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3 Ways to Help Muslims Understand the Cross

Sat, 07/27/2019 - 12:00am

Those familiar with Islam know that the Christian-Muslim dialogue of last 1,400 years has centered in part on a debate over the historical question, “Did Jesus really die on a cross?” The Qur’an (Surat al-Nisa’ [4]:157) implies he did not, while the Bible ties the gospel directly to Jesus’s death, burial, and resurrection (1 Cor. 15:3–5). Since sharing the gospel requires a Christian to speak of Jesus’s death, this point of contention is unavoidable.

Though the historical question of Jesus’s death is undeniably central, when it becomes the center of debate it obscures an underlying theological question: “Why did Jesus die on the cross?” The logic of Jesus’s atoning sacrifice is rooted in the Old Testament book of Leviticus as the author of Hebrews demonstrates.

Indeed, neglecting the Old Testament sacrificial system may lead our Muslim friends to misunderstand our commitment to Jesus’s atoning death in at least three areas.

1. Atonement Has a Different Meaning

The first misunderstanding that arises is linguistic. The Qur’an uses the word kaffāra to describe expiation of sins. However, this word also appears in the Arabic Bible as the translation of the Hebrew word for atonement kipper from which we get Yom Kippur, Day of Atonement. In the Bible, atonement involves a priest functioning as a representative, a substitutionary sacrifice, and blood presented before God as a symbol of life. The result of atonement is forgiveness of sin and cleansing of impurity.

In the Qur’an, however, God is the agent of atonement instead of a priest. Further, God excuses or covers sin in response to human piety, good deeds, or repentance of evil actions. In Islam, there’s no need for a priest or a substitutionary sacrifice to obtain forgiveness or cleansing. Though the word kaffara is used in both holy texts, its meaning is vastly different.

2. The Sacrifice Has a Different Purpose

The Qur’an has a place for sacrifice. Muslims all over the world participate in an annual animal sacrifice in commemoration of Abraham and his son’s willing submission to God (Surat al-Saffat [37]:99–111). While most Muslims view this as a reminder to imitate the faith of Abraham, the Qur’an views sacrifice as a ritual given by God to authenticate each community of faith (Surat al-Hajj [22]:34–67).

For Islam, then, the annual sacrifice is a claim to both precede and supersede Judaism and Christianity. This claim appears in Surat al-‘Imran (3):67, which states that Abraham was neither a Jew nor a Christian, but a Muslim. Rather than providing a means of atonement, then, sacrifice serves to identify a Muslim as a member of the Islamic tradition and to establish the Islamic faith as the final dispensation of religion.

3. The Same Characters Tell a Different Story

With such different views on atonement and sacrifice, it’s easy to see why it’s so difficult to explain Jesus’s atoning death and resurrection to a Muslim. Perhaps the biggest reason for this difficulty is that, in Islam, atonement and sacrifice play roles in a wholly different understanding of the story of God’s relationship with creation. Islam is not concerned with telling people how they might restore their relationship with God. Rather, it’s concerned with reminding people how to behave before God.

The Qur’an presents life as a test to see whether people will submit to God, follow his guidance, and remember his ways. God can remain transcendent and aloof because creation can never enter into an intimate relationship with its Creator. The Qur’an prescribes ways to clean oneself and ways to ask for forgiveness for misdeeds. A person will be judged in the last days based on works they have performed in their life. Therefore, for a Muslim, the idea that a man’s execution on a first-century Roman cross would result in a right relationship with God is preposterous and totally disconnected from Islamic ideas of atonement.

Where Do We Start?

These three barriers make it difficult to communicate the Christian understanding of atonement to adherents of Islam. However, the message of the Bible as it pertains to all three issues—atonement, sacrifice, and story—is more satisfying, more unified, and more attractive. In Christianity, God has created in order to share himself with his creation.

The message of the Bible as it pertains to all three issues—atonement, sacrifice, and story—is more satisfying, more unified, and more attractive.

He repeatedly states his purposes in creating a people who will be called by his name and in whose midst he will take up residence. The book of Leviticus (especially chapters 16–17) catalogues the provision God makes so his holy, pure, and righteous presence might reside in the camp of a sinful, impure, and unrighteous people. Conditioned by this Levitical understanding, the author of Hebrews views Jesus as the high priest to which the Levitical priests pointed, and the once-for-all sacrifice that previous sacrifices anticipated.

In light of these three barriers, Hebrews is a perfect starting place to better understand why Christians put such a high value on Jesus’s sacrifice and priestly role. Inviting a Muslim friend to study Hebrews allows the Bible to define atonement and shows the purpose of sacrifice as it pertains to forgiveness and purification. Hebrews tells the story of a God who, long before the incarnation, purposed to dwell among his people.

While the conflict between Christianity and Islam will still remain at the theological level, my prayer is that the Holy Spirit will work through the Scriptures to define atonement and set sacrifice in its proper place within the story of God’s redeeming purposes. That story of redemption is more satisfying than any other story on offer.

Learning from Jesus on Justice

Fri, 07/26/2019 - 12:04am

“Folks in our church have got to stop taking cues from the culture and instead be led by the Spirit. And here’s what I mean: It’s like the culture continues to move the end zone, continues to move the goalposts, continues to dictate and care. And so many people derive their identity and their goodness based on how much they care about particular issue when, in fact, our identity is hidden in the person and work of Christ and what he’s done on our behalf. All our activism must flow from that. If our activism is issue-driven, then we’ll fall into the same camp, where we will only chase after the issues, but not after the hearts of people.” — Jason Cook

Date: April 2, 2019

Event: TGC 2019 National Conference, Indianapolis, Indiana

Listen to this episode of The Gospel Coalition Podcast or watch a video.


Find more audio and video from the 2019 National Conference on the conference media page.

Don’t Be Embarrassed by the Doctrine of Sin

Fri, 07/26/2019 - 12:03am

Christians believe confessing our sin is fundamental not only to receive grace but also to appreciate the beauty and kindness of our Savior. Yet today, we’re also increasingly embarrassed to tell people they’re sinners. We shift in our pews when we hear sermons on Genesis 5 or Jeremiah 17:9. We wonder what visitors think, and wish the preacher wouldn’t be so negative. Those of us who have a corporate prayer of confession in our church gatherings wonder if this isn’t a little too anti­-church growth.

Cornelius Plantinga’s Not the Way It’s Supposed to Be: A Breviary of Sin isn’t that old. But the quarter-century between its publication and now is sufficient to validate Plantinga’s concern over the decline of the category of “sin” in the public consciousness. Christians embarrassed about the doctrine have lost their ability to explain what’s wrong with the world, and thus exactly what the good news of Jesus Christ announces. As Plantinga warned, “To ignore, euphemize, or otherwise mute the lethal reality of sin is to cut the nerve of the gospel” (199).

Niceness ≠ Goodness

The consequences of minimizing the scriptural view of sin show themselves in the rising confusions around morality within and without the church. Evangelicals today wrestle with many historic Christian doctrines: the exclusivity of the gospel, the reality of hell, the sinfulness of homosexuality, just to mention the top of the charts. We agonize over the historic beliefs of the church in large part because we haven’t considered the great weight of sin.

Christians embarrassed about the doctrine of sin have lost their ability to explain what’s wrong with the world, and thus exactly what the good news of Jesus Christ announces.

Without a robust doctrine of sin, we’ve fostered a morality that equates niceness with goodness. So Christians are flabbergasted when they meet a practicing homosexual who is a nice neighbor. How can you say Jim is wicked when he takes your grandma’s trash out to the curb for her every week?

Without a robust doctrine of sin, we’re left only with categories of good people and bad people. And when we ignore talking about sin in polite company, we undermine our ability to see sinners as redeemable and underestimate the transforming power of grace. Bad eggs are only good for throwing out.

Irredeemable Sinners

Nothing demonstrates our cultural inability to see sinners as redeemable like our online society, which seems even less interested in fair treatment than a Monty Python-style witch trial. For example, the young-adult-novel industry is eating its young because any portrayal of minority characters as morally flawed is interpreted as teaching bigotry.

If you think this is just a secular problem as people withdraw from their Judeo-Christian heritage, take a quick look at how any pastor accused of scandal is treated online. Not everyone accused is innocent, and public rebuke is appropriate for public figures. But the way we’ve treated those leaders we perceive to be in the wrong seems to convey that, deep down, we believe that for a leader to fail morally disqualifies them not only from church leadership, but also from the fraternity of humanity. If that sounds like an exaggeration on my part, just ask the children of any fallen leader.

None of this is to say that a robust doctrine of sin will make the world a better place. But it will equip us to understand why nothing in the world seems to be the way it should. The world can’t be divided into heroes who always do right for the right reasons, and villains who always do wrong for the wrong reasons. Even the greatest heroes are often villains.

What’s the Biggest Problem with Sin?

Plantinga’s book predicted what would happen when the church stopped speaking clearly about sin. It also illustrates the manifold ways that sin affects our lives. Yet for all that, I finished feeling as though I had eaten a wonderful array of appetizers, but never the main course. Plantinga portrays what sin does to us, but he only occasionally alludes to what sin does to our relationship with God.

The only way we can rightly understand what sin is depends on seeing it as a rejection of God and his authority.

But the only way we can rightly understand sin is when we see it as a rejection of God. This may not be sin’s most easily perceived cost, but even that difficulty points to the way sin dulls our perception. All people can acknowledge that the world isn’t as it should be. Only Christians, though, can explain that the problem underlying all the others is even worse, and in even more desperate need of redress: namely, separation from God. Only Christians can look to heaven and confess, “Against you, you only, have I sinned” (Ps. 51:4). This lack of attention to the offense of sin being chiefly against God’s own person hinders this useful book from properly describing the problem at hand. Plantinga’s definition of sin misses the mark because it is insufficiently vertical.

Entertaining, Empty Faith

My critical comments notwithstanding, this book is well worth reading and pondering. Plantinga writes theology beautifully.

The news these days is littered with increasing confusions rooted in a neglect of sin. Even in many churches, the implicit message is exactly what Plantinga warns against: a faith removed from repentance and lament, able to offer only “celebration and fun and personal growth and five ways to boost my self esteem. And especially . . . entertainment” (193). We would do well to listen to the careful reflections of an older, wiser brother on the issue.

In such days, I imagine our brother Cornelius is barely able to refrain from saying, “I told you so,” for sin is indeed ever crouching at the door.

4 Ways to Help a Christian Friend with an Eating Disorder

Fri, 07/26/2019 - 12:02am

It was my sophomore year of high school, and I was sitting with my cross-country team listening to the older girls compare fat grams in bagel brands. Little did I know how influential that conversation, and many more like it, would become in my life. Add to that the billboards, magazines, and other media that boasted model-thin women all around me, and I bought into the lie: “I have to look like ‘her’ in order to be beautiful.”

At the same time, I was playing basketball. The coach attempted to motivate us to play better and harder with harsh words and actions, and I began to believe another lie: “My worth is based on my outward performance.” This led me to inflict punishment on myself—if I didn’t live up to my coach’s expectations, then I didn’t deserve to eat.

These twin themes of appearance and achievement are at the heart of many women’s search for beauty and worth.

Freeing Truth

Thankfully, the gospel teaches us that our worth isn’t based on our outward appearance, but on the person and work of Jesus Christ. And our worth isn’t based on our outward performance, but on the perfect performance of Christ on our behalf.

For me, knowing these truths was tremendously freeing. I didn’t have to be thin and fit to be loved. I didn’t have to perform perfectly to be accepted. I am beautiful, loved, and accepted in Christ.

But I didn’t learn these truths alone. Others came alongside me and helped pull me out of the pit of an addiction to thinness and fitness. My nutritionist told me how many pounds I needed to gain to be at a healthy weight and gave me tips for normal eating. My mentor patiently led me through a study on the idols of the heart. And my Christian friends prayed for me and encouraged me to battle the lies I was so prone to believe.

Perhaps you know a friend or a loved one who needs to be rescued from lies she’s believed that have contributed to an eating disorder. In some cases, she may have already acknowledged her struggle. In other cases, she may not yet realize she’s enslaved to these lies, and you may be just the person the Lord uses to open her eyes to truth. Here are four ways you can help.

1. Pray for Her

We should spend more time on our knees pleading with the Lord to rescue our friend than we spend pleading with her to stop her destructive behaviors. Our hope is not in a person’s ability to change, but in Christ who changes the person.

2. Proclaim the Gospel to Her Often

Your friend doesn’t need a pep talk, or an article about 10 steps to freedom from an eating disorder, or for you to constantly tell her she’s beautiful; instead, she needs to be saturated with the gospel of Christ. She needs to be lovingly confronted with the fact that she primarily has a worship disorder and is a sinner in desperate need of a Savior. She needs to be gently challenged to love Christ more than appearance and achievements. She needs to be encouraged to dethrone these desires and put Christ alone on the throne of her heart.

