Wednesday, December 29, 2004

Firing First and Painting Later

A Call for Sharpshooters in 2005

You might not realize it, but there are two approaches to expert marksmanship. The first is to train the crosshairs on the exact center of the target, take a deep breath, exhale about halfway and hold it, and slowly squeeze the shot off, holding your aim steady on the bull’s-eye the entire time. The second approach is to forget all that disciplined skill and just shoot the rifle. Then, you just go paint a target around the spot where the slug leaves a hole. Pretty simple, huh?

Wait a second… You don’t believe me? You don't think that second approach would be accepted as “expert marksmanship”?! Well, you’re right. That’s not how sharpshooters are made—by firing first and painting later.

But sometimes that’s how we live our lives, isn’t it? We don’t really aim for much; we just do what comes naturally and then see where we end up. How strange! And how unbiblical!

Ever notice how many people in the Bible purposed to live a certain way or aim for a specific goal? “Daniel resolved that he would not defile himself with the king's food, or with the wine that he drank.” (Dan 1:8). “I have made a covenant with my eyes; how then could I gaze at a virgin?” (Job 31:1) Even Paul himself: “I press on toward the goal for the prize of the upward call of God in Christ Jesus” (Phil 3:14). These people are sharpshooters! They have an intended target, and they are aiming directly at it.

So here we are, on the brink of a brand new year. Hmmm… I wonder where we’ll be when the holidays roll around again. Will we be more faithful in our devotions? Will we have talked to anyone about Jesus? Will we know God better through prayer and meditation on His word? Will we have given Him our best every day, or will we give only enough to get by?

Here’s what I’d like to suggest… Take the next couple days and evaluate your life—spiritually, socially, educationally, etc. Pray a lot. Think hard. Then write down a few specific “targets” you’re going to aim at during this new year.

After you write down your goals, do one more thing. Read over and pray about them at least weekly. In reviewing them this often, we’ll be following the great example of Jonathan Edwards, who used to read his list of personal resolutions weekly, too (a list that grew to 70 goals by the time he finished!).

Let’s aim for something significant this year, OK? No more firing first and painting later!

Tuesday, December 21, 2004

Defined by the Details

What the Birth of Jesus Says About You

The trimmings of the season were all around me during my devotions this morning: the massive Christmas tree next to my oversized chair, the glow from the seasonal lights over the fireplace reflecting off the pages of my Bible, mellow carols quietly playing on the stereo in the next room. It seemed a strange setting in which to read the passion narrative, but since that’s where my Bible reading plan has me this time of year, that’s what I read—John 19:16-42.

Surrounded by all these reminders of the birth of Christ, I read and pondered John’s description of the death of Christ. All at once I was struck by the parallel details in the two accounts, similarities I had never put together before. Here’s what I saw…

Both are marked by stunning humiliation. The humiliations of His birth—the social status of His family, the tedious journey to Bethlehem, the rejection at the inn, the manger-bed—these details seem warm and wonderful to us now, all wrapped up in the packaging of Christmas as they are; but they are still humiliations nonetheless. Those of His death are equally well known to us—the nakedness and mockery, the accompaniment by known criminals, the abandonment by His closest friends, the absolute disgrace of execution by crucifixion.

Both offer a special notification to others about who Jesus was. At Christ’s birth the special announcement came to the shepherds via the angels. At His death it was via a sarcastic sign posted above His head by Pontius Pilate.

Both are accented by a high concentration of fulfilled prophecies. The prophesies surrounding His birth (His name, the virginity of His mother, the location in Bethlehem, etc.) and those surrounding His death (the dividing of His garments, His thirst, the piecing of His hands and feet and side, His burial in a borrowed tomb, etc.) make these two periods the most prophesy-intensive of His entire life.

Finally, both offer unusual details about how He was clothed and where He was laid. At both His birth and His death He was wrapped in linen cloths, a peculiar little detail that has always made me curious about why the biblical authors felt inclined to include it. In addition, both accounts are careful, for whatever reason, to tell us exactly where He was laid: in a manger at His birth and in a friend’s tomb at His death.

So what’s the point of it all? Here’s what I think… It seems to me that these details are little hints that we ought to see the birth of Christ in light of the death of Christ. The romantic details of Bethlehem foreshadow the horrific details of Golgotha. In other words, we miss the point of Christ’s birth if we don’t recognize the point of His death.

But just in case we miss these subtle details, there is explicit evidence right in the birth narratives that this event points directly to the cross. For example, the angels told the shepherds that the one born in Bethlehem was “a Savior” (Lk 2:11). And the song sung by the angel choir pointed toward our forgiveness when they sang: “Glory to God in the highest, and on earth peace among those with whom he is pleased!” (Lk 2:14) Simeon’s prophecy also foreshadowed the crucifixion when he told Mary: “Behold, this child is appointed for the fall and rising of many in Israel, and for a sign that is opposed (and a sword will pierce through your own soul also), so that thoughts from many hearts may be revealed.” (Lk 2:34-35) Clearly, Christ’s birth cannot be separated from His death.

