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Updated: 39 min 43 sec ago

Where Is Jesus Amid Genocide and Unthinkable Evil?

Tue, 09/03/2019 - 12:03am

Labor pains first seized Denise Uwimana while she lay wedged beneath a bed in a pool of her cousins’ blood. Outside, militants prowled for her with machetes raised. As she labored in silence to avoid detection, her mind raced. She lamented her newborn son’s entrance into a world that would instantly hate him, not for his misdeeds, but for his identity as a Tutsi. She agonized about the safety of her other children. Over and against this tide of grief, Uwimana’s anger flared at God. “You promised to protect us,” she prayed, “and now we are going to die! You have totally failed me!” (65).

Uwimana is one of more than a million people who suffered atrocities during the 100-day Rwandan genocide in 1994. From April to July of that year, long-simmering tensions between the Tutsi and Hutu populations broiled to a zenith, with harrowing repercussions. Hutu extremists murdered an estimated 800,000 Tutsi men, women, and children they once called acquaintances, neighbors, even friends. Militants beheaded infant boys while their mothers pled for mercy. They raped hundreds of thousands of women and girls, who suffered the effects of post-traumatic stress and HIV infection long after the assaults ended. A visit to any of the genocide memorial sites throughout Rwanda—many of them churches, where people fled for refuge only to be massacred—reveals shelves lined with skulls and thousands of clothes piled in spaces too small to accommodate gravestones.

Suffering Savior

The mind recoils at such images of brutality, and in her memoir, From Red Earth: A Rwandan Story of Healing and Forgiveness, Denise Uwimana respects her fellow survivors too highly to whitewash the horror from those days. Instead she recounts the violence in unsettling detail, compelling readers to acknowledge the destructive power of sin that seethes within us all.

She also confronts the spiritual turmoil into which the killings thrust survivors, who struggled to reconcile the savagery they endured with the truth that God is “merciful and gracious, slow to anger, and abounding in steadfast love and faithfulness” (Ex. 34:6). Distrust of God germinated when devout Tutsi watched their families die. It took root when clergy betrayed entire communities to the extremists, corralling their parishioners into church buildings to expedite the slaughter. Uwimana’s cries to God sharpened in intensity as tragedies within her family piled up. She writes of that period: “Although I believed in God, I had only accusing questions to bring before him. ‘You could have prevented all this!’ I cried, again and again. ‘Why didn’t you?’” (113).

Uwimana offers no simplistic answers to her questions, no platitudes to undermine the suffering of her fellow Tutsi. But her unflinching account of the tragedy throws the subsequent narratives of healing, forgiveness, and repentance into stunning relief. In a powerful testimony to God’s steadfast love, Uwimana reveals that only Christ could heal wounds as raw and deep as those inflicted in Rwanda during the genocide (1 Pet. 2:24). In prose flowing with empathy and humility, Uwimana guides us through the stories of victims who found redemption in a Savior who also suffered. From Red Earth reveals that while hatred tore Rwandan hearts to pieces, Jesus coaxed them to beat anew.

Uwimana’s witness begins with her own story. With her husband missing, her extended family murdered, and her home destroyed, despair enveloped her. While she struggled to find peace and to understand God’s plan, the one source of solace emerging from the wreckage was the truth that Jesus, too, had endured deep pain. “Often, all I could do was pray to Jesus,” she recalls of life after the genocide, “hoping he would understand since he, too, had been hated, betrayed, and humiliated. Clinging to his cross was like clinging to the trunk of a palm through a hurricane. I might be battered by lashing wind, but surely the tree’s roots would hold” (114).

Jesus’s sacrifice gave Uwimana’s survival a purpose: to help soften the hearts of the Hutu in her community, to bring them to the Lord. Convicted from a reading of Acts 26:16–18, Uwimana returned to the village that had hunted her, not to enact revenge, but to publicly declare forgiveness. Her efforts blossomed into an entire ministry, Iriba Shalom International, dedicated to supporting survivors and guiding them toward reconciliation and healing.

Reconciliation, Renewal, Forgiveness

Uwimana’s story intertwines with numerous others, all diverse in perspective but singularly united in their testimony to God’s grace in Christ. She devotes special attention to Beata, a woman who hid in the bush for months after her family was massacred. When offered a Bible, Beata scoffed that a grenade would be more helpful. Gradually, grief twisted her heart against God. She lingered at the edge of a bridge one day with her one surviving child on her back, determined to end both their lives. “But although Beata had given up on God, God had not given up on her” (155).

A woman intervened on that bridge and guided her toward a relief ministry centered on the gospel. Uwimana writes of the healing she witnessed in Beata after encountering Jesus:

Like her, Jesus had felt forsaken by God. Her whole being responded; she was flooded with overpowering love. “I received Jesus into my heart,” Beata told me. “He became my Lord and my refuge, and he lifted my burdens.” (156)

In a remarkable turn, Beata then ministered to Hutu murderers in prison:

“The way to escape your darkness is to face the light, confess your sin, and run to the cross,” she told them. “The blood of Jesus speaks louder than the blood you shed, louder than your self-accusation. It can wash killers clean.” (169)

Such examples of reconciliation, renewal, and forgiveness in From Red Earth contrast starkly with the preceding accounts of brutality. Uwimana writes of Tutsi who embraced their assailants in forgiveness because Christ forgave them first. She remembers Hutu who risked their lives to shelter Tutsi during the genocide, who later cited the gospel as their inspiration for helping. She recounts Tutsi widows, despondent and disgraced within their communities, who found peace in the truth that they are image-bearers of God, worthy of love. Through such stories, Denise Uwimana offers all of us a beautiful gift: a glimpse into God’s saving work through Christ in the most desolate circumstances.

From Red Earth reminds us that whatever calamities strike, however atrocities evade our understanding, in Christ all wounds are healed. Sin mires every corner of the earth, and suffering invades every heart. But at the foot of the cross, we have hope that sponges away the suffering. We have trust in a Savior who, like the afflicted, was a man of sorrows, acquainted with grief (Isa. 53:3).

Uwimana explains it best: “In the West, I’ve met people who cannot grasp why Jesus had to die: ‘Couldn’t God have pardoned humankind without the torture?’ But in Rwanda, where we saw evil unmasked, it makes all the difference to know that God’s own son has been there too” (188).

Faithful Ministry Is Savvy Too

Tue, 09/03/2019 - 12:02am

In Ecclesiastes 7, the Preacher tells us to be neither “overly wise” nor “overly foolish.” Meaning, don’t put too much trust in your own wisdom, yet don’t neglect the role that wisdom plays in navigating complicated endeavors. Find the balance.

One of the biggest pitfalls in church planting is forsaking this balance. It’s easy to either overestimate or underestimate the role that “entrepreneurial aptitude” plays in planting a church. To some, even hearing the terms “entrepreneur” and “church planting” in the same sentence is alarming, while others may assume you could learn everything you need to know about planting a church in Business 101.

Wisdom and strategy have parts to play in effective, sustainable gospel ministry.

Should we be careful not to trust too much in entrepreneurship or rely too heavily on our own innovation? Of course. Yet we should also recognize that wisdom and strategy have parts to play in effective, sustainable gospel ministry.

The apostle Paul resolves this tension, showing us what it means to employ wisdom and think strategically while also embracing the scandal of the gospel and trusting in the power of the Spirit. His sums up his approach this way: “I have become all things to all people, that by all means I might save some. I do it all for the sake of the gospel, that I may share with them in its blessings” (1 Cor. 9:22–23).

Entrepreneurial aptitude is just that: becoming all things to all people.

Content and Context

But this aptitude involves carefully untangling two things that often get conflated: content and context. Paul did this masterfully. The content of his message was fixed: it was the gospel, something objective he clearly defines (1 Cor. 15:1–5). But he also adapted to the context in which that gospel was presented and applied.

Some planters fear that considering context will inevitably lead to a distortion of content. But Paul’s ministry shows otherwise. He knew that he wasn’t planting churches in a vacuum, and so he thought intentionally and strategically about how to permeate these new areas with the gospel. He was mindful of things like cultural practices and the existing religious framework of his audience (Acts 17:16–34; Rom. 14:14–15). But Paul’s careful attention to such things was not an end in itself; it was for the sake of effectively bringing the good news of the kingdom to bear on people’s lives.

Too often, churches tout themselves as “faithful” because they refuse to contextualize. Again, we should be wary of too eagerly “changing with the times” or sidestepping the biblical marks of a church. But faithfulness to the gospel—as Paul shows us—requires that we never waver from the stumbling block of it (1 Cor. 1:23) and, at the same time, intentionally and thoughtfully remove any stumbling blocks that might hinder people from hearing it. Doing this takes hard-won wisdom.

Slippery Slope

This is why Ecclesiastes 7 is pertinent. We must heed the Preacher’s call to not be “overly wise,” placing too much trust in our systems and innovation. All of us can likely think of extreme examples where entrepreneurial efforts—whether intentionally or not—seek to replace the true power behind the gospel’s advance. It’s sobering to think how easy it is to begin with intentions of being “wise” or “strategic,” only to slip right down the slope toward metric-driven pragmatism.

It’s sobering to think how easy it is to begin with intentions of being ‘wise’ or ‘strategic,’ only to slip right down the slope toward metric-driven pragmatism.

Planting a church is not less than starting a new venture, but it is far more—and our Enemy rejoices when we forget that. He would love for us to believe that our models and strategies have the power to make someone a new creation in Christ. He would have us go on in our staff meetings about “market share” and the “competition.” He relishes in the pastor’s decision to drift away from the ordinary means of Word and sacrament in favor of more “engaging” alternatives.

This is the guardrail on the other side of the road. Because while Paul demonstrates the value of thoughtful contextualization, he also reminds us that when it comes to gospel advance, trusting in human ingenuity is an exercise in futility.

He reminds us that God’s “foolishness” is wiser than man’s ingenuity (1 Cor. 1:25), that what makes a qualified pastor isn’t intellect or charisma but godly character (1 Tim. 3:1–7), and that “lofty speech and wisdom” are no match for the timeless, transcendent scandal of the cross preached in the power of the Spirit (1 Cor. 2:1–5). So, while the New Testament commends wisely exercising entrepreneurial skills, it also warns us there’s a way to do so that simply becomes functional atheism.

Whose Power?

As we pursue becoming all things to all people for the sake of the gospel, we must hold in view one more self-description Paul offers: “For I am not ashamed of the gospel, for it is the power of God for salvation to everyone who believes” (Rom. 1:16).

Here is the source of saving power for all people in all contexts. We are made alive in Christ not by relevance or cleverness, but because he is alive. And that news—of an empty tomb and a risen Lord—deserves all the intentionality we have. The more precious the cargo, the more attention you pay to the delivery route.

While Paul demonstrates the value of thoughtful contextualization, he also reminds us that when it comes to gospel advance, trusting in human ingenuity is an exercise in futility.

As we give the gospel its due attention, we rest in the fact that it is powerful enough to free us from self-reliance. God’s new-creation project will never be hindered by our lack of business acumen. In fact, he loves to accomplish his work both through us and despite us.

So be creative and strategic as you ponder how best to love the people in your context. But in all your efforts, trust the work of the Spirit, trust the ordinary means of grace, and trust the gospel—for it, and it alone, “is the power of God for salvation to everyone who believes.”

Why You Need a Theological Vision for Ministry

Tue, 09/03/2019 - 12:00am

What is truth? Pilate famously missed that he was standing before Truth himself when he asked Jesus that question 2,000 years ago. And ever since, much of the world continues to search in vain for truth apart from the way and life of Christ. We have a cultural crisis of truth. But as truth of the Bible produces wisdom in us, and we live in submission to God’s reality, we can point the world toward the Source of all truth.

