The Gospel Coalition The Gospel Coalition Wed, 02 Feb 2022 15:13:12 +0000 en-US hourly 1 What Should I Do When My Colleague Overpromises? Wed, 02 Feb 2022 05:03:00 +0000 With Ephesians 4:22–5:2 as a guiding text, here are three actions that can help change the situation.]]> Sometimes I hear my boss promise things I know we can’t deliver. I know he’s just trying to reassure the client and land the sale, but it makes me deeply uncomfortable. I want to correct him, but I also want to respect him—especially in front of our clients. Is there a way to correct someone so gently it won’t be embarrassing?

Thank you for mentioning a challenge many of us face: hearing ourselves or others overpromising and underdelivering, or making promises presumptively that later result in retractions and disappointment.

Sometimes these exaggerations are fairly minor, and we can chalk them up to momentary ignorance of some facts, immaturity, or personality types. We all know someone who says, “See you at 3 p.m.” and we know that means at least 3:15 or 3:30. And many of us use too many superlatives in our speaking, and should measure our words more carefully.

But your question speaks to serious matters of integrity, and we need the Lord’s wisdom as we prepare a strategy that will serve client expectations and our company’s reputation. With Ephesians 4:22–5:2 as a guiding text, here are three actions that can help change the situation.

1. Pray

First, prayerfully ask the Lord to show you your boss’s needs and what lies underneath the overpromising (Eph. 4:22–24). God will not make you the judge of anyone’s heart or soul, but the Lord can give you compassion as you see your boss’s history and personality, gifts, and insecurities. This will increase your compassion and often give you the wisdom you need to help your boss grow and heal. Allow Colossians 3:12-17 to fill your heart as you pray.

2. Private Conversation

Second, take some time in private conversation (Eph. 4:25). Express your enthusiasm for the company and your desire for the business to succeed. Then ask your boss if he sees the problem. In his mind, the promises may be provocations to compel the team to work harder. Ask permission to speak critically and, with kindness, give examples of his enthusiasm going too far (Eph. 4:26–29)

Use questions more than statements when possible. For example, if the promised delivery or project completion is well ahead of normal timeframes, you might say, “Did you realize that your promise was far ahead of our normal workflow? Are you planning for more overtime or hiring more contractors?” Allow your questions to give your boss time to breathe and reflect.

I hope your kindness and desire for your boss’s good will shine (Eph. 4:32). What you are doing is giving him every opportunity for correction that can be seen as his idea.

3. Confer on Details

Third, if your boss gives wrong information or makes unrealistic promises in the heat of a client presentation, ask the client for a moment while you confer on details. Pull your boss aside and make your case.

Offer explanations to the client such as “We are busier than expected, so our delivery will be____” or “That information referenced another situation, but in your case, here is the best we know.” Only offer such public critique if the errors are egregious. Otherwise, offer to give the client revised details as the contracts are prepared.

Exaggeration vs. Lying

One more insight can guide your actions. Exaggeration, when more than a momentary lapse and when done in full knowledge of reality, is really the equivalent of lying. Ideally you will not need to level such a strong accusation, but for your own conscience and for the good of the company, keeping this in mind will help with corporate ethics.

Rather than accuse, you may be able to ask your boss (after these steps), “Do you see how the customer might see your projections as misleading?” This tactic is for serious moments, but it is biblically sound and could be a providential help in bringing grace to the situation.

Alas, there are times when human obstinance refuses the best and most winsome advice. There are times we must, after every gentle petition, appeal to authority above our immediate boss. The dramatic example of Scripture is Paul’s appeal to Caesar as a Roman citizen (Acts 25:11). This only came after many dialogues and hearings. Because you have prayed, kept careful records, done everything possible to correct with respect, and because the reputation of the organization is at stake, going above your boss is a righteous act.

1 Corinthians 13 calls forth the highest virtues and does surgery on our souls as we desire the best for those who are making mistakes. Patience, kindness, bearing difficulty, believing the best—these are hard in the middle of daily battles. With the help of the Holy Spirit, we can allow even these hard moments to transform our character, building spiritual muscle and expanding our heart of compassion.

Let’s Talk: The Importance of Boundaries Wed, 02 Feb 2022 05:02:00 +0000 Jackie Hill Perry, Jasmine Holmes, and Melissa Kruger talk about how to glorify God by setting boundaries.]]> Most people have trouble saying “no,” and Christians may have an even tougher time because we worry we are being selfish. But because we are finite beings, we have to place limits on our time and relationships. Even Jesus, who was God incarnate, had boundaries; he walked away from the crowds that were thronging to him to be healed in order to spend time with his Father (see Luke 5:15–16).

On this episode of Let’s Talk, Jackie Hill Perry, Jasmine Holmes, and Melissa Kruger talk about boundaries. According to Jasmine, “Boundaries are what enable us to serve God to the utmost of our ability by prioritizing the mission that he’s given us on this earth.” We shouldn’t make boundaries out of laziness or the desire to avoid what is difficult. Jackie says, “I need to interrogate if I’m setting up a boundary because it’s the wise thing to do or if I’m using it as an excuse to preserve my own comforts.”

A key piece of determining where to set God-honoring boundaries is to remember that we are ultimately called to serve and glorify God, not people. Of course, we should serve people, but that doesn’t mean we should always do what they want us to, especially if it conflicts with the priorities God has placed on our life.  

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Pastor, Do You Know Your Missionaries? Wed, 02 Feb 2022 05:00:00 +0000 Pastors can’t afford to be unaware of their supported missionaries or the issues they face.]]> I regularly talk with pastors across the country. One thing is clear from our conversations: the last two years have been particularly difficult for them. As COVID regulations, racial tensions, and political divisions have mixed a cocktail of confusion in their congregations, pastors have been forced to drink from the bitter gall swirling among their people.

But there’s something else that I’ve noticed from my conversations with pastors—and that well before 2020. Many of them don’t know their missionaries, or else they don’t know what those missionaries do. From my perspective, such ignorance is as troubling as—if not more concerning than—many of the stress-inducing issues from the last two years.

When Pastors Don’t Know Missionaries

There are various reasons why pastors might not know their supported and sent-out workers. Some pastors are new to their posts. They’ve inherited a church’s existing roster of missionaries, much like a new professional football coach might inherit a scouting team. Those reps living in other locations will likely be the last people he meets within the organization.

In other cases, pastors and elders don’t know missionaries because they’ve delegated the vision and administration of missionary support to others within the church. This outsourcing is understandable, especially as churches process multiple requests for support and manage multiple workers on the field. To return to the football analogy, it makes sense for coaches to focus on developing those within the locker room; the front office is better suited to directly oversee those searching for future players in other fields.

But I wonder if that understandable division of labor creates more problems than it solves because it leaves pastors disconnected from one of the most strategic ministries of the church. Elders are effectively uninvolved in the process of vetting a significant staff hire. Just as it would be unimaginable for a pastor not to be involved in the search for a new associate, I believe it should be unimaginable for those leading the church not to be involved in the process of commissioning church-sanctioned representatives for frontline ministry.

It should be unimaginable for those leading the church not to be involved in the process of commissioning church-sanctioned representatives for frontline ministry.

Taking responsibility for selecting and sending missionaries, however, is only the beginning. As I’ve observed, even pastors who know and care for their missionaries don’t necessarily think deeply about the missionary enterprise. They rarely read books on missions. They don’t follow trends in missiology. They’re not aware of sending organizations or their theology. Nor can they identify the dominant methodologies espoused by those same organizations. While pastors can’t know everything, and while they’ll need to delegate responsibilities, they must be aware of what’s happening on the front lines.

State of Missiology

Let me give some examples. One common priority for cross-cultural missionaries these days is to identify a “person of peace.” That person may or may not be a believer. But if the “person if peace” is favorable toward the missionary and an individual of some standing in the community, his (or her) influence can be leveraged to introduce others to the teachings of Jesus. With their help, once missionaries can gather a group that commits to obeying what they learn, that group is often counted as a church or, at the least, new disciples.

Another common strategy is for missionaries to remove themselves as soon as possible from these gatherings. Early on, locals are encouraged to take leadership of the meeting and discover God’s Word on their own. Practically, this means a “church” could be established, led by, and made up of those largely isolated from authoritative teaching or received tradition. If they don’t accurately understand and follow the gospel, the absent missionary may be none the wiser. Further, if those groups divert from the beliefs and practices of the historic church (or other national churches), missionaries may hesitate to intervene and impose “Western” views.

That doesn’t mean missionaries never take the lead. In some cases, they may actively encourage new “disciples” to develop their own ways of following Jesus, including the option of continuing in prior religious practices (i.e., offering gifts to ancestors or attending the mosque). In recent decades, missionaries have also developed Bible translations that avoid controversial issues (i.e., identifying Jesus as God’s Son) to accommodate the sensibilities of non-Christians.

Some pastors are shocked to hear this. They’re not aware of mission praxis, much less theory. Again, such ignorance is understandable. It’s hard to keep up with the variety of models on offer, such as Obedience-Based Discipleship or Discovery Bible Studies, Disciple Making Movements or Insider Movements, not to mention the endless iterations when missionaries pick and choose from among them. But it’s important for pastors to understand these dominant methodologies because they influence mission strategy in nearly every major sending organization today.

Taking Responsibility

Suppose our imaginary football coach wasn’t concerned only about his players. Suppose he took an interest in having quality scouts within the organization. Would it be enough to simply identify and hire talented representatives (missionaries)? Wouldn’t he also want to know how they conduct their work, especially their priorities and methods for acquiring future players?

Aside from pastors, I regularly talk with missionaries around the world. And I’ve heard from young international workers who wish church leaders back home had prepared them for the strategic approaches advocated by their mission organizations. They’re not necessarily rejecting everything about those methodologies. But these missionaries are deeply concerned, not only by what they observe but also by what they’re expected to practice.

In recent years, I’ve talked with multiple missionaries who’ve resigned because they were compelled to adopt methods contrary to their conscience and, they believe, to Scripture (which doesn’t begin to account for those missionaries who blindly follow the latest fad because they’re told it works). This should be of utmost concern to the churches who send these missionaries. But sadly, pastors are often unaware of the issues and ill-equipped to shepherd the next generation of foreign workers. The local church and its elders need to take more responsibility in the missionary enterprise, first by learning, then in leading.

Engaging a Global Opportunity

Pastor, this presents an incredible opportunity for you. By taking greater responsibility in selecting and sending missionaries, you can help recover your church’s essential role in our shared global task. By knowing and caring for your missionaries, you’ll also be caring for those who’ve yet to receive their ministry. But perhaps more important, you can also help to guard their future churches—and your supported workers—from error.

You can help recover your church’s essential role in our shared global task.

You don’t have to be an expert in missiology. You just need to know the Scriptures, know your missionaries, and commit to learning some about prevalent methodologies. Because gospel ministry—and the challenges that accompany it—are not fundamentally different whenever you cross cultures and borders. This means you as a pastor have a lot to offer your missionaries as they navigate the difficulties before them. It also means they’ll probably understand some of what’s made the last couple of years so stressful for you.

Maybe it’s time you got to know them.

You’re Invited on an Everlasting Adventure: Amor Towles’s Latest Novel Tue, 01 Feb 2022 05:03:00 +0000 Amor Towles’s new novel takes us on a spellbinding journey—but a better adventure is promised to those who know Jesus.]]> A popular Christian summer camp uses the motto “everlasting adventure.” What a grand promise for teenagers and young people. In Christ, you will never run out of new beauties and glories to explore. You will never be bored. You will taste eternal and abundant life—everlasting adventure.

Amor Towles’s (Rules of Civility, A Gentleman in Moscow) new novel, The Lincoln Highwayits own sort of everlasting adventure—taps into the innate sense of exploration and wonder we have as human beings. In doing so, Towles points readers to the grand adventure we were all created for.

Beginning the Adventure

The story begins as Emmett Watson, an 18-year-old from a small town in Nebraska, returns from a juvenile work camp. It’s June 12, 1954, and he’s just been released early because his father passed away and he needs to care for his 8-year-old brother, Billy. Their mother had left Nebraska for California after Billy was born, and due to their father’s death and the circumstances surrounding Emmett’s stint in Salina, the brothers agree it’s time to pack up and start a new life elsewhere.

Towles points readers to the grand adventure we were all created for.

Emmett intends to go to Texas, but Billy reveals a discovery he made in Emmett’s absence: after leaving Nebraska, their mother had sent eight postcards from eight different spots on the Lincoln Highway—the U.S.’s first cross-country highway. She ended in San Francisco. The brothers would drive there.

Little did they know, two of Emmett’s friends from Salina had snuck in the trunk of the warden who drove Emmett home. Duchess and Wooly sidetracked the road trip—the first of many such distractions. Instead of driving west to San Francisco, they would drive to the Adirondacks to unearth a buried treasure: a $150,000 trust left to Wooly.

Disappointing Adventure

The Lincoln Highway is a true adventure novel, as the four boys traverse the country, coming upon one surprising obstacle after the next, and meeting a full cast of Mark Twainish characters like Pastor John, the derelict preacher who accosts young Billy in a freight car, and Ulysses, the physically imposing, African American, World War II–veteran who has been separated from his family and hopes to be reunited with them after 10 years.

The novel ends on June 21, 1954—the precise date that A Gentleman in Moscow ended. That book spanned 32 years in one location, focusing on one main character; this book spans the eastern half of the United States, focusing on four main characters, in only 10 days. And while this high-stakes, spellbinding, coming-of-age adventure comes to a rapid conclusion, you realize by the end that Towles is inviting you to something more. Billy begins to write his own story and the implication is that we can do the same.

But even as readers will be spellbound, they will be left longing. The great adventure novels end with resolution; The Lincoln Highway ends with tragedy, and the beginning of yet another adventure. Ultimately, adventure—as penned by Towles—is unending, random, and forsaken. Which makes for a good novel, but a disappointing story.

Unending, Random, Forsaken Adventure

The number eight has multiple appearances in The Lincoln Highway. The symbol for infinity turned vertical (8) is the age of Billy Watson. It’s the number of years since Emmett and Billy’s mother left, and the number of postcards she sent on her way to San Francisco. And not only does the novel feel like an unending figure eight at times—with the various characters and their adventures branching off from one another and looping back together repeatedly—the adventures of the characters (save two) are themselves unending in this book. Most stories are left without resolution. The only two conclusions are tragic, and even those, in their own way, don’t quite feel like conclusions.

A companion to the novel’s lack of closure is its randomness. The boys who met at the work camp in Salina were each only there, to some extent, because they were in the wrong place at the wrong time. Billy is only saved from Pastor John because Ulysses is in the right place at the right time. And the novel’s tragic ending is an accident that could have gone a thousand different ways. A truly post-modern novel, there is no overarching narrative in The Lincoln Highway, only the narratives individuals write for themselves as they pursue their own adventures and bump into fellow travelers along the way.

The novel carries a sense of God-forsakenness. Each character writes his or her own adventure because no one else is writing it for them. In a conversation between Billy and Ulysses—perhaps the two most admirable characters in the novel—we hear about the moment Ulysses took charge of his own adventure. It was the moment he realized he had been forsaken by his Maker. He tells Billy:

If I learned anything in the war, it’s that the point of utter abandonment—the moment at which you realize no one will be coming to your aid, not even your Maker—is the very moment in which you may discover the strength required to carry on. (330)

Billy takes Ulysses’s words to heart, and at key moments in the novel’s remaining pages saves the day by remembering his God-forsakenness and asserting his own agency.

Better Adventure

There is much that is true, good, and beautiful about The Lincoln Highway. Readers will be inspired by the childlike faith of Billy, the kindness of Wooly, and the spiritual depth and wisdom of Sister Agnes. And readers may indeed be inspired to get on with their own adventure, to turn aside from the passiveness and withdrawal so common in our world. At the very least, readers will be compelled by Towles’s uncommon ability to weave together a fascinating tale.

Readers may indeed be inspired to get on with their own adventure, to turn aside from the passiveness and withdrawal so common in our world.

But readers should also note that adventure as it is experienced in this novel—unending, random, and forsaken—is finally unsatisfying and unfulfilling. It might give us a rush for a few days, but it can’t sustain a sense of meaning or purpose. What we need is an adventure with resolution, an adventure that is not random, but according to plan, and an adventure that is not God-forsaken, but God-directed and God-visited. The Christian has just such an adventure.

Indeed, we have been given a task far more rewarding than traveling from one side of the country to the other to collect a trust fund. We’ve been sent out into the world with an eternal trust to invest in all the nations. And we know that one day, Christ will return, and this adventure will be complete. No longer will the detours and distractions and devastating losses along the way frustrate our adventure; we will cross a finish line, and we will finally rest.

As we go along our adventure, we know the apparent chaos we experience is not random. We’re never truly “on the ugly side of chance,” as the kind warden remarked about Emmett. No, God has not left our adventure up to chance. He determined its conclusion from before the foundations of the earth, and every apparent detour we face is ordained by him for the accomplishment of his purposes—for his glory and our good.

The Lost Art of Shepherd Leadership Tue, 01 Feb 2022 05:02:00 +0000 In order for pastors to truly flourish, they must tend to their own souls as much as they tend to their church.]]> Tom Nelson believes with every fabric of his being that the local church as God ordained it is the hope of the world. He’s devoted more than 30 years of pastoral ministry to this glorious cause.

But he’s worried about the pastoral vocation.

In his new book, The Flourishing Pastor: Recovering the Lost Art of Shepherd Leadership, Nelson observes a dripping irony. Though surrounded by many people, pastors are often intensely lonely and socially isolated. They work with the things of God but are tempted by the seduction of accomplishment at the expense of intimacy with God.

Shepherd leaders, according to Nelson, are forged on the anvil of obscurity and refined in the crucible of visibility. They get into trouble when they attend more to the church than to their own soul, or when they get sucked into partisan politics and lose track of their disciple-making vision.

Nelson joined me on Gospelbound to discuss flourishing pastors, congregational expectations, friendship, failure, Dairy Queen, and much more. 

Every Christian Beats Cancer Tue, 01 Feb 2022 05:00:00 +0000 The most that can be said for cancer is that it has won a battle. But the outcome of the war is decided. D-Day has already been waged and won.]]> Darrell Carman was a member of my church who died of cancer six months ago. His wife, Ann, had died six months earlier with COVID (I wrote about her in another article, “Real Churches Commune with Dead Saints.”)

As I thought about Darrell during the days after he died, and of what he must’ve been experiencing in heaven, I began thinking about what it means to “beat cancer.” We’ve all seen T-shirts and bumper stickers that say, “I beat cancer.” And of course by beat they mean survived. That’s how you “beat” it. To live is victory; to die is loss. (To be clear, I rejoice for anyone who survives cancer.)

But by that definition, Darrell didn’t beat cancer—cancer beat him. At one level that’s obviously true, but it’s not the whole truth. Because as followers of Jesus, we walk by faith, not by sight. That doesn’t mean we close our eyes to the painful realities in front of us, but it does mean we open our eyes to the bigger picture God paints for us in his Word. That’s what it means to walk by faith. Faith is the conviction of things that we don’t yet see but which are promised by God in his Word (Heb. 11:1).

If we walk by sight, we’ll conclude that cancer beat Darrell Carman. But if we walk by faith, we’ll see a gloriously bigger picture. To help us do that, I’d like to share three biblical and practical reasons why Darrell Carman did, in fact, beat cancer.

1. Cancer Didn’t Kill Darrell’s Faith in Jesus

You might be tempted to think the worst thing cancer can do is destroy your body. But it’s not. The worst thing cancer can do is destroy your faith—make you think God isn’t really good or doesn’t really love you or that you mustn’t really know him, because why else would he allow this to happen to you? That’s the worst thing cancer can do.

It didn’t do that to Darrell. Whether it was six months earlier when he lost his wife or six weeks before his death when he got the diagnosis, Darrell always gave the same response: “God is good. He’s been good to me—and I’m ready to go meet him.” Though God slew him, yet Darrell trusted in him.

The worst thing cancer can do is destroy your faith.

And the reason Darrell had that confidence was not that he was a perfect man. He had plenty of sins to haunt him, as we all do. Remember this, reader, because someday you’re going to die. And if, like Darrell, you have time to see death coming, Satan will haunt you with your long track record of transgressions: all the people you’ve hurt, all the times you’ve failed, all the reasons you don’t deserve heaven. And the more you focus on that, the more afraid you’ll be of dying.

But Darrell wasn’t afraid, because he wasn’t looking backward; he was looking forward (Phil. 3:13). And when he did look back it wasn’t at his sins but at the cross where Jesus paid for them. As the Scripture says, “This is the victory that has overcome the world—our faith” (1 John 5:4). If that’s true, then Darrell Carman overcame. He beat cancer, because cancer didn’t kill his faith in Jesus. It only refined it.

2. Cancer Didn’t Separate Darrell from Jesus

If Satan’s goal was to cut Darrell off from Jesus, he failed miserably. Not only did the cancer not separate Darrell from Christ, it only drew him closer to Christ (Phil. 1:23). There was never anything that cancer could do to separate Darrell from the love of God. Jesus was never going to lose him, because Jesus loved him and purchased him and prayed that Darrell would be with him where he was (John 17:24). And now Jesus’s prayer has been answered.

Just consider the contrast between what Darrell experienced during his last six weeks on earth and what he’s experiencing now. Not only is he totally free of pain and sin, and totally filled with righteousness, but he’s been reunited with his wife of 50 years. And best of all, he’s finally gotten to see Jesus’s face and say, “Thank you for the cross! Thank you for loving me! Thank you for bringing me here!”

Can we believe all that and still think cancer somehow beat Darrell? If this is “loss,” then the sooner we all lose the better. But the Bible doesn’t call it “loss;” the Bible calls it “gain” (Phil. 1:21). Far from beating Darrell, cancer delivered him straight into the presence of Jesus.

3. Cancer Can’t Even Keep What It Has Taken from Darrell

The single best argument that cancer beat Darrell is that his body was taken up on a hill in his hometown of Hartsville, Tennessee, and buried in the ground. Cancer did take his body, and that’s worth weeping over. Yet I would point out that Germany and Japan won a lot of battles during World War II—real victories—but in the end, they lost.

The same is true with cancer. The most that can be said for cancer is that it has won a battle. But the outcome of the war has been decided. D-Day has already been waged and won. As the old saying has it, “Christ is risen from the dead, trampling down death by death, and to those in the tombs granting life.”

The most that can be said for cancer is that it has won a battle. But the outcome of the war has been decided. D-Day has already been waged and won.

All cancer could take from Darrell was his body, but it can’t even keep that. Because when Jesus died on the cross and sent the Holy Spirit into Darrell’s heart, he was making a down payment on Darrell’s body, and someday he’s coming to collect (Eph. 1:14; Rom. 8:11). And when that happens, the body now sown in weakness will be raised in power. This mortal will put on immortality, and this lowly body will be transformed to be like Jesus’s glorious body.

When I was sitting by Darrell’s bedside a few days before he died, seeing what cancer had reduced him to, I looked over at his nightstand and noticed a picture of him as a young man. It was a version of him I’d never seen. Darrell in the vigor of youth, with the joyful smile of a man newly married. And I couldn’t help but think that the next time I see him, he’s probably going to look something like that.

O death, where is your victory? O cancer, where is your sting?

We weep over Darrell, but as those who believe in a risen Christ, we do not sorrow as those who have no hope. Faith sees the big picture. And even now, as we wait for the final victory, we can say by faith that Darrell Carman beat cancer.

Help! I’m Afraid I Made the Wrong Decision Mon, 31 Jan 2022 05:03:00 +0000 When relief at making a decision gives way to fear, we can find peace by remembering the character of God.]]> Relief and confidence often immediately follow when we’ve finally made a tough decision. After spending days, weeks, or maybe even months gathering information, listening to counsel, and processing with the Lord in prayer, we’ve finally come to the decision. We’ve signed the job contract, placed the down payment on the home, or gone through the church membership class.

While I wish I could say those moments of relief on the other side of decision-making steadily remain, they’re often overshadowed by an enemy: fear.

“What if” questions pop into our minds at the most inopportune times. What if I chose to become a member at the wrong church? What if I joined the wrong sorority or chose the wrong major? What if I was missing a very important piece of information when I made my decision? What if I thought I was listening to the Lord’s guidance, but I was really chasing the approval of my trusted advisors?

Fearful Frames

Fear steals focus from God’s ability and wisdom, wrongfully placing a myopic focus on self. Through fear, self looms so large that we begin to believe that one decision can throw off God’s plan. Fear shrinks our infinite God and enlarges self in a way that robs God of glory and ourselves of peace. Fear forgets that the same God who spoke galaxies into existence holds our lives together. Fear forgets that “he is before all things, and in him all things hold together” (Col. 1:17).

Fear steals focus from God’s ability and wisdom, wrongfully placing a myopic focus on self.

Thankfully, God knows the frames of his fragile and fear-filled people. We’re not alone in our battles against fear, doubt, and regret. Throughout the Scriptures, God continually reminds his forgetful people not to fear. When Abram was crippled with doubt about the decision to refuse an earthly reward, the Lord came to him in a vision, saying “Fear not, Abram, I am your shield; your reward shall be very great” (Gen. 15:1).

Timothy, the apostle Paul’s spiritual son and mentee, was prone to fearfulness and timidity. Like Joshua who had succeeded Moses, Timothy felt the weight of the mantle being placed on his shoulders. However, Paul reminded him that God had not given him a spirit of fear, but “of power and love and self-control” (2 Tim. 1:7).

Corrie ten Boom knew a thing or two about fear and worry as one who lived through the Nazi occupation of Holland and made hard decisions to hide Jewish families in her home. She had ample reason to worry but learned, experience by experience, that worrying about the future didn’t change it.

Rather, she learned from her faithful father, Casper ten Boom, that God will give us just what we need, just when we need it. In her book The Hiding Place, she recounts his encouragement in a moment of worry: “And our wise Father in heaven knows when we are going to need things, too. Don’t run ahead of him, Corrie.” We, like Corrie, need to be gently reminded not to run ahead of our faithful Father.

Taking Thoughts Captive

Paul wisely recognized the inverse correlation between fear and self-control. When we allow fears to run amok in our hearts, minds, and lives, they rob us of the peace Christ purchased for us. Paul urged the believers at Colossae, “Let the peace of Christ rule in your hearts” (Col. 3:15). The Greek word brabeuó, translated “rule,” literally means to act as an umpire or an arbiter. Paul borrowed this word from the Greek games with which his readers would have been familiar. The image invoked is that of a referee stepping into the human heart to create order where fears and truth are wrestling for ascendency.

When we allow fears to run amok in our hearts, minds, and lives, they rob us of the peace Christ purchased for us.

When doubts, fears, and regrets crowd in upon the spaces of our souls, the Word of God and the character of God are meant to act as referees, throwing fears back to the sidelines and preserving the peace that we have in Christ. When speaking to the Corinthian church, Paul uses another powerful image regarding unwanted thoughts and fears. Paul writes, “We destroy arguments and every lofty opinion raised against the knowledge of God, and take every thought captive to obey Christ” (2 Cor. 10:5).

When we begin to doubt the goodness of God or his ability to providentially steer our lives, it’s helpful to consider the very nature of our God. As Paul so powerfully reasoned with the Romans, “If God is for us, who can be against us?” (Rom. 8:31). Having provided his Son for our greatest need, will we choose to doubt his ability to provide for us in the smaller things (Rom. 8:32)? If God can work beauty out of the cross through resurrection, can we not trust him to work good through our past decisions?

Receive the Gift of Limits Mon, 31 Jan 2022 05:02:00 +0000 Our limits come from the hand of a loving God, to help and not to harm.]]> Twenty-first century life offers endless possibilities for filling our time, and many of them are worthwhile. From extra work projects and volunteer opportunities for adults to extracurricular sports and specialty lessons for kids, there are always more ways to fill our calendars. We work additional hours for that promotion, join another committee to serve our church, and help our kids manage the workload from accelerated classes. We fill our schedules, believing that more is better and less is bad. But is it?

A reality check tells us we’re finite creatures with limited energy and only 24 hours in a day. But we push against these boundaries, often doing damage to ourselves and our families as we try to have it all or squeeze it in. We run ourselves ragged, filling most of our waking hours in an effort to get ahead or simply keep up. Should we live this way? What does the Bible say about limits?

1. Limits came before the fall.

Adam was created with limitations that are innate to humans. He could only jump so far, eat so much, be so tall, do so much. Though he was made in God’s image, he was not God. God was the creator, Adam the creature. God created the land, Adam worked it.

While sin was not present in the beautiful garden of Eden in those first days, limits were. This tells us something about the nature of limits: they’re not inherently connected to sin. Some limits were woven into us on purpose by God.

Limits were woven into us on purpose by God.

As the Psalmist writes, “I praise you, for I am fearfully and wonderfully made” (Ps. 139:14). In his wisdom and kindness, God limited our capacity—for our good. Our limits come from the hand of a loving God, to help and not to harm.

2. The perfect human had limits.

When Jesus condescended in the incarnation, he chose to live with the physical capacity of a human in first-century Palestine. In fact, when he had opportunities to push human limits, he often chose to do otherwise. Think of the crowds that gathered when Jesus healed in the villages. He healed some, but did not heal every person. Think of the additional hours he could have spent teaching his disciples.

Instead, he slept, rested, ate, and drank. Surely he could have begun his ministry earlier than age 30. Yet he traveled and taught only three of the 33 years he lived on earth. Over and over, Jesus set boundaries, lived within constraints, and submitted to limits. And he moved with grace, contentment, and flexibility within those limits, allowing time for interruptions and needy people.

3. God uses limits to remind us of who we are and who he is.

James 4:14 gives us a humbling reminder: “What is your life? You are a mist that appears for a little while and then vanishes.” God, however, “is the blessed and only Sovereign, the King of kings and Lord of lords, who alone has immortality, who dwells in unapproachable light, whom no one has ever seen or can see” (1 Tim. 6:15b–16a). We are the dependent, needy, fragile creatures who must cry out for help. He is the self-sufficient, holy, never-ending creator, who hears every cry.

This basic relationship is easy for us to forget as proud humans. But we’re reminded of our limits when we wait for the rain to grow our food and when we get into our beds at night because our bodies need rest. We’re reminded of God’s limitlessness when we look at the night sky and see the millions of stars in our galaxy and when we consider the billions of people and living creatures he sustains every day.

We are the dependent; God is the provider. This is a comfort to our weary souls the way a good parent’s strength is a comfort to a small child. We don’t have to strategize and strive every waking moment. We can relax, trusting God’s strength and knowing that he is always at work.

4. God uses limits to direct us.

Instead of pushing against our limits with disdain, we can consider them guides to help us make decisions about life in the kingdom of God. We can understand our God-given limits as a protective fence that provides a boundary for rest, safety, and thriving. The fence is not something to be trampled and overcome, but embraced and considered.

We don’t have to strategize and strive every waking moment. We can relax, trusting that God is always at work.

Seeing limits as a protection leads us to ask different questions when we consider how to use our time and resources. For example, might your resentment at hosting another community group meeting be an indicator, not of your unloving heart, but of your need to take a break from leading? Might your children’s exhaustion at the end of the week be the answer to your prayer for wisdom about their extracurricular activities? Or, conversely, might your joy and energy increase after teaching children’s Sunday school be an indication of how God is calling you to serve in your church?

We all have limits, and we cannot ignore them. They’re not a sign of our sin, but of our humanity—a gift from a loving Father. Take time to consider your limits carefully, whether seasonal, physical, emotional, or otherwise. Embrace them, and ask the Spirit to show you how to trust him as you live within your limits.

5 Things I Learned as a Pastor’s Kid Mon, 31 Jan 2022 05:00:00 +0000 Love is attention. Samuel James reflects on five things he learned growing up as a pastor’s kid.]]> When Dad is a pastor, life can be interesting.

The old canard about being at church “any time the doors are open” is not only true, it’s a source of a lot different emotions and experiences. Few people see inside the local church like a pastor’s kid (PK), and few live a life that so blurs family, vocation, and ministry mores. It’s a wonderfully, and painfully, unique journey.

Every PK has a slightly different story. Mine was a relentlessly happy one, mostly because my father really did (and does) love Jesus and really did love his family, even when no tithers were watching. But I’ve known friends and peers with very different testimonies—stories of distant and harsh fathers; stories of marriage covenants sacrificed on the altar of ministry success; stories of loneliness that taught the pastor’s kids, Your heavenly Father is like this, too.

Such stories would be worth an entirely separate article. For now, though, I offer five lessons I learned while growing up a PK.

1. Pastors are people, too.

There seems a resilient misconception that pastors are less prone than the rest of us to things like exhaustion, temptation, frustration, and loneliness. I’ve seen that the opposite is actually closer to the truth. A pastor is especially vulnerable to all these things because of the constant emotional vigilance of his calling. Most of us are grateful, even unconsciously, that our spiritual lives and our vocations don’t overlap to the degree they do in the pastorate.

If I had one piece of advice for all evangelical churches, it would be: generously grant rest to your pastor. If everything falls apart when he’s not there, that’s not a reason to limit his rest; it’s a reason to seriously rethink the culture of the church. A pastor who feels like he has to choose between stewarding his mind, body, and family, and making sure the church functions well, is a pastor on a path to burnout (or worse).

2. Church attendance doesn’t immunize against sin and unbelief. But requiring it doesn’t automatically turn kids into resentful prodigals.

Here are two seemingly omnipresent misconceptions: (1) kids will be fine if they’re in church regularly, but (2) requiring them to come with you will foment rebellion. Both ideas are intuitive to different kinds of people in evangelical churches. And both are wrong.

My brother-in-law likes to say that evangelicals often think the gospel is something you catch like a cold. If you’re around infected churchgoers, eventually you’ll come down with salvation. Youth ministry, for instance, is as good a substitute for home discipleship as going to the ER is a good substitute for diet and exercise. If there’s no prayer, Bible reading, or parent-child discipleship going on in your home, and yet everything “seems” OK, that’s cause for alarm.

On the other hand, I’ve seen many parents sheepishly acknowledge they didn’t require their 14-year-old to get out of bed for church because they were nervous such requirements would turn her against church. This might be more true if human maturity and development stopped in adolescence. But it doesn’t—and it turns out that when the teenage years are in the rearview, it’s still easy to remember what one’s parents did and didn’t think was important in the home.

3. PKs don’t need to see and know everything about the church that Dad sees and knows.

This is one thing my dad wishes he’d done differently. Seasoned saints are more equipped to handle the frustrating parts of church government, business, or discipline than teens are. You can’t hit a button and make your kids resent the church, but you can overwhelm with its blemishes before they’re able to see its beauty.

You can’t hit a button and make your kids resent the church, but you can overwhelm with its blemishes before they’re able to see its beauty.

Here’s a practical tip for pastors with kids: think of your kid seeing business-meeting fights and hearing moral failures similarly to how you think about them seeing conflicts in your marriage. You won’t be able to keep them out of the know on every tense or sinful moment with your spouse, but when they are witnesses to it, most couples will talk to them instead of assuming they’re processing it correctly. Apply that same logic to the dark side of church life. Keep your PKs out of the ecclesiological trenches as long as possible; but when they must see it, help them respond

4. The most freeing thing PKs can feel is that Dad and Mom don’t view them as PKs.

Hearing my dad encourage me, as I approached high-school graduation, that he wanted to me to follow God’s call on my life—and that the call didn’t need to be ministry—was crucial. I don’t think most pastors set out to put pressure on their kids to follow their footsteps, but what they can communicate unwittingly is that vocational ministry and true spirituality go hand in hand.

How is this communicated? One way is by holding PKs to higher standards merely because their dad is the pastor. Not only is that frustrating, it communicates that the pastorate is closer to heaven than the regular jobs.

5. PKs need dads who are more than theology nerds.

I don’t know if I can remember even three of my dad’s sermons growing up, but I can remember dozens of chats over milkshakes and trips to ball games. One of my fondest memories with him is watching an incredible Super Bowl in a hotel somewhere in Indiana while the blizzard of the decade pummeled us outside. The conference we attended later was fine, but I don’t remember most of it. I remember that night with my dad perfectly.

In a lecture to his divinity students, Charles Spurgeon urged them to be as normal as possible, rather than bland, flavorless ministry machines:

I am persuaded that one reason why our working-men so universally keep clear of ministers is because they abhor their artificial and unmanly ways. If they saw us, in the pulpit and out of it, acting like real men, and speaking naturally, like honest men, they would come around us. Baxter’s remark still holds good: “The want of a familiar tone and expression is a great fault in most of our deliveries, and that which we should be very careful to amend.” The vice of the ministry is that ministers will parsonificate the gospel. We must have humanity along with our divinity if we would win the masses. Everybody can see through affectations, and people are not likely to be taken in by them. Fling away your stilts, brethren, and walk on your feet.

What’s true of “working men” is even more true of pastors’ children. Pastors who cannot connect with their kids on a level beyond, say, reading (or, God forbid, politics) need to expand their horizons. Love is attention. Being attentive is the best way to tell a PK that their pastor-dad loves them for the K, not the P.

How Can We Be Quick to Listen? Sun, 30 Jan 2022 05:05:00 +0000 Over the span of our lives, how often will we wish we would’ve listened instead of talked?]]> Words are vital because God has spoken to us through words. When we are reading and meditating on his Word, what are we doing? We’re hearing from him. When we listen to sermons, we are hearers of the Word of God. Yes, God wants talkers, but more than that, as David Powlison argues, he wants listeners. He wants people who not only listen, but who do so with their whole heart.

God wants people who not only listen, but who do so with their whole heart.

Most often, we grow by listening, not by talking. Consider nine ways to become a better listener.

1. Listen before you answer.

You want to hear what the other person is saying. Don’t be like Job’s friends, who apparently listened selectively. Listen well so you may respond with laser-focused words of life. Without what Ken Sande calls “waiting,” you will often fail to understand the root cause of a conflict and then make things worse by reacting inappropriately. It is critical to learn the lesson of Proverbs 18:13: “If one gives an answer before he hears, it is his folly and shame.”

2. Don’t go numb.

My tendency, whether I am doing an inter­view for an article or performing a pastoral counseling session, is to let a mental fog envelop me and stop listening, especially when listening to an incessant talker. As Sande points out, the human mind can think at least four times faster than a person can talk, so our minds tend to get bored and look for something more to do, like rehearsing our responses, which short-circuits good listening.

3. Maintain regular eye contact.

Eliminate distractions. Turn off your phone or the television or close the door if there is noise outside. Lean forward, which shows interest, and try to use soft facial expressions. A bored or angry look can shut down the other person. Nod your head oc­casionally and use verbal signals that indicate you’re still listening and following.

4. Don’t get irritated, especially if they are saying things you don’t like.

If you’re irritated, don’t give it away through facial expressions. God commands that we be patient with one another because he is patient with us.

5. Don’t let them chase rabbits.

Ask well-placed questions to put some guard­rails on the discussion.

6. Seek clarification.

Ask questions like “Have I understood you accurate­ly?” and then recount what you’ve understood them to say. This way, you can clear up misunderstandings and partial understandings, and glean further information.

7. Don’t let sinful talk repel you.

Once I was in a counseling session when the counselee (a non-Christian man seeking to be reconciled to his Chris­tian wife) peppered his talk with F-bombs. I wasn’t necessarily surprised or offended by his use of profanity (after all, I grew up around baseball players and building contractors), but I was distracted and thrown off my counseling game. As David Powlison points out, “You will almost invari­ably hear sins in the process (of listening). You’ll hear bitterness, gossip, self-pity, false belief, rationalization, obsession, evasion, fabrication—the thousand tongues of foolish and empty talk.”

