Thoughts on Friendship

This weekend I will be officiating two weddings for young couples from White Fields. For pre-marital counseling, one of the resources I use is Timothy and Kathy Keller’s book, The Meaning of Marriage: Facing the Complexities of Commitment with the Wisdom of God. One of the great takeaways from this book is that the foundation for marriage is “spiritual friendship.” On the topic of friendship, the book quotes several other authors. Here are some highlights:

Our need for friends is not weakness, it’s part of our design

Since God is triune in nature (one God in three distinct persons), creating us in His own image (“Let us create man in our image.” – Genesis 1:26), is by nature designing us for relationships. It is for this reason, that when God saw Adam alone in the garden without a companion,  God declared that “it is not good that man should be alone, therefore I will create a companion suitable for him.” (Genesis 2:18)

What this is implying is that “our intense relational capacity, created and given to us by God, was not fulfilled completely by our ‘vertical’ relationship with him. God designed us to need ‘horizontal’ relationships with other human beings. That is why even in paradise, loneliness was a terrible thing.” (The Meaning of Marriage, 120)

The sifting hand and the breath of kindness

Two characteristics of real friendship are 1) constancy and 2) transparency.

One writer described friendship in this way:

the inexpressible comfort of feeling safe with a person – having neither to weigh thoughts nor measure words, but pouring them all right out, just as they are, chaff and grain together; certain that a faithful hand will take and sift them, keep what is worth keeping, and then with the breath of kindness, blow the rest away. (Craik, A Life for a Life, 169)

Oh, that there were more of this!

Seeing the same truth

C.S. Lewis, in his book, The Four Loves, writes about friendship and says that friendship happens when two people discover that they “see the same truth.”

Friendship, he points out, cannot be merely about itself. It, by nature, must be about something else, something that both people are committed to and passionate about besides one another.

“This is why,” Lewis says, “those pathetic people who simple ‘want friends’ can never make any.” Because there is nothing they want more than friends, but ironically, you cannot have friends unless you love something or see some truth that you are passionate about. “Those who have nothing can share nothing,” he points out, and concludes: “those who are going nowhere can have no fellow travelers.” (The Four Loves, ch. 4)

This is why the basis for Christian marriage is actually friendship: it is two people standing side by side, together with their eyes fixed on Jesus, and moving towards him. Anything less is an insufficient foundation.

Spiritual friendship, Keller concludes, is the greatest journey of all, because the horizon is so high and far, yet so sure – it is nothing less than “the day of Jesus Christ.” (The Meaning of Marriage, 127)

Is Christianity in Decline? Yes and No. – Part 2

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In Part 1 of this post I shared some thoughts on the commonly held belief that religious belief is in decline around the world and eventually doomed for extinction.

Today, we look at three more important factors to keep in mind regarding this topic:

2. Liberal Religion is Declining, but Conservative Religion is on the Rise

I wrote about this phenomena recently here: When You Stand for Nothing…, where I talked about the case of two Presbyterian denominations, one which is theologically liberal and the other which is theologically conservative. The liberal denomination is bleeding out quickly, whereas the conservative one is growing strongly.

It seems that there has been a major miscalculation by many people about the eventual demise of theologically conservative beliefs.

Since many of the historical mainline Protestant denominations, such as the Evangelical Lutheran Church in America (ELCA), the United Methodist Church (UMC), the Presbyterian Church in the United States of America (PCUSA) and the Episcopal Church in America (TEC) have taken a hard turn towards theological liberalism, they have seen rapid declines in their membership and attendance. And since these denominations compromised a large portion of the population in the United States, their declines have caused many to say that Christianity in the United States is in crisis.

Of the people leaving these denominations, many have transferred into theologically conservative Evangelical Protestant Churches. According to this article from Christianity Today, over the last four decades, there has been more than a 400 percent growth in Protestants who identify as nondenominational. Non-denominational Evangelical Protestant Churches now compromises about 30% of all Christian church attendance in the United States.

Around the world, both in Christianity and outside of Christianity, it is the conservative branches of religious movements which are on the rise, not the liberal ones. This is surprising to those like Richard Dawkins, who assume that as the world becomes more educated and developed, religion will either turn into sentimental tradition or just die out completely. Quite the opposite is happening actually.

