More than a year ago, I left a financial-planning firm after working as a creative director and wealth coach. I only worked there for a year, but I learned more in one year about financial stewardship than I’d learned in my first 29 years of life.
I quickly learned that money problems expose marriage problems. When couples came into the firm for money counseling, we told them about the correlation between money counseling and marriage counseling—you can’t offer a married couple the former without providing the latter.
This truth is at the center of Art Rainer’s new book, The Marriage Challenge: A Finance Guide for Married Couples. “Financial conflicts in marriage are usually symptoms of something more significant,” Rainer explains, “something more foundational.” The Marriage Challenge helps couples identify those foundational conflicts and work through them successfully. Rainer, vice president for institutional advancement at Southeastern Baptist Theological Seminary, is undoubtedly qualified to write on the topic. He holds a doctorate in business administration from Nova Southeastern University, an MBA from the University of Kentucky, and is married with three children.Comprehensive Guide
The Marriage Challenge contains 16 chapters divided into three sections. The first offers a theological and philosophical foundation for marriage and money. Rainer explains that “a financially healthy couple doesn’t start with a checking account. It starts with unity.” Even a couple who earns a bunch of money and wisely budgets for years will continue to fight about money if their priorities aren’t aligned.
The second section is centered around Rainer’s practical plan to guide couples to a financially healthy and generous life. If you’re familiar with Dave Ramsey’s seven baby steps, Rainer’s eight money milestones will be familiar, but with notable distinctions.
In the final section, Rainer calls couples to destroy four marriage dividers at the root of most money problem—poor communication, selfishness, distrust, and unrealistic expectations.Narrative Structure
The Marriage Challenge is structured around the story of Chris and Claire, a young married couple who discover on the first day of their honeymoon a dark secret related to the other’s money. Fortunately, at their resort they meet Terry and Mary, an older successful couple who agree to spend time with and give advice to the couple during their stay. By the end of the book, Terry and Mary’s guidance proves invaluable to the young couple.
The story of Chris and Claire is both the greatest strength and weakness of the book. Rainer tells the story with many cliffhangers, which keep the narrative engaging, but they make it challenging to remember and appreciate Rainer’s reflections and practical advice that often follow. Moreover, when I finally reached the end, a story that was once relatable became unbelievable. Nevertheless, the story served its purpose, and while it was distracting at times, this is a minor critique of an overall beneficial and helpful book.Ramsey vs. Rainer
My first exposure to personal finance content was Dave Ramsey’s Total Money Makeover. While I’m deeply grateful for Ramsey’s advice, as soon as I was introduced to The Marriage Challenge, I knew I had a new recommendation for married couples.
What sets the book apart from Ramsey is its accessibility, focus, and emphasis. It’s accessible to almost any audience because it doesn’t have the self-help tone that turns many off to Ramsey. It’s specifically focused on the context of marriage, equally calling both husband and wife to action, rather than motivating one while leaving the other behind to play catch up. Finally, it emphasizes God-centered generosity from beginning to end. Ramsey doesn’t get enough credit from his critics for his emphasis on generosity, but Rainer makes it clear why we’re generous. As he reminds us, “God designed us not to be hoarders but conduits through which his generosity flows.”
If you’re married and looking for a book on money, The Marriage Challenge will provide the biblical principles and practical wisdom necessary to put your family on the path to financial health. It’s now my go-to recommendation for married couples.
The priority of evangelism is incontrovertible according to the Bible. And yet, most Christians probably feel they don’t do enough of it.
Perhaps one reason is that we tend to think of evangelism as an individualistic endeavor. Yes, we must share the gospel as individuals. But exclusively lone-ranger evangelism is far from the biblical ideal.
While some people prioritize individual proclamation, others emphasize the importance of community in evangelism. Both are good ways of thinking. But we see the most evangelistic fruit when we merge the two together in the local church.Revolutionary Equation
Anyone who has listened to or read Ray Ortlund probably, like me, has a barrel load of admiration for him. He’s said many things that have helped all of us—especially young church planters like myself. But nothing has stuck with me like the equation he wrote near the start of his little book The Gospel.
- Gospel doctrine – gospel culture = hypocrisy
- Gospel culture – gospel doctrine = fragility
- Gospel doctrine + gospel culture = power
I’ve found that equation immensely helpful as I’ve led our young church plant. If we proclaim the gospel but fail to live it out, we’ll become hypocritical: people who talk the talk but don’t walk the walk. Conversely, if we live out the gospel but don’t proclaim its truth, we’ll become fragile: people who jump from the latest fad to the next. But if we both speak and embody the gospel, we’ll be a church through whom others can both hear and experience the good news of God’s grace in Jesus. And when that happens, it’s powerful.Gospel Doctrine
Therefore, when thinking about how we do evangelism, we must begin with doctrine. Our church plant is part of Acts 29, which means we’re convinced God’s people are at the heart of God’s mission. In other words, the church is central to what God means to achieve in the world.
The church is central to what God means to achieve in the world.
Even the briefest biblical-theological overview shows this centrality. In Eden, God planted Adam and Eve to bear his image in creation (Gen. 1:27). In the Old Testament, he chose Israel to be his light to the nations (Isa. 49:6). In the New Testament, he purposed the church to proclaim his excellencies (1 Pet. 2:9). And in the new creation, his purified bride will display the radiance of his glory (Rev. 21:9–11).
From Genesis to Revelation, then, the Scriptures teach us that God makes himself known in his world through his people—plural.Gospel Culture
We plant churches to that end. But as we do, we must guard against the rampant individualism of our day. If we’re not careful, our church plants will perpetuate the same kind of sinful self-centeredness we see all around us. And this can seep into our evangelism.
If it really is through our life together that God makes himself known, then we can’t settle for lone-ranger evangelism. Again, I’m well aware of the need for individuals to share the gospel in their everyday spheres of life. I’m emphatically not arguing against that need. But if we’re passionate about our unbelieving friends coming to know God, then our evangelism must be overwhelmingly corporate, not overwhelmingly individualistic.
If we’re passionate about our unbelieving friends coming to know God, then our evangelism must be overwhelmingly corporate.
And church plants can make that ambition a reality. Every church should begin with a specific evangelistic focus—to make Jesus known within a specific geographical area or, if overseas, among a specific people group.
As we plant churches, we’re not merely gathering a crowd to attend weekly services, nor are we gathering servants to run weekly programs. We’re gathering Christ’s ambassadors, who through their shared lives will represent their Savior to their neighbors and the nations.
So we share our dinner tables together. We wait at the school gates together. We serve our community together. We become regulars at the local coffee shop together. We have BBQs together. We watch sports together. We exercise together. We live our lives together so that our unbelieving friends might not just meet one Christian, but might meet the church.
In a gospel culture, church planting won’t allow for rampant individualism, especially not in the realm of evangelism. We’re not a bunch of individuals trying to talk about Jesus in isolation. Rather, we’re a chosen people through whom God intends to display his glory (1 Pet. 2:9–10). This truth transforms evangelism from whom I want to reach to whom we want to reach.Real Power
And when we live like that, it’s powerful. Our church recently saw an example of this power. About 18 months ago, one family in our church introduced a man to our church community. He’d never been to church in his life, but on the final Sunday of 2018, he professed faith in Christ.
When I asked him more about it, he said: “Through the church I’ve heard the gospel and it makes sense to me. But what convinces me it’s true is the community you share.” Through the doctrine of our church he heard the gospel message; through the culture of our church he saw the gospel’s truth; and through his salvation we experienced the gospel’s power.
Or, in Ray’s words: gospel doctrine + gospel culture = power.
“She’s fun to talk to—always so relatable.”
“I really like her Insta account. It’s so funny and relatable.”
“She’s my favorite teacher—her stories are so relatable!”
If you want to give high praise to another woman, call her “relatable.” The idea behind being relatable is exactly what you’d expect: establishing a point of connection with the person you’re talking to. It means identifying with them in some human struggle or circumstance. It means not being up on a pedestal while everyone else is down below. It means being normal (or abnormal) and not pretending otherwise.
In a digital world where filters reign and manicured feeds rule, relatability is often an antidote. It’s a way of pulling back the curtain on all those perfect images and saying the obvious: laundry exists, we have bad days, work is work, we’re often the punchline to a joke we weren’t intending to tell, and we’re all in it together.
At its best, relatability is a transparent humility that aims to serve others by providing a starting point for relationship. At its worst, it’s a longing for others to relate to our sin in a way that minimizes it. It’s a species of manipulation.Dangerous Side of Relatability
“Oh, you yell at your kids, too? What a relief. Let’s have a laugh. So relatable.”
“Oh, you’re pouring a glass of wine and telling everyone they’re on their own for supper? Me too. I’m so sick of this everyone-needs-to-eat routine. Hahahaha. So relatable.”
“Oh, you’re binge-watching Netflix for the fourth night in a row because you just. can’t. even? Me too. So relatable.”
At its best, relatability is a transparent humility that aims to serve others by providing a starting point for relationship. At its worst, it’s a longing for others to relate to our sin in a way that minimizes it. It’s a species of manipulation.
But this way of relating doesn’t pull back the curtain quite far enough for any of us to actually experience each other’s sin or to have to walk with each other in repentance and reconciliation.
The sharing of “bad moments” is also curated and carefully chosen. It often maximizes humor and minimizes consequences. The point of sharing self-deprecating stories is to get people to like us more, not less.
That’s the power of being relatable—we love to relate to people (from a distance) who mess up like we do and who sin in the same ways we do. But we hate to be in actual relationship with people when they sin against us or we against them.
It’s not nearly as funny in real life.Relating to Each Other in Christ
Christian women relate to one another in a different way—as set-apart women who hope in God. We will have common temptations and trials that we ought to confess and share––and our transparency can help others––but only if it leads us to our Savior together. Rather than sharing a hearty laugh over how altogether common and predictable our sin is, we join together in the uncommon holiness we’ve been given because of God’s Son who saved us from those sins (Gal. 1:4; Titus 2:11–14). Ultimately we relate to one another because we’re actually related in the family of God—by faith in his Son.
Our deepest loyalty isn’t to the shallow sisterhood of relatability or our common sin, but to our Father, who freed us from sin and made us blood-bought sisters in Christ. And yes, holy women also laugh, but not at deadly sin. We laugh at what’s to come, we laugh at what has come, we laugh at ourselves, and we laugh with a clean conscience.
When I reflect on the women and men who’ve had the most acute and lasting influence on my life, it isn’t their disarming humor and relatable stories that most influenced me.
Paul had an interesting way of relating to the church. He was quick to be transparent about his past, calling himself the chief of sinners (1 Tim. 1:15). But he was also unafraid to call people away from themselves to imitate him as he imitated Christ (1 Cor. 11:1). Many of us tend to think of humility as the thing that draws attention to our shortcomings. But Paul shows us something different. Humility is forsaking our sinful ways and following Jesus’s holy ways. It’s being honest about our inability to save ourselves. And it’s magnifying the real and powerful work of God in our lives so that we too could say to a younger believer, “Imitate me as I imitate Christ.”
When I reflect on the women and men who’ve had the most acute and lasting influence on my life, it isn’t their disarming humor and relatable stories that most influenced me. In many cases, I couldn’t relate to their experiences at all. I can’t relate to Betsy ten Boom’s contentment in a concentration camp, or Elisabeth Elliot’s weathering the loss of a murdered husband while ministering to the ones who murdered him, or even John Piper’s forsaking a television. I can barely relate to my own mom’s endless service of babysitting at the drop of hat or my dear friend’s unwillingness to go near anything that has even the faintest whiff of gossip. And that lack of “typicality”—the fact that I can’t immediately relate—is precisely what calls me away from the longing to be normal or relatable or typical and into greater desire for holiness and greater desire for the God who empowers such atypical living.
