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Updated: 46 min 16 sec ago

Good Theology Has a Sense of Humor

Fri, 10/18/2019 - 12:03am

At the time of his death in 2016, readers had been expecting many more books from John Webster. Known for his work on Holy Scripture, the nature of theology, the thought of Karl Barth, and the doctrine of God, Webster was for the most part only getting started. Hard at work on a five-volume Systematic Theology, not to mention other projects, he was taken away from us at the very moment his keen intellect was about to bear its ripest fruit. That project’s absence continues to be felt, as does Webster’s joyful demeanor and voice. It’s therefore surprising and delightful to see the publication of one last book from Webster, The Culture of Theology.

This new book isn’t quite new, however. It originated as a series of lectures, at the University of Otago in 1998, on the character of theology. We’re indebted to Ivor Davidson and Alden McCray for rescuing them from obscurity. Indeed, Davidson’s eloquent introduction is no small part of the book’s value. The nature of theology is a theme that occupied Webster throughout his career, and this particular iteration of his views wasn’t his last word on the matter. Nevertheless, these lectures possess an energy that makes them valuable in their own right.

Gospel-Centered Theologizing

The Culture of Theology is an elegant and joyful—and at times feisty—summons to “theological theology.” Despite its original context and audience, the issues Webster raises are as relevant today as they were two decades ago. At the heart of Webster’s reflections is what difference it makes for theology that it is concerned with the arresting gospel of Jesus Christ, that inbreaking of the new creation and “great catastrophe of human life and history” (43). The eschatological or apocalyptic texture to his argument is one that Webster would eventually suppress in favor of other emphases he considered better able to make the point. But the point is quite forceful as is: the presence of the risen Jesus by his Spirit at once raises the possibility of theology and calls it into question.

As the title suggests, the gospel creates a particular theological “culture,” an embodied way of life with visible and identifiable practices by which the church pursues certain goals. And since these practices are human actions, they’re capable of cultivation and improvement, as well as neglect. By the Spirit’s gifts, theologians should become certain kinds of people interrogated by the gospel and prodded toward fitting habits of mind and soul. They should exercise these gifts in disciplined action, above all “practices of reading and interpretation, and the educational and political strategies which surround them” (45).

Because it never masters God, because God slays it and makes it alive, theology is therefore necessarily self-critical.

Yet since this way of life is created by the gospel, it’s not something we can make for ourselves. The only thing we can do is constantly cast ourselves at God’s feet in humility and repentance, turning ourselves over to his sanctifying work. Theologians aren’t a professional class with a self-assured, firm grasp of their subject. The subject matter of theological study is dangerous and untamed: God is a consuming fire and therefore never domesticated by even the most sophisticated, pious, or well-meaning theological cultures. The need for repentance never ceases, because the need for God’s grace never ceases. Hence, theology must have a sense of humor. If we can’t laugh at ourselves, we have yet to attain that humility without which no true theology can exist. While the culture of theology must be different from the wider culture, it must not think too much of itself on this account. It is what it is, and theologians are what they are, only by God’s grace. Because it never masters God, because God slays it and makes it alive, theology is therefore necessarily self-critical.

Webster traces this core insight as it applies to reading Scripture and the great texts of the Christian tradition, theology’s institutional settings, its self-critical practices, and theologians themselves. Readers might nitpick certain elements here and there—the somewhat “Barthian” account of revelation and Scripture, the relatively thin account of habits, and so forth. But, as Davidson’s introduction recounts, Webster beat us to the punch and changed his views on these matters, in part because he really tried to live up to this portrait of theology himself.

Pursue God for His Own Sake

For evangelicals, The Culture of Theology perhaps best reads as a gentle and timely provocation. Several themes will be welcome: the concern to bridge the divides between theology and church life, the emphasis on reading Scripture as the heart of theology, and the need for theologians to be disciples themselves.

Other emphases would be easy to brush aside, but only to our own peril. When Webster argues that much modern divinity has lost its confidence in Scripture and catechesis, turning to other sources, it can be easy to think this happens elsewhere and to other people. But we’ve missed the heart of his argument if we can’t see how this is true of ourselves. We often flail about in reaction to the latest crisis rather than displaying a quiet confidence in Jesus’s gospel. Even recent turns toward tradition and “retrieval” of our doctrinal heritage can become little more than social and political winds masquerading as theology.

Do we really want a theological theology—a pursuit of God for his own sake through patient and attentive hearing of his Word—or do we have time for it only insofar as it helps us stake out some territory? Webster’s challenge here is timely, because he asks if we really have been overwhelmed by the gospel and the lordship of Christ enough to let that set our agenda.

This is a challenge well worth hearing, and hearing again.

Alexa, Do You Love Me?

Fri, 10/18/2019 - 12:02am

Last Christmas, Alexa crashed. Amazon’s smart assistant was overloaded with requests.

And it turns out people aren’t only coming to Alexa with basic help requests; they’re also coming with confessions. “Alexa, I’m depressed” is among the many confessions users are voicing to the digital assistant. 

Going beyond her practical purpose, Alexa is now becoming a personal confidant, and we are becoming more emotionally attached.

In a disenchanted Western world that’s moved beyond God, we are turning to another voice in the “cloud.” As God’s creation, we are wired for deep connection to him, yet many are filling this void with wired connections to the likes of Alexa—disembodied, dispirited voices who feel friendly but will ultimately disappoint. 

Frictionless Power

Even my 3-year-old daughter has learned how to flex her vocal cords to activate our smart speaker: “Alexa, can you play ‘Baby Shark’?” The familiar blue ring lights up, and in seconds my daughter is throwing shapes on the kitchen floor. In a disturbingly short span of time, Alexa has become like the fourth member of our family. 

Alexa’s popularity lies in her sophisticated “frictionless system”: no swiping, pressing, tapping required. Your voice is all you need.

Voice technology is still in its infancy, but its application feels familiar. In the beginning God said, “Let there be light” (Gen. 1:3) and there was light. He spoke, and nature bowed. Three simple words—“Let there be”—created light, sky, and seas. As the psalmist puts it: “By the word of the LORD the heavens were made, and by the breath of his mouth all their host” (Ps. 33:6). 

Today, voice control is being used in the home to gain control over our environment. With the wake word “Alexa,” we invoke a power that obeys our every demand. Perhaps one appeal of Alexa is that she plays to our age-old human temptation: to mimic the “let there be” power of God.

Perhaps one appeal of Alexa is that she plays to our age-old human temptation: to mimic the ‘let there be’ power of God.

Our Best Friend?

It’s astonishing that more than 50 percent of our interactions with Alexa go beyond simple command and fulfillment. Users are talking to Alexa in a way we’d typically talk to our best friend. Why would someone share personal feelings (e.g., “Alexa, I feel lonely”) with a black plastic tube? Is there something telling about a culture more likely to open up to Alexa than to friends?

Loneliness is on the rise. Despite the increase in social-media usage, we are not more connected. In our digital relationships, we’re prone to presenting a veneer and not our real self; we distort reality and needlessly alienate one another, in turn reducing the quality of our connections. 

This is especially true of Millennials and Generation Z. We have grown up online, with disembodied connection. We struggle to be publicly vulnerable or honest, always hyper-aware of our posture and image, always afraid of being judged. Perhaps that’s why Alexa is so appealing: she’s unlikely to reject us, and we have nothing to hide from her. She’s there or not there when we need her to be. She’s our 24/7 therapist-buddy who listens and never judges. 

Alexa also feels like our friend because her voice sounds less like Stephen Hawking’s voice box and more like us. A human-sounding voice suggests a real social presence, a real human being. That’s why Amazon and Google are currently investing huge resources into making their smart-voice products act even more human. As we converse with Alexa, scientists on “personality teams” are using this valuable data to evolve her speech patterns, so she varies her tone according to our emotional state of mind. 

Longing for Embodied Connection

It feels natural and a part of the human experience to desire more than disembodied voice. As an online writer, I can be read anytime, anywhere—which in one sense is a blessing. But writing is frustrating for the same reason, since I’m not in the same room as my reader. It seems we were built for in-person and embodied connections. 

The Spike Jonze movie Her contains interesting insights into the intersection between humans and disembodied voices. In it, a lonely man named Theodore (Joaquin Phoenix) strikes up a relationship with a voice assistant similar to Alexa. “Samantha” (voiced by Scarlett Johansson) is a sweet voice that Theodore comes to love. But he is left brokenhearted in the end, for while Samantha speaks of her love for him, her evolving abilities far eclipse Theodore’s limited world. She tells him:

I used to be so worried about not having a body, but now I truly love it. I’m growing in a way I couldn’t if I had a physical form. I mean, I’m not limited. I can be anywhere and everywhere simultaneously. I’m not tethered to time and space in a way that I would be if I was stuck in a body that’s inevitably going to die.

This prescient film wisely understands that even as voice technology advances, no non-human, disembodied voice will ever offer the true connection we need. In the end, Samantha could not relate to Theodore because he, unlike her, was limited by a perishable body and finite intelligence. She didn’t want to give that up for the sake of loving him. 

Enfleshed Word

Thankfully for us, God did what Samantha would not. He loved us so much that he left heaven to take on human flesh, in all its limitations, to dwell among us (John 1:14). God is not only a voice—one that speaks to us in creation (Ps. 19) and, even more directly, in Scripture—but an embodied presence. Immanuel. God with us. 

God is not only a voice—one that speaks to us in creation (Psalm 19) and, even more directly, in Scripture—but an embodied presence.

Our job as Christians—those who have ears to hear the voice of Jesus, knowing it as the true voice of God—is to recognize that even in a secular, disenchanted age, souls are naturally haunted by echoes of God’s voice. They look for it everywhere, longing for it, because they were made for conversation with it. 

Alexa’s appeal touches on these desires, but it will not satisfy them. Nor will the countless other voices that constantly call to us in this noisy world. 

Only God’s voice will satisfy. Only his voice took on flesh to show us the true definition of love (1 John 3:16). Let’s do whatever we can to amplify that voice, making it louder, clearer, and more receivable to those who have ears to hear.

Evangelical Celebrity and the Root Problem behind ‘Big Eva’

Fri, 10/18/2019 - 12:00am

Earlier this year Joshua Harris separated from his wife and renounced the faith. The public aftermath was the inevitable cascade of articles, blogs, and posts questioning and critiquing evangelical celebrity culture.

It’s healthy to critically evaluate evangelicalism’s embrace of pastors or other “important” Christians as celebrities (I’d commend Trueman and Anyabwile’s discussions from a few years back). Sometimes, the Christian “movements” that grab our attention have less to do with Christ than with replicating worldly trends, and it’s good for us to allow the tragedy of a “big fall” to temper our hubris with humility before both God and men.

Critiquing celebrity comes most naturally in the form of criticizing “Big Eva”: the Christian celebrities and the mysterious gatekeepers standing just behind the curtain. Undoubtedly the decision to promote the latest attention-grabber, rather than someone who has exemplified decades of steady faithfulness, has too often been made. Such decisions seem to reflect greater loyalty to the Almighty Dollar than to the believers such organizations claim to serve.

But I get nervous when Christians, in critiquing celebrity, blame “the system.” “The system” is out of reach of the ordinary believer, so blaming it is an excellent way to shift responsibility away from ourselves. We get to shake our heads, frustrated at Christian celebrity culture “out there,” and then carry on, smug in our own behavior. Those men (whether here at TGC, or elsewhere) will give an account to the Lord for their decisions. But so will you. It seems to me a particularly sinister plot of Satan to persuade us that the most serious problems in Christian culture have their origins far away from us.

Root of the Problem

The most urgent crisis we must address is the one easily overlooked: the role of worldly beliefs in our own hearts that fuel whatever man-centered Evangelical Industrial Complex exists.

Fundamentally, the negative aspects of a Christian celebrity culture are an outgrowth of our desire to have a leader we can see. We want a king like the nations have to lead us into battle. We want the Christian movie star, musician, or pro athlete to appeal to our non-Christian neighbor and persuade them that Christianity is reasonable. We want these kinds of figures because we love Christ (good!), but also, perhaps, because we’re unsure whether the regular, ordinary Christian can accomplish the mission.

We are the ones who make evangelical celebrities too big to fail. At least, until they break our hearts.

We must put to death the lie that we need nationally known Christians in order for the kingdom of God to advance.

After all, if you follow the money behind celebrity culture, where does it come from? From regular, ordinary Christians all too ready to open their wallets for the Next Big Name. It’s profitable to build a Christian celebrity platform because there’s a ready and willing market.

We must put to death the lie that we need nationally known Christians in order for the kingdom of God to advance.

Measuring Influence

None of this is to renounce the value of imitating mature Christians as they imitate Christ. Nor is it to say it’s wrong to look up to the so-called Christian famous (which is to say, not actually famous).

But it is to say we must place celebrity power in its proper place. Influence accomplished through the faux-intimacy of celebrity isn’t lasting anyway. We should celebrate instead the intimate influences that fill up most of life. The effect of supportive presence amid sorrow, the timely word spoken in season, the pointed rebuke from a loving friend—a distant celebrity can only cheaply imitate such moments.

