Wednesday, March 6, 2019

The Sanctifying Hand of a God Who Keeps Me Awake

John Piper and the ministry of Desiring God has been one of the most influential Bible teachers in my life. Though I do not agree with everything Piper teaches, nevertheless he has been one of the most influential teachers in my life and from him I have learned a deep respect for the richness of God's word. Piper has taught me how to exegete God's word and apply it to life in a way few people have. From him, I have learned how to love God more. His book, Let the Nations Be Glad, was the primary influence God used to smash my worldview which was bent on starting my own business and getting rich, and directed my life into full-time pastoral ministry. 

In 2014, I was excited to attend to the Desiring God conference because I knew I was going to be fed the Word and have a blessed time of fellowship. The night before we left, I stayed up all night finishing my sermon for the next day and packing for the week-long trip. After church, I drove straight through to Minneapolis. Monday night, I laid down and spent the entire night doing everything I knew trying to fall asleep. But sleep never came. I was awake for almost 72 hours before I finally crashed in the middle of one of the conference sessions.  

Ever since that trip, I have been plagued with insomnia. I have gone days and nights without sleep and have had only two "normal" nights of sleep since then. During the past five years, I have been to six different sleep doctors, a sleep psychiatrist, a neurologist, a cardiologist, and a Christian counselor. All of them confirm there is something wrong with me, but none of them have been able to figure it out or fix it. I have been on nearly a dozen different medications including Trazodone, Belsomera, Klonopin, Lunesta, Seroquil, Restoril, Ambien, and a few others I can't remember. Meds have had either little or no benefit, or caused side-effects that were worse than sleeplesness. I even got serious one night and rubbed essential oils on my feet. At the counsel of a few close friends, I applied to Mayo Clinic's sleep department. After a board of MD's reviewed my stack of records, they observed that I had already seen some of the best doctors in America for insomnia, and there was nothing more they could do that had not already been done.

The effects of not sleeping over such a long period of time are numerous, including Tachycardia (rapid heart rate), memory loss, difficulty concentrating, hallucinations, brief periods of insane thougts, a general lack of energy or desire to do anything, and difficulty controlling my emotions. 

One day as I was leaving the bank, I stood for an awkwardly long period of time staring at the door waiting for it to open. I was so dazed that I couldn't put together in my mind that the door would not open itself. I had to push on it. I hit a low one night when I was reading a children's book to my daughters, and I couldn't put the words and sentences together in any coherent way. I sat there on the couch fighting back tears because I realized the toll this had taken on my mind and coming to grips with the fear of where this could lead. 

Over the last five years, I have learned that whatever sleep I do get is like a partial charge to the batteries of my mind. My work day begins the second I roll out of bed to get as much out of my batteries as I can before they are empty, which is normally around 1 pm. My body works fairly well in the afternoon but my mind is weak, has difficulty focusing, and does not remember things like it used to.

I am getting ready to take a two-month sabbatical during which I will be combining two different doctor's plans to crash and then restart my adrenal system and try to re-train my mind and body how to rest. As I have been preparing for that time away, I have been reflecting on the work God has done and contiunes to do in my life as a result of this trial. I wanted to share them here in hopes that they would be a blessing and encouragement to others as well.

One of the first lessons God began and continues to teach me is true compassion for other people who suffer.

In 2 Corinthians 1:4 it tells us God "comforts us in all our affliction, so that we may be able to comfort those who are in any affliction, with the comfort with which we ourselves are comforted by God." I approach this passage with a presupposition that my affliction is not an accident. It does not catch God by surprise. It is actually something God has sovereignly brought into my life as an expression of how much He loves me and desires to conform me into His image. 

With that presupposition in place, I take 2 Corinthians 1:4 to be saying that God has given me insomnia so that He can minister His conforting grace into my life as a means of equipping me to comfort other people in the same ways He comforts me. In other words, if my life was easy and trouble-free as it used to be, I would not know how comforting God can be to us in our suffering. I would not be able to truly sympathize with other people in their suffering and minister to them in a meaningful way.  

Historically, compassion has not been my strong point largely because I have not suffered much in life. My easy life has made compassion difficult. Six years ago, if you would have described your health concerns or other forms of suffering I would have said, "That stinks" and walked away without giving it a second thought, except for maybe that you were weak and needed to toughen up and try harder. God has used my own trials to show me there are forms of suffering that are silent, hidden, and often unnoticed by most people, but are still very difficult to endure. As one who is daily comforted by God, I need to show the same comfort and compassion to other people in their suffering. For the first time, I have learned to sympathize and empathize with people in their suffering and how to minister to them in a helpful way.

