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Posts Tagged ‘contentment’


Confession: I have a love-hate relationship with the culture war.

I’m torn in two. I have strong convictions on some things that I think are important. But I’m weary of how we as a culture, including the church, discuss these matters. I’m becoming more concerned with ministering to struggling people than trying to be right. I do want to explore nuances on some issues.

The subtitle of one of Scott Sauls’ books interested me. That book is Jesus Outside the Lines: A Way Forward for Those Who Are Tired of Taking Sides. Sauls is a PCA pastor in Nashville who used to work with Tim Keller in NYC. In many ways he is like Keller, making distinctions and exploring nuance. He tends to tick off both the left and the right. If the Bible is true, Keller notes, it will critique every culture and every person. That means that everyone will be annoyed by something it says. The same will be true for faithful pastors. The left thinks you are too right and the right that you are too left.

In his introduction Sauls puts it this way:

“Are we known by what we are for instead of what we are against? Are we less concerned about defending our rights- for Jesus laid down his rights- and more concerned about joining Jesus in his mission of loving people, places, and things to life?”

While we believe in truth, we also believe in grace and peace. This means a Christian should be pursuing all of them, not just one. In Paul’s letter to the Galatians he calls them to end what we’d call their tribalism in light of the fact they’ve been baptized into Christ. Their union with Him and one another takes precedence over the divides that kept people apart in their culture. In light of this we keep truth and love together, as Paul notes in Ephesians 4. Sauls wants us to see beyond the polarization to affirm what is true about each side of an argument in the process of finding the truth in the middle so we can love both sides and hopefully bring them together.

The book is divided into two main sections. The first addresses issues between the various “Christian tribes”. The second addresses some of the issues that polarize the church and the world.

The first issue he addresses could be in both sections of the book: politics. Reflecting Keller he argues that no political system or party is fully aligned with Jesus and therefore subject to critique. Politics is like a religion in America. There seems to be no middle ground.

God has instituted government, and raises up and casts down leaders. Those governments and leaders don’t serve Jesus. In our own context the two parties grab hold of part of what Jesus says. As Christians we can think they have the whole (or none in the case of THEM). We each have agendas and choose the candidate or party that best represent them. And one of those agendas tends to be political power. It is not just the evangelical right that courts earthly power, as the evangelical left would have you believe. Both sides have made compromises to gain cultural power so the current dust ups are largely disingenuous to me.

“Kingdom politics reject the world’s methods of misusing power and manipulating the truth.”

As we consider politics we should recognize that Christians should be involved in terms of voting and also holding office. Yet we should do this understanding the limitations involved. No candidate or platform is perfect. We are not electing pastors, and being a Christian doesn’t necessarily make one wise or beyond corruption. This is another way of saying that politics is not a means to usher in the kingdom of God. It is, however, a means to help human flourishing so the work of the kingdom can take place in and through the church.

Sauls notes that Christianity tends to be healthier when it is part of the minority, not the majority. As the minority we are generally less conformed to the world, and less likely to trample other groups. As the majority we tend to cling to power and can abuse it. We are fallen humans after all.

He also notes that “Christianity embraces both conservative and progressive values.” It is neither. Christianity teaches that women are made in the image of God. As such it should embrace equality for women. Christians have long had a prevailing ethic of life contrary to many an earthly government and culture. If we treat women well, the pro-life movement is not assumed to be a war on women.

I don’t want to spend as much time on the other polarizing viewpoints. But in discussing politics with some from the evangelical left recently I’ve heard the accusation that I’m actually pro-birth and don’t care about the poor. That’s a nice talking point, and the second chapter: For the unborn or the poor? Oddly, I’ve found many conservatives at the forefront of care for the poor through groups like the Salvation Army, Compassion International and through funding soup kitchens, pantries and homeless shelters.

It is difficult to discuss this topic without getting back into red state-blue state. But the question is not a new one: who should care for the poor, the church or the state? Calvin argued that church should, and Luther thought it was the state. We have a similar divide between the evangelical right and left. It isn’t really about whether to care for the poor but who and how. Our problem is we tend to see the other side not caring because they don’t do it the way we think it should be done.