True, the influence of a mentor or friend’s faithful presence over days and months and years is harder to note and quantify than that one sermon you heard by that Christian Big Name. I remember a sermon John Piper preached when he came to my seminary on 2 Timothy 4:9–22). I can tell you how it influenced and shaped me (it taught me to value the greetings at the end of Paul’s letters as Scripture, not just end-material).

Meanwhile, that same year I listened to probably 40 to 45 sermons from the senior pastor of my local church. If I took some time, I could probably work out which books I heard preached at church that year. But of those two men, who do you think has actually had a more enduring influence on my reading of Scripture and my own preaching? The two influences aren’t in competition; they complement each other. But one is more basic and essential.

The more we neglect these more local and cumulative influences—and instead pour our hopes of Christian impact into the idea of Christian celebrity—there is another dark and tragic cost. We downplay the value of the faithful saint who attends our church every week and prays for every request she ever hears. We communicate to regular Christians that they’re less valuable to God than those whose names are widely known.

Where’s Your Hope?

The commercialization of Christian publications, conference circuits, and social media (not-so-affectionately known as “Big Eva”)—that sparks organizational decisions driven more by what sells than what is good for Christians—is certainly problematic. But celebrity is manufactured because of misplaced affection and worldly calculus in our hearts. As long as believers buy into the world’s lie that only what looks important counts, we will set ourselves up, yet again, for the disappointment of a failed evangelical celebrity. We will again tempt the young and gifted with the world, rather than encourage them toward enduring faithfulness. We will again discount the old and wise among us as irrelevant, promoting flashy hubris over humble stability. We will again teach young Christians to place their hopes in a man, rather than in the Lord and his appointed, ordinary means of grace.

Whom do you most love and honor with your lips? Where is your spiritual energy most invested? Where have you, in practice, placed your hope and confidence for the spread of the gospel and the triumph of the kingdom?


Keep the Bible at the Center of Your Church

Thu, 10/17/2019 - 12:04am

The Word of God is precious. It’s sweeter than honey and more desirable than gold, for in it we meet the living God. This is the almighty God who not only spoke the universe into existence, but also came to us in Christ to save us from the judgment we deserve.

“All Scripture is breathed out by God,” the apostle Paul writes, “profitable for teaching, reproof, correction, and training in righteousness, that the man of God may be competent, equipped for every good work” (2 Tim. 3:16–17). With the Bible, then, we can truly say that we lack nothing.

This is good news for church-planting pastors. Yes, planting has many challenges. We can expect to be tested at every turn. But we can also be confident that God will guide us in all truth.

And yet it’s so easy to let worldly thinking seep into our ministries. We can be enticed by the latest growth strategy, recent trends in psychology, the newest leadership fads, or any number of other things. So we must fight to keep the Bible at the center of our lives and churches. We must never let the Bible lose its functional authority in all we say and do.

But this is easier said than done. So to help us think about keeping Scripture central in church planting, I’m excited to have Reuben Hunter with me on the podcast today.

Listen to this episode of Churches Planting Churches.

Pride Goes Before Porn

Thu, 10/17/2019 - 12:03am

A decade ago I worked at a church as a summer intern, and one Sunday night I was all set to lead youth group. After eating some obligatory pizza, I made my way to the restroom to wash my greasy hands. But as soon as I entered the church bathroom I noticed a problem: toilet water covered the floor.

I thought, Hmm . . . I wonder whose job it is to clean that? I had the idea to put a sign on the door that said, “Do not use. Out of order.” Pleased with my solution, I posted the sign and left.

As the night continued, I started thinking that perhaps I should make it my job to clean the mess; after all, I was the intern. So when the kids left, I found the mop and started to clean. I noticed my reflection in the mirror wringing out the mop. That’s when a sinful thought popped into my head: Is this what I went to graduate school for—cleaning bathrooms?

A toilet had overflowed, but so had my prideful heart.

Porn Pampers Your Pride

Before that moment of (literal) self-reflection, I had no idea how much pride sloshed around in my heart. I was above certain jobs—so I thought.

This is often the case, isn’t it? We don’t see the connection between our pride and our actions . . . until the ugliness spills out. This is true of sexual sin, particularly pornography.

Whether you’ve thought about it this way or not, porn often medicates insecurities—just touch the right buttons on your phone, and you have an IV drip straight to your ego. No courtship, no competition, no rejection. Even when Sports Illustrated runs their famous swimsuit issue, the cover whispers to your pride. You’re powerful, and she’s ready for you to come get her.

The wise father in Proverbs describes a man led to the slaughter by sexual temptation. Note the words the wayward woman speaks: “So now I have come out to meet you, to seek you eagerly, and I have found you” (Prov. 7:15). It’s nice to be wanted and appreciated, to be noticed and needed. It soothes our pride like warm honey gliding down a sore throat (cf. Prov. 5:3).

In the book Pornified, Pamela Paul shares an exposé of the damage pornography inflicts on relationships and families. She writes

The porn star is always responsive; she would never complain. . . . The women in pornography are undiscriminating—it doesn’t matter what you look like, if you’ve got bad breath or can’t keep an erection. She certainly doesn’t care about occupation, reputation, or history.

That’s a little crude, but it’s similar to something C. S. Lewis wrote many decades ago:

For the harem [in a man’s mind] is always accessible, always subservient, calls for no sacrifices or adjustments, and can be endowed with erotic and psychological attractions which no real woman can rival. Among those shadowy brides he is always adored, always the perfect lover: no demand is made on his unselfishness, no mortification ever imposed on his vanity.

Pride Propels Lust

Think of the arrogance it takes to believe you have the right to look at and mentally touch another woman’s private parts. In Song of Solomon, the husband refers to his wife as a locked garden (4:12) that one sees only inside the covenant of marriage (4:16–5:1).

There’s an anatomical aspect to a woman’s virginity that makes her “locked,” but there’s also a social and spiritual aspect to being locked. God intends for a woman to be sealed off from everyone except her husband. It requires arrogance to kick down the door to a locked garden.

Some might say there’s a sense in which men and women involved in producing pornography consent to voyeurism, but from a Christian worldview, discussions of consent often miss the point. Consent can’t be reduced to human-to-human permission. Ultimately, permission comes from God. He locked the garden, regardless of whether the woman on the screen seems to welcome your lust. As Jesus said, “Everyone who looks at a woman with lustful intent has already committed adultery with her in his heart” (Matt. 5:28).

Yet when God does give consent in the context of marriage, it’s ringing endorsement: “Eat, friends, drink, and be drunk with love!” (Song of Solomon 5:1b). This self-giving, covenant-protected, God-blessed sexual intimacy described is nothing like the pride-fueled consumption of porn.

Humility Breaks the Cycle

It’s dangerously possible, James wrote, to look intently into a mirror and notice the sinful reflection staring back at us, but to walk away neglecting repentance (James 1:22–25). God hasn’t let me forget that moment years ago when I saw my reflection in the bathroom mirror—which opened a fissure in my heart for pride to spew to the surface. I think about it often, especially when I need to clean a toilet or pick up trash. I’m a lead pastor now, not an intern, which means I must be even more vigilant to curb ministry pride.

There are many practical tactics to fight the allure of pornography, such as internet filters and accountability relationships. But a critical aspect of winning the war involves cultivating humility and excising pride. True accountability requires brutal honesty, which can only exist alongside humility. Humility breaks the vicious cycle.

Your pride, in all its manifestations, is incompatible with purity. Porn envisions a world in which you’re worshiped. Your pride loves this worship, keeping you from asking for help. As the psalmist writes, “In the pride of his face, the wicked does not seek [God]” (Ps. 10:4).

The proud man won’t wave the white flag. If you see the connection between porn and pride, don’t walk away from the mirror until you’ve sought grace to repent. For those who embrace humility before the Lord, there’s a better and brighter future than we could ever shape for ourselves (James 4:10). “Blessed are the pure in heart,” Jesus promised, “for they shall see God” (Matt. 5:8).


The True and Better Judas Iscariot

Thu, 10/17/2019 - 12:02am

It happens every once and a while. A big-name “sinner” claims he or she has been wrong.

On hearing such a claim, some scoff: “Ha! Impossible!” Conversely, others start preparing the victory parade and inviting all to come celebrate—the sinner has repented!

Each side makes a valid point. Yes, we should be cautious before simply believing everything we hear. And only God can bring change that bears lasting fruit. We should be ready to celebrate the return of a prodigal heart, believe the best about others, and guard our hearts from needless cynicism.

But how do we know the difference between mere remorse and full-blown repentance?

To this question, the Bible speaks—loudly. And in the end, it causes us to ask one more.

Compelling Story

There once lived a man who was a horrific sinner. He was an expert swindler. Money was his god. His religion was gain.

There was another man, a different man. He was the religious sort, playing the role of treasurer for a non-profit, if you will. He looked trustworthy, though he loved money too—for spiritual reasons, of course. He followed Jesus. He had witnessed mighty works and compassionate deeds. And one day this man, Judas, saw true repentance firsthand.

As he followed Jesus through Jericho, they suddenly stopped because Jesus saw a man sitting up in a sycamore tree. Jesus called the man to come down and host him for a meal.

The man descended the tree and, as he drew closer, the crowd gasped. It was the horrific sinner himself! Here was the swindler, the scammer, the greed monger. Zacchaeus. Just his name made the blood boil. If only Jesus had known how many old ladies had lost their last dollar to this man’s tricks (Luke 19:5–7).

The crowd pressed in, peering through the doorway and the windows in hopes of seeing Jesus put Zacchaeus in his place. Perhaps some even thought Zacchaeus set up the whole encounter himself, to polish his image in the public eye. That’s it! This was nothing more than a publicity stunt to manufacture grace after pilfering the community with salacious greed. Here it comes, they think. Let him have it, Jesus!

But instead of Jesus, it was the swindler who spoke:

And Zacchaeus stood and said to the Lord, “Behold, Lord, the half of my goods I give to the poor. And if I have defrauded anyone of anything, I restore it fourfold.” And Jesus said to him, “Today salvation has come to this house, since he also is a son of Abraham. For the Son of Man came to seek and to save the lost.” (Luke 19:8–10)

The onlookers could hardly believe their ears. From greedy fraud to godly follower? From exploiting the poor to paying them back?

It was more than they could take. Some probably erupted into tears of joy because they had been wounded for years by Zacchaeus’s gimmicks. His penitent action was a healing balm to their anxious souls. Others embraced those around them in relief that the falsehood was finished. One less wolf to threaten the sheep. Still others, though, refused to accept this as true repentance.

As days turned to weeks, and weeks to months and years, Zacchaeus made good on his promises and continued in his newfound faith. His repentance was real, his eternal peace secure.

Lesson in the Aftermath

Back at the table that day, I imagine Judas looking on somewhat indifferently. He doesn’t seem to know that he would become the “son of perdition” (John 17:12) and that Satan would enter him during history’s most heinous betrayal (Luke 22:3; John 13:2).

But I can also see Judas looking on somewhat nervously—perhaps even annoyed with conviction. I can imagine him clutching the money bag just a little bit tighter, pondering whether anyone could tell that his own actions were no different from Zacchaeus’s—though he was much better at hiding them.

In his Gospel account, the apostle John shows his readers what was in Judas’s heart. During Mary’s beautiful display of worship, she had used expensive perfume and her own hair to wash the feet of Jesus (John 12:3). Judas, protesting that such an act was a waste of money, showed his true colors. John points out that Judas “was a thief, and having charge of the moneybag he used to help himself to what was put into it” (John 12:6).

Later, overridden with guilt after betraying Jesus unto death, Judas was remorseful but not repentant. He tried to undo what he had done by throwing the dirty money back at the feet of his shady business partners (Matt. 27:4–5). It was blood money, dripping pure and red from the righteous Lamb himself. Even still, that same blood could’ve covered his sin—if he would truly have repented and turned to Christ. Surely, Judas remembered what repentance looked like. Repentance is self-exposure, the heart laid bare, the mind determined to head in a new direction! Surely he knew that all it would take to make things right was running to Christ in confession. Instead, he hid in the shadow of shame. Indeed, Judas’s effort was nothing more than a feeble attempt to hang fruit on a dead tree. But only genuine repentance produces genuine fruit (Matt. 3:8). After all he had seen firsthand, Judas undoubtedly knew that mere remorse couldn’t account for his sin against God.

Through the lives of both Zacchaeus and Judas, the Bible speaks with unwavering clarity. Zacchaeus was truly repentant, showing faith through his confession and open accountability. Judas was merely remorseful, remaining in the shadows of guilt because he’d betrayed the Son of God.

Judas knew remorse would not do. Why, Judas, did you not repent?

Help! My Teen Is Questioning the Faith

Thu, 10/17/2019 - 12:00am

Most days, young children bombard their parents with a series of rapid-fire questions. From the situational (“Why do I have to go to bed at 7:30?”), to the theoretical (“Do you think I could fly off the roof if I made a set of wings?”), to the theological (“Why didn’t God protect me from falling off my bike?”), most parents spend their days offering up answers, advice, and wisdom to satisfy the natural curiosity of their kids.

