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October 2016
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An Ode to My Single Friends


Yes, this is yet another married Christian attempting to offer advice to his single brethren.  Que the rolling of the eyes…  Stay with me though, this may be a bit different.

Evangelical pastors have pulled off a phenomenal feat. In the same breath they’ve painted the family as the ultimate Christian value and without a hint of irony, described the married life as one of interminable agony.  This, to understate the problem, leaves singles in a confused position; tacitly asked to both idolize and fear marriage.  Thankfully, the Bible tells us something wildly different, something completely contrary to the position promoted from the pulpits today.  It tells us of the incredible, unique value of the Christian single as well as the indescribable joy of marriage.

Please Don’t Focus on The Family.

Why are evangelicals so obsessed with the family? The Christian religion is perhaps the least family focused religion in the world. Jesus rarely spoke of how to be a good parent or husband. In fact he explicitly broke down the importance of the family unit when he said “For whoever does the will of God, he is my brother and sister and mother.” In his other big mention of family, Jesus uses it as an example of second class, JV love; the type of stuff even a wicked pagan can pull off.

We’ve taken a value Jesus said was so basic that it didn’t require the Gospel to accomplish it, and made it our central goal. It would be akin to spending a month training in the Alps with Lance Armstrong and upon returning home, proudly riding your dusty tricycle around the block, wondering why no one was impressed. Worse, you’d go on to form political committees and non-profits dedicated to the refinement of tricycle riding skills. Jesus described loving your family as the starting gate, not the finish line.

Marriage is for Companionship

Here is where it gets weird.  Singles are also told marriage is pretty lame.  Of course, it is sanitized in Christianize, but the subtext is clear.  You’ve heard the phrases before, complete inanities like “marriage isn’t about happiness, it’s about holiness” or “marriage is for sanctification”. Where is that found in the bible? 1st ridiculonians? I’d hate to be their wife. What do love notes look like for these people?  –Honey, I love how being married to you highlights the wickedness of my soul. Or – It’s so wonderful to know we’re committed to 50 years of inducing suffering in each other.

Genesis clearly tells us god created marriage for joy and companionship. Even more, if marriage was primarily for sanctification, why on earth did the apostle Paul fail to mention this? It seems a rather glaring omission. Paul wrote much about the factors that assist in our sanctification, yet he never mentions marriage as important or even helpful in this pursuit. In fact his primarily mention of it is as a distraction to the work of the Gospel.  Let me be absolutely clear.  If you live your life fully for Christ, your singleness has no restriction on your path toward sanctification.

The problem, of course, is that few of us truly pursue God in the way Paul described.  We just wait for life to impress upon us it’s own sanctification.  It is one thing to drop to your knees in prayer when you’re diagnosed with cancer.  It is quite another to drop to your knees every night because you’re simply overwhelmed with the Gospel.  The result?  We don’t do much real digging into the sin in their life, until marriage forces it upon us.  We follow the logic and wrongly believe marriage is critical for exposing our sin.  No, it’s just God’s backup plan because we were too lazy to engage it on our own.

Pastors also disproportionately use examples of their family while preaching. When a pastor peppers his sermons with spiritual analogies from his last fishing trip with Johnny or his daughter’s first piano recital, the inescapable, albeit non-obvious conclusion is that marriage is essential for understanding the gospel. Think of the opposite. If a pastor used analogies about single missionaries risking their lives smuggling bibles, wouldn’t that have a positive effect on the felt worth of unmarried people?  Wouldn’t singles begin to rightly say to themselves – Hey, I keep hearing of ministry opportunities where it’s actually helpful to be single, maybe this unmarried stage of life isn’t such a curse.

Ok, pastors need not shoulder the entire burden. Some of it comes from within. Many Christians grew up under terrible parents, and, upon finding Christianity feel as if they’ve finally discovered a path toward redemption.  The logic goes like this:  Jesus rescued my opinion of marriage, therefore Jesus mostly cares about marriages.  Though the mistake is understandable, we must never let our joy over where the Gospel entered our life satiate our appetite for the Gospel to enter the rest of our life.

Did the leper healed by Jesus run off and tell everyone Jesus’ mission on earth was to heal lepers?  Doubtful, the bible just tells us he rejoiced and proclaimed Jesus’ power. Yes, if you feel called, start a marital counseling ministry. We certainly need it.  Just don’t let it define your faith. It doesn’t take the gospel to love your family.

I’m not sure why did evangelicals embraced family life as the preeminent christian value. Perhaps it is because in the last century we had already absconded our position in every other regard (academics, education, science, literature, music, poverty, etc.) It’s almost like we got together and said – hey guys, we’ve pretty much dropped the ball on every other value God called us to, let’s focus on the last one where we still have a slight edge on the pagans. If we just start calling it our #1 priority, we’ll instantly look successful.

The result? The world looks at us and finds us irrelevant, quaint and worst of all, average.

Why don’t we pray crazy big prayers?

A good friend of mine posed this question last week.  Though absurdly simple, I found it fascinating to attempt an answer.

The question:

  • We talk about praying big but why don’t we pray crazy big like “God save every person” or “God please end all cancers this year” or things like that?

The attempt at an answer:

First, I love the question because it highlights an assumption we all make but almost never really consider.  I cannot recall the last time I heard a prayer for something as grandiose and broad as “God please end all cancers this year.”  This requires us to ask whether this is the natural result of a correct view of God’s order or if this is simply another sign of our weak and timid faith.
I believe part of the reason we don’t pray “God save every person” is that we intuitively know God won’t do this.  Even illiterate Christians with no theological training know this (ironically, the minority on the other side are often highly educated professors).  Now this doesn’t do much to answer the question, but it clarifies that our opinion on the subject comes much more from our intuition than a conscious decision.
If you’re a hardcore, unwavering Calvinist, I don’t think you really can answer the question.  If God 100% controls, in every sense of the word, who goes to heaven and hell, then there really is no reason for Him not to save everyone.  The only logical reason for God to refrain, under a Calvinist framework, is if He is more glorified by allowing some to perish.  To me, this appears a bit sadistic.  But it’s likely what led Aquinas to state that our second favorite activity in heaven will be to meditate upon the eternal torment of unsaved sinners.
If you leave a little tension between the choice of man and sovereignty of God, I think you can come up with a decent explanation.  John 1:7, Acts 17:30-31 and many other verses seem to indicate that Jesus truly desires everyone to repent and follow Him.  However, God’s desire is of course, very different than His will, or put another way: from the reality He knows will unfold.  In this, Jesus seems to model very well what our attitude ought to look like in praying for big things.  Yes, our heart must long for everyone to be saved, but we would be naïve to operate under the assumption that it will occur.  Because Jesus knew, as we know as well, that this won’t happen.  The bible tells us that many will perish apart from God, and it would be foolish to live apart from this knowledge.
Much of these problems arise when we destroy the distinction between desire and will, lumping them together in a single essence of sovereignty.  But we see many indications of God wanting something other than what occurs or what He wills.  This is a mind bender, but I think it is critical to retain the distinction.  With it, we can learn how to pray as well.  We can desire for God to end all cancers, but we also can assume that this very likely wouldn’t accomplish His greater plan for the earth.  For example, we know suffering is part of our pre-heavenly state and is critical to our sanctification.  Thus, in praying for an end to all cancer, we would show not only our mistrust of God’s use of suffering but also our ignorance of His stated plan.
Now, this surely doesn’t mean we shouldn’t pray to cure cancer, but I think it ought temper our prayer for a miraculous, instant, worldwide cure apart from human work. It’s almost like in prayer we’re supposed to keep one eye on the desires of our heart and another on our understanding of His will.  Perhaps it is like an older brother who sees his younger brother making bad decisions.  He wants to jump in and stop him, but his father tells him to step aside and let the younger brother learn from his decision.  He can certainly pray for his younger brother, but it would be silly to continually pray for something his father explicitly said he wouldn’t do. Though, as a caveat, it would be callous for the older brother to walk away and say “tough luck, you’re screwed”.  Our hearts ought remain in desire of the younger brother’s immediate rescue, but our minds trust that a better plan is in place.
This is a very close parallel to how we ought view the Kingdom of God.  God’s kingdom is already at hand, and therefore we ought act in boldness to improve the earth.  Yet God’s kingdom is also ‘not yet’ and therefore we ought remember that full redemption won’t occur until His final return.

Last rambling thoughts:

If the two prayers listed were answered, it would cause such massive turmoil in the world, life on earth as we know it would end.  It’s pretty clear that God has not left this timing up to us. And, if God answered those prayers, it would also effectively void any responsibility on our part to go out and cure cancer or evangelize the nations.  Though God works through bold prayer, Jesus spends much of His time telling people to make tangible changes in their life, not simply pray about them. Looking at it another way, it certainly would create much more fellowship, love, sanctification and sacrifice for us to all engage in the great task of evangelizing than for us to bring it about solely through prayer from the comfort of our condos.
If God saved every person, based on your prayer, it would nullify your own prayer, as it would show that human agency meant nothing and we truly are nothing more than puppets.  Oddly, in God answering your prayer, it would lose all meaning as a prayer.

Please sir, will you put away your map.


In one of C.S. Lewis’ books, Mere Christianity, I believe, he relates a sermon he once preached on the topic of theology.  When it was finished, a fellow from the audience confronted him and declared that all this theological discussion was a poor replacement for an actual experience with God.  Mr. Lewis quickly conceded, but went on to explain how theology was simply a map for exploring new aspects of God.  And while a map of Hawaii is a poor replacement for swimming among the tropical breakers, it certainly helped you find the island in the first place.

I’ve relayed this passage on numerous occasions, and often found it a very helpful answer to the question ‘why study theology’.   The audience in those instances is always someone struggling to find the benefit of such heady, intellectual pursuits.  But there is another audience (and I included), that have much to gain from this illustration as well.  Those of us who, so enamored with theological exertion, find ourselves refusing to ever set the map aside.  Instead of undervaluing theology, we’ve erred in quite the opposite direction and mistaken theology as an end in itself.

How silly would we regard Magellan, if upon reaching the shores of Guam, he refused to leave the boat, and instead insisted on studying his maps? How absurd if he never felt the powdery sand beneath his toes, or drank the milk of a fresh coconut?  We would say ‘Leave the boat you fool, leave behind your outlines, your sketches, your contemplations – why fuss about with your silly paper and pencils, do you not realize, reality is at hand?’

I fear somewhere along our spiritual journey, some of us have traded a God of explosive experience for a God of cold and academic description.  And perhaps if left unchecked, we’ll someday find ourselves bringing this fallacy to the very shores of heaven.  And upon entering the New Jerusalem, instead of running through its golden streets, we’ll instead demand a detailed outline and explanation before taking another step.

Let theology act as a guide, certainly; but do not forgot, it is not the lines on the paper where He asks us to draw near, but rather the land that lies beneath where He demands to meet us.

A humble theology.


The church I attend has a heavy intellectual streak. This paints the situation a bit too lightly though, because streak implies an exception rather than the norm.  And our obsession with mental rigor is hardly an outlier or some orbiting satellite, but rather the central disposition.  I have done little to reverse this layout; if anything, by default of my personality, I’ve done much to expand its reach.

There is much to be admired in these qualities, but lately I’ve found a certain blindness in its adherents (myself firmly included), an inability to entertain the possibility of theological imperfection.  I don’t know why this struck me so suddenly.  It’s absurdly obvious to everyone else.  Listen in on just about any conversation between two Christians discussing theology and you’ll find a near constant stream of such evidence.  It is easy to discern because it’s always prefaced with firm absolute statements, full of pious confidence; phrases like ‘the bible clearly says…’, or ‘what Paul is obviously saying here is…’

This sounds quite normal until the underlying assumption is made clear. As an exercise, take a moment and browse the list of Christianity’s most beloved and influential theologians.  Write their names down in one column.  Origen, Augustine, Luther, Aquinas, Calvin, etc.; those pious believers who’s brilliant and mighty shoulders we stand upon. It is difficult to imagine what our lives as Christians would look like without their influence.  Would we have the 27 books of the New Testament?  Would the divinity of Christ or the concept of the trinity stand as universally accepted truths within our faith?  Next to their names, list their top two or three biggest theological contributions.

Unfortunately the list of helpful contributions is not without embarrassing exceptions.  We must also add a column for each one of their bizarre and heretical beliefs.  Begin with the belief that all unbaptized infants go straight to hell, and next add the attempt to remove the book of James from the bible.  The first was Augustine, the latter, Martin Luther.  Referencing John Calvin, we should also jot down the practice of executing those who preach disagreeable theology.

There is really only one reasonable response to such a list.  Humility.  Are you really the first person in 1900 years of Christianity to perfectly thread theological tapestry?  Will future generations look at your theology and find nothing deemed insane and unbiblical?  Will your grand statements of bold and confident declarations withstand the scrutiny of the coming centuries.  I doubt it.  If the titans of our faith still erred in such ways, we can do little but assume you’ve done the same.

How should we respond?  Paul tells us we ought ready ourselves with an articulate defense of our faith. And with statements like “No one shall come to the Father except through me” Jesus made some issues dead obvious.  Therefore, concrete theological beliefs are a must.  But with each step that we move away from this undebatable core of doctrine, we must bring an increased humility to our convictions.  And rather than view this as weak or indecisive, we ought let it be a reminder of the great gulf between our minds and God’s.

A God of Imagination

The earth is the LORD’s, and everything in it,
the world, and all who live in it;
for he founded it on the seas
and established it on the waters.

Who may ascend the mountain of the LORD?
Who may stand in his holy place?
Psalm 24:1-3

The last couple days were beautiful, utterly and completely without flaw. This is expected of course, it is autumn in Seattle and the clouds remain in their storehouses a few more weeks.  It will not last long, but today the fall colors rage and crackle, burning a years worth of fuel in one blazing display. There is no need for imagination today.

Tomorrow however, or some day shortly after, reality will arrive; an unwelcome but familiar guest.  With him he will tow the granite monotony of northwest winter, too cold for color but too warm for white snow.   It is in these coming months imagination will be called upon, a salve for the quiet haunt of sunless days.  A trick of the mind that lets me paint in tones the clouds have torn away.

I have found a similar need in my spiritual life.  The need for imagination and creativity to fill the gaps, sometimes long, that stand between moments of God’s presence.  Sometimes it is quite trivial, a prayer that begins in simple words and sentences but moves into pictures, images and scenery. Often I picture Jesus walking along a mountain trail, with me tethered close behind.  We are walking towards a summit to worship, and as I look out across the range, I see thousands of people walking upwards as well.

Now, this is not to say it is some divine vision or a prophetic image from the Lord.  No, like all efforts of creativity, it is merely a shuffling, a reordering, of the raw material God has given us.  But I think it is very valuable, because it allows us to know and experience God in a way words alone cannot describe.  This, of course, is why cathedrals were first built. Because there is something in the visual sense, even in a building, that opens up a unique connection to the Lord.

Often the most fruitful imaginations are those set to stories in the Bible. Yes, the Gospels tell us Jesus entered Jerusalem on a donkey; they even describe the palm fronds laid before Him.  But they do not tell us the color of the dust beneath His feet.  They do not tell us the color of the blood as it pooled with the dirt in the scourges to come.

And this is where the true blessing comes.  The Bible was written to invoke a response; it was written so that the reader is compelled to a confrontation.  A confrontation with the reality of God. And this response, I have found, is so much stronger and richer when we allow our mind the room to explore the details with our imagination.

An Ode to Imbalance


In college my friend Waylon had a bumper sticker plastered to his car declaring normal people worry me.  Upon reading this I knew I’d found a kindred spirit and we went on to form a deep friendship.  10 years later and I’ve come to see a need for an updated version.  Something more appropriate for the church parking lot or, if an equestrian bumper could be fashioned, the back end of Jesus’ donkey. Balanced People Worry Me.

This need for an update comes in response to a phrase we are all familiar with: it’s a balance. Usually it arrives on the heels of some discussion between work and faith, or ministry vs. family, etc.  Often dropped at the exact moment in a conversation when it is greatly apparent neither of us have the answer, but more importantly, unwilling to pursue it further. Like all great Christianese statements, it is one I am terribly guilty of promoting.

But about a year ago, I felt a distaste arise within me whenever I caught the phrase lobbed about in conversations.  The kind of metallic bitterness that occurs when you back down from a ski jump and go home empty.  Not utter worthlessness, but just that feeling of facing a challenge and blinking.

Like too many theological convictions, this one began in the gut and left me the intellectual task of checking scripture.  What does the bible say about balance?  “______”.  Nothing.  A word search of the old and new testament reveals a half dozen occurrences, but none in regards to a man’s actions.  On the contrary, the breadth of scripture, especially the new testament, seems to call for an unbelievably radical life.  And more than just a call, the description of the apostle’s lives would hardly fit into anyone’s definition of balanced.

To be fair, when most of us use the word balance, we’re trying to appreciate the difficult act of balancing our resources.  Whether time, money or energy, we’re desiring a holy equilibrium between several factors.  And it is here the word becomes so damaging.  Because balance speaks nothing of quantity; it speaks nothing of degree, or passion or sacrifice.  It speaks only of relativity.

Two goals pursued with equally dismal effort still result in perfect balance. If I have a desolate prayer life, but balance it with an equally numb ministry, my precious symmetry is still retained.  Like a scale with two feathers or another with two gold bars.  In a very real way then, a call to a balanced Christian life is nothing but a bold call to mediocrity.

Jesus provides a very different call.  There is no pithy debate about balance and ratios and percentages or other pseudo corporate terms.  He simply lays out His life as the severest sacrifice, sends the Holy Spirit and calls us all to do the same.  And the day that we forget the explosiveness of this call, is the same moment we acquiesce to our fear and timidity and call it balance.

An Independent Joy

Line up 100 Christians and ask each one of them the following question: when do you feel closest to Jesus? 95, 97, maybe even all 100 of them will describe their situations the same way; those full of great sorrow, tragedy and difficulty.  This makes perfectly good sense; a Christian ought be acutely aware of the sorrow and depravity in the world and his soul.  And because we are so deeply wired to abhor pain, it is natural that we worship Christ most deeply when our rescue from this trauma is most evident.
Lately though, I have come to believe this is not entirely correct.  Well, perhaps it is correct, but rather insufficient in scope.  This all came about after considering the question, How will I rejoice in heaven? Will thousands of years later I continue to worship God for rescuing me from my sin? Though I have no theological basis for this assumption, I imagine God would tire of such singular thankfulness.  Wouldn’t, at least after a while, God desire praise for something else; perhaps His glorious creation, His infinite love, etc?  Wouldn’t He long for an occasional comment on the delicate swirls of color on the orchid in His garden?
All of this is nothing but to surface a very basic question.  Do you hate sin more than you love Jesus?  It is quite possible, and if you attend a Reformed church as I do, it is even quite likely.  We are so accustomed to railing against sin, (which is absolutely biblical) that we forget the whole purpose of removing the sin in the first place.  We’ve all heard sin described as a great chasm between us and God, a void we are powerless to cross.  Yet many Christians, especially those of us in the Reformed heritage, have so permanently affixed our gaze at this void, we’ve entirely forgotten what glory lies on the other side.  Even worse, some will finally cross that great gulf only to meet a God they have never known.  A few, I imagine, will even be disappointed.
We must push back against this dark obsession.  We must learn to look at sin as an opacity, that once shattered, will yield an unobstructed communion with our Father.  And until that wall shatters, diligently search and revel in the glimpses of heaven He graciously provides.

The bizarre world of Christian decision making

I imagined this would be easy.  Or at a minimum, certainly easier.  Choosing to follow Jesus should undoubtedly bring many new difficulties, but I thought making decisions would not be one of them. My simplistic logic went something like this:  I have a personal relationship with God, I have access to His plan for my life, and therefore this plan must be clearly obtainable through prayer.

This assumption did not stem from any real biblical analysis on my part, but rather through ill-fated observations of fellow Christians.  It began quite hopeful though, the techniques I heard sounded supernatural and exciting. Phrases like ‘God called me’ and ‘God opened a door for me’ and even the occasional, ‘God told me’ offered glimpses of a mythical parallel universe.   A place where normal human senses were set aside as quaint and elementary, eagerly replaced with supernatural impressions. This is incredible, I thought, hoping I was no longer constrained by the inadequacies of my mortal decision making powers.

From what I observed, the goal was to quiet my mind and emotions down to such a level that I could hear directly from God.   Bound the scattered thoughts and impulsive desires, lock them away, and allow the Lord unfettered access to my soul.  I was told that if I could attain this level of momentary detachment, a message was awaiting me on the other side. A Christian nirvana of sorts.

The first real attempt came while attending a missionary training school in Honduras.  After a lesson from one of the leaders, we were asked to gather into small prayer groups.  Unlike the normal prayer I was familiar with, we were instructed to clear our minds and listen for a message from God.  Specifically, we were to listen for a communication regarding our upcoming research trip. What should we prepare for, what did God want to accomplish, what might we encounter?  I closed my eyes.

Difficulties quickly arose.  I found it eerily similar to the old trick of telling someone not to think about the color red.  Of course, as soon as the request is uttered, it is categorically impossible to imagine anything but the color red.  You try to think of a car instead, but annoyingly, it is a red car.  I tried another technique.  Perhaps if I pictured nothingness it would help. But what does nothingness look like?  I assumed it was black, so I tried to picture a vast, unending blackness.  This worked momentarily, until I realized when I closed my eyes it wasn’t truly black, but rather a very dark red with twinkling flecks of grey.  While fascinating, I was thinking far more about not thinking than if I had just gone for a quiet walk.

The next effort seemed to yield more fruit.  Instead of draining my mind of all attention, I thought it better to perhaps encourage thoughts, but set up firm boundaries.  Rather than shooting the horse or letting it trample the entire range, I set up a small corral for it to explore.  Contemplating whether I could wake board behind the missionary boat was not allowed, but letting my imagination wander through the upcoming trip was perfectly acceptable.  In this I created, at least it seemed so, a sort of space for God to work.  I had sketched the background hues, now it was his turn to paint the story.

At this point I didn’t really care what it was.  I just didn’t want to be the one guy in the group who had nothing spiritual sounding to say when we were asked to share what God told us.  Finally something came.  I can’t recall if it was an image or a word, or for that matter, an image of a word. But it was the clearest thing that came to mind.  The trip was going to be dangerous.  I felt God telling me that we were going to experience opposition and difficulties. This brought much relief. First, I liked the idea of a little adventure, and second, it sounded profound.  Soon the prayer session wrapped up and people began sharing their impressions.

I grew anxious.  These well meaning Christians failed to include a few key pieces in their instructions.  Like, for example, how was I to determine if my imagination was properly constrained?  Was that word or image that just entered my mind truly from the Lord or merely the lingering fingerprints of human thought? What if I tell the group my impression and it never comes to pass?  Not only would I look like an idiot and lose all Christian street cred, this would certainly cast a pallor over my entire connection with the Lord.

A week or so later my message from the Lord was soon tested.  We stuffed our packs and headed to the Mosquito Coast.  Soaked in DEET and missionary zeal, we stepped off the ferry in La Ceiba, a port town on the northern edge of Honduras.  By this time I had mostly forgotten the personal prophecy I’d sensed in our prayer meeting.  Yet had it been at the forefront of my mind, the conclusion would have been the same.

Nothing.  No danger, no aggression, not even a periodic, good natured Latin American hassle.  Lining up all my other travels throughout Latin America, the insane border crossings, the mind numbing bureaucracy, the distasteful police interactions, this 2 week trip stands out as remarkable only in its blatant normalcy.  In fact, the most memorable encounters during the trip occurred when the locals mistook me for a popular Mexican soap opera star.

In the years to come, this event, and others in a similar vein spawned growing doubts.  Doubts about what we hear from the Lord, and even more, doubts about what God truly wants us to hear.  At first glance, I imagined these two questions as simply two ways to describe the same thing.  But I don’t think it is.  The first makes an assumption, an assumption God is constantly articulating His plan and desire for our specific situation.  And with this in mind, we must simply learn how to tap into this stream.  Many Christians, I am convinced, blithely accept this assumption without the briefest consideration.  Of course, they will tell you, God is constantly trying to talk to us. Just listen! they exclaim with spiritual exasperation.

But really, does this make sense?  Setting aside the far greater question of whether it rests upon biblical foundations, does it seam like the way God would arrange things?  If we assume God’s grand goal is to glorify Himself through the abundance of His gracious love, would this arrangement accomplish His mission?  I don’t see how.  Imagine for a moment, if God clearly communicated his desired plan for every situation.  A simple, ‘do this, but don’t do that’.  A’ yes or no’, a ‘go or wait’, a ‘marry her, but not her’.   Even if we executed this with the faith of Elijah, it would bring little glory to God.  Yes, we could offer Him our obedience, but the satisfaction is thin when the teacher whispers every answer in your ear.

Or consider for example, two employees.  The first is given complete and unabated access to the boss.  Every time a question comes to mind, he dutifully brings it to his boss and waits for the clear answer.  However, because this access is so readily available, no other resources are deemed necessary.  The second employee is granted only periodic communication.  But instead he is encouraged to study the boss deeply. Learn what makes him happy, see what provokes him to anger, read his published articles, ask other employees what pleases him.  Questions often arrive, yet when confronted with a question, his bosses door is often closed. Forced to make a decision on his own, the choice instead depends on the careful study of his boss’s character.

A year later, the boss is in a terrible car wreck and must choose one of them as his successor.  Which would he choose?  Of course the analogy has its shortcomings, God will never find Himself in a car accident.  But the principal is clear enough.  If God’s supernatural revelation of His plan was the norm, our souls would remain in a state of perpetual immaturity.  Like the indecisive college student who flounders to make a commitment because his parents never granted any freedom in high school.

This discovery, however true, did not bring universal applause in my heart.  Though perhaps a validation of the more logical side of my brain, it also brought a prick of disappointment.  As a Christian, so much of our faith asks us to acquiesce the wild and exciting to the hands of the secular world.  No more raucous parties, no more drunken escapades, and now this?  This last vestige of excitement, this supernatural hearing from the Lord, we don’t get this either?

But it is a lie.  A lie told by Satan to keep us from the Father.  And what better way to stretch the distance between our Lord and his children than to convince us we are already very close.  Convince us that when we hear these murmurings in our minds, we have finally arrived at the pinnacle of our communication with Him.  Yet all the while, God cries in exasperation ‘how could you have settled for so little?’

Here lies the irony.  By restricting His communication of a specific plan for our lives, He creates a landscape with infinitely more room for us to become Christ like.  Because if what the bible teaches is true, and God does not regularly reveal His plan, we must quite pleading for directives, but rather engage our gracious freedom to choose.  And if we are free to choose, then we also must dig into the motives, idols and desires lying beneath those choices.  It is within this excavation that we draw closest to God.  Studying our flesh, so that we know what to walk away from, and studying Christ, so we know what to walk towards.

None of this is to say the Holy Spirit does not work through prophecy, supernatural impressions, opening and closing of doors, emotions or knowledge or the thousand other ways He guides us.  It is merely to point out that the Holy Spirit very rarely uses any of these to guide our purposed decisions. Here, I am drawing a line between dear Lord, whom should I marry, should I take this new job, etc? and those situations where unprovoked, God interrupts our normal thoughts and emotions with a supernatural revelation.   Therefore, it is more a question of the approach to a decision than the final decision itself.  The bible does not call us to regularly ask God to make his plan clear to us, but it clearly tells us God may on rare occasion, tell us on His own volition.

Marriage.  Here is where it gets rowdy.  And personal.  Second to your decision to follow Jesus, no other decision will have a greater impact on our life.  If there was any area where we desperately seek God’s guidance, it is here.  In my life as well, more than any other decision, marriage has forced me to confront my view of choices.  We must tread carefully here though, at first glance it can sound terribly unromantic.

Originally, I approached this question like many Christians would, praying for God to reveal His divine will for who I ought marry.  Because of the rather severe nature of the consequences I prayed with an unprecedented fervor.  Pining for a word from the Lord, I even prayed that if I am dating the wrong person, please turn her heart away from me.  This didn’t work.  Nothing worked.  To my nearly unbearable frustration, I heard absolutely nothing.  Or more accurate, I heard everything.  One moment I thought I felt a strong impression from God whispering yes. In retrospect it was little more than emotions, but in the desperate throes of indecisiveness, it felt sufficiently real.  Yet even this conviction was fleeting.  Upon awaking the next day a very opposite sentiment stumbled into my soul. No no, you ought not marry her.  And so went the menagerie of neurotic emotions.

This is not to say I solely depended on this.  I also put tremendous weight on my rational, logical analysis of a relationship, weighing the pros and cons, looking for the most sensible answer.  But this failed as well.  There were too many factors for my brain to hold at once.  I never could come to a firm conviction.  This was utterly maddening to me, I felt like I was being faithful to God, yet couldn’t make a Godly decision.

Something finally changed.  Several wise friends and family members brought to my attention the key that blew a hole through all of the clutter and fog.  It was almost annoyingly simple: ‘Make a decision’, they told me.  Do not just sit there in comatose contemplation, man up and make a choice.  This evolved into a mantra that I reminded myself often.  ‘Men make decisions, make a decision.’  This is not to say that women do not make decisions, but merely that I am a man, and well, that was the line that stuck.

Oddly, this revelation did not occur within a relationship, but rather during a time of singleness.  As if God was saying look, little punk, you better figure this out before messing up the next opportunity I give you. This worked, even outside the confines of a relationship, because it really didn’t depend on a view towards a specific woman, but rather how I believed God viewed all of my decisions.

To this day, I’ve never received a single communication from the Lord regarding who I should marry.  Yes, yes, this can sound terribly unromantic to Katie, my wife.  The inner romeo pines for a dramatic story of God whispering in my heart the name of who I ought marry.  A saccharine sweet story from the Lord, worthy of a morning feature on the local Christian radio station.

But this is all terribly backward.  The romeo version isn’t romantic in the least, in fact, it offers a horrific combination of selfishness and delusion. Because unless you have a perfect track record of interpreting your supposed impressions from the Lord, your confusing romance with flippant emotions that are nothing more than a broken crystal ball.

Of course, exceptions do exist.  Some Christians hear audible, prophetic words from the Lord on who to marry.  But it is exceptionally rare and those of us writing or reading this essay are neither exceptional or rare.

Yet hope remains. We can follow a biblical approach and still retain a beautiful romance.  We can say, ‘I’ve diligently worked to let the scriptures and Holy Spirit redeem my mind and values and emotions and desire.  The Holy Spirit has opened my eyes to seek and cherish what God seeks and cherishes.  And because of this, I am absolutely free to choose who I desire the most.  God has redeemed and purified my desires, and with these, I choose you.  The more I purify my desires, the more I want you.  And I trust that my choice of who I decide to marry is deeply pleasing to the Lord, and perfectly aligned with His will.’ And this, I believe, is far more romantic.

Grace isn’t always compelling

Most every Christian I’ve met says the same thing; the tougher life becomes, the closer they draw to God.  Lovely, but I couldn’t disagree more.  So often in my life the sweetest moments of holy communion came not from the trenches of despair, but rather the pinnacles of glory.  I always knew this was odd, but until recently, I never bothered to explore the quirkiness with any real determination.

In the annoying clarity of hindsight, I can see this tendency dyed into many secular aspects of life as well.  Rock climbing, an activity of little value beyond pure recreation, fell under this discoloration.  I remember clearly.  It happened every Saturday in Missoula, when the warm air of spring or fall would send us scouring the leaning granite cliffs south of town.  Each weekend would bring a rotation of climbing partners, but on most occasions, I spent the day with Brandon.  Though we shared a mutual love for rock climbing, our differences in other key areas were obvious. He was incredibly talented, and I, though perhaps above average, was quite mortal.

But it wasn’t the differences of climbing ability that were so profound, but rather our reaction.  Specifically, the reaction that occurred when something went wrong.  When he climbed poorly, which admittedly was still far above my mediocre efforts, he just smiled and shook it off.  In his eyes, it was simply glorious to be outside and success on the route was a periodic bonus.  This was certainly a sensible response.  Standing atop a 1,000 foot tower deep in the wilds of the Northern Rockies is a beautiful experience.

I, however used a different approach, a model where the entire happiness of the day hung upon the thin thread of absolute success.  And climbing, given the fine grade of it’s rating system, was perfectly suited to such a perspective.  I imagine most people, if they have never rock climbed, picture a very basic rating system: kinda hard, hard and super hard, with these descriptions generally applying to the pitch of the wall.  If it’s vertical it is likely pretty hard, and if the angle kicks back to completely overhung, it must be exceptionally difficult.  But no, we climbers have taken what should remain as broad generalizations and scrapped them in favor of a precise gradient.

This minor quirk of recreational measurement brings with it a series of unfortunate consequences.  First, victory or defeat on a climbing route is immensely obvious.  You either make it to the top in style and grace or fall in pathetic defeat.  There is no middle ground whatsoever.  Second, the sport is so finely graded that it is quite easy to measure your exact progress from one week to the next.  This would be wonderfully encouraging if your climbing ability marched continuously upward in some perfectly linear graph.  In reality, this grading system simply allows you to remember what you used to be able to climb.  For example, you climbed 5.11d’s (hard) all last summer and today you’re flailing on a 5.10a (easy).  This would be akin to a runner who normally finishes a 10k in 35 minutes showing up at a Sunday race and crawling across the finish line 12 hours later.

Compounding this frustration was the absolute lack of control over the success.  It wasn’t like skiing or mountain biking where after failing on a run, you simply dust yourself off and try again.  Climbing relies on a very small portion of your body to achieve its goal, specifically the small section of muscle running from your wrist to your elbow.  And this muscle has the unique ability to completely consume its resources in a matter of seconds.  From the moment you chalk your hands and clamp down on the first flake of rock, to the final anchors at the top, no other muscle plays any significant role.  If the climb goes well, you reach the top before your arms implode.  If not, you’re left whimpering and shaking 60′ off the ground with nothing to do but fall.

For most climbers, this was simply part of the game.  But for me this maddening system could not be accepted.  How was it physiologically possible to fall on a route I’d easily climbed just weeks before?  I did not ponder the answer in the quiet reflection a day in the wilderness ought afford.  Rather, I found it much more appropriate to seethe at this terrible injustice dashed upon me.  Sitting just a few feet away, with a tangle of rope between us, sat Brandon, smiling cheerily.

In the beginning, I imagined this indicated a certain lack of dedication.  And though I clearly climbed at an inferior level, I at least climbed at my utmost ability.  He, on the other hand, loafed about at levels far below his potential.  Unfortunately – no more than that, infuriatingly – this assumption wasn’t even close to true.  Within a short while I observed with exasperation that not only did he have more talent and peace, he also had incredible dedication.  Disarmed, I reconciled myself to defeat and simply tried to emulate his style.  Surprisingly, though it required ten years of reconditioning, it eventually worked.

But success was limited.  Performance as a litmus test for satisfaction was removed from climbing, but other aspects remained unchanged.  Whether at work or school or any other sphere, performance reigned as the ultimate predictor of joy.  In most areas, I barely gave it a cursory glance; it provided a wonderful impetus to succeed and opened the door to many accomplishments.

At first, well to be accurate, for many years, I didn’t see this as having any connection to my spiritual life.  I simply believed a Christian should feel peace and joy and satisfaction as the reward of spiritual accomplishments.  And the opposite was defined as well.  A dark and numb connection with God must be the result of an idle and unproductive Christian walk. It all seemed very tidy.

Yet as the years wore on a pervasive discontent remained.  The moment I stopped reading, studying, serving and leading, everything fell apart.  All it required was a few days of a flu and my soul fell quiet and cold.  I began to dread illness, not because of the pain itself, but rather the gnawing sense of worthlessness that soon arrived.  Recently, after a bout with food poisoning a horrifying thought played across my mind.  What if I never recovered?  What if I was consigned to a life of eternal convalescence?   I wasn’t concerned with the normal terrors of a debilitating disease, the question of how could a loving God allow such pain.  No, I questioned how I could continue to operate without feeling like I was doing something profound for God.

What I found quite surprised me.

Grace isn’t always that compelling.  There were many occasions when I found it completely unhelpful, even annoying.  Which is odd.  I always imagined grace as some wonderful present, a miraculous and unmerited gift of infinite joy.  Yet I found myself asking God to take it back.  Not all the time, I was not so foolish as to desire to step away from the mercy poured out over my sin.  No, I found all that quite comforting and compelling.  But the grace given to cover my lack of accomplishments was very different. I just didn’t want it.

Though it wasn’t an answer, it did explain why so many attempts by fellow Christians to offer comforting words fell dull and flat.  It was like your football coach telling you that no matter how you played, he thought you were special.  I wouldn’t play a single game for a guy like that.  No, I wanted a coach who while always respectful, doled out admiration based on action and evidence. Grace felt more like some liberal minded suburban soccer club where everyone on the team won MVP.  Clearly God never got the memo – if everyone wins, no one wins.

And here is where it gets bizarre.  This feeling doesn’t spill over into my understanding of salvation.  I’d be perfectly happy if the whole lot of earth were redeemed and ushered through the heavenly gates.  But on earth, well, that is a very different game.  Because on earth I am surrounded by people.  And it is utterly impossible to not periodically take notice of where they stand in relation to me.  If everyone were lying around sick and useless, I would likely feel quite content with the small contribution I managed to provide. But as I lie sick on the bathroom floor, crawling towards the toilet, I was keenly aware of the Christian next door growing his ministry ever larger.

But the competitive aspect, however powerful, is not the final ends.  No, this relational consideration is only a means to answering a much bigger question.  The question.  Am I legitimate? Am I worthwhile, am I useful, would God notice if I went missing, would some divine system feel a loss if I were washed from the earth’s memory?  This is the it.  For many men, this is the only question.

I wish I could write this with some profound conclusion detailing the answer that led to a life of peace and contentment.  But it remains undone.  And perhaps it always will, a constant struggle between the absurd grace He provides and the caricatures of accomplishments I keep trying to bring to Him.

Journey of Sanctification


Sin is a funny thing. Not funny ha ha, but more funny in the ironic sense.  Take this ever popular statement: All sins are the same in God’s eyes. Is it true?  Yes.  Is it potentially misleading?  Absolutely.  It does serve a purpose though, for it reveals a critical misunderstanding of the two natures of sin.  Or perhaps not a misunderstanding as much as a complete ignorance of how God views sin.

In my Christian life I have noticed a tendency to lump all sins into a grand, singular category.  Everything from a white lie to avoid embarrassment to a loathsome backstabbing uttered from a spirit of horrendous pride.  They all fall into the growing list of reasons I do not deserve heaven.  This is not untrue of course.  Every sin, even the minutest infraction, reveals the rebellion of my heart that swings shut the gates of heaven.  But this is where the blindness appears.

There is a second type of sin.  The sins we commit as a Christian, the sins pouring out of a heart that while saved, remains imperfectly sanctified.  They are of the same constitution, but of a very different effect.  Powerless to keep us from the redemption of Jesus, yet equally potent in their ability to rob us our joy and silence our connection with our Lord.

This mistake comes with odd consequences.  One would think it ought lead us to a humble and contrite spirit. But it doesn’t.  It leads us to believe the sins we commit after 50 years as a Christian will be the same as those we commit in our first week.  This isn’t all bad.  It is a healthy reminder of how woefully inadequate we are at securing our own salvation.  But there is a sinister aspect. Because if you believe these sins are a constant, if you believe they will never really change, you will lose inspiration to root them out.

I have felt this many times in my walk with the Lord.  The feeling that it pointless to keep fighting the battle, if we will simply continue to commit the same quantity and severity of sins even years after our conversion. Why fight, why continue the battle? The conclusion is inevitable. Discouragement, and if left unchecked, apathy.

The answer lies in the work of the Holy Spirit.  It is he who ultimately convicts us of all sin and it is he who gives us the power to overcome.  We must remember the Holy Spirit has in some sense, a very relative view towards sin.  Ah, you say, how dangerous is this attitude.  Wouldn’t this well up a spirit of religious pride as we look down at the adulterers and alcoholics still mired in their egregious sins?

From a worldly standpoint, that would be quite true.  Our society tells us murder and thievery are far worse than simply jealousy or gossip.  But the Holy Spirit is not bound by the same set of rules.  He is directed by a desire for sanctification.  This frees him to pour the same brutal conviction upon our smallest flaws as he hammered upon the most flagrant transgressions.  This is why the Apostle Paul, though a spiritual giant compared to us, could utter the words “I am the chief of sinners.”  Because the Holy Spirit, in his relentless desire for holiness, stands at the controls of our conviction.  It is he who wields the sword and he who brings us to our knees.

In this there is great hope.  Not that we will be free of sin, or that we will someday achieve a holiness that would grant us entrance into heaven, but the hope that ever smaller sins will bring an ever greater conviction. A hope that when we’re 85, perhaps reflecting on 50 years of life as a Christian, we will be convicted and broken by sins that today we don’t even consider sins.

The goal is a life lived with a contrite spirit.  Yet the goal is not a contrite spirit waging war over the same sins God revealed to us in the waking hours of our conversion.  We must rest in the assurance that His grace ought free us from the sins of today while holding in store a holier life that never loses the sweetness of deep repentance.

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