One more point about these similarities between the manger and the cross… Though these details come in similar form at Christ’s birth and at His death, they have directly opposite effects on some people. Some, like the shepherds, receive the announcement of the angels with gladness, but they also, like the Jews, receive the declaration of Pilate’s sign with derision. Some who love the humiliation of His birth scoff at the humiliation of His death. Some who find the linen wrappings around the babe in the manger to be irresistibly romantic also find the burial shroud around the corpse in the tomb to be irreparably repulsive.

So what does all this say about you? These parallels are meant to forge an unbreakable link between Christ’s birth and His death. Do you rejoice at His birth but scoff at His death? Or do you worship at His birth precisely because it points you to His death? How do the details define you?

Wednesday, December 15, 2004

Oversight or Insight?

Looking Carefully at a “Mistake” in the Bible

In reading through Matthew’s account of Jesus’ birth recently, I noticed what appeared to be an embarrassing mistake he made in applying a verse from Isaiah to Jesus’ birth. Here’s the passage:

Now the birth of Jesus Christ took place in this way. When his mother Mary had been betrothed to Joseph, before they came together she was found to be with child from the Holy Spirit. And her husband Joseph, being a just man and unwilling to put her to shame, resolved to divorce her quietly. But as he considered these things, behold, an angel of the Lord appeared to him in a dream, saying, "Joseph, son of David, do not fear to take Mary as your wife, for that which is conceived in her is from the Holy Spirit. She will bear a son, and you shall call his name Jesus, for he will save his people from their sins." All this took place to fulfill what the Lord had spoken by the prophet: "Behold, the virgin shall conceive and bear a son, and they shall call his name Immanuel" (which means, God with us). Mt 1:18-23
Did you see the mistake? It’s in the names. Look closely. The angel says “you shall call his name Jesus” but Isaiah’s prophecy says, “they shall call his name Immanuel.” And to make matters worse, Matthew clearly says, “All this took place to fulfill what the Lord had spoken…” If he hadn’t been quite so broad, we might have been able to slip off the hook by arguing that he was only talking about the “born of a virgin” part and not the names part. But he had to go and use that word “all.” Hmmm…

So I pondered and prayed and reread the verses, and then I think I found the answer. It’s in the tiny word “for”—the one followed by the clause “he will save his people from their sins.” But before I explain how that one word solves the problem, we need to think for just a moment about the two names themselves.

Matthew defines the name Immanuel for us right in the verse: “God with us.” The meaning of “Jesus” isn’t quite as explicit, though it is implied. Just like the Hebrew name Joshua, Jesus means “Jehovah saves.”

When the angel told Joseph to name his son Jesus, he was choosing a name that declares the exclusive position of Jehovah as the only savior of His people. But remarkably, he follows the name immediately with “FOR he will save his people from their sins.” In effect, the angel says: “Name your son ‘Jehovah saves,’ because he’s going to save you.” Apparently, this baby is going to do something that previously was done by Jehovah Himself: save His people. The point is unmistakable: this baby must be God!

Thus, when Matthew saw in Isaiah 7:14 that the virgin’s baby was called Immanuel—“God with us,” he saw the perfect fulfillment in the angel’s announcement to Joseph. Since only God can save His people, and since this baby is going to be named “Jehovah saves” precisely because he (the baby) will save His people from their sins, this baby must be God. To say that this infant will be our Savior is just another way of saying that this baby is God with us!

And then, instead of criticizing Matthew for his careless oversight, I was thanking God for his profound insight. Like John Piper says, “Raking is easy, but all you get is leaves. Digging is hard, but sometimes you find diamonds.” Thanks, Matthew, for the Christmas diamond!

Thursday, December 09, 2004

From Devastation to Elation

The Journey Back to God

OK, so it’s last Friday, and I am utterly collapsing (or so it feels to me…) under the cumulative weight of a dozen different problems that have added up to become one gargantuan spiritual crisis. Everywhere I turn, things look disastrous: my relationships are in ruins, my responsibilities are overwhelming, my resources are spent, blah blah blah. Fast-forward three days to Monday, and it’s hardly recognizable as the same life. There, see me? Yep, I’m the dude whistling as he trots up the sidewalk to the office. Life is goood! Why the drastic change? Well, it was a combination of causes…

First, I got in the word, because I know that “the law of the LORD is perfect, reviving the soul” (Ps 19:7). Moses said it just like I experience it: “it is no empty word for you, but your very life” (Dt. 32:47). If I don’t get in the word when I’m struggling, I’m dead! In fact, most of my struggles start precisely because I’ve been neglecting the word.

Second, people got in my face. Well, not just “people”…rather, people who know me well and love me anyway. And with their God-centered words and God-filled lives, they brought me back to a Godward orientation. Not all of what they said was fun to hear, but I guess that’s because salt usually stings as it cleanses: “Let your speech always be gracious, seasoned with salt” (Col 4:6).

