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

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You Can Forget to Be Irritated

Mon, 03/26/2018 - 8:02pm

The more I remember God’s lavish, unwavering, inexhaustible love for us in Jesus, the more I forget to be irritated with others.

Unfortunately, I often remember to be irritated. But where I am weak, God is gracious to remind me of what I need to forget.

In any given day, hour, or moment, our thought-life greatly determines our heart-response (which flows out in our words and behavior). Being a broken person in a broken world among broken people, provocation is inevitable. What isn’t inevitable is a godly response. Thus, “fools show their annoyance at once” (Proverbs 12:16 NIV) and are “quick in (their) spirit to become angry, for anger lodges in the heart of fools” (Ecclesiastes 7:9).

Anger lodges in the heart of fools — the Holy Spirit used that phrase recently to convict me about the way I’d been rolling out the welcome mat, providing hospitality, a warm bed, and nourishment for thoughts that always prove to be horrible houseguests.

Weapons Against Irritation

I’m not a loud, fist-pounding, explosive type. But I can easily drift (at times even jump) into passive-aggressive, actively-harmful, joy-pillaging attitudes. Inevitably, I can trace those attitudes back to gospel-amnesia. What I mean is, in any given season (or second) of life, I’m either remembering the gospel and marinating in its implications, or I’m forgetting the gospel and letting my thoughts get hijacked by all kinds of foolishness and sin.

Writing to believers in Corinth, the apostle Paul described this dynamic in the language of warfare:

The weapons of our warfare are not of the flesh but have divine power to destroy strongholds. We destroy arguments and every lofty opinion raised against the knowledge of God, and take every thought captive to obey Christ (2 Corinthians 10:4–5)

Indeed, to work for one another’s joy (2 Corinthians 1:24) is to wage war for each other’s thinking and feeling.

Here’s how I’ve learned to apply this text to the daily issue of my attitude, specifically to irritation, and its ugly siblings (aggravation, grumpiness, self-pity, resentment, and more). Notice three elements in this passage: strongholds to be named, opinions to be destroyed, and thoughts to be captured.

Name the Strongholds

I wish bad attitudes were only episodic “oops” moments or “loose-holds,” rather than strongholds. But the truth is that bad attitudes often reveal that something or someone has more power over our hearts than the glory and grace of God. Some expression of the stronghold of self-idolatry is on display.

What kinds of things have irritated me? What moved my wife of 46 years to ask me the same question Paul asked the Galatians, “What has happened to all of your joy?” (Galatians 4:15 NIRV). It’s not a very noble list, so here’s to transparency and vulnerability.

  • The colorful spinning disk on my computer screen, mocking me with, “Not yet”;
  • Road construction on my main route interfering with my precious schedule;
  • An empty peanut butter jar on the pantry shelf and empty milk carton in the frigde;
  • Loud talkers in a quiet restaurant, and slow waiters fishing for a big tip;
  • Delayed flights and deflated bike tires;
  • Forgotten passwords and anonymous critics;
  • Misplaced stuff and hidden charges.

What might your list of idolatrous provocations look like? It helps to name them.

Destroy the Opinions

So how do these normal, daily incidents of life in a broken world generate super-sized irritation? What was I remembering (believing) during that stretch? Notice, in our passage, Paul says certain opinions need to be exposed and destroyed, not ignored or coddled.

In context, he was talking about false teachers who infiltrated the church of Corinth. But all thinking that contradicts the gospel falls under the same judgment. To a certain extent, I was functionally believing that

  • I’ve earned the right to an uninterrupted, manageable, and hassle-free life;
  • If people would just do their jobs, and be responsible, my life would be easier;
  • When it comes to my plans and preferences, the effects of the fall should be suspended;
  • I’m a spiritual orphan, without a sovereign heavenly Father.

What might your list of functional beliefs look like? It helps to name them.

Capture the Thoughts

What do I tend to forget (or refuse to believe) when I lapse into irritability? Notice the main thing Paul emphasizes in this passage is the ongoing discipline of obeying Jesus with our thinking — that is, having our thought-life captured by Jesus and captivated with Jesus.

We will “forget to be irritated” to the extent we are remembering Jesus. Our primary calling is to “remember” Jesus — to re-member, to reconnect and stay connected with Jesus. We who are in union with Jesus must stay in communion with him.

Jack Miller, my spiritual father of 21 years, referred to this as the discipline of “preaching the gospel to your heart.” That is, cultivating a fascination and preoccupation with the person and work of Jesus.

This isn’t “mind over matter,” but Jesus over all things — Creator and Sustainer, Lamb of God, Lord of lords, Lamp of the city. It’s not “the power of positive thinking,” but the joy of focused gazing — seeing and savoring more of Jesus, the author and perfecter of our faith. It’s not denial of pain, but delight in the Lord; not the absence of storms, but the presence of Jesus in those storms. It isn’t stoic resolution, but grateful adoration. Indeed, the gospel doesn’t make us less human or superhuman, but fully human.

Our ultimate goal is not being less irritated, but more like Jesus. It isn’t the promise to do better, but the commitment to repent quicker. The more we are remembering Jesus, our repentances won’t be fewer, but quicker, and more joyful.

What do you need to remember about Jesus when you are tempted to irritation? Once again, it helps to name those truths.

If you, like me, struggle with sinful irritation, name the strongholds, destroy the idolatrous opinions, and recapture any wandering thoughts for Christ. Ask God to remind you of what you need to forget, and then ask him to show you all you need to remember.

Comparison Is Not the Thief of Joy

Mon, 03/26/2018 - 11:00am

Comparison isn’t the thief of joy.

Helping my seven-year-old write a compare-and-contrast essay on puppies and kittens is like a jaunt into the human psyche. We educate our kids so that they’re really good at articulating what’s the same and what’s different. We make sure they can evaluate all the ways a puppy measures up to a kitten. But when they notice a child in a wheelchair or a figure skating man who’s acting like a girl, we clam up and wish they hadn’t noticed any of it. And once they start drawing comparisons with themselves, we do more than clam up; we call it sin.

If Teddy Roosevelt’s maxim is true, that “comparison is the thief of joy,” then it seems we’re all comparing and contrasting our happiness away.

Roosevelt is clearly onto something. Head over to Pinterest or Instagram or Facebook, and you’ll see a thousand posts memorializing his proverb. Listen to Christian talks, sermons, and podcasts, and you will start to think that this little saying is God’s — all that’s missing is chapter and verse. The solution seems plain then: stop doing that. Stop measuring yourself up against others. Stop noticing the discrepancies; it will only lead to misery.

The problem is that we can’t stop comparing. Comparison is a fundamental part of being human, because it’s how we acquaint ourselves with reality. The very first thing Adam did when he saw Eve was to write his own brief compare and contrast essay. “She’s like me! Only different!”

Not only is it impossible to opt out of comparing, but God actually wants us to do it.

Comparing Is Necessary

Comparing is how we discover what holiness is. It’s how we see what is set apart as distinct from us. It’s also how we know what we ought to be like. To abandon comparing is to abandon our understanding of God, and of ourselves. What we need to do is train ourselves how to compare properly, not cut ourselves off from the necessity of comparison.

If we took all the measuring — the comparing and contrasting — out of the Bible, we wouldn’t have much of a book left. God’s laws and instructions fundamentally help us to see what we are and are not, what we should and shouldn’t be. They also help us see how we measure up to others, so that we can either imitate them or do the opposite of them. This is not sin — it is essential to growth, and health, as Christians.

My concern is that, far from letting comparison fuel our growth in godliness, we actually have trained Christians that it’s good to ignore the ways someone else might be doing something well, so that they can spare themselves the discomfort of how they might not measure up. With this logic, bad feelings about my situation or sin problem are the real issue — that’s what must be avoided. When we admonish ourselves or others to stop comparing, we may actually be insulating ourselves from reality.

Of course, we have to evaluate if the comparisons we’re making are real or not. We shouldn’t compare our real life (the house with actual people in it and sticky faces and hair-raising smells) with the fake life of someone we’ve never met on Instagram (the tasteless, odorless, iocane-powder version). That’s a false comparison. Remember, our goal is figuring out what’s real and true, not inoculating ourselves to it through make-believe images.

Make Comparisons Fuel Joy

What if, rather than pretending not to notice that our friend is excelling in homemaking and parenting (while we’re scraping by), we honored her by giving thanks to God for her obedience, her diligence, and her example of Christ that we can follow? What if we started observing her more closely, making more comparisons rather than less, so that we could tease out the principles of godliness present in her life and do likewise?

