August 29, 2012

Angry Christians

As we approach election season, all American Christians really ought to read these words by DA Carson.  Here's a snippet:
I think one of the devil’s tactics with respect to the church on the Right today is to make them so hate everybody else that at the end of the day they can’t be believed anywhere, not even the proclamation of the gospel.
Please do go on and read the rest of the article.

August 28, 2012

The Parable of the Paintbrush

God recently blessed our church with several wonderful new doors. The old ones were getting rickety and rusty. But the new ones are quiet, smooth, and much nicer looking, too! Praise the Lord for these small but good gifts to our church. And praise the Lord that one of our deacons, Gary, has done such a wonderful job of getting them painted for us! They look great! Well, mostly great …

You see, one day last week I was doing some projects around my house, and when I got finished, I was still in the mood to do a little tinkering. One of the new church doors had a very small area on which the paint seemed a little thin after drying … so I thought: ‘I’ll just get out that can of Gary’s Rustoleum oil-based paint, put a few quick dabs on that little spot, and be done.’ Note well the words ‘oil-based.’ I did not know, but was soon to discover, that you cannot just use any old brush to apply oil-based paint!

So I opened the can of paint, found an unused paintbrush in the utility room, and proceeded to slather on a few inches, square, of touch-up. It looked horrible! The rest of the door was smooth as glass, but this portion looked like a cat had run its claws through the paint! Wrong brush, remember? But I didn’t yet know that was the problem.

Now, at this point, I should have called Gary and said: ‘I think I messed up the paint job; can you tell me how to fix it?’ But instead I thought: ‘O, I know how to smooth this out. I’ll use a roller on this area, blend it in and spread it out a little, and all will be well.’ Bad mistake. The paint job got much worse … and the problem area much bigger!

Then it occurred to me: ‘I wonder if you have to have a special brush or roller for oil-based paint?’ Google said yes! Now I knew the problem. And I should have called Gary and said: ‘Uh, I really messed up the door. Used the wrong brush, and a roller to boot. Can you come and fix it?’ But instead I went to Home Depot, bought the correct brush, and a little sanding pad, and decided that if I could smooth out the area, and then re-paint it with the right brush, all would be well. While I was in the store, I even thought: ‘You know, instead of buying all this stuff, I should just call Gary and ask him for help.’ But I didn’t. So, the next morning I got up, went out, sanded the rough patch to what looked like smooth, and proceeded to paint away. But I didn’t evidently get it as smooth as I thought, nor could I keep my brush strokes from looking streaky, even with a $12 paint brush!

So … after all my painting, rolling, spending, sanding, and repainting, the small area that I began with (maybe half the size of my hand) was now about 6 inches wide by two feet tall! What could I do? I thought about trying to wait another day, sanding and repainting again the next morning. The thought of calling Gary and asking for help was too embarrassing. But how much worse might I make it?

Well, I finally decided to cry ‘uncle.’ So I emailed Gary, told him what happened, and asked him if he could fix what I had ruined. I'm sure it won't be long until he has it looking right again. Thank God for good deacons! But I might have made much less of a mess (and cost myself much less money, and Gary much less time) if I’d have simply called him in the first place! And therein lies the parable of the paintbrush.

So often we do the Christian life like I did the touch-up work on the door. We get in over our heads, and we know it. But it’s too embarrassing to call someone who knows better (God mainly, or perhaps sometimes another Christian) and admit we’ve made a hash of things. So we try a different solution, and then a different one after that. We throw money at the problem. And so on. We should have just stopped and put the whole thing in God’s hands from the beginning. But we went it alone and made a small problem into a medium-sized one, or a medium-sized problem into a giant mess – all because we thought we could handle it without anyone else having to know how inept we were the first time. But if we were inept the first time, we’ll probably be inept at covering up our previous ineptness! That’s my experience, anyway!

So I should have called Gary last Thursday. And I should have called God in a lot of other similar situations. Make sure you don't make the same mistake!

P.S. – Yes, I know that another moral of this story is that pastors who don’t have a handy bone in their bodies shouldn’t be messing with such projects in the first place! But feel free to remind me and make fun of me anyway!

August 24, 2012

Jim Elliot's Unknown Brother Bert

Saw this story by Randy Alcorn today.

Jim Elliot had a brother, Bert, who was a missionary before Jim was ... and who served for 60 years on the mission field before passing away this past February.

Below is one portion of Alcorn's article that caught my attention.  He writes:
Bert said something to me that day I met him that I’ll never forget: “Jim and I both served Christ, but differently. Jim was a great meteor, streaking through the sky.”
Bert didn’t go on to describe himself, but I will. Unlike his brother Jim, the shooting star, Bert was a faint star that rose night after night, faithfully crossing the same path in the sky, to God’s glory.
In missions work, suffering sometimes results in a short life culminating in martyrdom, sometimes in a long life of daily dying to self and living for Christ. I believe Jim Elliot’s reward is considerable, but it wouldn’t surprise me to discover that Bert and Colleen’s will be greater still.
Read the whole article here.  (HT: Justin Taylor).