Third, I surrendered. God had been asking for something, I knew it, and I just wasn’t going there. And so that lead-balloon feeling in my gut began to intensify. I resisted pretty well until the steel girders of my soul—hope and joy and peace—were twisting and cracking from the stress. The inexpressible relief and buoyant feeling when I finally surrendered was like… well, (to alter the image a bit) it was kind of like the pleasure you get when you finally stop smashing your thumb with a hammer.

And fourth, I worshipped. Psalm 73 provides one of my favorite biblical illustrations of the stabilizing power of glimpsing God in worship. Asaph’s soul is reeling from doubt and confusion in the first half of the Psalm, but in the last half he’s all fixed up. The change comes in verses 16-17: “when I thought how to understand this, it seemed to me a wearisome task, until I went into the sanctuary of God…” And what was significant about entering the sanctuary? It’s where Asaph saw God.

Seeing God has a wonderful way of reorienting your soul. It’s like dropping a massive ballast into the bottom of a tipping ship or drawing all the planets into orbit around the sun (both analogies from John Piper). In fact, I would argue that glimpsing God is at the heart of every one of these corrective influences in my life: the word reveals God, people communicate God, surrender opens the heart to God, worship unveils God…

And so what I conclude from all of this is that the “gargantuan spiritual crisis” of Friday was fundamentally a shortage of God in my life. And that’s the basis for my appeal to you. If you read the description of my Friday and said, “Yep, that’s me,” then take that as a little “heads up” that, in one way or another, you need more of God. So get in the word, talk to your wisest friends, surrender what He’s calling for, worship, or whatever—whatever it takes to reorient your life with God at the center.

So why not get going on your journey back to God? One more thing… For those of you who feel like you have too far to go and you doubt whether you can make it, here’s a promise to spark your hope and steel your resolve: “Draw near to God, and he will draw near to you” (James 4:8). Can’t beat that for a little assistance along the way!

Monday, December 06, 2004

Standing (and Falling) on Grace

Finding Hope in Being Normal

Am I the only one whose Christian life tends to run in a cycle—up, then down, then back up again? Usually it’s not extreme Jekyll and Hyde shifts here, like some out-of-control rollercoaster ride of the soul. But my desire for God and joy in God definitely ebb and flow. Sometimes a lot. Even my best weeks are hardly a steady climb up the “Jacob’s Ladder” of spiritual bliss.

Chances are, most of you know what I’m talking about. For example, last Friday God seemed light years away, and life was excruciating. Today, life is sweet. I know exactly what caused the change, and when I have an opportunity to write more I’ll explain it and also offer some practical advice for what to do when you’re down. But today, let’s just be encouraged knowing that we’re not the only Christian who faces ups and downs along the way. For example, John Piper writes: “Normal Christian life is a repeated process of restoration and renewal. Our joy is not static. It fluctuates with real life.” (Desiring God)

And Charles Spurgeon wrote from his own experience when he penned: “Fits of depression come over the most of us. Usually cheerful as we may be, we must at intervals be cast down. The strong are not always vigorous, the wise not always ready, the brave not always courageous, and the joyous not always happy.” And lest we think only spiritual weaklings struggle this way, he gives us a great historical example: “The life of Luther might suffice to give a thousand instances, and he was by no means of the weaker sort. His great spirit was often in the seventh heaven of exultation, and as frequently on the borders of despair.” (Lectures to My Students)

The Bible recognizes this struggle, too. “The law of the LORD is perfect, reviving the soul” (Ps 19:7). If all is well all the time, who needs reviving? Even David struggled from time to time, for he wrote: “He restores my soul” (Ps 23:3). Apparently even the man after God’s own heart had bad days.

So what should we do about the fickleness of our own heart? Well, like I mentioned above, I’ll give some more advice in future posts, but for now, here are two thoughts to keep in mind. First, recognize that what you’re experiencing is pretty normal. Strive to stand, but don’t feel like you’re all alone when you fall! Second, whether you’re up or down, realize that grace is your only hope. When we stand, we stand on grace; and when we fall, we fall on grace.

I think the late songwriter Rich Mullins drew a pretty good bead on how to view the ups and downs of life when he sang:

If I stand, let me stand on the promise that you will pull me through
And if I can’t, let me fall on the grace that first brought me to you
And if I sing, let me sing for the joy that has born in me these songs
And if I weep, let it be as a man who is longing for his home.

Monday, November 29, 2004

The Incredibles, Real-Life Style

Our Dependence on Lives Well Lived

One of our church members turned 100 years old today. Her body is frail, but her mind is still as sharp as ever. Best of all, though, is the condition of her soul. For longer than most of us will even live, she has seen and loved and walked with Jesus Christ, and her spiritual legacy abounds with family members and friends whose souls will forever bear her God-bearing fingerprints. The Apostle John gave us a great way to pray for her: “Dear friend, I pray that you may enjoy good health and that all may go well with you, even as your soul is getting along well” (3 Jn 1:2).

Her life reminds me of the biblical mandate to have heroes. Not heroes who mean more to us than Jesus, but heroes who give us inspiration and vision and direction by their devotion and discipline, their accomplishments and aspirations, their flaws and failures. And yes, I do think having heroes is not an option; it’s a biblical mandate!