What if, rather than smugly disdaining the mom who can’t get her act together, we offered her a better way? What if we actually said with Paul, “Be imitators of me, as I am of Christ,” not because we think we’re better than she is, but because God has really done something profound in us and we’re confident he can do it in her, too (1 Corinthians 11:1)?

Leading our comparisons in the right direction — away from envy, pride, covetousness, and self-pity, and toward Christlike imitation and the fear of God — will turn us into better parents, mentors, and friends.

Parenting Children Through Comparison

Faithful parenting means discipling our children into reality. Many parents balk when their kids make observations about themselves and their siblings like, “I’m not good at school. Eliza’s good at school.” We rush in to say, “Oh no, honey! You are good at school!” But, are they? Does it even matter to us as parents if what they’ve said is accurate or not? It should.

If our child is doing poorly in school and their sibling is doing great, we shouldn’t pretend like that’s not the case. If we do that, we will be training them to ignore what’s real. We will be training them that true speech is too scary or too difficult for us to handle and, therefore, too difficult for them to handle. We will give them the impression that what’s different about them is so scary and hard to deal with that it’s unspeakable. We shove reality out of the picture so that we can coddle them — while really we’re coddling ourselves. We ignore deficiencies as if they were too much to bear.

But what if we acknowledged that what they’re saying is true, at least in part? Their sister is doing well in school and they are struggling. Then, we can shepherd them to give thanks to God for how he’s made their sister, and ask God for the discipline and grace to help them do better. And while they struggle, we can teach them to ask God for the contentment in the areas that are hard for them, and give thanks for the particular strengths he’s given them that are different than how he’s gifted their sibling.

We won’t be able to do any of that if we haven’t asked God for the thick gospel-skin that helps us live in a world of differences and similarities, without making it all about a narcissistic insecurity that someone, somewhere has more than me, or is working harder than mem, or is doing better than me. That is a sickly way for Christians to live! In Christ, we have it all — we dare not dishonor him by our self-pity (Romans 8:32).

Differences Are God’s Design

The Bible assumes some will have more faith, and some less. Some will have this gift and another that gift. Some will be rich and some will be poor. Some beautiful, some homely. Some with lovely homes, some with drab. There will be children with disabilities and children without. There are Gentiles and Jews, tribes and tongues, men and women.

The Bible even assumes that some will be more Christlike and mature than others. Noticing these things isn’t a sin, but a gift, and it need not lead to the evaporation of our joy, but can be the water for its growth.

Holy imitation isn’t about cramming ourselves into another’s mold. It’s about recognizing the Christlike principles another has applied to their life and figuring out how to apply them to ours. It’s not about making all of our voices sound the same, but getting us all to learn the same song of the Lamb who was slain. It’s not about making us all identical, but about training all of us, amid our diversity, to walk together in the light of Christ.

Is It Sinful for My Husband and Me to Pray Against Pregnancy?

Mon, 03/26/2018 - 8:02am

God’s highest priority is not for us to have children, but for us to have Christ-exalting faith that overflows in meeting the needs of others.

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One Man’s Joy Stood Against the Whole World: Athanasius (298–373)

Sun, 03/25/2018 - 8:02pm

The church father Athanasius has been dubbed Athanasius contra mundum — “Athanasius against the world.”

The title comes from Athanasius’s lifelong battle to explain and defend the deity of Christ when it seemed that the whole world was abandoning orthodoxy. Athanasius stood steadfast against this overwhelming defection from orthodoxy, even though the dawn of triumph appeared only at the end of his life.

Arius’s Heresy

The war was sparked in 319. A deacon in Alexandria named Arius, who had been born in 256 in Libya, presented a letter to Bishop Alexander arguing that if the Son of God were truly a Son, he must have had a beginning. There must have been a time, therefore, when he did not exist.

Athanasius, who was born in 298 in Egypt, was a little over 20 when the controversy broke out — over 40 years younger than Arius (a lesson in how the younger generation may be more biblically faithful than the older). Athanasius was in the service of Alexander, the bishop of Alexandria. Almost nothing is known of his youth.

In 321 a synod was convened in Alexandria, and Arius was deposed from his office and his views declared heresy. Athanasius at age 23 wrote the deposition for Alexander. This was to be his role now for the next 52 years — writing to declare the glories of the incarnate Son of God. The deposition of Arius unleashed 60 years of ecclesiastical and empire-wide political conflict.

Eusebius of Nicomedia (modern-day Izmit in Turkey) took up Arius’s theology and became “the head and center of the Arian cause” (Nicene and Post-Nicene Fathers, Vol. 4, xvi). For the next 40 years, the eastern part of the Roman Empire (measured from modern Istanbul eastward) was mainly Arian. That is true in spite of the fact that the great Council of Nicaea in 325 decided in favor of the full deity of Christ. Hundreds of bishops signed it and then twisted the language to say that Arianism really fit into the wording of Nicaea.

The Empire’s Flash Point

When Athanasius’s mentor, Alexander, Bishop of Alexandria, died on April 17, 328, three years after the Council of Nicaea, the mantel of Egypt and the cause of orthodoxy fell to Athanasius. He was ordained as bishop on June 8 that year. This bishopric was the second in Christendom after Rome. It had jurisdiction over all the bishops of Egypt and Libya. Under Athanasius Arianism died out entirely in Egypt. And from Egypt Athanasius wielded his empire-wide influence in the battle for the deity of Christ.

Within two years after taking office as Bishop of Alexandria, Athanasius became the flash point of controversy. Most of the bishops who had signed the Creed of Nicaea did not like calling people heretics, even if they disagreed with this basic affirmation of Christ’s deity. They wanted to get rid of Athanasius and his passion for this cause. So Athanasius was accused of levying illegal taxes. There were accusations that he was too young when ordained, that he used magic, that he subsidized treasonable persons, and more. Constantine did not like Athanasius’s hard line either and called him to Rome in 331 to face the charges the bishops were bringing. The facts acquitted him, but his defense of the Nicene formulation of Christ’s deity was increasingly in the minority.

Eventually, Athanasius was condemned and fled in a boat with four bishops and came to Constantinople. The accusers threw aside their previous indictments and created another with false witnesses: Athanasius had tried to starve Constantine’s capitol by preventing wheat shipments from Alexandria. That was too much for Constantine, and even without condemning evidence he ordered Athanasius banished to Treveri (Trier, near today’s Luxembourg). Athanasius left for exile on February 8, 336.

Seven-Year Absence

Constantine died the next year, and the empire was divided among his three sons, Constantius (taking the East), Constans (taking Italy and Illyricum), and Constantine II (taking the Gauls and Africa). One of Constantine II’s first acts was to restore Athanasius to his office in Alexandria on November 23, 337.

Two years later, Eusebius, the leader of the Arians, had persuaded Constantius to get rid of Athanasius. He took the ecclesiastical power into his hands, declared Gregory the bishop of Alexandria, put his own secular governor in charge of the city, and used force to take the bishop’s quarters and the churches. Athanasius was forced to leave the city to spare more bloodshed.

This was the beginning of his second exile — the longest time away from his flock. He left on April 16, 339, and didn’t return until October 21, 346. Constantine’s other two sons supported Athanasius and called the Council of Sardica (now Sophia in Bulgaria), which vindicated him in August 343. But it took three years until the political factors fell into place for his return. Athanasius was finally restored to his people with rejoicing after seven years away.

From the Devil’s Jaws

On January 18, 350, Constans was murdered. This freed Constantius to solidify his power and to attack Athanasius and the Nicene theology unopposed. The people of Alexandria held off one armed assault on the city by the emperor’s secretary Diogenes in 355, but the next year Constantius sent Syrianus, his military commander, to exert the emperor’s control in Alexandria.

On February 8, 356, soldiers broke into Alexandria’s largest church as Athanasius prepared the worshipers for communion the next morning. While the soldiers entered, Athanasius took his seat and told the deacon to lead the congregation in Psalm 136. Each time the congregation responded back, “for his steadfast love endures forever,” the soldiers advanced toward Athanasius, who refused the bishop’s pleas for him to flee until all the people were safe. A group of monks and other leaders finally seized Athanasius and removed him from the scene amid the confusion of the crowd. He would remain away from his people for the next six years.

