Book Review – Divided We Fall

Being a church planter the most frequently asked question is “What kind of church are  you?”  [READ:  “Are you a legit church or a cult?”]  Being a Non-Denom in the overwhelmingly Catholic Northeast US, people are naturally suspicious.  I get it.  Even within our small town there are several other churches, mainline denominations that, to be blunt, are preaching a false gospel.  How are we to relate to each other?  What does the unbelieving world see in all that?

As we celebrate the 500th anniversary of the reformation this month we are forever thankful for the return to biblical doctrine over church corruption, the inescapable question is “To what extent has unity suffered?”

Luder Whitlock tries to address all of these questions in “Divided We Fall – Overcoming a History of Christian Disunity.”  [P&R Publishing, 2017]

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I’m very thankful for this book, and in reading this was encouraged by the way God works in our hearts to grow us, as this topic has been something that I’ve been wrestling with.

As one might expect, Luder starts with a solid foundation of what the Bible has to say, as does church history, and then moves towards more practical application.

In the perfect unity of the Trinity, God is completely harmonious.  When we draw near to this God, and our relationship with him is restored in Christ, our relationships with people will inevitably be transformed. [7]

I echo Luder’s concerns that unity has been been considered less important in the church to our shame.  “Given such an undeniably clear emphasis by Jesus on the importance of unity, how can his people afford to neglect it or treat is lightly?” [15] Hence the need for a book like this.

The author traces church history, again focusing on the Protestant Reformation, but notes that as the Reformers may have the reputation for division, they actually worked much harder in the spirit of unity.  Nevertheless, the unfortunate result of separation from Rome was a splintering of the church into many denominations, which unfortunately continues to this day.  Can’t we all just get along?

There has been some cries for cross-denominational unity and ecumenicalism and yet there is still a backlash on the protestant side against anything ‘ecumenical.’ I have had personal experience with this in my own setting. I do need to show love and grace to other churches, I will happily serve alongside them to feed the hungry or help the homeless, but I cannot participate in a worship service with people to differ on salvation.

I perceived a shift in the author’s tone to be one of “us” who are for unity and “them” that are not.  The immediate question I have is “Yes, but what about those things that are negotiable? Like justification by faith? Substitutionary atonement?”  I mean…I agree Protestants disagree on the dumbest and smallest of things [worship music? carpet colors??] and this is sin and to our shame, but there are things that we just can’t go along with – not because we have convictions, but because the Word of God says so.  Wasn’t that the reason for the Reformation in the first place?

The author writes “Here is the sobering thought that must not be avoided: If the unity of the church is as important as the Bible says it is, aren’t we obligated to attempt to surmount all impediments to it’s achievement to the greatest degree possible?” [130]

To which I say a hearty and loud YES and AMEN…but they key is “…to the greatest degree possible.”  In that, it appears the author and I differ as to what is the “greatest degree” – although I completely concur that unity in the church is sinfully neglected.  Still there are boundaries, set in God’s Word.  We cannot unify if we are preaching a different gospel.  [Galatians 1:8-9] Differences in substitutionary atonement cannot be resolved with unity…what are we unifying? [His unfortunate recounting of a conversation between Piper and Pagitt on that subject for example, p. 175.] Can we communicate better, yes?  With more love? Yes, but the challenge is doing this while not softening core doctrines, and weakening the very church we are trying to unify.

I also want to be very clear – Luder does hold firm to that which is of first importance – “Believers today are justified, as were the Reformers, in separating from those who deny the gospel and refuse to place themselves under the authority of God’s Word.”  My only wish is that this note would have been sounded louder, more frequently, and more clearly.

Even still, I’m thankful for his clarity in this and for the work of this book, it is surely needed.  Let us press on in unity for glorious gospel of God in Jesus Christ.

 

 

 

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Book Review – Conversion: How God Creates a People

The topic of genuine Biblical conversion has been on my mind lately.  In transparency, sometimes in moments of frustration where we see people stuck in patterns of sin, brokenness and unfruitfulness.  Sometimes the reason why is because maybe they never really never truly understood and submitted to Christ, and therefore they aren’t converted, regenerated, made new.

I’m also fresh off of a 9Marks Weekender and this topic is always discussed when you are spending time reflecting on what is a Biblical church.

Enter Conversion:  How God Creates a People by Michael Lawrence.  I was excited to read this as I usually am with anything from 9Marks.  I have come to value their Biblical faithfulness and clarity.

download-1Hinson clearly states the solid reasoning why a book like this is needed right in the introduction.  “There is a problem with our theology – specifically our theology of conversion. Second, there is a problem with how we apply that theology to our church.  Too often our confessional theology says one thing, while our practical theology says something else. We say that regeneration makes us new creatures in Christ, but then we teach our kids a moralism that atheists could duplicate.” [14]  I think I’m gonna like this guy.

This problem, as I alluded to above, has then tremendous snowball effects in the body life and health of the local church.

This book targets then not the symptoms, but the underlying disease.

What do we think conversion actually looks like on the outside? It should be nothing short of complete regeneration – being made new, not just being made “nice.”  This means Godly new appetites and desires, not about just becoming a better you.  Hinson makes a great point as to the tragic effect of this on our youth in the church “I fear this is why so many of my friends’ children have walked away from Christianity. They haven’t given up on being nice. They’ve simply discovered that they don’t need Jesus to be  nice.” [23]  Exactly.

This regeneration then not only is person, it is corporate – the new person is now part of the church where God’s new creation people glorify God by living how he has called them to live.  This has big impacts on church membership and church leaders.  Are we sure that the people we are accepting as church members and allowing to lead or worse yet…teach…are actually converted believers?  This is of paramount importance.

Hinson faithfully lays down a biblical foundation of conversion.  We are saved…but saved from what and saved for what?  First, we are saved from God’s wrath for sin.  We need to preach and teach this hard topic because the Bible does.  It’s not “come to Jesus; he’ll give you purpose and meaning. The trouble is, subjective problems can be solved through subjective solutions.” [35]   If we are saved from God’s wrath, then we are saved by God’s grace, saved because of God’s love, saved into God’s people, and saved for God’s glory.  The Christian life is not about our happiness or fulfillment, it’s about God’s glory.  Otherwise when those things don’t materialize we are tempted to abandon Jesus…all the while we were believing in a different gospel. [44] Amen!