August 20, 2012

Practicing what I Preach

From time to time, I receive the following positive feedback from one person or other in our church: ‘It helps me to hear you, the pastor, admit that you too sometimes struggle to apply the things you are preaching.’ Those words are meant as a compliment, and I gladly take them that way! I am a sinner just like every other Christian … desperately in need of the merciful Jesus that I preach every week. I am glad that people realize that. And, to whatever extent my own transparency and admission of gospel need helps others to make the same confessions, I rejoice! I hope that I will always preach this way, and never come to a place in which I feel I have arrived. I hope I will always say with Paul: “It is a trustworthy statement … that Christ came into the world to save sinners, among whom I am foremost of all” (1 Timothy 1.15).

And yet the very same Paul – who calls himself the chief of sinners – also lays down very specific guidelines for what elders and ministers must be and do if they are to be qualified to serve in Christ’s church (see Titus 1). So, though it sometimes helps his people to hear it, the pastor cannot always default to saying: ‘Well, I’m a sinner just like everyone else.’ He is emphatically not to simply be like everyone else! Chief of sinners though he may be, he must also be a chief example of godliness!

Do you hear the paradox? On the one hand, the pastor is a man who, if he knows his own heart, is all too aware of how often he struggles with his own sinful nature … and who sometimes actually preaches more effectively because his own struggles make him more in love with God’s good news for sinners! But, on the other hand, the pastor must be more godly, more self-controlled, more loving, and more faithful than just any old Christian … or be ineffective in his ministry. To put it more simply: The pastor is a man who knows, better than anyone, how often he fails to practice what he preaches. And yet he is also a man who must practice what he preaches!

It’s a kind of paradox, I say … and a fine line that a minister must walk – being transparent about his own sin nature without being comfortable with it; being willing to admit his own struggles without shirking the elder requirements laid down in Scripture. And, O, how my sin makes it a painful paradox … especially in my poorer moments.

In some ways, we all face this same paradox as we seek to proclaim Christ to our children, in our work places, in the neighborhood, and with our friends. On the one hand, our witness will be a mere clanging cymbal if we are not holy and loving – demonstrating the difference that Jesus makes. But, on the other hand, our transparency about the fact that we have not yet spiritually arrived can go a long way in helping our friends and family understand that heaven is granted by virtue of good news, not a good life.

So we all wrestle with the pastor’s paradox. But the necessary and difficult balance is even more front-burner, perhaps, for those of us who stand up every week to proclaim God's truth … and who, thus, have the greatest responsibility for practicing what we preach. Please do pray that I (and your pastor) will get the balance right – always being a man who is “above reproach,” and therefore fit for ministry; but never forgetting that I am, like Paul, the chief of sinners.

August 14, 2012

Forgiving Yourself

In recent weeks, I have had several occasions to speak with people who have come to me with the words: ‘I know God has forgiven me, but I can’t seem to forgive myself.’ And for every one that has come and admitted this trouble, there are probably several others who are feeling exactly the same way, but haven’t verbalized it. Perhaps your eyes were attracted to the title of this little article because you feel precisely what I have just described: ‘I understand God’s forgiveness, but I don’t know how to forgive myself.’ And, if you are asking that question, I feel your pain; and I think I know (and have felt) what you’re feeling: ‘Why, if God has forgiven me, do I still feel so bad about what I did?’ It’s a very important and legitimate question.

So how does a pastor counsel a person in that situation? What do we make of this difficulty ‘forgiving ourselves’?

My counsel, in each of these situations, has been the same: ‘Forgiving yourself is not necessarily the answer.’*  I know this goes contrary to what popular culture tells us; even to what pop-psychology tells us. But the Bible nowhere teaches us to forgive ourselves! It says a lot about God’s forgiveness. And it commands us, unequivocally, to forgive others. But I know of nowhere that the Bible speaks of forgiveness in relation to how we respond to ourselves. So I stand by my counsel: Forgiving yourself is not the answer to lingering feelings of guilt and shame. Allow me to explain why.

First, as I said already, in our culture, ‘forgiving yourself’ often means no longer having to feel remorse, or guilt, or shame for one’s sins. Perhaps that’s not what all Christians mean when they talk of forgiving themselves … but often, I think this is what it boils down to. ‘I know I’ve sinned, and I’ve asked God to forgive me … and now I wish I could stop feeling so bad about what I did.’ Believe me, I know that feeling! No one likes feeling bad about him or herself! But God’s best for us is not always that we immediately feel better after we’ve repented. Yes, He wants us to be certain that we are forgiven through Christ’s blood (see the latter half of this article)! But that’s not always the same as feeling completely relieved of our own feelings of remorse and self-recrimination. Rather, according to Psalm 51, the kind of spirit God delights to see in us is not the easy-going peace of a person who has completely forgiven himself, but the “broken and ... contrite heart” (v.17) of a man whose sins are ever before him (v.3)!

