Book Review: On the Road with Saint Augustine

A few years ago my thinking was shaped about the process of spiritual formation by James K.A. Smith‘s book, “Desiring the Kingdom.” In it, he explains the role that “liturgies,” not only ecclesial, but personal and “secular” liturgies play in that formation.

For more on that book and its ideas, see: Why Go to Church If You Already Know It All? Here’s Why

In “Desiring the Kingdom“, and Smith’s related book You Are What You Love, it is clear that he has been highly influenced by Augustine, particularly Augustine’s “Confessions”. The idea of sin as “disordered loves” is particularly Augustinian, as is much of what Smith says about formation, namely that idolatry is more “caught” than “taught”, i.e. idolatry is less of a conscious decision as much as a learned disposition. not so much conscious decisions to believe falsehood, and more like learned dispositions, which is why people’s idolatries often reflect their environments. Since we “practice our way into idolatry,” we need to “practice our way into freedom,” through liberating practices which direct our loves.

I was surprised and excited a few months ago when I saw that Smith was featured in an episode of the Art of Manliness podcast, in which he clearly articulated the Christian hope of the gospel while talking about his new book: “On the Road with Saint Augustine“.

In this book, Smith not only details his travels to retrace some of the footsteps of Augustine, who was originally from North Africa, but came to Italy seeking success and influence in the civic realm, only to have the course of his life changed by meeting Ambrose, the Bishop of Milan. As a result, Augustine later returned to North Africa where he became a bishop and influential Christian thinker, whose writings played a large part in the Reformation.

Augustine: the Father of Existentialism

Smith’s main point, however, is not to write a biography of Augustine, or a memoir of his travels, but to explain that Augustine is actually the father of modern existentialist thinking.

From Jean-Paul Sartre to Albert Camus to Jack Kerouac, modern and post-modern existentialists who often describe life as “a journey” or “the road”, whether knowingly or unwittingly, got this idea from Augustine who articulated existentialist ideas and used the terminology of life as “a journey” and “the road” way back in the 4th Century.

The great difference, of course, which Smith is eager to point out, is that whereas the modern and post-modern existentialists (like Kerouac in his novel “On the Road”) like to describe “the road” as “home”, and assert that there is no ultimate destination to which the road is leading (i.e. it is only the journey itself which matters, not the destination) – this is not at all what Augustine taught or believed. Augustine asserted that life is a journey with a destination, and it is only in light of this destination that there can be joy and purpose in the journey. Augustine taught that there is indeed a true “home” which awaits us, the “home” that all of us long for and the search for which underlies all of our pursuits and endeavors; thus, “the road” itself is not “home”, and if we expect it to be, our lives will miss the purpose, meaning and significance they are meant to have.

Why you hated the ending of Lost

If you were one of the many people frustrated by the ending of the show Lost a few years back, here’s why it was so frustrating: the ending of Lost was the epitome of post-modern existentialist thinking, which says that it is the only thing that matters in the end is not getting all of your questions answered or understanding the meaning of things, but only the enjoyment of the journey.

The ending scene in which all of the characters come together in the future and hug each other, without answering the many unanswered questions that were posed on and with the island, is meant to communicate the idea that, with these characters, the viewers of the show had enjoyed 6 years of excitement, mystery, and community. These things, the ending insinuated, were the reward and the ultimate purpose, not having all the questions answered.

The ending of Lost was famously frustrating for dedicated viewers. Why? Because built into us (existentially!) is the understanding that there must be a destination, there must by a purpose, there must be a “home” – and that all of our seeking is not actually in vain, but our lives do have a purpose and what we long for does indeed exist.

This is the promise of the entire Bible – from Genesis all the way through Revelation. It is through Jesus Christ that God has provided the way “home” – and it is through Him that we will truly experience the meaning of our existence. This is what Augustine articulated so clearly and compellingly, and yet the modern and post-modern existentialists, while taking elements and motifs of his teachings, missed the ultimate point of both what Augustine taught and life itself.

Summary

In this book, Smith helpfully disseminates some core elements of Augustine’s teachings and connects them to the modern person’s hopes, fears, and dreams in a way that is helpful and hopeful, as he points us to Jesus as the answer to the great riddles.

I thoroughly enjoyed it, and I hope you will too!

You Are What You Do: and Six Other Lies About Work, Life, & Love, by Daniel Im

I recently finished reading Daniel Im’s latest book You Are What You Do: and Six Other Lies About Work, Life, & Love.

I have enjoyed Daniel’s work with Ed Stetzer on the New Churches podcast and the book Planting Missional Churches.

I also read Daniel’s first book, No Silver Bullets: Five Small Shifts that Will Transform Your Ministry, and gleaned some great principles from it, particularly the concept of moving from “the sage on the stage” to “the guide on the side.”