In their set-apartness, they beckon me to Christ, the ultimate sympathetic high priest, who relates to us in the most powerful way of all. He became one of us to show us the way out of our common, relatable sin and into his uncommon, joyful holiness. Sisters, let’s follow him.
One of the most challenging responsibilities is reporting the misconduct of a minister. Ministers are to possess the highest moral character (1 Tim. 3:1–7; Titus 1:6–9) and are to set believers an example (1 Tim. 4:12). Ministers are God’s appointed means of declaring his Word to his church and world, and are thus to be trustworthy (1 Cor. 7:25), having good reputations with all (1 Tim. 3:7).
Consequently, whenever a minister is found guilty of moral failure, the damage can be catastrophic. Depending on its nature and extent of awareness, not only can the reputation of the minister be irreparably harmed, but the reputation of his church—as well as its purity and peace—can also be seriously damaged. Reporting ministerial misconduct to church leaders can be difficult and intimidating; yet, for the church’s health, the minister’s reclamation, and God’s glory, it must be done.
The questions are many: What sins need to be reported? When is it to be done? How is it to be done? Certainly, not every sin a minister commits is to be reported to church leaders. After all, Solomon teaches it’s the glory of the believer to overlook a transgression (Prov. 19:11). And similarly, Paul tells us to “bear with one another, and if anyone has a complaint against another, to forgive each other, just as God has forgiven you” (Col. 3:13).What Kinds of Sins Should Be Reported?
There are three categories of moral failure that should be reported.1. Persistent Sin
Whenever a minister is guilty of committing the same sin over and over again after being spoken to about it in private—which must first take place if the sin is known only to a few (Matt. 18:15)—it must be reported. This is because ministers are to be above reproach (1 Tim. 3:2; Titus 1:6), and to be above reproach means to be marked by guiltlessness.
This is not to say, of course, that ministers are to be innocent of all sin, but that they must not be characterized by any sin. Ministers are to be marked by godliness, and godliness includes repentance, and repentance involves not just confessing sin but also turning from it (Prov. 28:13). Some common examples of persistent sin are lying, quarreling, and the use of pornography.2. Public Sin
Whenever a minister is guilty of committing any sin known to more than a few people, it must be reported. This is not only because ministers are to be above reproach, but also because church leadership must strive for the purity and peace of the church, and the public sin of a minister has the potential of seriously harming that purity and peace.
Church leadership needs to be alerted to sins such as these so that it can ensure that proper confession takes place, which always involves confessing sin as widely as the sin is known. Some common examples of public sin are gossip, slander, and outbursts of sinful anger.3. Scandalous Sin
Whenever a minister is guilty of committing any particularly heinous sin—something that, if discovered, would disgrace the name of Christ and damage the witness of both minister and church—it must be reported. This would include sins such as drunkenness, adultery, stealing, and sexual abuse.
Some of these sins, of course, will need to be reported not only to church leadership but also to civil authorities. If a minister ever violates a lawful command of the state, and the violation is something the state identifies as a crime, both the church and the state should be notified.How to Report?
But how are these sins to be reported? What steps need to be followed if a minister commits persistent, public, and/or scandalous sin?
First, be able to prove the sin from Scripture. Show you are dealing with actual offenses, deeds that can be shown to violate God’s law. If it can’t be proven to be sin, it mustn’t be reported; and if reported, it mustn’t be admitted as a matter of accusation (Matt. 18:15;1 Tim. 5:19). A wonderful help for determining if something is sinful is Westminster Larger Catechism questions 102 to 148, which lay out in great detail the duties required and sins forbidden in the Ten Commandments.
Second, obtain at least one other witness. Paul warns Timothy, “Do not admit a charge against an elder except on the evidence of two or three witnesses” (1 Tim. 5:19). This doesn’t necessarily mean eyewitnesses of the sin, but anyone who is able to credibly testify that the sin has been committed. Those to whom the report is made must be able to determine if the report is true. If there is only one witness, and the minister denies the accusation, that determination can be challenging if not impossible. However, in such a case where there is only one witness, it should still be reported so that the leadership can investigate.
Third, report the sin to some other leader in the church and follow up. Depending on the church’s government structure, this will vary. But here’s the principle: Sin committed by a minister mustn’t be reported to any layperson (so as to avoid gossip) but only to someone who has authority to deal with it. In my case, as a member of the Presbyterian Church in America (PCA), this means the sin should be reported to another minister of the presbytery (PCA, Book of Church Order, 34–3). In other churches, the report may need to be made to an elder or to another staff member. Then, follow-up should take place, so that those aware of the sin can know it’s being dealt with properly.
If, in the unfortunate case it isn’t dealt with properly, then the one(s) who made the accusation can (in Presbyterian circles) either file an appeal or a complaint to the next higher court (PCA, Book of Church Order, Chapters 42 and 43), which in this case would be the General Assembly. In free churches, the only recourse may be (depending on the situation) leaving the church and reporting the matter to another leader or group of leaders in another evangelical church who would then try to convince leaders of the accused church to the deal with the issue properly.Tough, Essential Duty
As challenging as it may be, reporting serious ministerial misconduct is essential. Not only is it vital for the health of the church and the health of the minister, but it’s also vital for the public honor of Jesus Christ.
Ministers are our brothers, and we are our brother’s keeper. May we love our ministers enough to keep them accountable as Scripture demands.
What just happened?
On Sunday the Houston Chronicle published the first in a three-part series on sexual abuse in Southern Baptist churches in the U.S.
According to the investigation, at least 35 people who exhibited predatory behavior were still able to find jobs at other churches. In some cases, church leaders failed to alert law enforcement about complaints or to warn other congregations about allegations of misconduct, and some registered sex offenders were even allowed to return to the pulpit.
What was the scope of the abuse?
Regional area: The report is based on data collected throughout the U.S., though convictions for abuse were limited to 29 states.
Time frame: The investigative reporting looked at instances of abuse from 1997 to 2018.
Alleged perpetrators: Credible accusation were made against 380 people associated with Southern Baptist churches (i.e., pastors, deacons, Sunday school teachers, and volunteers).
Convicted abusers: Of the 380, more than 220 had been convicted of sex crimes or received deferred prosecutions in plea deals. Of the 220, more than 90 remain in prison and another 100 are still registered sex offenders. (The Chronicle has created a searchable database of those who pleaded guilty or were convicted of sex crimes.)
Number of victims: Approximately 700 victims.
What abuses were uncovered in the investigation?
According to the Chronicle, many of the victims were “adolescents who were molested, sent explicit photos or texts, exposed to pornography, photographed nude, or repeatedly raped by youth pastors. Some victims as young as 3 were molested or raped inside pastors’ studies and Sunday school classrooms.” The newspaper notes that a few of the victims were male and female adults who sought pastoral guidance and instead say they were seduced or sexually assaulted.
How was the information on sexual abuse collected?
Reporters from the newspaper searched news archives, websites, and databases from 1997 to 2018 to compile an archive of allegations of sexual abuse, sexual assault, and other serious misconduct involving Southern Baptist pastors, church officials, and volunteers.
The search concentrated on individuals who had a documented connection to a church listed in a Southern Baptist Church (SBC) directory published by a state or national association. Details were verified by examining federal and state court databases, prison records, official documents from more than 20 states, and by searching sex offender registries nationwide.
What is the Southern Baptist Convention?
The Southern Baptist Convention (SBC) is a network of autonomous churches voluntarily banded together at state, regional, and national levels to engage in missions and ministry activities designed to fulfill the Great Commission (Matthew 28:19-20). Each church in the SBC is an autonomous local congregation of baptized believers that makes their own decisions on staffing, budget, programs, etc.
The SBC consists of approximately 15 million members in 47,000 cooperating churches, making it the largest Protestant denomination in America.
What makes a church “Southern Baptist”?
According to the SBC Constitution, a cooperating Southern Baptist church is an autonomous Baptist congregation that (1) missionally and formally identifies itself as part of the Southern Baptist fellowship of churches; (2) cooperatively affirms its willing cooperation with the Convention’s purpose, processes, missions, and ministries; (3) doctrinally embraces the biblical faith and practice by which Southern Baptists have historically identified themselves; and (4) doctrinally provides regular financial support for the Convention’s work as part of the church’s adopted budget.
The SBC refers to such churches as “cooperating Southern Baptist churches.”
Does the SBC have authority over Southern Baptist churches?
No. Per the SBC Constitution, the SBC “does not claim and will never attempt to exercise any authority over any other Baptist body, whether church, auxiliary organizations, associations, or convention.”
The most the SBC can do is to disassociate from abusive churches and consider them out of fellowship.
However, the SBC recently created a Sexual Abuse Presidential Study Group assigned with investigating all options and reviewing what other denominations and groups have done to keep track of abuses. In addition, the group will hear from law enforcement, psychological and psychiatric experts, survivors, and many others to determine how to address issues of sexual abuse. (See also: Southern Baptists Work to Address Sexual Abuse)
How have SBC leaders reacted to the report?
On Sunday, SBC President J.D. Greear responded on Twitter. “The abuses described in this @HoustonChron article are pure evil,” said Greear. In a series of tweets, he added:
There can simply be no ambiguity about the church’s responsibility to protect the abused and be a safe place for the vulnerable. The safety of the victims matters more than the reputation of Southern Baptists.
As a denomination, now is a time to mourn and repent. Changes are coming. They must. We cannot just promise to ‘do better’ and expect that to be enough. But today, change begins with feeling the full weight of the problem…. It’s time for pervasive change. God demands it. Survivors deserve it. We must change how we prepare before abuse (prevention), respond during disclosure (full cooperation with legal authorities), and act after instances of abuse (holistic care).
“We—leaders in the SBC—should have listened to the warnings of those who tried to call attention to this. I am committed to doing everything possible to ensure we never make these mistakes again. We must admit that our failures, as churches, put these survivors in a position where they were forced to stand alone and speak, when we should have been fighting for them. Their courage is exemplary and prophetic. But I grieve that their courage was necessary.”
The Baptist doctrine of church autonomy should never be a religious cover for passivity towards abuse. Church autonomy is about freeing the church to do the right thing—to obey Christ in every situation. It is a heinous error to apply autonomy in a way that enables abuse.
Greear also posted an article on how victims of sexual abuse can get help.
Russell Moore, president of the SBC’s Ethics & Religious Liberty Commission, responded,
We should see this scandal in terms of the church as a flock, not as a corporation. Many, whether in Hollywood or the finance industry or elsewhere, see such horrors as public relations problems to be managed. The church often thinks the same way. Nothing could be further from the way of Christ. Jesus does not cover up sin within the temple of his presence. He brings everything hidden to light. We should too. When we downplay or cover over what has happened in the name of Jesus to those he loves we are not “protecting” Jesus’ reputation. We are instead fighting Jesus himself. No church should be frustrated by the Houston Chronicle’s reporting, but should thank God for it. The Judgment Seat of Christ will be far less reticent than a newspaper series to uncover what should never have been hidden. [Emphasis in original]
Michael and Melissa Kruger’s oldest daughter will leave home for college in the fall. That kind of milestone makes a parent stop and reflect on what they’ve learned in 18 years of parenting. Melissa notes, “One of the important things for me in motherhood is to learn to be a mom who is prayerful, and a mom who’s in the Word each day. I have realized that that example for my kids will probably affect and encourage them more than having the perfect meals or the perfectly decorated home or all these other things that we can spend our time on so much as parents.”