Another thing God has been teaching me is the importance of the ordinary means of grace. 
When you begin your day with your batteries already drained, there is a very real temptation to focus all of whatever energy you do have on getting things done: preparing sermons, reading books, getting Bible Studies ready, replying to emails, and so on. To my own shame, I have to confess that there have been several long periods of time during the last five years that the best and clearest moments of my day were not spent in personal prayer and reading the Word, but were spend on getting things done. 

God has and continues to show me how much I need the daily means of grace for myself. Mark 1:35 says of Jesus, "Very early in the morning, while it was still dark, He got up, left the house, and went off to a solitary place where he prayed." Even the Son of God rose up early and spent the best and first part of His day in prayer and communion with God. It was His time with the Father that prepared and strengthened Him to do all that He had to do. If that was true for Christ, how much more for me. If I am going to be any benefit to the Lord's work, it will be only because I am spending time communing with my Father in His word and prayer. I have been a slow learner, but God has been faithfully leading me to see just how important the daily means of grace are in my own life if I am going to be any service to Him.

God has not only been teaching me compassion and the importance of the ordinary means of grace, but He has also been teaching me that I magnify Him when I boast in my own weakness and the sufficiency of His grace. In 2 Corinthians 12, Paul begins by talking about a spiritual experience he had that no one else had. His spiritual grace could easily have been the occasion to boast. As the loving Father often does, God gave Paul a thorn in the flesh. Paul remarks about his own suffering in v8-10, 
"Concerning this thing, I pleaded with the Lord three times that it might depart from me. And He said to me, 'My grace is sufficient for you, for My strength is made perfect in weakness.' Therefore most gladly I will rather boast in my infirmities, that the power of Christ may rest upon me. Therefore I take pleasure in infirmities, in reproaches, in needs, in persecutions, in distresses, for Christ’s sake. For when I am weak, then I am strong."

Like Paul I have prayed - more than three times - that God would remove the difficulty of my insomnia and up until this point He has not. One of the reasons is so that I can continue to learn that it is His grace and not my gifting that is sufficient. My weakness and the sufficiency of God's grace are two sides of the same coin. A year or so ago, a fellow pastor called one day and asked me, "How is this affecting your ability to preach?" I had to confess that I think it is affecting me. I do not have the energy I used to in the pulpit. I do not have the depth of thought I used to, and I am not able to spend as much time in preparation as I used to. 

As we finished that conversation, I found myself wondering if this was God's way of taking me out of the ministry. I place a high value on preaching. I view it as my primary calling and the better part of my workday is still spent in sermon prep. While I do believe my preaching has suffered, I think God is still feeding sheep through me. But maybe that is the point in all of this. 

I used to think I was smart, creative, young, strong, and gifted. I used to boast in those things. God has been taking that self-reliant pride and chipping away at it to the point that I can only say I get through the day and I do what I do, not because I had a good night's sleep and and I am firing on all cylinders, but in spite of those things. God's grace has suatained me and continues to use a cracked pot to serve Him in some small way. 

Another thing God has been doing in me is giving me an increased appreciation for His body, the church. I am privileged to live in a day and age where information travels great distances quickly. The benefit of that in my own life is that there are people on every continent - many of whom I have never met or seen in person - who are my brothers and sisters in Christ and who regularly pray for me, for God's strength to be effecutal in my life, and for God to continue using me in His service. 

This reality is without a doubt one of the greatest comforts I have, to know that God loves me enought to put me in a family that genuinely cares enough for me, their fellow brother, to pray for me and send encouraging messages.

Finally, God has been teaching me to long for eternity with Him. In 2 Corinthians 4:17, Paul says, "For our light affliction, which is but for a moment, works for us a far more exceeding and eternal weight of glory." 

In 2 Corinthians 4, Paul teaches that a God-honoring perspective of difficulties is that they are like salty food before a refreshing drink of cold water. The saltier the food, the sweeter and more refreshing the cool drink seems to be. In the same way, the greater our trials in this life, the more we will long for and enjoy the glory that awaits us. One of the reasons God keeps me awake at night is so that I long for my rest with Him, and He has effectually produced in me an increased desire to be with Him in the glory of my eternal rest which is far better!

