Why Gossip is Like Pornography

man wearing white shirt holding out hand in front of woman in white lace top

I listened to a great podcast the other day featuring Scott Sauls of Christ Presbyterian Church in Nashville, about his new book, Irresistible Faith.

One thing he said really stuck out to me: that gossip is a form of pornography, because when you gossip you are essentially “undressing” a person, exposing things about them which are intimate, vulnerable and private — in order to get a cheap thrill out of them, and to gratify yourself by feasting upon them in your mind.

Scott went on to say, that when we gossip, we are objectifying a person — turning them into a thing in order to gratify yourself at their expense, without making a commitment to them.

I think Scott is right. But that brings up a few other questions which people often ask when it comes to gossip:

What Constitutes Gossip?

Since many of our personal experiences involve other people, it would be really hard to say anything without talking about somebody else. How do we differentiate between healthy forms of mentioning or talking about other people, and unhealthy forms, which constitute gossip? What exactly is gossip?

One dictionary defines it as: “Unconstrained conversation or reports about other people.”

The word “unconstrained” is key.

Another definition is: “The sharing of sensational facts about other people.”

The word “sensational” is key here, because it shows a motivation: the key is to titillate, to impress, to entertain. The problem is, it is done at someone else’s expense.

Hurting Rather than Helping

Looking at Bible verses which talk about gossip (e.g. 2 Corinthians 12:20, 1 Timothy 5:13), gossip clearly is linked to slander, thus it comes from a negative spirit bent on hurting rather than helping.

None of Your Business

Gossip is excessive interest in someone else’s affairs, for the purpose of entertainment. Paul calls it being a “busybody” (1 Timothy 5:13), i.e. someone who is involved in something which is none of their business.

Why is Gossip Wrong?

Besides the self-gratifying nature of it, what is so bad about gossip?

1. Gossip is Divisive

A perverse person stirs up conflict, and a gossip separates close friends. (Proverbs 16:28)

2. Gossip is Poisonous

All kinds of animals, birds, reptiles and sea creatures are being tamed and have been tamed by mankind, but no human being can tame the tongue. It is a restless evil, full of deadly poison. (James 3:7-8)

Many times I have observed people’s minds being poisoned in regard to how they think about another person because of gossip.

3. We Will Have to Answer to God for How We Use Our Words

“But I tell you that everyone will have to give account on the day of judgment for every empty word they have spoken.” – Jesus (Matthew 12:36)

Some Guidelines for Talking About Others

1. Use Words that Build Up, Rather than Tear Down

One of the reasons people tear others down with their words is because they feel that by making other people look bad, it makes them look good in comparison. In fact the opposite is true: when we speak poorly of someone, it makes us look bad, even if we are too foolish to realize it.

‘Let no corrupting talk come out of your mouths, but only such as is good for building up, as fits the occasion, that it may give grace to those who hear.’ (Ephesians 4:29)

Therefore encourage one another and build each other up (1 Thessalonians 5:11)

2. Let Your Speech be Motivated by Love for the Other Person

People often talk about their children, but they almost never gossip about their children. Why? Because people love their children, and love protects rather than exploits someone’s weaknesses and vulnerabilities.

‘The lips of the righteous nourish many, but fools die for lack of sense. The tongue of the righteous is choice silver, but the heart of the wicked is of little value. ‘ (Proverbs 10:20-21)

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Atul Gawande’s ‘Being Mortal’ and the Need for Hope

Image result for being mortal atul

I recently finished Atul Gawande’s book Being Mortal. It was given to me by a friend from church who recommended I read it, and I’m glad I did.

The Author and his beliefs

Atul Gawande is an American medical doctor, the son of two doctors who immigrated to the U.S. from India. He was raised nominally Hindu, but by his own admission he is functionally secular and non-religious, and the focus of his book is not at all on giving hope beyond this life, only on dealing with the death from a clinical perspective.

However, I would argue that whatever you believe about the future invariably affects the way you interpret the meaning and purpose of life, as well as how you cope with mortality, and this does come through in some of his conclusions.

Content and Highlights

The book begins with a description of physical changes that happen as people age, beginning at age 35.

Dying Well

Next, Atul Gawande gives a brief history of nursing homes. I found this part very interesting. About 50% of Americans die in nursing homes. Some might say this is very sad, which in some ways it is – however, understanding the way that most people died in the past makes you see that this is actually a great improvement over 100 years ago, when many people died in state-funded “poor houses” which even at their best had awful conditions.

He then goes on to describe the development of “assisted living” facilities, and how many have now deviated from their original purpose and design. He also tells stories of people who have sought to improve these facilities through innovation, such as bringing living things, e.g. plants, animals and children into these homes to improve residents’ quality of life.

