Bubblegum, John Piper, and Self-Control

I was watching a video of John Piper once, and he was talking about bubblegum.

To be more precise, he was talking about self-control, and he illustrated it with bubblegum. He candidly admitted that he can't have whole packs of gum around him. Otherwise, he will eat them all in one sitting. He'll pop piece after piece  and then boom, the gum's gone.

So he promotes self-control in his life by not keeping whole packs of gum around.

Self-control is a slippery subject. Every single human being struggles with it, a universal sickness of not knowing when enough is enough. We tend to lean into excess in so many areas  food, money, words. Instead of controlling ourselves, we indulge them  recklessly, sloppily, carelessly, and dangerously.

There's a reason that Solomon writes in Proverbs: "A man without self-control is like a city broken into and left without walls." A lack of self-control leaves us spiritually defenseless. It reveals our weakness.

Self-control happens when we master our flesh and wrestle it into submission to God. Self-indulgence happens when we give in to the flesh and let it master us. Self-control is caring for our bodies, minds, and souls. Self-indulgence is poisoning them.

Self-control, though, is not a Spartan existence of bare necessities. There is space and time in life for feasting and a kind of joyful, God-honoring indulgence. But there is no time in life for carelessness or selfishness. There is no time for losing control and giving into the flesh.

Starving self-indulgence then is the key to gaining control. And we can only do that by the power of the Spirit. He is the one who empowers us to produce any spiritual fruit  love, joy, peace, patience, and certainly self-control.

Think about it. Before we were saved, we had no desire or reason for self-control. We were slaves to ourselves anyway, so obeying them was our primary passion. But now, our bodies, minds, and hearts aren't our own. We've been bought with a price. We now fight against our flesh to honor our true Master. We sacrifice indulgence for service.

What are the areas in your life that you struggle for control in? Where are the places you find yourself defenseless and overindulgent? Is it bubblegum? Buying clothes? Social media? Sweets? Find it – and cut it off. Self-control is serious business. The health of our souls is at stake, the fruit of our Christian lives. Rely daily on the Spirit to kill self-indulgence and chase self-control.

And then you'll be truly strong.

Sin Is Like a Rhinoceros

I'm reading Openness Unhindered right now, a beautiful book on sexuality and union with Christ written by Rosaria Butterfield (author of the incredible Secret Thoughts of an Unlikely Convert). In a recent chapter on repentance, she included a startling analogy by G.K. Chesterton.

He compared sin to a rhino. He explains it like this:

"If a rhinoceros was to enter this restaurant now, there is no denying he would have great power here. But I should be the first to rise and assure him that he had no authority whatever."

Rosaria Butterfield commented on this with these words:

"Like a rhino, sin has power without authority, but it can bully and sucker-punch the strongest Christian into doing its bidding" (83).

I found that a remarkably helpful analogy. For the Christian, sin lays no claim on us. But it still beleaguers us. It plagues and bullies us. It clings like a heavy, wet garment and tries to wedge its way into the cracks of our hearts.

Yet we should be the first to rise up and say, "Sin, you have no authority whatsoever here." Our authority is Christ. Our joy is Him. Our duty is obedience to Him. Christ rules our lives, not sin.

And I think that's pretty encouraging.

Photo courtesy of Matthew Rogers and Flickr Creative Commons

19 Things I've Learned About Growing Up

I've over on today with this article on growing up.

"This summer I become an adult.

At least, according to my country. I turn 19, and that basically means I can do lots of boring things legally — like get a credit card. My, what fun.

It’s weird to think that I’ll be labeled a “grown up.” I still feel like I have a lot of growing up left to do. And I do! But I’ve grown up a lot since I was 13. Or 14. Or even 15.

And there are things I’ve learned along the way — 19, in fact. Nineteen truths about growing up.

1. It doesn’t feel like you thought it would.

There are bad things I thought would be better, and amazing time I thought would be way worse. All I have to say is: culture does a horrible job preparing kids to grow up. They give us all these pictures and ideas, and that’s never how it turns out.

2. Growing up means responsibility in every area of life.

I’m learning what it means to take responsibility for my sin, to be responsible in my finances and my time and my work, and to not shirk duty when it calls.

3. Faithfulness in the little stuff is just as important as faithfulness in the big stuff.

“One who is faithful in a very little is also faithful in much, and one who is dishonest in a very little is also dishonest in much” (Luke 16:10).

4. Your parents are your greatest allies in life, your most winsome problem-solvers, and your smartest teachers.

Don’t push them away. Don’t ignore them. Instead, run to them. Take your deepest problems and struggles and fears and questions to them. Even when you don’t feel like it, they are here for you.

5. Growing up feels like being stretched, being filled full and then emptied, being yanked out of your comfort zone, and thrust into unfamiliar territory.

You’re starting to realize that the world is a lot bigger than you ever thought it was. And that means your comfort bubble is going to get quickly popped. Growing up means growing, and growing means growing pains."