Above all, she needs to be comforted with the truth that Jesus has been perfect for her and has taken God’s wrath in her place. There is no condemnation for those who are in Christ Jesus (Rom. 8:1). Regardless of how messy her circumstances, your friend needs you to remind her often that Jesus loves her and wants to free her from her addiction. A good way to do this is to take your friend to church with you. Invest in her life, invite her to hear truth, and then talk about it with her, applying it to her challenges. Change comes in the context of community. Your friend will want to isolate herself; you must move toward her in love.

3. Practice Good Listening

As you converse with your friend, listen carefully to the lies she’s battling. Write them down and then counter them with the truth of God’s Word. Also, pinpoint the suffering your friend has endured that has been a contributing factor in her eating disorder. Listen to her share the pain she’s experienced with a compassionate ear, and encourage her to process that pain in a healthy way.

4. Practice Good Eating and Exercise Habits with Her

Your friend has forgotten what it means to eat and exercise normally. Model that for her and invite her to engage in it with you. This may require great patience on your part, and your invitation may be met with resistance for a long time, but don’t give up on her. Gospel-centered friendships are grounded in God’s love, and love is both patient and kind. Over lunch or a walk in the park, you can bear with one another and point each other to Christ. This requires you to recognize you have opportunities to learn from your friend, even while she is struggling. Ask her to pray for you and speak into your own battles with sin. By doing so, you encourage an interdependent relationship grounded in the hope of the gospel.

Even though I’m no longer addicted to thinness and fitness, I know my flesh is weak. I know I’m still prone to believe lies about appearance and achievement. By the power of the Holy Spirit at work within me, I struggle less than I did in my teens and early 20s, but I still struggle. That’s why I continue to be grateful for the church, where I’m not isolated and alone but known and loved.

Be that loving community for your friend who has an eating disorder. By committing to pray for her and proclaim the gospel to her, and inviting her to do the same for you, you create a safe relationship for her to grow in godliness, by the power of God’s Spirit at work within her.

In My Desperation, Jesus Is More Than Enough

Fri, 07/26/2019 - 12:00am

I walked up the front steps of our duplex, pretending that everything was okay. I didn’t want my mother to know what had just happened; it was too humiliating to talk about. But as we sat at the kitchen table, I kept thinking back to the afternoon and how excited I had been to walk home from school by myself. I was so focused on not falling that I hadn’t noticed the group of boys sneaking up behind until they started yelling “Cripple!” and throwing stones at my back. One of them pushed me, and I fell to the ground; the boys immediately scattered. No one bothered to see if I was hurt. I waited for a few minutes to see if anyone would help me, but when no one came, I pulled myself up on a nearby rock and trudged home. 

I was 7.

From that moment on, I decided that life wasn’t fair. And I was right. Classmates bullied me throughout elementary school—mocking me, imitating my pronounced limp, making me feel like a freak. But I didn’t tell my family. What was the point? They couldn’t stop the bullying anyway. This was God’s fault, if he even existed.

The teasing continued until high school, when I finally felt accepted. People thought I was brave and sweet; they had no idea how angry I was inside. I acted as though I had faith, since I grew up going to church. But God meant nothing to me. I thought everyone was just pretending, that no one really read the Bible or prayed in private. So I was surprised when in high school I went to a meeting of the Fellowship of Christian Athletes (FCA) and heard a classmate talk about her faith in a genuine way. Her father had just died. Yet somehow she felt an inexplicable closeness to God. Jesus was real to her.

For months, her story haunted me. And when a close friend also became a Christian, I knew I needed to rethink my lack of belief. But I still wondered, If God it is so good, then why am I handicapped?

Meeting Jesus

I was pondering this thought one night as I lay in bed and finally said aloud, “God, if you are real, please show me.” The next morning, I woke up and uncharacteristically opened the Bible. I flipped randomly until I landed on John 9 and began reading. “As he passed by, he saw a man blind from birth. His disciples asked him, ‘Rabbi, who sinned, this man or his parents that he was born blind?’”

The passage had my attention. The disciples’ question seemed similar to the ones I had heard growing up. Why did I walk that way? What happened to me? What had I done wrong? Their questions were coupled with my own: What had I done to deserve this suffering? 

Jesus’s answer to the disciples stunned me. “It was not that this man sinned, or his parents, but that the works of God might be displayed in him.” Jesus recognized that the blind man’s condition wasn’t his fault. Rather than condemn him, Jesus honored and dignified him. This blind man’s suffering wasn’t a punishment; God was going to use his life. The works of God would be displayed in him. 

Could God be telling me that my life would display his work as well? It seemed crazy to believe that he would use my pain for something good, but somehow I sensed he would. I knelt at the side of my bed and committed my life to a God I didn’t know but who certainly knew me.

I was 16.

Didn’t God Owe Me a Pain-Free Life?

Now I was excited about the rest of my life. I was sure God would make my life easy and successful. Didn’t I deserve it? And at first, I had everything I wanted. 

But when I turned 30, my life began to break down. My husband and I went through a serious marriage crisis, and I was afraid we wouldn’t make it. After more than a year of intense counseling, when we were finally starting to rebuild trust, our unborn son Paul was diagnosed with a life-threatening heart problem. I wondered to God why I was going through yet another hard thing. What had I done wrong? 

Although I had a loving community, nothing in my life could really hold me up. No distractions. No hobbies. No relief. The Lord was all I had. And I found he really was enough.

Paul had a successful surgery at birth, and the doctors were delighted with his progress. He was doing so well when we took him in for a routine checkup that the substitute doctor took him off his medicine, saying Paul looked great. Though we came home rejoicing, our joy was short-lived. Two days later, Paul woke up in the middle of the night, screamed, and went limp in our arms. We rushed him to the ER, but the doctors couldn’t revive him. Paul died at just 2 months old.

His death shocked me. I”d wake up every night longing to nurse him and hold him. The pain seemed unbearable and inescapable. How could God do this to me? This wasn’t the wonderful life I had been counting on. I wanted distance from this God who suddenly felt unpredictable and unsafe.

I pushed God away as long as I could, but finally in desperation I turned back and begged him to meet me. I couldn’t do this without him. And he met me once again, just as he had at 16, using the words of John 9. While I didn’t know why, I was certain that “[this happened] that the works of God might be displayed in [Paul’s death].”

No Other Peace

Still, how much more could I possibly handle? Next came a post-polio diagnosis, which in the long term would mean complete paralysis and in the short term meant depending on others for basic tasks. 

And then my husband of 18 years told me he was leaving for someone else. A few weeks later, he moved to another state. We had worked hard to build love and trust; it seemed impossible that our marriage would crumble. Yet now I was a single parent, with limited physical strength, taking care of two adolescent daughters whose worlds were crashing along with mine. Our once-peaceful home felt like a war zone.

I’m grateful for my suffering, because through it God has transformed me and made me love him even more.

This loss seemed even more unfair than the others, as now there was no one to carry the load with me. How could God love me and let all this happen? Did he even love me? I was exhausted—physically, mentally, and emotionally—as I homeschooled two girls who deeply questioned their faith after our family split.  

In my desperation, God showed me his love. I had known God’s love and presence for decades, but now I began to turn to him for everything. Although I had a loving community, nothing in my life could really hold me up. No distractions. No hobbies. No relief. The Lord was all I had. And I found he really was enough. I found that sitting with God, reading the Bible, and talking to Jesus made me happier than anything in my life ever had before. 

And I realized he’s all we ever have, even when it seems like our lives are going well.

We’re all lost until Jesus finds us. Through the account of the man born blind, I saw and understood who Jesus is and why he created me. He is the Creator and Redeemer. Through the miracle of his resurrection, Jesus brings life where death has reigned.

I’m beyond grateful that Christ met me at 16 through John 9 so now I can spend eternity with him. But I’m also grateful for my suffering, because through it God has transformed me and made me love him even more. I echo the words of Joni Eareckson Tada: “I wouldn’t trade places with anyone to be this close to Jesus.” 

Challenges and Opportunities in Church Revitalization

Thu, 07/25/2019 - 12:04am

One of the reasons church planting is attractive is that it inherently involves something new—a new church in a new place with new people. This is a good thing. After all, part of the call of Christ involves taking the gospel to those who’ve never heard it. We need people willing to go where Christ is neither named nor known. 

But there are also many churches in various parts of the world that are dying. Places where Christianity once flourished.

In regions like the UK and Europe, Christianity has been on the decline for decades, which means that many churches are closing their doors, both literally and figuratively. In these circumstances, church planting is desperately needed. But perhaps just as significant a need is church revitalization, or “re-planting.”

Revitalization involves bringing life to dying churches by dealing with the various causes of decline. It can take numerous forms, and the parallels to church planting are many. But what is church revitalization, and why is it important?

To help us consider these things, I’m excited to have Steve Robinson with us on the podcast.

Listen to this episode of Churches Planting Churches.

Don’t Squander the Little Years

Thu, 07/25/2019 - 12:03am

Tiny kids are hard. By tiny I mean the first, say, three years of life. The age when they are factories of need and vacuums of love, yet can’t even offer the decency of an occasional “thank you.”

The endless demands of parenting little ones can feel heightened by the fact that this is often the very season of life—late 20s through the 30s—when budding careers are most demanding and precarious. The need to be tirelessly devoted outside the home can tempt young parents to be less devoted inside the home.

And so it’s really easy to make the mistake of wishing our littles were older, wishing we could just skip ahead five years or so to the season when they’re actually rational humans who don’t need diapers, car seats, and perpetual attention.

But to do that is a great mistake. It’s rejecting a gift from God, wishing it were something else, forgetting that he knows just what we most need.

Here are six reasons not to climb into a mental time machine and pine for the future but rather climb out and re-enter the present, this ordinary and challenging day, with simplicity, gratitude, and contentment.

1. Discontent Is a Bad Habit

If you constantly wish your little ones were older, then when they are older, you’ll just do the same thing in reverse and wish they were younger. And then you won’t have enjoyed any of the seasons of parenting, and you’ll regret it when they’re out of the house. And your kids will know you didn’t enjoy them, because they will have smelled it on you even if you never said it, and they may be gone from your life for good unless there’s some deep repentance from you to their face.

Time and affection aren’t added bonuses to helping kids develop; they are the basic, key ingredients.

If you let a mindset of discontent with your kids’ ages settle into you now, it may be difficult to break out of that when they’re actually the age you think will be easier.

2. The Older Ages Won’t Be Easier Anyway

The demands are different, not easier. Yes, you’ll get more sleep later on. But parenting older kids requires a deeper wisdom and is more multifaceted. Little kids are physically demanding, but older kids are emotionally demanding.

3. God Teaches Us Through Specific Circumstances

God teaches us things through parenting tiny kids that are different from what he teaches us through parenting older kids. We see something of the heart of God in loving helpless sinners when our hearts fill with love just by looking at our gurgling infant. We get a glimpse of how God hears his children’s prayers when we hear our children cry out and realize nothing can stop us from rushing into their room to help them. We learn patience, patience to wait and let the child grow—watering the sapling with love, taking each day as the day God has for me now.

4. You’re Helping to Wire Your Child’s Brain

Psychiatrists and medical professionals will tell us that it’s the early stages of life, the stages when humans are little sponges that soak up love but can’t yet give much back, when attention and affection normalize them for life. It’s like anything—invest now and earn dividends later; sow now, reap later. Load them up with love and affection and their brains will mature and develop in the ways they’re meant to. What oxygen is to their lungs, love is to their brain.

Time and affection aren’t added bonuses to helping kids develop; they are the basic, key ingredients. A 1-year-old’s brain is getting wired properly when constant love pours in.

5. You Represent God to Your Child

Even more deeply: at some level, to your 1-year-old, you are God—you, their supreme authority, are daily constructing a portrait of who God is. They can’t read a Bible yet, so your face looming over their crib is all they have. When they’re old enough to finally imagine God as something beyond you as their parents, their first intuition about who God is will come from the way you treated them. When you love your 1-year-old with unblushing, rapturous affection, you are preparing them to believe the Bible when it speaks of God’s heart for his own in that way.

Your kids’ first intuition about who God is will come from the way you treated them.

6. To God, We’re Babies

And he doesn’t hurry us up. He enjoys his children in their spiritual tiny-ness. And when, like our infant children, we don’t love him back, his response is more love.

Your kids, even while they are so young and needy, don’t diminish your life—they enrich it, if you will collapse into enjoyment of them. They aren’t a wall, preventing you from doing what you want to do. They’re a doorway, beckoning you into a fullness of life that reflects nothing less than God’s own care and affection for his people.

5 Dangers That Can Wreck Church Plants (and Planters)

Thu, 07/25/2019 - 12:02am

Don’t plant a church unless you take seriously the dangers that lurk.

Why immediately bring up dangers when we need new churches? Quite simply, we’re all grieved over church planters failing—not at planting, but at living holy lives, and thus faltering at finishing well and honoring Christ above all.

