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)

Is It A Good Thing To Want To Be An Overseer?

For a while now I’ve assumed that every Christian man ought to aspire to church eldership. Look at 1 Timothy 3.1:

“The saying is trustworthy: If anyone aspires to the office of overseer, he desires a noble task.”

On first reading it sounds like Paul is saying something to the effect that the men ought to desire eldership, that this is a good and noble desire. But I think my reading has for a long time been coloured by the way I’ve heard this passage preached, where the ambition to leadership is held up (like a rabbit before a pack of greyhounds) as something to help motivate men to grow up and mature. In fact, I’ve preached it this way myself.

But on a second reading I’m not at all sure that is what Paul’s saying. For one thing, he’s not addressing all the men in the room, but only a selection — notice the “if”. And furthermore, by saying “he desires a noble task” he is not necessarily saying “his desire itself is noble”. I think the meaning is not so much an affirmation of ambition, but an affirmation of the dignity of the role. It’s like saying: “If anyone wants to climb Everest, he has set his sights very high.”

The qualifications that follow in verses 2–7 are then not so much to be treated as goals to attain, though they are worthy goals for any Christian, but rather as a checklist before daring to step into such a role as eldership. So, the overall meaning is like this: “If you want to climb Everest (which is very high) you had better be fit, well-funded, well-trained, and well-bearded.” There is not, to my mind, any comment on whether someone ought to make this a goal in the first place.

What of the ambition to lead? The reality is that many men in churches do want to be elders, and that this desire can spur them on. Is this ambition good, or is it bad?

Calvin thinks that Paul is gently permitting the desire to eldership (the very fact that Paul is addressing such men shows a tacit acceptance of the desire; he doesn’t say the desire is wrong, after all). But Calvin adds some helpful words of caution and advice:

“If ambition is condemned in other matters, much more severely ought it to be condemned in ‘the office of a bishop.’ But Paul speaks of a godly desire, by which holy men wish to employ that knowledge of doctrine which they possess for the edification of the Church. For, if it were altogether unlawful to desire the office of a teacher, why should they who spend all their youth in reading the Holy Scriptures prepare themselves by learning? What are the theological schools but nurseries of pastors?”

So there are men whose passions and interests have led them to pursue vigorous study, and if that is coupled with desire, it may be a good thing for them to find outlet for their gifts for the benefit of the church. He goes on:

“Accordingly, they who have been thus instructed not only may lawfully devote themselves and their labours to God by a voluntary offering, but even ought to do so, and that too, before they have been admitted unto the office; provided that, nevertheless, they do not thrust themselves forward, and do not, even by their own wish, make themselves bishops, but are only ready to discharge the office, if their labours shall be required.”

That is, if a man has been trained he should start finding any and every opportunity to use what he’s got long before he gets ordained. But don’t push for ordination, wait for a summons.

“And if it turn out that, according to the lawful order; they are not called, let them know that such was the will of God, and let them not take it in that others have been preferred to them. But they who, without any selfish motive, shall have no other wish than to serve God and the Church, will be affected in this manner; and, at the same time, will have such modesty that they will not be at all envious, if others be preferred to them as being more worthy.”

This is undoubtedly the test of whether ambition for leadership is well-motivated or not: how a guy reacts when he’s refused the place on the leadership team. Will he have this modesty and complete absence of envy? Will he take it as God’s will?

This post first appeared over at ThinkTheology.

Commit Fewer Abominations

I’ll readily admit that, from time-to-time, Dr Lloyd-Jones was a little too trigger-happy with his use of the word ‘abomination’. (Few would agree that collecting illustrations on index cards for use in sermons is truly abominable.) But his resolute determination to live and preach and pastor as though God is real is often the underlying motive behind his strong language. He had no time for methods in ministry that were more reliant on human ingenuity than any dependence on God to act.

This is a Biblical concern. Just before Ezra makes the vast and dangerous journey back to Israel from Exile with his companions and resources to start the rebuilding we read this:

Then I proclaimed a fast there, at the river Ahava, that we might humble ourselves before our God, to seek from him a safe journey for ourselves, our children, and all our goods. For I was ashamed to ask the king for a band of soldiers and horsemen to protect us against the enemy on our way, since we had told the king, “The hand of our God is for good on all who seek him, and the power of his wrath is against all who forsake him.” So we fasted and implored our God for this, and he listened to our entreaty.

Ezra 8.21–23

Ezra tells Artaxerxes he doesn’t need his protection, and he does so as a statement of faith and confidence in God.

This impulse is seen in many stories in the Bible — the resolute desire not to rely on men but to prove God by taking a decision in which, if he doesn’t act, failure is certain.

If I had to articulate one hope for Grace London it would be something down these lines. A passionate desire to demonstrate that God is true to his word, that his gospel works, and that it’s enough. There are few things that dismay me more than churches where the fruit is so explainable to a watching world. I’m not sure God is glorified when churches grow through our clever marketing, entertainment, and watered-down gospel-lite. Perhaps this really is an abomination to God.

Anyway, I attempted to explain a little more of this last Sunday and the summary of the message is here.

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.

 

How to write a bestselling Christian book

[This is an attempt to parody a lot of what flies of the shelves of Christian bookshops. I hope it doesn’t sound like tough cheese.]

You are just a few steps from writing a bestselling Christian book. How do you do it? The first thing you must do is begin your book with a sensational claim. People want to believe that when they read your book their life is going to change forever. You are giving them the keys, the steps, to their best life. You are giving them insights they cannot find anywhere else.