3. Secularism is Set to Decline in the Future

In an interview with the Christian Post (full article here), author and pastor Timothy Keller said:

“In the past there was hardly anybody who was secular,” Keller told the Christian Post. “In the future there will be significant numbers of people who are secular more than have ever been in history. But, the facts on the ground are that Christianity and Islam in particular are growing faster than the population. And that over the next 25-45 years the number of people who say that they are secular, the percentage of the world’s population that is secular, is actually going down.”

Is Keller correct? According to a Pew Research Center report released in April 2015, he is. That report projected out to 2050, finding that, as the world population changes in the coming decades, the world’s religious profile will also change.

Christianity is poised to remain the largest religion in the world, but Islam is growing quickly, less by conversion than by birth. This relates again to my previous post, in which I pointed out that inherited religion is in decline globally. It would be assumed that this decline will affect the growth of Islam as well.

4. Only a Small Part of the World is Moving Towards Greater Secularism, and They Will Soon be a Minority

What the Pew Research Center report had to say about the “nones”:

“Atheists, agnostics and other people who do not affiliate with any religion – though increasing in countries such as the United States and France – will make up a declining share of the world’s total population.”

So, it would seem that secularism is set to decline rather than increase in coming decades.

It is important to remember that the rise of religious beliefs is taking place as education as well as industrial and economic development is taking place. It would seem that as the world is becoming more educated and more developed, people are increasingly aware of their need for God.

Is Christianity in Decline? Yes and No. – Part 1

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Last week a friend of mine sent me a video in which Richard Dawkins was interviewed, and in the interview he stated his view that religion as a whole is eventually destined to die out. Then he sent me another article from The Guardian (UK), about how there is a correlation between the increase of secularism and standards of living around the world.

It seems as if from every angle, people are claiming that Christianity is in decline and it is simply a matter of time until all religion dies out in the world. The assumption is that as we become more “enlightened,” people will cast off their “superstitious” religious beliefs and everyone will be secular, AKA atheist – or atheism’s more friendly cousin: agnostic.

Many people take these claims as foregone conclusions, but is this really the case? Is religion in general, and Christianity in particular, in decline?

The answer is: yes and no. The answer to those questions depends on 1) what kind of religion (and what kind of Christianity) we are talking about, and 2) which parts of the world we are talking about.

There are a few very important factors to keep in mind. We will look at the first one today, and others tomorrow.

1. Inherited Religion is in Decline, but Chosen Faith is on the Rise

This is something we experienced as missionaries in Europe. While it is true that Europe is full of empty churches and has high rates of people who identify as atheists, we also experienced great openness to the gospel, and we saw many people come to faith in Christ and churches planted.

What we are seeing is the decline of inherited religion, but at the same time there is still an increase in chosen faith. There is certainly a down-side to this, in that people who assume inherited Christianity will still be exposed to Christian teaching and the Bible, and such exposure may very well lead to real, personal faith at some point in their life. In a situation where Christian faith is inherited, Christianity is seen in a positive light, as is going to church and reading the Bible. This perception can make it easier for a person to become a Christian than if one is raised in an environment where Christianity is portrayed negatively.

However, from a Christian perspective, there are also benefits of the decline of inherited religion. For example, as many people from Muslim background come to the West, many of them, rather than assume their parents’ religion, are open to the idea that their faith is something they must choose for themselves.

Furthermore, inherited religion, including Christianity, can leave people with a false sense of security, that they are guaranteed salvation or that they are right with God, even when in fact they are not. This is one of the great themes of the Book of Deuteronomy – as Moses speaks to the new generation who will enter Canaan, and he emphasizes to them that they must have their own faith; it is not enough that the Lord was their parents’ God, He must be their God as well.

This article by Timothy Keller for The Gospel Coalition addresses this topic very well: Inherited Faith is Dying. Chosen Faith is Not.