Read the rest here ->

Photo courtesy of Amanda Tipton and Flickr Creative Commons.

What To Do When You're Overwhelmed

All of us have come to that point. That stretch of space between busy and dead - it's called being overwhelmed.

The daunting looms ahead. You don't know how to handle it. You feel inescapably inferior.

So what do you do? You cry. You freak out. You throw a pity party. You climb into a dark hole. You vent to someone.

But none of it is an actual balm to your heavy heart. Nothing takes away that feeling of being out of control.

That's when, at that dark moment when you're overwhelmed, reflect on the singular light of gratitude. Thank God that you have been reminded of His greatness. When we are weak, He is strong.

Thank God that you being overwhelmed reminds you that while you are dependent, He is sovereign.

You need Him. Every hour you need Him.

But sometimes you forget. And you feel like you're on top of the world, in control of your life, that your busyness is validating your self-importance. You have it all together.

And then, just like that, you don't.

Being overwhelmed reminds us that we are sinful, cracked vessels who worry and lie and trust ourselves. Being overwhelmed reminds us that God is in control, our Rock and Fortress, the author of our stories.

When you're overwhelmed, you might need to repent. If you're worried, you definitely do.

When you're overwhelmed, trust God with your life. He really does hold the whole world in His hands.

Photo Courtesy of Flickr Creative Commons and Ben Klemm.

Say What You Mean (And Mean What You Say)

We don't consider ourselves liars.

We don't have a pathological condition. We don't lie to our parents about where we were last night. We don't lie to our boss about our duties. We don't lie to our banker about our accounts or our friends about whether we hate Mexican food or not.

Rather, we've sort of puffed ourselves up as pretty honest folks. Sure, some of those Ten Commandments can be troubling, but number nine doesn't usually trip us up.

Or so we think.

As of late I have begun to notice a sticky and uncomfortable habit that has leaked into my words - I have begun to say things I don't mean (and mean things I don't say).

And I think you might have this problem too.

Someone asks me how my day is going. Frankly, it's going miserably. But instead I say, "Great!"

A friend shares an urgent prayer request and I hastily assure her, "I'll be praying for you." But I never do.

I consider myself so busy that I complain about not having enough time for reading. Yet I watch four movies this week.

As innocuous as this habit may seem, in each of these situations, I am lying. Our words are desperately important. God will judge these words.

That's why it's essential that you say what you mean (and mean what you say). God detests lying (Numbers 23:19; Proverbs 6:16-19; John 4:24).

If someone asks how my day is going and it's going terribly, I could have said, "Well, it's been a difficult day but I'm doing alright."

If a friend shares an urgent prayer request, I could have stopped and prayed right there, thus being able to assure her that I just prayed for her.

If I feel like I'm not getting enough time for reading because I'm watching too much television, I need to say that and try to change my habit.

Words are not meaningless. Words are also permanent; you can never take them back.

No matter how much we try to puff ourselves up with our own self-righteousness, an unfortunate truth remains: we are liars.

But God is truth. And when Christ died, our deceit, our exaggeration, our lies were nailed to that cross. And once we see the weight of our lies, our words, we can see the magnitude of God's mercy. And we can see the new life we have been called to: to walk in truth - no matter the cost.

"I rejoiced greatly to find some of your children walking in the truth, just as we were commanded by the Father" (2 John 1:4 ESV).

Photo Courtesy of Flickr Creative Commons and Mustafa Khayat.

Ding Dong the Wicked Witch is Dead

Last week I shared a review of Mez McConnell's heart-breaking and grace-pervading testimony, Is Anybody Out There? This week I wanted to share with you a bit more into his story by sending you to this article he wrote not quite two weeks ago when he found out that his childhood abuser was dead.

Mez writes:

"Some children of a recently deceased mother wrote this startling obituary for their local press:

Marianne Theresa John­son-Reddick was born Jan. 4, 1935 and died alone on Sept. 30, 2013. She is sur­vived by her six of eight children whom she spent her lifetime torturing in every way pos­sible. While she neglected and abused her small chil­dren, she refused to allow anyone else to care or show compassion towards them. When they became adults she stalked and tortured anyone they dared to love. Everyone she met, adult or child, was tortured by her cruelty and exposure to violence, criminal activity, vulgarity, and hatred of the gentle or kind human spirit.  

On behalf of her children whom she so abrasively ex­posed to her evil and vio­lent life, we celebrate her passing from this earth and hope she lives in the after­life reliving each gesture of violence, cruelty, and shame that she delivered on her children. Her surviv­ing children will now live the rest of their lives with the peace of knowing their nightmare finally has some form of closure.

I just heard several hours ago that my stepmother of almost 13 years is dead. Of what and how I do not know. She was young. I know that. So painful is it to even think of her name I refer to her as “she” throughout my autobiography [watch Mez’s testimony].

It’s 1:30 a.m. and I can’t sleep. I don’t know what to think or feel. The above is pretty much what I would like to express to the world. I would like to go to her funeral, stand, and let everyone know what this person was truly like and how much damage she did while alive. I want her to get her just deserts even though I know, thanks to Christ, I will never get my own.

