God loves us because He loves us

lightstock_2406_xsmall_user_3763000

Word of advice: if you ever want to set a pack of Max Lucado fans, address a concern about some of this theology.

A few years ago, I reviewed his book on social justice (it was also, outside of a kids’ book I received about a year back, the last of his books I read), a book that had some good points, but was kind of weird. Strangely graphic descriptions of temple guards that read like a cross between the movie 300 and something you’d find in a non-Amish romance novel, his typical lackadaisical attitude toward doctrine, and, most alarmingly, an extremely deficient view of humanity’s real state before God.

“Of course, no one believed in people more than Jesus did,” Lucado wrote. “He saw something in Peter worth developing, in the adulterous woman worth forgiving, and in John worth harnessing. He saw something in the thief on the cross, and what he saw was worth saving…”1

Never so quickly have I underlined a phrase in a book. Oh my stars… how such a statement that runs so contrary to the gospel saw the light of day, I’ll never know (wait, that’s not true, I do know how…).

And that, of course, is what set off the Lucado fans.

Reading Titus For You by Tim Chester this week reminded me of the weird goofiness we have surround the reason why God loves us and why God saves us. Why do I describe it as weird goofiness? Simple: we have a really, really hard time taking what the Bible says at face value. Just consider the following:

In Genesis 6:5, we’re told that “The LORD saw that the wickedness of man was great in the earth, and that every intention of the thoughts of his heart was only evil continually.” And then He killed everyone except Noah and his family.

At the end of Judges, the writer laments, “In those days there was no king in Israel. Everyone did what was right in his own eyes” (Judges 21:25). The context makes it clear that everyone doing “what was right in his own eyes” is a very, very bad thing indeed.

Jumping along, with incredulity and awe, the psalmist writes, “what is man that you are mindful of him, and the son of man that you care for him?” (Psalm 8:4)

Proverbs 20:19 declares, “Who can say, ‘I have made my heart pure; I am clean from my sin’?”

On and on the Old Testament goes. And in the New Testament, this message gets even more intense.

Jesus declares that we are evil (Matt 7:11, Luke 11:13) and he did not entrust Himself to people because “He knew all people” (John 2:24). We love darkness and hate the light and are condemned because our works are evil (cf. John 3:16-21). Paul even goes so far as to spend the first three chapters of Romans unpacking this major issue, culminating with, “For there is no distinction; for all have sinned and fall short of the glory of God…” (Rom. 3:22-23).

Anyone else sweating a little?

Let’s be honest: that’s really bad news for us, because if we’re looking for things about us to make us worth saving—in our actions and attitudes—then we’re pretty much up a creek.

So what are we to do? Are we to just wallow in despair, or is there something we can hold on to?

Here’s a great encouragement from Chester:

“He saved us … because”. The word “because” is key. Here is the reason for our acceptance by God, the grounds of our confidence and the basis of our hope. It is worth asking ourselves: How would I complete the sentence, “He accepts me because…”?

Everyone answers that question somehow. If I think I will be saved because of something I have done, then I am not saved. I can have no confidence. Our acceptance before God is: “Not because of righteous things we [have] done” (v 5). Saving faith involves removing faith in ourselves. It involves stripping away confidence in anything except God. “He saved us … because of his mercy”. That is our true and only hope.”2

Why does God save us? Because of His mercy. His mercy shows us His glory. His mercy makes much of His name. His mercy is what sent Jesus Christ to take our punishment on the cross—not because we were lovely, not because we deserved it, not because we were worth it, but because He is so magnificent.

That’s why grace is so amazing. Why, oh, why, would you want to settle for anything less?

Is abundance dangerous?

fortune-cookie

Hosea is one of those books that’s both extremely fascinating and troubling, not simply because of the illustration of God’s pursuit of his adulterous people through Hosea’s marriage, caring for children not his own and purchasing his wife out of slavery. (Side note: when was the last time you heard a really great Jesus-focused sermon from Hosea?)

The reason Hosea makes me uneasy when I read it, though, isn’t because of my spiritually adulterous ways (Lord willing, I’m faithful in that regard). It’s because of a different, but related, danger: that of abundance.