Sauls brings us back to the reality of both the unborn and the poor bearing the image of God. This should lead us to have a comprehensive ethic of life. Mine would go something like this: The state should protect the unborn while the church/Christians should provide for the unborn and the poor. The state should protect the living by bearing the sword against the wicked who forfeit their lives for certain heinous crimes.

The section also addresses personal faith or institutional church, money guilt or money greed, racially the same or racially diverse, and him or her. These are important issues that we tend to take extreme positions on and fight about in the church. These, of course, are false dilemmas for the most part. We should value both personal faith and the institutional church. One tends to be dead without the other. Sauls notes that the early church was FAR from perfect, so the problems of our churches shouldn’t mean we reject “organized religion”. Rather, the church is a place where we learn to love people who are very different from ourselves. As he argues, we need the church and the church needs us.

In discussing money he reminds us that the underlying issue is contentment. Most people are not content with their wealth. This can manifest itself in either hoarding or spending. We inevitably have to see the God-man who was rich but became poor to enrich others. As we consider Him He makes us people who also enrich others.

Racial questions are difficult because we have such a hard time moving beyond our experience. We tend to normalize our experiences and can’t see other people’s experience (especially minorities) as valid or true. People in the majority need to begin listening to minorities. Privilege, I’ve found, doesn’t have to do with having an easy go of things so much as there are things you never have to think about. For instance, when I get in my car I never wonder if I’m going to get pulled over by the police. Many blacks and Hispanics do, and that is because they are pulled over far more frequently than me. When I get pulled over I don’t think that I’d better record it just in case things go south. I’ve always been treated with respect by the police. But many blacks and Hispanics are viewed with more suspicion by police than I am. Their experience is so different than mine. There are negatives I don’t experience due to my race, social status or both.

The same is true regarding men and women. I don’t go for a jog (when I used to) and wonder if I’ll get jumped and raped. I don’t pay attention to the cars on my walk to see if the same one keeps going by. I don’t pay more for a car or repairs because of my sex. Studies show that women are often taken advantage of by sales and repair men.

Where Sauls goes is inequality in the church in both chapters. Minorities often feel forced to fit in with the white culture of a church. They feel like a token instead of someone who has a seat at the table with decision-making power. Women also have decisions made for them without seeking their wisdom and counsel. God gifts women for ministry too. They don’t have to hold office to exercise those gifts like egalitarians think. Some complementarians need to remember that this is true and not unnecessarily restrict the ministry of women.

In the second section he discusses affirmation or critique, accountability or compassion, hypocrite or work in progress, chastity or sexual freedom, hope or realism, self-esteem or God-esteem and then provides some quick pointers on living outside the lines in the epilogue.

He spends time discussing our need for affirmation and encouragement. He also distinguishes critique and criticism helpfully.

“Because an affirming critique always comes from the motive of restoring and building up, unlike criticism, which aims to harm and tear down.”

We all been victims of criticism. You feel worthless, humiliated and exposed. Critique is not focused on fault-finding and assigning blame. It is concerned with how we can do better. Affirmation should not be devoid of critique, but it should be devoid of criticism. In this context he shared a story of a bad relationship with another pastor that brought out the worst in each of them, and how it turned the corner into a healthier relationship when they considered how God was sanctifying each thru the other.

He invites to consider both the justice and compassion of God that is revealed in the cross of Christ, as well as the final judgment. This is not a book whose message is “can’t we just get along.” It brings us often to the gospel while reminding us that divine truth is not simplistic. Our positions may have elements of the truth but not the whole truth. As we interact with people of differing opinions we may discover they have some of the truth too. Sauls is not selling relativism, but is reminding us that the truth can be more complex than we want to make it in our quest to be right. Seriously, who wants to be wrong?

