Bell Creek Community Church

A non-denominational church in Livonia, Michigan with Biblical teaching, worship, and kid's ministries.

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Updated: 1 hour 19 min ago

How Do We Explain Talking Donkeys and Burning Bushes?

Tue, 02/26/2019 - 12:00am

Dear pastor,

I’m completely committed to the authority of the Word of God and to all it teaches including its inspiration, inerrancy, and infallibility. Unfortunately, I have this nagging doubt that I feel plagues me at times when I read certain portions of Scripture. It’s not a doubt caused by “apparent” contradictions and the like, but a reservation and doubt as I read the portions that seem like they could be straight out of a fairy tale—things like a talking serpent, a special tree, a burning bush, Balaam’s talking donkey, Samson slaying a thousand men with the jawbone of a donkey, a pillar of cloud and fire that went ahead of the Israelites in the wilderness, and so on. On top of that, there are the difficult passages that gnaw at the question of God’s goodness when he deals out justice. When I read Scripture with my children and things like these come up, I feel perplexed and even a little disingenuous as I try to communicate why these stories are true but why those in The Lion, Witch and the Wardrobe are not. Could you help?

Dear Josh,

Thank you for your note. I appreciate your honesty. Please know that doubt isn’t a bad thing in and of itself. Doubt can be a sign that you are taking your faith seriously. I sometimes worry about Christians who have no questions. That can be a sign they aren’t paying much attention to their faith or the world around them.

You mentioned that you believe the Bible but sometimes struggle with parts that seem like they could be ripped from a fairy tale: talking snakes and donkeys, fish swallowing men whole then vomiting them up on land so they can preach God’s judgment, and stuff like the sun standing still for an entire day.

Things like these can offend our modern sensibilities, can’t they? Let me offer a few thoughts for you to consider.

We are often more deeply affected by our times than we realize. In our secular age we tend to see things through a skeptical lens without noticing—even when we’re trying hard not to. For starters, here are four ways our view of reality can be impacted by the world around us.

1. Low View of God

Pretend we are having this conversation in a coffee shop. “Do you believe, if God wanted to, he could lift this entire coffee shop?” I ask. “Well, I suppose if he wanted to, he could,” you might respond. “Based on your answer, would it seem illogical if I suggested that if God is able to lift the entire shop, he is also able to lift up one packet off sugar off of our table?” I imagine you’d respond that the sugar packet would be a far smaller thing to do, given God’s ability to lift the entire shop.

As Christians we believe God created the world out of nothing. We believe he has revealed himself in nature, in Scripture, and in history in the person of Jesus Christ. These are the larger things, the lifting of the whole coffee shop, if you will. When we bristle at elements in the Bible that seem fairytale-like to us, we must recognize that they are actually lesser matters, the lifting of the sugar packet.

If God can do the greater, then surely he can do the lesser, too. If he is the author of life itself, can he not fill the chapters of his story with whatever he wants, whatever best suits his purposes—be it talking snakes or prophesying donkeys?

2. High View of Secular Science

A deficient view of God’s ability to do the lesser things is sometimes a result of thinking too highly of the sophisticated claims of secular scientists. It’s a terrible thing to place oneself against the prevailing scientific consensus of our day. You don’t want to look like a Neanderthal. I completely understand.

But the Bible does say we must look rather foolish to the world, doesn’t it? And yet, the atheistic scientists seem to have such a rock-solid, evidenced-based view of things. But do they really?

Consider Carl Sagan’s famous maxim: “The cosmos is all that is, that ever was, or ever will be.” That has more fairy tale in than you might realize. Science can confirm none of it. For example, it’s widely held that some sort of matter and energy preceded the explosive event that led to our universe. So even according to scientific theories, the cosmos is not all that ever was.

Further, a number of atheist thinkers today are courting multiverse theory, the view that there’s an infinite number of randomly ordered universes that, through cosmic natural selection, finally gave way to our universe. Thus the cosmos is, according to them, not all that is. And how much hubris does it take to suggest that we can conclusively prove the cosmos is all that ever will be? Can you see the fairy tales at work here, too?

3. Tame View of Our World

Just look at our world. It’s filled with the stuff of fairy tales. For example, a caterpillar will literally digest itself, turn into a mushy soup like liquid that later grows into a colorful being capable of flight. See the fairytale elements lurking outside your very window?

In the mysterious quantum world, a particle can be in two places simultaneously. Electrons can exist as waves or particles at the same time. Beam me up, Scotty! Sorry for the old science-fiction pop-culture reference. But this all sounds rather fairytale-esque to me.

4. Lofty View of Ourselves

Before I close, I must raise an issue that is quite personal. Sometimes—not always, but sometimes—our doubts about the Bible can result from other issues in our lives. When I don’t want to accept a certain moral command in Scripture, for example, or if have difficulty in keeping it, my conscience can feel comforted in doubting or questioning the command. In other words, my lifestyle can lead me to a place of doubt if I’m not careful.

We will either place ourselves under the Bible or we won’t. It’s not easy. It’s not a once-for-all decision; it’s a commitment that will be challenged daily.

That means I must ask of every doubt if it’s a sign of deeper unbelief. If God exists, and if he has revealed himself, then I must come to terms with his authoritative revelation. Is my doubt a sign of my wrestling with submitting to the authority of his Word? To stand in judgment of it, when, if it is true, it stands in judgment of me, would not be wise. As Paul said, “Let God be true through every one were a liar” (Rom. 3:4).

One True Fairy Tale

I would encourage you to face your doubts with belief. Not blind belief, mind you, but well-reasoned trust, to borrow an expression from the late theologian R. C. Sproul. God has given you good reason to trust him. So, trust him. Trust his Word even as you work through your questions and doubts.

The world is filled with fairy tales, but there is one grand tale that gives them all meaning. The God whose words brought time, space, matter, and energy into being, the God who in the fullness of time took on human flesh—the God who, after being crucified and buried in a borrowed tomb, stood with one foot on death and the other on the great deceiver—is worthy of your trust.

Sounds like a fairy tale, doesn’t it? Indeed, it’s the greatest fairy tale ever told. And it’s all true. Every word.

Why Pastors Should Read Lesslie Newbigin

Mon, 02/25/2019 - 12:04am

Count me among those who think pastors and other ministry leaders cannot read too much Lesslie Newbigin (1909–1998). He was one of the most important theologians of the 20th century, but unlike some others who might be similarly labeled, Newbigin’s insights seem increasingly relevant two decades after his death. According to biographer Geoffrey Wainwright, much of Newbigin’s thought proved prescient and continues to “touch directly and powerfully on several of the most lively issues facing churches and theologians” (27–28).

A native of Scotland, Newbigin served as a missionary to India for four decades and as a leader in the mid-century ecumenical movement. In his “retirement” years, Newbigin returned to the U.K., becoming a lecturer at Selly Oaks Colleges and pastoring an inner-city church in Birmingham. Though Newbigin published widely throughout his life, it was in his final two decades that he wrote his most influential books, most of which wrestled with the reality that his native Britain, with its millennium-and-a-half of Christian history, had become post-Christian. He argued that Western culture is now just as much a mission field as those parts of the world that have been influenced minimally by Christian faith.

Like Newbigin, Michael Goheen—professor of missional theology at Covenant Theological Seminary in St. Louis, Missouri—is a theologian deeply committed to mission. His own writings on missional theology, the grand biblical narrative, Christian worldview, and philosophy have been formed significantly by Newbigin’s thinking on these issues. Goheen’s unpublished dissertation and many published essays on Newbigin rank him among the latter’s ablest interpreters. The Church and Its Vocation: Lesslie Newbigin’s Missionary Ecclesiology is a more popular revision of portions of Goheen’s dissertation and is the first of two planned books on Newbigin’s thought and its legacy.

Newbigin’s Gospel Dynamic

Goheen offers a critical-but-appreciative overview of Newbigin’s thought. He argues that Newbigin’s ecclesiology was formed by a “gospel dynamic,” a commitment to the idea that the good news drives how one should think about the nature of the church (8). Within this gospel dynamic, Newbigin returned to four themes over and over again in his writings. First, the gospel is the announcement that God’s kingdom has broken into the created order through the saving work of Jesus Christ. Second, the gospel only makes sense within the context of the biblical story, which is in fact a cosmic narrative. Third, throughout history God has always worked through a particular people whom he has chosen by grace. Finally, this election is missional in nature, as God’s people have been set apart to proclaim the gospel in word and deed.

According to Goheen, these themes of gospel, story, missional people, and missionary encounter with culture aren’t isolated concepts, but “are intertwined, and each requires the others in order to be properly understood” (9). Goheen expounds these overlapping themes chapter by chapter, before concluding his book with recommendations for the contemporary church. Goheen clearly finds Newbigin’s vision compelling, though he is willing to be critical when he thinks Newbigin’s thought is underdeveloped or less helpful. The Church and Its Vocation serves as an excellent introduction to major themes in Newbigin’s thought, and it should inspire many to read Newbigin’s writings and learn from the great missional theologian himself.

How to Read Newbigin for All He’s Worth

Like Goheen, my own thinking has been shaped profoundly by Newbigin’s missional theology. I agree with Bruce Ashford that evangelicals have much to learn from critical engagement with and application of Newbigin’s thought. To that end, I’ll offer some brief reflections on where I think he is particularly helpful for ministers in my own tribe: conservative evangelicals with a high view of Scripture and a deep appreciation for the Reformation and its continuing legacy.

I recommend reading Newbigin as a selective refinement of core evangelical convictions and emphases. This is an important qualification to make because Newbigin wasn’t a self-confessed evangelical, and he disagreed with ministries like The Gospel Coalition on matters such as biblical inerrancy, penal substitutionary atonement, and inclusivism. He positioned himself as a sort of balanced middle between evangelicalism and liberalism, and he was influenced far more by Neo-Orthodoxy (in his early years) and Alasdair MacIntyre and Hans Frei (in his later years) than he was the reformers or evangelical theologians. Newbigin occupied theological real estate on the right wing of mainline Protestantism, making him a fellow traveler with evangelicals, though never a card-carrying member of the club.

Newbigin occupied theological real estate on the right wing of mainline Protestantism, making him a fellow traveler with evangelicals, though never a card-carrying member of the club.

With this caveat in mind, Goheen’s book highlights several “Newbiginian” themes that can be introduced as healthy mutations into evangelical DNA. For the sake of space, I will recommend four. None of these themes is unique to Newbigin, but in him they find a coherence that is worth emulating.

First, Newbigin helpfully argues that mission is a mark of the church, and that it’s a more comprehensive category than missions. Crosscultural evangelism and church planting are crucial, and Newbigin was deeply concerned that these priorities were being eclipsed among mainline Protestants. However, the church also bears witness to the gospel’s power through deeds that tease out the implications of the good news, particularly acts of mercy, justice, and peacemaking. This missionary vocation applies to the church universal, though it is embodied in local churches as they embrace missional priorities appropriate to their particular contexts.

Another way Newbigin refines evangelical emphases is his corporate and missional understanding of election. Among conservative evangelicals, there is a centuries-long family squabble about whether election is unconditional and guarantees faith or is conditioned on God’s foreknowledge of freely chosen faith. This is an important conversation, to be sure, but Newbigin rightly reminds us that election is also Christocentric, corporate, and for the sake of mission. Greater attention to these themes can help unite evangelicals, or at least take some of the edge off of our debates over election. It also has important ramifications for how we articulate the reformational doctrine of vocatio, where every believer is a minister called and gifted for kingdom work within the spheres of their particular vocations.

The gospel is a kingdom announcement with cosmic implications and not just a message of personal salvation for individual sinners.

Newbigin also refines evangelical convictions with his insight that Scripture itself is a cosmic narrative that transcends both the various biblical genres (which are important) and particular biblical-theological paradigms (which are often useful). Whether one reflects on poetry or the prophetic, or gravitates to redemptive-historical or intertextual interpretation, Scripture as a whole presents us with the true story of the whole world. It offers an alternative worldview in the truest sense to every competing narrative in every human culture. Our individual stories only make sense when they’re interpreted within the context of this Story of Stories.

Finally, Newbigin offers a needed reminder that the gospel is a kingdom announcement with cosmic implications, not just a message of personal salvation for individual sinners. While one could argue Newbigin swings too far in the direction of the former, at least in his writings, that isn’t the temptation facing most conservative evangelicals. We need reminding that the good news isn’t only about saving me from my sin, but that the entire created order will one day be redeemed and shalom will be restored, all on account of the finished work of Jesus Christ. This thick account of the gospel is too often downplayed, or even ignored completely, in evangelical popular theology.

Lesslie Newbigin was a gift to the church. I’m thankful Michael Goheen has gifted us with this excellent introduction to Newbigin’s thought. Pastors and other ministry leaders should read The Church and Its Vocation, then take the plunge and read Newbigin himself.

Avoiding Difficult People Is Not Christlike Love

Mon, 02/25/2019 - 12:03am

“Life is too short to spend time with people who suck the happiness out of you,” says the girl, photographed in black and white, looking off into the horizon. Shared thousands of times on social media, the meme is meant to empower: You deserve to feel good all the time, so make it happen.