The Gospel Coalition’s Theological Vision for Ministry was adopted by our Council in 2007. The first point addresses this “epistemological issue” in our culture today. It not only corrects wrong views of truth in the world but also pushes back on some mistaken notions in the church. The statement says that “Christian growth is not simply cognitive information transfer.” Yet sometimes that’s the discipleship plan our churches seem to convey in preaching and Bible studies. There’s balance to be found in seeing truth not only as something to be studied and taught but also as something to be obeyed. We are not only hearers of the Word but doers also (James 1:22).

For the first in a series of podcast conversations about our Theological Vision for Ministry, I talked with TGC president Don Carson. I asked him about our cultural crisis of truth and more generally about the role of theological vision in the church and TGC.

Listen to this episode of The Gospel Coalition Podcast.


Natural Disasters Are Unnatural

Mon, 09/02/2019 - 12:00am

‘Tis the season. Hurricane season, that is.

Whether you’re a Weather Channel checker, a coast dweller, or simply a concerned citizen, hurricane season has a way of repeatedly reminding us that the world is not as it should be.

As we track computer simulations and map out where our loved ones live, we’re invited more deeply into the Christian worldview and its distinctly living hope. Here are three things to remember about natural disasters.

1. They’re Unnatural

While we call them “natural” disasters, we must recognize that storms, wildfires, earthquakes, tidal waves, and all their chaotic kin are anything but natural. In the beginning of Genesis, we find a world in complete harmony. Peace permeated all of the created order: peace with God, peace between Adam and Eve, peace within, and peace with the newly minted world that was the Garden of Eden.

Waves stopped where they were told. Tectonic plates rested in their appointed places. Winds did the bidding of the One who walked gently in the garden with his human masterpieces (Gen. 1–2).

But we know what happened next. In the most unnatural of all disasters, mankind usurped the authority of God; the vice-regents of the created order sought to steal knowledge and power from Creator.

We’re still feeling the aftershocks of this ongoing decision, and we have pulled the earth into our mess. The apostle Paul, who found himself in several natural disasters at sea, understood the physical ramifications of our spiritual fall: “For we know that the whole creation has been groaning together in the pains of childbirth until now” (Rom. 8:22).

And, long before Paul, the weeping prophet Jeremiah lamented the earth’s shared portion in our punishment: “How long will the land mourn and the grass of every field wither? For the evil of those who dwell in it, the beasts and the birds are swept away, because they said, ‘He will not see our latter end’” (Jer. 12:4).

Jeremiah and Paul, along with every believer in Christ, proclaim that natural disasters are unnatural, and we grieve that the earth is groaning along with us.

2. They’re Temporary

The daily weather reports won’t forever predict destruction and chaos. Believers can rest in the hope that one day the shalom that reigned in the Garden of Eden will again reign in the new heavens and the new earth.

The kingdom of God that was consummated when Christ came to earth will be completed upon his second coming. As such, it’s right to long for the day when the winds always and utterly obey his voice, as they did when he was sailing on the earth with friends.

As the apostle John so beautifully depicts in Revelation 21, when Christ comes to make his dwelling place once more with man, “He will wipe away every tear from their eyes, and death shall be no more, neither shall there by mourning, nor crying, nor pain anymore, for the former things have passed away” (Rev. 21:4).

What we call “natural disasters” are those former things that will pass away. One day, there will be no more naming hurricanes, no more firefighting, no more tornado drills. In the meanwhile, we live in the already/not yet of the kingdom of God: we have a living hope in Christ, but our hope is not yet seen (see Rom. 8:24–25).

3. They’re Unearthing

We know how unearthing natural disasters can be. They send us into the traffic of long evacuation routes, and they leave us adrift in a sea of insurance papers. While this unearthing upheaval is terribly uncomfortable, it’s an opportunity to place our hope in our lasting home.

The Jewish Christians whom the writer of Hebrews addressed were familiar with unearthing circumstances, but they were encouraged to use their pain as a pointer to the lasting city for which they were looking:

These all died in faith, not having received the things promised, but having seen them and greeted them afar and having acknowledged that they were strangers and exiles on earth. For people who speak thus make it clear that they are seeking a homeland . . . . But as it is, they desire a better country, that is, a heavenly one. (Heb. 11:13–14, 16)

Faced with a disaster of her own, the famous Puritan poet Anne Bradstreet made it clear that she was seeking a better country. After describing the burning of her home and belongings, she concludes her poem “Upon the Burning of Our House” with lasting hope:

There’s wealth enough, I need no more, / Farewell, my pelf, farewell, my store. / The world no longer let me love, / My hope and treasure lies above.

This hurricane season, may we allow the unearthing of natural disasters to orient our lives around service to others in need and to point us to the coming—and unending—shalom of Christ.

You Don’t Have to Be a Social-Media Narcissist

Sun, 09/01/2019 - 12:03am

Narcissus loved Narcissus. Seeing his reflection in a pool of water, Narcissus could not look away from his own beauty. Narcissus also loved media. He loved that this reflective pool of water mediated and allowed him to gaze upon his own image.

Were he to live today, Narcissus would’ve found a deluge of tools for self-admiration: phones with a camera on both sides and gigabytes of selfie storage; Facebook, Twitter, and Instagram with thumbs-up or heart-shaped buttons to prove likability to others. LinkedIn would allow Narcissus to display his splendid accomplishments like a virtual trophy case. YouTube might even let him be the star of his own television channel. 

Narcissus would be pleased to find that nearly everyone today has assumed his posture. He would feel right at home in a world where people spend much of their day with heads down, backs bent, and eyes gazing at a glowing screen. 

We are all Narcissus now—which of course is a problem Christians called to humility.

Media and Self-Amputation

Digital media, like a reflective pool, allows us to gaze upon an extension of ourselves. Our physical profiles are reflected through digital profiles; our faces can be viewed from afar through Facebook; our voices and bodies extend across time and space through live video feeds.

Media theorist Marshall McLuhan recognized how media is an extension of ourselves. In Understanding Media: The Extension of Man, McLuhan wrote that humans are prone to becoming “fascinated by any extension of themselves in any material other than themselves.” A medium such as a mirrory pond is not altogether different from modern forms of mass media; pools of water, polaroid pictures, and Facebook profiles are all “an extension or self-amputation of our physical bodies.”  

This “self-amputation,” as the violent image suggests, comes at a cost. As digital media extends our physical bodies, we can become both fragmented and numb. And this fragmentation takes many shapes: being physically present in one space but focusing on a distant Twitter conversation; seeing a picture-perfect sunset and compulsively grabbing your phone like a well-trained Pavlovian canine; hearing a notification ping and experiencing an involuntary dopamine rush.

Rather than opening up the world, digital technology can gradually close off our senses. The fragrant smell of flowers in bloom are instead seen as potential Instagram posts. A melodious birdsong is deafened by earbuds blasting a Spotify playlist. The taste of food is overpowered by the impulse to Snapchat the moment. 

Whom Is Our Media Extending?

McLuhan, a Roman Catholic, also warned of the spiritual consequences of media. He saw a connection between modern technology and Psalm 115: “Their idols are silver and gold, the work of human hands. . . . Those who make them become like them; so do all who trust in them” (Ps. 115:4, 8). According to McLuhan, “the psalmist insists that the beholding of idols, or the use of technology, conforms men to them.” We become what we behold. 

Obsessively gazing at our own photos, posting praise for ourselves, and building a platform for personal elevation are all forms of self-idolatry. Using digital media primarily to extend ourselves stifles its usefulness. And yet it doesn’t have to be this way. Profiles and platforms can be used to extend others, too.

Profiles and platforms can be used to extend others.

At its best, social media extends others as much or more than it extends the self. I can think of a few people who stand out as effectively using social media this way. Trevin Wax is quick to praise others and generous with sharing accomplishments not his own. John Nunes, president of Concordia College in Bronxville, New York, uses his platform to elevate others rather than merely elevating himself. Jon Acuff uses his platform as a New York Times–bestselling author to promote others, routinely offering praise rather than boasting only of his own accomplishments.

At its worst, social media is a carefully crafted highlight reel of personal awesomeness. I can also think of at least one person who stewards this tool rather poorly: me. I’m prone to use my social-media channels to brag, boast, and bombard others with more of me. I fear that elevating others on social media will come at a personal cost—so I curate what I post and consider how it will shape the way people perceive me. Sorting all this out is why I write on the topic; I explore digital media not as one who has figured it out, but as one who desperately wants to figure out how these technologies might be used well. 

Extending the Gospel

Digital media can be more than an extension of ourselves. It can even be more than an extension of others. Digital media can—and should—extend the gospel of Christ. While Psalm 115 warns of idolatry, it also offers a positive alternative: “Not to us, O LORD, not to us, but to your name be the glory, for the sake of your steadfast love and your faithfulness!” (Ps. 115:1).

When it comes to digital media, here’s a key question: How might this help the gospel to advance in the world? No, this doesn’t mean every snap, post, and tweet must be a Bible verse. Yet it does mean we consider regularly and deliberately how our media usage might cause Christ to increase and ourselves to decrease (John 3:30).

Near the end of his life, the apostle Paul instructed Timothy: “When you come, bring the cloak that I left with Carpus at Troas, also the books, and above all the parchments” (2 Tim. 4:13). Paul used media. Paul wanted media. Paul may have even loved media. And yet his longing for media wasn’t predicated on narcissism. Paul wanted media—books and parchments—so that he could extend the good news of Jesus Christ.    

Opportunities for narcissism abound as we carry custom-designed reflective pools in our pockets and bags. Instead of chucking these devices into the water, though, a simple shift in mindset might do the trick: from reflecting ourselves to reflecting our glorious Creator to the world.

Planned Parenthood and the Biblical Ethics of Whistleblowing

Sat, 08/31/2019 - 12:04am

The Story: A whistleblower at Planned Parenthood was recently awarded $3 million for wrongful termination. When should Christians consider such whistleblowing to be moral?

The Background: Last week a jury in Arizona awarded a former Planned Parenthood employee $3 million after she claimed she was wrongfully terminated for alerting her supervisors to unsafe medical practices at the clinics where she worked.

According to the Arizona Republic, Mayra Rodriguez was working as an administer for several Arizona abortion clinics when she questioned business practices and made numerous complaints against abortionists on staff. Court records note that Rodriguez was concerned about the “substantial health, welfare, and safety risks to these patients, as well as the substantial risk to the health, safety, and welfare of the inevitable future of [Planned Parenthood Arizona] patients.” An example from the lawsuit is a trend of reports concerning patients who had complications after abortion procedures, and experienced bleeding and cramps—all of whom had been treated by the same doctor. She also pointed out an incident involving a failure to report that a minor with an adult partner was seeking an abortion.

After reporting the incident she received a memo giving her a “final warning” about her job performance. The memo alleged several deficiencies in areas such as financial policy, inventory control, performance of daily duties, and inaccurate communication. Rodriquez was later fired after a supervisor claimed narcotics were found inside her desk. Rodriguez says the medication was planted in her desk, was not a narcotic, and that it was common practice for staff to store medication that way before transferring it to the clinic’s purchasing department for handling and disposal.

After being fired, Rodriguez contacted Abby Johnson, who runs And Then There Were None, which helps abortion workers who want to leave the industry. Johnson told World magazine that Rodriquez had not yet joined the pro-life cause and wants to “focus on the fact that Planned Parenthood has been harming women and that what they talk about in the media is the complete opposite of what they do in their clinics.”