The Krugers have three children. Michael serves as president of RTS Charlotte and Melissa holds the dual roles of women’s ministry coordinator at Uptown Church and director of women’s content for The Gospel Coalition.
Running a nonprofit ministry geared toward moms of young children means our inbox continually fills with questions about parenting and marriage. One of the most frequent is, “How do you do date night?”
As married moms of littles, we understand firsthand where this is coming from. Like our podcast listeners, we look for reasons to hire a babysitter and spend one-on-one time with our spouses. Out-of-the-house date night without children in tow feels like the secret ingredient to a healthy marriage. Marriage “experts” gush over its ability to reboot romance in any relationship, and we all eagerly agree, welcoming any change from the daily juggle of work, household chores, and family routines.
But sometimes date night—complete with the babysitter and nice dinner—just feels impossible, and our unbroken evening routine leaves us wondering: Must two tired parents go on regular date nights away from the pressures of home life to maintain the joy and intimacy of marriage? Is that the Christian ideal?
When considering date night’s role in marriage, here are four things to keep in mind.1. It’s a Fun Treat
When we can go to dinner, a movie, a show, or even a hotel without children, the world seems to slow down and blur soft around the edges. We laugh while we scoop queso onto chips and chat about the lighter side of life. With the responsibilities of rowdy children, messy kitchens, full calendars, and financial strains out of sight, we reach for each other’s hands. We might sit a little closer and connect a little deeper.
Spending time away provides a great opportunity to foster intimacy in marriage. If you’re able to make space on the calendar, by all means, do it! It’s a nice treat. After all, your marriage likely won’t suffer from too much intentional connection.
But while God can use date night as a way to treat us to the joys of marriage, he has many methods of strengthening relational intimacy and helping us thrive in marriage. Date night is just one tool in our toolkit for togetherness.2. It’s a Modern, Western, First-World Phenomenon
In our modern, Western, first-world culture, our margin for romantic love is a blessing. Many of us have the freedom to select a spouse who matches our preferences and makes us feel weak in the knees—particularly in those first few months of dating. This is a joy and a privilege. As those ideas carry into marriage, we tend to continue emphasizing the importance of romantic feelings. But are cultivating these feelings through date nights essential in God-honoring marriages?
For many married people throughout history (and even today) this type of togetherness has been unimaginable. When both spouses shouldered never-ceasing farm labor, were married and in slavery, or were bound in systems of arranged marriage, the prospect of going out on a modern away-from-home date night almost seems laughable. God still makes ways for the marriage union to flourish and display his glory to the watching world as spouses faithfully love one another and serve for the sake of the kingdom.
God’s design for marriage applies to every era, culture, and life circumstance. His truths—the ones that command us to love one another as Christ loved us (John 13:34), to remain steadfast (1 Cor. 15:58), to spur one another to love and good works (Heb. 10:24), and to remain faithful to each other unto death (Rev. 2:10) are relevant to every marriage and are things we don’t need a date night to pursue.3. It’s Not Always Possible (Even in Our Modern Lives)
When we assume regular date nights are the litmus test for good marriages, we cause people with fewer resources to question the soundness of their marriage. Sometimes a couple would love to spend more time together without the kids, but for a variety of reasons, that’s not a realistic option.
Maybe one spouse is deployed, works long hours, or travels. Maybe the couple doesn’t have much financial margin for a babysitter or is still trying to build a childcare network in a new community. Maybe a couple has a child with special needs, and finding a caregiver requires locating someone with special training and credentials.
When we falsely believe a date night out is the only way to grow in marriage, enjoy one another, foster intimacy, and maintain a healthy commitment, we’re bound to continually feel defeated and disappointed. God is gracious to provide many ways for couples to connect and grow deeper in their love for one another beyond a night out. In fact, date-night dry seasons might be the times we best reveal the beauty of our covenant, as we steadfastly love and serve each other in difficult times.4. God Can Bless Your Marriage in Many Other Ways
A healthy marriage isn’t created by checking the weekly “date night” box so we can say we’ve pursued each other. It’s about pursuing Christ first and reflecting his love to each another. Jesus doesn’t have to “date” his bride just on special occasions, because he’s always for her—in the mundane and the spectacular. The church doesn’t have wait for an extravagant event or spiritual revival to express love for Christ, because she should always serve and follow him in love.
With a holistic view of married love and an understanding of the way our union fits into the ultimate redemption story, spouses can labor together for the gospel—when we get a date night, and when we don’t.
Therefore, preparing your minds for action, and being sober-minded, set your hope fully on the grace that will be brought to you at the revelation of Jesus Christ. (1 Pet. 1:13)
Peter begins his exhortations with an important word: “Therefore.” In light of your beautiful inheritance in Christ, what ought you to do? Set your hope fully on the grace that is to be brought to you at the revelation of Jesus Christ. A full revelation of Christ is coming, on the day of his return. Place your hope in that day, because this day may be filled with trial and sorrow. But how are you to do so? Peter specifies two ways: preparing your minds for action and being sober-minded.Prepare Your Minds
The phrase “preparing your minds for action” can be translated literally as “girding up the loins of your mind.” It’s a reference to the practice of preparing for battle. The ancients wore long robes, which would have hampered their ability to fight. Before going into battle, they bound them up around their waists to allow for freedom of motion. Entering into combat while wearing clothing that restricted their movements would have been completely foolish. Peter indicates to his hearers that having a rightly placed hope requires more than good intentions. They must be ready to fight. The battle for holiness requires that they prepare themselves as a soldier prepares for war, letting nothing encumber their ability to fight.
Note also where this battle for holiness begins. It’s the believer’s mind that must be readied for war. When we strive to live lives of holiness, we often begin by attempting to curtail sinful behaviors: I should swear less. I should stop spending impulsively.
But Peter points us to the source of our sin: our thoughts. Every sinful action we engage in is the result of a sinful thought that fed a sinful desire. If we want to set our hope fully on grace, we must deal with our sin at the source.
Temptation presents itself to the mind as a reasonable choice. We allow our thoughts to dwell on its reasonableness, fueling our desires. And as James tells us, “Desire when it has conceived gives birth to sin, and sin when it is fully grown brings forth death” (James 1:15). For this reason, Paul admonishes us to seek transformation not through the renewing of our actions or our desires, but through the renewing of our minds (Rom. 12:2).
We see the progression from thought to desire to action all the time in our daily lives. I used to love milkshakes from my favorite fast-food restaurant. But one day, as I pulled up to the drive-thru menu, I noticed what would be the beginning of the end of my love affair with them. The FDA had mandated that the nutritional content be noted next to every item on the menu. It turns out that my milkshake was killing me. Once my mind knew what was in it, my desire to have one began to diminish, and my menu choices began to change. So it is with sin.
Understanding a sin’s consequences helps break our desire to give in to it, resulting in a turning away from what once tempted us. Once we know sin is a killer, it doesn’t look as sweet. Right thinking informs right desires, which lead to right actions. But thinking rightly will be a battle. We must be prepared to fight.Be Sober-Minded
Peter also notes that setting our hope fully on Christ requires a second type of mental preparedness: sober-mindedness. The opposite of soberness is drunkenness. Think about what a drunk person is like. His perception is skewed so he can’t think clearly, nor can he govern his desires or actions. He is a danger to himself and others, unpredictable and unreliable, unable to be swayed by wise counsel. By contrast, Peter urges his hearers to be self-controlled and single-minded as they live out their salvation.
If we are to set our hope fully on Christ, we must be fully attuned to the things of Christ with great seriousness.
It’s interesting that Peter includes the word “fully” at all. Why not just tell us to set our hope on the grace that will be brought to us? Why “set our hope fully on grace?” Because it’s possible, and indeed common, for the believer to function as one with a hope placed partially on grace and partially elsewhere. We’re prone to placing our hope on our own good deeds, or on a spouse or our children, or on a pastor or president. We may place it on a bank account or a career, or even on the size of our social media accounts. We tell ourselves that we hope in Christ, but what we mean is that we hope in Christ and __________.
We’re people of divided allegiances, divided hopes. We hedge our bets. We’re the double-minded man of James 1:6–8, tossed about by waves of doubt. We’re those Jesus warned about, storing up treasures both on earth and in heaven. Peter calls us instead to hope fully on grace, ready to battle doubt and temptation, soberly weighing the cost of divided loyalties. Those who place their hope fully on grace forgo the vain pleasures of this world and look to Christ. They treasure a future inheritance rather than seeking one in the present. Peter’s original audience was facing the loss of social, financial, and familial stability as a result of their conversion. Their current situation left little room for hope by human standards. To them, Peter’s call to a full hope in a future security would have been a mercy.
It is for modern ears, as well. We also face uncertainty and loss in this life. But we don’t place our hope in this life. Rather, we place it fully on the future grace that awaits us.
Seven years ago, my wife was five months pregnant. We were headed for an ultrasound to see the baby and have the doctors make sure everything was progressing nicely. We’d done ultrasounds three times with other children and were feeling excited. All of our children were born healthy, and we figured the ultrasound wouldn’t take long.
As we met with the doctor and ultrasound technician, they referred to what they saw as “your child.” They must have said it 50 times, saying things like “your child’s hand,” “your child’s heart.”
Then something changed.
Another doctor was brought into the room and for five minutes he stared at the baby’s heart. The room was completely silent. I could tell my wife was becoming upset, but I was oblivious and thought she was overreacting. Was I ever wrong. The doctor began to tell us there was a tumor on our child’s heart and started to run down all the scenarios we now faced.
Then the doctor said: “If the fetus is abnormal and that is a management problem for you, you have options.”No Longer a Child?
The slight change in wording tells the story. I was in too much shock to respond, but later it dawned on me what he’d done. The baby my wife was carrying was only a child if we wanted to keep it. There were more than 4,000 abortions in the U.S. the day we were given the option to add one more. We had the right to determine whether this child would be allowed to live. If we didn’t want the baby, it was only a fetus.
The baby my wife was carrying was only a child if we wanted to keep it.
Deep down, there’s a selfish side in all of us. We tell ourselves we would never do _________ in any situation. Then you find yourself in that situation and your mind wanders. You think selfish thoughts. Kids limit us, after all. A child with special needs would’ve drastically changed our lives. WebMD didn’t give us much hope that our child was healthy.
In that moment I understood, in a new way, that parenting is a joyful surrender of your time. I’ve met many wonderful families who have children with special needs, but I wondered if I would be up for the task. Would I, despite my theology, be willing to kill my child? Would I reason that it wouldn’t be a good life for my child, or that my other children would be so negatively affected that the decision was really about “management”?Lessons Learned
Three weeks later we returned for another ultrasound. The growth on the heart was not a tumor but a normal variant. In the doctor’s eyes, our fetus was a child again. In our eyes, nothing had changed. I was never given the chance to truly choose life in a hard situation; but then again, it was never my choice to begin with.
In the doctor’s eyes, our fetus was a child again. In our eyes, nothing had changed.
My son is now approaching 7, and I’ve pondered this event many times. I’m still in shock over what happened that day—not the shock of surprise, but the shock of sadness and disgust. As my wife and I have considered that conversation over the years, we’ve felt a large pull to help the Right to Life movement.
Here are a few things busy people can do to fight for the life of unborn children.Pray
Pray for moms who are considering an abortion, families who want to adopt children, and doctors who make a living aborting them.Engage
Take part in a Right to Life march. Engage your pro-choice friends in sane and calm arguments. Scott Klusendorf’s book The Case for Life: Equipping Christians to Engage the Culture might help in this regard. The best argument is a simple one: Gently ask the people you’re debating what they think the mother is carrying. How they answer that question will guide your conversation. You never know how winning one person over to the pro-life side may impact the life of a child.Be Generous
Consider giving money to a pregnancy center for an ultrasound machine, or to a couple to help pay their adoption costs.
