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Proverbs 29:18 is Not About Vision-Casting

“Where there is no vision, the people perish . . .”
— Proverbs 29:18 (KJV)

Proverbs 29:18 may be one of the most misapplied verses in all the evangelical church today. Many a church leader has used it to spiritualize his strategies and blackmail followers into supporting his entrepreneurialism. Vision statements are cast. Mission statements are crafted to serve the vision. A list of values is composed to serve the mission. An array of programs is developed to serve the values. A stable of leaders is recruited to serve the programs. An army of volunteers is inspired to assist the leaders.

Much of what goes on in our local churches serves to make sure the church machine keeps running. In less healthy—but sometimes very big—churches, the entire machine is designed to put on an excellent weekend worship service. All of this would indeed perish if that vision were not cast.

But what if a leader’s good idea for church growth or success was not the vision Proverbs 29:18 had in mind? What if we aren’t free to insert anything we come up with, no matter how spiritual or “inspired by God”?

The verse is longer than is usually quoted. Proverbs 29:18 (in the ESV) in its entirety reads: “Where there is no prophetic vision the people cast off restraint, but blessed is he who keeps the law.”

The vision is prophetic vision; what is in mind here is the revelation of God to his biblical spokesmen. Where there is no vision shared with us by the prophets, to whom God revealed the mysteries of the ages, we like savages run wild. In other words, we may have a vision, but if it is not the one given to the biblical representatives of God’s revelation and the forecasters of God’s coming glory, it is not to be conformed to. “But blessed is he who keeps the law.” The latter part of the verse implies that when the vision of the prophets is held by the people, the blessing of living God’s way ensues.

What is the vision of the prophets? It is “the mystery hidden for ages and generations but now revealed to his saints” (Col. 1:26; see also Rom.16:25 and Eph. 3:9). The vision is Jesus.

The world would have us know a billion other things. The church would sometimes have us know many other things, as well. But those who have beheld the life-changing vision of our glorious Lord Jesus Christ know better.



How to Understand and Apply the Old Testament: Step 8–Historical Context

Step 8 of the interpretive process moves us from “Observation” to “Context” as we consider, “Where does the passage fit?” This post considers the historical context, and the next will consider the literary context.

 

Starting to Assess Historical Context

By considering a passage’s historical context, we are asking, “Where does this passage fit in space and time, and how do these data points inform the reading of our passage?” Here we seek to understand the historical situation (temporal, social, physical) from which the human author composed the text and to identify any historical-cultural-geographical details that the author mentions or assumes. Some of the questions that we need to ask include:

  1. Who? The author, audience, and major figures and powers of the passage.
  2. When? The original date of the message in relation to major periods and powers, including assessment of what events precede and follow (with consideration of potential influence either way).
  3. Where? The physical location and geography pointed to in the text.
  4. Why? The cause and purpose for the message.
  5. How? The genre and thought flow of the passage. At stake here is answering, “Why did he say it that way?”

We gain answers to these questions mostly from reading the biblical text itself. The more we understand the Bible, the more aware we become of its ancient context, making it easier for us to cross the bridge from the modern world into the ancient word. For this reason, we must read, read, and re-read the Bible.

 

One Additional Question: Shared Assumptions

All this information is important to historical context, but we must also identify the shared assumptions between the author and his audience–elements that were clear to them but may not be as clear to us. Thus, there is one more question that is related to those above but whose answer assumes a little more from the reader.

  1. What? Here our focus is less on what is said and more on what is assumed with respect to detailed knowledge of at least seven areas:[1]
    1. Linguistic familiarity: Every biblical author assumed others would understand his words. This requires either a shared knowledge of Hebrew, Aramaic, or Greek or the certainty of a translation into a known tongue.
    2. Worldview: Here I refer to the shared values, perspectives, mindset, and outlook of the writer, recipients, key figures mentioned in the text, or the society.
    3. Societal and economic systems: These are the relationships and social structures that determine everyday life: common history of families or groups, marriage and family patterns, gender roles, social status, ethnicity, trades and vocations, slavery, wealth and poverty. The author often assumes his reader will understand these features. Because we are so removed from the original setting, grasping the various societal and economic structures can be difficult.
    4. Behavioral patterns like dress, community, or family customs.
    5. Political climate: We mean the governmental power centers, structures, loyalties, and personnel. For example, biblical authors don’t always explain the distinction between an officer and judge. They assume that we know the difference.
    6. Religious practices: These are the convictions, rituals, affiliations, personnel, and sacred structures associated with Israel or their neighbors’ worship.
    7. Physical features like climate and weather, topography, architecture, transportation, plants and animals, etc.

Most commonly, the biblical text itself clarifies all the historical details we need to understand a passage. Nevertheless, there are times when knowing something about the created world or something from sources outside the Bible can aid our biblical understanding.

Learning about historical context can be fascinating. Yet interpreters must remember that the goal at this stage is to understand God’s word and not just learn about background information to the book or historical details to which the passage points. As such, if you are preparing a message, use historical data only in so far as it develops the main point rather than distracts from it.

 

When to Use Historical Context 

There are at least four broad spheres that intersect with the question of historical context. Few Christians question the validity of looking for historical context amid the initial three, but the fourth raises more questions.