What then should conversion look like?  It should include repentance…real repentance. “An exchanging of our idols for God. Before it’s a change in behavior, it must be a change in worship.” [51] It should also include faith…again real faith, not just a intellectual acceptance of a set of ideas.   What faith do we teach, model, and give our people assurance of?

Contrasting pop psych-theology, the author challenges the therapeutic gospel – we need Jesus to make us OK.  “We don’t just need to accept ourselves. We need God to accept us.”  [66] Hinson continues “Being healed then is not at all about coming to peace with ourselves. It’s about having our guild and shame and ultimately the curse removed and being restored to a right relationship with God. In other words, to be healed in Scripture is to be made holy.” [67] This is much needed perspective on this and again has a direct result in how we live.  Going back to where I began, maybe the people we are expecting to live as Christians aren’t because they aren’t actually Christians?  I underlined and highlighted this next part – “…it is not burdensome to live according to the new nature if you have it. What’s burdensome is to live according to a nature that you don’t have. In fact, its worse than burdensome. It’s impossible. Could it be that you don’t live as if you’ve been set apart because you haven’t been set apart?” [72]  #MicDropMoment

The author then diligently turns to the church itself and how a Biblical theology of conversion affects our ecclesiology.  If the church is a community of converted believers, then who are we targeting with how we “do” church?  Are we seeking to make it as comfortable as possible for those seeking?  I just read a great Spurgeon quote in a Challies post today –  “I believe that one reason why the church of God at this present moment has so little influence over the world is because the world has so much influence over the church.”  Thanks, Spurg.

This also effects how we do evangelism.  It shouldn’t be a pragmatic, sales pitchy monologue. “Successful evangelism is not about getting people to respond.” [91] What we win them with we win them to.  Is what we are saying in our witnessing reflective of a Biblically grounded conversion?  How many times does our [in transparency maybe my…] evangelism get reduced to “God loves you” or “Jesus will give you purpose.”  We need to communicate plainly, honestly, urgently,  and confidently.

When we talk then about church membership, perhaps the most important thing we can do is diligently assess whether someone is truly converted.  I’m convinced this is why so many churches are in poor health.  We’ve see the implications on a personal level – how much more so on a church level!

Hinson wraps things up with a great summary chapter on why it all matters – It matters for God, it maters for us, and it matters for the world.  The doctrine of conversion is too important to be lead astray to a weaker, non-Biblical position.  I’m grateful for the reminder and foundation set here.

 

 

Book Review – Burning Hearts – Preaching to the Affections

Let’s face it – Pastors have a reputation for loving books, and I guess that is well-deserved and a good thing.  Pastors, and all Christians for that matter, should be readers.  We should be seeking to grow and be challenged.  So, my not-so-little-kids got me Burning Hearts – Preaching to the Affections815AD6kR4LL.jpg for Father’s Day off of my Amazon list…and yes…it’s September and I’m just now getting around to doing the review.  Hey – it’s been a busy Summer!

As a regular preacher of God’s word, I’m always wrestling with the challenge of not being just a conveyor of information, but God’s word being living and active has to impact hearts and affect how we live.  I’m not up there to just summarize and explain Scripture.  It has to be made applicable, and a big part of that is how it affects me, before I bring it to the church.

I can’t remember how I heard about this book, but that’s the beauty of the Amazon wish list, when I hear someone recommend a book I put it on and then I won’t forget.  [Sometimes…I’m smart…]  Moody and Weekes approach this very important topic in a logical and accessible way.

Logically, that would with a definition of terms.  They define affections as “the movement of our thoughts, feelings and will towards a desired object, person or event. An affection is what inclines us to something (whereas as effect is what results from something). Affections are what move us toward action.”  It’s also important to define what this therefore does NOT mean as related to preaching.  It is not “sentimental, touchy-feely, or lacking in intellectual rigor or content.”  AMEN.    Preaching to the affections means preaching that targets the heart – where emotion and reason come together – the core of the person.  [14-15]

That leads to more important general observations – affections are part of the brains response to data and they are necessary for rational functioning. However, reason and emotion are both fallen due to sin and therefore we need to wrestle them to be inline with God’s Word. Affections are oriented towards godly desires in the godly person, however affections are not proof in themselves that someone is spiritual.  I think we’ve all probably known a few very emotional Christians who aren’t spiritual and rather superficial.  As the authors wisely point out – salvation is evidenced by sanctification, gradually growing as a Christian.  What causes this growth is the power of the gospel – the pure Word of God, which produces faith in our hearts, gradually producing the fruit of increasing Christlikeness as the believer perseveres in the grace and power of the Holy Spirit.

Now that the foundations of affections have been set, the authors move on to setting the foundation for preaching.  They define preaching as “the God-ordained means by which He meets with His people through His Word and by his Spirit in such a way that His people’s eyes are opened to see Jesus and be captivated by Him.” [25]  They immediately refine this mean that this is done best through the systematic, continuous exposition of the Scriptures.  AMEN!  I’m not hating on topical preaching, sometimes it is necessary to address any issues in detail for church health, but the default setting for preaching should be the expositional teaching of God’s Word!

Bringing both affections and preaching together then – the authors rightly surmise that we use preaching to raise the affections of the supremacy of Jesus Christ.  [with an appropriate nod to Jonathan Edwards on that – as one would expect, he is quoted heavily.]  Practically this means that “one of the ways that we can do this is by remembering that we are preaching a person, not just teaching a passage.  What we are doing is presenting Christ.” [31]

Why would we preach to the affections?  The authors provide a few reasons (1) because of biblical precedent [Acts 2:37…they were ‘cut to the heart.]; (2) because of biblical warning [‘these people honor me with their lips, but their hearts are far from me…’]; (3) because of biblical promise. [God promises to transform in the gospel, and preaching the gospel softens hearts and changes lives by the power of the Holy Spirit.]; (4) because of historical examples. [ex. Edwards “Religious Affections”; (5) because of global examples [this was their weakest reason IMHO, I didn’t connect with this one, the church is global and not sure how this helped the point.]; (6) because of evangelistic effectiveness [though they didn’t articulate it as such, people must get the feeling that we passionately believe in what we are preaching!]; (7) because of pastoral winsomeness [as we preach to engage the affections, our heart is open wide and gives the congregation a sense of our affection.]; (8) because of missional opportunity [conveying not only an agenda, but sacrificial service to the community.]; (9) because of the purity of the church [‘it is insufficient simply to tell people that a certain behavior or attitude is wrong. We need to know why it is wrong and see affectionally how other behaviors and attitudes are better, sweeter, more wonderful, of more value.’];(10) because of the glory of God. [ultimately, because heart change honors God and glorifies Him.]