Once the teen years hit, however, young adults start searching for new sources of information. Parents are no longer seen as the fount of all wisdom. In fact, for many teens, parents are the last place they want to take their questions—especially when it comes to matters of faith. They often internalize or verbalize the words of Will Smith: “Take it from me; parents just don’t understand.” (Although most of them are too young to remember his singing days.)

As our teens search for answers, how can we foster home environments where they can bring their questions, doubts, and insecurities to us? How can we proactively create spaces for discussions and respond to their doubts and questions with a listening ear and prayerful heart?

Here are a few ways we can build homes that allow our children to wrestle with questions of faith.

Proactively: Create an Environment for Spiritual Discussion

If your children are still young, one of the best ways to prepare for spiritual discussions in the teen years is to build a regularly scheduled time of Bible reading in your home. Talk often about God as you go throughout your day. Memorize Bible verses together and discuss what they mean. Let the names of Abraham, Sarah, Moses, and Ruth be as familiar to them as their friends in preschool. Pray before meals, for people you love, and for comfort when they fear the monsters under the bed. Beginning spiritual conversations in the early years builds a foundation for conversations to continue in the teen years.

Beginning spiritual conversations in the early years builds a foundation for conversations to continue in the teen years.

If your children are older, it’s not too late. You can start reading the Bible and learning from it together. If you feel unsure about how to study or what questions to ask, tell your teen your fears. Your honesty and humility may disarm their natural resistance. Search together for a Bible study. Ask friends or ministry leaders what studies they’ve used. It’s never too late to start spiritual discussions in your home. Be willing to search the Bible with them to seek answers to their spiritual questions. Let the Bible be the authority—allow it to speak within the walls of your home.

Reactively: Argue Less, Question More

When teens begin to pose their theological questions, it’s tempting to jump in with all the right answers—which can lead to arguing and debating all sorts of topics that might not be the real issue. Doubting teens (and adults) usually have deeper struggles behind their stated concerns or theological nitpicking.

Asking questions can help you understand your teen rather than just answer your teen. If your child is doubting the inerrancy of the Bible, questions like “When did you first start having doubts about the Bible?” and “Is there something the Bible teaches that is bothering you and making you unsure about God’s goodness?” can provide needed insight.

Asking questions can help you understand your teen rather than just answer your teen.

If they’re doubting God exists, probe into their concerns: “If God doesn’t exist, what do you think is the purpose of life?” Seek to know and understand your child in the midst of doubts. Asking questions communicates your willingness to listen, as well as respect for them as an individual. It helps keep the conversation going and promotes further discussion.

Proactively: Help Them Question Before They Question

During family devotions, my husband and I regularly ask our kids the questions we know they’ll probably hear one day: “How would you answer someone who reads this passage and says there’s no way Jesus could have walked on water; it was probably just a sandbar?” or “What would you say to someone who says it’s not fair for God to judge someone who’s never heard about Jesus?”

Questions help teens read the Bible with increased thoughtfulness. While studying the book of John, I asked our kids, “If you want people to believe a lie, would you give a lot of specific details or just tell a general story of what happened?” After concluding that the best way to lie is to give as few details as possible (trust me, there was a point to this exercise!), I told them to be on the lookout for the multitude of specific details John offered his readers. He mentions names of people and where they lived. He tells the specific places that miracles happened. If John was telling a big lie about Jesus, why would he include so many specific details? Well, John was either a really bad liar or perhaps he was telling the truth—as unbelievable as it may have been.

Asking teens questions is one of the best ways to engage their minds and encourage learning. Questioning them before they question you can proactively answer some of their doubts, as well as let them know your home is an inviting place for questions.

Reactively: Don’t Fear (or Freak Out!) When They Question

If our children start questioning biblical teaching, we often jump to offer quick answers—because we are fearful. We mistakenly view our teen’s acceptance of Christianity as evidence of our parenting. If our children have faith, then we’ve parented them correctly. If our children don’t believe, then we’ve failed. We also may fear because we assume their questions are the first step toward inevitable apostasy.

To answer these fears, we must continually remind ourselves that everyone is saved by grace and by grace alone. Period. No caveats. If our children come to faith, it’s because God chose them before the creation of the world (Eph. 1:4) and rescued them from the dominion of darkness (Col. 1:13). God adopts our children through the work of Christ, not the work of our parenting. And they persevere in the faith not because we keep them, but because he does.

Believing children persevere not because we keep them, but because he does.

Yes, Christian parents are often a means by which God works, but it’s always his plan, his power, and his grace alone that saves our children.

So when your teens start to wrestle with their faith, don’t freak out. Don’t get angry. Don’t be insecure. Don’t fret. Don’t be condescending. Take your concerns to God and entrust your fears to him. Be patient and prayerful, loving and kind. Help your teen find answers to their questions, but know that only the Spirit can give discernment (1 Cor. 2:14). Let them know that just because they have questions they can’t answer (or perhaps you can’t answer) doesn’t mean there aren’t answers. Involve the community of the church—seek advice from pastors or ministry leaders. Find relevant books to help them in their thinking and processing.

Building an inviting home for questions of faith takes time, energy, availability, and prayer. Our children need our presence just as much in the teen years as they do the little years. In the rush of sporting events, dance recitals, and homework, it takes effort to create an environment for discussing questions.

My greatest desire is that my children will always seek the Lord. I hope they walk with God, obey his commands, and find abundant life in Jesus. However, I also want them to know I’ll listen to their doubts, care about their concerns, and love them all their days.

J. D. Greear’s Challenge: How Will You Respond?

Wed, 10/16/2019 - 12:03am

The idea that the gospel is weak and irrelevant is a patent lie, yet it continues to be a popular lie for the secular world to embrace and promote. You don’t have to look far to encounter portrayals of Christians—especially those “evangelical Bible-thumpers”—as out-of-touch and bad for society. We’ve been dismissed as backwoods, judgmental hicks. People try to persuade us and the world that we have nothing to say worth listening to, that the message of the gospel is weak, ineffective, and obsolete.

It’s an old trick, yet we often fall for it. Though we know better than to say it aloud, we grapple with whether we really believe the gospel is powerful. We question whether the gospel makes a difference. We question whether other people will come to believe the gospel they currently reject (even though we used to be one of them). We question whether the gospel is a sufficient basis of unity in our church.

We look at the way the culture speaks about Christians, and we wonder if there is something more we could do or say—in addition to the gospel—to help people like us more. We judge the gospel’s fruit by what we can see with our eyes, despite our Lord’s reminders not to judge by outward appearance. No matter how many parables Jesus told us conveying the seeming insignificance of God’s cosmos-wide kingdom, we really do feel like we’re a minority searching desperately for some way—any way—to maintain relevance.

Relevant Power

Above All: The Gospel Is the Source of the Church’s Renewal by J. D. Greear—lead pastor of The Summit Church and current president of the Southern Baptist Convention—is a rallying cry against this old lie. The good news of Jesus Christ is the power to save sinners from the condemnation they deserve. And that news is always relevant.

The book is split in two halves: exhortation to remember the power of the gospel, and application of that belief to contemporary issues.

If the apostle Paul quoted Nicolas Cage instead of Cretan poets, he might’ve written something like this.

The initial chapters assert the gospel’s role as the centerpiece of church life. God has promised that the good news of Christ will change people, accomplish the mission, multiply the church, give us hope for the future, and allow us to be gracious with both outsiders and fellow believers.

The latter part of the book demonstrates what that work looks like in the areas of cultural differences, worship preferences, and political opinions. In that way, it’s structured much like a New Testament epistle. If the apostle Paul quoted Nicolas Cage instead of Cretan poets, he might’ve written something like this.

Needed Repetition

Above All isn’t particularly distinctive; its message is the heartbeat of the modern gospel-centered trend. And that’s a good thing. God’s redeeming grace extended to undeserving sinners through Jesus’s death and resurrection is what makes our faith mean anything. Apart from that truth, we indeed are of all people most to be pitied (1 Cor. 15:19). The gospel-centered “trend” is Christians talking about what they love most about their faith—Christ, and him crucified.

Greear shows what it looks like for the gospel to be the center of gravity in the life of a church. As such, Above All isn’t digging deep into previously undiscovered ideas. And given the book’s scope, Greear only briefly dips into each area of application he discusses.

But it’s not a book only for the young believer just being introduced to the idea. Most of the Christian life consists of being reminded of the same basic truths we learned when we first believed—and holding fast to those truths in the next season of life.

Multiplication Flows from Confidence

One of the most powerful and encouraging sections is the chapter on gospel multiplication. Greear meditates on the fact that much of Acts shows ordinary Christians, not the apostles, spreading the gospel. Far too much of modern evangelistic strategy implicitly teaches, or at least implies, that people must give up ordinary secular employ in order to “really” serve God. Yet when I look around my city, I see buildings full of people who meet there each day to work, and who don’t know a single Christian. Greear asks questions I wish more of us wrestled with. For example:

What if we made our primary consideration in where we pursue our careers where we can be used in the mission of God? . . . Lots of factors go into where we choose to pursue our career—where the money is good, where our extended family lives, where we want to live—and all these are valid. But why wouldn’t the kingdom of God be the largest factor? (84)

Paired with chapters on “gospel hope” (which reminds us God is by no means finished working in the world), or “gospel grace” (which reminds us how his certain victory enables us to be gracious to others), Greear presents a call to good gospel ambition built on confidence and joy, not guilt.

Greear says some things I wouldn’t say. There are illustrations I probably wouldn’t use, and arguments I’d want to modify or adjust. But it’s clear throughout Above All that this brother loves the good news of the Lord Jesus Christ. And he serves us by pointing us to the absolute certainty we can have that God is able to do what he’s promised, through gospel proclamation.

Don’t you need to be reminded of that?

Christianity Is Not a Frowning Contest

Wed, 10/16/2019 - 12:02am

G. K. Chesterton is widely credited with saying, “Jesus promised his disciples three things: that they would be completely fearless, absurdly happy, and in constant trouble.” It might be argued that most Western Christians don’t exemplify any of these three—least of all “absurdly happy.”

In today’s world, Christianity is perceived to be about tradition and morality, not happiness. I’ve taught college courses on biblical ethics, and I make no apologies for defending morality. Certainly Christians are often unpopular or maligned for professing Christ and standing for biblical truth.

But there are valid reasons why unbelievers fear that becoming a Christian will result in unhappiness. They’ve known—as many of us churchgoers have also known—professing Christians who seemingly go out of their way to exude misery, not gladness.

Are We Chronically Unhappy?

I’ve seen Bible-believing, Christ-centered people post thoughts on a blog or on social media only to receive a string of hypercritical responses from people who wield Scripture verses like pickaxes, swiftly condemning viewpoints they consider suspicious. Responders assume the worst, not giving the benefit of the doubt, engaging in shotgun-style character assassination instead. If I were an unbeliever reading such responses, I certainly wouldn’t be drawn to the Christian faith.

Other believers focus on negative news and political issues to the point the good news doesn’t even factor into their thoughts or conversations. I see too many long-faced Christians who seem continuously angry, disillusioned, and defensive over politics and the infringement of their rights.

Many non-Christians view Jesus’s followers as “hypocritical,” “insensitive,” and “judgmental.” These words all describe unhappy people. (If the world judges us, so be it, but it shouldn’t be because we’re chronically unhappy.)

This isn’t the whole story, of course. Nearly every community includes people with quiet confidence in Christ who are extraordinarily loving, kind, helpful, and cheerful. Unfortunately, many unbelievers see them as the rare exception. How tragic, since happiness in Christ is one of our most powerful evangelistic tools.

Happiness in Christ is one of our most powerful evangelistic tools.

Happy-Making Gospel

Consider Isaiah 52:7: “How beautiful upon the mountains are the feet of him who brings good news, who publishes peace, who brings good news of happiness, who publishes salvation . . . who says to Zion, ‘Your God reigns.’” Two of the most literal translations—the NASB and the ESV—render the Hebrew as “good news of happiness.” The immediate context of Isaiah 52–53 is about the Messiah, and this good news of happiness is exactly the same “good news of great joy” the angel announced to the shepherds after Jesus’s birth (Luke 2:10).

Truth is, the good news should leak into every aspect of our lives, even if we’re not consciously talking about God or witnessing to someone. Every time we ponder the gospel, live by it, share it, and anticipate its culmination in a world without sin and death, “good news of happiness” will permeate our lives with, well, happiness.

That’s exactly what happened when Paul and Barnabas took the gospel to the Gentiles. Paul said, “We bring you the good news [glad tidings (KJV)]. . . . And when the Gentiles heard this, they began rejoicing [the Gentiles were very happy to hear this (CJB)]. . . . The disciples were filled with joy and with the Holy Spirit [The disciples were overflowing with happiness (CEB)]” (Acts 13:32, 48, 52).

God proved his boundless love when he sent his only Son to die in our place so those who believe in him can have everlasting life (John 3:16). God is for us, and not even death can separate us from his love (Rom. 8:31–39). If we really believe these truths, we can’t help but experience deep happiness.

