New Post Coming Soon on Secularism

In the next few weeks or so I should be posting a new blog on secularism. My guess is you’ve heard that our culture is becoming more secular. But what does that mean? What is secularism? How does secularism manifest itself? How should the church respond? Obviously these are huge questions that deserve a book-length treatment. I won’t be writing a book, just a short blog. Stay tuned . . .

25 Good Quotes from A Book

Titles for books aren’t always helpful. Given this reality it’s possible that you pick up a book thinking it’s going to be really bad, but once you start reading you find out it’s really good. This is what happened to me when I worked my way through Harry Schaumburg’s book False Intimacy: Understanding the Struggle of Sexual Addiction.

The book was required reading for my pastoral counseling class. As soon as I saw the title for the book I thought to myself, “This probably won’t help me at all.” How wrong I was! I took eleven pages of notes. Page after page of my copy is filled with highlights, along with underlined sentences, brackets around paragraphs, etc.

Even if you don’t struggle with sexual addiction, you should read this book. In fact, if you’re put-off by the title, forget about it. Think of it as a book on addiction in general. That’s basically what it is. I found it to be incredibly helpful in understanding how God works in our lives, what God wants to do in our lives, as well as how to cope with struggles, disappointments, and unmet expectations. In what follows, you’ll find twenty-five quotes that stood out to me. Trust me, you’ll find these convicting and enlightening:

“[I]n every relationship there is a feeling of inadequacy or shame. . . . We want to feel confident and in control, acting like people we really aren’t. We hope to impress people sufficiently so they will accept us in the way we deeply desire. We fear being ‘found out’ and losing relationships with others. We conclude that the people we interact with determine our personal value. We trust in the false gods of people who can let us down rather than recognizing that only God can give us ultimate value, experiencing legitimate shame because we don’t trust Him as Father, and choosing to depend on Him to meet our deepest needs for intimacy” (32).

“Either the deceitful heart can change, or Christian faith is just a lot of fanfare” (54).

“The essence of sin is autonomy from God, a failure to be dependent on Him” (60).

“Natural human desire becomes an evil desire when the desire has the objective of self-interest. . . . It is hard to see self-interest, especially in ourselves, when we hurt so much and just want what seems so legitimate—relief. But when we turn our own unmet legitimate desires into justifications to take matters into our own hands, we cross the line into evil desire” (63).

“God doesn’t promise to fulfill all our desires in this life. Only when we acknowledge our helplessness and our inability to meet our deepest needs can He pick us up, enable us see ourselves as we really are, and provide eternal restoration and healing” (68).

“The popular way of understanding what life is all about is to look at the human condition as defined by our own understanding rather than by God’s wisdom communicated through the Bible” (73).

“Frequently we do not see God being in the circumstance unless He is doing something that prevents the situation from happening or changing the circumstances” (86). . . We even go as far as expecting divine protection as an inalienable right” (144).

Many of us believe “that difficult situations place an obligation on God to respond according to what we define as necessary to our well-being” (86).

“To taste what we desire and don’t have is to know the level of helplessness that either moves us toward God or drives us toward insanity” (105).

“Most of us will discover that when we relate to others, even to a spouse we have promised to love and cherish, we do so with self-centeredness or self-protection. We don’t want to face the fact that we’ve failed to love our spouse in significant ways. That feels as if we’re beginning to crawl on our bellies into a dark cave. So we tend to believe in our own goodness” (106).

As you examine yourself and your motives, you’ll head in one of two directions. Either you will harden yourself to shore up your own defenses while you try to rely even more on yourself, or you will soften, allowing your self-reliance to seep away as you know God more intimately. This latter process will be painful, but it is only through the fire of such self-examination that any of us can be refined” (108).

“Many people want to be able to sin with impunity and still have God’s blessing on their lives” (134).

“Whenever self-interest remains a priority, biblical faintheartedness is the result. It is easy to feel sorry for someone, easier to feel sorry for ourselves. When our lives, and particularly our relationships are in total chaos, self-interest (taking care of ourselves) comes naturally. Trusting in God seems insane. More often than not, we define faith as seeing God in circumstances. But in chaos we never see God. Faith should be defined as knowing that God sees us in the chaos. Self-interest leads to self-pity, which leads to faintheartedness, not godly courage” (138).

 “The Bible never condemns us for admitting weakness. If anything, God condemns us for finding strength” (143).

Read the next three quotes carefully and perhaps pause to pray, asking God to search your own heart: “The deceitful heart comes to Jesus with preconceived notions of its own, which become fundamental heresies. The most common has to do with what Jesus will do. There is massive unlearning to be done at this point. Then, and only then, can we fix our eyes on Jesus, rather than on what He is doing in our lives” (144).

“Faith is very weak, if not impossible, when life is built on our own terms and conditions” (145).

“When we can unlearn our independence, we can learn to trust in God Himself, not in what He is doing or not doing. Such brokenness leads to humility, which sustains godly courage over the long haul” (145).

“Humility is a willingness to surrender our rights to our rights. If we are sorrowful and grateful and admit our utter dependence on God, then we become broken. Out of that weakness flows a humility of spirit that voluntarily gives up all the rights we have to ourselves. The choice comes down to finding our life and therefore losing it, or losing our life and therefore finding it. It takes godly courage to lose everything in order to gain everything” (146).