The same dangers may appear in any pastorate, of course, yet they tend to heighten with church planters who have their own swagger, code language, and unique camaraderie. They’ve been in the trenches of starting a new work, gathering a group to join them, and pulling together enough details to get the church off the ground and running. That’s great—and dangerous—work.

To do it well, we need each other to encourage, exhort, and hold us accountable in the work of ministry. Church planters must remain sensitive to five dangers that can topple their work and wreck their lives.

1. Pride

The sermon that everyone compliments, the mission effort that soars, the counseling session that heals, and the vision-casting that motivates: these things are wonderfully helpful in ministry, but can morph into objects of pride. Is the solution to preach poor sermons, offer halfhearted missions, or remain visionless? Certainly not. But we must be conscious that we live in the grace of God. If we succeed in a sermon or counseling session, it’s because God blessed it. Scripture is full of warnings against pride:

Pride goes before destruction, and a haughty spirit before a fall. (Prov. 16:18)

God opposes the proud but gives grace to the humble. (James 4:6)

The aura surrounding church planters makes them especially vulnerable to the deceitful ways of pride, which claws and battles for glory. So we must remember that however well we do, “we are unworthy servants, we have only done what was our duty” (Luke 17:10).

Pride has no safe place to grow where the cross looms large.

We can only battle pride with the cross in view. Live in the consciousness that your sins are so staggering that it took the sacrifice of God’s Son to atone for them. Pride has no safe place to grow where the cross looms large.

2. Power

When I planted the church I pastor 32 years ago, I made lots of mistakes. One of the biggest resulted from too much power residing in me. We began with no polity, no body of elders, and no formalized decision-making process. When something needed to be done or a decision needed to be made, I exercised my authority to do it. I sometimes joked that everything about our church lived between my ears. Unfortunately, it did.

With power comes the temptation to think you can do whatever you want, whenever you want, however you want. You get the mistaken notion that the church exists to serve you and your whims. That’s a short road to disaster.

How unlike Jesus, in whom all power resided, to hold power for selfish purposes: “For even the Son of Man came not to be served but to serve, and to give his life as a ransom for many” (Mark 10:45). Peter reminds elders that we’re to exercise oversight “not under compulsion, but willingly, as God would have you; not for shameful gain, but eagerly, not domineering over those in your charge, but being examples to the flock” (1 Pet. 5:2–3).

A plurality of godly elders checks the tendency to let power go to our heads. This means, as lead pastors, we listen to our fellow elders, submit to their collective wisdom, and humbly serve with them as those God has appointed to shepherd his church.

3. Lack of Accountability

Too much power breeds too little accountability. When there’s no framework of accountability, leadership decisions fail to pass through the grid of godly plurality that sees both our motives and the outcome of our actions. We’re living an unguarded life. We’ve read the news reports. Too many men, gifted and used by God, think they’re not vulnerable to crashing. They have accountability in name only. A fall awaits.

Why do we assume we don’t need serious accountability? Two reasons: we think too little of our propensity to sin, and we think too much of our ability to resist. We get the idea that as church planters we’ve achieved something grand in Christendom, so we’re not vulnerable to the same entrapments wrecking the other guys.

But that’s a satanic ruse. We’re sinners through and through. We stand by the grace alone. We need every person God would put into our lives to help us walk faithfully as Christians and lead effectively as pastors. Regular accountability—face-to-face and honestly vulnerable in the pursuit of holiness—checks the tendencies to slip.

4. Idealism

What happens when an aspiring church planter takes seminary courses on church planting (CP), reads the heavy-hitters in the CP world, and gets inspired by CP conferences? Idealism creeps in. It’s natural. I remember it so well.

It goes like this: “If I do A, B, and C, like so-and-so proposes, then I can expect X, Y, and Z results.” He’s heard the success stories but not enough struggle stories and failure stories. He thinks he knows his stuff. And maybe from an X’s and O’s standpoint, he’s pretty knowledgeable. But church planting is pastoral work. If he hasn’t walked in that world, and heads with much idealism to plant a church, he may have some unfortunate surprises.

I recall one gifted young man who got inspired in seminary to plant a church. He graduated and headed to a population hotspot with all the idealism one could muster. He planted the church, but almost planted himself in a grave. He burned out. Had he been tempered in a local church for a reasonable period before planting, he might’ve removed a few idealisms from his CP toolbox and continued in the work.

That’s one reason Jesus gradually turned the disciples loose in ministry. Paul followed the same pattern. We read about the sending of the twelve (Luke 9) and the seventy (Luke 10). When the seventy came back all pumped about their authority over demons, Jesus quelled their world-conquering aspirations. Here’s what you need to get excited about, he told them: not “that the spirits are subject to you, but rejoice that your names are written in heaven” (Luke 10:20). Idealism checked.

5. Busyness

Ministry is consuming, and church planting often gobbles more than normal due to starting everything from scratch. The church planter has to organize, plan, find locations, set up, clean up, prepare, preach, counsel, visit, lead, and more until he drops. But that’s the normal routine for church planting (and much pastoral work).

He may not have a solid team around him. He has new people wanting to talk with him. He spends time doing community visits and contacts. He’s not accustomed to the preparation that goes into Sundays, so he’s strained every week. If he could physically do it, no doubt, he could spend 24 hours per day in church work.

But then, he’d be sinning against his Lord, his family, his church, and his body. God made us, just like the seasons, to function with rhythm (Mark 2:27). What if the church planter makes those extra five visits but unravels his marriage? What if he organizes more meetings and leads more small groups, but all the while neglects his walk with Christ? What if he sips coffee with 10 potential attendees, but fails to shepherd the flock? What if he attends all the conferences and meetings he thinks everyone expects him to, but shrinks in his development as a man of God?

Church planter, expect to work hard, long hours. But if you build the church on your energy, it’s on a shaky foundation. Work hard and be diligent, but always remember it’s the Lord’s work. Enlist others to do it; train others to multiply it; but guard your heart, your family, and your flock when planning your schedule.

You cannot do everything you want to do. So don’t sweat it. Instead, plan wisely, work smarter, and live each day in reliance on the grace of God to accomplish what only God can do.

Christianity’s Best-Kept Secret

Thu, 07/25/2019 - 12:00am

Many Christians have a troubling blind spot, and it diminishes both their usefulness for God and also their joy in life. In my years as a pastor, I’ve seen the blind spot over and over again. I’ve seen it in myself. Whereas Christians rightly celebrate forgiveness of past sins and assurance of a future in heaven, they’re less discerning about the present. In particular, they seem unaware of the riches of life in Christ right now.

As Christians, we’re organically linked to Christ at the deepest level. The apostle Paul makes the point repeatedly in a simple but easily overlooked prepositional phrase. No less than 164 times, Paul refers to Christians as people “in Christ” or “in him” or “in God” or “in the Lord.” It’s a tantalizing phrase, with thrilling implications for the lives of Christians.

Christ in You

Much depends on how we interpret the preposition “in.” Grammatically, it’s probably specifying location. As Christians, our lives are located in Christ.

To bring out the full sense of Paul’s teaching, consider a similar phrase: “in California.” As a native Californian, I can testify to what that means. Those who step into California experience exactly what the brochures say: a life of sun, sand, and surf. To live “in California” is to be immersed in the delights of the Golden State—so much so that those delights become part of you. California runs in your blood. To be “in California” is to experience California within you.

In the same way, to be in Christ is to experience Christ within you.

We can illustrate further by drawing an analogy from electricity. Every electrician carries a toolbox stuffed with plugs and sockets. And every electrician understands the relationship of plugs and sockets. When a plug is inserted into a socket, the plug gives nothing to the socket; rather, the socket gives everything to the plug. It sends a charge of electricity surging into the plug.

Whereas Christians rightly celebrate forgiveness of past sins and assurance of a future in heaven, they’re less discerning about the present. In particular, they seem to be unaware of the riches of life in Christ right now.

As Christians, we’re the plug, and Christ is the socket. To be in Christ is to plug into him, not in the sense that we give anything to Christ, but in the sense that he gives everything to us. At the moment of conversion, when by faith we entrust our lives to Jesus Christ, he sends a surge into us of what he essentially is, an electrifying current of his love and power and peace and joy and righteousness—indeed, a current of his own life. According to Paul, when Christ indwells our hearts, we are “filled with all the fullness of God” (Eph. 3:19).

This is a surprising affirmation. Surely only God can be filled with all his fullness. To suggest that we can as well seems almost blasphemous, except that it is recorded in the inspired Scriptures. To be in Christ is to be filled with all the fullness—all the infinite fullness—of God himself.

Power of Christ’s Indwelling

Again, this is a blind spot for many Christians. Rather than celebrate our fullness, we often succumb to felt-deficiencies. We feel inadequate and insecure. We’re troubled by fear, guilt, and loneliness. We worry about the losses that might arrive tomorrow—losses of reputation or relationships, power or possessions, health or happiness. We lose sleep, become irritable, and sink into despair. But how is this possible for people filled with all the fullness of Christ? Nothing the world throws up in our path can diminish in the slightest the life we possess in Christ. If we were to lose everything meaningful to us, we would still be indwelled by infinite fullness.

Fullness of life is a mystery to the world, but it shouldn’t be to Christians. To saints in Christ the “mystery [has] now [been] revealed” (Col. 1:26), a mystery which Paul distills into three words: “Christ in you” (Col. 1:27).

To be in Christ is to plug into him, not in the sense that we give anything to Christ, but in the sense that he gives everything to us.

The indwelling Christ: it’s perhaps Christianity’s capstone. And it is underscored in nearly all of Paul’s letters. See, for instance, Galatians 2:20; 4:19; 2 Corinthians 4:6; and Romans 8:10, 11. According to Paul, Christ has done something not only to us (forgiven past sins and assured a future in heaven), but also in us (electrified the present).

Paul encourages us to reckon with this reality. “Do you not realize this about yourselves, that Jesus Christ is in you?” (2 Cor. 13:5). “Do you not know that you are God’s temple and that God’s Spirit dwells in you?” (1 Cor. 3:16).

If we truly understood the fullness of Christ indwelling our hearts, we would not easily be discouraged. We would not wilt under the opinions of others. We would not be anxious for tomorrow. Rather, we would know ourselves to be inhabited by the unlimited resources of the life of Christ. We would never lose heart. We would be more than conquerors.

The indwelling Christ: it’s perhaps Christianity’s capstone.

This magnificent truth gives rise to one of Paul’s most passionate prayers. “I bow my knees before the Father [and pray] . . . that according to the riches of his glory he may grant you to be strengthened with power through his Spirit in your inner being” (Eph. 3:14–17). The apostle follows with an even more ardent plea: that God would give you “strength to comprehend” what it means to be “filled with all the fullness of God” (Eph. 3:18–19).

When we comprehend who we are in Christ, and who Christ is in us, we’re set free from felt-deficiencies, we’re buoyed by the presence of his Spirit, and we’re prepared to discover the joy of increasing usefulness to God, “who is able to do far more abundantly than all that we ask or think, according to the power at work within us” (Eph. 3:20).

For too many Christians, life in Christ is an under-appreciated reality. It may even be Christianity’s best-kept secret.

The FAQs: What You Should Know About Purity Culture

Wed, 07/24/2019 - 12:04am
What just happened?

Last week Josh Harris posted on Instagram that he and his wife were separating after 20 years of marriage. Because Harris is considered a foundational influence on “purity culture” the announcement has launched fresh criticism and debate about the movement.

What is purity culture?

Purity culture is the term often used for the evangelical movement that attempts to promote a biblical view of purity (1 Thess. 4:3-8) by discouraging dating and promoting virginity before marriage, often through the use of tools such as purity pledges, symbols such as purity rings, and events such as purity balls.

What are purity pledges, purity rings, and purity balls?

Purity pledges are vows taken by teenagers and young adults to abstain from sex before marriage. A prime example is the original pledge from True Love Waits (1993) which read: “Believing that true love waits, I make a commitment to God, myself, my family, those I date, and my future mate to be sexually pure until the day I enter marriage.”

Purity rings are sometimes worn as outward symbols by those who have made a purity pledge. The rings were popularized by the Christian ministry The Silver Ring Thing, which promoted abstinence primarily through music events. A decade ago, the rings were worn by several young actors and pop stars, including Miley Cyrus, Demi Lovato, Selena Gomez, and the Jonas Brothers.

Purity balls (or Father-Daughter Purity Balls) are formal dance events attended by fathers and their daughters which promotes virginity until marriage for teenage girls. At the balls the fathers would often sign a pledge that they would be the example of purity and model integrity for their daughter’s lives. The dances were originally conceived in 1998 by a California couple, Randy and Lisa Wilson, as a way of “celebrating God’s design and life’s little growth spurts.”

How did the purity culture movement get started?

