The Tenth Leper

Theology Made Practical

Author Archive

Around the InterWeb (7/28/14)

It’s a good time to be alive for Christian readers. The advent of the e-reader along with frequently very generous deals have made it much easier to build a solid library on the cheap. Here are some good deals going on right now:

Identity – Good stuff: “Personal identity—the ‘Who am I?’ question—is one of the most difficult issues to resolve. Is my essence to be found in my self-awareness, or in my actions, or in my relationships, or in my creation, or…?”

The Myth of God’s Silence – Great reminder from Ed Welch. “Silence is how someone treats a slave, and we are not God’s slaves. We are his children. Even more, we are his friends, and friends get the inside story.”

Performing for the Approval of the Crowd – You should follow Scott Kedersha’s blog. It’s primarily a blog about marriage, though this particular entry is more generally focused. Great stuff all around though.

Why Israel’s Request for a King Was Sinful (And Why It Matters)

As I’ve read through Scripture over the years, some things have struck me as so strange or confusing that I’ve had to research it immediately and find an answer to my questions. Other verses however are just confusing enough to make me wonder what’s going on, but not so perplexing that I seek out an answer, at least not immediately. I might make a note to look into it, but I forget about it until I come across that same passage a year later and wonder the same thing.

Israel’s request for a king in 1 Samuel 8 is one such passage. It is a request that God clearly condemns, but for a while now it’s not really been clear to me why. The text is as follows:

When Samuel became old, he made his sons judges over Israel. The name of his firstborn son was Joel, and the name of his second, Abijah; they were judges in Beersheba. Yet his sons did not walk in his ways but turned aside after gain. They took bribes and perverted justice.

Then all the elders of Israel gathered together and came to Samuel at Ramah and said to him, “Behold, you are old and your sons do not walk in your ways. Now appoint for us a king to judge us like all the nations.” But the thing displeased Samuel when they said, “Give us a king to judge us.” And Samuel prayed to the Lord. And the Lord said to Samuel, “Obey the voice of the people in all that they say to you, for they have not rejected you, but they have rejected me from being king over them. According to all the deeds that they have done, from the day I brought them up out of Egypt even to this day, forsaking me and serving other gods, so they are also doing to you. Now then, obey their voice; only you shall solemnly warn them and show them the ways of the king who shall reign over them.”

Just in reading this passage, the sinfulness seems apparent: Israel wanted to be ruled by a human king, and not God. More so, they wanted a king “like all the nations”. They wanted to look like the world around them, not as God’s distinct people. Straightforward right? So why did this passage end up in my “Confusing Texts” pile?

This text never presented any problem to me until I came across Deuteronomy 17:14-20, where God says he’s totally cool with them wanting a king “like all the nations that are around me”.

You're not really studying Scripture correctly if this doesn't happen to you from time to time.

You’re not really studying Scripture correctly if this doesn’t happen to you from time to time.

So what gives? Well according to Deuteronomy, wanting a king wasn’t in itself sinful. So the problem in 1 Samuel 8 couldn’t have been the request itself, but the motive behind the request. We get a little bit more clarity of Israel’s motive in 1 Samuel 12 when Samuel gives his “farewell address” to the nation*. In his address, where he rebukes Israel for requesting a king, he reminds them of how God had delivered them in earlier times of distress:

  1. The Exodus (12:8). Samuel reminds them of their descendants, who were enslaved in Egypt and cried to God for deliverance. And boy did he ever come through.
  2. The Judges (12:9-11). Next up is a reminder of the time of the judges. The book of Judges is the story of a cycle that goes like this: a)Israel is serving the Lord, b) Israel sins and falls into apostasy, c) they are then given into the hands of their enemies and enslaved, d) they cry out to the Lord to save them, e) God raises up a judge to deliver them, f) Israel’s delivered.
  3. Nahash the Ammonite (12:12). Alright, so now things are getting clearer as Samuel addresses this more recent threat. Nahash isn’t mentioned until 11:1, but the Ammonite threat was likely very present back in chapter 8. What Samuel is saying in chapter 12 is this: “You cried out to God in Egypt and he delivered you. You cried out to God over and over again in the time of the judges, and he delivered you every time.” He’s hammering it into their skulls that God delivers those who cry out to him. But in the face of the Ammonite threat, they didn’t cry out for deliverance. They cried out for a king.

Psalm 146:3 says: “Put not your trust in princes, in a son of man, in whom there is no salvation.” But that’s exactly what Israel is doing here. It wasn’t wrong for them to want a king. The problem was that their solution to the threat of the day was wanting a king instead of crying out to God for deliverance, even though that had always worked out so well for them in the past. 1 Samuel 10:17-19 reinforces this as well.

Seen in this light, there’s several lessons we can draw today from 1 Samuel 8.

First, as Dale Ralph Davis writes, “[w]e have a tendency to assess our problems mechanically b3h (50)rather than spiritually. Our first impulse is to assume there is something wrong in our techniques…How easy for even energetic evangelicals to look for a new gimmick rather than cry out for a new heart.” Israel’s solution wasn’t repentance and crying out to God (which would’ve done the trick). It was assuming that everything would be fixed if only they had a king.

Second, as Davis points out, we are often most interested in dictating what form God’s help must take instead of crying out to him for deliverance. When we specify how God should act, we are trusting in a method and not in a good and sovereign God who will deliver us as he sees fit.

