Canada), and we somehow got on the topic of same-sex relationships. He had a very live-and-let live attitude about the whole thing, not because he had a conviction that such things are or are not acceptable, but because he hadn’t given it much thought. And since he didn’t want to be seen as being judgmental, he simply said, “Who am I to judge?”

Everybody judges

It sounds very noble to say something like this, but it’s actually kind of silly. Why? Because everybody judges.

All the time.

We can’t help it. We judge people about everything. People who love Starbucks are either coffee snobs who enjoy being robbed every morning, or they have discerning tastes and don’t like coffee that tastes like an ashtray. Apple users are either with it and hip, or they’re desperately trying to be. Star Trek fans are… okay, there’s no winning on that one. But the same goes for Star Wars fans, too. So let’s not kid ourselves: everybody judges.

(And you might have just judged me for writing that just now.)

Judge whom?

The real question is not who am I to judge, who am I to judge: Ourselves? Non-Christians? Fellow Christians?

On judging non-Christians. I do my best to avoid blanket condemnation of non-Christians. Why? Two reasons: first, we are told not to by Paul. “For what have I to do with judging outsiders? …God judges those outside” (1 Cor. 5:12-13). Second, because of the example of Jesus. Though we are told that “someday” on the final day of judgment, believers will participate in Christ’s judgment of the world—and even the angels (1 Cor. 6:2-3)—Jesus reminds us that in his first coming, he did not come to condemn the world but to save it (John 3:17). During his earthly life, he was a friend of sinners, after all. Thus, we should be wise to do likewise. This does not mean participating in sinful behavior, nor approving of it; however, pursuing genuine relationships with non-Christians means we should not be condemning of them as people, even when we take opportunities to challenge behaviors. An “I think I’m better than you” attitude has no place in the Christian life, as I think we can all agree.

On judging Christians. Among Christians, the practice of judgment changes. We are not told to withhold judgment. In fact, we are told quite clearly that we are to judge among ourselves, and to “purge the evil person from among [us]” (1 Cor. 5:12-13). Therefore, we are to judge with right judgment and not according to appearances (John 7:24)—a good lesson for us all whenever we see blog posts and articles bringing to light issues with well-known pastors and churches.1 We are wise to use Matthew 18’s process for dealing with personal sin—that is, deal with personally and fairly, with unbiased witnesses being included where required. But we are also reminded that love covers a multitude of sins (1 Peter 4:8). Some of our sins don’t require confrontation or even a conversation. These we can let go; but only we can judge what those are for ourselves.

On judging ourselves. Where we see Scripture’s strongest commands about judgment relate to judging ourselves. As a general rule, we are to deal with our own sins before those of others (Matthew 7:1-5). We should never be so presumptuous to think we’ve got all our junk together or that our sin is somehow less serious than the sin of another. We never hold anyone to a higher standard than we would ourselves (7:2). If we don’t deal with ourselves first—and if we don’t hold ourselves to the same standards we hold others—we should not be surprised that Jesus would call us hypocrites.

We all fall down

When it comes to judgment, we all fall down. Sometimes we’re too harsh on non-Christians. Others, we give Christians a pass when it’s not appropriate. Most commonly, and though we would never say it, we act as though we’ve already achieved perfect sanctification, and sin is no longer an issue for us (but everyone else, oh my stars…). But this doesn’t mean we should give up. Instead, we should learn how to judge rightly, which begins with self-evaluation.

Some questions we should always try to consider:

  1. What is it about the situation that I find offensive? Trying to pinpoint the exact issue and why it is offensive to us is helpful in keeping us focused on the specifics and avoid generalities.
  2. Is this incident a one-time event or the latest in an ongoing pattern of behavior? The answer to this question may completely change our response to what we’ve experienced. The offense of one who is not characterized by being harsh with his words should probably be different than that toward the one who is known for being domineering and hostile.
  3. Is my reaction in line with the nature of the offence? There are some things we should be angered by, but sometimes our reaction doesn’t match the incident. We should be careful to consider why this is so.
  4. How can I best address the offence in a way that honors Jesus? Sometimes this will mean taking drastic action (such as calling the police in the case of sexual abuse or any other illegal activity); other times, it may mean dropping it entirely and seeking to live at peace with those around us.