The purity culture movement began in the 1990s as Christians who were children or teens during the beginning of the 1960s-era Sexual Revolution began to have children and teenagers of their own. By the early years of 1990s, AIDS had become the number one cause of death for U.S. men ages 25 to 44 and the teen pregnancy rate had reached an all-time high. The number of premarital sex partners had also increased substantially since the 1970s. For example, in the 1970s only 2% of American women had more than 10 sexual partners before marriage; in the 1990s that percentage had increased to 10% (in the 2010 it’s 18%).

At the time many evangelicals were reacting to the negative effects of sex outside of marriage and attempted to once again ground sexuality in biblical ethics. In 1992 Richard Ross, a youth ministry consultant at LifeWay Christian Resources, presented the theme of “True Love Waits” in a brainstorming session for a potential Christian Sex Education campaign. A year later Southern Baptists adopted the program with the goal of 100,000 signed commitment cards (i.e., purity pledges) by the time of their next annual convention. In 1994 True Love Waits held a rally in Washington, DC with 25,000 youth and displayed 210,000 commitment cards on the National Mall between the Capitol and the Washington Monument.

Four years later Josh Harris published his first book, I Kissed Dating Goodbye, which promoted abstinence and popularized the concept of “courting” as an alternative to dating. The book went on to sell over a million copies and became a primary text of the purity culture movement. (Harris later issued a statement expressing his concerns about the book and asked his publisher to discontinue its publication. He also produced a documentary video called “I Survived I Kissed Dating Goodbye.”)

Was purity culture effective in reducing pre-marital sex?

After the launch of the True Love Waits movement there was a significant decline between 1995 and 2002 in sexual activity for girls ages 15-17 and boys ages 15-18. The proportion of never-married females 15-17 years of age who had had sexual intercourse dropped from 38 percent in 1995 to 30 percent in 2002. For male teens, the percent of those who were sexually experienced dropped in both age groups: from 43 percent to 31 percent at age 15-17, and from 75 percent to 64 percent at age 18-19. Teen pregnancies also dropped dramatically over the next thirty years. It’s unclear, though, how much credit the movement deserves for these trends.

A study published in 2009 found that the sexual behavior of teens who had taken a purity pledge does not differ from that of closely matched non-pledgers. (Five years after the pledge, 82% of pledgers denied having ever pledged.) Another study found the sexually transmitted diseases (STD) infection rate of those who had taken the pledge also did not differ from the non-pledgers.

What are the criticisms of purity culture?

Criticism of the purity culture movement comes in two general forms, biblical-based and secular-based.

Biblical-based concerns about the movement tend to align with the criticism’s Harris made of his own book: it overemphasized the importance of sex, de-emphasized grace, and added unnecessary rules to male-female relationships. As he said in his statement:

There are other weaknesses too: in an effort to set a high standard, the book emphasized practices (not dating, not kissing before marriage) and concepts (giving your heart away) that are not in the Bible. In trying to warn people of the potential pitfalls of dating, it instilled fear for some—fear of making mistakes or having their heart broken. The book also gave some the impression that a certain methodology of relationships would deliver a happy ever-after ending—a great marriage, a great sex life—even though this is not promised by scripture.

The other category of criticism comes from those who reject the biblical perspective on sexuality and frame their concerns on secularized (or in the case of some Christians, antinomian) views of sexuality. While they agree with the biblical-based critics about the movement promoting fear and shame, they also think abstinence before marriage is an outdated concept, that the movement promotes gender-based stereotypes, and that it is wrong to exclude homosexual relationships.

How should Christians develop a positive culture of purity?

Where purity culture has failed is in keeping the focus on the body and on sex rather than on Christ.

A primary way we can develop a more positive culture of purity is by practicing the spiritual discipline of chastity, which entails purity in conduct and intention. As Lauren Winner writes in her book Real Sex, “[Chastity] is not the mere absence of sex but an active conforming of one’s body to the arc of the gospel.”

What is the arc of the gospel? Alex Ward explains that it is the arc from enslaved to sin to bondservant of Christ:

from outsider to brother or sister of Christ; from fallen nature to redeemed creation. That arc includes so much more than physical body parts. It includes the other crucial part of humanity: our souls. We are soul-body creatures. Therefore, we cannot only think of our chastity in relationship to our bodies, but to the very way that we are forming and being conformed in our inmost being to the image of Christ as pure, faithful, and chaste beings (Rom. 8: 29; 12:1-2).

We practice chastity to develop purity, not for the sake of our own sexuality, but for the sake of Christ. In 2013 Ross explained why the purpose of the purity movement, rightly understood, isn’t about preventing STDs or teen pregnancy—or even merely being an obedient Christian. The focus, claims Ross, is the glorification and magnification of Christ.

“In the past, True Love Waits young people have often made promises thinking, ‘Jesus wants me to do this because it will make my life better, so bad things will not happen to me, so I will not be a disobedient Christian,’” said Ross. “Now, there is an element of truth in each of those statements, but I detect a shift [toward] ‘Not that I do this so that my life will be better, but I choose purity for Christ’s glory. I am doing this for His sake, not my sake. I am doing this because He deserves adoration, and the purity of my life is a way to show Him that adoration.’ The focus comes off of ‘me,’ and the focus goes to ‘Him.’ There is no moralism. If I choose sexual purity for the glory of Christ, that is just pure worship.”

Don’t Let ‘VeggieTales’ Drive You to Neglect Imperatives

Wed, 07/24/2019 - 12:03am

A number of years ago, my kids were into VeggieTales. And, truthfully, so was I. It was quite enjoyable to watch those charming videos, cataloging the journeys of Bob the Tomato and Larry the Cucumber. I could probably recite the opening song word for word.

But in an interview several years ago, VeggieTales creator Phil Vischer expressed regret over the “moralism” of his show:

As I reflected back, I realized that I had spent 10 years trying to convince kids to behave Christianly without actually teaching them Christianity. And that was a pretty serious conviction. You can say, “Hey kids, be more forgiving because the Bible says so,” or “Hey kids, be more kind because the Bible says so!” But that isn’t Christianity, it’s morality.

There is much to be commended in Vischer’s realization. Certainly Christianity is more than simply behaving a certain way. Christianity, at its core, is about God’s redemptive work in Christ to save sinners by grace.

When it comes to proclaiming the Christian message, we always need to present the imperative (here’s what you should do) within the context of the indicative (here’s what Christ has done). The latter is always the foundation for the former.

That said, I wonder if VeggieTales can be so quickly swept aside as non-Christian. Vischer declares: “You can say, ‘Hey kids, be more forgiving because the Bible says so’ . . . But that isn’t Christianity.”

It depends what he means.

If I said in a sermon, “Be more forgiving because the Bible says so,” would that be considered non-Christian? I hope not. Surely Christians need to be more forgiving. And surely God’s Word is a compelling motivation—though not the only motivation.

Proper Context for Imperatives

At this point I suppose one might object and say we are free to give moral imperatives as long as they are always given alongside the gospel message. But it depends on what one means by “alongside.” I certainly agree that any moral imperative must always be rooted in the gospel. But does this mean it must always be stated immediately in the next sentence? Does it always mean the gospel must be expressly stated each time you give a moral imperative?

I would argue the gospel is the foundation, context, and backdrop for moral imperatives. But we must be careful about insisting on a fixed formula for how that must be expressed within Christian preaching or teaching. A number of biblical examples bear this out.

1. James

James is clearly a letter of morals. We are called to not show partiality (2:1), to help the poor (2:15–16), to watch our tongues (3:1–12), to stop coveting (4:1–2), to be patient (5:7–8), to pray faithfully (5:16), and much more.

This letter does not explicitly mention the atonement, the cross, salvation by grace alone, or any other core aspect of the gospel message (though it is implied in places like 1:18; 1:25; and 5:15). But does James teach moralism? Not at all. You have to take James in context of the entire New Testament, knowing the core aspects of the gospel are explained elsewhere. No doubt James wrote assuming his audience understood the basic gospel truths.

2. Sermon on the Mount

It’s often overlooked that Jesus’s most famous sermon is mostly composed of moral imperatives. Jesus covers an impressive list of moral topics: anger, lust, divorce, oaths, fasting, worry, and more. Indeed, he even warns his listeners that God’s judgment will fall on those whose righteousness does not surpass that of the Pharisees (Matt. 5:20) and on those who fail to keep his Word (Matt. 7:21–26).

There is no explicit mention of atonement, the cross, or justification, but they are implied in places such as 5:3 and 6:12. Does this make his sermon moralism? No—the sermon must be taken in the larger context of Jesus’s teachings and the New Testament as a whole.

3. Proverbs

Here is an entire book filled with wisdom on how one should live. It tells us how to act, think, and feel on a variety of critical issues. And there is no express discussion of atonement, justification, or salvation by grace. Does this make Proverbs moralism? Not at all. These exhortations must be understood within the larger context of the Bible’s teachings.

Don’t Fear Imperatives

These three examples make a simple point: it is okay to take large blocks of teaching and focus on Christian morals. One shouldn’t have to stop every five minutes to give a “gospel presentation” out of fear of communicating moralism. The key question is this: is there a larger context around those moral teachings that adequately provides a gospel foundation for obedience?

If VeggieTales were used as a supplemental teaching aid for parents who adequately explained the gospel to their children, it could be a useful—and Christian—tool. The episodes were never intended to be a complete Christian curriculum for kids, even though some parents may wrongly use them in that fashion.

All of this, of course, should not downplay or deny the real threat of moralism in churches today. Many pulpits lack the gospel message entirely and simply preach a “do this” version of Christianity. But the solution is not to impose a “one size fits all” preaching style where any extended moral exhortation is immediately labeled moralism. Indeed, the Bible is filled with such moral exhortations.

We must always remember the indicative is the ground—not the obstacle—for the imperative.


5 Words That Strengthen Any Sermon

Wed, 07/24/2019 - 12:02am

Sermons are composed of words, and every sermon rises or falls on the words that preachers choose to deploy. The words preached come with the power of life and death, so the preacher must carefully choose his words.

The point is not so much eloquence as it is intentionality. Over the years, as I have monitored my own preaching and observed others, I have come to realize how intentionally using a few key words will strengthen most any sermon. For example, consider these five.

1. Bible

“The Bible says,” a phrase popularized by Billy Graham, is one of the sweetest refrains a preacher can offer. It implies so much: God has spoken, his Word is accessible, his Word is true and authoritative, and this is his Word for you.

Make sure your congregation leaves not just exposed to the Bible, but inundated by it.

Intentionally using the word Bible reinforces the authority of the Scriptures and the authority of the sermon. Further, specifically citing the text you are quoting or referencing adds punch. Make sure your congregation leaves not just exposed to the Bible, but inundated by it.

2. Look

Better still, invite the congregation to look in their Bibles with you. Throughout the sermon, saying “Look with me in verse 2” or “See with me in verse 7” continually pulls your hearers into the text.

As you do, your hearers are able to draw a direct line from the text to your point of emphasis, enhancing your sermon’s clarity and biblical weight. Moreover, your hearers will learn how to study their own Bibles, as they see how you have studied yours, leading to a maturing congregation.

3. Repent

Perhaps some pastors avoid the word repent because it sounds too draconian, too judgmental, or too confrontational. But to call for repentance is actually a gracious, inviting act. For those seeking forgiveness, repentance is the doorway through which one enters the room of God’s grace.

‘Repent’ was a common word in the book of Acts, and it should be in our preaching as well.

Repentance is not just an act at one’s conversion; for the Christian, it is a way of life. Repent was a common word in the book of Acts, and it should be in our preaching as well.

4. You

To preach is to call for a verdict—to press the truth of God onto the lives of your hearers—and it is impossible to do that without using the word you. Sadly, many preachers have an unhealthy aversion to confrontation and an accompanying inability to pronounce the word you.

There comes a time when the sermon should transition from the third person plural “we” to the second person singular “you.” Too much “we” and “us” hollows out the sermon, gutting its full force. It is impossible to preach pointed sermons without using pointed words, so do not be afraid to use the word you.

5. Jesus

Most importantly, make sure you point your hearers to the Word himself—Jesus. In our world of superficial spirituality and ambient religiosity, opaque God-talk is not sufficient. If you have preached a sermon without featuring Jesus, then you haven’t preached a Christian sermon.

It is impossible to preach pointed sermons without using pointed words.

And whatever you do, do not use generic, all-encompassing “faith” talk as in “faith journey” or “faith life.” Faith never saved anyone. Jesus saves. Model the dogged Christ-centeredness of Charles Spurgeon; eschew the oblique nonsense of “Oprah Winfrey spirituality.”

Preaching is too consequential to settle for subpar sermons. These five words will help any preacher up his game. Make sure to intentionally deploy them.

You Can’t Repeat the Past (But Hollywood Tries)

Wed, 07/24/2019 - 12:00am

Nostalgia is the only thing going for Hollywood these days.