But at the darkest hour for Athanasius and for the cause of orthodoxy, the dawn was about to break. This third exile proved to be the most fruitful. Protected by an absolutely faithful army of desert monks, no one could find him, and he produced his most significant written works: The Arian History, the four Tracts Against Arians, the four dogmatic letters To Serapion, and On the Councils of Ariminum and Seleucia. It is one of the typical ironies of God’s providence that the triumph over Arianism would happen largely through the ministry of a fugitive living and writing within inches of his death.

Athanasius returned to Alexandria on February 21, 362, by another irony. The new and openly pagan emperor, Julian, reversed all the banishments of Constantius. The favor lasted only eight months. But during these months Athanasius called a synod at Alexandria and gave a more formal consolidation and reconciliation to the gains he had accomplished in the last six years of his writing. It had a tremendous impact on the growing consensus of the church in favor of Nicene orthodoxy. Jerome says that this synod “snatched the whole world from the jaws of Satan,” and Archibald Robertson calls it “the crown of the career of Athanasius” (Nicene and Post-Nicene Fathers, Vol. 4, lviii).

The rallying point that this synod gave for orthodoxy in 362 enabled the reuniting forces of Eastern Christendom to withstand the political Arianism under Emperor Valens, who reigned from 364 to 378.

End of the Exiles

But in October 362 Athanasius was again driven from his office by Julian’s wrath when the emperor realized that Athanasius took his Christianity seriously enough to reject the pagan gods. Again he spent the next fifteen months among the desert monks. The story goes that he was freed to return by a prophecy by one of the monks that Julian had that very day fallen in battle in Persia. It proved true, and Athanasius was restored to his ministry on February 14, 364.

A year and a half later Emperor Valens ordered that all the bishops earlier expelled under Julian should be removed once again by the civil authorities. On October 5, 365, the Roman Prefect broke into the church in Alexandria and searched the apartments of the clergy, but the sixty-seven-year-old Athanasius had been warned and escaped one last time — his fifth exile. It was short because a dangerous revolt led by Procopius had to be put down by Valens, so he judged it was not time to allow popular discontent to smolder in Athanasius-loving Alexandria. Athanasius was brought back on February 1, 366.

He spent the last years of his life fulfilling his calling as a pastor and overseer of pastors. He carried on extensive correspondence and gave great encouragement and support to the cause of orthodoxy around the empire. He died on May 2, 373.

Out-Rejoice Your Adversaries

What then may we learn about the sacred calling of controversy from the life of Athanasius?

Athanasius stared down murderous intruders into his church. He stood before emperors who could have killed him as easily as exiling him. He risked the wrath of parents and other clergy by consciously training young people to give their all for Christ, including martyrdom. He celebrated the fruit of his ministry with these words: “in youth they are self-restrained, in temptations endure, in labors persevere, when insulted are patient, when robbed make light of it: and, wonderful as it is, they despise even death and become martyrs of Christ” — martyrs not who kill as they die, but who love as they die (Nicene and Post-Nicene Fathers, Vol. 4, 65).

Athanasius contra mundum should inspire every pastor to stand his ground meekly and humbly and courageously whenever a biblical truth is at stake. But be sure that you always out-rejoice your adversaries. If something is worth fighting for, it is worth rejoicing over. And the joy is essential in the battle, for nothing is worth fighting for that will not increase our everlasting joy in God.

Courage in conflict must mingle with joy in Christ. This was part of Athanasius’s battle strategy with his adversaries:

Let us be courageous and rejoice always. . . . Let us consider and lay to heart that while the Lord is with us, our foes can do us no hurt. . . . But if they see us rejoicing in the Lord, contemplating the bliss of the future, mindful of the Lord, deeming all things in His hand . . . — they are discomfited and turned backwards. (Nicene and Post-Nicene Fathers, Vol. 4, 207)

Athanasius would have us learn from his life and the life of his heroes this lesson: even if at times it may feel as though we are alone contra mundum, let us stand courageous and out-rejoice our adversaries.

Is It Sinful for My Husband and Me to Pray Against Pregnancy?

Sun, 03/25/2018 - 8:00pm

God’s highest priority is not for us to have children, but for us to have Christ-exalting faith that overflows in meeting the needs of others.

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Let Waves of Suffering Carry You to Him

Sat, 03/24/2018 - 8:02pm

I didn’t know how I would feel when we drove past the spot in the parking lot where it happened.

My wife parked our van a short distance away, and I walked over to the corner of the lot where asphalt meets a row of palm trees. It happened nearly ten years ago, and we live 150 kilometers away now, so when we visited a new church plant in that city, I knew I had to try to find that spot where everything changed.

I remember it was the beginning of the local religious holiday, and everyone was out for their evening shopping. There was no parking available, so I dropped off my wife and drove around in circles in the parking lot. At one point, I made a left-hand turn and nerve pain shot down my arms, they succumbed to weakness, and tears flooded my face. I had a sinking feeling of what was to come. I was right. My doctor discovered that the nerves in my arms weren’t working — firing off chronic pain signals to my brain and twisting themselves into painful neuromas. The next eighteen months would be one of the darkest times in my life.

On my recent visit to that spot, the memories of my depression and disability came rushing back. There were flashbacks to the dark nights of the soul in our village home where I would pace back and forth many nights fighting for hope. I looked at my hands and remembered the boil-like wounds on my fingertips and the anxious moments wondering if I would ever be healed. During those days on the couch, it felt like God had brought us to the desert to destroy us.

Fighting for Faith

We all agree that we ought to persevere through trials, but how? How do we fight for faith?

A big help to walking with God in my trials has come from a quote often attributed to Charles Spurgeon: “I have learned to kiss the wave that throws me against the Rock of Ages.” What does it mean to “kiss the wave”?

When I am suffering it feels impossible to keep my head above the water, much less kiss the wave. My tendency is to hate the wave and to run away from God. I am tempted to reject God or be angry with him, not embrace him during my trial.

Spurgeon’s advice is key to suffering well. Our trials are God’s means of drawing us to himself, the Rock of Ages. The wave is a vehicle transporting us to the very doorstep of God Almighty. It is not flippant advice from the prince of preachers. He is not pretending that suffering is easy and we should simply try harder to persevere. Spurgeon is not saying pain, trials, and death are good things.

Death and suffering came as a result of the fall in Genesis 3. And the prophet Isaiah encourages us to identify clearly the things that are evil: “Woe to those who call evil good and good evil” (Isaiah 5:20). We don’t call disease and death good. We call them what they are: evil and wicked. Jesus didn’t celebrate death, but at the tomb of Lazarus, he wept for his friend (John 11:35), even though he knew he would soon raise him from the dead.

Kissing the wave means we stop flailing our arms in panic and embrace the God who has sovereignly designed our circumstances for our good and his glory. Romans 8:28 is not just a verse for a Christian greeting card, but one to have branded on our hearts: “For those who love God all things work together for good, for those who are called according to his purpose.” Pain and suffering are not good, but somehow, miraculously, God uses them for good for his people.

God Is Not Wasting Our Trials

The apostle Peter tells us not only to expect trials, but to rejoice in them. “Beloved, do not be surprised at the fiery trial when it comes upon you to test you, as though something strange were happening to you. But rejoice insofar as you share Christ’s sufferings, that you may also rejoice and be glad when his glory is revealed” (1 Peter 4:12–13).

When we suffer like Christ, and have the wherewithal to rejoice, his glory is revealed as our faith is tested. Earlier in that chapter, Peter says that our trials purify us and show the genuineness of our faith. James says something similar: “Count it all joy, my brothers, when you meet trials of various kinds, for you know that the testing of your faith produces steadfastness” (James 1:2–3). Our sufferings grow us in our faith.

Our trials also allow us to comfort other hurting people. Paul writes, “Blessed be . . . the Father of mercies and God of all comfort, who comforts us in all our affliction, so that we may be able to comfort those who are in any affliction, with the comfort with which we ourselves are comforted by God. For as we share abundantly in Christ's sufferings, so through Christ we share abundantly in comfort too” (2 Corinthians 1:3–5). God proves our faith in suffering. God matures us in our suffering and makes us more like Christ. God uses the comfort we receive in our trials to comfort others and, as Paul says in Galatians, to “bear one another’s burdens” (Galatians 6:2).

Rejoice and Kiss the Wave

These are only a few reasons why suffering comes to us. There is only a shallow joy we can receive when we tie our joy to our ever-changing circumstances. It’s a joy that gets rocked as it’s blown and tossed by the waves of our pain. It’s a joy that only rejoices when our life is perfectly manicured according to our desires. But true and lasting joy comes when we find our joy resting on the Rock of Ages.

