Dawkins and the meaning of life

Many people have come face-to-face with the possibility that life is meaningless and have given up as a result. Others have said something along these lines: ‘Sure, life has no meaning. But so what? It’s about whatever meaning you give to it.’ Still others think life has significance, and that it’s found in some Greater Purpose, be it religious or otherwise.

I’m interested in the second group — those who think life has no meaning, but still live as though it does. And if you think about it, that’s probably most of the people you know.

Back in 2006, I had the opportunity to hear Richard Dawkins at an event at LSE [1] marking the 30th anniversary of his first book, The Selfish Gene. In his inaugural work, Dawkins gives us an explanation for life and the way we behave based on little more than the accident of our genes. Many who have read him have been forced to conclude that whatever meaning they thought life had, they were wrong.

As Dawkins gave his speech, he began to comment on this response to his work: ‘One of the oddest reactions to The Selfish Gene has been the desire expressed by more than one person to un-read it.’ He then went on to quote from a letter he’d received from a reader:

Fascinating, but at times I wish I could unread it […] On one level, I can share in the sense of wonder Dawkins so evidently sees in the workings-out of such complex processes […] But at the same time, I largely blame The Selfish Gene for a series of bouts of depression I suffered from for more than a decade […] Never sure of my spiritual outlook on life, but trying to find something deeper — trying to believe, but not quite being able to — I found that this book just about blew away any vague ideas I had along these lines, and prevented them from coalescing any further. This created quite a strong personal crisis for me some years ago.

When I heard him read the letter, I considered it a reasonable response from the reader. If Dawkins’ conclusions are correct, and your behaviour is effectively pre-programmed by your genes, then how can that be meaningful at all? In fact, why shouldn’t we feel depressed at this? But, bizarrely, when he finished reading the letter, the audience laughed. They actually laughed at someone experiencing a crisis of existence.

How does one answer this? How can life possibly have meaning when we’re just an accident of chemistry + physics + who-knows-what? Dawkins gave his answer, and it’s fascinating. First, he said, ‘If something is true, no amount of wishful thinking can undo it.’ In other words, there’s no point believing in some idea about life that you or someone else has made up. The truth is the truth, he says, so let’s face up to that.

I can agree with that. We’re not supposed to believe in nonsense, especially when we know it’s wrong.

But I wasn’t expecting what he said next: ‘There really never was any reason for these despairing reactions at all. It is a complete misunderstanding of what science can tell us about ourselves if we conclude from it that we are somehow diminished by it, by the truth. Our life is what we make of it.’

Hang on a second. Can you see the contradiction?

I absolutely agree that we don’t want to buy into wishful thinking about life; but how can we just invent the meaning, and then believe in it? Can we ever be truly (and lastingly) satisfied with a life that only has the meaning we invent? Is that really meaningful at all? Isn’t that the very essence of wishful thinking?

And yet, this is exactly the contradiction so many of us embrace in our day-to-day lives. We’re convinced that when we die, we rot, and in the end the whole universe is going to dissolve in heat. But then we act as if we’re doing stuff that’s meaningful, important, fulfilling, purposeful.

What if there was another way? What if we could rebel against the great narrative of our age that we are here by accident, and will vanish as quickly as we arrived? What if we could truly know what we’re here for, and why? I think that is exactly what Jesus Christ offers. The Christian faith is not wishful thinking, it is intellectually and emotionally satisfying. Come face-to-face with Jesus; his message and his claims, and you will find something utterly compelling. What hope can Dawkins offer people? None. Under the guise of self-defined truth and intellectual liberation, his conclusions have actually led many to despair. On the other hand, Jesus offers us the greatest hope we could ever have. In relationship with him, we no longer have to invent meaning, for infinite meaning is given to our existence. Isn’t that an explanation of life worth investigating?

[1] Darwin@LSE Public Lecture, The Selfish Gene: thirty years on, 16 March 2006. Transcript and audio available online: http://www.lse.ac.uk/website-archive/publicEvents/events/2006/20051215t1557z001.aspx

This article originally appeared at salt.london

Conversations and cringing embarrassment

‘What do you do?’ That is a question I’ve come to dread. I’ve lost count of the number of times I’ve been enjoying a good conversation with a stranger until the moment I’m quizzed on my profession. As soon as I say, ‘I lead a church’, there’s often an icy chill that visibly runs down their spine, and the conversation seems to just dry up. It’s not as though I’m a pimp, a cow inseminator, or a charity mugger. 

So why the awkwardness? It seems we have become awkward around the subject of religion in general. In The Guardian a few months ago, there was an article by Andrew Brown entitled ‘“We need to talk about Jesus”: cue cringing embarrassment’ [1]. He was discussing this whole phenomenon of embarrassment around talking about our religious beliefs. 

He explains it like this: apparently, the ‘language’ of embarrassment is universal, so it doesn’t matter whether you know the other person or not, you can still ‘accurately identify an embarrassed expression or posture on a stranger’. Since we are no longer expected to be religious these days, the moment religion comes up, someone (you or them) is bound to start getting embarrassed, and then it all gets a bit weird. 

In other words, embarrassment begets embarrassment, and because embarrassment is infectious, it pulls a veil over the important conversations in life.

Given how religious London is (church attendance is much higher in London than elsewhere, and the massive diversity of cultures contributes to a rich mix of beliefs), you’d think that things should be a little different here. But are they? When was the last time you really probed and questioned a person about their faith? When was the last time the subject even came up? 

I think this is sad and even tragic. How can we allow embarrassment to stifle the most important conversations of life? There have been rare moments when I have seen a friend drop their guard—perhaps after a few drinks, or in a moment of emotional vulnerability and openness—and really ask me what I believe and why. I live for those moments. I wish I had them every day. In fact, one of the reasons Salt exists is to try and find that one person in a hundred, or in a thousand, who will engage.

It’s no exaggeration to say that embarrassment kills. My brother is a consultant anaesthetist. He’s seen people come into hospital with strange items inserted ‘where the sun don’t shine’. Now, laying aside the obvious questions (like ‘Huh?’ and ‘How?’—usually answered by, ‘I fell while trying to hang a curtain… wearing no clothes’), there was one awful case where a man died because, out of sheer embarrassment, he failed to come to hospital until it was too late.

I think it’s fair to say that when it comes to the issues that really matter, we are just as bunged up with verbal constipation. Whether that’s down to British reserve, or the veneer of polite superficiality that is so normal in a big city like London, we find it hard to converse on the very issues that faith speaks into.

I’m speaking of our fear of death and uncertainty of what lies beyond the curtain. Or our constant nagging sense of guilt and the question of how we can feel spiritually clean. Or our anxieties about life, when so much is outside of our control and we long to know if anyone is hearing our prayers. These, and so many other thoughts that keep people awake at night, are the very reason we mustn’t stifle conversation.

And even if none of these questions is bothering you, there is the more fundamental issue of whether, in fact, a particular religion could be true. I’m not a Christian simply because it feels right, but rather because I have become totally convinced that it tells a true account of the life, death, and subsequent resurrection of Jesus; an event that has sent shockwaves through history and convinced many an honest skeptic [2]. 

To be frank, I don’t expect people to easily accept any of this as true (or, indeed, the claims of other religions). But I find it baffling that we are so hesitant to even engage. Personally, I welcome the challenge. I encourage the debate. I would rather a person grill me and try to poke holes in my worldview than that they simply avoid the subject altogether. My belief in Jesus is the deepest part of me, so how can we truly know each other unless we can broach the subject?  

Let me lay down a challenge for you: if you know anyone who says they’re a Christian, why not sit them down for a coffee and ask them a simple question, ‘Why?’ It’s quite possible that they won’t know how to answer (which is sad, but not uncommon). In that case, your question may well help them to think harder, rather than blindly go along with their faith. 

On the other hand, you might have one of the best and most stimulating conversations you’ve had in a long time. 

If you don’t know anyone who can speak to you in this way, then why not simply contact us at Salt?