Hosea 10:1-2 give us a picture of what happened to Israel:

Israel is a luxuriant vine that yields its fruit. The more his fruit increased, the more altars he built; as his country improved, he improved his pillars. Their heart is false; now they must bear their guilt. The Lord will break down their altars and destroy their pillars.

God gave Israel great wealth and prosperity. And it seduced them. They had their fill—more than their fill—and they became comfortable. They became complacent.

They started to say for themselves, “We have no king, for we do not fear the Lord; and a king—what could he do for us?” (Hosea 10:3) They became proud and they forgot the Lord (c.f. Deut 8:14).

And so, God tore them down. He humiliated them, taking a great nation and making them a laughing stock. He tore down their pillars, destroyed their kingdom and sent them into exile.

Because God opposes the proud, but gives grace to the humble.

The great danger of abundance for us today is complacency and pride. That we’ll rely on our own abilities to provide for our needs, rather than on God who actually does provide it through the abilities He has given us. That we’ll stop seeing the wealth He gives us as a gift to be stewarded and used for His purposes and begin building kingdoms for ourselves.

It’s easy at this point to start pointing fingers. We can look at the excesses of North American Christianity and shake our heads while tsk-tsk-tsk-ing until the sun comes up, even as we drive to church sipping a $4 latte. We can look at the pervasive goofiness of prosperity theology, with its tendency to store up treasure on earth for the promise of heavenly gain, and ignore our own natural inclination toward the pursuit of the same.

At the same time, though, we need to be careful not to demonize wealth and abundance. They’re not bad things in and of themselves. Wealth can be good. Abundance can be good… but it’s probably really, really healthy if we find that they make us a bit uncomfortable. When stewarded poorly, they bring about our downfall, but well stewarded well, they can be a great blessing to others.


An earlier version of this article was published in 2009.

The first and most important thing we can be absolutely sure of

Martyn Lloyd-Jones

…in days when life was smooth and easy, then people said how exciting it was to investigate truth and to examine it, and there were people who thought that was Christianity. It was to be a ‘seeker’, and you read literature and you compared this with that, and you said how marvellous it all was! But in a world like this one of the twentieth century you have no time for this, and thank God for that! We are in a world where black is black and white is white and that is in accordance with the New Testament teaching.

Christians are men and women who are certain, and John writes in order that these people may be absolutely sure. They were sure, but there were certain things that were not clear to them. That always seems to be the position of the Christian in this life and world. We can start with the truth which we believe by faith. Then it is attacked and we are shaken by various things but, thank God, these lessons are given to us to strengthen and establish us…. There are certain things that you and I should know. Christians have ceased to be seekers and enquirers; they are men and women who have ceased to doubt.…

But about what are we to have this certainty? Firstly, we are to be certain about ourselves. We know that we are of God. What is a Christian? Are Christians just people who pay a formal respect to God and to public worship? Are they just mechanically attached to a church? Do they just try to live a good life and to be a little bit better than others? Are they just philanthropists, people who believe in a certain amount of benevolence? They are all that, of course, but how infinitely more! Now, says John, we know this truth about ourselves as Christians. ‘We are of God'; by which he means nothing less than this: we are born of God; we are partakers of the divine nature; we have been born again; we have been born from above, we have been born of the Spirit, we are a new creation.

Martyn Lloyd-Jones, Fellowship with God p. 16-17

Do we make leadership more lonely than it needs to be?

word-balloons

“It’s lonely at the top”—but does it have to be?

On the one hand, I get it: yes, there are issues that only the guy on the highest point on the org chart has to deal with. Yes, there are appropriate boundaries leaders need to put in place in order to function… I get that because I’m a leader (although admittedly a mid-level one). Even at my level in terms of leadership hierarchies, there are limits to what I can do in order to balance my responsibilities effectively.

But when I hear this common bit of leadership “wisdom,” I just don’t resonate with it. Maybe it is simply because I’m in that middle area where I’m being lead even as I lead others, but the more I read about this, the more times I hear someone say “leadership is lonely,” the more I come to realize it’s not true. And the more I want to say one thing:

Leadership is lonely only because you’re making it more lonely than you need to.

