Are our creeds really the problem?

social-justice

In February 2015, I had the opportunity to be a part of the TruthXchange 2015 Think Tank, “Generational Lies; Timeless Truths”. In my session, I was tasked with tackling the question of deeds vs creeds—or, to put it another way, “Why can’t we just help people and leave religion out of it?”

This uniquely western question is at the heart of much of the debate surrounding our responsibility toward acts of social justice (though I am not a fan of the term, but that’s for another time). The audio is now up at TruthXchange.com, and I hope you’ll take the time to give it a listen. In my session, I address:

  • Whether or not the Church is really asleep at the wheel when it comes to social justice—do our creeds get in the way of doing good works?
  • The Oneist distortion of social justice—the lies that twist helping those in need into human-centric self-worship
  • The beauty of Two in social justice—how our creeds, and the Creator/creation distinction, inform and transform our work in the world.

Head over to TruthXchange to listen to the lecture or download it here.

Ingratitude is madness

madness-cross

Whenever some new scandal erupts—particularly if it’s of a political nature—I’m not terribly surprised. Grieved, yes. Frustrated, sometimes. Surprised, no. Why? Because, whether it’s a politician getting caught doing something he or she shouldn’t have been,1 attempts to remove the ability for doctors to act in accordance with their consciences,2 or companies attempting to make gender irrelevant through ever-increasing options,3 it’s just the old story of ingratitude playing out, once again. For it was in spite of all God had done and all the blessings he had given them that Adam and Eve turned their backs and sinned against him. And this, as Martyn Lloyd-Jones reminds us, is what every single person who has not truly turned to Christ continues to do every moment.

Consider all that God has done:

It is God who was given you life. It is God who saw to it that you should be born into a family with loved ones who would care of you and look after you. It is God who ordained marriage. It is God who ordained the family. It is God who ordained the state. It is God the Father who sends the rain. It is God who gives the sun. It is God who fructifies the crops in the field and gives us food… It is God in his beneficence who does all this. (The Gospel in Genesis, 39)

All of this—all of life—comes from God. They are good gifts from him. We take, we employ, and we enjoy his gifts—but we fail to give thanks to God for them. We even has the audacity to employ his gifts in our attempts to deny and discredit him! He even gave us the greatest gift of all—sending his only son, Jesus, to humble himself, go to the cross and die so that we might be forgiven and redeemed. Yet “men spat in his face. They still do” (40).

In spite of all that God had done for them, [Adam and Eve] believed the lie and men and women still believe the lie. They have looked at Calvary, they have looked at the cross, and they have said, “It’s not true. God is against us.” The God who did this is against us? There is only one thing to say about that. It is madness, my friends. (40)

Jones was—and is—absolutely correct. It is utter madness to say this God is against us. This God who gives us life and breath and all things; this God who did not spare his only son for us. And yet, there will be many who enter our churches believing this to be so. Men, women and children who are beguiled and blinded. Terrifyingly, some of them will enter the pulpit or walk onstage. They will continue to walk in ingratitude, denying and decrying the Lord. And it will go on this way until God puts an end to this madness. Until he opens their eyes and removes their blinders. Pray that today would be the day.

Seven words you should never say to creatives

seven-words

There are certain words you should just never say.

My three-year-old son, for example, has yet to figure out that he should never say, “You get in the kitchen and get me some milk,” to his mother. Though he will. (I hope.)

Yes, my son is currently a misogynist. But like I said, we’re working on it. And the truth is, we grown-ups are just as bad. Sure, we usually aren’t declaring that a woman get back in the kitchen and make us some pie (if we’re sane); but we do say things we absolutely shouldn’t all the time. Things that, whether we realize it or not, are either insulting or just plain dumb. (And a pro-tip for gentlemen: If a woman is upset, for the love of all that is good and right and true, do not make any sort of comment about her reproductive cycle. It will not go well for you. And you look like a tool.)

For years, I worked as a graphic designer. And even though I stopped working as one almost eight years ago, I still work with graphic designers. And I work with writers and videographers. And the one thing I learned very early on was there are some things you should just never, ever say to any sort of creative individual.

If you say, for example, “This is what you’re giving me? I could’ve done that,” you’re likely not going to have a good day. And the person working for you will no longer be there within three months. But there are worse, although most are too crass to publish on a Christian blog. However, among the worst things you can say to any sort of creative individual are the following seven words:

“It will be great for your portfolio.”