[1] www.theguardian.com/commentisfree/2015/nov/04/christianity-evangelical-embarrassment-jesus-religion
[2] For example, Lee Strobel’s excellent book The Case for Christ tells the account of the things that persuaded him despite his prior atheism

This article originally appeared at salt.london

Kurt Cobain and the problem of guilt

A mulatto. An albino. A mosquito. My libido [1]. So sang Kurt Cobain, the lead singer of Nirvana, in the song of my generation, Smells Like Teen Spirit. Last year a documentary about Cobain’s life was released and it uncovers so much of the tragedy surrounding his childhood; in particular the rejection he felt in being sent from home to home because neither parent wanted to take care of him.

In his typically candid and blunt way, Cobain talks about his teenage angst in search of sexual conquest:

In a community that stresses macho male sexual stories as a highlight of all conversation, I was an underdeveloped, immature little dude that never got laid and was constantly razzed. Oh, poor little kid. It bothered me, probably more so because I was horny, and frequently had to make up stories like, ‘When I went on vacation, I met this chick and we f***** and she loved it.’ [2]

He later goes on to tell the harrowing account of how he (actually) lost his virginity by taking advantage of a girl with learning difficulties, and the consequent self-revulsion and guilt that led him to attempt suicide. And all of this when he was still at school. Listening to him speak, you feel a curious mixture of disgust at Cobain’s actions, and heartfelt compassion over his brokenness and insecurity—something we all identify with.

Step back about 1,600 years and we encounter a North African philosopher called Augustine talking about his youth. He says he was warned by his mother not to go sleeping around, especially with married women, but her warnings sounded ‘womanish’ and he would have been ‘embarrassed to obey them’. So, instead… 

I went headlong on my course, so blinded that I was ashamed among the other youths that my viciousness [referring to sexual conquests] was less than theirs; I heard them boasting of their exploits… And I set about the same exploits not only for the pleasure of the act but for the pleasure of the boasting… and when I lacked opportunity to equal others in vice, I invented things I had not done, lest I might be held cowardly for being innocent, or contemptible for being chaste. [3]

It’s strange how little the times change. Take a man born in the 300s or the 1960s, and both need to feel accepted, to feel loved, to feel that they could run with the pack. Both do things they regret, and for reasons they later see to be weak and inexcusable. Both men experience gut-wrenching guilt on account of their actions, guilt that brings an unbearable weight upon the soul.

But you see, the two stories take very different directions. While Cobain and Augustine both end up famous and well-regarded in their respective fields of philosophical musing—one in music and the other in writing—somewhere along the way one experiences a tragic hopelessness leading to despair and suicide, while the other encounters life-changing hope and a new start.

And what made the difference? 

One of Augustine’s most memorable and stunningly succinct descriptions of the human problem goes like this: ‘For you have made us for yourself and our hearts are restless till they rest in you’ [4]. The ‘you’ he’s speaking to is God.

What does Augustine mean when he talks about finding heart rest in God? For one thing, he found this rest in forgiveness for all the things he felt guilty about. Augustine read the Bible and came to believe that Jesus was who he claimed to be; the Son of God and the one who can save us from guilt and sin. Whereas so many people go on through life with the nagging sense that they can’t fix what they’ve broken, Augustine discovered that God offers forgiveness, a clean slate, a new start. That experience gave him profound rest.

But he means more than just forgiveness, since being forgiven may only get us back to where we started; it doesn’t necessarily address the underlying brokenness, longings, and insecurities that are driving destructive behaviour in the first place. If a hungry boy steals a loaf of bread and gets caught in the act, the judge might let him off and allow him to go free but the boy is still hungry; in other words, he’s forgiven, but that hasn’t solved his deeper problem. So how did Augustine discover healing that not only made him feel forgiven and clean, but also satisfied his soul’s most secret longings?

For Augustine, forgiveness was the door into the most profound and life-changing reality: a relationship with God that finally offered him the sense that he had come home. Our hearts are restless till they rest in you. In a sense, then, the question of whether we have found this rest means that we are all either Cobain or Augustine.

[1] Smells Like Teen Spirit, by Nirvana on the album Nevermind, 1991
[2] Kurt Cobain in the documentary Kurt Cobain: Montage of Heck, 2015
[3] Augustine of Hippo, Confessions, Book Two, III.7, translated by FJ Sheed in 1942
[4] Ibid. Book One, I.1

This article originally appeared at salt.london

Am I the captain of my soul?

Just over two years ago I happened to be in Johannesburg with my family at the time Nelson Mandela passed away. As outsiders looking in, we felt that it was an amazing privilege to hear so many stories of the difference Mandela made in South Africa, preventing a civil war by his message of reconciliation. We joined the crowds who streamed for days to pay tribute at his home, and we reflected on the impact that one man can make.

It’s said that during his incarceration on Robben Island, Mandela would recite William Ernest Henley’s poem Invictus (1888) to his prison mates. It’s a stirring call to stoical grit and determination in the face of life’s hardships.

Out of the night that covers me,
Black as the pit From pole to pole,
I thank whatever gods may be
For my unconquerable soul.

In the fell clutch of circumstance
I have not winced nor cried aloud.
Under the bludgeonings of chance
My head is bloody, but unbowed.

Beyond this place of wrath and tears
Looms but the Horror of the shade,
And yet the menace of the years
Finds, and shall find, me unafraid.

It matters not how strait the gate,
How charged with punishments the scroll,
I am the master of my fate:
I am the captain of my soul.

I defy anyone to read lines like ‘my unconquerable soul’ and not feel something like a gut-level growl to be a better person, to do more, to rise higher, and to face the challenges of life with more dignity and determination. We want to feel triumphant in life. It is part of our very human effort to justify our existence, to bolster our self-esteem, to feel a sense of our own worth.

And yet, I think that if we’re honest most of us will admit that this poem is mostly wishful thinking. ‘I am the master of my fate: I am the captain of my soul.’ But I still overslept this morning. I got irritated with my partner. I’m behind on my project at work. I disappoint myself on a daily basis. In that sense, the triumphant ideal of Invictus is not true to experience. And nor is it true to fact.

I didn’t choose most of the circumstances in which my life has been shaped: my parents, my culture, my influences. How can it be truly said that ‘I am the captain of my soul’ when, in reality, I didn’t even choose to get in this boat?

The idea (myth?) that you rule your own life can only lead to one of two possible outcomes. Either you will achieve all you dream of, and become one of those unbearable Trump-esque characters who cannot see their own flaws. Or you will be crushed under the weight of your own failures, realising that you’re not all you’re cracked up to be, and life is mostly out of your control.

Few people realise that Jesus Christ was relentlessly critical of people who thought they could make something of themselves. He saw this as a kind of pride, and worse, a pride that feeds self-righteousness and priggery. In many ways Invictus is the polar opposite of what Jesus taught.

Instead of encouraging us to get a grip and learn self-mastery, Jesus promised that there was grace and mercy for those who see that they are failing at life, that they are emphatically not the masters of their fate, or captains of their souls. He put it like this: ‘Healthy people don’t need a doctor – sick people do. I have come to call not those who think they are righteous, but those who know they are sinners.’ In other words, Jesus tells us that it’s okay to feel that things are not all right, that you don’t have it all together. He came for the very purpose of helping people who know their weaknesses.

This article originally appeared at salt.london

Luther’s Advice: Concentrate When You Pray

Martin Luther’s mighty prayer life is legendary. He is supposed to have said this famous statement: ‘I have so much to do that I shall spend the first three hours in prayer.’ That is not advice that regularly crops up in the ‘Professional Growth’ or ‘Personal Success’ genres.

Despite our ready admittance that prayer is among the most important things we can do with our time, I have not met a Christian who is satisfied with their prayer life. I confess that I have always found prayer difficult, and not least because I have a propensity to get distracted very easily (something my wife finds irritating five minutes after she’s requested help with something).

When Luther’s barber, Master Peter (the one responsible for that hair) asked for some advice on prayer, Luther wrote a kind of open letter called A Simple Way to Pray. In it he urges a readiness and eagerness to pray, writing, ‘It is of great importance that the heart be made ready and eager for prayer… What else is it but tempting God when your mouth babbles and the mind wanders to other thoughts?’

He gives an example of a priest praying in Latin, getting distracted with every other line, and you don’t need a word of Latin to recognise what’s happening:

Deus in adjutorium meum intende. Farmhand, did you unhitch the horses? Domine ad adjuvandum me fastina. Maid, go out and milk the cow. Gloria patti et filio et spiritui sancto. Hurry up, boy, I wish the ague [malaria] would take you!