So if you’re struggling with lingering feelings of shame over your sin, the remedy may not actually be self-forgiveness, but acceptance of the fact that those feelings of remorse and shame are not always a bad thing … and may need to stick around for a few days, sobering and humbling your soul into "a broken and a contrite heart” which God does “not despise”.

Having said that, of course, let us note carefully that the Bible does not call on us to beat ourselves up; or to wallow in our guilt. In fact, it aims to lift us out of such things! But the way the Bible brings freedom from feelings of condemnation and self-loathing is not to urge us to forgive ourselves, but rather to revel in God’s forgiveness of us! It’s what God thinks about you that heals the soul, not what you think about you! And thus the Bible is filled with reminders that, if we are in Christ, our sins have been carried as far as the east is from the west; they have been nailed to the cross, so that “there is therefore now no condemnation for those who are in Christ Jesus.” Praise God, the Bible is replete with verses like these; verses that really do set a man or woman free from self-loathing and condemnation! But they do not set us free by helping us forgive ourselves, but by urging us, rather, to more fully embrace God’s forgiveness of us!

The solution then, when I am weighed down with guilt and shame, is not so much that I need to figure out how to forgive myself, but that I simply need to better understand, and revel in, and appreciate how God has forgiven me. For, what does the old hymn say? “This is all my hope and peace” – self-forgiveness? “This is all my hope and peace” – a positive self-image? “This is all my hope and peace” – learning to love myself? No! “This is all my hope and peace, nothing but the blood of Jesus!” That’s the solution to guilt and condemnation – fixing our eyes on Jesus! Indeed, the more I focus on Jesus, the less and less I am even conscious of myself, much less in a mood to beat up on myself!

So if I say, ‘I know God forgives me, but I need to be able to forgive myself’ … I have it backwards. For, if I really grasp, and meditate on, and revel in, and appropriate God’s forgiveness, I’ll have no need to find any of my own!

*Much of my thinking in this regard has been helped along by hearing the similar thoughts of  the great 18th century pastor Charles Simeon, as explained by John Piper in a biographical message on Simeon entitled: "Brothers, we must not Mind a Little Suffering."

August 9, 2012

Precious in the Sight of the Lord is the Death of His Saints

What a wonderful truth we find in Psalm 116.15: “Precious in the sight of the Lord is the death of His saints” (KJV). What a sweet, hope-giving word in season! And yet, on the surface of things, these words may sound a little bit odd, or perhaps even confusing.

First, we need to ask: Who are "the saints"? In our culture – and especially in the part of the country in which we live – “the saints” are often thought to be St. Peter, St. Anne, St. Vincent, St. Xavier, St. Mary, and so on. The saints, in many people’s minds, are those super-spiritual folks of old. Those seraphic characters who have churches and hospitals named after them. And, if that’s what Psalm 116 means by ‘the saints’, then it’s not a great deal of help to us when we lie in or sit beside a hospital bed. None of us will ever have that hospital named after us!

But praise God that, in the Bible, “the saints” is not a reference only to the apostles and a few select others … but to all of God’s believing people. In fact, what “the saints” really means is simply “the godly ones”; the ones who are set apart to God; the ones who have been bought by Jesus’ blood, and are being changed into His image! Those are “the saints”!

And so, when we read that the death of the saints is “precious in the sight of the Lord,” we are to understand that God is not only smiling down upon the deathbeds of the Marys and Augustines of the world, but upon the deathbed of every single one of His children – no matter how quietly they lived, no matter how late they turned to Christ, no matter how obscure their life may have been! “Precious in the sight of the Lord is the death of His saints” – all of them!

But that brings up a second question: How can anyone call death “precious”? The deterioration of the body, the pale coldness of the flesh, the pain and the gasping, the tears that flow, and the holes that are left in families seem anything but precious. Death is a sad thing. Death is an intrusion. It was never meant to be this way. And so how is it that the psalmist can call it “precious”?

Well, let us not fail to notice that the psalmist says that “death” is “precious in the sight of the Lord.” It may not, in many ways, be precious in our sight. It may feel, to us who are left behind, like an arrow piercing our innermost being. It is horrible, in so many ways. But in the sight of the Lord, it is “precious” – not because of the pain, or the tears, or the grief; but because the Lord knows (far better than we do) just what awaits His saints on the other side! He knows how delighted they will be to see Him face to face! He knows how the angels will celebrate when they come! He knows how happy they will be to be finally free of sin, and pain, and sorrow! And that is why death is “precious in His sight.” When they die, the Lord’s saints have finally begun to live!

But you and I cannot see all that the Lord sees – at least not with our physical eyes. And so, for us, death is sometimes anything but precious. But let us attempt to see, by faith, as the Lord sees. We will have to look through tears. And the vision won’t be as clear as we’d wish. But when we see the other side with the eyes of faith, “the death of the saints” – painful as it may be – will be “precious” in our sight, too!