Ultimately, what suffering does for true faith is take us to God. If God himself is the good news of the gospel, then trials are not something to run from, but something we ride to our Maker. We share in Christ’s sufferings and shine the spotlight on him in our pain. And they make us more and more like him. None of God’s purposes can be frustrated. Our suffering is not an accident.

There is great suffering in this world. Many have been the victims of assault or adultery. Others have faced disease, disorders, or disability. We have lost loved ones and seen death up close. And yet as followers of Christ, we press on. We don’t give up or wallow in our suffering. We kiss the wave. We don’t do this necessarily with a smile on our face, but with a deep-seated joy in our hearts. We can go to sleep at night confidently knowing that our good and sovereign God is doing ten thousand more things in our suffering than we can see right now. This is a subterranean joy that comes when the waters crash over us.

Let the waves of your suffering take you to Jesus.

Philippians 2:3–4: True Humility Ends in Glory

Sat, 03/24/2018 - 8:00am

True humility bends low in service, gives to others at a cost to self, and receives a kingdom in the end.

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Did the Simpsons Ruin a Generation?

Fri, 03/23/2018 - 8:02pm

My generation was raised on The Simpsons.

The popular cartoon is postmodern TV at its finest: liberated from prolonged storylines, a series of jests sprinkled in every fifteen seconds (to capture anyone who just tuned in), often self-referencial sneers, a show loaded with subtle and overt cultural references, thick with irony, sarcasm, and inside jokes — a decades-long art form good at pointing out cultural anxieties, but challanged to celebrate community, truth, or beauty.

“I think The Simpsons is important art,” novelist David Foster Wallace said in an interview. But “on the other hand, it’s also — in my opinion — relentlessly corrosive to the soul, and everything is parodied, and everything’s ridiculous. Maybe I’m old, but for my part I can be steeped in about an hour of it, and then I have to walk away and look at a flower or something.”

It wasn’t just The Simpsons, but a whole generation of entertainment given to parody and irony and sarcasm, and it leaves us with a sense of something less human, less likely to encourage us to do what Wallace did — to turn it off in favor of natural beauty.

Letterman

This postmodern sarcasm seeped into the pop sitcoms and into late-night TV, as in the case of The Late Show with David Letterman.

Wallace explored this trend in his collection of short stories (Girl with Curious Hair), in a short story to imagine an actress getting groomed by her publicist and husband before appearing on The Late Show, a cultural staple of nighttime TV between 1993 and 2015.

The key for the actress’s successful interview was bound up with her poker face. It’s best if she was a little jaded. A little distant. Bored. Not insincere, just “not-sincere.” The key: “Appear the way Letterman appears on Letterman. . . . Laugh in a way that’s somehow deadpan. Act as if you knew from birth that everything is clichéd and hyped and empty and absurd. That’s just where the fun is.” Reflect his sardonic outlook on all of life.

This observation resonates with what I know of Letterman, as well as with what I know of the postmodern American entertainment culture of my youth. The age of sarcasm is the age of the lazy-eyed, smart-aleck comedian who wants you to know he’s playing a character dumber than himself (Bill Murray and Saturday Night Live). Mockery thrived in the derisive contra-family dramas (Simpsons), in the snark-at-every-life-situation form of faux-friendships (Seinfeld), in the cynical contra-talk shows (Letterman), and then later in the mistrust-everything-I-say, contra-news programs (Colbert).

Said Wallace, the 1990s were a time of “postmodern irony, hip cynicism, a hatred that winks and nudges you and pretends it’s just kidding.”

Cynical of Cynicism

Does satire work? Does it change anything? On one side of the argument, journalist Malcolm Gladwell recently attempted to argue that the more we laugh at something, the less persuasive that thing is for changing minds (“The Satire Paradox”). Satire makes for laughs but cannot change minds, at least not for unified social change. But this conclusion seems defective.

“Letterman’s ‘irony’ was in fact a passionate response against phoniness,” writes James Poniewozik of Time Magazine. Yes — and it worked. Sarcasm was the chosen tool of a generation of entertainers to poke holes in what they perceived to be a phony, over-idealized picture of life that dominated American entertainment in the 1950s. The polished formality of the tightly scripted news, the straight-collared conversations, the seriousness, the sincerity, the wholesome TV family got capsized by a generation of sarcastic entertainment — the Lettermans, Simpsons, and SNLs.

Satire’s most potent work is in exposing phony facades. But it cannot accomplish anything more important, and there’s the problem, as Wallace explained in a 1997 radio interview: “Irony and sarcasm are fantastic for exploding hypocrisy and exposing what’s wrong in extant values. They are notably less good in erecting replacement values or coming close to the truth.”

Sarcasm is a free-swinging wrecking ball. It cannot construct.

So what happens when mocking sarcasm lives past its use and becomes the tone of a generation? Wallace explains. “What’s been passed down from the postmodern heyday is sarcasm, cynicism, a manic ennui, suspicion of all authority, suspicion of all constraints on conduct, and a terrible penchant for ironic diagnosis of unpleasantness, instead of an ambition not just to diagnose and ridicule but to redeem. You’ve got to understand that this stuff has permeated the culture. It’s become our language; we’re so in it we don’t even see that it’s one perspective, one among many possible ways of seeing. Postmodern irony’s become our environment.”

The Ghost of Sarcasm

Sarcasm is still in the groundwater of our entertainment, in every drink, and we can no longer smell its pungent stench. This is one reason why TV inherently favors political newcomers, and resists incumbents. Satire takes down authority structures and establishments. And the acerbic wit and irony that may have exposed hypocrisy in a previous generation continues living, with an undiminishing life of its own. We’re trapped in it. Sarcasm becomes a tyranny we cannot escape.

Sarcasm is ghostly. It defies all resistance. You try to push against irony and your arms flail in the mirage. Even our popular ads become satire. And as satire, they evade criticism by absorbing all criticism. So for example, LeBron James will never tell you to drink Sprite, because he knows we’re all guarded against propaganda. Satirically he makes fun of his own commercials, and by doing this, he and Sprite evade critical thought. If I message LeBron to say that Squirt is clearly superior to Sprite, he could respond and say he never said it was, and never said I should drink one or the other. And he’d be right.

There’s the irony. Any ad you cannot criticize is an ad to be received. To this end, self-satirizing ads multiply like spring rabbits. “Do you see we’re making an ad inside this ad? Get it? Get it!?”

As nauseatingly as the “inside joke” ads have become, the tactic is a brilliant invention of our admen and adwomen to disarm buyers. Advertisers say to us, “We see you seeing us try to sell you things, and let’s laugh at the whole thing together!” Sharing an inside joke is the best way to capture a defensive ad audience.

But even beyond ads, the spirit of the sarcasm age thrives in the memes of social media, in anti-institutional hashtagism that can tear away smokescreens and hypocrisy, take down authorities and demonize institutions. Witty sarcasm on social media defies criticism. Nor is it able to draw consensus and construct newer, and more stable, social structures.

Ruined for Beauty

The sarcasm culture, deadpanned in the eyes, doesn’t stop corroding society. It’s like dry rot eating away a culture’s weight bearing timber.

Unchecked, the sarcastic man’s affections become so corroded, his eyes so deadpan, so I-know-more-than-you, that those same eyes cannot weep at created beauty, let alone see it. He cannot submit himself to truth. He becomes cynical for all that is redemptive. He falls prey to the tyranny of sarcasm. He cannot criticize the tyranny of the jaded sarcasm itself.

It is true, irony is a good way to poke fun at yourself. Perhaps Christians can take some cues from Ned Flanders, the most famously satirized evangelical. Like the satirical voice from a whirlwind aimed at Job, irony has a useful place in pushing back cultural idols and evangelical presumptions. But sarcasm aimed to subvert others should be taken in small doses.

Sarcasm Culture and Redemptive Hope

In a sarcasm culture, we must renew the call for redemptive Christian sincerity. Yes, it’s easier to post wit and sarcasm and biting criticism online. The hard thing is to post sincere truth and to put yourself in a vulnerable place before the eyes of a ridicule culture.

In his longest novel, one of Wallaces’s fictional characters seeks to evade loneliness — “the great transcendent horror” — by becoming so hip and cool and cynical about life to be included among his peers. But the end result of the Simpsons and Letterman was not to foster a place of belonging or for true friendship, but isolation — a world where “hip cynical transcendence of sentiment is really some kind of fear of being really human,” and in evading what is human, we become disingenuous, incapable of the self-disclosure required of community. We’re left with random Seinfeld-like connections with others, with zero depth and with nothing of significance to offer one another but another punchline jeer to distract each other from our troubles.