Here’s an excerpt:

[At a recent conference in Paris,] Grace Davie, emeritus professor of sociology at the University of Exeter in Great Britain pointed out that nominal or inherited Christianity is declining. However, she noted (against all expectations) that new movements of Christian faith are growing in Western cities.
The growing Christian churches are evangelical and Pentecostal, and they emphasize the biblical call to “choose for yourselves this day whom you will serve” (Josh. 24:15) and the biblical teaching that we stand or fall on our own faith, not the choices of our family or community (Ezek. 18). These churches teach that vicarious, formal religion isn’t enough; there must be a radical, inward conversion (Deut. 30:6Jer. 9:25Rom. 2:29). Christianity that foregrounds these important biblical concepts and lifts up heart-changing personal faith can reach many contemporary people—and it can reach cities.

Tomorrow we will look at the statistics which point to the fact that secularism is actually poised to decline in coming decades, whereas religious belief, and Christianity in particular is set to increase worldwide. Stay tuned!

Politics and Identity

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Over the past few weeks, I, like many of you, have been following the political developments in the U.S. In such a caustic and antagonistic climate, I would much rather be known for my stance on Jesus Christ and the message of the gospel than for my personal convictions about political matters. That is the drum that I will beat and the hill I will be willing to die on.

Why is it that the political climate is so caustic and people are so divided? According to many sociologists, philosophers and theologians, the issue is one of identity: namely, that one of the most common ways that people create identity is through “the exclusion of the Other.”

According to Zygmunt Bauman, “We can’t create ‘Us’ without also creating ‘Them.’ Social belonging happens only as some other contrasting group is labeled as the Different or the Other. We bolster our identity by seeing others in a negative light and by excluding them in some way.” (Modernity and Ambivalence, p. 8)

In other words: I can feel I am one of the good people because I know I am not one of the bad people. Therefore the “Other” must be degraded, excluded and/or vilified in order for me to have a sense of self-worth.

Croatian theologian and professor at Yale University, Miroslav Wolf, in his book Exclusion and Embrace, says that the reason we indulge in these attitudes and practices is that by denouncing and blaming the Other it gives us “the illusion of sinlessness and strength.”

One great example of this, Timothy Keller points out, is: “If I find my identity in working for liberal political and social causes, it is inevitable that I will scorn conservatives, and the same goes for conservatives regarding liberals. In fact, if the feelings of loathing toward the opposition are not there, it might be concluded that my political position is not very close to the core of who I am.” (Making Sense of God, p. 145)

In order to do this, Wolf says, we must “over-bind” and “over-separate”: To over-separate means to fail to recognize what we do have in common, and to over-bind means to refuse other people the right to be different from us.

This practice is common in many areas, not just in regard to politics.

Keller goes on to say: “If my identity rests to a great degree in being moral and religious, then I will disdain those people I think of as immoral. If my self-worth is bound up with being a hardworking person, I will look down on those whom I consider lazy. As the postmodernists rightly point out, this condescending attitude toward the Other is part of how identity works, how we feel good and significant.” (Ibid.)

Jesus himself gave an example of this:

He also told this parable to some who trusted in themselves that they were righteous, and treated others with contempt: “Two men went up into the temple to pray, one a Pharisee and the other a tax collector. The Pharisee, standing by himself, prayed thus: ‘God, I thank you that I am not like other men, extortioners, unjust, adulterers, or even like this tax collector. I fast twice a week; I give tithes of all that I get.’ But the tax collector, standing far off, would not even lift up his eyes to heaven, but beat his breast, saying, ‘God, be merciful to me, a sinner!’ I tell you, this man went down to his house justified, rather than the other. For everyone who exalts himself will be humbled, but the one who humbles himself will be exalted.”

Luke 18:9-14 ESV

Jesus is describing people who excluded, degraded and vilified others for the purpose of bolstering their own sense of self-worth, value and identity. However, much to their surprise, Jesus tells them that God does not play this game – in fact, he is very much opposed to it, because it is rooted in pride and self-justification rather than humility.

What then is the solution?

The solution is this: we must find our identity not in being better than others, but in who we are in God’s eyes, because of what Jesus has done for us. We need an identity which is centered on the Cross.