Be encouraged, fellow sufferers! Join with me in practicing James 1:2-3 as we "count it all joy when we fall into various trials, knowing that the testing of our faith produces patience." If you suffer as one of God's people, your suffering is not wasted. If you suffer as one of God's children, you suffer under the hand of a loving Father who may or may not remove the suffering, but He will never waste it in the trash can of meaningless pain. Our Heavenly Father loves us enough to test our faith in order to produce in us the godly traits of endurance and holiness.

Friday, December 29, 2017

Taking Captive the Winter Blues

It happens every year about this time. It is below zero for a month straight. The wind howls. The sun doesn’t come up till almost 8 am and it sets around 4:30 pm. We are cooped up in the house, and it gets old quickly.

As a highly active go-getter, winters are hard. I spend a few months every year sitting on the edge of my seat waiting to see trees budding and grass sprouting with the promise that warmer and longer days are on their way. 
Last night after dinner, I was just ready for winter to be over and hoping for something different, something better; wishing dinner could be followed by playing in the yard with the kids or going on a family walk. These moments usually aren’t that bad and I wouldn’t even describe them as depression, but last night was different. In the midst of feeling the winter time blues, I was also reading of a dear Christian brother who is dealing with what may well be the loss of his wife to cancer. As I was reading, I found myself heartbroken for the man and his family who would most likely be separated from someone they love so dearly. 

My own sinful mind soon took a godly empathetic sorrow down a trail of anxiety and fear. I started thinking of all the heartache that is yet in my future. I started putting myself in the shoes of many of the people I have counseled with over the past few years and realized that the real hurts and problems they have gone through may yet await me. My wife will one day die. My children may neglect their souls and allow themselves to slip into a Christ-less eternity. My children may die very young. I may never get a good night's sleep again. I may lose my mind and go bonkers. Our church could lose it vitality and shrivel up into nothing, leaving years of labor with nothing to show. Suddenly I was caught in a mental tornado of anxiety, thinking about all the terrible things that could happen down the road outside of my control.

As my mind was swirling around in that tornado of fear, doubt, and anxiety, I soon retorted, “Where is God when it is cold, windy, and dark? Where will He be tomorrow? Where was He yesterday? God does not cease to be God when it is cold and dark.” I soon realized the anxiety I was creating was leading my mind down a sinful path of unbelief and fear, and I needed to respond.

Last week I was helping a friend pack an elk out of the mountains, and once we loaded the meat onto a horse we started the three-mile walk back to the truck. I was leading the horse with meat on it, but on the steep downhill portions of snow-covered grass, I found the momentum of the burden-laden horse was much faster than I could go in the slick grass if I wanted to remain on my feet. Wanting to be out of the way if the horse fell, I tied the lead rope to the pack saddle and let the horse go ahead for a while because he knew his way back to the truck.

In a lot of ways that is how I have been viewing the winter blues. I had surrendered the lead rope of my mind and allowed it to go as fast and far as it wanted, but it wasn’t going to the truck; it was going further into the mountains of anxiety.

I needed once again to grab the lead rope of my mind, slow it down, and direct it back into the way of truth. And there were two primary truths I need to continually remind myself in battling winter-time blues and anxiety.

1                 1. Who is My God?

The first step I needed to take was to remember who my God truly is.

Isaiah 46:8-11 reminds me, “Remember this, and show yourselves men; Recall to mind, O you transgressors.  Remember the former things of old, For I am God, and there is no other; I am God, and there is none like Me, Declaring the end from the beginning, And from ancient times things that are not yet done, Saying, ‘My counsel shall stand, And I will do all My pleasure,’ Calling a bird of prey from the east, The man who executes My counsel, from a far country. Indeed I have spoken it; I will also bring it to pass. I have purposed it; I will also do it.”

In Isaiah 46, God is contrasting Himself with the dead idols of Isaiah’s day. Although they are held in honor and called out to for help, all the false gods do not hear (v. 7). They do not answer. They cannot do anything for their worshipers because they are man-made objects with no life in them.

But in contrast to those dumb idols, our God reveals Himself as a God who is like nothing we can compare Him to. He is absolutely sovereign, and whatever He desires to do, He does. The birds are under His sovereign control. Men are under His sovereign control, and by implication, so is everything else - the length of daylight, the temperature, my health, my children’s salvation, and anything and everything else I may fear.