How do you preach to the affections? As a precursor, and something I’m glad it was drilled into me in seminary, we can’t expect someone to be moved by a passage that hasn’t already moved us.  We need to be personally affected by the text before we can affect anyone else.  The truth has to be “massaged into our hearts so that God’s Word does not inform us, but transforms us.” [52].  The authors then give well thought out considerations of how to accomplish this.  (1) Look out for the affections in the text. [what affection words are there?]; (2) Think Christ, live Christ, apply Christ. [we should be looking for Christ in whatever part of the Bible we are in.]; (3) Probe the workings of the heart [expose deep-rooted idols, again by pointing to the supremacy of Christ.  Nod to Chalmers here and the ‘expulsive power of a new affection.’]; (4) Preach the pathos as well as the logos of the passage. [the logic as well as the resulting emotion of it]; (5) Learn from those who preach to the affections. [Again – Edwards…Puritans for example]; (6) Raise the affections with the truth. [it’s not enough to get the text right, we must go to the next step and ask “In what way to do the truths of this text raise my affections and those to whom I am preaching?”]; (7) Prayer. [infuse our preparation with prayer]; (8) Preach with an awakened heart [this becomes a challenge for us regular preachers…]

The authors wrap up the book with an appeal to preach boldly the Word of God and engage the affections…in the changing culture we live in and will live in.  Bring the unchanging Word of god to bear on a changing culture and be in tune with both.

Moody and Weekes also give us a few examples of sermons with running commentary.  Oddly enough, I found this less helpful than the first part of the book, perhaps I was distracted by the commentary or I’m more of a linear thinker.  Nevertheless, they provide solid practical examples which are still valuable.

Preachers and aspiring preachers – READ THIS BOOK.  It is definitely helpful for growth in this very important area.  So many sermons are either one extreme or the other – dry lifeless presentation of information or overly emotional shallow pragmatism.  The authors diligently define and balance the two necessary aspects of logos and pathos and hopefully will encourage many to savor the supremacy of preaching God’s word with knowledge and passion.

 

 

 

 

Book Review – Resilience

I’m a consumer of podcasts.  Mostly, they fall into two categories – sermon podcasts and interview podcasts.  As a pastor, the former is probably obvious – but the latter is my “brain off” time where I like to drive and listen to strong, successful, driven, self-disciplined and very interesting people being interviewed about what makes them tick.   This leads me to listening to a lot of stories of Navy SEALs, whom I highly respect as they always possess all of those qualities in abundance.

51vib-HkB7L.jpgThis leads me to Eric Greitens.  Former Navy SEAL and current governor of Missouri.  As one can surmise immediately…this guy is probably going to have a great story.   Turns out, however that his book, Resilience: Hard-Won Wisdom for Living a Better Life, is not his story.  It’s a series of letters written to a SEAL buddy who has hit rock bottom.  The contents are gold.  Get a cup of joe, this is going to be a long post. One that I will need to come back to repeatedly.

This is not a theology or Christian book, though Greitens quotes Scripture throughout.  It is an excellent book that Christians can interpret through the lens of Scripture and the perspective of the gospel. When we do this, it strengthens our faith and deepens our understanding of God’s word.  Part of what makes this post so long, is that I try to do that real time and bring in Scripture to balance/correct some of these ideas. I’ll try to do that as we go thru this, OK kids?

Zach Walker is Greitens’ SEAL buddy and the one he writes all the letters to.  They came up thru BUD/S training together, though after it they served in different areas and didn’t see each other much.  Zach was the toughest of the tough, and after doing the things that SEALs do he hit bottom hard when he tried to adjust to normal life.  Lost his business, lost his family, got arrested, and turned to alcohol to try and keep the PTSD demons at bay.

As the title suggests, the thesis of the book is resilience – “the virtue that enables people to move thru hardship and become better. No one escapes pain, fear, and suffering. Yet from pain can come wisdom, from fear cab come courage, from suffering can come strength – if we have the virtue of resilience.” [3]

Right off the bat, he is speaking of biblical truths of pain, suffering and perseverance.   Greiten writes tellingly “human beings can turn hardship into wisdom because we are born with the capacity for resilience, and we can make ourselves more resilient thru practice.”

This is why I will always recommend that Christians read “non-Christian” books and practice using a biblical worldview to interpret the world around us – while being cautious not to get sucked into it.

Greiten is so close to the truth on this, or maybe he is and he is just sand-bagging a bit so as to not make it a “Christian” book. [He is a politician so he can’t probably say how he really feels.]  We were “born with the capacity for resilience” because God our Creator put it there for his glory. However, it is not solely in our power to make ourselves anything.  It is only thru coming to an end of ourselves, admitting our need for transformation in the gospel that we can realize that therefore he will powerfully work in us to change us, and glorify himself in the process.  [See Colossians 1:28-29; and Ephesians 1:17-23 for a few to start…]  It is a cooperative work between God and us.  Our effort and diligence is required, but it is not our work exclusively.

The author says we need to chose to live this resilient life.  Indeed we do. We need to chose say no to sin and yes to righteousness.  Every day.  Many, many times.

This is part of the discipline of self-mastery – another biblical concept, and why I love listening to the life stories of guys like Navy SEALs.  They have to master themselves, they have to be experts at self-discipline.  So does every Christian on the face of the earth.  [2 Timothy 1:7; 4:7-10; Galatians 5:22-24…]

There are many implications of this. One of the most foundational is therefore we discipline ourselves to live for God’s purposes and his glory, not our own.  Again, this is how we were created, yet how many millions of people just wander thru life without any direction or goals.  Greiten is spot on [although again only in concept] that “in the long run deprivation of purpose is as destructive as deprivation of sleep. Without purpose, we can survive but we cannot flourish.” [16]

We need to struggle and work towards this purpose.  Indeed much disillusionment comes from not having a clear purpose.  How many people have succeeded in doing great things and then suffered the sudden onset of “Now what?!”   We need to keep going, keep learning, keep growing – as Christians – keep maturing.