For more on that, see:

7 Lies

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In Daniel’s latest book, he explores 7 lies; commonly held beliefs regarding identity, value, and self-worth:

  • You are what you do
  • You are what you experience
  • You are who you know
  • You are what you know
  • You are what you own
  • You are who you raise
  • You are your past

Believing each of these lies will lead to disfunction, disappointment, emptiness, pain, and regret – Daniel says.

In the book, Daniel is very candid about his own struggles with these lies. His stories are so personal, that they draw you in and not only make for compelling reading material, but they help you understand that these are not just abstract ideas for Daniel, they are things about which he has deep, personal knowledge and experience.

Perhaps most compelling of all is the story of him taking a job at a mega-church in Seoul, South Korea, from which he was later fired. He shows the courage to honestly explore his true motivations for taking the job, and why he struggled so much with getting fired and then struggling to find a job upon returning home to Canada.

Using and Fear

These are issues that I can relate to myself. I recently shared at a pastors conference about a time when I was a new pastor, my wife and I had planted a church in Eger, Hungary – and I realized that I wasn’t just doing ministry and serving people, but I was using ministry and using people as a way to affirm myself and build my own sense of identity and self-worth: that I was a pastor, a church planter, and a missionary. However, at the same time I was motivated by fear, because if my ministry didn’t pan out, then I stood to lose not only my job but my entire identity and sense of self-worth!

For more on this, check out: Identity Issues: Function, Labels, Sin & Jesus – which includes a video in which Mike and I discuss times in our lives when we’ve struggled with matters of identity, function, and labels, and how we have discovered the only true, stable, and fulfilling source of identity and self-worth in Jesus.

You Can’t Just Rid Yourself of Lies, You Must Replace Lies with the Truth

There were points in this book where I wondered, “Okay, Daniel is making a great case for why these things don’t fulfill, but is he going to point us to what will fulfill and satisfy?”

And of course, he did. He perfectly wrapped up the issue in the final chapter of the book, and this quote is a good summary of his point:

There is a sense of freedom in knowing what and who you are not. But ridding yourself of these seven lies won’t fill you – it’ll just empty you. Unless you replace these lies with the truth of who you really are, you’ll just find another set of lies – even stronger and more destructive – to replace these with. (p. 172)

In Conclusion…

Daniel Im’s latest book is relevant and timely. It’s the kind of book I wish I would have read as a young man getting a start on life. I would highly recommend it for young adults.

However, this isn’t only a book for young adults, as no one in the world today is immune to these lies. This is a book for everyone.

Here is the one piece of advice I would give in regard to this book: make sure to read all the way to the end. The book is written as a unified whole, rather than a series of stand-alone chapters; there is one big thought and thesis to this book, and if you stop reading before the end, you will miss it.

I congratulate Daniel on writing this book. I hope it will get into the hands of many people and be used by God to not only set them free from lies, but to find the security and freedom of “being found in Christ.”

But whatever gain I had, I counted as loss for the sake of Christ. Indeed, I count everything as loss because of the surpassing worth of knowing Christ Jesus my Lord. For his sake I have suffered the loss of all things and count them as rubbish, in order that I may gain Christ and be found in him. (Philippians 3:7-9)

Book Review: The Bible Made Impossible

Recently I finished reading The Bible Made Impossible: Why Biblicism Is Not a Truly Evangelical Reading of Scripture by Christian Smith.

Content

When approaching the book, it is important to note that Smith is neither an evangelical nor has he been trained as an academic theologian. He is a sociologist and a professor at Notre Dame University; his writing is scholarly and well-informed, but his purpose is writing this book is to critique a certain tendency which he perceives to be a problem amongst evangelicals. This problem is something he calls “biblicism” – which is basically making the Bible the end-all, be-all source of not only theology, but practical living (including things such as diet, finance, etc.).

Smith’s biggest contention is that biblicism leads to “pervasive interpretive pluralism,” which basically means that the Bible can be used to justify several positions which may stand in conflict to one another.

He then asserts that “biblicists” are using the Bible in a way it was never intended to be used, and suggests instead that the Bible should be read through a Christological hermeneutic lens, i.e. that the Bible exists not to be a handbook for everything in life, but for the sole purpose of pointing us to the gospel of Jesus Christ.

While the Christological hermeneutic might seem quite obvious, Smith goes on to state that as a result of this Christo-centric view of Scripture, we therefore do not need to consider all parts of Scripture as equally inspired by God, nor applicable to the modern person. Thus, whatever is written in the New Testament, for example, such as household codes and practical rules for life, does not need to be heeded by the modern person in so much as it does not point to Christ and the saving work of God through Him.

Ultimately, Christian Smith’s biggest assertion is that Jesus himself, rather than the Bible, is what should be considered the “rule of faith,” i.e. the measuring rod by which all things are judged. What is important about his point is that he says that texts and words of the Bible itself should be judged by this rule (Jesus Christ himself), and those parts set aside, which do not align with this “rule.”

