The danger of being theoretical Christians

heart

Buzzwords make me want to die inside. It doesn’t matter if we’re talking about in the business world or ministry world, they are just painful. I cringe every time I hear “strategy” or “strategic” (or worse, “strategic strategies”). I squirm when I hear the term “missional.”

It’s not that these words are bad. But what gets me is how easily they can be bent toward passivity or, worse, theoretical living. I know of lots of folks who talk about the importance of strategy all day long, but it doesn’t go beyond talking about why it matters. We believe it in theory, but actually building one and then following it, that’s something else. I’ve heard dozens of sermons about being missional or reaching the community around us, but it doesn’t really seem to go beyond the hypothetical. We believe in the idea in theory, but when it comes to actually doing something like getting to know our neighbors, oh my goodness.

Now, here’s the thing: For me, I don’t have an “everyone else should do better at this” attitude, because I’m just as bad as everyone else. I live in my head. It’s easy for me to live theoretically, but not move beyond theory. And this won’t do, because, as Martyn Lloyd-Jones put it well in Seeking the Face of God, “People are not interested in something theoretical.”

The thing that always convinces people is reality. If they see there is something about our lives, a certain quality, a certain calmness and equanimity, the ability to be more than conquerors in every kind of circumstance, if they see that when everything is against us, we still triumphantly prevail whereas they do not, they will become interested in what we have. They will want to know more about it. I am convinced, therefore, that the greatest need today is Christian people who know and manifest the fact that they know the living God, to whom His “loving-kindness is better than life.” In other words, nothing is more important than an assurance of salvation. (122)

This is what we’re to be about, isn’t it? We’re to be people whose knowledge and love for the Lord are clearly visible. Who recognize that salvation is truly of grace and live like it’s true. So what does that look like?

It means we quit running around as though we’ve got to do “enough” in order to earn God’s continued love. It means we speak up about our faith with confidence, at the right times and the right ways, not to beat people over the head with the gospel, but because we speak about what we care about. We don’t pretend we’ve got all the answers to every question, because we don’t. And we do our best to be honest about the fact that we’re totally going to blow it on nearly everything I’ve just said. And we can do that because we know that we are secure in the loving-kindness of our Savior.

That’s a little bit of what it looks like to live as something more than a theoretical Christian. And a theoretical Christian is exactly what we must not be. The world doesn’t have time for it, and neither do we.

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.

Long preaching isn’t always good preaching

least-to-say (1)

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?

If we’re not communing with God…

neglect

One of the things my father-in-law often says he has little time for is navel-gazing. That is, the incessant paralyzing introspection that is the aim of the modern self-help industry. We get advice from Oprah and her cabal. We run to Dr. Phil. We dig into some Tony Robbins. We do the hokey pokey and we turn ourselves around. And while we might get a little dizzy, we still don’t know what it’s all about.

As much as this sort of hopeless spiral of self-examination is to be rejected, though, we should always be careful to remember that there is such a thing as healthy self-examination. After all, the Bible frequently encourages us to examine ourselves. But the purpose is not to get in touch with our innermost feelings, and discover what our inner child wants us to do and/or eat this afternoon, but to examine the state of our heart before our God. To grow in our knowledge and enjoyment of him as we better recognize where our hearts really are.

This is something, I suspect, many of us don’t do nearly enough. Or, at a minimum, I don’t do nearly enough. And there is really no excuse for it. For when we fail in doing so, we put ourselves at risk for serious backsliding, as J.C. Ryle explained in Expository Thoughts on the Gospels: Luke:

Occasional retirement, self-inquiry, meditation, and secret communion with God, are absolutely essential to spiritual health. The man who neglects them is in great danger of a fall. To be always preaching, teaching, speaking, writing, and working public works, is, unquestionably, a sign of zeal. But it is not always a sign of zeal according to knowledge. It often leads to adverse consequences. We must make time occasionally for sitting down and calmly looking within, and examining how matters stand between our own selves and Christ. The omission of the practice is the true account of many a backsliding which shocks the Church, and gives occasion to the world to blaspheme.