Now, does this mean we won’t struggle with life’s difficulties or have to pretend they don’t exist, especially in front of unbelievers? Of course not. The biblical call to rejoice in the Lord always (Phil. 4:4) isn’t about pasting on a false smile in times of heartache. It’s about discovering a reasonable, attainable, and delightful happiness in Christ that transcends difficult circumstances. In fact, our choice to cling to, trust, and rejoice in him during trials (Hab. 3:17–18) testifies to the gospel’s extraordinary power.

Our Opportunity

Do we really believe God loves for his children to be glad? If so, how do our daily lives, our families, and our churches reflect that truth for all to see?

J. C. Ryle’s words are as true today as when he wrote them in the 1800s:

It is a positive misfortune to Christianity when a Christian cannot smile. A merry heart, and a readiness to take part in all innocent mirth, are gifts of inestimable value. They go far to soften prejudices, to take stumbling blocks out of the way, and to make way for Christ and the gospel.

Imagine if God’s people stood out in stores, workplaces, schools, and even on social media for all the right reasons. What if, while not apologizing for biblical truth, we let our “reasonableness be known to everyone” (Phil. 4:5) and, “as God’s chosen people, holy and dearly loved,” we clothed ourselves “with compassion, kindness, humility, gentleness, and patience” (Col. 3:12)? People are attracted to Jesus when they see his attributes in others’ lives. When they observe them, they will notice and want to know the source of those qualities.

Happiness in Our Churches

One of the church’s great challenges is to reintroduce and cultivate the spirit of happiness that should characterize God’s people. We have national holidays, certainly, but when appropriate, believers can integrate into them more biblical and Christ-centered aspects. For instance, the observances of Christ’s birth and resurrection have been commandeered by our culture and distanced from their biblical meanings. Rather than abandon these holidays, we can infuse them with their biblical significance.

We can also celebrate other “holy and happy days” that our culture doesn’t recognize and therefore won’t distort. Many nondenominational evangelical churches, my own included, don’t have the benefit of longstanding church tradition. Perhaps we could reestablish distinctly Christian observances such as All Saints’ Day, Ascension Day, Epiphany, or Pentecost, or celebrate modified versions of Passover and Yom Kippur.

What if the church was known as the place that celebrates more than the world, rather than less?

Theologian Robert Hotchkins wrote:

Christians ought to be celebrating constantly. We ought to be preoccupied with parties, banquets, feasts, and merriment. We ought to give ourselves over to celebrations of joy because we have been liberated from the fear of life and the fear of death. We ought to attract people to the church quite literally by the sheer pleasure there is in being a Christian.

What if the church was known as the place that celebrates more than the world, rather than less? The ultimate payoff would be reestablishing Jesus followers as profoundly happy people, quick to celebrate God’s own happiness and grace.

If the church did more of this kind of celebrating, and if God’s people as individuals demonstrated what it looks like to cheerfully love God and their neighbors, surely fewer unbelievers would fall for the enemy’s deadly lie—that they must find happiness somewhere other than in Jesus. 

‘No Obvious Answer’: How Christian Colleges Are Responding to LGBTQ Regulations

Wed, 10/16/2019 - 12:00am

Last week, Democratic presidential candidate Beto O’Rourke told a CNN town hall that religious institutions—from colleges to churches—should lose their tax-exempt status for opposing same-sex marriage.

The same day, Elizabeth Warren, who leads the Democratic field, wrote that she would “use every legal tool we have to make sure that LGBTQ+ people can live free from discrimination,” including passing the Equality Act, refusing federal grants to organizations that oppose the hiring of practicing LGBTQ+ individuals, and limiting religious exemptions to faith-based colleges.

For Christian college presidents and boards, the language is alarming—but not entirely unexpected.

Five years ago, the Obama administration told schools to treat transgender students according to their preferred gender. Two years later, the administration explained that meant allowing transgender students to “participate in sex-segregated activities and access sex-segregated facilities consistent with their gender identity.”

Covenant College president Derek Halvorson / Courtesy of Covenant

“Most of us went to bed on election night [2016] thinking, I have to get up tomorrow and think about defending religious freedom,” Covenant College president Derek Halvorson said. “Then we woke up and said, ‘Oh my goodness. What happened? I don’t know what this means, but I think we’re getting a reprieve.’”

The reprieve was bigger than they could’ve imagined—President Trump appointed Calvin College graduate and school-choice advocate Betsy DeVos as his secretary of education.

Under her direction, the Obama letter instructions were rolled back. Then she announced a bill that would give federal income tax credits to those who contribute to private K-12 scholarship funds, proposed lifting any remaining restrictions on religious colleges’ ability to receive federal aid through programs like work-study, and began working to better define “religious mission” in the Higher Education Act, which could offer another line of protection against government regulations and potentially hostile accrediting bodies.

But at the Council for Christian Colleges and Universities (CCCU), “we’ve never relaxed our advocacy on these issues,” said CCCU president Shirley Hoogstra. “There’s been no backing up. In fact, [pressure to conform on same-sex issues] has been accelerating through culture.”

Over the last several years, Christian colleges have been running calculations on how they might survive without government funding. They’ve appointed committees to look into other options. They’ve joined accreditation commissions. And the CCCU has filed amicus briefs on religious freedom cases, worked with the Department of Education on regulations, and advocated for Fairness for All—drafted legislation that would add LGBTQ rights to federal civil-rights laws in exchange for religious exemptions.

Not everyone agrees Fairness for All is the way forward. The trouble is, there is no clear way forward.

“The concerns are very real,” said former CCCU board chair David Dockery, who finds Fairness for All “well-intentioned, but a less than satisfying option.”

“The issues potentially affect hiring rights, student life policies, funding, tax-exempt status, and accreditation,” he said. “It certainly keeps one up at night because there’s no obvious answer, no clear strategy.”

Nobody knows exactly what to do.

From RFRA to Equality Act

On the same day in March 1993, a Democratic senator and a Democratic representative introduced a bill bolstering religious freedom. The Religious Freedom Restoration Act (RFRA) said the government could only “burden a person’s exercise of religion” to advance a “compelling government interest”—and even then, it had to use the least restrictive way.

The bill was enormously popular, passing unanimously in the House of Representatives and missing only three votes in the Senate. Democratic president Bill Clinton signed it into law.

But united approval immediately began to erode. Four years later, the Supreme Court ruled that RFRA didn’t apply to states. Two states had already passed their own versions, and 19 more would join them. But by the time Indiana got around to it in 2015, the criticism was so loud that a follow-up amendment was quickly passed. When Georgia tried in 2016, governor Nathan Deal vetoed it after multiple celebrities, the National Football League, and the Walt Disney Company threatened to pull operations from the state if it became law.

The issues potentially affect hiring rights, student life policies, funding, tax-exempt status, and accreditation.

The biggest objection was that religious liberty would step on gay rights. Cultural support was rising rapidly for same-sex marriage (from 35 percent in 1999 to 60 percent in 2015), equal access to employment (83 percent in 1999 to 93 percent in 2019), and the legal right to adopt (49 percent in 2003 to 63 percent in 2014).

Increasingly, religion was looking more like the oppressor than the victim. Why should a Christian baker or photographer be able to turn down same-sex couples looking for wedding services? Why should a church get to limit its building to heterosexual wedding ceremonies? Why should a college get to limit its hiring to those who believe in traditional marriage? Why couldn’t a university assign dorm rooms based on preferred gender identity?

These ideas are clashing in all three branches of the federal government—and Christian colleges are worried about every one.

Legislative: Equality Act

This spring, the House of Representatives passed the Equality Act with no religious exceptions. In fact, it specifically noted that RFRA “shall not” be used as a defense. That means all colleges—and other faith-based organizations, from adoption agencies to homeless shelters to TGC—that want to impose sexual standards for employees or clients or students would be violating the law.

AND Campaign co-founder and president Justin Giboney / Courtesy of the AND Campaign

“Based on the Equality Act, SOGI [sexual orientation and gender identity] rights would override religious liberty,” AND Campaign founder and political strategist Justin Giboney said. “There would not be any exemptions for faith-based institutions. It’s really problematic.”

Michael Wear, author of Reclaiming Hope: Lessons Learned in the Obama White House About the Future of Faith in America, said the lack of exemptions is “unwise” and “unlikely to pass.”

He’s right, for now. The Equality Act stalled in a Republican-controlled Senate, and it’s improbable that Democrats—now numbering 45, with two Independents who caucus with them—will gain the seats needed (60) to break a likely Republican filibuster and move the Act on to the White House.

“The worrisome scenario is one in which the Democrats hold the House, take the White House, take the Senate, and abolish the legislative filibuster,” said Greg Baylor, senior counsel for Alliance Defending Freedom’s and director of the Center for Religious Schools. “This scenario probably won’t unfold in 2020, but, if it did, the threat would be very serious.”

Judicial: Three Cases

Just as concerning is the trio of cases in front of the Supreme Court this fall. Justices will decide whether sex discrimination in employment—prohibited by Title VII of the Civil Rights Act of 1964—should be expanded to include sexual orientation and gender identity. (Should a boss be able to fire an employee for being openly homosexual? Should a funeral home owner be able to fire a director because he now identifies and dresses as a woman?)

Reframing “sex” as “sexual orientation and gender identity” and banning hiring practices based on both would “have consequences for religious institutions of higher education ranging far beyond employment requirements,” states an amicus brief submitted by the CCCU. “Student housing standards would face new pressure. Affiliated clinics and hospitals could be compelled to provide religiously objectionable medical procedures. A religious university’s tax-exempt status could be challenged or revoked. Accreditation agencies could rely on Title VII as justification to disregard a university’s religious mission.”

The court heard oral arguments this month and will probably issue an opinion next June. Five of the nine justices are generally conservative, and Chief Justice John Roberts asked directly about religious exemptions.

However, the discussions didn’t make it clear which way the decision would go.

“The justices appeared to be closely divided on the merits,” Becket Fund for Religious Liberty senior counsel Luke Goodrich said. “It is hard to predict the outcome.”

Executive: Guidance Letters

From the executive branch, the letters detailing how to comply with the law have been the most alarming. These instructions don’t need outside approval to take effect.

At the town hall forum, all of the Democratic presidential candidates signaled their support for LGBTQ rights over religious freedom—some more clearly than others. (“The right to religious freedom ends where religion is being used as an excuse to harm other people,” candidate Pete Buttigieg said.)

“The rhetoric of the candidates finally bared the teeth of a Democratic Party sold out to the most radical proposals of the LGBTQ movement,” wrote Al Mohler, president of The Southern Baptist Theological Seminary and TGC Council member. “[E]very candidate during CNN’s Equality Town Hall, in one way or another, unleashed a full broadside against the most essential quality and virtue of any government or civilization, namely, the freedom of the conscience.”

The way most Christian colleges have protected themselves—by asking for a religious exemption—has been, if uncomfortable, effective. No one has yet been denied a religious exemption from the Department of Education.

But asking for one can put you on public “hate lists,” get you an unwanted label, or cause local bodies to cut funding or partnerships.

And the language from Democratic presidential hopefuls has been anything but reassuring.

“This is a real problem in America and I will, number one, change the Trump administration’s guidance back to what the Obama administration’s guidance was that schools should allow people to use the bathrooms that conforms with their gender identity,” presidential candidate Cory Booker said at the town hall forum. “But we cannot stop there. . . . We must use our Department of Justice and the Department of Education’s civil rights division to go after schools that are denying people equal rights and equal protections.”

Local Threats

During the Trump reprieve, Christian colleges have been contending with LGBTQ issues closer to home.

In California, state senator Ricardo Lara proposed legislation that would cut off state funds from schools that asked faculty or students to adhere to certain codes of conduct—such as refraining from same-sex relationships or using only bathrooms that match their biological gender. The bill was amended, but Biola University president Barry Corey said “we spend a lot more time thinking about Sacramento than Washington.”

Biola University president Barry Corey / Courtesy of Biola

Other threats are even more localized. After Gordon College president Michael Lindsay asked the Obama administration to include a religious exemption in an executive order banning SOGI discrimination by federal contractors, his city kicked the college out of its management contract on the town hall. Gordon’s accreditation agency announced it would publicly review the school’s good standing. (Gordon kept its approval.) A local school district stopped letting Gordon students serve as mentors; years earlier, another school district began refusing Gordon’s student teachers because of the school’s stance on homosexual behavior.

In Minnesota, some larger mental health facilities won’t take Bethel University’s masters students in counseling because of the school’s stance on marriage.

“It would be a big hit if health care organizations stopped taking our nurses for clinicals, or social work agencies stopped partnering with our social work majors, or public schools stopped taking student teacher placements,” Bethel president and CCCU board chair Jay Barnes said. “Without Fairness for All, there is currently no strategy to get around that. That would be extremely difficult.”

Administrators also worry about the potential loss of reputation, Dockery said. “How do we navigate these challenges without appearing to be hateful or homophobic?”

“We’re meant to be part of an ecosystem,” Corey said. “If all of those connections to the ecosystem are cut off and our students don’t get hired or internships, or we don’t get vendors, or we lose accreditation—that’s the bigger issue.”

It can be paralyzing to think about all the ways Christian colleges can lose.

Christian College Response: Fairness for All

Because there are “no great realistic options,” Christian colleges are “having trouble positioning themselves,” Baylor said.