That is who my God is. The same God who was there in Isaiah's day orchestrating by His sovereign decree every detail of all His created order is the God who lives today still sovereignly working all things according to His plan which has our good in mind. He is a God I can trust. In the midst of anxiety when it is windy, dark, and cold, when those closest to me are dying, when my children are rebelling, there is a God in Heaven who is working all of those things according to the counsel of His will and He is good. He is loving. He is a God who I can trust with my present circumstances as well as my future. And years ahead when I meet those things I fear most, He will still be sovereign. He will still be there and He will continue to orchestrate all things according to His plan which has my greatest good in mind.

                   2. The Gospel

Not only do I need to confront my anxiety with truth about God, I also need to confront it with the truth of the gospel and be reminded of my salvation.

In Habakkuk 3, the prophet is also dealing with anxiety. His anxiety is because God has warned He is going to bring chastening judgment against Judah and destructive judgment against the Chaldeans. Part of this judgment even affected the forces of nature like the mountains (v. 6), rivers and animals (v. 8), and the sun, moon, moon and stars, most likely symbolic of all the created order (v. 11). God was both judging the wicked and chastening His people, and as Habakkuk saw God moving in the forces of nature both to discipline and destroy, it caused him to be so anxious. 

He wrote in v. 16,

When I heard, my body trembled;
My lips quivered at the voice;
Rottenness entered my bones;
And I trembled in myself,
That I might rest in the day of trouble.
When he comes up to the people,
He will invade them with his troops.

Habakkuk knows God is about to act, but the details of God's action are as terrifying as they are uncertain and he is very anxious.

But Habakkuk confronts his anxiety by reminding himself that the same God who judges and disciplines is also the God who saves, and in the midst of uncertainty and fear, it keeps him on the trail of faith. 

In v. 17-19, Habakkuk replies to himself and says,  

Though the fig tree may not blossom, nor fruit be on the vines; though the labor of the olive may fail, and the fields yield no food;  though the flock may be cut off from the fold, and there be no herd in the stalls— yet I will rejoice in the Lord, I will joy in the God of my salvation. The Lord God is my strength; He will make my feet like deer’s feet, and He will make me walk on my high hills.

In the midst of fear and uncertainty about the future, Habakkuk is strengthened and kept in the faith by the truth that God is the God of his salvation. Habakkuk looks beyond the darkness of his present situation to his salvation and the God of his salvation and the reminder that no matter what may come, he is held safe in the Hand of God and kept from judgment. His salvation causes Habakkuk to rejoice in the darkest times. 

I need the same reminder that though the trees may lose their leaves and the winds may blow drifts of snow against the back door, though there is no green grass growing because it is -30 degrees F; though there is not enough light in the day to get out of the house, I have ample reason to rejoice and put my hope in God because He is and has provided for my salvation.My greatest fears may yet come to fruition but there is a day coming when they will all yield to my salvation and I will be delivered to an eternal rest with my savior.

I still hate winter but I am fighting it with the good fight of faith. I am fighting it with the truth that God is still on His throne and His sovereignty extends as far as the curse is found. I am fighting it with the joy that however long the winter lasts and whatever it may take from me, I am eternally held safe in the hands of a God who loves me. 

Wednesday, February 15, 2017

Building a Bridge From Our Doctrine to Our Doings

The scene from The Princess Bride is almost blazed into many of our minds. It is a true classic. Viccini and Inigo Montoya are standing atop the cliffs of insanity looking down over the edge as the dread pirate Robers struggles to the top. They have just cut his rope but Roberts manages to continue climbing the rock wall without it. Looking down, Viccini exclaims, "He didn't fall? Inconceivable!" At that point, Inigo Montoya looks over at his knife-wielding maniac of a boss and says, "You keep using that word. I do not think it means what you think it means."

Words have meaning. That is a basic presupposition to communication. It is how I know that as I write this you are able to understand the thoughts I have going on in my head. Words have meaning. I know that seems like a weird way to start a blog but hear me out for a minute. My blog is called Body Life because about once a year I use it to post something that relates to life in and among the body of Christ. In that Body, there is a word that gets thrown around, and to borrow the words of Inigo Montoya, "I do not think it means what you think it means."

What is that word? It is the word "reformed". R.E.F.O.R.M.E.D. What does the word reformed mean? If you asked 100 Christians you would likely get 100 different definitions. Of course, the question is not only a question of definition, it is also a question of degree. How Reformed are you and how Reformed do you have to be in order to wear the badge? Many Presbyterians and Congregationalist brothers would say that the Baptist is not Reformed enough, while the Baptist would claim to be the one truly Reformed, touting that the Presbyterian did not reform enough from Rome.