This is the thing: when we’re lonely in this sense, it’s because, more often than not, we choose to be. But it doesn’t have to be so. Leadership doesn’t have to be lonely, no matter what the experts tell you. Here’s what I see as the primary cause of the “leadership is lonely” problem:

We think too highly of ourselves.”No one can understand what I have to deal with,” we might think. But you know what that is? Pride. I don’t know how else to put it. People might not be able to relate to the details of our circumstances, sure, but everyone’s pulling a Radio Flyer full of their own issues, the particulars of which we can’t necessarily relate to either. But if we let our “no one understands me” silliness isolate us, what we’re really saying is there’s no one as important as we are.

More often than not, when I see a lonely leader, it’s because he has chosen to be one. He isolates himself from others and has no discernible accountability structure. And what happens?

He self-destructs. His career ends. His ministry is discredited… and worse, some people cheer when it happens.

But it doesn’t have to be this way. We don’t have to be all alone out there. We can choose to see ourselves as normal people—to engage with others, even if the particulars of their situations don’t match our own. We can seek out others who are in similar situations. As much as we believe it to be so, leadership doesn’t have to be lonely.

3 passages I want to preach (but have been afraid to)

raffaello-sanzio-cartoon-for-st-paul-preaching-in-athens

I’m going to let you in on a not-so-secret secret: preaching is really hard. It’s a task that can (or should) make even the most confident man a little weak in the knees. One of the things that’s always freaked me out has been trying to choose the right passage to preach… What if it’s the “wrong” message for the church, or what if I do injustice to the text? And let’s face it, some texts are significantly harder to teach than others.

Here’s a look at three books I want to preach, but have been afraid to:

Obadiah. How many sermons on this book have you heard? Thanks to The Gospel Project, I think my kids have now heard more messages on it than I have (that being, one). But this book, despite being the shortest book of the Old Testament, is rich with gospel goodness, with its powerful reminder that the Lord is sovereign over all nations and that He judges all and He has made a way to escape His wrath.

Genesis. Specifically, Genesis 1. It’s not because I’m afraid to wade into the origins debate, but because I don’t want that to be a distraction from a larger point in the text: this passage is primarily about Jesus—His power, His wisdom, His character and His redemptive work. And too often the origins debate overlooks this important truth. (This, incidentally, I’ve been thinking about coupling with Romans 1.)

2 John. This one is challenging in some ways simply because it’s so short (13 verses!). But again, it’s packed with richness that we can overlook due to the letter’s length. But just think about 2 John 9-11:

Everyone who goes on ahead and does not abide in the teaching of Christ, does not have God. Whoever abides in the teaching has both the Father and the Son. If anyone comes to you and does not bring this teaching, do not receive him into your house or give him any greeting, for whoever greets him takes part in his wicked works.

This is such a strong warning from the apostle John—if you don’t believe what He said and do what He commands, you’re not Christian. Worse, if you allow false teachers to be among you, you’re indicted along with them. That’s heavy stuff, isn’t it?

So, those are a few of the passages I’ve wanted to preach, but have been afraid to—at least up until now. I’m working on my summer preaching itinerary now (and if you’re interested in having me come to your church, drop me a line!), and now I’m praying about the texts to preach—and specifically whether or not to teach some of these. It’ll be interesting to see where He leads.

What are some books you’ve never heard preached? Pastors, what are some books you’ve wanted to preach but have shied away from?

If the gospel isn’t in it, should we be singing it?

keyboard

So there’s a completely accurate report rumor going around that I’m pretty persnickety about music. Like, to the point that I have trouble singing most Sundays. This isn’t because there’s anything terrible with the music at our church—far from it, our church has a pretty robust music ministry (but thankfully no lasers or smoke machines)—it’s just I find myself thinking about the words we’re singing more often than not.

The reasons for this vary: sometimes it’s considering how those words line up with my own life at that moment. Other times, it’s contemplating whether or not the words are actually undeniably Christian, or if they’re just kind of feel-good gobbledygook.

Thankfully I am not alone in this.

A while back while reading Mack Stiles’ great book, Evangelism (reviewed here), I came upon this helpful bit of commentary:

My daughter-in-law, Stephanie, told me that she sang a song at her graduation that’s often sung in church services—”God of This City.” Half of her classmates were Muslims, and they had no trouble singing the song with gusto. If people from other faith backgrounds can sing a song with gusto at a secular high school graduation, we can be pretty sure there’s no gospel in the song. (85)

This is worth considering. But first, notice what Stiles doesn’t say:

  • He doesn’t equate a song’s simplicity with a lack of depth. Simple is good, provided what it communicates is faithful and true.
  • He doesn’t say “songs with first person pronouns are bad.” We should be able to sing in the first person as appropriate, certainly.
  • He doesn’t treat the song as if it’s evil in and of itself—he actually says later it’s a better song than most of the stuff on the top 40 (which is true).