It’s not a new trend. For decades, sequels, reboots, and franchise expansions have been the film industry’s most bankable bets. It’s likely the vast majority of 2019’s highest-grossing movies will be of this sort: recycled Disney favorites (Aladdin, The Lion King, Dumbo); rebooted horror classics (Child’s Play, Pet Sematary); sequels of various sorts (Toy Story 4, John Wick 3, The LEGO Movie 2); and new entries in franchises few people were probably missing (Godzilla: King of the Monsters, Men in Black International).

Within this broad trend of nostalgia is an intriguing subgenre: movies about music nostalgia. Three recent films in particular capture the trend: Bohemian Rhapsody, Rocketman, and Yesterday. All three take an iconic song title as the film’s title, and all three are essentially singalongs for audiences who grew up on the music of Queen, Elton John, and The Beatles (respectively). Next month another film, Blinded by the Light, will foreground the music of Bruce Springsteen. Doubtless others will follow.

What is it about music specifically that makes us so nostalgic, and why are movies like this—and the “histories” they tell—so attractive to audiences today? What does it say about our culture and where we find meaning?

Music and Nostalgic Joy

Part of why audiences love movies like Bohemian Rhapsody, Rocketman, and Yesterday is that they tell classic rags-to-riches stories (see also: A Star Is Born). They follow a formula that is perhaps especially resonant in today’s “anyone can become famous” age of self-made stardom: Unknown artist catches a break, becomes rich and famous (eventually a global icon), suffers the downsides of fame and fortune, battles demons, creates even more iconic music because of battling demons, and ultimately finds redemption in a rediscovery of the purity of pre-stardom relationships and creativity (e.g. “Goodbye Yellow Brick Road”).  

But beyond their tried-and-true plot arcs, these films are mostly attractive because of their songs, recognizing that music is among the most powerful triggers for memory and nostalgia. We hear a song and it takes us back: to happier times, to simpler times, to times that are not now.

Each of these films foregrounds the beloved songs of its respective British pop icon subject. Bohemian does it in the most straightforward manner, weaving Queen songs into the story’s linear progression where they naturally fit, culminating in the band’s famous 1985 set at Live Aid. Rocketman also weaves in John’s songs, though in more whimsical, mythologized ways. Yesterday doesn’t even bother with the stories behind the Beatles songs; it simply plucks them out of the past and performs them for us in the present, for our nostalgic listening pleasure. It imagines a world where everyone has Beatles amnesia, and where one lucky singer/songwriter (Himesh Patel) who does remember the Beatles can reintroduce their songs to the world (as his own songs). In this sense it’s the most honest of the three films—recognizing that the songs themselves, the nostalgic joy they trigger when we hear them, is what audiences are really there for, more than the stories of the real people and real historical contexts that birthed them.

History as Sugarcoated Consumer Commodity

This is one of the troubling aspects of nostalgia-as-consumer-commodity. It turns history into something we can selectively draw from to satiate our hunger for “vintage” pleasures; something we can appropriate to fit our present zeitgeist, conveniently sugarcoating it and extracting it from its less-palatable contextual baggage. This is a dangerous approach to history.

Consider the sanitized history of Bohemian Rhapsody, a PG-13 film about an X-rated life. As Warren Cole Smith observes in WORLD, the film conveniently leaves out the sordid details of Freddie Mercury’s biography, including all manner of drug-fueled hedonism and reckless promiscuity at the dawn of the AIDS crisis (he likely had hundreds of male sex partners even after he became HIV-positive in the early 1980s). But the erasure of Mercury’s vice-ridden life was essential to Rhapsody’s box-office success. Sugarcoated nostalgia is an easier sell than unflinching looks at history.

Sugarcoated nostalgia is an easier sell than unflinching looks at history.

It’s mythologizing more than narrating history. This is common in movies, of course. Most period films twist history to their own biases and values. Just this year, films about Queen Anne (The Favourite) and Emily Dickinson (Wild Nights with Emily) re-figured these historical women as sexually active lesbians. Quentin Tarantino’s Once Upon a Time in Hollywood (like his Inglourious Basterds) pays homage to a colorfully mythologized past by outlandishly revising its outcomes.

Christians are guilty of this too. We are prone to selectively celebrate the successes of Christian history (William Wilberforce!) while conveniently forgetting its ugly failures (slavery, racism, various genocides). We tend to valorize Martin Luther without mentioning his anti-Semitism; Jonathan Edwards without mentioning his practice of slavery; Martin Luther King Jr. without mentioning his sexual indiscretions; and so on. We are guilty of our own revisionist history-telling, whether it be about a fabled “Christian America” or an alternate universe where Mother Teresa–type Christians are the norm, rather than (tragically) the exceptions.

Importance of Context

To truly honor history is not just to poach it for the pleasant stuff. It is to plumb its messy depths, reckon with it, and learn from it—not just consume it as nostalgic pop amusement. It’s like the difference between traveling as a consumer-tourist versus a curious learner. The former snaps selfies in front of “important” landmarks, mostly to have something cool to post to Instagram; the latter seeks to learn the landmark’s history and understand its cultural importance. The latter approach doesn’t suck the fun out of the experience; it enhances it.

As Christians know, one of the fundamental principles of biblical interpretation is the importance of context. As much as our anachronistic age of individualism leads us to a “here’s what the passage means to me” hermeneutic, the reality is the Bible’s meaning has much more to do with understanding the Ancient Near East than it does with understanding how it makes me feel now. It requires work to understand this faraway context, but it’s worthwhile work.

To truly honor history is not just to poach it for the pleasant stuff. It is to plumb its messy depths, reckon with it, and learn from it—not just consume it as nostalgic pop amusement.

It’s one thing to enjoy a biblical psalm, or a Beatles song, merely for its pleasant words and melodies. But we enjoy these things in a fuller, richer sense when we know something about their contexts. Recent documentaries like Echo in the Canyon (about the mid-’60s folk-rock scene in Southern California) or Woodstock: Three Days That Defined a Generation (about the iconic 1969 music festival) do a better job digging into the actual histories behind the music.

Yesterday is a fun movie, but it is does a disservice to the Beatles songs by downplaying their context and suggesting they somehow transcend place and time. Would the world really go crazy for “Back in the U.S.S.R.” and “Penny Lane” and “Revolution” in 2019, as it did 50 years ago? Do the places and times (Liverpool, the 1960s, and so on) behind these songs matter? Are the artists themselves incidental to the songs and how they were received?

Whereas Rocketman and Bohemian at least attempt to situate songs within their real-life origins, Yesterday just presents an alternative universe where the audience can gleefully watch as Beatlemania (or now, “Jack Malik-mania”) unfolds again—as if for the first time.

You Can’t Repeat the Past

It’s fun to watch something like Yesterday and imagine the global phenomenon of the Beatles happening again today. But it’s not possible; it’s amusing to watch, yes, but it’s not the same. You can’t repeat the past. The zeitgeist of the 1960s, the geo-political landscape, a burgeoning global youth culture ready for something new—it can never be replicated. It can only be remembered.

The danger of nostalgia is that we confuse a healthy remembrance and fond appreciation for the past with a desire to see it repeated. We confuse what we can learn from the past—in all its complicated context—with a desire to re-live it today. Not only can this be debilitating for us, but it can also stifle healthy discontentment in our souls.

The danger of nostalgia is that we confuse a healthy remembrance and fond appreciation for the past with a desire to see it repeated. We confuse what we can learn from the past—in all its complicated context—with a desire to re-live it today.

Hollywood movies are cashing in on our nostalgic impulse, this healthy discontentment, by recycling the past as dopamine hits of familiarity—one musical biopic and Disney remake at a time. The lyrics of the Beatles’ iconic song announce a sort of creed for modern people whose trust in everything around them falters. What is left when all authorities crumble, and the endless horizons of contemporary belief render the search for meaning now too exhausting to endure?

“I believe in God the Father . . .” gives way to “I believe in yesterday . . .”

Nostalgia can thus morph into a sort of secular religion. But the nostalgic impulse is not bad in and of itself. It’s simply a symptom of a larger existential ache: we are eternal beings in an ephemeral world. The “passing away” nature of moments—that they are here, gone, and cannot be replicated again—pains us because we are destined for a world where things won’t die, decay, and pass away (see Rev. 21). They will be eternally new.

Rather than numbing our pain with an endless churn of content from the nostalgia industry, what if we channeled our time-bound restlessness toward expectation and hope for a future where time will be no more? There’s a massive opportunity here for churches and Christians. We are, after all, a people defined by an event—the resurrection—that upended the passing order of things and reoriented history around the hope of future glory. In a weary world where transcendence is often sought in “yesterday,” what we have to offer is firmly fixed on “tomorrow.”  

How to Have a Healthy Fear of God

Tue, 07/23/2019 - 12:04am

Erik Thoennes: Fear of the Lord is something the Bible talks about from beginning to end as absolutely central to having a right relationship with God and having a life that represents that. We’re told the beginning of wisdom is found in the fear of the Lord, that the Lord encamps around those who fear him. Even the way we treat each other in the body of Christ, we’re told, is out of fear of Christ, submission to him as a result of fearing Jesus in the appropriate way.

So when we start with the right view of the holiness of God and recognize him for who he is, we’ll say with Isaiah, “Woe is me. I am undone. I’m a man of unclean lips, and I live among a people of unclean lips” (Isa. 6:5), or Peter when he sees the glory of Christ and his power says, “Depart from me. I’m a sinful man” (Luke 5:8).

I don’t think you can have a true biblical understanding of our own sin until you see God in his holiness, otherwise it’s “Oh, I’m just a terrible person,” or “I didn’t do that well.” But when you see God for who he is, you would never think of trying to solve your sin problem yourself. And so the fear of the Lord is one of the great needs in the church today, I believe, and something that we have a tough time with because we think of fearing an abusive father and an unhealthy fear that even thinks of running away from him.

But a true fear of the Lord realizes you can’t run from God, and the only option is to run to him. When you do, you find the embracing arms of a loving Father.

Jeremy Treat: Yeah, and what I love about this idea of the fear of the Lord is, it’s actually incredibly practical.

In the Book of Proverbs, it talks about wisdom, and wisdom isn’t just knowledge, it’s knowledge applied. It’s not just smarts, it’s street smarts. It’s the know-how. And the fear of the Lord is the beginning of wisdom, so I like to define the fear of the Lord as a radical God-centeredness that shapes everything else in life, that you’re building your life around God. You take God more seriously than anything else, whether that’s other priorities or the opinions of people in your life.

And it’s important, I think, to recognize that this isn’t a fear like being afraid of a cruel tyrant or even like standing before the ocean where you feel a sense of reverent awe because that’s so impersonal. I like to remind people that with the fear of the Lord, it’s the fear of Yahweh. It’s that all-caps LORD which is the personal name of God, the covenant God.

So even the fear of God, this reverent awe, this respect comes within a context where he said, “I’ve bound myself to you in love,” and so that’s where it’s that reverence for a father who we know is for us and with us that really shapes the way we live our lives practically in so many ways.

Thoennes: And, boy, this has implications for the way we combat sin, for instance, in our lives. We can have accountability groups, we can have great filters on our computers, but if we’re not growing in our fear of the Lord, we know you can get around those things. You can lie to your accountability partners. And, the fear of the Lord, when we do get together with our friends in our groups or in our churches, if we’re not cultivating a deeper fear of the Lord, we’re missing an absolute fundamental way we are to relate to God and even grow in our holiness in our lives.

Otherwise, we’ll manipulate and manage, and it’ll be behavior management instead of true growth and holiness that comes from seeing God for who he really is.

Treat: Yeah. I think, sometimes, as we rightfully emphasize the gospel of grace, and that that drives everything, one of the dangers of that is people think that they’ll confuse legalism with obedience.

And legalism should be rejected—I mean, trying to work our way to God. But obedience is a good thing that comes from the commands of a gracious Father who knows what’s best for us. So as we’re driven by grace to take God seriously, recognizing he’s God, I’m not . . . when I come up against something in my life that I don’t want to do what he says, I’m going to trust him. I’m going to submit.

I mean, these are things that we have a hard time in our culture where autonomy is the highest value. So I think we’re covering a sense of the fear of the Lord, of recognizing God is who he says he is. He’s merciful and gracious. Slow to anger and abounding in steadfast love and faithfulness, but he will not just clear the guilty. He’s holy. He deserves our reverence, and our respect, and our obedience.

Thoennes: The amazing counterintuitive thing in the Bible is that the more you fear the Lord and see him as high and lifted up, the more you actually get to experience him in intimacy because who does he draw near to? It’s the one who fears him, the one who sees him as high and lifted up, recognizing him for who he is, and that’s the one he draws near to. We fear that if we fear God, he’ll be so distant we won’t be able to relate to him. But it’s just the opposite biblically.

He moves toward those who see him for who he is, and in their humility, he lifts them up.

Listen to this episode of The Gospel Coalition Podcast or watch a video.

