Divine Deception

11427290_10153351229973704_4814296511228219245_oAs most of you know, my family and I just returned from our eight-month, 40-state (and 2 province) road trip. Over the next several months, I’m going to post various stories about our adventure, from watching cowboys joust to meeting the pastor of “The Most Bombed Church in America.”

But first, I want to tell you a little more about the trip and how it began with a divine deception.

When we started our planning, I thought it would primarily be a book tour for my recently released book, Radically Normal. Sure, I knew we’d get to see some amazing sights and get a break from the brutal ministry experiences we’d been through, but that was secondary to the business aspect.

And this is where God tricked me. Early in the planning of the trip, the pastor of a church in Oregon invited me to speak at his church. The timing was perfect – he wanted me for the very first Sunday of our trip. Coincidence? I thought not. I was sure that meant I’d have speaking engagements almost every Sunday thereafter.

Not so. It’d be another four months before I spoke at another church. (For the record, my wife had far more realistic expectations.)

I spent the next several month frustrated by the lack of speaking engagements. Try as I might, I was only able to get a handful of small events. I wasn’t just frustrated, I was confused. What had I missed? What was God doing?

About halfway through the trip, relaxing in a hot tub somewhere in central Florida, I thought, “You know, this is really is a nice break from all that we went through over the last four years of ministry.”

Then it dawned on me, this trip wasn’t just about business, it was a much needed sabbatical. After all the pain we’d been through, we needed this trip to be refreshed and recharged. I needed to regain a heart for ministry.

Later that night, I wrote in my journal: “I don’t know why it took me so long to see that this trip was also a sabbatical. Yes I do know why; I was too busy being anxious. Isn’t that just like us – to be so busy striving that we can’t see the gift God is giving us?”

In my anxiousness to launch Radically Normal, I wasn’t willing to take the break I really needed. I thought I had too much to do, so God had to trick me into taking a break.

Sometimes God has to trick us because our plans are not his plans.

That is not to say that his plans always involve a hot tub, but they are always best. They always bring the greatest long-term joy and peace.

And so, even as my family has come back home and is living in the midst of even more uncertainty – Where are we going to live? Should I go back to pastoring? – I think I’m in a much better place to relax and enjoy the ride.

How about you: Have you ever tricked your kids into doing what you knew they really wanted? Have you ever felt as if God tricked you like that?

The Adventure of Going Home

As American, I think the points of the compass have a certain “feel” in our collective subconscious. For instance, north means cold and south means warm. What about east and west? East feels like old, established, tradition. West feels like new and adventure.

Traveling the country for eight months has cemented these feelings for me. The further east we went, the older everything got. A sense of tradition and history permeated the air. Driving toward the birthplace of our nation felt strangely like heading Home.

But as we took a left turn at Maine, dropping down to St. Louis then vaguely following Lewis and Clark’s path, I could feel the adventure of heading “out west.” It was easy to imagine its wildness to the early settlers.

copper-ridge-1em

Here is where it gets interesting for me – my family’s actual home is in the west, nearly as far west as one can go in the continental United States. The net effect was that going home felt like an adventure.

In one sense, that’s not surprising. We sold our house when we left and I don’t have a job, so coming home really is an adventure (prayers for guidance are welcome!).

But the sense of homecoming as an adventure has an even deeper meaning. Heaven will be the Great Adventure, not a place to sit around but where we’ll be entrusted with greater challenges than we can now imagine. Yet it will also be our Real Home, where we really belong. It will be our true Sabbath.

Somehow, this westward trip home help me understand heaven as both adventure and rest. Not completely, but enough that I’m more eager for it than ever.

Heresy Hunter or Heresy Healer? About my recent guest post…

Many of my posts begin as a word picture, such as God becoming a bum,designed to evocatively and memorably describe some truth (such as the Incarnation). The more evocative, the better. I then write the post around that image.

In the case of this post that Christianity Today’s Leadership Journal posted, the image was that of a refugee trying to warm himself with a feces-smeared blanket. My hope was to evocatively associate heresy with filth and my half-done response to derelict of duty.

I wanted to share that with both because it’s fun to give some background and also to encourage you in your writing/speaking/preaching to use evocative images. Don’t waste those powerful images that have sprung to your mind – find a way to milk the most out of them.

The post can be found at: http://www.christianitytoday.com/le/2015/february-online-only/heresy-hunter-or-heresy-healer.html

Feel free to read it and comment!

To the glory of God and the joy of the saints!

Josh

Patience Like a Mountain

But the fruit of the Spirit is love, joy, peace, patience, kindness, goodness, faithfulness, gentleness and self-control. (Galatians 5:22-23 NIV)

Does patience feel more like a “have to” or “get to” of following Christ?

Yesterday I was talking to an old friend about challenge of showing God’s love to the employees at his restaurant and keeping his cool as the stress level rose. That got us talking about patience. He said the key to patience was lowering one’s expectations. At first I nodded in agreement, but then thought better of it.