This will come with it’s share of weakness and hardships and a refining of the definition of resilience – it’s not just bouncing back. “Resilient people do not bounce back from hard experiences; they find healthy ways to integrate them into their lives.  In time, people find that great calamity met with great spirit can create great strength.” [23]

This is the famous quote from Hemmingway “The world breaks everyone, and afterward many are strong at the broken places.” [24]  Christians – we are strong at the broken places because in Christ we are made strong.  For the sake of Christ, then, I am content with weaknesses, insults, hardships, persecutions, and calamities. For when I am weak, then I am strong.”  (2 Corinthians 12:10 ESV)

Resilience is then endurance with direction. [25]  YIKES!  That is the Christian life!  “-)

This leads to forming life habits and self-disciplines to endure and be resilient. “Practice builds habits. Our habits are our character. When it comes to virtue, practice makes a very great difference – or rather, all the difference.” [27] Romans 5:1-5 anyone?

As we act in these ways, our character development follows.  “We become what we do if we do it often enough. We act with courage and we become courageous. We act with compassion and we become compassionate. If we make the resilient choices, ewe become resilient.” [28] James 1:3

These things, like our sanctification, grow slowly. He mentions the “Stockdale Paradox” – where it has been observed that the POWs who broke the fastest were those who deluded themselves about the severity of their ordeal. “You must never confuse faith that you will prevail in the end – which you can never afford to lose – with the discipline to conform the most brutal facts of your current reality, whatever they might be.”  In this we have to “maintain clarity about your reality. The paradox is that at the very same time you have to find a way to maintain hope.” [30]

I harp on this all the time and then am guilty of committing the same sin myself, that we Americans think we deserve a happy, comfortable, pain-free life.  Then reality hits and our world is crashing down around us.  “Soon enough, reality kicks down your front door and then you can’t pretend anymore. Pain is real and we do better dealing with is when we acknowledge it.” [30] He is right to say “keep in mind though, there is a big difference between acknowledging pain and wallowing in it.”  [31]

Greiten stresses another foundational biblical quality – humility.  This is where we start. Its humility of accepting our situation and enduring with direction.  I’m embarrassed to admit, that I never thought of Adam and Eve in this light.  Greiten points out “Adam and Eve left the Garden [after being kicked out] and went into the world: tilled the earth, had children, made a life. The knowledge of real evil and the experience of pain are always harsh. Often they are also a beginning.” [36]  We cannot wait for the world to change – we have to get going.  “When we accept what we cannot change – that some pain cannot be avoided, that some adversities cannot be overcome, that tragedy comes to every one of us – we are liberated to direct our energy toward work that we can actually do.” [36]

“Great changes come when we make small adjustments with great conviction.” [38] The growth and maturity of a believer comes in degrees. 2 Corinthians 3:18.

As believers we need to start now in growth in degrees.  As a pleasant surprise, Greiten quotes Augustine in Confessions – “When [Augustine] reflected on all the selfish ambition he began with, and all the false starts and doubts on his path, he could only say to God, “I have loved you so late.” [41]

We also do this together, in community and in deep relationships.  “Someone who cares about you, sweats with you, and corrects you when you need to be corrected is one of the most precious things in life: a true friend.” [44] Disciples of Jesus are supposed to come alongside other disciples in the tight community of the church.

When we put these principles into action – we flourish.  “Flourishing is rooted in action.  You work along the lines of excellence. You can’t just do things. You do them well. A flourishing life is a life lived along lines of excellence. Flourishing is a condition created by the choices we make in the world we live in.” [50] Flourishing usually produces happiness.  “Remember what comes first. A focus on happiness will not lead to excellence. A focus on excellence will, over time, lead to happiness.” [59]

I will again bust in and insert that “excellence” is supremely demonstrated in God Himself.  We purse GOD and we will receive the abundant life he promises [John 10:10], but not material abundance or pleasure.  Greiten, again so close to biblical truth here “The happiness of pleasure cannot provide purpose; it can’t substitute for the happiness of excellence.” [62…ie. God]  This is the restless striving of the human heart, which our friend Augustine reminds us “our hearts are restless until they find their rest in God.”

Greiten also touches on major biblical themes like maturity [“put away childish things – 77]; pursuing false idols [77]; and even our identity. And our identity has nothing to do with our feelings.

“How you are feeling? It’s often a sucker’s question…feelings lead to action and action leads to identity.”  Yes and no.  I was worried for a minute but he quickly got back towards biblical truth.

The typical identity flow goes like this: “Feelings – Action – Identity.”  That’s a trap.  It’s more accurately “Identity – Action – Feelings.”

We act from who we are [and who we are aspiring to be], which produces actions, which in turn produce feelings.  My church will hear me say “Feelings can’t drive the bus.”  Christians are children of God – dearly loved, cherished, made holy by faith in Christ.  We act from that identity and that aspiration, and feelings follow.  Most of the time…  🙂  Even when they don’t who we are cannot change, it is guaranteed by the blood of Christ! [Colossians 3:12]

This gets real practical real fast – “Sleeping, eating, exercising – these actions shape how you feel. Acting with compassion, courage, grace – these actions also shape how you feel.” [83]

He pushes harder against society, which I love.

“Here’s where this gets tough. Imagine that a friend tells us, ‘I feel depressed every morning.’ Society has taught us that we’re supposed to say ‘I’m sorry that you feel that way. Why do you feel depressed? What makes you depressed?, etc. The question we almost never ask, however, is the one that really matters – ‘How do you do that? How do you make yourself depressed every morning?’  When you feel miserable – even when you feel you are going to die – that’s not the end of the story. It’s time to start asking the hard questions.  How much of your pain is out there in the world? How much is in your mind? What is within your power to change? If the feelings you have are killing you, how can you change them?”  [85- see above!]