I am a pastor. I should know better. I do know better.

I know, deep in my soul, that Jesus experienced every form of suffering when he was in the world. “He was despised and rejected by men; a man of sorrows, and acquainted with grief” (Isa. 53:3). Jesus was betrayed and tortured. He is well acquainted with your grief, and he will never leave you (John 14:18). I know, therefore, that perceived wisdom (my own included) demands I forgive this woman who caused me such pain. I know it’s the Christian thing to do. I know he who has been forgiven much ought to forgive much in return (Luke 7:47).

I know.

Yet I want to make public my frustration toward crimes she never paid for. At the same time I want to be magnanimous in my forgiveness as Christ has been in his for my sin.

I feel conflicted."

5 Ways To Deal With Conflict On The Internet

We've all been there. Whether it was through a Facebook status, an email, a comment, or an article, we've all gotten ourselves in hot water on the internet.

And many times it wasn't our fault. We were misunderstood. Or people lashed out at us defensively. People read into us. They made faulty assumptions. They heard what we weren't saying.

We have all dealt with conflict on the internet, sometimes well and sometimes poorly. And if you haven't dealt with it yet, hang in there. It will come.

Here are five things I have learned from dealing with it.

1. Realize that you can't read the nonverbal.
You don't hear tone of voice. You can't see facial expressions. You don't see eye rolls or hear sighs. Emoticons and colons and parentheses are not true substitutes for nonverbal communication.

2. So don't see what's not there. 
Don't get a bee in your bonnet over perceived hurtfulness. You can attempt to read a tone, but you can never be sure of it.

In a course I'm taking on interpersonal communication, my textbook talks about a concept called perception checking. This is safeguarding your interpretation of a situation by doing three things: 1) explaining a witnessed behavior/reiterating a stated message, 2) offering more than one potential interpretation, and then 3) asking for clarity.

For example, "You said in your comment that the article I posted was silly and irrelevant. Was that because you disagreed with the article's message or because you didn't like how it was written? What did you mean by that?"

3. Be painfully clear. 
People are liable to misunderstand things. The internet is a notorious breeding ground for errant interpretations. We've all been guilty of that. Misunderstandings happen.

So a way to avoid them is to be as explicitly clear as possible.

4. Don't respond when you're upset. 
Sometimes people leave comments or write emails that hurt us and need to be dealt with. We can be tempted to respond in the heat of anger. Don't. Your message will be emotionalized, lack tempered rationality, and will come across as defensive.

Cool down first. Think. Pray. Talk to someone about it - not to vent but to get an outsider's input.

Then go back to your computer and respond. You'll be thankful for it later.

5. Avoid conflict (maybe). 
Yes, avoid conflict sometimes. There are definitely times when you need to engage in conflict (which you can and must do to the glory of God). But there are other times when you don't.

There's a pretty well-known comic that shows a man typing on the computer late at night. His wife says, "Are you coming to bed?" He replies, "I can't. This is important." "What?" she says.

"Someone is wrong on the internet."

 We don't have to embroil ourselves in every internet conflict. Sometimes we can just let things go.

"So, whether you eat or drink, [or write Facebook statuses or blog posts or emails or deal with conflict on the internet] or whatever you do, do all to the glory of God."
- 1 Corinthians 10:31

Lessons from Half a Cucumber

A few weeks ago Pastor Bert Kuehner guest preached at my church, and there's something he said that's still rattling around in my head. It is this: a culture's vocabulary reflects its priorities.

I was considering this Monday night as I was slicing a cucumber. Travis (my brother) was sitting on the couch in the living room, and I walked right past him into the kitchen. I was hungry, and I found a saran-wrapped cucumber half in the fridge and began cutting it up.

I had filled a plate with slices and decided this was all I wanted, but I had a pathetic-looking chunk of cucumber left over. I definitely didn't want it, and it was at this moment that it occurred to me to offer some to Travis. Travis (who is a teenage boy and eats everything) especially loves cucumber, but never before this moment had I thought to offer to cut some up for him. Unsurprisingly, oblivious to my own selfishness, he gladly accepted the cucumber.

Perhaps the word that our culture has ingrained in us more than any other is Me. It has preached to us a gospel of selfishness, and it has leaked into the Christian's heart as well. It has leaked into my heart. We don't like to share. We don't like to sacrifice our own comforts, our own cucumber. We'll share our dregs, our unwanted leftovers, but not our first fruits.

From hamburger commercials to the types of movies we create, Me is our hero. Our god. We never want to put Me out. We are highly individualistic and starkly self-serving.

If you're like me, you've probably heard that before. You're probably familiar with the concept. Yes, our culture idolizes Me. Yes, selfishness is bad. Yes, I'm selfish. But sometimes it takes half a cucumber to remind us that we are not as good as we'd like to think. Right now, you and me - even if we're Christians - are sinful. Very. Still.