This is implied in the way Scripture is written—most of it is narrative. Apparently, we need more than just the truth in abstract form; we need to see it lived, breathed, broken, loved. “God loved the world” doesn’t hit us with quite the same force as the picture of Jesus weeping at the tomb of Lazarus (Jn 11:35). Kind of like reality TV (which, of course, is hardly deserving of the name), we crave glimpses of real lives. We need heroes.

The writer of Hebrews makes this explicit when he says: “Remember your leaders, those who spoke to you the word of God. Consider the outcome of their way of life, and imitate their faith.” (13:7) This exhortation comes just a few paragraphs after he has named a dozen heroes (11:4-40) and used their lives as an argument for how we ourselves should live (12:1-2).

So here’s my suggestion to you. Sometime in the next few months, read a biography of a great Christian. Implied in this suggestion is one of the criteria I use to select my own heroes: pick somebody who’s dead. Hebrews 13:7 advises us to “consider the outcome of their way of life,” which we can’t quite measure until they’re finished living it. So save yourself the devastation of a fallen hero by restricting your “hero” category to dead dudes only. Or at least pick heroes you can be sure about because they’ve lived faithfully for the last 100 years!

Wednesday, November 17, 2004

Glimpses of God in the Raking of Leaves

Pondering God’s Glory in Fall Yard Work

Yesterday I finished my annual leaf-raking marathon. We have 3 gargantuan trees in our yard, and our neighbors all have several of their own, which means we relax under great shade in the summer and swim in an ocean of fallen leaves in the fall. We love our trees, but when the sap stops flowing in October or November, we start raking and don’t stop for weeks.

I took a little break yesterday to make a phone call to a couple God-centered young ladies and that’s when the question came: “What of God do you see in leaf-raking?” Hmmm… what a strange question! But it’s the right one to ask, because after all, everything in life exists to bring glory to God. So we should probably consciously consider “What do I learn or see or remember of God in this?” in every single thing we do, learn, see, experience, feel…

How is leaf raking a means to see and savor the glory of God? I came up with 2 answers. First, leaf raking reminds me that everyone has God’s fingerprints all over his/her soul. Everyone, both God-fearers and God-haters, tends to prefer order rather than disorder. A well-tended lawn reminds me of God’s command to our first parents: “Be fruitful and multiply and fill the earth and subdue it and have dominion over the fish of the sea and over the birds of the heavens and over every living thing that moves on the earth” (Gen 1:28). Why are we this way? Because God is this way, and He created us as a reflection Himself. When your neighbor rakes his leaves, he’s showing the family likeness.

Second, leaf raking reminds me that my heart longs for God and God alone. A few months ago these leaves were a beautiful accent to those gorgeous summer days, but now they’re withered and dry. And once again we’re reminded that all the beauties and joys of earth are transient, fleeting, and contingent. The very temporariness of a leaf’s life reminds us that, not all the splendor of earth, but God Himself is the desire of our soul.

Here’s the application to you… Don’t take a break from what you’re doing to think about God. Ponder Him right there in the midst of whatever you’re doing. Discover God right there in your math homework, your daily commute, your relational issues, the news, the weather, whatever. Your job isn’t to bring Him into these things; He’s there already. Your job is just to see Him there!

So next time you’re raking leaves, look for God. Make your own backyard a place of worship and make the leaves themselves holy articles for seeing and savoring God Himself. Still skeptical that tree leaves can be quite that edifying? Well then, you might need a new glimpse of heaven, where “on either side of the river, the tree of life with its twelve kinds of fruit, yields its fruit each month. The leaves of the tree were for the healing of the nations” (Rev 22:2).

Sunday, November 14, 2004

A Sheep in Need of The Shepherd

A Devotional Journal Entry

I came to the Bible tonight with my cup bone-dry, weary of life and longing for God. I’m a pastor, but tonight I felt more like a sheep than a shepherd. In fact, that very metaphor was simmering on the back burner of my mind, since I had encountered it twice in the last 24 hours: praying through Psalm 23 last night with an anxious church member and meditating on Isaiah 53 this morning during Communion.

My Bible reading schedule has me in Ezekiel right now, and so my expectations were shamefully low. I kind of assumed I’d read the obligatory chapters and then move on to a more helpful portion of Scripture in my quest to hear the gentle voice and feel the tender touch of my Shepherd. And then I came to the middle of chapter 34…

"For thus says the Lord GOD: Behold, I, I myself will search for my sheep and will seek them out. As a shepherd seeks out his flock when he is among his sheep that have been scattered, so will I seek out my sheep, and I will rescue them from all places where they have been scattered on a day of clouds and thick darkness. And I will bring them out from the peoples and gather them from the countries, and will bring them into their own land. And I will feed them on the mountains of Israel, by the ravines, and in all the inhabited places of the country. I will feed them with good pasture, and on the mountain heights of Israel shall be their grazing land. There they shall lie down in good grazing land, and on rich pasture they shall feed on the mountains of Israel. I myself will be the shepherd of my sheep, and I myself will make them lie down, declares the Lord GOD. I will seek the lost, and I will bring back the strayed, and I will bind up the injured, and I will strengthen the weak…”