Paedobaptism and ecclesiology aside, I would imagine that in defining what it means to be "Reformed" many people would say it is to adhere to a certain set of doctrines that emphasize the sovereignty of God's grace in salvation. Some would simply define it synonymous with being a Calvinist. A good definition might also include some reference to the 5 Solas of the Reformation and it may even include a reference to one or more of the great historic confessions of faith. More often than not, when people try to define what it means to be Reformed, the emphasis, if not the entirety, of their answer would center on doctrine, that part of our Christianity that is lived out in the realm of the mind, the essential truths that they believe.

 Our forefathers were not so much concerned with being Reformed. Rather they were concerned with ever reforming. They didn't view the work of reformation as a strict adherence to a certain doctrinal conviction; they viewed it as a continual work in which the church needs to examine and continue examining herself to ensure that both her doctrine and her practice were Biblical. Thus the cry of the Reformation as derived from Augustine was "semper reformanda," or to put it in English, "ever reforming." (Footnote 1)

I would submit in order to be Reformed that it is not enough to have sound doctrine. Sound doctrine is, of course, essential, but it is not enough. Paul instructed Timothy in 1 Timothy 4:16, "Take heed to yourself and to the doctrine or teaching ('didaskalia'). Continue in them, for in doing this you will save both yourself and those who hear you." What did Paul mean when he told Timothy to take heed to himself as well as to his teaching? The reference "to himself" reaches back in the text to v12 where he told the young pastor, "Let no one despise your youth, but be an example to the believers in word, in conduct, in love, in spirit, in faith, in purity."

When Paul tells Timothy to take heed to himself, he is warning him of the danger of having a disconnect between what he believes and what he practices. Timothy was not only to teach sound doctrine, but he was also to live a life that was complementary to and consistent with that same doctrine. In short, the doctrines he believed and taught were not to remain in his head. They were supposed to be life-transforming as Timothy exemplified Christlikeness before his congregation.  

I would suggest that the flaws in our definitions of what it means to be Reformed remain in the realm of doctrine and ignore the realm of duty. They have failed to build a bridge between our beliefs and our behavior. What was Paul's concern with Timothy? It was not merely his doctrine; it was the entirety of his life. 

That is what it means to be Reformed. It means that those precious doctrines we love in our mind and heart begin to trickle down into other portions of our being so that our entire being is being sanctified to conformity to the will of God. It is not that we are Reformed. Rather, we are being and are always reforming.

Here is my concern. I am afraid there are many within the doctrinally Reformed camp who are not truly Reformed because they have never built a bridge from their doctrine to their duty. They have kept Paul's command to watch over their teaching and doctrine, but they have neglected the command to watch over their own lives and their calling, to not only to be an example in doctrine but also in love, in spirit, conduct, faith, and purity.

 In Matthew 23:23, Jesus rebukes the religious leaders of His day by saying, “Woe to you, scribes and Pharisees, hypocrites! For you tithe mint and dill and cumin, and have neglected the weightier matters of the law: justice and mercy and faithfulness. These you ought to have done, without neglecting the others."

I wonder had Jesus spoken these words to those of us who are Reformed, would they be much different? For us, the issue may not be strict adherence to the Old Covenant law, but to doctrinal purity where Jesus could say something like, “Woe to you who call yourself Reformed. For you have your confessions and your doctrine and have neglected the weightier matters of the law: grace and mercy and faithfulness. These you ought to have done, without neglecting the others."

Let me give you a few examples:

I was recently following a discussion of a "Reformed" Facebook page where a young man posted a question prefaced by saying something to the effect of, "I am just a young immature believer, please don't crucify me for asking this question." In the preface to his question, he made a passing comment about the general spirit in the group as being uncharitable, and it was that perceived lack of charity that gave him angst about posting a question. Much to my chagrin, some overly zealous person couldn't help themselves and proceeded to threaten kicking him out of the group for attacking the good nature of the spirit of the group. For this particular group, this kind of interaction is not uncommon and threats of excommunication from the group are frequently the first step of internet discipline whenever an administrator is offended or uncomfortable.

There is no shortage of so-called discernment and apologetic ministries in the Reformed world. While in theory, they may have their place in the context of a local church, most of them today are nothing but a bunch of angry dudes looking to be crucified for the sake of making a Youtube video that will go viral. Thus the tenor of their work is self-righteous, proud, and uncharitable.

One organization that exists to facilitate fellowship within the Reformed camp has made the impassability of God - a very small, though not unimportant theological distinctive - the standard and basis for fellowship and association, causing heart-breaking division as many solid brothers found they no longer met the qualifications of fellowship and association.

