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

Image result for the odyssey sirens

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”:

 

Is There a Difference Between “Soul” and “Spirit”?

Every human being has a physical body, yet clearly who we are is not only defined by our bodies. As our bodies age or are damaged, there is something fundamental to who we are which is distinct from our bodies. The Bible tells us that in addition to our physical bodies, as human beings we possess an immaterial spirit and soul.

What can be confusing, however, is what exactly a person’s spirit is, and what their soul is, and how these two relate to each other.

Two Views: Trichotomy and Dichotomy

The Trichitomous view holds that the soul and the spirit are two distinct things, whereas the Dichotomous view holds that soul and spirit are two words which describe two distinct aspects of the same thing, namely the immaterial part of a human being.

Those who hold a Trichotomous view often claim that this three-part human nature is one of the ways in which we have been created in the “image of God” (Genesis 1:26-27). Just as God is a greater trinity of Father, Son, and Spirit, He has created us in his image as a lesser trinity of body, soul, and spirit, says the thrichotomist. This assertion is usually followed by an explanation of what the difference is between soul and spirit. A common explanation is that the soul refers to the mind, encompassing both cognitive and personality-related aspects, whereas the spirit is the part of a person which connects with God. This, it is commonly said by trichotomists, is what distinguishes human beings from animals, who are not created in God’s image; though they have bodies and cognitive abilities (including emotions and personalities), they do not have a spirit, which makes them capable of relationship with God.

There are several passages in the Bible which suggest that there is a separation between the soul and the spirit (Romans 8:16; 1 Thessalonians 5:23; Hebrews 4:12). However, there are also several Bible verses which use the terms soul and spirit interchangeably (Matthew 10:28; Luke 1:46–47; 1 Corinthians 5:3, 7:34).

Hebrews 4:12 says that “the word of God is living and active, sharper than any two-edged sword, piercing to the division of soul and of spirit, of joints and of marrow, and discerning the thoughts and intentions of the heart.” This would suggest that there is a dividing point between the soul and the spirit, but that they are so closely connected that the division of them is something which only God is capable of carrying out.

Advocates of the trichotomist position include James M. Boice, whereas J.I. Packer and John Calvin are some examples of those who hold a dichotomist view.

J.I. Packer’s argument for the dichotomous view

In his book “Concise Theology”, Packer explains the dichotomist view in this way:

Each human being in the world consists of a material body animated by an immaterial personal self. Scripture calls this self a “soul” or a “spirit.” “Soul emphasizes the distinctness of a person’s conscious selfhood; “spirit” carries the nuances of the self’s derivation from God, dependence on Him, and distinction from the body.
Biblical usage leads us to say that we have and are both souls and spirits, but it is a mistake to say that soul and spirit are two different things. (J.I. Packer, Concise Theology, pp. 74)

Packer goes on to explain that the trichotomous view tends to define soul as “an organ of this-worldly awareness,” whereas spirit is a distinct organ of communication with God.

This distinction, Packer argues, can lead to an unhealthy pitting of spirituality against intellectualism, in which intellectual engagement with God is considered “soulish”, i.e. unspiritual, while “spiritual perception” which is unrelated to the study of the Bible or rational thought. Furthermore, he adds that the trichotomous understanding of humanity may lead to a low view of the value of the material world, including our bodies, which would be inappropriate since we are embodied souls, and the hope of the gospel is not that we will escape this physical world, but that we will be resurrected to new and everlasting life in physical bodies.

My response to Packer’s view

I agree with Packer that it is wrong to devalue the physical world. As i have written about recently, this life matters! (See: Suicide, Christianity, & the Meaning of Life)

However, I do not believe that we should decide on theological positions based on fear of what they might lead some people to do. This is the kind of thinking that leads people to avoid teaching the scandalous truth about God’s amazing grace because they are afraid that some people might use it as a license to sin.

I do not believe that we should decide on theological positions based on fear of what they might lead some people to do.

Instead, we ought to develop our theological positions based on Scripture first, considering authorial intent as well as how these things were understood by the early Christians, subsequently applying reason (this is called “theological method”).