“The essence of sin is ‘I will never allow anyone to rule my life other than myself.’ That rebelliousness is alive in an outwardly good man or women, and in an outwardly bad man or woman. Remember, sin is not about behavior but about our defiant claim to the right to rule our own life” (159).

“Am I willing to trust God with my pain and disappointment, to allow Him to be the source of ultimate fulfillment in my life? Will I submit to Him all my desires and my needs for relationships?” (166).

O, how desperately we need to learn this! – “Obeying God is not a formula for God to provide you with everything you consider to be essential to your life” (192).

“Simply living by the rules, obeying, and doing what is right, doesn’t indicate a pure heart. Until we deal with our internal uncleanness, we shouldn’t be shocked at sexual misconduct within the church” (196).

We need to be able to answer the question seriously: “What has God really promised to do in your life?”  – “When we begin to believe that God’s plan for our lives is to improve our relationships and circumstances now, churches quickly fill with people who focus on the primacy of personal need, evaluate God’s goodness in terms of meeting those needs, and subtly move to justify anything that feels like it’s from God” (198).

“Self-justification comes easily when we start with our needs and define God as the resource who will meet those needs. It’s easy to view God as the One who heals those needs rather than the One who deals with the sin that leads to eternal, spiritual death” (198).

“God’s primary purpose is not to offset the pain of living in this sinful world. He doesn’t exist simply to solve each and every problem we face in this life—or even the ones we perceive will crush us. He calls us to become absorbed in fulfilling His will and purpose, to deny ourselves for the good of others and to His glory. Our joy should be in serving and loving God” (199).

“In many ways, the church falsifies spiritual reality by pretending that people’s lives can be nearly perfect in this fallen world” (214).

Okay . . . take a deep breath. Inhale. Exhale. Some of those are hard to take in. I’m convinced, however, that a lot of our struggles as Christians (and non-Christians) stems from a misperception of what God’s ultimate plan is for us. If you’re anything like me, you need to go and spend some time alone with God, searching your heart, and asking yourself this question: Do I love God? Or am I using God to get something else besides God?

Serious about Joy

I’ll never forget the year 2005. Not only was it the year I started Bible College, but it was also the year I learned about biblical joy.

One evening I was sitting in my bed reading John Piper’s book The Dangerous Duty of Delight, and I felt a surge of energy within me. I thought to myself, “God is serious about my joy.” I wished someone had told me about this sooner! Through John Piper I learned about Jonathan Edwards, and through Edwards I learned (to quote Piper), “that God is glorified most not merely by being known, nor by merely being dutifully obeyed, but being enjoyed in the knowing and the obeying.”

Notice why God indicts his people through Moses: “Because you did not serve the Lord your God with joyfulness and gladness of heart . . .” (Deut. 28:47).

David referred to God as his exceeding joy (Ps. 43:4), and in another Psalm he calls God’s people to worship and to “Serve the LORD with gladness” (Ps. 100:2). Psalm 37:4 enjoins us to “Delight yourself in the LORD.” Like Moses in Psalm 90:14 we should pray, “Satisfy us in the morning with your lovingkindness, that we may . . . be glad all our days.” And finally, one of my favorite verses in the Bible (and the words my wife has been instructed to place on my tombstone): “In your presence there is fullness of joy; at your right hand are pleasures forevermore” (Ps. 16:11).

Of course, the idea of joy isn’t limited to the Old Testament. Jesus taught this as well. Counterintuitively, Jesus said, “Blessed are you when others revile you and persecute you and utter all kinds of evil against you falsely on my account. Rejoice and be glad” (Matt. 5:11-12a). On another occasion, he tells us why he instructs us: “These things I have spoken to you, that my joy may be in you, and that your joy may be full.” And why did he go to the cross? The writer to the Hebrews tells us: “. . . for the joy set before him” (12:2). Unbelievable.

Are you getting the hint yet that God is serious about joy? God doesn’t just want obedience; he want us to delight in obedience.

Take a few more examples–all of which indicate that we’re not only to act in a certain way, but to feel a certain way. When someone sins against us, Jesus says you must “forgive your brother from your heart” (Matt. 18:35). As Piper notes, Jesus does not say, “Make a mere decision to drop the grievance.” No. Jesus says, “Experience a change of heart.”

The apostles fall right in line. Peter commands us, “Having purified your souls by your obedience to the truth for a sincere brotherly love, love one another earnestly from a pure heart.” Paul, in Romans 12:10 also commands, “Love one another with brotherly affection.” This is the same apostle who said he was “sorrowful yet always rejoicing” (2 Cor. 6:10), hence his call to the Philippians to “rejoice in the Lord always” (4:4).

I always wanted joy. And so do you. Our problem, according to C. S. Lewis, is that “we are far too easily pleased.” We settle for “scenic vacations, accomplishments of creativity, stunning cinematic productions, sexual exploits, sports extravaganzas, hallucinogenic drugs, ascetic rigors, managerial excellence, etc. But the longing remains” (Piper).

Speaking personally, it wasn’t until God saved me that the longing was satisfied. To be sure, the ache for fullness of joy remains, but I experience the foretaste now. The best is yet to come.

A Brief Theology of How People Change

In my previous blog post I noted that I was writing a paper for school on how people change. For what it’s worth, I’ll go ahead and post it below for you perusal. Feedback is certainly welcome. It’s not perfect, but it is complete!