But what he does say—and I emphatically agree with—is it is devoid of the gospel.

And again, this should make us think: what do the songs we sing on Sundays communicate about Jesus? Some communicate wonderful truths about God and the gospel, but far too many focus on us in the negative sense—what I’m doing, what I’m feeling, what I want, and, at best, treat God as a cosmic problem solver.

“Greater things are still to be done,” and all that.

While it may be unpopular to say, if a non-Christian isn’t deeply uncomfortable with the songs we sing because of their emphasis on Jesus, we might be doing it wrong. And if the gospel isn’t in it—should we really be singing it?

Few pretensions and disciplined performance

praying

My life has been blessed by some influential models. I must begin by mentioning my own parents. I remember how, even when we children were quite young, each morning my mother would withdraw from the hurly-burly of life to read her Bible and pray. In the years that I was growing up, my father, a Baptist minister, had his study in our home. Every morning we could hear him praying in that study. My father vocalized when he prayed—loudly enough that we knew he was praying, but not loudly enough that we could hear what he was saying. Every day he prayed, usually for about forty-five minutes. Perhaps there were times when he failed to do so, but I cannot think of one.

My father was a church planter in Québec, in the difficult years when there was strong opposition, some of it brutal.… In the ranks of ecclesiastical hierarchies, my father is not a great man. He has never served a large church, never written a book, never discharged the duties of high denominational office. Doubtless his praying, too, embraces idioms and stylistic idiosyncrasies that should not be copied. But with great gratitude to God, I testify that my parents were not hypocrites. That is the worst possible heritage to leave with children: high spiritual pretensions and low performance. My parents were the opposite: few pretensions, and disciplined performance. What they prayed for were the important things, the things that congregate around the prayers of Scripture. And sometimes when I look at my own children, I wonder if, should the Lord give us another thirty years, they will remember their father as a man of prayer, or think of him as someone distant who was away from home rather a lot and who wrote a number of obscure books. That quiet reflection often helps me to order my days.

D. A. Carson, A Call to Spiritual Reformation, 25–26.

Today is Father’s Day—although in my case, it’s the culmination of a weekend long celebration of Daddy. It started on Friday as soon as I got home, with cards and drawings, continued on through Saturday with a daddy-daughters date to the movies and a cake, and concluding today with, Lord willing, a nap.

One of the most touching moments of this weekend came from Abigail, with her hand-crafted Father’s Day card. Her message was simple: “I like it when you play with me. I am shure glad you are my Dad. You are true and I love you.”1 It’s her words “you are true” that got me. Whatever else Abigail thinks about me, she evidently doesn’t think of me as someone putting up some sort of pretense. And apparently it’s a good thing.

So many dads like me are flying blind. Either we didn’t have a dad in our lives growing up, or we did, but he doesn’t hold the same values we do today. So we’re kind of making the Christian father thing up as we go along. That’s where stories and examples like Don Carson’s father are so beneficial to us, and show us what we should be striving for: to be known as people of “few pretensions, and disciplined performance.” For our children to know us as men of the Word and of prayer, and who will gladly get down on the floor and play rather than run away to our books. If my children know me for these things, I think I will have accomplished far more than what could come from writing scores of books.

What do we do when “crazy” wins?

word-balloons

Yesterday’s provincial election was cause for celebration for the political left, with the Ontario Liberals winning a majority government in the midst of unbelievable scandals, crushing debt and deficit spending, and skyrocketing unemployment.

And so, here we are. Now the question is, what are those unsatisfied with the decision to do?

The way I see it, we have two choices:

The first is, we can grumble. We can lament what we perceive of as the insanity of the decision and rant about it. Honestly, this is where I was even as I wrote this—I was legitimately shocked (and more than a little annoyed) to see the results. That a scandalized party could achieve such success utterly confounds me.

There’s so much I could say on this, and am tempted to… but in the end, what would I be doing?

Grumbling.

