Posts Categorized: Christian Life

A Note to the Skinflints and the Slackhands

One of the great advantages of being in a church is that you may well know lots of useful people, people who know how to do stuff. I have friends who can write contracts, fix radiators, and mend fences. And since they’re called to love me, they can do it at a discount, right?

In a video course called Biblical Finance, Doug Wilson gets onto the subject of Honest Work and makes a few challenging remarks in his typically humorous way.

Honest work means that you don’t take advantage of other people just because they’re in the family of God. And it’s really amazing how the carnal heart works on this. ‘Oh, our cat’s sick, and this veterinarian goes to our church. Maybe we’ll go to him, and maybe he’ll give us a deal because we go to the same church. Maybe he’ll give us 10% off… Or maybe I can get it for free if I hit him up at the fellowship hour and tell him what’s wrong with my cat.’

Or you find out that somebody’s a doctor at the fellowship hour at church, and you want to show them your rash.

Don’t take advantage of your brothers.

Instead of going to the vet with your sick cat thinking ‘Maybe he’ll take 10% off because I’m a brother’, you need to be thinking, ‘Maybe I should add 10% to whatever he bills me. Maybe I should add 10% because he’s a brother.’

If you’re trying to use the brotherhood of God as a way of getting from people, your thinking is all wrong. Look at every Christian business opportunity… as a way to bless them above and beyond, instead of looking for ways for them to bless you above and beyond.

Now, there is a kind of grace in receiving a gift, including services offered at a reduced rate. So we don’t have to assume that the vet isn’t allowed to offer you a discount, or that the doctor won’t take a sneak peak at that rash and offer a word of advice. But the point is that the onus is on you to honour them, and not vice versa.

In fact, Paul does (sort of) make the same point.

Those who have believing masters must not be disrespectful on the ground that they are brothers; rather they must serve all the better since those who benefit by their good service are believers and beloved. (1 Timothy 6.2)

Here the roles are reversed, but the principle is the same. He’s saying that if you’re employed by a fellow Christian you should work even harder as a service to them simply because they are Christian. But the bigger point, or the underlying principle, is this: don’t take liberties with a brother as though he owes you. Rather, consider how to serve him even better, whether by your generosity or your hard work.

This post originally appeared over at Think Theology.

Keller’s Powerful Spiritual Diagnostic

I’ve recently finished reading Tim Keller’s new book on prayer, and it is truly outstanding. But there was one section that stood out as one of the most helpful things I’ve read on prayer and the spiritual life for a very long time. It’s towards the end of the book and Keller is seeking to leave us with some parting thoughts and motivations to actually commit to prayer (as one friend of mine recently commented, it’s far easier to read a book on prayer than to pray). Keller gives us this spiritual diagnostic to help you understand your experiences of prayer, and give you hope to keep going:

I often ask Christians to evaluate their situation with regard to prayer by using a metaphor. Imagine that your soul is a boat, a boat with both oars and a sail. In this case here are four questions:

Are you “sailing”? Sailing means you are living the Christian life with the wind at your back. God is real to your heart. You often feel his love. You see prayers being answered. When studying the Bible, you regularly see remarkable things and you sense him speaking to you. You sense people around you being influenced by the Spirit through you.

Are you “rowing”? Rowing means you are finding prayer and Bible reading to be more a duty than a delight. God often (though not always) seems distant, and the sense of his presence is fairly rare. You don’t see many of your prayers being answered. You may be struggling with doubts about God and yourself. Yet despite all this, you refuse self-pity or the self-righteous pride that assumes you know better than God how your life should go. You continue to read the Bible and pray regularly, you attend worship and reach out and serve people despite the inner spiritual dryness.

Are you “drifting”? Drifting means that you are experiencing all the conditions of rowing—spiritual dryness and difficulties in life. But in response, instead of rowing, you are letting yourself drift. You don’t feel like approaching and obeying God, so you don’t pray or read. You give in to the self-centeredness that naturally comes when you feel sorry for yourself, and you drift into self-indulgent behaviors to comfort yourself, whether it be escape eating and sleeping, sexual practices, or whatever else.