But we have hope that the Spirit will convict us of our sin, our practical selfishness. He is the one who teaches us through half a cucumber. We just have to decide whether or not we will heed Him. Furthermore, we have the encouragement that God works through our sin for His glory. My acknowledgement and repentance of my selfishness aided in my sanctification.

And we have the joy that one day we will no longer need half a cucumber to remind us of our sin - because our sin will be gone. For good.

That's How They Look at Me

I've been a fan of the family-friendly sketch comedy show, Studio C, for a while now. But what? you say. Family-friendly sketch comedy? While it may sound downright doubtful at first, I assure you that there is such a thing, and Studio C is it. But whose idea was it to make wholesome comedy? The answer to that is probably not going to surprise you.

It's a group of Mormons. Born out of ideas from veterans of Brigham Young University's drama club, it plays on BYU TV and stars a cast of BYU students and graduates. Yet the only reflections of their faith in Studio C are a staunch morality and a glaring lack of any off-colour comedy. I can dig that.

One of the actors on Studio C is a particularly funny individual, especially on his social media pages. So funny, in fact, I started following him on Twitter. And true to his apparently hilarious self, he posts funny memes and Vines and Instagram quotes. But on this more personal platform I also see his faith come out. He retweets and posts verses from the Book of Mormon.

And I just find it kind of weird and sad. Here he is, pouring hours of effort and years of faith into a fictitious deity. He's championing a false cause, preaching a fake gospel. As an individual, he appears friendly, down-to-earth, and just your average guy. I think we'd get along pretty well. Yet I can't help but pity him that he's wasting years in an empty faith and feel sympathy at his ignorance.

Then I realized that that's how non-Christians look at me.

They probably think it's nice that I have a faith to lean on, a crutch to assist me through this tumultuous life. But they don't think it's real. They think my faith in the God of the Bible as revealed in Jesus Christ is as faulty as I consider the Book of Mormon to be. They probably find it awkward.

I am different than them. Just like I feel a rift in my identification with this Mormon comedian, I feel a similar disconnect from non-Christians. We are not the same. We can be friends, but our friendship can only go so far. We don't share the only thing that matters in light of eternity - a unity because of Christ. We are not brothers and sisters. We are different.

And non-Christians will continue to look at me like I'm different, like I'm strange and awkward, like I'm wasting my life on a false cause. But that's okay. Because we are different. And that's something we shouldn't be ashamed of. Rather, it's something to embrace. It's something to use as a witness.

It's something to showcase our light to a dark world that is staring at us.

The Termination to This Warfare

There are a lot of euphemisms for death, even more piquant Christian phrases and analogies. N.D. Wilson refers to it as a chapter ending. Randy Alcorn calls it a doorway. Calvin Harris says dying is "getting dressed for God." But one of my favorite statements comes from a sixteenth century reformer, John Calvin. He says,

Death is the only termination to this warfare.

This statement rightly captures the realities of this life. We are in a war - with ourselves and with the world.

With Ourselves

The statement prior to the quote above, Calvin wrote, "This renewal [of our wills, referring to sanctification], indeed, is not accomplished in a moment, a day, or a year, but by uninterrupted, sometimes even by slow progress, God abolishes the remains of carnal corruption in his elect, cleanses them from pollution, and consecrates them as his temples, restoring all their inclinations to real purity, so that during their whole lives they may practice repentance, and know that death is the only termination to this warfare" (Institutes, Book Third, 3, ix).

Calvin saw that this whole life is a war against our sin natures. We will spend our time here in constant repentance because our souls have not been finally perfected. We will fight against our "carnal corruptions" until the day that we die. It will be slow going, but we won't do it alone. God is the ultimate abolisher of the sin in our hearts. Anything we can do can only be accomplished by the Spirit of God.

But we still have to fight! And we can look forward to death because we know that our warfare with sin will be finally, fully done. What a day that will be.

With the World

But a world of people opposed to God will also fight against us. We will be in opposition to the cultural majority. We will have to fight against those who would dissuade us from living a life of purity. Our lives will not be comfortable. We will be shunned and shamed, perhaps even humiliated and scorned.

Yet, aren't we supposed to be different? Shouldn't everyone know which side we fight for?

"Do you not know that friendship with the world is enmity with God? Therefore whoever wishes to be a friend of the world makes himself an enemy of God" (James 4:4).

And so Calvin's phrase rings true and comforting. We live in a time of warfare, fighting against our own sin and the push and pull of a secular culture. But a time is coming when that war will be terminated forever and everlasting peace will be ushered in. Like soldiers looking forward to going home, we strive for that end. Going home is the goal. Peace is the dream.

But it is also the reality. Peace is coming.

Questions in Light of Heaven

Our family just finished reading through Randy Alcorn's incredible work, Heaven. If you have not read this book, now is the time to pick it up. It is game-changing, for sure, even life-changing. It will thoroughly change how you view Heaven (for the better) and will encourage you beyond belief. I speak from experience.