8. Agree as much as possible

This is a valuable tactic that Ken Sande recommends, one I’ve tried to use, particularly when the conversation is unpleasant or involves conflict. For example, you could say, “I can understand why you would be upset that we’ve made changes in the church music program,” or “You’re correct, I don’t have as much experience in this area as I’d like, and you do know much more about it than I do.” Agreeing, Sande writes,

doesn’t mean you abandon your beliefs, but rather that you acknowledge what you know is true before addressing points of disagreement. Agreeing with the person who is speaking will often encourage him or her to talk more openly and avoid unnecessary repetition. Agreeing is especially important when you have been in the wrong. . . . [It] can make the difference between an argument and a mean­ingful dialogue.

Such admissions also show a measure of humility that can encourage others to talk with you and use a more gracious tone, especially if they are criticizing you—a kind of talk we all find especially difficult to hear.

9. Listen to hear, not to correct, judge, or coach.

Whether you are a pastor or layperson, sometimes you just need to be with a hurting person and furnish them with a listening, sympathetic, or even empathetic ear.

Sometimes you just need to be with a hurting person and furnish them with a listening, sympathetic, or even empathetic ear.

About two years into my first full-time pastorate, a family in our church lost their infant grandson to crib death. Naturally, they were broken beyond words. My wife and I spent much of the next morning with them, and all I really did was pray with them when we first arrived and when we left—it was a Sunday morning, and I had to preach for our congregation. I wasn’t certain I had done anything to soothe their suffering other than to weep with them and hear their hurt.

Several weeks later they met with me and commended me for how I had ministered to them just by being there. “You’ve taught us about the sovereignty of God and how life in a fallen world is full of pain, and you’ve taught us about Christ’s suffering for us,” the grandmother said through tears. “You didn’t need to do that again, and you didn’t. You and Lisa were just there with us, hurting alongside us, and we were comforted by your presence and your prayers.”

As I try to teach my pastoral interns, sometimes you just need to be with people and say it best by saying nothing at all. When Jesus raised Lazarus from the dead, he didn’t tell Mary to stop crying, or that he was going to fix everything in a few minutes—even though he was going to raise him from the dead. He wept with her.

Should I Have Listened More?

My father was a godly, wise man. He fought in World War II, made three jumps in combat, and won a Purple Heart and other medals for bravery. He was humble and slow to speak. People in our church and in our commu­nity listened to him. Dad died in 1991 when I was a senior in college. But one of the things I can still hear him saying to this day, if I close my eyes, is this: “Jeff, you will almost never regret having said nothing. It’s hard to sin verbally with your mouth closed.” That’s great advice. It’s Proverbs, James, Paul, and Jesus applied.

The Ominous Threat Surrounding Missionaries in Ukraine Sat, 29 Jan 2022 05:03:00 +0000 What keeps my wife and me here in Ukraine? We’re staying for the sake of the little band of believers in our church whom we love.]]> As I walk the one kilometer from our apartment to Kyiv Theological Seminary, on a typically overcast and snowy January morning in Kyiv, Ukraine, road traffic is noticeably lighter. Neighbors in our apartment are returning from the grocery store with several five-liter bottles of water and extra canned goods. The mood in the city is quieter. The brothers at the seminary want to know if our family is leaving as so many other expats have. This is due to the 130,000 Russian troops—with thousands of tanks and artillery—poised ominously along Ukraine’s northern, eastern, southeastern, and southwestern borders.

Russia and Vladimir Putin are desperate to keep this country in their sphere of influence. They don’t want Ukraine to enter NATO or the European Union. And the only diplomacy they understand is threats and disruption.

In February 2014, while Russia hosted the Winter Olympics, they invaded and “annexed” Crimea, the southernmost region of Ukraine. This would be comparable to a country stealing Florida, Georgia, and Alabama from the USA. Since then, Russia has waged a slow-burning war in the Donbas (southeastern) region of Ukraine, where over 14,000 Ukrainians have died. Part of Russia’s success in Donbas is the high percentage of Russian language speakers there. Many transplanted to the region after Russia’s “successful” Holodomor—a genocide by famine—that killed millions of Ukrainians from Donbas in the early 1930s. Suffice it to say, Ukrainians realize they may need to prepare for the worst.

Response by Believers and Churches

Ukrainians in general are peace loving. That is certainly true of the evangelicals here, many whose roots go back to pacifistic Mennonite Anabaptists. But Russian aggression by invasion, bomb threats in malls and subway stations, hacking and disrupting of state government web sites, brown outs around the city, and the most recent buildup of troops around Ukraine that suggest an all-out war is imminent has had the opposite effect from what Russia expected. Ukrainian solidarity is growing. Surprisingly, even Christian babushkas are expressing their plans to stand and fight against this oppression. Though this might be futile against a far stronger enemy, it encourages me. Believers here are beginning to engage with and transform the surrounding culture rather than merely trying to remain separated from it.

What keeps my wife and me here in Ukraine? We’re staying for the sake of the little band of believers in our church whom we love. We’re walking together with them in good times and in bad. And what keeps me coming to the seminary? It’s the Ukrainian students who hunger to study and put into practice Bible exposition and Christ-saturated biblical theology—even in these uncertain times.

What keeps my wife and me here in Ukraine? We’re staying for the sake of the little band of believers in our church whom we love.

One of my new master’s students, Andrii, is helping to develop a multidenominational missionary sending agency in Ukraine. This is huge! When we arrived in 2001, one deacon in the Ukrainian church where we served described my hope for Ukrainian evangelical churches to become sending churches as a “grandiose American dream.” But that vision is becoming a reality. Another of my students, Oleh, is the director of the chaplaincy bachelor’s program at our seminary. Dozens of our graduates now minister God’s Word to troops—troops staring conflict in the face. Several have lost their lives in the Donbas region. A third student, Serhii, in three months will be sent to Greece to plant a church. The work of the gospel continues despite war and rumors of war.

When Russia’s war in Donbas began in April 2014, church buildings (except Russian Orthodox Church buildings) were systematically closed or destroyed. The airport was ruined. An evangelical seminary in Donetsk was commandeered. Many Ukrainian citizens in the Donbas region, including believers, lost everything. One of our graduates, Timofie, a church planter from there, moved his entire family with not much more than the clothes on their backs to Kyiv, where he planted a new church. It now primarily serves refugees from Donbas. This week, we are hearing of churches in western Ukraine opening their buildings and homes to refugees from other parts of Ukraine who hope to find solace there.

Hope in Times of Uncertainty

But the reality is that this nation has rarely been a place of solace. Ukraine, which means borderland, has been conquered or overrun many times across many centuries: by Tibetan Khans, Poles, Lithuanians, Ottomans, Austrians, Germans, and Russians. Ukrainians almost consider crisis normal. Yet this disruptive normalcy has also opened the eyes of many to see that God is their only refuge—a very present help in trouble (Ps. 46:1). Only Yahweh is our strength and security. Everything else is shaky and uncertain, including nations that make treaties with you only to then rage to destroy you.

Our family has known for years that the window of opportunity for missionary training in Ukraine might someday close. That day could be right around the corner.

We Americans have little tolerance for insecurity. We can’t imagine living with so much risk. Yet in the absence of comfort, safety, or even basic health insurance or life insurance, Ukrainian believers rally together in the church and support one another in times of sickness, sorrow, and death. It truly is a beautiful family.

Our family has known for years that the window of opportunity for missionary training in Ukraine might someday close. That day could be right around the corner. But our Ukrainian brothers and sisters have shown us how to continue in faith and hope in times of great uncertainty. Surrounded by such a cloud of living witnesses makes us want to stay as long as we can in a land surrounded and threatened by Russian armies.

Don’t Blame the Pandemic for Low Church Attendance Sat, 29 Jan 2022 05:00:00 +0000 Church attendance has been declining since the pandemic. But has the pandemic simply exacerbated a trend?]]> The Story: Church attendance has been declining since the pandemic. But has the pandemic simply exacerbated a trend we hadn’t noticed?

The Background: According to several recent surveys and polls, church attendance has been on the decline during the COVID-19 pandemic.

Data collected in the summer of 2020 by Barna found that about one-third of practicing Christians (32 percent) “have dropped out of church for the time being.” A Gallup poll taken last March also found that, for the first time in eight decades, Americans’ membership in houses of worship dropped below 50 percent. Only 47 percent of adults in the United States claimed to be a member of a church, mosque, or synagogue, a 23-point decline since 2000.

A recent analysis by the Institute for Family Studies using data from the American Family Survey finds that religious attendance has also declined significantly in the past two years. According to the analysis, Americans who are young or old are more likely than those in the middle age groups to have experienced a drop in their church attendance.

Attendance by both older adults (those 65+) and younger adults (ages 18-34) declined by about 10 percentage points between 2019 and 2021. Black Americans were also more likely than others to see a sharp decline in church attendance. In 2019, 45 percent of black Americans attended religious service regularly, but by 2021, that number had dropped to 30 percent. The decline was 6 percent for Hispanic and Asian adults and 5 percent for white adults.

What It Means:  Before we can determine how sharply church attendance has declined, we need to know how many people have been coming to church. Unfortunately, that’s difficult to determine because Americans exaggerate their level of attendance. For example, a Gallup poll taken in 2000 found that 70 percent of American adults claimed to be a member of a church, synagogue, or mosque. That doesn’t match reality.

In that year, there were roughly 343,000 religious congregations in the United States (3,727 synagogues, 1,209 mosques, and 338,000 churches). If we divide the adult population in 2000 (209,128,094) by the number of religious congregations (343,000), there would have been an average of 610 members in every church, synagogue, and mosque in America. Since the median church in the United States at that time had 137 participants in worship on Sunday mornings, that would mean every church in America had, in the year 2000, about four-and-a-half times as many members as attenders.

Most churches in America are, of course, too small to have 610 members. The reality, known to sociologists of religion for decades, is that adults in the United States wildly exaggerate their level of involvement with their local church. Americans simply do not attend or belong to church at levels anywhere close to what we have claimed.

What the latest poll results most likely reveal is that an increasing number of Americans simply do not feel the social pressure to exaggerate their claims about church attendance. Within a few years, the self–reported results might begin to reflect actual attendance more accurately. For now, though, what we should pay attention to is the trend line—which has been declining for decades.

Take, for instance, the results of the American Family Survey. While the results are likely to be somewhat inflated, they appear to be closer to actual attendance than the Gallup survey. According to that study, about one-in-three (34 percent) of Americans in 2019 attended worship one to two times per month. Today, that figure is creeping closer to one-in-four (28 percent)—a decline of 6 percent.

At the level of the individual church, a decline of 6 percent might not even be noticeable or considered significant. Currently, the median church each week has 65 people in attendance. This means that half of all churches have fewer than 65 people in their weekly worship service. If those smaller congregations lose 6 percent of their attendance then only four people will have stopped coming to church. Even many small churches would not necessarily consider such a decline to be alarming, especially during a pandemic.

However, if we examine a longer timeline, such as the past two decades, we see that this decline began long before COVID-19. In 2000, the Faith Communities Today (FACT) study found that the median evangelical worship service attendance among U.S. congregations was 137. Today, it is only 65. In 2000, more than half of churches (53 percent) reported they were growing by 5 percent or more. But in the years studied since then (2005, 2008, 2015, and 2020), more than half of churches (52 percent) say they were declining by at least 5 percent.

But the declines aren’t shared equally by every church. Most of the decline seen in 2020 came from medium-sized congregations (those sized between 51 and 500) that were getting smaller (a median decrease of about 12 percent). The smallest faith communities had no net median change, nor did those in the 500- to 1,500-size range. Only congregations whose attendance was over 1,500 in 2015 had a median growth rate, of more than 6 percent.

Based on these findings we can conclude that fewer people feel the need to claim to be a member of a church they never attend, that large churches are growing while medium churches are shrinking, and that the decline in attendance predated the pandemic. In other words, the facts about church attendance in America are complicated. We may be experiencing a decline in “cultural Christianity,” a general shift from medium to large churches, a decline exacerbated by a global pandemic, or all these trends at once. All that we can know with certainty is that, whether attendance shrinks or grows, God will continue to build his church (Mt. 16:13–26).

‘Redeeming Love’ Irredeemably Exploits Actors and Viewers Fri, 28 Jan 2022 05:02:00 +0000 The wrong thing for the right reason is still the wrong thing. And using actors as steamy, erotic pawns to promote a message of redeeming love is not only the wrong thing—it’s irredeemable.]]> The entertainment industry needs more films that handle sexual themes with biblical frankness and biblical restraint. Faith-based movies tend to avoid the former, while mainstream movies tend to avoid the latter.

On one hand, there’s nothing inherently virtuous about avoiding sexual topics in storytelling, even sordid ones. The Bible is filled with tales that aren’t exactly “family-friendly.” On the other hand, there’s nothing inherently necessary about actors depicting sex in front of cameras. As even secular film critics like Richard Brody have noted, sex scenes are typically superfluous because they “simply check boxes for viewers” while contributing “no additional dramatic or emotional significance.”

Within this context, a movie like Redeeming Love—adapted from Francine Rivers’s best-selling novel, inspired by the book of Hosea—might represent the first entry in a new subgenre of faith-based film. We might call it “gritty godliness”—exploring human depravity without simplifying or sanitizing it. This runs the risk of offending those who expect only “clean” stories. Nevertheless, it can address the human condition with greater realism and transparency, and point more effectively to the redemptive power of the gospel.

The plot of Redeeming Love is well suited to such an exploration. Forced into prostitution at a young age, Angel (Abigail Cowen) battles inner and outer demons in nineteenth-century California. Then she encounters Michael Hosea (Tom Lewis), a man who offers her the chance of a new life.

Some Christian critics have acknowledged the film’s redemptive elements. Ted Baehr writes, “The movie has some powerful metaphors of the true depiction of love as shown in a committed married relationship.” Similarly, Adam R. Holz writes, “Redeeming Love captures the beautiful story of what unconditional love truly looks like, especially when our sins may be too difficult for us to bear.”

However, in dealing with numerous sexual topics, Redeeming Love may be the first prominent faith-based film whose two main characters have on-screen sex, in what Holz calls two “lengthy and very sensual” scenes that “involve explicit movements, ecstatic facial expressions and sounds that definitely strain at the boundaries of what’s allowable in a PG-13 movie.”

Debates among Christians about the presence of nudity and sex in media are certainly not new. But it’s an important topic to continually reengage and thoughtfully consider—especially as the boundaries of sexual content on screen continue to be pushed. The release of a “sexy” faith-based film like Redeeming Love offers a chance to revisit this discussion, albeit from a new vantage point.

Consider the Actors

On-screen sex and nudity are typically evaluated by their effect (real or imagined) on viewers. When addressing such material, emphasis is often placed on how much skin is shown on-screen—what we as an audience see. Caveats often sound like, “Yes, the actress is technically naked, but her long hair keeps us from seeing too much.” Or, “Yes, the actors are grinding against and fondling each other, removing each other’s clothes, and engaging in libidinous kissing—but we don’t see any critical body parts, which eliminates the ‘real’ danger of the situation.”

This paradigm for evaluating sexualized visual media leaves out an important part of the equation: those on the other side of the screen. In the economy of the kingdom of God, Christians aren’t called to act primarily as consumers, but as neighbors. And according to Jesus, our neighbors aren’t just the people we live near. They’re also the people we drive behind on the road, the people who take our menu orders, and the people we pay to entertain us. This includes a lot more than just the actors who populate our screens (e.g., pro athletes who subject their bodies to a litany of potential dangers)—but certainly not less.

‘Everything Stays Covered’

A concern for actors and entertainers as our neighbor rarely enters the public consciousness. For example, consider this description of one of Redeeming Love’s sex scenes by Christian cultural commentator Michael Foust: “They kiss and begin undressing. They embrace. Their hips thrust. They breathe heavily. They fall to the bed, with his hand covering her [naked] breast. Lasting about two minutes, it’s not a short scene, either, even if everything stays covered.”

For many moviegoers, however, “everything stays covered” is the deciding factor. We the audience don’t see any vital parts, which ostensibly sanctifies the material. Never mind that two actors who aren’t married to one other were required to spend hours on a film set in various stages of nakedness while simulating sexual acts with each other—acts which Scripture confines to the covenant of marriage (with no exception clause for performers pretending to be married).

Some might argue, “But the actors didn’t engage in actual sex.” Such a position honors the marriage bed only if one views sex through a reductionist lens. A biblically informed view of the sex act, however, is more holistic. I’ve written elsewhere that reducing sex to mere coitus “makes no more sense than reducing a meal to eating dessert, or reducing the Olympics to the closing ceremonies, or reducing a story to its climax. . . . Sex cannot be defined merely by how it ends.”

Filming Immorality to Promote Morality

Christians are called to be salt and light in the world (Matt. 5:13–16). This calling involves experiencing and sharing with others how the “blood of Christ . . . [can] purify our conscience from dead works to serve the living God” (Heb. 9:14). How antithetical, then, is it for a Christian movie to require actors to numb their conscience through engaging in immorality—in order to draw people to Christ, no less?

Or, to put it another way, in calling audiences to the purifying and restoring love of God, Redeeming Love required its two main actors to perform sexual acts that only a couple of decades ago would have been considered soft-core porn (or what we might call secondhand porn). Inviting actors to pornify themselves for the camera functionally pushes them away from the purifying and restoring love of God in their own lives.

Inviting actors to pornify themselves for the camera functionally pushes them away from the purifying and restoring love of God in their own lives.

While Redeeming Love’s filmmakers seem oblivious to this double standard, others are not. The Aisle Seat writes, “The movie wants to be a faith-based tale with a hint of eroticism, but at the same time, it wants that eroticism to be wholesome, which is contradictory.” suggests director D. J. Caruso “spends too much time dancing around the Christian foundation of the story, trying to give the film some extra heat with grind-happy sex scenes.” Flickering Myth says “the camera work. . . [goes] to hilarious extremes blocking nudity of everyone involved while trying to be explicit.” The A.V. Club succinctly describes the film as “horny holiness.”

Irredeemable Sex Doesn’t Redeem God’s Love

If there’s a problem with a movie like Redeeming Love (which I have chosen not to watch), it’s not the subject matter (prostitution), nor the characters (prostitutes and lecherous men), nor the grievous and immoral acts explored (rape, sexual slavery, etc.). No, the problem is the sexual objectification of human beings made in the image of God—all for a message designed to point people to God.

The end doesn’t justify the means. The wrong thing for the right reason is still the wrong thing. And using actors as steamy, erotic pawns to promote a message of redeeming love is not only the wrong thing—it’s irredeemable.

Our Empathetic High Priest Fri, 28 Jan 2022 05:01:48 +0000 Jesus is not only the priest; he is the sacrifice.]]> “Jesus is not only the priest; he is the sacrifice.”

Don Carson delivered a message during TGC21 titled “Our Empathetic High Priest.” Focusing on three passages from Hebrews chapters 4-7, he emphasizes major points that pertain to Christ’s role as our Great High Priest:

— Christ is able to encourage us to persevere despite our weakness, brokenness, and sin.

— Christ is able to encourage us by anchoring our hope, in his immutable promise and oath.

— Christ is able to encourage us by being uniquely qualified to save us completely.

Beware the ‘Christian’ Pitch to Join Multilevel Marketing Fri, 28 Jan 2022 05:00:00 +0000 A church, made up of relationally connected people, is a networking utopia for Christians in multilevel marketing businesses. But at what cost?]]> I’m good at avoiding marketers, especially the clipboard-wielding variety who guard the grocery store entrance, but there’s one tribe of recruiters I can’t seem to evade: Christians in multilevel marketing (MLM). Masters of initiating friendly conversations, they’ve pitched to my wife and me in some uncanny locations: coffee shops, farmers markets, at lunch after church, even while coordinating an outreach event with a nonprofit.

Recruitment is integral to MLM. Existing members must build a large team (called the “downline”) because their salary comes from collective earnings. Recruitment isn’t intrinsically wrong, and sales is a respectable profession when done with integrity. But Christians should be careful and thoughtful about everything we do.

MLM in the Church

What concerns me is how Christians in MLM sometimes co-opt biblical lingo to justify questionable ideas and methods. They often use verbiage that projects MLM as not only admissible within the church, but beneficial.

Colossians 2:8 warns about hollow philosophies that pose as holy. As Randy Alcorn writes: “Often, the most effective appeals to the flesh are made under the guise of the Spirit.”

Like testing a $100 bill, every philosophy must be held up to the light (Scripture). Let’s examine some key talking points used to propagate MLM in the church, parsing the validity (or invalidity) of these ideas.

1. Love your family well.

A friend trying to recruit me into MLM presented this poignant picture: imagine being a husband who gives his wife the best of his attention (rather than the exhausted leftovers after work) and a father who drops off his kid on the first day of kindergarten (rather than missing key moments in his kid’s life). He then explained how the financial prosperity and flexible hours MLM provides could turn me into that kind of man.

Problem: The idea that traditional work hours deplete family health is reductionistic. If everyone believed this, we’d have no teachers, bank tellers, construction workers, grocers, and all the other (allegedly) sad saps stuck in the hamster wheel of “the man.” Workaholism is a problem, but the answer is balance, not retreat. God calls many of us to work standard hours, come home tired, and rely on his strength to serve our families well. It’s not easy, but it’s possible.

2. More money means more mission.

My friend further explained that this opportunity was the equivalent of a job that paid $200k per year (though evidence contradicts this). He sketched a hypothetical plan for my future: work lots now, accrue significant wealth, retire in your late 30s, then devote the rest of your life to full-time ministry without financially burdening the church.

Problem: It is wise to financially prepare for the future, but we’re not promised tomorrow, so it’s foolish to delay obedience today for any reason, in any measure (James 4:13–17; Prov. 23:4–5). For many Christians, the secular marketplace is their mission field, which means early retirement would hinder, not advance, their witness.

Equally problematic is the formula MLM prescribes for all participants: wealth + believer = increased generosity. This formula, while sometimes true, ignores Scripture’s explicit warnings about the heart’s tendency to misuse money (Deut. 8:10–18; Matt. 13:22; Luke 18:18–25; 1 Tim. 6:10). Some Christians are meant to be rich and extravagantly generous, but God’s mercy to many is living simply. A few proof texts about the benefits of extravagant wealth don’t quell its dangers.

3. You need purpose, calling, and meaning.

Christians in MLM often present themselves as life coaches who have “solved” the existential crises of life, as follows: Most people don’t know who they want to become, or how they’ll get there. I felt that way too, until I took ownership of my destiny. Are you unhappy, aimless, dissatisfied? MLM can help.

A few proof texts about the benefits of extravagant wealth don’t quell its dangers.

Problem: Can a workplace, team, or vocational decision add meaning to life? Yes, in some sense. But the worth, identity, and purpose Christ grants us dwarfs all other identities and missions. History proves the amnesia of God’s people, who routinely trade the mountain of God-given identity for the molehill of worldly success, but this demands we rehearse our gospel identity, not replace it.

4. You need better mentors.

Most multilevel marketers laud their “mentors” (usually a married couple with staggering financial accomplishments) then offer you access to these gurus if you jump through the required hoops.

Problem: Leveraging mentor access is manipulative. I know pastors whose congregations exceed 10,000 who could isolate in the name of self-importance, but to their credit they’ll schedule a meeting with anyone. Regular participation in a local church, where wisdom cross-pollinates through liturgy and life, is free to anyone. My best mentors have been elderly church members whose wisdom is more defined by perseverance than by their financial portfolio.

5. Recruiting builds relationships.

MLM communities position themselves as the antithesis of the cold, disconnected workplace, instead pitching themselves as family. One participant tearfully told me he baptized someone he recruited. MLM, it’s promised, is more than a job; it’s a warm community and a platform for discipleship.

Problem: It doesn’t take a distinguished sociologist to observe that recruitment burns as many (or more) relationships than it builds. For MLM to be profitable, aggressive recruiting is required, and the church, made up of relationally connected people, is a networking utopia. But at what cost? When a coffee invitation awkwardly shifts to recruitment, it’s frustrating and hurtful to realize there’s an endgame. The line between relationships and revenue shouldn’t be blurred. Motives are as shifty as the human heart (Jer. 17:9). Real discipleship can only happen with no strings attached (Luke 14:14).

Charity and Clarity

I’ve painted with an admittedly broad brush. When I meet Christian multilevel marketers (or should I say when they find me), I try to approach each participant with charity, as there are exceptions to the troublesome trends I’ve described. I’m confident some believers conduct their business with care and integrity.

For MLM to be profitable, aggressive recruiting is required, and the church, made up of relationally connected people, is a networking utopia. But at what cost?

Given MLM’s prevalence in the church, however, I encourage elders and pastors to be clear for their congregants on what type of recruitment (if any) is acceptable within the church. It’s probably wise to put it in writing. Once expectations are solidified, it’s easier to assess the maturity of those involved in MLM based on their willingness to submit to the elders and uphold community values.

Multilevel marketers can be quick to hitch their horse to the wagon of Christianity, but wisdom says pause, have honest conversations, then determine if you’re both pulling in the same direction.

5 Warnings for Your Social Media Talk Thu, 27 Jan 2022 05:03:00 +0000 Christians can use social media fruitfully—but it’s also fraught with dangers.]]> The National Weather Service has a rarely used designation for situations when long-track, strong, and violent tornadoes or extreme severe thunder­storms are possible: Particularly Dangerous Situation (PDS). To my recollection, I’ve only heard the PDS declared three or four times in the past decade or so, and on each occasion, there was a serious torna­do outbreak in the Midwest or Deep South.

I want to issue a PDS warning for a particular form of communication that’s relatively new but wildly popular: social media. For example, how many of us post things on Facebook that make us look bad? Is our life really as rich, joyful, and fulfilling as we suggest? Do we really spend most of our time at the beach or enjoying a robust laugh with our well-behaved, high-functioning children? Is that telling the whole truth about ourselves?

Here’s why I think we need to issue a PDS and take special care with our words in communicating anywhere on the internet.

1. The Hot Take Is Not Always Wise

Perhaps it would be more accurate to say the hot take is almost never the humble, wise take. I have only circumstantial evidence (but lots of it) to support that statement. Breaking news is necessary for newspapers and magazines—the thing for which I use Twitter the most. But it’s not always necessary for us, especially if we’re responding to controversy. Thoughts need time to mature, words need time to be carefully crafted, ideas and views need careful study and close scrutiny. All this requires patience—the opposite of the hot take.

Thoughts need time to mature, words need time to be carefully crafted.

How often do we overreact to something that stirs our emotions, and by the next day we either regret how we responded or give thanks we did not? For me, that’s about nine out of 10 times. “Let us be slow to speak and quick to listen” (James 1:19). Or, as the proverb variously attributed puts it, “Better to remain silent and be thought a fool than to open your mouth and remove all doubt.”

2. Editors Exist for a (Good) Reason

I know that sounds self-serving, since I’ve long made part of my living as a copy repairman. And, granted, Solomon didn’t have editors in mind when he wrote Proverbs, but I think the principle in Proverbs 11:14 applies: “Where there is no guidance, a people falls, but in an abundance of counselors there is safety.” Beware of social-media users who are uncomfortable with others reading and weighing in on or revising their posts before publication. Unless we seek it, there’s no accountability for what we say to others on Twitter, Facebook, or blogs.

One of the things that makes written communication superior when it appears in mainstream books, newspapers, or magazines is that ar­ticles and even opinion columns have usually been through several channels of rather rigorous editing and fact- and source-checking. After my nearly three decades as a journalist and editor, this is probably the top reason I’m hesitant to use Twitter or Facebook. As a writer, I need an editor. As a sinner, I need accountability.

3. Written Words Have a Longer Shelf Life

This is true for the simple reason that written words are always and forever “out there.”

A pastor friend once sent out an abrupt and ill-advised tweet in response to a snarky message aimed at one of his friends. After rethinking his words for five minutes, he deleted the tweet. The original tweeter had taken note and saved it. Reconciling them required a phone call and a series of long talks.

4. Social Media Rewards the Agent Provocateur

Social media tend to attract and reward the extremes. How can you gain 500 likes or 10,000 followers? Probably not by posting Bible verses or Puri­tan wisdom. You gain a following by provocation, and extreme opinions attract likes. Members of the fringe within every group tend to shout the loudest, gain the most attention, and be the proverbial squeaky wheel.

Social media play well for extremists and their opinions because they gain the most hearers and make the most enemies. It’s just not the place for serious, fruitful debate and discussion of complex issues that demand careful nuance. Social media also manipulate our desire for approval. The more followers and commenters support our cause and pat us on the back, the less likely we are to reflect critically or receive correction about what we’ve said. We’re more likely to double down because we want the chorus of approval to be larger and louder.

In a Christian context, I’d say the more mature a believer is, the less likely he is to be a provocateur.

The more mature a believer is, the less likely he is to be a provocateur.

With this in mind, my friend Matt Smethurst’s words on Twitter ought to inform us: “An immature Christian is hard to please and easy to offend.” Why do mature Christians spend so much time on social media? I can’t give an objective answer, but it’s worth pondering, and it’s something I’ve asked mainly about myself in thinking how I should regulate my time on the internet.

5. Most People Are Not on Twitter

There are 7 billion people in the world, but only 126 million daily users on Twitter. Those 25 angry responses to your tweet on social justice, or free will theology, or Democrat/Republican shenanigans are really insignificant, in spite of what you may think.

Getting, say, 300 comments on Twitter or 400 likes on Facebook does not mean that a great cloud of witnesses has gathered around you or your pet issue. While you’re debating the number of angels that can dance on a pinhead or whether Adam had a belly button, most of us are working, spending time with family, friends, or church members. We’re at the golf course, ballpark, hiking in the mountains, or lounging at the beach.

Two of the ugliest theological debates I’ve witnessed on Twitter in the past few years involved the Trinity and social justice. Those de­bates were intense for a few of us, but only a few of us. We must keep that in mind. My congregation hardly noticed either debate, and I feel certain the good people at my church are fairly typical.

Can We Use It Fruitfully?

I believe Christians can use social media for good pur­poses. It’s great for recommending good books and sharing Bible passages. It’s easy to get in touch with other people. Yet Christians should use social media with great care.

Keep in mind the words of Jesus: “I tell you, on the day of judgment people will give account for every careless word they speak, for by your words you will be justified, and by your words you will be condemned” (Matt. 12:36–37).

We tend to think only of words that come from our mouths. But it seems safe to assume that our Lord would also say that we’ll give an account for every careless word we write, tweet, text, or email, so let’s double down with how we love our neighbors in every medium of electronic and printed communication. We need to be slow to speak and slow to type and quick to listen.

9 Things You Should Know About Supreme Court Justice Stephen Breyer Thu, 27 Jan 2022 05:02:00 +0000 Supreme Court Justice Stephen Breyer announced he will be retiring after serving for more than two decades on the high court. Here are nine things you should know about the liberal justice. 1. Breyer has been a lawyer for 57 years. Stephen Breyer, age 83, was born in San Francisco, California, and educated at Stanford University (AB), Magdalen College, Oxford (BA), and Harvard Law School (LLB). He was an Assistant Professor, Professor of Law, and Lecturer at Harvard Law School (1967–1994), a Professor at the Harvard University Kennedy School of Government (1977–1980), and a Visiting Professor at the College of...]]> Supreme Court Justice Stephen Breyer announced he will be retiring after serving for more than two decades on the high court. Here are nine things you should know about the liberal justice.

1. Breyer has been a lawyer for 57 years.

Stephen Breyer, age 83, was born in San Francisco, California, and educated at Stanford University (AB), Magdalen College, Oxford (BA), and Harvard Law School (LLB). He was an Assistant Professor, Professor of Law, and Lecturer at Harvard Law School (1967–1994), a Professor at the Harvard University Kennedy School of Government (1977–1980), and a Visiting Professor at the College of Law, Sydney, Australia and at the University of Rome. From 1980–1990, he served as a Judge of the United States Court of Appeals for the First Circuit, and as its Chief Judge, 1990–1994.

2. Breyer was an Eagle Scout, Army corporal, Oxford graduate, and ditch digger.

Breyer is the only current justice to be an Eagle Scout, a rank he achieved at age 12. He also spent eight years in the United States Army Reserve including six months on active duty, working in Army Strategic Intelligence. He reached the rank of corporal and was honorably discharged in 1965. (Justice Alito, who also served in the Army Reserve, is the only other military veteran on the Court.) But Breyer is only one of three justices who received a degree from a university in the United Kingdom. (Justices Kagan and Gorsuch also went to Oxford.) In 1958, he also worked a summer job as a ditch digger for the Pacific Gas and Electric Company.

3. Breyer married into the English aristocracy.

In 1967, Breyer married Joanna Hare, a clinical psychologist and the daughter of John Hare, an English viscount and briefly head of the Conservative Party. They have three children.

4. Breyer is Jewish and has a daughter who is an Episcopal priest.

Breyer is one of only eight (out of the 115 justices to have served on the Supreme Court) Jewish justices. His daughter Chloe is an Episcopal Priest in the Diocese of New York; she earned a PhD in Christian Ethics from Union Theological Seminary.

5. Breyer said he was guided by the Torah’s emphasis on justice.

In a 2014 convention of the Jewish Federations of North America, Breyer said his judicial philosophy was influenced by the Torah’s emphasis on justice, or tzedek: “Social justice. I think of that. I think of tzedakah, which we usually hear of on Yom Kippur. . . . It’s not quite pure charity, like giving through love. And it’s not quite the rule of law either. But it is trying to create a better world.” He added that “[t]here is a message, and the message has something to do with tzedek, and it has something to do with tzedakah, and it has something to do with social justice, and the law should work out so there is not too much injustice in the way in which it does work out.”

6. Breyer sustained a major injury while riding his bicycle—three different times.

Breyer has been hospitalized three different times because of injuries sustained while riding a bicycle. In 1993, Breyer was riding his bike across Harvard Square when he was hit by a car. He suffered serious injuries, including a punctured lung and broken ribs, but left the hospital early to be interviewed by President Clinton for a position on the Supreme Court. In 2011 the justice broke his collarbone riding near his home and in 2013 fell from his bike and fractured his right shoulder.

7. Breyer was the Court’s most outspoken critic of the death penalty.

Breyer claimed there were three constitutional defects in the administration of the death penalty that made it a “cruel” punishment under the Eighth Amendment: unreliability, arbitrariness, and unconscionably long delays. As the American Bar Association notes, Breyer “reasoned that these defects have caused most places (effectively 86% of counties have no death penalty) within the United States to abandon the use of the death penalty, and that this decline in the imposition and implementation of the death penalty has rendered it an unusual punishment.”

8. Breyer consistently supported abortion—including partial birth abortion.

Throughout his time on the Court, Breyer was an unapologetic defender of the right to abortion. He was the lead author of two court majorities in defense of abortion rights, in 2000 and 2016, and has never voted to sustain a restriction on abortion. In the 2000 case of Stenberg v. Carhart, Breyer wrote that that criminalizing the performance of partial birth abortions violated the U.S. Constitution, as interpreted in Casey and Roe. “All those who perform abortion procedures using that method must fear prosecution, conviction, and imprisonment,” wrote Breyer, claiming this results in “an undue burden upon a woman’s right to make an abortion decision.” Justice Antonin Scalia’s dissent concluded that “[t]he notion that the Constitution of the United States. . . prohibits the States from simply banning this visibly brutal means of eliminating our half-born posterity is quite simply absurd.”

9. Breyer was mostly pro-religion—though not pro-mainstream Christian.

A study by Lee Epstein and Eric A. Posner found that Breyer supported the pro-religion side 62.1 percent of the time. But when a case represented a mainstream Christian view, Breyer supported that side only 44 percent of the time. “Breyer and Kagan occasionally sided with the conservative majority, and even when they dissented, they were less scathing than Ginsburg and Sotomayor,” write Epstein and Posner. “While Breyer and Kagan tended to concur on technical grounds, one senses that they felt less hostility toward religious individuals and organizations who believed that they faced discrimination from secular authorities.”

My Facts Versus Your Facts: Can We Really Know Truth? Thu, 27 Jan 2022 05:00:00 +0000 The most important things standing between contemporary society and a robust confidence in truth are things that no scientific or technocratic strategy will move.]]> There’s a classic scene in the 1997 film Men in Black that comes to mind as I think about the problems of fake news and disinformation and the solutions that Jonathan Rauch proposes in his book The Constitution of Knowledge: A Defense of Truth. Government Agent K (Tommy Lee Jones) is explaining to Agent J (Will Smith) what their work of concealing and controlling alien life entails. At one point, K takes J to a newsstand and selects a stack of tabloids—the sensational publications that talk about children being born with three heads and why Elvis is still alive and performing in Wichita. “Best investigative reporting on the planet,” K says. “Read the New York Times if you want, they get lucky sometimes.”

This is not just an exquisitely funny line; it’s a fitting metaphor for how a lot of people feel about the universe they actually live in. Where do we go for facts? Is there an objective answer to that question, or does it depend entirely on your worldview? Do people who think they know read one paper, and people who actually know read another? In contemporary Western culture, these aren’t just plotlines in a sci-fi summer blockbuster; they’re the questions attending a social crisis. There may not be a government agency to run customs for extraterrestrials immigrating to earth, but it certainly feels as if we’re not sure what to read or believe anymore.

Jonathan Rauch, senior fellow at the Brookings Institution and a contributing writer at The Atlantic, argues that it’s time for this social crisis to end. What we need, Rauch says, is to recover a social compact that identifies, protects, and promotes the objectively true. The community that shapes and safeguards this compact is known as the “reality-based community,” thick networks of people committed to the pursuit and promulgation of evidence-based facts. Rauch writes that this community possesses “a shared understanding that there are right and wrong ways to make knowledge” (5). Out of this reality-based community emerges a Constitution of Knowledge, a foundational agreement held onto by institutions responsible for educating the public, which conditions public discourse.

Reality-Based Community

According to Rauch, this community exists in every serious intellectual discipline and serves the cause of truth by consistently holding their work and other members accountable to “reality-based” standards of knowledge. It descends directly from the Enlightenment’s recovery of empiricism. Leaning heavily on the American philosopher Charles Sanders Peirce and his “pragmaticism,” Rauch contends that what separates fake knowledge from real knowledge is the principle of falsification. The reality-based community, Rauch says, doesn’t admit any claim that cannot ultimately persuade all willing to reason far enough. “The reality-based network behaves like an ecosystem,” says Rauch, “producing a body of validated propositions whose composition humans can influence but not control. That is objective reality, insofar as we can know reality” (87).

It certainly feels as if we’re not sure what to read or believe anymore.

A Constitution of Knowledge would thus protect speech, filter out bad-faith actors, and prevent privileged claims to truth. The question is: Who can we trust to bring this about? Rauch’s book is really a manifesto about the reality-based community, because it’s the community that, in Rauch’s vision, holds the keys to the epistemological kingdom. It’s the community that’s responsible for adhering to and defending objectivity, fallibilism (anyone can be wrong), disconfirmation, and other bedrock epistemological commitments.

Future Beyond Polarization

Rauch’s reality-based community achieves genuinely good things. In his telling, it stands firmly against the tyranny of the internet’s dilution of authority, refusing to allow partisan commitments or profitable clickbait to obscure what’s true. It is also the last line of defense against cancel culture, which targets people for harassment and punishment based solely on their unpopular or counterintuitive viewpoints.

As an impassioned argument against negative epistemology and groupthink, Rauch’s book can be compelling and persuasive, stimulating hope that a future beyond both algorithm and elitism is possible.

The problem with The Constitution of Knowledge is not its identification of our crises, but its proposed strategies to solve them. Rauch’s identification of pragmatism as the essence of a healthy epistemological marketplace suffers from a profound failure of imagination; he does not seem either aware or concerned that the most fundamental questions of truth, goodness, and beauty are controversial precisely because they cannot be adjudicated by the reality-based community. Indeed, his term “reality-based” turns out to be a misnomer.

Further, Rauch’s emphasis on credentialism and the importance of expert consensus as the gatekeeper of public knowledge portrays him as significantly out of touch with current events and the crisis not merely of public trust but of institutional integrity.