While the author does say that the older model of a multi-generational home in which elderly people are cared for at home until they die has some benefits, he also shows its limits and downsides, using his own grandfather as an example.

Palliative Care

Atul also describes the benefits of palliative care for elderly people, which is focused on improving a person’s quality of life rather than on invasive treatments which may reduce a dying person’s quality of life even though they have little to no chance of curing them or significantly prolonging their life.

Even though palliative care has been shown to help improve and often prolong a person’s life, one of the sad things Gawande points out is that many insurance providers have stopped paying for palliative care, but they continue paying for invasive treatments, even if they are unnecessary or unhelpful to patients. This perpetuates a cycle of doing everything possible for patients, even if those treatments are not likely to lengthen their life and will probably make their quality of life worse.

The Big Point

Atul Gawande’s main point is summed up in this statement:

“Over and over, we in medicine inflict deep gouges at the end of people’s lives and then stand oblivious to the harm done.”

He argues that as people live longer and more die of old age, we should be focused on helping people stay in control of their lives as long as possible, achieve their goals, and die with dignity.

A Reason for Living

It is impossible to talk about dying without some sort of existential discussion about what gives life meaning and purpose.

At one point, Atul Gawande references the Harvard philosopher Josiah Royce, who said that “simply existing – merely being housed and fed and safe and alive – seems empty and meaningless to us.” He goes on to explain that we all seek a cause beyond ourselves, and it is in ascribing value to the cause and seeing it as worth sacrificing for, that gives our lives meaning.

Royce said that this reason for living was the opposite of individualism. An individualist puts self-interest first, seeing his or her own pain, pleasure and existence as their greatest concern. For the individualist, self-sacrifice makes no sense, but since their own self is the highest cause for which they live, their life has no meaning other than to make themselves happy. Ironically, it is for this reason that happiness and satisfaction will always elude them. For the individualist death is meaningless and ultimately terrifying.

It is for this reason, Gawande explains, that we all need something beyond ourselves and outside of ourselves to live for, and this is why elderly people who have pets, for example, tend to live longer lives.

The problem with Gawande’s search for meaning

The problem with Gawande’s search for meaning, is that he has identified a real need, and yet he basically says in the end that since he doesn’t believe there is anything beyond this life, therefore it is better to give someone the illusion that their life has meaning and purpose and value beyond themselves, even though no such thing really exists.

He does mention that people want their lives to make a difference after they are gone, but what he fails to answer is: to what end?  Why should anyone care about what happens after they are gone, if life is actually meaningless, and after this light burns out there is only darkness? From this same logic, a totally selfish existentialism could also be argued for – such as that of the Epicureans: “Let us eat and drink, for tomorrow we die!” – in other words #YOLO – since we only live once, who cares what destruction we leave in our wake for others to deal with?! It’ll be their problem, not ours!

The solution which only the gospel gives

In this search for meaning and purpose, I would argue that it is only the gospel message of Jesus Christ which gives a satisfactory answer to humankind’s search for meaning and hope beyond this life.

It is only the gospel which gives us real hope beyond this life, and a real mission in this life which has more than just illusionary results. In the gospel we have hope for life beyond this one, and the effects of our mission are eternal in nature.

As CS Lewis put it at the end of the Chronicles of Narnia:

“For us, this is the end of all the stories…but for them it was only the beginning of the real story. All their life in this world and all their adventures in Narnia had only been the cover and the title page: now at last they were beginning Chapter One of the Great Story which no one on earth has read: which goes on for ever: in which every chapter is better than the one before.” – CS Lewis, The Last Battle

In order to truly “die well”, what we need is not just dignity, but HOPE. And this is found only and ultimately in the gospel message of Jesus Christ.

Should you read it?

I would recommend Atul Gawande’s Being Mortal. It was full of important thoughts about the process of dying in Western society today. However, I recommend reading the book with an eye to its one glaring shortcoming: it fails to address the need for and the source of HOPE both for this life and the one to come.

Trust Your Instruments

two pilot inside aircraft

This winter our church has been partnering with Agape Family Services, a Longmont-based non-profit which helps people who have been homeless to transition to independence. Agape provides shelter, food, help with overcoming addiction and assistance in finding jobs and a place to live during their 6 month program.

White Fields partners with Agape by teaching a Tuesday morning Bible study for those in the program. It has been great seeing Agape’s work, the effectiveness of the program, and how the people are progressing. One man, for example, who comes to Bible study every week and reads his Bible avidly has, with Agape’s help, gotten sober, found a job, married his girlfriend and is working on finding a place to live when he graduates from the program in the spring. It has been great to witness his progress over the past few months, and to see his completion and countenance improve each week.