5 Ways to Help Kids Communicate Well on Social Media

Tue, 07/23/2019 - 12:03am

I’m so thankful for the delete option when I’m second-guessing one of my social media posts. Surely I’m not alone. Perhaps it was the content of what you said or how you said it or the visual you attached, but haven’t we all put something out there we wish we hadn’t?

What’s true for adults is that much more true for our kids.

Social media add dimensions to communication that make it different from face-to-face interactions. Ignore the impact of those dimensions, and you and your child will say and do things you regret. Understand the virtual world’s challenges, however, and you and your child can turn them into catalysts for personal growth and developing stronger relationships.

Different from Regular Talk

Let’s consider three significant ways in which social media is different from face-to-face interaction.

First, some social media platforms are anonymous. You engage people you haven’t necessarily met personally and who you probably never will. Since their opinions affect you less than those of people you run into on a regular basis, you’re less careful with what you say to them online than you are in person.

Second, there isn’t immediate embodied feedback to tell you what effect your words and actions are having. When we talk directly to someone, we see how we’ve affected them when they smile, frown, look embarrassed, get upset, laugh, cry, keep talking, or turn and walk away. Social media keeps us blind to those effects by inserting spatial distance between people—and what’s out of sight is often out of mind.

Third, the feedback loop favors extremes. Humans want to know that they matter to others, that their thoughts and actions have some effect and are not meaningless. But how can you feel like you matter if you can’t see anyone else? You have to rely on indirect feedback through replies, comments, and emoji responses. But as one small person among billions clamoring for attention, you’ll have to stand out to get any response, which invites you to be provocative in what you say or do.

Agent for Good?

What might happen if you spent lots of time scrambling to garner the attention of online strangers, whose opinion of you wouldn’t affect your life at all? That’s a recipe for communicating things online you’d never say in person. And it’s a recipe just as tempting for your children as it is for you.

But it’s also one you can both use for good, in at least five ways.

1. Remember, nothing is hidden from God.

Our tendency to be less guarded on social media reminds us that we can keep no secrets from God. He sees everything that goes through your heart and mind, because he’s the one who searches both (Jer. 17:10; Rev. 2:23). What do you and your kids see in posts you later regret, or in embarrassing posts you merely avoid publishing? You see what God’s already seen. You’ve glimpsed the dark reality that lurks beneath the surface of every heart (Gen. 6:15; 8:21).

And it’s a good thing to become more transparent to yourself. It’s easy to live on this earth as if we can hide things from the Lord and from others. Social media removes some of the filters you maintain in face-to-face relationships, letting you see yourself a bit more honestly.

2. Do something positive with what you now see.

Help your children understand that in a dark world, it’s a gift from God to see more accurately. The powers of evil conspire with our sinful inclinations to keep us from seeing ourselves accurately (2 Cor. 4:4; Rom. 1:18).

Only the grace of God unmasks the ugliness inside of you so that you can repent (Rom. 2:4). When that mask drops, thank him for making you aware, then ask his forgiveness. You have nothing to lose. Nothing, not even indwelling sin, can separate you from him (Rom. 8:31–39). That secure embrace frees you to see what he sees, and to talk with him quickly and candidly about it.

3. Make efforts to change what you see.

It’s good for you to repent and be cleansed from sin, but that’s not the same as learning to love people well with your words. Since what you’re about to post is going to be read by other image-bearers of God, it’s worth taking a moment to consider how it might affect them.

Envision someone’s face and ask yourself: When they read my post, will they be helped, encouraged, challenged, or better off by what I said? Or might they be hurt, discouraged, disheartened, upset, or tempted to believe that evil is good or vice versa?

4. Remember, there are no secrets on the internet.

Remind your children of this point. They need to understand that they have little control once they hit “enter,” that posts develop lives of their own. Even if you delete one, someone may have already copied it and sent it on.

This is a good opportunity to teach your children, “Don’t say or write anything that you don’t want everyone in the universe to hear.” While this should be our communication goal in all of life (Luke 12:2–3), it’s essential in online discourse. Help your children become wiser in what they say by teaching them to ask, “Will I still think well of this post when _________ (my parents, my children, a potential boy/girlfriend, future employer, or my pastor) reads it?”

5. Develop real community.

There will be times when you or your child are still not sure about whether to post something even after you’ve thought about how it could affect others and whether you’ll still be proud of it later.

What do you do then? That’s when I run things past trusted people who already know the worst about me and love me anyway. You can use the uncertainty of the virtual community to build more solid connections in the physical world that will help you relate better to both.

Means of Growth

The online community can tempt you to say things you otherwise might not, but it can also be an avenue that helps you grow spiritually.

Take that opportunity seriously and use it to see yourself more clearly, get grace more quickly, and build relationships with people in time and space who really know you.

Pastor, Your Future Is Brighter Than You Think

Tue, 07/23/2019 - 12:02am

Like a flashlight to the eyes, present circumstances can often blind us to future reality. And if we church-planting pastors are honest, it’s far too easy to lose sight of eternity.

From the early days of a new church, to the stabilizing phase of a healthy church, along with the multiplying phase of a mature church, our vision of the “unseen things” that last forever (2 Cor. 4:18) can quickly become clouded by the “seen things” that are passing away.

We’ve all felt it. The ministry tensions around resources and strategy that pull us in a hundred competing directions. The tyranny of the urgent, though not necessarily important. The fatigue that comes from paddling through the online sea of unending information, opinions, and rage.

I’ve looked into the eyes of too many pastors (including the one in the mirror) who’ve developed a “ministry flinch” every time an ominous text or email hits their screen. Here we go again, we sigh. And the future eternal reality that is ours in Christ, which God is moving us toward with absolute certainty, seems to become a little less believable, and a little too far off in the distance to make any meaningful difference in how we respond in such situations.

Remembering our grace-initiated trajectory toward a glorious eternity does something in us. It fuels the fires of hope.

No wonder Jonathan Edwards prayed, “Lord, stamp eternity on my eyeballs!”


We too need to lay hold of such a prayer. Remembering our grace-initiated trajectory toward a glorious eternity does something in us. It fuels the fires of hope. And our hope is not one of nervous optimism, but confident anticipation.

Like the moments before being reunited with a loved one.

Like a song right before the beat drops.

Like the sun’s rising.

We know exactly what’s coming. We’ve been given a peek into the final page of God’s great story. No wonder Paul links “not losing heart” with “looking toward the eternal” (2 Cor. 4:16–18).

Whether we’re in the early stages of planting a church or nearing the finish line after decades of running the marathon, we need the eternal to “break in” on us. Whatever metrics we’re using to measure our ministry, we need to calibrate them to the trajectory of renewal that God has the entire universe on. For those of us who’ve pledged our lives to advancing the gospel through planting church-planting churches, here are a few things we need to remember.

Tired to Renewed

In service to Jesus, we can expect the daily breakdown of our bodies along with the daily renewal of our spirits (2 Cor. 4:16). And in light of Christ’s sacrifice for us, we eagerly and willingly pour ourselves out for the sake of others (1 Pet. 5:1–4). In other words, if we’re living on God’s mission (not ours) according to God’s will (not ours), then there is no alternative: we are going to get tired.

  • Responding to those in need of pastoral tenderness tires us.
  • Discipling the little people who bear our last name tests us.
  • The inevitable breakdown of our bodies over time takes its toll.
  • The weekly grind of preparing another sermon haunts us in a strangely wonderful—yet wearying—way.

According to Paul, a sense of weariness in service to Jesus is, well, normal. Tiredness in ministry does not signal the absence of the Spirit. There’s a reason God has given us the weekly gift of a sabbath along with moment-by-moment access to the throne of grace (Heb. 4:16).

Tiredness is completely compatible with faithful, Spirit-empowered gospel ministry. Self-reliance, however, is not.

We can take heart is because our hope not in our dying and decaying selves, but in a God who specializes in resurrection.

We can take heart, because our hope is not in our dying and decaying selves, but in a God who specializes in resurrection. And he wants us to remember that the resurrection of Jesus not only has cosmic implications for the glorified future his people will share with all of creation (Rom. 8:19–22), but also personal and continuous implications that energize us in the midst of daily struggles.

In other words, God is as committed to shepherding you through the difficulties of next Tuesday as he is the redemption of the universe. You have not been overlooked.

Hurt to Healed

Knowing our afflictions are preparing us for incomparable glory (2 Cor. 4:17) means we can be honest about our struggles without being morbid about them. Paul is not minimizing the difficulty of ministry; he is maximizing our hope. In God’s sovereign hand, every single thing that rallies against us will one day serve us.

Every betrayal, every word of slander, every disappointment, every cheap shot, every failure, and every late-night anxiety—all of it will serve our joy in glory. Not one dark day will be wasted. These lose power to bully us when we see what they really are through the lens of eternity: God-ordained servants of our sanctification.

When we measure our present moments of difficulty by our guaranteed future, our anxieties turn into prayer; our weariness into courage. We don’t shrink back from whatever struggles Jesus may lead us into for the sake of his name. When the day of gospel pain turns up on our calendar, we stand firm; in Christ’s presence, on God’s Word, with and for God’s people.

In the end, every one of our afflictions will prove no different from a cloud that briefly blocked our view of the sun. Then, we will say of our darkest circumstances: Oh, Those? Those struggles? That pain? Nothing but light and momentary. Or in the words of Teresa of Avila, “In light of heaven, the worst suffering on earth will be seen to be no more serious than one night in an inconvenient hotel.”

Eternal Lens

So like Paul, we’re learning to look not to the seen things that are transient, but the unseen things that are eternal (2 Cor. 4:18). Or, we’re learning to see our present difficulties through the lens of eternity. A Day is coming where our gospel will no longer be news we announce, but a deep glory we enjoy, the fruits of which will only get sweeter throughout the ages.

So think with me about a definite moment in your distant future. Think of your ten billionth anniversary in glory. There you are, standing with Jesus, looking squarely into his eyes, “no longer in a mirror dimly, but face to face” (1 Cor. 13:12). In that moment, you will experience an affection from him and a glory in him so dazzling—so overwhelmingly captivating—that as you try to recall the worst moment of your short earthly existence or the most difficult situation you faced in his service, you will say, “I don’t even know how to compare the two!”

No one in the new creation will ever wonder, Was it really worth it?

No one in the new creation will ever wonder, Was it really worth it? We can face the days ahead with confident anticipation. While we may not know the exact path forward, we do know our guide, along with the promises of what he’s prepared for us. And it’s more glorious than we could ever imagine.

So onward we stumble. Knowing his promises, let’s gladly embrace the cost now. Sooner than we think, we will be embraced by Christ in glory.

The Curse of Cain: Travel Isn’t Everything We Make It Out to Be

Tue, 07/23/2019 - 12:00am

“We are all strangers in a strange land, longing for home, but not quite knowing what or where home is. We glimpse it sometimes in our dreams, or as we turn a corner, and suddenly there is a strange, sweet familiarity that vanishes almost as soon as it comes.” Madeleine L’Engle

A key moment in the last presidential campaign came early, in 2015. Hillary Clinton believed one of her political advantages was her long experience on the global stage. She therefore often talked about her tenure as Secretary of State. She captured that idea by telling crowds she had visited more than 100 countries.

However, Carly Fiorina, the former CEO of global giant Hewlett-Packard, had also been on a few airplanes, and she neutralized Clinton’s argument. “Like Hillary Clinton,” Fiorina began, “I too have traveled hundreds of thousands of miles around the globe. But unlike Hillary Clinton, I know that flying is an activity, not an accomplishment.”

The line was clever and effective. It more or less vaporized one of Clinton’s most important campaign talking points, and it signaled that Fiorina could run with the big dogs, rhetorically speaking anyway.

But it also caused me to wonder: Why do we put so much stock in travel? “Join the Navy, See the World” was an old recruiting campaign. Ask recent college graduates what kind of job they’re looking for, and a high percentage will say they want a job that will allow them to travel. In fact, in a survey of millennials conducted by the Boston Consulting Group (BCG), 70 percent of respondents said travel is a major reason they work. About 72 percent said they want to visit five continents in their lifetime.

Fiorina’s “flying is an activity, not an accomplishment” memo clearly hadn’t reached their desks.

Curse of Travel

In ancient times, travel was a curse, not a blessing. In fact, the blessing of home and the curse of travel are ideas baked into our cultural imagination. The first road trip came when Adam and Eve rebelled against God; they had to flee the Garden of Eden. When Cain killed his brother Abel, Cain’s punishment was to roam the earth. The prodigal son’s rebellion and ingratitude led him to travel. That story ends happily only after he returns home. And when the older brother complains that he hadn’t been allowed to take his inheritance and leave, the father reminds him that simply remaining at home was its own reward.

Judeo-Christian literature isn’t alone in extolling the glories of home and the dangers of travel. In The Odyssey, it takes an event no less traumatic than a war, and the duty it demands, to rip Odysseus from kith and kin, and the entire epic narrative has our hero moving toward a single objective: home.

In ancient times, travel was a curse, not a blessing.