At the close of the book, he asked a few reflective questions on living now in light of Heaven, and they were so helpful that I thought I would share them here. They are convicting, encouraging, and motivating.

Do I daily reflect on my own mortality? 

Do I daily realize there are only two destinations - Heaven or Hell - and that I and every person I know will go to one or the other? 

Do I daily remind myself that this world is not my home and that everything in it will burn, leaving behind only what's eternal? 

Do I daily recognize that my choices and actions have direct influence on the world to come? 

Do I daily realize that my life is being examined by God, the Audience of One, and that the only appraisal of my life that will ultimately matter is his? 

Do I daily reflect on the fact that my ultimate home will be the New Earth, where I will see God and serve him as a resurrected being in a resurrected human society, where I will overflow with joy and delight in drawing nearer to God by studying him and his creation, and where I will exercise, to God's glory, dominion over his creation?

-- Quoted from Heaven, pgs. 453-454

The Endearing Quality of Courage

The Hobbit: The Battle of the Five Armies may be gory (sometimes, in fact, a little unnecessarily), but it displays a virtue that has been gravely minimized on a society-wide level. It is courage. The courage to fight when you feel afraid. The courage to be strong for those who are weak. The courage to come to the defense of those in need. The courage to shake off the comfort of cowardice. The courage to endure. The courage to stand up for what is right.

And while our society may laud the heroic displays of courage in a film, they laugh at them in reality. In "real life," we're more apt to, as my mother put it, laud the cowards. We celebrate the people who claw their way to the top, pushing past women and children, motivated by greed and self-interest. These are the self-made men, our popular personages.

Cowardice unspools its thread through human history all the way back to the Garden when man broke God's rules and then hid like cowards from responsibility.

And then cowardice died in the face of the greatest act of courage this sin-spattered earth has ever seen: the cross. God Himself stood up and came to the defense of His desperate, weak creation. When we were trembling from cowardice, God was strong. The Shepherd died for His flock.

For the Christian, we are called to be courageous. As God commanded Joshua so many years ago, we are called to abandon the lethargy of fear and irresponsibility and be brave. That means standing up for the weak. It means telling the world about that almost unfathomable courage of the God-Man. It means not remaining silent in the face of evil, whether that be the murder of children or the injustice of racism. It means being true to the Word of God above all else, at any cost. Courage means being faithful to our courageous King.

The Hobbit displays a mere fictional fragment of the beauty of courage. Yet it awakens in us a desire to fight for our fellow man, to rage against the march of evil. And as Christians we are called to this on a deeper level. We are called to be courageous for the King.

You Are Not Strong

There are many moments when we are weak and our stark inability drags us to humility. We feel that our only recourse is to rely on strength not our own. When we are weak, we have faith and we lean on God for repose. We enfold ourselves in the everlasting arms.

But then we have another moment. And we are strong - or at least we believe that we are strong. And suddenly, suddenly leaning doesn't seem so necessary any more. Humility becomes a degradation. If weakness drives us to our knees, strength drives us to our feet, our tiptoes, at our tallest, where we think nothing, no one, can touch us.

Meet Rehoboam, king of Judah.

"When the rule of Rehoboam was established and he was strong, he abandoned the law of the LORD, and all Israel with him" (2 Chronicles 12:1).

The pride swelled within him, his own desperate self-trust, his magnanimous self-esteem. And then his strength crumbled and he learned the hard way that in the face of a holy, righteous, wrathful God, we are not strong.

"In the fifth year of King Rehoboam, because they had been unfaithful to the Lord, Shishak king of Egypt came up against Jerusalem. ... And he took the fortified cities of Judah and came as far as Jerusalem. Then Shemaiah the prophet came to Rehoboam and to the princes of Judah, who had gathered at Jerusalem because of Shishak, and said to them, 'Thus says the Lord, ‘You abandoned me, so I have abandoned you to the hand of Shishak’'" (2 Chronicles 12:2; 4-5).

And then Rehoboam thought that he got it and he humbled himself (v. 6) and said, "The Lord is righteous" probably because he didn't know what else to say. That day, the Lord extended mercy and did not let Shishak destroy him. Nevertheless, for his pride, Judah was forced to go into service for Egypt - as a reminder: we are not strong, and pride goes before destruction.

I am just as wont as King Rehoboam to pridefully deceive myself into self-importance and strength. I am just as wont to slip into idolatry, to lead others into sin with me, to feel self-righteous, proud, and strong. To feel like humility is beneath me.

Rehoboam's story did not have a happy ending. Shishak razed Jerusalem and put the nation in bondage, and Rehoboam lived out the rest of his days in disobedience to God. Our stories need not end so unhappily. Humble yourself before God. It is not a degradation; it is a right response in worship. Lean on the everlasting arms. Trust and obey.

Rejoice in your weakness, for then, you are strong.

Reflections on a Year Gone By: 2014

Happy New Year. At twelve o'clock tomorrow morning, we'll ring in 2015. Where did the last year go? It was like blinking - first we were blow-horning goodbye to 2013 and wondering what 2014 would hold and now we're on the cusp of 2015 with a handful of memories leftover from the last year. And what a year it was. We saw so much ...