This past Tuesday, a man from White Fields named Brad led the Bible study. Brad used to fly corporate jets for a living, and he used an example from that world to illustrate what it means to live and walk by faith:

When Trusting Your Feelings Will Kill You

Brad said that pilots often experience “spacial disorientation”, which means that even if the plane is flying perfectly level, they will feel like they are tilted to one side, and that the plane isn’t going straight, when it actually is.

The danger with this is that if the plane is actually tilted, it will pick up momentum and spiral out of control. So this feeling of “spacial disorientation” triggers panic in your mind and body which tells you that you need to straighten out the plane or else you’re going to spiral out of control – except, if the pilot follows that feeling and “corrects” the plane, they will actually be tilting the plane which can result in entering into a “death spiral” from which they can’t pull out.

The pilot needs to know that what their body and mind are telling them might be incorrect, and rather than relying on those feelings, what they need to do is trust their instruments.

On the instrument panel, a pilot has multiple gyros (in case one fails), which tell them whether they are level. It is an act of faith to trust your instruments rather than your feelings, but if you don’t, you (and your passengers) will experience disaster and tragedy.

Slow Down and Think

I recently finished reading Malcom Gladwell’s book Blink: The Power of Thinking Without Thinkingin which he talks about rapid cognition and intuition. In the book, he discusses this same issue: that generally our minds are very powerful and our rapid cognition is trustworthy, but sometimes it’s not, and we must slow down in order to make the right decision.

He used the example of police brutality in the cases of Rodney King and other incidents, and how rather than being caused primarily by racism, they are caused by officers being in a heightened state of arousal (high heart rate) as a result of a chase, which causes their minds to shut off, and they begin acting without thinking. As a result of research, police departments have gone to great lengths to slow down procedures in order to create more “white space” for officers to be able to think before acting, knowing that sometimes their instincts will lead them to do things in an instant which they wouldn’t have done had they had time to think.

Landing the Plane

Similarly, as Christians, we know that our hearts can be deceitful (Jeremiah 17:19). Proverbs 14:12 tells us that ‘There is a way that seems right to a man, but its end is the way to death.’

So rather than “following our hearts” or doing what feels good in the moment, it is important to think before we act, and trust our instruments, i.e. what God’s Word says is true, not just what we might feel in the moment.

This applies to how we think about ourselves, how we assess our situations and circumstances, and how we react to others.

In our recent study of Habakkuk, we saw that Habakkuk was a man who was struggling to understand why God was allowing certain things to happen, and why God had chosen a course of action which, to Habakkuk, seemed wrong and unfair. God’s response was to remind Habakkuk to “trust the instruments” in those instances when things seemed to be spiraling out of control; he was to remember who God is (e.g. sovereign, good, just), and then look at his circumstances through that lens, trusting that God was working out a plan, even if Habakkuk couldn’t see the whole thing just yet.

You can listen to that study of Habakkuk here: Habakkuk: The Righteous Shall Live by Faith

May we be those who trust the instruments God has given us, lest we end up off-course or in a death spiral – so we reach our final destination.

Jordan Peterson and the Bible

Image result for jordan peterson

Jordan Peterson is an interesting character. A Canadian clinical psychologist and professor of psychology at the University of Toronto, he has had a meteoric rise in popularity in the media as of late.

One reason for Jordan Peterson’s recent popularity is that he has been able to put words and justification to what many people consider “common sense”, not least of all when it comes to the idea that gender is not a social construct, but is rooted in biology. He then, as a psychologist, gets into the psychology behind this very relevant social issue.

I recently finished reading his book, 12 Rules for Life: An Antidote to Chaosin which he brings some of his training and experience and makes it very practical, from everything to posture, raising children, and conversation.

Jordan Peterson and the Bible

Jordan Peterson states emphatically that he is not an atheist (nor does he believe that anyone is actually truly an atheist). He is also not a Christian, at least not in the traditional sense. He mentions in the book that he received a Christian upbringing, but departed from Christianity once he got out on his own.

Nevertheless, Peterson champions many things which are considered biblical or Judeo-Christian values. He argues convincingly for the doctrine of human depravity, and often uses the word “sin” – a word which even many Christian churches today try to avoid, as they feel it is off-putting and rubs people the wrong way. Jordan Peterson does not shy away from talking about human depravity and the need to take personal responsibility for your actions and decisions.

Peterson quotes generously from the Bible in his book; in fact, I mentioned to someone the other day that Peterson talks about and quotes the Bible more than the authors of many explicitly Christian books I have read!

However, Jordan doesn’t only quote from the Bible, he also attempts to exegete and interpret the Bible, particularly the opening chapters of the Book of Genesis, and it is here where I, as a theologian, take issue with what he says.