Pragmatism Is Not Enough

Rauch describes the victories of the reality-based community as victories for empiricism against dogmatism. According to Rauch, the core values of the reality-based community exclude, by definition, any place for God, the miraculous, or the transcendent. Rauch seems aware of this implication and tries to head it off by proposing a fact versus truth dichotomy. Truth is a moral substance that can differ from person to person; everyone is free to “tell their truth.” By contrast, facts are statements about reality that can and must be judged by the nine epistemic commitments. According to Rauch, to leave the house for work in the morning is to leave the realm of truth and enter the domain of facts.

“The Constitution of Knowledge needs supremacy in the realm of public knowledge, but not in the realm of private belief,” Rauch writes in a key section.

By analogy, the U.S. Constitution sets the rules for America’s national government, but it does not lay down the rules for running our families, teaching our children, organizing our communities, or doing our jobs; it merely asks us to behave in ways which support rather than undermine the Constitution’s ability to do its job. . . . In the same way, the Constitution of Knowledge creates an epistemic frame within which individuals can freely and safely hold many kinds of personal beliefs. (115)

There are fatal problems with Rauch’s approach. The first problem is that it’s been tried before. Anyone who’s read biologist Stephen Jay Gould’s famous argument for science and religion as “non-overlapping magisteria” should recognize the same sentiment in Rauch’s vision of the reality-based community. Gould’s atheistic but relatively respectful book Rocks of Ages: Science and Religion in the Fullness of Life was published in 1999. How well did his argument do? Seven years later in 2006, Richard Dawkins published The God Delusion, a book that arguably did more than any other to mainstream animus against even private religious belief.

What Dawkins understands that Gould and Rauch don’t is that the claims of religious revelation don’t allow themselves to be kenneled off in a pious corner, away from the rest of existence. Relegating religion to the margins of intellectual life is untenable, even if you do it with a smile.

Relegating religion to the margins of intellectual life is untenable, even if you do it with a smile.

Rauch’s fact versus truth dichotomy is neither philosophically sound nor politically viable. When Rauch says that the U.S. Constitution allows those under it “many kinds of personal beliefs,” he’s right, but Rauch says this is because the Constitution refuses to tell people what values they need to accept privately. This is manifestly not true. Political systems are not merely networks of efficiency; they reflect convictions, such as belief in the inherent fallenness of man (therefore division of powers), the necessity of controlling evil (therefore mechanisms of enforcement), the goodness of fairness and impartiality (therefore courts of law), and, in the American case, the divine image on every human person (therefore an inalienable right to life, liberty, and happiness). None of these beliefs are empirically verifiable. They are philosophical, religious, and, according to Rauch’s own epistemic categories, inadmissible as knowledge.

Credentialism Is Not Enough

The second massive problem with Rauch’s argument is that it’s strangely silent on the potential for the reality-based community to succumb to unreality. It’s likely that most of Rauch’s book was written before the global COVID-19 pandemic, but the absence of any meaningful discussion of how public health officials have struggled to lead or enlighten citizens for the last two years is truly astonishing.

Our epistemological crisis of my facts versus your facts is the inevitable consequence of secularization.

As numerous commentators have pointed out, the pandemic has often been a showcase of failure for the kind of institutions and credentialism that Rauch extols. While Rauch may be right that a credential-shaped public knowledge market is ultimately self-correcting, the costs of such self-correction do not figure into his thinking whatsoever.

Forgetting Reality

Men in Black ends with a twist: Agent K, tired of years spent in secrecy and solitude, asks Agent J to erase his memory. The only way to have the life he wants is to forget what he knows is true. I can’t help but think Western society is like this. In order to actualize our autonomy and sense of expressive individualism, we must forget the things about reality that tether us to something greater. But those lost memories must be replaced. Our epistemological crisis of my facts versus your facts is the inevitable consequence of secularization.

Jonathan Rauch is right to sound the alarm about the state of truth in our age. But his reality-based community is a pragmatist’s deus ex machina. The most important things standing between contemporary society and a robust confidence in truth are things that no scientific or technocratic strategy will move, and the loss of public trust in our expert sector is not merely the result of Donald Trump or Twitter. A pragmatic absence of moral reasoning dooms The Constitution of Knowledge to become yet another verbose attempt to find truth without a truth-giver.

Let’s Talk: What’s the Point of Work? Wed, 26 Jan 2022 05:03:00 +0000 Jackie, Jasmine, and Melissa talk about why we feel angst about work, how not to make work your identity, and how the Sabbath helps.]]> Work has existed from the time of creation when “The LORD God took the man and put him in the garden of Eden to work it and keep it” (Gen. 2:15). Once sin entered the world, we still had to work, but it became much, much harder (Gen. 3:17–19). Work can be a subject filled with angst. Some people love their work. Some make work an idol, while others work simply because they need to put food on the table.

On this first episode of season 3 of Let’s Talk, Jackie, Jasmine, and Melissa talk about how to think rightly about work. “There are real thorns and thistles with all of our work, even if it’s not physical ones,” Melissa says. Whether it’s just we’re tired or we’re overworked. There are all these things that, I think, in perfection wouldn’t have been true.” Yet in spite of these thorns and thistles, we can still experience God-given purpose in work as we steward the opportunities God has given us.

Mentioned in this episode:

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In ‘Station Eleven’ Trauma Is Real, but Resilience Prevails Wed, 26 Jan 2022 05:02:02 +0000 ‘Station Eleven’ is a refreshing series convinced of what many in our brokenness-obsessed, “everyone’s traumatized” world seem hesitant to believe—that change is possible, victimhood is not an aspirational identity, and we can be more than the sum of harms inflicted upon us.]]> “I remember damage.”

This line is repeated dozens of times in Station Eleven, a new 10-episode limited series adapted from the 2015 novel by Emily St. John Mandel. The line comes from the titular graphic novel that figures prominently in the show’s arc. The almost liturgical repetition of the line throughout the series underscores how much Station Eleven is about the way past trauma (“damage”) shapes our individual and collective futures.

The post-apocalyptic story follows a band of survivors of a global pandemic far scarier than COVID-19. The “Georgia Flu” decimates most of the world’s population in a matter of weeks, leaving traumatized survivors to carry on in a world quickly reduced to a pre-industrial society of tribes and nomads.

But as much as the reality of trauma’s effects is a major theme of the series—which is certainly as harrowing as you’d expect in the genre (not for young viewers!)—Station Eleven turns out to be a refreshingly hopeful drama that bucks the “trauma plot” trend. It’s a series convinced of what many in our brokenness-obsessed, “everyone’s traumatized” world seem hesitant to believe—that change is possible, victimhood is not an aspirational identity, and we can be more than the sum of harms inflicted upon us.

Subverting the Trauma Plot

“In a world infatuated with victimhood, has trauma emerged as a passport to status—our red badge of courage?” So asks literary critic Parul Sehgal in an insightful New Yorker piece, “The Case Against the Trauma Plot.” Engaging everything from Virginia Woolf to Ted Lasso, Sehgal critiques the reductionistic effects of trauma-obsession in storytelling, which “flattens, distorts, reduces character to symptom.” Despite the fact that “post-traumatic growth is far more common than post-traumatic stress,” many of today’s films, TV shows, and novels are enamored with bleak backstories that predictably determine a character’s messed-up present. But what of the drama of human resilience and growth?

Many of today’s films, TV shows, and novels are enamored with bleak backstories that predictably determine a character’s messed-up present. But what of the drama of human resilience and growth?

To be sure, the trauma at the center of Station Eleven is valid. The devastating flu kills most humans and changes everything. It’s a reset on par with the biblical flood. Even time is restarted. In a nod to the way Christ’s birth reset the ordering of time (BC and AD), the pandemic destroys the world at Christmastime in what becomes a sort of “year zero.” Throughout the series, we jump back and forth in time, but always in reference to the flu’s incarnation of death: “10 days before,” “80 days after,” “20 years after.” Characters born after the pandemic are referred to as “post-pans.” The tension of “before” and “after” runs throughout the show. Everything revolves around the moment when time was ruptured by the mother of all traumas.

The parallel between the coming of the flu and the coming of Christ, however, doesn’t lead the narrative in places you’d expect. If Christ’s arrival set in motion a shift of light dawning in history’s darkness (Isa. 9:2; John 1:1–9; 12:46, etc.), one would think the arrival of an apocalyptic flu would set in motion the opposite: a new dark age wiping away the “light” of civilization’s progress. Certainly there’s no shortage of this brand of post-apocalyptic narrative today. From The Walking Dead to The Road or even The Leftovers (a post-“Rapture” drama created by some of the same people behind Station Eleven), much of what we see in this genre is bleak and nihilistic.

But Station Eleven depicts a post-apocalyptic world where meaning still exists and darkness and trauma haven’t won. In some ways, the “after” world—at least 20 years into it—feels preferable to the supposedly enlightened world before the collapse. It’s interesting to observe how cold and dark the “before” scenes are compared to the warm, green, life-filled scenes of the world in the decades after. This is a visually hopeful show.

The last few minutes of the first episode make it clear: snow and ice in year one are juxtaposed with a jarring cut to year 20, filled with greenery and color. It sets the tone for the whole series. It’s not that the post-collapse world is some sort of sinless new Eden. There are still bad people and death is still very real. But far from hopeless, the “after” world offers a chance for a fresh start, not just surviving but growing—and carrying on the original human vocation to image our Creator by cultivating order out of chaos (Gen. 1:2, 28).

After Destruction, Creation

Destruction and creation are juxtaposed throughout Station Eleven. The opening scene of the first episode takes place in the ruins of a Chicago theater, now overgrown with greenery, pigs, and insects buzzing about. But then it cuts to 20 years earlier in the same space: a packed crowd watches a performance of Shakespeare’s King Lear. From that moment on, the series is constantly reflecting on the role of art amid the ruins—creation before and after destruction. The graphic novel that gives the show its name becomes an almost sacred text for the heroine of the series, Kirsten Raymonde (portrayed at different ages by Matilda Lawler and Mackenzie Davis), who is given a copy shortly before the pandemic upends her life as an eight-year-old. In a post-pandemic world where she might be tempted to succumb to nihilism, Kirsten instead clings to this book as a sort of anchor to transcendent meaning.

Years after the pandemic, Kirsten joins an acting troupe called “The Traveling Symphony,” a tribe of eccentric thespians and musicians determined to keep performing Shakespeare on a cyclical circuit. Even as she’s been forced to become fierce with a knife, Kirsten can also recite every line of Hamlet. Why bother with iambic pentameter in a world littered with decrepit skyscrapers and the bones of eight billion dead bodies? Because to be human is to create: to make things, and to make meaning, out of the chaos.

To be human is to create: to make things, and to make meaning, out of the chaos.

Other characters in the series do this in different ways. Clark (David Wilmot) creates a “Museum of Civilization” in an abandoned airport, where he and a group of survivors are lucky enough to find shelter at the start of the pandemic—and eventually a permanent home. Clark’s contribution to ordering the chaos is as a historian: curating and remembering artifacts of civilization’s past.

My favorite character, however, is Jeevan Chaudhary (Himesh Patel). At the start of the series he’s somewhat aimless, lacking vocational clarity and relational confidence. By the end, he’s stumbled into a vocation and a fatherly role that beautifully visualizes the “be fruitful and multiply” human mandate (Gen. 1:28). Comically, Jeevan is repeatedly mistaken for a doctor—from the first moments of the series to its penultimate episode (titled “Dr. Chaudhary”). But eventually he owns the doctor identity and becomes a real one.

In the pre-pan world, vocation was about finding your unique niche. In the post-pan world, vocation is about filling an urgent need. And the world needs doctors—people to run toward those in pain, deliver babies, keep vigil with the dying, prescribe healing ointments for burns. This is the chaos Jeevan is given to order. And he dutifully accepts the challenge.

After Expressive Individualism, Duty

As a lens for interpreting identity, responsibility, and vocation, expressive individualism is a decadent luxury that no longer makes sense in the post-apocalyptic world of Station Eleven. No, in this world of rugged resilience, going it alone doesn’t work. People need others—not only to survive but to be human, to make meaning. Jeevan and Kirsten help each other survive, but also make sense of a world so jarringly changed. Each member of the Traveling Symphony contributes and learns from the others—collectively piecing together the fragments of a lost world, and carrying it forward like the monastics in the dark ages. We were made not for unencumbered isolation, but for mutually enriching community (Gen. 2:18).

Individuals matter in Station Eleven, but pairs, trios, and tribes matter more. We understand characters—and they understand themselves—in reference to the others whose fates intertwine with their own, often as a result of unchosen circumstances. In our current world, where it’s within our power to curate feeds and chart paths entirely free of unchosen obligations, the world of Station Eleven feels foreign. But it’s strangely attractive. With fewer self-indulgent options and more obligations to others, the survivors seem happier. Imagine that.

With fewer self-indulgent options and more obligations to others, the survivors seem happier. Imagine that.

In the post-pan world there’s a noticeable absence of smartphones—perhaps modernity’s ultimate icon of “i”-centric autonomy. The first episode jokes about this by having Jeevan and Kirsten deal with the “trauma” of a smartphone’s battery dying. But a few episodes later, in the decades after the flu, post-pan children look at a smartphone in the Museum of Civilization with befuddlement. They have no idea what it is. They can’t wrap their minds around concepts like the internet, WiFi, and the cloud. They’ve grown up in a world where knowing how to start fires and skin animals is more essential than knowing how to swipe left or right. There are no “virtual” worlds or social media pseudo-events to distract them from the real world—in all of its scary, sublime wonder. What they have instead is a chance to begin anew in a world as brutal as it is beautiful—a world that beckons them to do what humans have always done: tame wilderness, order chaos, and breed flourishing.

It’s not that Station Eleven romanticizes this post-apocalyptic world. Filled as ever with fallen-by-nature humans, it has its share of problems. But by stripping away the decadence of late modernity (no more Twitter, praise God!) and showing us what it means to be a purposeful, antifragile human in our created essence, the series reminds us of what we’ve lost and might regain.

In the face of terrible trauma, the heroes of Station Eleven choose to keep growing. Dealt a hand of unthinkable brokenness, they choose to rebuild. Confronted with chaos, they choose to be agents of order. Tempted by retreat into self-referential pity, they choose to serve others. Surrounded by things to fear, they choose courage.

May that be true of us too.

Don’t Skip Theology’s Middle Ground Wed, 26 Jan 2022 05:00:00 +0000 While digging deep in the past for help in our present moment, Fred Sanders writes, don’t discount what happened in between.]]> It’s true that evangelical Christians and churches need to get back to the riches of the earliest Christian theology. Gavin Ortlund makes an eloquent case for this in his book Theological Retrieval for Evangelicals: Why We Need Our Past to Have a Future (Crossway, 2019; read TGC’s review). The slogan ad fontes—back to the sources—captures the spirit of rediscovery that animates some of the great movements of cultural renewal.

For Christians who have been getting by on either secondhand truth, a sense of resourcelessness, or distorted memories of their origins, going all the way back to the sources is thrilling and empowering. Movements of retrieval like this are worth encouraging, and theology in the mode of retrieval is especially medicinal for what ails the church in our disjointed, 21st-century moment.

Minding the Middle

But when we retrieve and reclaim the theology and spirituality of the Christian tradition, we should take care not to leapfrog over the time between us and the more distant past. Skipping that “middle distance” is a common mistake, one that seriously weakens our connection to the past. If you think of the present as a jumping-off point, and the remote past as your landing point, you can see that everything depends on your launching power as you leap. And there’s something arbitrary about that: you’re picking a spot to land on and soaring over the intervening territory. But all that ground between the launch and the landing is also significant: it also counts toward how you got where you are.

Skipping the ‘middle distance’ is a common mistake.

Or picture it another way: as an actual picture. In composing a painting, the artist has to account for foreground, background, and middle ground. In Leonardo da Vinci’s Mona Lisa, the lady is in the foreground, while some sky, cloudscape, and pale-bluish mountains are in the background. But in the middle ground—although most people are unable to reconstruct it from memory—are a river, a road, a bridge, and more, all in brown tones that help establish the lady and situate her in a meaningful way. If you sketched a version with just the lady in front and the cloudscape in back, you’d have a much poorer composition. That forgettable middle ground powerfully connects. It ties things together.

In theology and church life, we often take the foreground (here! now!) as the obviously urgent thing, and then, if we’re wise, look away to the distant background to help us get oriented. So far so good: ad fontes! But the middle distance is often where the real connections are. These are the actual things that link us to the past. But it may seem a little too familiar to be interesting and a little too far back to be urgent. It’s middling. In terms of fashion, you may think your grandparents had some cool clothes, but you’re less likely to esteem your parents’ choices. Grandma is retro, but Mom is just old.

But ignoring the middle ground has the curious consequence of suggesting we’re sovereignly in charge of making the remote past serve us in whatever way we choose. We can appropriate the distant things and do with them what we will; they’re far enough away that they don’t obviously carry obligations or organic connections. It’s the figures in the middle distance, though, who can link us and bind us to the distant past.

How Some Are Recovering the Middle Ground

I’ll share three examples of this principle. First, in order to teach Trinitarian theology accurately, I had to become deeply conversant with patristic theology and its medieval developments. But to teach it effectively, I also had to become fluent in Protestant and evangelical sources, so I could model for my evangelical students how people like us talk about doctrines like that. The communication strategy in my book The Deep Things of God (Crossway, 2017) was to quote as many middle-distance figures as possible.

A second example: Protestants often, commendably, take up the task of reclaiming the theological insights of Thomas Aquinas (13th century) or Augustine of Hippo (fifth century) but have a bad habit of skipping over the entire Protestant Scholastic period (16th and 17th centuries). The medicine for this ailment is to take a dose of vitamins PRRD and PRDL. That is, Richard Muller’s four-volume Post-Reformation Reformed Dogmatics, a remarkable guided tour of the major figures of Protestant theology after the Reformation, and the Post-Reformation Digital Library, a vast clearinghouse of original sources scanned, categorized, and freely available. PRRD and PRDL have led a generation of readers into the world of Protestant thought often overlooked in the middle distance between the Reformers and us.

A final example: the Center for Baptist Renewal is committed to “retrieving the beliefs and practices of the historic Christian church for the sake of contemporary Baptist renewal,” and their 2021 Reading Challenge appropriately focused on theological classics. Starting with Irenaeus and Athanasius, it led Baptist readers on through Anselm and Aquinas and beyond. But what about the middle distance? For their 2022 Reading Challenge, CBR has shrewdly turned their attention to reading “Baptist classics” precisely to show “there actually is a Baptist theological tradition.” The picture they’re painting is well composed, complete with a foreground (today’s task), background (the great Christian heritage of patristic theology), and middle ground (their own Baptist heritage).

If your church or tradition is well situated with regard to its present task, and properly oriented with regard to the ancient Christian heritage, ask yourself how much you know about the middle distance.

It would be easy to list other examples of churches and theologians cultivating the middle distance in a strategic way. Sadly, it would also be easy to give examples of people letting the middle distance remain a giant blind spot—and suffering the consequences of spiritual and historical impoverishment.

If your church or tradition is well situated with regard to its present task, and properly oriented with regard to the ancient Christian heritage, ask yourself how much you know about the middle distance. What was your denomination doing in the 1970s, or maybe in the 1870s? The territory to be explored is different depending on our particular traditions.

The temptation to ignore the middle ground afflicts almost all of us. It’s because the middle distance doesn’t have the heft and gravity of the ancient background or the urgency and immediacy of the present foreground. But it’s quite often the place where your real, historical identity takes on its particular accents, hues, and forms. And it’s always what connects the present to the deeper past.

Let Correction Be a Clue Tue, 25 Jan 2022 05:03:00 +0000 Correction gives us a simple way to distinguish between the scoffer and the wise.]]> Just because someone talks a lot, that doesn’t mean you should listen.

There are always more people to read or listen to, after all, than merit your attention. Even Solomon in Ecclesiastes warned his son (well before the printing press) that of making many books there is no end—and so he should beware of anything beyond the sayings of the wise (Eccles. 12:12).

The internet has opened the floodgates even further. Now anyone with a phone and a data plan can publish instant thoughts for public consumption. That’s not an entirely bad thing, of course. But it can easily lead to exhaustion rather than edification.

How, then, do we discern between wise and foolish voices, especially when so many present themselves as wise? Proverbs 9:7–9 has been useful to me:

Whoever corrects a scoffer gets himself abuse,
    and he who reproves a wicked man incurs injury.
Do not reprove a scoffer, or he will hate you;
    reprove a wise man, and he will love you.
Give instruction to a wise man, and he will be still wiser;
    teach a righteous man, and he will increase in learning.

Proverbs is clear throughout: correction is a gift that helps us discern between the scoffer and the wise. The wise person doesn’t just grit his teeth and tolerate correction, like eating vegetables at Thanksgiving so you can justify eating pie. No, Proverbs 9:8 says he will love you for it. Whether or someone understands correction as a gift is a simple tool to identify good teachers.

Receiving Correction

When the “experts” you learn from are critiqued, are they hostile or thankful? When their sermons are criticized as hurtful or confusing, are they interested to learn from what others heard? Are they open to clarifying, or do they double down? When people object to their blog or tweet, is every critique a sign of other people’s hard heads and hearts? Is disagreement proof others are “woke,” or nationalist, or relativist, or devoted to white supremacy? Or are some critiques treated as an opportunity to learn?

A wise person is not required to appreciate every piece of feedback, of course. Some critiques are only good for the fire. But the wise person looks for real, grounded feedback and values it.

Part of wisdom, in fact, requires us to sort through the quality of criticism. A wise person will not implement every correction immediately (or at all). A wise person is willing to change his mind—but only to believe something more true. And that typically takes time to evaluate.

Human wisdom begins in the fear of the Lord, which means a wise person begins with the knowledge of not knowing everything. Only the fool thinks he already knows everything. Only the fool hates critique.

Only the fool thinks he already knows everything. Only the fool hates critique.

Giving Correction

You may not always be able to see how an individual responds to criticism. But how and to whom he offers correction can expose whether he sees correction as a gift.

Does he only critique his “enemies”? Does he ever try to help others communicate well? Or does his dial only have two levels: “amazing” and “terrible”? Is he able to appreciate good in the people he critiques? Can he acknowledge that his intellectual opponents sometimes say true and helpful things?

If his response to the world is to always sort people into good guys with whom we always agree, or bad guys with whom we never can, his hot takes may be entertaining, but he’s not someone you should take seriously (no matter how seriously he takes himself).

Wisdom Filters

Here’s my personal social media rule. If I see someone dismissing all critique as misguided, I unfollow. If I see someone accusing fellow Christians of having ulterior, immoral motives in a disagreement, I mute.

In genuine face-to-face discussion, though, I pay close attention. If someone is unable to see criticism as a gift, my approach to the conversation should probably change. After all, if someone is always offended by critique, he’s not a wise person. But he is someone who needs encouragement.

Instead of analyzing the ideas, I try to shift my focus to simply showing care. How can I affirm and encourage a person in pursuing truth? How can I teach a person to use reasoning to care for others rather than to self-vindicate? How can I promote a love of wisdom, as God in his Word defines it? A person who can’t see criticism as a gift isn’t ready to have a debate with you.

I do this with people whose positions and arguments I reject. Perhaps even more often, I do this with people whose positions and arguments I affirm. Even if I think a person’s words are correct, that doesn’t mean he’s someone I should listen to. He may teach me to be like Job’s friends, saying some true things at the wrong time, in all the wrong ways.

Beware going beyond the words of the wise (Eccles. 12:12). Choose those whose lives show they value wisdom. Choose those who love the people who give them good reproof. Listen to the wise, even if their judgments differ from yours. Listen to those who love to learn, and you too will grow in wisdom.

Comfort in a Fearful World Tue, 25 Jan 2022 05:02:00 +0000 When you feel alone and out of place, remember this: the Holy Spirit is with you, and Jesus has gone to prepare a place for you.]]> A lot of things make me afraid these days. We’re coming out of a long stretch of isolation, confusion, and threat as a nation and world. Nearly every week, I find myself holding my breath when my phone rings and I know the call is coming from my kids’ school. Please don’t let it be another positive COVID case, I silently pray.

We have lived with considerable uncertainty these last few years, but that uncertainty is not new. We’re just more aware of it now. If anything, the pandemic has shown us what has been true all along: life is scary and unpredictable. Some of us knew it more acutely than others before the world shut down. We lived with a deep awareness that our lives could change in an instant. But all of us now know—nothing is promised, everything is unstable.

Then we add political unrest, church disunity, and global crises to our catalog of things to be fearful about. Where do we go with all our fears? I’ve asked this question more than ever in recent months. But I’m not the first follower of Jesus to be afraid—and I probably won’t be the last.

In John 14, Jesus is surrounded by fearful disciples. He has just told them he’s going to leave, and they can’t conceive of how that’s a good thing. He’s preparing to die a horrible and painful death. In these moments of being misunderstood by his friends and staring down the barrel of death, he cares for his fearful friends. And in caring for them, he cares for us in our fears, too.

There are two things that can heighten fear in my mind: feeling like I have no place and feeling alone. Jesus speaks to those fears in John 14.

He Prepares a Place for Us

In John 13, Jesus tells the disciples that he’s going away. He tells them of coming trouble and the temptation they will face to deny him. Against this backdrop of confusion, he says in chapter 14, “Don’t let your heart be troubled. Believe in God; believe also in me. In my Father’s house are many rooms. If it were not so, would I have told you that I am going to prepare a place for you?” (vv. 1–2).

Essentially he tells them: “Don’t be afraid. I’m leaving you because I’m going to get your home ready.” These disciples are about to face an angry mob that will label them outsiders. These disciples are about to launch a movement centered on the resurrected Christ that leads many to faith but also leads many to rage against them. They will know that this world is not their home. But Jesus tells them, “That’s okay because I’m getting a better one ready for you.”

In this polarizing age, Christians are increasingly homeless. We don’t fit in secular culture, and some of us feel that we fit less in our churches and denominations. Regardless of our passion for the gospel, few enjoy being persecuted and marginalized. We have an ingrained desire to be liked and welcomed. It’s frightening when we feel homeless—both inside and outside the church.

We might not have a place here, but this world is passing away.

But Jesus comforts us with these words. We might not have a place here, but this world is passing away.

We do have a place in the world that has no end. He’s gone ahead of us to get it ready. And in his Father’s house, there’s room for all who are in Christ.

He Never Leaves Us

Before leaving his disciples and ascending to the Father, Jesus makes a promise: “I will not leave you as orphans; I am coming to you” (John 14:18). This verse has comforted me on more than one occasion in my struggle with fear. An orphan is one who doesn’t have a Father. An orphan doesn’t have protection or assurance of safety. Jesus is saying, “This is not you. You have a Father. You have a family. You have a home.”

But when Jesus leaves, who comes in his place? The Holy Spirit (John 14:26). Jesus leaves earth to prepare a place for us, but the Holy Spirit comes to make his home inside us (John 14:23). No matter how alone we feel in our fears, Christ’s promise here in John 14 assures us that we are never alone—not even for a moment. We may not have friends and family around us in our hour of greatest need, but we have the God of the universe. With him, we are never alone.

What Now?

The prevailing theme in the Gospel of John is belief. John even tells us at the end of the book that his entire purpose for writing is that we would believe (20:31). But he doesn’t want us to believe in some nebulous idea or specific truth claims. He wants us to believe in a person. He wants us to believe that Jesus is who he says he is—he’s the Christ, the son of the living God. Why is it so important to John that we believe?

But John doesn’t just want us to believe in some nebulous idea or specific truth claims. He wants us to believe in a person.

Because by believing we have life in Jesus’s name (John 20:31).

There are a lot of things to fear in this world. The thought of losing our status, our reputation, our money, our health, our friends, our church, or our family causes our hearts to race. But in Jesus Christ, we have eternal life. And that can never be taken away.

This hope carries us when all we see are frightening things. Jesus is getting our home ready in heaven, and while we wait for that day, he indwells us by his Spirit. There is no gap in his presence in our lives. Do you believe it?

Trust the Science? Ross Douthat Says It’s Complicated Tue, 25 Jan 2022 05:00:00 +0000 For many of us, our eventual death will be preceded by increased frailty and enduring pain. How will we cope?]]> I’ll never forget something a friend and former pastor wrote years ago, as he was dying. Mark had been an active and robustly healthy man in his 50s before the cancer diagnosis. But his decline was swift. One of the things he was coming to realize, he said, was that he had always weathered physical illness with the assurance that he’d recover quickly, that the pain would pass, that he’d be back on his feet after a couple days.

But this time was different. This fast-moving and terminal cancer meant that each day, until the last one, would be more difficult and painful than the one before. He wasn’t ever going to “bounce back,” and the consolation of knowing that he’d soon feel better was not to be afforded him again (at least in this life).

I was in my early 30s when I read those words, and it was a bit like receiving a report from a country I’d never visited—or even thought much about. I rarely contemplated my body, because it had always done exactly what I asked of it. I’d only infrequently considered future weakness or long-term illness or death because my default setting was wellness (or, at least, if I was temporarily sick, speedy restoration of health). Only in the years since have I come to realize that it’s quite likely I’ll one day spend time in the country Mark was describing. Ross Douthat’s new book, The Deep Places: A Memoir of Illness and Discovery, gave me an armchair tour of that country.

Suffering Is Ordinary

There’s an irony at the heart of The Deep Places. On the one hand, it’s a tale of extraordinary suffering and unusual (sometimes bizarre) attempts at healing. In his years-long battle with chronic Lyme disease, Douthat—an opinion columnist at The New York Times—desperately grasps for solutions and increasingly resorts to a world of alternative treatments he would once have disdained (he baits the reader at the end of the preface: “I bent to the desk, gripped the metal tubes, and turned on the machine”).

The “deep places” of the book’s title include the radical treatments, the “things associated with cranks and charlatans,” that lie beneath the “solid floors” of medical consensus, and also deep beneath the unusual efforts of “outside-the-consensus” doctors. Douthat encounters (and sometimes employs) attempted remedies that are stranger and weirder. Quite frankly, part of the fascination of this book is watching a superbly educated and highly accomplished member of the intelligentsia descend to places he would never have guessed he’d go.

And yet what makes The Deep Places important is Douthat’s discovery that the suffering he faces is not actually so unusual after all. “There was extraordinary suffering everywhere, people dealing with pain of every variety, with conditions diagnosable and not, that had been largely invisible to me until I came into the country, cleared the filter, and experienced that misery myself” (91).

Neither Douthat’s education, nor his overlapping worlds of journalism and social media (in which healthy and happy online selves are “performed”) had prepared him to understand the depth or pervasiveness of the suffering he encountered among others. Rather, obtaining that understanding required a personal experience of the type of pain “that made your body feel like a cage around your consciousness” (90). In the course of his six-year battle with Lyme, Douthat gradually found a large community of people suffering from chronic illness and pain. More than that, he came to see that significant physical suffering is increasingly normal with age. “For the young, intense physical suffering was a lightning strike; for older people it gradually became the weather” (91). So, Douthat’s chronic pain wasn’t actually unusual—it was just premature. “I was . . . living under a storm front that had rolled in a little early” (91).

Douthat’s chronic pain wasn’t actually unusual—it was just premature.

All of this means that, as wacky and weird as are some of the methods Douthat employed and the people he encountered, his memoir is applicable not just to a few people, but to many. It describes a country to which almost all of us will one day come, because, for many of us, our eventual death will be preceded by increased frailty and enduring pain.

Mixed Results

This book is sobering. It ends not with the feel-good news of a full healing, with Lyme in the rearview mirror, but with a mixed report, with the muted but hopeful news that Douthat’s daily physical suffering isn’t as horribly bad as it once was (185). This may be as good as it gets for many sufferers of chronic pain. The subtitle of the book is, after all, not “A Memoir of Illness and Recovery,” as we may have expected. Rather, it’s a book about Douthat’s process of discovery. It’s about living in the liminal world between questioning the consensus and descending into paranoia. It’s about understanding the history and nature of Lyme disease. It’s about discerning the relationship between bureaucracy, science, and the medical establishment. Douthat includes (among other things) a fascinating discussion of the unintended consequences of “diagnostic standardization” (39), a description of how bureaucracy shapes science and the circularity of the medical establishment’s approach (40), and an explanation for why a typical Lyme-skeptic doctor may remain skeptical (71–72).

Douthat himself attempts to chart something of a middle course in his understanding of, and battle against, Lyme. His experience of “illness and bafflement” (69) certainly causes him to question the medical establishment, to recognize its limitations and mistakes, to leave behind the CDC consensus about Lyme by taking long-term antibiotics, and to be open to even more “out-there” treatments and self-doctoring. But it doesn’t diminish his desire to be “intensely empirical and materially grounded” (114), nor does it entirely eliminate his skepticism about some of the more radical treatments (e.g., Reiki healing, bee venom, photon therapy) and conspiracy theories (e.g., Lyme as a bioweapon).

Moreover, as Douthat himself notes, his experimentation with alternative and innovative treatments never caused him to stop taking antibiotics as his main course of treatment (120). That said, Douthat did try vitamin C, capsuled salt, magnetic treatment, and a Rife machine, among other unusual remedies. And he writes this memoir with a clear purpose: to convince readers (including skeptical doctors and experts) that the problem of chronic Lyme is real and that Lyme specialists outside the medical consensus nonetheless “represent a reasonable and empirical response to an extremely knotty problem” (138). Whether his way represents a reasonable middle course or a maverick approach may depend on the eye of the beholder.

Lyme Disease in a COVID World

The book certainly takes on a particularly fascinating resonance in our current COVID world. While the scientific and medical establishments largely deny chronic Lyme disease, they take COVID very seriously. While many dissenters from the consensus deny the seriousness of COVID, it’s the dissenters who tend to take chronic Lyme very seriously (176–77).

Douthat himself had COVID, and overall abatement of his symptoms took about five months. His experience with Lyme primed him to distrust the medical establishment and public health agencies (such as the CDC and FDA) and to be more sympathetic to online, non-expert internet speculation about COVID. While recognizing that some politicians spew a constant stream of COVID-skeptical nonsense, he also wants to recognize that the slogan “trust the science” keeps “running aground on the reality that official science is filtered through fallible institutions, politicized processes, and bureaucratic incentives” (179).

Yet he certainly takes the virus itself much more seriously than do the skeptics (he was an early adopter of strict safety protocols). Perhaps it’s unreasonable to wish that, in a memoir, Douthat had laid out some principles for when, and how, and how much, to question the consensus view of experts (and when doing so becomes harmful and counterproductive). But I do wish it.

Our Own Deep Places

It’s clear that the “discovery” in the book’s subtitle concerns significant medical and public policy issues. But it certainly encompasses much more. For instance, Douthat gives extended and sometimes uncomfortably close attention to his relationship with his own body, something the Lyme clearly compels him to do. The first paragraphs of the book describe a heavy ache in his shoulder, the “pan-fry sizzle” on his hips, the “intolerable vibration” inside his ankles. We catch a glimpse of his “haggard, puffy face” and the transformation of his ample belly, so that, after losing 40 pounds, he looked “skeletal and permeable.”

Not only does Lyme cause him to attend more closely to his body, it also creates an altogether different relationship with his body. Before Lyme, he tells us, his body had almost always done what he had asked of it, without complaint. But with Lyme, it had betrayed him (16). So, this is a book about physical embodiment, and that story is told with unflinching candor.

This is a book about physical embodiment, and that story is told with unflinching candor.

But even more fundamentally, it’s about the discovery of the deep places within. It’s a reflection on how suffering changes us. Before experiencing chronic pain, Douthat thought of himself as “the guy who did things.” He felt that “my ambitions and God’s purposes could stroll along together nicely, that bad things might sometimes happen to good meritocrats, but surely not to me” (10–11). His faith was a “pretty abstract and intellectualized thing” (95). Lyme changed at least some of that. It created moments of radical self-doubt and showed Douthat his own need to believe in God (97).

At a couple of points, Douthat borrows C. S. Lewis’s memorable image of the unpleasant boy Eustace Clarence Scrubb, who—in order to escape the many layers of dragon scales in which he’s been encased—must allow Aslan, the Christ figure, to cut down deep and tear them off. I think the “deep places” that are most important for Douthat are the inner places within himself. As with the verdict on his physical state at the end of the book, the concluding assessment of his inner person, his own “deep places,” is mixed. Douthat thinks that he’s perhaps now a bit wiser, more patient, more open-minded. He admits that he still carries “many of the same habits and vices and temptations as the me I knew before” (196). But even that way of saying it—with a pre-Lyme “me” and a chronic-Lyme “me”—suggests some significant changes. Suffering has altered him.

This memoir is an honest and insightful reflection on suffering, told in evocative and memorable prose. I’ve already recommended it to a friend struggling with chronic pain. But it certainly has much broader resonance and appeal. As an exploration of embodied life, and of the losses and gains of physical suffering, and of the strengths and limitations of the scientific and medical establishments, it speaks to all of us. And because it’s a description of a place to which many of us will come in our old age, we’ll all do well to learn from its hard-won wisdom.

Remember Your Joy at TGCW22 Mon, 24 Jan 2022 05:03:00 +0000 The links and information you’ll need to register for TGCW22. Let’s gather to reflect on Old Testament salvation stories and to remember our joy in Christ.]]> My husband keeps a list of funny things each of our three boys said during their toddler years when they were learning to talk. One of them called watermelon “red button” no matter how many times we tried to have him repeat the correct word. Another one referred to his younger brother as “a fweet little boy.” In the moments they uttered these delightful phrases, I thought I’d never forget. Surely those memories were seared into my brain.

But occasionally the boys will ask their dad to read the lists, and he’ll select several entries for each son. While the boys react with a roar of laughter, I often react with surprise. Because there are always one or two that I don’t remember. At least not at first.

I wonder how I could’ve forgotten. And then I remember that for every joyful moment with a chubby-cheeked toddler asking me if he could wear his “conjamas” all day, there were many wearying moments of crying, discipline, and messes. Surrounded by so much chaos, sometimes savoring the joy took a backseat to surviving and advancing.

But when I don’t remember one of the funny phrases, someone else in our family always does. As my husband tells a story to provide context or one of the kids does an impersonation, memories start to surface. And as I remember the story, I also remember the joy.

TGCW22’s Joyful Theme

In a similar way, the chaos and challenges of life in a fallen world sometimes weigh us down. The tyranny of the urgent overshadows the hope of the eternal, and our joy fades into complacency, or even sorrow. We need to sit together with our family and remember stories of God’s redemption so that we can remember the joy of our salvation.

At TGCW22, we’ll gather to consider how seven Old Testament stories point to our greater salvation in Christ—and lead us to greater joy.

At TGCW22—a conference for women, about God—we’ll do just that. We’ll gather with sisters from around the world to consider how seven Old Testament stories point to our greater salvation in Christ—and lead us to greater joy. We hope you’ll join us.

We know you have a lot of things to remember, so you can find below all the links you need to get registered. And if you don’t want to wait until the conference to start remembering your joy, you can get ready for the conference now using the Bible study Remember Your Joy: A Bible Study of Salvation Stories in the Old Testament. You’ll also find below links to articles written by some of our speakers related to the topics they’ll engage at the conference. Go ahead—get registered, get ready, and get reading!

Get Registered

Get Ready

  • Find out more about the Remember Your Joy Bible study
  • Order a copy of Remember Your Joy: A Bible Study of Salvation Stories in the Old Testament

Get Reading

Do We Need to Confess All Workplace Mistakes? Mon, 24 Jan 2022 05:02:00 +0000 There are nuances here that matter. ]]> If something goes wrong in the workplace, and no one is asked to own the problem, should I speak up and claim fault or should I just fix the problem and move on? What if someone else made the mistake—am I obligated to “rat them out”?

This is a complex question. As women and men of faith and integrity, we should try to avoid ungodly entanglements and seek to serve with humility (Mark 10:45).

There are nuances here that matter. Is the problem minor (a spreadsheet correction or a memo typo) or major (exaggerated promises to a client or failure to complete an important task)?