And what good does that do?

None.

It doesn’t help me live joyfully—if anything, it robs me of joy as it encourages bitterness and taints my ability to love those with whom I disagree ideologically and politically (including some members of my local church).

Which brings me to the second choice. Instead of grumbling, I can pray. And truth be told, this is really hard for me, because, well, grumbling is easier (and in the moment, it’s sometimes much more fun). But it’s not what I need, nor what my family needs, nor what our province needs.

So, I can pray remembering that there is no government—even a thoroughly anti-Christian one—established except by the hand of God (Romans 13:1). I can pray for the wisdom of these leaders and welfare of this land, remembering that this pleases God (1 Timothy 2:1-4), and benefits the unbelieving world in which we live as sojourners and exiles (Jeremiah 29:7; 1 Peter 2:11). I can pray remembering that the actions of the government and the people—not simply in an election, but in all of life—are the result of Romans 1 at work, and that God is sovereign over all these things as well.

Why I’m thankful for the freedom to disagree

second_coming

About a year ago, our church was studying 1 Thessalonians together. It was a pretty terrific sermon series. Very thoughtful, careful stuff. But a funny thing happened when we came up to chapter five in our study: after listening carefully as our pastor unpacked the text, which deals heavily with the return of Christ, I turned to Emily and said in mock terror, “Oh no! We’re a dispensationalist church!”1

It should come as no surprise to anyone whatsoever that I would not align with the dispensationalist viewpoint on the end times. I just don’t see it in the Scriptures and I’ve not heard nor read a compelling case for it. And, in the interests of full disclosure, in its most extreme (or Hageeian) forms, I find it to distract from the gospel.2 This isn’t the case at our church, by the way…

This week, as we studied Daniel chapter seven together, the subject came up again. And as I listened to Norm, our pastor, preach, I found myself incredibly thankful for three things as he walked through a very difficult passage very, very quickly:

1. I am thankful that, regardless of the details of our viewpoints, we agree on the purpose of eschatology. Regardless of the viewpoint, all faithful Christian eschatology joyfully affirms that Jesus will return to inaugurate the new creation, that sin will be defeated, that every tear will be wiped from every eye, that there will be no more sickness, sadness, death, malice, gossip, adultery, Reality TV or blasphemy. All of it will be gone. A new heaven and a new earth will be made out of the old, and the Lord and His people will live together in perfect harmony for all eternity.

But faithful Christian eschatology also understands the application for believers today: We are told about what is to come, so we can live in light of it today. The purpose of eschatology is to say, “God wins, take heart, weary Christian!” This changes how we serve, how we live from day-to-day, how we handle suffering… with an eye toward the new creation, we will not be crushed by the trials of this fallen one.

2. I am thankful our salvation is not dependant upon our eschatology. Let’s be honest: there is not a single eschatological viewpoint that is entirely accurate. Because the subject matter itself is complex, and the texts that speak to it are so frequently filled with symbolism that is easily lost on modern readers, we should approach eschatology with a great deal of humility. We should be fully convinced in our own minds, even as we rejoice that our understanding of this area does not exclude us from the kingdom. Faithful Christians are dispensationalists, just as faithful Christians are amillennial, postmillennial, historic premillennial… and when we meet one another in the new creation, we will have plenty of opportunities to say to another, “Wow, we were all so wrong on that—but how amazing is this?”

3. Most importantly, I’m thankful for areas of disagreement that do not require division. This can’t be said of all doctrinal issues, certainly. Some demand us to divide in order to be faithful to historic orthodoxy, but those tend to be matters of first importance—the person and work of Christ, the nature of Scripture, the nature and character of God… the things that, unless you hold to, you can’t rightly be called a Christian. But in matters where we can disagree without division—and I believe eschatology is one of them—it is a glorious thing indeed.

When our culture helps and hinders our witness

medium_457145350

Though I was born and raised in a small agricultural community in northwest Mississippi, some may doubt my southern roots when they learn that I’ve never been to a county fair. I’ve never risked my life on a thrill ride that fits onto an 18-wheeler, never entered a farm animal into a competition, and never ridden a mechanical bull. I can’t see myself doing any of those things, ever.