We act in line with our current identity [in Christ] and our aspired identity [more transformed, more mature.]  It’s a process.  Greiten is right when he says we might have to “wear the mask of virtue” in our actions until it becomes part of us.  I’m reminded of Luther’s quote – “This life therefore is not righteousness, but growth in righteousness, not health, but healing, not being but becoming, not rest but exercise. We are not yet what we shall be, but we are growing toward it, the process is not yet finished, but it is going on, this is not the end, but it is the road. All does not yet gleam in glory, but all is being purified.”  I think Piper said it as well “Become who you are…”

“To change the direction of your life, you have to reset your habits. Every time you act, your actions create feelings – pleasure or pain, pride or shame – that reinforces habits. When a habit becomes so ingrained that actions begin to flow fro you without conscious thought or effort, then you have changed your character.” [96]

“The more responsibility people take, the more resilient they are likely to be. The less responsibility people take – for their actions, for their lives, for their happiness [for their growth in Godliness] the more likely it is that life will crush them. At the root of resilience is the willingness to take responsibility for results.” [106]

“Whatever the world sends us, we have power over our intentions and our attitudes. Epictetus said that ‘it is not the things which trouble us, but the judgments we bring to bear upon things.'” [107]  The author goes back to Stockdale the POW – “Throughout his ordeal, Stockdale maintained that he held more power over his suffering than his captors did: his ordeal would only become an evil if he let it.” [108]  We are usually our own worst enemy. [113]

We shouldn’t look to the extremes here, again another trap I see people falling into.  Finding the extreme side of a situation and camping there.  “Fixating on extremes, like fixating on inconsistencies, can start to stand in the way of living well.” [134]

We need to live realistically – “In our security and comfort, we slip quietly into the false expectation that life will afford us completely happiness. We believe that we will move only from pleasure to pleasure, from joy to joy. When tragedy strikes or hardship hits, too many of us feel ambushed by pain, betrayed by the present, despairing of the future.” [137]

People like SEALs know the mistake that we Americans make in this first hand.  Seeing global suffering and evil up close.

“Resilient realists know that life – despite our highest ideals – is imperfect. Readiness means confronting the reality that life’s course is not completely under your control. Readiness is a form of humility, spurred by recognition of how little we can know or control. Hardship is unavoidable. Resilient people recognize this reality. Then they can prepare themselves for it, seeking to meet it as best they can, on their own terms.” [140]

Yes and no.  This world is imperfect, because of sin, and we shouldn’t expect it to be.  Humility is key, as far as our dependance on God who does completely control all things.  But, again, we can meet things ‘on our own terms’ to a certain extent.  We strive and labor and endure in the strength that God supplies.  Just as we should not think too highly of this broken world, we shouldn’t think too highly of ourselves.

Once again, Greiten pleasantly arrives at this truth a few paragraphs later “Recognize, as realists do, that life has a tragic character – human beings are flawed, and that both the natural and the human world are beyond your power to control, and you’ll have a better chance of serving effectively.” [140]

This is sin that dwells within us all in hearts.  “…the line dividing good and evil cuts thru the heart of every human being. And who is willing to destroy a piece of his own heart?” [141]  Greiten nailing biblical truth here, though not calling it that.  Jeremiah 17:9.  WE HAVE TO destroy the sin in our hearts! [Col 3:5; Rom 8:13]

Throughout the book, there is an undercurrent of “just try harder…” which as I’ve been saying, only gets us so far.  We need to be diligent with what God has given us, we need to accept reality, and be responsible – those things I’m in complete agreement with the author.  The danger here is that when you are dealing with things of eternal significance – “try harder” won’t cut it.  We need more faith in Christ, and less faith in ourselves.

I also agree wholeheartedly with the notion that we have to make resilience a part of our daily habits.  “What usually matters in your life is not the magical moment, but the quality of your daily practice.  Knowing is usually the easy part.  Doing is much harder.” [155]

This is particularly challenging when we are in pain – physical, emotional, or spiritual.  There is sometimes no answer to pain, and in that situation we accept what has been allowed into our lives by a sovereign, good, loving, and all-powerful God.  This is what Greitens says in a roundabout way talking about the Stoics – “…our choice to accept or reject what we cannot control is the only thing completely within our power.” [158]

This naturally comes with some negative effect on our mood and happiness sometimes.  Modern society will have us take that away with medication or something else.  It is true we don’t want to wallow in it, but just because we are sad doesn’t mean we shouldn’t be or try to remove it as quickly as possible. “Unhappiness in the face of a terrible loss is not evidence of a disease, and it’s not a mental disorder.  There are entire industries designed to persuade you otherwise, Walker, but if you are not depressed by some of what life throws at you, then you are not seeing or hearing or feeling all of the world around you.”  [161]  Yes, oftentimes God does his biggest work and we grow the most during times of pain.  He even quotes CS Lewis “pain is ‘God’s megaphone to rouse a deaf world.” [165]  “Some pain is good and necessary. A lot of people in the modern world end to misunderstand this:  they believe that the ideal life is a painless life.” [166]

We need to respond to pain rightly “we do not grow because of the pain. We grow when we recover from the right pain in the right way.” [170]  There is also a difference, he notes, between pain and suffering – “You often don’t have a choice when it comes to feeling pain. You often do have a choice about whether you suffer, because suffering is created by your perception of, and relationship to, pain.” [171]

This is very prominent in how we talk to ourselves.  We all do it.  “We all talk to ourselves. You may not speak your thoughts out loud or share them with others, but there is always a conversation in your head about your environment, the people around you, and most important, about yourself.” [175]  Predictably, the author drives right down main street of humanistic “destructive self-talk.”  Spiritually speaking this is our sinful, twisted hearts trying to pull us away from our identity in Christ.  This is where the gospel comes in loud and clear and we need to inform our consciences, our inner voices, the truth according to God’s word. This is where preaching the gospel, over and over, to ourselves comes in.  “The main art in the matter of spiritual living is to know how to handle yourself. You have to take yourself in hand, you have to address yourself, preach to yourself, question yourself. You must say to your soul: ‘Why art thou cast down’– what business have you to be disquieted?” [Spiritual Depression – Its Causes and Cures]

Once you identify the “destructive self-talk, you can – as with any habit – replace it with a new one.”  This is the core of growing and changing biblically as a Christian.  We put off the old, renew our minds, and put on the new!  [Ephesians 4:20-22;  Colossians 3]

People are masters at overcomplicating things.  I have a few friends that I tend to mutter to myself  – “that dude can over think a peanut butter and jelly sandwich.”  It’s true.  I see it as a Pastor and counselor – people paralyze themselves and are rendered unable to change because they have over-complicated everything.  Greitens agrees, “The more complicated you make something, the more excuses you create for yourself…people introduce complication to avoid beginning.” [187]  Break complex things down into small manageable tasks, set realistic goals and get started.