Our media shape us in one profound way that’s hard to shake. As Wallace once said, “All U.S. irony is based on an implicit ‘I don’t really mean what I’m saying.’”

And there’s the problem.

More Powerful Than Sarcasm

Nothing is more countercultural to snark-culture than sincerity. And nothing is more human than sincerity, for only with sincerity can you weep at truth and beauty. For Christians, deadpanned in the eyes is not an option. For “those who sow in tears shall reap with shouts of joy!” (Psalm 126:5).

Deep sincerity — tear-filled sincerity — is an essential marker of spiritual health and the aliveness of our affections, and critical to our gospel mission. The apostle Paul’s ministry is substantiated by its sincere love: “As servants of God we commend ourselves in every way: by . . . genuine love” (2 Corinthians 6:4–6). He calls us to an earnest trust in God as he celebrates Timothy’s “sincere faith” (2 Timothy 1:5). It is in this sincere faith that we all must express sincere love for others: “The aim of our charge is love that issues from a pure heart and a good conscience and a sincere faith” (1 Timothy 1:5; see also Romans 12:9; 1 Peter 1:22).

And even if ridiculers turn out to hate knowledge, we live under the authority of divine truth in sincerity, as James 3:17 says, “But the wisdom from above is first pure, then peaceable, gentle, open to reason, full of mercy and good fruits, impartial and sincere.”

Questions to Ask

So who are we, and who will we be in this culture? Sarcastic or sincere? Scoffers or builders? Known by our ridiculing barbs or by our redemptive hopes? Are we offering one another a deadpanned face, or do our expressions express love, interest, and self-giving sincerity?

These may seem like theoretical questions, but they are real questions, ones probably already answered in the archive of our social media feeds and in our most liked and retweeted memes.

Christians in the age of snark have beauties to relish far beyond the beauties of a single rose. We have the beautiful Rose of Sharon, the beauty of a stunning Savior who died so that we could be sincere with the world, sincere with ourselves, and sincere with one another — that is, to be fully human.

We are free in Christ to enjoy beauty, to tweet truth, and to be vulnerable, because we have died to the base things of this world and the dominant sarcasm culture of America’s media, and have been made alive with him to truth, beauty, and sincerity again.

From Darkness to Delight: A Fresh Call for Christian Hedonists

Fri, 03/23/2018 - 11:03am

If you find Jesus boring or unsatisfying, you haven’t really discovered yet who he is.

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Children Need a Crisis of Faith: Seven Lessons from Parenting Through Doubt

Thu, 03/22/2018 - 8:02pm

My wife and I have five children. Our oldest two have exited childhood and are adventuring into the uncharted territory of young adulthood. Our younger three are navigating the tricky waters of adolescence. As parents, we have the sacred, marvelous, daunting, and sometimes painful privilege of sharing in all these unique life-journeys.

As a rule, I am slow to offer parenting advice. We are still too much in the thick of it to be qualified experts. Most of the time we’re looking to receive, not dispense, counsel.

And one wonderful new source of counsel we’ve discovered is our (now) adult children. Their experiences of childhood and adolescence, and the good and not-so-good ways we parented them, are still fresh. But there’s sufficient distance for them to maturely reflect on their experiences and enough trust between us (thank you, God!) for them to share with us honestly. It’s precious and humbling when your child matures into your counselor.

Where It All Begins for Children

Recently, my wife was sharing with one of our adult children some of the spiritual wrestlings and questions of their younger siblings. Our adult child replied, “That’s where it all begins.”

This was the wise reply of one whose wisdom was hard won. They spoke from experience, having endured difficult and sometimes dark seasons of profound spiritual struggles during their own adolescence. And they discovered in these seasons what nearly all saints discover sooner or later: the Light of the world shines brightest in the darkness — in our own darkness (John 1:5). Coming to really see, savor, treasure, and trust Jesus Christ almost always begins in a crisis.

And this has unnerving implications for Christian parents: if our children are going to see the Light, they very likely must endure darkness. Which means we will endure it with them, and experience a powerlessness over the outcome we find hard to bear.

As parents, we spend a lot of time and energy trying to protect our children from the forces of evil and sin in the world, which we should. And we try hard to point them to the gospel so they escape the horrible slavery of their own sin, which we should. We comfort, reassure, and counsel; we admonish, reprove, and rebuke, which we should.

But all the efforts we pour into protecting and teaching our children can make us susceptible to the deception, even if we know better, that if we do our job right, our children will sail from young childhood into adulthood on untroubled seas, arriving with a robust faith in Christ. We forget that this wasn’t even Christ’s own experience in “parenting” his disciples. It was on the troubled sea, not on tranquil waters, where the disciples began to grasp what faith really means (Luke 8:22–25).

Our children may have to ride on a violent sea, one we fear will swallow them, before they really learn to fear and trust Christ. As parents, then, we must prayerfully prepare for when those sea billows roll, because it will be a scary ride for us too.

Faithfully Parenting

While I’m reluctant to give parenting advice, my wife and I have ridden enough waves with our children to share some lessons, not as an expert on parenting through a child’s faith crisis, but as a fellow sojourner sharing from my experience — my own faith crises, as well as my children’s.

1. Expect your child to experience a faith crisis.

Actually, do more than expect it; pray for it. By “faith crisis,” I don’t mean the loss of faith — a period of apostasy — though for some that may be what a crisis looks like. What I mean is whatever event(s) God knows is needed to call forth real faith in our child — a season or set of circumstances when they are faced with a crisis that forces them to exercise their own faith and experience for themselves that God exists and is the rewarder of those who seek him (Hebrews 11:6). Praying for our child’s faith crisis sounds strange, I know. But if we want our child’s deepest joy, we will pray for the testing of their faith (James 1:2–4).

2. Expect your child’s crisis will be different from yours.

God has taught you to walk by faith, and not by sight, in particular ways. But it’s likely that he will deal differently with your child. They may struggle in ways and over issues and questions you haven’t. The unfamiliar may seem frightening. But it’s not unfamiliar to God.

3. Expect to feel somewhat helpless.

There comes a point when God decides to use means quite apart from us to teach our children to trust him. He doesn’t typically inform us in advance when he begins. We just rather suddenly find ourselves on the periphery of our child’s struggles, not allowed the same access or influence we used to have (or thought we had). We’re unsure where this car is going, and it’s not in our power to steer it. We must resist panicking or the urge to try to seize the wheel, both of which only tend to make things worse. Such a moment often becomes a faith crisis for us too, where we must learn to trust God with our children in whole new ways.

4. Seek to be a safe place in a crisis.

During one point of crisis, one of my children confided that they didn’t feel safe discussing with me certain theological questions they were wrestling through. Their dad was a ministry co-founder and bi-vocational pastor at our church. It felt like there was only one acceptable place to land.

Since then, I have tried to share with all my children more of my own faith journey, crises and all, that brought me to where I now am. And I’m seeking to be more explicit with my children that, while I hold my theological convictions sincerely, I do not expect them to uncritically adopt them from me, or necessarily arrive quickly in adolescence where it’s taken me years, and plenty of testing, to reach.

We can’t always control whether we are perceived as a safe place to our children, but as much as possible, we must seek to be a safe place for them to discuss hard questions and to be in process without judgment. It’s not easy for an invested parent. But we must strive to be (especially) quick to hear and slow to speak.

5. Do not mistake a chapter for the story.

We must try to keep our child’s faith crisis in perspective — no matter how long. We are not God. We do not have foreknowledge. We must not assume we know how the story will end. Most biblical characters had life chapters that looked like their train was going off the rails at some point.

6. Aim for faithfulness.

We are not the authors of our children’s story. Neither are they. God is the Author. God does not call us to determine the outcome of our children’s faith. He calls us to “dwell in the land [of parenting] and befriend faithfulness” (Psalm 37:3). Our aim is to follow Jesus faithfully, speak what he gives us to say faithfully, and to love the children God gives us as well as we can, come what may.

7. Pray without ceasing.

Part of faithfulness is not to cease praying for our children to be “born again to a living hope through the resurrection of Jesus Christ from the dead” (1 Peter 1:3) and filled with the knowledge of God’s will with all spiritual wisdom and insight (Colossians 1:9).