Minor Problems

Minor problems fall under the biblical category of human finitude and opinion (Romans 14 concerns matters of conscience) and should not be a cause of contention (Prov. 19:11).

If you made the mistake, simply fix it. There is no need to announce it. If you didn’t, bring the small issues to the person responsible and see how she responds. If she is indifferent, fix the problem and move on. If a pattern develops, then we move into the second category.

Major Problems

If the team’s work for the client’s good is in view, or if employees’ or clients’ safety is at stake, we are in more serious territory. If you made the error, it is almost always in your best interest to own up to it (Prov. 28:13). Not only will it ease your conscience, but you will be able to ask for direction on how to do it differently next time.

If you made the error, it is almost always in your best interest to own up to it.

If someone else messed up, go to the person and offer to help fix it. If he refuses, follow the wisdom of Matt. 18:15–17—yes, this is about life with brothers and sisters in Christ, but the principles here work in all settings. Bring another team member with you and try to solve it quietly. If your colleague is obstinate, let him know you must bring the issue to those in authority—for the good of the team and ultimately of the clients you serve. Document everything—the issue(s) involved, the dates and times of the conversations, and your specific offers to help.

In every team, there are more and less productive individuals. These moments are times for helping everyone learn and become better at their jobs. I recommend working with your human resources department and your bosses to help all team members grow personally and professionally.

Sometimes errors are a moral issue. Sometimes they need to be addressed with training, to give employees the skills they need. Other times, team members need a different job assignment. One company I researched a few years ago discovered that poor performance was often tied to an ill-fitting assignment. The company responded by creating a culture of mobility so everyone had opportunities to shine.

All Things Work for Good

In the midst of following this process carefully, be alert to the work of the devil (James 4; 1 Pet. 5). While we can’t blame every workplace problem on demons, it is an equal danger to ignore that our adversary is stirring up rebellion against God’s reign when possible.

Do not allow bitterness or anger to remain in your heart and mind (Eph. 4:29–32). Bless the people you may have to critique, desiring their best and doing all you can for their good (Matt. 5).

Bless the people you may have to critique, desiring their best and doing all you can for their good.

Recognize the strongholds (2 Cor. 10:1–6) that enslave your colleagues, and actively proclaim the supremacy of Jesus Christ (Col. 1:15–20). One stronghold that seeks dominance is what I call “The Two Sets of Rules” deception. This is the notion that there is one set of ethics for Christian churches and ministries and another for “the real world of business.” Oppose this thinking with all the energy the Lord gives you.

You are not “ratting out” anyone if you follow biblical wisdom, honor your company’s policies and processes, and pray fervently for the offender to move in a new direction (even if that offender is you). Your caring, wise actions may be just the tipping point ordained by God in drawing this person to Christ.

In all things God is actively working his will. Sometimes he even uses difficulty to move people to repentance (Heb. 12:7–13). May the Lord use your kindness and wisdom to change your workplace for the better and to be a witness of grace.

You Don’t Need to Discover God’s Will Mon, 24 Jan 2022 05:00:00 +0000 We can’t know the future, but it’s helpful to consider all that we do know about God’s revealed will in his Word.]]> Once a year, my family and I put on our baseball hats, hop on the trolley, and head to downtown San Diego to attend a Padres game. At some point during the event, the three-cup game appears on the screen, bidding fans to figure out which of three constantly moving cups hides a ball. No matter how hard I try, I can’t win the game. The frantic movement of the cups leaves me dizzy and confused.

When we think about decision-making and God’s will, we sometimes feel as if God is playing the three-cup game with us. We imagine that his will is there in front of us, if only we could pick up the right cup to reveal it. Such thinking betrays that we would be served by a careful study of the term “God’s will” in Scripture.

Before we make decisions, it’s helpful to understand that we can divide God’s will into two categories: his revealed will and his hidden will. God’s revealed will for us is found in his Word, while God’s hidden will, as implied in the name, is hidden and cannot be known until we’re able to look back on it.

What We Know

From our limited vantage point as time-bound, finite creatures, we can’t know the future. The length of days we each have on this earth and what will happen tomorrow are part of God’s hidden will. While this may initially sound defeating, it’s helpful to consider all that we do know about God’s revealed will in his Word.

We can’t know the future, but it’s helpful to consider all that we do know about God’s revealed will in his Word.

We don’t know where we will live in five years, but we do know how we are to live.

We don’t know if we will marry or who we will marry, but we do know God wills that we avoid sexual immorality and marry someone with a similar love for Christ (Eph. 5:3; 2 Cor. 6:14–15).

We don’t know if our entrepreneurial venture will be successful, but we know God’s will is for us to conduct our business uprightly and trust him in plenty or in want (Prov. 16:11; Phil. 4:11–13).

We don’t know which neighborhood or country we will live in, but we do know God wills that we love and serve our neighbors (Mark 12:28–31).

What We Want to Know

In Deuteronomy 29:29, Moses reminds the often-wandering hearts of his wandering people, “The secret things belong to the Lord our God, but the things that are revealed belong to us and to our children forever, that we may do all the words of this law.”

Here, Moses makes a similar distinction between the secret things and the revealed words of God. How similar we are to the wandering Israelites, constantly wanting to peer into the secret things! We want to know the origin of evil, to see the full blueprint of our lives laid out before us, and to understand things God never intended for us to understand here on earth.

However, God has lovingly determined what’s necessary for us to live our lives according to his purpose and his plan. Being a good Father, he’s given us all that we need to know him and make him known during our pilgrimage on earth.

We waste precious time when we seek to find out the hidden things in the decision-making process. God would have us walk by faith in his revealed will and entrust to him the hidden things. After all, they’re much safer in his sovereign hands.

When we begin to wrestle and doubt, it’s helpful to remember that we can know God’s intentions and will for us most clearly through the incarnation of his Son. To that end, Paul rhetorically asks, “He who did not spare his own Son, but gave him up for us all, how will he not also with him graciously give us all things?” (Rom. 8:32).

What God Cares About

Rather than seeking to curiously peer into God’s hidden will, we’re invited to chase after his righteousness (Matt. 6:33). As we walk in alignment with God’s revealed will, we can trust his hidden will to unfold as God has planned since before there was time. In his book The Will of God as a Way of Life, Jerry Sittser expresses the comfort we find in knowing and seeking to obey God’s revealed will:

If we seek first God’s kingdom and righteousness, which is the will of God for our lives, then whatever choices we make concerning the future become the will of God for our lives. There are many pathways we could follow, many options we could pursue. As long as we are seeking God, all of them can be God’s will for our lives, although only one—the path we choose—actually becomes his will.

We tend to spend so much time agonizing over all the potential paths we could take that we often overlook what God cares most about. He cares less which path we choose and far more how and why we choose it.

Whether you become a teacher or a doctor, he cares more about the kind of doctor or teacher you’re becoming. He cares far more about what’s going on within the walls of your house than about the colors of your walls or the specifics of your address. He cares more about the way you love your neighbors than the neighborhood you live in.

We spend so much time agonizing over all the paths we could take that we overlook what God cares most about.

While God is large enough to invite our wonder, our curiosity, and our questions, he has fully provided the truths we need to honor him with our decisions. He welcomes our musing and mulling over the things we don’t understand, but he commands us to live in view of what he’s clearly revealed in his Word.

The Countries Where It’s Most Dangerous to Be a Christian in 2022 Sun, 23 Jan 2022 05:03:45 +0000 The 2022 World Watch List reveals that persecution is extremely high in Afghanistan, which for the first time has supplanted North Korea as the most dangerous country to be a Christian. ]]> Over the past year, 360 million Christians lived in places where they experienced high levels of persecution and discrimination. Of that number, 6,175 believers were detained without trial, arrested, sentenced or imprisoned, 3,829 were abducted, and 5,898 were killed for their faith.

For the past 30 years, the Open Doors World Watch List has tracked such persecution, offered a global indicator of countries where human and religious rights are being violated, and highlighted those countries most vulnerable to societal unrest and destabilization.

“The World Watch List is always sobering to read, just because the problem is so big,” says David Curry, president and CEO of Open Doors USA. “But it’s not new; Satan has targeted God’s people since the beginning. It’s just gotten worse, and more sophisticated.”

Persecution is extremely high in Afghanistan, which for the first time has supplanted North Korea as the most dangerous country to be a Christian. 

The 2022 World Watch List reveals that persecution is extremely high in Afghanistan, which for the first time has supplanted North Korea as the most dangerous country to be a Christian. 

Here’s what you should know about the 10 countries with the highest levels of persecution and how you can pray for the believers in those nations. (All quotes are from the 2022 World Watch List.)

1. Afghanistan

Persecution type: Islamic theocracy imposed by the Taliban

Estimated number of Christians: Possibly thousands

How Christians are suffering: “The Taliban will make sure that Islamic rules and customs are implemented and kept. Christian converts don’t have any option but to obey them. If a Christian’s new faith is discovered, their family, clan or tribe has to save its honor by disowning the believer, or even killing them. This is widely considered to be justice. Alternatively, since leaving Islam is considered a sign of insanity, a Christian who has converted from Islam may be forcibly sent to a psychiatric hospital.”

Prayer point: “Pray for secret believers in Afghanistan, that they will be protected from the violence of the Taliban.”

2. North Korea

Persecution type: Communist and post-Communist oppression

Estimated number of Christians: 400,000

How Christians are suffering: “Any North Korean caught following Jesus is at immediate risk of imprisonment, brutal torture and death.”

Prayer point: “ Pray for the North Korean people as they deal with famine conditions and the COVID-19 pandemic.”

3. Somalia

Persecution type: Clan oppression

Estimated number of Christians: A few hundred

How Christians are suffering: “The small number of believers in Somalia are largely Christians who have converted from Islam. Christians are viewed as high-value targets by Islamic radical groups. Even when Christian converts are not targeted by extremists, they are intensely pressured by their family and community.”

Prayer point: “Pray for Christians who are targeted by Islamic extremists. Ask God to protect them and grant them hope.”

4. Libya

Persecution type: Islamic oppression

Estimated number of Christians: 34,600

How Christians are suffering: “When a person in Libya leaves Islam to follow Christ, they face immense pressure from their families to renounce their faith. Their neighbors and the rest of the community ostracize them, and they can be left homeless, jobless, and alone.”

Prayer point: “Libya’s government has been unstable for a decade. Pray for some stability and rule of law in the country.”

5. Yemen

Persecution type: Clan oppression

Estimated number of Christians: A few thousand

How Christians are suffering: “The persecution against Christians in Yemen has been extreme for years, leading to a jump of two spots on the 2022 World Watch List. Pressure on converts from Islam is at the highest levels in every part of life.”

Prayer point: “The civil war has lasted for nearly a decade. Pray for peace, pray for stability and pray for an openness to religious freedom.”

6. Eritrea

Persecution type: Christian denominational protectionism

Estimated number of Christians: 2,611,000

How Christians are suffering: “Despite almost half the population identifying as Christian, believers in Eritrea continue to suffer extreme persecution, making it one of the hardest places in the world to follow Jesus. Christians not part of recognized denominations are at risk of severe persecution. Gatherings are raided and believers arrested. The conditions facing Christians in prison can be inhumane.”

Prayer point: “Ask God to protect Christians who convert from Islam, or who join a church outside of the Orthodox tradition.”

7. Nigeria

Persecution type: Islamic oppression

Estimated number of Christians: 98,006,000

How Christians are suffering: “Persecution in Nigeria is, simply put, brutally violent. In much of northern Nigeria, Christians live their lives under the constant threat of attack from Boko Haram, the Islamic State West Africa Province (ISWAP), Fulani militants and criminals who kidnap and murder with few consequences. The violence is so bad it has begun to travel south, as well.”

Prayer point: “Pray for the many militant groups who attack Christians in Nigeria. Ask God to change their hearts as only He can.”

8. Pakistan

Persecution type: Islamic oppression

Estimated number of Christians: 4,080,000

How Christians are suffering: “In Pakistan, Christians are considered second-class citizens and are discriminated against in every aspect of life. Church leaders can be arrested if they don’t abide by the authorities’ wishes.”

Prayer point: “Pray for the women and girls who are kidnapped, forced to convert to Islam and marry Muslim men.”

9. Iran

Persecution type: Islamic oppression

Estimated number of Christians: 800,000

How Christians are suffering: “The severity of persecution facing Christians in Iran remains largely unchanged. Converts from Islam are most at risk of persecution, especially by the government, and to a lesser extent, by society and their own families.”

Prayer point: “Pray for the religious leaders of Iran, that they would have their hearts changed to recognize Jesus as Lord.”

10. India

Persecution type: Religious nationalism

Estimated number of Christians: 68,863,000

How Christians are suffering: “The persecution of Christians in India has intensified, as Hindu extremists aim to cleanse the country of their presence and influence. The extremists disregard Indian Christians and other religious minorities as true Indians, and think the country should be purified of non-Hindus. This has led to a systemic—and often violent—targeting of Christians and other religious minorities, including use of social media to spread disinformation and stir up hatred.”

Prayer point: “Pray for the healing of the many victims of religious violence in India. Ask that God would heal both hearts and bodies.”

You can compare this year’s list with data from previous years: 2021, 2020, 2019, and 2018.

How to Survive the First 5 Years of Church Planting Sat, 22 Jan 2022 05:00:00 +0000 Pastors, the rhythms and habits we establish in the first five years will make or break us for decades to come.]]> Five years ago today, Cross Community Church was born. Almost anyone who has been involved in church planting knows the significance of that five-year mark. In an age of short pastoral tenures and ministry burnout, I don’t take a single day for granted.

We’re a generation in desperate need of healthy churches led by healthy shepherds, and the habits we establish in the first five years of ministry can make or break us for decades to come. In light of this great need, I want to offer 10 keys for surviving, by God’s grace, the first five years of church planting.

1. Vibrant Devotional Life

More than dynamic, engaging exegesis, the very best gift you can give your church is a heart fully alive and satisfied in Jesus Christ, burning with passion for the glory of his name.

The habits we establish in the first five years can make or break us for decades to come.

Pastor, seek the Lord daily. Seek him in his Word. Seek him in prayer. Seek him in fasting, silence, and solitude. As George Muller once remarked of his own devotional life, make it your “first great and primary business” every day to have a soul that is “happy in the Lord.”

2. Healthy Home

In year one, I heard Ray Ortlund say: “A minister’s marriage is as important as his preaching of the gospel, because the minister’s marriage is a preaching of the gospel.”

Marriage is the gospel in motion. When we fail to attend to our first ministry (the family), we disqualify ourselves from our second ministry (the church). Pastors, make it a goal for your family to love Christ’s church because you’re a pastor. It requires great intentionality, but give your best time and energy to your home.

3. Faithful Friends

Jesus had friends. Paul had friends. Charles Spurgeon had friends. But sadly, too many pastors have too few friends—or none at all.

Pastor, you need friends who encourage you, challenge you, and hold you accountable. You need friends who are thoroughly unimpressed with you, and with whom you can spend three hours without talking about “ministry.” Church planting can be a lonely, discouraging journey—you won’t survive long without friends.

4. Regular Rest

Without question, church planting requires a willingness to work hard. But we must realize that a need for rest doesn’t make us lazy, it makes us human.

Pastor, guard your day off. Turn off your phone, take a nap, eat good food, watch a movie, read a good book, or indulge in a hobby. And most of all, make sure you feel zero guilt. In Christ, we labor from our rest, not for our rest. Remember the principle of sabbath, and keep it very holy.

5. Discipline and Boundaries

Develop a sustainable rule of life and follow it. The early days of a new church can be unpredictable and chaotic, and if you don’t take control of your schedule, then everyone else will. Sit down with your spouse and key leaders, on a consistent basis, to discuss your schedule and obligations. Know your limits and be willing to say “no.” Honor the commitments you make, and don’t take on more than you can sustain.

6. Leadership Development

“Lone ranger” ministry isn’t just unhealthy, it’s unbiblical. Sadly, many church planters unwittingly make themselves the central focus of the church and a barrier to congregational health by failing to appoint other elders and leaders.

Pastor, you simply cannot thrive in ministry by carrying the burden alone. Raise up leaders, recognize them, and celebrate them. Be willing to delegate significant responsibility, and invite others to share the burden of major decisions.

7. Guarded Study Time

The relentless demands of church planting make protected study time a challenge. Almost no one will demand that you protect this time, so you will have to preserve it.

Build study time into your calendar and resolve to keep it uninterrupted. Communicate that time slot to other leaders, to your congregation, and to your family. An effective ministry of the Word requires adequate time to prepare.

8. Intentional Simplicity

Desiring to make an immediate difference, new church plants tend to be magnets for busyness—and it’s one of the biggest threats to the health of a young church. If you’re not careful, you’ll quickly become overextended across a landscape of half-baked ministry initiatives. Before planting, work with your team to develop a clear framework for determining which types of ministry initiatives will, and will not, make the cut during the first five years—and stick to it.

9. Healthy Membership Process

One of the best ways to set a trajectory for church health is by developing a strong membership process. Ideally, this class or series of meetings will be an environment in which you explain the church’s beliefs, governance, mission, vision, values, and strategy, and you teach the biblical foundations for membership. Conduct interviews in which prospective members can articulate their understanding of the gospel and their personal testimony. When appropriate, recommend other faithful churches, and joyfully send the Lord’s people to advance his kingdom elsewhere.

10. Perseverance and Endurance

At times, church planting can feel impossible and paralyzing. The relentless attacks of the Enemy are distracting and discouraging. People will “ghost” you and leave. Some will slander you, your family, your motives, and the church you’re doing your best to lead. You’ll grow tired and weary. You may lose some close friends. There will be days when you’ll fail and be tempted to give up. Pastor, don’t. He who called you is faithful, and he will see you through.

As my dad once wrote to me in a letter, “When you stand alone, you never stand alone, for God stands with you.” You’re not alone, so stay the course. For me, it’s five years down and, Lord willing, 35 to go. By God’s grace and in the strength of his Spirit, let’s minister long.

4 Ways to Navigate Minefield Conversations Fri, 21 Jan 2022 05:03:00 +0000 Here’s how you can navigate difficult conversations with God’s help and for his glory.]]> During World War II, Adolf Hitler’s armies planted more than 1 million “Bouncing Betty” mines across Europe. They killed thousands of allied sol­diers because they were small and difficult to detect.

Difficult conversations often feel like trying to get through that mine-laced countryside without killing oneself: the meeting with the boss with a hair-triggered temper, that talk with our teenager about a sketchy friend, that confron­tation a pastor has with a church member because the church is disciplin­ing her teenage son, that theological conversation at Christmas with your uncle who is a Jehovah’s Witness, that impromptu talk about politics with a coworker who is far on the other side from you on social issues.

These conversations also include the times you have to give a rebuke to a fellow believer. How do we deal with those minefield conversations? How can we give a necessary rebuke in a Christlike manner? How can you be firm but loving? I give 10 things to consider in my book Taming the Tongue: How the Gospel Transforms Our Talk. Here are four of those pointers.

1. Prepare Yourself Spiritually.

Pray and meditate on pertinent Scripture verses before you enter the conversation. Typically, when engaging in these conversations, I’ll pray for God to make my heart right so I’ll have the right tone and avoid getting angry. My heart needs to be overwhelmed by God’s grace, reminded what’s at stake, and shown again how patient God has been with me.

How can we give a necessary rebuke in a Christlike manner? How can you be firm but loving?

Recently, I had to sit down with a friend who had joined my church, but had become disgruntled with the leadership of our elders. I knew he was going to leave the church, and that he could also have a ferocious temper if you didn’t handle him gen­tly. As I drove to our meeting place, I meditated on Proverbs 15:1a (“A gentle word turns away wrath”) and Matthew 12:36 (“I tell you, on judgment day people will give account for every careless word they speak”), and I prayed that God would give me the grace to obey the commands tacit in these vers­es, that I would remember this is my brother in Christ and not an enemy.

In that conversation, there were a few tense moments be­cause we both spoke frankly, but it went well overall and ended with both of us encouraging each other and agreeing that our friendship did not depend on me being his pastor or his attending our church. I agreed with some of his critiques and found them helpful, while disagreeing with others. In the end, I thought it would be best if his family found another church home, and I offered my assistance. His family found a solid church in our city and, by God’s grace, we remain friends today. I don’t think it would have gone nearly so well had I not sought to prepare my heart and resolve, by God’s grace, not to use harsh words or become angry.

2. Begin with the Most Charitable Judgment Possible.

Do your best to set a positive tone. Nothing circumvents communication like a conversation that begins with heat, continues with heat, and eventu­ally (often quickly) grows into an anger-filled wildfire. If you begin with calm words that arise out of charitable judgment, this will help to relax both you and your conversation partner.

For example, let’s say you’re confronting a fellow church member about the sin of gossip. You wouldn’t want to start with “Why in the world have you been saying such awful, ridiculous, slanderous things about me?” Even if you are pretty certain they’re guilty and the things they said about you were awful, ridiculous, and slanderous, it’ll be better to start the conversa­tion with something like “I’d like to talk with you about something you supposedly said about me that has been communicated back to me. Now, I want you to know that I’m by no means assuming you said it or meant ill by it, but I wanted to speak with you about it directly to be certain. It may have been misheard or misunderstood.” Consistent with Christ’s Golden Rule, you want others to assume your innocence, so do the same to them.

3. As Much as Possible, Check Your Emotions at the Door.

Unbridled emotions are probably the most common match that lights the fuse that dynamites our conversations. God has made us emotional people, so emotion is not a bad thing—not always—but raw, unchecked emotion in a difficult conversation is often the road to nowhere.

Raw, unchecked emotion in a difficult conversation is often the road to nowhere.

You want to respond in a manner that’s controlled. You want to avoid responding with bare emotion. In a conversation that has potential for heat­ed conflict, it’s important to pray for genuine humility and ask the other person questions like this: “Before we talk about how I think you’ve wronged me, I want to hear you out. Please be specific and tell me how I may have unintentionally hurt you.” This will elicit far better results and may lead to a God-honoring dialogue in a way that out-of-control emotions never could. This type of response could be the starting point for needed reconciliation.

4. Soften Your Language.

Avoid harsh, judgmental language or attitudes. Intentionally use gracious, non-combative words. Remember Proverbs 12:18: “rash words are like sword thrusts, but the tongue of the wise brings healing.”

Recently, I had two conversations with my teenage son. One modeled what I’m aiming for here; the other was not one of my better parenting moments. In the first, we were talking about how and when he could use our car. I told him, “Please ask us when you want to use it, and unless there’s a good reason why you can’t, I’ll probably say yes. I know you’re a careful driver, and I trust you, but just make sure you ask and tell us where you’re going and roughly how long you’ll be gone. Then we’ll be able to make a good decision.” Our conversation was pleasant, and he was amenable to my words.

The second conversation, not so much. One of his younger siblings told me that he’d been breaking the speed limit considerably during a recent drive to a fast-food place. I didn’t hesitate to hurl accusations and invectives at him. I told him that he’d been driving like a fool and how dangerous that was. I told him that I was tempted to suspend his driving privileges alto­gether. He was not happy with me, and I wasn’t happy with him. He tried to tell me that his younger brother had misread the speedometer, but I kept cutting him off. When he tried to ask me questions, I was defensive that he would even presume to question me, and I told him so.

Needless to say, thanks to my accusatory tone and assumptions of guilt, our relationship suffered from that conversation. I totally blew it and sought his forgiveness. The first conversation was much bet­ter because we spoke with humility and kindness that de-escalated the fight.

Bottom Line

In navigating minefield conversations, we want neither to underreact nor overreact. To underreact may mean we are flirting with compromise, flee­ing a necessary but difficult confrontation, or we’re not treating the issues being discussed with the seriousness they deserve. To overreact may lead to relational fractures, an outbreak of sinful anger, or worse. One is a sin of omission, the other is a sin of commission. One response is too passive, the other too aggressive. Both are sinful and lead us into further sin.

As followers of Christ, called to do all things to the glory of God (1 Cor. 10:31), we must guard against both extremes. We must ask the Lord to give us a healthy, biblical balance in the way we talk to others, and seek his help to deal with difficult conversations in a Christlike manner, full of both grace and truth.

What’s the Will of God? Fri, 21 Jan 2022 05:02:00 +0000 Decision-making from a biblical view is not problem, it is a privilege.]]> Aimee Joseph led a session during TGCW21 titled “What’s Next? Discerning God’s Will.” This is also the topic of her book, Demystifying Decision-Making: A Practical Guide (TGC/Crossway, 2022).

In a sense, she says, life is a huge series of compounding choices. At any given time, we are all in one of three places: on the verge of making a choice, in the midst of a choice, or having just made a choice. Right choices, from the simple and nearly meaningless to the complex and deeply significant, are all around us.

Aimee addresses decision-making from a biblical view using a five-part structure:
—The problem of decisions
—A paradigm for decisions
—The process preparation for decisions
—A posture for decisions
—Praise Him who made us in his image as decision makers

To End the Killing of Babies, We Need a Loving Revolution Fri, 21 Jan 2022 05:00:00 +0000 We don’t just need one law reversed; we need a loving revolution.]]> One of the brute facts by which we can judge how the ancient world valued women is the common practice of abandoning baby girls. The practice of leaving newborn girls to die led to a gender imbalance in the Greco-Roman empire. We gain a sobering insight into this from a letter by a Roman soldier to his wife in 1 BC. The otherwise affectionate letter includes this instruction: “Above all, if you bear a child and it is male, let it be; if it is female, cast it out.”

Babies with disabilities were also discarded. In fact, the Greek philosopher Aristotle had pitched for eugenics legislation: “Let there be a law that no deformed child shall live.”

The idea of abandoning baby girls is alien to us. But even today, we see this practice continuing in the two largest countries that haven’t yet been significantly shaped by Christianity.

The Chinese church is growing so fast that it could reshape Chinese culture in the next generation. But selective abortion and infanticide in past generations have led to a gender gap of 35 million. Likewise in India, where Hinduism is the dominant religion, the gender gap from selective abortion and infanticide is 25 million.

So what has changed our ideas about the abandonment of newborns in general and of newborn girls in particular? Jesus. Jesus’s valuing of babies is as striking as his valuing of women.

Jesus Values Women and Children

Right after Jesus preached against divorce (a practice that left women and children abandoned), people tried to bring their little children to him for his blessing (Matt. 19:3–15; Mark 10:2–16). Luke says they were bringing “even infants” (Luke 18:15). Jesus’s disciples turned them away. But Jesus rebuked them:

Let the children come to me; do not hinder them, for to such belongs the kingdom of God. Truly, I say to you, whoever does not receive the kingdom of God like a child shall not enter it. (Mark 10:14–15)

Then Jesus took the children and babies in his arms and blessed them.

Jesus’s valuing of babies is as striking as his valuing of women.

We don’t feel the shock of his words and actions. But his first hearers did. Paul Offit, a non-Christian professor of pediatrics at University of Pennsylvania, calls Christianity “the single greatest breakthrough against child abuse” in history. He explains:

At the time of Jesus’ life . . . child abuse, as noted by one historian, was “the crying vice of the Roman Empire.” Infanticide was common. Abandonment was common . . . children were property, no different than slaves. But Jesus stood up for children, cared about them, when those around him typically didn’t.

Taking their cues from Jesus, the early Christians collected the babies abandoned by others. And when (to everyone’s surprise) the Roman emperor Constantine became a Christian, legal protections for women and children started to come into place.

Tackling Poverty

In the early fourth century, Constantine passed laws protecting women from unwarranted divorce and offering provision for children born into poverty: “If any parent should report that he has offspring which on account of poverty he is not able to rear, there shall be no delay in issuing food and clothing” (Theodosian Code, II.27.1–2).

Historian John Dickson notes that Constantine used churches “as the welfare distribution centres for this program.” Killing an infant became a form of homicide in AD 374, under a subsequent Christian emperor.

In our culture, pro-lifers are often accused of not caring about vulnerable mothers and children after birth. But the first Christ-motivated pro-life legislation in the world followed laws protecting women from abandonment and providing for poor families. Consistent Christian ethics must do all these things.

It’s no coincidence that in Matthew and Mark, Jesus’s teaching on marriage and welcoming children is followed by his instruction to the rich young man to sell all he has and give it to the poor. Today, as in the first century, two symbiotic factors put babies at risk: poverty and fatherlessness.

In the United States in 2018, 85 percent of women seeking abortions were unmarried and about three quarters were living below or not far above the federal poverty line. Due largely to historic inequalities, this means that black babies are more than three times as likely to be aborted as white babies. These tiny black lives matter. But rather than providing women with the support they need, our society opts for the quick fix of abortion.

Thankfully, abortion rates in America are trending down—2018 saw the lowest rate on record. But that still represents 619,591 lost lives.

We Need More Kids

What’s more, far from being a public good, abortion pushes an alarmingly low fertility rate down yet further. With a fertility rate at 1.78 babies per woman—significantly below the replacement rate of 2.1—the United States is sitting on the demographic time bomb of an aging society.

To be clear, the value of life should never be measured in economic terms. But contrary to the prevailing myth that children are a burden on society, from a purely economic perspective, we need more kids.

Rather than providing women with the support they need, our society opts for the quick fix of abortion.

Most women also want more children. In America, “the gap between the number of children that women say they want to have (2.7) and the number of children they will probably actually have (1.8) has risen to the highest level in 40 years.”

And contrary to popular imagination, the vast majority of abortions do not arise from teenage pregnancies, but are sought by women who—with the right support—could be in a good position to raise these children.

The Bible doesn’t call us to a pseudo-Christian past, when the West was supposedly controlled by Christian norms, but men were all too often excused to sleep with prostitutes and servant girls, and pregnant women were abandoned by the thousands. It doesn’t call us to a world in which unmarried mothers are despised or marginalized and forced into back-street abortions.

Rather, God calls us to a world in which women are seen as equal to men, regardless of their marital status; in which pregnant women are supported; in which men are called either to be faithful husbands or faithful singles; and in which babies are valued and provided for—not just by their biological parents, but by their spiritual family writ large.

To solve the problem of abortion, we don’t just need one law reversed. We need a loving revolution.

9 Things You Should Know About Religious Freedom in America Thu, 20 Jan 2022 05:03:00 +0000 This past Sunday (January 16), the U.S. observed National Religious Freedom Day 2022. Here are nine things should know about religious freedom in America since the time of the nation’s founding.]]> This past Sunday (January 16), the United States observed National Religious Freedom Day 2022. Here are nine things you should know about religious freedom in America since the time of the nation’s founding.

1. Religious freedom is a natural right given by God and protected by the U.S. Constitution.

Religious freedom in America can be defined as a natural right, given by God and guaranteed by the First Amendment of the U.S. Constitution, that allows individual people or groups to practice a religion—or to practice no religion at all—both in private and also in public with a minimal amount of interference from the local, state, or federal government. The Constitution and other federal and state laws protect this right to determine both what we believe and, in a more limited sense, how we act on those beliefs.

2. National Religious Freedom Day began nearly 30 years ago.

In 1993, Congress issued a resolution designating January 16, 1993, as “Religious Freedom Day.” That date was chosen to commemorate the day the Virginia Statute for Religious Freedom was signed on January 16, 1786. The resolution requests that the president “issue a proclamation calling on the people of the United States to join together to celebrate their religious freedom and to observe the day with appropriate ceremonies and activities.” Every president has issued such a proclamation since the resolution was issued.

3. The Constitution contains several clauses related to religious freedom.

While the First Amendment is the first thing that comes to mind regarding the Constitution and religious freedom, the first time that issue is mentioned is in Article VI: “No religious test shall ever be required as a qualification to any office or public trust under the United States.” This prohibition on religious tests for public office is the only explicit reference to religion in the main text. The second reference is in the First Amendment’s religious-liberty clauses, which state that “Congress shall make no law respecting an establishment of religion, or prohibiting the free exercise thereof.” The 14th Amendment doesn’t mention religion directly but made the First Amendment applicable to the states. Prior to this amendment, states were free to take such actions as imposing religious tests for elected officials.

4. ‘Conscience’ didn’t make the cut for the First Amendment.

James Madison proposed three religion clauses, one of which protected against ​​the “full and equal rights of conscience.” The House settled on a similar wording: “Congress shall make no law establishing religion, or prohibiting the free exercise thereof, nor shall the rights of conscience be infringed.” However, the Senate adopted the first two parts of the House version but dropped “nor shall the rights of conscience be infringed.” After that, a direct protection of the individual right of conscience never reappeared in the language of the final religion clauses.

5. ‘Free exercise’ applies to the head and heart but not always the hands.

“Free exercise” is the freedom of every American to determine their religious beliefs according to the dictates of conscience. The Supreme Court has interpreted free exercise to mean that while any individual may believe anything they want, there may be times when the state can limit or interfere with practices that result from those beliefs. The determination of when protected religious beliefs result in protected religious action resulted in a range of religious freedom exemptions.

6. American history has seen four periods of religious freedom exemptions.

Because the Free Exercise of Religion Clause protects religiously motivated conduct as well as belief, the most important modern issue for the courts, as Thomas Berg says, “has been whether the clause only prohibits laws that target religion itself for restriction, or more broadly requires an exemption in some cases even from a generally applicable law.” Legal scholar Eugene Volokh has identified four periods in modern American history that relate to religious freedom exemptions:

Pre-1960s — Statute-by-statute exemptions: Prior to the early 1960s, exemptions for religious objections were only allowed if the statute provided an explicit exemption.

1963–1990 — Sherbert/Yoder era of Free Exercise Clause law: In the 1963 case Sherbert v. Verner the Court expressly adopted the constitutional exemption model, under which sincere religious objectors had a presumptive constitutional right to an exemption because of the Free Exercise Clause. During this period the Court used what it called “strict scrutiny” when the law imposed a “substantial burden” on people’s religious beliefs. Under this strict scrutiny, religious objectors were to be given an exemption, unless denying the exemption was the least restrictive means of serving a compelling government interest. But during this period, as Volokh notes, “The government usually won, and religious objectors won only rarely.”

1990–1993 — Return to statute-by-statute exemptions: In Employment Division v. Smith, the Supreme Court returned to the statute-by-statute exemption regime and rejected the constitutional exemption regime.

1993–Present — The era of the Religious Freedom Restoration Act (RFRA).

7. Members of Congress overwhelmingly rushed to restore religious freedom (though some have since had a change of heart).

After the ruling in Employment Division v. Smith, a broad spectrum of secular and religious groups lobbied Congress to defend religious liberty. Congress responded in 1993 by passing the Religious Freedom Restoration Act, which gave religious objectors a statutory presumptive entitlement to exemption from generally applicable laws subject to strict scrutiny. To pass strict scrutiny, the legislature must have passed the law to further a “compelling governmental interest,” and must have narrowly tailored the law to achieve that interest. Since then, though, many of the Democrats in Congress that supported RFRA have tried to pass legislation to make it inapplicable to federal laws or implementations of laws when religious beliefs conflict with a variety of issues, such as abortion or gender identity. (See also: 9 Things You Should Know About the Religious Freedom Restoration Act.)

8. More than half of the individual states have strong religious liberty protections.

RFRA was intended to apply to all branches of government and to both federal and state law. But in 1997 in the case of City of Boerne v. Flores, the Supreme Court ruled the RFRA exceeded federal power when applied to state laws. In response to this ruling, some individual states passed state-level Religious Freedom Restoration Acts that apply to state governments and local municipalities. In response, many states began passing their own religious freedom laws. Currently, 21 states have a Religious Freedom Restoration Act (Alabama, Arizona, Arkansas, Connecticut, Florida, Idaho, Illinois, Indiana, Kansas, Kentucky, Louisiana, Mississippi, Missouri, New Mexico, Oklahoma, Pennsylvania, Rhode Island, South Carolina, Tennessee, Texas, and Virginia). Ten other states have religious liberty protections that state courts have interpreted to provide a similar (i.e., strict scrutiny) level of protection (Alaska, Maine, Massachusetts, Michigan, Minnesota, Montana, North Carolina, Ohio, Washington, and Wisconsin). With some exceptions (such as Mississippi), the state versions are almost exactly the same as the federal version.

9. Religious freedom has been on a decade-long winning streak.

From 2011 to 2020, the issue of religious freedom won victory after victory in the Supreme Court. “Religious freedom is on a massive, decade-long winning streak at the Supreme Court,” says Luke Goodrich, a religious liberty lawyer at Becket. “This 15-case winning streak hits every major area of religious freedom law: religious exemptions, religious autonomy, religious speech, religious symbols, and government funding for religious groups.” During 2021, the Court also supported religious freedom by striking down California’s ban on indoor worship, siding with a former college student on religious free speech, and affirming faith-based foster care and adoption providers.

Renewing Rome from Within: A Biography of Benedict XVI Thu, 20 Jan 2022 05:02:00 +0000 You can’t deal seriously with present-day Roman Catholicism without understanding Pope Benedict XVI.]]> Popes are fascinating. They have both historical significance and a foundational role in shaping Roman Catholicism globally. But if a pope is also referred to as the “greatest theologian ever to sit on the chair of St. Peter” (1:xi) and the German figure who has made the biggest impact on the Catholic Church since Martin Luther (2:194), the intrigue is even greater, at least for theologically astute Protestant readers.

Benedict XVI’s Opera Omnia consists of 16 volumes translated in multiple languages and covers virtually all aspects of theology and church life with scholarly rigor and pastoral depth. One cannot deal seriously with present-day Roman Catholicism without coming to terms with his person and work.

Peter Seewald’s biography Benedict XVI: A Life is a massive (more than 1,000 pages over two volumes) and engaging invitation into the personality of Benedict XVI (Joseph Ratzinger). It’s not so much a theological biography as it is a well-informed, journalistic account of the life of a shy and introverted person—with “an almost girlish softness” (2:55) and his childhood teddy bear in his bedroom (2:105)—who found himself at the center of a whirlwind of events.

Seewald had already published long interviews with Cardinal Ratzinger (Salt of the Earth: The Church at the End of the Millennium, 1997) and Pope Benedict (Last Testament in His Own Words, 2016), thus establishing a record of sustained engagement and respectful familiarity. This two-volume biography is the result of extensive research: speaking to 100 contemporary witnesses and conducting further interviews with Ratzinger. Seewald has sought to maintain “a critical distance” (1:x) while never asking embarrassing questions.

One cannot deal seriously with present-day Roman Catholicism without coming to terms with [Benedict’s] person and work.

Pope Benedict XVI, born in 1927, is one of the towering figures in 20th-century Roman Catholic theology. His impressive biography includes: theological expert at the Second Vatican Council (1962–65), various professorships in Munich, Bonn, Münster, and Regensburg (1957–77), archbishop of Munich (1977–81) and cardinal, then prefect, of the Congregation for the Doctrine of the Faith (1981–2005), pope (2005–13), and, since 2013, pope emeritus after his somewhat tragic resignation. Benedict was the first German pope in 500 years.

This biography is especially welcome because it describes the context of the final years of Benedict, those preceding his resignation. The tragic outcomes of the sexual abuses, financial scandals of the Vatican bank, and Vatileaks all undermined Ratzinger’s strength, causing this very traditional pope to make a very untraditional decision. 

Early Life

Since his boyhood, Ratzinger had contemplated a life dedicated to the Roman Catholic Church. When the Archbishop of Munich, Cardinal Faulhaber, visited his kindergarten in 1931, the 4-year-old Joseph said: “I’ll be a cardinal one day” (1:25). In 1934, his first letter to the Christ Child (the first document ever written by Ratzinger) was a request of a missal, a green Mass vestment, and a Jesus heart (1:31). The inclination of the boy was already very clear. His family life was marked by devout Catholicism of rosaries, confessions, and novenas. As children, Joseph and his older brother, Georg, used to play at being priests and hold church services. What started as a children’s game became his life: he would celebrate more than 25,000 Masses (1:250).