For Luther, it is a regret that he had prayed many hours of these worthless and ‘blasphemous’ prayers. And so he goes on to offer this simple yet priceless advice:

So, a good and attentive barber keeps his thoughts, attention, and eyes on the razor and hair and does not forget how far he has gotten with his shaving or cutting. If he wants to engage in too much conversation or let his mind wander or look somewhere else he is likely to cut his customer’s mouth, nose, or even his throat. Thus if anything is to be done well, it requires the full attention of all one’s senses and members, as the proverb says, ‘Pluribus intentus, minor est ad singula sensus’—‘He who thinks of many things, thinks of nothing and does nothing right.’ How much more does prayer call for concentration and singleness of heart if it is to be a good prayer!

It seems to me that learning to do this well — to pray with concentration and focus — requires a good deal of self-knowledge. I recall reading (or hearing?) John Piper speak of his habit of turning to Jonathan Edwards first thing in the morning to warm his heart before he opens the Bible and prays. Martin Lloyd-Jones would often speak of the need to know oneself; what helps you? what lifts your mood? Perhaps you pray best after meditating on Scripture, or whilst walking the dog, or in your attic.

If knowing yourself is the first step, the second is surely making decisions and sticking to them. I think many of us fail to pray because we have not decisively answered the simple questions like where? when? how? I know for myself that I must make clear plans and even write them down, because I rarely find myself spontaneously drawn to focussed prayer.

Look again at Jesus. ‘And rising very early in the morning, while it wasstill dark, he departed and went out to a desolate place, and there he prayed’ (Mark 1.35). I take comfort from the inference that even Jesus needed to take quite decisive steps to get rid of distractions. How much more do you and I?

This post first appeared over at Think Theology.

A Note to the Skinflints and the Slackhands

One of the great advantages of being in a church is that you may well know lots of useful people, people who know how to do stuff. I have friends who can write contracts, fix radiators, and mend fences. And since they’re called to love me, they can do it at a discount, right?

In a video course called Biblical Finance, Doug Wilson gets onto the subject of Honest Work and makes a few challenging remarks in his typically humorous way.

Honest work means that you don’t take advantage of other people just because they’re in the family of God. And it’s really amazing how the carnal heart works on this. ‘Oh, our cat’s sick, and this veterinarian goes to our church. Maybe we’ll go to him, and maybe he’ll give us a deal because we go to the same church. Maybe he’ll give us 10% off… Or maybe I can get it for free if I hit him up at the fellowship hour and tell him what’s wrong with my cat.’

Or you find out that somebody’s a doctor at the fellowship hour at church, and you want to show them your rash.

Don’t take advantage of your brothers.

Instead of going to the vet with your sick cat thinking ‘Maybe he’ll take 10% off because I’m a brother’, you need to be thinking, ‘Maybe I should add 10% to whatever he bills me. Maybe I should add 10% because he’s a brother.’

If you’re trying to use the brotherhood of God as a way of getting from people, your thinking is all wrong. Look at every Christian business opportunity… as a way to bless them above and beyond, instead of looking for ways for them to bless you above and beyond.

Now, there is a kind of grace in receiving a gift, including services offered at a reduced rate. So we don’t have to assume that the vet isn’t allowed to offer you a discount, or that the doctor won’t take a sneak peak at that rash and offer a word of advice. But the point is that the onus is on you to honour them, and not vice versa.

In fact, Paul does (sort of) make the same point.

Those who have believing masters must not be disrespectful on the ground that they are brothers; rather they must serve all the better since those who benefit by their good service are believers and beloved. (1 Timothy 6.2)

Here the roles are reversed, but the principle is the same. He’s saying that if you’re employed by a fellow Christian you should work even harder as a service to them simply because they are Christian. But the bigger point, or the underlying principle, is this: don’t take liberties with a brother as though he owes you. Rather, consider how to serve him even better, whether by your generosity or your hard work.

This post originally appeared over at Think Theology.

Discipleship as Craft Knowledge

If you read this blog [referring to thinktheology.co.uk where this was first posted], chances are you’re a more cerebral type. You like reading in general. You probably own a library. And you probably like listening to podcasts, as well as reading other blogs. You’re an advocate for reading ‘dead guys’, and you’ve quoted CS Lewis on the importance of reading a healthy ratio of old books. When Al Mohler memorably challenges us that ‘Leaders Are Readers’ you’re ready to stand up and wave your hand and shout Hallelujah, except that you’re an introvert and it feels odd to do something like that.

I am deeply convinced about the importance of reading in personal growth. I will never cease to be amazed at the grace of God to me and my family by taking hold of my dad, from a dirt-poor home with divorced parents in Bootle, Liverpool, and turning him into a reader of theology after he got saved in his teens. This all led to a transformation that not only changed his life (and earned the nickname ‘Banner-of-Truth Haslam’), but had a trickle down effect by totally altering his entire worldview, and so enabling him to be a wonderful husband, father, and pastor. Being surrounded by books from a young age, I too grew in my enjoyment of reading and I’m often dropping books into people’s hands when I think it will be helpful. So while I want to wholly endorse books (and podcasts and blogs) as a means to growth, we should also quickly acknowledge that there is something deficient about a book as a teacher. Why?

Learning is imitative. We are born to imitate, and we imbibe most of our presuppositions, cultural biases, modes of behaviour, and of course the very words we speak, through imitation.

It shouldn’t surprise us, then, that Jesus’ method of building his church was to establish his teaching and his way of life among a small band of men. He was setting a new way of thinking, a new culture, and as has often been pointed out, he didn’t write anything down.

The obvious rebuttal is that the Bible itself is a book, written (in a sense) by Jesus; it is all red letters. And yet, even within that book, the pattern we’re encouraged to follow is this: watch and learn from others.

‘I urge you, then, be imitators of me. That is why I sent you Timothy, my beloved and faithful child in the Lord, to remind you of my ways in Christ, as I teach them everywhere in every church’ (1 Corinthians 4.16-17).

‘Be imitators of me, as I am of Christ’ (1 Corinthians 11.1).

Despite the unspeakable privilege of having God’s word and God’s Spirit the fact remains that there is a type of learning that only happens (or happens most effectively) through imitation, and often unconscious imitation at that.

This goes part way to explaining how movements take off and break new ground. A culture develops and leaders imitate one another, so that while a movement may be headed by one great pioneering mind, there is also a lifting affect on everyone around them. To take a longer view, learning-through-imitation also explains why certain countries have a rich, centuries-old heritage of innovation and invention and creativity. Michael Horton puts it well:

Excellence cannot be cultivated by lone rangers. We may remember some of the great scientists, artists, and philanthropists in history. But they would never have acquired their knowledge or skills apart from being formed by a community of expertise over time. Standards of excellence in each of these fields are not something that each person invents or even votes on. Rather, they evolve over generations through countless negotiations, failures, and successes.1

He’s right. Excellence in any given field can take generations to produce. We often only get stand-out men and women in history because they are part of a culture of imitation and learning.

Here’s Matthew Crawford making a similar point in a recent interview:

Matthew Crawford: Let’s take a different example: scientific practice, and scientific apprenticeship. It’s inherently progressive, it’s about discovery of a new. But how does that happen? I’m convinced by [the philosopher and scientist] Michael Polanyi. He found that scientific knowledge is really best understood as a species of craft knowledge, in a sense that knowing is a skill and it’s a skill that you have to learn, and you have to learn it from particular people, within a kind of mentorship.

What that means is that as a beginning scientist you have to submit to authority, the authority of your teachers. You don’t fully understand why one does things this way rather than that way. It’s in the course of doing it that you begin to get habituated into the characteristic judgment of a competent scientist. That element of personal involvement is absolutely necessary.

Brian Dijkema: Right, you talk about the movement of a practice of science that resulted when emigrés left Europe for America during the war. They brought the expertise, they became the masters who travelled from Europe to the United States and that is how American science progressed.

Matthew Crawford: Right. It was the Manhattan project. Polanyi points out that there were other countries that had plenty of money for research and they had access to all the same textbooks. But the practice of scientific enquiry hadn’t yet taken root. Science and all knowledge are passed on from one generation to another through personal contact. And what he was worried about it is the fact that if you break that train of transmission it only takes one generation for a lot of knowhow to be lost forever. He talks about how we, with all the techniques of modern science, can’t reproduce a Stradivarius violin.