What It Means: Rodriguez is an example of a “whistleblower,” an employee who alleges wrongdoing by his or her employer of the sort that violates public law or tends to injure a considerable number of people. In the U.S. there are a number of laws that protect whistleblowers, under certain circumstances, from retaliation (i.e., an action which would dissuade a reasonable employee from raising a concern about a possible violation). But the question of whether whistleblowing is always moral is complicated. Under what circumstances can there be biblically justified ‘leaking’ or whistleblowing?

A situation involving health and safety, as in the case involving Planned Parenthood, may be an obvious example of ethical whistleblowing (I certainly believe it is). But what about less clear instances of real or presumed harm? For example, Edward Snowden, a government contractor, leaked highly classified information because he perceived there was harm being done by a National Security Agency (NSA) global surveillance program. Was his leaking of the documents ethical?

Or what about reporting of illegal actions? Should a Christian report to the Immigration and Customs Enforcement (ICE) that their employer has hired undocumented immigrants? Should the co-workers of Mayra Rodriguez, who had entered the U.S. illegally as an adult, have informed federal authorities that Planned Parenthood hired undocumented workers?

What does being a “good neighbor” or a “Good Samaritan” (Luke 10) mean, obligation-wise, when it comes to warning others against possible harm or illegal activity? If an individual has accurate and true knowledge about a situation that could result—or has already resulted in—public (or semi-public) harm, do they have a biblical obligation to report it?

While the Bible doesn’t spell out the ethical obligations in these specific situations, the literature on justified whistleblowing tracks closely with another set of criteria many Christians apply to one specific intersection of ethics, “neighbor-love” (what the influential theologian Augustine called caritas) and public order: the just war tradition.

There are two distinct categories in the just war tradition, both of which are applicable to questions of whistleblowing: jus ad bellum (justice before war, or justice when initiating a war) and jus in bello (justice in war, or justice in the process of waging war). The conditions for each, briefly stated, are:

Jus ad bellum considerations

Proper authority – Who has the right to initiate a conflict?

Just cause – Is the conflict being initiated to achieve a proper end?

Right intention – Am I initiating the conflict for the right (internal) reasons?  Public good or private hatred?

Macro-proportionality – Will the goal of this conflict be worth the evil/damage that will take place?

Last resort – Have I tried, to the extent possible, to achieve the proper end through peaceable means?

Probability of success – Is it even possible to achieve the proper end through military means successfully?

Jus in bello considerations

Discrimination – When I fight, am I fighting in such a way that I do what I can to ensure that those who should be protected, like women, children and the infirm, are protected?

Micro-proportionality – When I fight, do I use tactics that are out of line with my immediate operational objective?

Ethicists who analyze whistleblowing (such as Sissela Bok, Michael Davis, and Richard DeGeorge) tend to use similar categories to those found in just war theory. In order to overcome the hurdle of disloyalty to an employer or organization of which one is a member, these ethicists look at such questions as:

(a) Do you know that there is possible harm and/or moral wrongdoing going on? Or are you just trying to get back at someone? (just cause and right intention)

(b) Is this information something that you have reasonably direct knowledge about? (proper authority) Added to this, DeGeorge asks, “Is your continued work going to contribute to the wrongdoing you think will occur?”

(c) Have you exhausted all of your internal remedies (immediate supervisor and above)? (last resort)

(d) If you go public, will the “evil” you cause “prevent the [public] harm at a reasonable cost? [Davis]” (proportionality)

Other criteria based on oath-keeping may also need to be considered. If someone has signed a non-disclosure agreement or carries a security clearance, that person is under more stringent guidelines. In such cases, disagreement might require resignation, but continued silence. If public comments are made, they should be done with the understanding that it could very well result in harm to others, prosecution, and jail time.

Determining how to apply these criteria to all situations is beyond the scope of this article. But Christians should give some thought to how they might be called on to apply this standard to their own vocations—and do so in a way that is consistent with their conscience and biblical morality.

As Christians we should be committed to being truth-tellers and protective of those who take risk to bring us the truth. By developing a biblical view of whistleblowing we can be better prepared to promote and apply ethical whistleblowing as a means of loving our neighbors.

‘Righteous Gemstones’ and Hollywood’s Christian Villains

Sat, 08/31/2019 - 12:00am

HBO’s new comedy The Righteous Gemstones, from comedian Danny McBride (Eastbound & Down), is the latest in what has been a fairly crowded month in the “evangelicals are creepy villains” genre. Indie film Them That Follow explored a community of snake-handling, science-skeptical Pentecostals in Appalachia—and one young woman’s struggle to break free from the sort of dangerous sectarianism that pits faith against medicine. Netflix’s docu-drama series The Family suggests that the National Prayer Breakfast is run by a clandestine Evangelical Deep State with ties to Russian and all sorts of nefarious, theocracy-seeking intentions in D.C. and around the world. 

But in terms of “fun at the expense of evangelicals” entertainment value, Gemstones takes the cake. The satirical dark comedy skewers all things megachurch, televangelist, and prosperity gospel—often in vulgar, TV-MA sorts of ways (viewer discretion advised). To be sure, these things deserve much of the ridicule heaped on them. But this show (and I’ve only watched two episodes so far) also feels built on cheap shots and easy caricatures rather than empathy and incisive observation—which undergird the best satire. The show neither attempts to understand, nor is likely to convince, anyone who lives in the evangelical world it critiques. Which is a shame. 

Ugly Hypocrisy

Created from a mood board that draws inspiration from Falwells, Bakkers, Benny Hinn, T. D. Jakes, Joel Osteen, Bieber-looking hypepriests, and PreachersNSneakers, the Gemstones are essentially the Ewings of holy-roller evangelicalism. Patriarch Eli (John Goodman) and his sons Jesse (Danny McBride) and Kelvin (Adam DeVine) live in opulent mansions where the sign on the gate says: “Blessed are the poor in spirit, for theirs is the kingdom of heaven. No trespassing.” The three get around in matching Range Rovers and private jets named after the three members of the Trinity. 

When they aren’t flying around the world holding evangelistic crusades (the show opens with the trio baptizing thousands of Chinese converts in a Chengdu wave pool), they are indulging in gluttony, greed, lust, and most of the other seven deadly sins. In short: the Gemstones are the world’s biggest hypocrites. We see them praying, preaching, and passing offering plates one minute and doing drugs, stealing, and breaking and entering the next. All enemies and threats are chalked up to the devil’s forces at work against God’s chosen messengers. When one woman challenges the opulent lifestyle enjoyed by Jesse’s wife Amber (Cassidy Freeman), she responds: “The devil just jumped right into you and made you challenge me.”

Except that, by the end of the first episode, it’s clear that if the devil is in anyone, he’s in the Gemstones themselves. Their evil behavior (which involves sex tapes, infidelity, theft, attempted murder, and constant creative deployment of obscene language) is the bad fruit of the unregenerate—all the more toxic because it reeks of the hypocrisy Jesus condemned: people who honor God with their lips, “but [whose] heart is far from me” (Matt. 15:8). 

The main problem with Gemstones is that the hypocrisy is so over-the-top and blatant, and the Gemstone family so pernicious, that it undercuts what could be a critique of a wider and more recognizable swath of evangelicalism. The religious hypocrisy here is an easy target; few would fail to condemn it and most viewers (even evangelicals) will be able to distance themselves from it. A more subtle, closer-to-home attack on religious hypocrisy (on the shifting evangelical moral standards for elected officials, perhaps) might have given the show more satirical bite. But it feels like a missed opportunity.

The main problem with Gemstones is that the hypocrisy is so over-the-top and blatant that it undercuts what could be a critique of a wider and more recognizable swath of evangelicalism.

Narrow Critique of Prosperity Gospel

The same goes for the show’s depiction of prosperity-inflected Christianity. The bling-bling world of Gemstones is so excessive and (to most people) foreign that it threatens to “other” or exoticize the prosperity gospel—with the effect that viewers will absolve themselves of guilt by association. But the reality of most evangelical Christianity today (as with most pop “spirituality” in general) is that it is tinged at least somewhat with insidious flavors of prosperity theology. 

Even if we aren’t watching televangelists or attending megachurches that feel like 5-star resorts, many of our churches and approaches to faith are oriented around us as consumers: what “meets me where I’m at,” scratches my itch, enhances my life. We may not go so far as to assume faith will lead us to health and wealth, but many of us still approach faith primarily through a “what does it do for me?” consumerist lens. Does the worship music give me an emotional boost? Does the preacher’s sermon add value to my life? Does the church recognize and affirm me in my gifting? Is Jesus helping me achieve my dreams? My best life now? Even among those who rail against the likes of Joel Osteen: are we so sure our flavor of Christianity—which doubtless we’ve chosen in part because it fits our tastes and preferences—isn’t also colored with consumerist impulses? Are we sure we’re not also guilty of seeking a church and a Jesus that conveniently affirms me in the direction I’m already going?

The reality of most evangelical Christianity today is that it is tinged at least somewhat with insidious flavors of prosperity theology.

A better satire than Gemstones would harpoon the beast of prosperity theology in all its wide-reaching tentacles, not just its most outlandish and extreme forms. It would also make an attempt to understand why prosperity theology, in its various iterations, is so appealing. Are the millions around the world who watch TV preachers, attend feel-good megachurches, or find comfort in the podcasts, books, and radio shows of celebrity pastors really to be dismissed as easily manipulated simpletons and cultural Philistines? It may be easy for the average HBO subscriber to ridicule the unwashed masses who unthinkingly buy into religion, but isn’t their sophisticated elitism just as unthinking and easy to manipulate? Satire is always more effective when it makes a concerted effort to understand the target. Before we critique the world of prosperity religion (and we should!), perhaps there are lessons to learn by examining its mass appeal.

What Can We Learn?

Speaking of lessons, what can we learn from the portrayal of evangelicals in Gemstones? Every movie or show that villainizes Christians (and there are a lot of them, from Night of the Hunter to Saved! to Jesus Camp) should be more than just an opportunity to cry foul over Hollywood’s anti-religion bias. It can also be an occasion for self-reflection.

Even if we can fault Gemstones for a too-narrow, too-extreme portrait of one really-bad-apple evangelical family, we must also know that the show is trying to make broader points about American evangelicalism; and to some viewers the Gemstones will easily stand in as a proxy for all of us. Have we done anything to deserve this ugly portrait? Perhaps we should consider that the way the show depicts the Gemstones—more interested in personal comfort than costly, Christlike love; one way in church and another behind closed doors; willing to cross ethical lines in order to preserve power and influence—is actually how many people perceive evangelicals. Perhaps that’s because it’s closer to reality than we’d like to think.

Like any piece of popular culture, shows like Gemstones, movies like Them That Follow, and docu-dramas like The Family are shaped by biases and agendas that should be taken with several grains of salt. But they also reflect, however imperfectly, some measure of reality. We can’t really influence the first part (bias), but we can influence the second (reality)—doing everything we can to live consistently Christian, honorable lives (1 Pet. 2:12) so that the raw material we give Hollywood isn’t so easily satirized.

Andrew Luck and Common Grace

Fri, 08/30/2019 - 12:04am

About two-thirds of the way through NFL quarterback Andrew Luck’s thrown-together retirement press conference, it occurred to me that he is the Christian athlete I’ve always wanted there to be . . . even though he’s never indicated that he’s a Christian.

Let me explain.

I grew up during the era of the heavily curated, heavily marketed Christian-athlete industrial complex—meaning the way we (Christians) made stars out of guys for whom faith was a core (or any?) part of their “brand.” To be honest, they rarely seemed especially humble, even though the right things were, technically, coming out of their mouths.