As a designer, particularly in my early days, I heard this a lot. And what it means is not, “this will be a great boost for your career,” but “I’m cheap and don’t want to pay you.” An equivalent is that oft-heard promise to illustrators, “I’ve got a great idea for a children’s book; I can’t pay you now, but I’d be happy to split the royalties!” (This makes my wife’s eye twitch.)

And these are doubly damnable when they come from the lips of a professing Christian.

Christians tend to have a poor reputation among creatives—and usually it’s because we come across as cheap (and I know because I’ve experienced many a cheap client who happened to be a Christian). And this should never be. Christians should always strive to be generous in every way—not just in our giving to our churches and to charities, but in paying professionals what they’re worth. (And yes, that includes tipping your servers well, too.)

I’m thankful that, over the last several years with my current employer, I’ve seen them work hard to combat this stereotype. When we work with freelance creatives, we always do our best to pay fairly. It’s been rare when someone has said they can’t work with the budget we have, which is nice.

When I work on personal projects with independent creatives, and I know I don’t have what might be their standard rate available, I ask ahead of time what they can do with the money I do have. I’ve had some say they can’t do a project, and I’ve never been bothered by it (in fact, I greatly appreciate their honesty). I’ve had one or two surprise me by gifting me the project, even!

As a freelancing creative myself, I rarely have anyone mention this idea at this point. I just finished writing a magazine article for an organization that has a predetermined per word rate for writers—and it was a reasonable one, too! I’ve written for another organization that’s paid quite generously. And one of my favorite emails was one that said right up front, “We currently can’t pay for contributions, but here’s what we can offer…”

This, to my mind, is exactly what we should be doing. We should be up front and honest. We should be clear about what we’re asking for. And we should, at all costs, avoid any talk of “portfolio building”.

In the end, it really comes down to two things: honesty and integrity. Weasel-y talk of work being great for a portfolio lacks both. So please, unless your goal is to lose friends and alienate people, you should probably never, ever say this again.

 

The golden age hasn’t come (yet)

golden-age

Close your eyes and imagine what you would consider the golden age of Christianity:

  • Was it in the earliest days of the church, when the Apostles and all the followers of Jesus had all things in common?
  • The middle ages, during the high point of Christendom?
  • The heady days of the Protestant Reformation, when men such as Martin Luther and John Calvin recovered the gospel from its near total abandonment?

Or maybe it was the days of the Great Awakening in North America in the 18th century, the second Great Awakening in the 19th, or the renewed revivalism of the 1950s and 1960s? Or the early days of the seeker movement, or even the emergent/emerging movement(s) of the later 20th century and early 21st?

We all have these times in our minds, these eras we’d love to get back to if we could—as though they were moments where we had it all figured out. But the important thing to remember, and this is something I was greatly encouraged by in my recent reading, is there is no golden age of Christianity.

At least, not yet.

Remember, the early church everyone seemed to want to get back to for a long while? Don’t forget that while they had all things in common, they were also horribly persecuted, and had all kinds of doctrinal disunity, sexual immorality and other misconduct known among them (particularly in Corinth). So yeah, we didn’t have it nailed then. Christendom had many wonderful qualities and great gifts it gave to the world (including universities), but it was also in this age that the Roman Church traded heavenly gain for earthly prestige and power. The Reformation, for all its positive benefits, also saw continued splintering and internal fighting between its most powerful voices (to say nothing of the violent fighting between Roman Catholics and Protestants). And in later years… Well, you get the idea, right?

There has been no golden age of Christianity. But there is one coming—but is not one we can run back to, or we can progress toward. It is one that will come through God’s power, in God’s timing. So even as some of us fear what is to come, as we see the West shed its last vestiges of its Christian heritage, and the increased persecution of Christians in the Middle East, we can still have hope—and are right to have it. The golden age hasn’t come yet. But because of the hope we have in Christ and his resurrection, we know it will come.


Photo credit: St.-Anna-Kirche via photopin (license). Designed with Canva.

Creation and the Trinity stand together

creation-trinity

One of the most shocking things to me is how little Christians are encouraged to think deeply about creation and the Trinity.

I’m not talking about all the various arguments for methods of creation, views on the age of the earth or anything like that. Nor am I referring to attempting to understand the complexities of what Scripture reveals of the equally divine natures of the Father, Son and Holy Spirit and how we can have a God who is three yet one. No what I’m referring to the central reality of creation being a divine—and more specifically, a Trinitarian—work.