We saw the Seahawks wipe out the Broncos in Super Bowl XLVIII. We saw Sochi host the Winter Olympics. We saw the multiple-million-times retweeted Oscar selfie. We saw a plea to #BringBackOurGirls. We saw disaster and death and prejudice in Ferguson. We saw the fear of Ebola. We saw celebrities dump ice buckets on themselves. We saw Derek Jeter retire. We saw the deaths of Robin Williams and Maya Angelou. We saw Malala Yousafzai co-win the Nobel Peace Price. We saw threats from North Korea over one raunchy movie. We saw madness and mayhem and kidnappings and murders and missing planes and famine and tragedy. We also saw beauty and life and forgiveness and victory and grace. It was a year of sorrow and joy. You have your own memories of this year. Perhaps for you it was marked with pain - or maybe pleasure. The one constant this year: God was faithful.

For me it was a year of blessing and growth. I got my full driver's license. I became a college junior. I started working at Reitmans. I went on a road trip. I read Les Miserables (and a whole lot of other good books). My family got two kittens. I started writing over at TheRebelution. And a host of other things - some nice, some not so nice. But I pray that, as we look back on this year, reliving memories, laughing over the joys, and still weeping over the sorrows, we ask ourselves some important questions.

How did I glorify God this year?

What were the sins I struggled with most?

Was I faithful to the gospel?

Did I become more holy?

Did my actions reflect my commitment to the King?

Did I choose joy?

How many people did I share the gospel with?

Did I pray often?

Was I relying on the Word of God?

As we enter upon this new year, the first in our years of eternity ahead, join with me in focusing our minds and hearts on the one truth that affects everything. Let us strive to know God more. Let us seek to sin less. Let us long to love better. Let us dedicate "another year for Thee," as Francis Havergal penned in "Another Year is Dawning":

Another year is dawning, dear Father, let it be
In working or in waiting, another year with Thee.
Another year of progress, another year of praise,
Another year of proving Thy presence all the days.
Another year of mercies, of faithfulness and grace,
Another year of gladness in the shining of Thy face;
Another year of leaning upon Thy loving breast;
Another year of trusting, of quiet, happy rest.
Another year of service, of witness for Thy love,
Another year of training for holier work above.
Another year is dawning, dear Father, let it be
On earth, or else in Heaven, another year for Thee.

Golden Calves Under the Tree

"What do you want for Christmas?" we ask.

"How are you celebrating the Saviour's birth?" we rarely ask.

Have we stuffed golden calves in our stockings? Has idolatry invaded our perception of Christmas, warping it into something untrue? Has idolatry burdened us this Christmas?

John Piper says,

What is an idol? Well, it is the thing. It is the thing loved or the person loved more than God, wanted more than God, desired more than God, treasured more than God, enjoyed more than God. ... It starts in the heart, craving, wanting, enjoying, being satisfied by anything that you treasure more than God.

It manifests itself in apparently innocent ways. We spend a little too much money on gifts. We skimp on a couple offerings. We skip church for a Christmas concert. And it seems like no big deal.

But it is. It is ruining our Christmas. It is ruining our lives. Why? Piper again:

Why are idols dangerous is: Because the wrath of God is coming upon idolatry. Nothing is more dangerous than the wrath of an omnipotent, all righteous God.

We don't want to think about the wrath of God this Christmas, but there can be no good news without this bad news. Idolatry will destroy us. Christ can cleanse us.

Lay aside the weight of idolatry this Christmas and embrace the hope of Christ.

Be an Advent Gift of Encouragement

Jon Bloom at Desiring God:

"For most of us, Advent is not a season of peace. It’s an extraordinarily busy, often stressful season. That is not necessarily a bad thing.

The first Advent was certainly anything but peaceful. It began with a contemplation of divorce, was accompanied by numerous confusing, unplanned detours, and was consummated in a stable of desperation. The Prince of peace brought a lot of turmoil with him when he came. And I think this implies that, in God’s judgment, what we may need at Christmas is not less turmoil, but more trust.

The Beautiful Busy-ness of Love

It really is a beautiful thing that the season of Advent is a season of giving. And as Jesus demonstrated by his life and his death, true giving, the kind of giving born of love, is costly. It makes life more complicated and messy and busy. But that’s okay, for there is a profound blessing in the busy-ness of love: “it is more blessed to give than to receive” (Acts 20:35). And God loves a cheerful giver and promises to make all grace abound to us when we cheerfully give grace to others (2 Corinthians 9:7–8).

What to Give This Christmas
That’s what we want especially to give to others this Christmas: grace. And one particular grace to focus on in our Christmas giving this year is encouragement. What if we seek not to merely ask what our loved one or neighbor would like, but what would most encourage him or her?"