Certainly, these questions are not exhaustive, but they are a good starting point. Christians are not free to abstain from judgment. If we are seeking to be faithful to Christ, it is important for us to judge with right judgment in as much as we are able and with the Spirit’s help. Lord willing, we will be up to the task.

Joyful news leads to joyful people

joyful news

A couple of years ago, I went through a pretty bad spot emotionally. I was miserable pretty much all the time (there were many reasons for this). This wasn’t so much a depression thing as much as a frustration one, though. Lots of stress and concern about things both in and out of my control were taking their toll. The day it clicked for me was when we were sitting at the table, and my daughter, Abigail, commented that I don’t smile.

Now, strictly speaking, this wasn’t true. But she couldn’t remember the last time she’d seen me smile. Her default understanding was “daddy = grumpy.”

(Isn’t it interesting how God so often uses our children to point out what we’ve been ignoring?)

I was like the monks Spurgeon spoke of in Lectures to My Students, “who salute each other in sepulchral tones, and convey the pleasant information, ‘Brother we must die'; to which lively salutation each lively brother of the order replies, ‘Yes, brother we must die'” (197).

This, again, wasn’t an unfamiliar sort of disposition for me. I spent most of my teen years being proto-emo minus the swoopy hair (except for that unfortunate year…). My favorite bands were all rather pretentious, dark and angsty. I was not a cheerful person.

I was reminded of this once again when listening to the audio edition of Lectures to My Students. There, Spurgeon commends ministers to be cheerful people. Not, an an empty sort of “levity and frothiness, but a genial, happy spirit. There are more flies caught with honey than with vinegar, and there will be more souls led to heaven by a man who wears heaven on his face than by one who bears Tartarus in his looks” (198).

Spurgeon is right in commending us to cultivate a happy disposition. Not some false air, but a genuinely joyful spirit.1 No one wants to be around the person who is constantly looking for the grey cloud in the silver lining (or is pointing out to you why gluten is terrible and going to give you cancer while also causing climate change).2 No one really likes being around the person who constantly turns your smiles into frowns.

But good news does not beget grumpiness, and good news people should not be known for their grumpiness. While they might have seasons where they experience it, they should not be characterized by it. People who have been saved by Jesus and commissioned by him to tell that good news should pursue cheerfulness—or if you prefer, joy. Because joyful news leads to joyful people. And joyful people in a bad news world are hard to come by.

Nine things we’re glad we’ve learned in our marriage (so far)

bench

Today is Emily’s and my ninth wedding anniversary. Our road to the altar was a long and complicated one, involving college romance, abandoning a religion/cult, living together, getting “engaged”, buying a house, spiritual attack, and being rescued by Jesus (in that order).

I (Aaron) still remember the day we both became Christians, and our first question to one another was, “Now what?” We knew that being Christians meant our lives were going to be thrown into chaos. We just didn’t expect everything that was thrown at us in the time leading up to our wedding (and beyond). So today, we thought we’d share a few things we are glad we know now that are also glad we found out along the way:

1. What it’s like to be a part of an exclusive club (that no one wants to join). When we lost our second child (a miscarriage between Abigail and Hannah), we were initiated into a club no one really wants to be a part of: couples who’ve experienced a miscarriage. We had no idea how common it is, and how many people grieve in silence. Though we (obviously) love all our children greatly, and we wouldn’t trade the family we do have for anything, there’s a part of us that wonders what it would have been like to meet our little “almost”, instead of only seeing him or her in a blurry ultrasound. Lord willing, we’ll get to do that in the new creation.