Debunk the myth that Christians stop caring for babies once they’re born.
Continue to debunk the myth that Christians stop caring for babies once they’re born. You might be surprised how many people believe it.Consider Foster Care or Adoption
I have friends who adopted the child of a young teenager who, despite her parents’ wishes, carried the baby to term. Our family has had the joy of fostering multiple children, bringing them home a few days after birth. We’ve loved them deeply even as we’ve sought to debunk the myth that Christians don’t care for children after they are born. We’ve been given many opportunities to talk about Jesus in a natural way as these children have entered our home.
Churches that purposefully engage in this create a culture that celebrates and encourages families to adopt or foster.Love Your Own Kids Well
They are sweet little image bearers in need of a great and merciful Savior. I don’t want to be known as an advocate for unborn children but not an advocate and provider for my own.Do More
Is there more that could be done? Yes! As we mourn Roe v. Wade and what happened recently in New York, let us engage in a variety of ways to care for the unborn, address the reasons people consider abortions, train apologists to defend the unborn, create compelling videos and print material, advocate for children who need to be protected, open our homes to orphans, vote for legislators who will outlaw murder, and more.
We cannot do too much for this cause.
I just started a job in the corporate world after six years in vocational ministry. One reason for leaving my Christian workplace was for the evangelism opportunity, but I could use some tips to get me started. Do you have any suggestions on how to share my faith in the workplace?
How exciting! I appreciate your heart for reaching lost people with the good news, and your boldness in seeking out a new occupation. Let me share with you a single profound sentence about workplace evangelism, and unpack a few practical suggestions from it.
“Earn the right to be heard.” This comes from Bill Peel, director of the Center for Faith and Work at LeTourneau University. As he explains, we have shifted from a cultural environment where it was assumed Christianity had something of value to say about life to an environment where the opposite is assumed. Generally speaking, people won’t listen to us until we earn the right to be heard.
This is not simply about hostility to God, although that is a factor. Equally important is the sacred/secular divide, the assumption—including among many, if not most, Christians today—that religion is about eternal things, so it does not always apply to our activities. God has no place in the workplace if God doesn’t care about our daily work—and care about it for its own sake, not simply as an excuse to shove tracts at people.
So here are three practical suggestions:1. View the work itself as ministry.
People don’t like to be condescended to or manipulated. If you are only in that workplace to get a conversion out of people, they will know it and they will resent it. Excellent performance in the work itself, for its own sake, along with humane treatment of customers and coworkers, will earn you the right to be heard. Paul’s tent-making wouldn’t have been a viable evangelism strategy if he made lousy tents. The fact is that you have not left full-time ministry. The word “ministry” simply means “service.” All Christians, without exception, are in full-time service to Jesus Christ, and to the world he cares so much about. Whatever a Christian does—writing reports, driving trucks, sweeping floors—is ministry to God and neighbor. When it is done in a God-honoring way, it is a powerful witness that draws people toward the verbal witness.2. Be patient.
Earning the right to be heard takes time. You should not expect evangelistic opportunities quickly. Trust that as you labor faithfully, God will use your track record of excellent performance and humane treatment of people to awaken the hearts of those around you. I have a relative who came to Christ after her retirement; she became convinced Christ was alive after reflecting on decades of seeing Christians do their daily work so differently.3. Evangelize relationally.
I know the whole idea of “relationship evangelism” has sometimes been used to crowd out verbal proclamation of the gospel. But we can do both, and I’d encourage you to evangelize relationally at work. That means not reducing the gospel to a canned set of bullet points. When opportunities arise, focus on being responsive to the person you’re witnessing to—and trust that as the Lord works in them, they will continue to grow more responsive to the gospel. This is especially important in the workplace, where relational dynamics can be complex and boundaries are important.
Blessings on your efforts. If more questions come up, I hope you’ll send them in!
See previous installments in the Thorns & Thistles series here.
One day each month I open the mailbox and find a delightful surprise. Mixed in with the bills and junk mail is a beautiful magazine: Southern Living. I gaze at the cover photo of a delicious-looking pie or beautifully decorated room, and—for just a moment as I linger on the front porch—I imagine baking the pie or chatting with a friend in the beautiful room.
And then I walk back through my front door to at least one (but likely three) little boys clamoring for my attention. So I lay the magazine aside and hope that one day I’ll find enough time just to read it. I know I’ll never actually make the pie, and the design ideas will be out of style before I have time to use them.
In this season of having three kids between the ages of 5 months and 5 years, so many wonderful things get pushed aside for the tyranny of the urgent. It’s tempting to hunker down at home and pretend that outside relationships and responsibilities don’t exist. If I’m honest, friendships with other women can seem like those magazine cover photos—a beautiful idea that I don’t have the capacity to realize amid the demands of my chaotic life.
So when the Holy Spirit brings to mind a verse like Proverbs 17:17, reminding me that “a friend loves at all times,” I look hard for an asterisk beside the word all. Isn’t there a little note at the bottom that lists exceptions, like when you have needy young children or an unusually demanding season at work or an aging loved one to care for or tons of ministry commitments? As hard as I look, though, the asterisk isn’t there. A friend loves at all times.
But how we love and care for our friends can differ depending on our circumstances. Here are four practices that will help you love your friends in whatever circumstances you find yourself.1. Make the Best Use of Your Time
If we have little time for our friends, we would be wise to consider why we have so little time in the first place. Are we spending so much time on social media that we don’t have time for face-to-face interactions? Are we spending so much time decorating and organizing our homes that we don’t invite people into them? Are we spending so much time helping our children form friendships through playdates and activities that we don’t nurture our own friendships?
Still, there are seasons in which we have demands on our time that we can do little to change. One way we can make good use of our time (Eph. 5:16) as friends is to think about what is most meaningful to various friends—and focus our efforts there.
For example, one of my friends particularly appreciates words of affirmation and loves to receive mail. Writing a note and mailing it can all be done in a relatively short amount of time without leaving my home.
Another friend enjoys connecting with me by sending articles she finds particularly insightful about culture, religion, and politics. While I have little time to read in this season, I make sure to read the articles she sends, because they serve as a touchpoint for us and help me know her better as I see what piques her interest.2. Invite People In
At least some of the activities that keep us busy can be done with someone else around. While catching up with a friend at a coffee shop may seem exciting, chatting while folding a pile of laundry still enables you to connect with an old friend, or even make a new one.
Earlier this year, I felt led to invite a young woman in our small group to join our family for weekly dinners. I wanted to get to know her better, but going out to meet her regularly just wasn’t realistic. I nervously sent her a text, thinking there were probably a million other things she would rather do than have dinner with our crazy family. But she was thrilled with the idea. She’s been coming weekly for months and feels like a part of our family. Inviting her into our everyday lives enabled me to pursue friendship without adding demands on my time.3. Pray
Don’t overlook the value of praying for your friends. James 5:16 reminds us that “the prayer of a righteous person has great power as it is working.” Sometimes we tell a friend we’ll pray for them as a throwaway comment since we don’t know another way to help, and we feel we should offer to do something. But praying really is doing something. It’s bringing our friends to Jesus.
In Luke 5, the paralyzed man’s friends believed so strongly that the best thing they could do for their friend was to bring him to Jesus that they lowered him through a hole they made in someone’s roof. And the results were astounding! The man received forgiveness of his sins, was healed of his paralysis, and joined others in giving glory to God. We can’t physically bring our friends to Jesus, but when we pray we bring them before his throne of grace where they will “receive mercy and grace to help in time of need” (Heb. 4:16).4. Be Willing to Receive
While I usually assume that loving friends means actively doing things to serve them, a close friend recently pointed out that for one person to be able to give, another must be willing to receive.
Jesus says, “It is more blessed to give than to receive” (Acts 20:35). My friend reminded me that when I decline her offers of help I rob her of the blessing of being the giver. I’m actually loving her well when I allow her to serve me.
These days, instead of retreating from friendships when life is busy, or lamenting my lack of picture-perfect friendships, I’m seeking to engage my friends and love them at all times—even when I don’t have time.
“What are you doing for Sabbath rest?” my sister-in-law asked me. After sharing how overwhelmed I felt in this season of raising young children, I laughed. “Sabbath? I don’t have time for a Sabbath!” I replied.
A few minutes later, she told me to open my phone to a Venn diagram. With a few strokes of a pen, she had mapped out all my major commitments, how they overlapped, and the deeper heart issues they revealed. Although I didn’t ask her to, she took the liberty to itemize my life and point out, in love, that I was overcommitted, striving, and needed rest.
Over the course of several days, conversations, and prayer, I realized I needed a new definition of rest. I didn’t just need the kind of rest where I kick my feet up, I needed the deep soul rest that comes from dependence on Christ and is commanded by God: Sabbath rest. Out of his goodness and mercy, God rested from his work on the seventh day of creation (Gen. 2:15), setting a pattern for his creatures to follow.
I realized I needed a new definition of rest.
The Sabbath is an essential break from our normal work. More importantly, though, it’s a spiritual rest; we remember that as God’s people, we are to be like him, set apart and made holy in Christ. When we rest, we imitate God. We remember the Lord of our salvation and focus our delight and joy in him and his accomplished work, not our own.Discipline in Gospel Trust
I’ll rest after I get a little more done, I say to myself while washing dishes, doing laundry, and paying bills. We often feel better resting when we know dinner is in the crockpot and the toys are picked up. Sunday may be a day of rest, we think, but I’ll rest when I’m done with all this.
This faulty line of thinking is rooted in a deeper belief that the success of life and motherhood depends on ourselves. We’re not just working on a completed to-do list; we’re working on achieving “good mom” status. We’re afraid to rest, because we don’t trust God to rule over our world—or at least, do it the way we would.
Yet, in Christ, our striving for “good mom” status was nailed to the cross. When Jesus defeated death, he deemed us righteous, loved, and accepted. It’s because of Christ’s actions—not ours—that we find our rest in the Lord, rather than in a completed to-do list.
In Christ, our striving for ‘good mom’ status was nailed to the cross.
There will always be unfinished tasks in the home, but taking time for Sabbath is a necessary discipline in gospel trust as we outwardly embody our inward reliance on Christ. It’s not something we’ll get to “later”—that day, or in a few years when the kids are older. The Sabbath is a weekly reminder that only God holds the world together, even when we stop.Working Hands, Resting Heart
For many of us, once we choose to prioritize a Sabbath, our natural tendency is to define it by our rules: No computer, no paying bills, no errands. Go on a walk, take a nap, read a book. But what happens when the baby gets sick, or the naptime revolt begins, or we hear about a neighbor who needs help? What happens to Sabbath rest when the work of life gets in the way?
When it comes to the Sabbath, there’s a Pharisee lurking in us all. Just like the self-righteous people of Jesus’s day, we want to focus on legislation. But Christ shows us a better way. In the Gospels, Jesus makes clear our highest priority should be to love God and neighbor, even on the Jewish Sabbath. When the Pharisees called Jesus out on the Sabbath for plucking grain from the field and for healing a withered man’s hand, he responded, “I desire mercy, not sacrifice” (Matt. 12:7), and just a few verses later, “Do good on the Sabbath” (Matt. 12:12).
The essence of Sabbath rest isn’t found in the terms of our do-and-don’t lists. Instead, we remember weekly that our God is holy, and as his people, we are to be the same. When we Sabbath with this in mind, our hands may “do good” while our hearts continue to rest in the good news of the gospel.