Finally, and this is a big one, beware of requesting godly things for ungodly reasons. The request for a king was perfectly fine (Deut.17:14-20). But Israel’s motive for this request was tantamount to rejecting God as king. This point particularly hits home for me. For years I prayed to get married. And according to Proverbs 18:22, I was asking for a good thing. But too often my request for a wife was selfish and idolatrous. I needed a wife to give me a sense of meaning and acceptance, things which incidentally I already had from God my Father through Christ. In so doing, I was rejecting God by asking for something that- on the surface- was a perfectly fine request. Take note of why you pray for what you pray for. Selfish desires often masquerade as pious prayers.

Our proposals and solutions then can be completely reasonable, clearly logical, obviously plausible- and utterly godless.

-Dale Ralph Davis

 

 

*I’m hugely indebted to Dale Ralph Davis for his treatment of this text in his commentary on 1 Samuel. I’m basically summarizing his work here.

Six Ways to Fight “Bible Reading Plan Guilt”

All Scripture is breathed out by God and is profitable for teaching, for reproof, for correction, and for training in righteousness, that the man of God may be competent, equipped for every good work.
2 Timothy 3:16-17

Bible reading

For a book that speaks so much about finding rest, peace, and life, the Bible can be a source of guilt more than anything else. For one thing, I don’t know a single Christian who thinks they read the Bible enough. All of us feel like we could (and should) be spending more time in it. But if you’re going through a Bible Reading Plan, with designated readings for each day, that guilt can often be compounded. After all, when we fall behind we can look at our plan and actually see how much Scripture we haven’t read. You can see that you should be reading Numbers 4 today but are stuck in Exodus 27. Do you burden yourself with trying to catch up or just give up? What will it be: stress or guilt?

Here are six things to keep in mind when you come across this dilemma:

1. Remember the gospel. “The essence of the gospel is that God accepts us because of what Jesus did, not because of what we have done.”[1] Whether you’ve successfully done the “Read the Bible in 90 Days” plan or are falling behind in a one-year plan doesn’t affect God’s love for you. God’s acceptance of you isn’t based on your performance, and when we forget that we will feel unwarranted guilt. The degree to which falling behind devastates us is the degree to which we’re forgetting the gospel.

2. Rejoice in what you have read. Let’s say your reading plan has four different readings a day and that you’re only up to date on two of those. When we forget that first point above, we tend to only focus on the two we haven’t read than the two we have. Rejoice in the two you are up to date on. Being consistently in God’s Word is something that should always be celebrated.

3. Check your motives. If you do find yourself obsessing over the two tracks in your plan that you haven’t read rather celebrating the two tracks you have, it’s time to check your motives behind having a plan in the first place.  Alan Jacobs has wisely observed, “I think most people read quickly because they want not to read but to have read.” Many times in my own life I’ve set out to read the Bible in one year mainly so that I could say I did it. Whatever pace we go, if our motive in Scripture is anything other than to draw near to the God of our salvation, Bible-reading will be mechanical and a source of condemnation instead of life when we lag behind.

4. Be realistic. 2 Timothy 3:16-17 reminds us that all Scripture is helpful. Does the way you read Scripture reflect that? Many of us if we’re honest only camp out in Psalms and the New Testament. Reading plans are helpful in that they bring us to sections we’d otherwise never read, sections that according to Paul are still God-breathed and profitable. In this way, reading plans appropriately challenge us.

With that said though, be realistic. Some people fall off their reading plans because they’ve set themselves up for failure by trying to do more than they’re able. Keep in mind that while we should read all of Scripture, there’s nothing in the Bible that demands that we do it in one year. One-year plans are the most common, but there are also two-year and even three-year plans.

5. Beware your enemy. As I mentioned earlier, when we fall behind in Bible reading plans, we often find ourselves having to choose between the stress of trying to catch up or the guilt of scrapping the plan entirely. I think this dilemma plays right into the hands of our enemy. At the end of the day, God’s Word should be a delight to us (Ps.1:2; Col.3:16). Jesus said that he came to bring us life and to have it abundantly (John 10:10). But in that same verse, he also describes the work of our enemy: he “comes only to steal and kill and destroy.” In Revelation 12:10 he is called an “accuser”.

There will definitely be times when we neglect God’s Word because we’ve prioritized other things over him. And those are moments when we should repent (all the while keeping in mind point #1 above). But falling behind on a man-made reading plan isn’t in itself something that needs to be repented of. But you better believe our enemy will use it against you. Be on guard.

6. Start Now. Because they have to start somewhere, readings plans typically start on January 1. So what should you do if you decide you want to start a reading plan in March? Or when it’s June and you’ve fallen so far behind in your plan that catching up is impossible? Start fresh. Maybe it means you’re starting half-way through the book of Jeremiah instead of the beginning. That’s okay! The goal is not just to finish a specific plan. The goal is to be consistently refreshing ourselves at the fountain of God’s Word and to encounter him daily through it. The plan we use, and whether that means we read all of God’s Word in the course of a year, are secondary issues.

“Blessed is the man who walks not in the counsel of the wicked, nor stands in the way of sinners, nor sits in the seat of scoffers; but his delight is in the law of the LORD, and on his law he meditates day and night.”
Psalm 1:1-2

 

 


[1] Gospel-Centered Family by Tim Chester and Ed Moll, p.33

3 Reasons Why Every Christian Should Study Theology

Go to any Christian bookstore and you’re likely to see “Theology” as its own section, right next to the sections on “Church Leadership”, “Men’s Interest”, “Christian Living”, “Biography” (with such stirring classics as The Autobiography of George Muller and Linspired: Jeremy Lin’s Extraordinary Story of Faith and Resilience), and “Fiction and Romance”.

silence of winter

For fans of Amish romance, these are good days to be alive.