I was stunned to hear the Lord God taking the words of Psalm 23 on His own lips and saying them to me: “I myself will search for my sheep… I will bring them out… I will feed them with good pasture… I myself will be the shepherd of my sheep… I myself will make them lie down… I will seek… I will bring back… I will bind… I will strengthen…” And suddenly I was there, hearing His voice, finding good pasture, quenching my thirst…

Thursday, November 11, 2004

But Now I See…

Seeing Christianity as a Certain Way of Seeing

I’m nearly convinced that the main struggle in all the Christian life is the struggle to see. Not “to see” in the sense of light waves and optic nerves and brain sensations. “To see” in the sense that Jesus meant: “For this people's heart has grown dull, and with their ears they can barely hear, and their eyes they have closed, lest they should see with their eyes and hear with their ears and understand with their heart and turn, and I would heal them. But blessed are your eyes, for they see, and your ears, for they hear.” (Mt 13:15-16)

This language of seeing is all over the place in the Bible. Why are certain people Christians and others not? Because in the latter case, “the god of this world has blinded the minds of the unbelievers, to keep them from seeing the light of the gospel of the glory of Christ, who is the image of God” (2 Cor 4:4). How are people changed into the image of Jesus Christ? By “beholding the glory of the Lord, [thus] being transformed into the same image from one degree of glory to another” (2 Cor 3:18). What motivates us to endure suffering? The eyesight of Moses, who “endured as seeing him who is invisible” (Heb 11:27).

I doubt if we would be so flippant about how we spend our days if we could see that life is a vapor (James 4:14). I doubt if we would sin so quickly if we could see the deadly poison underneath the candy coating of temptation (James 1:14-16). I doubt if we would be so attached to earth and so apathetic about heaven if we could see the ugliness here compared with the magnificence there (Rev 21:10-27). I doubt if we would treat people with such condescension and disdain if we could see that the priceless blood of Jesus flowed for their forgiveness (Rom 14:15). I doubt if we would be so casual about poor study habits and low grades if we could see that even the way we eat and drink reflects what we think of God (1 Cor 10:31).

So I conclude that another way to describe true Christianity is that it is a certain way of seeing. If you’re not a Christian, ask God to help you see. If you are one, pray and strive and train yourself to see what you really see. In short, Christian living is Christian seeing. Perhaps John Newton was right in more ways than one when he described his conversion: “I once was lost but now am found/Was blind but now I see.”

Thursday, November 04, 2004

Seizing the Day vs. Brushing Your Teeth

Living with Passion AND Responsibility

I don’t know if you caught it in the last post, but Jonathan Edwards really raises the bar on what carpe diem means in practical terms. Resolution #7 reads: “Resolved, never to do anything, which I should be afraid to do, if it were the last hour of my life.” Now that proposition should stir us up to some really serious thinking…

How many of my normal responsibilities would I do if I knew it were the last hour of my life? Would I write this post? …sleep? …brush my teeth? Probably not. And so the tension emerges: how do I reconcile responsible living with passionate living? Am I forced to choose either “be responsible” or “seize the day” as my philosophy of life?

Some might say we ought to find a balance between the two options. They would argue that sometimes we “seize the day” and other times we just do what we have to do. But I don’t like that answer for two reasons. First, it’s subjective, leaving me without a way to tell if I’m balancing the two ideals correctly. There’s no way to tell if I’m too reckless (seizing the day) or too conservative (being responsible).

Second, it leaves most people right where they started, comfortable with their nonchalant, passionless approach to life. If we resolve the tension of Edwards’ resolution by saying, “Well, you can live that way only sometimes, not all the time,” most people will breathe a sigh of relief and flip the TV back on for the rest of the night.

So here’s the solution that I would propose. We need to take a longer view of “seize the day” than just what it means for me right this moment. In other words, we need to keep tomorrow in mind when we ponder how to seize the day today. We might forfeit opportunities to seize the day tomorrow if we don’t seize the day in a certain way today.

For example, I would love to skydive and feel the explosive adrenaline rush of freefalling for several thousand feet. So I carry that little desire with me for what “seize the day” means for me: skydiving first chance I get. But what if I’m standing on the rim of the Grand Canyon someday and “seize the day” comes to mind? Do I have to choose responsible living over passionate living? Do I say either "yes" to my desire (passion) or "yes" to living for another day (responsibility)? Nope. I just need to be more careful about how I define “seizing the day,” realizing that I might have an opportunity to freefall for several thousand feet AND live to tell about it sometime in the future.

So here’s the application to you… If you’re a student, seize the day by studying with all your might so as to maximize your opportunities in the future. If you’re an employee, work with all your might for the same reason. If you’re a parent, disciple and train and pray with all your might so as to maximize both your own and your children’s opportunities in the future. If you’re a Christian, know and make known Jesus Christ with tomorrow in view. If you’re not a Christian, consider well how you seize the day, realizing that your own eternal joy is at stake.