Abraham Maslow is noted to have said, "If you only have a hammer, you tend to see every problem as a nail." Could it be said of us in the Reformed faith that we only have a hammer? Could it be that in our desire for doctrinal purity, we have neglected Paul's weightier command to watch over ourselves? Could it be we have pure doctrine and no love? Could it be we have a systematic theology with no chinks in its armor but have no grace? Could it be in our attempt at ecclesiastical correctness we are holding the faith of our Lord Jesus with partiality?

While on the one hand, someone could say these are isolated incidents, I am persuaded they are also the tip of a much larger iceberg. There is an angry, uncharitable, unloving, unaccommodating, and even proud side within the Reformed camp. Frankly, brothers, it calls for deep, true, and lasting repentance.

Once a week I lead a Bible study at a correctional facility for troubled young men. On Monday we were talking about Jesus' interaction with the woman at the well in John 4. After reading the passage, I explained to the young men what kind of a woman Jesus was talking to and some of the cultural trappings surrounding this woman that made her unique. Then I asked them, "How did Jesus treat this woman who is not only immoral but also has some weighty cultural baggage and some pretty poor doctrine." The response from one young man was fast and deliberate, "Respect! Jesus treated her with respect, sir!" He was absolutely right. In spite of the woman's poor theology and immoral life, Jesus treated her with respect, love, grace, and charity. He didn't shy away from the truth, but He brought the truth in love. As believers we often consider ourselves in the shoes of Jesus in that story, when in fact, we are not Jesus; we are the woman. We are those who have lived in immorality and sin and who even still have some pretty sad doctrinal baggage, but how has Jesus treated us?

The God of the universe, our creator and sustainer, the perfect theologian and the Holy of Holies, condescends to our weakness and shows us grace, treats us with dignity, does not deal with us according to our sins, but graciously takes us by the hand and calls us to His eternal side.

This has been, and will always be the way in which God affects change us. God has never changed anyone with the law. God has never changed anyone with His wrath or anger. No, it is the kindness of the Lord (Romans 2:4) that leads to repentance. It is His grace that teaches us to deny ungodliness and worldly passions (Titus 2:12),  and it is the great love with which He loves us (Ephesians 2:4-5) that made us alive and saved our souls from sin, death, and hell.

Should we not think that if God changes us with His kind attributes of love, grace, charity, kindness, and mercy, as tools in His hand to do the ministry of reconciliation, so we ought to take up the same qualities and exemplify God in our relationships with one another? As recipients of such grace, should our lives not also reflect this grace?

We should not be content to simply wear the badge of possessing Reformed theology. May the banner of our life be "semper reformanda" as we build a bridge from our doctrine to our doings, imitating our God in showing love and grace to our brothers.

(Photo courtesy of

(Footnote 1)  Theodor Mahlmann: "Ecclesia semper reformanda". Eine historische Aufarbeitung. Neue Bearbeitung, in: Torbj√∂rn Johansson, Robert Kolb, Johann Anselm Steiger (Hrsg.): Hermeneutica Sacra. Studien zur Auslegung der Heiligen Schrift im 16. und 17. Jahrhundert, Berlin - New York 2010, p. 382-441, here p. 384-388

(Photo Courtesy of

Wednesday, January 8, 2014

Don't Be A Pendulum Swinger

A few years ago, I heard Albert N. Martin say something that has stuck with me and been very helpful in the Christian life. He said,"The pendulum never swings faster than it does through the center." The point he made is that when we see errors in our lives, in the church, and even in the world around us and try to correct them, we need to be cautious, not to over-correct them and swing past the Biblical center. It is hard to avoid unBiblical extremes, but we must. Here is what I am afraid happens all too often: we see an error in one area of the Christian life and react so strongly against it that we end up into equally dangerous error on the other side.

 John R.W. Stott said in his book, Balanced Christianity – A Call To Avoid Unnecessary Polarization
“One of the greatest weaknesses which we Christians (especially evangelical Christians) display is our tendency to extremism or imbalance. It seems that there is almost no pastime the devil enjoys more than tipping Christians off balance. My conviction is that we should love balance as much as the devil hates it, and seek to promote it as vigorously as he seeks to destroy it.”

There are a number of dangers with being a pendulum swinger instead of a balanced Christian.