  1. A proper grasp of linguistic signs: At base, reading Scripture rightly demands that the interpreter, or at least a translator, rightly understand the linguistic signs in which God gave us his word (i.e., Hebrew, Aramaic, and/or Greek).
  2. A detailed grasp of the persons, institutions, and events of Scripture: Knowing the key persons, institutions, and events of Scripture will make you a better interpreter. For example, knowing Israel’s covenantal history and their relations with the neighboring nations helps you grasp the prophets’ public condemnations.
  3. A general awareness of life in this created world: Exegetes need to be conscious of the world around them to properly understand the Bible. “Go to the ant, O sluggard; consider her ways, and be wise” (Prov. 6:6). This kind of command demands that we know what an ant is and have an ability to “consider its ways.”
  4. A proper approach to extra-biblical data: Ancient Near Eastern extra-biblical data rarely if ever provide necessary details for grasping the message of the biblical text itself, but they do inform our reading and raise new rhetorical possibilities in our understanding that we would have otherwise likely not considered. Often these new interpretive possibilities express polemical theology by which the biblical text expresses Yahweh’s supremacy over rival powers or perspectives.

 

A Note on Scripture’s Clarity

While it is not always easy to know how much the authors assume of their readers, the very nature of God’s word demands that people can understand its message in any culture and age. Historically, the church has called this the doctrine of Scripture’s perspicuity, or clarity. Though not equally clear in everything, the Bible is sufficiently clear to allow us to grasp the portrait of God’s supremacy, his overarching kingdom purposes, and Jesus’s saving work. Wayne Grudem helpfully notes that the Bible itself testifies that we can understand it but …

  • Not all at once;
  • Not without effort;
  • Not without ordinary means;
  • Not without the reader’s willingness to obey it;
  • Not without the help of the Holy Spirit;
  • Not without human misunderstanding;
  • Never completely.[2] 

 

Guidelines for Engaging Historical Context

Four guidelines help the interpreter study historical context effectively: Be clear, careful, restrained, and relentless.

  1. Be clear on the type of historical context information you are assessing. Does it answer Who? When? Where? Why? How? or What?
  2. Be careful when engaging comparative literature. Examine both similarities and differences with the biblical material seeking to discern the rhetorical purpose of the biblical message. Scripture’s tendency is to dispute and repudiate pagan myths, ideas, identities, and customs. The Bible often establishes the authentic original historical event that pagan cultures distorted through polytheism, magic, and violence. Be careful in your assessment of comparative literature.
  3. Be restrained in your use of historical context material. Before going outside the Bible for answers, wrestle within the Scripture itself, considering the Bible in its entirety to grasp the author’s message. As preachers and teachers of God’s word, our goal is to unpack the message of Scripture, not to major on the periphery that is interesting but ultimately unhelpful in understanding the author’s main point.
  4. Be relentless in your commitment to draw your message from the text. A proper use of historical context will support, not subvert, the text’s apparent meaning. One way to ensure that you are drawing your assertions of historical relevance from the text is to look for authorial clues regarding the purpose of historical data. This can serve to guide your assessment about why certain historical details may be present in the text.

 

The Historical Context of Zephaniah 1:4-6  

So I will stretch out My hand against Judah
And against all the inhabitants of Jerusalem.
And I will eliminate the remnant of Baal from this place,
And the names of the idolatrous priests along with the other priests.
And those who bow down on the housetops to the heavenly lights,
And those who bow down and swear to the LORD, but also swear by Milcom,
And those who have turned back from following the LORD,
And those who have not sought the LORD nor inquired of Him.
(Zeph. 1:4–6, NASB)

This brief declaration of coming punishment introduces numerous historical and geographical features that interpreters must understand in order to properly grasp the nature of the people’s sin and Yahweh’s response.

  1. Jerusalem (v. 4) was the political and religious center in the southern kingdom of Judah (1 Kgs 11:13, 36). Yahweh had chosen it for his central sanctuary, where he sat enthroned over his people.
  2. The remnant of Baal (v. 4) referred to a holdout of Judeans––members of the Mosaic covenant––who were following “Baal”-Hadad, the false Canaanite storm/fertility deity (cf. 1 Kgs 17–18). Trusting counterfeit gods like Baal for help was always evil in Yahweh’s sight (cf. Deut 5:7; Judg 2:11–15; 3:7); such folly brought destruction to the northern kingdom (2 Kgs 17:16–18) and rendered Judah’s destruction imminent (2 Kgs 22:16–17; 23:26–27; 24:3–4).
  3. The idolatrous priests along with the other priests (v. 4). Against the NASB, the context suggests that both groups of priests were actually idolatrous; that is why they are both being punished. The same use of terms elsewhere suggests the first group were illegitimate, non-Levitical clergy (1 Kgs 12:31–32; 13:33–34; cf. 2 Kgs 23:5), whereas the second group were the Levitical priests, who, Zephaniah tells us later, had “profaned the sanctuary” and “done violence to the Law” (Zeph 3:4).
  4. The heavenly lights (v. 5). Worshiping the stars was a sin that corrupted the northern kingdom (2 Kgs 17:6) and that characterized Manasseh and Amon’s reigns (2 Kgs 21:3, 5–6, 21) in Zephaniah’s youth.
  5. Milcom (v. 5). The false god of the Ammonites, whose veneration was explicitly condemned (1 Kgs 11:5, 33). The Hebrew may instead read “their king” (see NETB), but this royal title would still be referring to a god, which in context would be “Baal.” The remnant of syncretists in Judah were making oaths to Yawheh but doing so by (i.e., under the highest authority of) their king, that is, by another god, invoking his power to serve as witness to the vow and to hold them accountable.

Knowing historical context really helps better understand the nature of Israel’s rebellion and the reason for Yahweh’s condemnation. All of these historical elements were discerned from within the biblical text itself. We didn’t have to go outside the Bible to understand the “who?” (the remnant of Baal, illegitimate priests, Milcom/their king), the “where?” (Jerusalem), the “why?” (the reason for the condemnation), or the “what?” (the Baal, the idolatrous priests, the heavenly lights).