While this may be necessary for a bookstore, many of us Christians do the same thing with our faith: we section it off. One day I’ll be focusing on theology by reading a book on the Trinity. Then I’ll get into my men’s ministry mode by praying with other men in the church and doing accountability questions. Another day I’ll focus on the subject of spiritual disciplines by planning out what time I’ll be getting up to pray and read my Bible.

In reality though, all the various facets of our Christian walk are derived from theology. “Theology” is not just another compartment of an already-crowded room of things you need to think about in order to faithfully obey Christ’s commands. It’s the context behind those commands and the fuel for spiritual health, and your walk with Christ will dry up without it. Consider the following:

1. Everyone Is a Theologian

“Theology” by definition is “the study of God.” It was A.W. Tozer who famously observed, “What comes into our minds when we think about God is the most important thing about us.” Important because how we view God at any given moment affects how we live our life in that same moment.

For example, Satan’s attack on Eve was a theological one. He successfully tempted her to disobey God by distorting her view of him. Suddenly the good God who had blessed them with an abundance of good trees to eat from became the withholding God who didn’t want what was best for her. And if God was going to withhold something good from her, then she’d have to take matters into her own hands. Similarly, when Jesus addressed the topic of anxiety (Topical Sermons 101), he knew that underneath anxiety was a faulty understanding of who God is, which is why he counters anxiety with a reminder of God’s sovereignty and his goodness (Luke 12:22-34).

Our understanding of who God is always makes its way into our daily lives, whether we’re aware of it or not. The stress you feel about an upcoming deadline says something about your view of him. So does your struggle with anger. So does your need to be validated by others. The implication here is that everyone is a theologian. As John Frame writes, “theology is the application of Scripture, by persons, to every area of life.” Just before this, he writes:

The professor of theology at a university or seminary is no more or less a theologian than the youth minister who seeks to deal with the doubts of college students, of the Sunday school teacher who tells OT stories to children, or the father who leads family devotions, or the person who does not teach in any obvious way but simply tries to obey Scripture. Theoretical and practical questions are equally grist for the theologian’s mill.

-from Systematic Theology: An Introduction to Christian Belief

2. Theology Helps Us to Grow More Like Jesus

In John 8:44, Jesus calls Satan “a liar and the father of lies.” But what exactly is he lying about? And how does it affect us? In light of the previous point, a major way Satan lies to us is by convincing us that God is someone other than who he really is (if he even exists at all).

If Satan’s goal is our destruction, and if lies are one of his weapons toward that end, then truth is what we need in order to resist him and find abundant life (John 10:10). According to Scripture, healthy doctrine leads to our sanctification (John 17:17), freedom (John 8:32), godliness (1 Tim.6:3), and life and mission (Matt.28:18-20). Good theology promotes things like these while bad theology robs us of them. Our joy in Christ and deliverance from sin is the fruit of good theology. There is an organic link between the two.

3. Theology is Best Taught and Learned in Real-World Situations

We see point 2 fleshed out in the letters of the New Testament. Authors like Paul consistently call Christians to live in light of what’s true. That’s why in in Ephesians for example, he’ll give the bulk of his “How-To-Live-The-Christian-Life” instructions (Eph.4-6) after he’s rocked your world with some rich theology (Eph.1-3).

Will you find theology in Romans? You betcha. Romans covers some pretty major stuff: justification, adoption, election, free will, and the role of the Jews in the church age. But remember that Romans is a letter, written by Paul to address the real, practical needs of the church in Rome. The Bible doesn’t teach doctrine in the abstract. Paul wrote Romans 9 not to philosophize about God’s sovereignty and our responsibility, but so that Jews and Gentiles at this church would get along with each other. That’s not to say we can’t extract theological truths from it (we totally should). But it is to say that theological truths should spill over into the contexts of our lives.

To give one more example, consider the doctrine of the person of Christ (also called “Christology”). Christology covers Jesus’ humanity and his divinity, and how the two relate to one another. It’s a biggie. It covers over 30 pages in Wayne Grudem’s Systematic Theology and is a doctrine that is widely debated. And it’s a topic you can’t talk about without addressing Philippians 2:5-11.

But why is beautiful passage about Christ’s humility and servanthood in Philippians instead of Galatians or Thessalonians? Because according to Philippians 2:1-4 and 4:2-3, there was to some extent some friction in the church. And Paul teaches them Christology so that they would then follow his example and serve one another by considering the interests of others before their own. So what does Christ’s humanity, his deity, his virgin birth, and his sinlessness have to do with how you treat your spouse, your friend, your parents, your roommate, that annoying person you’d rather not be around? According to Paul: everything.

Pictured: why you should finally go mow the lawn.

Pictured: why you should finally go mow the lawn.

Here’s the point: New Testament theology is taught in the context of real-life situations. It’s not abstract teachings divorced of context, so we shouldn’t study them that way. Abstract theology is unnatural. Christology affects your marriage. God’s sovereignty affects how you deal with trials and is a wonderful comfort to your friend who is worried about his finances. Predestination and the atonement affects how you respond when you turn back to that same old sin again.

The example of the New Testament should remind us today that doctrines are best taught and learned in these real world moments when we most need to hear them.  When doctrine is applied to our lives, it brings great comfort. And this in turn helps us to grow in our love of the God of whom these things are true. So strive to become a better theologian. For some that will mean reading big books. For others, it might mean studying Romans over the course of a year. Whatever it looks like, grow in your knowledge of the God who loves you.

 

The First Step in Understanding and Loving the Prophets

In early 2009 I began working at a coffee shop. In one sense, I was pumped. I love coffee, it was a great latte-art-2environment with fantastic co-workers, and I needed additional income. But I was also a little apprehensive  about the skill-set required to actually do the job. The task of learning what people meant when they said they wanted a “grande upside-down skinny caramel macchiato with peppermint” seemed daunting and unattainable. But I learned and got to the point where I could have made something like that in my sleep.