Bavinck summarizes it well, writing:

Creating is a divine work, an act of infinite power and therefore is incommunicable in either nature or grace to any creature, whatever it may be. But Christian theology all the more unanimously attributed the work of creation to all three persons in the Trinity. Scripture left no doubt on this point. God created all things through the Son (Ps. 33:6; Prov. 8:22; John 1:3; 5:17; 1 Cor. 8:6; Col. 1:15–17; Heb. 1:3) and through the Spirit (Gen. 1:2; Ps. 33:6; Job 26:13; 33:4; Ps. 104:30; Isa. 40:13; Luke 1:35).1

And for the Christian, Bavinck says, this is something we absolutely cannot lose our grip on. When we treat the Son and Spirit as mere “instruments” in the work of creation, as though the labor of creation were somehow divided between them, we reveal (at best) a woefully deficient view of God, and at worst, a deviation from the doctrine of the Trinity itself (a la Arius).

“All things originate simultaneously from the Father through the Son in the Spirit,” Bavinck writes.

The Father is the first cause; the initiative for creation proceeds from him. Accordingly, in an administrative sense, creation is specifically attributed to him. The Son is not an instrument but the personal wisdom, the Logos, by whom everything is created; everything rests and coheres in him (Col. 1:17) and is created for him (Col. 1:16), not as its final goal but as the head and master of all creatures (Eph. 1:10). And the Holy Spirit is the personal immanent cause by which all things live and move and have their being, receive their own form and configuration, and are led to their destination, in God.2

Creation is a divine work. It is a Trinitarian work. If we lose our grasp on the Trinity, our doctrine of creation collapses. The two stand and fall together.

Why I try to pray right away

Prayer

“Well, how about we pray right now?” My wife looks at me with a stunned expression as these words come forth. We’re in the car, discussing whether or not it would be possible for us all to go to an event at the end of August, one that is a 14 hour drive away. This, naturally, means a long time in the car, overnights in hotels, and, of course, money. So, right there, in the car, at a stop light, we prayed and asked the Lord to provide the means for us to go to this particular event as a family if it were to be his will.

This has been something I’ve been striving to do more and more frequently of late. But why? Because of some pretty serious conviction that set in while reading William Edgar’s, Countercultural Spirituality: Schaeffer on the Christian LifeIn the book, Edgar shares a question Francis Schaeffer posed to his wife, Edith—one that proved to be a defining moment for them:

What if we woke up one morning and our Bibles were changed? What if all of the promises about prayer and the Holy Spirit were removed from the Bible by God himself, not as the liberals might remove them, by demythologization, but really eliminated from the text? What real difference would it make in our lives? (129)

How would you answer this?

And I don’t mean what is the “right” answer—how would you, the person reading this post at this moment, actually answer it? I suspect, if you’re anything like me, and if you’re anything like so many Christians among us, it might not make that much of a difference at all.

And that’s what got me thinking. Cultivating a healthy prayer life has been one of the most challenging parts of my life as a Christian, and the area of my greatest weakness. It’s not that I don’t believe in the importance of prayer, nor do I disbelieve in God’s working through it. On the contrary. I take the God at his word on this, and I’ve seen him answer prayer powerfully and overtly. And yet, when it comes down to brass tacks, I still struggle with this disconnect and prayerlessness can easily reign in my life if I’m not watchful.

The tough thing about prayer is setting up more rules doesn’t really help. You can’t tell someone to pray more better and expect it to go well. You can’t set up an arbitrary schedule, committing in your heart that you will pray every day for two hours a day when you’ve spent most of the last month praying for barely 10 minutes during a week.  stirring “Pray more harder,” doesn’t really help, nor does scheduling prayer times throughout the day (though I’m not against such things). But something you can do that is helpful is simply to pray when it occurs to you to do so. If someone suggests praying, then pray. If someone asks for prayer, do it right at that moment, do it. It doesn’t have to be deep and profound. It just has to be from the heart.

And this is what I’ve been doing since I read this question from Schaeffer; and as a result, I’ve probably prayed more in the last couple of days than in the last two weeks. Why? Because if we believe in God’s promises about prayer, our lives ought to be shaped by that belief. If we see an ongoing pattern of prayerlessness, then we need to ask what we really believe about this?

If we believe God’s promises about prayer, then we ought to pray. If we are to break out of the grip of prayerlessness, the way to do so is to pray our way out. It’s not easy, but if we believe prayer makes a difference, we ought to pray like it makes a difference.

Considering the cost of education

education-debt

If I could do it again, I’d like to think I’d do it all differently… but I’d probably be lying. What am I talking about? College.

See, I went to college (the first time) from 1999 to 2002, studying graphic design at a community college in my city. I didn’t have any real savings—though I took two years off between high school and college, all I had to show for it in the end was the beginnings of a debt problem!—and no significant experience managing my personal finances.