The “remnant of Baal” in Jerusalem consisted of four groups: (1) legitimate and illegitimate clergy practicing idolatry (v. 4); (2) star-worshipers (v. 5); (3) syncretistic hypocrites (v. 5); (4) the self-ruled and self-dependent (v. 6). In his mercy, Yahweh was confronting them, urging them to revere him in view of the nature and nearness of his day of wrath (Zeph 1:7). While there was still hope, Zephaniah would call them to seek Yahweh together (2:1–3) and to wait for him (3:8).


[1] Adapted from Gordon D. Fee, New Testament Exegesis: A Handbook for Students and Pastors, 3rd ed. (Louisville: Westminster John Knox, 2002), 96; Craig L. Blomberg, A Handbook of New Testament Exegesis (Grand Rapids: Baker Academic, 2010), 84.

[2] Wayne Grudem, “The Perspicuity of Scripture,” Them 34 (2009): 288–309.



Human Kind Cannot Bear Very Much Reality

In Four Quartets T.S. Eliot said, “Human kind cannot bear very much reality.” We shield our eyes. We busy ourselves. Like dealing with a fussy child, we direct our anxious hearts to something else hoping for a moment’s peace. Neil Postman wrote about “amusing ourselves to death.” We cram our lives with TV shows and movies and songs and social media and YouTube videos and everything else. We can face the reality of others, as long as we don’t have to tune into ours. Inside each of us is darkness we cannot face, and uncertainty we cannot bear. It’s all points to, as Eliot says, “one end, which is always present.”

We cannot bear very much reality. So we go into virtual reality. Strapping on our headsets, we depart from this world to another. We fight fake battles and climb mountains of pixels. We bowl alone, our eyes wrapped in technology taking us far, far away without leaving our chair. The day behind us falls like a blanket to the floor and the day ahead floats out front but we can’t see it. We don’t want to see it. We want an escape. The darkness is too much, so we blind it with light from a thousand sources.

Our day is not unique, only novel. We have more options for distraction. We have easier worlds to enter and more roads to take. But we cannot, no matter what we do or where we go, escape the one end, which is always present. That future we fear is only a day away. The one end makes us anxious so we prefer not to think too much about it. We cannot bear very much reality.

But, of course, reality is where we live. It is the warp and woof of our minutes and hours and days and months and years. Our fantasy worlds are only that. Isn’t it interesting that even there our worlds are filled with danger and risk and cliffs and swords and guns? In our escape, we run to what unnerves us. The one end may be avoidable in fantasy land, and perhaps that’s why we enjoy it so much. We know we’re doomed here, but we have a chance of survival there. We love that alternative story. We need another hope because our reality is too heavy.

Here is where Christmas holds so much power. This real world is the one to which Jesus came. Jesus entered our humanity. He became one of us, taking on flesh and blood, partaking of the same things as you and me (Heb. 2:14). The God of Heaven, who is above all and over all, who in himself has the fullness of love and joy and peace came to bear our reality.

Jesus can bear more reality than we can. He chose to bear more reality than we can. He came all the way down, all the way in, all the way through. The reality we run from, he came to live inside. He looked poverty in the face. He felt the leprous skin on his hand. He smelled the offensive incense of false offerings. He heard the blasphemies of man. He tasted the sting of betrayal and death. The reality we cannot bear, he chose.

Christmas is the proclamation that the human kind that cannot bear very much reality has been visited by Reality himself. The one end to which all this points has appeared already. The end of the story has been written and revealed. The birth of Jesus was the power of God breaking into our reality to take us into his. The darkness we fear has been broken by a light from above. The one end always present is no longer an unsettling void but a warm embrace, no longer a cause for distraction but an invitation to focus, no longer a reason for despair but a welcome to hope. “The Word became flesh and dwelt among us, and we have seen his glory, glory as of the only Son from the Father, full of grace and truth” (John 1:14).

Human kind cannot bear very much reality, but Jesus can, and he did. He will carry us through. Christmas is the promise. His life is the proof. His death is the end. His resurrection is the hope. Because Jesus bore the reality we can’t bear, he offers us one we can.

Editors Note: This article was originally published at Things of the Sort.

 



Why I’d Go to Church If I Were Not a Pastor

A friend and I had a long conversation. It was a typical discussion that happens when pastors get together. We tried to fix all of the problems in the church and the world before we got up from the table. As is typical, nothing changed when we finished our conversation.

After an extended debate about transitions and succession, we considered our own future retirements from pastoral ministry, God willing.

“When I retire, I’m not going to church anymore,” my fried joked. “I will do like my members and just watch the services via livestream.” My friend assured me that he would faithfully pay his tithes and offerings each week. But he would do so from the comfort of his fishing boat on Sunday mornings.

We laughed heartily. Then the conversation moved on to other topics. But the question my friend raised kept gnawing at me.

Would you go to church if you were not a pastor?

There are times I feel like the man who slept in one Sunday morning. His wife insisted that he wake up and get ready for church. “Give me three reasons why I should go to church today,” he mumbled, pulling the covers over his head.

His wife had three ready answers. “First, it’s the Lord’s Day and it is your duty to assemble with God’s people for corporate worship. Secondly, the Lord has been good our family and we should give thanks for his blessings. Thirdly, you’re the pastor of the church!”

Yes, I am a pastor. And I am paid to be at church on Sundays. It is my responsibility to be present and prepared to serve each week. I take these ministerial duties seriously. In fact, pastoral ministry has been a vital part of the Lord’s sanctifying work in my life.

But let me be clear. I do not go to church merely because I am a pastor who must be there. I would go to the church, even if I was not a pastor.