I recently preached on the fruit of the Spirit and for the first time saw a connection between the third and fourth fruit, peace and patience. The Biblical idea of peace (shalom in Hebrew) is much deeper than “no fighting”; it means that God has defeated the chaos and restored order and well-being. Peace means “it is well with my soul.”

Seeing peace side-by-side with patience made me wonder if maybe peace is the key to patience.

The world is filled with things that will try to steal your peace, your shalom: slow drivers in the fast lane, spending an hour on hold with your insurance, or dealing with painfully slow employees. But patience says to the world, “I have peace in my soul and you cannot steal it. You may have some, if you like, but you cannot take it from me.”

Patience - Mount_Rainier_over_TacomaSaid another way, patience is like a great mountain towering above the fray, unmoved by the great storms that swirl around it. It is solid and secure within and without.

I told my friend that there is nothing wrong with appropriate expectations. He should have high expectations for his employees. The key to patience is holding them to those expectations without allowing their failures to steal his peace.

The more I see patience as holding onto God’s peace and not allowing the frustrations of life to steal it, the less it seems like an obligation the more it feels like a gift. What do you think?

What a Scholar Taught Me about Humility

Many students of the Bible are snobby about Bible translations. The more literal a translation, the better. Currently, the English Standard Version (ESV) seems to be the preferred choice. The New International Version (NIV) is tolerable if you can’t handle the ESV. Woe to you if you read a free translation, like New Living Translation (NLT). And if you quote from a paraphrase, like The Message, be prepared to offer the necessary mea culpa’s.

I was thinking about this last week as I was getting ready to have lunch with a renowned Bible scholar, Dr. Robert Mounce. Not only has Dr. Mounce written many great commentaries but he also was a key translator for the ESV, NIV, and NLT. He recently completed a unique translation of the Gospels which tells the story from Jesus’ perspective, Jesus, In His Own Words. What if Dr. Mounce asked what translation I use? I usually study from the ESV, but I prefer reading the NIV.

When we met, the thing that struck me the most about Dr. Mounce was his complete lack of pretention. “Dr. Mounce” was quickly replaced by “Bob.” He is the most accomplished and respected scholar I have ever met, yet he was one of the least intimidating. He was interested in my life and thoughts and asked about my church and my book. At the same time, he had many interesting things to share with me. For instance, he told me about sitting in his office with other scholars to discuss creating a new translation – the NIV. No big deal, just the biggest translation since the King James.

I get the impression that the ease of conversation came through practice, not accident. I think he has spent a lifetime choosing to communicate clearly and take an interest in others instead of just trying to sound smart. This takes effort; the natural language of his field consists of phrases like “rhetorical criticism” and “subjective genitives,” but he sets that aside for the benefit of the listener.

The main thing I took from my time with Bob Mounce was the desire to be as unpretentious as he is. I want to pursue scholarship and being plain-spoken simultaneously. I don’t want to be so caught up in what I know that I stop being interested in the stories of others. I know that this is not natural – human nature tends to grow puffed up with more knowledge. It is wisdom that brings humility, as James 3:13 says.

Who is wise and understanding among you? Let them show it by their good life, by deeds done in the humility that comes from wisdom.

Regardless of how much success I have as a writer, I hope I can always make others feel that comfortable. Or how little success I have – sometimes the most pretentious people are those who have the least success (funny how that works). One last thing: It turns out I didn’t need to be self-conscious about the NIV – he told me he usually reads from the NLT.

 

About my upcoming book, “The Radically Normal Christian: God Shouldn’t Be Your Only Happiness”

Growing up in the church, many of us had an impression that if we were really spiritual, we would be perfectly happy celebrating Christmas simply reading the Nativity story in an undecorated room – no tree, gifts, or special dinner (shouldn’t that money be given to the poor anyway?). [1]

This is unmitigated nonsense. It’s driven by (among other things) an appalling ignorance of the normal, godly life promoted in the Old Testament. In this book I attempt to correct the modern (and by modern, I mean “for the past 1,800 years”) Christian tendency to undervalue the things of this life and the happiness God planned for us to enjoy here. At the same time, I remind us that God is the source of joy and any attempt to find complete happiness here will ultimately be unsatisfying.

I talk about being “radically normal” because, speaking broadly, Christians can be divided into two groups, Stoic Christians and Indulgent Christians:

Indulgent Christian tend to appear worldly, caring more about being happy now than pleasing God.

Stoic Christians tend to appear very spiritual, placing their emphasis on God, heaven, and spiritual happiness.

Indulgent Christians look very normal to the rest of the world.

Stoic Christians look very radical and for that reason Indulgent Christians tend to idealize them, even though they don’t have any real intentions of being one of them.

The difference between Stoic and Indulgent and between Radical and Normal largely comes down to the question, “What makes you happy?” Is your happiness in eternal things or temporary things? But that is not an either/or question; neither Stoic nor Indulgent Christianity is Biblical.