It seems dishonest, based on Scripture, to not acknowledge a distinction between soul and spirit. However, I am in agreement with Packer that we must not ever believe or teach that an intellectual pursuit of God is unspiritual, or that seeking God’s will in Scripture is less spiritual than seeking it through “spiritual perception”. Yet, the way the words are used in the Bible leads me to believe that soul and spirit are separate, yet intimately connected aspects of human personhood, the latter of which sets us apart from the animal world.

What are your thoughts on this topic? Do you lean more towards the trichotomous or dichotomous view, and why?

Check out this discussion that Mike Payne, worship pastor at White Fields Church and I recently had on this subject for our church’s YouTube channel:

Why is Rape Wrong?

rainforest during foggy day

Primates & Sexual Assault

Did you know that female primates are regularly sexually assaulted by male primates? Harassment, intimidation and forced copulation are regular practices of male primates towards female primates. [1]  Having studied the behavior of primates, scientists have concluded that “the sexual harassment of females is hard-wired into primates.” [2]

From a purely evolutionary perspective (if one holds that view), these practices can be seen to have evolutionary advantages, namely the propagation of the genes of the strongest and most aggressive males, rather than the weaker, more passive males.

The Limits of a Purely Scientific Worldview

In her book, Confronting Christianity, Rebecca McLaughlin points out that whereas science can describe the way things are, and the reasons why people do things, it does not speak to the way things ought to be, e.g. ethics and morality.

Science can tell us how things are. It can explain why, for instance, a man might have the drive to commit a sexual assault as an effective means of propagating his genes. But it cannot tell us why he would be wrong to succumb to that drive.

We can conduct sociological calculations to see what behaviors turn out better for the group and decide that sexual assault yields a net negative in the overall happiness of the tribe. But to call rape wrong, we need a narrative about human identity that goes beyond what science or sociology can tell us.

She points out that if we as human beings are nothing more than what can be described by science, and our story is nothing more than the evolutionary story, then we have no grounds for insisting on human equality, protection of the weak, equal treatment of women, or any of the other ethical beliefs we hold dear. [3]

In other words, we need something more than science and sociology to answer the questions of who we are and why we are here. If these questions arise merely because of feelings which are ultimately just figments of our imagination, and there is in fact no greater meaning to our lives or purpose for our existence, then we cannot justifiably claim that anything, including rape, is really wrong – nor that our feelings, such as love, have any real meaning at all.

But as McLaughlin points out,

Christians ground human uniqueness on the biblical claim that we are made in the image of God. Just as God calls creation into being, so he calls humans to serve as his representatives on earth, in special relationship with their Creator and with each other, and charged with moral responsibility. To maintain their beliefs about goodness, fairness, justice, and so forth, a secular humanist too must hold that humans are moral beings, distinct from other primates.

Created in the Image of God

Currently at White Fields, we are in the midst of a series called, I Could Never Believe in a God Who… (click here for a link to our podcast)

The first message in this series was one about the question of whether Christianity encourages the suppression of women and minorities, in which we looked at the issue of what it means to be created in the image of God, and what this means for a biblical understanding of human personhood, equality, and gender roles. (Click here to listen to that message)

This coming Sunday we will we looking at why the Bible matters, and why “crowd-sourcing” our ethics – i.e. the idea popular today that we don’t need an outside source such as an ancient book to tell us how to live our lives – is a flawed theory, doomed to failure – as can be seen by looking at modern history.

So…Again: Why is Rape Wrong?

To answer the question in the title of this post, rape is wrong because it is an assault against a human being who is endowed with dignity by nature of being created in the image of God, and is also an affront to the God who created us in His image and gave us His moral code by which to live. The way to be happy and successful, both as individuals and as a society, is by submitting to this fundamental design of our creation.