Why?

I would go to church if I were not a pastor, because I would still be a Christian if I were not a pastor. And to be a Christian is to be a participating member of the local church.

There is a growing trend in which professing Christians have abandoned the local church. There are many reasons why people who claim to follow Jesus have stopped going to church. But no one seems acknowledge the reason given by the Apostle John:

“They went out from us, but they were not of us; for if they had been of us, they would have continued with us. But they went out, that it might become plain that they all are not of us” (1 John 2:19).

Church hurt is a real thing. But the Lord has given clear instructions for dealing with stubbornly unrepentant sinners in the church (Matthew 18:15-20). The Lord’s solution for problem people is church discipline, not church abandonment. And Christ promises to be with the two or three gathered in his name to preserve fidelity of doctrine, holiness of life, and unity of fellowship in the church.

“The church is full of hypocrites,” some claim. I could not disagree with more. Most importantly, the Lord Jesus Christ is not a hypocrite. He is the Word, the Truth, and the Life (John 14:6). If Jesus is who claimed to be, he is worthy of our trust, obedience, and worship, even if he commands me to join a bunch of hypocrites!

There are many good reasons why I would go to church if I were not a preacher. But the primary reason is because Christ is the Head of the church, and the church is the body of Christ. Christ does not have “out-of-body” experiences. You cannot have a high view of Christ and a low view of the church at the same time.

I love Jesus Christ. And I love what Jesus loves. Christ loves the church and gave himself for her (Ephesians 5:25). You may not like the way the bride of Christ looks. But be careful how you treat Christ’s bride. And remember that what the church is now is not what the church will be. Christ is sanctifying the church that he may present her to himself with spot or blemish.

In the meantime…

“And let us consider how to stir up one another to love and good works, not neglecting to meet together, as is the habit of some, but encouraging one another, and all the more as you see the day drawing near.” (Hebrews 10:24-25)

Editor’s Note: This article was originally published at hbcharlesjr.com.



Success is Dangerous

And his fame spread far, for he was marvelously helped, till he was strong.

—2 Chronicles 26:15

Not a single one of us wishes, really, for failure. Oh, sure, there are certainly some spiritual masochists out there, Christians who take great pride in the ministry of Isaiah—”I’m losing 90 per cent? I must be doing something right!”—but there’s a reason God provoked Isaiah’s commitment to the mission before giving him his depressing orders. None of us would want to sign up for that.

When we find ourselves in difficult ministries, where the word seems out of season and the soil inordinately hard, despite our sincere and faithful efforts to share the gospel in contextualized ways and love and serve our neighbors with gladness and kindness, many of us battle discouragement, but we at least theologically understand that sometimes God gives and sometimes he takes away.

There is something biblically beautiful, actually, about such littleness. It appears to be the primary mode of thinking of the apostles about themselves. Paul boasts, but he boasts in his weakness. He considers his successes garbage compared to Christ’s glory. It is God’s bigness he is concerned ultimately with, not his own or that of the churches.

So when we are made little, we can find ourselves in the heart of John the Baptist’s prayer, that Jesus would increase and we would decrease. It’s not the ideal place to be in terms of our dreams and ambitions, but relying totally on God’s sovereignty is right where God wants us. It’s not a call to passivity or to excuse-making. But even the most diligent of workers can say that God has called him to be faithful, not successful.

And then God grants many much visible success. Sometimes God’s people succeed greatly at things he hasn’t actually called them to do, but sometimes in his strange wisdom he grants extraordinary, legitimate successes to his children. But with such glories should come many cautions. We all prefer success to failure but, really, success is more dangerous. In failure, we know we rely totally on God’s approval and sustaining arm. In success, it is easy to begin looking around, surveying all the territories claimed, all the peoples gathered, all the ministry renown redounding, and we think, “Well, lookee here. Look what has been built with my talents, my gifts, my skills, my strategies, my visions, my sweat, my sacrifice.”

It is perfectly normal for humans to prefer success to failure. You’d be a weirdo if you didn’t.
And yet it is perfectly normal for humans to taint all their successes with the swelling of their big fat heads. You’d be a weirdo if you didn’t.

And so we remember the Holy Spirit, the sovereign breath of God Himself in whom we live and move and have our being (Acts 17:28), without whom we could not receive one single stinking thing (John 3:27). It is the Spirit who directs our paths while we’re making our big plans (Proverbs 16:9) and hijacks our mission statements (James 4:13-15). Oh, we can produce some very exciting enterprises, we can get a lot of stuff done if we’ll just have that can-do attitude and take-charge spirit and gung-ho personality and yada yada yada. That Babel tower was pretty tall too.

Don’t run ahead of the Lord God. You may find yourself in the midst of a great, booming success and therefore very, very vulnerable.

And the dirty little secret is that you don’t really need it. If God wants you to have it, that’s great. But you don’t need “more” to be satisfied in God, to be fully justified by Christ, to be fully filled by the Spirit. God does not measure success the way we do. So whether you are struggling or succeeding, the best position to take is always that of prayer so that you know how to have little and how to have a lot, how to do “all things” through Christ—not know-how. Only Christ is inexhaustible.

Therefore let anyone who thinks that he stands take heed lest he fall.
—1 Corinthians 10:12



Don’t Waste Your Life Following Your Passion

It is the time of year where graduations abound. Commencement speakers and familial advice-givers are saying things like: “Follow your passion!” “Chase your dreams!” “Focus on being true to yourself!” “You can change the world!”

On the whole, such admonitions are dreadful advice and will paralyze, not liberate, those who embrace them. As far as the real work of sorting out your life direction and purpose, they are cotton-candy assertions and will be accompanied by the subsequent cotton-candy stomach ache for those who feed on them.