Presuppositions Influence Interpretation

Anyone who attempts to interpret the Bible will inevitably be influenced in their interpretation by their presuppositions, their commitments to already-held beliefs. None of us are truly objective. We all look at things through various lenses, and those lenses invariably and inevitably affect the conclusions we reach.

As a humanist who buys into the idea that all religions developed as the result of the shared consciousness of particular cultures, Jordan Peterson views the Bible as being a didactic mythology which served to help certain groups of people at certain times. He does not believe that it is objectively true, or even more true than the sacred writings of other religions, rather that it reflects the collective consciousness of a particular group of people at a particular time.

Thus, rather than taking what the Bible says at face value, he tries to fit it into his own framework of thinking. The reason this is sometimes confusing, is that it is unclear where exactly Jordan Peterson’s worldview comes from. It seems to be influenced by the Bible in large degree, and yet Peterson clearly has other influences, particularly Enlightenment thinkers, who championed the above stated views on the Bible in particular and epistemology in general.

The Irony…

Here’s the irony: while Jordan Peterson (rightly) argues against relativistic approaches to things like understanding gender and hierarchy, he himself has a relativistic approach to epistemology, truth and worldview! He has basically created it for himself, based on what he subjectively decides to borrow from various religions and philosophies.

Back to Issues of Epistemology and Worldview

For example, Jordan Peterson states (as fact) Wellhausen’s “Documentary Hypothesis” about the construction of the Old Testament having had 4 main sources and several redactions. Wellhausen’s theory is now considered deeply flawed and is not held by many contemporary Bible scholars. It is irresponsible and misleading, in my opinion, for Peterson to state this as if it is accepted fact, without even giving the caveat that this is a theory from the 1800’s which a great number of Bible scholars today (who have studied this subject in much greater depth than he has) no longer accept.

Irresponsible and Uninformed Exegesis and Hermeneutics

Furthermore, I would say that Jordan Peterson practices irresponsible and uninformed biblical exegesis and hermeneutics repeatedly throughout his book, particularly in regard to the significance of the opening chapters of Genesis. For example, in Rule 7: Pursue What is Meaningful (Not What is Expedient), he states that the Bible says that work is part of the curse of sin and death in Genesis 3. This is simply not the case! Genesis 1 & 2 show that work was part of the idyllic world which existed before sin came into the world, and it portrays God working. The difference after the curse, was not that people would have to work (they worked before the curse), but that their work would be characterized by frustration because of the introduction of sin and imperfection into the world.

Another example can be found in his further attempts to exegete and interpret Genesis 3:22-24, where it says that God drove the man and woman out of the garden after they fell into sin, lest they eat of the Tree of Life and live forever. Peterson expresses that this action of God seems mean and inexplicable. There is a very good and widely held view on why God did this, based on a clear reading of the text: God – in His mercy! – did not want the man and woman to be cursed to an eternal existence in their fallen state. Rather, he would allow them to die, so that he could then resurrect them once he had accomplished his plan of setting right all that they had done wrong. We call that: the gospel!

Nothing New Under the Sun

In summary, Jordan Peterson speaks with such confidence and bravado that he comes across as an authority, when in actuality he is merely recycling old Enlightenment approaches to the Bible popularized in the 1800’s, which are not considered to be consensus today.

All Injunctions, No Justification

My final critique of Jordan Peterson’s book would be this: he concludes the book by telling people that they must be strong in the face of adversity. He says that life is pain and hardship, but we must be strong in the face of it and persevere. But here’s the problem: he never gives a reason WHY we must persevere! Why push on? Why try to be strong and suffer well?

In other words: If we have no destination, and the journey is painful, then why bother continuing the journey?

Having rejected the hope of the gospel, Jordan Peterson has sawed off the very branch he is standing on, and at the end of his book, his message to be strong and persevere falls flat because he has not shown us that life has an actual telos: a destination, meaning and purpose.

As Christians, we absolutely do have a hope which goes beyond this life, and it is this hope which makes our lives meaningful and worth living, even in the face of hardship. We have a destination, and that destination gives us a mission in this life. Our goal is not only our own happiness, but to use our lives for God’s purposes until we do come into the great eschatological hope of eternal life because of what God has done for us in Jesus.

Resources for Studying the Prophets

This past Sunday we began a new series at White Fields called “Remember the Prophets“.

The idea for the series comes from James 5:10, where James tells us to “remember the prophets who spoke in the name of the Lord. Take them as examples of patient endurance under suffering.”  In this series, we will be looking at a different Old Testament prophet each week, considering their lives and their messages and what we can learn from them.

remember the prophets main title 16x9

We are moving through them chronologically, and so began with Amos, an interesting person with an important message. Click here to listen to that message: Amos: Faith that Works

This Sunday we will continue the series by looking at Hosea, a gripping story of adultery and faithfulness which gives us insight into God’s heart.