As Ratzinger recalls, his first experience with the faith was through “the beauty of the liturgy” (1:55). This theme would become central in his theology, which was “a mixture of rationality and aesthetics” (1:313). In fact, the book that affected him the most as a young theologian was Romano Guardini’s The Spirit of the Liturgy. His other seminal reading was the Confessions of Augustine, whom Ratzinger considered “a contemporary, who speaks to me” (1:191) and a church father with whom he would strongly identify. The ecclesiology of the people of God in Augustine became the topic of Ratzinger’s first academic work.

Developing His Theology

In his seminary years, Ratzinger was influenced by Gottfried Sönghen, who stressed the wholeness of Catholicism, “the idea of the all-embracing, the great universal Yes of the analogy of being” (1:212). According to this view, Christianity was “the synthesis mediated in Jesus Christ between the faith of Israel and the Greek spirit” (1:269); a point that was strongly made in his 2006 Regensburg Speech (2:328–344) when he criticized the Sola Scriptura principle of the Reformation for “de-hellenizing” Christianity.

From his professor, Ratzinger learned new theological approaches informed by the liturgical movement; the historical-critical investigation of tradition (including the Bible) as a living process; a sympathy for the philosophical-theological “Nouvelle Théologie” (New Theology); an ecumenical impulse; and a passion for clear formulation in doing theology (1:215). In a nutshell, this was the “modern but not modernistic” (1:321) theological horizon of his future work.

Another early influence was Henri de Lubac’s book Catholicism with its description of the church “as Christ’s incarnation extended into history” (1:235) and its attempt to restore the church’s power and dynamism. Later, Ratzinger would have defined it as “key reading” (1:233) for his formation. Echoing Augustine’s “whole Christ” and de Lubac’s insistence on the church as the prolongation of Christ’s incarnation, in his second probationary sermon Ratzinger preached: “Being a Christian means being part of Christ himself, the continuation of Christ into our own time” (1:241).

His ecclesiology was further interwoven with the insistence on the sacramental nature of the church as the mystical body of Christ. Contrary to his contemporary Hans Küng, who looked at the church as “council–concilium,” the church for Ratzinger was “Eucharistic community–communio” (1:417).

Ratzinger’s habilitation research dealt with St. Bonaventura’s theology of history. Studying the medieval Franciscan mystic, Ratzinger solidified his conviction that “revelation was not only given in Scripture, but also in things like tradition, the inspiration of the fathers and saints, and the living faith itself” (1:280). Because of his view that “revelation is always more than its fixed expression in Scripture” and because of “the interconnection between Scripture, tradition, and the church’s proclamation,” Ratzinger has always been concerned with “the danger of Scripturism” (1:390), that is, a way of criticizing Protestantism. As an aside, Seewald refers to Ratzinger’s role in accompanying numerous Protestant intellectuals on their way to embrace Roman Catholicism (e.g., 2:51; 2:170).

Ratzinger has always been concerned with ‘the danger of Scripturism,’ that is, a way of criticizing Protestantism.

Vatican II

As one of the “spin doctors” at Vatican II, Ratzinger played a significant role in the drafting of its documents: “areas that proved to be key to the council—such as Scripture, patristics, tradition, the people of God and revelation—were Ratzinger’s special subjects” (1:387). Afterward, he became increasingly concerned with secularizing and protestantizing trends in interpreting the council. The revolutionary turmoil around 1968, even in Roman Catholic universities, greatly distressed him. The sexual revolution shocked him and caused him to experience a kind of “trauma” (2:30) that did not change his theology (“apart from nuances and expansions” 2:42) but certainly grew his critical attitude toward the “progressive” trends in Rome and society at large, making him pessimistic, at times despairing (2:69).

His interpretation of the council can be summarized as “hermeneutic of reform” or, to use Pope Leo XIII’s formula, “Vetera novis augere et perficere: to supplement and perfect the old with the new” (2:77). In assessing Ratzinger’s Roman Catholic theology, it is therefore dangerous to contrast traditionalism and progressivism as if they were disrupting and conflicting trends within his work. There may have been different emphases and concerns over various stages of his career, but the tale of the conversion from radical theologian to inflexible watchdog of orthodoxy is naive, as Seewald’s biography confirms. A 1982 article in a German newspaper gets it right: “he does not fit into any cliché, either conservative or progressive. Joseph Ratzinger is simply Catholic, body and soul” (2:159–160).

Against Protestantism

Ratzinger’s theology epitomizes the catholicity of Roman Catholicism. For instance, his theology always reads the Bible in light of the authoritative magisterium and through sacramental lenses. He intertwines Nicene Christology with the view that the Roman Catholic Church prolongs the incarnation. He confesses the Apostles’ Creed, as well as the anti-Protestant Canons and Decrees of the Council of Trent and the more recent Marian dogmas. He always relates the cross of Christ to the representation of the sacrifice of the Eucharist. He always links the Spirit to the hierarchical structure of the church. Ratzinger thinks of ecumenism in terms of other Christians being defective and the church of Rome being the only “catholic” church. He pursues the mission of the church with attention to the catholic project to embrace the whole world. He combines the ecclesiastical outlook of the church with its political role. In this sense, Ratzinger is a modern conservative within the boundaries of a revitalized Roman Catholicism.

He is a modern conservative within the boundaries of a revitalized Roman Catholicism.

The motto of the theological journal Communio, with which Ratzinger has been associated since 1972 (2:79), neatly sums up his theological vision: “a program of renewal through the return to the sources of authentic tradition.” In other words, the updating of Roman Catholicism embodied by Benedict XVI never severs its traditional roots. Benedict never commits to Scripture alone or focused on Christ alone. It actually reinforces these Roman Catholic roots over against the claims of the Reformation. It’s a renewal of the Roman Catholic faith “from its deepest core” (2:120) or “from within” (2:164) that is not open to being corrected by Scripture alone. This is the gist of the theological existence of this scholar turned pope (now emeritus).

Carl Trueman, in the book The Theology of Benedict XVI: A Protestant Appreciation, rightly observes:

Roman Catholicism is not simply Protestantism with a different set of doctrines. It is a different way of thinking about Christianity, a way that draws a very tight connection between Scripture, tradition, and the doctrine of the church in a manner alien to Protestantism. (153)

Benedict XVI embodies such a “different way of thinking.” Protestant readers may find some overlap in the use of biblical and theological language, but his overall account of the gospel is “alien to Protestantism” at a fundamental level. Still, given the towering intellectual stature of the pope emeritus and his indisputable significance for 20th-century Roman Catholicism, his biography is a fascinating entry point for coming to terms with the religious tradition that 1.3 billion people around the world claim as their own.

Why Did God Make Her Like This? Thu, 20 Jan 2022 05:00:00 +0000 When our children ask, “Why is she like that?,” we can answer genuinely, “I don’t know why God chose this, but I trust God with it.”]]> Our home is at the end of a cul-de-sac, and because our neighborhood was built on an old Iowa cornfield, it backs up to the only thin band of woods that runs along one side of the development. The neighboring children are naturally drawn to the trees, which means there might be anywhere from five to 20 kids playing in our yard at any given time. Racing around on scooters or roller blades, stomping up from the creek with muddy boots, or walking back from our tree fort shouting about the bugs they caught in a jar—it’s everything I’ve ever wanted in a neighborhood.

But sometimes, the sight of all the happy kids running around pricks my heart in pain. Our youngest daughter has a rare genetic condition causing global developmental delays. This means she can’t visit the woods without my help, she can’t keep pace with the scooters in the driveway, and she can’t easily communicate about the treasures she’s found.

Sometimes my kids ask why their sister seems different from the other children in our life. I’ll never forget the time my oldest asked pointedly, “Why did God make her like that?” It struck me like a gust of wind on a cold Iowa day, knowing this was the question I was looking to answer as well.

Sometimes my kids ask why their sister seems different from the other children. This is the question I’m looking to answer as well.

Four Truths

The Bible isn’t silent on this topic. Here are four theological truths I’ve shared with my children to help them understand God’s design in allowing one of their siblings to have special needs.

1. God made all of us in his image.

Genesis 1:26 tells us that when God created people, he said, “Let us make man in our image, after our likeness.” The words “image” and “likeness” speak of every person’s resemblance to God, giving all of us equal dignity and value. This means, no matter our abilities, we all carry the stamp of God on us. We’re not duplicates of one another, but because we’re a family, there is a sameness (Gal. 3:28–29). Help your children see that just as every person in the family has different abilities and gifts, each is equally valuable and loved.

2. The fall affects everyone.

It’s not hard to help your child see that the world is broken. A toy breaks when it drops to the floor, a sibling shoves to get a better view, the baby birds fall from the nest. Adam’s sin has affected everything—nothing is untouched.

Help your children see that when it comes to special needs, more often than not it’s simply a result of living in a fallen world (John 9:1–3). Even in cases when disability or delays may be the result of abuse or neglect, we can teach our children to focus on having compassion for others rather than diagnosing who was at fault. Whether we know the reason or not, these things are a part of life east of Eden and they will be with us until we go home to glory.

3. God is sovereign over how each of us was formed.

When we explain that having special needs is a part of a fallen world, it may feel like disabilities were passed out at random. But we know from Psalm 139 that God made every human intentionally and by his design (“For it was you who created my inward parts; you knit me together in my mother’s womb”).

Help your children see that just as God intentionally chose their hair color, the size of their feet, and what activities they would excel at, he also formed every limp, every irregular organ, every stutter, and every eye that only sees darkness. “The Lord said to Moses, ‘Who has made man’s mouth? Who makes him mute, or deaf, or seeing, or blind? Is it not I, the Lord?” (Exodus 4:11).

Every chromosome, every gene, every atom—God commands at his will. He makes no mistakes.

Every chromosome, every gene, every atom—God commands at his will. He makes no mistakes.

4. God is still good.

Disability is costly—emotionally, physically, and spiritually. Young children in particular don’t always have the maturity to filter their experiences. As parents, we can help our children see that God has a perfect purpose in creating their family as he did.

When the disciples had questions about a man born blind, Jesus told them, “This happened so that the works of God might be displayed in him” (John 9:3). Or in Lazarus’s sickness, Jesus told his disciples, “It is for God’s glory so that God’s Son may be glorified through it” (John 11:4). In both cases Jesus points out that God is glorified through the disability.

Sometimes, particularly for children, this can be hard to see. In our family, we talk about both the joys and difficulties of having a sibling with special needs. There are times when they’ll need to slow down to care for their sister, interpret her vocalizations for friends, or go home early from a fun event so she can rest. As they lay down their lives for their sibling, God uses their sacrifice to sanctify and teach them about his love and their obedience.

We also talk about all the wonderful ways their sister has blessed our family. We talk about how inspiring it is to watch her accomplish new things, her care for them when they’re hurt, and—perhaps my favorite—how joyfully she sings worship songs no matter where we are. She gives us a front-row seat to aspects of God we wouldn’t have without her. Help your children see God’s goodness to them and their sibling with special needs.

Living with Tension

For siblings and parents, having special needs is both joy and sorrow, sadness and celebration. As William Cowper wrote, “The bud may have a bitter taste, but sweet will be the flower.” It’s a tension we must learn to live with. We don’t always know God’s exact purposes for his ways, but we can trust that our families can “count it all joy” and will “lack nothing” as we walk this journey (James 1:2–3).

As parents, we can emphasize the kindness of God, knowing “that all things work together for the good of those who love God” (Romans 8:28). This is God’s promise that gives hope to every member in the family who follows Christ.

So the next time our children ask, “Why is she like that?” We can answer genuinely, “I don’t know why God chose this but I trust God with it. God is good to us and it’s part of his purpose for our family. ”

Don’t Overlook Your Bible’s First 4 Chapters Wed, 19 Jan 2022 05:03:00 +0000 As you work through the Bible this year, don’t forget what you read in Genesis 1–4.]]> What do the first few minutes of a movie and the first four pages of your Bible have in common? Well, they’re both beginnings, introducing the viewer or reader to the key elements they must know to interpret and understand the story correctly. Everyone in my family knows how fanatic I am about getting to a theater on time. Why? Because if you miss the beginning of a film, you’ll be lost for the rest.

In literary terms, a prologue introduces us to the indispensable elements of a narrative: setting, main characters, and conflict. Indeed, such elements are often provided only in the prologue. If you removed Genesis 3, for example, you would struggle to understand the Bible’s narrative conflict. The reader’s focus in the prologue should be on locating the conflict—the problem around which the story will revolve. Once we identify the conflict, we’ll be able to follow the storyline, which will intensify until it reaches a climax—the most intense point in the conflict. This is followed by the story’s resolution, which reveals how the conflict is resolved. Then comes the end—the story is brought to completion, and the author brings closure to all the issues introduced at the beginning.

Reading Genesis 1–4 as the introduction to the Bible will give you the interpretive keys to see the Scriptures as the Scripture—one unfolding story rather than an anthology of 66 books. And when you read it as a single metanarrative, the overarching theme of the gospel shines through.

Let’s test this hermeneutical thesis by looking at the role and function of Genesis 1–4 in the rest of the Bible.

Genesis 1–4: Seed of the Tree

The opening verse of Genesis isn’t just the beginning of the story; it marks the beginning of everything (time, space, and creation). Careful readers anticipate a corresponding middle (Matt. 4:1; Luke 22:53–54; 23:33) and end (Rev. 12:9–11; 20:1–2, 10–15), and we meet the Bible’s main character: God. This is unmissable because God is mentioned in this chapter 31 times. He is the all-powerful Creator who rules over the whole creation. We then behold the apex of God’s creation: man and woman. Both were made like God so they could rule over creation, enjoy a relationship with him, and reflect his glory. And he pronounced his creation very good.

When you read Scripture as a single metanarrative, the overarching theme of the gospel shines through.

We also discover the key place in all the cosmos: the earth, and more particularly, the garden paradise where he communed with humanity (Gen. 2:8–15; 3:8). Next, we meet the antagonist: the serpent. Not surprisingly, the introduction introduces but doesn’t fully reveal the spiritual identity of this villain. We must wait until the end of the story for his unmasking (Rev. 12:9).

Finally, what’s the conflict that drives the Bible’s storyline? The serpent attacks the plan God announced to be very good (Gen. 1:28, 31). He subdues man and becomes the world’s illegitimate ruler (John 12:31; 14:30; 16:11; 1 John 5:19). So the question for the reader is: how will God redeem man, reconcile him back from sin and death, restore his reign, and renew a good creation? In Genesis 3:15, God outlines human history as a spiritual war between the collective seed of the woman (those whom God would choose to use) and the seed of the serpent (those whom Satan would use). Cain murders Abel, worldwide corruption elicits God’s judgment of a universal flood, and all humanity revolts against God at the Tower of Babel. At almost every turn, the outcome of this war for humanity looks bleak.

All is not lost, however. God prophesies he will send another man who will succeed where the first man failed and deliver a mortal blow to the serpent’s head (Gen. 3:15). And as the earth’s rightful king, he will regain humanity’s righteous rule over creation. When read carefully, the rest of the story will foreshadow, prophecy, and reveal patterns and types of who this king will be and what he’ll do to reconcile all things to himself. This Dragon Slayer will be none less than the son of Abraham (Gen. 22:17–18) and Judah (Gen. 49:9–10; Num. 24:8–9; Matt. 1:1). The climax of the story is the cross, and the conclusion comes when Jesus casts the serpent into the lake of fire.

Follow the Trail

Of course, Genesis 1–4 only introduces the story. The reader must follow the seed trail to see how God reconciles everything to himself in Jesus (Eph. 1:10).

So as you work through your Bible this year, make sure you read the first five pages carefully. They’ll help you to understand the rest of the story—the most incredible ever told.

Introducing Season 3 of Let’s Talk Wed, 19 Jan 2022 05:02:00 +0000 Jackie, Melissa, and Jasmine are back, and they’re ready to talk.]]> Let’s Talk, hosted by Jackie Hill Perry, Melissa Kruger, and Jasmine Holmes, is a podcast for women from The Gospel Coalition. Over the next nine weeks, Jackie, Jasmine, and Melissa will talk about different topics and how we can apply biblical wisdom to everyday life. They’ll talk candidly about work, boundaries, race, shame, and much more.

Subscribe now on Apple Podcasts, Spotify, and Stitcher.

Episode 1 will release Wednesday, January 26, 2022.

Every Need Is Not a Call Wed, 19 Jan 2022 05:00:00 +0000 In order to live faithful lives rather than frantic lives, we must learn the sobering truth that every need is not a call. ]]> All of us are surrounded by a sea of needs. From the people in our homes and workplaces to refugee families who come to our nation from around the world, from people who suffer from illness and disability to people who struggle with financial strain and debt—everyone has unique spiritual, emotional, and physical needs. The needs may look and sound different but each cries out to us as a potential opportunity to invest our time and energy. In order to live faithful lives rather than frantic lives, we must learn the sobering truth that every need is not a call.

Jesus saw every need of every human being he encountered, yet he didn’t meet all of them. He followed the Father’s will, knowing when to say yes and when to say no, when to work and when to rest. He didn’t spend his three short years of public ministry in a frantic whirlwind; rather, he faithfully executed the will of the Father by staying close to the Father, seeking to please him alone.

You may say, “But he was Jesus. And he knew the Father’s will.” In such a sea of needs, how are we, with our limited abilities and understanding, to discern which works are ours to do? How are we to know when to say yes and when to say no? How will we know which people we can help, which causes we can support—and which ones we can’t?

As much as we may long for a simple (or even complex) equation by which to discern God’s will for our lives, God has given those who are in Christ something far better. He’s chosen to dwell in us through the Holy Spirit. He’s given us his Word and has promised that we, too, can have the mind of Christ (1 Cor. 2:16).

When we walk in dependence upon Christ, we can learn to respond to needs faithfully rather than frantically.

As we try to discern the often blurry lines between good, better, and best, we should prayerfully consider our passions, priorities, and providential circumstances. When we walk in dependence upon Christ, we can learn to respond to needs faithfully rather than frantically.


Our God is so multifaceted that it takes the entire body of Christ (past, present, and future) to display his fullness. As such, each believer reflects some sliver of the beautiful character of Christ. Some hearts break over sex trafficking, while others beat for the right of the unborn to live. Some believers are fueled by meeting physical needs while others delight to train minds. The more we understand the way God has wired each of us and identify the passions that ignite our hearts to prayerful action, the less likely we are to run around frantically trying to address every need.

There are plenty of good works to be done within the lanes of our spiritual and physical gifts; we need not try to operate in every possible lane.

It takes self-awareness and cultivated humility to learn to let each member of the body of Christ do its part (1 Cor. 12:4–11; 1 Pet. 4:10–11). There are plenty of good works to be done within the lanes of our spiritual and physical gifts; we need not try to operate in every possible lane. While there will be times when God calls us to stretch out of our comfort zones, we can also be assured that God has wired us for the good works he’s prepared for us to do (Ps. 139:14–16; Eph. 2:10).

As we evaluate whether God is calling us to serve a particular need, we should consider questions like, What gifts and passions have others in the body consistently affirmed in me? What areas of need particularly grieve my heart? When do I most feel the pleasure of God as I work?


Our passions alone cannot determine how we spend our time. Even those who know their passions and personalities only have 24 hours in a day. The Word of God determines our priorities, beginning with a commitment to abide in the Lord. Abiding in him enables us to bear fruit and love others (John 15:4,12).

Next, we should seek to fulfill our basic commitments within the boundary lines God has laid for us (Ps. 16:5–6). For example, students should prioritize commitment to their studies and classes, even when they don’t feel particularly excited about their course load. Employees are to prioritize their work, even when their passions lie elsewhere.

In different seasons of life, different priorities may dictate our days. Parents with young children have different priorities to consider than empty nesters. People with chronic illnesses or who care for others with special needs operate with different priorities than those who have more margin in their schedules.

If meeting a particular need prohibits us from being present with people we should rightly prioritize, we may need to prayerfully reconsider, What are my priorities in this season of life? Are the needs before me going to pull me away from those priorities, or can they come alongside my priorities in a meaningful way?

Potential Opportunities

In addition to our passions and priorities, it’s helpful to consider the present opportunities God has providentially placed before us. As believers, we know God sovereignly sets stars in their courses and us in our circumstances. There’s no detail of our days that lies outside of God’s purview. God’s calling is often right in front of our face.

If we’re wondering which needs might be God-given calls, we would do well to be engaged observers. Consider, What people has God set before me? What unique resources, connections, or insights has he given me in this season? What needs or causes have been consistently burdening my heart?

If we’re wondering which needs might be God-given calls, we would do well to be engaged observers.

As we navigate the sea of needs all around us, we must fix our eyes on the infinite One who alone can meet every need. As we remember his endless capacity and his abundant resources, we’re freed to be faithful rather than frantic. When we recognize his unlimited nature, we’re better able to meet needs while also living in light of our own limitations.

The Playbook Your Children’s Ministry Needs Tue, 18 Jan 2022 05:03:43 +0000 This comprehensive guide includes almost all the topics a children’s ministry director needs to know to grow disciples of Jesus.]]> During my time leading the children’s ministry at a multisite church, I had the privilege of hiring and training several campus children’s ministry directors. Each time someone joined our team, I handed over a stack of books. There were books on how to stay gospel-centered, how to create engaging environments, how to develop volunteer leaders, and how to teach children of different ages in an engaging way.

And the longer I spent in children’s ministry, the larger the stack would grow. For example, it wasn’t until I attended a breakout session on child safety at a children’s ministry conference that I added a book on keeping children safe through skillful volunteer screening and updated and enforced safety policies.

Deepak Reju’s On Guard and Marty Machowski’s The Ology were frequent features on that list of recommended books, and I am excited to add their book Build on Jesus: A Comprehensive Guide to Gospel-Based Children’s Ministry to the stack.

In writing this book, Reju and Machowski have provided a single resource that includes almost all the topics that a children’s ministry director needs to know in order to faithfully steward and lead a healthy children’s ministry, from vision-casting to volunteer management to child safety. As Reju and Machowski say to the children’s director reading this book, “There are no playbooks for your job, so we have created one for you” (6).

By Practitioners for Practitioners

From almost the first page of the book, children’s ministry directors will instantly know that they are learning from men who have walked in their shoes. The list of “difficulties and frustrations” that Reju and Machowski include in their introduction may surprise parents, volunteers, or other church staff leaders, but most if not all of them will be all too familiar to those leading kids ministries. This instantly gives credibility to the authors, as they are not offering advice from an ivory tower, having never experienced what life is like in the trenches of the kid-min world.

Children’s ministry directors will instantly know that they are learning from men who have walked in their shoes.

It would be easy to be overwhelmed with all the different priorities, groups of people, and practical aspects of children’s ministry that every director should consider. Knowing that the authors have been there and walked the road before gives courage to readers that they can, with God’s help, accomplish all they are called to do.

The authors also should be commended for their intentional balance between the biblical priorities of children’s ministry, including teaching the Bible, valuing the children, and focusing on the mission, and the more practical aspects of ministering to children, such as recruiting volunteers, creating safe environments, and writing emergency plans.

Most men and women called into children’s ministry are most excited about sharing the gospel with children, and rightfully so. However, the details of running a safe and adequately staffed ministry are not simply “necessary evils” that exist for the real ministry; they are a key part of enabling ministry to kids to happen. The fact that Reju and Machowski give equal space to the pastoral and the practical speaks value into the many hours that children’s ministry leaders will spend performing tasks that allow the direct ministry to children to happen.

Limits of a Comprehensive Guide

Reju and Machowski gave themselves quite a challenge when they set out to create “a comprehensive guide to gospel-based children’s ministry,” as the subtitle of this book indicates, especially since they were aiming to create a readable volume that wasn’t overwhelmingly long. It would be impossible for every topic related to children’s ministry to be addressed in 200 pages. Inevitably, readers will find that topics they consider vitally important were not addressed, or only mentioned cursorily.

The details of running a safe and adequately staffed ministry are not simply ‘necessary evils’ that exist for the real ministry.

I was surprised to find no mention of a layered volunteer leadership structure in Build on Jesus because I cannot imagine leading a children’s ministry without one. With so many volunteers needed to maintain the necessary adult-to-child ratios, there is no way a single children’s ministry director can adequately lead, serve, and care for all the volunteers in the ministry, even in a small church.

This makes it essential for a children’s ministry director to identify, train, and empower volunteer leaders to lead and care for smaller volunteer teams. While I see this volunteer structure as a non-negotiable for a successful children’s ministry, it’s not mentioned in this comprehensive guide. Other important topics, like creating a welcoming environment and teaching on an age-appropriate level, are given only a few pages each.

In many ways, this is an inevitable consequence of attempting to create an all-in-one guide for such a large and varied role as a children’s ministry director. If the authors had addressed a layered volunteer leadership structure, they would’ve needed to remove or at least shorten another important section. And while every reader will likely, like me, find a topic or two that they feel should have been included, they’ll also likely struggle to decide what topic should be removed or shortened to make room for the new material.

In other words, Reju and Machowski have done as good a job as anyone could in creating a comprehensive guide, as it’s impossible to cover every topic thoroughly without creating an encyclopedia of resources.

While Build on Jesus has not eliminated my need to give a stack of books to a man or woman seeking to be trained as a children’s director, it has earned its place in the top two or three recommendations. It’s an invaluable resource because it skillfully combines the pastoral and the practical aspects of children’s ministry into a single volume, showing how they work together to empower the ministry to children to flourish.

Matrix, Motherhood, Metaverse: Secular ‘Resurrection’ in Recent Films Tue, 18 Jan 2022 05:02:00 +0000 These three recent films show how, in a secular age, “resurrection” has been recast in expressive individualist terms. ]]> The resurrection of Jesus Christ is history’s most monumental event. No wonder it’s a motif storytellers can’t shake—2,000 years later. In our secular age, “resurrection” remains a compelling and oft-explored concept, even if it’s been recast in expressive individualist (“new you!”) terms.

In a post-Christian culture saturated with the cross-pressured residue of religion, it’s fascinating to observe how contemporary movies, for example, riff on resurrection as essentially a metaphor for a fresh start—escaping painful things, breaking free from perceived limitations, and discovering the fully realized self. Shorn of the specificity (and bloody details) of the Christian gospel, “resurrection” becomes a vague proxy for whatever it is someone wants to overcome or become.

Consider how three recent films display visions of “resurrection” in a secular age, but also the emptiness of seeking new life on our own terms. Spoilers follow.

The Matrix Resurrections — Life After Binaries

“Resurrection” is in the very title here, and it fits on a number of levels. The film is a “resurrection” of a franchise many thought finished. It also features the “resurrection” of characters thought dead in the previous films. But as with the original Matrix films, the idea of resurrection is most fundamentally an existential rallying cry. Taking the red pill is the way to be free, to find truth, and to encounter reality outside the controlling narratives in which you’ve been forced to live. The franchise uses the metaphor of a computer simulation (“the Matrix”) to critique the ways “reality” is forced upon us in manipulative ways that serve powerful people. To take the red pill is to free your mind, and your expressive identity, to live in whatever way you deem fit—free of any externally designed parameters.

Shorn of the specificity of the Christian gospel, ‘resurrection’ becomes a vague proxy for whatever it is someone wants to overcome or become.

That the original Matrix trilogy was directed by two brothers (Larry and Andy Wachowski) who have since declared themselves sisters (trans women Lana and Lilly) means the films have been rightly reinterpreted as trans allegories. The newest installment, directed solely by Lana Wachowski, makes the trans themes arguably more explicit. In the film’s climax, Trinity (Carrie-Anne Moss) defiantly emancipates herself from her fake/simulated family life (complete with husband and kids), where she goes by the gendered, bourgeois name “Tiffany.” In a scene channeling trans angst about deadnaming (and recalling the “My name is Neo!” climax of the 1999 original), she responds to someone calling her Tiffany: “I wish you would [bleeping] stop calling me that. I hate that name. My name is Trinity and you better take your hands off of me.” Earlier in the film, as she talks about motherhood with Neo (Keanu Reeves), Trinity/Tiffany asks, “How do you know if you want something yourself or if your upbringing programmed you to want it?”

In Trinity’s character, as with other characters in the film, “resurrection” is the rejection of pre-programmed norms, desires, expectations, and cisgender labels—and an embrace of total autonomy and individual agency. As an idea, this sounds cool and transgressive (and maybe it was in the late 90s). But is it workable? And is the idea that we are born into existing realities, commitments, and norms—enmeshed within family systems and societal rules from birth—really so detestable?

The film’s trans themes also play out in a muddled discussion of “binaries.” Midway through the film we discover the “humans vs. machines” binary of the first three films is now outmoded. The lines between corporeal bodies and virtual programs are blurry and should be embraced as such. The only character in the film who seems to relish binaries is the villain Smith (Jonathan Groff). “I’ve been thinking about us, Tom,” Smith says to Neo at one point. “Look how binary is the form, the nature of things. Ones and zeros. Light and dark. Choice and its absence. Anderson and Smith.” But even the Anderson/Smith (good/evil) binary is blurred by film’s end.

The thing about abolishing binaries, however, is that it eradicates life’s dynamics, drama, and beauty. When all is a spectrum and nothing is clearly this or that, it’s hard to get your bearings. Dramatic momentum is lost because it’s directionless. Stakes are low. Any sort of coherent moral—or narrative—architecture becomes formless and void. That’s how I experienced The Matrix: Resurrections. It’s an amorphous blob of a movie, full of sleepy action scenes and scatterbrained philosophical one-liners. Even as the film celebrates the secular “resurrection” of being freed (again) to reboot one’s identity (“Another chance” is the film’s final line, uttered by Trinity as we hear a gender-shifted cover of Rage Against the Machine’s “Wake Up”), it’s not at all convincing that the “new life” of self-programmed reality is more fulfilling than what it replaces.

The Lost Daughter — Life After Motherhood

If The Matrix: Resurrections contains a sort of transgender riff on resurrection, Maggie Gyllenhaal’s acclaimed directorial debut, The Lost Daughter, narrates a depressing vision of “resurrection” in the form of feminist liberation. Well-acted by Olivia Colman and Jessie Buckley (playing the same woman, Leda, in different time periods), the film’s protagonist is a self-professed “unnatural mom” who makes small talk with pregnant moms-to-be on the beach by bluntly saying things like, “children are a crushing responsibility.” As the film progresses, we gradually discover why Leda is so triggered by watching other moms with their children. Decades earlier, she so loathed mothering her two daughters that she abandoned them, and their father, to pursue her academic career and run off with a new lover (Peter Sarsgaard). Rotten fruit is a recurring motif in the film, to underscore Leda’s ominous feelings toward the fruit of her womb (in direct contrast to Psalm 127:3, “the fruit of the womb a reward”).

But does absconding marital and parental responsibility really lead to new freedom, happiness, and “resurrection” in any form? No. To Gyllenhaal’s credit, the film—based on Elena Ferrante’s 2008 novel—doesn’t pretend it does. The film never romanticizes Leda’s choice. It instead suggests that the “freedom” gained by unshackling from motherhood’s “crushing responsibility” only makes Leda more miserable and lonely. So it goes with the false promises of expressive individualism. When mothers, fathers, husbands, and wives ditch commitments in search of the true self, it’s a move that fails to satisfy. It’s an escape but not a solution.

When mothers, fathers, husbands, and wives ditch commitments in search of the true self, it’s a move that fails to satisfy. It’s an escape, but not a solution.

Perhaps unintentionally, The Lost Daughter functions as a scathing critique of aspects of contemporary feminism—specifically the conviction that motherhood is a problem to be solved more than a gift to embrace. To be a mom, or to be a spouse, is in part to embrace a form of death. To say yes to this person, and this responsibility, is necessarily to say no to other options and paths. We can’t do it all. Limits are for our good.

The Lost Daughter is right to acknowledge that motherhood doesn’t come as naturally to some as to others. Most moms probably have occasional thoughts of wanting “another life,” free from the endless demands and unceasingly shrill voices shouting “Mommy! Mommy!” But motherhood, like marriage, is sustained not by feeling but by commitment. True empowerment is choosing to love, and remain committed, in spite of feelings that ebb and flow. To give in to the fickle inertia of our fallen heart—which constantly pulls us from fidelity in all its forms—is to lose agency and be disempowered. To be ruled by restless, carnal desire is to be helplessly passive and subjugated. Far from liberation, unencumbered and unattached autonomy is its own prison.

Spider-Man: No Way Home — Life After Being Canceled

Our restless secular culture is itching for transcendence, escape, and a “way out” of the mess (both personal and societal). Perhaps the prevalence of “reboot” films, in addition to being a Hollywood money grab, also speaks to our current resonance with the idea of a re-do or, as Trinity puts it at the end of Resurrections, “another chance.”

The pop culture appeal of the metaverse is also evidence of this secular resurrection. If things aren’t going well in this timeline or this reality—perhaps we’ve made some mistake that gets us canceled—maybe there’s another version of me in another timeline, where I can do better. Spider-Man: No Way Home is just the latest example. “Resurrection” here comes in the form of Peter Parker/Spider-Man getting a fresh start after the world’s memory of him is erased. In this case his “resurrection” is more virtuous than those we see in The Matrix or The Lost Daughter, because he’s rebooting less for his own sake than out of sacrificial love for others (indeed, his own “rebirth” comes at significant cost to him).

Still, the crushing pressure of “getting it right this time” will chase Peter for however many more reboots he gets. Is that really the sort of resurrection we want? Also, the ease with which “clean slate” renewal is magically attained in the film (both for Peter and for the array of villains who are given a second chance) strikes me as a bit too cheap. The villain plot arc especially bugged me, not because any villain is too far gone to be redeemed (we’re all depraved sinners after all), but because the reality of sin and evil feels psychologized and pacified, in the manner of recent “rehabilitating villain” origin stories like Joker or Cruella. The neutering of evil always diminishes the drama of redemption. This is probably why, for all its entertaining merits, Spider-Man: No Way Home felt to me more like a low-stakes trifle than a thrilling epic. Its riff on resurrection is closer to Christianity than some, but still nowhere near the real thing.

Resurrection in Christ — Eternal Life After Death

The Christian resurrection is profound because it doesn’t minimize our sin or sugarcoat our undeserving state. We can have life after death, but not because we deserve it or because we can pull the right strings (or cast the right spell) to attain it. All we can do is repent and be in union with the one who does deserve it: Jesus Christ. But this doesn’t play well in a contemporary culture convinced of its own self-creating, self-renewing power.

This is the world, after all, where no blemish is so great that it can’t be corrected with Photoshop (or plastic surgery); no “biology” so binding that it can’t be ignored if it conflicts with one’s feelings; no “truth” so inconvenient that it can’t be discredited on some partisan technicality. No, the Age of Authenticity abides no intrusions into autonomy or obstacles to unfettered freedom. If I want a “new me” on my terms and timeline, by God, I will get it. Or so goes the logic of our age.

The Age of Authenticity abides no intrusions into autonomy or obstacles to unfettered freedom.

But this self-prescribed resurrection always fails us. We cannot resurrect ourselves. True, eternal freedom and liberation is a gift we receive, not a prize we fight for and earn. And it’s a resurrection that lasts.

While these films miss the mark, it’s good that the need and longing for resurrection is palpable and pervasive in pop culture. Christians ought to engage these expressions but redirect them away from the self—and toward the salvific Christ.

The answer to a broken self is not just a reconceived self. It’s a new self. It’s crucifying the old self. It’s losing our life to find it. Not on our own terms but on Christ’s (Rom. 6:5–11), and not for our own glory, but for his (Rom. 9:22–24).

The Growth of Christianity in the World’s First Atheist Country Tue, 18 Jan 2022 05:00:00 +0000 Back in 1991, there were only 16 known Christians in Albania. Today, there are around 17,000. Here’s what happened.]]> When Asim Hamza was growing up in communist Albania in the 1980s, it was the third poorest country in the world. The farm technology hadn’t been updated since the 1920s. Lines for milk stretched 80 people long before dawn. Pharmacies carried nothing but aspirin. Electricity didn’t reliably turn or stay on. Religion was outlawed—making the sign of the cross could land you in jail for three years, owning a Bible was five years.

Hamza had no idea anything was wrong.

The government-controlled television, during the two or three hours it was on each day, showed images of children starving in sub-Saharan Africa. “We were told that was happening everywhere,” Hamza said. “They said, ‘You are the happiest kids in the world.’ And we believed it. We were so thankful to the Communist party leader.”

Asim and Betilda Hamza and their children / Courtesy of Asim Hamza’s Facebook page

Back then, “Albania was one of the three most closed countries in the world, along with North Korea and Mongolia,” Campus Crusade for Christ missionary Don Mansfield said. He became Cru’s country director for Albania in 1991, when the communist government began to topple. He’d never been there before.

“I remember I was in a meeting in Holland with all the global missions agencies,” Mansfield said. “At the time, I didn’t know anything. They were talking about what was going on, and I raised my hand. I asked, ‘How many believers are there in the country?’”

He was expecting a guesstimate, or maybe a percentage of the population.

“Do you know Sonila?” one person asked.

“Kristi?” suggested someone else.

“Maria is a Christian.”

“People were throwing out names, and I got to 16,” Mansfield said. “Everybody looked around and went, ‘Does anybody else know anyone else?’”

No one did. But today, Mansfield could name hundreds. The Joshua Project estimates there are 17,000 evangelical believers in the country. While half of that growth came in the first decade the country was open, the evangelical growth rate is still nearly twice the rate of the rest of the world (4.6 percent compared to 2.6 percent).

Colin Smith (center, back) prays with a group of believers in Albania in 2019 / Courtesy of TGC Albanian’s Facebook page

“It’s been a remarkable story of seeing what God has done in one lifetime,” said The Orchard Evangelical Free Church senior pastor and TGC Council member Colin Smith, who spoke at the region’s first TGC conference in 2019. “It’s an amazing change.”

To be sure, “we’re still small, and we’re not significant in the eyes of this world,” Light Church Tirana lead elder and TGC Albanian Council member Andi Dina said. “But we have a big God, and we worship him. We know he’ll build his church, and the gates of hell won’t prevail against it.”

World’s First Atheist State

Even before supreme ruler Enver Hoxha declared Albania the world’s first atheist state in 1967, evangelicals were few and far between. The population was primarily Muslim (70 percent, a heritage from the Ottoman Turks), followed by Greek Orthodox (20 percent, primarily along the border with Greece) and Roman Catholic (10 percent, mostly along the sea that separates Albania from Italy).

The evangelical Christians—by one count there were about 100—were largely gathered around a Baptist mission in the city of Korce. But the week after Pearl Harbor, the government kicked all American missionaries out. (Italy, a member of the Axis, was then occupying Albania.)

Foreign missionaries wouldn’t be allowed back for another 50 years. Hoxha, who came to power after World War II, didn’t just believe religion was opium for the masses. He also saw it as an issue of state security—Roman Catholicism meant influence from Italy, Orthodoxy came straight from Greece and Serbia, and Islam meant interference from Turkey. To allow Protestants would mean meddling from the West. Not only was practicing religion illegal, then, but so was believing it.

Hoxha’s enforcers started by burning four Franciscan priests to death, then turned mosques and churches into factories (minarets became chimneys) and shot an elderly Catholic priest for baptizing children. Hundreds of clergy were tortured and imprisoned for decades, forced to do hard labor in mines and sewage canals. Government-produced films that accused clerics of corruption, corroborating with foreign powers, and arranging forced marriages were broadcast over and over on the television channel. Newspapers mocked religious leaders on trial for being traitors.

Eventually, Albania’s borders were sealed so tightly—against both the democratic West and the communist Soviet Union and China—that nobody could get in to see what was going on, much less evangelize.

But that didn’t keep the Bibles out.

By Air and Sea

Albert Kona grew up in the town of Durrës, on the Adriatic Sea. In his childhood photos, you can count his ribs. He remembers his parents getting up at 2:00 a.m. to stand in line for bread or milk.

His family had been Eastern Orthodox, though he didn’t know that. One day, when playing in an antique wooden trunk of his grandmother’s, he found part of an old book with some pages ripped out. In it, he read about Peter and John.