In one of my favorite quotes from the book he writes “A lot of people need more work, and less talk. More action, less complaining. We need to hear less about their feelings and see more of their effort.”  [197]

This is one of the many reasons why we need friends – and as Christians we need the church, because it’s not a building, the church is people – seeking to live their lives for God’s glory and grow to be more like Him. We all have blind spots and this is where good solid friends come in to help us, “…we can’t live our best lives or become our best selves without these kinds of friendships.”  [210]  Greiten, who definitely has a lot of Bible background, though I’m not sure if he is a professing Christian, quotes the story of David and Bathsheba – and his friend Nathan.  Nathan, the bold prophet of God who confronts David and David instantly knows his wrong.  I’ve said it myself, and it was nice to hear the author say that we all need a Nathan. “Who is your Nathan?” [213]

Good leaders understand resilience – “resilient living is the foundation for resilient leadership.”  As mentioned, humility is a big part of resilience and good leaders are humble. “Officers eat last. Leaders lead from the front [lines, I would assume?]. Never ask someone to endure more than you are wiling to endure yourself.” [247]

Greitens hits the importance of self-mastery again. “Some of our freedom can only be won through self-mastery.” [253]  This is precipitated by action – “many people try to find balance in their lives first, and then run.  Sometimes that works. But a lot of times it’s in the running itself that you find your balance.” [256]  As I like to say,  “You can’t turn a boat that isn’t moving.”  As Christians – what guides our direction and balance is the word of God!  Greitens, coming at this from the human side, writes that “you figure out the purpose of your live by living your life.  You give meaning to your quest by what you do and say and suffer. The challenges you face and the choices you make create the meaning of your story. The hardships, dangers, temptations and distractions that confront you are obstacles, yes, but its only by wrestling with those obstacles that your purpose can be understood.” [261]  Again – yes and no.  For Christians, the undeniable purpose of our lives is to bring glory to God with them – particularly as we walk thru suffering and hardship, which we all will.  That is always the main thing, but humans are thinkers and questioners and we want to know more of what we are supposed to be doing here.  God has gifted each of us, I agree that we need more action, but our action in ‘living our life’ should only shed more light on how we are to glorify God.

The author writes, and I agree, that our lives will not be movie-like perfect as we seek to live them out.  “You are going to live a real life. It’s not going to be perfect; it won’t always be pretty. But you can decide what the themes of your story are going to be.” [267]

I read this book over the course of several months while on airplanes or hanging by the pool.  It was a very helpful book for practically thinking about some of these things from a man who has clearly developed a deep sense of wisdom and maturity thru tremendous life experiences.  Christians can learn from men like this, but only as far as it propels us to translate what he is saying into biblical truth.  All truth is from God, and if we do not bring it back to God and clarify and refine it with God’s word, we can stray from it.

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

Book Review – What is a Healthy Church Member?

I’m a church guy.

I know, you are probably thinking “Duh.  You are a Pastor.”  But what I mean is that I believe in the primary and critical importance of the church in two things- (1) the proclamation of the gospel of Jesus Christ, and (2) the growth in spiritual maturity of the Christian.   Boiling it down – therefore, I believe every Christian should be a committed member of a local [very important word, more on that soon…], Bible-preaching, gospel-centered Christian church.

Yet, I’m concerned to see this is not a conviction held in the majority.  So many Christians consider church almost “optional.”  Like – “We’ll get there if we can…unless something else more funner comes along.”  [I know…grammar…]  Sports.  Family days.  Sleeping in.  Whatever.  None of those things are bad in themselves, but what is that saying about our commitment to the local church.

Note I also said “local” church.  [Thought I forgot, didn’t you?]  I am also concerned with the trend of driving a long distance to get to your church of choice, or just participating in an “internet church.”  Why?  It completely cuts out your contact with YOUR community.  The people you see in the grocery store, Starbucks, kids sports games, etc.  Now, of course there may be issues with not having access strong local church – but to that end, I’d say that’s why we need church planters and church revitalizers – not just solutions that cut out community.

Get the impression that I’ve thought about this a lot? I have.  Which is why I’m a church planter in my own town.  I feel that strongly about it.  The church is God’s “Plan A” for salvation [as someone once put] and we are called to participate in it and grow in maturity.

I’m glad that Thabiti AnyabwileWhat_Is_a_Healthy_Church_Member_by_Thabiti_Anyabwile_large feels the same way and he wrote “What Is a Healthy Church Member?

In light of my opening monologue, I feel there is a real need for this book – and more like it.  We need a return to the commitment to the local church, and less of a consumer mindset.   This is on us, folks.

Keeping things linear and straightforward [the way I like ’em], Thabiti gives us 10 marks of a healthy church member. [I hope Dever approved of going past 9 marks?!]

Mark 1:  An expositional listener.  Ah.  To be an expositional lister, the pre-requisite is an expositional sermon.  Such a sermon makes the main point of the passage, the main point of their sermon.  Needless to say, this is not always the norm.  I’m not hating on topical sermons, they have their place for sure, but it’s God’s word…God’s thoughts that we should be hearing, interpreting, and applying.  NOT some dude’s man-centered, pragmatic points on “5 Ways to Live Your Best Life Now.”  An expositional listener stresses [to the family if applicable] the importance of hearing and applying God’s word – not just on Sunday’s either.  In the family, in life Monday-Saturday, in prayer and in submission to it.

Mark 2: A biblical theologian.  Yes.  Theology.  It’s not just for eggheads.  Anytime anyone says anything about God they are a theologian.  The actual question is – are they a good [accurate = biblical] theologian or not?  Thabiti writes “too many Christians have neglected their first great calling: to know their God. Every Christian is meant to be a theologian in the best and most intimate sense of the word.” [27]  We know God thru God’s word!  This means knowing the Bible, but knowing the bigger picture of the Bible, and how the passage fits into the character and redemptive plan of God. [Yes…even Leviticus…]

Mark 3:  Gospel saturated.   “The greatest need in the world […and the] church is the gospel.” [39]  The gospel is the center of the Bible and it has to be the center of the church. We desire to hear the gospel and preach the gospel to ourselves by walking in it every day.  As Thabiti writes “order your life around the gospel.”and let it “animate every area of our lives.”[42]  This means intentionally living our lives with gospel purpose – even the restaurants we frequent and the conversations with our friends and neighbors.

Mark 4: Genuinely converted.  This seems like a no-brainer, but it’s really not.  I don’t pretend to think everyone sitting in church is a converted follower of Jesus.  But especially when we are talking about membership – we need to be certain a conversation has actually happened.  This means a change – a radical reordering of a life trajectory based on faith in the life, death, and resurrection of Jesus Christ.