In these and many other stories, travel is dangerous. The physical dangers were obvious enough. Travel took one away from the protections of home—the constable, the walls of the city, the caring neighbor who would come running at the sound of your alarm. In fact, the word travel probably originates in the 14th century with the Old French word travail, which means “work.” The word appears in Middle English as travailen or travelen, which means to “torment, labor, strive, or journey.”

But travel’s hardships were more than physical. It was also dangerous to the soul. Odysseus had to face the temptation of the Siren’s Song, among many others. Travel took Jesus from his home in Galilee to the wilderness and the temptations of Satan, and ultimately to Jerusalem and to Calvary.

Indeed, one of the classic “road trip” stories of all time is Don Quixote, now considered a high-water mark in the literature of the late Renaissance. The delusional anti-hero of that story “tilts at windmills,” thinks his broken-down horse Rocinante is a noble steed, mistakes prostitutes for ladies of the court, and has his sanity restored only when he returns home.

The message of these stories is clear: travel was a travail to be avoided. It was (in the case of Cain) punishment or (for Odysseus and Jesus) made necessary by the profound brokenness of the world. If you actually desired travel, as Don Quixote did, you were surely sick in the head, or the heart, or both.

Is it any wonder, then, that perhaps the most memorable line in one of the 20th century’s most memorable movies is simply this: “There’s no place like home.”

Purpose of Travel

The Renaissance is when many of our modern notions of travel were born. During the Renaissance it became fashionable for aristocrats and the wealthy—especially among the British upper classes—to travel to significant European cities as capstones to their Oxbridge educations. These “Grand Tours” weren’t undertaken merely to see the sights, though; they helped prepare young men to take their places as members of the ruling class. The itineraries often included introductions to families of similar standing in the capitals of Europe. Eventually, women also took “The Grand Tour,” sometimes finding spouses.

Socialist historian E. P. Thompson said the Grand Tour was vital to perpetuate the ruling classes. In his influential book The Making of the English Working Class, he writes: “Ruling-class control in the 18th century was primarily a cultural hegemony, and only secondarily an expression of economic or physical (military) power.”

Politics is downstream from culture, and travel allowed the upper classes to accumulate social and cultural capital. It’s therefore not surprising that when the Industrial Revolution created a mercantile class of nouveau riche, they too wanted access to that social capital. Travel therefore became a status symbol of the wealthy and an aspiration of the middle class.

By the mid-19th century the Cook’s Tour became a Grand Tour for first the nouveau riche and then the aspirational class. Such tours were arranged by British entrepreneur Thomas Cook, a former Baptist missionary who became a pioneer in the travel and tourism industry. Package tours eventually became a staple of the travel and tourism industry, and they continued to offer the traveler the ancillary benefit of social capital. Elizabeth Currid-Halkett in her book on the “aspirational class,” The Sum of Small Things, said that such “bespoke experiences” offer more than just sight-seeing, even today. “Traveling like this,” she writes, “has the second-order effect of generating cultural capital and symbolic boundaries and numerous non-pecuniary signifiers of being well-rounded, knowledgeable, and probably interesting at dinner parties.”

People who engage in such travel often talk about its virtues as a broadening experience. We might let the Roman philosopher Seneca stand in for many who have extolled the virtues of travel: “Travel and change of place impart new vigor to the mind.”

Even if Seneca’s saying is true, one still has to grapple with the fact that so much of travel today has become anything but a “change of place.” For all kinds of good reasons—most of them related to safety and convenience—travel has devolved into a homogenized experience. KFC is in Kazakhstan and Kigali as well as Kentucky. It becomes harder and harder to experience a real “change of place” if one limits oneself to the standard travel destinations. As The Avett Brothers sing, “All exits look the same.”

Blinding Convenience of Travel

From our 21st-century vantage point, it’s easy to see the class consciousness and elitism built into the Grand Tour. But for all its class-consciousness, class-segregation, and overt mission of class-preservation, the Grand Tour at least offered the benefits of an immersive experience for the traveler. The young man on his Grand Tour was, for example, expected to use the languages he’d previously studied only in books. He was expected to maintain the relationships he began on such travels. The continued well-being of his family and perhaps even his country depended on it. Such travel had a purpose related to calling in life.

Today, though, package tours follow well-trod paths and shield the traveler from experiences that might challenge cultural assumptions. The primary purpose of such travel is to divert, to entertain, to amuse. The buses are air-conditioned, the guides speak English, as do the proprietors of all the restaurants and hotels they visit. Clever shopkeepers from Delhi to Sao Paolo accept American dollars, though you will likely pay a premium price for the privilege. Most Americans gladly accept this “tourist tax” as a cost of convenience. If you’re not careful, you could end up buying souvenirs in Reykjavik and Rio made in the same province in China.

One of the more ironic aspects of modern travel is that the convenience it offers mostly erases the possibility of a truly immersive cultural experience. The only people you will significantly interact with are your fellow travelers, who will be overwhelmingly your age and social and economic status. (After all, if they were poor, they couldn’t afford the trip. And if they were richer, they would have taken the more expensive trip, with the four-star hotels instead of the three-star hotels.)

David Foster Wallace skewered such travel when Harper’s Magazine sent him on a Caribbean cruise, an experience that eventually became one of his most famous essays: “A Supposedly Fun Thing I’ll Never Do Again.”

I now know the difference between straight bingo and Prize-O. I have seen fluorescent luggage and fluorescent sunglasses and fluorescent pince-nez and over 20 different makes of rubber thong. I have heard steel drums and eaten conch fritters and watched a woman in silver lamé projective-vomit inside a glass elevator.

He concludes:

Some weeks before I underwent my own Luxury Cruise, a 16-year-old male did a half gainer off the upper deck of a Megaship. The news version of the suicide was that it had been an unhappy adolescent love thing, a ship-board romance gone bad. But I think part of it was something no news story could cover. There’s something about a mass-market Luxury Cruise that’s unbearably sad.

Don DeLillo has a telling scene about travel and tourism near the beginning of what may be his most famous novel, White Noise. In the countryside is a barn touted as “The Most Photographed Barn in America.” Signs proclaiming so abound for miles around. On reading this passage it’s easy to conjure the real-life signs that say “See Rock City” or “The Big Texan” or “South of the Border” in real-life 21st-century America. When the narrator and his friend Murray arrive, they encounter a barn of no particular distinctiveness or beauty. The only unusual features are the “40 cars and a tour bus in the makeshift parking lot.”

We walked along a cowpath to the slightly elevated spot set aside for viewing and photographing. All the people had cameras: some had tripods, telephoto lenses, filter kits. A man in a booth sold postcards and slides—pictures of the barn taken from the elevated spot. We stood near a grove of trees and watched the photographers. Murray maintained a prolonged silence, occasionally scrawling some notes in a little book.

“No one sees the barn,” he finally said.

A long silence followed.

“Once you’ve seen the signs about the barn, it becomes impossible to see the barn.”

He fell silent once more. People with cameras left the elevated spot, replaced at once by others.

“We’re not here to capture an image, we’re here to maintain one. Every photograph reinforces the aura. Can you feel it, Jack? An accumulation of nameless energies. . . . Being here is a kind of spiritual surrender. We see only what the others see. The thousands who were here in the past, those who will come in the future. We’ve agreed to be part of a collective perception. This literally colors our vision. A religious experience in a way, like all tourism.”

Damage of Short-Term Missions

Perhaps the most obvious place to see tourism masquerading as a religious experience is in a modern phenomenon of the evangelical church: the short-term mission trip.

Robert Priest, professor of mission and intercultural studies at Trinity Evangelical Divinity School, has studied the growth in short-term mission projects:

The number of lay people in the United States involved in short term missions grew from an estimated 540 in 1965 to 22,000 in 1979. By 1989 it had grown to an estimated 120,000. Three years later the figure had doubled to 250,000. It is now estimated that there are at least a million short-termers [each year].

A significant reason for the explosive growth in short-term mission trips is the growth of what some have called the ‘Christian Industrial Complex,’ a for-profit industry that has made the church and church members a lucrative marketplace.

A significant reason for the explosive growth in short-term mission trips is the growth of what some have called the “Christian Industrial Complex,” a for-profit industry that has made the church and church members a lucrative market. For example, today “Christian” travel agents and tour companies specialize in trips to Israel, or mission trips to parts of the world near and far. These companies are adept at offering discounts and free accommodations to the tour organizers—often pastors and youth ministers who wouldn’t otherwise be able to afford such trips. Thus incentivized, church leaders become highly effective local, on-the-ground salespeople for their trips.

Priest is critical of these short-term mission trips, saying they are more about sightseeing than service. “The shift to short-term missions is significant,” he writes. “It may be the first mission movement in church history that is based largely on the needs of the missionary.”

In fact, Bob Lupton believes these short-term mission trips have a detrimental effect. Lupton spent a career ministering to the poor, mostly in inner-city Atlanta. His books Theirs Is the Kingdom and Toxic Charity have become must-reads for those who work in Christian philanthropy.

Lupton writes that his eyes were opened on a trip to Nicaragua. He said Americans would pay thousands of dollars to come to Nicaragua to help build a church or run a week-long camp for children. The money spent on airfare alone would have supported local workers for many months, even years. Lupton’s tour guide Juan, on close questioning by Lupton, admitted that churches that had partnerships with U.S. churches were “destroying the initiative of the people.” According to Lupton, “Entrepreneurship declines as dollars and free resources flood in. People become conditioned to wait for the next mission group to arrive instead of doing the work to build their businesses.” He said the net effect is that dignity is eroded and people come to view themselves as charity cases for wealthy visitors.

Lupton concluded:

Nicaragua has disturbed me. It calls into question the way the Western church does mission. Sure we know better than to spoil a culture with our kindness. We know that doing for others what they can do for themselves is fundamentally hurtful—to both giver and recipient. We must find a better way.

Spiritual Restlessness

Given this obsession with travel, with movement, it’s not unreasonable to ask: What are we running from? What are we searching for?

Henry David Thoreau asked such questions. He was at the center of what was perhaps America’s first indigenous literary and philosophical movements: transcendentalism. Thoreau was also one of America’s first travel writers. One of his first works was “A Walk to Wachusett,” published in 1843 in The Boston Miscellany. It recounts a short walking trip from his home in Concord to the summit of Mount Wachusett. Other travel narratives followed, including “A Week on the Concord and Merrimac Rivers,” “An Excursion to Canada,” and the book that some consider a rival to Walden as his masterwork: The Maine Woods.

Thoreau occasionally praised travel. “Methinks that moment my legs begin to move, the thoughts begin to flow,” he wrote. However, Thoreau by and large disdained the impulse of America toward movement. He thought that impulse was born of a spiritual restlessness, at best. At times he even conjured images of America as Eden, and our impulse toward movement, especially westward expansion, as an effort to be “as god.” In an 1853 letter to H. G. O. Blake, he wrote:

The whole enterprise of this nation, which is not an upward, but a westward one, toward Oregon, California, Japan, &c, is totally devoid of interest to me, whether performed on foot, or by a Pacific railroad. It is not illustrated by a thought; it is not warmed by a sentiment; there is nothing in it which one should lay down his life for, nor even his gloves—hardly which one should take up a newspaper for. It is perfectly heathenish—a filibustering toward heaven by the great western route. No; they may go their way to their manifest destiny, which I trust is not mine.

Even in his travel narratives, Thoreau often expressed a longing for home. In The Maine Woods, he commented on the great American restlessness toward the West, and observed that around his own home was many a “lesser Oregon and California” that was “left unexplored behind us . . . as we have advanced by leaps to the Pacific.”

In the end, Thoreau concluded, “We need only travel enough to give our intellects an airing.”

Travels of Jesus

Jesus wasn’t much of a traveler. That’s not obvious if you read the Bible only superficially, since he is often on the road. It’s also true that we don’t have a reliable record of the “lost years of Jesus,” between age 12, when he traveled with his family to Jerusalem, and age 30, when he began his public ministry. Legends have emerged to fill these years. One legend has him traveling to Tibet, another to Britain. These legends have no historical evidence to support them, and some of them have been fully discredited as fabrications.

In fact, other than Jesus’s trip to Egypt (less than 200 miles from Bethlehem) as an infant to avoid Herod’s slaughter of all children younger than 2, it’s likely that Jesus lived his entire life within a hundred miles of his birthplace, and he lived the vast majority of his life within 25 miles of his parents’ home in Nazareth. If travel broadens the mind, or increases one’s spiritual, intellectual, or emotional depth, if it enlarges one’s empathy for other people and cultures . . . well, you couldn’t get that from a close look at the life of Jesus.

It’s likely that Jesus lived his entire life within a hundred miles of his birthplace, and he lived the vast majority of his life within 25 miles of his parents’ home in Nazareth.

In fact, Jesus too seemed to view wandering as a sign of the brokenness of the world. When a “teacher of the law” said he wanted to follow Jesus, Jesus told him, “Foxes have holes and birds of the air have nests, but the Son of Man has no place to lay his head” (Luke 9:58). The life of the sojourner, the pilgrim, the wanderer, Jesus seems to be saying, is one of hardship.