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Fly Beyond the Stars: Christians and Imagination

Imagination is of central importance to the thinking, believing, growing Christian. Francis Schaeffer said, "The Christian is the one whose imagination should fly beyond the stars," as if saying Christians should have stronger, brighter imaginations than non-Christians. C.S Lewis too saw its importance, emphasizing its necessity in the process of understanding meaning behind truth. “For me, reason is the natural organ of truth; but imagination is the organ of meaning. Imagination, producing new metaphors or revivifying old, is not the cause of truth, but its condition.”

Imagination is a mental practice of creativity, creating something that is not wholly present in reality (i.e., a story world like Middle Earth or Narnia) or creating images or solutions or new things in your mind. Imagination is how you use your mind to internalize wonder and perceive reality in a more powerful way through creativity.

Christians don't talk a lot about imagination and wonder. We talk about rules and leave the "i-word" to the kids and the English professors. But the Christian life is one of immense, unlimited imagination and wonder.

God has created each human with the capacity for creativity, in His likeness, but as Christians, the blinders have been taken off the glasses through which we view the world. Though non-Christians can create good art and use their imaginations, they have a flawed perception of reality. Only Christians can see the whole story of the world - the dark, dark brokenness and the beauty of redemption and the anticipation of restoration. Only they can see the world and all its dirtiness and goodness through the lens of the work of Christ. Only they can see good and evil for what they are and the bold black lines that divide them.

Furthermore, the gospel itself inspires our awe and our wonder. We can marvel at the glories of the cross and our secured redemption. The Bible also inspires our imagination, though with this we must be very careful to not violate Scripture.  Yet there are distinct portions of Scripture that God actually gives to "fire up our imagination," as Randy Alcorn says; for example, heaven.

"We cannot anticipate or desire what we cannot imagine. That’s why, I believe, God has given us glimpses of Heaven in the Bible—to fire up our imagination and kindle a desire for Heaven in our hearts. And that’s why Satan will always discourage our imagination—or misdirect it to ethereal notions that violate Scripture. ... I believe that God expects us to use our imagination, even as we recognize its limitations and flaws. If God didn’t want us to imagine what Heaven will be like, he wouldn’t have told us as much about it as he has." (Randy Acorn, Heaven, Ch.II)

We can use our imaginations when we read of the glorious depictions of the New Heaven and New Earth in Revelation and stretch our imaginations as far as we can by thinking about how good and better it will be there. When God gives us rich descriptions in the Bible, like the banquet in Esther or some of the prophets' visions, we are meant to imagine the mental picture the words were written to conjure. When Ezekiel stands in the valley of dry bones, don't yawn. Thrust yourself in that valley of bones with him! See the horror and the death and then realize the wonder of new life.

Our imagination is not a distraction to our Christian walk but a tool that God has equipped us with to create and to fuel wonder. Read good books, look at good art, make shapes in the clouds, appreciate the stars, love beauty, immerse yourself in studying the Scriptures, and stretch your imagination. Wonder at God's creation, be creative, use imagination to add meaning to truth, and stretch it beyond the stars - for the glory of God.

How to Decide About Your Next Job

Tomorrow I go to my second shift of my first job. Deciding on this particular job was not difficult for me, even though I had other options. I was excited about the integrity of the company, the products they sell, the type of people I'd be working with, the discount (I know, I'm pathetic), the hours they offered, the opportunity for evangelism, the tasks I'd be involved in, and the chance to glorify God through the new experience in my life.

A week and a half into September, about a week and a half before I had my first interview with this job, I came upon an article by John Piper that gave me some gentle, encouraging counsel. Whether you're looking for your first or third or tenth job, he provides some rich advice on deciding about that next job.

In 1997 I put a list of Bible texts together to help folks think through what job to pursue. Below I have taken that list and added comments to flesh out more specifically what I had in mind. 
My prayer is that these thoughts will help saturate your mind with the centrality of Christ in all of life. He made you to work. And he cares about what you do with the half of your waking life called “vocation.” He wants you to rejoice in it. And he wants to be glorified in it. 
May the Lord position you strategically in the workplace, as only he can when his people care deeply about these kinds of questions.

Piper asks twelve questions ranging from "Does the aim of this job cohere with a growing intensity in your life to be radically, publicly, fruitfully devoted to Christ at any cost?" to "Will the job feel like a good investment of your life when these 'two seconds' of preparation for eternity are over?" to "Is taking this job part of a strategy to grow in personal holiness?"

Read and be edified.

The Greatest Struggle in My Christian Life

I have a lot of struggles in my Christian walk. I know I'm not alone in this. Jonathan Edwards called Christian practice "a costly, laborious thing." But as different people we are tempted toward different sins and stumble over different problems. We get stuck in different holes. The biggest struggle in my Christian life is perhaps not the same as yours. But maybe it is.