Humility is a hard thing to quantify, and I fully admit that I’m far from the best judge of it, but this was confusing for me as a child and even as a young adult. And to add hypocrisy to my confusion, as a writer I’ve even made some money over the years writing about some of these guys. I guess I went into each project (or potential project) thinking, Maybe this will be the guy. But in doing that writing, I may well have contributed to the problem.

Keep Talking

When Andrew Luck was thanking everybody in the Colts organization, confessing to being jealous and bitter about the fun backup QB Jacoby Brissett was having last year, crying because of how much he’ll miss football, being honest about how much it hurt that some Colts fans booed him, and professing his love for his wife and his teammates . . . I loved him. I thanked God for the experience of listening to him, and when the (roughly) 24 minutes was over, I wanted more of him talking. This is a rare response for me, given that I work in academia and spend what feels like my entire life sitting in rooms listening to guys talk. I usually just desperately want them to stop talking.

“This guy would be a great hang,” I texted to a buddy.

“If you ever get a chance to talk in public, be like this,” I said to my son.

Other favorite moments:

  • Luck explaining how proud he is to call Indianapolis his home. As a former resident of that city, I was reminded of how great it is, and of all the nostalgic warmth in my heart for that place.
  • When Luck said he came back last year, just so that he could “throw the football to his friends.”
  • Luck apologizing for being dressed in a “ratty athletic T-shirt.”
Uncommon Humility

“Andrew Luck must have received a heaping dose of common grace,” I texted to a Christian friend.

What I meant was that clearly he’s gifted as a thinker and a communicator, and that he shows evidence of a soft, teachable heart. Not to mention his freakish combination of height, weight, speed, and arm strength. Yet Luck’s greatest accomplishment may have been that he survived young fame and money, and came out the other side with what appears to be real humility. As we see even in church circles, this rarely if ever happens.

As a Christian I’m challenged by Luck, and by what I can learn from non-believers in my life. There is much to learn. Recently at my son’s school, a teacher indicated that he thought pro sports are ridiculous and pro athletes are, essentially, a waste of time/space/attention. In addition to being a questionable teaching moment, I think he’s dead wrong. And as evidence I present all 24 minutes of Andrew Luck’s press conference.

As far as I know, Andrew Luck isn’t a Christian. I hope he is. I am one, but I wish I acted a lot more like him.

Shepherding Your Church to Obey the Great Commission

Fri, 08/30/2019 - 12:03am

“I want the people I pastor to be equipped with the Spirit of God and the Word of God to make disciples and multiply churches wherever God leads them in the world without dependence on performances, programs, and professionals. Wouldn’t that be a great picture—to see the people in your church ready at a moment’s notice to be taken to another part of the world and confident that the Spirit of God and the Word of God are sufficient to then obey the mission of God, see disciples made, and the church planted and multiplied wherever they are?” — David Platt

Date: April 2, 2019

Event: TGC 2019 National Conference, Indianapolis, Indiana

Listen to this episode of The Gospel Coalition Podcast. Find more audio and video from the 2019 National Conference on the conference media page.


11 Questions for Prideful Pastors (and Those Who Think They’re Not)

Fri, 08/30/2019 - 12:02am

Every author knows the joy of holding that first copy of their new book. It’s not quite the same as holding your first baby at birth, but it’s thrilling. In 2011, I had just received my first copy of Gospel-Powered Humility. It had been a lot of work. I was excited, so I called my editor, expressed my joy, and ended the conversation saying I hoped it would sell.

“Bill, I don’t want you to get too excited. This book will probably sell very slowly.”

“How come?” I asked.

“People buy books based on felt need,” he said. “You have written a good book, and we published it because we believe in it, but nobody has a felt need for humility. Everyone already thinks they are humble.”

Spiritual Blindfolds

He was right. Pride is a set of spiritual blindfolds we’re born with. They blind us to the spiritual world and our real relationship to it. Pride keeps us from seeing our own sin—especially pride. That’s why a proud person can genuinely think they are humble.

The first thing a person growing in humility sees and hates is their pride.

What, then, does humility do? It slowly removes the blinders. Humility is the growing ability to see God as he really is and myself as I really am—and the first thing a person growing in humility sees and hates is their pride. This is the only kind of person motivated to pursue resources on humility.

The humble Christian sees their pride and hates it, but the proud believer is convinced he or she is already humble. They have little need for books or articles on humility.

Essential Pastoral Virtue

This is why Scripture so often commends humility: “Clothe yourselves, all of you, with humility toward one another” (1 Pet. 5:5). And this elusive virtue is especially important for pastors. Why? Because pastors pursuing humility will produce churches pursuing humility. It’s an oxymoron to think proud elders will produce a humble flock. It doesn’t work that way.

The pursuit of humility matters because it’s the seedbed for all other spiritual fruits—“love, joy, peace, patience, kindness, goodness, faithfulness, gentleness, and self control” (Gal. 5:22–23). Envision the first three: love, joy, and peace. Members go out to others in love. They are joyful. You can feel it when you enter the sanctuary on Sunday morning. The congregation is at peace. The pride that sparks strife and contention is markedly absent.

Humble pastors produce humble flocks, and humble congregations bear healthy fruit. Therefore, humility is a critical pastoral virtue.

Growing in Humility

Since pride is spiritual blindness, and we are all born in this condition, how can we grow in humility—especially those of us who serve as pastors or elders?

Ultimately, humility is not a fruit we can paste onto our spiritual tree. It grows and ripens slowly, much slower than we would like. It’s a lifetime project. Real humility is a byproduct of the Spirit’s work. It is a gift. We get it by reading God’s Word, confessing our pride—even when we don’t see it—and asking God for the spiritual illumination that makes him big and us small.

We also get humility by persevering through failure. Peter wasn’t usable until he’d passed through the failure of denying Jesus three times (John 21:15ff).

Above all, we get humility by looking to Christ: “And we all, with unveiled face, beholding the glory of the Lord, are being transformed into the same image from one degree of glory to another” (2 Cor. 3:18). What is Christ’s image? Humility incarnate. And Calvary was its culmination: “He humbled himself becoming obedient to the point of death, even death on a cross” (Phil. 2:8). Watch Christ. Fix your gaze on him, and you can’t help but grow in humility.

11 Diagnostic Questions

If you are a pastor or elder, here’s an additional tool that will help you advance toward humility, but it will take courage. First, read these questions to your spouse and ask for her critique. Listen carefully and don’t defend yourself. If she’s honest, it may hurt.

Then ask your fellow elders these same questions. Put them on an anonymous worksheet. Ask the brothers to score each question with a number from 0 to 10, with 10 signifying humility and 0 signifying pride. Don’t respond to their critique. Just listen and pray for God’s grace to grow in humility.

  1. When confronted, do I immediately suspect you are right, or do I rush to defend myself?
  2. Do you feel free to correct me, or because you fear my reaction, are you unwilling to be honest with me?
  3. When in a disagreement, am I better at listening or talking?
  4. During elders’ discussions, am I better at yielding or demanding?
  5. When I make a mistake, am I better at asking forgiveness or doubling down in self-justification?
  6. Do I find it easier to talk about my weaknesses or my strengths?
  7. During elders’ meetings, am I often unnecessarily critical of others, or do I speak graciously?
  8. Do I habitually consider the needs of other elders and this church as more important than my own?
  9. Am I contentious and argumentative about things that don’t matter?
  10. From watching and knowing me, do you think I find my identity in my knowledge and spiritual gifts, or my membership in God’s family?
  11. Do I seem to find it easy or difficult to trust others enough to delegate to them?
Vital Virtue

If you’re thinking, I wish so and so would read this, it may be a sign you have blinders on.

Again, humble pastors produce humble congregations, and humble congregations are fruitful. Humility, therefore, is a vital virtue for all called to lead the body of Christ. Let’s pursue it, together, for his glory.

I Couldn’t Live the Lie of My Sexuality

Fri, 08/30/2019 - 12:00am

A girl in a boy’s body, that’s me, I thought to myself as a sensitive, tenderhearted, 5-year-old boy.

Somehow I just knew it. And I also knew there was something wrong with that, so I’d just have to keep it to myself. After playing dress-up with my six sisters, I’d get to wear their dresses when no one was looking. I’d be the princess in secret. Relief. Other boys had dreams of playing in the World Series; I dreamt of becoming a fabulous woman with a handsome boyfriend.

I definitely couldn’t tell my father, one of those ex-Army, too-tough guys. He was an alcoholic, and there was always the threat of violence. He’d never understand—indeed, he didn’t when I told him at 14 that I might be gay. He regaled me with tales of his glory days, beating up gay men in downtown Cleveland when they showed interest. I quickly recanted and knew I’d have to live this one out alone. He was ashamed, and passed that on to me.

After a brief encounter with the gospel when I was 18, only to be told I’d lost my salvation for being gay, I went back to that identity with a vengeance. Soon after I decided to join the Navy and leave Ohio for good. I spent the next several years in San Diego, where I immersed myself in the gay community. More relief.

Fake It Till You Make It

I eventually met a sailor named Tom Cordell, who was interested in doing a Navigator’s Bible study with me. While I agreed to do it (he was good-looking), I didn’t tell him I was gay and transgendered. I’d work as a Navy cook during the day, meet with Tom, and memorize his verses. Then I’d go home to my people, where I’d cross-dress and engage in drunken immorality. No one was the wiser. It was the perfect double life.

I even got baptized in 1977. It was at a megachurch where the well-known pastor advised those struggling with being gay, “Fake it till you make it.” So I double-downed on my commitment to play-acting. The Navy sent me overseas, and I decided to finally leave this lifestyle behind. I’d also decided that since God didn’t care much for me and my kind, I’d find a nice girl, marry her, and eat the crumbs of her blessings. And I’d continue faking it all the while.

I met Linda at an Overseas Christian Servicemen’s Center in the Philippines. She worked as a school nurse on base, was interested in ministry, and had a beautiful singing voice. We blended well, and I liked her. That was all I needed. I eventually proposed, she said yes, and we got married.

We moved to Dallas in September 1979, where I started at Dallas Bible College. Life was going to be great . . . except for this nagging same-sex attraction and desire to be a woman. I couldn’t shake it. I tried and tried to deny it, but it wouldn’t go away. So I faked it harder.

After we found out we were pregnant with our son, I decided it was time to let her in on my secret. I told her I’d been lying by keeping this from her. She was, of course, devastated. I desperately tried to reassure her, to no avail.

I started meeting with a pastor who then met another man struggling with similar issues. Then another. I met a few others and before long it became clear there was a support group forming. We started a ministry to gays and lesbians during the AIDS epidemic of the mid- to late-’80s. It was a frenzy of expectation, trying to help so many desperate souls stop behaving recklessly. I was doing all I could do to white-knuckle it, to live up to my own demands, and to pretend as best I could. I couldn’t allow my veneer to crack, lest I fall completely apart.

Which eventually happened.

Failing at Faking

Boundaries failed. People got hurt. Relationships crumbled. Eventually I left the ministry, then the church, and finally God. I was diagnosed as bipolar and depressed. I’d been disowned by my family. I gained a lot of weight. I smoked two packs of Marlboro Reds a day. I was agoraphobic and hadn’t left my house in years. I essentially abandoned my dear wife. I had failed my sons. I proved myself useless, hopeless, helpless.

Late one night when Linda was at a conference and my sons had gone to sleep, I started writing my letter, razor blades at the ready. “I’ve faked it as long as I can fake it, and I can no longer make it.” I was in the middle of my final instructions for her when she walked in the door much earlier than expected, thwarting my plans.