Mark 5: A biblical evangelist.  The “e” word.  [See my other recent book review for help on this] Healthy church members look to spread the good news of the hope of the gospel to those they come in contact with.  This includes a biblical understand of evangelism…and before that…a biblical understanding, period.  We must have also of course experienced the transforming work of the gospel in our own lives and have a compassion for others to see the same.

Mark 6: A committed member.  I know that there are scores of people out there that have been burned by a church.  I get that.  It hurts.  BUT, that can’t mean that we divorce ourselves from the primary way God designed to spread the hope of the gospel and grow in maturity.  There aren’t any perfect churches, but membership is super important and if you are a member – be committed.  Thabiti gives a great list of what that looks like: attend regularly, seek peace, edify others, warn/admonish others, pursue reconciliation, bear with others, prepare for the ordinances, and support the work of ministry thru financial giving and working hard.  [68-70]  Anyabwile doesn’t pull any punches here “to fail to associate ourselves in a lasting and committed way with the Head of the church by joining his body is surely a sign of ingratitude, whether from an uninformed or a dull heart.” [70] #ouch.

Mark 7: Seeks discipline.  As in not punishment, but correction. Aren’t we all endeavoring to live lives that are worthy of the name Christian here? Isn’t that a thing still? This isn’t easy, but it is necessary.  Thabiti breaks this up into two categories based on 2 Timothy 3:16 – formative discipline [teaching, training] and corrective [rebuke, correction] [75]

Mark 8:  A growing disciple.  The author writes “this is speculation on my part, but it may be the case that the most chronic problem facing churches and Christians is the lack of consistent spiritual growth and progress in discipleship.” [83]  Ephesians 4:15 instructs us to ‘grow up in every way…’ In many other places we are instructed to be mature.  Folks, the best way to do this is within the local church!

Mark 9: A humble follower.  God is a God of order.  Pastors/Elders lead the congregation and the congregation follows. Not like mindless sheep, but as committed participants.  And Pastors and Elders:  This falls on US.  “A healthy church member patterns his or her life after the godly lifestyle of the elders of the church.”  [101]

Mark 10: A prayer warrior.  Pray for everything – the effectiveness of the church’s gospel work, the Pastor’s sermons, the Elders leading, the needs of the body.  We show our dependance on God thru prayer.

Even if you aren’t a reader – [which you NEED to be] you can get thru this little book.  Then take these ideas and dig in to a solid local church and see what God does!

Book Review – Sharing Jesus [without freaking out]

I can’t avoid the reality that I once had a near terminal case of CKD – “Christian Kid Disease.”    Those at risk for CKD include children of the 80s who went to Youth Group, went to church at least 4 times a week, listened to awful…and I mean AWFUL Contemporary Christian Music with even worse theology, and had a deep seated terror and a near co41eNHDPEIKL._SY344_BO1,204,203,200_.jpgmplete paralysis when it came to “witnessing” [80s word] – or as it’s better known “evangelism.”  Fortunately, CKD has a cure – a heaping dose of the pure, unadulterated gospel.

Dr. Alvin Reid (Pastor and Professor of Evangelism at Southeastern Baptist Seminary) gets this, and thankfully wrote “Sharing Jesus [without freaking out}” to help those suffering with CKD learn to love sharing Jesus. As he states “We need to reboot our understanding of evangelism.”  Oh. I like this book.

Right away, Reid doesn’t fall into the CKD trap of making evangelism a super awkward Christianese-filled monologue where one pressures someone to ‘invite Jesus into their heart.’  Instead, “its in our everyday conversations that we can help people see that their life matters, that their passion to live comes from God and that he good news of Jesus can rescue them from pain.”  [2]

Reid makes many solid points, and one of the first that resonated loudly with me is that one of main reasons why Christians don’t share the hope of Jesus more often is because typically Christians surround themselves with other Christians…and spend life in a Christian bubble.  We need to be more intentional in our relationships – start real friendships that are based in love and naturally sharing Jesus.   He then goes on to outline several principles for being fruitful.

Principle 1: God created you for his glory, to advance his gospel with the gifts, talents, and opportunities he gave you. [11]  We need to be more intentional about owning the mission, not just feeling guilty about not participating in it. We need to back up the mission with credible lives, proclaiming the gospel in word and deed.

Principle 2: In order to share Jesus confidently and consistently with others, first share him confidently and consistently with yourself. [23]  We need to be biblical theologians. Not only do we need to know our Bibles, but we need to know the story of the Bible.  All the Bible points to Jesus, the center of the redemptive plan of a holy God who rescues a human race that rejected it’s Creator.  He writes “They need to see the story of Jesus is as big as the Bible itself, the story of Jesus is bigger than our times na dour individual lives, or even the spiritual aspect of our lives alone.” [25]  This is the grand metanarrative – the overarching ‘big story’ of the Bible – creation, fall, rescue, restoration.

Principle 3: Shifting from giving and evangelistic presentation to having an evangelistic conversation takes pressure off the witness and relates the gospel more clearly to an unbeliever.  [41] This is the weakness of the CKD model of the 80s where an awkward monologue was the tactic of choice.  Reid calls for more “gospel intelligence” and “gospel fluency” to introduce the gospel in everyday conversations.  He also calls for three vital things people can tell about us in a conversation:  (1) If we care about them, (2) If we believe what we are talking about, (3) If the hand of God is on our life. I also appreciated the realism in this book, for example the author writes “most times your conversations will not lead to a conversion, but will help nudge the person further along in their gospel understanding.”

Principle 4: God has sovereignly placed you in this world at this time with the abilities and gifts you have to bring glory to him and show the joy of the gospel to others. [56] This includes “starting with the why” – understanding why we are doing evangelism, even before the “how.”  [This is the great mistake of pragmatism.]  You were made to do this, he writes, with the personality, limitations, and circumstances of YOU!

Principle 5: Effective evangelistic conversations connect the unchanging gospel with the specific issues people face. [68] This is a realistic, non-programmatic approach – again in contrast to years gone by.  He gives five approaches to being a conversationalist in today’s different [social media[ world.  (1) The power of stories, (2) asking good questions, (3) genuine affirmation and encouragement – ie. not condemning a person for their sin, nor condoning it – affirm them as a person made in the image of God, (4) speak to the person’s mind and heart, and (5) connect beneath the surface.