Anyone with a difficult friend, neighbor, or coworker has faced this temptation to sever ties. And it’s an enticing bonus that, if we do, we’ll be called “brave” for shutting out difficult people.

But when the persons affecting our happiness are simply awkward or annoying, this popular meme spirals into sin and foolishness. If the people we should dismiss from our lives are just those who have let us down, well, haven’t we failed often too? If a friend is genuinely trying to call out our sin, but it makes us uncomfortable or ashamed, is that the sort of relationship we don’t deserve?

For Christians, the issue is especially complicated. Christ’s body on earth is made of human bodies. It’s inevitable that we’ll encounter people we find annoying or depressing or weird or clingy or even downright mean in our small groups or pews. So what’s our prescription? Do we take the path of the meme? The Bible, as ever, offers a better way.

Prescription 1: Love One Another

When it comes to fellow believers, God’s instruction tends toward forbearance and away from escape. “[Bear] with one another in love,” Paul tells the Ephesians (4:2). He sends a similar message to the Philippians: “Look not only to your own interests, but also to the interests of others” (2:4).

Paul also wrote to the Corinthians about love. Here he describes love in a way that guts the self-interested: “Love bears all things” (13:7). Love bears with a chronically mopey friend, a perpetual ailment-listing mother, a pessimistic coworker. It is patient with the repeat offender and the depressed and the lazy.

Real love scandalizes the meme.

It also costs us something. Through Isaiah, God prods his people to spend themselves on behalf of others: “If you spend yourselves in behalf of the hungry and satisfy the needs of the oppressed, then your light will rise in the darkness, and your night will become like the noonday” (Isa. 58:10).

Exhaust yourselves, God says. Don’t throw away the ones who make you tired.

Prescription 2: Forgive One Another

We sin, and sin has serious consequences. “Christians can never sin cheaply,” Charles Spurgeon wrote. Our hearts and our relationships pay the heavy price of every unkind word and thoughtless action. Thankfully, our all-wise God tells us what to do. He commands us repeatedly to forgive, implying an obvious premise: We shouldn’t automatically turn away from someone who hurts us.

Jesus’s command to forgive is jaw-dropping. In Matthew 18, Peter asks the Lord how many times he should forgive one who wrongs him. Jesus’s response is radical, leaving no room for grudge-holding: You must forgive your brother many, many more times than you think (18:22).

Though difficult to hear for the wronged, this is cause for great celebration for the wrongdoer: God forgives us many, many more times than we deserve. We ought to do the same for each other.

Also in Matthew 18, Jesus offers a plan for believers who fall into conflict. It starts with confrontation (uncomfortable), escalates to involving others (especially uncomfortable), and culminates in involving the whole church (almost unbearable).

This stressful prescription is proof that casual withdrawal from a difficult relationship without first working for peace is simply not an option for believers.

Prescription 3: Welcome One Another

This cultural philosophy of avoiding difficult people has an underlying worldview that should alarm any Christian. Such memes suggest that we should curate our circle of relationships until the only ones left are those who make us happy all the time. Not only is this unrealistic, it’s also unbiblical.

Because before we can love or forgive others, we have to first welcome them into our spheres—knowing full well they will let us down at some point and we them.

God doesn’t command us to call everyone an intimate friend or to uncritically give every person we meet equal influence over our lives. But he does command that we engage everyone with love:

For if you love those who love you, what reward do you have? . . . And if you greet only your brothers, what more are you doing than others? (Matt. 5:46–47)

In other words: Get behind me, meme.

Questions to Consider

There are clear circumstances that call for avoidance, distance, or even permanent severance from a relationship: cases of abuse, for example. And the Scriptures we’ve looked at here aren’t exhaustive—there are also plenty of commands that command us to avoid the “path of the wicked” so as not to synchronize our steps.

So, which is it? It’s tempting to appeal to Proverbs when we’d rather bail and Corinthians when we’d like to stay, but it’s just not that simple. Deciding whether to “cut someone out” is weighty. It calls for self-reflection before flipping the switch.

We should ask ourselves:

  1. Am I self-aware enough to make this decision? Could I be at all responsible for some of the difficulty I’m sensing in this relationship?
  2. Does this person entice me to sin in a way that I can’t healthily address while remaining in proximity to him/her?
  3. Is there a way to maintain this relationship in order to minister to this person while also withdrawing some of my intimacy?
  4. Am I considering this relationship as something that should bless me instead of asking how I can first be a blessing?

Our triune God is a God of relationship. Community with others—though becoming a lost art—is a cornerstone of the Christian life, and should be handled with great care. Beware the memes that entice you to do otherwise.

Stop Eating Spiritual Candy

Mon, 02/25/2019 - 12:02am

I’ve always had a sweet tooth. I love desserts of all kinds—especially ice cream. Sweet things are comfortable and sometimes comforting. And since I’m always craving them? Well, they always seem to hit the spot.

But in the last few years I’ve had to strengthen my immune system, which has meant drastically cutting back on sugar. And it’s funny what’s happened.

First, I realized sugar is in absolutely everything. I had no idea how many things I ate—things I thought were good and nourishing for me—that were loaded with sugar and slowly eating away at my overall health. Learning this fact made me all the more thankful for the second thing I noticed: The less sugar I ate, the less I craved it.

But my sweet tooth doesn’t stop with my physical cravings. It spills over into my spiritual life as well. In times of spiritual struggle, I’ve turned to sweet, seemingly true sayings to soothe my spiritual cravings.

I’ve leaned on Pinterest-worthy quotes about how I’m an overcomer who can do anything. In times of spiritual drought, I’ve listened to social-media influencers tell me I already have everything I need within myself. And in times of chaos, I’ve cherished well-intended words from friends reminding me that I’m already stronger than I could ever believe.

In these times of feeling stretched too thin, I’ve reached for sweets: delectable little reminders of how capable I am, how invincible I am, how much I can accomplish. They’re comfortable and comforting. And since I’m always craving them? Well, they always seem to hit the spot.

But these tasty mantras aren’t telling me the whole truth.

Sugary Substitutes for Truth

I’m not alone. Christians frequently exchange the nourishing truths of God’s Word for “sweeter” substitutes. Particularly when life wears us thin, we can lean on half-truths about our own resilience rather than on reminders of God’s sovereignty and sufficiency.

When I first set out to cut back on sugar, I didn’t think I’d be able to do it. I craved sugar constantly. A nurse friend explained what was happening in my body. She told me that sugar lies, telling our bodies we have more energy than we actually do, making us feel as though we’ve eaten something more substantial than we actually have. And, slowly, sugar can turn us into addicts, always looking for that soothing treat to get us through to the next craving.

The same can be said of the spiritual substitutes I’ve been feeding myself. Like sugar, these sweet-sounding inspirational quotes lie to me.

They tell me I’m strong, but do nothing to remind me of God’s true strength (Isa. 41:10). They tell me I’m capable, but neglect to tell me God is the source of all things (James 1:17). They tell me I’m enough, but fail to remind me that he is the eternal “I AM” (Ex. 3:14). They tell me I can do more than I really can. They lure me into thinking they offer lasting nourishment, only to leave me exhausted, defeated, and looking for my next fix.

Learn to Crave Truth

Cutting sugar out of my diet has taught (and retaught) my body how to crave true nourishment. Through small, daily choices, I’m training my body to be satisfied with leafy greens from my friend’s garden and to crave the acidity of a vine-ripened tomato. And thankfully, the more I feed on true nourishment, the more I crave the good stuff.

The more I feed on true nourishment, the more I crave the good stuff.

Weaning ourselves off nutrient-light spirituality is tough work, but as we make the daily choice to delight in the unchanging character of God, we teach ourselves to crave that which will truly satisfy. When we feel weak and choose to feast on the Word, we’re formed into people who reach for his work in our weakness and who rely on his Spirit in our want.

So let’s resolve to feed ourselves from a more sustaining source. Let’s stop feeding ourselves spiritual garbage that doesn’t sustain. Let’s stop telling ourselves we’re strong enough and brave enough and good enough to do what we, in our human limitations, can’t do. Let’s embrace the reality of who we are and who our God is. We are consistently weak; it’s God who must show up and show off.

And as we do, we’ll find what I found with sugar: sweet nonsense is in absolutely everything. But as we learn to identify it and cut it out, we’ll crave it less. As we remind ourselves of the truths of God’s character, we’ll start to crave the rich truths of God’s Word. And as we feed on that daily bread, we’ll teach ourselves to crave what eternally satisfies—the Bread of Life himself.

Why Church Is the Best Place for a Job Fair

Mon, 02/25/2019 - 12:00am

The first time Shurlyn Williams left her abusive boyfriend, she didn’t go far enough.

“I was still around,” she said. “And I had our daughter. I was like, ‘I’m not going to talk to him anymore,’ but he’s a good dad.”

She gave him another shot, but about four months ago, he hurt her again. This time, she took her three children (ages 3, 1, and 8 months) and moved about 30 minutes away.

She didn’t do it alone. Williams was connected with Better Together, an organization that provides crisis care for children before foster care is needed.

But along the way, Better Together staff wondered if they could get to families even sooner.

Leah Hughey and Jay Harris at a Jacksonville job fair / Courtesy of Better Together

“We found families were hurting because of spiritual and material poverty,” director of strategic development Leah Hughey said. “From the beginning, our focus has been on working with churches to create solutions to messy social problems that many people have written off as unsolvable.”

After all, “Jesus doesn’t look at any problem and say, ‘Well, that’s a pickle,’” she said. “He says to obstacles, ‘Get out of my way.’ . . . What if Jesus looked at poverty and said, ‘Church, go take that hill’?”

Better Together wanted to give it a shot. Looking for a way to connect large numbers of people with employment, they figured they’d try a job fair. But they’d hold it at a church.

“It was a spaghetti-against-the-wall idea,” Hughey said.

It stuck. When the first one in 2016 went well—and then the second—news began to spread. In the past two years, Better Together has hosted more than 60 job fairs, all with local churches. More than 13,000 people have come looking for employment.

One of them was Williams, who was offered positions at Jimmy John’s, Wendy’s, and La Solera restaurants. She picked Jimmy John’s because it was down the street from her new place. Two months in, she was promoted to assistant manager. Now she’s saving for a car—“I’m working very hard to get to where I need to be.”

“The most encouraging thing I’ve ever done in ministry—in terms of my own soul—has been to preach the gospel in the Middle East,” said pastor and TGC Council member Thabiti Anyabwile, whose Anacostia River Church hosted a Better Together job fair last May. “A close second was the job fair. It was one of the most life-giving things I’ve had the privilege to be able to do, in part because of the hope that was transferred and shared in the sense of measurable differences in people’s lives.”

Moving Upstream

Jay Harris pastors The Ville Church in Jacksonville, Florida. The church sits in an area that leads the city in poverty, unemployment, infant deaths, and homicide.

“Economically, it’s hard,” Harris said. “You can’t get anywhere, and there are no jobs. . . . It’s hard to proclaim Jesus and look past these things.”

In Anyabwile’s Anacostia neighborhood in Washington, D.C., a third of people live in poverty. The median household income is a little more than $24,000; nearly half of the children live in poverty (49 percent). Around 13 percent of people there were unemployed in 2017, nearly three-times that of the rest of the country (between 4 percent and 5 percent in 2017).

Our focus has been on working with churches to create solutions to messy social problems that many people have written off as unsolvable.

“In poor, inner-city neighborhoods, jobs aren’t located where the people live, so most of our folk are looking for vanishing entry-level work,” Anyabwile said. “That entry-level work has long moved out to suburbs and other places where if you don’t have transportation, you’re spending two hours on a bus to get to work. Add in kids and a household, and it’s a tremendously demanding life.”

If you take seriously the Bible’s injunction that if a man doesn’t work, he doesn’t eat (2 Thess. 3:10), or that if a person doesn’t provide for his household, he has denied the faith (1 Tim. 5:8), then “employment ought to be high up the list of ministry responsibilities for people in the local church,” Anyabwile said.

He preaches about it. And he sees churches offering food pantries, helping with utility or rent bills, and providing cars to those who don’t have one.

That type of benevolence is “80 percent to 90 percent of what churches do,” he said. “It’s not wrong, but it’s downstream. Gainful employment changes all of those things. If people are working, they are enjoying the dignity of work. If they’re earning a competitive income, they’re able to take care of food and clothing and housing needs. Some of our effort needs to be back upstream.”

Handing Out Hope

The Ville is a relatively new church (planted in 2012), with about 90 regularly attending adults.

“As our church membership grows with the people from the community, financial sustainability is a struggle,” Harris said. The church lives from tithe check to tithe check, selling clothing online to bring in extra income.

So when Hughey told Harris about Better Together’s job fair, he was all in. It was a way to help the community without the financial outlay of starting a food pantry or a car program.

“We have participated in three so far,” Harris told TGC. Better Together is “breathing life into these people’s lives. For me, it’s a dream come true.”