She had been to a grief conference, ironically, and said she had a list of 40 things I’d never grieved in my life. I told her I wasn’t going to grieve them. Living through all that sorrow and shame hurt badly enough the first time; why go through it again? But at her insistence I gave it a shot. The verse came to me almost audibly: “Blessed are those who mourn” (Matt. 5:4).

So I began grieving that day for real. And I continue to this day. I’d thought Christians were supposed to forget what lies behind, but this was different. I recalled all the abuse, the put-downs, the bullying, the humiliation, along with all my faults and failings. That’s when I realized Jesus could have stopped it all, but he didn’t. He must have had something better in mind.

Fingerprints on Every Page

Redemption. That was what he was planning for me. So that night I became a mourning person: “Tears are for the evening, but joy comes in the morning” (Ps. 30:5). Our mourning informs our “morning.” By not being afraid to feel the pain that comes from sin, sorrow, shame, and suffering, we find reconciliation and redemption. In fact, we find what we were hungry for all along: Jesus himself.

As I think about that terrified little boy 50 years ago, it’s as if I can hear Jesus saying, I know this brute of a daddy and other bullies and abusers are hurting you deeply, but oh, just you wait. Wait and see how I use this, not only to embrace you, but to give your life such value, such meaning. You’re going to have something so good to share, a way to love others, a way to preach me. It will be worth it. You feel like a victim now, but I’m going to make you so much better than if all this had never happened to you in the first place. You’re actually going to end up more than a conqueror (Rom. 8:37).

I can embrace my story because I have been embraced by the Author of my story.

I repented and was able to love Linda as the man I was designed to be. I now get to be a real father to my three sons. The only reason I even get to write these words is the result of that story. And I do mean get to. What joy! I can rejoice in my story today—all of it—because Jesus’s fingerprints are over every page. I can embrace my story because I have been embraced by the Author of my story. To now get to go to my counseling office each morning and watch our Savior mend wounded hearts is “joy inexpressible and full of glory!” (1 Pet. 1:8). Indeed, “where sin increased, grace abounded all the more” (Rom. 5:20).

It’s not about having dramatic stories, but desperate ones. I was a mess. I still am. But thankfully, Jesus loves a good mess.

Don’t Flatter! Encourage.

Thu, 08/29/2019 - 12:04am

I live in the South. In my town, tiny church buildings pepper every street, avenue, and alley. We have a lot of really nice people. We are polite, sometimes to a fault.

Small-town Southern culture is pleasant in many ways, but it can complicate church life considerably. In a city where everyone is a “member” of a church, it’s hard to know who’s a true disciple and who isn’t. Everyone is nice, but have they been made new? And even if someone has been made new, our genteel Southern ways can get in the way of our growth in sanctification.

Mere Niceness Is Overrated

One Sunday, I was filling the pulpit for a friend. I hazily remember stepping down from the pulpit, folding my manuscript in my hands, and crumbling into my seat. I had just finished preaching one of the worst sermons in 2,000 years of church history. And, as if on cue, several people passed me on the way out and said, “Thanks! You did great.”

The thing is, I didn’t.

I know the Lord can use bad sermons. But I’m here to tell you that I did not do a great job that day. Or an okay job, even. I preached a bad sermon.

That experience left me wondering. How am I ever going to get good feedback on my teaching if no one will look me in the eyes and tell me the truth? No matter how bad a job you do at preaching, it can be hard to find someone who won’t lovingly smile and say you did a good job and thank you for your service. The heart behind this dynamic is good—full of warmth, love, and sympathy. But is it always healthy?

I would argue that it’s not.

A few years later, I was sitting in my new pastor’s office in Washington, D.C. A group of men from the church gathered on Sunday evenings to discuss the church’s ministry activities throughout the week and how they might be improved. It was called “service review,” and here I first saw the distinction between being encouraging and being merely nice. Flattery and encouragement are different, I realized. For encouragement is godly, but flattery is sin.

Flattery vs. Encouragement

Flattery is defined as “excessive and insincere praise, given especially to further one’s own interests.” Much of what passes for encouragement in our churches these days is flattery in disguise. Though we may not necessarily be trying to further our own interests, some of our positivity is excessive and insincere.

Much of what passes for encouragement in our churches is flattery in disguise.

Biblically speaking, however, encouragement is never excessive; it’s exact. It’s never insincere; it’s always an overflow of the heart. I first saw this in those service-review meetings. A Sunday-school teacher would receive feedback (usually a mixture of critique and encouragement), and the positive feedback was always specific and concrete. There was never any, “You did a good job, bud. Thanks.” The feedback usually sounded more like, “I thought you did a great job with your illustrations today. I can tell you’ve been working on them. So good job taking feedback and applying it to your lessons. The body was really built up by your service today.”

Pocket-Sized Definition

I think a good, pocket-sized definition of encouragement might go something like this: Encouragement is pointing out the grace of God in the lives of others.

More can be said, of course, but I believe this sentence carries the freight of the meaning fairly well.

In Acts 11, Luke tells us about a great work of the Lord that broke out in Antioch. Many were turning to Christ for salvation. When the church in Jerusalem heard about it, they sent out Barnabas to be their eyes and ears: “When [Barnabas] came and saw the grace of God, he was glad, and he exhorted them all to remain faithful to the Lord with steadfast purpose” (v. 23).

Do you see that? Barnabas saw the grace of God; it excited him; and then he told them about it. “I see the hand of the Lord here,” he said. “Keep going!”

And that, friends, is encouragement.

Let’s resist the urge to merely be nice. Instead, let’s look for real evidence of God’s grace at work in others’ lives—and then point it out to them.

Who First Showed Tom Nelson the Beauty of Jesus?

Thu, 08/29/2019 - 12:03am

Her name was Delight, but I always called her Mom.

I am not sure how my grandparents decided on that name, but as devoted followers of Christ, Grandpa Leon and Grandma Mae somehow knew this daughter they were bringing into the world would bring delight to many.

Delight in the Gospel

Delight embraced the gospel as a young girl, and immediately her love for Christ began to flourish. As a young adult her most captivating interest was foreign missions, but God’s calling on her life would have a different trajectory. She married a godly Minnesota farmer and raised seven children. Mom never stepped foot on foreign soil, but she gave her children a vision of God’s love for them, for the local church, and for the whole world.

Mom was a bright and beautiful woman who was a gifted writer, published poet, and lover of great literature. Most of all she loved the Holy Scriptures. Her generous warmth, merciful disposition, and well-worn hands reached out to anyone in need. Her gospel-centered faith was fueled by heaven’s hope and firmly tethered to earthly hands and feet. The Christian home that Mom created meant our dinner table had a seat open for anyone who would stop by, even at the last moment. After a scrumptious dinner and the imposing pile of dirty dishes that was the inevitable result, Mom would often softly sing hymns as she washed the dishes. She not only practiced the presence of God as she worked menial tasks, but she also had an intimacy with Jesus that couldn’t be contained or hidden.

Her extraordinary life was the greatest apologetic for the Christian faith I have ever encountered.

No one loved me with a purer love than my mom did, and no one has modeled to me more consistently and convincingly the presence and character of Christ lived out in the ups and downs of daily life. My mom’s extraordinary life was the greatest apologetic for the Christian faith I have ever encountered.

To Die Is Gain

Tragedy struck Mom with the early death of my father, yet as a widowed single parent her faith continued to deepen throughout the rest of her earthly sojourn. Her resilience in suffering never wavered. Without a whimper of self-pity or complaint, she modeled a life of sacrificial service and daily exuded a joyful hope. I had the great privilege of seeing up close and personal a devoted and virtuous follower of Jesus who lived a radiant life and experienced a radiant death. The transcendent truth of Philippians 1:21 was lived out before my eyes with a compelling authenticity: “For to me to live is Christ, and to die is gain.”

No human being has shaped my Christian faith more than my mother has. Although I do not remember the moment, Mom told me later that when I took my first breath, she smiled with great joy. And on a blustery cold Minnesota day, when Mom took her last breath, I was sitting by her bed. At that moment the planet seemed to shift, and I wept as I’d never wept before. Though she is now enjoying eternity with the great Lover of her soul, she is deeply missed by all in this temporal realm who were graced to know her.

Delight was her name. Mom delighted in her God. She delighted in her husband, children, and grandchildren. And I delight in every remembrance of her. How I look forward to seeing her again.

You can read previous installments in this series.

Love from the Margins: Lessons from 4 Pastors in China

Thu, 08/29/2019 - 12:02am

“China has declared war on faith,” U.S. ambassador-at-large for international religious freedom Sam Brownback said in June. In the latest Report on International Religious Freedom, he called out the country for firing Protestants because of their faith, shutting down Christian churches, and arresting church leaders.

For many American evangelicals, China’s reality is their biggest fear. Yet our Chinese brothers and sisters remind us that though marginalization is not something to seek, it cannot stop the advance of God’s kingdom. The power of perseverance comes from the Holy Spirit, not from social position or privilege.

We recently asked four Chinese house church pastors what we should know about loving our cities from the margins. (These aren’t their real names.)

Hold Out the Gospel

Only the power of the gospel can enable churches to continue loving the city from the cultural sidelines. And rather than making churches impotent, the call to suffer with Jesus is empowering.

Though serious persecution is on the rise in China, most encounters look more like softer harassment. Pastor Li is called into the police station for questioning one or two times a year.

“In the beginning, sometimes your heart is very nervous because they are shouting and yelling at you,” he said. “So you are frightened. But you believe in the gospel.” Local officials ask questions about the church, about connections with other churches, and about work with foreigners. “They criticize you. They say, ‘You are so bad.’”

Only the power of the gospel can enable churches to continue loving the city from the cultural sidelines.

Criticism is something to which American evangelicals can relate. But where the American church often responds to criticism by straining to demonstrate relevance, Li responds by seeking a gospel connection.

“I told the police, ‘I am a sinner. I am bad. I am really bad,’” he said. “‘But God loves me, God saved me.’”

Love Your Enemies

Li experienced a breakthrough the last time he was interrogated. The interview went late into the night, and the officers’ wives and children started calling them on their cell phones.

“I felt a lot of compassion for them,” he said. “God put on my heart that ‘You should love your neighbor. They are your neighbor, not your enemy.’” Li apologized to the policemen for how late it was and spoke to them about their difficulties. He started to build relationships with them, even discovering that some of their relatives are Christians. One policeman had attended church once when he was a student. The conversation became friendly. Finally, Pastor Li invited them to come to church.

“When you’re persecuted, God will give you grace,” Li said. “I have experienced it several times.” From within persecution, the gospel of grace enables Christians to see opponents as neighbors.

Give Your City the Church

House churches in China keep coming back to this: to love the city is to give it the church.

“The church is not the result of missions, but it is the mission,” Pastor Zhang said. “Jesus commanded us to build the church, not only fellowships, small groups, and other things. These are very good, but the church—the power of hell cannot destroy it.”

Li and Zhang offer two reasons for the importance of church planting in China that also speak to the American context.

1. Go where the people are going.

When Li was young, about 80 percent of China’s population lived in the countryside. But by 2018, almost 60 percent lived in the city. “Every day, people from the countryside move to the city,” he said. “They are strangers to the city. Planting a church establishes a home for them.”

To love the city is to give it the church.

The church “keeps proclaiming the gospel and also demonstrating how people should live,” said Pastor Liu, who was born and raised in Shanghai, a city of 23 million. “Individualism is anti-gospel. The church does not proclaim an individualistic salvation, but rather shows people how they should live together, corporately.”

From their culturally marginalized position, these pastors remain resolved to go where China’s people are going. They’re searching for acute spiritual deserts and focusing their attention on planting churches in those areas. They know the gospel works against the individualism and isolation that urban living creates.