Resources for Studying the Prophets

Generally speaking, the prophetic books are not well known by many people who even regularly read the Bible. Part of the reason for that is because of the negative tone of some of the books, as well as the feeling that without understanding the context of the books, they don’t make sense.

People have asked me at times what books or materials are good to use if they want to get to know the prophetic books better. Here are my top two recommendations:

Exploring the Old Testament: A Guide to the Prophets, J. Gordon McConville

Image result for exploring the old testament a guide to the prophetsI had the pleasure of studying under Gordon McConville at the University of Gloucestershire in England, where he is professor of Old Testament theology. This was one of my text books, but is part of a great series from Inter-Varsity Press and is very accessible to the average reader and also scholarly at the same time.

On the scholarly side, this book tends to get a little bit into the weeds about theological discussions and debates, but the introductions and outlines of the books, their themes and their structures are very good. In other words, you can use it to go as deep as you’re ready to go.

Jensen’s Survey of the Old Testament, Irving L. Jensen

When I first became a pastor, one of my mentors told me, “You’re going to need some books.” He then walked me into the book store at the church we were at and pulled Jensen’s surveys of the Old Testament and New Testament off the shelf and handed them to me.

The benefit to these books published by Moody Press is that rather than being a commentary that tells you information, they instead instruct you about how to ask the right questions. Thus, you are the one doing the exegetical work, or the inductive Bible study, rather than just passively receiving information. They do, however, give you important background information in order to get the context you need, but they also tell you where to go to get that context if it is found in other places in the Bible.

I hope these resources are helpful for you, as they have been for me!

Falling Through the Cracks, or Straying Sheep?

white and black animal standing on green grass

“It’s an all-too-common phenomenon in churches. A church member stops showing up on Sunday mornings. A few weeks pass, and then a few months, before someone notices.”

This past November, on our annual elders retreat, the elders of White Fields Community Church read Jeremie Rinne’s book Church Elders, which is part of the 9 Marks series. Jeremy brings up an interesting point:

‘People in my congregation refer to this phenomenon as “falling through the cracks.” They say things like: “Have you seen Sally around church lately? I hope she didn’t fall through the cracks.”

What if, instead of “falling through the cracks,” we use a different image: “straying from the flock.” That picture seems more fitting for at least two reasons. First, “straying” implies that a disconnected church member bears a personal responsibility to stay involved with the congregation. Sheep don’t ordinarily leave a flock by inadvertently plummeting into a void. They wander away over time through a series of choices.

Second, the image of straying sheep also suggests that someone should keep watch over the flock and take action when a sheep begins to meander away. Yes, each member has a personal responsibility not to roam, but all church members have a duty to watch out for one another. However, one group in particular has an obligation to be on the lookout for straying sheep: the elders.

Elders watch to make sure that no “wolves” infiltrate their congregations with false teaching. But elders also keep watch for unwanted movement in the other direction: members straying away from the flock and from the Lord. This is part of basic shepherding work. Shepherds feed the sheep, guard them from predators, and keep track of them.’

He goes on to point out something interesting from Ezekiel:

‘Ezekiel prophesied against Israel’s leaders by accusing them of negligent shepherding: “Woe to the shepherds of Israel, who have been feeding themselves! Shouldn’t the shepherds feed their flock?” (Ezek. 34:2). And what was one of the ways they failed to shepherd? “You have not . . . brought back the strays, or sought the lost” (v. 4). As a result, “My flock went astray on all the mountains and every high hill. They were scattered over the whole face of the earth, and there was no one searching or seeking for them” (v. 6).’

Jesus, in contrast, is the “good shepherd” who leaves the 99 to pursue the one wayward sheep, something which is indeed “reckless” from a business perspective (and this is exactly what the lyrics of Cory Ashbury’s song “Reckless Love” come from).

The difficult balance from a church leader’s perspective is how to be a good shepherd under Jesus, and being overbearing. May God give us wisdom and grace as we seek to do His work!

Hemingway and Unfulfilled Longing

‘Why did the chicken cross the road?’ – with Ernest Hemingway:

A Farewell to Arms
Q: Why did the chicken cross the road?
Hemingway: To die. Alone. In the rain.

For Whom the Bell Tolls
Q: Why did the chicken cross the road?
Hemingway: To die doing something heroic…even if it was completely meaningless and accomplished nothing.

The Sun Also Rises
Q: Why did the chicken cross the road?
Hemingway: Because he was in love with someone who would never love him back; a fate worse than death.