What helped me learn that stuff wasn’t simply memorizing recipes, though. Instead, what helped me was getting a proper framework of how to make espresso drinks. Things became so much easier to learn when I understood a) what a latte is (espresso and steamed milk), and b) that so many of the drinks I was making were just variations of that foundational drink. That gave me a starting point from which I could understand so many other variations of that drink.

I’ve come to dub that experience as “The Latte Test.” The principle is simple: once you have a framework in place, you can then begin to categorize all the other details.

Recently in my life I’ve been growing in my love and understanding of the prophetic books of the Old Testament. Before you think I’m a freak, know that that’s more due to the fact that I’m growing in my desire to study the parts of the Bible that are most bewildering to me. And bewildering they are. And long.

But just as learning to make complicated drinks for me came down to learning one basic drink, I learned quickly that I couldn’t begin to understand all the complexities of the prophetical books without understanding the one main thing the prophets were talking about: the exile. O. Palmer Robertston writes:

It was the event of Israel’s exile, and the future beyond the exile, that the literary prophets of Israel were called and commissioned to explain.

Knowing this is the first step in understanding all the details of the prophets.

Why the Exile Happened

In Genesis 12, God chose a man named Abram in which to bring about his plan to send an “offspring” exilewho would crush the head of the serpent who had tempted Adam and Eve to sin (Gen.3:15). He promised Abram offspring, land, and that all the nations of the world would be blessed in him. Much later, the descendants of Abram (later renamed Abraham) made their way down to Egypt to escape a famine. While there they grew in number and were eventually enslaved by Pharaoh.

In response to his covenant with Abraham, God took action and brought his people out of Egypt so that they could dwell in the land promised to them. Before bringing them to the land, he stopped his people at Mount Sinai so that he could give them the law through Moses. The law served to instruct them how they were to live as God’s people in God’s presence.

In Leviticus 26 and again in Deuteronomy 28, we see an extended discussion about the blessings that the people of Israel would experience if they were obedient to the law and the curses that would fall on them if they weren’t. (In a sense, the rest of the Old Testament is the answer to the question of which path they’ll take.) Prolonged disobedience would result in exile.

Where the Prophets Fit In

The law casts a long shadow over these books. The prophets were God’s “covenant watchdogs.” That is, their role was to hold the nation accountable to the law. As God’s people (now divided up into two kingdoms: “Israel” in the north, and “Judah” in the south) continued to walk in disobedience to it, God sent the prophets to warn them about what he said he would do in response to their disobedience and to plead with them to repent. The northern kingdom was destroyed and exiled by the Assyrian Empire in 722 BC. Judah lasted until 586 BC, when Jerusalem was destroyed and the people were carried off by the Babylonian Empire. There were prophets who ministered before, during, and after the exile.

The Message of the Prophets

isaiahGod’s people had been called to be a light to all nations. But they were consistently unfaithful to God and his covenant, which meant they would bear the ultimate curse of covenant disobedience. The destruction of the northern kingdom was significant, but the destruction of the southern kingdom was even more so. Why? Because Judah’s capital was Jerusalem. And Jerusalem was where God’s temple was. And God’s temple was where God dwelt. So when the Babylonian armies destroyed Jerusalem and the temple of God, to the Israelites it looked like God had been beaten by the gods of Babylon.

On top of this, it raised other questions. God had promised Abraham that he would be the father of a nation, that they would dwell in this land, and that they would be a blessing to all nations. But now? Their population was decimated, they were removed from the land, and they were slaves in a foreign land once again. Not only that, but God had promised David that one of his descendants would sit on his throne forever. But now there wasn’t even a kingdom to be king over. Did God lie? Was he unable to fulfill his promise? Everything they had known and believed in was thrown into question.

Into this hopelessness and despair, the prophets spoke God’s message to his people. They assured them that not only was God still undefeated, but that it was actually his hand that was behind Jerusalem’s destruction. They explained what was happening to them by reminding them of God’s holiness and their sin and encouraged them to repent. Some prophets predicted the exile in advance so that when it happened, it would be confirmation of God’s control over history rather than a source of despair. Additionally, the prophets went even further into the future and anticipated a restoration beyond the exile.

Restoration

But even if the relationship between God and his people was restored, what’s to say that they wouldn’t just fall back in to the same cycle of sin and get booted out of the land again? Restoration from exile sounded great, but how comforting was it in the long run? Just what kind of restoration are we looking at here?

It wouldn’t be a mere restoration of how things once were. Rather, God would do something new. In the words of Robertson, the kind of restoration promised involved a “new covenant, a new Zion, a new temple, a new messiah, a new relation to the nations of the world.” And as if that weren’t lofty enough, Isaiah went on the prophesy about new heavens a new earth.

“Restoration” then didn’t just have implications for the remnants of Judah in Babylon. It had universal implications. It wasn’t confined to just getting them back from Babylon. After all, the last three prophets in the Old Testament (Haggai, Zechariah, Malachi) ministered to the people who had returned to rebuild Jerusalem, people who were now disillusioned by how not awesome it was being back in the land.

Getting back to Jerusalem wasn’t the end game. Instead, it was a crucial step in God’s plan of  a much greater restoration from a far more serious exile: humanity’s exile from God’s presence which had resulted from Adam’s sin. The new messiah would be the light of the world that Israel had failed to be. The process of restoration he would usher in would be to save his people from their sins and form not just a new Israel, but a whole new humanity. Eventually this new humanity would inhabit a new earth free from the presence of sin and filled with the presence of God. In doing so, he would fulfill God’s promise to Abraham to bless all the nations through him as well as God’s promise to David to put one of his descendants on his throne forever. This is the significance of the very first verse of the New Testament:

The book of the genealogy of Jesus Christ, the son of David, the son of Abraham.
Matthew 1:1

So Why Read the Prophets?