There are a few more keys I want to share with you. Perhaps the most important is to include lots of stuff Jesus said, but make sure it’s completely unrecognisable. After all, that’s what he told us to do when he said, “Seriously guys, you need to get with the program.”

The single sentence paragraph shows profound depth.

Here and there you’re going to need to litter your pages with insightful diagrams that really capture the essence of what you’re about. They’re memorable. They’re repetitive. They’re repetitive. And most importantly, people won’t forget them.Important Diagram

It’s so. Important. To master. The sentence. That’s broken. By full-stops. That’s how. You make. Your point.

And never, ever neglect headings

If you write in long, impenetrable paragraphs, people are going to think you’re trying too hard. They’re going to think you’re into theology. And the truth is, you’re not. As Karl Barth once put it, “Theology is not a private subject for theologians only. Nor is it a private subject for professors. Fortunately, there have always been pastors who have understood more about theology than most professors. Nor is theology a private subject of study for pastors. Fortunately, there have repeatedly been congregation members, and often whole congregations, who have pursued theology energetically while their pastors were theological infants or barbarians. Theology is a matter for the Church.” Clearly he was wrong.

And when you’re getting

to

the

point

of the

whole

book

you’re going to spread the words out so that you don’t have to write too much. Writing is hard work.

As the rabbis used say, “If you quote us, you’re definitely going to be a bestseller.”

Now. Do. It.

John Newton on Servanthood

“If two angels were to receive at the same moment a commission from God, one to go down and rule earth’s grandest empire, the other to go and sweep the streets of its meanest village, it would be a matter of entire indifference to each which service fell to his lot, the post of ruler or the post of scavenger; for the joy of the angels lies only in obedience to God’s will.”

So wrote John Newton, the one-time slave-trader turned slave of Christ and author of “Amazing Grace”.

While I know there’s a kind of ambition that’s godly and pure – the kind we see motivating Paul to preach Christ wherever he has not been named – I’m also convinced there’s a lot that passes for godly ambition that is, in reality, wretched and self-serving.

The hard thing is knowing the difference in yourself (or in others). The only true test is the test of service, that is, how you feel about the place the sovereign God has placed you in.

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.

 

It’s all about the Cross

IMG_2578A long time ago I heard CJ Mahaney refer to a book that, he said, “defines Christian ministry for me”. Whatever problems Mahaney has faced in recent years, I’ve always admired his relentless focus on the Gospel. I heard him speak at a major leadership conference with thousands of church leaders present, and rather than offer up your typical conference message guaranteed to get the crowd going, he instead chose to preach on Golgotha. His little book, The Cross Centered Life, changed the way I understood my faith. It radically refocussed my life (along with The Discipline of Grace by Jerry Bridges and a series of messages on grace by Terry Virgo). So, when Mahaney said that a particular book defined Christian ministry in his mind, somehow that lodged in my mind.

But for whatever reason I never got around to picking up that book until a few days ago. It’s The Cross and Christian Ministry by DA Carson. In this book he’s explaining a few sections of First Corinthians. It’s absolutely brilliant. There are echoes of Dr Martyn Lloyd-Jones (but with a little more balance). Here are a few selections well worth thinking about.

On the temptation to pursue ministry strategies v. preaching the cross:

“At the moment, books are pouring off the presses telling us how to plan for success, how ‘vision’ consists in clearly articulated ‘ministry goals,’ how the knowledge of detailed profiles of our communities constitutes the key to successful outreach. I am not for a moment suggesting that there is nothing to be learned from such studies. But after a while one may perhaps be excused for marveling how many churches were planted by Paul and Whitefield and Wesley and Stanway and Judson without enjoying these advantages. Of course all of us need to understand the people to whom we minister, and all of us can benefit from small doses of such literature. But massive doses sooner or later dilute the gospel. Ever so subtly, we start to think that success more critically depends on thoughtful sociological analysis than on the gospel; Barna becomes more important than the Bible. We depend on plans, programs, vision statements—but somewhere along the way we have succumbed to the temptation to displace the foolishness of the cross with the wisdom of strategic planning.”

On the tendency to platform celebrities to make our churches seem more credible:

“Why is it that we constantly parade Christian athletes, media personalities, and pop singers? Why should we think that their opinions or their experiences of grace are of any more significance than those of any other believer? When we tell outsiders about people in our church, do we instantly think of the despised and the lowly who have become Christians, or do we love to impress people with the importance of the men and women who have become Christians? Modern Western evangelicalism is deeply infected with the virus of triumphalism, and the resulting illness destroys humility, minimizes grace, and offers far too much homage to the money and influence and ‘wisdom’ of our day.”

These first two quotes come from his comments on 1 Corinthians 1.18–2.5. This final one, from later in the book, rounds the ideas off well. He’s making the point that a church must be built on the foundation of the Gospel or it isn’t a church.

“If we see this clearly, then many other things will fall into place. We will perceive that it is God’s revelation to us of his Son that is of paramount importance. Recognizing the need for the Spirit of God to illumine the minds of men and women who otherwise will not grasp the gospel, we will emphasize prayer. We will live and serve in the light of the final judgment, for we must give an account of our ministry. It is not that we shall refuse any practical help from those who have something to say about technique or sociological profiles; rather, we will remain utterly committed to the centrality of the cross, not just at vague, theoretical levels, but in all our strategy and practical decisions. We will be fearful of adopting approaches that might empty the cross of Christ of its power… and the only approval we shall seek is his who tests the quality of each builder’s work on the last day.”