My struggle is not so uncommon, especially when it comes to being a pastor's kid. This could almost be called the PK Condition. The biggest struggle in my Christian life is connecting my head knowledge with my heart belief and physical action. Since my days in the church nursery, I've been surrounded by theological training. Family devotions are as much attached to my childhood memories as family vacations. I've been reading through the Bible once a year since I was twelve. I've memorized three books of the Bible. I've heard countless sermons and Sunday School lessons, read hundreds of books, written hundreds of articles - all centred around various aspects of theology.

But sometimes all the stuff that I know gets muffled by what I feel. I listen to a sermon on contentment on Sunday but I complain on Monday. It's because I have not connected the head knowledge (what I know I should do) with the heart belief (what I know I need to do) and the physical action (what I will do). I feel like complaining and despite what I know, I give into my feelings.

As C.S. Lewis tersely reminds me, "Feelings, feelings, feelings. Let me try thinking instead." That's the problem - I don't try thinking. I try feeling. And even though all this good, biblical theology sits on the bookshelves of my brain, the greatest obstacle to my sanctification is that I struggle to live it out.

So what do I do? There's no quick-fix solution, but there is a lifetime commitment: I keep thinking. Because the fact that my head knowledge doesn't transmit to my heart belief means that I have not fully comprehended the head knowledge. If I really understood the weight of the sin of discontentment, for example, I would not complain. I would not give into feelings. So I will keep preaching the gospel to myself. I will keep reading and writing and listening and learning and growing, because the more I comprehend the head knowledge, the more I will live it out.

We all struggle in our Christian lives. But if we don't know how to combat our sins, if we don't have a plan of attack against the sin that wars with us, we're destined to be defeated. By the power of the Holy Spirit, we can mortify our sin. And we can rejoice in the fact that one day, we will be free from sin forever. One day, our Christian lives will no longer contain struggles but only joys forever.

What I Learned from Failure

You could call me a successful person. I'm a hard worker, I get good grades, and I don't fail tests. Actually, I don't really fail much.

So while failing your first driving test may not seem like a big deal to you, to me it was crushing. It was a week before my birthday, a month ago. Though I was nervous, I was desperately confident. When I backed into that spot at the DMV, clicked on the parking brake, and turned to my instructor with bright eyes and an expectant smile, I was ready for success. I was ready to hear, "You passed."

I didn't hear that. Instead I heard, "I can't pass you today." Failure. Instant and bitter and cold and unexpected. My stomach dropped and with a slightly trembling lower lip, I stepped back inside and told Mom. She could read it in my eyes before I said anything. I failed.

Since that test, I've learned a lot about failure. Both my parents and I refused to let this failure be wasted. It was a learning opportunity. Now as I look back, there was a lot I learned from failure. And here are a few things:

Failure is only failure if you don't learn from it. It sounds cliche and trite and perfect for a Pinterest inspirational quote board, but it's true. Everything God gives us is because He knows that it is best for us. Everything is for our good. And He expects us to give Him the glory and to become more sanctified through our experiences. Failure is a growing experience. Failure is a sanctifying experience. It should make us better Christians.

Failure exposes pride. Jon Bloom said that pride is the pathological core of all of our sin, and nothing reveals the crippling pride in my heart like failure. Why was I so disappointed that I failed my road test? It's just a road test. The answer is wrapped up within my own pride. I wanted to pass for my own glory and good. Coming away from that failure, I felt my sin exposed nakedly before me. I am proud. This truth was stapled to my failure. If I had passed, I would never have realized the depths of my sin. Failure, meanwhile, was used by the Spirit to expose my sin blackly before me and convict me and lead me to repentance.

Failure makes me a more realistic person. Being someone who's rather alien to the concept of failure, the "real world" is going to seem pretty bleak if I don't at least have some experience with failure. Success will not be guaranteed solely by hard work. More failure is going to come - worse failure than road tests. And if I don't know how to deal with it, it will destroy me.

Failure makes me work harder. My road test instructor gave me a checklist of reasons why I failed. I memorized that list and I learned from it. I worked harder. I pushed for success. Just because I know failure might come, it doesn't mean that I ever stop doing my best and trying my hardest. And failure just means I have to work harder than before.

Failure is not the end of the world as I know it. So I've been known to be a bit of a dramatic soul. I feel things very deeply and sometimes respond to disappointment irrationally. I felt devastated after my failure. It took some tough love from Mom to get me to look at things more objectively. Because no matter how I feel, failure is not the end of my world. Failure is only a negative experience if you let it be. If you let feelings dictate what you think, you'll find your failure wasted.

Failure makes success sweeter. And the happy ending to my failure story is that yesterday, success came. I passed my road test and my new license sleeps happily in my wallet. There is no way that I could have possibly felt this good about passing if I had not failed my first test. Failure makes victory so much richer and more meaningful. I can look back on my first failure and smile. Sure, it still stings, but its sting just reminds me that I have to learn from it and refuse to waste it.

Nobody wants failure. I don't. But regardless of what we'd like, it's going to come and we're going to have to deal with it. We can waste it. We can sin because of it. We can let it destroy us. Or we can use it for our good and the glory of God. We can learn from it. We can become better people because of it. We can let it teach us.