Finally, Smith closes the book with a lengthy epilogue in which he complains about those who have not agreed with his claims.

Critique

I agree with Christian Smith’s assertion that some people look to the Bible to be something which God never intended it to be (e.g. “The Daniel Diet” or as a guide for investment practices), and I believe he rightly disassembles the views underlying these practices. However, where the Bible does speak to practical issues of life, it would be foolish to write those off as uninspired, or pick-and-choose based on some arbitrary sense of what you perceive to be really about Jesus.

While Smith repeatedly asserts that “pervasive interpretive pluralism” is a problem, he gives insufficient rationale for why it is a problem. Simply repeating something loudly is not a convincing argument. He fails to explain why it is a problem that the Bible can be interpreted in multiple ways using theological and canonical reasoning.

I would argue that the Bible was inspired by God with a degree of ambiguity on certain topics by design! On the most important topics (primary theological issues), the Bible speaks without ambiguity, but on secondary issues, there is often, what I believe to be an intended ability and possibility for pluralistic interpretations. The purpose of this? As Smith rightly says: the Bible is not intended to be handbook, or a manual for life, as much as something which trains us how to think and act in a dynamic relationship with God. It is designed in such a way that we must continually be reading it and studying it, as well as engaging with others, as to its interpretation and application for one’s contemporary setting and circumstances. This is by no means to say that there is an infinite horizon of possibilities of interpretation; there are certainly boundaries for interpretation which are defined within the Scriptures themselves (canonical reasoning), but within these boundaries, sometimes there can be multiple options for interpretation and application – and I believe this is by design, and is not the problem which Smith claims it is.

See also: Is There Only One Correct Way to Interpret a Given Passage of Scripture?

The Key Issue

Where I disagree most with Christian Smith is in regard to what constitutes the “rule of faith.” His claim that Jesus is the rule of faith might sound nice at the outset, but it is wrought with difficulties.

First of all, who defines who Jesus is? How do we know who Jesus is, what He is about, or what He thinks or stands for? Those things are passed down for us through tradition, but guess how: through the canon of Scripture! It is through Scripture, which is the recorded, preserved, and affirmed record of apostolic tradition, that we know anything about Jesus.

Furthermore, and very importantly: the Scriptures of the Bible were the “rule of faith” that was used by the church fathers in determining doctrine at the great ecumenical councils of Nicaea, Constantinople, Ephesus, and Chalcedon.

Conclusion

The Bible Made Impossible was a roller-coaster ride. Some of Smith’s points are excellent, and deserve attention by Christians today, whereas some of his other points seemed either half-baked or completely misguided.

I’m glad I read it, but I would only recommend it to those with a keen ability to “spit out the seeds” and think critically and question what might seem at face-value to be a convincing argument.

Keystone Habits and Christianity

Image result for keystone in an arch

In his book, The Power of HabitCharles Duhigg talks about something researchers call “keystone habits.”

According to Duhigg, keystone habits are “small changes or habits that people introduce into their routines that unintentionally carry over into other aspects of their lives.”

Like the keystone in an arch, these habits have a synergistic effect that overflows into other areas of your life.

Exercise is a well-known keystone habit. When people start exercising, it has an affect on many other areas of their lives, including patience and productivity.

Having dinner as a family is another keystone habit which has outsized beneficial effects in areas such as children’s emotional control and performance at school. [1]

Keystone Spiritual Habits

What about spiritual habits and disciplines? Are there any keystone habits when it comes to Christianity? There most certainly are, in fact – most of the spiritual disciplines that are taught in the Bible would qualify as keystone habits, which have effects which overflow into other areas of your life.

See also: The Role of Habits in Transformation & Inputs and Outputs for Growth and Maturity

Giving

For example, giving, both in generosity towards others and to support the work of God through the church, is a spiritual discipline. One pastor I know used to explain tithing and financial giving like this:

“Tithing isn’t God’s way of raising money, it’s God’s way of raising kids.”

His point was that when God calls us to give, it’s not because He needs money, but because we need to benefit from the practice of giving away 10% or more of our money.

Giving/tithing/generosity is a keystone habit; it shapes the way you live in other areas of your life. It shapes the way you think about what you possess, and the purpose of your life. Since money is literally effort and time made tangible, you are making a choice to spend your life on things other than yourself: on other people, and on furthering the work of God.

Jesus told us that where your treasure is, your heart will be also. This is true: if you give towards someone or something, you will be much more interested and invested in what happens, rather than if you did not have any skin in the game.

Another pastor explained it like this: when you give, you are making a conscious choice not to let your money or possessions possess you. You are choosing to love people and use money, rather than love money and use people. You are deciding that you will not let money set its claws into your heart.

Prayer

According to an article about these studies in Psychology Today, praying makes you nicer, more forgiving, more trusting, and offsets the negative health effects of stress. Prayer has also been shown to boost self-control.