The fact that Jesus went to the cross to die for our salvation is both a profound statement of our sin and failure, and at the same time the greatest expression of love and of our value to God. In this sense, my identity and value is not based on me being better than other people – rather it does not allow me to see myself as better than others. I, like them, have sinned and fallen short. My value, according to the gospel, is that God loves me so much that he was willing to pay the greatest cost and hold nothing back; he is that devoted and committed to me.

May we be those who find our identity in Christ, rather than in our political or other affiliations, and may the way Christians express their political views not be a hindrance to the message of the gospel.

Christianity and Singleness

When I lived in Hungary, we used to take our church to a summer conference every year in Vajta, where the group of churches we belonged to ran a Bible college and conference center in an old castle. Every year various pastors from our churches would speak at the conference; I spoke several times.

One of the sessions I remember most vividly, I remember not for good reasons: one year a particular pastor was asked to speak on the topic of singleness for an afternoon session. When he stood up to the platform, he said something to the effect of: “I don’t know why they asked me to teach on singleness. I’m not single and I haven’t been single for a long time. So I decided that I’m not going to speak about singleness, I’m just going to teach a Bible study about something else, since this is the only chance they gave me to speak.” You probably won’t be surprised to hear that this person was never asked to speak at a conference again.

But that wasn’t the only memorable part of his session. Half-way through his session, the speaker got annoyed at some people who were whispering to each other while he was speaking, and he stopped everything and proceeded to call them out, and kick them out of the session, making them take the walk of shame past over 100 people who were gathered in the hall for the study. I admit, I was kind of jealous that they got to leave…

This session should be contrasted with the one on singleness which had been held at the previous year’s conference, at which a younger pastor had spoken about singleness in a message that was so well presented and so encouraging to me (I was single at that time), that I still remember his opening lines: “You are in a race!” He then went on to teach about the biblical perspective on the goodness of singleness from 1 Corinthians.

It was a hugely different perspective: the first man I mentioned had disdained the thought of teaching about singleness – he clearly saw it as unimportant. The second man taught in a way that was encouraging and edifying to the single person.

The other day I posted some thoughts about the topic of gender roles in marriage and how the biblical view on this is based on theological views about the relationship between the persons of the Trinity. I got several comments on it from a single person who expressed feelings that Christianity tends to over-emphasize marriage over singleness. There is some validity to this point – however, statistically most people will be married at some point in their lifetime – and, just because some people are not married does not mean we should not talk about marriage, just like the fact that some people are not airplane pilots doesn’t mean that we should never talk about airplane pilots.

However, these comments did lead me to look into some things about Christian teachings about singleness, and what I found was significant.

Stanley Hauerwas, one of the great theologians of our age, argues that Christianity was the very first religion to hold up single adulthood as a viable way of life. This was a clear difference between Christianity and all other traditional religions, including Judaism, all of which made family and the bearing of children an absolute value, without which there was no honor.1

In ancient culture, long-term single adults were considered to be living a human life that was less than fully realized. But along came Christianity – whose founder was an adult single man and whose great theologian (the Apostle Paul) was also single and advocated for the value and goodness of singleness.

Timothy Keller points out that in Christianity, “single adults cannot be seen as somehow less fully formed or realized human beings than married persons because Jesus Christ, a single man, was the perfect man (Hebrews 4:15; 1 Peter 2:22).”

He goes on to say that, “Paul’s assessment in 1 Corinthians 7 is that singleness is a good condition blessed by God, and in many circumstances is actually better than marriage. As a result of this revolutionary attitude, the early church did not pressure people to marry and institutionally supported poor widows so they did not have to remarry.”2

Keller points to Rodney Stark, a social historian, who states, “Pagan widows faced great social pressure to remarry; Augustus even had widows fined if they failed to marry within two years. In contrast, among Christians, widowhood was highly respected. The church stood ready to sustain widows, allowing them a choice as to whether or not to remarry, and single widows were active in care-giving and good deeds.3

As opposed to societies which idolized family as the only means of giving a person significance, the Christian gospel offers a greater hope and a greater source of significance.

Singleness, according to Christianity, is not Plan B – it is a viable option for those who choose it.

In our modern pop culture, it is not family which is idolized so much as romance. Think about Hollywood and even Disney narratives: they begin telling the story of a person seeking true love, and once two people do come together, the story ends! The message is that what matters in life is finding romance, everything else is only leading up to that, and what happens after that is not worth spending too much time on. This is also reflected in the huge amount of focus which is given to weddings in our culture.