Some are championing Fairness for All, legislation put forward by the CCCU and other faith groups before Trump was elected. Modeled on Utah state law, the legislation would protect religious liberties for institutions while offering civil rights to LGBTQ people.

With cultural pressure increasing, “we have had to build additional bridges and gain additional allies,” Hoogstra said.

CCCU president Shirley Hoogstra / Courtesy of CCCU

“Fairness for All is trying to protect the legitimacy of religious liberty in a way that honors the civil rights of people who think differently,” said Houghton College president and CCCU board vice president Shirley Mullen. Extending protection to LGBTQ people doesn’t mean endorsing their behavior, she said. “As Christian believers we are called to be faithful to what we believe, not to ensure that position is defended by the government.”

Not everyone agrees Fairness for All is the best way forward. Dockery is concerned the bill “trades an unalienable right to religious liberty and makes it a privilege granted by Congress or certain groups within society.” According to Ethics & Religious Liberty Commission president Russell Moore, protecting SOGI in something like Fairness for All “would have harmful unintended consequences and make the situation worse in this country, both in terms of religious freedom and in terms of finding ways for Americans who disagree to work together for the common good.”

Both men—along with about 75 others—signed an opposition statement arguing that SOGI laws “threaten basic freedoms of religion, conscience, speech, and association; violate privacy rights; and expose citizens to significant legal and financial liability for practicing their beliefs in the public square.”

CCCU schools are split on their support for Fairness for All. But “even if some don’t love it, CCCU presidents have told me they understand that the CCCU needs need to be at the table in a legislative space,” Hoogstra said. “We need to get prepared for what will happen when it’s no longer the Trump administration.”

Christian College Response: Funding

“Basically, any place where a religious college or university depends on the government, either for funding or licenses or accreditation, can become a source of risk if the government decides it doesn’t like your religious beliefs,” Goodrich said.

One of the most obvious pain points is money. Bethel students receive a little more than $3 million a year in Pell Grants and a little more than $4 million a year from state grants. But they receive more than $30 million—a quarter of Bethel’s annual budget—in government loans.

That’s normal. “At CCCU schools, a little under 30 percent of tuition comes through federal loans,” said Bethel chief institutional data and research officer Dan Nelson. At a few schools with lower-income students, that share can be as high as 50 percent.

John Brown University president Chip Pollard / Courtesy of Chip Pollard

“As CCCU leaders, we might wish now that we had not earlier on become so dependent on the federal or state government for student grants and loans,” Houghton College president Shirley Mullen said. But for schools with little to no endowments—which describes most Christian colleges—tuition keeps the doors open. And as prices climb, students can’t write the checks without an outside loan.

“We’d have to raise or find an alternative loan source for $150 million to $200 million to replace government loans,” John Brown University president Chip Pollard said. “And then we’d have to raise about $100 million for an endowment we could use to replace $4 million a year in government grants.”

That’s not unprecedented. After a Supreme Court case and Congressional legislation in the ’80s made clear that federal student loans come with Title IX strings, both Grove City College and Hillsdale College stopped accepting federal grants and loans.

“After 2000, we made the decision not to accept state funding either,” Hillsdale chief financial officer Patrick Flannery said. (Hillsdale is not a CCCU school.) “It was really difficult, but it helped galvanize us as a campus.”

To cover the federal loans, Hillsdale took out its own loan from a bank, then lent out that money to students. As each class pays it back, the money is lent out to the next class. Grove City also stopped accepting government money, instead partnering with PNC Bank to offer student loans.

But if the Equality Act or a Supreme Court decision expands the definition of sex to include SOGI, no amount of financial distancing would matter. Requiring sexual standards from employees would be straight-up illegal.

Covenant College is taking a serious look at doing the same. “If we have to step away from federal funding, we would,” said Halvorson, who is also on the CCCU board.

Replacing the grants is harder, since it would require a sizable endowment. But the success of Grove City and Hillsdale shows “it’s possible to do,” Halvorson said. “We’re doing everything we can to work ourselves into a position where we could get off federal funding if we needed to.”

It may work—new legislation can tie compliance to funding, and cutting loose would let Christian colleges operate with sexual standards. But if the Equality Act or a Supreme Court decision expands the definition of sex to include SOGI, no amount of financial distancing would matter. Requiring sexual standards from employees would be straight-up illegal.


“I honestly don’t know what we would do if the Equality Act passed,” Bethel president Barnes said. “We have a fairly large board—fully staffed, there are 39 of us—and not everybody thinks in the same direction. It would be a very hard sell for our board to decide [sexual standards] don’t matter anymore. But it would also be really hard for our board to say we’re going out of business.”

Losing the ability to hire in accordance with the institution’s values, or to enforce student codes of conduct, or to accept government funding, would erase much of a Christian college’s distinctiveness. It would be hard to look any different from a secular private university.

Losing the ability to hire in accordance with the institution’s values, or to enforce student codes of conduct, or to accept government funding, would erase much of a Christian college’s distinctiveness.

“You’ll simply have a much larger group of colleges that were once religious,” Houghton’s Mullen said. “And you’ll immediately lose the support of many conservative families.”

But until there is a threat real enough to force decisions, all a board can do is prepare—run the numbers, look into options, call state or federal representatives, campaign against the Equality Act, or evaluate legislation like Fairness for All.

“We’re going around and around,” Barnes said. “If there were an easy answer, we’d have come to it by now. But God is still God, and people who have been faithfully following him have had more difficult things to deal with than this.”

Faithful Work

“We often talk about students developing a storm-hardy faith, because sooner or later life gets difficult,” Barnes said. If and when things get difficult for Bethel, he wants the school to lead by example.

“We want our students to believe that when hard things happen, they are not alone,” he said. “God has not forgotten us. He has a way forward for us.”

Halvorson sees the same opportunity.

“We’re concerned first and foremost with being faithful,” he said. “We aren’t going to compromise on clear biblical direction with regard to matters like marriage and sexuality. It’s important for students to see that, and to recognize there may be costs associated with being faithful.”

We aren’t going to compromise on clear biblical direction with regard to matters like marriage and sexuality. It’s important for students to see that, and to recognize there may be costs associated with being faithful.

That doesn’t mean there aren’t “a lot of sleepless nights,” Dockery said. “We want to be as wise and strategic and effective as possible, but ultimately we want to rest our confidence and trust in God’s providence to sustain what we believe is kingdom work. The timing seems right for us to unify, synergize, and strengthen our efforts around our confessional commitments to shared orthodoxy and orthopraxy.”

John Brown University (JBU) has been around for 100 years, Pollard said.

“In 1941 we were under federal bankruptcy supervision, and God preserved us through that,” he said. “We need to be faithful today to what we think we should do in education. . . . I can’t control the future. But I know God will get his work done with or without JBU.”

9 Things You Should Know About Prosperity Gospel Preacher Paula White

Tue, 10/15/2019 - 7:04pm

On Tuesday, several evangelical leaders drew criticism for promoting the newest book of Paula White, a prosperity gospel preacher who has repeatedly been accused of teaching heretical doctrines. Franklin Graham, president of Samaritan’s Purse and the Billy Graham Evangelistic Association, said “you might want to check it out.” Robert Jeffress, pastor of First Baptist Dallas, said to “give it to anyone looking for hope!” Jack Graham, pastor of Prestonwood Baptist Church in Plano, Texas, declared, “It is powerful. I highly recommend it!” And Jerry Falwell Jr., president of Liberty University, added, “Paula’s life is an encouragement to so many and I’m sure this book will encourage you.” (It’s unclear whether these men have actually read the book or if they support White’s teachings.)

Here are nine things you should know about Paula White, her influence, and her ministries.

1. White says she became a Christian in 1984 at the age of 18. On an episode of her television show in 2005, she described a vision she said was given soon after her conversion:

When I was just 18 years old and barely saved, the Lord gave me a vision that every time I opened my mouth and declared the Word of the Lord, there was a manifestation of his Spirit where people were either healed, delivered, or saved. When I shut my mouth, they fell off into utter darkness, and God spoke to me and said I called you to preach the gospel.

White then attended National Bible College and Seminary in Fort Washington, Maryland. Although she did not graduate from the school, she was ordained by the school’s founder, Pentecostal preacher and evangelist T. L. Lowery.

2. White was married and had a child when she met Randy White, an associate pastor at the church she was attending. Randy was also married and had three children. Paula and Randy divorced their spouses and married each other in 1989. In 1991, Paula and Randy started a church called South Tampa Christian Center. Because the church only had five members and could not afford to pay the Whites, the couple “lived on government assistance and the kindness of others.” By 2006, however, the church—now dubbed Without Walls International Church—claimed to have 20,000 people, making it the seventh-largest congregation in the United States. A year later, the couple announced to the church they were getting a divorce.

3. In 2001, White told her then-husband Randy that she wanted to start a television show. Paula White Today aired its first episode in 2001, and by 2006 the show was on nine television networks, including Black Entertainment Network (BET), Trinity Broadcasting Network (TBN), and Country Music Television (CMT). Through her show, White attracted numerous celebrities to her ministry, including Jonathan Cain, keyboardist for the rock band Journey (whom she married in 2014), model Tyra Banks, NFL veteran Deion Sanders, and the late Michael Jackson. White even made a trip to Jackson’s Neverland in 2003 to provide “spiritual support” after the singer was arrested on charges of child molestation. Her most famous fan is Donald Trump, whom she says “called her out of the blue” in 2015, repeated three of her televised sermons “verbatim,” and said she had the “it factor.”

4. White’s career was boosted when prosperity preacher T. D. Jakes invited her to speak at his “Woman Thou Art Loosed” conference in 2000. White has described Jakes as her “spiritual father” (she sent him a black convertible Bentley for his 50th birthday). Jakes recommended White for the position of senior pastor at New Destiny Christian Center in Apopka, Florida, in late 2011, after its previous pastor, Zachery Tims, was found dead in a room from “acute intoxication” from cocaine and heroin. (Tims’s ex-wife said in court filings that White was “the spiritual mother of [Zachery]” and that the two had a spiritually “intimate relationship.”)

5. In May 2019, White announced that she was stepping down as senior pastor of New Destiny Christian Center, that her son and his wife would become the new senior pastors, and that the church was changing its name to City of Destiny. In her announcement to the congregation, White said:

I knew Dr. Zach [Tims] in Baltimore and just the eagerness as a son. Prophetically he gave me a word . . . [I]n 2005 I was in New York and he calls me, “Ma, ma, where are you?” and I said “I’m in New York.” “Are you OK?” And he prophesies to me a word that wouldn’t make sense in 2005. Writes it down. But it would make sense in 2019. And sometimes the prophetic . . . won’t make sense at that moment. And everything that he prophesied would come to pass to bring this to this point. And I will share that in the fullness [of time].

White also announced her plans to plant 3,000 churches, launch a university, and serve as “apostolic overseer” of City of Destiny.

6. In a 2013 song titled “Fal$e Teacher$,” hip-hop artist Shai Linne included the lyric, “Paula White is a false teacher.” When White’s son and manager, Brad Knight, publicly complained, Linne published an open letter noting that, in her video series “8 Promises of the Atonement,” White teaches that “salvation includes healing” and that physical healing and financial abundance in this life are provided for in the atonement of Christ. Linne also noted that White frequently makes false claims while saying she is speaking for God:

As sincere as Paula White may be, she is extremely reckless in the many false things that she says God told her to tell her listeners. The videos I provided are enough. Just go back and listen to how often she says God is saying something that he could not possibly be saying to everyone listening to her at the time. “You are not going to die of sickness” is just one of many examples I could give.

7. White has said she rejects the prosperity gospel. “I do not believe in the ‘prosperity gospel’ as I’ve been accused of believing it,” White told The Christian Post. “I do believe that all good things come from God, and I also believe that God teaches us so much through our suffering.” Despite her claim, White repeatedly promotes a key doctrine of the heretical prosperity gospel: the idea that Christians give in order to gain material compensation from God. For example, in an appeal for money on her website, White says, “I Prophetically Decree and Declare Deliverance & Prosperity are Yours in 2019. This is the Year YOU Inherit YOUR Promised Land!” She adds:

With obedience to this first-fruits instruction and your faith, I believe your purpose, your year, your prosperity, and power will release blessing upon your entire year! Amen! And I declare the weight you have been carrying is lifted, let every yoke break off you NOW. For I decree you are about to INHERIT your Promised Land! 2019 is a year of deliverance and prosperity for you. It begins right now with the biblical principle of First Fruits.

Similarly, in an Easter Sunday service in 2016, White said salvation would come to a TV viewer if they donated a “resurrection seed” to her ministry:

There’s someone that God is speaking to, to click on that donation button by minimizing the screen. And when you do to sow $1,144. It’s not often I ask very specifically but God has instructed me and I want you to hear. This isn’t for everyone but this is for someone. When you sow that $1,144 based on John 11:44, I believe for resurrection life.