That means sometimes the Sabbath looks like momma getting a nap, and sometimes it looks like washing soiled sheets. Sometimes it looks like reading a book, and sometimes it looks like bringing a meal to someone at church. When Jesus is our rest, it can be a day of showing mercy and love, being in the mess, making sacrifices, and being content with the inefficiencies of young children. It can be a day of high cost to ourselves, in order to show Jesus to others.
That’s because our weekly rest isn’t about tightly-kept boundaries, it’s about delighting and finding our joy in the Lord. As we spend our Sundays going to church with our fellow saints, taking time for personal Bible reading and study, or heading outdoors for a prayer walk, we deepen our dependence on Christ. As mothers, we can bring our children alongside us—telling them Bible stories, practicing Scripture memory, or bringing them with us as we visit the sick and needy—to teach them the regular rhythms of a believer and reveal a mother wholly reliant on God, not her own efforts.Live Like His Word Is True
I often think back to that Venn diagram of my life. Since then, some circles have shifted, new ones have been added, and others have disappeared entirely. It’s a reminder that life is always changing, but our God is not. Christ came and completed all the necessary work for us. It is finished.
It’s possible to make Sundays a day of rest, even in the season of young children. If you’re working with no rest, stop and repent. Believe God is who he says he is. Live like Jesus’s words are really true, “Come to me, all who labor and are heavy laden, and I will give you rest” (Matt. 11:28).
Why do we teach our children to read?
You’ve probably never given the question much thought. After all, no one has ever asked you, “Do you want your child to learn to read, or do you think it’s unnecessary?” (If your child’s teacher asked that question, you’d likely be looking for a new school.)
We consider literacy to be so obviously beneficial to our lives, we’d never consider not teaching our kids how to read. But we don’t give much thought to why we teach them to read. If you’re a Christian parent, the answer to this question should be obvious: so they can read the Bible.
The Bible is the most important text produced in the history of the world. It’s the most important text your child will ever read. “Since Moses descended from the mountain with two loose-leaf stones under his arms, all literature can be divided into two genres,” says Tony Reinke. “Genre A: The Bible…Genre B: All other books.”
The fact that learning to read the Bible will also help your children read traffic signs, text messages, and War and Peace is certainly beneficial. But every other type of reading is of secondary importance to reading the Bible.
Some missionaries spend years or even decades learning how to teach literacy to unreached people. Why do they do that? Primarily, to give those people the tools they need to read the Word of God for themselves. As Christian parents—missionaries to our own children—we want our kids to know how to read so they too can one day read the Bible for themselves. This mindset about teaching can lead to long-lasting benefits for your children. Instead of viewing the literacy process as the means to reach the goal of reading, think of it instead as the means by which your child reaches the goal of reading the Bible.How to Read the Greatest Book
This may appear to be a trivial distinction. After all, children who learn to read will likely be able to read the Bible. While that is true, a profound shift occurs when we teach reading for the primary goal of reading Scripture. Whatever stage your child is at in their literacy education—whether they’re an infant learning words for the first time or a high school student learning vocabulary terms for the SAT—consider this to be your objective: to shape their reading so they can better read the literature that falls into “Genre A.”
When the goal of reading is to read the Bible, you will think differently about a child’s education in literacy. You’ll begin to recognize small ways you can shift the focus, especially their early reading efforts, in a way that prepares them to become better readers of God’s Word. (They’ll also gain the additional benefit of being better readers of all types of text.)
In 1940, the American philosopher and educator Mortimer J. Adler wrote How to Read a Book. Adler said his book was for readers whose “main purpose in reading books is to gain increased understanding.” Because this is an explicitly biblical purpose for reading (Proverbs 4:7) and because Adler’s guidelines apply to reading the Great Books of the Western World (a course Adler helped develop), his method can help us prepare our children to read the Greatest Book.
The first phase of reading is elementary reading. Adler notes that the four stages of this level roughly align with the early years of the school curriculum:
• Stage 1: Reading readiness—the ability to follow directions, a capacity for sustained attention, and so on.
• Stage 2: Word mastery—the ability to recognize and read basic words, the ability to use context clues to discern meaning of words, and more.
• Stage 3: Functional literacy—rapid progress in vocabulary building, greater ability to use context clues for finding meaning, and the like.
• Stage 4: Advanced literacy—refinement and enhancement of previously acquired skills.
In this excerpt, we’ll cover the first two stages.Stage 1: Reading Readiness
The goal of this first stage is to develop Bible-reading readiness by creating in the child a desire to learn to read so they can read the Bible for themselves. Even before the child learns the alphabet, you can prepare their heart and mind to hear God’s Word by (1) encouraging them to imitate your reading habits and (2) exposing them to the stories and imagery of the Bible.
A primary way children “learn to desire” is through imitation. They are constantly observing adults to discover what behavior they want to imitate. A child asks for a sip of your coffee not only because they are curious about how it tastes but also because they associate coffee drinking with maturity, with being an adult. They observe Mom and Dad doing something children don’t do, and they assume it must therefore be desirable. Because of this urge to imitate, it is imperative your child frequently observes you reading the Bible. You want your child to associate Bible reading with maturity, specifically a habit of mature Christians.
You’re probably thinking, especially if you have a toddler, you can’t get much productive Bible reading done if your children are around. This is most certainly true. It’s difficult to accomplish almost any productive tasks around infants, much less a task that requires as much sustained attention as Bible reading. So you’ll need to sacrifice some of your time. You’ll need to find quiet time where you can be alone with the Lord to read his Word and find time when your child can see you reading Scripture. The latter times are as much for your child’s edification as for your own.
Another way to increase your child’s desire for the Bible is to expose them to its stories and imagery. In previous generations this meant reading the adults’ Bible translation out loud to children. Unfortunately, this often had the opposite effect of what was intended. When children hear language they don’t understand, they can grow bored and develop negative associations that cause them to want to avoid such material in the future.
One solution is to use a paraphrase—a Bible version that preserves the meaning, if not the text, in language that is more easily understandable. Today we have a broad range of complete Bible paraphrases for children, including the Jesus Storybook Bible, the International Children’s Bible, and the Easy-to-Read Version.
Another option, particularly suited for preschool children, is to read from collections of selected Bible stories, such as The Complete Illustrated Children’s Bible. Because these books are anthologies, they can’t provide the same scope and grandeur as a paraphrase or translation that contains all God’s Word. Still, such books do provide the essential benefit of getting younger children excited about engaging with Scripture. At this phase of development, that is one of the most important long-term goals we hope to achieve.Stage 2: Word Mastery
At this stage children are broadening their vocabulary by learning the meaning of new words. For most types of reading, this process comes from being told the meaning or discovering it from the context of the story. For Bible reading, though, there is a way to develop word mastery that can be enjoyable for both you and your child: Take them outdoors.
Psalms 19 states, “The heavens declare the glory of God; the skies proclaim the work of his hands. Day after day they pour forth speech; night after night they reveal knowledge” (verses 1-2). God speaks to us through this “general revelation” as well as through the “special revelation” of the Bible. Because they are both forms of God’s truth, we should be attuned to both types of revelation. Paying close attention to general revelation can enrich our reading of Scripture. As Scott Steltzer explains:
A heart attuned to creation’s song is better positioned to comprehend and cherish the truths of Scripture. This is true even with the simplest of terms. Humor me for a moment and read this list aloud to yourself. Shut your eyes after each word and let your mind make the biblical connections:
Sheep. Green grass. Stars. Sun. Tree. Branch. Seed. Root. Light. Sky. Rock. Stream. Sand. Wave. Storm. Cloud. Lightning. Thunder. Mountain. Field. Cliff. Dust. Stone. Locust. Flower. Sparrow. Desert. Sea. Fire. Water.
Since we understand God more deeply through both his Word and his world, withdrawing from creation hampers our understanding of God.
Of course, a child can learn what sheep, locust, or mustard seeds are simply by reading about them. But they will develop a deeper appreciation when they experience nature firsthand—running their fingers through the wool of a lamb, hearing the sound of locusts in the fields, or feeling the smallness of a mustard seed on their tongue.
Going on a nature walk or to a petting zoo is not merely an entertaining diversion. These activities are means of experiencing the general revelation of nature that can have a lifelong influence on how your son or daughter reads the Bible.
This month, John MacArthur marks the 50th anniversary of his service as senior pastor of Grace Community Church in Sun Valley, California. MacArthur is an author of dozens of books on theology, Christian living, expository preaching, and cultural and church issues. He has endured much and seen even more in his years at Grace. He is indeed a man whom God has granted faithful endurance.
A few months ago, I had the privilege to talk with MacArthur about persevering in ministry. That interview is captured here.You’ve served as pastor of Grace Community Church for nearly five decades and no doubt have walked through innumerable dangers, toils, and snares. What posed the most serious threats to your persevering in the ministry?
Pastoring is really an effort to be the instrument of the Spirit of God in the sanctification of God’s people to see them conformed to Christ. I often think about the fact that election is purely God’s divine purpose before time, justification is a divine act in a moment, and glorification is a divine act in a moment. And in the biography of every Christian’s life, sanctification is this long, drawn-out process of conformity to Christ. And the instrument of that, of course, is the Word of God and the Spirit of God through the means of the shepherding of God’s people.
So I think the hardest part about pastoral ministry is the suffering Paul talks about in 2 Corinthians 11:29: “Who is weak, and I am not weak? Who is made to fall, and I am not indignant?” You know it’s not about the numbers of people in your church. It’s not about a successful worship service. It’s not about a big event. My life sort of rises and falls in terms of gratitude and joy on the basis of what I see in the sanctifying process in God’s people—the flock the Lord has given to me.
It’s disappointing when you see people you’ve poured your life into, and you know they’ve had enough exposure to the truth to be maturing and faithful, and yet they are unfaithful or sinful or, even worse, sometimes mutinous in the life of the church, doing what they can to fight against leadership and cause division. On the positive side, the greatest joy is to see someone come to Christ and then flourish and grow into Christlikeness. The opposite of that is the most difficult thing to deal with, and sometimes you wind up questioning whether you’re the right person—maybe they need someone else speaking into their life. Particularly if you’ve been in the same place for a long, long time, you’re wondering if they’ve heard you so much that you sort of don’t have any influence left.
I think that for an enduring, long-term ministry, you live long with the wonderful, even multigenerational, blessings. I’ve stood by the bed of a dying, beautiful, sweet lady from a precious family whom I’ve known for decades. She and her husband are now both in heaven. Her children are in the church, her grandchildren are in the church, and now her great-grandchildren are coming into the church and being ministered to and nurtured as children. This is an incredible blessing—to see a church have the kind of continuity where it brings joy to somebody like that who’s looking down on three more generations. On the other hand, the downside is, you’ve got people exposed to the same kind of ministry, the same kind of fellowship, and they seem never to get on the path of sanctification and demonstrate much progress. That can be discouraging.You’ve preached book by book, verse by verse for decades. How have you sought to keep growing in your ability to preach and in your passion for the task itself? How can we keep our preaching from growing stale?
I started preaching when I was young; my first sermon would probably be 60 years ago. I’ve found that what energizes me in preaching is the bottomless treasure of Scripture. It doesn’t matter how many times I go back to it. It doesn’t matter how many times I reexamine a passage. It’s an inexhaustible diamond mine. I just keep finding diamonds all over the place, and they have multiple facets. I would say at this point, at my age, I am more enthusiastic, more passionate about the things I preach than maybe I’ve ever been. And I’ve always been enthusiastic about it.
It doesn’t matter how many times I go back to [the Bible]. It doesn’t matter how many times I reexamine a passage. It’s an inexhaustible diamond mine.