There is much to make you think and move beyond the false dilemmas we find in life. There are also some great stories. I loved the story about Doug and how Scott struggled with a competitive spirit with a man he hadn’t been in contact with for over a decade. Scott is vulnerable in this book. He’s not the hero who has it all together. He comes across to me as a guy who’s trying to figure all this out and shares a few of the things he’s learned. See this as critique instead of criticism and you’ll benefit from the book. See it as criticism and you’ll just get ticked and retreat to your own tribe within the lines. It might feel safer, but then so is a prison cell sometimes.

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Our world is insane about many things. Sin will do that, produce a form of insanity. But when it comes to Sex & Money, our world is really crazy. Paul Tripp’s newest book is about these “pleasures that leave you empty and the grace that satisfies.”

He confesses that this was a very difficult book for him to write, precisely because of what it revealed about his own heart. Really, that is what most of this book is about: the heart. The manifestations of a heart gone astray he’s focused on are sex and money. This is not an easy book to read for the very same reasons- the waywardness of your own heart will be revealed.

“I am sad to think that when it comes to sex and money, we still buy into the legalism that says if we can organize people’s lives, give them the right set of rules, and attach them to efficient systems of accountability, we can deliver people from their sex-and-money insanity. … Few areas of the human struggle reveal more powerfully the sad sinfulness of sin than the sex-and-money evils that are done thousands of times every day.”

He begins the book with a series of scenarios that illustrate our insanity when it comes to sex and money.

  • A fifteen year-old self-appointed expert on oral sex.
  • An 8 year-old boy who is addicted to internet pornography.
  • A married man who masturbates daily.
  • Teachers having sex with under age students (nearly nightly on the news these days).
  • Unemployed high school students bombarded with offers for credit cards.
  • The average amount of consumer debt people carry creating an “anxiety-producing dance debt.”
  • Governments worldwide are deep in debt, near bankruptcy. And their citizens are rioting because they don’t get enough benefits.

And we could go on. You could go on. I know of pastors arrested in “massage parlors”. I know people arrested in the sting operations designed to get men trying to have sex with minors. And these are only what comes out in public. What of the sex and money sins that are still hidden?

“Both offer you an inner sense of well-being while having no capacity whatsoever to satisfy your heart.”

But there is a deeper theological orientation that Tripp wants us to consider: both creation and redemption. He made us sexual beings. He placed us in a world where sex and money issues are unavoidable and significant part of our ordinary experience. You should get the feeling that you are living in your own version of Deuteronomy 8: test, humbled and too often found wanting. Yet…

“The gospel graces us with everything we need to celebrate and participate in both areas of life in a way that honors God and fully enjoys the good things he’s given us to enjoy.”

Tripp moves into the dangerous dichotomy, expanding on the fact that God is Creator. One of the teachings that has done us much harm is that some of life is sacred and some is secular. The fact of creation shows, as Paul says in Colossians 1, that everything was made by God and for God. It is all intended to bring Him glory, and us good. it is all under His rule. A gospel-centered approach starts here because sex and money aren’t the real problem. We are.

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Envy is a problem for everyone. The 10th Commandment is essentially about envy- wanting what someone else has. It is a cancer to the soul, breeding complaints against God like a whiny teenager. “If you loved me …”

Ministers are not immune. We can be tempted to envy how God is at work in other churches. At least in how we perceive it.

I had one of those experiences recently as a few fellow pastors gathered to discuss a common project. One, a church planter, noted upon being asked how their new facility is already packed. The attendance is about 50% higher than ours.

For me it turns into self-condemnation of a sort. “You stink. If you were a good pastor/preacher/leader you’d see that and more.”

Envy destroys contentment. And that is the 2nd mistake that Dave Kraft addresses in Mistakes Leaders Make.

It isn’t limited to ministry success. You can envy how much other pastors make. As a Presbyterian, I know how much new pastors in the Presbytery make. When you pastor a smaller church, that is tough. Suddenly you think about your retirement, that cruise you wish you could take and a host of other things. It can easily distract you from the task at hand.

“I think it is good to compare what is happening through me (and in me) with what could potentially happen. It is good to compare where I am with my growth and ministry effectiveness with where it is possible to be, with God’s grace. Where I get into trouble is when I compare with others who have different gifts, callings, capacities, and personalities.”