Because they don’t just cover the contemporary issues of their day. They describe a restoration process that includes saving people from their sins as well as living in a world without sin. So from Isaiah to Malachi, we have a ton of references to the gospel. So much of the New Testament is the fulfillment and unpacking of what we find in these books.

God’s promises- all of which find their fulfillment in Jesus- fill the pages of the prophets. So the more we study them, the better our understanding will be of what Jesus came to do in his first coming. We’ll also enhance our understanding and excitement of what he’ll do upon his return.

So exile. Start with that. Then grab a latte and read them.

God’s Fatherhood and Mine

I became a dad almost three weeks ago.

I’ve always enjoyed hearing guys talk about how becoming a father has added new layers to their understanding of who God is and how they’re treated by him, and I’ve been pretty excited to share in those insights.

Again, I’m only a couple weeks in, so I don’t have a ton of new profound wisdom to offer here. But there is one new layer of understanding that I’ve come to appreciate: I love my son because he’s my son. He’s precious to me simply because he’s mine.

And really, there’s no other possible reason that I could love him. He doesn’t do anything. He’s a consumer. He’s not pulling his weight around here. He sleeps, eats, and occasionally shrieks like a velociraptor. He doesn’t pay rent. He doesn’t listen to reason. But it doesn’t matter. He’s mine, and I love him. Every Christian can say the same about God their Father. And all of us need to remember that. Sometimes desperately so.

Yet sometimes we make a distinction in our minds. Of course I’d say that about my natural-born son. But we struggle to think of our heavenly Father in the same way. If I’m honest, the relationship between a father and his son here on earth seems more real and unconditional than my relationship with God. I feel like if God chose to be my father, then he can also un-choose me.

But I think this line of thinking plays right into the hands of our enemy. A Christian is not a natural-born son of God. He’s an adopted son. And Satan will try to exploit that, leading us to wonder:

-Are you really God’s son, given where you came from and what you’ve done?
-Are you really brothers and sisters since you come from such different backgrounds?
-Will you really be loved and welcomed into God’s family with the baggage that you bring with you?
-I wonder if adoption means that I will always be God’s daughter? What if I do something bad? Can this be reversed? Will He always be my Father?
-Does adoption make me different from others? Is this special identity good or peculiar?
(taken from Mike Milton, “What is the Doctrine of Adoption?”)

I’ve heard it said that many adoptive parents wonder if they’ll be able to love their child the same way a biological parent would love theirs. But the moment they meet them, that concern completely disappears. Whether biological or adopted, a parent’s children are their own, and they love them for it.

And whether it’s his natural child (Jesus) or his adopted sons and daughters, God loves his children. This is captured beautifully in Deuteronomy when God reveals his motive in redeeming his people out of slavery:

For you are a people holy to the LORD your God. The LORD your God has chosen you to be a people for his treasured possession, out of all the peoples who are on the face of the earth. It was not because you were more in number than any other people that the LORD set his love on you and chose you, for you were the fewest of all peoples, but it is because the LORD loves you and is keeping the oath that he swore to your fathers, that the LORD has brought you out with a mighty hand and redeemed you from the house of slavery, from the hand of Pharaoh king of Egypt.
Deuteronomy 7:6-8

God loves his people because he loves them. Pretty remarkable.

I love my son because he’s my son. And he will be son whether he is obedient, disobedient, or just sitting there pooping his diaper. Which means I will love him in all these scenarios. Similarly, for those who have been united to Jesus, and who are now sons and daughters of God, you are loved. He’ll love you in your obedience. He’ll discipline you in your disobedience, but he won’t condemn you. He’ll be patient with you as a newborn. In all this, he’ll love you.

Knowing this provides the incredible security of being fully known and yet fully loved. And this allows us to come and repent before God when we sin, knowing that we’re accepted in his presence. Satan will attempt to convince us otherwise. And he is successful when you’re convinced that God is the last person you should dare approach after you committed that sin (leading us to find refuge elsewhere). This security keeps you from hiding in shame from God on the one hand, and the crushing burden of feeling like you have to prove yourself to him on the other.

God’s presence is the safest place to be after you sin, because there’s forgiveness there. And he delights to forgive his children and see them grow to look more like him.

Parenting Advice and the Gospel

There’s an old adage which says that you’re never supposed to talk to people about religion or politics at the dinner table. I would like to expand upon this adage: You’re never supposed to talk to people about religion or politics or parenting advice.

Crying-Baby-2-1024x682“Oh, that face? Would you like to know which of your failures it represents?”

People have, shall we say, “opinions” on how to parent kids. It starts the day people find out you’re expecting a kid and, from what I’ve observed, it never lets up. Natural birth or epidural? Cloth diapers or disposable ones? Baby Wise or having a soul and actually loving your child?

I’m not surprised that people have opinions. People have opinions about literally everything. The thing I’ve been trying to understand though is why opinions on this are so heated and volatile. For some people, the very existence of a different opinion than theirs is an indictment of their skills as a parent, if not their skills at being a human being.