I recently read each of these books as part of my decision to read more non-fiction literature. Tim Keller at one point suggested that pastors, who generally read a lot of non-fiction, ought to also read quality fiction in order to stimulate their creativity and imagination. Some of my favorites have been Tolkien, Dostoyevsky and Steinbeck.

And then there’s Hemingway…

The Charm of Hemingway

With Hemingway, you don’t get happy endings in which everything wraps up perfectly and people live happily ever after.

With Hemingway, you get a good story, but most of all, you get a lot of introspection and existential questions, which never get resolved.

Perhaps that’s the charm and appeal of Hemingway: he didn’t try to sugarcoat things. He presents life in all of its facets: joy and pain, longing and disappointment. He’s not afraid to leave a dilemma unresolved, or to have a character’s longing go unfulfilled.

Writing About Himself

As I read his stories, I can’t help but feel that Hemingway is writing about himself – and above all, about his inner struggle to find meaning in life apart from God.

He longs to be heroic and adventurous, and indeed he was – both in the stories and in real life. Yet in the end, even he himself questions what the meaning of life is – and he is never able to sufficiently answer the question, not even in a way that satisfies himself.

It’s no surprise that the main characters in Hemingway’s stories are all Americans living abroad – like Hemingway was. But more importantly, they are all atheists – like Hemingway himself. And not just atheists, but conflicted atheists, who realize the problems inherent to atheism…

In A Farewell to Arms, Hemingway’s character faces the tragic loss of his wife and child, and in a moment of desperation he forfeits his atheism and prays to God! I can’t help but believe that this is Ernest himself admitting that deep down inside, when faced with the reality of life, death and eternity, he knew there was a God – even if he didn’t like to admit it and didn’t want to acknowledge Him.

In For Whom the Bell Tolls, Hemingway’s character is fighting on the losing side of a war, in which the deaths of all those around him won’t change a single thing except to cause pain and loss. He tries to convince himself that all that matters is living heroically and all that matters is living for something bigger than yourself… except that too is completely meaningless. So life is a struggle, it is pain and strife – intermixed with some pleasure – followed by death.

In The Sun Also Rises, Hemingway’s thesis is that the point of life is to have fun and enjoy yourself – #YOLO, before #YOLO was a thing. The only problem is: what if you fail to attain that which you want, and therefore you do not succeed at enjoying yourself in life? What then is the point of living?

It is as if Hemingway, in each of his books, is desperately trying to convince himself that there is meaning in life apart from God – and constantly failing to do so.

At least he was honest.

And yet his life ended in self-inflicted tragedy, as if it was one of his own stories.

What Hemingway Missed: The Reality to Which All the Longings Point

What Hemingway failed to realize – and tragically so, considering that he asked all the right questions and seemingly came so close – was that all of the disappointment of the unfulfilled longings of this life points to a reality which is outside of this world.

This is the hope of the Christian gospel: that the unfulfilled longings we have now will actually be fulfilled one day. That the reason we are unsatisfied with life in this world is because we were made for perfection, and deep down we instinctually know the way that things ought to be – even though it’s not how they are right now. We long for a world in which there is love without parting. We long for a world of adventure and nobility, where love is reciprocated, a world of righteousness where injustice is no more and where life does not end.

And the promise of the Bible is that such a world is what we were made for; it has been lost, but it will exist again – and by the grace of God we will get to be part of it because of what Jesus did for us.

The knowledge of that gives actual meaning to our present struggles and direction and purpose to our lives here and now – something truly bigger than ourselves, which will result in the fulfillment of our presently unfulfilled longings.

Expository Preaching: Structure and Progression

writing notes idea class

In my last post, I shared some thoughts from Martyn Lloyd-Jones on the topic of expository preaching, and why expository preaching is more than simply going through a passage verse-by-verse and giving a “running commentary” of disconnected thoughts, but that an expository sermon is to have a structure similar to how a piece of music or a building has structure.

(for more on Lloyd-Jones, check out: Preaching While the Bombs Fell)

Here are some further thoughts from him on how to do that:

Distilling the Message of the Text

The burden of your message arises from understanding the passage. If you have truly understood the verse or passage, you will arrive at a particular doctrine, which is a part of the whole message of the Bible. It is your business to search for this and to seek it diligently. You have to question your text, to put questions to it, and especially this question— What is this saying? What is the particular doctrine here, the special message? In the preparation of a sermon nothing is more important than that.

To do this, I often tell people to boil down their entire message into one sentence. I do the same for every sermon I write.

Showing People Why it Matters to Them

You then proceed to consider the relevance of this particular doctrine to the people who are listening to you. This question of relevance must never be forgotten.