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In his conversation with Nicodemus in John 3, Jesus instructs his disciples on how renewal comes to a person’s life. He tells Nicodemus that he will be “lifted up,” and that the life of the age to come will invade the present life of anyone who looks to him in faith.[1] Nevertheless, while Christians believe God can change lives, they still struggle to grasp how this takes place. Without intending to be comprehensive, in what follows I will briefly sketch what the Bible teaches regarding how people change.

In short, biblical change is a process, beginning with regeneration. Following this supernatural act, transformation involves attending to the means of grace (prayer, Scripture, and sacraments), as well as ongoing repentance, disciplined reflection, redemptive relationships, understanding one’s new identity in Christ, and what a number of new writers refer to as “rehabituation.”

First, change begins with regeneration. Regeneration refers to the supernatural work of God, whereby he grants spiritual life to spiritually dead sinners (Ezek. 36:25-26; Eph. 2:1-3). In this act God renovates the heart—“the core of a person’s being, by implanting a new principle of desire, purpose, and action.”[2] Such a heart renovation is necessitated by the fact that, according to the Bible, the human heart is desperately wicked (Jer. 17:9), full of evil (Mk. 7:21-23), loves darkness rather than light (Jn. 3:19), does not seek God (Rom. 3:10-12), is a slave to sin (Jn. 8:34; Rom. 6:16-20), cannot understand spiritual things (1 Cor. 2:14), and cannot submit to God (Rom. 8:9).[3] Clearly, human beings need more than simply self-improvement; what is needed is resurrection life. Thankfully, this is exactly what God promises to give—resurrection life by virtue of our union with Christ.[4] God’s work of regeneration, then, is what brings desire for change, upending our fallen notions of happiness, reordering our loves so that we love him supremely and love everything else properly.[5]

Second, as one embarks on a journey of obedience, one must avail themselves to the “means of grace.” Simply stated, the means of grace are those spiritual “resources” God gives to his people to assist them in their walk with him.[6] Traditionally, the means of grace are identified as God’s Word, prayer, and the sacraments, but can also encompass “providences,” that is, various trials and hardships that come into one’s life.[7] As we sit under God’s Word in church and digest it in our personal lives, God remakes us in his Son’s image. As we speak to him in prayer, voicing our supplications and laments, we grow in closer communion with him. As we experience the confirmation of his promises made to us in the sacraments, our consciousness of salvation is strengthened, and we enjoy a preview of the supper we long to celebrate with our risen King (Isa. 25:6-9).[8] These are formative and shaping moments in our earthly pilgrimage.[9]

In addition to the means of grace enumerated above, several other practices are crucial for effecting change in a believer’s life. While not often mentioned, disciplined reflection is necessary if one is to enjoy transformation. By “disciplined,” I mean that one must discipline himself/herself to set aside time for reflection. By “reflection” I mean self-examination. Far from being an exercise in narcissistic navel-gazing, self-knowledge is a prerequisite for spiritual growth.[10] We must know ourselves well enough to be able to trace our acts of disobedience back to the wrong thinking patterns that gave birth to the sinful action in the first place. This enables us to break free from the idols that grip our hearts.

Sin, Richard Lovelace noted, is rooted in “an organic network of compulsive attitudes, beliefs, and behaviors deeply rooted in our alienation from God.”[11] Sustained reflection is needed for growth because we must learn why we do what we do and say what we say. We must look our sin squarely in the face and confess the heart attitudes behind them to God. Sadly, many Christians prefer to hide, remaining fiercely committed to self-protection. God, however, invites us to “come out of hiding.” “He loves us,” Stephen Seamands writes, “naked, vulnerable and fragile as we are.”[12] God’s love must be received in an “undefended state—in the vulnerability of a ‘Just as I Am’ encounter.”[13] We need to see our sin in all its horror, ugliness, and reprehensibility, and then feel Jesus place both hands on the side of our head, look us in the eyes, and say, “I forgive you, I don’t reject you, I love you, I want you.” This kind of “stubborn love” brings lasting change: “When we are truly known, particularly in the darkness and shadows of our lives, by a love which does not reject, we are cemented to God.”[14] Sustained reflection that takes us into the dark places in our hearts, causing us to see ourselves for who we really are, is absolutely essential to our growth.

Next, biblical transformation involves redemptive relationships. By “redemptive relationships” I am referring broadly to the role of the church, as well as small groups or accountability groups. In contrast to the rife individualism in our culture, the Bible presents a robust ecclesiology. God’s covenant promise to Abraham in Genesis 12 establishes the fact that God’s design is to have an international body of believers who willingly, lovingly, and joyfully submit to Jesus as Lord.[15] God’s agenda, therefore, is for a person’s discipleship to take place in a community of believers. This means that the biblical portrait of discipleship is at odds with any notion that might suggest that one’s spirituality is not linked to the visible church.[16] The New Testament epistles make plain that one’s union with Christ is thoroughly ecclesiological in nature.[17]

While this may sound burdensome to contemporary believers, God’s purpose is that his people come alongside one another to bear one another’s burdens, encourage each other, and hold each other accountable—in short, become change agents in each other’s lives.[18] No wonder, then, that Proverbs 18:1 says, “Whoever isolates himself seeks his own desire; he breaks out against all sound judgment.” The ancient sage’s advice makes sense because we need others. We resist other people getting into the details of our lives, viewing them as nosy. In the context of a genuinely loving relationship, however, our hearts are softened, and knowledge of the other person’s care for us makes their unpleasant comments acceptable.[19] In sum, relationships play an integral role in our sanctification because it is only in the context of relationships that we experience the joy of being known, forgiven, and still wanted.[20]