No matter who you are, take Jonathan Edwards’ resolution as your own for every day and everything you do: “I will never to do anything which I should be afraid to do if it were the last hour of my life.” Wow. What kind of people would we be if we really lived that way?!

Tuesday, November 02, 2004

Live Like You Were Dying

Is Carpe Diem a Biblical Way to Live?

Occasionally pop culture produces something that echoes the voice of God Himself. Often the voice of God is so mingled with “non-God” voices that the biblical value is nearly eclipsed by the unbiblical ones. But occasionally pop culture produces an echo of God’s voice that is so loud and so true, the biblical value can’t be missed.

About a month ago I heard Tim McGraw’s “Live Like You Were Dying.” The point of the song is obvious: life is precious; don’t waste it! It reminded me of the movie Dead Poet’s Society, with its compelling theme: Carpe diem! (“Seize the day!”) The song and the movie both inspire us to live with passion, to seize every opportunity, to squeeze every drop of living we can out of life! In our greatest dreams, we long for a life marked by fervor and intensity and exhilaration. Our souls resonate with Thoreau’s fear: “not, when I came to die, discover that I had not lived” (Walden).

But does this approach to life find its original expression in the Bible? Are Tim McGraw and Professor Keating (Dead Poet’s Society) and Henry David Thoreau echoing the truth of God when they implore us to live with all our might?

Jonathan Edwards thought so. In his late teens he developed a list of personal resolutions that guided and motivated him for the rest of his life. Resolutions 5-7 read like this: “Resolved, never to lose one moment of time; but improve it the most profitable way I possibly can. Resolved, to live with all my might, while I do live. Resolved, never to do anything, which I should be afraid to do, if it were the last hour of my life.”

As we would expect, Edwards’ philosophy of life is spelled out explicitly in the Bible. “Whatever you do, work at it with all your heart” (Col 3:23). “Be very careful, then, how you live—not as unwise but as wise, making the most of every opportunity…” (Eph 5:15-16; cf. Col 4:5). “What is your life? You are a mist that appears for a little while and then vanishes. Anyone, then, who knows the good he ought to do and doesn't do it, sins” (James 4:14,17). Apparently, half-hearted living is not a biblical option!

So I want to add my voice to God’s and Edwards’ and all those from the culture and say to you: “LIVE!!” Don’t fritter away your precious life on video games, surfing the web, plodding through malls, or watching TV. Live!

I want to wrap up with a few suggestions for how to “seize the day!”
· Realize that wasted hours become wasted days, which become wasted months, which become wasted years, which become a wasted life. So start seizing the day by seizing each hour.
· Take every opportunity you can. Realize that today is a gift and tomorrow is not guaranteed. You might never get this chance again. So do it now!
· Cultivate a sense of wonder and originality in how you look at life. When other people see a homeless bum, consider whether you might have just seen an angel (cf. Heb 13:2).
· Find something worthy—some cause, some person, some mission, and devote your entire life to it. I would argue that the best choice here would be knowing and making known Jesus Christ.

So what are you reading this blog for? Go LIVE!!

Thursday, October 28, 2004

Smiling on the Inside? Part 2

Sustaining Joy in a Joyless World

“Is ‘joy in Christ’ na├»ve in a world where there are so many problems, issues, sins?” The question came in an email from a friend of mine who is confronted nearly every day with some of life’s most agonizing struggles.

In the previous post I argue that our answer must not deal with the question superficially by separating joy and happiness so we can then say, “Well, we can be joyful on the inside even though the problems in our world make us sad outwardly.” I believe joy and happiness are, biblically and practically, virtually the same. Their connotations are slightly different, but they are too similar for us to distinguish between them in our own heart. We’re either happy AND joyful, or we’re not. We can’t be joyful but not happy.

So how do we sustain true joy in a world filled with incredible pain? I think the answer is in how we see. Sustaining joy in a joyless world requires a certain kind of seeing… eyes that behold things that others might not… a panoramic perspective that beholds the entire tapestry—dark threads of pain in their complementary place alongside the brighter colors of pleasure. In short, we need the “eyes of eternity.”

We need eyes like John Newton, who sees our present suffering in light of our future glory: "Suppose a man was going to York to take possession of a large estate, and his [carriage] should break down a mile before he got to the city, which obliged him to walk the rest of the way; what a fool we should think him, if we saw him ringing his hands, and blubbering out all the remaining mile, ‘My [carriage] is broken! My [carriage] is broken!’" (Works, volume 1)

Or we need eyes like Peter, who writes: “to the degree that you share the sufferings of Christ, keep on rejoicing, so that also at the revelation of His glory you may rejoice with exultation” (1 Pt 4:13).