Without realizing it, we have allowed our ideas of mature Christianity to be more influenced by Greek philosophy than Biblical perspectives.[2] For instance, the church began to devalue sex early on; it was just so physical, too close to ungodly lusts. By the 4th century, St. Augustine spoke highly of married couples who practiced abstinence within marriage (“True love waits, and waits, and waits…”). Believe it or not, the medieval church basically said it was okay to have sex with your wife, but not okay to want to have sex with her.[3]

We scoff at this view of sex, and rightly so, because all of that is clearly unbiblical: Compare it to the Song of Solomon which unashamedly delights in sexual desire. Fortunately, the modern church is correcting its low view of sex. But here is the question of the hour: What other God-given earthly joys do we still undervalue or even forbid?  A good meal? A glass of wine? A competitive football game? A relaxing vacation?

I don’t want us to adopt the indulgent values of our world, nor do I want us to be so stoic that we can’t enjoy God’s good gifts nor relate to the world around us. Instead, I believe the Bible calls us to be Radically Normal. We look normal, yet scratch below the surface and we are radical:

We enjoy possessions and the things of this life, yet they do not posses us.

Food and drink bring real joy, yet we don’t use them to fill a void.

We excel at our jobs and are ambitious, yet they are not our identity.

Our family and friends are central parts of our life, yet they stand in distant second to our loyalty to God.

Ever the preacher at heart, my book won’t float in the theological stratosphere, it is deeply practical. The core of the book is five key principles which I explore in the context of the everyday things of life (such as owning stuff, being weird for Jesus, our entertainment, and having a “secular” job). The principles are:

  1. God wants us to be (mostly) normal.
  2. The Old Testament tends to addresses temporal, earthly things and the New Testament eternal, spiritual things. If we don’t read them both, our faith will be unbalanced.
  3. God wants us to enjoy this life as much as possible without being distracted from him and the next life.
  4. God’s commands are meant to lead to joy, not misery.
  5. This world is temporary but not meaningless. God will renew creation, not destroy it, so what we do here matters.

It is my hope that when my book is completed, it will profoundly change how you look at this life and the next, and that you will be left deeply enjoying both more. In the end, The Radically Normal Christian will be a guide to deep and lasting happiness.


[1] Granted I’ve never heard this taught by anyone per se, yet whenever I give this example I see many knowing nods. Why? Because we were taught that the more spiritual and less materialistic Christmas was, the better. This is true, to an extent, but we were never given a “cap.” When was Christmas spiritual enough? It must be (I reasoned) when all unspiritual things were removed.

[2] We don’t realize how deeply our faith has been influenced by the Early Church Fathers, for good and bad. The Fathers were in turn deeply influenced by Greek philosophy, specifically Neo-Platonism. In contrast with the profound earthiness of the Bible, especially the Old Testament, Neo-Platonism devalued this world as a shadow and overemphasized the next as real.

[3] Case-in-point: In the Canterbury Tales, the pious wife all but apologizes for having sex with her husband, but the adulterous couple has a great time. If you want some light bedtime reading, the Word Biblical Commentary’s “Song of Songs” edition has some great material on the church’s view of sex up until the modern era.

John Piper demonstrates the problem with Calvinism

On more than one occasion I have needed to reach up high (perhaps to change a light bulb), but I didn’t want to go all the down to the garage to get the stepstool, so I grab a chair. Not high enough? No problem, just put a box on the chair. By the grace of God, I haven’t broken anything yet, but it’s only a matter of time.

Perhaps my biggest issue with Calvinism is their methodology – the problem is not with the clear Scriptural principles but the framework of suppositions they build off of those principles. (For the record, I don’t fit well in either the Calvinist or Arminian camp – I am closest to Norman Geisler’s “Chosen but Free”.) While I deeply respect John Piper, he gave a good demonstration this error in his post “Why God Created the Universe—For Good Friday.”

Piper begins with this absolute statement: “The universe was created for the glorification of God’s grace at Calvary.” That’s quite a claim – THE reason for the universe! From there he builds his case using a series of propositions with Scriptural backing. The problem is that the entire structure requires that each Scripture means only and precisely and entirely what he takes it to mean.

For instance, his first point is “the apex of God’s display of his own glory is the display of his grace [Piper’s emphasis].” He supports that statement with Ephesians 1:5–6, “God predestined . . . according to the purpose of his will, to the praise of the glory of his grace”.

Yes, this passage does say God’s grace part of his glory, but it does not say it is the apex of his glory. You simply cannot make an assertion like that without Biblical proof! As you examine each of his six points, you will find that most (if not all) make similarly unwarranted claims.

Returning to the analogy of my makeshift stepladder, the higher the assertion, the more secure the Biblical basis needs to be. To claim to have the reason for the universe, Piper needs a lot better than a collection of chairs, upside down buckets, and empty boxes.

To put it another way, be careful about making bold statements that fit in your theology but are foreign to the actual words of Scripture. Perhaps the error of Calvinism comes from an unhealthy dependence upon systematic theology at the expense of Biblical theology.