Another important element in the ongoing change of a believer is repentance. In announcing the arrival of his kingdom, Jesus called people to repent (Mark 1:14-15), and as Martin Luther stated in his ninety-five theses, when Jesus uttered these words, “he willed the whole life of the faithful to be an act of repentance.”[21] Although a believer’s sins have been completely forgiven when he or she initially turned away from their sins and trusted in Christ (Eph. 1:7), the Bible makes clear that believers continue to sin (1 Jn. 1:8). Nevertheless, the Bible also discloses that a believer is one who hates and makes war on their residual sin (Rom. 7:15-16, 24; 8:13; 1 Jn. 3:9). For these reasons, ongoing repentance is a key component in a believer’s continual growth. In short, repentance involves, 1) a sense of shame, 2) humility, and 3) sorrow and regret.[22]

In ongoing repentance a believer is not “re-justified,” but rather experiences cleansing and washing. Naming specific sinful actions and attitudes and agreeing with God that they are wrong is a powerful—and painful!—experience, but one that brings a great sense of release. The action evidences a broken will, which in turn opens the floodgates of heaven, and allows one to enjoy God’s smile and grace.[23]

Another central element involved in transforming a believer’s life is the issue of one’s identity. The Good News is so good because it declares that a believer is no longer identified by his or her past sins, but is instead defined by what Christ accomplished. In Paul’s words, our lives are hidden with Christ in God (Col. 3:3). His crucifixion is our crucifixion (Gal. 2:20), his death is our death (Rom. 6:8; Col. 3:3), his resurrection is our resurrection (Rom. 6:4; Eph. 2:6; Col. 3:1). Our identity is framed by our union with Christ.[24]

For this reason, Ivor Davidson rightly notes that Paul’s declaration, “You are not your own” (1 Cor. 6:19), “is a declaration not of infringement but of emancipation.”[25] Thus, each day a believer must fill his or her mind with gospel realities: You are accepted, you are delivered, you are not alone, you have authority.[26] Revel in the truths found in Hebrews 2:11, Ephesians 2:6, and Colossians 3:1, highlighting the fact that it is indicatives and not subjunctives that describe our standing before God.[27]

Finally, in the process of changing, a believer should expect difficulty. After all, believers are in a spiritual battle. In light of this, recent writers have emphasized the importance of “rehabitutation.”[28] Simply put, the word refers to the process of change within a believer. While God is able to bring dramatic change in a moment, more often than not God brings about change gradually. Our habits and loves are disordered, and the process of sanctification involves retraining our habits, loves, and desires—in short, “rehabituation.” Overcoming sinful actions, therefore, “is more like a weightwatchers program than listening to books on tape.”[29]

Taken together, living out the elements listed above, while daunting, can effectuate transformation in a believer’s life. God will use these means and activities to restore his image in us as well as cultivate Christ’s character in us.[30]

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[1] See further Andreas J. Köstenberger, “Lifting Up the Son of Man and God’s Love for the World: John 3:16 in Its Historical, Literary, and Theological Contexts,” in Understanding the Times: New Testament Studies in the 21st Century. Essays in Honor of D. A. Carson on the Occasion of his 65th Birthday, eds. Andreas J. Köstenberger and Robert W. Yarbrough (Wheaton, IL: Crossway, 2011), 151.

[2] J. I. Packer, Concise Theology: A Guide to Historic Christians Beliefs (Wheaton, IL: Tyndale, 1993), 157. While I will not defend it here, Scripture teaches that regeneration is monergistic and precedes faith. See, e.g., Matthew M. Barrett, “The Scriptural Affirmation of Monergism,” in Whomever He Wills: A Surprising Display of Sovereign Mercy, eds. Matthew M. Barrett and Thomas J. Nettles (Cape Coral, FL: Founders, 2013), 120-187. See esp. 147-187, as well as Mark A. Snoeberger, “The Logical Priority of Regeneration to Saving Faith in a Theological Ordo Salutis,” Detroit Baptist Seminary Journal 7 (Fall 2002): 49-93.

[3] While Christians affirm the reality of the noetic effects of sin (i.e., that the fall effects the way we think), we also believe that because human beings are created in the image of God, he has endowed us with the ability to think, reason, communicate, and comprehend what is written or spoken. See, e.g., John Bolt, “Sola Scriptura as an Evangelical Theological Method?” in Reforming or Conforming? Post-Conservative Evangelicals and the Emerging Church, eds. Gary L. W. Johnson and Ronald N. Gleason (Wheaton: Crossway, 2008), 62-92. Nevertheless we also believe that “Sin creates a moral deficiency within us by which we are indisposed to truth” (R. C. Sproul, John Gerstner, and Arthur Lindsley, Classical Apologetics [Grand Rapids: Zondervan, 1984], 51).

[4] See further Lane G. Tipton, “Union with Christ and Justification,” in Justified in Christ: God’s Plan for Us in Justification, ed. K. Scott Oliphant (Ross-shire: Great Britain, 2007), 23-49.

[5] David K. Naugle, Reordered Love, Reordered Lives: Learning the Deep Meaning of Happiness (Grand Rapids: Eerdmans, 2008), 1-29.