Are you “sinking”? Eventually your boat, your soul, will drift away from the shipping lanes, as it were—and truly lose any forward motion in the Christian life. The numbness of heart can become hardness because you give in to thoughts of self-pity and resentment. If some major difficulty or trouble were to come into your life, it would be possible to abandon your faith and identity as a Christian altogether.

In this metaphor we see that there are some things we are responsible for, such as using the means of grace—the Bible, prayer, and church participation—in a disciplined way. There are many other things we do not have much control over—such as how well the circumstances in our lives are going as well as our emotions. If you pray, worship, and obey despite negative circumstances and feelings, you won’t be drifting, and when the winds come up again, you will move ahead swiftly. On the other hand, if you do not apply the means of grace, you will at best be drifting, and if storms come into your life, you might be in danger of sinking.

In any case—pray no matter what. Praying is rowing, and sometimes it is like rowing in the dark—you won’t feel that you are making any progress at all. Yet you are, and when the winds rise again, and they surely will, you will sail again before them.

Prayer, Timothy Keller, p.259-260

This post first appeared over at the Grace London blog.

Holiness and Your Personality Type

Because we are all wired up differently our unique proclivities and preferences in life are bound up with the vulnerabilities we face towards temptation. In other words, Satan will target your weak spots. And a good part of your counter-attack is figuring out where you are vulnerable and strapping on extra armour in the right places.

While the descriptions of personality types have multiplied over recent decades and psychologists can’t agree on how best to group us, I came across some super helpful insights from JI Packer. He acknowledges the modern psychological terms, but then says that the Ancient Greek categories are probably the most useful. He describes them like this:

(1) the sanguine (warm, jolly, outgoing, relaxed, optimistic);
(2) the phlegmatic (cool, low-key, detached, unemotional, apathetic);
(3) the choleric (quick, active, bustling, impatient, with a relatively short fuse); and
(4) the melancholic (somber, pessimistic, inward-looking, inclined to cynicism and depression).

It’s not hard to identify yourself in one these descriptions (or a combination of a couple). And what do you do when you have? Packer writes, “The assertion that I now make, and must myself face, is that I am not to become (or remain) a victim of my temperament.” So, while your personality might make you prone to particular sins, it’s your job to fight twice as hard to overcome those tendencies. Packer then goes on with this brilliant summary of what holiness will look like for each of the four main types:

“Holiness for a person of sanguine temperament, then, will involve learning to look before one leaps, to think things through responsibly, and to speak wisely rather than wildly. (These were among the lessons Peter learned with the Spirit’s help after Pentecost.) Holiness for a person of phlegmatic temperament will involve a willingness to be open with people, to feel with them and for them, to be forthcoming in relationships, and to become vulnerable, in the sense of risking being hurt. Holiness for a choleric person will involve practicing patience and self-control. It will mean redirecting one’s anger and hostility toward Satan and sin, rather than toward fellow human beings who are obstructing what one regards as the way forward. (These were among the lessons Paul learned from the Lord after his conversion.) Finally, holiness for a melancholic person will involve learning to rejoice in God, to give up self-pity and proud pessimism, and to believe, with the medieval mystic Julian of Norwich, that through sovereign divine grace, ‘All shall be well and all shall be well, and all manner of things shall be well.’ ”

(JI Packer, Rediscovering Holiness, location 289 in Kindle)

Nine Forms of Fasting

Fasting – the most resented of all spiritual disciplines, but the one most likely to be embraced by Californians in search of their beach bodies – is more important in the Bible than we often acknowledge. If you haven’t heard you pastor preach on fasting, it’s probably because he doesn’t want to be a hypocrite. We ought to talk about, and think, and engage far more with fasting as a means of spiritual renewal and of seeking God’s face. Donald Whitney (in Spiritual Disciplines for the Christian Life) lists no less than nine forms of fasting that he’s helpfully categorised for your condemnation conviction:

1. Normal fasts – abstaining from food, but not from water, for a set period of time. Think Jesus in the wilderness.

2. Partial fasts – limiting your diet to certain simple food groups. Think Daniel and his three friends.

3. Absolute fasts  not eating or drinking at all for a very limited time (e.g. 24 hours). Think Ezra, Esther, or Paul.

4. Supernatural fasts – not eating or drinking for a time, beyond what is naturally possible. Think Moses on Mount Sinai.

5. Private fasts – fasting while smiling and smelling good so that nobody notices. Think the teaching of Jesus.

6. Congregational fasts – fasting as God’s people together for a purpose. Think the call of Joel and the elders in Antioch.

7. National fasts – when a nation gets desperate for God’s help. Think Judah under Jehoshaphat.

8. Regular fasts – prescribed under the Old Testament law. Think Yom Kippur.

9. Occasional fasts – special needs call for special measures. Think the guests without the Bridegroom.

 

Self-Pity: The Sin Behind the Sin

selfpity-1000x600Sins cause other sins. Sometimes that’s because the circumstances brought about by one sin create the perfect circumstances to go ahead and commit the next one (as when David began down the slippery slope by staying home that fateful Spring time and letting his eyes linger a while on Bathsheba). But sometimes the progression from one sin to another takes place imperceptibly in the chambers of the heart. There’s a kind of chain reaction as one sin leads to another, sometimes in the blink of an eye, as when pride produces anger in reaction to embarrassment. Sometimes the progression is much slower, as when anger settles into bitterness, and bitterness festers into hatred. But trace the line back far enough and you’ll find the trigger, the sin that gave birth to all the rest.

Perhaps then you could talk about some sins being ‘mothers’ to other kinds of sin – where the offspring are sometimes lesser, and sometimes greater. There are a lot examples of this. Idolatry (whether worshipping yourself or other ‘gods’) always gives birth to some other sin, for example, Mammon worship makes you greedy. Pride has many children, since it leads to anger, unclean ambition, superiority, and much else besides.

Now, in some ways it feels a bit silly to talk about sins as though they were particular apps loaded onto your brain software, each self-contained but with some interaction between each other. The reality is so much more complex and intertwined. For example, it’s not as though you can always separate out the sins of anger and pride when they are in so many situations horribly overlapping. But the Bible names particular sins by showing us their typical patterns and characteristics and treats them as entities to be identified and killed. “So put away all malice and all deceit and hypocrisy and envy and all slander” (1 Peter 2.1). So, it seems worthwhile thinking about the rarely acknowledged sin of self-pity.

We need to stress, of course, that there’s a difference between being sad and being self-pitying. I don’t think that every time you feel down you’re indulging in self-pity. That would be a ridiculous conclusion. But there’s a line we cross somewhere when we’re weighed down in the circumstances of life that takes us from sadness to something uglier and altogether more dangerous. It’s not easy to explain the difference, and it’s even harder to identify the difference in your own heart and mind. But there is one evidence that always shows when you’re settling into self-pity, and that’s to look at the fruit. Are you beginning to look for comforts outside of Jesus? Are you beginning to consider sin as a way of getting your joy? Are you doubting that God has your best interests at heart, that his will is “good and acceptable and perfect” (Rom. 12.2)?

And so I’m convinced that the root of self-pity causes so much trouble in our hearts. It seems to be a particularly fertile kind of sin. From self-pity spring so many sins of self-indulgence. Self-pity lays down the conditions of the heart in which all kinds of illegitimate comforts become more appealing. When you’re wallowing in a state of self-pity you can begin to feel like God is withholding good things from you. You can begin to feel a sense of entitlement, that you deserve more. You start looking for comforts to touch your sorrow. You find avenues of escape that allow you to feel better if only for a while.