We could multiply examples of this ‘craft knowledge’ or learning in community to explain so many extraordinary things in history: the building of the pyramids, the development of philosophy in the academies of Ancient Greece, the techniques used to hunt narwhals from canoes in the Arctic or sperm whales in the Pacific.

And all of this leads me to think about the church. Every church has a culture, and disciples are made automatically in that culture; discipleship is passing on craft knowledge. Further, every eldership team has a culture, and when new guys are brought in they imbibe so much that is unspoken about how to lead and pastor a church. This principle can work negatively where poisonous ways of thinking and doing persist within a church or eldership. But of course, this principle works powerfully in our favour when we see people beginning to flourish and grow because, without even realising it, they start to imitate those around them just by being near them.

The implications are endless, but as a pastor I’m particularly interested in the way men can be trained for pastoral ministry by imitating other pastors. So, although I attended a seminary and would advocate for the importance of a theological education, I suspect that most of our practical knowledge is learned from the people we hang out with.

This is not to say that we only learn by imitation. We can still go beyond our peers and the people we learned from, otherwise knowledge would never develop and grow, even in communities. However, it takes a special kind of pioneering mind to consistently break out of the mould in which they were formed. And this is where learning from books can slingshot a person beyond their immediate cultural environment. But since most of us are not those special kinds of pioneers, but instead rather simple people, we will get most of our learning by imitation. Turning this around, let me ask a question: If you’re a pastor, how are you offering opportunities for young men to imitate you and your eldership team? Are there unordained guys sat in the room when you have elders meetings? Are they able to come and pray with you in the morning? Are they able to study and plan and lead with you?

It seems to me that in an age in which we are moving away from person-on-person interaction towards online relationships and learning, understanding imitation has never been more important. If we neglect this, then so much good practice will simply be forgotten.

All of this speaks so powerfully into the genius of the church, of God’s plan to form a community. Here’s Horton again:

This is why Christ places us in a local expression of his visible body. Especially as Americans we think that we can figure things out on our own. We are only a “do-it-yourself” guide, seminar, or mouse click away from mastering whatever we want to do or be. However, in any field, excellence requires discipline — submitting to a community that cultivates expertise. Discipline requires disciples, just as craftsmanship requires apprentices. Much wisdom for this discipleship may be found in the community’s accumulated resources. However, books will not be sufficient. In the church today, we do not need more conferences, more programs, and more celebrities. We need more churches where the Spirit is immersing sinners into Christ day by day, a living communion of the saints, where we cannot simply jump to our favourite chapter or Google our momentary interest.2

1. Michael Horton, Ordinary, p.34
2. Ibid. p.35

This post originally appeared over at Think Theology.

Some Advice on Reading a Little More

I’m not a fast reader. But I’ve definitely improved over the years. Perhaps a few of the things I’ve learned will help…

Concentration in Reading

The most important thing is to concentrate and think when you read. If you’re thinking, then you’re learning. If you’re learning, then you’re growing. But if your thoughts are distracted and broken, your reading won’t profit you very much. Some ways to stay focussed:

1. Turn off your phone (obviously). I am embarrassingly prone to distraction and diversion. This self-knowledge is helpful when I want to read because I know that I can’t get anywhere if my notifications are on. Apparently, like pavlovian dogs, we get addicted to the ‘ping ping’ of trigger and reward as our phones seduce us to check what’s happening. You can sidestep that temptation by simply turning off your notifications, since you probably don’t need them anyway.

2. Set a deadline for when you’re going to stop. This is by far the most effective technique I’ve ever discovered for concentrating on the task in hand. That deadline might be a timer, or a set number of pages. Either way, if you know when you’re going to finish you’re far less likely to fritter your time away.

3. Make sure you enjoy what you’re reading. More on this below, but it is obviously the case that we will concentrate on things we find interesting and enjoyable. I have often made the dumb error of jumping into books that I found boring and then attempting to wade through, getting little benefit from them.

(By the way, subjects become more interesting the more general knowledge you have about them. For example, a book about Calvin’s theology is going to be a lot more interesting when you’ve already got a good idea of Reformation history. Start with the general and work to the particular, and always in that order. When you have your bearings with a subject, the details become a lot more interesting.)

4. If you have to read something you don’t enjoy, refer to (2) above. We don’t always get to read the stuff that scintillates, and sometimes you know you need to read something for a project or for personal growth that is not easy or particularly enjoyable. As with so many things in life, this is best accomplished by breaking it down into measurable units (e.g. a set number of pages per day) or working against the clock (e.g. I’ll read for 20 minutes and then I’m stopping).

Reading More

While I don’t think a vague sense of ‘more’ is a particularly great goal in reading, most of us look around at all the books we wish we had read, and we want to read more because there’s so much wealth in them. These things might help:

1. Keep track of what you’ve read. We tend to make progress in those things we measure. If you step on the bathroom scales every day you’ll begin eating less and losing weight (or so I’m told). Simply keeping a list of what you’ve read, and maybe counting up your total at the end of the year, will serve as a strong motivator to keep working at this.

2. Set a goal for what you want to read. Goals help. If you decide in advance how many books you want to read over the next year you’ll probably read more, even if you don’t achieve your goal. So, set something realistic. A book a month? A book a week? And, if you’re really keen to work through particular books then make sure they’re on a list that’s attached to this goal.

3. Don’t try to memorise your books. If you’re fretting about getting the most out of a book, and anxious that you will forget things, then you’ll read very slowly, and you’ll forget things. Somewhere in Wordsmithy, Doug Wilson talks about reading until your brain creaks. The aim isn’t to memorise what you’ve read, but rather to read so much that some of it sticks. Wilson uses the analogy of a forest floor covered in leaves; you want to lay those leaves on thick and allow it all to turn into mulch in your head. I heard recently that our memories are designed for recognition rather than recall. (That may have come out of some bogus book on evolutionary theory for all I know, but it’s true if you think about it.) Just try recalling the details of a friend’s face; it’s much easier to recognise a friend than to recall their features from memory. So it is with reading. The more you read, the more you will develop instincts and ways of thinking, and you’ll learn to recognise truth when you see it. Even if you can’t remember all the facts, the principles and ideas will stick.

4. Use all the available moments you can find. On the one hand, it’s very sensible to establish some kind of routine where you read regularly in the same place at the same time. Could you read before you sleep? Could you read on your commute? How about in your lunch break? Perhaps there’s a moment’s calm just after you’ve put the kids to bed? On the other hand, routines don’t always work so well (depending on your lifestyle), so you probably need to carry a book with you wherever you go and jump in when you can. Kindles are brilliant for this.

What to Do When You Get Stuck

If you find you haven’t picked up a book for a while then check if one of these problems is at the root.

1. Are you reading something you don’t enjoy? Sometimes we have to read for work, but if you are just pushing your way through a book because you feel you ought to, and all along you’re not enjoying it, then this is likely to make you stop reading altogether. I remember David Field, one of my lecturers at college, saying that books are like conversations: they’re not all equally interesting or equally helpful, so feel free to drop in and out of them as you please.

2. Are you indulging in too much entertainment? The book has a hard time competing with the screen (TV, internet, smart phone) because it isn’t designed to give instant gratification. If you’re not reading there’s a strong likelihood you’re opting for the easy, mind-numbing options. So, set yourself some limits for TV. Delete the Facebook app off your phone. Put down the rubbish paper on your commute and bring a book instead (at least for one direction of the journey). Do whatever it takes not to waste your life on these things.

3. Are you scared of books? Books can be intimidating, especially if you’ve tried and failed many times. I’d say this: get some books that are short and sweet and start racking up the book count. It will help you get more confident with reading. Also, you could try reading something totally addictive like the Hunger Games trilogy, or some Jack Reacher novels. They won’t help you grow as a person, but they will give you a restored appetite for reading in general, and then you can start digging into some more nonfiction.

Iceberg pastors

When you’re a pastor, from time-to-time people will ask you, ‘What do you do during the week?’ It’s an excellent question (but not usually for the reasons people ask it).