Or consider one of Jesus’s most spectacular miracles, the story of the Gerasene Demoniac, the “Man of the Tombs,” a story told in Mark 5. In this story, Jesus heals a man who had been tormented by a “legion” of demons. The man, now “clothed and in his right mind,” understandably wants to follow Jesus. In fact, Mark tells us the man “begged” to go with Jesus.

But Jesus told the man he could best serve by letting those who had seen him before see him now. So Jesus wouldn’t let the man follow him. Instead, Jesus gave the man a simple, direct, but in some ways almost heart-breaking command:

“Go home.”

Traveling for Wisdom

Gandalf famously said, “Not all who wander are lost.” He seems to be praising what we might call “purposeful travel.” On the other hand, we have this from the wise Bilbo Baggins: “It is a dangerous business, Frodo, going out on the road.”

We live in the tension between these two understandings of travel. We should avoid the temptation to reduce these reflections to dogma. “Travel is good” or “travel is bad” aren’t conclusions to which logic or experience or Scripture lead us. Indeed, travel isn’t forbidden by God, and—from time to time—God bids us: “Go.”

‘Travel is good’ or ‘travel is bad’ aren’t conclusions to which logic or experience or Scripture lead us.

Still, it seems prudent to have a healthy skepticism about the individual and cultural costs of travel. At a minimum, if we do travel, we should travel with our eyes open, not as tourists but as pilgrims, collecting wisdom and not trinkets and souvenirs.

And what’s the highest wisdom we can collect from our travels? What’s the difference between the pilgrim and the tourist? It may be this: The realization that no matter where we go in this great big world, and no matter how many people we see who look and dress and talk differently from ourselves . . . . Despite all that, we are all the same, we all bear the imago Dei, the image of God. We are all broken by the fall.

We all long for home.

Who First Showed David Dockery the Beauty of Jesus?

Mon, 07/22/2019 - 12:04am

My earliest memories of hearing the gospel of Jesus Christ are closely connected with the love and faithfulness of my mother. I now recognize what a blessed providence it was to grow up in a Christian home in which my father and mother believed the good news of the gospel. Moreover, they were deeply invested in the life of the church.

Years before I could read, my mother, Pansye Elizabeth Pierson Dockery, read Bible stories to me and helped me memorize verses from the King James Version of the Bible. She was to me what Lois and Eunice were to young Timothy (2 Tim. 1:5).

Baptist Tradition

I grew up in a working-class home on the western side of Birmingham, Alabama. Neither of my parents attended college, nor did their parents. My father taught me the importance of hard work. He worked long hours, six days each week. Still, we were always in church every Sunday. In fact, my name was on the cradle roll before I was even born. Sundays in our Southern Baptist home included Sunday school, morning worship, afternoon choir practice, Bible drills, Training Union, less formal church services in the evening, and then an after-church fellowship. Sundays were extremely busy days. And it didn’t stop there. Wednesdays included church suppers, prayer meetings, teachers and officers meeting, Sunbeams, Royal Ambassadors, Girls Auxiliary, committee meetings, and choir practice.

During the week, there were other church activities, sandwiched wherever they could be placed on the calendar. In so many ways, it was exhausting growing up as a Southern Baptist. My mother helped to shepherd me through these numerous activities, encouraging me to be properly prepared for each one. She made sure I read my Bible each day and studied my Sunday school lesson each week.

When I turned 9 years old, I was given a hardback Bible—a format more conducive to “sword drills,” where we learned to find passages located anywhere in the Bible, while memorizing numerous verses. My mother served as my coach and teacher. I loved those Bible drills and, with my mother’s support, I became a two-time Bible-drill champion of the entire Birmingham Association when I was 10 and 11 years old. In all of these things, my mother, who was largely self-educated, taught me precious truths that provided the foundation for the rest of my theological education: that God is love, that the Bible is true, and that Jesus saves. In addition, she introduced me to the Baptist tradition, telling me the inspirational stories of courageous Baptist missionaries.

During those early years I publicly professed my faith in Jesus Christ, which was followed by baptism. This public profession followed years of instruction from my mother, who led me to trust in the saving work of Christ. Moreover, she had prayed for me every day of my life, asking God not only to save me from my sins, but also to call me into Christian ministry.

Campus Crusade

My mother was a loving and dedicated follower of Christ, and she was also a genuinely committed Baptist. When I became involved with Campus Crusade for Christ (now Cru) as a sophomore at the University of Alabama, my mother became concerned that I might be a part of a cult-like group. In my mother’s insulated world, she had hardly been introduced to anything outside of Southern Baptist life, apart from Billy Graham and his connection with the broader evangelical community.

During my college days, I had the privilege to attend a summer-long Institute for Biblical Studies, sponsored by Campus Crusade. Here I was introduced to serious Bible study and the basics of Christian theology and apologetics. Those weeks were truly transformational for me. When I returned home, my mother’s fears regarding the ministry of Campus Crusade had been put to rest. She rejoiced that her prayers had been answered. That summer not only brought me to a deeper understanding of the gospel, but also to a renewed love of the Bible, which pointed me in the direction of Christian ministry. My mother sought to encourage those directions by purchasing my first theology books as well as my first Bible commentaries.

Kindness of Christ

One of the verses Mother taught me as a young boy was Ephesians 4:32: “Be ye kind one to another, tenderhearted, forgiving one another, even as God for Christ’s sake hath forgiven you.” Later, when I went to seminary, I learned that the Greek word for kindness (chrestos) in that verse was quite similar to the word for Christ (christos). As I now reflect on why I was drawn to my mother’s instruction regarding the things of Christ, I have come to realize it was her kindness that so readily illuminated the gospel of Christ for me (see 1 Pet. 2:3).

My mother was hardly perfect. Like all of us, she fell short in many areas. She was, however, the kindest person I have ever met. In her life I saw reflected genuine kindness and goodness, markers of the fruit of the Spirit (Gal. 5:22–23). Such kindness was instrumental in leading me to repentance (Rom. 2:4), and pointing me to Jesus Christ as my Lord and Savior.

My mother went home to be with the Lord in 1999 at the age of 73. For her faithful life and immense influence in my life, I will always be grateful to God.

You can read previous installments in this series.

What Should I Do After High School?

Mon, 07/22/2019 - 12:03am

What would you say to someone who doesn’t have a clear idea of their vocation after graduating high school? Go on to college and pick a generic degree? Trade school? Gap year? Something else?

Thanks for this important question! This is an area where families and churches have a lot of recovery work to do on the doctrine of vocation. So many believers follow the educational tracks laid out for us by our culture, and then suddenly discover that no one has equipped them for vocational discernment when they get to the end of those tracks.

It’s important to recognize that your vocation doesn’t begin where your formal education ends. That idea comes from thinking about “vocation” (from the Latin vocare, meaning “to call”) as if it meant “career” (from the French carriere, meaning “to gallop”). In a time when almost no one has the same job—or even the same job track—their whole lives, we need to be aware that “vocation” means a lot more more than “career.”

In classic Protestant doctrine, vocation is the calling of the gospel. Our salvation calls us to a whole life formed throughout by the work of the Holy Spirit, conforming us to Christ in the gospel. Your formal education and your pursuit of a job are only two of many places where God summons you in this whole gospel-formed life.

So the questions you ask—Should I go to college? Should I go to trade school? Should I take a gap year?—can be reframed in light of the gospel call. Protestant theology has historically recognized three major categories for thinking about vocation:

  • What am I well-equipped to do, or what can I get well-equipped to do? This includes not only aptitudes, talents, and skills but also things like relationships, networks, credentials, and even doors of opportunity that get opened for you “by accident.”
  • What does the world around me need? Real vocational discernment is not narcissistic navel-gazing. It’s mission-focused. The goal is not self-fulfillment, but to put the holy love of God into action in a dark and broken world.
  • What do I feel called to? Although it’s not navel-gazing, real vocational discernment is really discernment. There’s no standardized test. God has authorized you to use your judgment, and a vocation that doesn’t feel right to you is less likely to be sustainable.

Of course, life isn’t this neat and tidy. Sometimes you can’t scratch all three itches well at the same time. But a wise approach to vocational discernment will take all three seriously.

As you already know, sitting around waiting for inspiration to strike isn’t a wise plan. But the options you’ve suggested all have merit. Taking a gap year to work or intern somewhere is a good way to feel out the everyday rhythms of a particular job. Trade school might be a great fit with your abilities and particular life situation. And a traditional Christian liberal-arts college education is just as much about transforming your mind to see all things through a Christian worldview as it is about career training. If the thing holding you back from such a program is your lack of vocational discernment, you might want to consider what larger value you might get out of college.

As you’re thinking, it’s a good idea to find older, experienced Christians—preferably ones who know you well and/or know the fields you’re considering working in—and talk with them. Discernment is an individual right and responsibility, but it is rarely done well in isolation. It thrives within Christian community.

As you feel your way forward, take heart. God placed you in this time and this space, with this education and those opportunities. He’s given you financial and geographical and familial limits. He’s been with you since before you were born, planning your steps.

The psalmist promises that if you delight yourself in God, he will give you the desires of your heart (Ps. 37:4). And as you pursue him, in his right time, he’ll show you how to pursue them.

You can read other questions and answers in the Thorns & Thistles series.

Does God Love You? You Own Tangible Evidence.

Mon, 07/22/2019 - 12:02am

When was the last time the Bible astonished you? I don’t mean something in the Bible. I mean the Bible itself.

Perhaps you’re not entirely sure what I’m talking about. The Bible’s existence? That’s always struck you as a given, not a miracle.

I can relate. As a kid, I respected the Bible. I even planned to read it cover to cover one day. But compared to my glossy album of basketball trading cards, it simply lacked luster. I’ll get around to it, I must’ve thought while staring at the shelf. Yawn.

For years I continued to affirm the truthfulness of Scripture with my lips while functionally neglecting it with my life. Even though I genuinely trusted God and knew much about his Word, I maintained a respectful ambivalence toward it that lasted through high school. It wasn’t until my freshman year of college that things decisively changed.

So what was I missing? What did I fail to grasp, or even consider, for almost two decades? I was missing what the existence of God’s Word proves about God himself.

Talkative God

If the existence of the Bible reveals anything about God, it’s that he’s a talker. He could have remained silent. He really could have. But he didn’t. Your Bible is tangible evidence that the Maker of the universe is a communicator; he initiates, reveals, and speaks.

There are, after all, only two options when it comes to knowledge of our Creator: revelation or speculation. Either he speaks, or we guess.

And he has spoken. As someone once put it, the God of heaven and earth forfeited “his personal privacy” to befriend us. I love that. Your Bible is like an all-access pass into the revealed mind and heart of God.

Your Bible is like an all-access pass into the revealed mind and heart of God.

So far, so good. But here’s what I missed growing up. I assumed that since God is a talker, I must somehow deserve his words. Why else would he have bothered to say so much?

Doubly Undeserving

But not only do I not deserve to hear from God, I am doubly undeserving of it. First, because I am simply a created being. Second, because I am a sinner.

It’s amazing enough that God would communicate with creatures of the dust. In Genesis 1 and 2, he fashions our first parents and befriends them with words. Again, he didn’t have to do this. We run the risk of being so familiar with the story that it somehow fails to stun us, or even to interest us. Of course God initiated a friendship with Adam and Eve, we think. Of course he wanted them to know his love. Of course he talked with them. That’s just what God . . . does.

We should never take for granted that the exalted Creator would befriend the work of his hands. But that’s precisely what he did.

We should never take for granted that the exalted Creator would befriend the work of his hands. But that’s precisely what he did.

As the story continues in Genesis 3, everything unravels as Adam and Eve listen to the whispers of a serpent over the words of God. Eating the fruit wasn’t a minor infraction; it was cosmic treason against their good and generous Lord.

Have you ever received the silent treatment after offending someone? It’s not pleasant. Sometimes it’s deserved; sometimes it’s not. Though Adam and Eve deserved the ultimate silent treatment for all eternity, God initiated a conversation. He stooped to speak. He pursued a relationship with rebels, one that would require the death of his only Son to repair.

So, given that we’re not only creatures of the dust but also traitors against heaven’s throne, the talkativeness of God is astounding. He would’ve been entirely right to leave us to ourselves, sunk in an ocean of ignorance (since we’re creatures) and guilt (since we’re sinners).

But he didn’t. He peeled back the curtain. And then opened his holy mouth.

Any authentic knowledge of God hinges on his generous self-disclosure to us. Only through his words can we discover who he is, what he’s like, what he’s after, and how we can know him.

This ought to humble us deeply. The Bible you possess is evidence that God loves you and wants a relationship with you. No matter who you are or how many times you’ve spurned his love, he is still moving toward you, still talking to you—still befriending you—through a book.