My parents did what they could to help, but in the end, my education was paid for almost entirely with student loans. So, when I graduated, I had a diploma, no job and about $15,000 in student debt demanding to be paid.

Now, I get it: for many people, this isn’t a large debt load. In fact, it could have been a great deal more. I was initially accepted into a private art school in the United States, when I had aspirations of being a comic book artist. Had I gone down that road, I would have had at least $60,000 to contend with (and likely much more). And today, as a seminary student, I’m reminded of this once more. When I paid my tuition for one course at the end of January, it was roughly two thirds of the tuition for my entire first year of community college.

But at the time, this was a terrifying amount of money—especially since my first professional jobs only paid $10 or $12 an hour. I was making the minimum payments every month (and then only barely), with a plan to have it all paid off within 10 years (because that was the way the bank structured it).

I don’t currently have any student debt. Lord willing, I won’t accumulate any as I complete my seminary degree (and if you’d like to be a part of making that a reality, I’d surely appreciate it). And if the Lord allows, our children will not have to worry about student debt (though they may need to make some concessions to make that a reality).

But I am concerned for many out there who are going to college and university. And I am greatly concerned about many young people who are going to seminary. What I’m concerned about is that too many of us are failing to consider the cost of our decisions. We are becoming slaves of the lenders (Proverbs 22:7) for degrees that may not actually help us move forward in our future goals and ministry—or worse, in some cases may actually hinder us!

So what are we to do here? Here are five recommendations:

First, examine ourselves. What are we really passionate about? What do we want to do with our lives? Will it allow me to better serve the Lord? These are questions that I wish I’d asked myself more carefully during my first go-around in post-secondary education, and I think I asked fairly well prior to applying for seminary. I want my education to have a purpose, to allow me to move forward in my ministry and career (even as I gain some level of personal satisfaction just from having done it).

Second, plan your education route. These considerations should leads us to ask about the route we’re going to take: do we need a Bachelor’s or a Master’s degree? Are we more suited to a technical skill and thus would be better served by going to a trade school or apprenticing? Are we risking making ourselves overqualified and therefore unemployable by pursuing too much education? (And this is all I’m going to say right now about Christians and PhDs…)

Third, save and find creative ways to pay. A desire we have for our children is that they complete their post-secondary education as close to debt free as possible. One of the ways we’re helping with that is by starting their savings plans now. While we’re not talking huge dollars at the moment, they’re already off to a good start. This should be our approach, regardless of our age and stage in life. Investigate scholarships, grants and bursaries. Save for as long as you can. If we’re serious about doing something, it’s better to wait and do it right without creating new stresses for our families.

And this is where I have grave concerns for many going to seminary. Let’s be honest: seminary is crazy expensive, and ministry jobs tend to not pay all that well (I’m already in a ministry job, so I’m not concerned about that part). While making money isn’t the primary motivation for people getting a degree, and certainly shouldn’t be a factor regarding ministry, it’s a reality we need to be mindful of. For a number of us, seminary is a must. For many more, we’d be better served by just listening to RTS lectures on iTunes U.

Which leads me to my next point…

Fourth, if we take on debt, commit to repaying as quickly as possible. Although the Bible doesn’t explicitly call debt wrong (though it comes awful close and never puts it in a positive category), we cannot forget that it is a type of slavery. If you borrow money, it must be paid back in a timely fashion (whether that’s the timeline agreed upon between the borrower and the lender or sooner). Do not approach this lightly. Do not be careless. And certainly do not choose to not pay it at all or declare bankruptcy in an attempt to get the debt wiped out. If you do this, as many people in my home province have done for decades (to the point now that your student loans stick with you even in bankruptcy), you are stealing from the lender. So if we’re going to take on debt, we need to take the responsibility to pay it back seriously.

Finally, pray and seek counsel. If you’re not praying throughout your education planning, you’re almost certain to make the wrong decision. If you’re not seeking wise counsel from others, you’re probably going to blow it. We all have blinders, and we all need God’s wisdom—and the insights of others—to help us see what we would otherwise miss (both positively and negatively).

Education is a wonderful thing. But be wise as you pursue it. Be sure to carefully consider the cost.


An earlier version of this article was first published in 2010. Photo credit: Pile of Cash via photopin (license). Designed with Canva.

The number one way to encourage rebellion

legalistic leadership

I’ll admit it: I’ve got a bit of a rebellious streak. It doesn’t come out often, but it’s there.