A young Albert Kona with his mother / Courtesy of Albert Kona’s Facebook page

He wasn’t the only one to get his hands on Bible stories. After World War II, some American GIs flew over Albania and tossed out Bibles attached to parachutes. Most of them were gathered up by the government, but one man found about 12 chapters from the Gospel of Luke. “He understood who Jesus was and what Jesus had done,” said Kona, who met the man years later, after the country opened up. “He had a true and simple faith.”

In 1985, an Operation Mobilization (OM) ship anchored 12 miles off the Albanian coast, just far enough out to be in international water. Those on board dropped copies of the Gospel of Mark, freshly translated into Albanian, into gallon-sized ziplock bags. They blew each bag up with air so it would float. Then when the tide was just right, they plopped the Bibles into the water, praying they’d wash up on shore. In Kosovo, OM staff were standing on the banks of rivers that flow into Albania, doing the same thing.

“That was about all you could do,” Mansfield said. Some Swiss Christians had tried to smuggle Bibles in on a rare visit, but when they got to the airport, all the Bibles they’d surreptitiously given out were returned to them. “You forgot these,” the government officials said.

Even after Hoxha died in 1985, the country remained locked down. It was another six years before the borders finally opened. It had been five decades, and nobody knew what to expect. Mansfield remembers walking to the beach on his first visit, the people moving away from him.

Don and Kathryn Mansfield began working in Albania in 1991 / Courtesy of Cru

Then three young men swaggered toward him, unafraid, asking questions. “Where do you come from?” “What do you do?”

“I have the most amazing job on the planet,” he told them. “I get to tell people how they can know Jesus Christ.”

The leader, Leonard, turned to look at his friends. “Wasn’t it five minutes ago, we were talking, and we said, ‘We have got to find someone to tell us about Jesus’?” he asked them, astonished. Then, turning to Mansfield, he offered the easiest evangelistic opening there is: “Will you tell me about Jesus?”

Stunned, Mansfield shared the gospel with the young men. Only later did he wonder how Leonard even knew to ask about Jesus. When he asked, Leonard said he used to work for the coast guard. One day while on the beach, he’d found a ziplock bag with a Gospel of Mark tucked inside.

“God will have his way,” said Mansfield, who still tears up over the story. “When God wants to move, he’s going to move.”

‘Tell Me About Jesus’

Early missionaries to Albania quickly found that Leonard’s curiosity about Jesus wasn’t unusual. After 40 years of state atheism, 24 of those with violent enforcement, previous ties to Islam or Catholicism or Orthodoxy were weak. When one young man told his parents he’d come to faith in Jesus, they told him he couldn’t because he was Muslim—he hadn’t even known. (He stuck with Christianity.)

Tammy Doçi (second from left) in a dorm room Bible study in Tirana in June 1992 / Courtesy of Tammy Doçi

“You dream of people saying, ‘Tell me about Jesus,’ and they did,” said Tammy Doçi, who was on Campus Crusade’s first official summer mission to Albania in 1992. “We’d go into a women’s dorm room and they’d say, ‘Wait, let us go get our friends first.’ Before we knew it, we’d have 18 women packed onto the bunk beds, listening intently and asking questions.”

Patrick and Alicia Havens were on the same summer trip. “One kid looked at me, grabbed my arm, and said, ‘Hey, are you here telling people about Jesus?’” Patrick remembers. “People were so ready.”

“I remember one family—we’d see them every day,” Alicia said. “The father would come over and say, ‘My son needs one more lesson. Please tell us more. Please give us a Bible, because we want to know what is true.’”

After a few months on the ground, Crusade’s summer missionaries to Europe gathered together. “We were all celebrating conversions,” she said. “We cheered over 10 in Hungary, and then like 450 in Albania. You realize, ‘Oh my goodness—something is happening here.’”

Patrick (back row, second from right) and Alicia (back row, second from left) with Tammy Doçi (back row, middle) and an Albanian family in July 1992 / Courtesy of Tammy Doçi

One of those converts was Kona, who loved to read. His friend snagged him a New Testament from some OM missionaries. He was puzzled by the verse numbers. “I thought they were footnotes, but strangely they were at the beginning of each sentence, and there were too many of them,” he said. “Also, there was no footnote text. So I thought I had only half the book.”

It didn’t slow him down. He stayed up all night reading. “By 4:00 a.m. I had gotten to the end of Romans, and I knew exactly who I was, what I had done, what Jesus had done, and what I needed to do,” he said. “I’d never seen anybody pray before, but for some reason I knelt by my bed and I prayed what I thought was a prayer. I felt that something happened, and I also felt a great desire to do unto others what that person had done to me by giving me that book.”

The next day, he attended an OM worship service with about 40 others. He jumped right into evangelism, hospital visitation, and village outreach.

Albert Kona / Courtesy of TGC Albanian’s Facebook page

“We had what Jonathan Edwards would call a window of grace,” he said. “For about five years, if you preached a very simple gospel presentation you would have 300 people at church the next Sunday. People were very hungry, and churches were growing fast.”

Some of the gospel presentations were inaccurate or messy. There probably wasn’t enough emphasis on good theology. And not every conversion was genuine—some joke that if you count all the decisions for Christ made in Albania, the country has been saved three times over.

Some people might have signed a card just to be polite. Or maybe they wanted a chance to talk to a foreigner. Maybe they didn’t know what they were doing. But then again, one of the young men who said he wasn’t interested would later help lead TGC Albanian.

TGC Albanian

“I saw the Jesus film,” said Hamza, who was 15 years old when Albania opened up. “I was like, Wow, interesting movie, but nothing changed.”

Hamza doing evangelism at a local school in 2000 / Courtesy of Asim Hamza

Hamza was barely Muslim—“it just meant I had a Muslim name”—and his grades and behavior were so terrible he got kicked out of high school. “I thought, ‘Okay, now that I’m out of school, I’ll go to Greece to work and make money,’” he said. But instead of instant riches, he was deported back to Albania for lack of proper papers.

With few options, Hamza joined the army’s driving school, where he met a guy who talked about Jesus. At the same time, he began walking his little sister to the children’s programming at a local church. The pastor’s wife noticed him and asked him to stay for the young adult programs. He did, “and God really captured my heart.”

Hamza began helping with church facilities, then gradually moved into ministry. He went to Bible school in Durrës; along the way, he found the Desiring God (DG) website. “It gave me a different, more realistic view of God. . . . I would read something and be like, ‘Yeah—that’s how God really is. He’s not a little God who tries really hard, but he is way beyond our imagination.’”

Hamza translated John Piper’s Coronavirus and Christ into Albanian in 2020 / Courtesy of Asim Hamza’s Facebook page

He started working with DG, first translating 52 of John Piper’s sermons into Albanian, then Piper’s book on the five points of Calvinism. When Piper spoke at a missions conference in Italy in 2016, almost 60 Albanians were in attendance. The next year, at a joint TGC/DG conference in North Macedonia, the largest contingent in attendance came from Albania.

One of them was Kona, who had asked so many questions about the roles of elders and deacons and pastors and teachers that someone told him he was “talking like a Presbyterian.” While looking up what that meant, he found R. C. Sproul and eventually earned a degree at Greenville Presbyterian Theological Seminary.

Another was Andi Dina, who came to Christ in college. He was working for the Evangelical Alliance when he came across the work of R. C. Sproul. “My heart melted immediately with these teachings,” said Dina, who planted a church in partnership with Acts 29 in 2019.

Search for God

In the space of three decades, nearly all of Albania’s officially atheist population claimed or reclaimed a religion—by 2018, self-identified atheists dropped to less than 1 percent of the population. People primarily sorted themselves into their family’s pre-communist religions—about 75 percent are now Muslim, 11 percent are Catholic, and 7 percent are Orthodox. While the number of evangelicals expanded from 16 to around 17,000, they’re still less than 1 percent of the population.

Evangelism is increasingly difficult as the population settles into nominalism, chases wealth, and is isolated by both COVID and smartphones. Evangelism strategies, like those in the West, are shifting to be relationship-focused.

Andi Dina speaking at the TGC conference in Durres in 2019 / Courtesy of TGC Albanian’s Facebook page

“Much of the fruit we want to see, we probably won’t in our lifetime,” Dina said, “We long to see a whole generation of godly pastors and leaders who deny themselves and take their cross every day—a generation of Christian leaders with a burning heart for the glory of Christ, who like John the Baptist can say, ‘He must increase, but I must decrease.’”

“With all the problems and faults, we’re encouraged, because in almost every town, there is at least one church,” Hamza said. “The challenge is to help believers ground themselves in a true understanding of the Bible and God, not just, ‘Oh, God, can you please do this for me?’”

To that end, Dina, Hamza, and Kona are working together with other Council members on TGC Albanian, which already has a Council, a website, and a conference. They’ve translated dozens of books and hundreds of articles.

Colin Smith speaking at the TGC conference in Albania / Courtesy of TGC Albanian’s Facebook page

“I have quite a bit of emotion about this, and a great deal of joy,” said Colin Smith, who spoke to about 180 people gathered at TGC’s first Albanian conference in 2019. “In the 1970s, I was growing up in Edinburgh, Scotland, in a little Baptist church. We had a weekly prayer meeting, and I remember as a teen, praying for Albania. It caught my imagination—how could there be a country in Europe with no known believers?”

While he was there, “it was very clear, not only the number of Christians had grown significantly, but that the Lord is raising up a new generation of Christian leaders—and in particular, of church planters. And that’s a remarkable thing.”

What a Pastor Brings to Race Conversations Mon, 17 Jan 2022 05:00:00 +0000 Healthy conversations around race must start with facing up to the sin in our hearts.]]> Every now and then, God reminds us that we’re a body with many parts working together for the greater good. I was reminded about that once again in reading Talking About Race: Gospel Hope for Hard Conversations by pastor and writer Isaac Adams. Whereas I bring academic expertise to the subject of beneficial racial conversations, Adams brings a pastor’s heart. He fills in many of the pieces that academics are often missing and advocates a healthier path. Those interested in promoting such conversations need this book—it will move us toward building interracial Christian community and away from reproducing the racial polarization bedeviling the rest of society.

It’s one thing to theorize about the importance of hard, honest conversations. It’s quite another to be a pastor in a multiracial setting who learns how to moderate those conversations and move them in a productive direction. To this end, Adams relates his experiences as a pastor shepherding individuals of different races.

Adams’s Holistic Approach

In part one, Adams offers a series of real-life stories of interracial conflict. He helps break down these conflicts and see the underlying issues. I suspect we may find ourselves able to relate to some of the individuals in these illustrations, making them an effective way of communicating important truths.

In part two, Adams discusses the larger issues and principles that we need in order to talk across racial lines in a way that brings light instead of heat. He grounds his observations in Christian principles and the practical experience of working with people across the racial spectrum. He has an obvious love for the people he ministers to. Adams wants them, and us, to be better. Better reconcilers. Better friends. Better Christians.

Adams is an African American, and it’s clear that his experience affects how he sees our current racial situation. But you never get the feeling his advice is centered on being a cheerleader for blacks—he has worked hard to see issues from the perspectives of others. This makes the second part of his book one of the most holistic approaches to race relations out there today, among both Christian and secular literature.

Adams wants us to be better. Better reconcilers. Better friends. Better Christians.

Thinking Pastorally

Adams shows that even when a person is in the right, he might sin in how to approach the conversation. Being sinned against doesn’t relieve us of any responsibility to care for those who may have sinned against us. Indeed, for all of us, the starting point must be our attitude, even—and perhaps especially—when we must call out and share hard truths. And while it can happen, rarely is there a situation where one person is 100 percent wrong, and the other is 100 percent right.

Adams has a grasp of human nature, not as he wants it to be but as it exists. The humility we should seek in our interactions with others must lead to introspection: are our actions and attitudes making a bad situation worse or better?

The book doesn’t answer all the questions about how we can proceed. For example, there is a dearth of systematic evidence for the approaches Adams supports. But no book is going to be everything to everyone.

Taking a pastoral approach to move beyond racial polarization has been a critical missing element, as most of the literature on the subject has been written by either scholars or activists. By supplying that element, Adams has done the body of Christ a great service. While all Christians will benefit from this work, I especially think pastors will gain important tools to minister to individuals of different races and to help them have better conversations.

Starting Point

As Adams acknowledges, talk by itself will not solve the racial problems that trouble our society. Some individuals have listened to many different voices and are ready to work toward reconstructing our society in ways that promote both justice and equality. Others have barely begun that conversation and need to be encouraged to start having the type of discussion advanced in this book.

I fear there are far too few of the former individuals and far too many of the latter. Talking About Race can be a valuable tool to increase the number of those ready to engage in collaborative conversations—the kind we need to eventually move away from polarization and toward a healthy interracial Christian community.

As Adams acknowledges, talk by itself will not solve the racial problems that trouble our society.

This book is for those ready to be honest about the failures of Christians to differentiate ourselves from the rest of society on racial issues. Are we willing to take the hard step of considering how we have steered the church off a path of healing? Or do we simply want to go back to our racial and ideological silos, feeling satisfied that our lack of progress is the fault of those on the other team? My prayer is that those who are ready to answer that first, incredibly hard question with “yes” will add Talking About Race to their personal library and begin to deal with the challenges offered by this book.

20 Quotes from Gavin Ortlund on the Beauty of Christian Theism Sun, 16 Jan 2022 05:00:00 +0000 These quotes struck Matt Smethurst as he read Gavin Ortlund’s unique new apologetics book.]]> These quotes stood out as I read Gavin Ortlund’s marvelous new book Why God Makes Sense in a World That Doesn’t: The Beauty of Christian Theism (Baker Academic, 2021), a TGC 2021 Book Award winner. (You can also read my interview with Gavin.)

Even if we possessed an exhaustive understanding of every physical event, such that no gaps in our knowledge remained, we would still not have explained where the world itself came from. Thinking that scientific advance will remove the need for a meta-cause is like getting two-thirds of the way through Hamlet and thinking that the final third will somehow replace the need for Shakespeare. (30)

If there is a Supernature, its relation to nature should be en­visioned as more like the relation between Narnia and England than the relation between any two locations in our universe. We are dealing with the possibility of a different world altogether, not just a different place in the world. (46)

The existence of a Supernature means reality is larger and grander. Peter Kreeft expresses the contrast in this way: [with] supernaturalism, there are more things in reality than in thought; [with] naturalism, there are more things in thought that in reality. (47)

[What about the multiverse theory?] To posit countless unknown worlds just to explain the one we are in turns Occam’s razor into Occam’s beard. . . . Which is simpler: an infinite number of worlds or an infinite person behind the world? (66–67)

Doing math is less like being an architect who builds from scratch and more like being an archaeologist who excavates what is already there. . . . It is difficult to explain why a finite space-time universe that is in constant flux should produce a mental realm characterized by apparently eternal, necessary truths [e.g., math]. Where did this distinct realm come from? How did the temporal produce the permanent? (77, 78)

[When it comes to music], are our brains tricked by the evolutionary process into enjoying something that has no intrinsic reproductive value? . . . [This] feels inauthentic to the experience of music. It is difficult to enjoy music while realizing, My brain is tricking me into the experience of transcendence as a result of the happenstance of evolutionary history. I enjoy this simply because it intersects with factors that helped animals survive. It seems implausible that such richness of experience could emerge from such poverty of causation—almost like a story that is greater than the world in which it is written. (93)

We can make the contrast between a theistic and a naturalistic account of music as stark as possible by describing them in metaphor. [In] a naturalistic worldview, music is like an opiate for a dying man. It is pleasant in such a way as distracts us from reality. Music is pleasant and beautiful, but reality is ultimately chaotic and dark. Thus, we like music to the degree that it pulls us away from what things are really like. [In] a theistic view, by contrast, music is like a window to an imprisoned man. It is pleasant insofar as it is a portal into ultimate reality. It is a little glimmer that there might be more out there. It is one avenue by which transcendence and ultimacy reach down to us, however drab our prison cell may be. (101)

Theism allows us to live within our humanity more comfortably. We need not distrust our deepest intuitions—our intuitions of love, of reason, of beauty. We can relax into them. The fundamental feeling that this world—and our place within it—means something is not deceiving us. We are not “accidental collocations of atoms,” as Bertrand Russell put it—we are characters in the middle of the greatest story ever told. We are not rolling a boulder up a hill with Sisyphus—we are progressing dramatically toward the final chapter. (110–11)

It looks like our world derives not only its being from some kind of transcendent foundation but also a kind of intricate meaning from it as well—much like a story derives meaning from an author. For in our world we discover truths (like math) and beauty (like music) that seem out of place within a strictly naturalistic conception of reality. Moreover, most of us live on the assumption of certain values (like love) and intuitions (like rationality) that are difficult to substantiate within the boundaries of pure natural­ism. Where do these alluringly metaphysical qualities come from? Better sense can be made out of our world, and of our experience within it, on the hypothesis that it has been ordered or structured by something ulterior to itself. . . . [And] consider that the universe includes us—people who reason and love, who feel and imagine, who create and dream, who thirst for meaning and happiness. It’s strange to think that the effect should be greater than the cause—that the personal should derive from the impersonal, that a universe devoid of meaning should produce creatures who cannot live without it. (111–12)

A worldview that allows for the supernatural provides both a more plausible and a more meaningful explanatory framework for these two aspects of moral experience. Specifically, such a worldview can (1) ground objective moral reality and (2) offer moral hope. By contrast, the story that naturalism tells is a dreadful tale in which moral drama is fundamentally illusory, for conscience is deceiving us and no Happy Ending is coming. (113–14)

If all morality is reducible to our biology, then what the Nazis did to the Jewish people is difficult to qualitatively differentiate from a shark eating a seal or a Venus flytrap liquidating a bug. Those with power exploit those without. That is simply how the biological world works. It’s how we all got here. There is no particularly obvious reason why the rules should suddenly change when it comes to our particular animal species, Homo sapiens. (142–43)

Skepticism about metaphysical knowledge verges on becoming self-defeating, since the rational faculties employed to determine that morality is driven by the evolutionary process are themselves the product of the evolutionary process. Why do they get a special exception? As Tim Keller asks, “If we can’t trust our belief-forming faculties to tell us the truth about God, why should we trust them to tell us the truth about anything, including evolutionary science?” (143 n. 73)

For Tolkien, Happy Endings can be seen as revelatory. They function as a clue about the kind of story we find ourselves in. On such a view, the feelings you get at the very end of your favorite movie or novel are a little foretaste of what is going to happen one day. Naturalism, by contrast, leaves us with a much bleaker future. Our movies are deceiving us. There is no Happy Ending, for our personal death will be the end of our consciousness, and the eventual extinction of human civilization will swallow up every memory or consequence of our lives. (157)

With naturalism, it is difficult to find a ground for ultimate moral hope. Nor is such a bleak outlook of the future particularly motivating for the pursuit of justice in the here and now. To be sure, atheists are often passionate advocates for justice, and believers sadly apathetic about justice. But which attitude is the more logical extension of the worldview? With naturalism, there will be no final justice in the universe. There is no final reward for good, nor any final redress for evil; our efforts at justice are relativized by the fact that whatever we accomplish, the consequences will eventually flatten out. With theism, by contrast, there remains the hope that moral accomplishment lives on after this world has ended. Good and evil are working their way toward an ultimate, lasting resolution. Our efforts, however tiny, might contribute to the final product. Such a perspective offers a dignity and significance to moral accomplishment, and therefore to the entirety of the human drama, that naturalism cannot provide. So [there are] two options: our longing for moral justice is either like an opiate to a dying man, distracting him from the harshness of reality, or like a window to an imprisoned man, providing a little glimpse into what reality is ultimately like. Which alternative is more satisfying, to both heart and mind? Which gains more of your respect? Which can you actually live with? (158)

Theism has no neat and tidy answer to [the problem of evil]. But one thing theism can do, which naturalism cannot, is tell you why it hurts so badly. For on theism, evil really is a perversion, a desacralizing, a “fall,” a twisting of what things should be. Theism might not tell you why wrongness is there, just yet; but naturalism cannot even tell you that it is wrong. For naturalism has no supra-physical standard by which to pass judgment; again, on such a view all feelings of the grossness of evil are an illusion fobbed off on us by the evolutionary struggle that predated us. The world simply is, and no Happy Ending is coming. (160–61)

Simply documenting reli­gious evils and then condemning religion wholesale is an instance of the fallacy of composition (inferring a truth about the whole from analysis of the parts). This logic is akin to saying, “Wendy’s, Subway, and Arby’s are terrible; therefore, fast food is bad,” or, “Baseball and golf are boring; therefore, I dislike sports.” (167)

I worry profoundly that the buoyant tone of much twenty-first-century secularism subsists by forgetting, or failing to take seriously, the brutal facts of the twentieth century. Consider this: the bloodiest chapter in the human story was simultaneously an experiment in secularism on an unprecedented scale. Humanity at its most ruthless was without gods or temples. This does not automatically prove that the loss of religious belief leads to violence, though some have argued that. But it does make it impossible to agree with those who regard religion as the cause of the violence, such that once religion is taken away, mercy and tolerance and rationality will reign unhindered. Hart marvels at this atheistic optimism: “Given that the modern age of secular governance has been the most savagely and sublimely violent period in human history, by a factor (or body count) of incalculable magnitude, it is hard to identify the grounds of their confidence.” (171–72)

The Gospels were written and circulated within the lifetime of many who would have remembered the events described. . . . Matthew, Mark, Luke, and John are anchored in the first-century world of Roman politics, Palestinian geography, and Jewish religion. One can read many of the later Gnostic Gospels as more philosophical and timeless in nature; but the canonical Gospels are teeming with little details tethered to historical events (like the census of Caesar Augustus), places (like the Sea of Galilee), and people (like Pontius Pilate). Therefore, much of what the Gospels claimed to receive on the basis of eyewitness testimony (e.g., Luke 1:2) would have been, in principle, verifiable at the time of its writing. If the Gospels had concocted or dramatically warped historical events, this could have been pointed out by people still alive—just as a history book about the Great Depression published in the 1970s could be judged by people who had lived through the events described. (181)

Origins, meaning, conflict, and hope are four anchors of any good story. You might regard them as the four building blocks of any story: every story comes from someone, means something, is shaped by conflict, and then ultimately resolves. . . . The Christian story is not only a more plausible story than its naturalistic counterpart but more interesting, more elegant, more dignifying to humanity, and more hopeful. (209)

To put it simply: if you are looking for God, you will likely succeed; if you are avoiding him, you will also likely succeed. What all this amounts to is this: those who feel trapped by uncertainty, as I did in college, must ask themselves if they are quite certain about their need for certainty. For, ultimately, the demand for certainty springs from the assumption that we know what we need and that we know what we want. But do we? Hasn’t most happiness and truth already come to us through experiences that involve surprise, surrender, and risk? Perhaps certainty is overrated. (213–14)

4 Sources of Endurance in Suffering Sat, 15 Jan 2022 05:00:00 +0000 Many trials don’t feel light and momentary, but Scripture says they are. The grand scheme of God’s purposes will far outweigh our suffering and eventually overwhelm it.]]> The final month of both of my pregnancies was undoubtedly the hardest. I couldn’t get comfortable, the days felt like weeks, and I couldn’t help but wonder, How long, O Lord, until this baby comes? Pregnancy involves endurance, a small picture of what’s required of us in the Christian life as we navigate this world as pilgrims, waiting for the Lord to return or take us home.

Our hearts cry, How long, O Lord? And we wait. We labor. We groan as the creation groans to see its brokenness made new and beautiful. We yearn in our earthly tents for solid, eternal buildings. As a pregnant mother longs to hold her child, we long to see the guaranteed result of our endurance. And sometimes in our suffering, we wonder if we will in fact endure.

Four Sources of Endurance

How can we press on as we traverse this broken world? In his letter, James encourages us with at least four sources of endurance.

1. You can endure because God will use your suffering.

Count it all joy, my brothers, when you meet trials of various kinds, for you know that the testing of your faith produces steadfastness. And let steadfastness have its full effect, that you may be perfect and complete, lacking in nothing. (James 1:2–4)

We do not count trials as joyous, just as a mother does not call the pain of labor and delivery pleasant. Rather, we count what God is doing in and through those trials as joyous. And what is he doing? Increasing our faith. Making us like himself. Teaching us Christlikeness. Molding us into spiritual maturity.

We can count trials as “all joy” because trials train us in godliness. Unless there is labor and delivery, there is no baby; unless there are trials to test and train our faith, there is no faithfulness and little fruit. We can endure because our suffering isn’t useless, and our God is at work in the midst of it.

2. You can endure because God will end your suffering.

Blessed is the man who remains steadfast under trial, for when he has stood the test he will receive the crown of life, which God has promised to those who love him. (James 1:12)

Many trials don’t feel light and momentary, but Scripture says they are (2 Cor. 4:17). The grand scheme of God’s purposes will far outweigh our suffering and eventually overwhelm it.

Know this: Your suffering comes with an expiration date.

Friends, your suffering will end—your God will see to it. We don’t know his timing or his means, or even grasp all his purposes in bringing us through the fire right now. But we do know his promise: “He will wipe away every tear from their eyes, and death shall be no more, neither shall there be mourning, nor crying, nor pain anymore, for the former things have passed away” (Rev. 21:4).

Know this: Your suffering comes with an expiration date. It won’t last forever. And this promise gives us hope to press on.

3. You can endure because God will reveal himself to you in your suffering.

Behold, we consider those blessed who remained steadfast. You have heard of the steadfastness of Job, and you have seen the purpose of the Lord, how the Lord is compassionate and merciful. (James 5:11)

Our greatest gain—above even the removal of our suffering and perfect blessedness in glory—is Christ. He is our aim, our goal, the joy set before us. We will endure as we fix our eyes on him and seek him in the midst of our trials; and he is gracious to use these trials to reveal himself to us.

Why does James mention Job at the end of his letter? Job endured horrific suffering with steadfastness, and the Lord used all of it to reveal himself to Job as a compassionate and merciful Redeemer (Job 19:25). If Job had known less of pain and trials, he would have known less of his Savior.

When we are desperate, we are more likely to turn to the Lord. When we come to him, he will minister to us from his infinite stores of love and grace. And we will come to know him in new and deeper ways.

4. You can endure because God will receive you in your suffering.

Then Job arose and tore his robe and shaved his head and fell on the ground and worshiped. And he said, “Naked I came from my mother’s womb, and naked shall I return. The Lord gave, and the Lord has taken away; blessed be the name of the Lord.” In all this Job did not sin or charge God with wrong. (Job 1:20–22)

Few pregnant women decide to remain stoic during labor and delivery. No, as a woman labors and feels pain, she expresses her groaning and cries out for deliverance. Similarly, as we endure suffering, we can bring our cries and pleas, lament and grief, to the God who can handle it all.

If Job had known less of pain and trials, he would have known less of his Savior.

Job endured his suffering by tearing his clothes, sitting in the dust, even asking God many questions—and Scripture is clear that he did not sin. As you endure trials, bring your cries and cares to the Man of Sorrows who knows and understands, since he endured the most horrible suffering in your place. Lament isn’t wrong. Even Jesus wept, and he will receive you in your tears.

For the Joy

For the joy set before us, we press on in our suffering. As a waiting mother will eventually hold her baby after much hard labor and whisper, “You were worth it all,” so the church of Christ will one day behold his face and testify to the same: “Worthy are you, our Lord and God, to receive glory and honor and power” (Rev. 4:11).

We press on toward this beautiful end in steadfast endurance—toward Jesus, the Son of Righteousness, in all his majesty and beauty.

When Should I Give Raises to My Employees? Fri, 14 Jan 2022 05:03:00 +0000 It’s your responsibility to pay the people you manage a fair and appropriate wage for the work they do.]]> I’ve recently been promoted inside my mid-sized organization, which means I now have a say in how much we pay our employees. How can I think biblically about wages and raises?  

Fiscal responsibility is an important aspect of any organization, and it is up to leaders to create systems and processes enabling good and healthy stewardship. Part of fiscal responsibility is answering questions: How much should my employees make? What type of insurance package should we provide? Am I being both ethically and fiscally responsible in how I care for my employees?

Trying to determine compensation can be complex, and perspectives vary widely on acceptable practice within various sectors. This article will not tell you how much to pay each of your employees. Instead, it will examine what the Bible has to say to employers, and how they should treat their employees and regard their work.

Biblical Foundation for Wages

Paul tells us that wages for work are not a gift, but what someone is due (Rom. 4:4). You aren’t doing employees a favor when you cut them paychecks. You are paying them their due.

When determining how much someone is due, be careful to be prompt and fair (Deut. 24:14-15; James 5:4–5; Jer. 22:13). The Bible is clear that employers will be held accountable before the Lord for how they treat and pay their employees. It’s your responsibility to pay the people you manage a fair and appropriate wage for the work they do.

Compensation Conversations

Before you open compensation conversations with your employee, make sure you know your company’s stance on raises. Do you regularly give cost of living increases? What qualifications would merit a larger raise? If you give a raise to one employee, does it obligate you to give raises to others? If your organization brought in a surplus, do those funds become raises? Or is that capital reinvested for long-term business?

Make sure you understand how the pay structure operates, and be as transparent as possible when explaining it to your employees.

Giving Raises

Ideally, your employees would not have to ask for a raise because you are attuned to their responsibilities, the quality of their work, and when those factors deserve a larger paycheck.

Ideally, your employees would not have to ask for a raise.

Of course, that doesn’t always happen. So here’s some practical advice for how to have fruitful discussions about pay.

1. Create systems that allow for annual evaluations of employees with their direct reports.

During these conversations, address changes in job descriptions, areas of strength and weakness, and compensation. This provides a natural space for employees to discuss requests for a raise or, even better, for you to offer a hard-earned increase. It also gives you a chance to explain why you’re able to give a bonus in a good year but need to freeze wages in a less profitable time.

2. Create a culture in which people want to work with and for you.

If you work for a nonprofit, you likely will not have the option to pay your employees standard market wages. But you can help bridge the compensation gap if you work to cultivate a culture in which people flourish and enjoy coming to work. One of the ways you can do this is by knowing your employees. Spend time with the people who report directly to you. Ask them questions. Figure out not only what they produce for your company but also their character. Keeping professional boundaries does not mean the people who work for you need to be strangers.

3. Set compensation based on position rather than personal situation.

It is common within Christian organizations for pay to be determined by factors that have nothing to do with the position or the required skills. Over the years, I have seen a single guy in his late 20s come on staff with a church and be told, “This is your starting wage, but once you get married and have a family, we can talk about an increase so you can take care of them.” I have also seen a woman working for a nonprofit Christian organization learn her male counterpart makes more money because “he is the provider for his family.”

While the intention is well-meaning, this reasoning means single people and women will almost always be compensated less for reasons that aren’t based on their performance or job responsibilities. This is both unfair and unbiblical. In the Scriptures, more responsibility is given to those who have been good stewards (Matt. 25:23; Luke 16:10), not to those with more children.

What’s more, single people also pay down mortgages, support family members, and give generously to the poor. And women often need to provide for their families. Don’t take that from them.

Steward Well

Hard conversations are bound to happen. There will be times someone requests more money, and you will have to say “No.” That isn’t wrong—if people do a job for the original wages they agreed to, they aren’t automatically entitled to more (Matt. 20:1–16).

You are accountable to the Lord for how you care for your employees and how you steward the resources given to you. Steward them well, and honor God in how you choose to do so.

You may want to use this simple prayer: “God, help me to honor and dignify the people who are in my employ. Give me wisdom on how to compensate fairly and appropriately. Help me to be a good steward of the resources you have given me. Protect my heart from greed and give me a spirit of generosity toward all of those in my care.”

The Secular Creed Fri, 14 Jan 2022 05:02:00 +0000 Rebecca McLaughlin encourages Christians to take cultural critiques of modern evangelicalism seriously.]]> Rebecca McLaughlin led a breakout session during TGC21 titled “The Secular Creed” based loosely on her recently released book by the same title. Framing her teaching within current cultural critiques of modern evangelicalism and its history, she encourages Christians to take the critiques seriously and avoid simply defending our tribe.

She focuses on four points:
– Jesus demands diversity
– Jesus defines sexuality
– Jesus defends women
– Jesus desires repentance

Embrace the Cruciform Life Fri, 14 Jan 2022 05:00:00 +0000 What can pastors and church leaders do when we see our ministries as both the source of and solution to our shame?]]> Pastors experience shame too. Our shame—like everyone else’s—began in Eden, and we trace its path in our lives through a variety of things we have done and things done to us.

There are even times when the ministry itself feels like a source of shame. We feel misunderstood. Our ministries are not what we envisioned. Our persistent calls for people to come, to care, to contend for eternal things leaves us feeling vulnerable to their rejection. Over decades of ministry, accumulated vulnerability can take its toll.

Yes, we know where to look for hope. We can look to Christ and remember the dignity of belonging to him. But isn’t it sometimes easier to deliver this promise to others than to know it ourselves?

Sometimes pastors can preach to others that Christ has taken our shame, even as we use our ministry calling to cover ours. Sometimes we place a burden upon the ministry (to be seen, known, loved, and belong) that it cannot bear.

So what can pastors and church leaders do when we see our ministries as both the source of and (false) solution to our shame?

Remember Truth. Confront Lies.

We experience relief when we remember our identity in Christ: we are seated with him not as a result of works done by us but because of his work on our behalf. Indeed, knowing we are fully seen and known by God, and yet fully loved and chosen by him, can be sufficient to draw us out of our despair.

But why is this relief often short-lived? Previously, I assumed the problem was forgetfulness. I just needed to create more reminders that reoriented me to the truth. But when I considered the ministry conditions that led me to feel shame, I realized I was delighting in a truth without uprooting the lie.

Sometimes pastors can preach to others that Christ has taken our shame, even as we use our ministry calling to cover ours.

Church attendance dwindles and our sense of acceptance along with it. We think we are as significant as our last sermon. Our influence wanes and we fear we will be forgotten. What’s the lie here? We wrongly believe crowds, visible impact, and growing influence among those we do not know is the path to dignity. But this creates a spiral in which the sources and solutions to our shame become the same thing: worldly measures of success and affirmation.

To confront this lie, we must not only remind ourselves of our identity in Christ but also that we identify with him. When we do, success and dignity take on new meanings.

‘Identity in’ and ‘Identify with’

What does it mean to identify with the man of sorrows, acquainted with grief? Mark records a conversation between Jesus and two disciples who longed to be seated with him at his right and his left. In response, Jesus asked, “Are you able to drink the cup that I drink, or to be baptized with the baptism with which I am baptized?” (Mark 10:38).

He responded to their request to identify with him in his glory with a question about whether they would identify with him in his suffering. Were they willing to rethink their concept of honor and dignity in light of the cross?

Jesus was despised and rejected by men, with no beauty or majesty that any should desire him, perceived as cursed by God and afflicted. When we experience suffering that remotely resembles these things, do we consider it unnatural for a minister of Christ or the incredible privilege and costly dignity of following him?

When the American dream, and not the suffering of Christ, shapes our expectations for ministry, we will cling to our identity in him only in the moments we don’t succeed—without ever questioning our definitions of success in the first place. We will find our identity in Christ but still prefer not to identify with him. We will relish the comfort of “identity in” without embracing the discomfort of “identify with.”

Imitation and Association

There are times when I place my desires for ministry on one side, and the crucified son of a carpenter on the other, and ask myself which ministry I would rather emulate and with whom I would associate.

To be sure, none of us is Christ, called to bear the sin and suffering of the world, and it takes wisdom and relationships to discern whether we are trying to be. However, we are called to embrace a cruciform life, in which the cross doesn’t simply teach us that Christ has died, but teaches us how to live.

We are called to embrace a cruciform life, in which the cross doesn’t simply teach us that Christ has died, but teaches us how to live.

Christian ministry is cross and resurrection, sacrificial love and life. We who live are given over to death for Jesus’s sake so that his life may be manifested in our mortal bodies. While a kind of death is at work in us, resurrection life is at work in those we love (2 Cor. 4:11–12).

But even if this new life is not visible to us—even if there is more dying than rising in our ministry—shame need not cover our faces. Not if imitating Christ and being associated with him is the greatest honor of our lives. Not if sharing in his glory in heaven and his suffering on earth is our fullest joy.

Ministry is a labor of love that will force us to face our fear of rejection, our fear of being forgotten, and our fear of being perceived as a failure. When it does, we can rest in our identity in Christ, know the glory of identifying with him, and minister without shame.

The FAQs: Supreme Court Blocks Biden’s Workplace Vaccine Mandate Thu, 13 Jan 2022 05:05:17 +0000 The Supreme Court has blocked a COVID-19 vaccination mandate by President Biden’s Occupational Safety and Health Administration (OSHA). Here’s what Christians should know.]]> What just happened?

On Thursday, the Supreme Court blocked a COVID-19 vaccination mandate by President Biden’s Occupational Safety and Health Administration (OSHA). (In a related case, the Court has temporarily allowed similar mandates enacted by the Centers for Medicare and Medicaid Services [CMS] that affect the staff of many types of Medicare and Medicaid health-care providers.)

The OSHA mandate, which affected about 84 million Americans, will remain on hold pending legal challenges to the rule in the U.S. Court of Appeals for the Sixth Circuit.

What is OSHA?

OSHA, part of the United States Department of Labor, was created by Congress in the Occupational Safety and Health Act of 1970. The purpose of OSHA is to “ensure safe and healthful working conditions for workers by setting and enforcing standards and by providing training, outreach, education and assistance.” OSHA regulations apply to most private sector employers and their workers.

What was the OSHA vaccination mandate?

Last November, the Biden administration issued an emergency temporary standard (ETS) to “protect unvaccinated employees of large employers (100 or more employees) from the risk of contracting COVID-19 by strongly encouraging vaccination.” The rule required that employers of large companies must “develop, implement, and enforce a mandatory COVID-19 vaccination policy, with an exception for employers that instead adopt a policy requiring employees to either get vaccinated or elect to undergo regular COVID-19 testing and wear a face covering at work in lieu of vaccination.”

The rule applied to all employers with 100 or more employees.

Did the mandate include a religious exemption?

The rule included exemptions for employees in three categories: (1) those for whom a vaccine is medically contraindicated, (2) those for whom medical necessity requires a delay in vaccination, or (3) those who are legally entitled to a reasonable accommodation under federal civil-rights laws because they have a disability or sincerely held religious beliefs, practices, or observances that conflict with the vaccination requirement.

However, as the Ethics and Religious Liberty Commission has pointed out,

While there are stated religious liberty exemptions, it is concerning that the ETS requires each covered employer to establish and implement their own written policy regarding religious exemptions. With this rule, each employer is effectively tasked with creating their own policies, and there will be thousands of different policies throughout the country, leading to inconsistent application and confusion. The proposed rule doesn’t offer any guidance for how to structure exemptions for objectors who have sincerely held religious beliefs.

Why was the rule struck down by the Supreme Court?

The rule was blocked because the majority of the justices believe OSHA had overstepped its legitimate statutory authority.

The majority opinion notes, “The [Labor] Secretary has ordered 84 million Americans to either obtain a COVID–19 vaccine or undergo weekly medical testing at their own expense. This is no ‘everyday exercise of federal power.’ It is instead a significant encroachment into the lives—and health—of a vast number of employees.”

The ruling points out that the OSHA is only empowered to set workplace safety standards that concern “occupational” hazards, not broad public health measures. “Although COVID–19 is a risk that occurs in many workplaces, it is not an occupational hazard in most,” said the Court. “COVID–19 can and does spread at home, in schools, during sporting events, and everywhere else that people gather. That kind of universal risk is no different from the day-to-day dangers that all face from crime, air pollution, or any number of communicable diseases.”

“Permitting OSHA to regulate the hazards of daily life—simply because most Americans have jobs and face those same risks while on the clock—would significantly expand OSHA’s regulatory authority without clear congressional authorization,” they added.