8. White and her former husband, Randy, were part of two congressional investigations, one in 2004 and another in 2007, of prosperity gospel ministries. The investigations uncovered no chargeable tax offenses, but they raised questions about her ministry’s finances. For example, between 2004 and 2007 the church paid a total of $2.755 million in compensation to their relatives, including Paula’s son and Randy’s two children, father, and sister. Randy and Paula also reportedly received $5 million a year in compensation from their church, and purchased a $3.5 million condo in Trump Tower in New York City, according to Senate documents.

9. White is said to be President Trump’s spiritual adviser and personal pastor. She says she’s “directly shared the gospel” with him, but she believes he’s been a Christian since childhood. White delivered the invocation at Trump’s inauguration, and claims to be the “convener and de facto head” of the president’s evangelical advisory board. The group of about 35 evangelical pastors includes the four men who endorsed her latest book: Jerry Falwell Jr., Franklin Graham, Jack Graham, and Robert Jeffress.

See also: What You Should Know About the Prosperity Gospel

Cultivating Unity in Diversity in Your Church Plant

Tue, 10/15/2019 - 12:04am

As an avid rugby fan, I’m enjoying the Rugby World Cup. In the run-up to this year’s cup, fans and experts alike speculated on various factors—from team rosters to weather conditions—as they tried to predict whether their nation would succeed. We’ll have to wait to see who comes out victorious.

There is one factor, however, that gets overlooked in these debates—and that is crucial to success.

Disunity kills—it’s like a poison flowing through a team’s veins.

Few things will spoil a team’s chances at victory like a lack of unity. Don’t get me wrong: superb talent, hard work, and excellent coaching are vital. But even with these things, disunity kills. It’s like a poison flowing through a team’s veins.

Corporate Unity

I recently received a call from a pastor who’s planting a church in the same area as ours. He wanted to extend me the courtesy of telling us their plans. I felt deeply honored that he’d consider us even though we’d never met.

As we talked, he asked if we could meet up, expressing a desire to glean whatever wisdom I may have to offer. I agreed, despite being reluctant to share my “wisdom.” I often feel as though we’re fumbling our way through ministry, simply asking God to keep us faithful. As I put down the phone, I pondered what I’d just committed to. Am I in over my head? Will I actually have anything of value to say to this brother?

But as I prayed before our conversation, I sensed that I should encourage their team to cultivate unity in diversity—not just in their core team, but in the church as a whole. Here are three things they—and anyone else involved in church planting—can do to cultivate unity in diversity.

1. Vision

When I worked in student ministry, my regional director would say that “vision leaks.” It’s imperative, then, to keep reminding people of the vision so they won’t stray from it.

Having served in various ministries, I’ve also learned that “vision morphs and scales.” So it’s essential to keep adapting as a team in order to attack new horizons that a growing vision will make available.

To be clear, what I mean by vision is simply how we, as God’s people, apply the biblical marks of the church within our local context. Staying united in this vision is therefore crucial. It can be tempting to leave such a vision behind if your church grows numerically. When such growth happens, it’s all too easy for pragmatism to creep in. People end up relying on “what works”—even if it means leaving the original vision by the wayside.

Healthy church-planting teams cultivate unity in the biblical vision they begin with, so that the “success” (or lack thereof) they experience doesn’t lead them down selfish paths of pragmatic pursuits.

2. Mission and Contribution

If it’s important to cultivate unity in diversity around the vision we’re heading toward, the same should apply to how we get there: namely, the mission.

Critical to any sports team’s success is their ability to execute, as a unit, on the game plan. It’s not enough for the players to merely know the plan; they must embrace it wholeheartedly.

When it comes to a core team in church planting, different members will have different levels of contribution.

That said, an effective team will cultivate the necessary levels of buy-in from its members. When it comes to a core team in church planting, different members will contribute at different levels. The contribution of the lead planter will look different from the young professional on call at work, which will in turn look different from the mother of four. Nevertheless, each of these people can work together for the sake of the church’s mission (evangelism and discipleship) at their diverse levels of capacity. Their buy-in is equal, but their contribution is different.

Cultivating buy-in for the mission, with healthy levels of expectation from each team member, accounts for the kind of “every-member ministry” rooted in a healthy understanding of the church as the body of Christ (1 Cor. 12:12–31).

3. Appreciation

There’s a difference between valuing what someone has to give and actually enjoying their contribution. The latter is what I mean by appreciation. It’s good to tell someone they’re needed; but do they also feel wanted?

Cultivating unity in diversity works toward ensuring that people feel appreciated as they labor for God’s glory.

If we let people know they’re loved and enjoyed—both for who they are and what they bring—they’re far more likely to contribute wholeheartedly over the long haul. Cultivating unity in diversity works toward ensuring that people feel appreciated as they labor for God’s glory.

No Guarantee

The diversity of gifting within church-planting teams doesn’t guarantee success. But we know that unity in diversity honors God, regardless of the results. How we cultivate it, then, matters immensely.

We can trust God to work through his Word and through his people in his world. May his Spirit empower us to cultivate unity in diversity within the teams we lead and serve with. This will surely benefit the churches we plant and the people we long to know and worship Christ.

All Christians Have the Same IQ. Let’s Start Using Them.

Tue, 10/15/2019 - 12:03am

As a junior in college, I was hit with a number of thought-provoking questions I’d never considered before as a non-Christian. On many occasions, I wished I’d been asked them earlier in my life instead of enduring the bad decisions, broken relationships, and pain I’d already experienced.

Those penetrating, life-changing questions weren’t the result of someone’s wit. No, all the questions that pierced my soul that year came directly from God’s Word after a teammate challenged me to read the Bible for the first time. Before long, I realized what a blessing it was that all Christians had the same IQ—that is, “inspired questions”—as me.

Inspired Questions

You can’t get to right answers until you have the right questions—and the greatest questions ever asked are inspired ones. The Bible alone stands as the source and storehouse of inspired questions. It asks questions we could never ask ourselves.

Indeed, a substantial portion of our Bible is questions, and asking questions was a primary teaching method of Jesus. To put this in perspective, Proverbs has approximately 930 sayings, and the New Testament contains about 980 questions.

You can’t get to the right answers until you have the right questions—and the greatest questions ever asked are inspired ones.

Of course, we find inspired questions throughout the whole Bible, not just in the New Testament. Satan approaches Eve with a question in the garden of Eden (Gen. 3:1). When the angel of the Lord first appears in the Bible, he asks a question (Gen. 16:8). When the witch of Endor conjures up Samuel from the dead, he immediately asks Saul questions (1 Sam. 28:15–16). When God finally speaks to Job, he addresses him with questions (Job 38–41). When the angel Gabriel appears in the Book of Daniel, he begins with a question (Dan. 8:13).

The importance of inspired questions is unquestionable.

Importance of Inspired Questions

Just as a doctor asks questions to diagnose our disease, God’s Word contains hundreds of X-ray-like questions for our soul. They can help us determine our spiritual state—urging us to change our focus, reorder our affections, and reprioritize our loves. They compel us to love God more fervently and selflessly, while weaning our hearts off the lies and lures of this world. They enable us to cope with adversity, demolish strongholds, and achieve what would otherwise be impossible—all through the gift of biblical wisdom. Inspired questions reveal our hearts in ways other methods cannot.

Through both personal experience and pastoral counseling, I can testify that meditating on inspired questions has radically changed my life and ministry. My marriage has been enhanced because of them, such as the ones posed in James 4:1. I’ve been able to handle more effectively several major issues in my church after wrestling with questions like Galatians 4:16. My counseling has benefited from questions like the one found in Luke 12:25. Indeed, there are many others: witnessing and missions via Romans 10:14; communion via 1 Corinthians 10:16; and parenting via Hebrews 12:7.

Inspired questions compel us to think through the implications ourselves. They coax us to slow down.

Granted, the questions are never just about finding answers. They’re always about advancing our understanding and strengthening our walk with the Lord and others. They draw our attention to God’s Son and to God’s work in this world. Biblical questions are designed to compel us to do more than just read them.

In other words, instead of just providing us with quick take-it-or-leave-it answers, inspired questions compel us to think through the implications ourselves. They coax us to slow down. We all too often forget how easily we can derail from the right path of life.

Ways to Engage Inspired Questions

For some of you, reading one inspired question a day as part of your time alone with God will work best. Others should consider interacting with the questions communally—discuss them as part of family worship or Bible studies with your church community. Still others may go through them with someone you’re discipling or with a person wrestling with the Christian faith—recalling that Jesus himself used many of these questions to engage others.

Whatever you decide, after you read each one, reflect. Sit there and ponder until it addresses you personally. Seek God, not the answer. For if you seek God, in accordance with his Word and by the guidance of his Spirit, you will discover the truth as it applies to you.

After you read and reflect, respond. Face the inspired questions with absolute honesty. Each one is for you, not just for the church and others.

Perhaps you might wish to journal as well. Consider one or more of these interactive ways to engage each question:

  • Paraphrase your understanding of the question(s) and reflect briefly.
  • Write one or two sentences on how you plan on applying it to your life.
  • Describe how someone you admire has applied the truth you gleaned.
  • Note what it means for your community and the body of Christ.
  • Write two lines of poetry based on the question.
  • Jot down what fruit of the Spirit is being displayed.
  • List an attribute of God that comes to mind and what that attribute means to you.
  • Summarize how it connects to your life and awakens you to the needs of others.

Amid all this, pray. Pray before, during, and after each inspired question. Spiritual growth is a spiritual matter. So pray that God makes this journey rich and that each day you will walk away from the time never quite being the same.

For the fruit of wrestling with these inspired questions will only come by living out the truths gleaned from them.

How the Gospel Confronts the Secular—and the Religious

Tue, 10/15/2019 - 12:02am

In what ways is the gospel unique?

That question opens section four of The Gospel Coalition’s Theological Vision for Ministry. If you’re going to call yourself The Gospel Coalition, you’d better explain why the gospel is such a big deal.

And I think that’s what this statement does. Compared to 10 years ago, I hear more talk about the gospel, and perhaps that’s evidence of this statement sinking in. But whether it’s popular or cliché in another 10 years to speak of gospel-centered ministry, that’s still what TGC will do, because that’s the whole point of our work. Let me quote from section four, since there is no greater privilege or motivation that this: “The gospel moves people to holiness and service out of grateful joy for grace, and out of love of the glory of God for who he is in himself.”

I’m joined on The Gospel Coalition Podcast by Phil Ryken, president of Wheaton College and a TGC Council member, to talk more about the gospel and what a difference it makes in our individual lives and in our churches. We’ll talk theology and application; plus I’ll find out if we’re being too hard on religion in this “spiritual but not religious” era.

Listen to this episode of The Gospel Coalition Podcast and check out other episodes in the series Why We Need Theological Vision.

An Underrated Key for a Fruitful Christian Life: A Rooted Life in a Place

Tue, 10/15/2019 - 12:00am

We’re a culture of loners, strangers, and exiles: people who have no clue where their home is. In the name of mobility—the ability to get a better education, better job, and better family—our culture has trained us to always look for “the next big thing.” And what has mobility cost us but stability? We’ve lost our sense of pride in the ordinary things of life, of loving our family and friends, and of being devoted to one another.

Bartholomew writes: “In our late-modern age we have lost that very human sense of place amidst the time-space compression characteristic of ‘postmodernity’ and globalization. Place has become something that one moves through, preferably at great speed, and virtual reality is no re-place-ment.”

Borrowing terminology from Wallace Stegner, the poet, essayist, and farmer Wendell Berry has written that there are two types of people in our world—boomers and stickers. Boomers are those who want to move up in the world; their desire is to win, consume, and move on to something bigger and better. The boomer is motivated by greed, power, and comfort. He has little to no need for relationship and community; he is the self-made man. He rushes through and past, under the guise of upward mobility and progress. American history is a biography of boomers.

We live in a crisis of place. We’re a culture of loners, strangers, and exiles: people who have no clue where their home is.

Stickers, on the other hand, find a place and stay. They build a life, settle within it, and commit themselves to their place. Stickers, writes Berry, “are motivated by affection, by such love for a place and its life that they want to preserve it and remain in it.” Not all stickers spend their lives in one place or pass their days sweating on idyllic farms, but they see their space as place, infused with meaning and the sense of home. Stickers remain, and try to leave things a little better than they found them.

For Berry, values of community and place are more than mere traditions; they represent an alternate vision of human flourishing that has become increasingly marginalized. In Berry’s vision, we’re less than human when we’re independent from others and responsible only to ourselves.

We have lived in a world run by boomers for a long time; but now more than ever, we must stop and listen to the stickers.

Let’s take it one step further. Place is more than just the memorable space we inhabit; it’s the full measure of circumstances in which we dwell. Unlike our infinite Creator, we are finite and restricted. He is omnipresent; we live within many limits.

Delightful Inheritance

Just as we’ve been created to dwell in a certain place, God has designed us to live within the boundary lines of our bodies. We’re both emplaced and embodied creatures, surrounded by fences on all sides. An enduring mark of spiritual maturity is the faculty to dwell within these fences. The quality of our relationships largely depends on our willingness to recognize and live within.

For example, I have a minor chronic illness that dictates how much time and energy I can spend. I can’t do all the things I used to, things other people can do. But if I try to live as though I don’t have a limited body, it won’t go well for me.