But if I did go to a county fair, one thing I know I would do is enjoy the many deep fried delicacies. I’m not referring to potatoes or even pickles, but to things like fried Hershey bars, Oreo cookies, and blocks of butter. These treats are sweet to the tongue but sour on the stomach. They are so delicious that you can’t help but finish them and seek more, but they soon turn into lead balls in your belly and wreak intestinal havoc. Only time and liters of water can help the trials pass.

Neither of my grade school boys share my affection for deep fried delights, not even the savory varieties. Recently I attempted to surprise them with an unhealthy treat for dinner: fried chicken. As I ripped into a chicken leg that dripped with greasy goodness, my boys removed all of the skin and breading and pulled the meat from the bone. “I don’t like all that crunchy stuff, Dad. It’s too drippy with grease.” I was simultaneously proud and disappointed. That they prefer healthier foods is great, but I hate for them to lose a crucial part of their southern heritage. If they give up fried chicken now, they may give up sweet tea and watching college football tomorrow.

I confess my high level of ignorance when it comes to any Canadian cultural distinctives y’all have (that is, those of you who are Canadian1). Most of what I know about Canada I learned from Martin Short in that quirky tourism film y’all put on at Epcot in Walt Disney World. I’ll bet you a toonie there is more to Canadian culture than ice hockey, a two-four of Molson, Celine Dion, money that looks like it belongs in a board game, maple leaves, and Justin Bieber.2

I also imagine that in the same way I am grateful for my southern heritage, Canadians are grateful for theirs. When my wife and I got married 14 years ago, we were willing to live anywhere, but we preferred to root, bloom, and produce fruit in the South. We desired to go to restaurants that served sweet tea. We wanted Yankees to be the ones with funny accents. We hoped to use phrases like “I used ta could” or “I am fixin’ to do it” and not be questioned about our command of the English language. We sought the surroundings of hospitable, hard-working, kind and patriotic people who usually did the right thing just because you’re supposed to.

But the American south, not unlike the frozen tundra that is Canada, has more than its fair share of cultural qualities that I, as a follower of Jesus, am not thrilled about. Take southern hospitality. When I talk with Yankees who are on vacation or have just moved down here, they almost always say, “Everyone is so nice.” Of course we are. But they don’t know what we may really be thinking. We may simply be keeping the peace, telling ourselves how much better we are than them so that we’ll be nice to them and they will think highly of us. If we’ve ever said, “Bless your heart” to you, we’re glad you felt better about whatever stupid thing you did, but that was really our way of saying, “We’re so much better than you! Aren’t you thankful for how kindly we have expressed our superiority?”

Isn’t it fascinating that a culturally ingrained commitment to kindness can also produce a sense of moral superiority over the person you are being kind towards? It’s moments like these that led me to explore the relationship between the cultural behaviors and habits I have and my faith in Jesus. What I’m discovering is that distinguishing between the seed of the gospel and the soil of the culture in which the gospel seed is planted can be a difficult task in cultures that are, by and large, moral.

Kind of like the American south.

Kind of like parts of Canada, eh?

So the trick in living as a Christian, then, is to separate our faith from those parts of our culture that taint it without a harsh disregard for the gift of the culture God put us in. There will always be things associated with our culture to peel away because they distract us from the gospel or distort our message to a lost world. There are also things about our culture that make us who we are and are God’s gifts to us to use for the expansion of His kingdom. The more we grow in our love for Jesus, the more we will see where to be more like our culture because it helps and less like it because it hinders.


Today’s post is by Rob Tims. Rob is the author of Southern Fried Faith: Confusing Christ and Culture in the Bible Belt. He blogs at SouthernFriedFaith.com. You can follow him there and on twitter @robertltjr.


Photo credit: pengrin™ via photopin cc

Think about what you read

medium_5438459663

Reading lots (and lots) of books has its advantages, but also comes with some very real challenges. When you read a lot, a great deal of content winds up washing over you, and it’s challenging to engage critically. That’s fine (sometimes) when you’re re-reading a book, or when you’re reading something light (ish). If you’re reading Amish vampire romance books, for example… (Okay, bad example. That definitely requires discussion.)

But if you’re not careful, if you don’t think about what you read, it can be disastrous.

It’s really easy to scan read a book, and say, “Yep, I’ve got it. Next!” I have to make the time for application. This is one of the reasons I love discussion questions. They encourage me to dwell on the content and chew on its implications (even if they’re not particularly well written questions). This is what I want when I read.