See, I like rules. Specifically, I like rules that make sense. I appreciate decisions that I understand (even if I don’t agree). I can’t stand when people take power trips (especially when they have no real power or authority anyway). I have no patience for those who act like arrogant so-and-sos. I really struggle with heavy-handed bureaucracy. I chafe whenever I’m told to “just do it,” no matter what “it” is…

This, naturally, puts me at odds at times with authorities. I don’t (usually) defy them, but I certainly don’t comply with joyful obedience. I’m guessing I’m not alone in this. In fact, it’s almost a sure bet that some, maybe most, of you reading this have a similar kind of reaction.

Why do we do this though? Is it simply because we’re sinful people that always want their own autonomy? When we chafe under reasonable rules, and humble leaders, yep. But what about when it’s the leader who habitually leaves his or her decisions unexplained, who tends to power trip, or just wants what he or she wants? Then, I’d suggest it may be reacting to something else: legalism.

Legalism has a number of manifestations, obviously, but one of the chief ways it reveals itself is in arbitrary behavior. If you don’t think you need to explain your decisions or positions and people should just obey, you’re probably a legalist. If you demand your own way and use your authority (or emotional or spiritual manipulation) to make sure people comply, you’re probably a legalist. If the only “right” way to practice a particular spiritual discipline is the way you happen to be most comfortable, you’re probably a legalist. If you think “because I said so” is actually a good reason for someone to obey any and every command, you’re probably a legalist.

And guess what? This is the number one way you encourage people in their rebellion and to undermine your authority.

It’s worth repeating: not all of the blame for this lands on the shoulders of those we perceive as legalistic or domineering. We are, by nature, sinful people who desire complete and total self-rule, as mentioned above. But without removing the need to honestly evaluate ourselves, we ought to recognize that legalism certainly doesn’t help us become more holy, humble, coachable and compliant.

And here’s the rub: this isn’t a problem that can be solved with more rules. If you’re a pastor or a manager or a supervisor or anything else for that matter, you can’t have a meeting with those you lead and say, “There will be no more of X, Y, or Z,” any more than you can say, “We’re going to do even more of A, B, or C!” All either does is further undermine your authority and push people deeper into their resistance. Jerram Barrs explains this well:

Legalism fosters rebellion against parents, schools, and churches, and ultimately against God. Whenever we add to God’s Word we immediately increase the likelihood of resistance to our authority. … If we try to make worship obligatory, we will produce either spiritual arrogance or superficial observance and a resistant heart. (Learning Evangelism from Jesus, 174-175)

Though Barrs writes with church ministry in mind, we can all apply this regardless of our context. The more rules we heap upon people, the more they will resist. The more we demand a certain kind of posture, the more people will openly defy us or comply while hating you in their hearts.

So here’s what we need to ask ourselves:

First, if we primarily identify ourselves as leaders in whatever capacity we serve: Does our posture bring life or death? Are we overbearing? Are we domineering? Are we truly as patient as we think we are, and doing our best to explain our decisions? Or do we try to solve problems by making more policies and procedures?

Second, for those who sit under leaders we perceive as legalistic or domineering: Are we actually thinking rightly about those who lead us, or are we misinterpreting their behavior? If we are right in our thinking, what are we going to do about it? Just as more rules won’t solve rebellion, so too rebellion won’t eliminate legalism. So, how can we protect our hearts from hate? How can we prevent bitterness from taking root? And how can we extend love and grace to our legalistic leaders, who may not even realize how they appear?

There are no easy answers to these questions, on either side. But they are worth asking, if we ask in the right spirit, and with a desire to do something with what we learn.

 

Every breath is a gift of immeasurable grace

every breath

It’s easy (and tempting at times) to look at the world and consider a “hunker down in the bunker” mentality. The world, after all,  is a pretty messed up place. Western nations seem to be racing back to the decadence and depravity of 1st century Rome. Terrorists are destroying cultural artifacts and murdering people throughout the Middle East. It’s no surprise that there are some who are fully expecting God to rain down fire any moment—and even more who are surprised that he hasn’t already!

But even as we watch the world seemingly go to hell in a hand basket (as some might flippantly put it), even as we see things get progressively worse from a certain point of view, we should remember that the very fact that we’re around at this moment is purely an act of God’s grace.