2. What it means to be married and Christian. Yeah, I know this is one of those controversial subjects. But learning how to relate to one another as Christians, as an engaged couple, as a married couple, and then again as parents of young children… we were kind of flying by the seat of our pants on all that. We’d not seen examples of a Christian marriage (Emily’s parents aren’t Christians and mine are divorced, so I’d never even really seen a stable family unit until I met them). And there were a lot of things that we had to learn the hard way. This usually involved me saying something stupid, realizing I was wrong, and asking Emily to forgive me.

3. Being on the bleeding edge of parenthood can be kind of lonely. We intentionally left the barn door open when we got married, having the conviction that we wanted to have children right away. And we did. Unfortunately, we also had people doing the math in their heads (or on their fingers) when we told them we were expecting Abigail. “Oh, so you got married in…”

I (Emily) also had two people ask if it was planned. I also had to let some dreams die during our early years as parents. Because so many of our friends got married around the same time, I had this assumption that all of us would be having children on the same timeline, like I saw the people 5-10 years older than us in our church had done. I was looking forward to “doing life together” and having those friendships remain really close. But my friends did not do those things, and are only now having their first or second children (with their oldest being a bit younger than Hudson).

So, I had to go and make my own friends (which I did).

We love being able to spend more time with some of these friends now, and it’s a privilege to share from where we are in our journey as parents, but sometimes it’s easy to get a bit jealous when everyone else is having the shared experience.

4. Nothing good happens after 2 am. This is advice I (Emily) was given by my cousin, and it’s true. After a certain point in the evening, you’ve got nothing positive to say to one another. So just go to sleep.

5. Sex is a good gift, but a lousy god. We heard a lot of sermons (via podcast) and read a lot of books all telling us that Christian marriages should be filled with free, fun and frequent sexual intimacy. More and more, I (Aaron) wonder how many of the pastors writing such things perhaps were revealing a bit too much about what was (or wasn’t) going on in their own lives. There’ve been plenty of seasons over the last nine years where “frequent” would not be the appropriate modifier to use in our relationship, whether due to illness, babies, or exhaustion. I’m glad we don’t define the health of our relationship by this one measure because, honestly, there are much more important things to be concerned about.

6. Set the ground rules before you start. Going into marriage knowing that divorce is off the table is liberating for us. Neither of us have one foot out the door, and so it’s not a threat or a concern. We’ve seen far too much heartache in other people’s lives—particularly with those who have been divorced—and that makes us want to work harder on the things that matter most.

7. Shared convictions matter, but can’t be forced. No question: shared convictions on theological issues really, really matter. A lot. But having shared convictions is not something anyone can mandate. I can’t say to Emily, “You will be in agreement with me on XYZ.” And not just because if I did, I’d be declared the one jerk who rules them all. Instead, what we’ve found is our convictions have aligned, but usually it takes some time.

8. Don’t press. I (Aaron) am still learning this one. And I’m usually pretty awful at it. But I’m trying to learn that if Emily says she’s not ready to talk about something, she’s really not ready to talk about something. So saying, “Well, what’s the issue?” and trying to cajole it out of her is usually a terrible idea.

9. That marriage really is different. Anyone who tells you that living together is no different from being married is either a. Never been married; b. an idiot; or c. a liar. Living together is a distortion of marriage; a cheap imitation that falls apart too easily. Marriage is different. It is harder, but it is better. If I could do it again, I (Aaron) would have gladly waited until we were married for us to live together.

Five phrases Christians should never use again

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We all have certain sayings that we regularly use. In my house, we often remind the kids, “You’ll get what you get and you won’t get upset,” particularly when it’s time for a snack. Another favorite: “We’re gonna have fun whether we like it or not.”