Consider some of the problematic commonalities of the admonitions:

  1. Each one is a vague abstraction.
  2. Each one is a self-referential call to look inward, rather than upward, or outward.
  3. Each one is individualistic, with no thought of place or community.
  4. Each one assumes that you can identify your passion by just thinking about it.
  5. Each one assumes the purpose of life is self-fulfillment.

The truth is finding your passion is most often the product a lot of faithful work that is pursued to the glory of God because it is your duty. We often romanticize the effectiveness of just sitting around and thinking, “What do I want to do?” We act as if our individualized answer to that question should be determinative apart from any other input. Sidelined in this type of thinking is any focus on the providence of God and the community where God’s providence has rooted and shaped our lives. Also missing is the clear biblical teaching that the purpose of life is gospel-driven self-sacrifice and not individualized self-fulfillment.

The apostle Paul exhorts in Philippians 2:3-8 (CSB),

Do nothing out of selfish ambition or conceit, but in humility consider others as more important than yourselves. Everyone should look out not only for his own interests, but also for the interests of others. Adopt the same attitude as that of Christ Jesus, who, existing in the form of God, did not consider equality with God as something to be exploited. Instead he emptied himself by assuming the form of a servant, taking on the likeness of humanity. And when he had come as a man, he humbled himself by becoming obedient to the point of death— even to death on a cross.

I have been thinking about these things during graduation season and I ran across a section from David Brooks book, The Road to Character, that I found very helpful and instructive on this topic:

You should ask certain questions: What is the purpose of my life? What do I want from life? What are the things I truly value, that are not done just to please or impress the people around me?

In this scheme of things, we don’t create our lives; we are summoned by life. The important answers are not found inside, they are found outside. This perspective begins not within the autonomous self, but with the concrete circumstances in which you happen to be embedded. This perspective begins with an awareness that the world existed long before you and will last long after you, and that in the brief span of your life you have been thrown by fate, by history, by chance, by evolution, or by God into a specific place with specific problems and needs.

Your job is to figure certain things out: What does this environment need in order to be made whole? What is it that needs repair? What tasks are lying around waiting to be performed? As the novelist Frederick Buechner put it, “At what points do my talents and deep gladness meet the world’s deep need?” [David Brooks, The Road of Character (New York: Random House, 2015), 21]

Christians, of all people, should know that we did not create our lives, and that we are not only summoned by life, we are summoned by the God who is the creator of life. We are wholly dependent beings, not autonomous ones. The Scripture calls God’s people to an earthy, concrete, real-world, embodied, communal spirituality. A life purpose and direction that does not ignore providence, place, or people.

Editor’s Note: This article was originally published at davidprince.com.



Confessions of a Sometimes Restless Insomniac

I believe in the Kingdom come

Then all the colors will bleed into one, bleed into one

But yes, I’m still running.

You broke the bonds and you loosed the chains

You carried the cross of my shame, of my shame

You know I believe it

But I still haven’t found what I’m looking for.

-U2, I Still Haven’t Found What I’m Looking For

Can you relate to this lyric? Can you relate to the cry for release that resides beneath it? Can you feel the tension of the “already” and the “not yet”? Can you identify, perhaps, with being on top of the world in the eyes of many while still feeling insecure about your place in the world? The quest for inner poise and equilibrium, the quest for the security of having been made complete, is a quest for all human beings, whether they believe in God or not.

For leaders and influencers, this inner conflict is especially common. As a leader myself, I am painfully in touch with my own restlessness, especially in the context of my work and goals. Though some would look at my work and chalk it up as some sort of “success,” the truth is that—even in my best and smoothest seasons of leading, when momentum is there and goals are being reached and a mission is being accomplished—the disequilibrium is still there.

My most common prayer request these days is that God would give me consistent, uninterrupted sleep because in the middle of almost every night, I lay awake for two to four hours wrestling. I wrestle with preoccupation, with self-doubt, with the dissatisfaction of unmet expectations and unrealized goals and dreams, with pressure that I put on myself or that I fear others will put on me, with the burdens of the day behind me and the day ahead of me, and with the sense that my work is never going to be satisfactory or complete. In other words, I wrestle over the unique calling of leadership—which is both an unspeakable privilege and a burden that must be carried, often alone.

Because the world is quiet in the middle of the night without the usual distractions of checklists, schedules, deadlines, meetings, interruptions, screens, and iThings, I also find myself wrestling with an inner dis-equilibrium in relation to God.

For me, the presence of God is most palpable when the world is quiet. But the presence of God is not always comforting to me. Sometimes being in the presence of God, or just thinking about God in the middle of the night, is disorienting and disruptive. There are few things like the presence of God that remind me that I am not yet what I am meant to be; that I fall short of the mark; that I am more small than I am significant; that, one hundred years from now, my name will be forgotten by the weary world in which I now live. I will die, and the world will move on. Even in my own church, a hundred years from now, its members will have never heard of me. Not even my own great-great-grandchildren will know my name or care what I accomplished.

Yes, my heart makes noise. My inner life is a paradox of comfort and accusation, inner rest and inner restlessness, enjoyment of God’s grace and despair at my own lack of grace, awareness of my completion in Christ and knowledge of feeling incomplete. Added to this, and related to my calling to lead, lies a feeling of simultaneous momentum and failure. In the middle of the night especially, God is my refuge on one hand, and the darkness is my companion on the other. In the presence of God and in the quiet, most of my anxieties and worries and self-loathing and guilt rise to the surface. And, if I’m being honest, in the middle of the night, the words of Jesus often fail me. Or, more accurately said, my heart fails the words of Jesus:

“Come to me, all who labor and are heavy laden, and I will give you rest. Take my yoke upon you, and learn from me, for I am gentle and lowly in heart, and you will find rest for your souls. For my yoke is easy, and my burden is light.” (Matthew 11:28-30)

For me, the yoke sometimes feels hard, and the burden sometimes feels heavy. And the single thing that comes between my heart and the easy yoke and the light burden is me. I am not alone in this. Not at all.