God could have destroyed the world immediately upon the first man and woman’s fall into sin. He could have ended it all right then and there, and possibly even have started afresh. Why he didn’t, we don’t know. But we do know, as Martyn Lloyd-Jones put it, “that God decided, in His own inscrutable and eternal will, not to do so.” Lloyd-Jones continued:

How can the world go on existing at all in sin? The answer is that it is kept in existence by this power that the Spirit puts into it. It is the Spirit who keeps the world going. Human life is prolonged both in general and in particular. ‘The goodness of God,’ says Paul in Romans 2:4, ‘leadeth thee to repentance.’ Peter says the same thing in his second epistle: ‘The Lord … is longsuffering to us-ward, not willing that any should perish that all should come to repentance’ (2 Pet. 3:9). God is patient and long-suffering; to Him a thousand years are as one day and one day as a thousand years. He keeps the world going by the Holy Spirit instead of pronouncing final judgment. (God the Holy Spirit, 26–27)

That last line in particular is extremely important. God “keeps the world going by the Holy Spirit instead of pronouncing final judgment.” And this is why God has not yet deemed it time to pronounce his final judgment: he is pouring out his grace upon the world so that all who would turn to him, will. He is patient and long-suffering not because he needs to, but because he is good.

In other words, every breath is a gift of immeasurable grace. Thus, every one of us breathing right now—including every single one of us who acts as though God doesn’t exist or who worships some sort of false god—owes each breath to God. It is a gift of grace to all, just as it rains upon the just and unjust alike. This grace has a purpose, that it would ultimately lead you to give thanks to the one who gives it. But this grace has a limit. Someday, the time will come when his patience reaches its limit. He will pronounce his final judgment. Will we be ready?

Justification by reading doesn’t work either

justification-books

When it comes to reading, I like to plan ahead. I usually have a goal of about 100 books that I want to read (which is goofy, I know); it’s enough that it requires significant commitment, but not so much that it’s completely outside the realm of possibility. However, as 2015 has progressed so far (granted, we’re only 2.5. months in), I’ve noticed my reading has slowed down drastically compared to years past. Where I normally I would have read somewhere around 20+ books, I’m only at—gasp—18.

I’m about two weeks behind in my Bavinck reading (and have already adjusted accordingly). I’m not quite finished a book for school that I really should have completed a few days ago (because it’s an easy read and I’ve been lazy). Thus, I’m feeling a bit dumb. Why? Because I’m “behind.”

And, yes, I realize it’s dumb to say thats behind. According to Gallup, only 28 percent of Americans read more than 11 books in a year, and 23 percent don’t read even one book. That is terrifying. And yet, for book lovers, and particularly the Christian blogging crowd, we have this weird love affair with books, as though our value is determined by how many books we’ve read or reviewed this year.

Again, I know this is dumb. And yet so many of us seem to be guilty of it.

This is a reminder for me that pride and the desire for self-justification have no preferences. Whether something profound or trivial, wherever pride can get a hold, anywhere we can start to think we’re kind of a big deal, it will. But in the end, like other silly sources of comfort and joy, it always fails. Some dude is always going to be further ahead on his reading challenge on Goodreads. We’re going to get busy. We’re going to get bored.

And that’s fine. Just don’t beat yourself up over it.

God doesn’t love us more or less based on whether or not we get through all the books in our “want to read” list. Our righteousness before God is not based on how well read we are or are not.So don’t panic! Justification by works doesn’t work, this we know, for the Bible tells us so. And justification by reading doesn’t work either.

When should we use harsh language?

harsh-language

Yesterday, I shared a bit about how we can be more thoughtful literary evangelists. Toward the end, I made the comment that fiery rhetoric and angry polemics don’t win people, but genuine love and compassion just might. This is something I’ve increasingly been convicted about in recent years, particularly as I think back on ways I’ve spoken in the past that have been utterly foolish.

But this doesn’t mean there aren’t times to use harsh language. In fact, there are times when the only proper response is to be extremely harsh. (Granted these are rare, but they still exist.) So… how do we know when we should and when we shouldn’t? Here are three principles that I believe help us determine whether or not it is appropriate to use harsh language:

1. Is it about my sins and failings? This is something we see Paul in particular model well, as he directs many of his harshest comments toward his own attempts to attain righteousness apart from Christ, which he describes with a Greek word that could be translated as harshly as a word that will make some readers unsubscribe1 (Philippians 3:8). He describes himself as the least of the apostles, the least of all the saints, and even the chief of sinners. He doesn’t hesitate to look at himself very seriously, and doesn’t feel the need to make a compliment sandwich.

Likewise, it is important for us, even as we remind ourselves of God’s grace, that we not sugarcoat our own personal sin. Call it what it is. Don’t mess around with it. Don’t treat it as a pet. Name it and commit to destroying it.