These are well and good, at least to a point—that is, only in as much as we ascribe no more value to them than their due. Christians are no different; we have short hand phrases that are sometimes helpful, but often not. In fact, many we treat as downright biblical, when they’re more likely to be found in 2 Hesitations. Here are five that I’d love to see never ever used again:

God won’t give you more than you can handle. I’m pretty sure Paul, Peter, the rest of the apostles, all the prophets, and Jesus would disagree on this. Although Jesus’ yoke is easy and his burden is kind, the Christian life is most definitely not. Paul described himself and his co-laborers as “so utterly burdened beyond our strength that we despaired of life itself” (2 Cor. 1:8). “Beyond our strength,” incidentally, means it was more than he could handle. But the purpose was to cause them to “rely not on ourselves but on God” (2 Cor. 1:9). Jesus described Paul as one who would suffer greatly for the sake of the gospel. Jesus in taking our sin upon himself most definitely carried a burden so great his sweat looked as though it were drops of blood and he pleaded for the burden to be lifted by the Father, were it his will to do so. Instead the Father sent an angel to strengthen him (Luke 22:43). (This is a subject I dealt with in greater detail in this article which appears in my eBook, Everyday Theology).

“Let’s pray for a hedge of protection.” I’ll be honest, I’m not even sure what this means. I get the reference—but the first place you see this language used in the Bible is in Job. However, there, it’s Satan accusing God of not playing fair with Job, that the only reason Job doesn’t blaspheme him is because God has placed a “hedge around him” (Job 1:10). We do find a few other examples as well, but only a couple have a protective connotation (notably Isaiah 5:5 and Hosea 2:6). A later example in Job (3:23) suggests one having his path obscured. Now, I’m not saying it’s wrong to pray for such a thing, but the biblical evidence is slim.

God helps those who help themselves. To be clear: God does not reward slothfulness, apathy, or laziness in any way, shape or form. We also can see that faithful people are full of ingenuity and a sort of godly ambition that God blesses. But, the Bible has nothing close to this sort of admonishment, which finds its origins in Aesop’s fables (and was later popularized by Benjamin Franklin). Instead of encouraging us to pull ourselves up by our spiritual bootstraps (which I addressed it in this article some years ago), we are to remember that even as we work, God is working in us (Philippians 2:13).

“Let go and let God.” As you can guess, this one is related to the one I just mentioned. The Keswickian notion that if you just surrender and have faith and if you’re struggling just surrender harder is, well, kind of silly (to say nothing of how it leads to classism among Christians). No matter how hard you look, you’re not going to find anything in the Bible that confirms it. Instead, you’re going to be told constantly to strive, do, go forth, fight, and so on. God commands an active faith, not passivity. So stop saying this! (And for those interested, Andrew Naselli’s got a tome analyzing Keswick theology in great detail. If you’re a Logos user, it’s worth checking out.)

“When God closes a door, he opens a window.” This is a weird one that I’ve never quite understood. The whole “open door” theology thing has always seemed strange to me, though. I can’t find anything that would give any sort of credence to this notion in the Bible. At all. (The only thing we have that’s close is the admonition that God never leaves us without escape from temptation in 1 Corinthians 10:13.) Further, it seems that not every door that is open to us is one we should actually go through. Sometimes opportunities are presented as choices for us to say no to. But maybe I just don’t have enough faith…

There are, no doubt, more that could be added to this list. But for now, maybe it’s enough for us to commit to thinking carefully and biblically about the things we say and how much weight we give those sayings. But just a warning: If we do this, we might find we probably shouldn’t say some of them at all. And may God be glorified because of it.

Long preaching isn’t always good preaching

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Early on in my faith, I was enamored with preachers who would give these 45, 50, 60-plus minute sermons. I would compare what I’d hear in their podcasts to what I was hearing on Sunday mornings, and I always wondered, “Why doesn’t my pastor do what these guys are doing?”

Which, of course, is stupid. But then again, I was kind of an idiot.

(Moving on…)

Over time, I grew less enamored with some of those preachers (or at least their preaching). As I listened, I increasingly realized that the guys that seemed to be able to get up and had little more than a post-it for notes weren’t actually saying much of anything. They were using a great many words to say very little.

When training pastors on the importance of keeping people’s attention, Charles Spurgeon encouraged his hearers to keep their sermons shorter. “Spend more time in the study that you may need less in the pulpit,” he said.