Some books do a great job of encouraging this kind of reflection, even if they don’t have discussion questions included. Francis Chan’s immediately come to mind as a great example. Every so often, he’ll stop midstream and write something like, “Okay, stop reading this book, read this passage of Scripture (or watch this video) and look at what it says about XYZ.” And even when a book doesn’t include discussion questions, I have a series of them already set:

  1. What is the main idea the author is trying to convey?
  2. How does the author support his/her idea(s)? Scripture, tradition, history, illustrations from real life examples…
  3. Do I agree with the author’s main idea? Why or why not? And can I support my position with appropriate Scripture?
  4. If these ideas are true, what is one practical way I can apply this truth today?

Asking even basic questions like these helps me get past a surface level understanding of the content and discern the application for my life. And every book has application for us:

  • A book like The Holiness of God‘s most natural application is grounding our faith in an accurate picture of the God of the Bible because what we think about God shapes how we live for God.
  • Rescuing Ambition (which I reviewed several years ago) challenged me to consider the source of my ambition and how it can be a fuel for godly purposes.
  • Even A Year of Biblical Womanhood, for all its considerable faults, gave me a chance look at how to look at how I approach male/female relationships and ask how I can better serve my wife out of love for her and for the Lord.

Maybe these don’t seem terribly revolutionary, but they’re helpful for me. In the end, though, my point is simple: A good reading experience shouldn’t just challenge the way you think, but challenges you to think. Regardless of it’s purpose, if it’s important enough for you to spend time reading a book, it’s important enough for you to think carefully about. Because if we don’t, what’s the point?


An earlier version of this post was first published in August, 2010.

The secret of the Christian’s power

praying

The ministry of prayer has been the peculiar distinction of all of God’s saints. This has been the secret of their power. The energy and the soul of their work has been the closet. The need of help outside of man being so great, man’s natural inability to always judge kindly, justly, and truly, and to act the Golden Rule, so prayer is enjoined by Christ to enable man to act in all these things according to the Divine will. By prayer, the ability is secured to feel the law of love, to speak according to the law of love, and to do everything in harmony with the law of love.

God can help us. God is a Father. We need God’s good things to help us to “do justly, to love mercy, and to walk humbly before God.” We need Divine aid to act brotherly, wisely, and nobly, and to judge truly, and charitably. God’s help to do all these things in God’s way is secured by prayer. “Ask, and ye shall receive; seek, and ye shall find; knock, and it shall be opened unto you.”

Edward M. Bounds, The Possibilities of Prayer, 4

Should every Christian be in a small group? Yep!

community-nbc-joel-mchale-cast

Every fall at my local church, we talk about the importance of being in a small group and we invite people to participate in them. This type of thing is happening all across the country, maybe even the world: the call for Christians to participate in small groups. But why is it important for every Christian should be in a small group? Here are three reasons:

Firstly, we should be in a small group is because we need to grow in our faith. Small groups are the place where we take what we learn on Sundays and put our Christianity to practice. In my small group, we share openly and ask questions of the text we’re studying along with the prepared questions. We discuss—often intensely—what the passage means or what issues it raises that we deal with in everyday life. This leads us to discuss the intersection of the Bible and daily life. Our discussions are often passionate and opinions are made known on a wide variety of issues. We bring the mess of our lives in and deal with it together (even with people who we might not know all that well at first). We do all of this because we love one another and want to spur one another onto love and good deeds.

Second, we need to be in a small group because we need accountability and prayer. Once during small group, I got a text from my mom regarding my dad who has dementia. I was close to tears and we stopped our study so I could explain what was going on. I read, word for word, what my mom said and my response to her text message. While this hasn’t happened frequently, I have to say it meant a lot to me that the group stopped and prayed for me. This is what small groups are about, a place where we take seriously what the Bible teaches and apply it in practical ways by caring for one another.

Finally, we need to be in a small group because we need one another’s insights and perspectives. Everyone benefits in a small group when all the members participate. The amount of education we have is not important, we can all learn from one another (I’m a seminary-educated Christian, and I’ve been a believer since I was a little kid, and I greatly benefit from the insights and perspectives of the other people in my small group). We might think we’ve made up our minds on a particular issue, but healthy small group discussion can help us realize we haven’t understood it from all sides (I’ve had that happen many times). We can open up and share what we really think about issues from the Bible, and then discover what the Word of God teaches. We can take what we learn and share it with others. Who wouldn’t want to be a part of that?