One of the privileges I’ve enjoyed as a pastor in Nashville is that I have been invited to serve as a chaplain to several musicians and bands. This experience has included many backstage conversations with the artists, several of whom also attend our church. Recently, I caught about ten minutes with a woman whose name and music you would easily recognize. Though the optics of her life and career are the envy of many, her private wrestlings tell a different story.

During our conversation backstage, I asked this artist what it felt like to be her. Specifically, I asked her what it was like to have such a large platform for her music, so many adoring fans, and so much opportunity to impact others.

She paused for a moment and then said, “Do you really want to know what it’s like to be me? Can I answer you honestly? Okay then. Here goes. Night after night, I fill arenas and stadiums. Night after night, I have thousands of adoring fans eating out of the palm of my hand. In just five minutes, I will step out on the historic Ryman stage and relive this experience once again, and again tomorrow in another auditorium in another city, and again the next night and then the night after that. And, from the moment I step foot on the stage until I walk backstage again, I am the loneliest person in the room.”

This famous, fragile image-bearer’s transparent response to me underscored the truth that our hearts are going to be restless until they find their rest in him. No amount of applause or praise or year-end bonuses or “attaboys” or “attagirls” from other people will satisfy the ache and help us to find what we’re looking for. Only the strong, authoritative voice of God can do that.

And he has.

On his way to the the cross, Jesus released his grip on the Father and cried, “Not my will, but yours be done” so that the Father could forever tighten his grip on us.

On the cross, Jesus lost the Father’s blessing and received a curse so that we, who have all our lives lived beneath a curse, could receive the Father’s blessing.

On the cross, Jesus, who is the firstborn of all creation, gave up his birthright so he could pass it on to us, so that we could find what we have been looking for.

Editor’s Note: This article was originally published at scottsauls.com.



How to Fall in Ministry (and What to Do When You Do)

The scenario is depressingly common by now—word of another ministry leader having his hypocrisy and hidden life exposed. An addiction here. An affair there. An abusive exercise of power and narcissistic exploitation of position. I don’t know if pastors fall at a higher rate today than they did, say, 30 years ago, but our social media age certainly makes it seem that way.

Each time it happens, we get less adept at incredulity, less inclined to outrage and distress. We’re not happy about it, of course, but we are, sadly, getting used to it. Then the backward troubleshooting begins, the diagnosing of sicknesses long after the deaths. Ministry post-mortems tell us so much, but it would be great if we could see the falls coming.

But can’t we?

How you can fall in ministry

First, you’d let the power of success (or just the position itself) go to your head.

You don’t have to be a glad-handing type-A leader to fall into the rut of egocentrism; you only have to be a pastor who enjoys approval and accolades. You could be a small church guy who enjoys being your congregation’s functional messiah—available 24/7 for the needs in your church and open to their every religious whim or command. Before you know it, you’re stressed, tired, and feeling either a little entitled or a little resentful (or both). And this combination of fatigue, stress, and stewing bitterness, over time, is a recipe for moral failure. Pushing yourself to these limits makes you extremely vulnerable for increasingly serious temptations from the evil one.

Secondly, you’d stop investing in your marriage.

For pastors blessed to have families, one of the quickest ways to vulnerability in temptation is nurturing neglect of your wife and justifying it at the same time as “the demands of ministry” or something else similarly self-aggrandizing. After a while, you may even come to see your wife not as your primary ministry but as an obstacle, an impediment, a preventer of your ability to flourish in ministry. The bitterness takes root. She doesn’t understand you, she doesn’t “get” you. And then guess what happens when you come along someone who does—or at least seems to?

Thirdly, you’d isolate and obfuscate yourself.

This is a surefire way to sabotage your ministry. Ministers have a variety of ways of removing themselves from real companionship and the accountability that often comes with it. You may find the best way is to exploit the leadership structure of your church or even tamper with it so everybody answers to you, and you answer to nobody, or nobody but “yes-men.” Or, you simply retreat further and further away from team dynamics whether emotionally or physically.

Almost every one of the pastors I’ve known personally who lost their ministries to moral failings would say later that they had no real friends. Nobody knew them. This has implications for accountability and also general emotional wellbeing. Not every lonely pastor falls morally, but they are all vulnerable to it.

But for those who don’t feel isolated from others in structure or position, there is still the real danger of obfuscation. In other words, they aren’t honest or confessional. They arrange things so no hard questions about their lives can be asked, and if they are, they just lie. The truth is seen as more costly. But nothing is more costly than investing in your not being known until the truth busts out through the debris of a moral train wreck.

Finally, you’d make a routine of neglecting communion with Christ.

This really sets a course for moral failure. Out of all the traits common to pastoral falls, this is in my estimation the most common of all—neglect of devotional life. Falls are different and so are the routes taken to them, but as soon as you commit, even if unintentionally, to not nourishing yourself in the Word and boasting in the weakness of prayer, you are deciding you are smart enough and strong enough to do life by yourself. This is a great way to plan for a spectacular failure.

When Jesus went into the wilderness to be tempted by the devil, he fought the enemy off with Scripture, and he was ministered to by the Spirit and the angels. If Jesus needed that wisdom and protection, who do you think you are that you don’t?