In other words, we find and sustain joy in a joyless world by seeing all the horrible pain in light of heaven. Our full redemption is coming! The cross conquered sin and pain and death and suffering! The decisive blow has already fallen. Though the world we live in still groans in agony (Rom 8:19-21), it knows that someday soon the triumph Jesus won at the cross will be ours to enjoy in its full pleasure and delight forever and ever.

We need eyes to see the world and all its pain like this! When we see life this way, our joy will be strong and enduring and real. This perspective will preserve us from a shallow, chipper triteness that masquerades as the real “joy of Christ.” Only this way of looking at the world will allow us to “weep with those who weep” (Rom 12:15), because only this perspective doesn’t see someone else’s pain as a threat to my own joy. After all, my happiness comes from heaven, not from a pain-free life on earth. Only when we see the world like this will we “go to [Jesus] outside the camp and bear the reproach he endured. For here we have no lasting city, but we seek the city that is to come” (Heb 12:13-14).

Tuesday, October 26, 2004

Smiling on the Inside? Part 1

Sustaining Joy in a Joyless World

Life shreds thin joy. If our joy is not robust and solid, daycare shootings in Detroit and homelessness in San Francisco and beheadings in Baghdad and genocide in Sudan and AIDS orphans in South Africa will slash it to shreds in seconds. Either that or we’ll medicate ourselves against the pain by living in a fantasyland where the wretched realities of the real world can’t threaten our chipper self-centeredness. (This option, by the way, is the one most people choose by default, numbing themselves with TV, movies, music, fashion, achievement, whatever. But that’s a problem for another blog entry…)

Our world is filled with pain… and I haven’t even mentioned the everyday frustrations of hard classes, sour relationships, excessive demands—all the normal distresses of daily life even before we read the newspaper. So what can we do to sustain real happiness even with both eyes open to the horrors and heartaches of the world around us?

I think I need to divide my answer into two parts… Second, my answer. First, a few problems with what might be the traditional Christian answer.

Typically, I think Christians have tried to draw a distinction between joy and happiness, going something like this: “Happiness is a feeling, and it’s based on the circumstances outside you. Joy is a choice, and it’s based on what’s inside you.” But I think that answer fails for several reasons…

First, both happiness and joy are spontaneous and emotional. The reason some Christians try to distinguish joy from happiness is probably a sense that joy is deliberate and strong while happiness is spontaneous and superficial. But in reality, joy is not an internal disposition we can simply choose with our will; it’s a gift from God, a work of the Holy Spirit (Rom 14:17; Gal 5:22; 1 Thes 1:6). And it spontaneously erupts as a felt sense of delight in our heart, just like happiness (cf. 1 Pt 1:8).

Second, the Bible concerns itself with both our happiness and our joy. For example, “God loves a cheerful giver” (2 Cor 9:7). And “How happy are the people whose God is the Lord” (Ps 144:15; cf. Deut 33:29; Is 52:7).

Third, I don’t think we can successfully separate feelings of happiness from a sense of joy in our own soul. Even if there is a difference between happiness and joy (which I doubt), practically it’s a meaningless one because we are unable to experience the difference. How convincing is “The frown on my face is only circumstantial. Deep inside I’m quivering with enjoyment…”? People who talk this way don’t possess superior self-awareness or outstanding willpower. Nope. They're either being naive or they're lying. Joy in the heart shows up as a smile on the face. No exceptions.

So how should we answer this crucial question of maintaining joy in a joy-stealing world? Well, I’ll try to get at the answer in a day or two. But whatever we say in the meantime, let’s NOT pass over the question glibly and say with a smirk, “Well, I’m smiling on the inside.”

Thursday, October 21, 2004

Inspired Ambiguity

Thinking Hard About Why the Bible Requires Hard Thinking

I was chatting on the phone today with a college student who was deeply engaged in a confusing Bible study project when the question came up: “Why didn’t God write what He meant more clearly?”

At first I thought we were bordering on indicting God with a poor performance, but then I remembered the Apostle Peter expressing some of the same consternation: “There are some things in [Paul’s letters] that are hard to understand, which the ignorant and unstable twist to their own destruction, as they do the other Scriptures” (2 Pt 3:16). If Peter talks that way, maybe we’re correct… Some of the Bible is tough to understand! But why?

It’s a good question, because surely God has the ability to be clear when He wants to be. If deficiency is ever the problem, it’s in us, not in God! Plus, God’s entire self-revelation, His expectations for people, His plan for redemption are all revealed in a book—a book we must understand in order to obey. So you’d think He’d always speak with absolute clarity, right? Well then, why doesn’t He? (If at this point you’re not tracking with me because you think the whole Bible is perfectly clear, go read Galatians 2:15-21. Now explain it. All of it. Are we together again? Good…) So here are some reasons I think God wrote some relatively unclear stuff in His word...

First, it highlights His wisdom and our dependence when we are forced to pause, ponder, and pray. “It is the glory of God to conceal a matter; to search out a matter is the glory of kings” (Pro 25:2). Hard parts in the Bible are a constant reminder that we don’t know it all, but He does.