We are generally longest when we have least to say. A man with a great deal of well-prepared matter will probably not exceed forty minutes; when he has less to say he will go on for fifty minutes; and when he has absolutely nothing he will need an hour to say it in. (Lectures to my Students, 156)

This is valuable advice (and also helps us understand why TED Talks are so powerful). Sometimes preaching1 “long” isn’t necessary—it’s just long. It’s a “noisy gong or a clanging cymbal”(1 Corinthians 13:1), revealing a great love of our own pontificating, but little for our hearers. And I really have no interest in that, either as a preacher or the hearer. I’d rather speak five simple words that communicate clearly than 1000 that may be eloquent or funny, but lack substance. What about you?

How much bandwidth can you give controversy?

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Whenever I read news of a church imploding, some sort of scandal arising involving sexual abuse, or any other scandal really, I can’t help but think, “I wonder what it would have been like to live during a time when the entire world wasn’t at my fingertips?”

Now, obviously, I’ve never been one to entirely avoid controversial issues (or people). And when we see a celebrity pastor lose his mind, or when patterns of abuse are revealed that affect anyone, man, woman or child, it is hard to ignore. But at the same time, though we should grieve these things—and if a crime has been committed, we should report them—we can only give so much mental bandwidth to these things. Here are a few reasons why I believe this is so, at least from my perspective:

1. Because I really can’t do much to help. Without (I hope) sounding callous toward those who’ve experienced abuse (sexual, physical, or emotional), there’s not a lot I can do to help in a specific situation happening in Florida, Texas, or, honestly, even in a different town 30 minutes down the road. I can pray and, if the issue warrants, I can say something where I feel compelled to, but that’s about it.

2. Because I have people close by who need my attention more. What I am responsible for is not so much what happens out there, but what happens in my local church and within the various communities I associate with. I am required to love and serve those whom I am closest with differently than those who are far off. So if there is someone in need within my local congregation, or within one of the groups I’m a part of (our homeschool co-op, for example), I have a greater sense of obligation to address that need. If I become aware of a pattern of behavior that is concerning, I need to say something in the appropriate way. If I’m aware of a crime being committed, I am obligated to report it.

3. Because it can lead me to despair. There is no shortage of bad news out there—no shortage of controversies, abuses of authority, violence and all the other evidences of humanity’s desperately wicked state. Knowing about the ugly things that are happening in other congregations, other communities and other nations doesn’t add a sense of urgency to the call to love and serve others, or tell me anything I didn’t already know. It’s just more.

4. Because it tempts me to become even more distrustful. Many who report on abuse issues within the church have been severely harmed by an experience in a local congregation they were once a part of. And my fear is that for some, confusion has found a foothold, and authority exercised by a godly individual is seen as authoritarianism.

I’ve got to be honest: I’m already distrustful of some of the leaders God has placed over me, some with more reason than others. But what I find myself needing to do more and more is praying for those leaders, rather than trying to parse the meaning of every word they use, attempting to find some hidden meaning or a message between the lines. I want to be lead by people that are worth following, and the only way for that to happen is for God to be at work in them. And if I am not praying for them, what does it say about what I think about them?

5. It tempts me to put myself in the place of God. The truth is, none of us know the full story of what goes on in any given scandal. That doesn’t mean we shouldn’t care, but it does mean we need to be cautious. When I judge too quickly, I often find myself thinking as though I am standing in for God, and therefore capable of rendering a sound and infallible judgment. And a lot of the time, I’m completely and totally wrong. That isn’t to say that wrong isn’t wrong or sin isn’t sin (far from it!)—it’s just that we ought to be very careful about what we put out there in our outrage. There are certain things you say that you can never come back from. I’ve made a lot of mistakes in this regard, and I’m not eager to repeat them.

So getting back to the question at hand: how much mental bandwidth should we give controversy that doesn’t directly affect us? Speaking only for myself, only as much as my conscience allows—and only in so far as it doesn’t become a distraction to loving and serving those with whom I am in relationship. For most, that means almost none. For some, it means a great deal of attention. But for all, it means learning when to say “when” so that I don’t neglect the things that are most important.