Bible Reading

In his book, Your Future Self Will Thank You, Drew Dyke cites a study on spiritual growth which surveyed more than 250,000 people in 1,000 churches. Their conclusion was that nothing has a greater impact on spiritual growth than engagement with Scripture. Their research showed that Bible-engagement is the single most spiritually catalytic activity a person can engage in.

Church Attendance

A 2016 Harvard study found that frequent church attendance actually lowers the likelihood of death over a 20 year period 😮. Studies show that churchgoers are less prone to mental illness, report higher levels of happiness, and have better sex lives.  Students who attend church regularly have higher GPAs on average and are less likely to live in poverty. [2]

See: “After 12 Years Of Quarterly Church Attendance, Parents Shocked By Daughter’s Lack Of Faith” – from the Babylon Bee

Before it was cool…

Basically, the Bible has been teaching “keystone habits” since before it was cool. What we have now is a large body of research which explains how and why these practices are so effective in shaping us our lives, leading to greater well-being all around.

May we, by God’s strength that he gives us, apply these habits in our lives, for His glory, and our good.

The Least Popular Fruit of the Spirit

apple tree

In Galatians 5:22-23, Paul writes, “But the fruit of the Spirit is love, joy, peace, patience, kindness, goodness, faithfulness, gentleness, self-control; against such things there is no law.”

I would venture to say that all of these fruits are very popular today, with one exception: the last one – “self-control.”

Jesus told his disciples that a tree is known by its fruit, i.e.: the way to identify what kind of “tree” (or person) someone is, is by looking at the outward evidences that their life produces. And self-control made the short-list of evidential fruits.

John Stott on Why Self-Control is Essential to Loving Others

“Why do I say that love is balanced by self-control? Because love is self-giving, and self-giving and self-control are complementary, the one to the other. How can we give ourselves in love until we’ve learned to control ourselves? Our self has to be mastered before it can be offered in the service of others.” – John Stott, “A Vision for Holiness”

Self-Control Requires Some Effort on Our Part

Colossians 1:29 describes human effort and divine power working together: “For this I toil, struggling with all his energy that he (Jesus) powerfully works within me”

In Philippians 2:12-13, Paul tells us that we are to work out our own salvation with fear and trembling, but then tells us that it is God who works in us to will and to act according to his good purpose.

Drew Dyke, in his book, Your Future Self Will Thank You, describes how God’s power and our effort work together to produce fruit in our lives:

Sanctification is like sailing. Sailors can’t move without the wind, but that doesn’t mean they kick up their feet on the deck and wait to start moving. They’re tying knots, adjusting sails, turning the rudder—all while making sure the boom doesn’t swing across the deck and smack them in the head. Sailing is hardly a passive enterprise—but it’s completely dependent upon the wind. In a similar way, we’re completely dependent on God’s Spirit to make progress. But we’re not passive. Our effort works with God’s power to move us forward.

How to Bring Glory to God

In John 15:8, in the same passage where Jesus tells his disciples that the way to bear fruit is by abiding in Him (and He in them) – Jesus then says this: “By this my Father is glorified, that you bear much fruit”

Why should we care about spiritual disciplines and spiritual development? Why should we care about being fruitful? Because it brings glory to God – and this is the very reason we exist! It’s what we were made for!

May the Spirit of God move in us that we would produce the fruit of self-control, and may we be those who work with all the energy that God supplies in order to bear much good fruit that brings God glory!

For more on this subject, see: The Role of Habits in Transformation

The Role of Habits in Transformation

white concrete spiral stairway

We tend to use the word “habit” to refer to negative behaviors, such as biting your nails, wasting time online, cracking your knuckles. But not all habits are bad.

In his book The Power of Habit: Why We Do What We Do in Life and BusinessCharles Duhigg talks about the science behind how habits are created, and how to replace bad habits with good ones.

Habits As Vehicles for Transformation

In my recent post Going Through the Motions, I talked about how the biblical metaphor of walking, which describes a pattern of life, implies small, continual actions which lead somewhere. With this in mind, habits can be vehicles for transformation. They help us build practices into our lives that shape us into certain kinds of people.

In his book, Desiring the KingdomJames K.A. Smith pushes back against Rene Descartes assertion that we are fundamentally “thinking beings” who happen to have bodies, and asserts that are bodies play a much more integral part in our formation than many in Western society have tended to think (as a result of Descartes’s philosophy). Thus, the things we do with our bodies have a role in shaping our affections and forming sanctified habits.

“Spiritual disciplines” refer to actions such as prayer, church attendance, studying the Bible, giving generously, serving, taking communion, fasting, and more – which are taught in the Bible and were modeled by Jesus himself. Spiritual disciplines are habits which serve as vehicles of transformation: shaping us through repeated action into certain kinds of people.