The Christian church provides the space for single people of different genders to worship, serve and study together, to know and be known by each other, without the pressures of our romance-driven culture.

Churches don’t always do a great job at making single people feel that they belong and not pressuring them to get married and treating them as if until they are married, they are incomplete – however, it is in the design. At our church, we have purposefully sought to change the language we use away from always speaking of “you and your family” – so that we don’t communicate the wrong thing to single people who call our church their home.

Interestingly, Timothy Keller, who pastors a church in NYC which is majority single people, points out that single people and married people alike need good teaching about marriage and relationships, so that marriage is held to its biblical place of honor (Hebrews 13:4), without idolizing it as the end-all be-all of human existence.

 

1. [Stanley Hauerwas, A Community of Character, p.174]
2. [Timothy Keller, The Meaning of Marriage, pp.222-223]
3. [Rodney Stark, The Rise of Christianity: A Sociologist Reconsiders Historyp.104]
 

Playing Harps in Heaven? Don’t be Ridiculous

I have been reading CS Lewis’ Mere Christianity along with the men’s group at White Fields Church. I first read the book 18 years ago, and reading it again has been like reading it for the first time.

I came across this quote in the book, which I thought was excellent, in regard to the Christian belief in Heaven:

There is no need to be worried by facetious people who try to make the Christian hope of ‘Heaven’ ridiculous by saying they do not want ‘to spend eternity playing harps’.

The answer to such people is that if they cannot understand books written for grown-ups, they should not talk about them.

All the scriptural imagery (harps, crowns, gold, etc.) is, of course, a merely symbolical attempt to express the inexpressible. Musical instruments are mentioned because for many people (not all) music is the thing known in the present life which most strongly suggests ecstasy and infinity. Crowns are mentioned to suggest the fact that those who are united with God in eternity share His splendour and power and joy. Gold is mentioned to suggest the timelessness of Heaven (gold does not rust) and the preciousness of it. People who take these symbols literally might as well think that when Christ told us to be like doves, He meant that we were to lay eggs.

Lewis, C. S. Mere Christianity (p. 137).

I love his line about if you can’t understand a book written for grown-ups, then you shouldn’t be talking about it!

He says in another place in the book:

Very often a silly procedure is adopted by people who [oppose] Christianity. Such people put up a version of Christianity suitable for a child of six and make that the object of their attack.

When you try to explain the Christian doctrine as it is really held by an instructed adult, they then complain that you are making their heads turn round and that it is all too complicated.

It is no good asking for a simple religion. After all, real thing are not simple.

Lewis, C. S. Mere Christianity (p. 41).

I have found this to be true – not only in regard to discussions about Christianity, but in many debates about many things. People put up a caricature of the other person’s views and then proceed to destroy them. This is sometimes called a “straw man argument”.

It is important that we should not allow people to do that with Christian beliefs, and also that we should not do the same with other people’s beliefs. This is sometimes called “Presuppositional Apologetics” – the idea that you should try to frame the views of your “opponent” in such a way, that they would say, “I couldn’t have put it better myself.”

As Timothy Keller put it recently:

 

 

The Effect of Woundedness

I have been doing some premarital counseling for a young couple recently, and was feeling unsatisfied with materials I’d used in the past, so I picked up a copy of Tim and Kathy Keller’s book, The Meaning of Marriage.

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My expectations weren’t particularly high; I figured it would be similar to all the other marriage books I’ve read before, but I’ve been pleasantly surprised. In fact, although I’m not finished with it yet, I have been impressed by how much they address many of the questions which I think people today are really asking: questions like why couples shouldn’t live together before getting married, or whether the biblical command for wives to submit to their husbands isn’t outdated at best and misogynistic at worst.

One of the things which Tim Keller is really good at is something called ‘presuppositional apologetics’ – which means understanding another person’s position and point of view so well that you are able to articulate it in such a way that they themselves would say, “I couldn’t have put it better myself!” It is only when you have done that first that you can really begin to show someone the flaws in their concepts, because you have proven that you really do understand where they are coming from and why they think the way they do. That will always be much more effective than just stating your view loudly.