But I still love the process of discovery. That keeps me fresh. I’m still trying to understand every nuance of every passage and every doctrine. I just would say after all these years in the Word of God, week after week, day after day, 60 years of this kind of preaching, the Word is more precious to me now than it’s ever been before, and preaching it is a greater privilege than it’s ever been. It’s now possible for me not only to prepare but also to draw from a well of the past that informs me even as I’m preaching. So there’s a kind of richness in my own experience. I think if I was on the road, and I had 25 sermons and I was going all over the place preaching the same 25, I’d wither and die. Or if I changed churches every seven or eight or nine years and I recycled the same sermons, I don’t think that would give me anywhere near the joy and the blessing of having to preach for 50 years to the same people every Sunday morning and Sunday night and know that I can’t just repeat what I’ve said, because they’ve already recorded it.
This has put me on course to continually search to understand the Scripture and the truth it yields better and better. It isn’t the exercise of preaching that I love. I’m happy to do that. It’s the privilege of proclaiming what I’m discovering. So it’s the discovering process that’s really underneath everything and is the reason I’ve stayed at Grace Community Church, other than that I haven’t had a lot of offers. The other reason I’ve stayed is I was afraid I would forfeit this freshness that being at the same place forces me into, and it has been the most incredible blessing in my life.How have you approached your devotional life through the years, and how can a pastor remain fervent day in and day out, year in and year out, in his use of God’s ordained means of grace?
I’ve never really been able to see the difference between studying the Scripture to understand what it means so I can communicate it to somebody else and a devotional approach. So if I’m reading it, I stop and ask, “What does this mean?” That’s just the way I’m hardwired. The study energizes me. But on the side of study, simply reading Scripture is important. Through all these years, I’ve tried to do that in many different ways.
But I do two other things at a devotional level. I’ve loved reading biographies of people God has uniquely blessed, because I always wanted to compare myself with others whom I saw as far beyond me in their walk with the Lord and in their usefulness to him. So I love the sort of humbling effect of standing in the shadow of someone God has used in a mighty way, whether it’s David Brainerd, William Tyndale, or whoever.
The Word is more precious to me now than it’s ever been, and preaching it is a greater privilege than it’s ever been.
And the other thing is reading rich doctrinal material, whether an article, a systematic theology section, or a book on a given doctrine. That’s what my heart reaches out for in a devotional sense. Many years ago when I was in seminary, I got a copy of Stephen Charnock’s The Existence and Attributes of God. And I didn’t know that anybody could have that many thoughts about God at the time. Recently I read Sinclair Ferguson’s book The Whole Christ, and it enriched my grasp on sanctification and antinomianism.Over the long haul, how do we keep Christ and the gospel at the center of our ministries—and keep other things from crowding them out?
On the road to Emmaus, Jesus said, “Look, I’m the theme of the Old Testament,” and he went into the Law, the Prophets, and the Holy Writings and spoke to them of all the things concerning himself. It’s anticipation of Christ in the Old Testament, it’s incarnation in the Gospels, it’s proclamation in the book of Acts, it’s explanation in the Epistles, it’s glorification or exaltation in the book of Revelation. If you’re a sequential expositor, you never get far away from Christ. You may be looking directly into his face in Matthew, Mark, Luke, and John. You’re then hearing his gospel being proclaimed throughout the book of Acts. If you preach through the New Testament, by the time you finish the Acts, you haven’t taken a breath without Jesus Christ being at the center of it. Then you get into the Epistles, and immediately they’re explaining who he is and why he came and what he accomplished.
The reason I do sequential exposition of books is because I’m afraid not to, because every word of God is true. If you do that, Christ is the unending theme of absolutely everything. You know this is where your focus has to be: as you gaze at his glory, you’re changed into his image from one level of glory to the next by the Lord who is the Spirit (2 Cor. 3:18). I remember finishing the Gospel of John for a second time. I had preached through Matthew, Luke, then Mark . . . I did the Gospel of John for a second time because many who had joined the church hadn’t been there when I first did it. I finished John and said, “What would you want to do after this?” And they said, “Now we know the fullness of Christ in the New Testament. We think it would be wonderful to go into the Old Testament and find him there.” It’s sort of like finding Waldo—you can’t find him if you don’t know what he looks like. But when you know what he looks like . . . you find Christ everywhere.
If you’re a sequential expositor, you never get far away from Christ.
When the people get a glimpse of Christ in his full glory, they desire that. And I’ve never found any subject, any person even remotely close to him, who’s better for my own sanctification and the sanctification of our people.Much has been written about pastoral burnout, and at least some of it seems linked to wrong expectations and disappointment. How can young ministers overcome that challenge?
The idea that you’re going to leave the ministry out of disappointment is a failure to understand that it was never about you; it was a service to which you were called. If you were in the military and your job was to stand and guard the food while everybody else went to battle, and you were a good soldier, you’d be there doing your duty, doing what you were commanded to do. You’d be honored to be in the triumph in the big picture. I think we let too many guys get away with leaving the ministry because of some personal dissatisfaction. I think that can be fueled by a failure to be in the Word of God, a failure to be a faithful expositor. So I tell young guys, “Look, the first two or three years of your ministry, do exposition, work hard, go deep into the text, pour yourself into that, and you’ll start good habits. Those habits will take over, and it won’t depend on self-discipline in the future—it’ll just be a habit. You just do it because you do it. And once you establish those kinds of consistent habits, that will sustain you through the hard times.”
If you don’t have those kinds of habits established in the early years, it’s harder to survive disappointment. Again, it goes back to trust in the Word of God, trust in the purposes of God, and trust in the call of God, where he’s placed you. Be faithful to the Lord, be grateful for the service to him. Let him take care of the results. I’ve often said, you take care of the depth of your ministry, and let God take care of the breadth. Someone once came up to an old preacher and said, “My congregation is too small.” He replied, “Maybe it’s as large as you’d like to give an account for at the day of judgment.” So I used to pray, “Lord, don’t give me any more people. I don’t want to be responsible for any more people.”Have you detected patterns in friends and colleagues who’ve failed to endure in ministry? If so, how can those help us?
In 2 Corinthians 3, Paul compares the old covenant and the new covenant, talks about the fact that he’s a minister of the new covenant and gives all the ways it’s better. Then he comes in chapter 4 and says, “Having this ministry by the mercy of God, we do not lose heart” (2 Cor. 4:1). Ministry is a mercy. It’s an undeserved mercy. That means I don’t deserve it. I couldn’t earn it. So why would I walk away from it if it doesn’t satisfy me? It is a mercy that I’m even in the ministry. . . . I think Paul sees it as a mercy, even as he suffered.
You take care of the depth of your ministry, and let God take care of the breadth.
He suffered and not only from things on the outside but even worse, all for the care of the churches. It was a life of suffering because he was so burdened over their sanctification being halted so frequently by false teachers and other things. I think if you’re going to endure in the ministry, you have to understand that being called to minister God’s Word is a mercy; it’s such an incredible privilege that you need to take it for what it is and not ask for more. The Lord has probably given you all he’s gifted you to handle.Let’s say I’m a seminary student training for pastoral ministry or a brand-new pastor serving in my first vocational ministry position—how would you advise me to avoid the many pitfalls that threaten me both as a Christian and as a pastor?
Let’s assume you’re going to teach the Scriptures, let’s assume that’s in your commitment. I would say this: Love your people. To be able to survive 50 years, five decades, and not crash and burn and not develop animosity or disappointment in people—love them. You know the real work of the Holy Spirit in the life of a believer is to produce love, joy, peace, gentleness, goodness, faith, meekness, self-control. All those things need to be manifestly evident in the life of a pastor so he can survive.
If you don’t have those graces in your life by the Holy Spirit, you’re not going to survive. One of two things is going to happen. Either you’re going to go, or the people are going to go, and you’re going to be in a revolving-door church. You’re going to bring them in the back door with whatever you’re doing and run them right out the side door after they get to know you. So the one thing I’d say is take heed to yourself and to your doctrine. And by that I mean, let those people know that you give your life for them because you love them.
I’m holding in my arms the great-grandchild of the people I ministered to first. The families love me, and they love my wife, Patricia, and they love our family and our kids and our grandkids. There has to be integrity in your life, so take heed to yourself. The only way you can survive is by walking in the Spirit and having the Spirit manifest his fruit in your life. I’d say the proof of the character of a church is not its ability to attract young people. It’s its ability to hold old people. That’s the character of a church.
I’d say the proof of the character of a church is not its ability to attract young people. It’s its ability to hold old people.
If you asked me what marks Grace Community, I would say this: generations of people in the same families who love their church, who embrace their church in every way, who give generously and constantly, who serve, volunteer, fellowship, worship. That kind of endurance doesn’t come from a program. It comes from an affection that runs deep between a shepherd and his people, and it’s tested at every possible level through those decades. The end result and fruit of it is the richest of all spiritual experiences for the pastor and his people. But not many men experience that.
“There are several myths I’ve encountered as I work with parents. One is that low-income parents don’t care about education, that they don’t care about their children learning. Often there are extenuating circumstances within the family or home that may lead to that perception. But these parents care about their children; they care about their children’s academics. They want their children to learn. They want the same things for their children as other middle- and upper-income families want for their kids. And so it’s a myth that parents don’t care about education or don’t want their kids to learn.” — Sandra Hardy
Date: June 15, 2018
Event: The Gospel Coalition’s 2018 Women’s Conference, Indianapolis, Indiana
- Foster Children Need the Church
- How Foster Care Became a Christian Priority—Just in Time
- The Southern City that Lies Forgotten
- Mentioned in this podcast: Safe Families
Find more audio and video from the 2018 Women’s Conference on the conference media page.
One of the most exhilarating features of the Protestant Reformation was the rediscovery of preaching. In the preceding centuries, preaching—if it happened at all—was limited to occasional gatherings in public places. According to Timothy George, “The reformers brought the sermon back inside the church and gave it an honored place in the public worship of the gathered community.”
We usually think about that remarkable change from the people’s viewpoint. They suddenly began receiving, Sunday by Sunday, the life-giving nourishment of the proclaimed Word. But it was also a change for the preacher, who had been given a demanding task: “One man, conscious of his sins, aware of how little progress he makes and how hard it is to be a doer of the Word, sympathetically passing on to his people (whom he knows to have the same sort of problems as himself) what God has said to them and to him.”
That job summary, which is T. H. L. Parker’s description of Calvin as a preacher, reveals something of the challenge of preaching the Word. Every preacher knows how difficult it can be to keep rising to that challenge, “in season and out of season” (2 Tim. 4:2). We need encouraging voices in our ears, and Lewis Allen, author of The Preacher’s Catechism, is one of those voices.
In 2010 Allen and his large family left the comforts of West London, where he had pastored Gunnersbury Baptist Church for 12 years, to plant Hope Church in the grittier surroundings of Huddersfield, Yorkshire. By some estimates there are fewer evangelicals in Yorkshire than in Japan. This wide-ranging pastoral experience has given Allen a clear view of the sunlit peaks and dark ravines of a preacher’s calling. As he said in a recent TGC interview, “Ministry will break you. It will break your self-reliance, your expectations, your emotional and mental balance, and it will break your heart, over and over again. And all of this is good.” That kind of realism, along with Allen’s varied ministry background, will lead many preachers to think, Here’s a man who knows what I’m going through. I want to hear what he has to say to me.Time-Honored Format, Time-Honored Voices
The Preacher’s Catechism uses the format of the question-and-answer catechism, developed by the reformers. (Prior to the Reformation, catechisms were declaratory rather than interrogatory.) Given the global enthusiasm for the recently published New City Catechism, this is a superb format for a new book on preaching.