A friend once described a mutual acquaintance as really knowing God. Not that he and I aren’t Christians, but that this man of whom he spoke was actually his friend, if you follow. That’s really what Ryle is getting at in this passage. The sort of healthy self-examination he exhorts us to, the kind we all would do well do actually do, doesn’t just protect us from backsliding: it is what grows us from followers to friends. To not only know of him, but to know him and enjoy him.

But you can’t get there if you’re not communing with him. Friendship only comes through the time invested. How then can we ignore this privilege?

If you desire shame, be proud

pride-exults

My father and I had lunch recently and we were talking about a particular situation and I mentioned that it’s sometimes hard for people to accept help (or ask) because of pride. He readily agreed, citing it’s inclusion in the seven deadly sins (which lead to a bit of a rabbit trail on a few things).

Everyone, generally, recognizes pride as a problem. Whether we’re Christians or not, we recognize pride’s ugliness. And we are right to do so. After all, it’s reputed to be the sin that got the devil kicked out of heaven! It’s what caused Adam and Eve to accept the devil’s interpretation of what would happen if they ate the fruit of the tree of the knowledge of good and evil. And it’s something every single one of us deals with every day.

And yet, it never does us any good, does it? Who among us can say that being really proud dramatically improved their life? In fact, it’s more likely that if we really stopped to consider it, we would say, along with Charles Spurgeon, “If you, O man, desire shame, be proud.”

Pride exalts it head, and seeks to honor itself; but it is of all things most despised. It sought to plant crowns upon its brow, and so it hath done, but its head was hot, and it put an ice crown there, and it melted all away. Poor pride has decked itself out finely sometimes; it has put on its most gaudy apparel, and said to others, “how brilliant I appear!” but, ah! pride, like a harlequin, dressed in thy gay colours, thou art all the more fool for that; you are but a gazing stock for fools less foolish than yourself. You have no crown, as you think you have, nothing solid and real, all is empty and vain.… A monarch has waded through slaughter to a throne, and shut the gates of mercy on mankind to win a little glory; but when he has exalted himself, and has been proud, worms have devoured him, like Herod, or have devoured his empire, till it passed away, and with it his pride and glory. Pride wins no crown; men never honor it, not even the menial slaves of earth; for all men look down on the proud man, and think him less than themselves.1

Pride leaves us empty and vain. It has no crowns—no rewards to offer. It is not honored and only brings shame upon those who display it—not just from the reproach of our fellow men, but opposition from God. Fight it with all your might, for the good of all those around you, and for the good of your own soul.

Seeing a gift as a gift leads to greater joy

armstrong-kids

I’m very thankful for my wife, who goes above and beyond as a wife and mother every day. With homeschooling, the regular chores, and then added responsibilities when I’m away from home,1 she deserves a lot more than a mere “thanks.” (And yet, this is pretty much what I’ve got for her right now.)

But my wife isn’t some sort of unusual super-star who goes above and beyond. She’s like most of the wives and mothers I know. They work hard—really hard—caring for their families. And more often than not, it’s without complaint, and without a break. It’s easy for the unceasing requests to wipe noses, mouths and other orifices to either supplant their identities or eat away at their spirits; and what is a good gift becomes tiresome toil.

That struggle isn’t exclusive to mothers, though—it’s common to us all. That’s one of the things I really appreciated about this passage from Gloria Furman’s excellent book, Treasuring Christ When Your Hands Are Full. Gloria writes:

When I view motherhood not as a gift from God to make me holy but rather as a role with tasks that get in my way, I am missing out on one of God’s ordained means of spiritual growth in my life. Not only that, but I am missing out on enjoying God. No amount of mommy angst can compare to the misery that comes from a life devoid of the comforting, encouraging, guarding, providing, satisfying presence of our holy God.…

The gifts that God gives us serve this holy purpose—to direct our praise to the giver of those gifts. If you enjoy the gift of your children and the gift of your motherhood, but your joy terminates in those gifts, then you’ve missed the point of those gifts. (30-31)

Motherhood (and fatherhood, too) is a wonderful gift, as any mother, including my wife, will tell you. If this good gift is given the wrong sort of attention, it makes for a terrible god. But when we give it the right sort of attention–when we see the gift as truly a gift—it is a glorious way to focus our hearts and minds on Jesus.


Photo by Andrea Bartholomew.

Truth is always timeless (and timely)

Truth

Sometimes I wonder why certain books and authors remain favorites over the course of decades or centuries. But the answer really isn’t that difficult to discern. Certain books are just as relevant today as they were when they were written because, though the trappings may change, the truth contained within hasn’t.

Truth is always timeless. It’s also timely.

This is especially true when we consider our ongoing debates about sexuality. Do conservative or traditional views of marriage, gender and sexuality hinder human flourishing and happiness? Is it repressive to believe that marriage is meant to be between one man and one woman? Is the way to be freed from this feeling of guilt and shame we feel to be more open and expressive?

Consider these words from C.S. Lewis’ Mere Christianity:

…you and I, for the last twenty years, have been fed all day long on good solid lies about sex. We have been told, till one is sick of hearing it, that sexual desire is in the same state as any of our other natural desires and that if only we abandon the silly Victorian idea of hushing it up, everything in the garden will be lovely. It is not true. The moment you look at the facts, and away from the propaganda, you see that it is not.

They tell you sex has become a mess because it was hushed up. But for the last twenty years it has not been. It has been chattered about all day long. Yet it is still a mess. If hushing up had been the cause of the trouble, ventilation would have set it right. But it has not…

Modern people are always saying “Sex is nothing to be ashamed of.” They may mean “There is nothing to be ashamed of in the fact that the human race reproduces itself in a certain way, nor in the fact that it gives pleasure.” If they mean that, they are right. Christianity says the same… But, of course, when people say, “Sex is nothing to be ashamed of,” they may mean “the state into which the sexual instinct has now got is nothing to be ashamed of.”

If they mean that, I think they are wrong.1

Lewis wrote about the hyper-sexualizing of society in his day with the same terms that are used today.

It’s funny, for all our talk of being sexually repressed as a society, anyone who has gone into a mall or turned on the TV or tried to eat a sandwich would likely say otherwise. Sex is inescapable in our culture. I can’t go to the mall without being exposed to 9 feet wide images of scantily clad ladies. Why?

Because there’s a sale on bras.

I can barely get through an entire movie aimed at my children without finding numerous suggestive jokes peppered into the dialogue. Why? Because we don’t want the adults to get bored.

But has our society gotten any better in the last twenty years of over-stimulation?

We are seeing more marriages and families than ever devastated by pornography, by adultery, by the idols of (temporary) personal happiness and immediate gratification. You can have bus signs advertising phone-sex lines, run billboards for adultery services, and create apps that facilitate it and one even blinks. We’re all well aware of the unprecedented transformation of western values regarding same-sex relationships, the redefinition of marriage, the irrelevancy of biological gender…

So Lewis’ words have never been more relevant. Their message is urgent. And the urgency grows the longer the message goes unheeded. Lewis’ point was that sexuality will continue to be confused the longer we attempt to define and redefine it to fit our current proclivities. We continue to feel ashamed because we are ashamed. This is the image of God within us at work against us.

And the solution is not to continue to lull our conscience into submission. That only leads to a greater sense of despair. Instead, the answer can be found only one way: by recognizing the truth. By heeding the message that Lewis wrote more than 60 years ago. By rediscovering the wisdom of generations past, and maybe even heeding their warnings. By embracing the truth—because truth is always timeless. And it is always timely.


A much earlier version of this post was published in 2009. But don’t read that one, because it’s terrible.

Will we not declare this hope?

hope-for-all

One of the things that I really struggle with in communicating the truth of Christianity is making sure people understand there are no barriers to entry beyond one: Believing in Jesus. Recognizing our need for him. Trusting in his death to pay for our sins.

That’s it, the one barrier. For as Acts 2:21 says, “Everyone who calls upon the name of the Lord shall be saved.”

And that “everyone” is important because it really does mean “everyone”. Everyone who genuinely believes, every one of those people—regardless of age, ethnicity, intelligence, gender, you name it—”shall be saved.” There’s no hesitation in these words of Scripture, nor should there be in us to declare them, for as Martyn Lloyd-Jones wrote in Authentic Christianity, “Christianity is a message for all people.”

You will need to be very clever to understand the modern books about God, but thank God, you do not need to be clever to be a Christian. “The common people heard him gladly,” wrote Mark (12:37). “Not many wise men after the flesh, not many mighty, not many noble, are called,” says the apostle Paul (1 Cor. 1:26). Rather, “God hath chosen the foolish things of the world to confound the wise; and God hath chosen the weak things of the world to confound the things which are mighty …and things which are not, to bring to nought things that are” (vv. 27-28). There is a hope for all who realize their need and cry out to Him. (31)

All who realize their need and cry out to him have a great hope—a hope that stretches back beyond human existence to before the foundations of the world (Ephesians 1:4). Will we not declare it then?

What is our greatest need?

changing-people

This weekend, as I prepared to teach the grades 4 and 5 kids in our church about Jesus cleansing the temple and righteous vs. unrighteous anger, I was reminded of the danger of simply telling them “don’t be angry,” or “be angry like Jesus.” There’s a trite, simplistic, or naive way to to teach about these complex issues. And the danger of teaching in such ways is that it doesn’t actually allow the gospel to shine through.

This is something I always try to remember when I’m teaching in children’s ministry: my goal isn’t to help kids become good, moral Christian-ish people. It’s to help them discover their greatest need. Our greatest need is to know God in Christ, as Martyn Lloyd-Jones put it so well in Authentic Christianity:

Do men and women need to be told about some kind of program that will give them better conditions? That is not our greatest need. Our greatest need is to know God. If we were all given a fortune, would that solve our problems? Would that solve our moral problems? Would that solve the problem of death? Would that solve the problem of eternity? Of course not. The message of Christianity is not about improving the world, but about changing people in spite of the world, preparing them for the glory that is yet to come. This Jesus is active and acting to that end, and He will go on until all the redeemed are gathered in, and then He will return, and the final judgement will take place, and His kingdom will stretch from shore to shore.

This is the great need, and more than that—it is what God has done to meet that great need. If our kids don’t hear this—and if their parents don’t hear it either–then we’ve kind of missed the point.

What do true teachers do?

true-teacher

What do all faithful teachers have in common? What separates a good teacher from a bad one? And what do they actually do?

It’s easy to become confused about this. After all, there are plenty of speakers and teachers who are technically excellent. They are captivating personalities and incredibly gifted, yet they are a total train wreck.

Assuming the primary issue is understood—after all, the Scriptures place little emphasis on an individual’s abilities and focus almost entirely upon his conduct and character—there is really only one thing that determines if a teacher is a true one, a faithful one: how firmly he holds to Scripture. Martyn Lloyd-Jones made the point well in Life in Christ: Studies in 1 John:

The most important test is the conformity to scriptural teaching. “Hereby know ye the Spirit of God: Every spirit that confesseth that Jesus Christ is come in the flesh is of God.” How do I know that this is a scriptural test? All I know about Him, I put up to the test of Scripture. Indeed, you get exactly the same thing in the sixth verse of 1 John 4 where John says, speaking of himself and the other apostles, “We are of God: he that knoweth God heareth us; he that is not of God heareth not us. Hereby know we the spirit of truth, and the spirit of error.” The first thing to ask about a man who claims to be filled with the Spirit and to be an unusual teacher is, does his teaching conform to Scripture? Is it in conformity with the apostolic message? Does he base it all upon this Word? Is he willing to submit to it? That is the great test.

Your ability to teach matters, make no mistake. But what’s more important than your ability that you hold fast to the Scriptures. That you grab hold and never let go, no matter how tempting it may be (or how popular it may make you). Pastors, bloggers, conference speakers and authors should always be the first to say, “Do not simply take my word for it. Check the Scriptures—listen to them above me.” He doesn’t encourage closing the book, nor turning off your brain. He doesn’t imply infallibility in his ministry. He is subordinate to the Word of God. He conforms and submits to it.

That’s what a true teacher does.

What teaches us the preciousness of the Creator?

A little while ago, I started a new periodic series called “Going beyond inspirational gobbledygook.” Much of what’s offered to us as inspirational quotes (and much of what we see shared on social media) is little more than sub-biblical nonsense (or worse), so I wanted something for the rest of us—something that encourages us personally, but also truly inspires others in the gospel.

While occasionally, these will be original quotes, often they will come from saints older and wiser than me. Today’s  comes from Charles Spurgeon, from his sermon, “Order and Argument in Prayer”:

precious-creator

(Be sure to save and share this image with your friends!)