[6] The word “resources” is taken from John M. Frame, Salvation Belongs to the LORD: An Introduction to Systematic Theology (Philipsburg, NJ: P&R, 2006), 261.

[7] See, e.g., Sinclair Ferguson, “The Reformed View,” in Christian Spirituality: Five Views of Sanctification, ed. Donald L. Alexander (Downers Grove, IL: IVP, 1988), 71-72. The role of the church in sanctification will be discussed later in the paper.

[8] Brandon C. Jones, Waters of Promise: Finding Meaning in Believer Baptism (Eugene, OR: Pickwick, 2012), 7, 135; Russell Moore, “Baptist View: Christ’s Presence as Memorial,” in Understanding Four Views on the Lord’s Supper, eds. John H. Armstrong and Paul E. Engle (Grand Rapids: Zondervan, 2007), 30-44

[9] Debra Dean Murphy, “Worship as Catechesis: Knowledge, Desire, and Formation,” Theology Today 58:3 (2001): 321-332.

 [10] Richard F. Lovelace, Dynamics of Spiritual Life: An Evangelical Theology of Renewal (Downers Grove, IL: IVP, 1980), 82.

 [11] Ibid., 88.

[12] Stephen Seamands, Ministry in the Image of God: The Trinitarian Shape of Christian Service (Downers Grove, IL: IVP, 2005), 128.

[13] David G. Benner, The Gift of Being Yourself: The Sacred Call to Self-Discovery (Downers Grove, IL: IVP, 2004), 24.

[14] C. Frederick Barbee & Paul F. M. Zahl, The Collects of Thomas Cranmer (Grand Rapids: Eerdmans, 1999), 57. The phrase “stubborn love” comes from David Hansen, The Power of Loving Your Church: Leading through Acceptance and Grace (Minneapolis: Bethany House, 1998), 55. In context, Hansen is explaining the meaning of the Hebrew word hesed.

[15] Paul R. Williamson, Sealed with an Oath: Covenant in God’s Unfolding Purpose, New Studies in Biblical Theology 23 (Downers Grove: IVP, 2007), 83-84.

[16] The most recent statistics suggest that this is what many Americans believe. See, e.g., “Among Unchurched Americans,” Facts & Trends 63:2 (Spring 2017): 15.

[17] Brannon Ellis, “Covenantal Union and Communion: Union with Christ as the Covenant of Grace,” in Sanctification: Explorations in Theology and Practice, ed. Kelly M. Kapic (Downers Grove, IL: IVP, 2014), 92.

[18] David Powlison, Speaking Truth in Love: Counsel in Community (Winston-Salem, NC: Punch Press, 2005), 99.

[19] Timothy and Kathy Keller, The Songs of Jesus: A Year of Daily Devotions in the Psalms (New York: Viking, 2015), 349.

[20] Sharon A. Hersh, The Last Addiction: Why Self-Help Is Not Enough (Colorado Springs: Waterbrook, 2008), 33.

[21] Martin Luther, “The Ninety-Five Theses,” in Documents of the Christian Church, eds. Henry Bettenson & Chris Maunder, new ed. (New York: Oxford University Press, 1999), 206.

[22] Sinclair B. Ferguson, The Christian Life: A Doctrinal Introduction (Carlisle, PA: The Banner of Truth Trust, 2013), 68.

[23] On what a broken will looks like, see Nancy Leigh DeMoss, Brokenness: The Heart God Revives (Chicago: Moody, 2005), 51.

[24] Michael Reeves, Rejoicing in Christ (Downers Grove, IL: IVP, 2015), 63.

[25] Ivor J. Davidson, “Gospel Holiness: Some Dogmatic Reflections,” in Sanctification: Explorations in Theology and Practice, ed. Kelly M. Kapic (Downers Grove, IL: IVP, 2014), 210.

[26] Richard Lovelace calls these the four platforms Christians must stand on. See his Dynamics of Spiritual Life, 210.

[27] Davidson, “Gospel Holiness,” 202.

[28] See, e.g., James K. A. Smith, You Are What You Love: The Power of Habit (Grand Rapids: Brazos, 2016), 53-54; Steven L. Porter, “The Gradual Nature of Sanctification: Σάρξ as Habituated, Relational Resistance to the Spirit,” Themelios 39:3 (2014): 470-483.

[29] Smith, You Are What You Love, 65.

[30] Language borrowed from Derek Tidball, “Holiness: Restoring God’s Image: Colossians 3:5-17,” in Sanctification: Explorations in Theology and Practice, ed. Kelly M. Kapic (Downers Grove, IL: IVP, 2014), 26, 31.

An Update on Where I’ve Been

Again, for the one or two of you who read this blog, you might have noticed that I have not posted anything in over a month. I can state the obvious up front: It’s my fault! I simply haven’t made the time to write a blog. That said, I have been writing. But it’s been a paper for school entitled, “A Theology of How People Change.” Don’t worry, it won’t appear in an academic journal any time soon. I had certain constraints that I had to follow.

After I finish that paper I plan to write again for the blog, at least one post a month, if not more. Still, I have stayed busy in pastoral ministry. There’s always plenty to do!

Oh yeah, I also updated my “Currently Reading” page. Take a look-see and join me in some good reading!

Our Ultimate Concern

Two recent discussions with fellow pastors centered on spiritual apathy. We were seeking to answer the following questions: Why do so many Christians live defeated lives? Why are so many Christians not fully engaged in church life? How do we make sense of the lack of consistent church attendance?