Principle 6: Expect people to be open to the gospel, and learn to share Jesus where they live. [84] Quoting Bruce Ashford, Reid points out four areas which we are called to live out our faith: home, culture, workplace, and community.  [87] Reid reprints Thompson’s “Concentric Circles of Concern,”  and in so doing again points out the weakness in a programmatic, plastic evangelistic method – most of those “techniques” were geared towards “Person X’ – all well and good, but more realistically how about our family?  Our neighbors? Our co-workers? Those that God has sovereignly placed in our lives through relationships!  [see Principle 4!]

Principle 7: Talk to the actual person in front of you about the Jesus inside you; let them see and hear the change Jesus makes in you.  [99] The truth is “God uses people just like [us] to impact people just like those you know for his glory.” AMEN!  This principle included a helpful section on dealing with objections, in a gracious and accessible way.

Principle 8: Developing a lifestyle of sharing Jesus consistently flows out of a plan to share Jesus regularly. [112]  This speaks to living an intentional life.  This includes prayer [though covered more in Principle 5], but realistically understanding your giftedness, calling, and our passions.

I loved this book and highly recommend it, especially for those recovering from the effects of CKD.  It’s an easy, well-written, yet convicting and highly practical read – with all the theological grounding one would hope for.  Onward to the evangelistic revolution!

 

 

 

 

 

 

Book Review – Anger and Stress Management God’s Way

So, my knee jerk reaction upon seeing this book was probably reflective of 99% of other Americans.  “Yes, please.”  We all battle our sinful emotions – probably the top offenders are stress and anger…and it’s cousins: fear, worry, and anxiety.  We all probably can relate a little too easilydownload. That’s why Dr. Wayne Mack has written “Anger and Stress Management God’s Way.” (P&R, 2017).   Being a proponent of biblical counseling, I’ve found Dr. Mack’s writing to be consistently helpful and challenging.  (Take “Strengthening Your Marriage” for example…)

Mack splits the book into the two subject areas – anger and stress.  To kick things off, Mack asks “Is it always a sin to be angry?” and then delves into the details.  Our anger is sinful when we become angry for the wrong reasons [13], when we allow it to control us [19], and when it becomes the dominant feature of our lives [21].  Our anger is sinful when it involves brooding or fretting [25], when we keep a running record of how we have been mistreated [27], when we pretend to not be angry, prolonging the problem with our unbiblical response [30], when we return evil with evil [34], or when we attack or hurt a substitute [37].

Getting convicted yet?  Yeah…me too.

Mack then teaches how to be good and angry.  First, we are commanded in Ephesians 4:26 to deal with our problems on a regular, daily basis. This takes courage and intentionality.  Likewise, we need  to have the self-discipline to realize that we actually can control and restrain the expression of our anger.  Third, we need to take time to examine the reasons for our anger.  Pointedly, he writes “the bottom line reason for much of our sinful anger is because we have an agenda and someone or something is standing in the way of our fulfilling that agenda.” [51] Fourth, we need to learn to harness the energy created by our anger.

Mack provides even more practical steps by giving us six questions that can make the difference.  (1) What is happening? (2) How am I interpreting it? (3) What am I wanting? (4) What am I being tempted to do? (5) What is the biblical, God-honoring thing to do? (6) Will I chose to obey God or self?  We all will get angry – and we all need to therefore have a plan to deal with it properly when it comes up.

The author then moves on to the topic of stress.  One that is very near and dear to my heart, as currently my church is moving into a new building.  (What, me worry?!) Where does stress come from?  Our limitations and deficiencies, other people and situations.  How do we typically respond?  Debilitating fear or anxiety, worry, bitterness, anger, resentment, depression, discouragement, envy and jealousy, annoyance, irritability, and impatience, and denial…just to name a few.

Are the consequences?  You betcha.  It affects our relationships.  It affects our spiritual growth – sin stalls sanctification!  It affects our spiritual usefulness- we can be very busy in the church, but have you ever stopped in the midst of the stress to ask if you are actually bearing any fruit?  Here, have a stinger from Dr. Mack – “If you don’t handle stress differently than believers do, don’t expect to make an impact for Christ.” [95] It also affects our jobs and education, and finally one that I have noticed a lot is the affect that stress has on our health.

Have we ever thought that we are sick because we are not responding biblically to stress?  Christians overall, we need to do a much better job of caring diligently for our bodies and that includes obeying what the Bible says about stress.  One doctor told him that at least 65% of the people he operated on wouldn’t need the operations he performed if they would only learn how to handle their stressors in a biblical way! [98]  Another physician friend was so convinced of this that he was tempted to abandon the medical field to do full time biblical counseling because he thought it would do more good!  [98]  Aptly quoting Smith, “The real problem is not your counselee’s problems, but their response to those problems.” [100]

Dr. Mack then gives us a two part way of escape and biblically dealing with stress.  How can we properly overcome?  He gives us a few factors – first we must deliberately choose to see everything that happens to us within the framework of the sovereignty of God – see Ephesians 1:11.  [Oh…yes, I said the S word…] Second, we must also deliberately chose to give God thanks in the mist of everything and for everything. [1 Thes 5:18; Eph 5:20].  Third, we should seek to discover God’s purpose for each stressful situation – realizing that it may not be immediately clear to us. This calls for more biblical research – the answers to God’s will are in God’s word.  He provides some helpful examples from Scripture on the biblical principles at work here. One of the main reasons, that we love to discount…is that God uses the trials we encounter to help us identify pockets of immaturity and our areas of incompleteness. After we see them, we confess (acknowledge), seek God’s help, commit to discipline, and develop a plan for making that godliness more of a reality in our lives!

Fourth, we must seek to discover what God wants you to do in the midst of the stressful situation – again he gives us the answers in His word!  How can we glorify God in the midst of stress?  We CAN!  Fifth, we must avoid unnecessarily putting ourselves in stressful situations! Some people have a drama magnet…why?

Last, we need to look at ourselves in light of our great God.  Mack points out that “sometimes we become annoyed, angry, and resentful because we think that some right of ours is being denied.”   God has shown us incredible mercy and grace by providing us forgiveness, restoration and healing in Jesus.  Our calling is to “fulfill your Biblical responsibilities and leave your ‘rights’ to God.” [136]  Amen!