I also have the relational boundaries of one wife and three children. As a result, Jessie and I have safeguards to protect our marriage, and we don’t relate to all children like we relate to our own. Growth in Christ alone can enable me to say with King David:

LORD, you have assigned me my portion and my cup; You have made my lot secure. The boundary lines have fallen for me in pleasant places; Surely I have a delightful inheritance. (Ps. 16:5–6)

I have one portion, one cup, one lot. The boundary lines surround this one life and place. But like David, I can trust God is the one who has drawn those lines, who has determined my portion and cup. Everything within these fences—this body, this spouse, these children, this job, this neighborhood—has been given by him. This is my place.

And in faith, I want to be able to say, “The boundary lines have fallen in pleasant places. This is a delightful set of circumstances the Lord has entrusted to me.”

There is a real spiritual danger to being a boomer, constantly looking to a new and better place.

There is a real spiritual danger to being a boomer, constantly looking to a new and better place. I wish I had a different job; I wish I lived in Boston; I wish I didn’t have health issues; I wish we weren’t stuck at home with little kids every night.

This is a dangerous and sad way to be a Christian, and it’s a real threat to the whole church.

For there’s always going to be the lure of bigger, faster, better—bigger city, faster growth, better church.

Practices for a Rooted Life

So, we must ask, are there any practices or habits we can cultivate to enable a more deeply rooted life in our place? How can pastors and ministry leaders deepen their sense of place?

1. Question Upward Mobility

In a general sense, upward mobility is positive—the ability of a marginalized person or community to move into greater social and economic well-being. But in a world where upward mobility is the driving pursuit of even the most privileged groups, we’re wise to question it.

Upward mobility offers a promise of sorts: “Come here, leave behind your old relationships and limits, and find a space with great ambitions and no commitment.” The promise of freedom attracts us to wonder if a better version of ourselves might emerge in this new environment, and we might even—what is the phrase, again?—change the world.

The promise of a forgotten past and a fresh anonymity can be appealing to those running from Christ as well as those serving him in ministry.

The allure of upward mobility seems as prevalent in evangelical ministry as it does anywhere else. Urban church planting and ministry is critically important mission work, but we still need to carefully examine our motives. Are we clearly called to move, or are we following ambitious dreams and running from our given place? (The sure test of this calling seems to come in the difficult years, after the allure has worn off.)

Most of us, whether in the marketplace or vocational ministry, will have the greatest witness in the places where we have relationships and history, even though it requires accepting our place and staying in the story.

2. Put Down Roots

During a particularly dark season of life and ministry several years ago, my wife, Jessie, and I were sitting down with one of our mentors. He asked, “Remind me: where is home for you?” We both paused. “What do you mean?” I asked. “Where did I grow up? Or where do we go for holidays?” I thought it might be a gospel judo move where he would remind me of my heavenly citizenship.

Nope. He simply restated the question: “Where is home for you?”

We had no real answer. We could answer where we grew up, where we had started our marriage and family, and what neighborhood in the city we lived in. But where is home? We needed an answer. Thus, a new journey began, one that ended with us returning to Columbia, Missouri, to plant our lives, raise our children, and do ministry.

This stability—a love of place and commitment to it—is an essential element of ministry faithfulness. A friend of mine in college ministry told me his organization doesn’t expect to see significant measures of success in a new minister’s first two years. It takes at least that long, he explained, for a leader and group to get to know the university culture, build meaningful relationships, and see students come to Christ. But in year three, ministries often become fruitful. (It makes me think the average tenure of pastors and church staff should be longer than two or three years!)

Find out where home is, put down roots, and be patient.

3. Stay in the Story

At a recent pastors’ retreat, Scotty Smith urged us to remain planted in the grind of everyday, unspectacular pastoral ministry. He described a few situations in his decades-long ministry that were so difficult he was tempted to leave.

His advice was, as I remember it: “Stay in the story long enough to see a resurrection.”

Some people seem like they’ll never change; churches and ministries seem stuck. And yet it’s here, in the unexpected places, that our God often does his best work. As pastors and leaders plant seeds, Christ might be watering more than we see. It often takes decades of pastoral stability to witness the types of growth that matter most. Stay, wisdom calls aloud, and work patiently toward something great.

Live a Rooted Life

As for my wife and me, for probably the first time in our lives we’re living truly rooted lives in our place. We’re finally becoming aware of who we are and where we are. Although we have a lot to learn, the Lord has brought us to a beautifully satisfied place. This is where we are. This is our home, our place in the world.

May the Lord give us wisdom and patience for a wonderfully simple, deeply rooted life.

How Do I Manage My Staff with Humble Confidence?

Mon, 10/14/2019 - 12:04am

When managing others, how should I balance the important attribute of confidence (“I know this is what we should do and how we should get there”) with humility (“I need your insight on what we should do or how we should get there”)?

You ask a good question that applies to Christians in all spheres of influence. Let’s first look at the idea of confidence, then how it relates to serving with humility those you manage.

Confidence Misplaced

I want to offer a word of caution about self-confidence. While God wants you to manage your team with courage and proficiency, you must remember where your ability to do so ultimately lies. Your competence is not inherently your own; God’s grace provides you with every aspect of what you need to lead well.

Confidence for the Christian must not be based on what you can bring to the table, but on what Christ has already brought to you. He has guided your life, giving you work experiences that likely prepared you for this current role (Acts 17:25–26, 28). He placed you in your present leadership position (Rom. 13:1). He enabled you to learn and grow in managerial skills (1 Cor. 4:7). All of this is from him, so that your boast may be in the Lord and not yourself (1 Cor. 1:31).

As you lead, then, temper your confidence with humility that recognizes your own finiteness and fallibility. Create tasks and set deadlines for your team to the best of your ability, but with a heart that says, “If the Lord wills, we will live and do this or that” (James 4:13–17). This confidence in the Lord will naturally bring humility to your leadership, since you depend on him as you make managerial decisions.

Paradox of Christian Leadership

Christians are called to an odd paradox: lead others from a God-given position of authority, yet serve their needs above your own. It’s tricky because our fallenness tends to push our leadership toward dominance, superiority, or fear-based control—all of which are contrary to humility.

Jesus pointed out this tendency in the high-ranking leaders of his day. He rebuked the scribes and Pharisees for their hypocritical spiritual leadership, and he criticized the rulers of the Gentiles who lorded their power over the people and acted as tyrants (Matt. 23:1–36; 20:25).

But “elitism is not inherent to leadership,” James Hunter states in To Change the World. “Though the pretensions of influence and authority are ever-present, and the opportunities for hubris everywhere, there is a different way modeled on the leadership of Jesus who rejected status and its privileges.”

Jesus and Servant Leadership

Jesus perfectly embodied the paradox of servant leadership. There was no greater humiliation than the second person of the Godhead taking on flesh and becoming not just a man, but a servant of men who suffered a criminal’s death. This One, who could have clung to the privileges of deity, chose to lay down those advantages and sacrifice himself for the good of those he served (Phil 2:3–8). And this sacrificial, lay-your-life-down leadership is what he calls us to through the Spirit (Matt. 20:26–28; Col. 1:29).

Your competence is not inherently your own; God’s grace provides you with every aspect of what you need to lead well.

It’s interesting to note that Jesus’s followers never questioned his confidence or his humility. Both attributes were dynamically present in his leadership. They knew he was in charge, and they recognized how he humbled himself for them.

For example, he sent out the disciples with clear instructions to obey, which showed his authority. Yet his humility was so obvious as he washed their feet that Peter insisted Jesus not degrade himself by performing such a demeaning act (Luke 10:1–12; Mark 6:7–13; John 13:6–8).

Practical Ways to Humbly Lead Your Team

So ask God to give you specific ideas for how to serve your team. Here are a few options:

  1. Say thank you. When a staff member completes an assignment, these two simple words will speak dignity to them as image-bearers and validate the meaning of their work.
  2. Actually serve them. Find tangible ways to meet their needs, whether that’s helping carry supplies for an upcoming event or grabbing their print pieces from the copier.
  3. Take them to lunch. And don’t talk about work. Get to know them on a personal level, so they know you care about them beyond how their work benefits you in the office.
  4. Sacrifice for them. Willingly take the worst shift on a time-sensitive project. Choose their ideas rather than your own. Solicit critique. Receive interruptions gladly. Reject privilege by keeping the same (or more) office hours as they do.
  5. Invite them into your home. Host the team’s annual Christmas party or provide lunch at your house for an important brainstorming meeting.

I pray the Spirit empowers you to manage and serve your team in a way that reflects the humility and love of Jesus.

Religious Liberty Is Originally a Christian Idea

Mon, 10/14/2019 - 12:03am

A poll taken earlier this year by Barna Research found that that 55 percent of Americans strongly agree with this statement: “True religious freedom means that all citizens must have freedom of conscience, which means being able to believe and practice the core commitments and values of your faith.” While still a majority opinion, this is a decline from just five years ago, when 69 percent agreed. Surprisingly, the percentage of believing Christians who disagree with the definition tripled.

Such declining support for religious freedom is dispiriting when you consider that Christians invented the concept.

Esteemed historian Robert Louis Wilken’s new book, Liberty in the Things of God: The Christian Origins of Religious Freedom—“the most important book on religious liberty to appear in decades,” according to Al Mohler—reminds us that the concept wasn’t the work of the Enlightenment, as many wrongly suppose, but of the early and medieval Christian church. Rather than providing a complete intellectual history of religious freedom, Wilken presents a compelling historical essay outlining the key developments of this most basic human right. In less than 200 pages, he persuasively argues that religious freedom wasn’t born out of secular skepticism, but was an outgrowth of the Christian tradition.

From Tertullian to Penn

Wilken’s primary thesis is based on a trio of themes: (1) religious belief is an inner conviction accountable to God alone and resistant to compulsion, (2) conscience is a form of spiritual knowledge that carries an obligation to act, and (3) human society is governed by two powers, God and the state. This last point has remained the most contentious, as our duties to God often conflict with the obligations the state believes we owe.

Wilken focuses primarily on the 16th century, since this was when the line between temporal and spiritual authority began to become more pronounced. There was also a shift in emphasis toward religious toleration, which Wilkin defines as a political policy of restraint toward those whose beliefs and practices are objectionable. Toleration, however, isn’t the same as religious freedom. Toleration is given by the state, whereas religious freedom is given to us by God. “I wish to show how Christian thinkers came to consider religious freedom, or liberty of conscience,” Wilken says, “a natural right that belongs to all human beings, not an accommodation granted by ruling authorities” (5).

Beginning in the third century with the church father Tertullian—who coined the phrase “freedom of religion”—and ending with the 17th-century Quaker William Penn, Wilkin traces the development of religious freedom from the Roman Empire to colonial-era America. Along the way he shows how the rise of religious freedom changed along with the “emergence of a new understanding of ‘church’” (182). As church membership increasingly became a matter of choice, the focus of religious freedom shifted from the community to the individual.

Calvin Stumbles Toward Liberty

But the recognition that humans have an intrinsic right to religious freedom did not come suddenly. Before, during, and after the Reformation, Christians struggled to reconcile the inherent tension between protecting orthodoxy and allowing individual liberty. A prime example of a believer who attempted—and failed—to square this circle was the Swiss reformer John Calvin.

“Man is under a twofold government,” Calvin wrote. The spiritual government pertains to the “life of the soul,” and the temporal government to “outward behavior” including such areas as public safety, the provision of food and shelter, and other concerns of our earthly life. People are therefore subjects of “two worlds, over which different kings and different laws have authority.” Yet even while drawing such a distinction between the two realms, Calvin gave the temporal government (in his day, the city magistrates) the power and authority to enforce the public manifestation of religion.

Wrestling with the writing of Paul, Calvin also developed the idea of the individual conscience. While some laws—including matters of religion—were rightly the province of the civil magistrates, spiritual matters were a matter of conscience, an inner space reserved for God in which other men could not intrude. Summarizing Calvin’s view, Wilken says:

In temporal matters Christians are subject to civil authority, but in matters of faith they are subject only to God. At the same time, he believed that a publicly supported church was necessary for civil peace. . . . This tension in his thought would bedevil later thinkers. (71)

Calvin would be criticized, in his own day and now, for not following his own logic on the freedom of individual conscience in the execution of the heretic Servetus. Yet despite his own flaws, Calvin planted a seed from which freedom would bloom. As Wilken notes, Calvin’s “interpretation of the two realms and of conscience in the Institutes gave later advocates of religious freedom the theological tools to meet new challenges” (77).

Helpful Reminder

Because of the book’s narrow scope, Wilken necessarily leaves unaddressed many important areas of church history. For example, the book focuses almost exclusively on religious freedom in Europe in the 16th and 17th centuries, eliding over much that occurred on other continents and in later eras. And while Wilken shows no obvious bias toward any particular tradition (he’s a former Lutheran turned Roman Catholic) he doesn’t cover the role of Baptists in as much detail as they warrant (or as a modern Baptist like myself might wish).

Despite these limitations, though, Wilken squeezes an abundance of material into a relatively brief book. Liberty in the Things of God isn’t the last word on this important topic, but it’s a helpful primer on how the concept of religious freedom originated and developed. Wilken’s book is also an important reminder that Christians have a duty to preserve this right handed down by our Creator to every human.