Danger #1: You never know how far the pendulum is going to swing until you get there.I recently met with a man who had come to see the great truth of Christ as the Head of His church. He had previously seen domineering dictatorial forms of church leadership. When he came to see Christ's headship in the church, he grabbed the pendulum as it came his direction and rode it all the way to the extreme of denying legitimate authority vested in the elders of God's church. He swung past Biblical center into the dangerous error of the "Lone Ranger Christian" mentality.  

Danger #2: A natural tenancy to see whatever issue we swung toward as so important and precious that it becomes the litmus test of all Christianity. This is another problem with being a pendulum-swinger. Not only passing by everything in the middle, but also filtering the primary issues through the lens of secondary issues. I like the King James Bible and I hate abortion. I believe the Bible forbids remarriage after divorce and permits the cautious consumption of alcohol. But brothers and sisters, those things aren't the Gospel, they aren't the main thing. The problem with being a pendulum-swinger is that far too often we see our new-found extreme as the test of a person's profession of faith. We forget the Gospel is a message of good news, a message about the Person and work of Jesus for sinners. An individual finds their place in the family of God in Christ, not in the version of Bible they have or in how many times they have stood in front of an abortion clinic with a pro-life sign. The Gospel speaks to those things and their importance, but they are not the sole test of the genuineness of a person's confession of faith. May we never get secondary issues (although they are important) confused with the Gospel because to do so is to deny that salvation is by grace alone through faith alone in Christ alone. May we remember the words of Stephen Covey, "The main thing is to keep the main thing the main thing."

Danger #3: Once we get comfortable grabbing a passing pendulum, it becomes easier. Certainly there are times for theological paradigm shifts. There are times to change our behavior and even our doctrine. Unless we are talking about abandoning blatant heresy, those times should be done with careful Biblical study and prayer "so that we may no longer be children, tossed to and fro by the waves and carried about by every wind of doctrine, by human cunning, by craftiness in deceitful schemes" (Ephesians 4:14). It is the mark of a spiritual baby (a spiritually young Christian) to always shift doctrinal positions with the changing of the winds around them. A spiritually mature person will seek to grow and maintain Biblical balance at all costs.

Tuesday, December 3, 2013

A Bull in the China Shop of Technology

A few years ago I found myself in a debate with another Christian arguing for a position that was clearly contrary to Scripture. In the middle of the discussion I privately came to realize that my position at that time was inaccurate, but continued to argue a wrong position. As I was thinking about it later on, I came to the painful realization that I was simply arguing because I like to fight and not because I was concerned for truth. I have always been a debater and at times even considered myself to be an aspiring apologist, but this discussion forced me to take a good hard look at what I was doing and why I was doing it. I have always strove for theological precision and was quick to look for and find the holes in another person's system of belief. But that debate sparked in me a journey of repentance away from an argumentative spirit toward what is hopefully a more godly way of interacting with fellow brothers and sisters in Christ.

I am writing about this because  it is where my mind keeps wandering to as I prepare next week's sermon. At our church I have been preaching through Ephesians and this week is the second week in Ephesians 4:2.  In chapter 2 of Ephesians, Paul labored hard to show the Gentile Christians of Ephesus all that Christ had done to create unity and peace, not only on a vertical level between God and man, but also on a horizontal level, even to create unity between Jews and Gentiles. Ephesians 2 is a massive gospel indicative about what Christ has done to create unity and peace. Then in Chapter 4, Paul spends the first three verses showing us how we should respond to those gospel indicatives by giving us a number of gospel imperatives to obey for the sake of preserving the unity that Christ has procured. Ephesians 4:1-3 says, "I therefore, a prisoner for the Lord, urge you to walk in a manner worthy of the calling to which you have been called, with all humility and gentleness, with patience, bearing with one another in love, eager to maintain the unity of the Spirit in the bond of peace." This week I am preaching on the relationship between unity and gentleness in verse 2.

The word "gentleness" in Ephesians 4:2 is a word that was used to talk about a wild animal that had been tamed. It is a word that conveys the idea of a powerful wild animal such as a horse being subdued and controlled by another. Gentleness or meekness is power under control.