See: Why Go to Church If You Already Know It All? Here’s Why

Habits Prescribed by God

Drew Dyke in his book, Your Future Self Will Thank You, points out how God prescribes routines and rituals designed to build holy habits into the lives of His people:

“God commanded the ancient Israelites to observe seven sacred annual feasts, keep the Sabbath, tithe their income, purify themselves, worship regularly, and present offerings and sacrifices at the temple.

Though the New Testament frees Christians from having to keep the whole Jewish law, there are still sacraments like baptism to symbolize our spiritual rebirth and the communion meal to remind us of the sacrifice of Jesus. On top of this, our weekly gatherings include rituals designed to instill beliefs and behaviors to bring us closer to God and each other.

Even in ‘low church’ settings that don’t use the liturgical calendar or recite ancient creeds, there’s often a rather predictable cycle of songs, prayers, and preaching each Sunday. There are Sunday school or midweek small group meetings.”

“But We Shouldn’t Be Religious or Legalistic, Right?”

I have met people who say:  “Oh, I don’t want to be religious or legalistic — so I only do those spiritual disciplines sporadically.”

This is not about legalism nor empty religiosity. We do not believe for a minute that any of these things save us. Nor do we do these things in order to manipulate God into blessing us or giving us what we want. That is the definition of legalism: believing that your relationship with God is predicated on your ability to keep rules.

Instead, we do these things in order to be healthy and grow. Eating and sleeping and drinking fluids help us be healthy physically: to do these things only sporadically would be very unwise and cause you to be very unhealthy. The same is true when it comes to a neglect of spiritual disciplines.

Atheism and the Ache for Spiritual Disciplines

Drew Dyke shares in his book about a talk he heard from a man who “gushed about how brilliant the church is to establish such rhythms.” “He waxed eloquent about singing Christmas carols, looking at religious art, and the experience of paging through the Bible.” The surprising thing is that the speaker, Alain de Botton, is an atheist.

“We tend to believe in the modern secular world that if you tell someone something once, they’ll remember it…. Religions go, ‘Nonsense. You need to keep repeating the lesson 10 times a day. So get on your knees and repeat it,’” – Alain de Botton

He isn’t being critical of repetition; just the opposite. He acknowledges that Christianity is very good at creating habits which fuel transformation, and recognizes that atheists are poorer for lacking this.

I would argue that these spiritual disciplines cannot be translated into an atheist or agnostic framework because they are tied to Christian theology. Some humanists try to be “good without God” – but what they lack is the foundation of Christian spiritual formation, which is justification by faith: the fact that in Christ we are accepted and loved by God apart from our good works.

Alain, like James K.A. Smith, states that “The other thing that religions know is we’re not just brains, we are also bodies. And when they teach us a lesson, they do it via the body.” He also praised the biblical practice of dividing up time by having repeating holidays such as Easter and Christmas, which force us to “bump into” key beliefs and celebrate them again and again.

Essentially what this atheist man was rightly observing and praising was that spiritual disciplines are designed to help transform through the development of habits.

Spiritual disciplines are “Spirit-empowered, heart-calibrating, habit-forming practices to retrain our loves.”[1]

Video Discussion

Check out the discussion Mike and I had about transformation, and the roles of the hope of the resurrection and the empowering of the Holy Spirit. Also, about half-way through I  spill coffee on my Bible…

 

Resisting the Sirens’ Song

 

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In Homer’s classic epic, The Odyssey, tells the story of Odysseus, the King of Ithaca, and his perilous journey home after the Trojan War. Along the way, Homer faces many dangers, but perhaps the greatest danger of all are the Sirens.

A Picture of Temptation

The Sirens are seductive, and they sing a beautiful song that sailors cannot resist. However, the Sirens’ song is deadly: when sailors are enticed by it and steer their ships towards it, they are lured to their death, as they crash their boats into the rocks.

The Sirens’ song is a picture of temptation. People are not tempted by things which are grotesque and terrible, but by the allure of something which is desirable and attractive. However, there are things in life which draw us in with a promise that is not only empty, but which will lead to your demise and the shipwrecking of your life.

Two Approaches to Resisting Temptation

In his book, Your Future Self Will Thank You: Secrets to Self-Control from the Bible and Brain ScienceDrew Dyke points out that the Sirens are not only used by Homer in The Odyssey as a picture of temptation (and how to resist it), but they were also used by Apollonius Rhodius in his epic, Argonautica,  which was written about 500 years after The Odyssey. Interestingly, Rhodius mentioned the Sirens in order to offer a different approach to resisting temptation.

Approach #1: The Odyssey

Odysseus knows about the danger of the Sirens and he is aware of his own weakness. Rather than assuming that he will be strong enough to resist the Sirens’ song, Odysseus makes plans in order to protect himself and his men from lure of the Sirens: he orders his men to tie him to the mast, and tells them not to untie him no matter how much he pleads with them. To make sure the sailors aren’t seduced, he has them stuff their ears with beeswax so they won’t hear the Sirens’ song.