In trying to understand why this is, I cam across the following from Timothy Keller’s book Jesus the King (Warning: Not a Parenting Book):

[Religion is] advice on how you must live to earn your way to God. Your job is to follow that advice to the best of your ability. If you follow it but don’t get carried away, then you have moderation. But if you feel like you’re following it faithfully and completely, you’ll believe you have a connection with God because of your right living and right belief, and you’ll feel superior to people who have wrong living and wrong belief. That’s a slippery slope: If you feel superior to them, you stay away from them. That makes it easier to exclude them, then to hate them, and ultimately to oppress them. And there are some Christians like that- not because they’ve gone too far and been too committed to Jesus, but because they haven’t gone far enough. They aren’t as fanatically humble and sensitive, or as fanatically understanding and generous as Jesus was. Why not? They’re still treating Christianity as advice instead of good news.

Keller’s point is a good one: when it comes to matters of faith, “advice” tends to polarize people. Not all advice does that of course. But then, remember what kind of advice he’s referring to: advice on matters of God and faith. Opinions tend to be more divisive the weightier the subject is. They get heated when it comes to matters that make you, in Keller’s words, “feel superior to people who have wrong living and wrong belief.” This can be anything…

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…but it always tends to be things more important to us than God himself. People will be more defensive of their positions on matters that they feel define them. When they offer advice on such matters, they’re not just offering a set of facts or opinions. They’re offering a bit of themselves. And to have that advice rejected, mocked, or even just ignored feels like a knife in their hearts because they feel like they’re being rejected, mocked, or ignored.

So when someone feels the need to call you a Nazi because you don’t follow their parenting advice, in all likelihood this is someone who is passionate about being a good parent and has very strong convictions about what it means to be one. But their identity is so wrapped up in this that they need their convictions to be true.  I’m not just picking on these people. Everyone struggles with this in some way. As someone who is passionate about theology, I sometimes find myself being threatened when someone I know holds a different theological view on something than me because to some degree it feels like they’re saying “You don’t know what you’re talking about.”

Parenting is an area of life that is by nature advice-dominated. This is especially true for guys like me who are about to become parents and have absolutely no clue what they’re doing. It’s good and wise for ignorant guys like me to stand on the shoulders of guys like Atticus Finch, the What to Expect When You’re Expecting authors, and Darth Vader.

luke-v-vader_bespinPictured: How not to parent.

But there’s another reason I think parenting is so advice-driven. We think that if we follow a specific parenting formula, our kids will turn out exactly the way we want them to. We think kids come into this world as a blank slate, and that if they turn out bad it must be because you screwed them up. Way to go.

Obviously, parents play a huge role in the development of their children. But not a sovereign role. Even now I’m tempted to think that I’m only as prepared for parenthood as the amount of books I’ve read on it. But I could do everything right and still have my son turn out to like country music. Or I could screw up a lot and see him grow to be a godly man. We shouldn’t minimize our role as parents. But we should be careful of overestimating our kids by forgetting that they come into this world not as a blank slates but as depraved, hell-bent sinners in need of what only Jesus can give them.

Also, we shouldn’t underestimate God’s role in our kids’ lives. To apply Keller’s wisdom here, if parenting is ultimately a matter of advice to us, the solution isn’t more advice. It’s to stop seeing it ultimately as a matter of advice and instead as a matter of dependence upon God. God’s grace, not your ability as a parent, will save your child. It’s this same grace that will empower you and me to exhibit the self-sacrificing, others-centered love that is so characteristic of Jesus (Philippians 2) and so needed by our kids. Parenting begins on our knees before God. And it’s sustained in the same way.

“It is a greater mercy to descend from praying parents than from the loins of nobles.”
John Flavel

Review: “Date Your Wife” by Justin Buzzard

date your wifeDespite its bold, severed-hand-calling-you-out marketing style, I just got around to reading Justin Buzzard’s Date Your Wife. The book is the fruit of what is obviously a deep burden for Buzzard. He has seen (as have many of us) far too many men shirk their responsibilities of leading and loving their wives. In the midst of life’s busyness, they no longer prioritize the woman that they once spent time, money, and energy just to be with. This book seeks to reverse that trend.

Buzzard walks a mostly helpful balance in the book. It’d be too easy for this book to have a more “10 Steps To A Better Marriage” tone. Though the book contains action steps at the end of each chapter, two chapters devoted to creating an action plan of how you’ll date your wife, and even an appendix with 100 ideas on how to date your wife, Date Your Wife is not only nor even primarily a practical, how-to book, despite what the title and back cover suggest. Rather, Buzzard spends considerable time showing the biblical basis behind marriage: where it originated, what went wrong, and how the gospel restores it.

In doing so Buzzard grounds God’s calling for husbands first in their identity, which is refreshing. “Men, you will not pursue your wife well until you know the God who pursues you. The Bible is the most romantic book in the world. The Bible, the gospel, is God shouting: ‘I loved you, but I lost you, and I want you back.’” As Christian men whose identity is bound up in Jesus, our worth isn’t tied to how well we pursue our wives. Without acknowledging this, any book called Date Your Wife is doomed to be soul-crushing rather than life-giving. Thankfully, the book shouts this.

For a book written by a Christian husband to Christian husbands, Ephesians 5:25-33 is curiously absent from Date Your Wife. It makes a couple of very brief appearances, only to disappear just as quickly. Granted, I’d have an issue with any marriage book that didn’t mention Genesis 1-3 either, so I’m glad he brings it up. But by virtually leaving Ephesians 5 out of the discussion, the book suffers a bit.

The whole book hinges on Buzzard’s belief that “If you want to change a marriage, change the man.” Citing Genesis 2:15, Buzzard rightly observes that before Eve was created, Adam was given a job to do: to cultivate and protect the garden. When Eve came along then, he had that some job: cultivate and guard his marriage. Adam’s failure to protect Eve then was a failure to do these two things. And every husband since then, he reasons, is guilty of the same failure to cultivate and guard our wives. This leads to a natural conclusion:

Your wife isn’t the problem. You’re the problem. I’m the problem. Men are the problem. If you want to change a marriage, change the man. If you want to change your marriage, you must first see that you are the main problem in your marriage…You are what is wrong with you marriage. It’s your fault. This is the second most important truth to learn from this book: it’s your fault. You are the husband. You are the man. And God has given man the ability to be the best thing or the worst thing that ever happened to a marriage.