Second, it helps us identify the truths we should feel the most strongly about, since we can reasonably assume that what God made most clear is of greatest importance. Is Jesus really God? No doubt. Bank your life (and death) on it. What music style does God prefer? Umm… well, I doubt it’s Country, but let’s not fight about it, OK?

Third, it’s a built-in reminder, even while studying the truth, of the importance of love for other Christians. If all Scripture were equally clear, all Christians would presumably believe the same things. But then who would notice our love for each other? After all, no one watches the Republican National Convention and comments: “Wow. Those people sure get along well… I wonder why?” But when Christians really love each other even in the midst of disagreement, outside observers are left wondering, “Hmmm… These people really seem to enjoy each other in spite of their disagreements. They must have a really cool God…” (cf. Jn 13:35).

The moral? Pray for God's help to know the truth. Stand up for what matters most; be gentle about the rest. And love, love, love. These are the lessons God has for us, woven right into the fabric of His sometimes hard-to-understand word. Happy hard thinking!

Tuesday, October 19, 2004

Running the World on Faith

Pondering the Role of Faith in Politics and Life

Catching a little “Fresh Air” on NPR earlier today, I heard a most thought-provoking opinion about faith (George W. Bush’s in particular) and its political ramifications. Host Terry Gross quoted Bruce Bartlett, a former advisor for Ronald Reagan and administrative official for the elder George Bush. Bartlett opined: “The whole thing about faith is to believe things for which there is no empirical evidence, but you can’t run the world on faith.”

Hmmm… Is he right? Is faith an inadequate (perhaps even a dangerous) guide for running the world? My search for an answer goes right to the very heart of what it means to be a person created in God’s image…

I would argue that faith is an essential and irreducible component of every decision every person ever makes. Not necessarily faith in God, but belief in at least something. Why do I say that? Because the human soul is unalterably covenantal. Or another way to say it is that we are all worshippers. Or we could say we are perpetual happiness seekers.

In practical terms, this means we are constantly on the lookout for something or someone bigger than ourselves that we can make an agreement with—a covenant—expecting this thing to bless us and make us happy if we act in certain ways. Our little covenant arrangements can be formal or informal, explicit or implicit. The point is, we all make them and we all live by them all the time.

We go through life asking the question (either consciously or subconsciously): “What must I have for my life to be happy?” When we find something that we believe has the power to bless or curse us, we make a little private covenant with it, and we follow that covenantal arrangement in how we make all the decisions that follow. Ask yourself the question: What must I have to be happy? This thing is your “covenant god.”

So what does this have to do with faith? Everything. We make our covenants, we choose what/who to worship, we pursue our happiness based on what we BELIEVE. None of us has all the empirical evidence on whether our choices will turn out for our good or our bad, so we just have to choose the option that looks the best to us. It’s a matter of belief. It’s all about faith.

So back to our original question: Is George W. Bush’s faith [in the Bible’s God] an inadequate or dangerous guide for running the world? Well, considering that he has to have faith in something to make his choices, let’s answer the question with another question… If he’s going to be running the world, wouldn’t you prefer he have faith in Someone with unlimited knowledge, power, and love? Yeah, me too.

Thursday, October 14, 2004

Got Stuff?

Glorifying God with Our Stuff: Asceticism vs. Thankfulness

I've been pondering this question for a while now... How do we bring God the most glory with regard to our possessions? Option 1: by sacrificing and living without them (asceticism), thereby showing that He is more desirable than stuff. Option 2: by enjoying and giving thanks for them, thereby showing that He is the Benevolent Giver of all good things.

I think C. S. Lewis helped me on to a preliminary answer in a quote I read yesterday. He presents us with a third option that I hadn't even considered. He writes, "Gratitude exclaims, very properly, 'How good of God to give me this.' Adoration says, 'What must be the quality of that Being whose far-off and momentary coruscations [sparkles] are like this!' One's mind runs back up the sunbeam to the sun." (Letters to Malcolm)

In other words, Lewis argues for neither asceticism nor thankfulness as the most God-honoring approach toward our stuff. He argues for turning "stuff" into vehicles for worship! Pretty cool. Here's how I think it would work...

You pick up a couple new things at Old Navy, and you're wondering how to bring God glory in your attitude. Give them away to a homeless shelter (i.e., asceticism)? Whisper a prayer of thanks every time you look in the mirror (i.e., thanksgiving)? Nope. Instead, we should savor the moment of delight in donning our new clothes and then turn to God with: "God, I really enjoy these clothes. Thanks for allowing me to purchase them. But if clothes are this cool, how much greater must You be. I know the pleasure I find in clothes is a yawn compared to the pleasure that You Yourself afford me..." And suddenly Old Navy fades (lol) and God's glory shines.

One more thought before we abandon this strain... I think that if we can really say from our heart, "God, how much greater you are than this thing," then we'll be on the path toward sacrificing our possessions at the appropriate level. When God is our treasure, all of our stuff becomes really really expendable.

Got stuff? Want to glorify God with it? View it all as a glimmer of glory from Him, and hear Him whisper: "Not all these things, but I am the desire of your soul."