8. Trust God.

This is the beginning and the end of parenting our children, whether on stormy waves or still waters. We want our children to reach maturity in Christ. “For this [we] toil, struggling with all [God’s] energy that he powerfully works within [us]” (Colossians 1:29). But we do not trust ultimately in our toil; we trust ultimately in God’s power. And when our children endure various crises of faith, we “wait for the Lord” (Psalm 27:14).

Where It All Begins

So much more can and should be said. I’m very aware that our children’s faith crises, and what has precipitated them, and how long they last, are as varied as people and experiences vary. I know as parents these can be frightening moments because, for some, a crisis results in the rejection rather than the realization of faith. But even then, it’s not the end of the story.

Parenting is not for the faint of heart. It’s for the heart of faith, the one for whom God is the strength of their heart (Psalm 73:26). He is the author and perfecter of our faith — and our children’s faith (Hebrews 12:2). As the great cloud of biblical and historical witnesses remind us (Hebrews 12:1), often, when a crisis hits, that’s where it all begins.

Isn’t It Loving to My Family to Prepare for Doomsday?

Thu, 03/22/2018 - 8:00pm

Has a husband and father failed in his God-given responsibility if his family is suffering when he could have prevented it?

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Get a Global Vision of God’s Glory

Thu, 03/22/2018 - 8:00am

God is at work in your heart, in your home, and in your church. But he’s also at work across the globe. There is nowhere he is not on the move.

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Water, Milk, and Wine: Three Promises for the Thirsty

Wed, 03/21/2018 - 8:02pm

Come, everyone who thirsts,
come to the waters;
     and he who has no money,
come, buy and eat!
     Come, buy wine and milk
without money and without price.” (Isaiah 55:1)

God’s invitation to his great banquet cuts across ethnic and socioeconomic lines — to “everyone who thirsts” — and appeals to two groups: one has money and one does not.

To those who are thirsty and broke (Isaiah 55:1), come to the waters. And to those spending what they have on all the wrong things (Isaiah 55:2), listen to this offer, turn from your folly, and come to the waters. One group is spiritually poor and empty, and acknowledges it. The other is pretending as if human effort and expenditures can secure lasting satisfaction. Maybe even a third group had money, spent it poorly, and now has none.

Whatever the circumstances of the summoned, the good news in this great invitation is that God offers a true banquet to the human soul — and it is provided, remarkably, “without money and without price.”

Free of Charge, at Great Cost

God offers his feast free of charge, but that doesn’t mean it’s cheap. Providing such rich fare is costly, and that cost, as Isaiah has foretold, will be borne by God’s Servant (Isaiah 53:4–6, 12). Astoundingly, this banquet, with its promise to truly satisfy, comes without cost to all who are willing to admit their poverty and powerlessness, and come humbly to receive.

Three times God beckons all who will hear, “Come.” Three times he entreats, “Listen.” He pours three promises for the thirsty: an everlasting covenant, a benevolent king, and finally himself (verses 3–5). And he compares this true satisfaction of soul he offers to the substance and sweetness of three beverages: water, milk, and wine.

Water for Life

First, God offers water, to quench our soul’s thirst. “Come, everyone who thirsts, come to the waters.” He appeals to those with the most basic of human needs unmet, those dying from dehydration, to come receive the refreshment for which they pant.

For those wasting away of thirst in the desert, all they can think of is water. And so God’s offer begins with the most essential need: life. His water revives the faint. His water restores the weary. The good shepherd “leads me beside still waters. He restores my soul” (Psalm 23:2–3).

When God’s long-awaited Servant arrives on the scene, he will announce that the water he gives is “living water.” Not only will he quench our soul’s thirst in the moment, but “whoever drinks of the water that I will give him will never be thirsty again. The water that I will give him will become in him a spring of water welling up to eternal life” (John 4:14).

Milk for Strength

But this God not only offers life and refreshment, but also nourishment and strength. We feed babies an endless diet of milk to help them grow, to give them the nutrients needed to develop and be healthy and stable.

A hungry newborn may try to latch onto anything close enough to its mouth. In Christ, God offers to gratify the appetite for such growth and goodness. “Like newborn infants, long for the pure spiritual milk, that by it you may grow up into salvation — if indeed you have tasted that the Lord is good” (1 Peter 2:2–3). This Lord not only gives us life but growth, health, stability, and strength.

Wine for Joy

Third, then, is the sparkling offer of wine. Throughout the Scriptures, wine is associated with joy (1 Chronicles 12:40; Nehemiah 8:10; Psalm 4:7; Isaiah 16:10; 22:13; 24:11; Jeremiah 48:33; Zechariah 10:7).

God made “wine to gladden the heart of man” (Psalm 104:15). Wine is a powerful image, an exhilarating beverage that is God’s idea — and like others of his best gifts, not without its serious and documented dangers in the hands of sinners. It’s difficult to abuse water. Some abuse milk (and cream). Many abuse wine. And yet God incurs the risk to make his point dazzle.

Wine, in all its perils and pleasantness, has something to tell us about the one who offers this feast. His provision of water, milk, and wine shows us not just the life he gives but the God he is. John Piper writes,

God is not just for emergencies and mountain peaks. He is for health in the long haul. He invites you not only to come alive with water, but also to be stable and strong with milk. . . .

But that is not all we need in life. No matter how stoic, unemotional, phlegmatic, laid-back, or poker-faced we may seem to others, there is a child inside of every one of us that God made for exhilaration — for shouting and singing and dancing and playing and skipping and running and jumping and laughing. . . .

God is willing to revive us from the heat of Death Valley with the miracle of his water; and make us strong and healthy and stable with the miracle of his milk; and then give us endless and ever-fresh exhilaration with the miracle of his wine. (“The Great Invitation”)

Alive, Strong, Exhilarated

When the poor and powerless incline their ear to this humbling and wonderful invitation and come, they find that the one who has laid out this banquet is not stingy. He doesn’t cut corners on cost. He is lavishly generous. He offers abundance, and his abundance demonstrates the largeness of his heart. And as he invites us to enjoy his bounty, he woos us to delight in his person.

Even now, in this incomplete age, he offers to refresh your soul. He offers to strengthen your heart in his Son. He offers to thrill your spirit in his Spirit.

Come to this God and his suffering Servant, and taste the joy of thirst quenched, of hunger gratified, and of your deepest longing satisfied. Truly now — and fully at the great banquet to come.

“In that day
the mountains shall drip sweet wine,
      and the hills shall flow with milk,
and all the streambeds of Judah
      shall flow with water.” (Joel 3:18)

To Great Things That Never Came

Tue, 03/20/2018 - 8:03pm

He went to see My Little Pony recently. I suppose that a little boy can enjoy My Little Pony, but a 19-year-old in the theater stands out.

My brother is a joy to our family. He shares jokes he doesn’t know he is telling, sings, laughs, and dances as if no one was watching. Even though we know each other deeply, I have never had the pleasure of having a genuine conversation with him.

For a time, we wondered if he was ever going to speak. He was further along on the autism scale than most, and the disability created a wall around him that has been hard for his mother, father, sister, grandfather, and brother to scale. Like a sun blocked by chemical clouds, we have never fully experienced the full warmth of his spirit. Much has been lost in translation.

On days when I remember that, unless a miracle occurs, he will never marry, never have a career, never drive a car, never live alone, never participate in a Bible study, never hold a sustained conversation with his family, I wonder, where is God?

Our God is in the heavens and he does all that he pleases (Psalm 115:3). Is the healing of my brother not pleasing to him? I know that if God were only to speak the word, lame speech would rise, clouds in his mind would part, and the Jericho wall that is autism would come crashing down. Our spirits would finally commune together.

But nineteen years have passed. Although I’ve waited with face pressed against the windowsill, I haven’t seen anything appear upon the gravel road. Spring turned to fall, and fall to winter. Questions came, but the healing has not. The ache turns numb. The persistent widow becomes just a widow. That great thing — my brother’s healing — has not come.

Not Supposed to End This Way

Although we serve an all-powerful, all-good God, some great things never come. Maybe a naked ring finger reminds you of this; you’ve sought the Lord patiently for decades waiting for a spouse that never came. Maybe a new cradle lies in the middle of a freshly painted room, empty. With every new day picking at the wound, how can we begin to hope again?

I was reminded of a way recently as I watched The Return of the King. Pippin and Gandalf sat barricaded in their chamber, as death barraged their door. As the enemy began to break through, Pippin grieved in the way I was lamenting over my brother that week:

“I didn’t think it would end this way.”