In doing some research on these questions, I was led back to Richard Lovelace’s well-known book Dynamics of Spiritual Life: An Evangelical Theology of Renewal. It’s hard to believe this was written in 1980. Here’s what he said:

The “ultimate concern” of most church members is not the worship and service of Christ in evangelistic mission and social compassion, but rather survival and success in their secular vocation. The church is a spoke on the wheel of life connected to the secular hub. It is a departmental subconcern, not the organizing center of all other concerns. Church members who have been conditioned all their lives to devote themselves to building their own kingdom and whose flesh naturally gravitates in that direction anyway find it hard to invest much energy in the kingdom of God. They go to church once or twice a week [once or twice a month nowadays] and punch the clock, so to speak, fulfilling their “church obligation” by sitting passively and listening critically or approvingly to their pastor’s teaching.”

After grieving the spiritual condition of those described by Lovelace, I felt the need to grab my copy of The Valley of Vision and pray one of the Puritan prayers: “O may I never fall into the tempers and vanities, the sensuality and folly of the present world! It is a place of inexpressible sorrow, a vast empty nothingness. Time is a moment, a vapor, and all its enjoyments are empty bubbles, fleeting blasts of wind, from which nothing satisfactory can be derived. Give me grace always to keep in covenant with thee, and to reject as delusion a great name here . . . together with all sinful pleasures or profits.”

Thinking through Success

I still remember taking the Strengthfinder 2.0. test. My results indicated that I valued significance. As I’ve written previously, when I saw my score I was disappointed with myself. I didn’t see this trait as something to prize. I was (and continue to be) wary of this characteristic.

One way I’m tempted to feel significant is through accomplishments. In a word, I want to be successful. This raises a question: What is success? Without pretending to be comprehensive, I’d like to offer a few thoughts.

Success means knowing and living in communion with the triune God of Holy Scripture. Before we can say someone is successful, we must know what the purpose of life is. We know a lawnmower isn’t working properly when it fails to cut the grass. We know a sponge isn’t working properly when it fails to clean the plate. Similarly, we can only properly evaluate our lives or the lives of others if we know how God intended for us to live. In other words: Success is inextricably linked to telos or purpose.[1] Human beings are created in the image of God and were designed to reflect his character in their lives and relationships. Success, then, means to know God (Jn. 17:3) to glorify God in all we do (1 Cor. 10:31). Success means longing to please God and living in perpetual communion with him. Pleasing God in this way, I think, includes knowing ourselves. We must know ourselves well enough to be able to trace our acts of disobedience back to the wrong thinking patterns that gave birth to the sinful action in the first place. This enables us to break free from the idols that grip our hearts.

Success means loving our neighbors. I can think of nothing more countercultural at the moment than putting the interests of others above your own. Since God is fundamentally other-oriented, those who image him should be as well. The Parable of the Good Samaritan illustrates what this looks like. We care for, serve, love, and disadvantage ourselves in order to advantage others—thus exemplifying the wisdom of God, fulfilling the law of God, and “enfleshing” the justice/righteousness and mercy of God (Micah 6:8).[2]

Each day—yea, each moment—is a battle to believe this is true. If you’re anything like me, you’re tempted to think living for yourself is the pathway to blessing and happiness. To make matters worse, our culture only reinforces these impulses. “You deserve this,” commercials tells us. “You owe it to yourselves,” we are often told. No wonder we’ve come to see “the sovereignty of our appetites as normal.”[3] Jesus, however, tells us this is a dead-end. Living solely for yourself is a black hole. It leads to emptiness, despair, and death. To curb these tendencies and begin to live differently we must learn new habits. We need to practice hospitality and generosity. We need to pour out our lives for others. No wonder James told us: “Religion that is pure and undefiled before God the Father is this: to visit orphans and widows in their affliction, and to keep oneself unstained from the world” (1:27).

Success means working faithfully where God plants us. By this I simply mean to labor for God’s glory in your present social location. Responsibly “cultivate the earth” where God has placed you.[4] Exactly what this looks like will depend on your location, vocation, and gifts. The idea that we ought to “bloom where we’re planted,” might induce the beautifully looking gag reflex we all enjoy seeing. Why? Because most people strongly dislike their jobs. My guess is most people agree with Andrew Delbanco’s paraphrase of a quote originally spoken by Henry David Thoreau—that “life is worth living only when it furnishes the mind with something worth dying for.”[5] The average person’s 9 to 5 doesn’t do this.

How do people work faithfully when they hate their job? For starters, if you hate your job, I see no reason biblically why you must stay there. To be sure, you may feel you need to stay because, even though you hate it, it pays the bills and you have an attractive benefits package. Still, if one is hopelessly unhappy, I think it is fine to prayerfully consider leaving. Secondly, after talking the matter over with your spouse, prayerfully begin looking for another job. Nevertheless, ask yourself this question: Am I expecting too much of my next job? To be blunt: Don’t expect your next job to satisfy you.

As a believer, see yourself on mission for God wherever you are planted. I sometimes wonder: Is God as concerned about my personal fulfillment as I am? I’m not suggesting that God delights seeing his children in agony. I’m simply pondering whether my aspirations are always aligned with God’s will. My job may not bring me personal satisfaction, but if God uses me to lead someone at my place of employment to Christ, and that relationship blossoms to a close friendship, I think God is pleased. Maybe that’s what he wants after all.