2. Offer life to a disintegrating culture.

Marxism destroyed most Chinese traditions, especially during the Cultural Revolution. Today, most Chinese people do not believe in communism. As a result, the nation is experiencing a key time of spiritual and cultural emptiness.

“If we plant churches, we are going to slowly affect the culture,” Zhang said. “The gospel is not about individual salvation; it is about a gospel community. The church can show the Chinese people that the hope for China is not American democracy—it is the gospel.”

Lack of community, individualistic commercialism, inauthentic speech—these are things contemporary Americans can identify with. As our Chinese brothers and sisters remind us, the hope for these problems is not cultural ascendance, but rather gospel community in the local church.

Learning from the Chinese Church

The lessons from Chinese house churches are not only positive, however. When suffering is integral to the life of the church, the life of the cross can morph into a pietistic endeavor to seek further salvation.

“There are two different ways to perceive the cross as glory, and one way is the legalistic way,” Huang said. “Christ becomes a story of personal heroism—almost like a Hollywood Superman. I am told to model him. In the Bible there is a place for imitating Christ. But Christ already accomplished salvation. We need to maintain proper distinctions between him as the Redeemer and ourselves as the redeemed.”

We need to maintain proper distinctions between Christ as the Redeemer and ourselves as the redeemed.

In the same way, Americans can sometimes glorify Chinese persecution and Christianity. But Huang says not to.

“Don’t treat people as persecuted heroes,” he said. “We don’t want to lead people to blend their identity with their experience of being persecuted. Their identity should be established on Christ alone, not the experience of being persecuted.”

Heroism is not the lesson to learn from the Chinese church. Rather, it’s the centrality and importance of the church, marginalized though it may be.

“The church can go through the trial by fire,” Huang said. “But it can’t be burnt out, because Christ is in that fire.”

When NFL Success Doesn’t Make You Happy

Thu, 08/29/2019 - 12:00am

Early one morning after a win last season, I sat in my chair during my quiet time with God feeling empty and despondent.

It was odd to be feeling this way because the team was rolling, I was getting good on-the-field experience, and the likelihood of a playoff run was climbing. After some prayer, it became clear that I was unhappy with my individual performance.

My role in the previous game had been mostly the blocking that goes unnoticed and scores you few high-fives from teammates on the sidelines. If only I had scored last night—or at least made a big catch—then I’d be happy, I thought to myself.

In my heart, I had dethroned God and put career success in his place. Achievement on the football field had become my functional idol. I couldn’t point to the moment or day that this became true, but my frustrated mood was clear evidence that God needed to do some heavy lifting in my heart to reorient its affections to orbit around Christ again.

Flame of Worship

The pull of idolatry on our hearts is stronger than we’d like to think. The world stokes the flame of worship for all gods except the one true God.

In my younger days, a teammate shared that the name brand Adidas stood for All Day I Dream About Sports. That turned out to be false—Adidas is named for founder Adi Dassler—but I’m convinced the Adidas acronym actually diagnoses the natural bent of every passionate athlete who loves the game he or she plays. This is a tragedy!

In his book Counterfeit Gods, Tim Keller defines idolatry: “What is an idol? It is anything more important to you than God, anything that absorbs your heart and imagination more than God, anything you seek to give you what only God can give.”

The marketing campaigns in the sports-entertainment industry call me to give more of my heart’s affection and mind’s imagination to sports, sports, and more sports. Whether it’s the 24/7 Watch ESPN app or the Direct TV NFL Sunday Ticket package, I notice a war for my attention and affections. This world disciples—even indoctrinates me—to give my best attention to, place my highest hope in, and lavish my greatest affection on my sport.

Ethic and Excellence

That said, any serious athlete knows that excellence doesn’t come without relentless attention and dedication. Just one look at Kobe Bryant’s journey to historic greatness reveals that a dizzying work ethic likely has as much to do with high achievement as talent.

But often, if we’re honest, an exemplary work ethic can come at the expense of excellent love for Christ. In the pursuit of greatness, our hearts can salivate over the prospect of glory-collecting rather than glory-reflecting. And the alluring possibility of greatness, popularity, riches, or comfort make for fast-and-ready idols waiting to bait our hearts away from the Lord.

Achievement on the football field had become my functional idol.

Let’s be clear: I’m not saying that we ought not go to great lengths to become excellent at our craft. I’m saying that the journey to excellence is rigged with self-constructed booby traps that—when missed, tolerated, or ignored—lead to self-destruction.

This self-destruction upends families, strains friendships, and encourages sinful compromise. These sad outcomes aren’t glamorized on social media, so they rarely serve as effective warnings. Instead, self-destruction begins with but a subtle yet deceptive reorientation of the heart away from God’s glory and goodness.

Main Thing

So, Christian, we must strive to keep the main thing the main thing: Love God above all else. Jesus is clear when he defines the greatest commandment: “Love the Lord your God with all your heart and with all your soul and with all your mind and with all your strength” (Mark 12:30).

It’s tempting to say this command is easier said than done, but when one pauses to consider the beauty of God’s love shown for us in Christ, it’s easier done than said! How could we not give all our love to a God who rightfully could have condemned us, but instead died in our place to give us eternal life with him? To exchange living in his truth for fame or follows reveals how deep our sin runs and how prone we are to wander.

To exchange living in his truth for fame or follows reveals how deep our sin runs and how prone we are to wander.

So what do you do if you find yourself like I did that fall morning, frustrated and wandering? The answer is simple: turn to the beauties of Christ to be drawn back to him. Or as Thomas Chalmers argued almost 200 years ago, the antidote to spiritual sin is spiritual passion.

In his famous sermon “The Expulsive Power of a New Affection,” Chalmers contended that the only way to break the hold of a beautiful object on the soul is to show it an object more beautiful—and the most beautiful thing is the good news of salvation in Christ.

So when you find success in your sport—or even the idea of success in your sport—shining as the object most worthy of your love and affection, reintroduce your heart to the gospel truth of Christ in fresh ways such as fasting from social media, praying through a psalm, and cultivating spiritual disciplines. In time, you will watch your idols shrink away.

Center of the Solar System

Consider comparing your life to our solar system. The order and harmony of everything in it depends on the reliability of the object at its center. In the same way that all the planets would go completely haywire were the sun to be replaced by a star half its size, our lives go haywire when Christ isn’t at the center. The “planets” that fill our lives—finances, relationships, energy, interests—all are in their proper place when orbiting Christ. What or whom is at the center of your life’s solar system?

I’ve found that when my biggest dreams, sincerest intentions, and highest affections are orbiting around Jesus, I’m most filled with joy and most effective as a tool for his kingdom. Oh, how worthy the cost of giving up my idols if my heart is to be absorbed with the goodness of God, singing with the psalmist, “Taste and see that the LORD is good!” (Ps. 34:8)

Then it doesn’t matter whether I’m being thrown touchdown passes on the field or not; my satisfaction in him is guaranteed.

9 Things You Should Know About Ulrich Zwingli

Wed, 08/28/2019 - 12:04am

This year marks the 500th anniversary or Reformation in Switzerland begun by Ulrich Zwingli in 1519. “That date, no less than October 31, 1517,” Timothy George says, “can answer the question, ‘When did the Reformation begin?’”

Here are nine things you should know about the influential Swiss Reformer.

1. Ulrich Zwingli (also: Huldrych Zwingli) is considered the most important reformer of the Swiss Reformation of his day (and the most important until the arrival of John Calvin). He started a revolution in religious thought in Switzerland that paralleled the work of Martin Luther in Germany. Zwingli wrote, “Before anyone in the area had ever heard of Luther, I began to preach the gospel of Christ in 1516 . . . . I started preaching the gospel before I had even heard Luther’s name . . . . Luther, whose name I did not know for at least another two years, had definitely not instructed me. I followed holy Scripture alone.”

2. Zwingli was born on January 1, 1484, in the eastern part of modern-day Switzerland. His father was wealthy enough that he was able to gain a first-rate education, earning bachelor’s (1504) and master’s (1506) degrees from the University of Vienna. After college he was ordained to the priesthood in the Roman Catholic Church and served in the pastorate at Glarus, his boyhood church. While there he began teaching himself Greek and started memorizing long passages of the Greek New Testament.

3. In an age when priests were often unfamiliar with the Scriptures, according to Christian History magazine, Zwingli became enamored with it, after purchasing a copy of Erasmus’s New Testament Latin translation. Zwingli began to preach the same message Luther would soon proclaim, Steven Lawson notes. Zwingli wrote Sixty-seven Theses (1523) in which he rejected many medieval beliefs, such as forced fasting, clerical celibacy, purgatory, the Mass, and priestly mediation. While still a priest, he married the widow Anna Reinhard—a year before Luther married the former nun Katharina von Bora. All of this appears to have happened, Lawson says, before Zwingli ever heard of Luther.

4. A hallmark of the Reformation was the recovery of biblical preaching. Zwingli’s unique contribution was the revolutionary approach of preaching through Bible books. In 1519 he started preaching through the Gospel of Matthew, a method known as lectio continua. Zwingli then continued to preach expositional sermons through Acts, Timothy, Galatians, 1 and 2 Peter, Hebrews, the Gospel of John, and the other Pauline letters before turning to the Old Testament, beginning with the Psalms, then the Pentateuch and the historical books.

5. Zwingli was born just a couple of months after Martin Luther, and the two would serve as significant, though unequal, co-founders of the movement that became the Protestant Reformation. The Swiss pastor once praised Luther as “that one Hercules . . . who slew the Roman boar” and said, “Here indeed you were the only faithful David anointed hereto by the Lord and furnished likewise with arms.” Luther, in contrast, never held Zwingli in such high regard. Luther considered Zwingli to be “of the Devil” and nothing but a “wormy nut.” The Colloquy of Marburg (1529) was arranged to entice the two men to come to reconciliation. Although the two Reformers agreed on 14 out of the 15 articles of faith, they could not come to an agreement about the Lord’s Supper. Zwingli was also so offended that Luther was treating him “like an ass” that the two were never personally reconciled.

6. As Sean Michael Lucas remarks, “It’s notable that the single most important division between the Lutheran and Reformed streams remains the Lord’s Supper.” That divide has its roots in the disagreement between Zwingli and Luther about how to interpret Christ’s words “this is my body” (Luke 22:19). Luther insisted on a literal interpretation by claiming the Supper contains the real presence of Jesus’s body. In contrast, as Lucas explains, Zwingli “believed the church was the body of Jesus; when the church participated in the common bread and cup, it was formed into Jesus’s own body. Something mystical did happen . . . but it happened to the people, not to the bread. The ‘is’ in ‘this is my body,’ then, was more symbolic, pointing to what happens as the church takes the meal.” Trevin Wax adds, “The political and religious consequences of Martin Luther and Ulrich Zwingli’s failure to come to agreement on the Eucharist set the course for a political and religious split with reverberations that have lasted almost 500 years.”

7. Zwingli believed the Bible should be applied to every area of life, and that the gospel is about more than individual salvation. He thought the influence of Christ would transform all of culture and wanted to advance the Reformation through civil authority. As Ligon Duncan has said, “Zwingli . . . might be called by some a tranformationalist, a Kuyperian. He believed in the rule of God extending over all of life. Not just over just personal life, not just over church life, but over everything. And he was constantly personally involved in political, economic, and military discussions and alliances in order to gain an advantage for the gospel.”