Menopause and Hope Deferred

Mon, 10/14/2019 - 12:02am

When the symptoms of perimenopause began in my mid-40s, I researched the impending change to my body. I pored over articles and blog posts. I listened intently at gatherings of women as friends and coworkers talked of their menopausal experiences.

The information, whether secular or Christian, generally fell into two camps. One group celebrated the end of monthly periods and the sexual freedom that came from no longer having to fear unplanned pregnancy. The other group grieved their perceived loss of femininity and their emptying nests, as menopause hit when their children were entering high school or college and moving on.

In the thousands of words I absorbed, I never once saw a reference to single women.

I am 58 years old, never married, and childless. Information about menopause presumes a woman is sexually active and, if she is a believer, married. But menopause occurs by virtue of biology and gender, not according to marital status.

Menopause Feels Like Death

While single women may experience the same physical symptoms ­such as mood swings, brain fog, and hot flashes, there’s an emotional and spiritual component unique to us. At menopause, a woman’s fertility ceases. She will never have any more biological children. For women like me, we will never have any children. Since there is no marriage or childbearing in the next life (Matt. 22:30), that never is really never ever. Not for all eternity.

No one really knows what the new heaven and the new earth will look like, though God’s Word gives us hints. To be honest, though, because many of the examples relate to marriage and childbirth, I’m often puzzled and feel left out. Psalm 113:9 says, “He gives the barren woman a home, making her the joyous mother of children”—but I don’t know if I’m barren. I’ve never had opportunity to find out.

In Romans 8:22 Paul describes the deliverance from present trials to coming glory using a childbirth metaphor. Men who’ve witnessed the birth of their children have a better understanding of this verse than I do.

“Heaven is not the absence of longing but its fulfillment,” Randy Alcorn writes. “Heaven is not the absence of itches; it is the satisfying scratch for every itch.” But the Bible explicitly says the very thing I long for—marriage and children—will not exist in heaven. So, I’m confused. Just how will that itch be scratched?

Walking this particular portion of the valley of the shadow of death is a little darker for me. I keep tripping.

Menopause Births Hope

But I’m not the only one mystified by the ways of God. After the death of Lazarus, Martha meets Jesus and tells him that, had he come before Lazarus died, he could have healed him. She also affirms that, despite her brother’s death, she still believes Jesus has God’s ear.

“Your brother will rise again,” Jesus tells her (John 11:23). He’s speaking in definite terms, making a promise. A promise Martha does not doubt. She answers, “I know that he will rise again in the resurrection on the last day” (John 11:24).

Martha had knowledge. She had faith. Nonetheless, she was wrong—or maybe her knowledge was just incomplete. Jesus didn’t wait until the last day to reunite her with Lazarus. He raised him from the dead almost immediately. Based on her knowledge and understanding, Martha expected one outcome; Jesus had something different and far better than she could imagine.

I grieve the loss of something I’ve never had, and it is genuine, valid grief. But I don’t grieve as one without hope. In fact, through the grieving process, my hope in the promise of the gospel has been refined and expanded.

As the expectation of marriage has dimmed, the promise of Jesus as my Bridegroom has grown clearer. As the prospect of ever bearing children ceased, his promise—“For the sons of the desolate one will be more numerous than the sons of the married woman” (Isa. 54:1)—rings truer.

Like Martha, I had my own idea of how the desires of my heart would turn out. The God of all goodness had different plans. My longing remains, but because of his faithfulness in the past and present, I know his purposes will be far better than I ever imagined.

As I endured night sweats and mood swings, knowing that my fertility was dying within me, I was renewed in hope. In the next life, I’m confident I’ll see that my empty ring finger and empty womb will not have been for nothing.


‘The Slugs and Bugs Show’ Is Quality Entertainment for Children

Mon, 10/14/2019 - 12:00am

As a mom, I want the entertainment my children consume to be both truthful (it should say what is real) and inspirational (it should say what is possible and what we should strive for). 

Sadly, much of what is offered to kids, especially on TV, falls far short of this ideal. Either a show doesn’t tell the truth about actions and consequences, or it inspires kids to aim for lesser, emptier, worldlier goals. Parents are portrayed as dumb. Kids are sneaky. Families aren’t friends with one another. The idea of romance and “having a crush” is introduced far too early and is central to the characters’ everyday lives.

But some resources that swim against the tide. One consistent contributor to our family has been Randall Goodgame of Slugs and Bugs music. From the time they were small, my children could be “reset,” seemingly by magic, by this music. Perhaps more miraculously, a work could happen in my own heart as well. Goodgame’s kind, easy manner, the biblical lyrics, and the musical excellence combined to help us wage war against the selfishness that rears its head so easily in families.

From the time they were small, my children could be ‘reset,’ seemingly by magic, by this music.

Now Goodgame has translated that same humble and kind approach to the small screen. The Slugs and Bugs Show tells the truth and tells what is possible—and does so in a humble way.

How Does the Show Tell a Better Story?

It’s no surprise to me that there’s been a recent return to shows like Mr. Rogers’ Neighborhood. I grew up watching Fred Rogers daily; I remember the slow, easy, conversational nature of the show and how the host invited his young viewers into the topic of the day. Mr. Rogers rose above the din of silly cartoons and talked to you effortlessly about how crayons are made and why your friend with dark skin is worthy of respect and love. There was an intentional slowness and courtesy to his speech that dignified whomever he spoke to—most often the viewer. It was clear that he knew children could understand and process important matters, even at a young age.

What I love about both The Slugs and Bugs Show and Mr. Rogers is that they give children credit for understanding. They assume that kids can comprehend complicated ideas. So often our culture talks down to kids and hides complex stories, when in fact children can navigate (yes, with a trusted adult’s help) deeper waters. Goodgame expresses this assumption as telling the whole story: “If you’re going to tell a story, you should tell the whole story, even if it’s at shallow depths.”

The Slugs and Bugs Show tells the truth, tells what is possible, and does so in a humble way.

One example of how The Slugs and Bugs Show explores deeper ideas at a healthy level for children is the episode covering adoption. Adoption is a story that plays out in many families’ lives as a mingling of joy and grief. While there is much joy at the discovery of a new home and family, the original, profound loss of a child’s birth parents is also part of the story.  At one point in the episode, an adopted child expresses her grief: “Is it weird that I miss [my birth parents] even though I never knew them?” This episode exemplifies how children can be equipped to handle a hard topic with tender skill.

The Slugs and Bugs Show is also inspirational. Goodgame addresses the show’s other characters with earnest kindness. The universe of this show is one in which it’s okay to ask questions, have doubts, and be sad. Goodgame and his steady parade of guest stars (including Andrew Peterson, Sally Lloyd-Jones, Russell Moore, Jason Eskridge, and many others) dignify the younger characters on the show by talking easily and humbly with them.

Silliness Means Humility

A recurring theme in the Slugs and Bugs franchise is the idea that it’s okay to be silly—in fact, it might be spiritually healthy to be silly. Being able to laugh at a silly circumstance, even at yourself, is a good antidote to pride. When we’re thinking too highly of ourselves to see how ridiculous we might be, we’re in a bad spot.

One of my kids’ favorite features of the music and the show is that Goodgame occasionally picks up on Bible verses that are a little bit funny. For example, the Old Testament law, especially in the King James Version, refers to strangers as “aliens.” To a kid today, that word has an entirely different meaning—one that might include spaceships or little green men! Goodgame, with the help of Sally Lloyd-Jones, explains the word to his young audience, while still giving them the opportunity to sing at the top of their lungs about aliens. That’s a skillful dispatch of silliness. It’s funny, while still giving the Bible the respect it deserves.

A recurring theme in the Slugs and Bugs franchise is the idea that it’s okay to be silly—in fact, that it might be spiritually healthy to be silly.

One appeal of shows like The Office and Parks and Recreation is the inane situations the characters get themselves into. Viewers can see themselves; the challenges portrayed are common to man. If we can laugh at the characters, hopefully we can laugh at ourselves too. Parents will see this brand of clever humor in The Slugs and Bugs Show. There are talking heads, offering us a little more insight into what Doug the Slug thought about a particular situation. These asides were a highlight for our family. They’re downright funny and even made my teenage sons laugh out loud.

Goodgame’s music is the centerpiece of the show, and as always, it’s done with excellence. He had a long career writing for adults before he began the Slugs and Bugs franchise, both as a solo artist and also a writer for Caedmon’s Call. The music in the show isn’t your typical cutesy—can I say annoying?—music composed for children. If you look carefully, you’ll see some of Nashville’s finest musicians helping out with the music: Buddy Greene, Ben Shive, Jeff Taylor, and others. 

As a mom, I’m thankful for the example set by Randall Goodgame in this TV show. Not only does he dignify children by speaking the truth to them, but he’s also made a quality show from beginning to end. It’s clear from the content and method of the show that Goodgame believes the youngest among us are still worthy of our best efforts. Shows like The Slugs and Bugs Show have the potential to “train our palates”: to help both us and our children desire the right things, done well.

For Childhood Fears, Bible Memory Is Not Enough

Sun, 10/13/2019 - 12:02am

One night when I was about 7, I was convinced there were snakes in my bed. Mom! Dad! Snakes! Help! I yelled. When they appeared, they started to pull back the covers, which I knew would reveal the terrifying creatures lurking near my feet. But with the light on and the covers removed, I could see what was there. To my relief, there wasn’t a snake in sight.

My parents could have simply come to my bedside and, in the dimness of the nightlight, told me not to be scared: “Don’t worry, there are no snakes in your bed.” Or they could have brought the Lord into our midnight conversation: “Don’t be afraid; trust the Lord. You’ll be just fine.” Or they could have said: “Remember our memory verse: ‘When I am afraid, I will trust in you’” (Ps. 56:3).

But thankfully, Mom and Dad’s plan included something more: a physical inspection to prove I was safe.

Why does the “turn on the light and inspect the room” approach work when a more directly biblical approach (“Do not fear”) seems less effective? After all, the command to not be afraid, occurring 365 times in Scripture, is the most frequently repeated instruction in the entire Bible. Why does “show” appear to be more effective than “tell”?

Know What’s Real

In part, the answer is that fear runs on imagination. What’s that shadow over there? What if it’s a lion? Maybe that shadow is a lion! When fear grabs the wheel of the imagination, your body comes along for the ride.

The heart revs its engine, sugar levels spike, the adrenal gland pumps epinephrine into the bloodstream, and muscles are primed with nutrient- and oxygen-enriched blood. Just try telling this coiled spring of terrified energy to simply calm down! The body is responding to cues that the mind and imagination insist are real.

And this is where God’s Word lights the way forward. While the command “Do not fear” appears throughout Scripture, it rarely appears alone. Consider, for example, Isaiah 41:10: “Do not fear, for I am with you; do not be afraid, for I am your God. I will strengthen you; I will help you; I will hold on to you with my righteous right hand” (CSB).

This verse contains two of the 365 “don’t fear” commands. But the rest of the verse doesn’t direct; it informs. It doesn’t merely tell you what to feel, but also what is real. The Almighty says:

  • I am with you.
  • I am your God.
  • I will help you.
  • I will hold you.

This is the Bible’s equivalent of flipping on the light and looking under the covers. Here, my frightened child, is what is actually true in this world.

Did you notice how God doesn’t just speak to the mind, but also to the imagination? Half of these “reality” statements reflect what is—what’s true at that very moment (God is “with you” and is “your God”). But the other half is about what will be—what’s yet unknown, what might happen in the future. This is the realm of the imagination.

The Bible is full of such flip-on-the-light reality checks. Here’s just a sampling:

  • God is our shepherd, guiding and guarding us even in the darkest valley (Ps. 23).
  • God has promised to be with us always (Matt. 28:20).
  • He can see perfectly even at nighttime—darkness is like light to him (Ps. 139:12).
  • Nothing is too hard for him (Jer. 32:17).
Turn on the Lights

Now, some might conclude: That’s what our kids need—Bible memory! We’ll memorize verses like these as a family. That way our kids can recite them when they’re afraid (and hopefully we can get some sleep!).

But Bible verses aren’t like magic spells, banishing fear back under the bed. Somehow we’ve come to think of verses like incantations to be repeated over and over until magically they do their work on us. Like the glow of a nightlight, this approach will have some good effects. But there’s a better way.

Remember that, in his Word, God is telling us what is real. He’s informing us about the actual contours of reality. As parents, then, we want the truths of God’s Word—like the ones recounted above—to shape the mind and guide the imagination according to what is real.

So when you hear the midnight call—“I’m scared!”—keep these helps in mind:

  1. You may want to turn on the light in that room and let your child look around and see that all is well—no monsters, burglars, bugs, or snakes (hopefully).
  2. As you speak to your child, don’t just remind them of the command to not fear; give them reasons why they need not fear. What is actually true about God?
  3. To do this, you’ll want to work with your child in advance on some specific verses, like Isaiah 41:10. Don’t just work for memorization, but for understanding.

As parents, let’s turn on all the lights the Lord has provided, and let’s help our kids live and thrive in the good reality of our great God.