In conclusion, Burk Parsons is right: “[B]iblically defined success doesn’t always look like success to the world.”[6] Additionally, as Christians let’s not forget: “The most successful man who ever lived looked like a failure in the world’s eyes, but in the eyes of the Father, He was a true success,” which is why the Father “highly exalted him and bestowed on him the name that is above every name” (Phil. 2:9).[7]

 

[1] See further Timothy Keller, Making Sense of God: An Invitation to the Skeptical (New York: Viking, 2016), 186-187; James K. A. Smith, You Are What You Love: The Power of Habit (Grand Rapids: Brazos, 2016), 88-89.

[2] The truly wise life is doing justice and mercy, concepts which are defined in the Law of God. Waltke correctly argues that “righteousness” and “wisdom” are “correlative terms.” See, e.g., Bruce Waltke, “Righteousness in Proverbs,” Westminster Theological Journal 70 (2008): 225-237. See esp. 233.

[3] Russell D. Moore, Tempted and Tried: Temptation and the Triumph of Christ (Wheaton, IL: Crossway, 2011), 95.

[4] The idea of “cultivating the earth” is taken from Gen. 2:15, but I’m borrowing the language from Michael E. Wittmer, Heaven Is a Place on Earth: Why Everything You Do Matters to God (Grand Rapids: Zondervan, 2004), 124.

[5] Andrew Delbanco, The Real American Dream: A Meditation on Hope (Cambridge: Harvard University Press, 1999), 75.

[6] Burk Parsons, “True Success,” Tabletalk 41:1 (January 2017): 2.

[7] Nate Shurden, “Worldly Success,” Tabletalk 41:1 (January 2017): 9.

You Can’t Hide What You Believe about God

In one of his journal entries, the Danish philosopher Soren Kierkegaard wrote about the significance the family plays in the lives of the children of believers. In a section entitled, “The greatest danger for a child, where religion is concerned,” Kierkegaard wrote:

The greatest danger is not that his father or tutor should be a free-thinker, not even his being a hypocrite. No, the danger lies in his being a pious, God-fearing man, and in the child being convinced thereof, but that he should nevertheless notice that deep in his soul there lies hidden an unrest which, consequently, not even the fear of God and piety could calm. The danger is that the child in this situation is almost provoked to draw a conclusion about God, that God is not infinite love.

Following this, I read a couple of interesting sentences from the well-known theologian Sinclair Ferguson, where he said:

We cannot hide what we really believe God is like. Our personal disposition is an unending expression of our understanding of and trust in his character. How we live, how we respond to challenges, crises and trials, reveals what we really believe about God, what we really think “deep down” about him.

Then I started to think about some of the Christians I’ve come in contact with throughout my life. And then I considered my own behavior and what it might reveal about God. And then I ponder what my behavior is instilling in my children.

Generally it seems true that what a person believes about God is expressed in their behavior. Those who believe God is gracious and forgiving tend to be gracious and forgiving. In contrast, those who are stern, critical, overly judgmental, and plain old unhappy, tend to view God as harsh, unloving, and unkind. Perhaps this is an overstatement, but as I’ve gotten to know people, and have been privileged to hear their stories, when their defenses come down, those who are unhappy and angry seem to have a sub-biblical vision of God.

When I look back over my life and think of the various seasons God has taken me through, I am embarrassed about my past behavior. I don’t think my behavior rightly expressed the joy, love, and grace of God. Thankfully, a number of years ago God brought me to the end of myself. During that time, God met me in my hour of need, and it was in that instance that God’s love was made real to me in a way it previously had  not been.

As I think about what my behavior says to my children, I am reminded that, with our children, more is “caught” than “taught.” I can teach my children about God, Jesus, and the Bible all I want. I can teach them about how we shouldn’t worry and judge others; I can teach them about love, forgiveness, and grace. I can say that attending church, reading the Bible, giving, and showing hospitality is important, but if my actions say otherwise, it’s all hot air. Our children (and all human beings) are more than brains on a stick. We have imaginations that need to be captured by God’s majestic grace. We have affections that need to be stirred by the beauty of Christ and the life he calls us to live. None of this happens over night. We need to put practices into place that lead to new patterns of living, issuing forth in new habits that permanently shape and form our lives.

In so doing, I suspect that our character will begin to change. Our habits shape and form the type of people we become. As we make space in our lives to digest God’s Word through personal Bible reading and church attendance, as well as set aside time to meditate on what we’ve read and heard, we trust that the fruit of the Spirit will evidence itself in our lives in practical ways.

The Gift of Memory

“Great is the power of memory, exceeding great is it, O God, an inner chamber vast and unbounded!” ~ Augustine (354-430)[1]

“It is more important that we should remember God than that we should breathe: Indeed, if one may say so, we should do nothing else besides” ~ Gregory of Nazianzus (329-390)[2]_______________________________________________________________

I remember my first day of kindergarten. I remember the first time I lied to my father. I remember celebrating Christmas with my extended family in south Florida. I remember the first time I saw my wife, Debra.

Have you ever paused to thank God for the gift of memory? Are you amazed that God allows you to remember certain events from your past—a beautiful sunset, the smile of a child, or maybe a word or phrase from a loved one?

God wants us to remember. He wants us to remember that we are loved. He wants us to remember that we’ve been redeemed. And he wants us to remember the singular blessings of our lives—those moments when, perhaps even with tears, we’ve said, “Wow, God is good.”