The decision was 6–3, with the Court’s three liberal justices—Justices Stephen Breyer, Sonia Sotomayor, and Elena Kagan—dissenting.

Why does this ruling matter to Christians?

Numerous employers and workers at Christian organizations, including those who support vaccinations against COVID, opposed the mandate as an illegitimate use of government power over religious institutions. Two theological seminaries in Kentucky—The Southern Baptist Theological Seminary and Asbury Theological Seminary—even sued the Biden administration, asking the courts to block the mandate as unlawful.

“It is unacceptable for the government to force religious institutions to become coercive extensions of state power. We have no choice but to push back against this intrusion of the government into matters of conscience and religious conviction,” said Albert Mohler, president of Southern Seminary. “This institution exists for the purpose of educating ministers for churches. This seminary must not be forced to stand in for the government in investigating the private health decisions of our faculty and employees in a matter involving legitimate religious concerns.”

Is It Ethical to Transplant a Pig Heart into a Human? Thu, 13 Jan 2022 05:03:07 +0000 In a medical first, surgeons transplanted a genetically modified pig heart into a human patient. Is such animal-to-human transplantation ethical?]]> The Story: In a medical first, surgeons transplanted a genetically modified pig heart into a human patient. Is such animal-to-human transplantation ethical?

The Background: In a first-of-its-kind surgery, a 57-year-old man with terminal heart disease received a successful transplant of a genetically modified pig heart. According to the team at the University of Maryland who conducted the surgery, the procedure was the only currently available option for the patient.

This organ transplant demonstrated for the first time that a genetically modified animal heart can function like a human heart without immediate rejection by the body, says the University of Maryland Medical Center (UMMC). The U.S. Food and Drug Administration granted emergency authorization for the surgery on New Year’s Eve through its expanded access (compassionate use) provision

Animal-to-human organ transplants were first attempted in the 1980s. In a famous case, Stephanie Fae Beauclair (known as Baby Fae) was born with a fatal heart condition and received a baboon heart transplant. She died within a month of the procedure due to the immune system’s rejection of the foreign heart, and similar transplant attempts were abandoned.

Medical researchers hope the use of pig organs will prove to be more successful. For the transplant at UMMC, four genes were “knocked out” of the pig organ to make it more compatible for use in a human. Six human genes responsible for immune acceptance of the pig heart were also inserted into the pig genome.

“This was a breakthrough surgery and brings us one step closer to solving the organ shortage crisis. There are simply not enough donor human hearts available to meet the long list of potential recipients,” said Bartley P. Griffith, MD, who surgically transplanted the pig heart into the patient. “We are proceeding cautiously, but we are also optimistic that this first-in-the-world surgery will provide an important new option for patients in the future.”

More than 100,000 Americans are currently waiting for an organ transplant, and 17 die each day waiting for a transplant, according to the federal government.

What It Means: Is it ethical to transplant animal organs into humans?

Most Christians have never had to consider the ethics of xenotransplantation, the transplantation of an organ or tissues from one species to another. But because of technological advances in biomedicine, that may soon change.

The reality is that such cross-species transplantation has been occurring—or at least attempted— for almost 300 years.

Cross-species transplantation has been occurring—or at least attempted— for almost 300 years.

In 1167 the French doctor Jean-Baptiste Denis, court physician to King Louis XIV, tried to infuse the blood from a lamb into a human (he believed the blood of a lamb, the symbol of the blood of Christ, would be a purer form of animal blood). In 1838 the first corneal transplant from an animal (a pig) was performed on a patient—65 years before the first human-to-human corneal transplant. Also, in the 19th century skin grafts became relatively popular between various animal species (sheep, rabbits, dogs, cats, rats, chickens, and pigeons) and humans. More recently, pig heart valves have been used successfully for replacing valves in humans.

Just because something has been done for centuries, of course, doesn’t mean it’s morally legitimate. But the reason it’s been done without much public outcry is that many Christian bioethicists (as well as Jewish and Muslim bioethicists) don’t consider such transplants to be unethical or going beyond proper natural limits. A procedure that does goes beyond such limits is the creation of animal-human chimeras. Chimeras are animals composed of cells that originate from two or more different species. To create an animal-human chimera, scientists introduce cells from one species into the developing embryo or fetus of another.

A distinction is often made by Christian bioethicists between the different uses of animal parts. For example, in 2005, Dr. Ben Carson, who at the time was director of pediatric neurosurgery at the Johns Hopkins Medical Institutions and a member of the President’s Council on Bioethics, said in a hearing on human-animal chimeras:

I think it’s very important as a council that we make sure that we distinguish between using human or animal parts across species, such as insulin, heart valves, things of that nature, and mixing the genetic material that has proliferative capacity. I mean, there’s a huge difference between those two things. We need to make sure that the public understands that we are distinguishing between those two things.

What distinguishes the two is that in chimeras, the mixture of animal-human parts becomes entangled during the developmental stage in a way that crosses a moral boundary. For example, the human cells could end up in gonadal tissue and form human gametes (eggs or sperm) within the animal’s body. The same concern for interspecies mixing is not true for the use of animal organs within an individual human. (A more worrying concern is the possibility of a virus mutating across species and creating a plague-like epidemic.)

In Genesis, God made clothes for Adam and Eve from animals (Gen. 3:21) and later gave animals for food (Gen. 9:3). Xenotransplantation could arguably be considered an extension of this legitimate use of animals for man’s survival needs.

While we need to continually be cautious about abusing our roles as stewards of the animal kingdom and avoid crossing obvious interspecies barriers, we should also give thanks to God for the lives that may be saved by such transplants.

10 Tips Before You Start a PhD Thu, 13 Jan 2022 05:02:00 +0000 Choose to study in the presence of God.]]> For many seminary students, the thought of a PhD simultaneously entices and repels. On one hand, there are books—lots of glorious, thought-provoking, soul-shaping books! On the other, there are books—lots of intimidating, confounding, expensive books! Besides books, the classes, research, and papers promise to fill your intellect but empty your wallet and energy. Determining if you should pursue an advanced degree takes prayer, sober judgment, and wise counsel.

If the Lord has called you to undertake a PhD, soak up all the advice you can find. From my own observations, conversations, and experiences, I offer 10 tips to help you succeed. This list is not exhaustive, but it may set you on the right track and help you avoid pitfalls.

1. Don’t begin until you find a topic you’re passionate about.

Instead of completing their PhD, many students have an “ABD” (All But Dissertation). They make it through their course work, but they burn out when it comes time to write their dissertation because they lose interest in their topic.

When I was seeking a topic for my dissertation, it was important for me to have a green light from my wife. I wanted her support, and I wanted her to believe in my topic. After many failed attempts, I hit on a topic that combined my major research interests. Only then did she give her approval. I am glad she pushed me because I needed a topic that would keep me energized until the very end. I pray you can find a topic that enthralls you, too.

2. Write papers on your topic during your course work.

One of the benefits of defining your topic first is that you can study, research, and write in your topic area during your course work. This gives you more time to become acquainted with the scholarship in your field, build a stout bibliography, and test your ideas long before you submit your dissertation. A friend of mine was able to complete his PhD in three years because he strategically wrote papers during his course work that he parlayed into chapters in his dissertation.

3. Find a good mentor professor.

My advisor believed in me and wanted me to succeed. That meant he pushed me until he was satisfied that my work would stand up to scrutiny. Because I knew my advisor loved me, I could more easily accept his critiques without taking offense. When it’s time to enter a program, the advisor you choose will influence your experience more than almost any other factor—so choose wisely.

As an aside, if your advisor doesn’t love you, you still shouldn’t take offense. Weigh your advisor’s feedback and make the necessary changes with as little pushback as possible. Supervising is a difficult, time-consuming task, so be sure to cut your advisor some slack.

4. Prioritize your family.

A PhD takes phenomenal work and concentration, and you will face the temptation to steal from your family to give to your studies. Don’t give your family the scraps. Schedule time with each member of your family—put it on your calendar.

Doing this may feel impersonal, but you have to make your family a priority. The idea that you can make up for lack of quantity time with quality time is a myth because you can’t have quality time without investing a large quantity of time. You just don’t know when opportunities for quality will strike. Also, share about your work with your family members so they can know how to pray for you and then celebrate with you as you reach significant milestones.

5. Pursue your PhD with a friend.

Many factors have to line up for you to find a friend who wants to complete a PhD at the same time and at the same school, but ask God for such a blessing.

If you can’t find a friend to start the program with you, make an effort to become close friends with at least one classmate. Don’t consider the time you spend building the friendship a distraction. Everything about your journey will improve with a friend. Isolating yourself is dangerous for your scholarship and for your soul.

God gave me the incalculable blessing of doing my PhD with my best friend. We had a blast together. We shared resources, jokes, and miseries together. Between classes, we would play ping-pong in the student center to relieve stress. We also had a healthy competition that kept us churning out papers. Neither one of us wanted to fall too far behind our deadlines because we were determined to graduate together. Joys will be multiplied and challenges divided if you find a friend to go with you.

6. Become a research guru.

Whatever time you invest in improving your research skills will pay huge dividends. Take the time to learn about different databases, Boolean operators, and how to use different search engines. The library has mountains of resources to help you do your work, so take advantage of them.

Libraries offer classes and tutorials on how to find books and articles, improve your writing skills, and structure arguments. On multiple occasions, librarians helped me find out-of-print and other obscure resources. They scanned pages from hard-to-find books when I needed a quotation or a footnote. They helped me so much, I thanked them on the acknowledgments page of my dissertation.

7. Take careful notes as you read and track citations.

Early in your studies, develop a method for categorizing and saving quotations. Be sure to include the bibliographic information along the way. Otherwise you will waste untold hours tracking down the source (learn from my mistakes).

Utilize an app like Evernote, Scrivener, or Zotero and stick with it, so that when it comes time to write, you will have all your research at your fingertips.

8. Eat right, exercise, and sleep.

You’ll need all the brain power you can get, so take care of yourself physically. You’ll be sitting behind a computer for hours a day, stretching your mental powers to their limits. Don’t be like my friend who lived off Mountain Dew and Doritos. A reasonable diet, exercise, and sleep routine will benefit your scholarly work.

When my father was in seminary, one of his classmates went to the doctor seeking relief for skull-crushing headaches. When the doctor found out that he was a graduate student, he referred him to an ophthalmologist. The ophthalmologist told him he had eye strain, so he needed to pause every hour and rub his eyes.

The man took the doctor’s advice and would pause every hour to close his eyes and pray for five minutes. He said this practice not only resolved his problem with headaches and helped his academics, but it revolutionized his spiritual life.

9. Reach out to other scholars.

The deeper you dive into your topic, the fewer scholars will have expertise in your area. Those who do have expertise in a specific area often find that only a handful of people read their academic works, so when someone shows interest in their specialty, they are usually happy to share their knowledge.

Whenever I wrote to scholars about their work, I found them eager to help. On a few occasions, I needed to make sure I was interpreting their work fairly or to get clarification about something they said. I’m glad I took the time to contact them. Their feedback significantly strengthened my work.

10. Study coram Deo (before the face of God).

Academic studies should make you a better worshiper, but this can only happen if you intentionally bring your studies into the presence of God. Paul warns that knowledge puffs up (1 Cor. 8:1), but this doesn’t mean we should wallow in ignorance. Paul also says, “Do your best to present yourself to God as one approved, a worker who has no need to be ashamed, rightly handling the word of truth” (2 Tim. 2:15; cf. 2 Tim. 3:16; Ps. 1:2; 111:2; Ezra 7:10).

One of the highlights of writing my dissertation came when I was studying how God adopts those who are united to Jesus by faith. I was studying Romans 8 and reading C. E. B. Cranfield’s commentary. Cranfield points out that in the Garden of Gethsemane, Jesus addressed God the Father as “Abba ho Pater” (Mark 14:36).

Cranfield added that in the act of adoption, the Holy Spirit takes those very words of Christ and puts them on the lips of believers so we also may cry “Abba ho Pater” (Rom. 8:15). That undid me. Sitting in my little study, buried under piles of commentaries and journal articles, in the midst of the most academically intense period of my life, I put down my head and worshiped God.

That experience was a gift because I now know firsthand that academics can feed worship. Don’t let academics become a dusty, heartless enterprise. Choose to study in the presence of God.

May these tips help you as you consider whether and when to pursue a PhD, and may you always do your academic work—and whatever else you do—heartily, for the Lord (Col. 3:2).

Why Are We All So Restless? Thu, 13 Jan 2022 05:00:00 +0000 Where does this sense of peaceless unease come from? And what can be done about it?]]> Few writers can capture the spirit of a society in a single paragraph. Even fewer can do it in ways that remain painfully insightful 200 years later. That is what makes Alexis de Tocqueville’s comment on the United States in the 1830s so striking:

It is a strange thing to see with what sort of feverish ardour Americans pursue well-being and how they show themselves constantly tormented by a vague fear of not having chosen the shortest route that can lead to it. The inhabitant of the United States attaches himself to the goods of this world as if he were assured of not dying, and he rushes so precipitately to grasp those that pass within his reach that one would say he fears at each instant he will cease to live before he has enjoyed them. He grasps them all but without clutching them, and he soon allows them to escape from his hands so as to run after new enjoyments. . . . Death finally comes, and it stops him before he has grown weary of this useless pursuit of a complete felicity that always flees from him. (511–14)

The restlessness of Americans fascinated Tocqueville. This vast continent of abundance, in which virtually everyone seemed to be middle class, was nevertheless characterized by a feverish, impatient, anxious, tormented, and grasping spirit. It was as if consumption did not actually bring contentment, as many confidently assumed that it would, and riches did not bring rest. Two centuries on, Tocqueville’s diagnosis still applies—and not just in America, but throughout the Western world.

That observation is at the heart of Benjamin Storey and Jenna Silber Storey’s wonderful new book, Why We Are Restless: On the Modern Quest for Contentment. It’s a remarkable piece of apologetics, not least because the authors never quite put their apologetic (or even Christian) cards on the table. Beautifully written and carefully argued, it’s as searching as it is subtle.

Contented Restlessness

Using the work of four French writers—Montaigne (16th century), Pascal (17th), Rousseau (18th), and Tocqueville (19th)—the Storeys (both professors at Furman University) examine the ways in which human beings try to find rest and happiness and why so many of them end in failure.

Restlessness, the Storeys argue, pervades American life. You can see it everywhere: “in our love for the screen, with its diversions and distractions; in our demand for endless variety in what we eat, drink and wear; in our appetite for mind-altering substances, from pot to Prozac to Pinot Grigio; in our fascination with crises in almost every area of human life” (x–xi). Curiously, they note, restlessness seems to increase with privilege rather than the reverse. The modern middle class, as Tocqueville put it, is “restless in the midst of their well-being.”

But why? Where does this sense of peaceless unease come from? And what can be done about it?

Where does this sense of peaceless unease come from? And what can be done about it?

Four Important Thinkers

For Michel de Montaigne (1533–92), our problem is simply that we’re too concerned with what lies beyond ourselves. Rather than searching for meaning outside of our natural lives—in religion, virtue, honor, knowledge, or whatever—we need to learn instead to practice immanent contentment. The key to happiness lies in simply being at home in oneself and the world: it’s the pursuit of “mere life, life for its own sake, life without the orienting norms of philosophy, politics or faith” (22). Today we might describe it using language like “being present” or “mindfulness.” Happiness is here, not in a world beyond, and we can find it by practicing the right way of life, “oriented by the quest for immanent contentment, for psychic equilibrium in our inner lives and unmediated approbation in our social lives” (48).

To which Blaise Pascal (1623–62), in a nutshell, says: bunk. For Pascal, Montaigne has dramatically understated the problem. He’s accepted trivial and fleeting pleasures as a substitute for real joy, which gets us nowhere, and his proposal is essentially naive. Human beings don’t want platitudes and deflection and a smattering of diversions to keep us distracted; we want truth, and justice, and love, and eternity, and ultimately God.

But we are ignorant, finite, and destined for death. And that means that without the grace of God we’ll be miserable: “Our consciousness of our own mortality and our awareness of our own ignorance make us unhappy. . . . No psychic equilibrium is possible for a being whose desires so radically outstrip his possibilities. Misery follows ineluctably from an honest estimate of the gap between what we want and what we are” (66). We have a deeper problem than Montaigne admits, and we need a deeper solution. Thus Pascal, though he seems more pessimistic than Montaigne, actually seeks a far richer sort of joy and refuses to settle for anything less. This joy, he concludes, can only be found in Christ.

Jean-Jacques Rousseau (1712–78) recognizes that Pascal is onto something—the socialites and philosophes of 18th century Paris are indeed secretly miserable—but he wants to solve the problem a different way. “For Pascal,” the Storeys explain, “we are unhappy because we are alienated from God. For Rousseau, we are unhappy because we are alienated from ourselves. For Pascal, nature is fallen but can be redeemed by God. For Rousseau, man is fallen but can be redeemed by nature” (102). Thus begins a quest to find wholeness by going “all in” on something: solitude, society, citizenship, individualism, education, family. Rousseau pursues each one and finds the contentment he craves to be a mirage every time. His friendships collapse, his family life is a disaster, his experiments in citizenship and education fail; even solitude does not bring him rest.

[Pascal] seeks a far richer sort of joy and refuses to settle for anything less. This joy, he concludes, can only be found in Christ.

But there are lessons to learn from his failures. “Rousseau is like a chemist in a laboratory whose daring combinations of elements have blown up in his face: the experiment kills its author but leaves a telling residue in his beakers” (139). It’s a tragic but instructive legacy. “The modern quest for immanent contentment is destined to leave us as restless as ever, no matter how wholeheartedly we give ourselves to it” (139).

Which takes us back to Tocqueville (1805–59) and his analysis of American restlessness. Tocqueville, like Pascal, suspects that a turbulent unease lies beneath all the Montaignesque talk of prosperity—to say nothing of equality, liberty, and the pursuit of happiness—and the greater the prosperity, the greater the restlessness. His writings are an attempt to teach Americans “the Pascalian lesson that the goods that are their treasure, the justice that is their pride, and the happiness that is their aim can never be enough for a human soul” (144).

It’s a tough sell. Americans, like the modern West in general, are inclined to see the world in immanent, material terms, which makes it harder to believe in the soul and harder to ask deep questions about meaning, spirituality, and transcendence. But that’s exactly the problem. “Without self-knowledge to guide it, the quest for the good life becomes a slapdash sequence of locations, vocations and vacations” (163).

Inevitable Restlessness

Why We Are Restless is a book of exposition, not exhortation. There are no next steps, no knockdown arguments, and no points of application. It does a magnificent job of summarizing four hugely important thinkers with impressive clarity, wit, and brevity and raises some profound questions about the modern quest for happiness in the process. But it’s not a practical guide for how to respond. As such, it’s only fair to say that it wouldn’t be everybody’s cup of tea.

In my view, however, the Storeys have put their finger on something of tremendous significance for evangelism and apologetics in the post-Christian West. In a flat world, where transcendence has been lost and everything is immanent, restlessness is inevitable. As they explain,

Pascal reveals the misery that haunts the quest for immanent contentment like a shadow. That misery—carefully hidden but constantly revealed in the love of diversion so characteristic of modern men and women—is the enduring sign of the mismatch between the kind of happiness we pursue and the kind of beings we are. (178, emphasis added)

But that, of course, presents a powerful opportunity for anyone who is Augustinian enough to see it: “For you made us for yourself, O Lord, and our hearts are restless until they find their rest in you.”

Can a Christian Replace Employees with AI? Wed, 12 Jan 2022 05:03:00 +0000 We don’t need to fear the future, for ourselves or for others.]]> My regional manager has tasked me with identifying employees who can be replaced by our new digital kiosks. Should I object? Should I follow through? Should I seek out some other alternatives? How can I think about this as a Christian?

Just reading your questions raises very challenging emotional, economic, theological, and empirical issues. Thank you for sharing this, and for allowing biblical wisdom to inform you.

Automation is here to stay and only going to grow. In our global economy, no business can ignore reasonable efficiencies. This is more than concern for the bottom line of profits. Businesses exist to serve customers with accessible and affordable products and services. Automation often helps with both of those. A principled and nimble company must adjust to the market. This in itself is not callous or sinful. Our economic system is a gift from God.

At the same time, people matter. We know that in the past, as industrialization or technology changed jobs, many people struggled to adjust. The people you replace will have to find work elsewhere. The good news: technology seems to create at least as many jobs as it replaces. The bad news: the skills of those who are losing jobs may not be the skills needed for the new jobs.

I’m not sure what position you hold in your company, or how much influence you have. But here are four points of wisdom rooted in the Bible that will help you in this hard moment.

1. Count the Cost

First, you may be in a position to ask if the company counted the full cost of automation, including startup, maintenance, upgrades, and other items. Luke 14:28–33 offers wisdom to architects and kings as they prepare for building and battle. Has your company tested automation and surveyed customers for reactions?

It sounds like perhaps it has, and that your responsibilities may be further from those decisions and closer to the employees being replaced. Nevertheless, your supervisors may appreciate any questions or concerns you call to their attention, especially if you reveal hidden costs they may not have considered. You don’t need to do this in a confrontational or aggressive manner, but in a gentle way that assures everyone you are looking out for the good of the company.

If it makes sense, could you suggest hybrid alternatives—something that combines digital assistance and the human touch? In light of our current culture of indifference and anger and often poor service, could your company stand out while still making the profits it needs? Or are there alternative positions in your company where these employees could land?

Remember, God delights in giving wisdom (James 1:5; 3:13–18)—and there is no domain of life unimportant to our Lord.

2. Ask for Wisdom

If the decisions have been made and you are still required to replace some employees, it’s all right to grieve. Letting people go is not an easy task. It will require prayer and wisdom to decide which employees are no longer needed at your company.

God delights in giving wisdom—and there is no domain of life unimportant to our Lord.

In Colossians 4:1, masters are commanded to treat their slaves justly and fairly, and the same principle applies to modern workplaces. Make fair and just choices as you look over your employee roster.

Remember, you don’t need to do this alone. God knows your employees far better than you do, and he knows the way that he leads them (Prov. 16:9). Ask him for help to discern which people you need to let go.

If possible, and without sharing confidential details, ask someone in your church to pray for you as you make these decisions. If you know someone in your church who has had to lay off staff, consider asking her what she learned in the process and inviting her to pray for you as you seek to do it well.

3. Offer Support

Letting employees go doesn’t mean you are to be without mercy (Luke 6:36). In your conversations with employees, be clear and compassionate. If you’re interested in how to lay off someone like Jesus would, consider reading this article. Privately pay for them, and if the relationship warrants, pray with them.

God knows your employees far better than you do, and he knows the way that he leads them.

As a supervisor who knows the skills and capabilities of your staff, you may also know of other companies or jobs where they might fit. Be generous with offering your time and connections to help your former employees land on their feet. You may recognize a talent in them that needs to be developed—if so, recommend classes or training they could take. As appropriate, stay in touch with these employees when they move on, checking back to see if you can help.

4. Care for Those Who Are Left

Whenever anyone is laid off, those who are still employed begin to wonder if their jobs are also in jeopardy. This is a time when the office might be bubbling with worry and gossip. You can lead well by approaching the issue head-on—assuring them and setting fresh goals to pull together and energize your team (Isa. 50:4).

Trust in the Lord

We don’t know the future. Our jobs aren’t a certainty. It’s possible that one day your job may be eliminated as well. But that doesn’t mean we need to fear the future, for ourselves or for others (Matt. 6:34). We don’t even need to worry about bad news (Ps. 112:7).

As you walk through this difficult task, let it draw your heart closer to Jesus, so that you can reflect his gentleness and peace to those around you. I hope you can be a voice of compassion and creativity in this moment.

What’s Wrong with Gossip? Wed, 12 Jan 2022 05:02:00 +0000 When we traffic in gossip, we tear others down and build ourselves up.]]> Oh, how the sons and daughters of Adam love gossip.

Think about how your ears perk up when some­one begins a conversation with “Hey, did you hear what’s been happening with our old friend Jim?” or “Hey, I probably shouldn’t tell you this, but you know what Jenny told me about Suzie?” Those words tend to grab our undivided attention.

Dirty Laundry

Gossip appeals to us because sinners love “dirty laundry.” We love it when people lose, especially those whom we may (sinfully) view as being a few layers above or below us on the social, economic, educational, or celeb­rity strata. We love to hear—and spread—bad news about them. Don Hen­ley nailed this truth in his 1982 hit song “Dirty Laundry.” The lyrics were intended to critique the perceived yellow journalism of mainstream news media, but what Henley saw as true of reporters can be said of us all:

Dirty little secrets, dirty little lies
We’ve got our dirty little fingers in everybody’s pies
We love to cut you down to size
We love dirty laundry

Gossip is appealing to us because we love stories—about us and others. As Matthew C. Mitchell points out, we read our children stories from the time they were born. Gossip is also telling a story, a story that communicates bad news about another person behind that person’s back. Mitchell offers three categories that shine a light to help us see deeper into the shaft of this sin.

Bad Information

Sharing false information or a rumor about another per­son. It could be something you know is true, you know is false, or is mere­ly a rumor. Rumors about another person can be devastating because once they’ve left your mouth and gone into the ears of at least one listener, they are irretrievable.

Rumors are like feathers in a pillow—once they’ve been let out into the wind, it’s impossible to get them back in. They spread uncon­trollably, and they damage and destroy the reputations of others. With social media, it really doesn’t matter whether it’s true. What matters is that it sup­ports your cause or viewpoint.

Bad News About Someone

This is when you share a true story that shames or otherwise paints a person in the worst possible light.

I had a friend whose wife caught him looking at pornography. They were working through the matter with our elders, but another man told me and others all about it. He didn’t like the other man, so he spread news about his fall far and wide, dam­aging the other man. We wound up confronting the man who’d gleefully gossiped, and he eventually left the church, while the man who had looked at pornography was restored.

Bad news for Someone

Scripture depicts gossip as whispering that ruins relationships and separates even the closest of friends: “A dishonest man spreads strife, and a whisperer (gossip) separates close friends” (Prov. 16:28).

When you hear gossip about a friend, it plants suspicion in your mind, which builds a barrier of doubt. By the same token, if your friend gossips to you about somebody else, you’ll certainly wonder if he gossips about you to others. It destroys trust and creates cynicism within relationships. Gossiping words are killing words.

Even the Preacher in Ecclesiastes makes a whimsical reference to the certainty that all sinful humans, at one time or another, will talk about others behind their back. He warns against being thin-skinned when you hear that things have been said about you: “Do not take to heart all the things that people say, lest you hear your servant cursing you. Your heart knows that many times you yourself have cursed others” (Eccles. 7:21–22).

The Root of Gossip

What’s the heart issue behind gossip? The narcissistic duo of self-love and self-promotion. When we traffic in gossip, we tear others down and build ourselves up. Joseph Stowell lists several self-centered impulses that drive us to undermine the good name of another person and make ourselves look good:

  • We are naturally curious, so we want to know the news. Curiosity is fine, even constructive, unless it leads us down the path toward tearing others down with our information. First Timothy 5:13 links being a busybody with gossip. In that case, curiosity has been left unchecked. Solomon says the slanderer is utterly untrustworthy: “Whoever goes about slandering reveals secrets, but he who is trustworthy in spirit keeps a thing covered” (Prov. 11:13).
  • A desire to be the center of attention. We have the scoop on a person of interest to others, juicy information that no one else seems to have.
  • The opportunity to elevate ourselves. As Will Durant said, “To speak ill of others is a dishonest way of praising ourselves.”
  • Malicious words are often spawned by bitterness. I once had a colleague in journalism who spread the worst information about his boss, because my colleague had applied for the job for which our boss had been hired. My colleague vented often as a seeming act of revenge against our boss. He was utterly unaware of how bad it made him look.

Beware the catastrophic sin of gossip. It can kill churches, ruin marriages, destroy friendships—and worse: it can unmask the gossiper as one who professes saving faith, but doesn’t possess it. “I tell you, on the day of judgment people will give account for every careless word they speak . . . for by your words you will be justified, and by your words you will be condemned” (Matt. 12:36–37).

5 Questions About Deacons Wed, 12 Jan 2022 05:00:00 +0000 From being a “shock absorber” to meeting tangible needs, deacons have a crucial biblical ministry.]]>

The topic of deacons is not exactly scintillating. And yet, just the word can spark strong feelings among Christians.

For some, “deacons” is a bit nostalgic, perhaps a throwback to their childhood church. For others, it’s beautiful; the word brings beloved faces to mind—specific servants laboring for the welfare of Christ’s church. Yet for too many it’s a painful word. It’s painful for many pastors. How many times has the work of a church been hindered and harmed by those called to be its most exemplary servants?

One of the tragedies in church life today is the lack of attention given to what biblical deacons are—and are not. Many churches seem content to continue operating from custom and tradition on this subject, with Bibles closed. No wonder many myths abound!

Here are five important questions (and answers) about deacons.

1. What Is the Most Overlooked Deacon Responsibility?

Being a “shock absorber.”

In Acts 6, the seven were not deployed merely to solve a culinary quibble. Food was the occasion, sure, but it wasn’t the deepest problem. The deepest problem was a sudden threat to church unity.

The apostles were faced with a natural fault line that threatened to fracture the very unity Christ died to achieve. The gospel insists, after all, that our unity in Christ supersedes any worldly difference. So make no mistake: the apostles did not delegate the problem to others (vv. 3–4) because it wasn’t important, but because it was. They could have imposed a swift, superficial solution and moved on. Instead, they laid groundwork for an ongoing solution and a permanent church office.

Good deacons love solutions more than drama.

Given the root problem of disunity facing the seven, we can conclude that deacons should be those who muffle shockwaves, not make them reverberate further. Contentious persons make poor deacons, for they only compound the kind of headaches deacons are meant to relieve.

The best deacons, therefore, are far more than business managers or handymen. They are persons with fine-tuned “conflict radars.” They love solutions more than drama and they rise to respond, in creatively constructive ways, to promote the harmony of the whole church.

2. Are Deacons ‘Parallel’ to Elders?

No. The office of deacon “reports to” the office of elder.

In 1 Timothy 3, don’t miss that Paul turns his attention to deacons (1 Tim. 3:8–12) immediately after elders (1 Tim. 3:1–7). It’s as if he doesn’t want us to catch our breath lest we miss the inseparable connection—even the logical order—between the two offices. The structure of the passage suggests that deacons are both paired with and subordinate to the elders they support. This relationship is also implied in the other passage where deacons (plural) are mentioned:

Paul and Timothy, servants of Christ Jesus, To all the saints in Christ Jesus who are at Philippi, with the overseers and deacons. (Phil. 1:1)

The purpose of deacons is inseparably tied to the priority of elders.

The purpose of deacons is inseparably tied to the priority of elders.

By the way, this is why it’s misguided when deacons function as a separate power bloc or second house of legislature through which bills must be passed. Mark Dever offers a helpful illustration:

If the elders say, “Let’s drive to Pittsburgh,” it’s not up to the deacons to come back and say, “No, let’s drive to Philadelphia instead.” They can legitimately come back and say, “Our engine won’t get us to Pittsburgh. Perhaps we should reconsider.” That’s very helpful. But, in general, their job is to support the destination set by the elders.

The elders of a church are not infallible—far from it. Nevertheless, insofar as we are looking to the Bible as our guide for church governance, deacons are never presented as chaperones of the elders who impose a potential “check” on their every decision. In a healthy church, godly deacons execute the vision and oversight of godly elders, not the other way around.

3. What Makes an Effective Deacon (Besides Godliness)?

The work of deacons through the centuries has focused chiefly on tangible needs, particularly caring for the poor and vulnerable. Indeed, their work should never involve less than such mercy ministry. The larger principle of the deacon’s role, though, includes anything in a church’s life that threatens to distract and derail elders from their primary responsibilities.

A deacon should be skilled at spotting practical needs and then taking the initiative to meet them efficiently. But the best deacons don’t just react to present problems; they also anticipate future ones. They love to brainstorm creative solutions to anything that might potentially impede the work of the elders and the flourishing of the Word.

Biblical deacons, then, are like a congregation’s offensive linemen, whose job is to protect the quarterback. They rarely get attention, much less credit, but their labors are utterly indispensable for both guarding and advancing the ministry of the Word. Without effective deacons, elders will suffer incessant distraction and get sacked by an onrush of practical demands.

When eyeing future deacons, look for those who see and meet needs discreetly (they don’t need or want credit), at their own expense (they sacrifice), and without being asked (they take initiative to solve problems).

So, pastor, when eyeing future deacons, look for godly saints who see and meet needs discreetly (they don’t need or want credit), at their own expense (they sacrifice), and without being asked (they take initiative to solve problems). Warning signs in a deacon candidate, then, will include not merely a tendency to be quarrelsome but also a tendency to be disorganized or unreliable. Someone who regularly flakes out, or never returns emails, or always needs to be told what to do, is not yet a good fit for the office. A deacon must be reliable, neither angling for authority nor needing to be babysat.

Show me a church with distracted pastors and a derailed mission, and I will show you a church without effective deacons.

4. What Do Deacons Have to Do with the Mission of the Church?

Much discussion in recent years has centered around the role of “social action” in the church. Is the church’s mission to preach the gospel, to care for the poor, some combination of the two, or something else entirely? These are important conversations, and they hinge on important distinctions—for instance, whether by “church” we mean the institution or the individuals.

In my estimation, much confusion would be alleviated by attending more carefully to an age-old feature of diaconal ministry. Scripture is clear that the central mission of the church is not to cure global poverty, but to preach gospel grace; it’s not to transform the world, but to make disciples heralding the One who has (Matt. 28:18–20). But this by no means suggests that the work of a church is exclusively “spiritual.” This whole article is about a formal office God established in his church to give practical help to those who need it most. Again, diaconal work is more than mercy ministry, but it is not less.

Deed ministry (diaconal) has always served Word ministry (pastoral). What God has joined together, let no church separate.

I sometimes perceive an ironic similarity between churches who want to “just preach the gospel” and those who want to “transform the culture.” The one tends to oppose social ministry in favor of gospel proclamation; the other tends to champion social ministry instead of gospel proclamation. Yet both are susceptible to an impoverished view of the diaconate. In “just preach the gospel” churches, diaconal mercy ministry can be seen as unimportant; in “transform the culture” churches, diaconal mercy ministry can be seen as superfluous and unnecessary—for it’s what the whole congregation exists to do already. In the former, the mission of the church manages to downplay this diaconal role; in the latter, this calling of deacons becomes the mission of the church.

Thus it’s crucial, in churches committed to preaching Christ and making disciples, that we not diminish the diaconate—God’s “social” office for catalyzing spiritual mission. Yes, it’s true that the gospel would not have spread in Acts 6 had the apostles neglected their chief calling to preach and pray. But it’s also true that the gospel likely would not have spread had the seven not risen to meet the widows’ needs.

Perhaps today’s highly charged conversations about the church’s mission would move forward if we had some of these historic ecclesial categories more firmly in place. A holistic ministry that weds these concerns—gospel proclamation and gospel demonstration—is not the latest fad; it’s been par for the course throughout church history. Deed ministry (diaconal) has always served Word ministry (pastoral). What God has joined together, let no church separate.

5. What One Thing Does Scripture Promise to Faithful Deacons?

After sketching a deacon’s qualifications in 1 Timothy 3:8–12, Paul goes out of his way to make one final remark. He knows that deaconing is not for the faint of heart. Much of it is thankless: grunt work, not stage work. So, what will keep a deacon going amid exhaustion and discouragement? A promise:

For those who serve well as deacons gain a good standing for themselves and also great confidence in the faith that is in Christ Jesus. (1 Tim. 3:13)

A faithful deacon will receive two gifts in increasing measure: respect and boldness. The first comes horizontally from the church; the other descends vertically from God. Given the “downward” shape of diaconal work, this promise of respect is particularly beautiful, isn’t it?

A faithful deacon will receive two gifts in increasing measure: respect and boldness.

Though the call to diaconal service is not glamorous, the reward will be glorious.

Do the deacons in your church feel respected? Do they know how much you appreciate their service? Take a moment to encourage a deacon in your church. Give them a call. Buy them a gift card. Offer to babysit their kids. Send them an email. Just do something to put wind in their sails—“a word in season, how good it is!” (Prov. 15:23). Such encouragements are for the good of the flock and the glory of God.

Secularism Proves Christianity’s Influence Tue, 11 Jan 2022 05:03:00 +0000 If ever-increasing secularization reveals anything, it is this: the inescapable influence of Christianity.]]> In October 2019, a British court ruled against David Mackereth in a case that epitomizes our modern culture wars. In a job interview, Mackereth—a doctor with 30 years of experience—wished to reserve the right not to refer to, in his words, “a 6-foot-tall bearded man as ‘madam.’” When he wasn’t hired, he claimed he was discriminated against because he made known that his beliefs were based on Genesis 1:27.

For Mackereth, the belief that “God created man in his own image . . . male and female” was foundational. When the case went to court, they ruled against Mackereth. In particular, the doctor’s belief in Genesis 1:27 was singled out by the judge as “incompatible with human dignity.” And so the verse that lies at the roots of “human dignity” was condemned in a judgment that very much calls to mind the image of a culture sawing at the branch of the tree on which it’s perched.

So has the tide of Christian influence finally gone out? That kind of imagery has long been reflected in the language of conservative and religious types who lament the retreat of faith in the public square. In Dover Beach, the 19th-century poet Matthew Arnold once spoke of the “long, withdrawing roar” of the “Sea of Faith,” leaving us with “neither joy, nor love, nor light.” If Arnold could write this in 1851 (when half of England was in church on a Sunday), what would he make of today? What should we make of it when church attendance in England is around 6 percent, and the biblical foundations of society are often publicly condemned?

It’s worth remembering that tides go out, but they also come in. There have been many “long, withdrawing roars” in church history and equally many extraordinary surges. Tides don’t go out forever. But there’s another way to develop the “sea of faith” analogy: the power of the water is in evidence no matter its current level. The terrain at low tide has been shaped by the ocean as surely as the beach at high tide. In other words, Christianity is still powerfully at work in all these contemporary trends, and those both inside and outside the church should be aware of the dynamics.

Let’s consider them in the Mackereth case. As a committed Christian, his beliefs ran up against transgender ideology, but both outlooks were dependent, in their own ways, on Christian assumptions. In particular, three values—equality, compassion, and consent—were driving the arguments. It’s just that, in the case of certain transgender advocates, those values have been divorced from the Christian story and then combined in a new way.

Let’s examine both: the divorce and the recombination.

Redefining Equality

When equality is divorced from the Christian story, it risks becoming a radical individualism. Ancient people considered their identity in collective ways, and individuality got lost in the shuffle. We have the opposite danger. We consider our society as a loose association of individuals who each have equal rights before the law. It can become very atomistic: I begin my thinking with myself and my identity. Where, in other cultures, I would look outward to discover my identity, in our culture I look inward. Where other cultures major on responsibilities, we major on rights. No wonder a sense of community suffers. No wonder all forms of institutional affiliations are tanking across the board (not just church attendance).

In Christianity, the principle is that all sit equally at the same table. The modern goal is for all to climb equally high up their own ladders. Where the Bible says, “There is neither Jew nor Gentile, neither slave nor free, nor is there male and female, for you are all one in Christ Jesus” (Gal. 3:28), 21st-century Westerners now finish that sentence, “for you are all individuals.” Or, worse, “for you are all interchangeable.” At that point, the distance traveled from the scriptural truth is immense.

Redefining Compassion

When compassion is divorced from the Christian story, it risks generating competitive victimhood. This is the name sociologists have given for the way victim status can be quickly claimed to gain an advantage. In Christianity, the Victim, Jesus, suffered redemptively and offers dignity and hope to the oppressed. The danger nowadays is that our chief desire is not to honor and help victims but to become them. Where virtue was once the cultivation of a great heart, now we seek to demonstrate a thin skin. And with so many claiming victimization—a great many of them having genuine grievances—we lack a richer moral vision to arbitrate.