8. In 1531 Zurich attempted to force the Catholic cantons (individual Swiss states) to accept Reformed preaching. The Catholic forces rebelled, leading to the battle of Kappel, where Zwingli was killed. Heinrich Bullinger, Zwingli’s son-in-law and the pastor who succeeded him in the pulpit, wrote that Zwingli was found wounded on the battlefield. When Zwingli refused last rites by a priest an enemy captain “drew his sword and gave Zwingli a thrust from which he at once died.” His enemies cut off his head, hacked his body and burned the pieces, and then mixed them with pig entrails to prevent his remains from being used as a relic. (Luther, writing in Tabletalk, speculated that Zwingli was hell-bound: “I wish from my heart Zwinglius could be saved, but I fear the contrary; for Christ has said that those who deny him shall be damned.”)

9. The theology of Zwingli—sometimes known as Zwinglianism—was mostly a Swiss phenomenon. Despite being a co-creator of the Protestant Reformation, Zwingli’s influence has been eclipsed by Luther (who outlived him) and by second-generation Swiss reformers such as Calvin and Bullinger. Still, his influence—especially on the Lord’s Supper and preaching from the Bible rather than a lectionary—is felt today in many denominations. John B. Payne says that Zwingli “was the father of the Reformed tradition which spread out in many directions—across Switzerland and southern Germany, to France among the Huguenots, Holland, England, and Scotland among the Congregationalists and Presbyterians, across to the New World among the Congregationalists of New England and the Presbyterian, Dutch, and German Reformed Churches of the Middle Colonies.”

Good News for Whole-Person Flourishing

Wed, 08/28/2019 - 12:03am

Over the last 75 years, American evangelicals have become increasingly active in poverty alleviation. This is one of the great achievements of Carl Henry and Billy Graham’s “neo-evangelical” vision, forcefully introduced by Henry’s 1947 watershed book The Uneasy Conscience of Modern Fundamentalism.

Fundamentalists, Henry said, were like theologically precise priests passing by a dying traveler. They complained about the theological bankruptcy of the “social gospel” but didn’t have their own program for addressing social evils. Henry identified fundamentalism’s own theological poverty as the culprit. They lacked a coherent doctrine of the kingdom of God, even though it was at the core of Jesus’s preaching. They couldn’t differentiate the “now” from the “not yet” of the kingdom, and thus had no vision for how it transforms the present social order. Evangelicals should recover the supernatural kingdom that the social gospel denied and fundamentalism forgot, then apply that kingdom to all the world’s problems.

This they did! In the seven decades since Uneasy Conscience, evangelicals have grown a social program, a joint venture of scholarship and activism. For its part, evangelical scholarship has contributed to a growing consensus on the kingdom of God. In symphony, evangelical activism has built ministries of poverty relief, community development, racial reconciliation, abortion prevention, and sex-traffic fighting.

But in recent years, this movement has been going through a midlife crisis. Is all our activity actually doing good? Why do some of the people we’re trying to help stay stuck in poverty?

When Helping Helps

Brian Fikkert embodies the best of this tradition and its reevaluation. His work at Chalmers Center lives at the intersection of scholarship and activism. When Helping Hurts, his 2009 book coauthored with Steve Corbett, was an awakening for many readers to the notion that not all “doing good” does good. (See Sarah Zylstra’s feature story, “‘When Helping Hurts’: How One Book Changed Care for the Poor.”)

Just as Uneasy Conscience had called for, When Helping Hurts started with a robust vision of God’s kingdom and examined poverty through that lens. Along the way, it argued that much of what’s done to “help the poor” actually harms both the helped and the helper since it ignores key dimensions of the kingdom.

Ten years later Fikkert is back, now with Kelly Kapic, in Becoming Whole: Why the Opposite of Poverty Isn’t the American Dream. Fikkert explains in the preface that the new book is intended as an improvement on WHH. Many readers of WHH were convinced that they needed to reexamine their efforts, but they still didn’t know how to differentiate the helpful from the hurtful. Becoming Whole wants to give them a “more systemic model” of change and “a common set of lenses through which they can view any poverty alleviation effort” (14).

Fikkert and Kapic begin by noting that all poverty alleviation assumes a story about how the world works, how people change, and what constitutes the good life. The most insidious story is that the poor should become just like materially prosperous Americans. Living as we do in the “age of anxiety,” where a growing economy is accompanied by shrinking happiness, this story is starting to smell fishy.

All poverty alleviation assumes a story about how the world works, how people change, and what constitutes the good life.

Two ideas have helped create the myth that material prosperity equals wealth. One is the story of Western naturalism, which reduces the “mind-affections-will-body-relational creature” to a mere physical being who has no soul and doesn’t need relationships to thrive. Having thus reduced humanity, it then reduces “helping the poor” to material handouts and economic empowerment so that they too can become “consuming robots.”

The other false story flows out of bad Christianity. “Evangelical Gnosticism” teaches that the soul is superior to the body. It also reduces the soul to the mind, rather than mind-affections-will that are fully integrated with each other and the body.

The love child of Evangelical Gnosticism and Western naturalism is a peculiarly American gospel: your soul can go to heaven, and your body can be happy in the meantime through material consumption. In this gospel, poverty alleviation often means dispensing material resources and evangelism together, but it doesn’t develop whole people. With this false gospel convincingly skewered, Fikkert and Kapic go on to tell “God’s story of change” that redeems every dimension of our humanity.

Robust Anthropology

The genius of Becoming Whole lies in its non-reductionist anthropology. Over and over, we’re reminded that people are a union of mind, affections, will, and body, and are made for relationship with God, self, others and creation. Putting this together yields a holistic understanding of human flourishing.

This shines in the chapters on creation but also on the fall. Such anthropology is a strength of the Reformed tradition from which the authors write. The doctrine of total depravity has too often been cartooned into utter depravity (sometimes by its neophyte preachers!), but it was originally a sophisticated understanding of human nature that helps us see the severity of the fall and the enormity of salvation. If humans are a complex mix of mind, affections, will, body, and relationships, then the fall has touched every dimension. And the gospel redeems every dimension!

Holistic redemption shines on every page of Becoming Whole. For some readers, the book will serve as their baptism into the totality of salvation that includes far more than going to heaven when you die. For others, the grandeur of the new creation will inspire them to see fresh implications of the gospel—especially in how we think about the poor.

Where’s the Rest of the Story?

However, the book did leave me with one nagging question: Where’s the rest of the story? A brief glance at the chapter titles is revealing. Their story ends with “The New Creation Dawns.” But what about the new creation completed? Where is the second coming of Christ? The judgment that will finally put the world to right? The resurrection of the dead that will allow us to enjoy the totality of our mind-affections-will-body-relationships? “He is coming again to judge the living and the dead” gets a line in the Apostles’ Creed, but it doesn’t get a chapter in this book.

To be fair, these do get mentioned. “No, she is not yet completely whole because the kingdom is not yet fully consummated,” we’re reminded in one woman’s story of transformation (222). “Our world and our lives are still very messy and complicated. We wait for the final destruction of indwelling sin with which we still wrestle, for Satan to be completely bound, for the resurrection of our bodies,” we are reminded again (231). But these are just qualifications, meant to assuage the reader’s cognitive dissonance. (The authors even call them “caveats.”)

Evangelicals should recover the supernatural kingdom that the social gospel denied and fundamentalism forgot, then apply that kingdom to all the world’s problems.

Every book can’t say everything, and I appreciate that the authors want to emphasize how new creation changes the “now,” since “now” is where our poverty alleviation work is done. But I also wish they’d developed a vision for how the “not yet” changes how we work in the “now.” This strikes me as critical in a book that aims to correct the false narratives of Western culture. Another myth of our culture is that we can create a perfect world with the right technical fixes. In this scheme, even the gospel can be seen as a technology that simply needs to be “applied” correctly and, voila!

People who hope in technical fixes wind up either overconfident or cynical. When Helping Hurts burst the bubble of overconfidence. It showed that many of our best efforts don’t produce the intended results. In the preface to Becoming Whole, Fikkert worries that some have become paralyzed by cynicism in the wake of When Helping Hurts, and he wants to set them free. The kingdom’s “not yet” means that we are called to faithful effort (“now”) but not to perfection. It also gives hope—a dimension of the spiritual and supernatural life that the authors so often champion—to all of us, including the poor. As such, eschatology frees us from both perfection and also cynicism. It’s far more than a caveat!

Fulfilling Henry’s Vision

This aside doesn’t take any shine off what Fikkert and Kapic have achieved. I started this review with Henry’s Uneasy Conscience because I see their work as a faithful fulfillment of his vision. “Evangelicalism can view the future with a sober optimism, grounded not only in the assurance of the ultimate triumph of righteousness, but also in the conviction that divine righteousness can be a potent factor in any age,” Henry wrote. It’s the “in any age”—the “now” of the kingdom—that he wanted us to develop.

I see When Helping Hurts and Becoming Whole as some of the best scholarship that takes up this mantle—theological, readable, written from a supernatural worldview, and helpful to the church.

It’s Time for Christians to End Slavery

Wed, 08/28/2019 - 12:03am

When the Akosombo Dam was built in Ghana, the Volta River began to rise. Before long, farms, homes, cemeteries, and places of worship were flooded, displacing tens of thousands of people. In their place now sits Lake Volta, the world’s largest manmade lake, swallowing up more than 3,000 square miles. If you were to visit the lake today, the only hints of the previous world are the gnarled, bare tops of trees shooting up through the surface of the water.

In 2014, International Justice Mission (IJM) learned about children trapped in slavery on Lake Volta, and we were invited to help with investigations to see if this really was the case. We found children—thousands of them—working on boats in the fishing industry. Their small, muscular frames were just tiny dots against the overwhelming backdrop of the lake.

We saw 4-year-old kids untangling knots in enormous fishing nets. We saw little boys and girls jumping into the water to retrieve nets caught on tree branches in an underwater forest. And we saw scars on tiny hands, bellies, and faces. Scars from beatings and scars from hidden branches.

As we were wrapping up our evaluation of the lake, one investigator saw a teenager sitting in a boat with his boatmaster. As the boats drifted closer together, the investigator locked eyes with the child. The boy continued to stare at our investigator for a few moments, and just as our boat began to pull away, he suddenly cried out: “Don’t leave me with this man! He is wicked! Don’t leave us!”

The boy’s name was Gideon. Every day he was forced to wake up at 4 a.m. to fish on the lake. After hours of fishing, he would work on a farm until sundown. Gideon received one meal a day, and his master would beat him with a canoe oar whenever he made a mistake.

Why Slavery Persists

Slavery is an ancient and brutal practice. And it is still rampant, with more than 40 million people living as slaves today.

How is this possible? The answer lies in one word: power.

Victims of slavery are often people living in poverty: men, women, and children caught in the crosshairs of powerful, violent people. In the world’s poorest and most vulnerable places, the waters of violence and slavery have swallowed up and hidden entire communities, pushing them into the dark.

Like Gideon, their urgent cry demands attention—especially the attention of the church.

In the days and years after Jesus’s death and resurrection, the small band of Jesus followers began to grow. Tertullian, an early church father, explained how Christians used their time, money, and power to help the poor:

These gifts are . . . not spent on feasts, and drinking-bouts, and eating-houses, but to support and bury poor people, to supply the wants of boys and girls destitute of means and parents, and of old persons confined now to the house; such, too, as have suffered shipwreck.

The result of their work is clear. Tertullian goes on:

It is mainly the deeds of a love so noble that lead many to put a brand upon us. See, they say, how they love one another, for they themselves are animated by mutual hatred. See, they say about us, how they are ready even to die for one another, for they themselves would sooner kill.

Power of Christ’s Church

One of the greatest markers of Christianity in Tertullian’s time was intense dedication to the poor, the lonely, the abandoned, and the condemned. And the closer Christians aligned with the needs of the destitute, the more people took notice. As Christ’s followers were being put to death by the Roman Empire, the church was exploding. The powerful waters of Christian love and compassion began to rise.