But what does this look like in our daily lives? I think Professor Scott Redd is on to something when he says, “Faithful memory is covenantal memory.”[3] By this he means that memory is “a righteous habit of mind,”[4] wherein we recall God’s words and promises from the past that encourage and instruct us in the present and furnish us with hope for the future.

Faithful (or covenantal) memory reminds us that God has spoken to us, and calls to mind the fact that his communication with us has been via promise and fulfillment.

Here’s what this involves: A righteous habit of mind involves living under the authority of God’s Word. God promised Adam and Eve that if they ate from the tree they would die (Gen. 2:16-17). Apparently Eve either forgot God’s Word to her or was unconvinced. Faithful (or covenantal) memory calls to mind each day the reality that God has spoken, feeds on God’s Word (Deut. 8:3; cf. Matt. 4:4), and seeks to live under it. Looking back on redemptive history reminds us that God wants us to live under his word. He sent prophets to his people to call them to repentance, urging them to obey the law, and turn back to his ways—that is, to remember that he had spoken (Jer. 6:16).[5] Each time we open up the Bible we’re reminded that God is a communicative being who seeks to share his life and love with us.

Secondly, a righteous habit of mind involves remembering our dependent status. Simply put, this means realizing that we’re not God. Yes, we’ve been created in his image (Gen. 1:26); yes, we are fearfully and wonderfully made (Ps. 139:14); yes, we’ve been “brilliantly created”; but because of the Fall we’re also “brilliantly destructive.”[6] We’re desperately broken on the inside. Although we were created to put God at the center of our lives and joyfully surrender to his lordship, we would rather usurp his authority and assert our own will.[7] We foolishly assume that his authority over us is an impediment to our authenticity, failing to realize that the precondition for living an authentic life requires that we know who made us and why he created us.

I am aware that the previous sentence is not shared by all. To be sure, it brings into focus a competing narrative of our culture: Whose definition of freedom and human flourishing is most desirable? Whereas secularists locate freedom “in an individual subject’s spontaneous power of choice,”[8] the Bible defines freedom as “glad submission to the will of God.”[9] Embracing our dependent, servant status means a life of humility and surrender—a life of faith seeking understanding.

Finally, a righteous habit of mind involves living with expectancy. By living with expectancy I mean living with eternity in mind. Living with eternity in mind leads to making wiser decisions (Ps. 90:12). The wisest decision of all is abandoning oneself to the triune God. Abandoning oneself to the triune God is the wisest decision of all because he is the only one who can satisfy the longing soul (Ps. 107:9 et. al.). Sin, therefore, is preferring other things to the Lover of our Souls. Well did John Piper say, “Sin is trying to quench our unquenchable soul-thirst anywhere but in God.”[10] Every fiber of our being yearns to behold God’s beauty and dwell in his presence (Ps. 27:4). Sadly, sin blinds us to God’s beauty, which in turn leads us to choose a life of sin—a life filled with lesser beauty.[11]

Living with expectancy, however, constrains us by reminding us of what awaits us: “Your eyes will behold the King in his beauty” (Isa. 33:17a). Every tear will be wiped from our eyes (Rev. 21:4). In the new creation “no inhabitant will say, ‘I am sick’” (Isa. 33:24). With this vision firmly in mind, we prefer death to the denial of Christ; obedience to Christ over the passing pleasures of this world. With this vision firmly in mind we can say with the men who were taken to their deaths in Fidel Castro’s concentration camps, “Viva Cristo Rey!”[12]

Faithful memory is covenantal memory. God has spoken. Therefore, let me memorize his Word. God has spoken. Therefore, let me meditate on his promises. God has spoken. Therefore, let my imagination be captivated by what awaits me. Tolle Lege.

______________________________________________________________________

[1] The Confessions of St. Augustine (trans. John K. Ryan; NY: Doubleday, 1960), 10. 8. 5.

[2] On God and Christ (trans. Frederick Williams; Crestwood, NY: St. Vladimir’s Press, 2002), 27-28.

[3] Scott Redd, “What Should We Remember?” Tabletalk 40:12 (December 2016): 17.

[4] Ibid., 18.

[5] John L. Mackay, “Spokesmen for God,” Tabletalk 37:11 (November 2013): 18.

[6] Language borrowed from Marilynne Robinson, Absence of Mind: The Dispelling of Inwardness from the Modern Myth of the Self (New Haven: Yale University Press, 2010), xi.

[7] Peter J. Gentry, “Kingdom through Covenant: Humanity as the Divine Image,” Southern Baptist Journal of Theology 12 (2008): 16-42.

[8] See David Bentley Hart, Atheist Delusions (New Haven: Yale University Press, 2009), 226.

[9] Peter F. Jensen, “God and the Bible,” in The Enduring Authority of the Christian Scriptures, ed. D. A. Carson (Grand Rapids: Eerdmans, 2016), 495.

[10] John Piper, God’s Passion for His Glory: Living the Vision of Jonathan Edwards (Wheaton, IL: Crossway, 1998), 81.

[11] Augustine, Confessions, 2. 5. 10; 2. 6. 13, 14.

[12] Armando Valladares, Against All Hope: A Memoir of Life in Castro’s Gulag (trans. Andrew Hurley; San Francisco, CA: Encounter Books, 2001), 15.

 

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