The danger nowadays is that our chief desire is not to honor and help victims but to become them.

The clashes between feminists (or religious minorities) on the one hand, and trans-rights activists on the other, demonstrate the point. Here we see claims made on both sides about the protection of the oppressed. Which should take precedence, when, and on what grounds? To answer those questions we need a far more robust understanding of the meaning of gender, bodies, personhood, and community. And we need more tools at our disposal than an insistence on “my rights,” the retelling of “my suffering,” and some caps-locked tweets reminding people “IT’S THE 21ST CENTURY FOR GOODNESS SAKE.”

Redefining Consent

When sexual consent is divorced from the Christian story, it risks reducing sex to something far less than the Christian vision. It detaches consent—a vital component of the sexual relationship—from other values, like commitment. It also risks detaching sex from a richer story about its meaning. It can naively assume that sex involves uncomplicated choices regarding a leisure activity. In reality, power differentials, both social and physical, are always present, and sex is woven into the fabric of our bodies, our personal relationships, and our societal structures.

As the individualists we are, we’re formed to view sex as a matter for private individuals making a private transaction. But our identities, our bodies, our lives, and our sexual choices are intimately connected to marriage, children, family, biology, and the wider community. Consent is vital, but it’s not a sufficient foundation for sexual ethics.

When equality is divorced from the Christian story, it risks becoming radical individualism. When compassion is divorced from the Christian story, it risks generating competitive victimhood. When consent is divorced from the Christian story, it risks reducing sex to something far less than the Christian vision.

Now, mix these three abstracted values together in a certain way and you have a heady brew: the power of the individual, the power of the minority, and the power of personal choice, especially in sexual matters. These are foundational beliefs for transgender ideology. For the trans-rights activist it adds up to this: I have an absolute right to self-identify, independent of culture or biology; and, as a minority, my choice must be honored. Obviously this ideology is not Christian, but it emerges from strongly held convictions that would be utterly inconceivable without Christianity.

On the other side, David Mackereth has his own Christian foundations: the rights to religious liberty, to freedom of speech, and to freedom of conscience; science (in particular, biological definitions of sex); and the scriptural authority that grounds our equality in the first place (Gen. 1:27). And so what we have, in this 2019 tribunal, is a clash between traditional and secularized versions of foundationally Christian values.

What was alarming wasn’t so much that the ruling went against Mackereth—in culture wars, some battles are won and some are lost. What was alarming was the reason given. The judge ruled that Genesis 1 was the problem. As Spencer Klavan quipped, calling the image of God “incompatible with human dignity is akin to insisting that seeds are incompatible with flowers, or grain with bread.” It’s to condemn the roots of the tree, even as you depend on the fruits it has yielded. Such a trend toward ever-increasing secularization is not, therefore, a sustainable strategy. It’s a recipe for fracture and not freedom. But one thing it reveals is the inescapable influence of Christianity. Even as Genesis is condemned, it’s condemned for “Christian” reasons.

The tide is out in terms of Christianity’s explicit influence on Western culture. But the terrain has been shaped by a “sea of faith” far deeper and more enduring than our current cultural moment. And as we witness the fear, confusion, and tribalism of our post-Christian age, there are reasons for people within the church—and “beyond” it—to wish for the tide to turn.

Calvinism and Capitalism: What Does Theology Have to Do with Economics? Tue, 11 Jan 2022 05:02:00 +0000 We’ve unnecessarily and unknowingly let flattened theological views determine our perspectives on other issues.]]> I’ve spent my career trying to understand how my faith should influence the way I do economics. How does believing that Christ was crucified, died, has risen, and will return change how I think about resource scarcity and incentives generally, or financial crises and monetary policy specifically? The answer is not clear even after many years.

I read Religion and the Rise of Capitalism by Benjamin Friedman hoping for insight. Friedman, a political economist, argues that 18th-century theological debates made Adam Smith think in a certain way and made the public receptive to his ideas, which led to the development of modern economics (24).

Smith’s big idea was that in the context of competitive markets, the pursuit of self-interest not only could but would lead to benefits for everybody else—and the world found his idea revolutionary. Friedman argues that Smith’s insight and the public reception were possible because of society’s move away from “predestinarian orthodox Calvinism” (5, 168). As a mainstream economist with Reformed theological convictions, this struck me as a provocative claim. If Friedman were right, then what might my theological convictions imply for how I should do economics?

What I found in Friedman’s book was not an answer to that question, nor even primarily an explanation of how Arminian theology led to the rise of modern economics. The book could have been one-tenth the length if that was all it did. Instead, Friedman’s thorough and sweeping history showed more about the joint development of religion and economics.

While Friedman argues that developments in theology drove developments in economics (and politics, among other things), I think his retelling of the history demonstrates considerably more. First, theological developments often reflected false dichotomies between two flattened, unbalanced options. Second, developments in theology and economics reflected each other as well as other variables, especially the Enlightenment.

Unbalanced Theology

One can’t read Friedman’s book without recognizing the disappointing history of the Western church in (not) engaging with nuance and holding tensions. So many theological debates were essentially “It can’t be both” and then people split by going the way of this or that new theology. Does morality or doctrine matter? (Why not both?) Salvation or ethics? Are humans made in God’s image or sinful? Is God good or holy? (197)

When it came to “orthodox Calvinism,” people didn’t reject a nuanced soteriology that affirms God’s sovereignty working through human agency, but an anemic representation of the Reformed view. That’s the sad historical truth. The Enlightenment accelerated the move away from this flattened, hyperbolic view of predestination because when Enlightenment ideals valued human responsibility and agency to a greater degree, Christians felt compelled to reject one simplistic, unbalanced theology in favor of another. The Enlightenment belief in the supremacy of human reason and freedom clearly motivated the desire to pick a side and embrace simplistic answers.

Christians felt compelled to reject one simplistic, unbalanced theology in favor of another.

Reading Friedman’s account, I wanted to cry out for people to draw more deeply from the rich Reformed tradition rather than abandon it. It’s right to affirm human agency, the benevolence of God, and that human progress is possible—the Bible teaches these—and to also affirm the biblical truths that God is sovereign and holy, and humanity is fallen. The Reformed tradition has deep wells to draw from if you want to hold the myriad biblical truths in beautiful balance.

But refusing to hold biblical truths together is precisely what people are inclined to do. And so the Enlightenment didn’t lead to a retrieval and reworking of Reformed principles but to abandonment of a flattened version of them. People didn’t balance tensions and hold multiple values, but changed camps completely when they wanted to accommodate new values—even values they should have held fast all along. I wish everybody would read Adam Mabry’s Stop Taking Sides. Mabry shows how Christians can maintain unity and resist taking sides. We do this by maintaining the tensions that Scripture does call us to.

Looking Through a Hall of Mirrors

The Enlightenment principles that accelerated theological debates also affected Smith’s thinking on human responsibility and the potential for progress. The story is not so simple as “religion drove the development of thinking elsewhere,” but developments in politics and economics and religion all reflected and affected each other. Rather than a linear development, the theological and economic history felt like looking through a hall of mirrors, with thinking about religion and politics and economics all reflecting the others. Friedman argues that we are often unaware of just how much our theology affects our thinking on economics and politics, and vice versa. I think he’s right.

First, religious commitments often amplified, refracted, and deepened other commitments in society, and that’s important. When certain perspectives got codified and crystalized in theological principles, it became much harder to have balanced discussions on political and economic issues. The chasm between opposing viewpoints became wider when cast in theological terms (e.g., 315).

Consider one example. Friedman shows that for several hundred years, economic thinking reflected a strong postmillennial theology (276). The shift from a predominantly postmillennial to premillennial plausibility was driven in part by the historical experiences of the Great Depression and the World Wars (358). Changing historical perspective on the limits of human progress was reflected in both theology and economics. As economic views were reinforced by views on the millennium, different Christians drew wildly different conclusions regarding economic policies.

When beliefs about human progress and agency are held in concert with other biblical values, we can navigate difficult conversations about economic and social policies with balance and nuance. But when our perspectives get flattened into one-dimensional theological commitments, we might lose that balance and nuance—especially if we lose respect for those who disagree with us.

The chasm between opposing viewpoints became wider when cast in theological terms.

Second, the hall of mirrors was distorted. People made numerous category errors, drawing unwarranted conclusions about economics and theology. Arguments might resemble this: “People don’t earn salvation so they can’t do anything to improve their spiritual condition; hence, people also can’t do anything to improve their economic condition (category error)—but wait, economic progress is possible, so people clearly can improve their condition, so maybe salvation is by works” (e.g., 167). Faulty theological reasoning like this often led to wholesale rejections of orthodox Christianity.

Historically, people tended to see binary choices for economics and politics (e.g., liberal or conservative, laissez faire or socialist) because they saw binary choices in religion. There can be very real theological dichotomies. But theological dichotomies need not correspond to dichotomies in economic policy. Theological views of soteriology, or eschatology, might not have direct, one-dimensional implications for other issues, especially economics.

Resist the Flattening

According to Friedman, being a mainstream economist and a “predestinarian orthodox Calvinist” doesn’t make historical sense. Maybe it doesn’t make sense when people hold a theology that is too flattened to simultaneously affirm and value the many truths we find in Scripture.

But you can (and should) value human agency and believe that humans can improve society in meaningful ways, and believe that God is sovereign in salvation and history and that the restoration of all things occurs when Jesus returns. And you can (and should) recognize that navigating economics and politics often requires a complex balance of values and beliefs. Maybe, at times, we’ve unnecessarily and unknowingly let flattened theological views determine our perspectives on other issues.

6 Lessons for Tending Your Time Tue, 11 Jan 2022 05:00:00 +0000 Are you looking for a better relationship with time? I was.]]> I love productivity. I read authors like Cal Newport and Laura Vanderkam, and I listen to podcasts like Organize 365 and Before Breakfast and The Lazy Genius. I’ve collected tips and tricks and habits and goals. I really want to steward my time well—to live a life that is purposeful and effective while it glorifies God.

But all those tips can end up making me feel anxious. Because the truth is, I’m not productive all the time. I have slow days, interrupted days, lazy days. I get tired in the afternoons. I get distracted by social media. And then I feel guilty and anxious about not doing my best with every minute.

And some days, even when I do it “right” and use every minute efficiently, I can end the day exhausted and crabby.

You ever feel like that? Like you can’t win with your schedule? Like you’re swinging between laziness and frenetic activity?

Maybe you’re looking, like I was, for a better relationship with time.

Right Amount of Time

I was a homeschooling mom when I finally began to grasp just how perfectly God made the world. We’re the exact right distance from the sun, with just the right amount of warmth and light. We have the exact right atmosphere—not only for breathing but for protecting us from the cold of space and radiation of the sun. We have the exact right amount of gravity, the exact right soil for growing crops, the exact right amount of water in our water cycle. We have the right plants, the right animals, the right bodies.

Everything is a constraint, to be sure: we can’t breathe in outer space. We can’t grow crops on Mars. We’d be scorched to death on Venus. We have to live here, but it isn’t a prison. Earth is perfectly designed for us.

Isn’t time the same way? God has clearly marked days inside of weeks inside of seasons. Those are our perfect limits: Scientific research verifies that our bodies do best with about seven to eight hours of sleep every night. Our optimal workweek is around eight hours a day: If we do more than 38 hours of work a week, we start to feel starved for time. More than 50 and our productivity dives.

If our days and weeks and years are created by God as a good gift, as right for us as clean air and vegetables, how does that change the way we use them?

A seven-day week—the standard of time set out in Genesis—is so ingrained that when USSR tried a five-day week, and when France tried an eight-day week, both were total disasters.

If our days and weeks and years are created by God as a good gift, as right for us as clean air and vegetables, how does that change the way we use them?

Too Loose or Too Tight

I grew up in Iowa, where I spent more time looking at cornfields than looking at my calendar. The way a farmer behaves his field, much like the way we behave with time, can fall into two extremes—holding it too loosely or holding it too tightly.

A field held too loosely has fallen fallow, with rocks and weeds springing up to choke out the harvest. A day or a season held too loosely is frittered away, wasted with poor planning or too many hours drained on video games or scrolling social media.

On the other hand, a field held too tightly is overcultivated, fertilized with too many chemicals, or planted over and over until the nutrients are depleted and the soil worn out. A day can also be held too tightly—we can schedule too much, wringing economic productivity out of every spare moment, leaving no room for rest or for God’s Spirit to bring an unexpected opportunity.

Instead, with both our gardens and our days, we should aim for nourishing and flourishing, for cultivating healthy productivity. What can us schedulers learn from farmers and gardeners?

Lessons from the Land

1. Planning

Nobody plants a field by tossing out handfuls of seed willy-nilly (unless you want to lose half your crop to birds or rocky soil). Instead, farmers carefully match plants to different types of soil and track what does well where.

We can do the same thing with planning our time. We already match some things—we worship in church on Sunday, we generally work during the days Monday through Friday, maybe we have movie nights on Fridays when we’re worn out.

With a little observation, we can carry that further: maybe you can match focused tasks with the times you feel the most energy (10 a.m., for most of us). Or you can match administrative tasks with a time when you’re feeling less energy (Thursday afternoons, anyone?). Time management expert Laura Vanderkam recommends doing weekly planning on Friday afternoons, when work activities are generally wrapping up. And if you want people to show up for your meetings, aim for Tuesdays at 2:30 p.m.

2. Plowing

If you’ve ever plowed a field (or tried to do anything in a straight line for a long time), you know that starting correctly is crucial. If you’re off in the beginning, even by a little, your trajectory sends you in an increasingly wrong direction.

Our days also need to start well. I don’t want to be legalistic—the Bible doesn’t command morning quiet times—but those who spend time with the Lord first thing testify that it sets the tone for their days. And it doesn’t stop there. Farmers (without autosteer) keep their eyes on a distant target to help them continue in a straight line. We too can keep our eyes on the Lord all day long, constantly realigning our hearts with worship. If you’ve ever paused in your day to quiet your heart with prayer or singing, you know the power of readjusting your focus and refreshing your soul.

3. Weeding

Ever since Eden, we’ve been battling weeds. Gardeners and farmers use all manner of ways to get rid of them—pulling by hand, mulching, hoeing, spraying with chemicals. The only thing you can’t do is ignore weeds, because they never go away on their own.

Our time, too, benefits from attentive pruning. It’s not that the things that crowd our calendars are bad. But each new commitment takes up space and energy, and unless we keep reminding ourselves of what we’re about—and which activities support that—then it’s easy to lose the soil of our weekends and evenings to weeds. Just like the yellow tufts of dandelions and the purple blooms of thistles, the things that choke out our time don’t always look harmful at first glance. They may even be beautiful. But they aren’t what we set out to cultivate. So they have to go.

We can push that analogy down farther into our mornings and afternoons. While we definitely need to take rest breaks, it’s easy to lose time to endless email checks or to unproductive waiting. Being attentive is the best way to spot and prune the weeds in our schedules.

4. Fertilizing

Crops grow by taking nutrients out of the ground. The soil is replenished when those crops die and decompose—unless those crops are taken away to be eaten by people. So farmers use fertilizers such as compost, manure, and chemicals to replenish the soil with nutrients.

In the same way, we can use good habits to work energy back into the moments of our days. Our tasks naturally deplete us, and we know there are activities that don’t help to replenish us—a late-night Netflix binge, scrolling too long on Instagram, or eating candy for breakfast. But there are also habits that do fill us up—getting to bed on time, having a consistent morning routine, singing worship songs in the car, reading a chapter in a book, writing in a thankfulness journal at lunch, walking for 20 minutes in the afternoon, talking with family over a nutritious dinner. There are dozens of healthy ways we can boost the production of our days.

5. Rain

Nothing is more frustrating than bad weather for a person who’s itching to get their hands (or their tractors) into the dirt. Rain derails the day’s plans—but on the flip side, it’s also crucial to the growing process.

Our daily plans can also be derailed—by a colleague who hasn’t responded to our question, or by a household with COVID, or by an unexpected twist in events. It’s easy to feel stumped or frustrated, especially when it’s impossible to see how God is using that for our good (Rom. 8:28). But what if we followed the example of a gardener and wrestled through our disappointment, gave thanks for the rain, and then pivoted to another task?

6. Gleanings

Leviticus provides some of the earliest written farming advice: “When you reap the harvest of your land, you shall not reap your field right up to its edge, neither shall you gather the gleanings after your harvest. . . . You shall leave them for the poor and for the sojourner: I am the LORD your God” (Lev. 19:9–10).

When you schedule your tasks, meetings, and appointments one after another, leaving just enough time to get from one to the next, you’re harvesting your day right up to the edges. If you’ve done this, you know how stressful it can be and how impatient you can become with anybody who slows you down.

But when you leave yourself some space, you have gleanings of time available for those unexpected conversations with colleagues or children. Productivity experts call this margin. You can take time to ask how a friend is doing, exclaim over a child’s artwork, or offer to drive someone home after your shift. Time gleanings relax the pace of your day, which lets you share them with others.

God Is in Control

I could keep going with this analogy—we need to be careful which seeds we plant with our time, mindful of the fruit they yield. We need to schedule breaks, not out of laziness, but knowing that rested soil produces more and better crops. And when we harvest a season of fruitful scheduling, it’s good to take the time to celebrate the accomplishments God has given us.

But the most important comparison is this: We are not in control.

I grew up in Iowa, but I’ve never met a cocky farmer. Farmers know that no matter how carefully they plan, or how straight they plow, or how energetically they weed and fertilize, there is nothing they can do to guarantee a good harvest. God brings the rain and the sunshine. He causes the corn or soybeans or wheat to sprout and flourish. There aren’t many other careers where the inability of the workers to produce results is so obvious.

Farmers know that no matter how carefully they plan, there is nothing they can do to guarantee a good harvest.

In our lives, too, we can schedule and plan, block our time and use the Pomodoro method, but only God brings forth the fruit of our labor. We should steward time as well as we can, while holding our days with open hands, knowing that God alone is directing our steps.

In this new year, may our time be well-nourished and flourishing, giving glory to the One who gave us just the right amount. Soli Deo gloria.

If You Want to Be Content, Stop Looking Back Mon, 10 Jan 2022 05:03:00 +0000 Leave the past in the past. Contentment is found right where we are today.]]> “Why? Why? Why?” The seemingly endless questions of a three-year-old test our patience at times. But even in those moments we rejoice because those whys reveal a budding interest in how the world works. And asking why about the world isn’t just for kids—it’s for all people at every age, because curiosity about creation points to the Creator.

But whys aren’t always good, particularly when they’re focused backward rather than forward. That’s what the preacher in Ecclesiastes tells us:

Say not, “Why were the former days better than these?” For it is not from wisdom that you ask this. (Eccles. 7:10)

Looking back—it’s something we’re all tempted to do from time to time. We look back to something we once had—health, wealth, success, a relationship—that’s now lost to us, perhaps forever. But often our backward look isn’t so much to a major loss but to a time that worked just a little bit better than now.

Perhaps today we don’t enjoy the quality of friendships we knew before, or our marriage hasn’t brought the happily ever after we’d dreamed of. When life today is lacking, when long-held expectations don’t pan out the way we’d hoped, we’re tempted to look to the past, and if we look too long, we might be in danger of actually going back.

Wishing We Could Go Back

Focusing on what we had rather than on what we have is the mark of discontentment, and when discontentment becomes entrenched in our hearts, we find ourselves second-guessing: Maybe I shouldn’t have left. Maybe I should go back. We become consumed with regaining a time in our lives that “worked.”

Focusing longingly on what we had rather than on what we have is the mark of discontentment.

Of course, sometimes going back is the answer: we may need to move back home, take a demotion, or cut something from our schedule. We can seek counsel in God’s Word and from godly advisers to determine if this is the case. But more often than not, it isn’t. And regardless of why we made a change, we are where we are today by God’s providence. “The heart of man plans his way, but the Lord establishes his steps” (Prov. 16:9). Whether our current circumstances are the result of wise or foolish planning, finding our way back to happiness does not begin with packing our bags.

Wishing we could go back to a happier time often stems from our desires for things we lack—increased opportunities to serve the Lord, fulfilling work, a better quality of life, more intimate relationships. Put simply, we’re discontented, and that’s what compels us to seek that missing something or someone.

Searching for Something Better

But the truth is, there’s always something missing, and there always will be until we’re home in glory. If we don’t accept this reality, we’re likely to keep reaching to have it all—because, we reason, if we don’t have it all, we haven’t yet found where God wants us to be. So we leave one place—a home, a church, a relationship—for yet another in hope of something just a little bit better, more fulfilling, more tailored to who we’ve become at this point in our lives.

Contentment is impossible until we accept that God doesn’t direct our steps for the purpose of prospering our earthly circumstances. Everything God does in our lives has one overarching purpose: for us to glorify him and enjoy him forever.

Contentment is impossible until we accept that God doesn’t direct our steps for the purpose of prospering our earthly circumstances.

When we grasp this truth—from our head all the way to our heart—contentment becomes a lifestyle, something that characterizes us. What a joy to realize that contentment is found right where we are today!

Living Contentedly in the Moment

No matter what brought us to our current circumstances, no matter what’s been lost to the past, we can thank the Lord for his wise providence in leading us where we are now, even if we can’t see how his primary purpose is playing out just yet. We can pray, “Thank you, God, that I am in this place, this job, this marriage, because for reasons I cannot understand, it is working for my eternal good and will showcase your glory.”

So we can leave the past in the past. Contentment—the kind that enables us to enjoy today’s blessings and to go without those we lack—has very little to do with our circumstances and everything to do with our union with Christ. In him, we can let the past go. In him, we can live contentedly in the moment. And in him, we can look forward to a glorious future.

In Defense of WWJD Mon, 10 Jan 2022 05:02:00 +0000 “What Would Jesus Do?” is a question that should always be at the front of our minds—even if we no longer wear it on our wrists.  ]]> At this point, “What Would Jesus Do?” seems more at home in a history museum than on a bracelet. The relic of 1990s evangelicalism caught on about the time I was finishing elementary school, and I dutifully joined in the trend and wore the letters in several colors, often to Awana, until they fell apart or were lost.

Eventually, though, I joined the ranks of theologically-minded people for whom the WWJD saying became the butt of jokes—we dismissed it as an example of trite, Christian bookstore faith. Our doctrinally informed response was that Jesus did stuff we Christians can’t. He performed miracles, forgave sins, authoritatively interpreted the Scriptures, and died to save the world. Instead of asking “What Would Jesus Do?,” we newly minted theologians explained, Christians should ask, “What did Jesus command us to do?”

Misguided Criticism

Looking back, I’m not so sure that was the right response, and not just because WDJCUTD would be harder to fit on a bracelet, or because obeying Jesus’s commands is a bad idea. Our criticism of WWJD was misguided on a more fundamental level. Insisting that Jesus isn’t our ultimate example because we can’t do all the things he did confuses his character with his calling.

Insisting that Jesus isn’t our ultimate example because we can’t do all the things he did confuses his character with his calling.

Jesus’s life was not a screenplay we must follow. That was never what anyone who wore a WWJD bracelet meant by it. They weren’t claiming we must all, as one friend memorably put it, “strive toward a life of marrying no woman, raising no children, traveling the countryside hanging out with 12 buddies, and getting into trouble with the law.”

Charitably, evangelicals in the 1990s were saying we should ask how Jesus would behave if he were in our circumstances, taking into account what we know of his character and commands. This sort of imitation of Christ is explicitly taught in Scripture (John 13:13–17; 1 Cor. 11:1; Eph. 5:1–2; 1 John 2:6; and 1 Pet. 2:21). The very name “Christian” implies an identification with Christ that goes beyond mere belief or allegiance. We are to be “little Christs.”

It’s true that we can’t imitate God in all of his attributes, but no one has ever suggested we could. We are, however, called to be human in the way God Incarnate was. There’s a big difference. In The Wonderful Works of God, Dutch theologian Herman Bavinck gives an especially helpful reminder of how central Jesus’s humanity is to his mission, and how essential it is to our salvation that we partake of this humanity.

In his chapter on Christ’s humiliation, Bavinck points out that Jesus’s three offices of prophet, priest, and king are human offices to which we too, in our appropriate way, are called. Bavinck, as is so often the case, is worth quoting:

In the unfolding of the image of God, in the harmonious development of all his gifts and power, in his exercise of the three offices of prophet, priest, and king lay the purpose and destiny of man. But man violated this high calling. And that is why Christ came to earth: to again exhibit the true image of man and to bring his destiny to perfect fulfillment. The doctrine of the three offices lays a firm connection between nature and grace, creation and redemption, Adam and Christ. The first Adam is type, herald, and prophecy of the last Adam, and the Last is the counterpart and fulfillment of the first. (316)

If we fail to recognize that Christ was and is the ideal human—not just God with us, but the fulfillment of all that our first father and our whole race were meant to be—we have a Docetic savior. This superhuman phantasm may be instrumental to our salvation, but he is irrelevant to our sanctification. We may claim he spares us from the wrath of God, but he remains wholly alien, offering us no help in repairing our sinful race or reviving this broken creation.

Invitation to Imitation

The reason we are right to ask “What Would Jesus Do?” is that Jesus came not only to serve as a sacrifice for sin and to issue moral commands, but to personally embody and restore the image of God in man. This is also why the Incarnation matters so much. Christ’s role as the Last Adam means he has given us a renewed way of being human. It makes sense to model our lives after Christ’s because in the truest possible sense, Christ lived our kind of life, and he openly invites us to imitate his obedience.

It turns out the younger me wasn’t as good a theologian as I imagined, and the Christian bookstores weren’t always wrong. “What Would Jesus Do?” is a question that should always be at the front of our minds—even if we no longer wear it on our wrists.

How COVID Has Affected Our Friendships—and What to Do About It Mon, 10 Jan 2022 05:00:00 +0000 In the past 20 months, we’ve seen the cure for one pandemic has only deepened another one.]]> The day after the 2020 election, I woke up early, quickly checked the news (no winner had been announced yet), and took off for a socially distanced ride with my cycling team. We finished our loop at a local donut shop, and I sat on the front porch with a teammate—six feet apart, of course. In a sense, we couldn’t be more different: We belong to different age group, hold different perspectives on religion, and had voted for different candidates (yep, we even talked about that).

As we sat there with our hot coffee and craft donuts, I said something to the effect of a Tim Keller quotation on church planting: “Well, I’m starting to think everyone here has gone crazy but us—and to be honest, I’m not so sure about you anymore.” We laughed about the election, gave our predictions on how the state counts would come in, and tried to figure out how our country might come back from this level of division. We didn’t solve our national crisis that morning.

But then again, maybe we did. Or, at least, we took a step in the right direction.

Another Pandemic

Before COVID, we were already facing an epidemic of loneliness in America. As I wrote in 2018, social isolation has become the functional status of American life, and loneliness has made a profound and tragic impression on our mental health, physical well-being, and community life. And that was before we were all locked in our homes indefinitely.

Last year, the cure for one pandemic only deepened another one. The antidote to the COVID pandemic—social isolation and distancing—has exacerbated what the former surgeon general called “the epidemic of loneliness.”

Last year, the cure for one pandemic only deepened another one.

The primary tragedies of COVID are well-known. We’ve lost loved ones: In the U.S. alone, more than 750,000 deaths have been attributed to COVID-19. The pandemic has disproportionately hurt people of color, lower-income individuals, and the elderly. And the long-term health factors associated with COVID-19 are not yet fully known. We’re not yet living in a post-COVID world, and in a sense, we never will be. (Perhaps we might call this, with a crumb of hope, the late COVID era.)

In the midst of all these massive and somewhat measurable tragedies, the effects on our relationships, friendships, and communities have been incalculable. How do we begin to understand the personal, relational, and spiritual damage that the pandemic has caused? And what can be done about it?

Here’s my thesis: Americans’ already-weak middle-ring relationships, especially friendships, have been significantly diminished since March 2020, and they’ve mostly been replaced by screen time and faction friendships, which have pushed us to further polarization—in the broader society as well as the church. To push back against this trend, believers and churches must together create new rhythms of discipleship, patterned after the earthly life of Jesus, to restore friendships and promote the renewal of our communities.

How the Pandemic Reshaped Our Daily Lives

To begin, let’s consider the significant ways in which COVID changed how we use our time. A study for The New York Times showed (not surprisingly) dramatic movements toward social isolation in the eight months of May through December 2020. (No data were collected from mid-March through mid-May because of the pandemic.)

The average American’s time spent with people outside the household dropped by a full hour—which, over eight months, amounts to about 244 fewer hours spent in relationships in 2020 versus 2019.

So where did that time go instead? Although there were segments who spent much more time with family members—parents of young children especially—the biggest changes in time use were digital. The pandemic saw increases in our texting, phone calls, video conferencing, TV streaming, computer use, and video games. Not including work and school time, the average American increased daily screen time by about 60 minutes.

When we put these two trends together (and assume March and April 2020 were at least as isolated for most Americans), we discover this: In 2020, the average American traded 300 hours of in-person time with friends, church members, and neighbors for 300 hours of social media, TV, and internet reading.

No wonder 2021 turned out this way and 2022 promises more of the same. And again, this all comes after the U.S. surgeon general called loneliness our great epidemic in 2017. Lord, have mercy.

But it’s not just that in-person relationships have been replaced with screen time—as if that weren’t damaging enough. The types of relationships we as Americans maintain have radically changed as well.

Dangerous Decline of ‘Middle Ring’ Friendships

In his 2014 book The Vanishing Neighbor, sociologist Marc Dunkelman described the decline of American community as primarily a loss of middle-ring relationships. Inner-ring relationships are the most intimate—spouse, children, immediate family, and perhaps a few committed friends. Outer-ring relationships include our neighbors and coworkers with whom we can get along but require little to no deep conversation. (In other words, if someone in my outer ring disagrees with me, it has no real effect on me.) What has been lost in 21st-century America, Dunkelman explains, are middle-ring relationships—the friends we see regularly, our small group at church, a small team at work, our daily running group, and so on.

So, we’ve been losing the depth of relationship between our fellow church members, neighbors, coworkers for many years—and social clubs like cycling teams, farming co-ops, and bowling leagues have largely been replaced by solo and virtual activities.

We’ve been losing the depth of relationship between our fellow church members, neighbors, coworkers for many years.

Earlier this year, columnist Michelle Goldberg reflected on the unprecedented loyalty with which people followed their political leaders in 2020. Thousands of citizens followed their candidates from city to city like rock-band groupies. What was the common denominator among the most committed? More than anything, prior loneliness marked the most avid political followers. Many who had no family or were estranged from their families could find a welcoming community in political tribes, which rival only underfunded church planters in their hunger to assimilate new people.

Rise of ‘Faction’ Friendships

As David French has shown, as Americans have lost real-world, middle-ring friendships, the void has often been filled through affinity-based friendships, often started online. These “factional friendships,” as French calls them, are those that say, “You’re either with us or you’re against us.” They are dangerous because they provide a sense of purpose—“as destructive or false as it may be.”

And if our nation is full of factional friendships and lacking in middle-ring friendships, we’re in trouble. Without healthy church community or even a few good friends, we can get lost in a web of so-called friendships that are based on social-political alignment and little else. Unless we have a healthy network of family, friends, and church—not based on identical social and political views—then these faction friendships can be damaging to individuals, churches, and society as a whole. French writes:

I’ve said it before, and I’ll say it a thousand times more. This is a prime reason why you can’t fact-check, plead, or argue a person out of a conspiracy, because you’re trying to fact-check, plead, and argue them out of their community.

Our experience in the last few years suggests a distinction: there’s a type of passive loneliness (lacking friends and community) and a divisive loneliness (rejecting friends and community unless they are in total agreement with your social, political, and religious views). Said another way, there’s a dark side to belonging.

Unless we can restore the types of donut-shop conversations that bring shared, generous moments between two very different people, we’ll have little hope for our shared social life seeing any improvement.

Social Media’s Role

Social media began around the promise of increased connection in a culture that was moving toward more transience and transition. Stay connected to your friends wherever they are, they said. It’ll be great, they said. But the social-media project has transformed into something different in the past decade and a half, and now these sites have become platforms for curated advertising and social sorting—driving us to connect with people like us.

Earlier this year, Tim Keller reviewed sociologist Chris Bail’s Breaking the Social Media Prism. Bail asks how social media have contributed to the problems of social and political polarization, and Keller summarizes:

The common answer is that algorithms keep us in “echo chambers” or “bubbles” where we only hear news and opinions from our own side, and this drives division and extremism. But Bail points to research showing that, on the contrary, daily exposure to opposing political and cultural views (and not just to the nasty, caustic versions of those views) only makes people stronger in their views or even more extreme. People who regularly listened to the opposite opinions did not adjust their views and become more balanced or moderate because for many people social media [have] become a place where they are curating a self. And therefore they see opposing views as attacks on their identity.

As a result, social media have become the ideal platform for rewarding extreme views and muting moderate ones. It’s not a great place to present our views, receive alternative views, and engage in civil discourse. Instead, it’s just one more way to identify yourself with certain groups (and not others) and establish a personal brand. (The answer, for Keller, is not necessarily to abandon social media altogether—there are too many people engaging there and it has positive benefits—but to reform it comprehensively.)

So, putting it all together, we now have our complex problem in view: While most Americans were fortunate enough to see our closest relationships remain intact, our middle-ring relationships, especially our friendships, have dissolved or disappeared at an unprecedented rate. This void has largely been filled by increased screen time and faction friendships, with social media replacing local, face-to-face conversation as the locus of communication.

What’s lost was beautiful and world-changing. Our friendships—the middle-ring relationships of believers with one another and with those outside the church—are not just great for us. They’re a powerful force for social good.

Church Friendships’ Social Power

In 2012, Harvard researcher Robert Putnam, author of Bowling Alone and American Grace, made a significant discovery. He had previously studied the correlation between religious affiliation and altruistic behavior, such as giving to charity, volunteering, serving people outside your religious group, and even returning change to a store. Then he asked why. Why are religious people kinder, more selfless neighbors to their communities?

Our friendships are not just great for us. They’re a powerful force for social good.

He explored numerous factors that didn’t add up to more altruistic behavior—denominational tradition, intensity of beliefs, and so on. In fact, there was only one factor that consistently correlated to healthy neighborliness: friendships and personal relationships within the church. In other words, people with the strongest relationships within their faith community are the kindest, most selfless people toward those outside their faith community.

Putnam summarizes:

Having more friends is associated with altruism, but “church friends” matter a lot, even beyond that fact; church friends seem super-charged. . . . The power of church friends, our data show, is more than the sum of being religious and having friends.

See, there’s a type of belonging that’s dangerous for us and the world. It’s the non-local, politically aligned faction friendships that say, “You’re with us or against us.” These social groups are often identified by what they’re against, and the fruit of their relationships often includes conflict, division, uncharitable views of outsiders. Healthy Christian communities, on the other hand, result in a significant increase in kindness, gentleness, goodness, and self-control. Those on the outside are treated with love, dignity, and hospitality—not fear, suspicion, and exclusion.

So, what do we do now? How can believers, churches, and ministries respond to the loneliness epidemic? How can we restore friendships, rebuild fellowship, and reach our cities in this cultural moment?

Reordering Our Lives (and Our Loves)

It’s helpful to think of the past two years in terms of discipleship patterns—the habits of life we’ve learned from what we experience and consume. In this broad sense, discipleship is always happening: We become what we consume, as our patterns of life direct and dictate our deepest feelings, thoughts, and motives. We’re always being conformed to the heart and personality and lifestyle of another person or ideology.

In The Spirit of the Disciplines, Dallas Willard wrote that the primary way by which we’re conformed to Jesus (once we’re united to him and regenerated) is by following him in the overall pattern of his earthly life. By obeying his teachings, meditating on his sufferings, death, and resurrection, and practicing his way of life, we become like him. If we believe that he is the perfect representation of the Father and the sinless God-man, then we should also believe that he knew better than anyone how to live in this broken and beautiful world.

It follows, then, that if the way to become like Christ is to follow his way of life, then Jesus’s earthly friendships should point us to the ideal pattern of human flourishing in relationships.

So what types of relationships do we see in the life of Jesus?

  • Absolute devotion to his closest friends (the Twelve)
  • Intentional pursuit of disliked community members (Zacchaeus)
  • Conversation with those of other cultures (Samaritan woman)
  • Eating with friends, family members, and outsiders
  • Attending weddings, funerals, and cultural events
  • Relationships with the poor and needy (eating with “sinners”)

If all our problems, as Augustine wrote long ago, result from disordered loves, then reordering our lives and reordering our loves will go hand in hand.

Recovering Friendships, Rebuilding Community

The work of rebuilding friendships and restoring community isn’t complicated but it is difficult. It’s not complex because the means and the end are the same: The path to rebuilt friendships is rebuilding friendships.

But the work is difficult, too, because it requires this reordering of priorities and life patterns. Our life systems are perfectly designed for the results we’re getting, and so we need to change the inputs to change the outputs.

We need to repattern our lives around relationships.

We cannot continue to preach a relational God in this community called church and not actually prioritize the long obedience of relationship-building. And as we know (but struggle to practice) across the church, relationship-building looks like showing up, taking initiative, building relationships outside our natural tribe, and having patience for each other.

1. Show Up and Be Consistent

There’s no shortcut to friendship and community. But then again, nothing worthwhile comes without intentionality and perseverance. We must remember that we were created for community, we need one another, and without all sorts of friendships, we’ll suffer personally, and our churches will struggle. We need to show up with countercultural regularity.

If we’ve lost 300 hours of friendship and companionship in 2020, and perhaps that much in 2021, how are we going to restore these hundreds of hours this year and in the years to come?

Friendships and middle-ring relationships take time. Therefore, “be devoted to one another in love. Honor one another above yourselves” (Rom. 12:9–10, NIV). Put in the time, the love, and the honor, and the relationships will deepen.

2. Be the Initiative-Taker and Space-Creator

Hospitality is the distinctively Christian practice of creating space for others. It’s the Christlike pattern of opening our lives and our homes to people, whether they’re our regular friends or soon-to-be friends.

I’ve heard countless people during my 15 years of ministry say that they don’t feel connected or that people haven’t reached out to them. But those with the deepest connections are always those who take the initiative and, as Paul commands, “practice hospitality” (Rom. 12:13, NIV). Be the initiative-taker and space-creator, and over time, your relational circles will be overflowing.

3. Cultivate Friendships Outside Your Tribe

As we’ve seen, there’s a dark type of belonging—when we develop a small group of friends that share our exact belief system and look with disdain on those outside the circle. To prevent this, we need to cultivate friendships outside our natural tribe.

If all my friends look like me, have similar social status as me, or have the same educational background as me, then I haven’t made much progress in adopting the overall way of life Jesus demonstrated. Christlikeness means taking initiative with those most unlike us and seeking their good.

Christlikeness means taking initiative with those most unlike us and seeking their good.

4. Have Patience

No one likes being mistreated or ruled out, but we all have people who are difficult for us to love. And if we’re honest with ourselves, we are difficult people to love.

Perhaps it’s exceptionally difficult to bear with people in your church or small group or friendship circle. Maybe everything they do is frustrating. I believe the New Testament would say simply, have patience. Paul said it best:

As God’s chosen people, holy and dearly loved, clothe yourselves with compassion, kindness, humility, gentleness, and patience. Bear with each other and forgive one another if any of you has a grievance against someone. Forgive as the Lord forgave you. And over all these virtues put on love, which binds them all together in perfect unity. (Col. 3:12–14, NIV).

The pandemic has been hard for everyone, unequally and in different ways, but still hard. Our culture has been shaping us all in harmful ways, and we must have grace for one another—even for ourselves. We have lost a lot during the past two years, including some things that are gone forever. But the road to a less lonely church and a body of thriving friendships is this: putting in the time and energy, face-to-face, with believers and non-Christians alike, seeking the good of the other.

It’s the way of Jesus. It’s the God-given design for our lives. It’s the way back to restored friendships and a renewed community.