Fast forward a couple thousand years, and people are questioning the relevance of the church in our world. Membership woes, low baptism rates, cultural battles, or a lack of finances have punctured the confidence of many churches—maybe even yours.

It may even appear to you that the church has lost its power. But that’s simply not true.

Slave owners know their power; they use it to steal the life of the powerless. They’re confident in their power, and they have no problem using it. Brothers and sisters, it’s time to once again recognize and boldly apply our Spirit-given power to the cause of the poor. It’s time to lead the fight to eradicate slavery.

Align with the Poor and Powerless

Last July, IJM convened a group of pastors from all around the Lake Volta region in Ghana. Many of these pastors lead congregations that include slave owners. After the IJM team preached about biblical justice and child trafficking, a local bishop stood up to speak. On the shores of Lake Volta, where children are literally drowning in slavery, this bishop harnessed his power and proclaimed to these pastors:

You all now know that you should rebuke the traffickers in your congregation, but you are afraid because they are the most influential members of your congregation. Well, you have a choice. Do you want to be a faithful pastor or a popular pastor?

Shortly thereafter, 400 churches in Ghana preached against the horrors of slavery.

A year after Gideon cried out to the IJM investigator, IJM was able to work with Ghanaian authorities to find Gideon and take him to safety, far from his wicked boatmaster. Without the help of churches and supporters, Gideon would likely still be on that boat. Today, by God’s grace, he is free.

When the church aligns itself with the needs of the poor and powerless, God’s power is revealed. The day his people unite to end slavery will be the day slavery is overtaken and swallowed up by the flood of love and compassion. And on that day, millions of men, women, and children—just like Gideon—will be free.

Nothing on Your Phone (Including TGC) Can Replace the Local Church

Wed, 08/28/2019 - 12:00am

Theological content is easier than ever before to find. The internet has made resources for the Christian life ubiquitous—whether it be women’s Bible studies, commentaries, sermon podcasts, books, video summaries of biblical books, video reflections on tough doctrines, documentaries on apologetics questions, entire courses on preaching, or whatever you are looking for. Sure, there is also more bad Christian content than ever before—read the Christian book bestseller lists or top religious podcasts list and weep—but there is also a ton of helpful, trustworthy, doctrinally sound stuff. The world will always need solid theological resources and guidance for Christian living, and technology is making it easier to get these resources out. We should be thankful.

But as much as we should celebrate this age of abundance in Christian resources—what my colleague Sarah Zylstra calls “theological affluence”—I worry about some of its side effects. Namely: why is the rise in access to theological material coinciding with a decline in Christian church attendance? Could it be that our easy access to theological content is, in a twisted way, making us see church as unnecessary? Listening to a Christian podcast or devotional app, after all, is much easier than getting out of bed on Sunday morning and going to a church building. But is it the same? 

It is not.

Two Perversions

Just as material affluence can keep us from church on Sunday because we have the means for all manner of distraction (globetrotting vacations, weekends at the lake, NFL games on our 90-inch flatscreen), theological affluence can keep us from church because we have umpteen resources to fill our theological “tank” during the week. Why would we be desperate to attend church regularly, listening to our so-so pastor’s Sunday message, when we can listen to John Stott and John Piper sermons on our commute, five days a week? Doesn’t that check the box? 

Part of why this problematic thinking sounds reasonable to many evangelical Christians today is because we have long practiced a faith that is systemically corrupted by (at least) two perversions:

1. Consumer Perversion

We think of faith primarily in terms of “what I get out of it”—whether that’s a feel-good sermon, a “safe” friend group (especially for our kids), or an escape-from-hell ticket. Certainly there are gains in the Christian life (the ultimate gain!), but when we approach it as “what can you do for me?” consumers, our faith is fickle and fragile. What do we do when being a Christian starts costing us, when suffering comes, when church gets . . . uncomfortable? This consumer perversion (amplified by the overly individualistic tendencies of Western culture) makes church-hopping a thing—since there will always be a church with better coffee, better kids’ ministries, less annoying people, and so on. If church, then, is mostly about “getting” the best of whatever spiritual thing you’re looking for, you’ll always be unsatisfied—constantly trying new churches and perhaps eventually giving up or turning online. The “best” preachers and the “best” worship music are on iTunes, after all, not in your local church.

2. Gnostic Perversion

We think of faith mostly as a “content” experience. It’s in our heads and in our hearts: it’s the ideas we pick up from books, podcasts, and sermons that matter. We think of our Christianity mostly as a mental, disembodied experience. And this dovetails with the consumer perversion, since if Christianity is mostly “content,” then we can justify picky standards—demanding that a church’s preaching be intellectually stimulating, doctrinally rigorous (but not too rigorous), culturally contextualized, and so forth; otherwise, we’ll leave and search for better content at another church. You can see how this gnostic perversion might gradually convince someone that physical church (with its subpar “content”) is dispensable in an era where better-quality content is just three taps away on a smartphone.

What Only Church Offers

But Christians are not meant to be consumers; we’re meant to be servants. And Christianity is not merely content; it’s an embodied, lived community. Active, committed participation in the local church reminds us of this. 

To be a Christian is to be like Christ: to serve rather than be served (Mark 10:45). You can’t do this by sitting in your car listening to a Christian podcast or gazing at a YouTube video about the Bible. In these activities you are being served. To be sure, you’re being served wonderful things! But it’s not enough. You also need to serve others, and the local church invites you to do this. The church is a place where Christians serve one another (1 Pet. 4:10), encourage one another (Heb. 10:25), love one another with brotherly affection, and outdo one another in showing honor (Rom. 12:10). The church is a community profoundly oriented around loving others and serving the world beyond itself. 

Christianity is not merely content. It’s an embodied, lived community.

The church is also an embodied community, something that cannot be replicated through books and screens. In the disembodied digital age we have the illusion of “connection” with our many social-media followers, but we’re still lonely and unknown behind all the manipulative filters and layers of facade. The local church—an enfleshed community of tangible people in regular contact and close proximity—can be an antidote to our disembodied grief. It grounds us in reality and reminds us that we aren’t just brains on sticks. We were made for physical connection with people, not just informational connection through screens. 

In a lonely, disembodied world, the church offers a beautiful alternative: an embodied community where at least once a week you are in physical presence with your church family. It’s a place where the manipulative filters of life online fall away and you can be known in a truer sense, warts and all. It’s a place where our real struggles and weaknesses are harder to hide; a place where healing—emotional, spiritual, physical—can happen. It’s a place where you can do physical things together: sing, stand, sit, kneel, hug, attempt awkward bro handshakes, even eat and drink the communion elements. You can get none of this from podcasts and apps and audiobooks.

No Substitute for Church

For all the benefits offered by the glut of resources available in this age of “theological affluence,” they cannot draw you out of yourself and into an embodied, others-oriented community. Websites like The Gospel Coalition offer a lot of (hopefully valuable!) resources to Christians, but they can’t give you community in the way a local church can. They can’t give you the communion elements or the experience of singing together and praying for one another week in and week out. TGC is not a church replacement. No online resource or parachurch ministry is. 

Websites like TGC offer a lot of (hopefully valuable!) resources to Christians, but they can’t give you what a church can.

Can someone find embodied community outside a church? Of course. But most of those communities end up being what Robert Bellah calls “lifestyle enclaves”—groups of like-minded people who “express their identity through shared patterns of appearance, consumption, and leisure activities.” But the church offers a deeper, more satisfying form of community because it joins people around more than the common bonds of looking similar and liking the same stuff. A church community frees you to be part of something bigger than yourself, to be around people who are not like you. It frees you from the bias-confirming bubbles of only being exposed to people who always affirm but never challenge you.

The local church is not ancillary or optional or replaceable, even when church-like things are widely available and at our fingertips. The church is and will always be central to the Christian life: a priceless jewel we should treasure and not trade for anything.


You Are Not Your Child’s Sin

Tue, 08/27/2019 - 12:04am

Do you have one of “those” kids? Every family should have at least one. They humble you. They break the mold of the family, and usually their parents at the same time.

A while back, I was at a three-day training in the summer. They had day camps for my kids to attend while I was at the training. Since it was about six hours from home, I rented an Airbnb, left my husband to his work, and drove all the kids out there by myself.

The Incident

Once I got everyone fed after the first day, one of my kids told me about “an incident” that happened that day with one of my other kids. He’d had one of his meltdowns, something we hadn’t seen in a while. He had thrown a chair, and there was yelling and crying.

Of course, there can be many reasons for a child’s meltdown, some even outside the child’s control. A sin-warped world—in which children often experience tiredness, immaturity, past trauma, illness, and developmental challenges—may contribute to a meltdown just as much as ill intent. But, whatever the root cause, it is not okay to throw chairs and scare other children.

The child who came to me was embarrassed by what her brother had done, and she didn’t want to tattle, but she thought I needed to know.

The next morning, as I dropped off my kids at their classrooms, I dropped off the one with the incident last. I wanted to speak with his teacher and make sure everything was okay. She was busy checking kids in, so I stepped back and waited. I was then approached by the superviser of the day camps.

“So, we had an incident yesterday.”

“Yes, one of my kids told me about it.”

She proceeded to tell me the details, and let me know how they responded, and how the day ended. In my mind, they had done everything right, but I was scared she was going to tell me that he couldn’t come anymore. This child got kicked out of things often enough, and I needed this training. It felt like a non-negotiable for my family.

“I’m so, so, so very sorry,” I stammered out.

Set Free

This woman looked at me and cocked her head with questioning eyes. “Why are you sorry? You weren’t even there. You didn’t do anything wrong. Your son did. I just need to make sure that he agrees to our code of conduct before returning to class.”

Her statement caught me off guard—I had never heard those words in my 14 years of parenting. They struck deep. I bit my lip. My face got hot, and to my embarrassment, I started crying. A pent-up dam was released. As a mom of six children, I hear it all. “Control your kids.” “Your kid shouldn’t be doing that.” “Keep an eye on your kid.”

Her statement caught me off guard—I had never heard those words in my 14 years of parenting.

The worst is when I hear these messages spoken passive-aggressively about other parents, and then I internalize them. When kids act up in public it’s: “Some parents just don’t discipline.” “Some parents just don’t teach boundaries.” “No one teaches manners anymore.” “Parents just need to learn to say ‘no.’”

While all that might be true, I get so weary of people thinking I’m the cause of my children’s sinful nature. I must not be trying hard enough. If I just parented them better, they wouldn’t deal with sin anymore.

That’s a weight that suffocates parents today.

Sufficient Savior

Even though I knew Jesus took my sin, I still bore the burden of my children’s sin. I mentally, emotionally, and often physically bore the weight of it. God deals with my sin, therefore I should deal with my kids’ sin. I’m God’s ambassador to them, after all.

Yes, but I am not the Savior.

Even though I knew Jesus took my sin, I still bore the burden of my children’s sin.

Whenever I think back to that conversation, I’m reminded that I’m not built to bear my kids’ sin. There is only One strong enough to bear the guilt of others, and his name is Jesus. That sweet woman in charge of those day camps made that clear to me.

Parents, take on the light yoke of pointing your children to Jesus. Your role as a parent does involve discipline. It does involve being an ambassador. It does involve prayer, training, and correction. But it does not involve bearing some kind of “righteous guilt” over what they have done.

Teach your children right from wrong (the law). Teach them also what God has done for our wrong, and what that means for us (the gospel).

Jesus bore the weight of sin on the cross. He alone is the weight-bearer, and what a relief his strength is—especially on our worst days.