Depth vs. Detail

Recently I was asked a question by a young man training for the ministry. He wanted to know how to preach sermons that were more profound. The wrong way to accomplish that is by simply adding details back to a message. Reintroducing samples of your exegetical research is like adding basic ingredients back into the cake after it’s half baked. The real pathway to depth is through understanding the culture, context, and humanity of the people you’re talking about. The lost art of meditating on the Scriptures has led to biblical pathology (laboratory analysis of how something died) in place of preaching (corporate celebration of what is alive).

Eating Chaff

Paul tells teachers in 1 Corinthians 3:5 that, “If anyone’s work is burned up, he will suffer loss, though he himself will be saved, but only as through fire.”

This disquieting fact prompts Charles Ellicott to write, “If the work of any teacher abide. his reward will be exceeding great; if it “be burned,” woe to him! “He himself shall be saved, yet so as by fire,” scathed by that which shall consume the rubbish he has raked together; the faith which prompted such a man shall save him, but no reward can follow useless teaching.”

In the final judgment, how much of the teaching that is going on today will be burned up as useless chaff? How much chaff is in your spiritual diet? How much chaff are you serving others? These are good questions.

How to help others and yourself stay on course: A message and a metaphor

In his excellent book Prayer: Experiencing Awe and Intimacy with God, Tim Keller offers the following metaphor to assess our present condition before the Lord (p.258-260). Your spiritual life is like a boat at sea. You’ve been given command of the vessel, and the expectation is that you will make progress to the other side.

Below are four ways to describe how you’re doing. This is immensely helpful for assessing your personal condition, but also as you help others assess theirs.

Sailing – the wind is at your back and you’re in regular communion with God. You sense his constant presence, help, and power.

Rowing – the effort to maintain a close relationship with God is more of a duty than a delight. You are not despairing, but you find yourself in a state of spiritual dryness.

Drifting – the spiritual dryness has caused you to stop trying anymore. You have no strong desire to know or obey God, and you start looking for comfort elsewhere.

Sinking – the lack of spiritual growth has given way to self-pity and resentment. You have been blown off course and run the risk of making shipwreck of the faith.

This is a powerful metaphor, and a helpful way to serve others as they seek to assess their spiritual condition. I appreciate how Keller is honest about the times when circumstances will leave you felling like you’re rowing in the dark. But if you keep rowing – reading your Bible, praying, being faithful to attend church – you will enjoy deep communion with God when the winds kick up again.

Things far greater than politics

Iain Murray is best known for his monumental biographies of men like Martin Lloyd-Jones and Jonathan Edwards. He manages to get a grip on the reader and pull you through even dense biographical content with ease. His works about church history are also illuminating and equally compelling.

In Revival and Revivalism he gives an account of the amazing resurgence of religious fervor that was gripping Virginia. One line jumped out at me. It comes from a letter written to someone back in England. It’s dated September 10th 1776, and outlines many of the amazing things happening in the churches and communities. Toward the end of the letter I read this fascinating sentence, “The unhappy disputes between England and her colonies, which just before had engrossed all our conversation, seemed now in most companies to be forgot, while things of far greater importance lay so near the heart”.

That is such a remarkable statement given the political climate of the day. Of course politics had engrossed everyones conversation. The people were at war. The “unhappy disputes between England and her colonies” included the signing of the Declaration of Independence just 2 months earlier! If ever there was just cause for political enthusiasm, it was then. The stakes were as high as they could be, and the future of the nation (a small collection of colonies really) was literally being shaped at that moment.

Surely you would excuse even the church for being obsessed with what was going to happen next. However, something even greater got ahold of everyone. What could possibly have the power to occupy the minds of people and turn their attention and conversation away from the political theatre? The answer is the gospel. The answer is true revival. The effect of the gospel on people was so marvelous that it made all the other noise pale in comparison. It’s helpful to remember that there are things of eternal significance that are of far greater importance than the upcoming election.

The Burnout Myth

Have you heard about the mega church pastor who suddenly quits? It’s not always a moral scandal or leadership failure that drives them out. Often the press release sites a seemingly simple and even avoidable culprit: “burnout”. I won’t even mention recent examples because I have no case against these men personally. There are pressures unique to high profile ministry assignments, and obscure ones too.

However, the notion that a pastor would feel totally spent is mostly a North American phenomenon. Interestingly it’s not as prevalent in countries where pastors have to work a secular job, battle the challenged of a conflicting cultural religion, or run the risk of government sponsored persecution. It’s in the easy breezy nominally Christian culture of American that most pastors burn out.

My thesis is pretty simple. Burnout is the not the result of work, but of stress over not doing real work. Deep down, what crushes your spirit is the contempt you feel for how shallow your chores have become. I don’t mean mundane, but shallow. You spend your days in meetings, promoting your brand, extending your influence, broadening your network, and pouring over reports you consider performance indicators.

All the while, the infinitely soul satisfying work of real ministry is pushed aside. Inner turmoil results. It comes from being distracted by stuff people call ministry. It comes from believing that you are obligated to be all things to all men. The result is that you become nothing to anybody.

Sifting through the debris of a burnout will likely show a man seduced into thinking he’s a corporate executive, ironically missing the point that the best corporate executives don’t do what a lot of pastors pretending to be corporate executives do.

Perhaps the best remedy would be to remind yourself you are not as important as you think. Get to work on the most important thing, and then work on not working the rest of the time. The ministry will go on without you, and the more often you test this theory, the better off you’ll be. As a further benefit, the church will be healthier too.

Mystical Puritans: A look at “The Affective Spirituality of John Owen” by David M. King

In his article The Affective Spirituality of John Owen [the-affective-spirituality-of-john-owen] David M. King shines a light on the white hot passion for God that existed among the “frozen chosen”. In direct contrast to the common perception that Reformed Theology leads to cold orthodoxy, King uses John Owen a paradoxical portrait.

Insights from the article:

  1. We are here to be sanctified, and it’s “both God’s promised gift and man’s prescribed duty”.
  2. Sanctification includes both the “vivification” (life of the new nature) and “mortification” (death of the old nature).
  3. Subjective communion with God is to be cultivated, but is possible only through Christ, and in agreement with the Word of God.
  4. Experiential religion mixes knowledge with power and efficacy, and it’s the greatest deterrent to apostasy.
  5. A knowledge of God can lead to life, but an experience of God is necessary to achieve peace.
  6. Cognitive contemplation is thinking about truth, affective contemplation is allowing truth to shape our hearts and minds with “love, delight, and humiliation”.

This quote should help summarize the article, “Some have caricatured Puritanism, and indeed much of the Reformed tradition, as a cold and lifeless intellectualism. In contrast, the religion of the Puritans was an affective and experiential religion, as those who look to this tradition for insight into ‘evangelical spirituality’ will discover”.

How to abuse the Word of God

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How many times have you heard someone say God spoke to them? Usually they don’t even suggest it was verbal. They say a Bible verse leapt out at them. It’s a preemptive defense against the attack of subjectivism. To this defense the imitable pastor/theologian Jonathan Edwards says:

“… if a person in New England, on some occasion, were at a loss whether it was his duty to go into some popish or heathenish land, where he was like to be exposed to many difficulties and dangers, and should pray to God that he would show him the way of his duty; and after earnest prayer, should have those words which God spake to Jacob, Gen. 46, suddenly and extraordinarily brought to his mind, as if they were spoken to him; “Fear not to go down into Egypt; for I will go with thee; and I will also surely bring you up again.” In which words, though as they lay in the Bible before they came to his mind, they related only to Jacob, and his behavior; yet he supposes that God has a further meaning, as they were brought and applied to him; that thus they are to be understood in a new sense, that by Egypt is to be understood this particular country he has in his mind, and that the action intended is his going thither, and that the meaning of the promise is, that God would bring him back into New England again.”

Can’t you just hear someone saying this? They would prattle on about how amazing it was. It was such a “God thing”. They would insist, “I just knew this is what he was saying to me, and now I’m on my way to the foreign field to do great work and return with stories of victory”. Edwards continues with a succinct evisceration of this bad hermeneutic:

“There is nothing of the nature of a spiritual or gracious leading of the Spirit in this; for there is nothing of the nature of spiritual understanding in it. Thus to understand texts of Scripture, is not to have a spiritual understanding of them. Spiritually to understand the Scriptures, is rightly to understand what is in the Scripture, and what was in it before it was understood: it is to understand rightly, what used to be contained in the meaning of it, and not the making of a new meaning.”

Scripture already has a meaning, and it’s not what you want it to be or feel would benefit you. The only way to truly be led by the Spirit in understanding the Bible is to read the Bible and ask the Spirit of God to illuminate your mind as to what it means, not what it means to you. I frankly couldn’t care less about what the text means to someone else. Instead I want to know what it meant in it’s original context, and then let it have an impression on me. Edwards concludes with this:

“This making a new meaning to the Scripture, is the same thing as making a new Scripture; it is properly adding to the word, which is threatened with so dreadful a curse.”

Cursed is the man or woman who adds to the Bible by adding some meaning the author never intended. Remember that the next time you hear this kind of thing, and kindly remind the person to think twice before putting words into God’s mouth.

Word to the Wise (Part 19) – Proverbs 24:1-2

Proverbs 24:1–2 Be not envious of evil men, nor desire to be with them, for their hearts devise violence, and their lips talk of trouble.

If there were no bad guys, we’d have no heroes. Every enduring story has a villain, and in the end, they lose. Sometimes it happens at the last possible moment and against incredible odds, but it happens. It has to. That’s the rule. It’s also predictable.

The entertainment complex caught on to this and has begun selling exceptions to the rule. Several books and films in recent decades have been produced where the evil side wins. If I were making a movie, I might be tempted do the same thing. Different surprises. Different sells. Different wins elections.

Here’s the problem. We also run the risk of changing the definition of a hero. Its possible to find ourselves in a place where truly evil men are envied. When bad guys win they’re able to keep doing the stuff that makes them bad in the first place. Sometimes that stuff leads to huge payoffs. And those payoffs are what foolish people envy.

The first is independence. Evil men are free. They are not accountable. People who are controlled dream of the day when they can do whatever they want, whenever they want, for as long as they want, with whomever they want.

“It has been said that politics is the second oldest profession. I have learned that it bears a striking resemblance to the first.” – Ronald Reagan

The second is wealth. An opulent lifestyle can be obtained by promoting the leading edge of transgression. Evil men can create a decadent lifestyle for themselves. They can use wealth to purchase any noble ambition that would actually need to be earned by someone else.

“A fool and his money are soon elected” – Will Rogers

The third is impunity. When someone appears to be able to transgress with impunity, it elicits a deep temptation to participate. In the end this is a terrible trap because you align yourself with individuals who systematically cultivate the immoral.

“You must have a cigarette. A cigarette is the perfect type of a perfect pleasure. It is exquisite, and it leaves one unsatisfied. What more can one want?” – Oscar Wilde, The Picture of Dorian Gray

You can only envy an evil person when you deliberately reject the call to love your neighbor.

You can only envy an evil person when you lease out your conscience to pragmatism.

You can only envy an evil person when you are so foolish that they’ve blinded you to their true nature.