So now you’ve put all the plans in place. You’ve bought your own hype or acquiesced to cultural or programmatic demands to center the ministry on yourself. You’ve sacrificed your family on the altar of success. You’ve isolated yourself emotionally and spiritually from others, living a life of hidden struggles and sins among others. And you’ve gone stale in your devotional life, pouring yourself into things more readily efficient or immediately practical.

Then you crash and burn.

Now what?

What to do when you fall

Well, pastor, once you’ve fallen, stick the landing. And by that, I mean that once you’re laid low, stay there. For a long time. No, not in your sin. Not in self-pity or wallowing. Repent of your sin and all the excuses for it and whining over it, but don’t jump back up to pretend everything’s fine. Listen to those you’ve hurt. Submit to those who know you. Remember that vocational ministry is an honor, and it’s nobody’s right. You are not entitled to a ministry position.

And what about grace, you say? Well, grace means that a repentant sinner can be restored to the fellowship. And grace also means that no fellowship should be subjected to unqualified leadership.

Can you ever be restored? Perhaps. I take from Christ’s restoration of Peter that it’s not just to the fold but to the feeding that fallen shepherds can be shepherds again. But I do not take from Christ’s personal restoration that haste would be prudent. We read in 1 Timothy 3, Titus 1, and 1 Peter 5 that pastors must be qualified. In those qualifications we see nothing of the aspiring pastor’s ambition or preferences. We see character issues, spiritual aptitudes, and well-developed reputations for relational and communal integrity. These do not exist for the pastor who has disqualified himself. It does not mean they can never exist again, but they cannot exist right now.

You cannot tell if someone is a good manager of a household the first time you meet him. You see the witness of his family life over time. Similarly, when a guy cheats on his wife, you don’t determine he’s a good family man soon after the revelation. It will take more time, given the offense, to see him walk in repentance, to gain that reputation back.

This is the case with any point of disqualification, although some levels of discernment can occur more quickly than others. It is not an immediate thing for a pastor disqualified for a long pattern of verbal abuse or coarse jesting to gain a reputation as a gentle, peaceful man. It is probably less still for a pastor disqualified for a pattern of alcohol addiction or sexual immorality to gain a reputation as sober-minded or a “one-woman man.”

This is parallel to the biblical qualification of “not being a new convert.” Obviously we are speaking to a (presumably) Christian person who is newly repentant, but the underlying principle is the same. Repentance is an immediate re-entry to the fellowship, but re-entry to the pastorate takes the testing of time.

This is not graceless. It is how Christ protects his church and, incidentally, how he protects repentant sinners from rushing too soon back into the same pressures that revealed their undeveloped character to begin with.

So what you do, pastor, is lay low. I know it is difficult; I know it is embarrassing. But Christ and his church are bigger than you and your aspirations. The kingdom will not perish without your leadership—and, though it’s hard to face, neither will you. If you love Jesus and want to serve his church, do so out of the spotlight. Detox from the need for power and approval. Walk daily with Jesus in quiet ways over a long period of time. Let qualified shepherds feed you.

You may imagine that the bigness of grace is shown in the rushing of a fallen minister back to ministry, but the opposite is true. If you will stay low, humble yourself, and serve Christ and his church from the shadows of obscurity, you will discover just how satisfying grace actually is.

This article was previously published by the ERLC.



Recovering the Exclusivity of the Gospel

Known as the silent killer, each year colon cancer claims close to 50,000 American lives.[1] Though treatable if detected early, colon cancer is known as the silent killer because, if not screened for, it will grow unnoticed, undetected. By the time it is discovered symptomatically, it is often too late to be cured.

Like colon cancer, I’m convinced there is another slow, silent, growing malignancy within the church. The malignancy is particularly catastrophic, bringing with it ruinous consequences.

It hollows out the gospel message, undercuts the Great Commission, and undermines the entire logic of collaborative missions and ministry. The malignancy to which I am referring is the slow, subtle rejection of the exclusivity of the gospel.

By the Numbers

Recent research conducted jointly by Ligonier Ministries and Lifeway Research makes clear this challenge. For example, 45% of Americans think that “there are many ways to get to heaven” and 71% agree that “an individual must contribute his/her own effort for personal salvation.”[2]

Defining Exclusivity

Historic Christianity, throughout its creedal formulations, has affirmed the exclusivity of the gospel. In fact, this was Jesus’ self-assessment when he unequivocally asserted, ““I am the way, the truth, and the life, no man comes to the father but through me.”[3]

By exclusivity of the gospel, we mean that only those who personally, consciously, explicitly, and singularly confess Jesus Christ as Lord can possess eternal life. Let’s consider these qualifiers more closely.

Personally: Salvation comes to us individually, when one follows Christ. No one gains eternal life because of someone else’s faith, or by his or her affiliation with a family, church, ethnic or national group. Each sinner must come to repent of his or her sins and believe the gospel personally.

Consciously: To inherit the Kingdom one must do more than reflect the ethic of Christ; one must consciously embrace him, knowingly and intentionally following Jesus. There are no anonymous Christians, regardless of Karl Rahner’s assertion otherwise. Authentic believers know whom they are following.

Explicitly: One’s faith must be placed in God’s Son, Jesus Christ, not just generically in God. As Peter declared in Acts 4:12, “There is salvation in no one else; for there is no other name under heaven that has been given among men by which we must be saved.”

Singularly: Faith in Jesus alone saves, and saving faith must be placed in him alone. The singularity of Christ as one’s faith object is especially important on the mission field, where missionaries encounter religions, such as Hinduism, where they are happy to add Jesus to their pantheon of gods. We do not add Jesus to our portfolio of faith objects. Christianity is not a both/and proposition; it is either/or.