As I was reading this book today, I came across something which I found very insightful. Speaking about “woundedness,” which they describe as “compounded self-doubt and guilt, resentment and disillusionment” which results from hurtful experiences from past relationships – here is what they say is the effect of woundedness: Woundedness makes us self-absorbed. 

When you begin to talk to wounded people, it is not long before they begin talking about themselves. They’re so engrossed in their own pain and problems that they don’t realize what they look like to others. They are not sensitive to the needs of others. They don’t pick up on the cues of those who are hurting, or, if they do, they only do so in a self-involved way. That is, they do so with a view of helping to “rescue” them in order to feel better about themselves.

They get involved with others in an obsessive and controlling way because they are actually meeting their own needs, though they deceive themselves about this. We are always, always the last to see our self-absorption.

When you point out selfish behavior to a wounded person, he or she will say, “Well, maybe so, but you don’t understand what it is like.” The wounds justify the behavior.

– Keller, The Meaning of Marriage, pp. 60-61

I have certainly experienced this in other people, but as I read it, it made me also think of myself – because as they say: We are always the last to see our own self-absorption.

The common view in our society of how to cure this problem is by encouraging people towards self-realization: to focus on themselves, finding themselves and seek to fulfill themselves. Ironically, this encourages already self-absorbed people towards further self-absorption, and actually is counterproductive for that person in further relationships, because it encourages them to think that their feelings and desires should take preeminence in the relationship because of all that they have been through.

The biblical view on this is to realize that self-absorption is part of our fallen nature, and that it is actually in giving up our self-centeredness, embracing that Jesus died for the sins which have been committed against us and focusing our attention on honoring God and on serving others, and put those things before ourselves, that we will find the life and the happiness which will actually fulfill us – and the cure for poisonous self-absorption.

 

Expecting Nothing in Return? Not Usually.

For a long time, I have found this sentence from Jesus to be both extremely beautiful and terribly convicting:

But love your enemies, and do good, and give, expecting nothing in return, and your reward will be great, and you will be sons of the Most High, for he is kind to the ungrateful and the evil. (Luke 6:35)

This is the definition of generosity: giving, expecting nothing in return. Nothing.

That means that a generous person doesn’t keep an accounting in their relationships, i.e. a running tally of who has done more for whom. They don’t keep score. They are free from that – free to give, expecting nothing in return.

That’s a lot easier said than done though…

Recently in my conversations with two people, this topic came up. One in particular likes to help people. He’s always helping people and doing favors. Nice, right? Except there’s one problem: he’s become resentful towards some of the people he’s helped out.

The other person explained to me that he likes to buy things for other people, little token gifts. But he too struggles with feelings of resentment, when he feels that his gestures of kindness are not reciprocated.

Both of these people would say that when they do these things, they don’t expect any form of compensation for them, but yet, both of them feel resentful. Why?

At least in the case of the first person, it is because, albeit subconsciously, oftentimes he isn’t just helping for the sake of helping – he’s doing it because there is a form of compensation that he hopes to receive for doing it. In his case it is not money, it is friendship. If and when friendship does not result, he feels that he was involved in a transaction in which the other party did not pay. The only thing is: the other party wasn’t aware of the assumed agreement and didn’t realize it was a transaction.

“Free” is rarely free.

What that means is that some people give a lot, but they’re not generous – because they give for selfish reasons. For example, the Pharisee in Luke 18:9-14 gave a lot to the Temple, but the reason he gave was so that other people would see it and praise him as a good person. His giving was a means of self-justification and self-glorification. The money still went to good use, and it is certainly better to give to a good cause for bad reasons than to spend money wastefully or only on yourself, but God is also concerned about why we give what we give.

Tim Keller, speaking about generosity, says that some people are always doing things to help other people, but they are actually using those people to feel good about themselves – i.e. they need those people to need them. They need for people to think they are good people. It’s their source of identity and their means of trying to justify their life. They’re not doing nice things for other people for the sake of those people themselves as much as they are actually doing it for themselves.

True generosity is when you act from selfless motivation, giving something and expecting nothing in return.