When Odysseus hears the Sirens’ song, he tries to escape the ropes and begs his sailors to free him, but they ignore him and continue sailing. Odysseus’ plan to overcome temptation works and they survive the danger of the Sirens’ song.

The approach to temptation laid out in The Odyssey is akin to asking others to keep you accountable and taking steps to prevent yourself from coming in contact with things that tempt you.

This approach is wise in that it recognizes human weakness. We need more than just good advice, we need help. If all we needed was good advice, no one would be overweight or broke or in experience conflict in their relationships, since a myriad of good advice on these topics is readily available for free. The fact that people still struggle with these things is proof that what we need is more than just good advice: we need help to overcome our weaknesses and do what is right, not only towards others, but even for our own best interests.

For a message on how the gospel is good news, rather than good advice, see: In Thy Dark Streets Shineth)

Approach #2: Argonautica

In Argonautica, the Argonauts have to sail past the same Sirens, but they take a different approach to overcoming temptation:

On board their ship is a musician named Orpheus. When they hear the Sirens’ song, rather than stuffing their ears with wax and tying themselves up to avoid the allure of the song, they rather have Orpheus get out his lyre and play a louder and more beautiful song. Because of Orpheus’ “sweeter song,” the sailors are able to resist the temptation of the Sirens’ song, and they pass by securely.

This approach to temptation does not merely restrain the hand, but seeks to capture the heart.

Dyke points out that while it is wise to recognize your own weaknesses and set up safeguards to protect yourself, the best way to resist temptation and the most powerful means of self-control is to listen to a “sweeter song.”

A Sweeter Song

Augustine of Hippo explained that what defines a person most is what they love. Therefore, in order to change who a person is, we should seek to change what they love.

How do we do that? By showing them a better story and a sweeter song.

That better story and sweeter song is found in Jesus. Ultimately all people are seeking the same things: joy and happiness, relief from suffering and pain, love and acceptance, overcoming the limitations of this physical world, adventure and discovery… the list could go on. However, the ways and the places in which many people seek these things will not only leave them unfulfilled but will dash them against rocks and shipwreck their lives. It is only in Jesus that our deepest longings will be fully and ultimately satisfied.

Jesus and the salvation He gives is the sweeter song. May we help others to see that! There may be times when it is wise to take practical measures to prevent ourselves from giving in to temptation, but ultimately we need our hearts to be won over by the sweeter song. May we listen to it loudly and often, that our hearts may know it and not accept any lesser, competing songs!

Book Review: A Framework for Understanding Poverty

A Framework for Understanding Poverty 5th edition 9781938248016 1938248015This book: A Framework for Understanding Poverty, was recommended to me by Aaron Campbell, who pastors a church in urban Philadelphia: https://antiochphilly.org

While the book is written primarily for educators to understand and help students in poverty, the research and principles outlined in the book have a much broader application.

Poverty is a Theological Issue

Poverty is not only a political and economic issue, for Christians it is also a theological issue. What the Bible has to say on the topic of poverty goes far beyond the statement that “the poor you will always have with you.” (Mark 14:17)

Taken on its own, this statement of Jesus is often used to say that poverty isn’t something that we as Christians need to care about, since we will never succeed in eradicating it prior to the return of Jesus. However, taking a broader look at the Bible reveals that God has a lot to say about poverty.

For example, the books of the minor prophets, particularly Amos, chastise the people of God for not caring for the poor, and even exploiting them. See Amos: Faith that Works.

Amos is not alone in this message, however. We can say that poverty is a result of the fall, i.e. sin in the world. Like sickness, it is a symptom of the present fallen human condition which Jesus will ultimately make right.

Going all the way back to the Law of Moses and throughout the prophets, the message is that God’s people are to watch out for what is called “the quartet of the vulnerable,” i.e. the most vulnerable people in society, who in their case were: widows, orphans, sojourners, and the poor. Provisions were made in the Law of Moses to prevent systemic poverty and to provide for the needs of those who wound up in poverty as a result of their own choices.

Poverty is a Lack of Access to Resources

Ruby Payne describes poverty as a lack of access to resources. She explains that poverty is relative to location, but that there are certain behavioral patterns which characterize those in poverty which are true across cultures and national boundaries. Interestingly, to prove this, the author did research not only in urban settings in the United States, but also rural settings and internationally, including in Hungary and Slovakia, places I am very familiar with from having lived in North-East Hungary, near the border with Slovakia. I recognized some of the characteristic behaviors she described both in people I worked with in Eastern Europe, as well as in my own family of origin.

She began the book by dispelling many myths about poverty, such as that poverty is the result of laziness, or that it is limited to minority populations or urban areas. She then went on to describe some of the hardships those in generational poverty (two or more generations) face which often prevent them from escaping. Generational poverty can have damaging effects on the brain, as the constant struggle for survival and the presence of different kinds of predators can prevent the development of skills which are needed for the kinds of success in life which allows someone to escape poverty.