There are no job descriptions for pastoral ministry in the New Testament. There are directives and pointers that feed into the picture of what pastoral work looks like. But generally speaking I’d say that how a pastor spends his time is usually more influenced by a whole range of other factors — personality, church culture, theological heritage, character, and context.

For me, it is a matter of constant adjustments and course corrections. I doubt I shall ever be satisfied that I can confidently tell you what a pastor should do during the week, and that’s partly because there simply cannot be a universal job description for this calling.

But there is one rule that I think ought to underpin every pastor’s understanding of his calling, which is that he needs to be an iceberg. What do I mean? Simply this: that whatever public ministry he engages in (that bit above the surface) needs to be built upon a lifetime of preparation, growth, character, learning, and reliance on God (the mass under the surface). Public prayers ought to be a taste of how he prays in private. Preaching ought to be the cream scraped off the top of his brain.

Sometimes I sick a little into my mouth when I think about the cult of celebrity and entertainment that has built up around so much of pastoral ministry and church life, and the concurrent consumerist approach of the average churchgoer. If Andrew Wilson is right, and we’re heading into winter, one benefit we can look forward to is the death of such things in the church. Winter will not tolerate palm trees and piña coladas. Winter will give birth to bigger icebergs.

What does this mean in practice? It means that in amongst the many and varied jobs that need to get done in church life, a pastor must carve out time to grow, and that is part of his job.

Weirdly enough, I think a lot of pastors actually feel guilty if they pray or read on the job. I’ve often heard people reason down these lines: if your church members have to pray and read the Bible outside of their working hours, you should too, otherwise you can’t keep encouraging them to do it. That’s fine in so far as you (the pastor) need to be working hard and not be the slackest member in your church. But it’s also stupid because giving yourself to the word and prayer is your job: it’s literally the one thing we ought to all agree that you’re paid to do. The rest is more or less up for grabs.

The tragedy is that often the models and priorities of church life today do not favour the pastor-iceberg. As a result, most pastors will be tempted to fill up their week with a lot of work that doesn’t allow them to grow deep in God. This is a constant war ground for the pastor’s heart. Here are two brief applications:

1. Church members, you must realise that your pastor is called to give himself to the word and prayer (see Acts 6). There are a lot of things you might like him to be that are not part of his calling.

2. Pastors, if you are feeling stretched thin, weak in faith, over-worked, under-inspired, neglectful of the things that feed your spirit, and altogether too lightweight, then take some time to rethink your priorities and your planning. If wise productivity is all about putting in the big blocks first, then let your growth in God be the first thing you plan for.

This post first appeared over at Think Theology.

Keller’s Powerful Spiritual Diagnostic

I’ve recently finished reading Tim Keller’s new book on prayer, and it is truly outstanding. But there was one section that stood out as one of the most helpful things I’ve read on prayer and the spiritual life for a very long time. It’s towards the end of the book and Keller is seeking to leave us with some parting thoughts and motivations to actually commit to prayer (as one friend of mine recently commented, it’s far easier to read a book on prayer than to pray). Keller gives us this spiritual diagnostic to help you understand your experiences of prayer, and give you hope to keep going:

I often ask Christians to evaluate their situation with regard to prayer by using a metaphor. Imagine that your soul is a boat, a boat with both oars and a sail. In this case here are four questions:

Are you “sailing”? Sailing means you are living the Christian life with the wind at your back. God is real to your heart. You often feel his love. You see prayers being answered. When studying the Bible, you regularly see remarkable things and you sense him speaking to you. You sense people around you being influenced by the Spirit through you.

Are you “rowing”? Rowing means you are finding prayer and Bible reading to be more a duty than a delight. God often (though not always) seems distant, and the sense of his presence is fairly rare. You don’t see many of your prayers being answered. You may be struggling with doubts about God and yourself. Yet despite all this, you refuse self-pity or the self-righteous pride that assumes you know better than God how your life should go. You continue to read the Bible and pray regularly, you attend worship and reach out and serve people despite the inner spiritual dryness.

Are you “drifting”? Drifting means that you are experiencing all the conditions of rowing—spiritual dryness and difficulties in life. But in response, instead of rowing, you are letting yourself drift. You don’t feel like approaching and obeying God, so you don’t pray or read. You give in to the self-centeredness that naturally comes when you feel sorry for yourself, and you drift into self-indulgent behaviors to comfort yourself, whether it be escape eating and sleeping, sexual practices, or whatever else.

Are you “sinking”? Eventually your boat, your soul, will drift away from the shipping lanes, as it were—and truly lose any forward motion in the Christian life. The numbness of heart can become hardness because you give in to thoughts of self-pity and resentment. If some major difficulty or trouble were to come into your life, it would be possible to abandon your faith and identity as a Christian altogether.

In this metaphor we see that there are some things we are responsible for, such as using the means of grace—the Bible, prayer, and church participation—in a disciplined way. There are many other things we do not have much control over—such as how well the circumstances in our lives are going as well as our emotions. If you pray, worship, and obey despite negative circumstances and feelings, you won’t be drifting, and when the winds come up again, you will move ahead swiftly. On the other hand, if you do not apply the means of grace, you will at best be drifting, and if storms come into your life, you might be in danger of sinking.

In any case—pray no matter what. Praying is rowing, and sometimes it is like rowing in the dark—you won’t feel that you are making any progress at all. Yet you are, and when the winds rise again, and they surely will, you will sail again before them.

Prayer, Timothy Keller, p.259-260

This post first appeared over at the Grace London blog.

Is It A Good Thing To Want To Be An Overseer?

For a while now I’ve assumed that every Christian man ought to aspire to church eldership. Look at 1 Timothy 3.1:

“The saying is trustworthy: If anyone aspires to the office of overseer, he desires a noble task.”

On first reading it sounds like Paul is saying something to the effect that the men ought to desire eldership, that this is a good and noble desire. But I think my reading has for a long time been coloured by the way I’ve heard this passage preached, where the ambition to leadership is held up (like a rabbit before a pack of greyhounds) as something to help motivate men to grow up and mature. In fact, I’ve preached it this way myself.

But on a second reading I’m not at all sure that is what Paul’s saying. For one thing, he’s not addressing all the men in the room, but only a selection — notice the “if”. And furthermore, by saying “he desires a noble task” he is not necessarily saying “his desire itself is noble”. I think the meaning is not so much an affirmation of ambition, but an affirmation of the dignity of the role. It’s like saying: “If anyone wants to climb Everest, he has set his sights very high.”

The qualifications that follow in verses 2–7 are then not so much to be treated as goals to attain, though they are worthy goals for any Christian, but rather as a checklist before daring to step into such a role as eldership. So, the overall meaning is like this: “If you want to climb Everest (which is very high) you had better be fit, well-funded, well-trained, and well-bearded.” There is not, to my mind, any comment on whether someone ought to make this a goal in the first place.

What of the ambition to lead? The reality is that many men in churches do want to be elders, and that this desire can spur them on. Is this ambition good, or is it bad?

Calvin thinks that Paul is gently permitting the desire to eldership (the very fact that Paul is addressing such men shows a tacit acceptance of the desire; he doesn’t say the desire is wrong, after all). But Calvin adds some helpful words of caution and advice:

“If ambition is condemned in other matters, much more severely ought it to be condemned in ‘the office of a bishop.’ But Paul speaks of a godly desire, by which holy men wish to employ that knowledge of doctrine which they possess for the edification of the Church. For, if it were altogether unlawful to desire the office of a teacher, why should they who spend all their youth in reading the Holy Scriptures prepare themselves by learning? What are the theological schools but nurseries of pastors?”

So there are men whose passions and interests have led them to pursue vigorous study, and if that is coupled with desire, it may be a good thing for them to find outlet for their gifts for the benefit of the church. He goes on:

“Accordingly, they who have been thus instructed not only may lawfully devote themselves and their labours to God by a voluntary offering, but even ought to do so, and that too, before they have been admitted unto the office; provided that, nevertheless, they do not thrust themselves forward, and do not, even by their own wish, make themselves bishops, but are only ready to discharge the office, if their labours shall be required.”

That is, if a man has been trained he should start finding any and every opportunity to use what he’s got long before he gets ordained. But don’t push for ordination, wait for a summons.

“And if it turn out that, according to the lawful order; they are not called, let them know that such was the will of God, and let them not take it in that others have been preferred to them. But they who, without any selfish motive, shall have no other wish than to serve God and the Church, will be affected in this manner; and, at the same time, will have such modesty that they will not be at all envious, if others be preferred to them as being more worthy.”

This is undoubtedly the test of whether ambition for leadership is well-motivated or not: how a guy reacts when he’s refused the place on the leadership team. Will he have this modesty and complete absence of envy? Will he take it as God’s will?

This post first appeared over at ThinkTheology.

Holiness and your personality type

Because we are all wired up differently our unique proclivities and preferences in life are bound up with the vulnerabilities we face towards temptation. In other words, Satan will target your weak spots. And a good part of your counter-attack is figuring out where you are vulnerable and strapping on extra armour in the right places.

While the descriptions of personality types have multiplied over recent decades and psychologists can’t agree on how best to group us, I came across some super helpful insights from JI Packer. He acknowledges the modern psychological terms, but then says that the Ancient Greek categories are probably the most useful. He describes them like this:

(1) the sanguine (warm, jolly, outgoing, relaxed, optimistic);
(2) the phlegmatic (cool, low-key, detached, unemotional, apathetic);
(3) the choleric (quick, active, bustling, impatient, with a relatively short fuse); and
(4) the melancholic (somber, pessimistic, inward-looking, inclined to cynicism and depression).

It’s not hard to identify yourself in one these descriptions (or a combination of a couple). And what do you do when you have? Packer writes, “The assertion that I now make, and must myself face, is that I am not to become (or remain) a victim of my temperament.” So, while your personality might make you prone to particular sins, it’s your job to fight twice as hard to overcome those tendencies. Packer then goes on with this brilliant summary of what holiness will look like for each of the four main types:

“Holiness for a person of sanguine temperament, then, will involve learning to look before one leaps, to think things through responsibly, and to speak wisely rather than wildly. (These were among the lessons Peter learned with the Spirit’s help after Pentecost.) Holiness for a person of phlegmatic temperament will involve a willingness to be open with people, to feel with them and for them, to be forthcoming in relationships, and to become vulnerable, in the sense of risking being hurt. Holiness for a choleric person will involve practicing patience and self-control. It will mean redirecting one’s anger and hostility toward Satan and sin, rather than toward fellow human beings who are obstructing what one regards as the way forward. (These were among the lessons Paul learned from the Lord after his conversion.) Finally, holiness for a melancholic person will involve learning to rejoice in God, to give up self-pity and proud pessimism, and to believe, with the medieval mystic Julian of Norwich, that through sovereign divine grace, ‘All shall be well and all shall be well, and all manner of things shall be well.’ ”

(JI Packer, Rediscovering Holiness, location 289 in Kindle)

Commit Fewer Abominations

I’ll readily admit that, from time-to-time, Dr Lloyd-Jones was a little too trigger-happy with his use of the word ‘abomination’. (Few would agree that collecting illustrations on index cards for use in sermons is truly abominable.) But his resolute determination to live and preach and pastor as though God is real is often the underlying motive behind his strong language. He had no time for methods in ministry that were more reliant on human ingenuity than any dependence on God to act.

This is a Biblical concern. Just before Ezra makes the vast and dangerous journey back to Israel from Exile with his companions and resources to start the rebuilding we read this:

Then I proclaimed a fast there, at the river Ahava, that we might humble ourselves before our God, to seek from him a safe journey for ourselves, our children, and all our goods. For I was ashamed to ask the king for a band of soldiers and horsemen to protect us against the enemy on our way, since we had told the king, “The hand of our God is for good on all who seek him, and the power of his wrath is against all who forsake him.” So we fasted and implored our God for this, and he listened to our entreaty.

Ezra 8.21–23

Ezra tells Artaxerxes he doesn’t need his protection, and he does so as a statement of faith and confidence in God.

This impulse is seen in many stories in the Bible — the resolute desire not to rely on men but to prove God by taking a decision in which, if he doesn’t act, failure is certain.

If I had to articulate one hope for Grace London it would be something down these lines. A passionate desire to demonstrate that God is true to his word, that his gospel works, and that it’s enough. There are few things that dismay me more than churches where the fruit is so explainable to a watching world. I’m not sure God is glorified when churches grow through our clever marketing, entertainment, and watered-down gospel-lite. Perhaps this really is an abomination to God.

Anyway, I attempted to explain a little more of this last Sunday and the summary of the message is here.

Nine forms of fasting

Fasting – the most resented of all spiritual disciplines, but the one most likely to be embraced by Californians in search of their beach bodies – is more important in the Bible than we often acknowledge. If you haven’t heard you pastor preach on fasting, it’s probably because he doesn’t want to be a hypocrite. We ought to talk about, and think, and engage far more with fasting as a means of spiritual renewal and of seeking God’s face. Donald Whitney (in Spiritual Disciplines for the Christian Life) lists no less than nine forms of fasting that he’s helpfully categorised for your condemnation conviction:

1. Normal fasts – abstaining from food, but not from water, for a set period of time. Think Jesus in the wilderness.

2. Partial fasts – limiting your diet to certain simple food groups. Think Daniel and his three friends.

3. Absolute fasts – not eating or drinking at all for a very limited time (e.g. 24 hours). Think EzraEsther, or Paul.

4. Supernatural fasts – not eating or drinking for a time, beyond what is naturally possible. Think Moses on Mount Sinai.

5. Private fasts – fasting while smiling and smelling good so that nobody notices. Think the teaching of Jesus.

6. Congregational fasts – fasting as God’s people together for a purpose. Think the call of Joel and the elders in Antioch.

7. National fasts – when a nation gets desperate for God’s help. Think Judah under Jehoshaphat.

8. Regular fasts – prescribed under the Old Testament law. Think Yom Kippur.

9. Occasional fasts – special needs call for special measures. Think the guests without the Bridegroom.

Self-pity: the sin behind the sin

Sins cause other sins. Sometimes that’s because the circumstances brought about by one sin create the perfect circumstances to go ahead and commit the next one (as when David began down the slippery slope by staying home that fateful Spring time and letting his eyes linger a while on Bathsheba). But sometimes the progression from one sin to another takes place imperceptibly in the chambers of the heart. There’s a kind of chain reaction as one sin leads to another, sometimes in the blink of an eye, as when pride produces anger in reaction to embarrassment. Sometimes the progression is much slower, as when anger settles into bitterness, and bitterness festers into hatred. But trace the line back far enough and you’ll find the trigger, the sin that gave birth to all the rest.

Perhaps then you could talk about some sins being ‘mothers’ to other kinds of sin – where the offspring are sometimes lesser, and sometimes greater. There are a lot examples of this. Idolatry (whether worshipping yourself or other ‘gods’) always gives birth to some other sin, for example, Mammon worship makes you greedy. Pride has many children, since it leads to anger, unclean ambition, superiority, and much else besides.

Now, in some ways it feels a bit silly to talk about sins as though they were particular apps loaded onto your brain software, each self-contained but with some interaction between each other. The reality is so much more complex and intertwined. For example, it’s not as though you can always separate out the sins of anger and pride when they are in so many situations horribly overlapping. But the Bible names particular sins by showing us their typical patterns and characteristics and treats them as entities to be identified and killed. “So put away all malice and all deceit and hypocrisy and envy and all slander” (1 Peter 2.1). So, it seems worthwhile thinking about the rarely acknowledged sin of self-pity.

We need to stress, of course, that there’s a difference between being sad and being self-pitying. I don’t think that every time you feel down you’re indulging in self-pity. That would be a ridiculous conclusion. But there’s a line we cross somewhere when we’re weighed down in the circumstances of life that takes us from sadness to something uglier and altogether more dangerous. It’s not easy to explain the difference, and it’s even harder to identify the difference in your own heart and mind. But there is one evidence that always shows when you’re settling into self-pity, and that’s to look at the fruit. Are you beginning to look for comforts outside of Jesus? Are you beginning to consider sin as a way of getting your joy? Are you doubting that God has your best interests at heart, that his will is “good and acceptable and perfect” (Rom. 12.2)?

And so I’m convinced that the root of self-pity causes so much trouble in our hearts. It seems to be a particularly fertile kind of sin. From self-pity spring so many sins of self-indulgence. Self-pity lays down the conditions of the heart in which all kinds of illegitimate comforts become more appealing. When you’re wallowing in a state of self-pity you can begin to feel like God is withholding good things from you. You can begin to feel a sense of entitlement, that you deserve more. You start looking for comforts to touch your sorrow. You find avenues of escape that allow you to feel better if only for a while.

John Piper gives the example of a Christian leader who’s drawn towards adultery because of self-pity. What on earth is he thinking? Perhaps, Piper suggests, something like this:

“Nobody else understands my pressures. Nobody else seems to feel for me in my loneliness the way she does. If any of them knew what I was going through in this leadership role, they would understand why I need this kind of embrace, I need this kind of ‘unconditional acceptance’. I have borne enough of the burden of being everybody’s spiritual example, I can’t take it any more. And I don’t care if they don’t approve.”

Even if the result is not as extreme as adultery, hasn’t self-pity been the cause of so many other forms of greedy self-indulgence — from buying stuff you can’t afford, to wasting time on some form of entertainment, to over-eating, to laziness, to dating that person who’s no good for you.

I wonder how many people who battle with particular recurring or habitual sins are failing because they haven’t taken out the root of self-pity.

Self-pity is sin for two big reasons. First, because it’s saying something about the character of God, saying that he’s not good or loving or kind since he must be withholding. Second, self-pity is sin because it’s saying something about your importance, your entitlements, your rights. Perhaps, then, self-pity is not the root at all but rather springs out of our unbelief (towards God) and pride (towards ourselves). Even so, it’s a particularly powerful expression of these other sins; a concoction that always produces a reaction.

There is an antidote to self-pity, and that is gratitude to God.

It is the conscious decision to thank God for all he’s done for you in Christ. In being grateful we take the axe to the root of unbelief (saying God’s not good) and pride (saying I deserve more). In being grateful we find there’s power to climb out of the hole of putrid self-pitying and kill all of the accompanying temptations by simply discovering happiness in God.

“Do not be deceived, my beloved brothers. Every good gift and every perfect gift is from above, coming down from the Father of lights with whom there is no variation or shadow due to change. (James 1.16–17)”

I find it interesting that the world is awakening to the power of gratitude, though sad that nobody knows who to thank — something Paul understands to be the cause of man’s rebellion: “For although they knew God, they did not honour him as God or give thanks to him…” (Romans 1.21). As Christians we not only know who to thank, but have a profound duty and privilege to do so. As J.I. Packer puts it,

“No religion anywhere has ever laid such stress on the need for thanksgiving, nor called on its adherents so incessantly and insistently to give God thanks as does the religion of the Bible.”1

“Therefore, as you received Christ Jesus the Lord, so walk in him, rooted and built up in him and established in the faith, just as you were taught, abounding in thanksgiving” (Col. 2.6–7).

 This was originally posted at ThinkTheology.


1. J.I. Packer, A Passion for Holiness, Crossway Books, 1992, quoted by Terry Virgo in The Spirit-Filled Church, Monarch Books, 2011, p.65.

It's all about the cross

A long time ago I heard CJ Mahaney refer to a book that, he said, “defines Christian ministry for me”. Whatever problems Mahaney has faced in recent years, I’ve always admired his relentless focus on the Gospel. I heard him speak at a major leadership conference with thousands of church leaders present, and rather than offer up your typical conference message guaranteed to get the crowd going, he instead chose to preach on Golgotha. His little book, The Cross Centered Life, changed the way I understood my faith. It radically refocussed my life (along with The Discipline of Grace by Jerry Bridges and a series of messages on grace by Terry Virgo). So, when Mahaney said that a particular book definedChristian ministry in his mind, somehow that lodged in my mind.

But for whatever reason I never got around to picking up that book until a few days ago. It’s The Cross and Christian Ministry by DA Carson. In this book he’s explaining a few sections of First Corinthians. It’s absolutely brilliant. There are echoes of Dr Martyn Lloyd-Jones (but with a little more balance). Here are a few selections well worth thinking about.

On the temptation to pursue ministry strategies v. preaching the cross:

“At the moment, books are pouring off the presses telling us how to plan for success, how ‘vision’ consists in clearly articulated ‘ministry goals,’ how the knowledge of detailed profiles of our communities constitutes the key to successful outreach. I am not for a moment suggesting that there is nothing to be learned from such studies. But after a while one may perhaps be excused for marveling how many churches were planted by Paul and Whitefield and Wesley and Stanway and Judson without enjoying these advantages. Of course all of us need to understand the people to whom we minister, and all of us can benefit from small doses of such literature. But massive doses sooner or later dilute the gospel. Ever so subtly, we start to think that success more critically depends on thoughtful sociological analysis than on the gospel; Barna becomes more important than the Bible. We depend on plans, programs, vision statements—but somewhere along the way we have succumbed to the temptation to displace the foolishness of the cross with the wisdom of strategic planning.”

On the tendency to platform celebrities to make our churches seem more credible:

“Why is it that we constantly parade Christian athletes, media personalities, and pop singers? Why should we think that their opinions or their experiences of grace are of any more significance than those of any other believer? When we tell outsiders about people in our church, do we instantly think of the despised and the lowly who have become Christians, or do we love to impress people with the importance of the men and women who have become Christians? Modern Western evangelicalism is deeply infected with the virus of triumphalism, and the resulting illness destroys humility, minimizes grace, and offers far too much homage to the money and influence and ‘wisdom’ of our day.”

These first two quotes come from his comments on 1 Corinthians 1.18–2.5. This final one, from later in the book, rounds the ideas off well. He’s making the point that a church must be built on the foundation of the Gospel or it isn’t a church.

“If we see this clearly, then many other things will fall into place. We will perceive that it is God’s revelation to us of his Son that is of paramount importance. Recognizing the need for the Spirit of God to illumine the minds of men and women who otherwise will not grasp the gospel, we will emphasize prayer. We will live and serve in the light of the final judgment, for we must give an account of our ministry. It is not that we shall refuse any practical help from those who have something to say about technique or sociological profiles; rather, we will remain utterly committed to the centrality of the cross, not just at vague, theoretical levels, but in all our strategy and practical decisions. We will be fearful of adopting approaches that might empty the cross of Christ of its power… and the only approval we shall seek is his who tests the quality of each builder’s work on the last day.”

How shall I stand if such mighty pillars have been cast to the ground?

Nothing is sadder or more destructive for the church than when leaders crash to the ground in a public way. It can be so disillusioning and disappointing for those of us who have loved and admired them (a point Matthew Hosier makes so well here). I know very little of the circumstances surrounding the decision of the Acts 29 board to remove Mark Driscoll and his church, Mars Hill, from the network. But I feel the crushing disappointment of the whole thing, given how much admiration I feel for the ministry of Driscoll.

This morning I read these unbelievably relevant words from John Owen in a book of daily readings. Read this slowly and carefully:

“It is the great duty of all believers to use all diligence that we do not fall into temptation. Adam was created in the image of God, full of integrity, righteousness, and holiness. He had a far greater inherent stock of ability than we, and there was nothing in him to entice or seduce him. No sooner had he entered into temptation but he was gone, lost, and ruined, and all his posterity with him. What can we expect if we also enter into temptation? We, like him, have the temptation and the cunning of the devil to deal with, but we also have a cursed world and a corrupt heart to increase the power of temptation. Abraham is an example for all believers to follow, and yet he entered into temptation about his wife and was overpowered to the dishonour of God. God called David ‘a man after God’s own heart’, yet what a dreadful thing is the story of his entering into temptation! I might mention Noah, Lot, Hezekiah, Peter and the rest, whose temptations and falls are recorded for our instruction. Certainly any with a heart for these things will cry out ‘How shall I stand, O Lord, if such mighty pillars have been cast to the ground? If such great cedars were blown down, how shall I stand before temptation? O keep me that I do not enter into temptation!’ Are any without a wound or blemish that have entered temptation? How will we fare? Assuredly, if we see stronger men fail, we will seek to avoid the battle at all cost. Is it not madness for a man who can barely crawl up and down (which is the case for most of us), if he does not avoid that which has brought down giants in the undertaking thereof? If you are yet whole and sound, take heed of temptation, lest it happens to you as with Abraham and the rest who fell in time of trial.”

(John Owen in Voices from the Past, edited by Richard Rushing, p.96)

On the back of this, three pieces of counsel come to mind.

1. Try not to judge that which you know nothing about

None of us have been privy to the discussions that have happened behind doors regarding all the issues surrounding Mark Driscoll. I trust the Acts 29 board because, from what I know of them, they seem to be a well-rounded and wise bunch of men. But I’m not going to dismiss Driscoll or write him off. On the contrary, my hope and prayer is that he would come through this stronger and more effective. God knows many of us have been inspired and helped by him.

2. Look at your own life and make a double effort to root out the sins of your heart

For those of us who are in positions of leadership in the church, or aspire to get there, the sentiments that Owen expresses here are poignantly relevant. I am not a pillar or a cedar, and if even they can come crashing to the ground, I had better take a look at my own life and root out the sins of my heart by the grace of God.

3. Avoid the battle of ‘entering into temptation’ at all costs

This is Owen’s main point. He’s not talking about the battle of the Christian life (which we are all engaged in), but the battle of facing down temptation, of ‘entering into temptation’. This is a situation in which the lusts of your own heart meet timely opportunities to sin, and the outcome is your inevitable downfall. Just as Jesus told us to watch lest we enter into temptation, Owen wants Christians to see that, rather than just avoiding the sin itself, we need to make every effort (through prayer and wise choices) to avoid entering into temptation. Don’t go there. Flee. Make it impossible to get tempted in the ways you know you’re vulnerable. Of course, how you do that will depend on your makeup and your situation, but we can learn from what little we know of Driscoll’s circumstances, and the far greater knowledge we have of our own hearts, to make sure we are careful in this.

Church growth: Why numbers don’t tell the whole story

It is fashionable these days to judge the success of a church or ministry based on its size. Typically, the men on platforms at Christian conferences are the guys with the biggest churches. Pastors flock to hear their methods and imitate their strategies. I’m not sure when this trend began, but it doesn’t seem to be a strong theme throughout the history of the church, and least of all in the New Testament. I have a number of problems with this extremely narrow view of success.

For one thing, it’s possible to build big, and build badly. Paul says very clearly that it is the quality of your work that will be proven through the judgment, not the size of it. “Now if anyone builds on the foundation with gold, silver, precious stones, wood, hay, straw – each one’s work will become manifest, for the Day will disclose it, because it will be revealed by fire, and the fire will test what sort of work each one has done.”

We can also see that some of the biggest churches are not churches by any Biblical measure. If we’re going to use numbers as our measurement, then we’d have to say that some of the churches experiencing the most success internationally include those who pray to Mary, those who preach prosperity as the message of Christ, and all other kinds of bizarre and unbiblical practices. In other words, numbers, in and of themselves, tell you very little about whether the church is even Christian.

Further, you can build big with a fairly narrow gift set. When you read the NT it’s not at all clear that the apostles had the kinds of gifts that could have built a mega-church in today’s world. They had little to no concern for marketing, executive leadership skills, or rhetoric and excellence in the church service.

In fact, we have to confess that big church is sometimes the fruit of consumerist culture. The biggest churches are so often those that serve up a palatable diet of easy-eating, with no bitter edge and no roughage to clear out the system. It’s junk food for a spiritually flabby age, and we are playing right into the spirit of consumerism when we conform our church life to a model that draws in more customers, but doesn’t make disciples.

Now, consider this. Jesus had a penchant for driving people away rather than attempting to gather a large crowd of fans. So often in the gospels we see large numbers gathering, and Jesus responds by trying his hardest to offend them, and he usually succeeds. He tells them to “eat my flesh and drink my blood” and they think he’s into cannibalism. He rebukes them for seeking miracles rather than true spiritual life. He simply isn’t impressed by numbers, and he finds great success in repelling them.

And it goes without saying that Jesus left comparatively few disciples, so that, if we looked at the numbers alone we’d have to conclude that he would not have earned a place on any platform at any major Christian conference today. He would be an unknown provincial preacher with modest influence.

Despite all of this, I do believe that church growth is a vitally important aim and desire. If you don’t want your church to grow, you don’t care about the lost or about the glory of Christ. There is a special kind of pride that glories in being small and ‘faithful’, and I want no part of that.

But the problem is that we have become so enamoured with numbers that we judge success or failure by them, we platform guys because of their large churches who often have very little to say, we make heroes of men who may well be trimming their message to appease the masses, and we take pride in growth as though we achieved something, when the Bible is perfectly clear: one guy plants, another might water, but God gives the increase.

Why preaching from memory or reading your notes might not be a good idea

This brief article by Lisa Evans from Fast Company covered a few mistakes people make in public speaking. There’s a section in there that just about perfectly captures my own concerns when preachers attempt to memorise their message, or worse still, read it out. The article is summarising some of the tips from Laura Sicola, founder of Vocal Impact Productions, and the first problem she identifies is the tendency to sound disengaged from your message. Quoting Sicola, Lisa Evans writes:

“ ‘If you don’t sound like you’re interested in your own words, why would anyone else be interested?’ asks Sicola. Too often, she says, managers will jot down meeting notes and read them off, or attempt to memorize them. The problem is, she explains, trying to get through a list of words often distracts the presenter from their meaning and causes them to sound disengaged.

“ ‘It’s not that you have to be Tony Robbins jumping up and down and trying to convince and compel, but you have to sound like you’re at least listening to the words that are coming out of your mouth,’ says Sicola.”

I think a lot of preachers are aware of this danger and so they attempt to make up for it by injecting some passion and variation in their tone of voice. The problem is, very few guys manage to sound authentic when they’re accessing their memory bank or reading their manuscript (though there are some notable exceptions, including John Piper and Mark Dever who preach from very full manuscripts).

It seems to me that the reason guys feel they have to write a full sermon and regurgitate or read it comes down to the fear of what might go wrong otherwise – they might preach too long (a real problem when you use less notes); they might speak heresy (yes, I’ve heard that one before); they might get their words mixed up; they might forget what to say; they might repeat themselves too often. But all of these potential problems can be overcome through determined practice.

Mark Driscoll says that learning to preach is like learning to drive a clutch; you have to keep trying until you get it right. I think it’s worth working hard to overcome the fear of speaking with fewer notes because the experience and effectiveness is so much greater in the long run. It’s probably going to result in some embarrassment along the way, but that’s ok. (And that’s one more reason why churches should probably think twice about putting every sermon online – there’s just no room for mistakes.)

Worship and evangelism are basically the same thing

Think of the last time you went to a really great restaurant. You might have praised the owner or the waiter who served you, telling them how amazing the food was. But after you left the restaurant you most likely told a friend that they just have to go try it.

Speaking to the owner or waiter was worship; speaking to your friend was evangelism. You may have said the exact same things, but your words were addressed to different audiences.

One of the reasons God saves you is “that you may proclaim the excellencies of him who called you out of darkness into his marvellous light” (1 Peter 2.9). In other words, he saved you in order to turn you into a proclaimer. And your proclamation is going to be pointed in two directions: it will be directed towards God as worship, and it will be directed towards others as evangelism.

I think evangelism can be made a lot more complicated than it needs to be. We make it hard by assuming that we have to have comprehensive knowledge of the Bible, training from experts, familiarity with apologetics and philosophy, and the ability to persuade people. All of these things can be useful, but it’s sad when Christians feel they can’t evangelise.

If you can talk about your favourite restaurant, film, city, beach, comedian, coffee, artist, shop, designer, actor, band, programming language or book, then you can evangelise. Worship is the outflow of enthusiastic and passionate admiration. But when you think of it, so is evangelism.

A little while ago my sister-in-law told me of a conversation she had with a guy at her church. He was pretty vocal about his favourite clubs and music, but he said that evangelism wasn’t his thing; he couldn’t tell people about Jesus. She told him that if he could enthuse about the things he loved, then he could tell people about Jesus.

When worship is the outflow of your heart because you really love Jesus, and you want to thank him for all he is and all he’s done for you, then evangelism need not be any more complicated or difficult than letting others overhear something of that passion. I once heard one of country’s foremost apologists, Amy Orr-Ewing, put it somewhat like this: “We just need to go and tell people how amazingly wonderful Jesus is. It’s as simple as that.”