This is a very bold statement that doesn’t seem to allow for any exceptions. Except in a joke:

I imagine there are exceptions to this, but you and your marriage are not the exception. There’s probably on guy somewhere in Canada who can legitimately claim that most of the problems in his marriage stem from his Canadian wife. He’s the exception. You aren’t. The man who reads this book and disagrees, who thinks his wife is the main problem in the marriage, is the man who most needs to read this book.

I truly believe that I am the biggest problem in my marriage. But not because I’m the husband. Because I’m a sinner. Husband or wife, the biggest threat to anybody’s relationships is themselves. The biggest problem in my marriage is the sin in my heart that prevents me from loving my spouse in a Christ-like way when she sins. It’s also the sin in my heart that puts me in the center of my world, making her needs secondary. It’s the pride in me that refuses to confess my sins to her and ask for forgiveness.

God has given the husband the role of leading his home, and as such the husband is largely responsible for the health of his home. But it’s a leap to infer from this that whatever is wrong in your marriage is “your fault.” In doing so, Buzzard seems to imply that as the head of their households, husbands are responsible for their wives’ sins, which further suggests that there is no recorded incident anywhere of a marriage in which the wife is the biggest problem. It’s one thing to say that problems usually revolve around the husband’s failed leadership. It’s another to say that all the problems in any marriage are his fault. And this is what the book seems to suggest.

As an example, a few pages later Buzzard begins a new chapter by recalling a time when he sat with an old friend who had discovered his wife was having an affair after ten years of marriage and three kids. Albeit furious, his friend wanted to make the marriage work but wasn’t sure if she did. As his friend talked, slowly he began to see his own role in how their marriage got to the place it had gotten to. He’d stopped pursuing her and was content to be a good roommate instead of a good husband. By God’s grace, he came to a place of brokenness where he realized he needed God’s help to be the husband he was called to be.

Significantly, the story is told in a chapter about Adam’s failure to protect Eve from the serpent’s temptations in Eden. Buzzard recalls his friend’s realization:

…in taking a fresh look at their ten years together, he realized that he’d spent the past decade standing in Adam’s footprints. He spotted ten years of overgrowth, ten years of failing to tend and guard the garden.

The implication? This guy had no one to blame for his wife’s adultery but himself. The illustration speaks solely to his failure as a husband and ignores the sin and bitterness his wife harbored all those years while she also neglected her biblical mandate (1 Cor.7:13; Eph.5:22-24, 33; 1 Pet.3:1-2).

Buzzard sees an illustration of grace in his friend’s story as well as a warning against legalism:

He thought if he stayed committed to his wife and didn’t go anywhere, then God would give him a decent marriage with decent sex in a decent American town with a decent church down the street.

In other words, there’s not a formula for earning God’s blessing on your marriage. And that’s true. This guy thought he could do a set amount of tasks and be guaranteed a good marriage. But it’s just as untrue that if you depend on God for the strength to love your wife as Christ loves the church, she’ll never cheat on you. No one has that guarantee. But the Gospel equips husbands and wives to love each other in the best times and in the hard times brought on by sin. This is where a little more emphasis on Ephesians 5 would have been helpful.

In the end, Date Your Wife‘s flaws aren’t fatal. I mentioned that Buzzard strikes a mostly helpful balance between practical advice and the Scriptural foundation behind it. Though the foundation he presents is a bit wobbly, the book is at its best when it gives practical advice. The two chapters that encourage guys to develop an “Air War” (year-long vision of dates, vacations, etc.) and “Ground War” (small gestures on a week-to-week and day-to-day basis) plan for dating their wives are gold and something I’d encourage every guy to read through. I can’t imagine any guy reading the book and not being inspired to be more intentional in the way he loves his wife (and I include myself in that). It may not be the first marriage book I’d recommend, but it would be on that list somewhere.

What Are Your Idols? (And Why Should You Care?)

In his marvelous book The Peacemaker, Ken Sande defines an “idol” as “anything apart from God that we depend on to be happy, fulfilled, or secure.” He also unpacks how an idol is formed:

….if…seemingly legitimate desires are not met, we can find ourselves in a vicious cycle. The more we want something, the more we think we need and deserve it. And the more we think we are entitled to something, the more convinced we are that we cannot be happy and secure without it.

When we see something as being essential to our fulfillment and well-being, it moves from being a desire to a demand. ‘I wish I could have this’ evolves into ‘I must have this!’ This is where trouble sets in. Even if the initial desire was not inherently wrong, it has grown so strong that it begins to control our thoughts and behavior. In biblical terms, it has become an idol.

goldencalf2While the word “idols” generally conjures up statutes of primitive gods, it’s an issue that affects people of all times and all cultures. As Tim Keller writes, the Bible’s “concept of idolatry is an extremely sophisticated idea, integrating intellectual, psychological, social, cultural, and spiritual categories.”

Think about it: if there’s something you’re depending on to be happy, fulfilled, or secure, what’s your reaction going to be when you don’t get it? How will you treat somebody who stands in the way of you having it? What will your response be when you have it but you don’t feel happy, fulfilled, or secure?

Welcome to your world. Welcome to the source of all your interpersonal conflicts (James 4:1-2). Welcome to the layer of your heart that’s feeding your more visible sins of addiction, anger, anxiety, jealousy, and despair (Mark 7:21-23). We want something to the extent that we feel we need it. So we rage against those who keep us from having it. We have it, but we are consumed with anxiety over the possibility of losing it.