This is an important point that is often missed by preachers and teachers. I once heard someone ask the question: “Have you ever heard a sermon that was doctrinally accurate, but it was so boring it made you want to cry?”

I have. You probably have too. Why was that? This person argued that the reason was because: although what the person said was true, you didn’t understand why it mattered to you.

This isn’t about trying to “tickle people’s ears,” or “trying to make the Bible more interesting.” The fact is: the Bible is interesting. It is compelling. But if we are not helping people see why it is so very interesting and compelling, then we are failing them in our role as Bible teachers.

As Paul wrote to the Corinthians: Therefore, knowing the fear of the Lord, we persuade others… God making his appeal through us: we implore you on behalf of Christ (2 Corinthians 5:11, 20)

You are setting out to influence these people and the whole of their lives and outlook. Obviously, therefore, you have got to show the relevance of all this. You are not an antiquary lecturing on ancient history or on ancient civilisations, or something like that. The preacher is speaking to people who are alive today and confronted by the problems of life, and therefore you have to show that this is not some academic or theoretical matter… but that this message is vitally important for them, and that they must listen with the whole of their being, because this really is going to help them.

Structure: Progressively Building a Towards a Conclusion

You now come to the division of this matter into propositions or headings, or heads—whatever you may like to call them. The object of these headings or divisions is to make clear this central doctrine or proposition.

The arrangement of these propositions or heads is a very important matter. You have a doctrine, an argument, a case which you want to argue out, and to reason, and to develop with the people. So, obviously, you must arrange your headings and your divisions in such a way that point number one leads to point number two, and point number two leads to point number three, etc.

Each one should lead to the next, and work ultimately to a definite conclusion. Everything is to be so arranged as to bring out the main thrust of this particular doctrine. The point I am emphasising is that there must be progression in the thought, that each one of these points is not independent, and is not, in a sense, of equal value with all the others. Each is a part of the whole, and in each you must be advancing and taking the matter further on. You are not simply saying the same thing a number of times, you are aiming at an ultimate conclusion.

You must end on a climax, and everything should lead up to it in such a way that the great truth stands out dominating everything that has been said, and the listeners go away with this in their minds.

Making Application Along the Way and at the End

It is important that you should have been applying what you have been saying as you go along. There are many ways of doing this. You can do so by asking questions and answering them, or in various other ways; but you must apply the message as you go along.

This again shows that you are not just lecturing, that you are not dealing with an abstract or academic or theoretical matter; but that this is a living matter which is of real concern to the people in the whole of their life and being. So you must keep on applying what you are saying.

Then to make absolutely certain of this, when you have ended the reason and the argument, and have arrived at this climax, you apply it all again perhaps with an exhortation, a series of questions or a series of terse statements. But it is vital to the sermon that it should always end on this note of application or of exhortation.

(All quotations taken from Lloyd-Jones, D. Martyn. Preaching and Preachers, pp. 86-88)

David Foster Wallace on Atheism and Worship

In 2008, at the time of his untimely death, the Los Angeles Times declared that David Foster Wallace was “one of the most influential writers of the last twenty years.”[1] He was an award-winning, bestselling postmodern novelist, who loved to push boundaries in his storytelling.

Although Wallace was an agnostic, he made some profound statements about atheism and worship in his now famous commencement speech, which he gave to the graduating class of Kenyon College in 2005.

Here’s what he said:

webdavidfosterwallaceYou get to choose what to worship. Because here’s something else that’s weird but true: in the day-to day trenches of adult life, there is actually no such thing as atheism. There is no such thing as not worshipping. Everybody worships. The only choice we get is what to worship.

And the compelling reason for maybe choosing some sort of god … to worship … is that pretty much anything else you worship will eat you alive.

If you worship money and things, if they are where you tap real meaning in life, then you will never have enough, never feel you have enough. It’s the truth. Worship your body and beauty and sexual allure and you will always feel ugly. And when time and age start showing, you will die a million deaths before they finally plant you.

Worship power, and you will end up feeling weak and afraid, and you will need ever more power over others to numb you to your own fear. Worship your intellect, being seen as smart, you will end up feeling stupid, a fraud, always on the verge of being found out.

Look, the insidious thing about these forms of worship is not that they are evil or sinful; it is that they’re unconscious. They are default settings. They are the kind of worship you just gradually slip into day after day … without ever being fully aware that that’s what you’re doing. [2]

Wallace, although not a Christian, understood and communicated a very profound and very biblical truth: everyone worships, but anything you worship other than God will “eat you alive.”

Romans 6:16 tells us that there is no such thing as not worshiping, and that anything we worship other than God will enslave us.