This is what small group is about: they help us grow together, the give us accountability, and they open us up to new perspectives. We desperately need this—we desperately need one another. So when your church invites you to participate, don’t wait—join a small group as soon as you can!


Today’s post is by Dave Jenkins. Dave is the Director of Servants of Grace Ministries. You can follow him on twitter@DaveJJenkins or read more of his work at servantsofgrace.org.


Photo credit: NBC

The gospel wore us down

medium_2468506922

Sometimes I wonder if the apostle Paul would say if were to arrive in my city. I suspect it would be pretty similar to what he told the men of Athens, “I see that you are extremely religious in every respect” (Acts 17:22). But unlike the men of Athens, most hearers in London, Toronto, New York, or any number of North American cities would be shocked by these words. After all, we borderline pride ourselves on our irreligion.

Which may reveal just how religious we truly are.

The second commandment forbids God’s people from making idols for ourselves, “whether in the shape of anything in the heavens above or on the earth below or in the waters under the earth” (Exodus 20:4). Many of us read this command, and think, “Don’t worship angels. Don’t make statues or carvings of animals, bugs, birds, fish or anything like that.” Then we look around our houses, smile a bit and say, “Nailed it.”

Which may reveal just how self-deceived we truly are.

What we fail to realize—both in our culture in general and as Christians in particular—is that true and false worship surround us. Idols are everywhere. We are always worshipping something, but it’s rarely the right thing.

Maybe that seems grim, or a bit too broad brush, but hear me out: in our culture as a whole, what are our idols? Celebrity. Sports. Money. Sex. Success… We give ourselves to the pursuit of these things. We work ourselves to death in pursuit of money and power. We devote ourselves to keeping track of the most minute details of the lives of movie stars. We whore ourselves out before the world on “reality” TV.

Before we too quickly give a hearty “amen,” or “Boo to The Bachelor,” let’s also consider the more subtle idols we’ve created in the church. We spend inordinate amounts of time worrying about attendance numbers. And so when lots of people show up, we feel pretty great. When there’s a dip, we feel like something’s wrong in the church. We elevate marriage and children to a place where those who are single feel like they’re second-class Christians, or guilty of some secret sin that not even they’re aware of. And then, there’s the idol that nearly destroyed me and my family: home ownership.

Before our oldest daughter was born, my wife and I worked at decent paying jobs that allowed us to comfortably pay for all our basic needs, our mortgage, plus have a little left over for some fun. When my wife went on maternity leave, money became tighter, but life was pretty manageable. And then we made the decision that Emily should stay home full time. And our income dropped again, down to about $36,000 per year.

And it hurt.

A lot.

While we learned to stretch a dollar pretty far, as our family grew money only got tighter. And, finally, we hit a wall: either we sacrifice our values and Emily goes back to work in order to keep the house, or we sell the house.

We sold the house.

That might sound like it was pretty easy, but it was anything but. During the years between being super-broke and putting up the sold sign, God was at work powerfully, especially through our reading of Scripture. We read Jesus’ words to “be ready for service” in Luke 12:35, and realized we weren’t. Where He was calling us to, we weren’t prepared to follow. And so He continued to work on us, convicting us of our unhealthy attachment to the idea that being a responsible adult meant owning a house. And in the end, we obeyed. Not because we were so great or wise or anything like that. We obeyed because, over the course of several years, the gospel wore us down.

That tends to be how God works on our idols.

The Holy Spirit continually challenges us to apply this command to our hearts. He brings conviction about the things that demand too much of our attention, when we turn good things into ultimate things. But as He brings conviction, He reminds us of the One who is better than any idol, even the really good things we enjoy.

He points us self-deceived, weak and weary people to Jesus. Jesus, the perfect worshipper, the One who never once made something more important than the Father. Who was always prepared to serve, and always obeyed, even to the point of death. This is who we need to run to when we run from our idols, because He’s the only One worth running to.


First published at The Gospel Project, May 2014. Photo credit: Sybren A. Stüvel via photopin cc