This is what Jesus encourages, saying, “your father who sees in secret will reward you” (Matthew 6:4)

Again, that is easier said than done. The way we can be motivated to truly act that way is through the message of the Gospel. First of all, the Gospel is that God has been generous to you, not as a transaction, but simply just because He loves you and enjoys blessing you. That’s grace. Secondly, the Gospel gives you an identity: it affirms you, saying that God not only knows you fully, but loves you completely.

Many people believe that they can either be known completely or loved completely, but not both – because if someone really gets to know them, they couldn’t possibly love them. Therefore, in order for people to love them and accept them completely, they cannot possibly allow anyone to know them completely.

But the message of the Gospel is that God BOTH knows you completely and loves you completely – at the same time. That’s incredible love and affirmation.

The message of the Gospel is that you have been justified in Christ, therefore you don’t need to work hard to justify yourself.

And when you really understand that – you’ll be free to give, expecting nothing in return: like God who gives even to the evil and the ungrateful. You’ll be free to give for the sake of giving, for the sake of another person or a cause, with no strings attached, because you are so firm in your identity, that you are already loved and justified and have value. The Gospel sets us free from our ulterior motives in doing even good things and from feelings of resentment towards those we have done acts of kindness for.

 

Worst Sermon Ever

On Saturday night I was struck with a feeling that I have from time to time: that my sermon for Sunday was not good. I was convinced it was one of my worst sermons ever.

As I looked it over I thought: My exegesis and hermeneutics are good, I’m presenting the Gospel and talking about how the Gospel speaks to all of life…  The essential elements were in place, so what was I worried about?

Maybe I was just tired from the long drive back from California, maybe I was just feeling that the final draft wasn’t like the way I originally envisioned the message. But I went to church on Sunday morning asking God more than usual to speak through me, even through this message.

This isn’t the first time I’ve felt this way. But here’s the irony: it seems that every time I feel this way, convinced that my sermon – although it has all the right elements – is not my best, God seems to use it in an extra special way.

This Sunday, through this message, I had more than one person respond to my invitation to give their life to Jesus and make a decision for him. Another person told my wife that it was the best sermon I had ever preached. I got several emails and text messages after church about the message from people saying they were encouraged and blessed by it.  Here’s the audio of that message.

On a previous occasion, where I specifically remember telling my wife that my sermon was going to be my worst ever, I preached a message which again someone afterwards told me was my best ever, and now has also become one of my favorite sermons as well. When it recently aired on our radio program on GraceFM, we had several people contact our church asking for copies of it. A newer member of our church ran across that message a week or so ago and shared it on Facebook, and then wrote me that if I preached that message every Sunday, he would come – it was the best sermon he’d ever heard in his life. Here’s the audio of that message.

What should I make of this?

I heard Timothy Keller say once in a lecture to pastors about preaching, that we should always seek to prepare “Good Sermons” – meaning that we should make sure all the essential elements are in there: good exegesis and hermeneutics, good presentation of the Gospel and of Jesus as the answer to all the riddles, that they are “Good”. Our job is to prepare “Good Sermons” – because only God can make a sermon “Great” – and that happens, when the Holy Spirit takes our “Good Sermons” and makes them “Great” in the hearts and minds of our hearers. If we try to make “Great Sermons” we will be trying too hard to do something that only God can do.

When I heard him say that, I agreed in theory that he was right, but more and more I am experiencing the reality myself. God likes to glorify Himself, and it’s less about me that I am inclined to think. Praise God for that.

The Age of Technique

I have been reading Timothy Keller's new book: Preaching: Communicating Faith in an Age of Skepticism. Much of the material is familiar to me from lectures I've heard him give, but I am still very much enjoying reading it, and it is presented very well.

Here's one quote from the book which caught my attention:

Our era has been called the “age of technique.” No civilized society has put more emphasis on results, skills, and charisma— or less emphasis on character, reflection, and depth. This is a major reason why so many of the most successful ministers have a moral failure or lapse.

I think he's hit the nail on the head. Oh, that our society as a whole would care more about depth of character than simply pragmatic results – and that especially we who are Christians would be more focused on godly character than we often are.