Understanding poverty as a lack of resources is important, because it means – as Payne states – that poverty is not mostly about not having money. It is most significantly about relationships.

The Importance of Faith Communities in Relieving Poverty

Payne states that the most important factor that can help those in poverty is for them to be part of a faith community. This is both because of the spiritual resources which provide hope, or “a future story” as Payne calls it, as well as the social and supportive aspects. This is part of the reason why Paul the Apostle is able to say that though he had no money, in Christ he was rich. For more on this, see the recent message I gave on this topic: The Soul Felt Its Worth

May we as the people of God have the heart of God towards those who are weak and vulnerable in our society, and may we act of His hands and feet!

I found this book very insightful, and I recommend it for anyone looking for a balanced and research-backed approach to understanding this important issue.

 

 

What Does It Mean that “Judgment Begins at the Household of God”?

inside photography of church

In 1 Peter 4:17, Peter makes an interesting statement; he says: “For it is time for judgment to begin at the household of God; and if it begins with us, what will be the outcome for those who do not obey the gospel of God?”

Judgment might seem like an odd word to use in regard to the people of God… Hasn’t Jesus already taken our judgment upon himself on the cross? What is Peter referring to here, and how should we understand this statement?

The Waters That Buried Some, Lifted Others

In 1 Peter chapter 3, Peter referred to the judgment that took place in the time of Noah, and said that the waters of that flood were a type, or a picture, of baptism. The judgment of the flood, which was a judgment upon human wickedness, did effect, touch, and impact even those who were believers. However, because those believers were in the ark, the waters of the flood did not crush them, but rather lifted them up.

The ark, in this case, is a picture of Jesus. When we climb into Him by faith, and are hidden in Him, He takes the brunt of the storm of God’s judgment, which, apart from Him, we would not be able to survive on our own. As we are in Him, the waters which destroyed those outside the ark actually serve to lift us up and they have a cleansing and purifying effect.

The Fire That Destroys Some, Purifies Others

Along with water, Peter uses another word-picture in this letter: fire, which is used to purify precious metals, like gold.

Paul uses this same analogy in 1 Corinthians 3, where he talks about how our actions in this life will be tested by God as by fire; those things which were pure in motive will withstand the test, and those good things we might have done for the wrong reasons will be burned away like wood, hay and stubble.

Essentially, Peter is saying that the judgment of God will have the effect on believers, not of destroying them, but of purifying them, and clarifying who is really in the faith.

This makes sense, especially in light of the fact that earlier in the same chapter (1 Peter 4:1-4), Peter called his readers to holiness and to separate themselves from the sins which formerly enslaved them.

Malachi’s Prophecy

In his commentary on 1 Peter, Edmund Clowney says that in these verses (1 Peter 4:12-19), Peter is alluding to a prophecy of Malachi:

See, I will send my messenger, who will prepare the way before me. Then suddenly the Lord you are seeking will come to his temple; the messenger of the covenant, whom you desire, will come,’ says the Lord Almighty. But who can endure the day of his coming? Who can stand when he appears? For he will be like a refiner’s fire or a launderer’s soap. He will sit as a refiner and purifier of silver; he will purify the Levites and refine them like gold and silver. (Malachi 3:1-3)

God’s judgment has a double purpose: to purify his worshipers and to consume the wicked.

In Hebrews 12, the writer says that it is proof of God’s fatherly love for us that He disciplines us.

Rather than cleansing us in purgatory, God’s cleansing of his people is a process which takes place in this life through our trials. Our suffering in this life does not atone for our sins, Jesus’s suffering did that for us, but God uses our trials in order to form us into the image of Christ (cf. Romans 8:29), purify us like gold, and prepare for us a weight of glory to be revealed.

Further Discussion

https://twitter.com/DominicDone/status/1199788112060112896

This week Mike and I sat down to discuss this verse in more detail. One of the things we talked about was how persecution and hardship has the effect of purifying the church and “weeding out” those who have come to Jesus for the wrong reasons. One example we bring up is my experience with the Roma (Gypsy) population in Hungary and the false promises of the “prosperity gospel.” Check it out:

Does God Want You to Be Happy?

silhouette photography of group of people jumping during golden time

Maybe you’ve heard someone say it before: “God doesn’t care about your happiness, he cares about your holiness.”

Is that true? I don’t believe so.

Recently at White Fields, I taught on the subject of holiness from 1 Peter 1:13-25. You can listen to the message here: 1 Peter 1:13-25, “The H Word”. As I talked about holiness, I made the claim that the reason why God wants us to be holy is because holiness leads to happiness, and God wants us to be happy.

Holiness vs Happiness?

I have sometimes heard people say things along these lines: The world offers happiness, but God doesn’t care about your happiness, He cares about your holiness!

I completely disagree. Not only does it send the absolute wrong message, it is not accurate biblically.