Rebecca Manley Pippert puts it this way:

“Whatever controls us in our lord. The person who seeks power is controlled by power. The person who seeks acceptance is controlled by it. We do not control ourselves. We are controlled by the lord of our lives. (Pippert, Out of the Saltshaker, p. 53)

Whether we call ourselves religious or not, all of us have a lord, a master, and we are all worshipers.

The only way to be free, is by having a lord and a master who will not crush you, but who will liberate you – and in Jesus we have exactly that: one who came not to crush us, but to liberate us from all that enslaves us and to fulfill our deepest longings.

Jesus answered her, “If you knew the gift of God, and who it is that is saying to you, ‘Give me a drink,’ you would have asked him, and he would have given you living water.”
“Everyone who drinks of this water will be thirsty again, but whoever drinks of the water that I will give him will never be thirsty again. The water that I will give him will become in him a spring of water welling up to eternal life.” (John 4:10,13)

What a tragedy it would be to know this truth and not come to the fountain of living water and drink in order to be liberated and fulfilled!

Here is a recording of Wallace’s speech. The part about worship begins at 17:50.

Why Church Attendance Isn’t Like Rental Car Insurance

I came across this article in my Apple News feed this morning, posted by a major news source:

Americans still believe in God, so why do so many of us see it as just optional rental car insurance?

The article cites research which shows that despite the fact that 80% of Americans believe in God, church attendance is decreasing. Americans aren’t necessarily giving up on God, they’re just not going to church like they once did.

Contributing factors are our American culture, which is radically individualistic. It’s not a stretch to say that our modern Western culture is the most individualistic culture which has ever existed in the history of the world.

(Read: Toxic Loneliness and How to Break Out)

Furthermore, the Bible has been placed in the hands of the people. No one has to go to church any more in order to hear what the Bible says. Sermons are available via podcast and there are more Christian books on the market than one could probably ever read in a lifetime. Thus, people are increasingly considering church to be optional rather than vital.

The author of this article, a pastor, argues that the church as a community is irreplaceable and meets a deep spiritual need.

(Read: Why Go to Church If You Already Know It All? Here’s Why)

41aomdoo-sl-_sx325_bo1204203200_I am currently reading Martyn Lloyd Jones’ classic Preaching & Preachersbased on a series of lectures he gave back in 1969. Interestingly, he mentions the same issue as having existed at that time as well; the availability of journals, books, radio and television broadcasts of sermons or other Christian content had led many people to opt out of church because they felt they could feed their souls and connect with God on their own via these mediums, apart from the local church.

Here’s his response:

“This is a wrong approach because it is too individualistic. The man sits on his own reading his book. That is too purely intellectual in its approach, it is a matter of intellectual interest. The man himself is too much in control. What I mean is that if you do not agree with the book you put it down, if you do not like what you are hearing on the television you switch it off. You are an isolated individual and you are in control of the situation. Or, to put it more positively, that whole approach lacks the vital element of the Church.

Now the Church is a missionary body, and we must recapture this notion that the whole Church is a part of this witness to the Gospel and its truth and its message. It is therefore most important that people should come together and listen in companies in the realm of the Church. That has an impact in and of itself. I have often been told this. The preacher after all is not speaking for himself, he is speaking for the Church, he is explaining what the Church is and what these people are, and why they are what they are. 

Not only that, when a person comes into a church, to a body of people, he begins to get some idea of the fact that they are the people of God, and that they are the modern representatives of something that has been known in every age and generation throughout the centuries. This makes an impact. The person is not simply considering a new theory or a new teaching or a new idea. They are visiting or entering into something that has long history and tradition.

The person who thinks that all this can be done by reading, or by just looking at a television set, is missing the mysterious element in the life of the Church. What is this? It is what our Lord was suggesting when He said, ‘Where two or three are gathered together in My name, there am I in the midst.’ It is not a mere gathering of people; Christ is present. This is the great mystery of the Church. There is something in the very atmosphere of Christian people meeting together to worship God and to listen to the preaching of the Gospel.”

He then goes on to tell the story of a woman who had been involved in occult practices, who one time entered one of his church services when he pastored a small fellowship in Wales. She continued coming and eventually converted. When asked what kept her coming when she first started attending, she said that she sensed a “clean power” in their midst.

“All I am contending for is that when you enter a church, a society, a company of God’s people, there is a factor which immediately comes into operation, which is reinforced still more by the preacher expounding the Word in the pulpit; and that is why preaching can never be replaced by either reading or by watching television or any one of these other activities.”
(Lloyd-Jones, Preaching and Preachers, pp. 52-55.)

Let us not forsake the assembling of ourselves together, as is the manner of some, but let us encourage one another all the more as you see the Day approaching. (Hebrews 10:25)