What does this have to do in my personal spiritual journey away from being an argumentative jerk? Everything! In 2 Tim. 2:25, Paul gives us instruction for how we are to correct those who are in error. What we read there may be surprising to some. When I think of the apostle Paul, I think of this heresy-eating machine, a force to be reckoned with who would always win a debate on anything theological, not because of apostolic authority, but because of his sheer presence,the thundering boom of his voice and his force of personality which would demand submission and respect. But in 2 Timothy where Paul instructs us on how to correct those who are in error, that is not his approach. 2 Tim. 2:23-25 says, "Have nothing to do with foolish, ignorant controversies; you know that they breed quarrels. And the Lord’s servant must not be quarrelsome but kind to everyone, able to teach, patiently enduring evil, correcting his opponents with gentleness. God may perhaps grant them repentance leading to a knowledge of the truth,"

First, Paul tells us to pick our battles. There are some arguments, some disagreements which are just foolish and should be ignored because to engage them would only create controversy.Then he goes on to tell us that when we correct error, it should be done in a spirit of gentleness, power under control, so that "God might bring about repentance." The apostolic command from Scripture is not that we bring the thundering hammer of our personality or resort to verbal and personal attack; no, it is coming alongside those in error, with our power under the control of God's Spirit, patiently and lovingly correcting those in error working toward the end of repentance and a knowledge of truth.

As I was studying this morning, I couldn't help but think that in a sense our cultural setting is far removed from that of Paul when he wrote Ephesians 4 and 2 Timothy 2. With the advancement of technology and the ease of access to people and ideas on the internet, it seems as if we have lost touch with what Paul is saying. Every day when I check my Facebook, read a number of Christian blogs, or read through religious groups pages on Facebook, I see far too much of myself and far too little of the Apostle Paul.

Here are a number of my concerns with how the advancement of technology have blindsided the church in the area of gentleness:

1. I see pastors being publicly attacked and maligned with an attempt at discrediting their ministry, presumably without having ever been given the a loving exhortation, without any one-on-one clarification, and accusations being publicly received about pastors without two or three witnesses (1 Tim 5:19). I see pastors deceived and baited into interviews where accusations are brought to their attention for the first time in front of an audience of millions. I see men and women trolling the internet, looking for these spiritual leaders to"expose them", propagating the lack of love and sowing seeds of discord with their every stroke of the keyboard.

2. I see genuine seekers of the faith being turned away by over-zealous jerks who are more concerned with winning an argument than winning a soul. Proverbs 11:30 says, "The fruit of the righteous is a tree of life, and he that wins souls is wise." Did you read that? "He who wins souls is wise." That means we should be winsome. That means our interaction with the lost, even on the internet, should be purposefully directed at speaking the truth in love in a way that is both without compromise yet in a gentle winsome way.

3. I see so-called street preachers who have made it their life ambition to preach as hard of a message as possible and turn it into the most controversial Youtube video possible. I know there are some fine street preachers who are preaching Christ, and for that I rejoice. I am not talking about them. I am talking about the folks who are more concerned with making a Youtube video that will spark controversy than preaching Christ, people who make it the mark of their ministry to preach "hard sermons," against the wickedness of sodomy, pornography, drunkenness, rock music, and liberal Bible versions without ever giving their hearer a good dose of Christ and Him crucified. I am talking about men who puff themselves up in pride for not being as wicked as the world without ever showing them the beauty of Christ. The apostolic preaching of Paul was not concerned with creating controversy or verbally attacking people for the sake of getting a holy high-five from his friends. The ministry of Paul can be defined in his own words in 1 Cor. 2:2, "For I decided to know nothing among you except Jesus Christ and him crucified."

4. I see Facebook pages that were likely created with good intent that have divulged into nothing more than places where we discuss the errors of others and take pride in the fact that we have sound doctrine while the rest of Christianity wallows in the freakish misery of their heterodoxy. I believe there are times to discuss theology and there are even appropriate times to discuss aberrant doctrines, but again I am concerned that many in the church have - myself included - from time to time been blindsided by these advancements in theology and have forgotten the dangers of spiritual pride. They have forgotten to be gentle when correcting false doctrine. They have forgotten that Christ died to create peace and reconciliation between us and those we are attacking.

I know to many this may sound like weakness. To others it might sound like I have given up all concern for doctrine and want to throw as broad of a theological net as I can justify. I also know there is much more that could be said that has been left unsaid. But at the end of the day, we would all do well to remember the words of Titus 3:2-6 where we are instructed "to speak evil of no one, to avoid quarreling, to be gentle, and to show perfect courtesy toward all people. For we ourselves were once foolish, disobedient, led astray, slaves to various passions and pleasures, passing our days in malice and envy, hated by others and hating one another. But when the goodness and loving kindness of God our Savior appeared, He saved us, not because of works done by us in righteousness, but according to His own mercy, by the washing of regeneration and renewal of the Holy Spirit, whom He poured out on us richly through Jesus Christ our Savior."