Many preachers need to be dragged away from the quick thrills of social media, and The Preacher’s Catechism demonstrates how much can be gained by turning to the riches of the church’s written heritage.
In each of the 43 chapters, the initial question-and-answer section is followed by a few pages exploring the theme. Almost every chapter draws from the work of other writers, past and present, and this is one of the book’s strengths. Authors quoted include Thomas Watson, John Donne, John Owen, Stephen Charnock, Samuel Rutherford, Jonathan Edwards, John Newton, Charles Spurgeon, B. B. Warfield, and J. I. Packer, among many others. (Given the multitude of quotations, it’s disappointing the only index is a Scripture index, which makes it difficult for readers to find their way back to gems encountered along the way.)
Many preachers, this reviewer included, need to be dragged away from the quick thrills of social media, and The Preacher’s Catechism demonstrates how much can be gained by turning to the riches of the church’s written heritage.Law and Gospel
As is customary with catechisms, a significant portion of the book is devoted to unpacking the Ten Commandments, and this section is especially helpful. For example, in the chapter discussing the implications of the eighth commandment, “You shall not steal,” Allen highlights “the sin of withholding time and energy from sermon prep instead of committing ourselves to the hard work, heart and soul.” He also writes, “We may rob people of respect in how we preach to them. We may be arrogant, patronizing, rude, or harsh. We may rob God of his glory as we make ourselves the focus of ministry. . . . We may steal people’s energy and time, preaching for too long and wearying them.” Many preachers reading that chapter may grimace and mutter, “Guilty as charged,” but we need this kind of targeted conviction of sin to produce repentance that will benefit our hearers—and also ourselves. As Allen explains, “Our law keeping as believers is . . . a Spirit-empowered life of joyful obedience.”
Any preacher reading the book will quickly discover Allen “gets” them and their work. He reminds us of truths we know in theory but can easily forget in the face of troubling circumstances such as falling attendance numbers or botched sermons. “You need to believe,” he writes, “that you are joyfully accepted by the Father’s love on your worst ministry days, as well as on your best. You are a justified man. The declaration ‘righteous’ comes from the mouth of God in the power of the Spirit and on the merits of Christ.”
It’s refreshing to find a book about preaching that is brutally honest about the preacher’s life—“our fretful Saturdays, overwhelming Sundays, and washed-out Mondays”—while also supplying salve for the wounds.Flies in the Ointment
Yet The Preacher’s Catechism stops short of being the spiritual classic it might have been—and perhaps could be in a future revised edition.
One problem area is the question-and-answer section that heads up each of the brief chapters. A catechetical question is traditionally an appeal for doctrinal information, which is then duly supplied by the answer. The purpose is explanation rather than exhortation—“What is homework?” rather than “Have you done your homework?” But Allen doesn’t always follow this model. Chapter 41, for instance, begins, “Q. Do we go home on a Sunday praying for God’s will to be done? A. We must pray ourselves and our hearers into a trusting contentment.” It needs to be said that this isn’t how catechisms are supposed to work.
Another issue with the question-and-answer combinations is the lack of uniformity. Most of them mention preaching, either in the question or the answer, which makes perfect sense given the nature of the book. It’s therefore jarring to come across a few general questions such as “Who is God?” or “Why do we celebrate baptism?” or “What is prayer?”, with answers that likewise make no reference to preaching or preachers. It’s hard to escape the impression that the actual catechism part of The Preacher’s Catechism could have been crafted with greater care.
A second flaw is Allen’s tendency to make punchy yet questionable statements without backing them up, as seen in the following examples:
- “Where the heart sins, the mind and then the body will always follow.” But surely some sins can stay in the heart, such as the adultery and murder Jesus speaks of in the Sermon on the Mount?
- “Adam was called to be a preacher. He was set apart by God in the garden to declare God’s truth to creation.” There’s no Scripture reference given to substantiate that claim.
- “The sins we feel safest about usually turn out to be the ones that have us by the throat.” Sometimes, perhaps, but “usually” is an overstatement.
A third problem is with logical flow. Readers need to trust that what they’re reading will reward their close attention. This contract of trust is weakened whenever there’s a needless change of direction or an internal contradiction, and unfortunately that happens on multiple occasions in The Preacher’s Catechism. In the chapter “Called to Preach,” for example, Allen refers approvingly to Calvin’s assertion that the call to ministry has two core features: the individual’s inner compulsion and the church’s recognition of the candidate’s suitability. But the chapter closes with three further observations about the nature of the call, and Allen then remarks, “These are the three essential marks of God’s call.” What happened to the two features identified by Calvin—are they now non-essential? That’s probably not what we’re meant to think, and so the chapter ends up seeming disorderly.Book That Helps Us Value Preaching
It feels rather Grinch-like to mention the above problems, let alone discuss them in detail, because The Preacher’s Catechism is a much-needed book.
Allen quotes James Alexander’s comment: “I fear none of us apprehend as we ought to do the value of the preacher’s office.” The Preacher’s Catechism will inspire and fortify anyone wishing to prove that statement wrong.
In recent evangelical publications, there has been a good amount of attention paid to the merits of literature, reading, and the imagination. A good thing! But in these discussions, contemporary literature (defined here as anything written since 1980) is often overlooked. When contemporary authors are mentioned, the choices are usually limited to Wendell Berry, Marilynne Robinson, and Annie Dillard—all worthy and important suggestions. But does the contemporary period have nothing more to offer? Do the “common grace” gifts contained in literature only apply to the classics?
I was a bit surprised by what I found when I first took a graduate class in contemporary literature. Works by authors like Margaret Atwood, Michael Ondaatje, and Martin Amis were full of both biblical allusions and complex philosophical and religious questions. They engaged these questions while also rendering some of the defining traumas of our age: coping with the perceived death of God, the institutionalized racism of the Holocaust and the Jim Crow era, the threat of misogyny even in the modern age.
Do the ‘common grace’ gifts contained in literature only apply to the classics?
Perhaps many of these contemporary works are overlooked because in their raw honesty, they sometimes use profanity and speak openly about sexuality. And this is an understandable objection. I would argue that, in spite of this, many of these works are deeply moral and even have a Christian ethos. As with any work of art, we must look at the context and the overall narrative, asking what the author is trying to say to us. Is it true? Can it cause us to see ourselves and our culture more clearly? Perhaps even convict us? Does it help us learn to better love our neighbors?
The eight works of contemporary fiction listed below have each challenged me spiritually, forcing me to grapple with my own (sometimes false) perceptions of God and others. They ask many of the “right” questions, revealing the complexities of faith, relationships, doubt—even if they often don’t provide answers. Many of them deal with the ways humans cope with trauma inflicted by those who ignore the imago Dei, and others expose the sins of Western culture and consumerism, including in the church. I commend each of them to you.1. Life After God (1994) by Douglas Coupland
“My secret is that I need God—that I am sick and can no longer make it alone.”
Douglas Coupland, famed author of 1991’s Generation X (which coined the term for popular usage), frequently laments the “secular” aspects of his suburban Vancouver upbringing. And this lament, coupled with a desire for “transcendence and epiphany,” is at the heart of his collection of short stories, Life After God. Each story focuses on broken characters, who are unable to love and connect, as they desperately respond in sometimes self-destructive ways to the “religious impulse” inside. The last story of the collection is full of rich, biblical resonances, as its narrator, Scout, recognizes that his spiritual “sickness” is beyond human repair. This book reminds readers that all human beings have a desire for God, even when they lack theological language for naming that desire.2. Beloved (1987) by Toni Morrison
“Anything dead coming back to life hurts.”
According to its dedication, Morrison’s Pulitzer and Nobel prize-winning novel is written as a memorial for the “60 million and more” Africans who died during the Atlantic Slave Trade. Beloved is not a straightforward fictional history, but a disorienting ghost story that uses its unconventional form to enable the reader to “participate” in the non-linear nature of trauma. Morrison built the novel around a historical newspaper fragment about escaped slave Margaret Garner, using Garner’s story to imagine the lives of some of the many traumatized voices silenced by history. The ghost-story aspect brilliantly demonstrates how the novel’s characters are haunted by the memories of their dehumanization. To regain a sense of their humanity they must re-narrate their painful memories to move forward—a rebirth that only comes through a great deal of pain.3. What Is the What (2006) by Dave Eggers
“I will tell these stories. . . because to do anything else would be something less than human.”
Dave Eggers is most known for his deeply ironic and deeply sincere A Heartbreaking Work of Staggering Genius, which made him a literary hipster poster boy of sorts. Yet his 2006 fictional “autobiography” of Valentino Achak Deng contains no trendy irony; only the harrowing, moving story of one of the Lost Boys of Sudan. Deng and Eggers worked together to try to assemble the fragmented pieces of Deng’s childhood memories, tracing both his escape from the Sudanese civil war and the many prejudices and difficult he faced as a refugee in America. The novel is also focused on the power of storytelling and how telling one’s story, as well as listening to their stories of others, helps us see the image of God in one another.4. How to Be Good (2001) by Nick Hornby
“When I look at my sins . . . I can see the appeal of born-again Christianity. I suspect that it’s not the Christianity that is so alluring; it’s the rebirth.”
On one of my first trips to London, I remember seeing what seemed to be every other person on the tube reading High Fidelity, Nick Hornby’s British bestseller. Reading Hornby is easy and fun; his books are those rare bestselling plane reads that actually ask meaningful questions. Not unlike John Irving, Hornby has a Dickensian flare for creating warm, colorful characters with a sense of both humor and pathos. How to Be Good is about a doctor who has an affair and must grapple with how she, a “good” person who saves lives every day, could also do something so bad. Is she “bad” or is she “good”? Like filmmaker Woody Allen, Hornby often asks whether we can call something “good” or “bad” without an objective standard of morality. Where do these standards come from in a secular contemporary age? Is God the only answer?5. White Noise (1985) by Don DeLillo
“This is the whole point of technology. It creates an appetite for immortality on the one hand. It threatens universal extinction on the other.”
DeLillo’s dark, clever satire of academia and popular culture brilliantly examines the ways the “white noise” that fills our daily lives—television ads, the buzz of a crowded mall, the radio weather report—teaches us how to live. These commodified spaces help us create empty “religious” rituals based on the things we own or want to own, be it an education or a new pair of jeans. The novel’s protagonist, Jack Gladney, is a professor of Hitler Studies at “The College on the Hill,” an ironic vocation by a man who is paralyzed by a fear of death. In an attempt to save himself and his family during an “airborne toxic event,” Gladney is forced to consider the relationship between technological progress and physical and spiritual death. DeLillo constantly reminds us that the bright, endless lure of owning “things” cannot protect us from death. At the same time, he very seriously considers why faith is a real need in this “artificial” age.6. Blankets (2003) by Craig Thompson
“Something about being rejected at Church Camp felt so much more awful than being rejected at school.”
Craig Thompson’s autobiographical graphic novel is a sad, beautifully illustrated story of his loss of faith. Growing up in an often abusive fundamentalist home and church, his desire to create art was mocked and belittled, and this is a large part of what led him away from faith. His story is a troubled reflection of the ways the role of the artist in the church has often been misunderstood, at best, or viewed suspiciously, at worst. Christians readers will be challenged to rethink the ways artists can speak prophetically to the church. The book also reminds us that insular Christian “culture” can easily depart from the actual teachings of Christ, resulting in abuse rather than love.7. Maus I & II (1980–1991) by Art Spiegelman
“No matter what I accomplish, it doesn’t seem like much compared to surviving Auschwitz.”