It’s not wrong to seek something to be our happiness, security, and fulfillment. It’s called worship, and we’re created for it. The problem lies with the fact that we’re looking to something other than God to give us that kind of wholeness. Not only does God deserve that kind of worship because he is our creator but- as Augustine said- our hearts won’t rest until they find their rest in him. As long as what you’re worshiping can be taken away from you, you’ll never be at rest. You’ll never be content. On the other hand, if what you’re worshiping is the eternal, sovereign, everywhere-present God of the universe, you’ll rest just fine, even in the midst of great trials.

What are your idols? Have you ever thought about it? If not, I’d greatly encourage you to. It’s not a question of if you have idols, but rather what your idols are. Mark Driscoll provides a helpful list of questions to ask yourself toward that end:

Who or what do I make sacrifices for?

Who or what is most important to me?

If I could have any thing or experience I wanted, what would it be?

Who or what makes me most happy?

What is the one person or thing I could not live without?

What do I spend my money on?

Who or what do I devote my spare time to?

Worship and the Attributes of God

Oh come, let us sing to the LORD; let us make a joyful noise to the rock of our salvation! Let us come into his presence with thanksgiving; let us make a joyful noise to him with songs of praise! For the LORD is a great God, and a great King above all gods. In his hand are the depths of the earth; the heights of the mountains are his also. The sea is his, for he made it, and his hands formed the dry land.
Psalm 95:1-5

If I’m completely honest, verses like these are the ones I tend to glaze over when I’m reading my Bible. Any kind of call to praise God doesn’t really tell me anything I don’t already know. “Praise God. Yep, got it.” It’s not that I don’t enjoy praising him. It’s just that I’m so aware of my need to praise him that any reminders seem superfluous.

But there’s something else in these verses that caught my attention when I was reading them. They don’t just tell us to praise God. They tell us why. “For the LORD is a great God…”

A couple weeks ago I was reflecting on my marriage, specifically the ways in which I let my wife know that she’s loved and appreciated. In doing so, I was convicted about something. I realized that I spent more time telling her that I loved her than I did specifying what it is that I love about her. Saying “I love you” isn’t bad, obviously, nor does she not like it. But there’s a fullness breathed in to those words when I truly sit back and reflect on who she is and all the reasons I’m happy to be spending my life with her. My praise of her reaches new heights when it’s given more fuel.

The same is true when it comes to worshiping the Lord. We all know we should praise God. But I don’t think we stop often enough to ask why. What about God is worth praising? What about him should lead us to thank him? It’s not wrong to say “Thank you, Lord” or “Praise you, Jesus!” But there’s a fuel that enriches our hearts and worship when we stop to think about who God is.

At the risk of sounding like a cranky-old theologian (probably too late, thanks for visiting!), I think there’s a bunch of worship music out there devoted entirely to reminding us to praise God without reminding us of what precisely it is that we’re praising. Again, that’s not to say that that’s never okay. But if that’s all we’re singing, we’re going to burn out quick. “Praise” will become a duty rather than the natural overflow of pre-existing awe.

In Psalm 95:1-5, we see the call to worship God in verses 1-2. Verses 3-5 tell us why.* We make a joyful noise and come into his presence with thanksgiving because he’s the God who created everything. Sit on that for a moment. He’s the God who holds the highest mountains and the deepest oceans in his hand. He spoke them into existence and can take them out of existence. This means that the God who created this:

Nepal_Mount_Everest_And_Ama_dablam

and this:

grand canyon

is the same God who is guiding you through this sin-devastated world. And since he is the God powerful enough to create everything our eyes see, we can have confidence that he is powerful enough to create a new one, free from all the disease, death, and injustice of this present world. He is the God who will put his foot down once and for all on the evils of this world, wipe ever tear away, and repair what is broken.  Thank and praise this God, indeed.

But knowing who God is fuels our worship in another way as well. Consider this: knowing what’s true helps us to know what’s false.  Knowing Spain is in Europe teaches us, among other things, that it’s not in North America. In relationships, knowing that a friend loves us and would die for us teaches us that they would never tear us down behind our back, which frees us from the burden of worrying about that.**

And it’s the same with our knowledge of God. Everything we learn about him from Scripture also teaches us a hundred things that can’t be true. Knowing that God is all-powerful (his omnipotence) and therefore in control protects us from the despair that comes from thinking that all the crap going on in the world is beyond his control. Knowing that God is present everywhere (his omnipresence) shields us from the hopelessness that comes from feeling alone. Knowing that he is just keeps us from the kind of unrighteous anger that leads to vengeance and the never-ending cycle of retaliation. And knowing that he is all-wise keeps us from the frustration of feeling like where you’re currently at in life is a mistake.

Our love for God can grow only as we know him for who he is, which is why it’s important to study his attributes. While there are some great resources for doing so, here’s a brief list of just some of them:

God is…

  • Omniscient (all-knowing). Psalm 139:1-6
  • Immutable (never-changing). Psalm 102:25-27
  • Holy (set-apart, excellent, perfect). Exodus 15:11
  • Wise. Isaiah 40:28
  • Just. Numbers 14:18
  • Omnipotent (all-powerful). Genesis 18:14
  • Sovereign. Psalm 135:6
  • Self-existent. Exodus 3:14, John 5:26
  • Eternal. Isaiah 57:15
  • Merciful. Exodus 34:6-7

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*Not to say that this alone is why we should worship God. The Bible has 66 books’ worth of reasons to praise him.

**Obviously, sin exists and so does betrayal.

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