Gandalf looked at him curiously, “End? No, the journey doesn’t end here. Death is just another path, one that we all must take. The grey rain-curtain of this world rolls back, and all turns to silver glass, and then you see it.”

“What? Gandalf? See what?”

“White shores, and beyond, a far green country under a swift sunrise.”

“Well, that isn’t so bad.”

“No. No, it isn’t.”

Although the orcs were on the doorstep and much remained unrealized, Gandalf had hope because he knew that there was more to the story. He made sense of his fear, horror, disappointment, even death by remembering that there were more pages yet to come. He, unlike Pippin, knew that this was not the end. The difference between a tragedy and a comedy depends not on how it begins, nor on what surprising turn it takes in the middle, but on how the story ends. And Gandalf knew that their story would end with real joy despite all the bad closing in on them.

Despair forgets that there are more pages. It gazes at the brief span of our lives and complains that all should be fulfilled before the page is turned. But hope loves the whole story. Hope breathes, laughs, and draws courage from gazing upon something grander than self. It grows in an epic tale, a tale with joys that cannot be abridged within one hundred years on earth. What we, like Pippin, mistake as the end, is merely leaving the preface for the first chapter.

They Sought the Next Pages

This literate hope that delights in the story is not a psychological crutch or wishful thinking. It is waiting for reality, a reality as tangible as a baby born in Bethlehem and as sure as the empty tomb. It is the conviction of things unseen that we call “faith” (Hebrews 11:1). Faith believes God when he says there is so much more than what we currently see.

Those who went before us believed like this — even when their pages ended with a perilous last sentence:

Some were tortured, refusing to accept release, so that they might rise again to a better life. Others suffered mocking and flogging, and even chains and imprisonment. They were stoned, they were sawn in two, they were killed with the sword. They went about in skins of sheep and goats, destitute, afflicted, mistreated — of whom the world was not worthy — wandering about in deserts and mountains, and in dens and caves of the earth. (Hebrews 11:35–38)

Although their lives seemed to end in disappointment, they staked their souls on the fact that there was more to the story:

These all died in faith, not having received the things promised, but having seen them and greeted them from afar, and having acknowledged that they were strangers and exiles on the earth. For people who speak thus make it clear that they are seeking a homeland. If they had been thinking of that land from which they had gone out, they would have had opportunity to return. But as it is, they desire a better country, that is, a heavenly one. Therefore God is not ashamed to be called their God, for he has prepared for them a city. (Hebrews 11:13–16)

They were promised, but did not receive; sat at the window, and only saw bits and pieces of gravel on the road. But they took heart, trusting God with wandering lives, unrealized guarantees, and painful deaths — and they entered into the next chapters that God prepared for them.

Greater Things Will Surely Come

In this life, we join them. We wait and die mid-story. But soon and very soon, the grey curtain of the world will roll back, and we will see him. We wait for the greatest thing that will surely come: our blessed hope, the appearing of our great God and Savior Jesus Christ (Titus 2:13). And with his coming, he will wipe away every tear from our eyes, and death, crying, and pain will be banished forever (Revelation 21:3–4).

The story is incomplete, but disappointment, autism, and heartbreak only last for a page or two. The healing may not come in this life, but the healer does. The spouse may never come around the corner, but our heavenly spouse is mounting his chariot. The tears will not bring your loved one back, but the Resurrection and the Life is coming. There is more to the story.

As we sense the Spirit of God himself inside us groaning, urging us, we keep our faces pressed against the windowsill. Jesus will appear on the gravel road, and when he does, our lives that feel over now will freshly begin. The greatest things are sure to come, because he is sure to come.

How to Climb the Corporate Ladder — for Jesus’s Sake

Tue, 03/20/2018 - 8:00pm

How can we glorify God in our jobs? Pastor John offers ten reflections to help Christians integrate their Christian life with their working life.

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Everyone You Meet Will Live Forever: Evangelism in an Age of Unbelief

Tue, 03/20/2018 - 11:01am

In a post-Christian, post-modern, post-everything society, God’s people are called to operate from courage, not fear. And when we live courageously, putting our hope in the reality of who God is and what God has already accomplished, it changes everything. We’re freed up to be the people of God living out the mission of God despite what new challenges come our way.

But given our increasingly hostile cultural landscape, what does making new disciples, in terms of evangelism, look like? And how do we go about it? I think you’ll be surprised by where we end up, though you probably shouldn’t be.

Evangelism in an Age of Unbelief

When we talk about what it means to be courageous and faithful in the age of unbelief, we have to talk about the Great Commission. That’s our mission. And though it’s always been true, I think it’s truer than ever to say that evangelism will include hospitality. Hospitality is not the sum total of courage or evangelism, but living courageously will involve living hospitably.

The idea of hospitality has been hijacked by popular culture. When the Bible speaks of hospitality, it almost always ties it to aliens and strangers — people who are not like us. Hospitality means welcoming those outside your normal circle of friends — the kind of people it takes a new heart to invite in. It’s opening our lives, and our homes, to those who believe differently than we do.

Hospitality is all over the Bible. In fact, it’s so important to God that when Paul lists out the traits necessary for a man to be qualified for the office of elder in a local congregation, we find that he must be “above reproach, the husband of one wife, sober-minded, self-controlled, respectable, hospitable, able to teach . . .” (1 Timothy 3:2). To be an elder, a man has to be able to open his life and show kindness to those who believe differently than he does. He has to open up his world to those who are outside of what he believes.

Now, why would God be so serious about hospitality? Well, because he has been so hospitable to us. Even when we were living as his enemies, he came and saved us. He opened the door and invited us into his presence. We demonstrate that we truly appreciate the divine hospitality we have received as we extend our own hospitality to those around us.

I’m not suggesting that biblical hospitality is the silver bullet for making evangelism work in the twenty-first century (news flash: there’s no silver bullet). But might it not be — in our cynical, polarizing, critical, dumpster-fire culture — that a warm dose of welcoming hospitality will take some folks by surprise and open up the door for opportunities to make disciples of Jesus Christ?

Four Ways to Show Hospitality

The God of the universe is serious about hospitality. Hospitality can create an entry point for living out the Great Commission and evangelizing our neighbors — especially in the age of unbelief when most think the church is about something completely different. Yet we still have to ask, How do we show hospitality today? It’s not complicated — though that doesn’t mean it’s easy.

1. Welcome Everyone You Meet

I think the best first step is to greet everyone you see. That’s easy to do if you are wired like me — I’m a total extrovert. That’s hard if you’re an introvert, and maybe you’re thinking, “Can we just skip to number two, please?” But often the best actions to take are the hardest to do. Pray for grace, ask for strength, take a risk, and greet people.

2. Engage People

Remember that every person you encounter is eternal. You have never met a mere mortal, as C.S. Lewis famously observed, and you have never met a human not created to image your God. How can we not seek to care about and take an interest in those we run across? I don’t think this is overly difficult. It simply requires us to be asking open-ended questions, letting our inner curiosity out.

We may think this is all obvious — but often we hold back from doing it. We need to get to know people, take an interest in them, and listen to them, rather than just trying to think about how we can say something memorable or hilarious.

3. Make Dinner a Priority

Over and over again, God’s word testifies to the holiness of eating together. Long dinners with good food, good drink, good company, and good conversations that center around our beliefs, our hopes, our fears — that’s a good dinner. And I don’t mean just dinner with friends. Yes, eat with your church small group, invite over your good friends, but remember that hospitality means to give loving welcome to those outside your normal circle of friends. It is opening your life, and your house, to those who believe differently than you do.

4. Love the Outsider

In every work environment, every neighborhood, we know people who, for whatever reason, are outliers. These men and women are all around us — perhaps more so than ever, in our globalized world. Because of the way sin affects us, we tend to run away from differences and from being around people who think differently and look different than we do. But I want to lay this before you: Jesus Christ would have moved towards the outsiders. God extends radical hospitality to me and to you. That’s why we learn to love, and pursue, the outsider — because we were the outsider.

It All Starts with Courage

As dark and dire as the landscape may appear right now, as vast and venomous as it may be, we know that the battle has already been won — and that means we don’t fight on the world’s terms. This age of unbelief may feel big and intimidating for the church, but it’s simply a small subplot in a bigger, better story — the greatest story ever told.

And in a truly spectacular paradox, there’s a yawning chasm between God’s story and our stories. While we know there are spiritually significant realities at work, we are called to simple, everyday faithfulness that works itself out in lives marked by hospitality.