Sometimes people think that holiness is opposed to happiness. “The worse something makes me feel, the better,” this thinking goes, “because the more miserable I am, the more holy and godly I must be,”

Friends, that is not holiness, that is self-righteousness.

While there may sometimes be an aspect of self-denial involved in holiness, the purpose of that self-denial is because it will lead to more happiness, not less, in the end. I will elaborate on the relationship between self-denial and happiness in a future post.

For Christians to pit holiness and happiness against each other is a fundamental error, and a misrepresentation of the heart of God and the gospel.

Jesus: Holy and Happy

In Hebrews 1:9, we are told that Jesus was: 1) holy (he loved righteousness and hated wickedness), and 2) the happiest person who ever lived (anointed with the oil of gladness beyond all his companions).

Furthermore, this verse tells us that Jesus’ happiness was the direct result of his holiness (“therefore…”).

Holiness is not opposed to happiness, rather holiness is the pathway to happiness.

Therefore, when God says “be holy as I am holy” – he is inviting us to be happy as he is happy!

But Isn’t “Joy” Different than “Happiness”?

Sometimes people have tried to make a distinction between “joy” and “happiness.” They claim that whereas “happiness” is momentary and fleeting, “joy” is something which is unemotional and doesn’t depend on circumstances.

Furthermore, this line of thinking tends to say that “happiness” is what “the world” has, but “joy” is something that only Christians can have.

This is a false dichotomy. It is well-intentioned, but incorrect, both linguistically and biblically.

Joy and happiness are synonyms. Not only does Jesus use the word “happy”, but it is found throughout the Bible. Furthermore, the Bible talks about the “joy” of the wicked (see Job 20:5), and it talks about the Pharisees having “joy” when Judas betrayed Jesus.

Consider this quote from Joni Eareckson Tada:

“We are often taught to be careful of the difference between joy and happiness. Happiness, it is said, is an emotion which depends on what happens to you. Joy, by contrast is supposed to be enduring, stemming from deep within our soul, and which is not affected by circumstances surrounding us. I don’t think God had any such hairsplitting in mind. Scripture uses the terms interchangeably along with words such as “delight”, “gladness”, “blessing”. There is no scale of relative spiritual values applied to any of these. Happiness is not relegated to fleshly minded sinners nor joy to heaven-bound saints.”

Our Happy God

1 Timothy 1:11 says: “…in accordance with the gospel of the glory of the blessed God with which I have been entrusted.” (1 Timothy 1:11)

The word translated “blessed” is the Greek word markariou, which means: “happy”. In other words, a direct translation of the Greek text would be: “…our HAPPY God”

Furthermore, this word makarios (Greek for “happy”) is found in other places:

Happy are those whose sins are forgiven, whose wrongs are pardoned. Happy is the one whom the LORD does not accuse of doing wrong and who is free from all deceit. (Psalm 32:1-2 GNT)

Happy are those who reject the advice of evil people, who do not follow the example of sinners or join those who have no use for God. Instead, they find joy in obeying the Law of the LORDand they study it day and night. (Psalm 1:1-2 GNT)

Lost in Translation

As to why the English translators of the Bible in the Middle Ages chose to translate the word “makarios” as “blessed” rather than “happy” is because they considered the word “happy” to be too trite, and not religious-sounding enough. However, in the process, we have lost the sense of mirth that these words were originally intended to have!

In other languages, such as Hungarian, the word “markarios” is translated as “boldog” – which is the normal Hungarian word for “happy”, rather than the word “áldott” which means “blessed”. This more faithful and straight-forward translation conveys the heart and feeling of happiness which has been lost in translation for those of us who read in English.

Charles Spurgeon and Amy Carmichael on God and Happiness

Amy Carmichael was a missionary to India who worked with exploited girls in horrendous situations, and rescued over 1000 of them in the name of Jesus. She spent the final 20 years of her life mostly bedridden. Here’s what she said during that time:

“There is nothing dreary or doubtful about this Christian life. It is meant to be continually joyful. We are called to a settled happiness in the Lord, whose joy is our strength.”

Charles Spurgeon, “The Prince of Preachers” asserted:

“God made human beings to be happy.”

“My dear brothers, if anyone in the world ought to be happy, we are those people. How boundless our privileges, how brilliant our hopes!”

Redeeming the Word

The problem is not with the pursuit of happiness, it is with the pursuit of happiness in the wrong places and in the wrong ways. This is the essence of sin. But rather than throwing out the baby (happiness) with the bathwater (sin), we should redeem this wonderful word which is truly ours as the people of God, and pursue holiness and happiness – the former leading to the latter.

Resources

Randy Alcorn wrote a fabulous book on this subject, which I highly recommend: Happiness by Randy Alcorn

Check out this video in which Mike and I discuss happiness and God:

Here is the video of my sermon from 1 Peter 1:13-25: “The H Word”: