Friday, June 28, 2013

Our Hope for "By Nature"

My son-in-law, the daddy of one of my toddler grandchildren, told me it was having a child that finally convinced him that human beings aren't inherently good. He doesn’t come from a Christian background, so no one taught him the doctrine of original sin, but he knows from experience some of what Ephesians 2:1-3 teaches us: All human beings have a sin problem "by nature."
And you were dead in the trespasses and sins in which you once walked, following the course of this world, following the prince of the power of the air, the spirit that is now at work in the sons of disobedience—among whom we all once lived in the passions of our flesh, carrying out the desires of the body and the mind, and were by nature children of wrath, like the rest of mankind. (Ephesians 2:1-3 ESV)
The corrupt seed that will grow and blossom into bad fruit is already there when a baby is born, waiting for the right conditions to sprout. No one has to teach a toddler to misbehave, or, as E. K. Simpson wrote in his commentary on Ephesians, “every mother’s son learns to be naughty without book.”1 Grabbing toys, throwing tantrums, pulling one’s cousin out of Grandma’s little rocking chair is natural—and has been since the fall.

These verses apply to all of us, even little children. We enter the world spiritually dead. What follows "dead in trespasses and sins" is a description of this condition as it works itself out in our lives. Remember the story of the children of Hamelin who were led away by the magic sound of the Pied Piper's flute? Someone spiritually dead is a little like that. They are marching along to the music of evil inner powers. They go willingly, but at the same time, the attraction is so strong they cannot turn away.

The real solution to the problem our children and grandchildren are born with, then, is not our discipline. They are powerless to change what they are by nature and we can't we change them, either. Enforcing boundaries may keep them from dancing after the piper, but it won't stop them from loving his music. Rules can help civilize children; rules can teach them what they ought to do. But rules can't make them good.

True hope for the children we love comes from God's gracious nature-changing inner work. (See this explained in the verses that follow—Ephesians 2:4-10). Since any heart change comes through the gospel, which is "the power of God for salvation" (Romans 1:16), our children need to hear the good news over and over. It is possible to have too many rules, but there's no such thing as too much gospel.

There's no such thing as too much prayer, either. If our best parenting cannot change a heart but God's work can, we should be on our knees daily, expressing our helplessness and begging for God's mercy to us and to them.

This all seems obvious to me now, so obvious that I wondered if it was worth a post. But I wish I'd understood this better when my own kids were young, and I thank God I know it in time for my grandchildren.

1E. K. Simpson, The New International Commentary on the New Testament: The Epistles to the Ephesians, page 49.

Monday, June 24, 2013

A Window to Our Desires

I’ve heard a few descriptions on how sin begins. Sin begins with pride. Sin begins with covetousness. Sin begins with idolatry.

If we must trace the very root of sin, we must go to pride. We think we should be the ruler of our own lives. We think we know better than God. But if I think back to all the times I’ve done something that dishonored the name of Christ and hurt those around me, the first sign that I had was my own complaining.

We are warned in the Bible not to complain. Philippians 2:14 tells us to do all things without grumbling or complaining. Complaining indicates that we don’t really think God is doing right by us. Our grumbling and complaining tell us what we think we deserve. We think we deserve more free time, more comfort, more respect.

In my own life, when I think of things I did that brought dishonor to the name of Christ and hurt myself and those around me, the first sign I had was my own complaining—either complaining out loud to others, or murmuring quietly to myself.

I’ve heard and read discussions on ways we can stop complaining. We need to focus on God’s goodness. We need to look toward our ultimate reward. In The Rare Jewel of Christian Contentment, Jeremiah Burroughs spends 20 pages listing 22 ways we can gain contentment. All of these are good suggestions.

I think, though, that we often skip right to “how to stop complaining,” and don’t focus on why we’re complaining in the first place. Our complaints show us our deepest desires. It reveals the ways we think God is holding out on us and shows us things we might be willing sin in order to attain.

I’m not going to end with a list of 10 (or 22) ways to stop complaining, as much as I personally need that lecture. But I think it helps me to think about the why behind my complaints.

My complaining tells me…

What I think I deserve

How I think God is holding out on me

What I think I need that God isn’t giving me

What I might be willing to sin to attain

We shouldn’t complain because it dishonors God and questions his goodness. But our complaints also give us a window to our deepest desires. What complaints do we need to turn over to God?

Wednesday, June 19, 2013

Getting the Big Picture

And beginning with Moses and all the Prophets, he interpreted to them in all the Scriptures the things concerning himself. Luke 24:27 (emphasis added)

When I first read through the Bible, I didn't begin too badly. Genesis was exciting because I remembered my Sunday school stories. But I began to get bogged down once the Israelites entered the wilderness. All those intricate details about the tabernacle, sacrifices, and laws were difficult to understand and seemed repetitious. When I managed to get out of the wilderness and into the promised land, I encountered long lists of names I couldn't pronounce and stories of one bad person after another. I didn't fare too well with the prophets as I was never quite sure who they were speaking to and what they were trying to say. It was a relief to reach the familiar territory of the New Testament, but it seemed like a separate book and disconnected from all that had gone before. 

If I summarized what I thought of the Bible after one reading, it would have been this:

Old Testament - Some exciting stories interspersed with a lot of confusing stuff.
New Testament - Hooray! Now I get to read about Jesus.

I was a kid when I first read the Bible, so maybe I should cut myself some slack. But I've read it as an adult and had pretty much the same idea.

But I was wrong. The Bible isn't a disjointed collection of 66 disparate books. It's 66 Holy-Spirit inspired contributions that make up one story - God's story. A story about Himself, His purpose, and how that purpose has been completed in His Son, Jesus. It unfolds His plan of redemption in human history through the promise of a Redeemer on the heels of the fall, the preparation for His coming and its fulfillment in the fullness of time, His finished work on the cross, and the culmination of all things when He comes again.

Getting a glimpse of the big picture has changed my attitude towards the Bible. It's become more than a collection of moral fables or a repository of uplifting thoughts to jump start the day. I can meet God - Father, Son, and Holy Spirit between the pages of this book. I get to know Him, His character, and His ways. I read of His promises not only to people in the past but to me today - words that give life and change lives.

This is a book unlike any other book.

Search the Scriptures, my reader, with a view of seeing and knowing more of your Redeemer, compared with whom nothing else is worth knowing or making known.
Love your Bible, because it testifies of Jesus; because it unfolds a great Savior, an almighty Redeemer; because it reveals the glory of a sin pardoning God, in the person of Jesus Christ.
Aim to unravel Jesus in the types, to grasp Him amid the shadows, to trace Him through the predictions of the prophet, the records of the evangelist, and the letters of the apostles.
All speak of, and all lead to Jesus!  ~ Octavius Winslow
Here are some resources that may help you get the big picture:

According to the Plan by Graeme Goldsworthy, IVP Academic, 2002. 

Bible Overview by Steve Levy, Christian Focus 2008. 

66 Books, One Story: A Guide to Every Book of the Bible by Paul Reynolds, Christian Focus, 2013.

Addendum: How could I forget this one?

The God Who is There: Finding Your Place in God's Story by D.A. Carson, Baker Book House, 2010.

Monday, June 17, 2013

Resources for Teens: You Asked by William Edgar

Throughout the Fight Like a Girl Series, I cited various resources that parents of teens might find helpful as we navigate the waters of adolescence. In the coming weeks, I'd like to highlight some resources for our teens might find helpful as well.  While not all of these resources are written specifically for teens, they deal with many issues teens face.

A quick glance at the cover of William Edgar's You Asked: Questions And Answers about God reveals that this book asks some pretty tough questions. Far from a book of typical teen issues, this is a basic introduction into apologetics for youth. As Edgar writes, This book is for you, my friend, if you are thinking about the reasons for faith.
(pg 17) 

Edgar starts with perhaps the most foundational questions teens have, Who Am I? From there, he moves on to discuss the Fall of Man, the veracity of Jesus' existence and claims to be the Son of God, the inerrancy of the Bible, and the end of the world. He also discusses sex, love, racism, and gender equality.  (After recently hearing of a local church sitting under a sermon series on the Twilight books, I'm thrilled to say that Edgar also addresses to the vampire craze!)

Although Edgar is a seminary professor, he writes in a style that will appeal to teens without making the material too difficult (or too elementary). Most chapters are 10-15 pages in length, making them ideal for weekly reading and devotion time. I like the fact that Edgar uses Scripture, but also The Shorter Catechism and Calvin's Institutes to answer the questions posed in each chapter. He also gives a list of questions to encourage further thought and exploration of the topic.

I believe You Asked is a terrific resource for teens who may be struggling with questions about their faith as well as those who want to learn how to better defend their faith.  Parents who read along may  find that the book sparks some great family discussion, and may have some of their own questions answered in the process.

Thanks to Christian Focus Publications for providing me with a review copy of this book in exchange for my honest opinion.

Friday, June 14, 2013

Ordained Is a Wonderful Word

“Ordained” is a wonderful word for describing God’s relationship to what happens in the world. That circumstances are ordained means there is logic behind what happens; it means there is a reason for every thing that happens. If history was ordained, then there was purpose in it. If the future is ordained, it will have meaning.

When we use "ordained" to describe an event in history, we mean that God put it in his plan and then unfolded things, including this event, according to the plan. Ordained history consists of ordained causes and effects, all in their proper places, chained together, tugging forward toward God's planned completion. It’s the same for the future; the ordained future will unfold and then wrap up just as God intends.

Some balk at the idea that all events in history are ordained, thinking this would leave no wiggle room for real human choice. And the thought that God would ordain the bad things that happen gives some the heebie-jeebies—or worse.

I don't know exactly how God's ordination of all circumstances exists alongside real human choice. Scripture gives hints and I have a few ideas, but I'm content to leave most of the grappling to philosophers.

As for God ordaining the bad things that happen to me and mine, this thought gives me comfort and hope. If the events of my life are ordained by God—and they are—then it all, good or bad, has purpose. All circumstances, even those that cause suffering, are bringing about intended results. I won't know all of God's reasons for any particular circumstance, but I can know this: The ultimate purpose for every circumstance is God's own glory (Romans 11:36, Ephesians 1:11-12). What's more, for those who love God, there's another general purpose: All circumstances are working to form a Christlikeness within (Romans 8:28-29).

When you get to the bottom of it, the only alternative to ordained suffering is meaningless suffering. Of the two, it's not ordained suffering that gives me the heebie-jeebies.

 “Ordained” is a wonderful word that points to logic, purpose and meaning. It is God's promises fulfilled and plans accomplished, in the past, in the future, and in our lives. It is God's glory and our salvation. "Ordained" is our comfort and hope, too.

Monday, June 10, 2013

The Comparison Trap

It happens all too easy. What started out as a fun time with a friend turns into a private, internal game of "Let's compare." You're no longer thinking of your friend, you're thinking about how you're falling short. Whether it be your appearance, weight, home-decorating skills, sense of humor...need I go on?

We all have our lists, those things that we don't like about ourselves, those things that we see in others and wish we could have.

Is comparison ever good?

Not all comparison is bad. Sometimes we see a positive trait in another person and it inspires us. In Titus 2:3-5, part of the way that older women are to instruct the younger women is to be a godly example. We can't emulate the good behavior we see in others unless we think about how we are different. That requires comparison.

And though this isn't quite as fun, comparison convicts. If I'm going through a season of negativity and grumbling, seeing others serve the church and their families with joy can show me how far afield I've gotten. I'm convicted about my bad attitude and reminded to repent of my sin.

When comparison goes bad

More often than not, though, comparing ourselves with others can drive us to despair. Our focus is not on how to serve God better in the place he has put us, our focus is on wanting what someone else has. We don't want to glorify God with our gifts, we want the same gifts as someone else.

So how can we tell the difference?

I don't think there's an easy answer to this. Our hearts are tricky (Jeremiah 17:9). Do we really want to be different in order to bring more glory to God, or do we just want more glory for ourselves? If our friend is admired and celebrated for a gift or skill, perhaps we want to be admired and celebrated, too.

All we can do is return the focus where it belongs--on Christ. All of our gifts and abilities were given by him for the purpose of bringing him glory. We may not be as awesome as our friend, but we are God's handiwork. (Ephesians 2:10)

A heart full of praise for God will have no room for self-loathing, and a heart focused on glorifying the Lord wherever she is will not begrudge the gifts of another.

Friday, June 7, 2013

How time flies and other things I do not understand

Here's a post from the archives of my personal blog. I published it three years ago and I revisit it now with some degree of nostalgia as well as a renewed sense of my need of much grace. My oldest has completed that first year of college and now my second son is beginning the process of making a decision about his college plans and I am yet again caught in the bitterweet swirl of emotion, regret, sadness, and joy. Joy most of all. Grace. Grace. It's all grace.

This summer marked a first for us: we visited a college campus as parents of a prospective college student. During the informational session, I texted my husband (who was sitting four children apart from me): "I look younger than the rest of these moms right?" He asserted via a return text that I did though privately I have my doubts. Parents of prospective college students have to be old(er) arithmetically speaking. The math doesn't lie.

We joked that by the time our number four son is ready to investigate his collegiate options he can take his own self on a tour, he will have seen so many by then. Not to mention the fact that his parents will certainly be tired and worn out (and old) by then.

How did we get here? Wasn't it only yesterday that I was sending my oldest off to kindergarten, he and I both stoic, his younger brother the one in tears? I mean, I know that time flies and all that but who could know it flies so fast and so furiously? I am not exaggerating when I tell you that sometimes I wish so badly for my kids to be small again that it is nearly a physical ache. I miss their littleness. Yes, it was hard. Yes, there were days I thought I would lose my mind. Yes, I couldn't wait for them to dress themselves, feed themselves, bathe themselves--and now he can even drive himself (yes and amen) and now there are days I wish it all back again.

I didn't know how fast that stage of my life would pass. If truth be told, I was scared it would last forever.

It didn't.

I am so proud of my son. True, we have our share of heated exchanges and sometimes I worry myself silly--and for good reason--but when I hear him introduce himself to a group of other prospective students with an air of maturity and self possession that I forget he has, well, I am so proud and I am so humbled to be granted the privilege to navigate the unchartered territory of parenthood with such a great kid who loves the Lord Jesus with such determination. His dad and I are blessed. Confused, at times irritated and frustrated, overwhelmed, unsure, and desperately needing wisdom, but blessed. 

Grace. It's all grace. From beginning to end. I know that I don't really wish him nor his brothers little again, not when I think rationally instead of emotionally. I've told you before of my friend's words of wisdom that remind me "we raise 'em to let 'em go." And so we do. And so I do. It's not any easier, parenting teenagers and prospective college students. In fact, it's as horrible as you've been told. Navigating these unchartered waters, seeing the days fly by in quick succession, knowing my time is short, and understanding better than ever my failures and regrets--all show me my desperate need for a Savior. I haven't been enough. I'm not enough. I wasn't enough then when I wished my kids' babyhood away; I'm not enough now when I struggle to relinquish control and trust my son (and the Holy Spirit to do His good work of conviction).

"I can't do this," I thought then.

"I can't do this," I know now.

I need grace. Not just in my mothering but in all things. I need the assurance that accompanies trust in a God who knows all things, sees all things, and works all things according to the counsel of His will. I need wisdom to teach and peace to let go. I need forgiveness. I need mercy. I need faith. I do believe; overcome my unbelief!

It was more than strange to walk a college campus and realize anew that one day soon and very soon (two years is soon!) my son will leave home. It's strange. It's surreal. I will still wish for him to be little again but I pray I will also be confident that the Lord who began the good work--in parents and son both--will indeed bring it to completion.

Grace. It's all grace. From beginning to end. Yes and amen.

To God be the glory.

Wednesday, June 5, 2013

Breaking the Snare

The fear of man lays a snare, but whoever trusts in the Lord is safe. Proverbs 29:25

Do any of you struggle with fear of man? If not, can you tell me your secret?

There is part of me that would like to believe I'm mature enough in the faith to be beyond this, but I'm not. Fear of man keeps me from confessing sin and asking for prayer. It keeps me from admitting I need help and don't have it all together. Fear of man is a liar because it tells me I need to do or be this or that to gain man's approval, and it's more than happy to provide an endless supply of masks to maintain the facade. It keeps me from reaching out to others and, in turn, keeps me from receiving help. It crops up in what I'm willing or unwilling to say. It manifests itself every other week when I worry more about what people will think of a blog post than whether God is honored. But, it's a trap. It's fruit is loneliness and the dead-end of self-protection. Fear of man is a thief, stealing joy out of relationships because acceptance is always in doubt.

Is there a magic bullet for this? It would be nice if there was a one-shot, one-time cure-all. But there's something better. It's the gospel.

Now, bear with me. "Gospel" can degenerate to just a buzzword that gets tossed around in certain Christian circles. But it's the power of God for salvation and the only way this snare can be broken. (Rom. 1:16)

Of all the beings in the universe, who would be the hardest to please? God, of course. He is holy and perfect and His standard reflects His character. Nothing short of absolute perfection can stand in His presence. But how does He receive and accept a sinner like me? In Christ. Was there anything I did to deserve it? No. Is there anything I need to do to maintain this? No. Is there anything I can do to undo what Christ has done? No.

If this is true (and it is), then I'm set free from finding my worth in people's opinions because God has accepted me in Christ. (1 Cor. 1:26-31) If this is true (and it is), I'm free to be myself because, as imperfect as I am right now, God is transforming me to be like Jesus. (2 Cor. 3:17-18) If this is true (and it is), I'm free to take the risk of loving and serving others because I'm looking to Someone else for my reward. (Eph. 6:5-9) If this is true (and it is), I may not experience total freedom right now, but my experience doesn't invalidate what God has done, is doing, and will do. (1 Thess. 5:23-24)

It's not rocket science or anything philosophically profound. It's the simple truth of the gospel.

I need this every day. Do you?

Monday, June 3, 2013

Amusing Our Youth to Spiritual Death?

I've spent considerable time thinking about the church's responsibility to teenagers in the last couple of years. As I look over the youth ministry landscape, the view is disheartening: a myriad of events meant to entertain rather than educate. Ravi Zacharias, speaking of youth in Tabletalk, said it well, "Building their faith is not a prime strength in our churches today. We seem to think that we need to entertain them into the church. But what you win them with is often what you win them to."

Today's active youth group seems more focused on fellowship and service than discipleship. Instead of breeding future theologians (even of the ordinary type), we are producing young adults who are prone to leave the church when it's no longer a source of entertainment. Today's youth ministry culture could be a chapter straight out of Neil Postman's Amusing Ourselves to Death. I've already pontificated about how detrimental busyness can be to a family, which is why I'm saddened to see that youth ministry in many churches follows the trend of quantity rather than quality. It's a mentality that seeks to keep us so busy that we don't notice what we - and, more importantly, our children - are missing.

At the beginning of this year, my family began looking for a new church home. As we visited other churches, youth education was one of the criteria we considered in our search. My husband and I understand that parents cannot rely on the youth group as the sole source of our teen's spiritual nourishment; we must be actively involved in - no, in charge of - our daughter's theological education. Within that purview, we wanted to make certain that she will be discipled in church, as well as at home.

The church we have decided upon has a strong youth ministry built upon strong parental involvement. We didn't choose this church based on its youth ministry, but we've learned that solid, expository preaching from the pulpit affects every ministry in a church. The youth minister adamantly believes that his role is to disciple - not parent - the students. There isn't a balance between Bible study and activities; Bible study outweighs the "fun" (though there is fun!) As a parent and a prospective church member I'm delighted to be part of a church that realizes its responsibilities to believers (see Ephesians 4:11-16 and Matthew 28:19-20) are not contingent upon age.

Teenagers are perfectly capable of learning doctrine. If our schools can teach our children chemistry and biology, physics and geology, algebra and geometry, political science and economics, then we can certainly teach them theology and apologetics, Christian ethics and philosophy.1 Why should we be satisfied with placating them with pseudo-theological drivel? It's time for us to realize that youth ministries centered around activities instead of the Word are worse they ineffective; they are amusing our kids to their spiritual death.

1Daniel Akin, Source

Confession: portions of this post were taken from an earlier installment of the Fight Like a Girl series