John Piper gives the example of a Christian leader who’s drawn towards adultery because of self-pity. What on earth is he thinking? Perhaps, Piper suggests, something like this:

“Nobody else understands my pressures. Nobody else seems to feel for me in my loneliness the way she does. If any of them knew what I was going through in this leadership role, they would understand why I need this kind of embrace, I need this kind of ‘unconditional acceptance’. I have borne enough of the burden of being everybody’s spiritual example, I can’t take it any more. And I don’t care if they don’t approve.”

Even if the result is not as extreme as adultery, hasn’t self-pity been the cause of so many other forms of greedy self-indulgence — from buying stuff you can’t afford, to wasting time on some form of entertainment, to over-eating, to laziness, to dating that person who’s no good for you.

I wonder how many people who battle with particular recurring or habitual sins are failing because they haven’t taken out the root of self-pity.

Self-pity is sin for two big reasons. First, because it’s saying something about the character of God, saying that he’s not good or loving or kind since he must be withholding. Second, self-pity is sin because it’s saying something about your importance, your entitlements, your rights. Perhaps, then, self-pity is not the root at all but rather springs out of our unbelief (towards God) and pride (towards ourselves). Even so, it’s a particularly powerful expression of these other sins; a concoction that always produces a reaction.

There is an antidote to self-pity, and that is gratitude to God.

It is the conscious decision to thank God for all he’s done for you in Christ. In being grateful we take the axe to the root of unbelief (saying God’s not good) and pride (saying I deserve more). In being grateful we find there’s power to climb out of the hole of putrid self-pitying and kill all of the accompanying temptations by simply discovering happiness in God.

“Do not be deceived, my beloved brothers. Every good gift and every perfect gift is from above, coming down from the Father of lights with whom there is no variation or shadow due to change. (James 1.16–17)”

I find it interesting that the world is awakening to the power of gratitude, though sad that nobody knows who to thank — something Paul understands to be the cause of man’s rebellion: “For although they knew God, they did not honour him as God or give thanks to him…” (Romans 1.21). As Christians we not only know who to thank, but have a profound duty and privilege to do so. As J.I. Packer puts it,

“No religion anywhere has ever laid such stress on the need for thanksgiving, nor called on its adherents so incessantly and insistently to give God thanks as does the religion of the Bible.”1

“Therefore, as you received Christ Jesus the Lord, so walk in him, rooted and built up in him and established in the faith, just as you were taught, abounding in thanksgiving” (Col. 2.6–7).

 This was originally posted at ThinkTheology.

Footnotes

1. J.I. Packer, A Passion for Holiness, Crossway Books, 1992, quoted by Terry Virgo in The Spirit-Filled Church, Monarch Books, 2011, p.65.

 

How shall I stand if such mighty pillars have been cast to the ground?

fallen_pillarNothing is sadder or more destructive for the church than when leaders crash to the ground in a public way. It can be so disillusioning and disappointing for those of us who have loved and admired them (a point Matthew Hosier makes so well here). I know very little of the circumstances surrounding the decision of the Acts 29 board to remove Mark Driscoll and his church, Mars Hill, from the network. But I feel the crushing disappointment of the whole thing, given how much admiration I feel for the ministry of Driscoll.

This morning I read these unbelievably relevant words from John Owen in a book of daily readings. Read this slowly and carefully:

“It is the great duty of all believers to use all diligence that we do not fall into temptation. Adam was created in the image of God, full of integrity, righteousness, and holiness. He had a far greater inherent stock of ability than we, and there was nothing in him to entice or seduce him. No sooner had he entered into temptation but he was gone, lost, and ruined, and all his posterity with him. What can we expect if we also enter into temptation? We, like him, have the temptation and the cunning of the devil to deal with, but we also have a cursed world and a corrupt heart to increase the power of temptation. Abraham is an example for all believers to follow, and yet he entered into temptation about his wife and was overpowered to the dishonour of God. God called David ‘a man after God’s own heart’, yet what a dreadful thing is the story of his entering into temptation! I might mention Noah, Lot, Hezekiah, Peter and the rest, whose temptations and falls are recorded for our instruction. Certainly any with a heart for these things will cry out ‘How shall I stand, O Lord, if such mighty pillars have been cast to the ground? If such great cedars were blown down, how shall I stand before temptation? O keep me that I do not enter into temptation!’ Are any without a wound or blemish that have entered temptation? How will we fare? Assuredly, if we see stronger men fail, we will seek to avoid the battle at all cost. Is it not madness for a man who can barely crawl up and down (which is the case for most of us), if he does not avoid that which has brought down giants in the undertaking thereof? If you are yet whole and sound, take heed of temptation, lest it happens to you as with Abraham and the rest who fell in time of trial.”

(John Owen in Voices from the Past, edited by Richard Rushing, p.96)

On the back of this, three pieces of counsel come to mind.

1. Try not to judge that which you know nothing about

None of us have been privy to the discussions that have happened behind doors regarding all the issues surrounding Mark Driscoll. I trust the Acts 29 board because, from what I know of them, they seem to be a well-rounded and wise bunch of men. But I’m not going to dismiss Driscoll or write him off. On the contrary, my hope and prayer is that he would come through this stronger and more effective. God knows many of us have been inspired and helped by him.

2. Look at your own life and make a double effort to root out the sins of your heart

For those of us who are in positions of leadership in the church, or aspire to get there, the sentiments that Owen expresses here are poignantly relevant. I am not a pillar or a cedar, and if even they can come crashing to the ground, I had better take a look at my own life and root out the sins of my heart by the grace of God.

3. Avoid the battle of ‘entering into temptation’ at all costs

This is Owen’s main point. He’s not talking about the battle of the Christian life (which we are all engaged in), but the battle of facing down temptation, of ‘entering into temptation’. This is a situation in which the lusts of your own heart meet timely opportunities to sin, and the outcome is your inevitable downfall. Just as Jesus told us to watch lest we enter into temptation, Owen wants Christians to see that, rather than just avoiding the sin itself, we need to make every effort (through prayer and wise choices) to avoid entering into temptation. Don’t go there. Flee. Make it impossible to get tempted in the ways you know you’re vulnerable. Of course, how you do that will depend on your makeup and your situation, but we can learn from what little we know of Driscoll’s circumstances, and the far greater knowledge we have of our own hearts, to make sure we are careful in this.

God chooses the weak

At times you can feel painfully aware of your inadequacies and weaknesses. In facing the prospect of church planting, I feel that now more than ever. It’s because of my awareness of everything that could go wrong, and of all that we lack. It’s knowing that Jesus was right when he said, ‘Apart from me you can do nothing‘. It’s also because of a keen awareness of all the fake success that churches can enjoy, which is little more than wood, hay and stubble.

This paragraph leaped out at me as I read Jim Hamilton’s outstanding little book, What is Biblical Theology?:

“In the mystery of his wisdom, God chooses mostly weak and insignificant people as his own. He wants no humans boasting (1 Cor. 1.29), and he wants us relying on him, not ourselves (2 Cor. 1.9). When God sets out to make a great nation of one man’s descendants, he starts with a man whose wife is barren. When he wants to choose a king, he picks a young boy whose own father didn’t think he would be king, and so when the prophet comes to anoint one of his sons, Jesse doesn’t summon David until Samuel has passed over David’s older brothers (1 Sam. 16.10-11). When God wants to save the world, he sends his Son to become a baby, born to a peasant girl in questionable circumstances, and he sends him not to a great world capital but to a small town in Galilee. It’s almost as though God repeatedly gives a head start to the opponent who will never outrun him.”

There is sweet comfort in knowing that our weakness actually qualifies us for service.