In some ways, it’s the big, flashy acts — the kind of stuff we photograph, slap a filter on, and show all our “friends” online — that go most noticed yet require the least of us. True Christian courage probably looks more like inviting a group of strangers into your home for dinner than the attractive, successful ideas we have dreamed up in our minds.

Taking a risk to be genuinely hospitable actually requires courage because it forces us to rely on our Lord and his strength, not our own. When we open up our homes and build friendships with those who don’t look like us, believe like us, or act like us, we open up our lives and make ourselves vulnerable. We risk getting hurt and making enemies with those who don’t think the way we think or act the way we act. Yet we can do it because of the hope, strength, and courage that we have in the Lord.

So, greet the people you see today. Learn to ask good questions. Open up your home to them, especially if they’re lonely or isolated. And above all, trust in God to use your weak hospitality to show his power.

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Tue, 03/20/2018 - 8:00am

Only those who have their needs met in Christ can consistently meet the needs of others.

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Pleasure Will Set Him Free from Sexual Sin: Augustine (354–430)

Mon, 03/19/2018 - 8:03pm

Augustine’s influence in the Western world is simply staggering.

Benjamin Warfield argued that through his writings Augustine “entered both the Church and the world as a revolutionary force, and not merely created an epoch in the history of the Church, but . . . determined the course of its history in the West up to the present day” (Calvin and Augustine, 306). The publishers of Christian History magazine simply say, “After Jesus and Paul, Augustine of Hippo is the most influential figure in the history of Christianity” (Vol. VI, No. 3, p. 2).

A Hissing Cauldron

Augustine was born in Thagaste, near Hippo, in what is now Algeria, on November 13, 354. His father, Patricius, a middle-income farmer, worked hard to get Augustine the best education in rhetoric that he could, first at Madaura, twenty miles away, from age eleven to fifteen, then, after a year at home, in Carthage from age seventeen to twenty.

Before Augustine left for Carthage to study for three years, his mother warned him earnestly “not to commit fornication and above all not to seduce any man’s wife.” But Augustine would later write in his Confessions, “I went to Carthage, where I found myself in the midst of a hissing cauldron of lust. . . . My real need was for you, my God, who are the food of the soul. I was not aware of this hunger” (55). He took a concubine in Carthage and lived with this same woman for fifteen years and had one son by her, Adeodatus.

Augustine became a traditional schoolmaster teaching rhetoric for the next eleven years of his life, from age nineteen to thirty.

With Ambrose in Milan

In his twenty-ninth year, Augustine moved from Carthage to Rome to teach, but was so fed up with the behavior of the students that he moved to a teaching post in Milan in 384. There he would meet the great bishop Ambrose.

Augustine, who at that time had absorbed the Platonic vision of reality, was scandalized by the biblical teaching that “the Word became flesh” (John 1:14). But week in and week out he would listen to Ambrose preach. “I was all ears to seize upon his eloquence. I also began to sense the truth of what he said, though only gradually” (Confessions, 108). Eventually, Augustine knew that he was held back not by anything intellectual, but by sexual lust: “I was still held firm in the bonds of woman’s love” (Confessions, 168).

Therefore, the battle would be determined by the kind of pleasure that triumphed in his life. “I began to search for a means of gaining the strength I needed to enjoy you, but I could not find this means until I embraced the mediator between God and men, Jesus Christ” (Confessions, 152).

A Fierce Struggle

Then came one of the most important days in church history. This story is the heart of his Confessions, and one of the great works of grace in history, and what a battle it was.

This day was more complex than the story often goes, but to go to the heart of the battle, let’s focus on the final crisis. It was late August 386. Augustine was almost thirty-two years old. With his best friend, Alypius, he was talking about the remarkable sacrifice and holiness of Antony, an Egyptian monk. Augustine was stung by his own bestial bondage to lust, when others were free and holy in Christ.

There was a small garden attached to the house where we lodged. . . . I now found myself driven by the tumult in my breast to take refuge in this garden, where no one could interrupt that fierce struggle in which I was my own contestant. . . . I was beside myself with madness that would bring me sanity. I was dying a death that would bring me life. . . . I was frantic, overcome by violent anger with myself for not accepting your will and entering into your covenant. . . . I tore my hair and hammered my forehead with my fists; I locked my fingers and hugged my knees. (Confessions, 170–71)

But he began to see more clearly that the gain was far greater than the loss, and by a miracle of grace he began to recognize the beauty of chastity in the presence of Christ.

I was held back by mere trifles. . . . They plucked at my garment of flesh and whispered, “Are you going to dismiss us? From this moment we shall never be with you again, for ever and ever.” . . . And while I stood trembling at the barrier, on the other side I could see the chaste beauty of Continence in all her serene, unsullied joy, as she modestly beckoned me to cross over and to hesitate no more. She stretched out loving hands to welcome and embrace me. (Confessions, 175–76)

“Take It and Read”

So now the battle came down to the beauty of purity and her tenders of love versus the trifles that plucked at his flesh.

I flung myself down beneath a fig tree and gave way to the tears which now streamed from my eyes. . . . In my misery I kept crying, “How long shall I go on saying ‘tomorrow, tomorrow’? Why not now? Why not make an end of my ugly sins at this moment?” (Confessions, 177)

In the midst of his weeping, Augustine heard the voice of a child sing, “Take it and read. Take it and read.”

At this I looked up, thinking hard whether there was any kind of game in which children used to chant words like these, but I could not remember ever hearing them before. I stemmed my flood of tears and stood up, telling myself that this could only be a divine command to open my book of Scripture and read the first passage on which my eyes should fall. (Confessions, 177)

So Augustine grabbed his book of Paul’s letters, flipped open its pages, and rested his eyes on Romans 13:13–14: “Not in orgies and drunkenness, not in sexual immorality and sensuality, not in quarreling and jealousy. But put on the Lord Jesus Christ, and make no provision for the flesh, to gratify its desires.”

“I had no wish to read more and no need to do so,” he wrote. “For in an instant, as I came to the end of the sentence, it was as though the light of confidence flooded into my heart and all the darkness of doubt was dispelled” (Confessions, 178).

Bishop of Hippo

He was baptized the next Easter, 387, in Milan by Ambrose. That autumn his mother died, a very happy woman because the son of her tears was safe in Christ. In 388 (at almost thirty-four) he returned to Africa, with a view to establishing a kind of monastery for him and his friends, whom he called “servants of God.” He had given up any dreams for marriage and committed himself to celibacy and poverty — that is, to the common life with others in the community. He hoped for a life of philosophical reflection in the monastic way.

But God had other plans. Augustine’s son, Adeodatus, died in 389. The dreams of returning to a quiet life in his hometown of Thagaste evaporated in the light of eternity. Augustine saw that it might be more strategic to move his monastic community to the larger city of Hippo. He chose Hippo because they already had a bishop, so there was less chance of his being pressed to take on that role. But he miscalculated. The church came to Augustine and essentially forced him to be the priest and then the bishop of Hippo, where he stayed for the rest of his life.

And so, like many in the history of the church who have left an enduring mark, he was thrust (at the age of thirty-six) out of a life of contemplation into a life of action. Augustine established a monastery on the grounds of the church and for almost forty years raised up a band of biblically saturated priests and bishops who were installed all over the continent, bringing renewal to the churches. Along the way, he defended orthodox doctrine under heavy assault and wrote some of the most influential books in the history of Christianity, including Confessions, On Christian Doctrine, On the Trinity, and The City of God.

The Swan Is Not Silent

When Augustine handed over the leadership of his church in 426, four years before he died, his successor was overwhelmed by a sense of inadequacy. “The swan is silent,” he said, fearing the spiritual giant’s voice would be lost in time.

But the swan is not silent — not in 426, not in 2018, and not in the centuries between. For 1,600 years, Augustine’s voice has continued to beckon hungry sinners to feast upon the liberating, sovereign joy of Jesus Christ:

How sweet all at once it was for me to be rid of those fruitless joys which I had once feared to lose! . . . You drove them from me, you who are the true, the sovereign joy. You drove them from me and took their place, you who are sweeter than all pleasure, though not to flesh and blood, you who outshine all light, yet are hidden deeper than any secret in our hearts, you who surpass all honor, though not in the eyes of men who see all honor in themselves. . . . O Lord my God, my Light, my Wealth, and my Salvation. (Confessions, 181)

Death Is No Loss

Mon, 03/19/2018 - 8:00am

Death is no loss. Whatever you leave behind can’t ever compare with entering into the joy of your master.

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Mon, 03/19/2018 - 8:00am

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