2. Am I addressing sin within the body of believers? This, again, is a time when harsh language is appropriate, but we are wise to temper with grace. Paul’s epistles model this brilliantly, as do the writings of the prophets, particularly Jeremiah. In 1-2 Corinthians, for example, we see Paul chastise the Corinthian church for allowing heinous sin of all sorts, including participating in false worship and perverse sexual immorality (1 Corinthians 5:1-2; 10:14-22). But he also continually points them back to the source of their only hope, which is Christ.

This again, is a helpful reminder for us, whether we are involved in one-to-one discipleship, small groups, or pastoral ministry in some capacity. Though, again, we should be reluctant to do so, we should be very willing to call attention to habitual sin (whether personal or corporate) that is damaging to the entire group.

3. Am I confronting a false teacher who is leading Christians astray? Again, Paul is helpful here. Consider the way he writes to the Galatians about the errors they’ve let seep into the church. He makes it absolutely clear that any teaching that would distort the gospel is the most vile and damnable evil, for example, and that if they’re so intent on practicing the Mosaic Law as a means of attaining righteousness then they should emasculate themselves (Galatians 1:8-9; 5:12). Jesus likewise warns that anyone who would seek to lead his disciples astray would be better off tying a millstone to his neck and jump to his death than face what Jesus has waiting for him (Matthew 18:6). That’s some pretty serious business, isn’t it? (And don’t even get me going on his letters to the churches in Revelation…)

Here is where I think it’s fair to be the least apologetic about using our harshest language. There should be no quarter for heretical teaching whatsoever. If something is wrong, call it out as wrong, whether someone is saying every day is a Friday, your salvation depends on you, or God’s going to make it rain sweet moolah all over your house if you just send in a fat cheque “sow a seed”:

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*ahem*

But one should be careful in considering how to handle the teacher him- or herself. Without giving room for their teaching, we should remember that ad hominems have no place in the Christian life. Instead, we might be wiser to take the same stance Jude advocates when he reminds us that the archangel Michael didn’t directly rebuke Satan, but instead said, “The Lord rebuke you.”

4. Practice restraint. Jesus, Paul, the rest of the Apostles, the prophets… They all constantly confront the errors found among God’s people and those who think they’re God’s people. And in these instances, there are no caveats, no hesitations, no nothing. But rarely do they direct harsh language toward the lost. To these, they come with kindness, gentleness, and compassion, even as they challenge their way of thinking and their way of believing. So here’s my point: Harsh language, in general, is something that should be used rarely and with great reluctance. As a general rule, if you find yourself eager to do it, you probably shouldn’t, and it’s better to err on the side of turning aside wrath with a gentle word (Proverbs 15:1).

Four guidelines for literary evangelists

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For my apologetics and outreach course, I’ve been reading Michael Green’s Evangelism in the Early Church, which is a wonderful study of the evangelistic practices of Christians during our first three centuries of existence (even if it’s got a couple of points I’d question). But in it, there is something deeply troubling. It’s not one of the author’s views; rather, it’s the author’s assessment of the work of the Apologists of the second century.

In the earlier generation, such what we find in the work of Luke, there is a deep desire to persuade people of the truth, and to do so in a way that is “loving, tactful,” and “subtle.” (352). However, Green notes a marked turn in the character of the Apologists. Where once Christian literary evangelism was in the spirit of Luke, something ugly had crept in. And though they desired their readers to come to know Christ, “the tone in which the writing had been couched would have effectively stood in the way of such an outcome” (351-352).

You understand why this is troubling, I hope.

Reading this hurt a little bit, not because I disagree, but because I can see it’s still a problem today. I’ve seen how easy it is to fall into this trap. In less than thoughtful moments, I’ve certainly been guilty of doing so. And I’m tired of that. I’m tired of Christians arrogantly running around as “jerks for Jesus”—being apparently so concerned for the faith, all the while failing to use words that reflect it. I’m tired of it, again, because I recognize how easily I can fall into this pattern of thinking and writing. But when we act in this fashion, it doesn’t win people to Christ—it pushes them away from the truth.

This has been weighing heavily as I consider how to respond to a very serious issue in my home province, one that’s got a lot of people riled up to the point that there’s nothing but angry rhetoric coming from either side. (And for that reason alone I’ve shied away from any public commentary at this point.) However, in watching it both sides have at it, it makes me consider how to best address any controversial issue. Here are a few guidelines that may help:

First, understand the issue firsthand, as best as you are able. Don’t rely on commentary from others.