The Gospel Comes With a House Key: Hospitality & the Gospel

person handing keys

Home as a Hospital & Incubator

As a member of the lesbian community in Syracuse, New York, Rosaria Butterfield learned what it meant to use her home as a hospital and an incubator, which reflected her values to others. Members of the lesbian community in Syracuse made sure that everyone in their community had keys to each others houses; they looked out for one another and cared for each other. They viewed their homes as oases in a harsh world, and yet they sought to win over their neighbors by being the best neighbors on the block.

These lessons—learned far outside the walls of the church—are instructive for Christians, she says.

It was through the hospitality of a Christian couple in her neighborhood, that Rosaria changed her mind about Christianity. At the time, she was a celebrated professor at Syracuse University. Raised in an atheist home, Rosaria had always assumed Christians to be hateful, judgmental people, who considered people like her enemies. In fact, her interest in spending time with Christians came as a result of her intent to write a book about how Christianity fuels toxic masculinity. As a result, she sought out a Christian couple in her neighborhood, but her interactions with them surprised her and challenged her preconceived notions about Christians, so much so that she began to consider what they had to say about Jesus and the Bible. Ultimately, she embraced the gospel and forsook her lesbian lifestyle. She is now married to a pastor and they have adopted several children. They seek to use their home as a hospital and an incubator for the goal of making disciples of Jesus.

Ground Zero of the Christian Life

In her book, The Gospel Comes with a House KeyRosaria Butterfield describes what she calls “radically ordinary hospitality”, which she argues is “ground zero of the Christian life.”

Rosaria makes a convincing argument for this, pointing to passages like Matthew 25:35–36, in which Jesus talks about hospitality as the litmus test for real faith on judgment day. She also points out Mark 10:28–31, in which Jesus talks about how those who receive the gospel may very well lose a lot in the process of conversion, in order to gain the promises of God’s Kingdom, but that along with eternal life they can also expect to receive a new community. Inclusion in this new community, characterized by radical ordinary hospitality, is what Rosaria equates with receiving a “house key” when one receives the gospel.

Because Christian conversion always comes in exchange for the life you once loved, not in addition to it, people have much to lose in coming to Christ—and some people have more to lose than others.

A Resource for Evangelism

Hospitality, Rosaria explains, is an often under-utilized resource for evangelism as well. Those who live out radically ordinary hospitality, she says, see their homes not as theirs at all but as God’s gift to use for the furtherance of his kingdom.

The purpose of radically ordinary hospitality is to take the hand of a stranger and put it in the hand of the Savior, to bridge hostile worlds, and to add to the family of God.

She goes on to tell stories of how she and her husband intentionally live below their means, so they will be available and able to use their means to help others on a whim, as needs arise.

God promises to put the lonely in families (Ps. 68:6), and he intends to use your house as living proof.

A Sign to the World

Rosaria describes “radically ordinary hospitality” as: “using your Christian home in a daily way that seeks to make strangers neighbors, and neighbors family of God. It brings glory to God, serves others, and lives out the gospel in word and deed.”

Radically ordinary hospitality shows this skeptical, post-Christian world what authentic Christianity looks like.

Love and/or Approval?

She points out how important it is to reflect Jesus in our relationships. Jesus wasn’t embarrassed to relate to people who were different than him. He understood the difference between love and approval.

She mentions that Christians often ask her, “How can I love my neighbor without misleading them into thinking I approve of what they do?” She advises that we first remember that no one approves of everything that others do. Parents, for example, love their children even at times when they hate the things their children are doing.

Rosaria responds to a question people sometimes ask: “If my neighbors who identify as _________ are in sin, then why are they the nicest people on the block?” To this she responds: “If our Christian worldview cannot account for that, it can survive only in the echo chamber of imaginary theology.” To answer this question, we must understand a few very basic theological principles: 1) all people are recipients of “common grace” to varying degrees, and 2) our problem as human beings is not a lack of “niceness” but a debt of sin before a just and holy God. To put it in simple terms: “Nice people” need Jesus just as much as “not nice people”, because only through Jesus can anyone be redeemed.

Conclusion

Rosaria encourages Christians to be courageously loving rather than fearfully cautious. I was challenged, encouraged, and inspired by The Gospel Comes with a House Key, and I recommend you check it out.