Because it’s not just a hand up for the unemployed. It’s also a tangible way for the church to stretch out.

Pastor Thabiti Anyabwile with job fair volunteers / Courtesy of Better Together

The local church is the location and anchor for Better Together’s job fairs. (Sometimes a couple churches do one together at a community center or one of their buildings.) While Better Together works behind the scenes to gather employers, the church is responsible for passing out fliers and putting up posters to alert the community.

“We combined it with our regular door-to-door evangelism work,” Anyabwile said. “When we first extended the leaflet, the response was stiffness and ‘I don’t want what you’re selling.’ Then we said, ‘Hey, we’re having a job fair,’ and the person’s whole countenance would change.”

“Job fair?” they’d ask him. “Where is it? When is it? Can I get two of those?”

“The sense of hope was palpable,” Anyabwile said. “Some people would say, ‘I’m a returning citizen. I have a record. Can I come?’”

When he told them “we have employers who hire people with a background,” their faces “would light up. . . . I’ve never done anything in the community that triggered so much hope and optimism as this job fair.”

After doing it a few times, The Ville has an email list of participants it can alert, asking them to come and bring any family or friends who need jobs.

“Over 450 people came” to the last one, Harris said. “We had a line around the block.”

How to Hold a Gospel-Centered Job Fair

“Even employers were like, ‘This is the most humane job fair I’ve ever experienced,’” Anyabwile said. They told him, “We’ve never had as many job seekers do basic things like shake my hand firmly or look me in the eye while they talked to me.”

That wasn’t an accident. On the way in, Better Together takes job seekers through stations where pastors welcome and pray for them. Volunteer church members teach them a few interviewing skills. And more volunteers offer to coach them through the experience.

It’s not just a hand up for the unemployed. It’s also a tangible way for the church to stretch out.

Better Together teaches volunteers to gauge ability and interest, perhaps through conversations such as, “Here’s the list of companies here today. Have you heard of any of them before? Oh, you have a cell phone with Verizon? Do you like to talk on the phone? Do you think you might like to be a customer service person for Verizon?”

Volunteers can also help entertain young children while mothers interview. They can give feedback on what a job seeker can do differently in the next interview. They can help job seekers explain a felony conviction. (Be honest about the past and hopeful about the future: “I’m ready to work hard and jump onto a new path in life.”)

Some job seekers need more help than others. One “serial job coach” comes to every job fair and only helps about three people all day. “He gets to know them, he gives them his cell number, and he keeps in touch with them,” Hughey said. “He tells them, ‘I go to church here. I sit in this row. Come with me on Sunday.’”

On the Spot

Better Together also works with employers. At first, some would just send a person to stand by a booth and hand out a flier with the company website on it.

“It’s been a slow process,” Hughey said. “But we have moved employers to be more of a one-stop campaign. We keep urging them to take one more step in the hiring process than they did last time.”

A recruiter reads a job seeker’s resume / Courtesy of Better Together

That means sending a manager who can actually make hiring decisions. It means adding computers so online applications can be filled out right there. (One church had a computer lab on site; it worked so well for online apps that Better Together tries to bring computer labs to each location.)

Better Together likes it best when companies make job offers on the spot. “This was significant for us,” Hughey said. “In cities with transportation constraints, it can be expensive to come here for fingerprinting, and here for this interview, and here to pick up a Social Security card, and then back here. It’s incredible how many hours it takes someone in poverty to take one of those trips.”

On-the-spot job offers also give the whole room something to celebrate.

“We have a simple bell—the first one I bought was a Santa bell on clearance at Party City,” Hughey said. “We put it on a stand, somewhere visible. Then when you get a job offer, you ring the bell.”

A woman rings the bell after receiving a job offer at a February job fair in Jacksonville. / Courtesy of Better Together

Hughey has seen people come in moving slowly and not making eye contact who later ring the bell with “tears streaming down their cheeks. . . . The whole room stops—even if they’re in the middle of an interview—and clap and cheer and whistle like it was a touchdown at the Super Bowl.”

Justine Wilk is a director of operations for Premier Kings, a large Burger King franchisee in the Southeast.

“This was the first time I’d ever really participated in a community job fair,” she said. “I tried to have job fairs at the business and hadn’t gotten anybody to show up. For me, this was really eye-opening. It really is a community effort. This organization isn’t doing it for the businesses, but for the community. That’s the difference.”

Wilk has been to “at least eight” Better Together job fair in the Jacksonville area. She’s hired around 25 managers and around 40 staff employees.

Some employees she’s been able to depend on and promote; others she’s had to let go. Overall, though, Better Together job seekers “stay longer and come in with a better attitude,” she said. Maybe that’s because they were already motivated—after all, they cared enough to go to a job fair. Or maybe it’s because Better Together tries to give as much help as it can, even after the fair.

Social Services

Better Together staff like to fill up their job fairs with people from the church—pastors who hang around the “opportunity bell” to hear stories, 80-year-old ladies who come to pray in front of the wall covered in post-it-note prayer requests, and those volunteer coaches. The hope is to introduce job seekers to people who want to love them, help them, and introduce them to the gospel.

Some job seekers are already involved with Better Together’s family services arm. For example, Williams’s daughter was hosted by a Better Together family during her first domestic-violence incident. Afterward, case coordinator Selena Hinsdale kept in close touch, helping her find a home to rent and tugging her along to the job fair. (“I can’t get rid of her,” Williams laughs.)

Washington, D.C. job fair / Courtesy of Better Together

Better Together would like to help more people in that type of situation. As Wilk noticed, not everyone is ready for a job. Some need childcare. Some need transportation. And some need training on how to dress and how to interact with customers and how to show up on time every day.

“We experimented with having a job club for six to eight weeks after job fairs to catch people who got a job and need retention training,” Hughey said. “We also wanted to keep supporting those who didn’t, so they didn’t feel demoralized. But we have not had the interest from job seekers we would have expected.”

So Better Together focuses on including booths for local organizations—the food pantry, the homeless shelter, the pro bono legal counseling, the pregnancy center. Eventually, they’d like to strengthen the hosting church’s ties with local nonprofits as a way to tighten the support around each job seeker.

“The needs in an underserved community are always spiritual and physical—they’re multifaceted,” Hughey said. “Mom and Dad and Junior and Grandma all need something. It’s different and messy. For us to say, ‘All you need is a job, young man,’ is missing all that.

Reclaiming Work

“Work was created before the fall,” Hughey said. “There’s something intrinsically good about it. We were created in the image of a God who works.”

The goodness of work—even if it isn’t your “passion”—is borne out in statistics. People who are chronically unemployed are more likely to abuse substances, become depressed, and commit domestic violence.

There is also inherent goodness in bringing together two different populations.

“Every time I’m at a job fair, I see employers from the suburbs talking to girls with babies on their hips and young men with teardrop tattoos,” Hughey said. “I think of how foolish it was in the days of Jesus when people said that nothing good could come out of Nazareth, because the Savior of the universe did.”

Today, “there’s almost a theology of reclaiming what is holy” in these job fairs, she said. “There isn’t an inch of this planet God didn’t create and call good—not an inch that doesn’t cry out for Christ’s return, that’s not going to be fully restored in eternity. And so Brentwood and Jacksonville are going to be restored. Anacostia is going to be restored. That process is happening right now, because we live on the other side of the cross.”

Doing restoration work is like watching “an atomic bomb of hope going off in the community,” she said. “The church is saying out loud, ‘Jesus loves this place.’”

Are Sundays Good for Babies?

Sun, 02/24/2019 - 12:00am

“Sundays are hard for babies,” a church member said sympathetically as she handed back my crying daughter. It’s a truth universally acknowledged. On Sundays, the carefully orchestrated nap schedule of the other six days bends and then snaps under the constraints of morning and evening worship. On Sundays, the quiet interactions of family life fade below the noise of an entire congregation. On Sundays, handfuls of Cheerios bridge the gap between one delayed meal and another. On Sundays, things are different.

The weekly interruption of Sunday often leaves Christian parents discouraged and fatigued. Carrying our fussy littles ones to the minivan after worship, we wonder if Sundays are good for children. It can seem much easier to stay home and stick to the usual routine.

Of course, we ought to have compassion on our children every day of their lives. We recognize that they are weak, and we meet their physical and emotional needs with love and mercy. We remember to bring those Cheerios and that comforting scrap of tattered blanket. But we cannot escape the fact that on Sundays, everything is different. And that’s actually a good thing.

If the Lord has called this day blessed (Ex. 20:11) and has made it for our good (Mark 2:27) then we can rejoice in it, not only for ourselves but also for our little ones. The day that comes with proscriptions and provisions for sons and daughters, employers and employees, animals and guests, comes with blessing for babies too. On Sundays, the Lord teaches us—even the youngest of us—something about himself and his grace.

God Is the Lord of Time

On Sundays, we acknowledge that God is the author and ruler of time itself. At creation, God made time. He separated light from dark and established the daily cycle of morning and evening (Gen. 1:3–5). At creation, God also organized those days into a pattern of six and one (Gen. 2:1–3): six days for ordinary work and recreation, one day for rest (Ex. 20:11).

Once a week, the Lord breaks into our routine and reminds us that naptimes and snacktimes are not ultimate.

As tempting as it might seem to believe we are masters of our own time—carefully manipulating an interlocking puzzle of Google calendar entries—we are not. God is the one who created time, who set us in it and bound us by it, and God is the one who rightfully directs us how to use it. When we submit to his pattern of six and one, we acknowledge that God is the Lord of time.

For our children, too, the disruption of Sunday is a chance to remember that even our schedules are under the Lord’s authority. Once a week, the Lord breaks into our routine and reminds us that naptimes and snacktimes are not ultimate, nor are they determined by our own desires. In all things, we serve the Lord.

God’s People Are a Corporate People

On Sundays, we affirm that God’s people are a corporate people. We are not lone disciples, following Christ on a solitary path to holiness and heaven. We are a church. Christ came to redeem and perfect his whole body (Eph. 4:1–16). When we gather as the church, we remember that we who belong to Christ also belong to the body of which he is the head.

On Sundays, silence gives way to congregational singing, solitude disappears in a crowd of faces, and the Word read in private rings out as the Word preached in public. For our children, Sundays are filled with new sounds, new smells, and new people. This is an opportunity to learn that God is not merely the Lord of individuals or families, but he is the Lord of a vast multitude of people—so many people that not even a grown-up could count them all (Rev. 7:9). To little ones, the gathered church seems overwhelmingly huge. From the perspective of eternity, it is.

Rest Better than Sleep, Food Better than Lunch

Sundays are given to us as a day of rest—a reminder of God’s rest at creation and a foretaste of the saints’ everlasting rest in heaven. But the Lord’s Day rest is not simply an extended afternoon nap. True rest is found in pausing from our ordinary work and, as the Westminster Confession explains it, engaging in “the public and private exercises of his worship, and in the duties of necessity and mercy.” In those activities, we recharge our souls. On Sundays, God gives us a rest even better than sleep.

Sundays are also a day of feasting. The Puritans used to call the Lord’s Day “the market-day of the soul.” Just as a market boasts tables overflowing with nutritious meat and bread and produce, the Lord’s Day offers sweet and nourishing supplies for our soul. When we gather to worship the Lord in the assembly of the saints, we learn from his Word and grow in our love for him.

All of this is good news for little children. Sundays may mean disrupted naps and delayed meals, but our children are trading earthly provision for something far better for their undying souls. On Sundays, everything is rearranged so that they might hear the Word proclaimed in the power of the Spirit. On Sundays, every ordinary thing takes a lesser place in favor of “the one thing necessary” (Luke 10:42).

I often wonder about those children whose parents brought them to Jesus so he could pray for them (Matt. 19:13–15). Probably some had to miss their naps and eat a later lunch. They may have been fussy and overstimulated by the crowds. But for the rest of their lives, they would know that Mommy and Daddy brought them to Jesus. For the rest of their lives, they would be changed because the Lord took them in his arms and interceded for their souls.

Every Sunday, Christian parents have an opportunity to bring their little ones to Jesus. It might be disruptive. But that’s a good thing.

9 Things You Should Know About the United Methodist Church

Sat, 02/23/2019 - 12:03am

From today through Tuesday, the United Methodist Church is holding a special session of their General Convention to determine the denomination’s policy on ordaining practicing homosexuals and blessing same-sex unions. As Dale M. Coulter explains at First Things,

Last July, the Council of Bishops offered three possible plans for moving forward: the One Church Plan, the Connectional Conference Plan, and the Traditional Plan. The One Church Plan calls for removing language from the Book of Discipline that upholds traditional teaching on sexuality, and allowing individual churches and conferences to decide on the basis of conscience whether they will permit same-sex unions or homosexual bishops. The Connectional Conference Plan calls for completely reorganizing the regional conferences around shared beliefs rather than geography—in other words, creating traditionalist and progressive conferences and trying to hold them together. The Modified Traditional Plan calls for upholding the traditional teaching on sexuality and then offering an exit path for any local churches or conferences that disagree.

Next week TGC will report and comment on the outcome of the session. In the meantime, here are nine things you should know about America’s largest mainline denomination.

1. Within the United States, the United Methodist Church (UMC) is the largest mainline denomination, the second-largest Protestant denomination (after the Southern Baptist Convention), and the and the third-largest Christian denomination. As of 2016 (the last year for which statistics are available), the UMC has within the United States 6.9 million lay members, 44,080 clergy, and 31,867 local churches.

2. The UMC is part of the Methodist movement, which began in the 1700s in England under Anglican minister John Wesley and his followers. Wesley and his brother Charles brought the movement to the colony of Georgia, arriving in March 1736 as Church of England missionaries. The U.S. Methodist Episcopal Church was organized in 1784. A split in 1828 formed the Methodist Protestant Church, and in 1844, over the issue of slavery, the Methodist Episcopal Church, South. The North and South factions reunited in 1939 (as The Methodist Church), but retained racial segregation. That separation ended in 1968 with the merger of the Methodist and Evangelical United Brethren Churches.

3. The UMC’s polity is based on connectionalism, a term that dates back to the founding of Methodism. According to connectionalism, David W. Scott says, the church is defined not by formal structures or doctrine or lines of authority—connections between pastor and pastor, between pastor and laity, and between laity and laity. As a connectional church, the UMC hold such interpersonal connections to be the essence of the church. (Connectionalism can be contrasted with congregationalism, a form of polity that considers the highest authority to be the local congregation.)

4. Within the connectional structure, the UMC’s primary grouping of people and churches is the conference. (The term conference refers to both the “assembly and organization of people” as well as the “process of discerning God’s call together.”) Groups of local churches in a geographic area are organized to form a district, which in turn are connected to annual (regional) conferences. Regional conferences in the United States are divided into five areas known as jurisdictions: Northeastern, Southeastern, North Central, South Central, and Western. The jurisdictional conferences around the globe are also connected to the General Conference.

5. The General Conference is an international body of nearly 1,000 delegates that generally meets every four years. Comprising delegates elected by annual gatherings of regional conferences, it is the only body that can set official policy and speak for the denomination. Half of the delegates are clergy, and half are laity (non-clergy members). Bishops attend the General Conference and can serve as presiding officers but cannot vote. During the General Conference, delegates discuss and vote on petitions, resolutions, and other actions that will result in a revision of the Book of Discipline. General Conferences are generally held in years divisible by 4, such as 2008, 2012, 2016, and so on, with the exception of special sessions.

6. The foundational documents of the UMC include the Apostles’ Creed, the Articles of Religion of The Methodist Church, and the Confessions of Faith of The Evangelical United Brethren Church. These documents, along with Wesley’s Sermons on Several Occasions and Explanatory Notes Upon the New Testament, are considered standards of doctrine for United Methodists. The “Social Principles,” included in the Book of Discipline, is the denomination’s basic statement of convictions about their fundamental relationships between God, God’s creation, and humanity. While not considered church law, the Social Principles serve as a guide to official church action and individual witness, and are a “prayerful and thoughtful effort on the part of the General Conference to speak to the human issues in the contemporary world from a sound biblical and theological foundation as historically demonstrated in United Methodist traditions.”

7. The laws, doctrine, administration, organizational work, and procedures of the UMC are collected in the Book of Discipline, a document published every four years following the meeting of the General Conference. The Book of Discipline is the instrument for setting forth the laws, plan, polity, and process by which United Methodists govern themselves. Each General Conference “amends, perfects, clarifies, and adds its own contribution” to the Discipline. The UMC Council of Bishops says the Discipline is “considered to all in our constituency and to friends beyond our bounds who would seek to understand what it means to be a United Methodist.”

8. Within the UMC, clergy are individuals who serve as commissioned ministers, deacons, elders, and local pastors under appointment of an elder (ordained minister) who has been elected to the office of bishop. The United Methodist Church has 46 active bishops in the United States (including 16 women) and 20 active bishops in Africa, Europe, and the Philippines. Bishops in the United States are elected every four years and serve until retirement. Each bishop supervises a specific geographical area of the church and annually appoints all ordained ministers in that area. The Council of Bishops supervises and promotes the temporal and spiritual interests of the denomination.

9. The UMC, considered one of the “Seven Sisters of American Protestantism,” is a member of the National Council of the Churches of Christ in the United States of America and of the World Council of Churches. It also participates in Churches Uniting in Christ (formerly the Consultation on Church Union). The UMC also has full communion agreements with the Evangelical Lutheran Church in America, the United Church of Sweden, the Moravian Church, the African Methodist Episcopal Church, the African Methodist Episcopal Church Zion, the Christian Methodist Episcopal Church, the African Union Methodist Protestant Church, and the Union American Methodist Episcopal Church. They also have an “Interim Eucharistic Sharing Agreement” with The Episcopal Church, pending approval of a full communion agreement by both denominations (projected for The UMC General Conference 2020 and TEC General Convention 2021). (Full communion agreements means they recognize in each other’s churches that “the gospel is rightly preached, the sacraments are duly administered, and the ministry of the clergy is ordered in such a way as to allow for the orderly exchange of some ordained clergy among us.”)

Other posts in this series:

ProhibitionEvents and Discoveries in 2018 • Apostles’ Creed • George H. W. Bush (1924–2018) • Religious Freedom Restoration Act • Jim Jones and the Jonestown Massacre • Out-of-Wedlock Births • Bethel Church Movement • Christian Hymns • Hurricanes • Infertility • The STD Crisis • Equal Rights Amendment (ERA) • Russian President Vladimir Putin • Supreme Court Nominee Brett Kavanaugh • MS-13 • Wicca and Modern Witchcraft • Jerusalem • Christianity in Korea • Creation of Modern Israel • David Koresh and the Branch Davidians • Rajneeshees • Football • The Opioid Epidemic (Part II) • The Unification Church • Billy Graham • Frederick Douglass • Memphis Sanitation Strike of 1968 • Winter Olympics • The ‘Mississippi Burning’ Murders •  Events and Discoveries in 2017 • Christmas Traditions • Sexual Misconduct • Lutheranism • Jewish High Holy Days • Nation of Islam • Slave Trade • Solar Eclipses • Alcohol Abuse in America • History of the Homeschooling Movement • Eugenics • North Korea • Ramadan • Black Hebrew Israelites • Neil Gorsuch and Supreme Court Confirmations • International Women’s Day • Health Effects of Marijuana • J. R. R. Tolkien • Aleppo and the Syrian Crisis • Fidel Castro • C.S. Lewis • ESV Bible • Alzheimer’s Disease •  Mother Teresa • The Opioid Epidemic • The Olympic Games • Physician-Assisted Suicide • Nuclear Weapons • China’s Cultural Revolution • Jehovah’s Witnesses • Harriet Tubman • Autism • Seventh-day Adventism • Justice Antonin Scalia (1936–2016) • Female Genital Mutilation • Orphans • Pastors • Global Persecution of Christians (2015 Edition) • Global Hunger • National Hispanic Heritage Month • Pope Francis • Refugees in America • Confederate Flag Controversy • Elisabeth Elliot • Animal Fighting • Mental Health • Prayer in the Bible • Same-sex Marriage • Genocide • Church Architecture • Auschwitz and Nazi Extermination Camps • Boko Haram • Adoption • Military Chaplains • Atheism • Intimate Partner Violence • Rabbinic Judaism • Hamas • Male Body Image Issues • Mormonism • Islam • Independence Day and the Declaration of Independence • Anglicanism • Transgenderism • Southern Baptist Convention • Surrogacy • John Calvin • The Rwandan Genocide • The Chronicles of Narnia • The Story of Noah • Fred Phelps and Westboro Baptist Church • Pimps and Sex Traffickers • Marriage in America • Black History Month • The Holocaust • Roe v. Wade • Poverty in America • Christmas • The Hobbit • Council of Trent • Halloween and Reformation Day • Casinos and Gambling • Prison Rape • 16th Street Baptist Church Bombing • Chemical Weapons • March on Washington • Duck Dynasty • Child Brides • Human Trafficking • Scopes Monkey Trial • Social Media • Supreme Court’s Same-Sex Marriage Cases • The Bible • Human Cloning • Pornography and the Brain • Planned Parenthood • Boston Marathon Bombing • Female Body Image Issues • Islamic State

Don’t Sing Only to God in Church

Sat, 02/23/2019 - 12:00am

Congregational singing is not an occasion for individuals to seek a “just me and Jesus” moment in the midst of a crowd. It is not a private devotional experience.

Congregational singing is a teaching ministry of the local church. According to Scripture, it is a vital means through which believers are instructed and transformed by the gospel. 

Sing Together

There are only three New Testament passages that instruct us in congregational singing: Colossians 3:16, Ephesians 5:18–20, and 1 Corinthians 14:15–17.

In Colossians 3:16, Paul writes, “Let the word of Christ dwell in you richly, teaching and admonishing one another in all wisdom, singing psalms and hymns and spiritual songs, with thankfulness in your hearts to God.”

Paul commands believers to “let the word of Christ dwell in you richly.” But what is “the word of Christ”? It does not mean “the words of Christ.” We are not commanded to sing only the words Jesus spoke. “Of” means either “the word about Christ” or “the word which consists of Christ.” Either way, it means the message about Jesus—the gospel.

The gospel—the truth of Christ crucified for sin and raised from death—is to dwell in us richly. How does the gospel dwell in us? By “teaching and admonishing one another in all wisdom.” All of us—not just pastors or preachers—are to teach and admonish one another with the gospel. And how do we do this? By “singing psalms and hymns and spiritual songs.” Congregational singing is an act of instructing and encouraging one another. Finally, notice to whom we’re singing: a dual audience. We sing “with thankfulness in [our] hearts to God.” So we sing to God, with hearts that believe, but we also sing—the verse implies—to one another.

Congregational singing is an act of instructing and encouraging one another.

Nearly identical to Colossians 3:16, Ephesians 5:18–20 has one significant difference. Instead of “let the word of Christ dwell in you,” the command is “be filled with the Spirit.” Comparing these texts, we see there’s no difference between the gospel dwelling in us and the Spirit filling us. The Spirit fills us through faith in the gospel; he does not indwell us apart from the gospel.

Finally, notice Paul’s instruction in 1 Corinthians 14:15–17. My singing in church is not merely for my own benefit, but for the edification of those who hear me. It is not private, personal worship; it is an act of corporate instruction and encouragement. “For you may very well be giving thanks, but the other person is not being built up” (v. 17).

How Then Shall We Sing?

We must sing the gospel explicitly. Our song selections should make clear that Jesus died for sin and rose from the dead. A song set that does not proclaim the gospel is a song set without the power of God to save. It fails to fulfill the primary corporate-music instructions of the New Testament.

This is not to say every song in a service must contain every fact of the gospel. Many good songs establish the themes of God’s holiness, graciousness, faithfulness, and love without mentioning Christ or his work. Bu these themes find their fulfillment and become good news only when understood through faith in Jesus. Therefore, the scope of our songs in a service should together cover the basics of the person and work of Jesus, crucified and raised. Service planners should see that the gospel is present, regularly sung and applied in memorable, expressive ways.

A song set that does not proclaim the gospel is a song set without the power of God to save.

Two Examples

Edward Mote’s classic hymn, “The Solid Rock,” excels at explaining, applying, and celebrating the finished work of Christ. The first verse establishes that our hope rests on nothing other than Christ’s atoning death and imputed righteousness:

My hope is built on nothing less Than Jesus’s blood and righteousness; I dare not trust the sweetest frame, But wholly lean on Jesus’s name.

The theme continues throughout, covering seasons of darkness and suffering, showing how the oath and covenant made in his blood provides a sure foundation for hope. Mote ends with the return of the risen Christ. Even when we meet him in glory, our confidence has not shifted to our works, but remains in “his righteousness alone.”

When he shall come with trumpet sound, Oh, may I then in him be found; Dressed in his righteousness alone, Faultless to stand before the throne.

In my personal songwriting, I’ve tried to put the gospel at the center of every song. One example, “All Gone,” takes its start from a Spurgeon sermon meditating on the greatness of forgiveness. The song begins by confessing the vastness of our sin:

Sins against the Holy One,  Sins against his loving Son,  Sins against his law we’ve done,  Sins against both God and man,  Sins that we have boldly planned,  Sins outnumbering the sand. 

The second verse counters the first with Christ’s exhaustive atonement made:

All the justice we deserved,  All the punishment we earned,  Holy wrath without reserve.  Poured upon the righteous one,  Once for all the work is done,  Now the victory is won.

The chorus celebrates that our sin is all gone, no trace remains:

What grace! No trace remains.  They’re all gone, all gone.  Far as the east is from the west,  Into the ocean they are cast.  They’re all gone, all gone.  He has removed our ev’ry debt,  Covered our shame and our regret.  They’re all gone. 

These poetic retellings and applications of the gospel equip our people to remember the gospel and to sing it out, letting the word of Christ dwell in them richly through all the ups and downs of their life together.

Sing the Gospel

As you plan your songs for next Sunday morning, approach it with Paul’s concerns in mind. Sing with thankfulness in your hearts to God, but also sing to one another. Don’t sing for the sake of mere personal edification; sing to instruct and admonish your neighbor. Paul tells us to let the “word of Christ”—the gospel message itself—to dwell in us richly and corporately. Singing general truths about God is right and good. But for the gospel to dwell in us, it’s necessary to sing specifically about Christ’s person and work.

Singing general truths about God is right and good. But for the gospel to dwell in us, it’s vital to sing the specifically about Christ’s person and work.

In the excitement over gospel-centeredness, let’s make sure we are actually clear about the gospel in the songs we sing. Let’s give our congregations content, not mere sentiment. Let’s sing about the crucified and risen King. For the gospel, spoken and sung, is the power of God for salvation.

What Is Discernment and How Do I Get Some?

Fri, 02/22/2019 - 12:04am

“Discernment doesn’t promise us ease. Whatever your item might be, discernment doesn’t promise you success. Getting discernment doesn’t promise you that you’re gonna be rich and famous. That’s not the goal of discernment.” — Melissa Kruger

Date: June 15, 2018

Event: TGC 2018 Women’s Conference,  Indianapolis, Indiana

Recommended in this podcast: The Discipline of Spiritual Discernment

Listen to this episode of The Gospel Coalition podcast and find more audio and video from the TGC 2018 Women’s Conference on the conference media page.

Want to Flourish? Stop Focusing on Yourself

Fri, 02/22/2019 - 12:03am

Church signs are famously funny. While the sign outside our church building doesn’t offer pithy sayings, it has been known to elicit a laugh from those who appreciate its irony. Above our church’s name, the sign reads, “Self Help.” It refers to the organization that owns the building where we meet, but many have chuckled at the contrast between those words and the teaching found inside.

Unfortunately, though, our culture’s obsession with self shows up in Christian books, blogs, and sermons more often than we might realize. In her new book, Flourish: How the Love of Christ Frees Us from Self-Focus, author and speaker Lydia Brownback sheds light on the many ways self-focus has crept into Christian thinking and teaching.

She challenges us to fix our eyes on the Lord Jesus rather than ourselves.

We Need Truth to Flourish

Brownback begins by reminding us of the importance of truth. She wants us to see “how wrong teaching about God can give us wrong ideas about God and how these wrong ideas keep us from flourishing” (12). She acknowledges that discerning truth from false doctrine is a challenge, especially when the topic is the self. We are predisposed to accept false teaching about self-love “because it appeals to that deep yearning for affirmation we feel at our very core” (13).

We need help to see around the blind spots of self-love and self-focus, so Brownback offers clear and pointed biblical truth as she unpacks six facets of self-focus and helps us understand how the gospel frees us from each one.

One particularly helpful insight Brownback offers is that our focus on self often comes from asking the wrong questions. For example, our self-consciousness is usually driven by the question: “What do people think of me?” A better question to ask is: “What do people think of Christ?” Brownback says, “When we are driven by a concern for how people perceive him, we can live free from the bondage of what people think of us” (16).

Or consider the frustration we feel when our efforts toward self-improvement fail. We are tempted to ask: “Why won’t God help me?” But Brownback points us to Paul’s example in Romans 7 when he asks: “Who will deliver me from this body of death?” She observes that “we ask why, whereas Paul asks who” (37). Our question looks inward, but Paul’s looks upward. Her encouragement to ask the right questions gives us a practical way to shift our focus from ourselves to the Lord.

Brownback is also admirably bold in her commentary on cultural trends that can tempt us to focus on ourselves. She is willing to say things that many of us need to hear, but few are willing to say. And in doing so, she models the lack of self-consciousness that she exhorts us to.

For example, in the chapter on self-indulgence she writes: “Jesus is not a life coach. He is Savior and Lord. And it is not up to us to decide who we want to be in this world. We’ve been called as disciples and servants” (62). She also reminds us that “no one actually needs a spa day or wine or chocolate or even a vacation” (64). However, she rightly acknowledges that many of the things she calls into question aren’t inherently wrong and can be beneficial in the right context. But we must always consider whether they “drive us out of ourselves or farther inward” (62).

More Delicate Approach

While Brownback’s boldness in sharing truth is on the whole refreshing and needed, there are times when I’d welcome a more delicate approach. Brownback uses stories of women she knows to illustrate some of the sin struggles associated with self-focus. Though it’s not stated, I assume she has changed their names and used their stories with permission.

However, she critiques the heart-level sins of a couple of women with such detail and such certainty that I’m concerned about the example she sets. Only the Lord truly knows the motives of our hearts, and it’s he who will expose them one day (1 Cor. 4:4–5).

In the age of social media, when online gossip and bullying abound, we as Christian writers would be wise to take extra care in the example we set by how we write about others. When we seek to illustrate sin, examples from literature, Scripture, and our own lives can be just as compelling and remove the possibility of dishonoring someone else.

Still, through these examples and others, Brownback helps us understand the practical outworking of self-focus and reflect on ways it may have taken root in our lives. She helps us identify thought patterns that may have become normal but are not fruitful. She exposes the subtle lies we may not have detected.

Moving Away from Self to Christ

Though the “Self Help” sign outside our church is funny, living with focus on ourselves is not. As Brownback notes, “There’s simply no escaping the fact that we’re always conformed to what we focus on” (13). Living with a focus on ourselves keeps us from being conformed more and more to the image of Jesus Christ and experiencing the full life he offers us.

But moving away from self-focus isn’t the end in itself. Brownback calls us to move away from ourselves so we can move toward Someone else. She shows us that we truly flourish not by seeking to delight ourselves, but by “knowing Christ as our greatest delight” (11).

10 Reasons Your Church Should Sing Psalms

Fri, 02/22/2019 - 12:02am

When we think of the Psalms, most of us think solely of reading them. But we should also sing them, particularly in the gathering of the church. Indeed, for 3,000 years the Psalter has been the songbook of God’s people.

Here are 10 reasons why it’s important to sing the Psalms in your church today.

1. The Bible Tells Us to

That’s the strongest argument we’ve got. And it’s a good one! When we don’t take the Psalms seriously, our commitment to the Bible is called into question as well.

2. Psalms Are the Word of God

The Holy Spirit is the songwriter of the Psalms: they’re pure Scripture. One of the joys of focusing on psalms for the last year is the amount of time I (Keith) have spent in Scripture. I also have the joy of listening to my little daughters running around the house singing Psalm 8 and Psalm 139.

3. Psalms Are the Songs Jesus Sang

As a boy Jesus would have memorized and learned many if not all of the Psalms. The book of Psalms is the songbook of the Bible. They would become the soundtrack of his life. They can be the soundtrack of your life, too.

4. They Give Us a More ‘Authentic’ Picture of God

For all that contemporary people apparently crave “authenticity in worship,” if we follow contemporary trends we’ll succumb to the bias of our church leaders or the movements they follow. For example, only 3 percent of modern worship songs mention anything eternal, and they rarely take on themes of God that make us uncomfortable. The Psalms, meanwhile, make us wince when we sing of God’s judgement and wrath. They also give us a far bigger, more beautiful, breathtaking picture of God’s glory.

5. Psalms Are Christological

Look at how often the New Testament uses the Psalms to speak of the life of Christ. Do you want to know what Christ felt like on the cross? Read Psalm 22.

6. They Speak to the Depth and Breadth of Human Emotion

Psalms perfectly balance theology with emotion, justice with evangelism, the personal with the collective. One young woman told me (David) that she came to our church because we allowed her to be depressed. While “the church that allows you to be depressed” may not be the best advertising slogan in the modern world, I understood what she was saying. She struggled with depression, and we sometimes sang songs which gave voice to that depression and allowed her to express it.

Despite the strong emphasis on public emotion in modernizing worship, the church often significantly truncates the human emotional experience.

Despite the strong emphasis on public emotion in modernizing worship, the church often significantly truncates the human emotional experience.

7. They Transform Family Worship

The Psalms will revolutionize your private and family worship. Many years ago, not long after I (David) became a Christian, I visited a friend’s house in Tain in the Scottish Highlands. When we finished our meal, the father in the home announced: “Now we’ll have the books.” The books? What did he mean by that? I soon found out. Someone came in with Bibles and Psalm books. We read the Word, we prayed the Word, and we sang the Word.

It was a profoundly moving experience and gave me an insight into why that particular family was full of such strong and godly Christians. Ever since, the Psalms have become the DNA of my life. I read or sing one at least every day. My small red psalm book goes with me everywhere. In 2011, as I was seriously ill going in and out of a coma in the hospital, my family didn’t know what or how to pray. I was in great distress. So every night they sat and prayed a psalm with me. A consultant friend laminated Psalm 91, among others, and stuck them to the wall beside my bed. They sustained me.

8. They Will Unify Our Church Families

In our modern church culture, where “worship wars” abound and people come from disparate church backgrounds (and no church background!), the Psalms unify all of Christendom. They are also “premodern” and “postmodern,” which unifies generations.

9. They Will Revolutionize Your Church Family

Your congregation is what they sing. We memorize what we sing. If you sing the Psalms, your congregation will have a vast amount of Scripture stored in their minds and hearts. Last night at our church, we sang the Getty version of Psalm 8 (we also sang parts of Psalm 107 and Psalm 25). It was beautiful. Some think our church’s unique selling point is our psalm-singing. One impeccably orthodox man wryly remarked “I just can’t get my head ’round that psalm-singing thing!”

Why not, though? I don’t understand why every evangelical church doesn’t sing psalms. If you want to worship in Spirit and truth, would it not help to use the songbook that the Spirit of Truth himself inspired?

10. They Are Missional

Psalms are superb for evangelism in today’s world. One middle-aged hippy wandered into our church a few years ago. Afterward he said, “Dave, I loved that, man. Especially the plain chant. Singing 3,000 year old words from Palestine . . . cool!” The Psalms are poetry in emotion that speak to the hearts of all peoples.

Sing Psalms in Your Church

So how can we improve our churches this Sunday?

The Sing movement isn’t about the next big thing in worship. As we aspire to educate and inspire churches in singing, we’re more interested in going back—and the Psalms are the oldest and most biblical songs we have.

Here are five things we can all do that will help us reclaim the Psalms:

  1. Read the Psalms every day in your home. We started this three years ago and it has been transformational. We highly recommend Tim Keller’s The Songs of Jesus as a devotional to help you think, pray, and sing to the Lord each day.
  2. Fill your homes with the songs of the Psalms—let them fill your minds, hearts, mouths, imaginations, and souls.
  3. Read the Psalms every Sunday in your services, using them as calls to worship and getting your whole church to read a psalm, perhaps responsively, if you don’t have liturgy.
  4. Pray the Psalms. Use the Psalms to fill your prayers.
  5. Sing the Psalms. Try some of these modern psalms, or perhaps older hymns inspired by psalms.

The psalmist says, “I have hidden your word in my heart” (Ps. 119:11). We can “hide” God’s Word in our hearts by singing it, and we can proclaim that “hidden” Word to the world and the angels by singing it. What are we waiting for?

‘The Favourite’ and ‘Roma’: Contrasting Visions of Power

Fri, 02/22/2019 - 12:00am

The Favourite and Roma are two of the most acclaimed and awarded films of 2019. They tied for the most Academy Award nominations this year (10 each) and are widely expected to pick up at least a few Oscars when the ceremony airs February 24.

The films have much in common. Both are directed by non-Americans and feature strong female characters (indeed, the men in each are weak, treacherous, or both). Both are set in the past—Roma in 1970s Mexico City, The Favourite in 1700s England—and yet engage timely questions about today’s world.

Both are interested in class dynamics and the dangers of sex when it is self-centered and divorced from covenantal relationships (perhaps manifesting a latent anxiety in our sexually free-but-confused age). Both ponder the dignity of humanity, the nature of power, and what makes us different (if we are) from animals. The films land in different places on that question, however, and their contrasts reveal a conversation Christians would do well to consider.

The Favourite: Darwinian Survival

Photo by Yorgos Lanthimos / Twentieth Century Fox Film Corporation

Directed by Greek auteur Yorgos Lanthimos, The Favourite is an absurd, irreverent, iconoclastic take on Queen Anne in 18th-century Britain. Largely unconcerned with historical accuracy, the film presents a lesbian love triangle in which two cousins (Emma Stone and Rachel Weisz) compete for the favor (and bedroom invitations) of Queen Anne (Olivia Colman). It’s a sexually perverse and needlessly provocative film that I do not recommend. But given its popularity and likelihood of winning at least a couple Oscars, it’s worth considering The Favourite’s troubling view of the world.

The Favourite is all about power: Darwinian, survival-of-the-fittest power. It presents a world where people will do anything and sacrifice any conviction to curry favor with the person in charge. In this case that person (Queen Anne) is a temperamental, unpredictable leader whose ignorance/apathy about government policy means her court advisers run the show. Whoever has the Queen’s ear (and trust) has the power to start or stop wars, among other things; hence the brutal and pathetic battles for court access and the Queen’s favor.

The Favourite is all about power: Darwinian, survival-of-the-fittest power. It presents a world where people will do anything and sacrifice any conviction to curry favor with the person in charge.

These dynamics, along with the wild instability of it all—“favor is a breeze that shifts direction all the time,” one character observes—present clear echoes and a pointed critique of today’s politics. In our cutthroat power battles and desire to win at all costs, are we becoming less human? In our dehumanizing rhetoric (presidents who call women “dogs” on Twitter, for example) and callous disregard for inherent human dignity (whether in abortion, racism, sexual abuse, or other evils), are we becoming more like animals than humans, with survival as our only ambition?

The comparison of humans to animals is a major motif in The Favourite, as it is in Lanthimos’ other films (Dogtooth, The Lobster, The Killing of a Sacred Deer). In The Favourite, the point is underscored in a bizarre duck-racing sequence and especially in the film’s final shot, which compares humans to rabbits scurrying around on the floor, competing for crumbs. Everything human is reduced to animalistic survival in The Favourite. Ostensibly kind gestures are just manipulation. Sex is a meaningless power play. Perhaps most egregiously, the sacrament of marriage is reduced to mere alliance for upward mobility.

An aristocrat’s observation that “a man’s dignity is the one thing that holds him back from running amok” plays for laughs in The Favourite because all the main characters—however elegantly they talk or dress—have long since abandoned dignity. They are running amok, devoid of human conscience and really no different from the ducks, rabbits, birds, and other beasts that populate the film.

Roma: Exalting the Humble

Netflix

The Favourite is full of vibrant colors, opulent sets, lush costumes, blood oranges, tea cakes, and a world of sensory delights. But none of it is beautiful, because all of it is instrumentalized, fodder for the feuds and power dynamics at play. Alfonso Cuarón’s Roma, on the other hand, is a black-and-white film that’s nonetheless far more colorful and beautiful than The Favourite.

Consider something that shows up in both movies: a character washing a dirty floor. In The Favourite, this scene symbolizes the working-class drudgery Abigail (Emma Stone) wants to avoid at all costs. In Roma, the act of washing a floor is foregrounded as a thing of beauty and dignity. In a remarkable opening-credits sequence, housekeeper Cleo (Yalitza Aparicio) washes the tiled floor of her employer’s garage, but all we see for four minutes is a close-up of the floor: the geometric order of its diamond-shaped tiles interacting with the sudsy shape-shifting of water and its glistening reflections. It’s a thing of beauty, and the audience is invited to regard it with the care and patience Cleo herself does.

This is how Roma sees the world. It pays attention to the overlooked, the lowly, the humble—the things a utilitarian, power-obsessed world disregards or merely uses. In stark contrast to the grotesque opulence on display in The Favourite, Roma relishes the humble beauty of the small and oft-unnoticed. It doesn’t just tolerate people on the margins and the quiet work they do; it esteems them and dignifies their work. It exalts the humble. In this way the film echoes how Jesus interacted with people, often spending time with and dignifying the outcasts, the marginalized, society’s lowly and disregarded.

By focusing on Cleo and noticing the many quiet ways she orders the home and loves its inhabitants—largely thankless and unnoticed by the family she serves—Cuarón’s attentive cameras impart to her a powerful dignity and status. She is the center of the film, a living illustration of the upside-down kingdom we see in the New Testament, as in Matthew 23:12 (“Whoever exalts himself will be humbled, and whoever humbles himself will be exalted.”) or 1 Corinthians 1:27 (“God chose what is weak in the world to shame the strong”).

Roma celebrates and esteems what society demeans and discards. We see this not only in how the film celebrates Cleo, but also in how it celebrates the preciousness of society’s most vulnerable and oft-discarded: unborn children.

When the man who gets Cleo pregnant promptly abandons her and the unborn child, the already vulnerable Cleo is left even more vulnerable. Will she quit her job? Can she earn enough to support a baby? The wisdom of our modern world, where power is pitched as the “right to choose,” would suggest Cleo should just abort the baby. But she doesn’t. She carries her child to full term, knowing it will face tough odds. In a climactic and harrowing scene surrounding the baby’s birth, Cuarón forces the audience to attend to the precious dignity, and yet fragility, of human life. In a Nietzschean, barbaric world where the right to abortion at any time, for any reason, is increasingly defended by supposedly advanced societies, the pro-life ethos of Roma is radical and chastening.

Contrasting Visions

Photo by Yorgos Lanthimos / Twentieth Century Fox Film Corporation

The Favourite is about brute, animalistic survival in a dog-eat-dog world. Roma is, in a sense, also about survival, but in a far more human sense.

The women of Roma survive not by taking revenge on their absentee men or by destroying one another in a zero-sum competition (as in The Favourite). Rather ironically, they survive because they don’t only look out for themselves. This is especially true for Cleo, who models Christ-like sacrifice and service throughout the film. She pours herself out for the family she serves, giving of herself to the point of nearly sacrificing her life. Whereas the characters in The Favourite maneuver and scheme to achieve a status where servants will attend to their every need, Cleo in Roma reflects the posture of Christ, who “came not to be served, but to serve” (Mark 10:45).

Whereas the characters in The Favourite maneuver and scheme to achieve a status where servants will attend to their every need, Cleo in Roma reflects the posture of Christ, who ‘came not to be served, but to serve’ (Mark 10:45).

The radical self-denial and service of Cleo in Roma, like the feet-washing posture of Jesus (John 13:1–17), provides a picture of power in vivid contrast to that in The Favourite. The latter captures power as pre- and post-Christian societies construe it: self-interest, self-preservation, winner take all, only the strong survive. The former presents power through weakness, through self-denial and sacrificial love.

By presenting these two contrasting visions, The Favourite and Roma reveal a tension in today’s world. On one hand is the secular, naturalistic, Darwinian/Nietzschean vision, which sees humans as merely advanced animals who must look out for their own best interests. On the other hand is the Christian vision, which sees humans as image bearers of God who find life by losing it (Matt. 10:39). The tension is so present today that many Christians are seduced by the secular vision, tempted to dehumanize ideological opponents and make unwise alliances in the name of preserving power.

But is that what we want to be? Is the fickle favor of this world’s leaders—favor like a shifting breeze—really where power is found? That “power” is weak and fleeting. The power of the cross, on the other hand, is eternal. God’s favor to us in Christ is what matters. Foolish in the eyes of the world? Yes (1 Cor. 1:18). But we’d be foolish to trade it for anything.

Anthony Petterson on Teaching Zechariah

Thu, 02/21/2019 - 12:04am

According to Anthony Petterson, lecturer in Old Testament and Hebrew at Morling College in New South Wales, Australia, the only book the New Testament quotes more than Psalms in the context of Jesus’s death is Zechariah. Yet I’m not sure I have ever heard a sermon series on the book, and I’ve never taught through it myself. Petterson admits that Zechariah—with its combination of visions, oracles, ancient imagery, and narrative—isn’t easy. But that, he says, is what makes it thrilling when we invest time and study and then experience that “aha!” moment of discovery.

Those endeavoring to teach through Zechariah will be helped by Petterson’s contribution to the ESV Expository Commentary: Daniel–Malachi volume, where he provides input on how to organize teaching through the book, as well as how to grasp and communicate its central themes—which include the sovereignty of God, the return of the Lord, and the hope for a future Davidic kingdom.

Listen to this episode of Help Me Teach the Bible.

Audio Resources on Zechariah:

Print Resources:

What It Means to Be Eucharismatic

Thu, 02/21/2019 - 12:03am

There are more than 200,000 words in the English language, but I want to introduce one more.

It’s built around the beautiful Greek words charis (grace) and chara (joy), and combines the concepts of thanksgiving (eucharistia) and gifts (charismata).

It’s a word that, as I see it, sums up a theological vision for the church, in which all of God’s gifts are treasured and celebrated, whether they are eucharistic (the sacraments, liturgy) or charismatic (prophecy, healing); it invites the church to bring out of our storehouse both old and new treasures, so that God’s people can enjoy his grace in Spirit and sacrament.

That word is Eucharismatic.

Worship Messes

To many of us, especially in the West, this may sound like the worst of both worlds. I sympathize. I think of one person I know who was inoculated against Christianity at age 12, when he heard a man with an oily beard and big priestly hat, surrounded by icons, declaiming in tones of the utmost solemnity, “My heart is full, and my cup overfloweth”—and simply didn’t believe him.

I consider the absurd antics of some of the paper-waving, foundation-faced prosperity preachers who appear on Christian television. I acknowledge that much new church liturgy fails to acknowledge the realities of sin and suffering, and that much old church liturgy fails to acknowledge much else. I remember the excruciating boredom, as a child, of sitting through the same words being repeated in the same way to the same individuals every week, on wooden pews for wooden people; and the equally excruciating embarrassment, as a young teenager, of singing happy-clappy choruses to gradually accelerating Jewish melodies, as middle-aged women twirled their dresses, stamped their feet, and waved their tambourines. If eucharistic churches are dead and charismatic churches are ridiculous, then to be Eucharismatic would be dead and ridiculous, which is the only thing that could be worse.

On the other hand, I remind myself that children and young teenagers can get bored or embarrassed by almost anything—Shakespeare, sex, Mozart, fine wine, The Godfather—and that even the most captivating truths can be presented in either mawkish or soul-destroying ways. I reassure myself that there isn’t a church in the world whose services don’t make some of those in attendance cringe, grumble, or both on a weekly basis. I reflect on the fact that bad ways of doing things don’t mean they shouldn’t be done at all, merely that they shouldn’t be done badly. I cast my mind back through church history and recall myriad ways in which we have turned blessings into curses by making such a mess of them. I study the New Testament church. Faith returns.

Beauty of Eucharismatic Worship

I then think about the contexts in which being Eucharismatic could really help.

There are the obvious straw men. Contemporary churches that have thrown the liturgical baby out with the formalist bathwater and continue to proudly define themselves that way, even though their meetings are equally predictable and the formalist bathwater has long since evaporated. Or their traditionalist counterparts, where nobody is ever surprised, nobody (except the pastor) uses spiritual gifts, and nobody smiles.

Far more common, however, are those churches that, through a combination of history, habit, and the avoidance of extremes, risk being stuck in Bible-church no-man’s-land. Suspicious of anything ancient (because it seems like dead routine) and suspicious of anything fresh (because it seems like a cultural fad), they’ve opted for worship that is somewhere between 20 and 50 years old, safe but anemic, predictable but ethereal. They’re blissfully free of either ritual or emotion, and as a result, they lack body and lack soul.

Some of that may be familiar. Some of it may even seem inevitable. If so, then I invite you to imagine such a church encountering the delights of embodied worship for the first time. Imagine them rediscovering the power of symbols: water, bread, wine, and oil. Picture them forming their liturgy to include biblical elements they have missed, and finding depths to the gospel that they had almost forgotten. Imagine the snowball gaining momentum as they use monks to help them pray and martyrs to help them sing. They start to read books by dead people and find that they are more alive than many of the books by living people. They catechize their families. They rejoice in the sacraments. They do things that do things.

Then imagine them drenched in the Holy Spirit, prone to spontaneous outbursts of praise and the kind of joy that reaches the face. They begin to heal the sick. They read Psalm 150—and actually do it. They cast out demons when needed. They use spiritual gifts in meetings—not just the leaders, but everyone. They shout sometimes and dance sometimes. They laugh like children. They pray as if the Lion of Judah is on the edge of his seat, hackles raised, ready to pounce. They expect God to speak to them at home or in the office. Their meetings look more like African weddings than English funerals.

Now put all of this together. Imagine a service that includes healing testimonies and prayers of confession, psalms, hymns and spiritual songs, baptism in water and baptism in the Spirit, creeds that move the soul and rhythms that move the body. Imagine young men seeing visions, old men dreaming dreams, sons and daughters prophesying, and all of them coming to the same Table and then going on their way rejoicing.

Can you see it?

That’s what it means to be Eucharismatic.

Be Patient, Young Pastor. Your Best Writing Is Later.

Thu, 02/21/2019 - 12:02am

I’m 38, a pastor, and I love to write. But I’ve only written an unpublished dissertation, a small book titled How to Pray for Your Pastor, and a recent book, Strong and Courageous: The Character and Calling of Mature Manhood. I have other book ideas, and I hope to serve the church by someday writing more. But now it’s hard to find time. I have a wife and three young kids, a congregation full of people I love, friends and family members to whom I want to give time and attention.

But I’m not discouraged.

Tim Keller’s counsel to young pastors on writing has helped me. He suggested that, generally speaking, a pastor’s book-length writing should come later in life after he’s logged years of study, teaching, and pastoral experience. Giving ourselves to book writing at the early stages of pastoral ministry, Keller says, risks being counterproductive, because it distracts us from what will make us useful writers later.

Biblical Role Model

I’ve also found much help in the Bible, particularly Luke’s Gospel. Luke’s introduction provides a worthy model for a pastor’s writing ministry.

When Luke gives his rationale for why he wrote a Gospel, he says it was only after he “followed these things closely for some time” (1:3) that he put his reed to papyrus. Luke patiently researched, gathered materials, and examined the work of others before he began.

Not much of an insight, you might say. Sure, except Luke was writing about the most important person in the universe and the central event in human history. Shouldn’t he have written and published his work as soon as possible?

“The world needs this knowledge,” we can imagine him urging his contemporaries. Yet Luke doesn’t panic. He doesn’t scramble for instant productivity—fearful he will lose an opportunity. He prepares, he studies, he writes.

I believe there is wisdom here for those who aspire to write to edify the church: Despite the unprecedented urgency of his message, Luke was patient and careful.

Expert on His Subject

Just because you have an idea and a laptop doesn’t mean you’re qualified to write a book. Just because Luke had access to writing materials and lived near Jerusalem, when other men were writing their Gospels, didn’t qualify him to write either.

Luke had some important credentials.

He was a companion of Paul, which would’ve afforded him a wealth of reliable information about Christ’s life, not to mention a growing grasp of the Old Testament’s fulfillment in Jesus’s redemptive work. Solid discipleship from an older, wiser Christian seems to be a good prerequisite for book writing.

Luke was competent to research his topic. Merely conducting research doesn’t qualify one to write. The ability to compile the right resources and ask the right questions is a skill that requires constant attention. You can amass a garage-full of material yet not know how to sift it to make a helpful contribution. Perhaps you need more time to cultivate the important skill of research.

Luke was committed to the truthfulness of Scripture. If you’re wavering on whether the Bible is reliable or Jesus is God or the atonement is complete or justification is by grace through faith alone, please stop writing. I’m not suggesting that Christians never wrestle with the truthfulness of the faith, especially in a world that violently opposes biblical teaching. But those struggling with fundamental tenets of Christianity are in no place to write a book or serve in pastoral ministry. Luke was convinced of Christ’s reality and the integrity of his teaching and was qualified to write about both.

Motivated by Pastoral Concern

Also notice that Luke wrote, not merely to scratch a literary itch, but to strengthen the faith of Theophilus: “It seemed good to me to write an orderly account for you . . . that you may have certainty about the things you have been taught” (Luke 1:3–4).

No doubt, Luke desired to bolster a fellow Christian’s faith, so he added historical detail and took theological care with his Gospel. Although Luke was not a pastor, his writing is an example of scholarly rigor motivated by genuine pastoral concern.

I don’t think Scripture gives warrant for Christian writing disconnected from pastoral concern. Even if you’re a scholar working in technical theology, your first impulse should be for your writing to serve the church. Whether that means equipping other ministers, edifying and strengthening believers, or persuading unbelievers of gospel truth, your motivation for writing should be pastoral.

I’m not saying your work must appeal to every kind of Christian or every intellectual level. But you should aim at enriching your readers spiritually. If you’re writing out of a craving to see your name on a glossy paperback, you won’t help others, but you will likely reap a spiritually barren harvest and bear the deadly fruit of pride.

Get Personal

Like other New Testament authors, Luke’s major canonical contribution began as a personal letter. Similarly, we should labor for the good of those God has given to our care and trust that fruit for writing will come from concentrated attention to our pastoral tasks.

When I am faced with the choice of starting a book or writing a long email to a church member struggling with sin or a theological question, it’s difficult to justify the book project. I’m still writing daily, thinking and researching, but it’s for the immediate care of my church. And I keep those emails, along with my Bible study lessons, sermons, counseling notes, and personal journals well indexed, because maybe they will serve as material for a useful book someday.

But right now my main work is the ministry of God’s Word and prayer at Grace Bible Fellowship.

Slow Down  

There is great value in producing new books of theology, Bible commentary, and works on Christian living. New voices stimulate the mind, stir up conversation on dormant topics, and reach people who might otherwise remain unreached. I’m not seeking to establish rules determining which pastors should write and how much they should write, and I am grateful beyond words for men like John Piper and Kevin DeYoung, who began their literary output early.

But generally speaking, I think pastors would be wise to slow down and recognize that our most substantive written contributions may come later. Life maturity, spiritual wisdom, regular preaching, time with our people, and lots of playing with our kids will help produce works that are far more beneficial for the body of Christ than what we otherwise might have written.

Just ask Theophilus.

How to Love Opioid Addicts in Your Community—and Church

Thu, 02/21/2019 - 12:00am

It was 2 a.m. when I received the call. A young man in our church had gotten high on heroin, cut his wrist, and posted on Facebook that he was ready to die. Since his relapse a few months prior, members of the church had been trying to help him. I rushed out of bed and spent the night driving the streets of our little town, alongside law enforcement, looking for him.

Miraculously, he didn’t die. But the journey of helping him escape his addiction is ongoing and painful. It has already included multiple detox facilities and rehabs.

In these situations, it can be tempting to throw up our hands in exasperation: “Why can’t he just get over this?” But “just do it” isn’t how real heart change occurs. It’s not just that this young man has a hold on something; something has a hold on him.

Opioid addiction is a pandemic. I’ve no doubt it’s affecting many people you know. I’ve met kids as young as 14, soccer moms, and even sweet grandmas who are hooked. And it doesn’t just happen to certain kinds of people or in certain neighborhoods; I’ve seen overdoses in both extremes. This is a nationwide crisis. Shockingly, the National Security Council announced you are now more likely to die from an opioid overdose than a car accident.

An American is more likely to die from an opioid overdose than a car accident.

The crisis seems overwhelming, but God’s people have been put here for such a time as this. How can we care for those suffering from an opioid addiction in our church and in our community?

1. Acknowledge That Addicts Are in Your Church

“I don’t associate with people like that” is what I’ve been told. “Yes, you do” is my response. They may be hiding it from you, but you know people trapped by addiction. We unintentionally alienate them when we deny their existence.

Preachers, especially, can miss weekly opportunities to speak hope and grace. Every sermon I preach at our church includes an invitation to addicts to come and speak with us. Some think we talk too much about addiction. And yet as we’ve talked about this regularly, folks are lining up to talk about addiction every single Sunday.

These are opportunities to pray, mourn, and get outside help. These sermons are also opportunities to educate the uninformed and to call the apathetic to repent. Not knowing is one thing; not caring is another. We serve a Jesus who was “moved with compassion” and willingly entered into the suffering of others (Matt. 9:36). If we are to “weep with those who weep” (Rom. 12:15), we will be weeping much as we engage with addiction.

Addicts are likely in the room on Sunday mornings, and they all have a story that would bring you to tears. No one just wakes up one day and starts shooting heroin. They need the same hope of the gospel as everyone else. They need the good news that Jesus is able and willing to redeem.

2. Get Educated and Get Involved

Many people I meet are uneducated regarding the nature and complexity of opioid addiction. They may have taken bong-hits in college, but they can’t comprehend what addiction looks like now. It’s hard to fight against something you don’t understand.

To be able to care for addicts and help them, I think a basic knowledge of the differences among opioids is essential, as well as some understanding of how these drugs are taken. If you don’t know about Fentanyl, you should, because it’s killing tens of thousands of addicts, many of whom don’t even know they’ve taken it until it’s too late.

Additionally, you should know about Naloxone, or Narcan, which counteracts the effects of an opioid overdose. Some addicts now intentionally overdose, relying on Naloxone to get them back. But, as an EMT said to me, “Sometimes nar-can and sometimes nar-can’t.”

You also need to be familiar with local treatment options. Where are the good detox facilities and sober-living programs in your area? What ministries or non-profits are in the community? Support them with volunteers and resources. As you get involved, you will likely discover areas that still need attention. These are opportunities to prayerfully consider how you can help.

People re-entering the community after treatment also need our help. Lack of transportation, employment, and housing are three major reasons people relapse. So having a loving and supportive church community ready to receive and come alongside is essential.

You can help. My 4- and 7-year-old boys run lemonade stands to raise money. Our church has volunteers who serve at addiction-related funerals, former addicts who serve as mentors, and two pregnant moms who called all the rehab facilities in our state to create a spreadsheet of available resources.

3. Be a Safe Place for All Involved

Addiction functions like a bomb, not a bullet. It’s never just the addict who is affected. Parents, spouses, and family members of addicts also need care and support. Upward of 76 percent of the children in our county’s foster-care system are there directly because of addiction. That means if we find ways to help addicts, fewer children would be ripped from their homes with a trash bag full of toys. If that doesn’t grip you, check your pulse.

Upward of 76 percent of the children in our county’s foster-care system are there directly because of addiction.

Our churches can be a safe place for people to find hope and help. Consider hosting a Nar-anon meeting at your building. Reach out to local first responders and find ways to show your support to them. Make your building available for difficult funerals related to addiction. Overdoses and suicides aren’t the funerals anyone wants to do, but they’re opportunities to weep with those who weep and to bring the hope of the gospel.

4. Don’t Run into This Darkness on Your Own Strength

The only thing worse than running away from the darkness of opioid addiction or turning a blind eye to it is running into it on your own strength. Allow the seven sons of Sceva in Acts 19 to show you what happens when we think that our care is enough. While those men were naively trying to defeat the powers of darkness, the darkness overpowered them (Acts 19:16).

Fellow Christian, if all you do is raise money, send people to rehab, and attend funerals, it won’t be enough. In our local church, we’re finally realizing that prayer and fasting are the most effective things we can do. We do all we can, but we are more aware than ever before of what we can’t do. The opioid crisis is a problem only Jesus can finally fix.

Nothing about this fight is easy. I doubt our team will even get through this week without at least one emergency call. The voice on the other end will tell us someone battling addiction has relapsed or overdosed or even passed away. It’s hard to answer these calls, but for the sake of people created in God’s image, we will. We’ll pray. We’ll work. And then we’ll pray some more.

Related Articles:

9 Things You Should Know About the Opioid Epidemic

9 (More) Things You Should Know About the Opioid Epidemic

America’s Epidemic: How Opioid Addicts Find Help in the Church

The Experience That Changes Everything

Wed, 02/20/2019 - 12:04am

“Although the Christian life does involve a personal experience—that’s essential—it doesn’t mean that I get to make up my own story and call it Christianity.” — Curtis Cook

Text: Psalm 34

Preached: July 22, 2018

Location: Hope Fellowship Church, Cambridge, Massachusetts

Listen to this episode of TGC Word of the Week.

Related:

To Be or To Do?

Wed, 02/20/2019 - 12:03am

A few weeks ago, I watched an episode of comedian Hasan Minaj’s Netflix show, Patriot Act. In each 20-minute episode, Minaj takes a popular topic like immigration or Amazon’s dark side and engages his audience with thoughtful commentary, running jokes, and an array of images, video clips, and social media posts.

The show itself is a window into 21st-century America: We value original, unbiased observation on underexplored issues in our culture. But we get distracted easily, so we want this social commentary to come with a blizzard of fast-moving visual cues. By a comedian. On an online streaming channel. In 20 minutes.

In this frenzied, always-on society, two Stanford professors have rekindled an ancient conversation. Is it better to slow down, refuse to enter the rat race of activity and accomplishment, and let ourselves thoughtfully rest? This is the contemplative life—the vita contemplativa. Or, on the other hand, should our lives be given to building and improving society through work toward the common good—the vita activa?

Simply put, is it better to do or to be?

In Action versus Contemplation: Why an Ancient Debate Still Matters, Jennifer Summit (who is now at San Francisco State) and Blakey Vermeule present us with the deep roots beneath this question, showing that ours is not the first society to wrestle with its implications.

Ancient Roots of a Timely Debate

Summit and Vermeule don’t set out to answer the question but to explore it. “It is a misleading and dangerous illusion to treat ‘action versus contemplation’ as an either/or proposition. Action and contemplation have only intermittently been enemies. They are vibrantly alive in each of us, potentially fused rather than sundered” (19).

Their goal is to show that these aren’t merely questions for professional philosophers; these questions lie beneath many everyday choices. Should I major in the humanities or business? Is it reasonable to expect that my work be personally satisfying and economically viable? In times of conflict and division, should my first instinct be to read and reflect or to act with boldness?

The strength of Action versus Contemplation lies here, urging us to consider the contributions of our intellectual forefathers. For instance, Aristotle taught that contemplation is the highest state of human flourishing, and English poet John Milton described contemplation as the more difficult, higher path of human living. Similarly, Henry David Thoreau seemed to encourage his Western readers to leave our busy, anxious world behind and find our own Waldens.

Today, we might see the contemplative camp alive and well in a generation of millennials hoping to find themselves, do meaningful work (“it’s not work; it’s soulcraft”), and maintain healthy work/life balance. “Just be,” they contend.

On the other side, those in support of action have spent less time writing philosophy and poetry and more time commanding armies and building companies. Western history, in our white-knuckled addiction to activity and achievement, certainly leans toward action. In The Human Condition (1958), Hannah Arendt explained that the arrival of the technological age in the 17th century tilted the balance toward action, and contemplation became marginalized in favor of production and productivity (29–30).

Today, we see the action camp thriving in the spirit of John Wayne and management studies promoting a bias for action. “Just do it,” they demand.

The book’s contribution, then, is to offer no grand conclusion beyond embracing this ancient tension so we can live with wisdom in polarizing times. But if you’re looking for answers or advice, their work won’t be immediately satisfying. (And I assume that’s their point.)

Action and Contemplation in the Church

Throughout the book, the most balanced perspectives come from within the Christian tradition.

In The City of God, Augustine wrote, “No man has a right to lead such a life of contemplation as to forget in his own case the service due to his neighbor; nor has any man a right to be so immersed in active life as to neglect the contemplation of God” (28). Augustine’s student Gregory the Great followed in his steps, writing that activity and thought are like two eyes that work together to produce sight.

The fifth chapter finally reaches the teachings of Jesus. Luke 10:38–42 gives us a radical view that could form the basis of an entire book. In the presence of Jesus, “Martha was distracted by all the preparations” and (passive-aggressively) asks Jesus to tell her sister to help her. Is Martha the model of hospitality—her diakonia service is later praised by the early church—or the model of distracted activity? Our Lord notes that she is “worried and upset about many things.”

Mary instead chose the one thing needed: She sat calmly in the presence of the Lord. It seems to be a strong case for the vita contemplativa. I expected a longer discussion of this important passage; after all, who has affected Western society more than Jesus Christ?

But Summit and Vermeule are literature professors, and it’s outside the scope of their book to exegete Jesus’s meaning in Luke 10. They demonstrate how some Christian thinkers applied this passage in their own times. Still, this was the discussion I was most interested in, and its brevity left me disappointed.

Missing Link

Action versus Contemplation provides an interesting background for evangelicals, who have been activists since at least Billy Graham. (The name evangelical, of course, gives away our desire to be active in the spread of the good news.) But for all the growth of the evangelical movement, there is such a pervasive rate of burnout among our leaders and members that we need to examine our ways. If salvation is by grace alone, if the gospel says the ultimate pressure is off for all who believe, then why are our leaders so prone to exhaustion?

Many of us have found a source of great strength and wisdom in the contemplative tradition. We want to see our action rooted in a deep life of contemplation. We have seen that to serve and lead in the church without spiritual depth is a recipe for disaster. We were made for a deeper, more connected spiritual life. A life of Christian activism will be exhausting or even empty without a foundation of contemplative prayer and meditation on Scripture. And if we are “built for contemplation,” then an attentive prayer life shouldn’t be opposed to an active life of service. Instead, contemplation could be the source of action.

The great contribution of Christianity to the ancient debate is both in thought and action: From a deep security in Christ and a contemplative relationship with him, we love others and take action to promote their good.

Love is the connection: Love from God becomes love for God (contemplation) and love for others (action).

Paul’s prayer for the Thessalonians demonstrates this view: “May the Lord make your love increase and overflow for each other and for everyone else” (1 Thess. 3:12). May God make our love for him increase, and it will overflow to each other in the church and then to everyone else in the world. As the beloved disciple writes, “Dear friends, let us love one another, for love comes from God” (1 John 4:7).

And it’s no surprise that Jesus answers the greatest commandment question with a dual love: “Love the Lord your God with all your heart and with all your soul and with all your mind. . . . [and] Love your neighbor as yourself” (Matt. 22:37–39).

Love seems to be the missing element in the contemplation versus action debate. Love for God, developed and expressed through a rich prayer life, becomes an active love for others.

Exploring Tensions

Love isn’t a simplistic answer to an ancient debate, but it does draw us into the space between contemplation and action. This is what I appreciated about Action versus Contemplation: It explores the depth of tensions instead of giving quick answers to complex questions. The authors seem to hold back their desire to see a movement toward contemplation—they are professors, after all, and writing for an academic press. But they resist answering the question for us. Instead, like true contemplatives, they let the question hang in the air and empower us to think (and perhaps even feel) for ourselves.

In our busy, always-on culture, Summit and Vermeule’s thorough research lets us engage the ancient roots of this critical debate—and it is indeed more pleasant and formative than an evening in front of Netflix.

Church Planter, Don’t Underestimate the Overlooked

Wed, 02/20/2019 - 12:02am

I’ll never forget the day the Holy Spirit smacked me across the head with a middle-aged woman.

Anna is a 32-year-old with a developmental disability. She came to faith a couple years into our church plant. Baptizing her was one of the clearest points of God’s kindness in my ministry so far.

Anna is a wonderful, faithful member of our church—but she’s not going to direct a ministry or lead a Bible study anytime soon. In fact, she struggles to read and comprehend the Bible for herself.

Anna doesn’t fit many of the conventional programs of a church. She can’t work in the nursery or children’s ministry independently. Many of our Bible studies are at the edge of her capacity. This isn’t because she’s lazy or unmotivated about Christ’s glory, nor is she distracted with lesser things. Rather, formal ministry positions are out of Anna’s reach because of the wisdom of God. She’s not built for those kinds of ministry.

But does that mean she can’t minister? Quite the opposite—I’ve seen God delight in using the unspectacular in spectacular ways. But we, as pastors and church planters, must have eyes to see it.

Here’s what I mean.

Anna and Brenda

Brenda—another woman in our church—lost a loved one recently, and it was hitting her hard. She was struggling. As happens far too often, most church members coming and going in life and ministry didn’t notice the weight of their sister’s grief. Amid their hustle and bustle to get the kids checked in, prepare worship materials, and keep their eyes peeled for visitors, they missed an important ministry opportunity.

In and through Anna, the strength of Christ beamed forth.

But Anna, who’d only been a believer for a few months at this point, didn’t miss it. She noticed Brenda’s grief and moved toward her sister in Christ. Anna begun writing letters to Brenda. She called day after day to check in. Anna was lovingly relentless in showing Brenda that she was both loved and not alone in her grief.

Needed Rebuke

As I watched this relationship unfold, the Spirit used Anna’s example to rebuke me in two ways. First, I was cut to the heart over my pride. I expected God to use me. After all, I’m gifted, trained, and experienced. I’m the pastor! But Anna—with great love and gentle humility—was teaching me things I didn’t even know I needed to learn.

When God used Anna so beautifully, it surprised me. She didn’t have any of the obvious gifts I’m prone to value above others. She wasn’t “strategic.” All of the sudden I realized the depth of my sinful self-confidence. I really thought that somehow my gifts and abilities were a necessary part of the equation. I’d nurtured the idea that I brought something to the table that God needed.

But in and through Anna, the strength of Christ beamed forth. In her weakness, his power was made perfect (2 Cor. 12:9). The Spirit was at work, and he wasn’t waiting around for someone like me.

After I looked up from my prideful navel-gazing, I was enthralled with the beauty and power of the Spirit’s work in the church. God was using Anna, even when her pastor and fellow church members didn’t know how.

Humanly speaking, Anna is hard to equip. She doesn’t fit our normal boxes for serving or leading. She’s an easy disciple to expect little from, especially in church planting. But the Spirit is delighted to use her powerfully.

Surprised?

Should we really be surprised? “Now to each one a manifestation of the Spirit has been given for the common good” (1 Cor. 12:7). Praise God that he’s not hamstrung by the weaknesses of men and women—the weaknesses of people like me.

Brothers and sisters, the Holy Spirit is the one doing ministry in your life and church. He delights to use God’s people, even though he needs not one of us. If you’ve been tempted to take confidence in your gifts, training, or position, can I encourage you to repent and ask God for fresh dependence on the Spirit?

Don’t be surprised when God uses the least spectacular saints in the most spectacular ways.

Ministering alongside brothers and sisters with mental and developmental disabilities has helped me to see what was true all along­­—the Holy Spirit is the only one who can heal the sick, mend the brokenhearted, and encourage the suffering saint. Don’t ever forget that the Spirit is the only one who must show up for powerful ministry to happen. And don’t be surprised when he uses the least spectacular saints in the most spectacular ways.

When you’re just hoping your church plant will survive, it’s easy to only seek out the polished, the put-together, those who will be an obvious “value add” to your plant. Beware of thinking that way. Beware of worldly calculus.

Amid all your visionary labors and busy days, don’t overlook the “Annas.” They are out there, and they are absolutely needed.

How to Fight Anger in Motherhood

Wed, 02/20/2019 - 12:00am

My twin sons scooted close to one another at the breakfast table as I poured milk over their cereal. Bouncing off of each other, they bumped arms and laughed. My toddler banged her hands on the table, screaming for her sippy cup, while my older son demanded I locate his drawing from yesterday. One of my twins erupted, “Hey! Stop touching me! Stop sitting close to me! Mooomm!”

My anger boiled over into a yell before we’d even finished the first bites of breakfast: “Guys, knock it off!” Guilt set in immediately. I’d done it again.

My voice calmed as I tried to sort out the issues at hand. I felt exasperated with everyone’s behavior—especially my own. I wanted to enjoy a nice, conversational breakfast with my children. I wanted them to be considerate, reasonable, and self-sufficient. Was that too much to ask? (Yes. It was.)

While I wish it wasn’t the case, scenes like this play out at our house more often than I’d like. When we leave for school, when we clean up the house, when it’s bedtime, when it’s mealtime. Perhaps you can relate?

Here are a few principles that help me navigate anger in the little years.

Call It What It Is

Not all anger becomes sin (Eph. 4:26). When our hearts rise up against things that God hates—wicked, disobedient, unloving behavior—we model our righteous and just God. When our children complain about their circumstances or inflict pain on others, we are right to be upset. Anger over the right things for the right reasons can remind us of our vital job to teach our kids to hate wickedness, too. But this righteous anger is never an excuse to treat our children harshly.

Also, not all yelling is sin. If our children run into a busy street, I’m going to yell their names as loudly and forcefully as I can. Screaming their names might save their lives. In this we also image God, who gives us strong warnings when our lives hang in the balance (Rom. 6:23).

But on a daily basis, when we just haven’t had enough coffee and our kids are wrestling again, yelling as a parenting technique isn’t righteous (James 1:20). Allowing anger to burst forth without self-control, moving straight from offense to wrath, doesn’t reflect God’s character. Our Lord is “slow to anger and great in lovingkindness” (Ps. 145:8) showing perfect patience in Christ (1 Tim. 1:16).

When I seek to punish or control my kids with harsh words just because they aren’t behaving exactly the way I want, I need to call my response what it is. It’s not a bad day. It’s not a mom fail. It’s not a joke. It’s sin.

I need to call my response what it is. It’s not a bad day. It’s not a mom fail. It’s not a joke. It’s sin.

And, like all sin, I need to confess it, apologize to my kids, hope in Christ, turn from it, walk forward in freedom from guilt, and enjoy a renewed desire for obedience (1 John 1:9).

Tell Someone

I’m probably not going to text my husband or friends every time I yell at the kids, but it’s important for me to consistently confess sinful expressions of anger to others (James 5:16). As I bring it to the forefront of conversations, others can ask me how it’s going and encourage me to repent, hope in Christ’s sufficiency, and obey (Heb. 10:24).

Living in community where others—parents, in-laws, college students, and friends—regularly see how I parent provides accountability. When I notice inconsistencies in my responses—being a “nice mom” when others are around and a harsh one when we’re alone—it’s time to let in the light (1 John 1:7).

Humble transparency also provides necessary safeguards against abusive behaviors. Anger left unchecked can spiral out of control. Any parent who is hurting her children needs to tell someone and get help immediately. A church community of mature Christians is an essential place to start.

Pray and Prepare

When I’m aware of my tendency to let anger give way to unkind parenting, I see patterns emerge. On mornings when I haven’t had enough sleep, the breakfast table feels more like a circus. On afternoons when my soul is parched, the drive home from school feels like I’m trapped in a van full of bears. But in all cases, especially when I’m weak, God provides a way out from temptation (1 Cor. 10:13). I can arm myself with his Word and practical parenting strategies.

Although we can’t always control our circumstances (if only children and hormones did what we wanted!), we can turn to God for wisdom (James 1:5). An older mom once told me she had a lightbulb moment when she went from only asking God to change her children (“God, make them stop crying and whining!”) to asking for grace to endure with patience (“God, give me the strength, self-control, and words to parent them through this”).

When it comes to preventing outbursts of anger, we must remember that the Son of God absorbed the wrath of God in our place (Rom. 3:25). It’s the assurance of good news that motivates us to do good to our children. When I humbly remember the massive debt God forgave me in Christ, I’m far less likely to angrily demand restitution when my child loses a shoe. Before I erupted over sibling squabbles in the car or marker murals on the cabinets, he died for me (Rom. 5:8).

Tomorrow morning will arrive, and I already know we’re low on milk. The toddler will almost certainly melt down again, and the twins will inevitably knock some of their cereal onto the floor. Nothing about tomorrow will be different from any other day—except the fact that I’m determined to look to Christ amid the tears and squabbles. I’m sure I won’t handle it perfectly, but it will bring me to my knees, and that’s a good place for a mom to be.

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