And just for fun, here’s some additional context for this quote:

My brethren, nothing teaches us so much the preciousness of the Creator as when we learn the emptiness of all besides. When you have been pierced through and through with the sentence, “Cursed is he that trusteth in man, and maketh flesh his arm,” then will you suck unutterable sweetness from the divine assurance, “Blessed is he that trusteth in the Lord, and whose hope the Lord is.” Turning away with bitter scorn from earth’s hives, where you found no honey, but many sharp stings, you will rejoice in him whose faithful word is sweeter than honey or the honeycomb.

Got a quote you’d like to see in this series? Let me know in the comments!

You can’t justify its existence

sin-exists

You have to wonder: why on earth are people so intent on proving Genesis 1-3 untrue? Why do so many want to cast doubt on these early chapters’ credibility as being true? Why do we want to dismiss them as mere fairy tales or mythology?

Because they reveal the truth of the human condition—and how sin came into our lives.

We don’t like these chapters because they leave us with little doubt about the chief problem of humanity. But we want to change that—we don’t want to say it is disobedience to our Creator, or that we chose to believe a lie over the truth. Instead, we convince ourselves that our real problem is ignorance.

But in doing so, we are lying to ourselves. But, as Herman Bavinck explains, lying about sin, trying to justify its existence, is always a losing proposition:

Sin started with lying (John 8:44); it is based on illusion, an untrue picture, an imagined good that was not good. In its origin, therefore, it was a folly and an absurdity. It does not have an origin in the true sense of the word, only a beginning. Satan has, therefore, not incorrectly been called an “irony of all logic.” The impossibility of explaining the origin of sin, therefore, must not be understood as an excuse, a refuge for ignorance. Rather, it should be said openly and clearly: we are here at the boundaries of our knowledge. Sin exists, but it will never be able to justify its existence. It is unlawful and irrational. (Reformed Dogmatics: Sin and Salvation in Christ, vol. 3, 69–70)

Going beyond inspirational gobbledygook

Okay, we all know it’s easy to pick on Christian books (and movies, and music, and coffee cups, and…) for their tendency to be nothing more than trite, namby-pamby feel-goodery. The judgment is well-earned (as any reader of Just Like Jesus can attest).

Too many of our books are full of inspirational gobbledygook like “God always has a plan B,” and “God made you and broke the mold.” Too often our coffee cups tell us to “eat, love and pray,” while we “live, laugh and love.” Too regularly we learn the secret of life is picking yourself up again because, “If one dream dies, dream another dream.”

Surely we can do better than this.

So, every so often, I’m going to provide y’all with a new inspirational quote—one that hopefully isn’t gobbledygook. Because we need better than this. And I believe we can do better.

After all, God doesn’t have a plan B—he got it right the first time:

no-plan-b (1)

Be sure to save and share this image with your friends, and look for the next one soon!

Got an inspirational quote you’d like to share? Leave it in the comments.


Photo credit: lemons for bourbon basil lemonade via photopin (license)

10 words that will completely shatter your self-image (and that’s a good thing!)

independent-creatures

Let’s just admit it right now: we think far too highly of ourselves.

And no, those aren’t the ten words I’m talking about (and not just because there are 13 words in that sentence).

We westerners have an obsession with autonomy. We are self-made people who are motivated to actualize our potential to live our best lives now so that every day can be a Friday after we’ve worked a four-hour work week (which gives us more time to work out at the gym and experiment with fad diets, y’know).

We are masters of our domain (except when our fad diets crash and burn on us).

We are charting our own course, knowing our destinies are but what we make them.

We are… kind of silly, actually.

Why? Because, as Bavinck writes: “Scripture knows no independent creatures; this would be an oxymoron.”

Let those ten words press on you for a bit. A statement more at odds with our culture, and more challenging to how each of us live each day, you’ll have a difficult time finding.

The notion that we are creatures is naturally offensive to us. To be a creature means to be created. And to be created means we are derived from a Creator. And if there is a Creator, then we are not the all-powerful autonomous beings we wish to be, because we are dependent. We are finite. We are not our own.

The more we insist upon it—the more some even try to twist the Bible into making it say something that it clearly doesn’t (let the reader understand)—the more we find ourselves at odds with reality.