When I first read Maus I, I felt uncomfortable about a graphic novel about the Holocaust in which Jews are depicted as mice and Nazis as cats. But Art Spiegelman’s Maus I and Maus II are deeply reverent, honest, and important contributions to the canon of Holocaust literature. Spiegelman is the child of two Holocaust survivors, victims of the unspeakable evils of the death camps. Maus is the story of his father Vladek’s suffering, framed by his own story of recording his father’s memories and constructing them into this book. The novel is about secondary trauma, the ways a child of a trauma survivor absorbs the trauma he did not experienced firsthand. As his father “bleeds history,” Art is left stained in ways he must process through the writing of both of their stories.8) The Hate U Give (2017) by Angie Thomas
“Your voices matter, your dreams matter, your lives matter. Be the roses that grow in the concrete.”
Thomas’s first young adult novel, now a 2018 film, is the story of a teenager, Starr Carter. She’s a bright girl with a loving family who attends a predominantly white private school, far from the neighborhood she calls home. As Starr must negotiate both “white” and “black” spaces, she loses part of herself as she continually adapts. Early in the novel, Starr’s childhood friend is shot and killed by a police officer, and the rest of the story traces her coming of age in the Black Lives Matter era. Starr ultimately finds her previously muffled voice as she bonds more closely with her family and fights for justice in both of her parallel worlds. Regardless of political leanings or preconceived notions of Black Lives Matter, this book is an important read that will grow the reader’s capacity for empathy for individuals experiencing the impact of racial trauma.
For what great nation is there that has a god so near to it as the Lord our God is to us, whenever we call upon him? (Deut. 4:7)
Most Christians have a moment when they find themselves praying prayers of desperation. I remember mine. It felt like my whole future was falling apart. I sent rushed text messages to friends sharing my pain and asking them to pray for me. I lapsed into a tearful silence, with a sense that words had finally failed me. I needed to call out to God, but I wondered if he would hear me or if he would care. In that moment, what would I call him? How would my prayer start? Who hears me?
We refer to God by different names: God, Lord, Father, Jesus, Spirit, Savior, and countless others. Each sheds light on God’s character. Sometimes we call God by a certain name to emphasize his goodness or his mercy. Sometimes we call on a specific person of the Trinity, like when we pray to the Father. Other times, we may refer to him by his title, “Lord.”
On that tearful, desperate night, I knew whom to call on. This name wasn’t new. Millions of Christians had called God by it over the ages. It was a name I found in college when I studied the Puritans, a name that began to reshape my idea of who God is and how he loves me.
That name is “Providence.”Who Is Providence?
The early church father Irenaeus wrote, “The Maker of the universe . . . exercises a providence over all things, and arranges the affairs of our world.” Providence is the way God sovereignly rules all of creation. But it’s more specific than that. Over a millennium later, John Calvin wrote, “He sustains, nourishes, and cares for, everything he has made, even to the last sparrow . . . nothing takes place by chance (1.16.1). God cares. God nourishes. God, in his sovereignty, has in mind what is best for those who are his.
In college and seminary I can remember countless debates and squabbles over God’s sovereignty. There were horror stories of overzealous young preachers who used the doctrine like a hammer. But it was the doctrine of God’s providence that turned God’s sovereignty from a hammer into a pillow on which to rest my weary head. I had been told countless times how God was sovereign over everything in the world and in my life. The message of God’s providence, however, opened my eyes to the truth: God’s love governs God’s sovereignty. His sovereignty isn’t his cold, harsh rule with no regard or feeling for man. In the doctrine of providence, we see more clearly: God meets the needs of his people, according to his love for them.
God answers prayers in only two ways: provision or protection.
When Providence is the one caring for you, you needn’t fear loss or pain or death. This is what undergirds Jesus’s teaching in Matthew 6:25–34. Be anxious for nothing, he says (Matt. 6:25). Jesus says we can look to God’s providence over creation to see his love for us in miniature. The birds don’t sow, but they are fed (Matt. 6:26). The lilies of the field don’t toil, and yet they are dressed with more magnificence than Solomon (Matt. 6:28–29). And we, Jesus says, are far more than they. God isn’t just our Creator; he’s our loving Father.
Jesus’s conclusion is the kicker. “The Gentiles seek after all these things, and your heavenly Father knows you need them all,” he says. “But seek first the kingdom of God and his righteousness, and all these things will be added to you” (Matt. 6:32–33).
He knows you need them all.
God’s provision isn’t arbitrary. He doesn’t withhold blessings to put his children through a cosmic test of pain tolerance. Providence is our God, and he knows our needs. He adds them to us.
On that bitter, tearful night, I knew the God to whom I prayed is the God who knows what I need and who provides for me.Prayer and Providence
If that’s true, it changes our prayer life from beguiling, bartering, or boasting to faithfully entrusting ourselves to the God who provides—the God who is Providence. When it comes down to it, God answers prayers in only two ways: provision or protection. If he gives us what we ask for, it’s because of his great love. But the converse is also true (and what we so often miss): if the Lord isn’t giving us what we’re asking for, then he’s protecting us from it. Because God provides his children with only good gifts, any time he withholds from us we can be sure it’s because that blessing doesn’t serve his ultimate purpose: to conform us into the image of Christ.
Sometimes God withholds things we ask for because the thing itself is bad. Other times he withholds it because of the rotten fruit it would bear in our lives, the unseen pain it would cause, or the lessons or formation it would steal. Sometimes God’s “no” is for a season, whereby he provides for us in waiting what we couldn’t get through immediate gratification. Often we’re called to be like the woman from Jesus’s parable seeking justice from an unjust judge—to wait on the Lord and be persistent in our asking. But even then, God isn’t the unjust judge. In those moments, he isn’t holding out until we grovel; rather, in his providential timing he’s forming us and conforming us until we’re ready to receive his answer.
In every granted prayer request and in every ‘no,’ the one who answers our prayers is Providence himself.
Whatever the answer, we can be sure of this: In every granted request and in every “no,” the one who answers our prayers is Providence himself. He has shown us in the incarnation, cross, and resurrection of Christ the extent to which he’s willing to go for our benefit.
Charles Spurgeon once said of God, “[A Christian] trusts him where [he] cannot trace him.” When the dark night of the soul comes, when the tears flow over like a river after a rainstorm, and when our prayers seem to bounce off the ceiling, we can rest assured that our prayers are heard and answered not just by the God who reigns, but by the God who provides, nourishes, and promises to make all things new.
I love to talk to Ligon Duncan about pretty much anything, but it was especially enjoyable to talk to him about one of his many areas of expertise—covenant theology. As he mentions in our conversation, he has taught a Covenant Theology course at Reformed Theological Seminary 30-something times. The audio for this course is available via iTunes and is well worth listening through—especially if, like me, you did not grow up understanding how covenant provides a framework for understanding the whole of the Bible.
I asked Duncan to contrast covenant theology with the foundational tenets of dispensational theology. Because so much modern evangelical Christian media presupposes dispensationalism, many of us, and those we are teaching, have been inundated with dispensationalism without necessarily knowing it. In this part of our conversation, Duncan articulates responses to those who call covenant theology “replacement theology,” and addresses the belief that God has a plan for the nation of Israel that is separate from the church.
You can listen to our conversation here.
- Not Quite Your Sunday School’s Dispensationalism
- How Jesus Fulfills the Law
- Kingdom, Covenants & Canon of the Old Testament (TGC Courses)
As you come to him, a living stone rejected by men but in the sight of God chosen and precious, you yourselves like living stones are being built up as a spiritual house, to be a holy priesthood, to offer spiritual sacrifices acceptable to God through Jesus Christ. (1 Peter 2:4–5)
Jesus is a living stone, rejected by men but chosen and precious in the sight of God. Peter reminds his readers that Jesus knows what it’s like to be marginalized and rejected by the world; in God’s sight, however, he is chosen and precious.
Jesus is a living stone—a mixed metaphor to make us stop and think! Stones are normally pretty solid and often very heavy; they aren’t known for their life and organic properties. But Jesus is a living stone, stable and steadfast, but nevertheless alive. We might think back to the “living hope” of 1 Peter 1:3, a hope based on Jesus’s resurrection from the dead.Living Temple
These verses are full of Old Testament temple imagery. The temple in Jerusalem was hugely significant for the people of Israel under the old covenant. It was an enormously impressive building, constructed with magnificent stones and built on a hill so everyone could see it. This was where God dwelt with his people, but, because of his holiness, it was also where priests had to offer sacrifices to secure that relationship with him. The temple identified them as God’s people and established their corporate life and purpose in the world. But here in this passage Peter reminds these marginalized Christians that their collective identity and purpose in the world are centered on the Lord Jesus Christ. He’s the living stone of God’s house.
We too are like living stones being built into a spiritual house. The corporate dimension is deliberate. We’re all like living stones; we too were once dead but have now been made alive and are being built together into a spiritual house where God dwells by his Spirit. You can’t build a house out of just one stone. Many stones are needed. But the stones need to be brought together in one grand design.
When you’re building a house you need to buy lots of wood or bricks or stones, and when the building project is finished, there may be some left over, perhaps in a pile nearby. But the leftover bricks and stones are not part of the house. Only the ones incorporated into the structure make up the house. We believers are the living stones, made alive in the Lord Jesus and through him built up as a spiritual house. No longer do we need a temple of stones; we are the living temple, united in Christ.
This is an important corrective to our very “me-centered,” individualistic culture. The world doesn’t revolve around you or me! It revolves around the Lord Jesus Christ. He’s the architect of this house, and we are his building materials. We are individually called, but acceptance of that call means we now belong to one another and have an important group identity, the sum of which is more significant than each individual part.
Some people think that if they go to church, then they automatically belong to the Lord Jesus. That’s not true, of course. In fact, it’s the other way round. You cannot belong to the church unless you first belong to the Lord Jesus. But if you belong to Christ, then you also belong to his church—not just the local church but also the universal church, made up of all God’s people from all over the world and through all the centuries. Jesus, the living stone, is building his living stones into a house where God dwells by his Spirit.We Belong to Each Other
This means that we need each other. We can’t live the Christian life on our own. We need to be part of a local church, not just showing up every now and again but fully involved and committed to God’s people in that place. We often talk about “going” to church, don’t we? But actually, we don’t “go” to church like we go to the shopping mall or to the dentist. We don’t go to church; we are the church. We go to a building. Once we’ve understood that, it will change the way we think about our brothers and sisters, who are the church with us.
I recently went back to visit the church family where I was working 10 years ago. It’s a church in central London and full of young people, most of them under the age of 35. It was great to see how these friends are still walking with the Lord and persevering in all kinds of difficulties and trials.
One of them, a woman called Jill, had been very much on the fringe of things when I was there. But as I talked with her that morning, it was clear to me that something was different; she was now more involved and more committed to the church family. I asked her what had brought about this change, and she told me that her mother had died very suddenly a few years ago, and her father soon after that—and the church family had been wonderful. They’d gathered around and supported and prayed for her in ways she could never have imagined.
It was these family tragedies that had helped Jill to see that she also belonged to another family, a family that was becoming more and more important to her. But then she realized that the time would come when one of the church family would need her support and love and prayers. She said it was as though a light bulb had been turned on in her head: “These people have shown me that I’m part of their family, which means they are part of mine.”
What a wonderful testimony to those brothers and sisters in that central London church! They are not just Jill’s brothers and sisters; they are ours as well. If we belong to the Lord Jesus, then we belong to each other. Jesus is the living stone, and we too are like living stones being built together into a spiritual house. We have a group identity and purpose that are bound up in him.