Second, determine what issues are truly matters of first importance. We should always discuss secondary matters civilly, and likewise we should always affirm whatever is good and true in any circumstance (for if it is true, it belongs to God).

Third, pray for wisdom and clarity. More often than not, we put our feet in our mouths because we are rash with our words, or we overlook an important point in our opposition’s argument. However, God will not leave us in the lurch if we are faithful to ask for his help in communicating well.

Finally, seek to be truly evangelistic in my approach. I’m not interested in winning an argument (as much fun as that may be); I want to win the person reading. Fiery rhetoric and angry polemics won’t do this. Genuine love and compassion for the people involved in any given issue, however, just might.

The way Christians live

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Don’t worry about the future. In fact, don’t worry at all. This is one of the most challenging things the Bible tells us—and consequently, one of the ways we most struggle to obey Christ. It’s so easy to become anxious. To worry. To play the what-if game.

Or is it just me?

So how do we get out of this pattern? What does it take to end the cycle of anxiety and worry? Of trying to predict all things before they happen? It takes a right perspective, one that comes only when our eyes are set upon the Lord. Martyn Lloyd-Jones explains in his exposition of Psalm 16:8:

How do we feel as we look into the future? What is going to happen? I do not know; nobody knows. I shall not waste your time trying to predict what will happen or telling politicians and statesmen what they ought to do in order to govern the future. I am in no position to do that, and I know of nobody else who occupies a pulpit, whatever position he may hold as an ecclesiastic, who is in a position to do so. I have a much higher calling. My business is to prepare you for whatever may happen. We do not know what that may be. Look back over the past year and consider the things that have happened to you. How many of them did you predict? How many of them did you anticipate?

I thank God that as Christian people we do not need to know the future. Christians should never desire to do so. Christians live in this way: one step at a time. And this principle, if they put it into operation, will enable them to say, “Whatever happens to me, I know that all will be well, because ‘he is at my right hand, I shall not be moved.’ ” Come what may, “I shall not be moved” because I am living in the light of this principle: “I have set the Lord always before me.” (Seeking the Face of God, 141)

“I have set the LORD always before me; because he is at my right hand, I shall not be shaken,” David wrote. And David knew of what he wrote. He suffered through tremendous difficulties and trials. He often ran for his life. He frequently made his bed in caves. But he could write “I shall not be shaken” because the Lord was with him.

And this is true of the Lord Jesus, as well. He suffered beyond anything we can imagine—being rejected by those he came to save, being sentenced to death, feeling the wrath of God poured out upon him… becoming sin, though in himself there was no sin. Yet, he was not shaken, for his Father was always before him.

This is the way Christians are to live. And because he was before Christ, and because we are in Christ, he is before us, as well. So do not worry about tomorrow. Take today one step at a time.

Articulating unbelief

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A letter.

You wouldn’t think it’d be that hard to write a letter, but this one has a very specific purpose, because it’s also my term paper for my apologetics and outreach course. I am to write a letter to a friend, a family member—someone I am close to—bridge the gap between their beliefs and my own, and encourage them to pursue Christ.

And until last night, I’ve been stuck.

Every time I’d start, I’d hit a wall. I didn’t know where to begin. So I started thinking about a different person, our relationship and what they believe. And then I’d hit another wall. And then another. And another…

My problem is probably not entirely unfamiliar to some reading this: I’ve struggled to get a good sense on what exactly some of the people in my life actually believe. Although with many I have ideas and observations, when it comes down to brass tacks, I can’t definitively say what this person or that believes.

And that’s the challenge I’ve been facing.

But I might have been looking at it the wrong way. Sometimes the fact that we can’t articulate what we believe is itself telling. Maybe it’s that we don’t give it any serious thought. Maybe it’s that we have thought and don’t like the conclusions we’ve come to, so we choose to say nothing. Maybe those whose beliefs I struggle to articulate are having the same problem?

(Unless, of course, this winds up being an attempt to justify myself for not digging deep enough. Which I hope it’s not.)

And then I was able to start.

It wasn’t until I had a good chat with my wife about these challenges that I was able to turn the corner and really put anything meaningful into my document. Where it will go, I’m not entirely sure, but I’m thankful that so far, I’ve not felt the urge to delete everything and start fresh. (Though, there’s still time.)

Articulating unbelief—especially doing it in a way that is honoring to the individual to and about whom you’re writing—is no easy task. But the results, I trust, will be worth it.

Have you tried an exercise like this before? If so, what was the fruit of it?


photo credit: Few Words..Forever and a day! via photopin (license)