There are several important things there. First, comparing is okay if I’m wondering what God could do with me (keeping my gifts and limitations in mind). It becomes a question of faithfulness, am I being faithful? How can I be more faithful? That is a far better standard than success.

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Radical by David Platt is one of the books that has been enjoying lots of word of mouth among American Calvinists (mainly neo-Calvinists) since its release.  When I had the opportunity to get a review copy, I took it.  I wanted to read it to see what the buzz was about, and the topic interests me.

“I am convinced that we as Christ followers in American churches have embraced values and ideas that are not only unbiblical but that actually contradict the gospel we claim to believe.”

Years ago, I preached my Advent series from Revelation.  One of those sermons was on the dual strategies of the Evil One to destroy the church.  The Beast represents governments that persecute the church.  The Prostitute represents seduction, as the world seduces the church such that she slowly becomes like the world.  In some countries the church experiences persecution, but here in America we face the Seductress.  It goes without saying that the message was not well received by some.  So, that being said, I get what David Platt is trying to say in his book.

This is not a new subject.  Michael Horton has written numerous books on the subject of how American Christianity has been warped by American values (instead of the influence going the other way).  People like Ron Sider, Francis Chan and a host of others have tackled this subject in the 25 years since Christ rescued me.  In fact, this book is part Horton (he stresses some theological ideas contrary to American thought- Calvinism), part Francis Chan (a ‘radical’ approach) and part Ron Sider (“pack your bags, we’re going on a guilt trip).  Which makes this a difficult book to review.

“A command for us to be gospel-living, gospel-speaking people at every moment and in every context where we find ourselves.”

Radical is not as good as the hype nor as bad as most (poorly informed) critics make it out to be.  But let me start with some good things, because there are things I appreciate about the book.  There are things the American Church needs to reckon with regarding how we’ve been seduced by our corner of the world.

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I have not played much guitar since the adoption.  Foolishly, I have kept it at home since I sometimes play at our Family Small Group.  But there just doesn’t seem to be much opportunity to play.  Can’t play when the kids are awake, and if they are asleep….

Well, last night I needed to play.  I needed some truth in my head, and that is a great time for me to ponder lyrics and try to draw near to God.  It’s been a long week, and I needed some of that time.  So I played after the kids went to bed, but before they usually drift off to sleep.  And I played this morning after they all went to Bible Study Fellowship.  Ah, if only my callouses weren’t so thin.  Then I would have played longer.  Here’s part of my “song list”:

Blessed Be Your Name, I Need Thee Every Hour (Jars of Clay version), O Worship the King (Passion verison), Here is Love, Beautiful, Scandalous Night, Amazing Grace (My Chains are Gone) [still learning this one], A Shield About Me, Guide Me, O Great Jehovah, Be Thou My Vision, From Depths of Woe I Raise to Thee.

Good for the soul.

In the quiet home this morning I read some more of In Christ Alone by Sinclair Ferguson.  Actually, I read some last night too.  I try to read 2 chapters a day and am moderately successful.  I finally finished Part V- A Life of Wisdom.  Great stuff in there about discernment and character.  The material I read this morning intersected with my sermon.  We focus on circumstances, but God focuses on character.  My choices flow out of my character so my choices have to be focused on how God transform my character (truth and trial).  The chapter in question was on contentment.  Character traits like this must be learned through experience, as we bring truth to bear on them.

“Christians must discover contentment the old-fashioned way: we must learn it. … It is commanded of us, but, paradoxically, it is created in us, not done by us.  It is not the product of a series of actions, but of a renewed and transformed character. … This seems a difficult principle  for Christians today to grasp.  Clear directives for Christian living are essential for us.  But, sadly, much of the heavily programmatic teaching in evangelicalism places such a premium on external doing and acheiving that character development is set at a discount.  We live in the most pragmatic society on earth (if anyone can ‘do it,’ we can).  It is painful to pride to discover that the Christian life is not rooted in what we can do, but in what we need done to us.” 

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