Of course, when converted one is not necessarily thinking through these categories, like boxes to check. Rather, the point is one cannot reject or negate these gospel distinctives.

Challenges to Exclusivity

Why is the exclusivity of the gospel losing popularity? There seem to be a number of reasons. First, globalization has brought the nations near to us. This nearness should have increased our burden for the lost, but it seems to have done the opposite.

Second, the forward march of postmodernity continues to undermine absolute truth claims, especially one so audacious as the exclusivity of the gospel—that of the 7,000,000,000 inhabitants of Earth, only those that hear and believe the message of Christ can be saved.

Third, political correctness limits our willingness to offend, and asserting the full gospel message is the most offensive of truth claims. Political correctness finds the notion of a literal hell as insufferably backwards, and has re-envisioned it as a mythological—or nearly unoccupied— place.

Alternatives to Exclusivity

While universalism is often contrasted with exclusivity, it is actually not commonly accepted. There is just something disconcerting, even to thoroughgoing secularists, about the possibility of Adolf Hitler and Osama bin Laden spending eternity with Billy Graham. Even our most naturalistic instincts desire some sort of eternal reckoning.

More common alternatives are pluralism and inclusivism. Pluralism argues there are many ways to God, and one should earnestly follow the religious path revealed to you. Inclusivism maintains that Christ is the only Savior, but his provision can be accessed through other religions.

Ron Nash, in his Is Jesus the Only Savior?, helpfully summarizes pluralism, inclusivism, and exclusivity in two questions: Is Jesus the only savior? Must people believe in Jesus Christ to saved? Pluralism answers both questions “no”; inclusivism answers the first “yes” and the second “no.” Historic Christianity answers both “yes.”[4]

Of the many who attend evangelical churches yet deny the exclusivity of the gospel, pluralism or inclusivism—though they may not know these terms—is probably their ideological home. While they may not intend to reject historic Christianity, operationally, many of our church members—and our churches—are there.

Conclusion

To be a preacher is to be a decision maker. Each week preachers determine what to include in a sermon and what to leave out. Time simply does not allow one to say everything that could be said about every passage. Preachers intuitively triage their text, their sermon, and their congregation, asking themselves, “What can I assume they know and affirm, and what must I assert and advocate?”

Perhaps this triage has led too many pastors to assume their church members understand and embrace the exclusivity of the gospel. We can no longer assume this. We must assert and advocate the exclusivity of the gospel.

________________________________________________________________________

[1] https://www.cancer.org/cancer/colonandrectumcancer/detailedguide/colorectal-cancer-key-statistics

[2] Ligonier Ministries, in partnership with LifeWay Research, “The State of Theology: Theological Awareness Benchmark Study,” 4. Available online: https://gpts.edu/resources/documents/TheStateOfTheology-Whitepaper.pdf.

[3] John 14:6.

[4] See Ron Nash, Is Jesus the Only Savior? (Grand Rapids, MI: Zondervan, 1994).

Editor’s Note: This originally published at JasonKAllen.com



7 Tips for Social Media Stewardship

Social Media Coordinator: a job I never imagined would exist, let alone belong to me.

Born in the mid-late 90s, I am old enough to remember a world without smartphones but young enough to still be considered a digital native. My childhood is recorded in scrapbooks and on VHS tapes, but (unfortunately) all of my teenage years are documented on Facebook. At some point, hours spent reading books and playing pretend outside seamlessly merged with typing out storylines on my beloved chunky, chatty computer keyboard. I now make a living communicating through social networks, but I believe there will never be a technological substitute for a hot cup of tea and face-to-face conversation.

Even so, social media as a tool of communication seems here to stay. How can we, as individuals and as the Church, best steward this tool unto the glory of God?

Books have been written to help believers answer this question. Even within FTC.co, there are several helpful articles by people I trust on the subject. Everyone has different convictions, approaches, and nuances about social media; but I hope some of these simple tips help you wield this tool with wisdom:

  1. Reflect the glory of God – To reflect the glory of God, we must behold the glory of God. 2 Corinthians 2:18 tells us that by the Spirit of God, “we all, with unveiled face, beholding the glory of the Lord, are being transformed into the same image from one degree of glory to another.” In his book 12 Ways Your Phone Is Changing You, Tony Reinke warns against becoming “desensitized to delight.” Treasuring God protects us from the siren song of the world’s distractions. What are you filling your mind and heart with? If you treasure God and his Word, your life (and online presence) will evidence his beauty, goodness, and truth.
  2. Respect the image of God in others – In his kindness, the Lord of all creation took special care to craft human beings in his image. Each person on earth bears the imago Dei: “the image of God.” Whether someone is a follower of Jesus or not, Christians have a responsibility to acknowledge the innate dignity of others. This does not mean you have to agree with them on everything! It does mean that regardless of ethnicity, age, socioeconomic background, religious background, or any other qualifier, we should evidence the Kingdom of God by treating people with respect.
  3. Remain faithful – Our online presence should align with the character of our personal life. And, whether it is on Twitter or in the pulpit, your personal life with the Lord should take precedence over anything outward-facing. Two questions help me discern whether I am being faithful to God in my social media posts: “Does this make too much of myself?” and “Does this make too little of God?” Sharing an immodest photo of how many bookcases or plants you possess could be just as dishonoring to God as liking a crass post. Though there is freedom in Christ for what we like and share, we should be mindful of demonstrating (in public and in private) that our loyalty belongs to him rather than the world. Take a step back and evaluate if you are stealing glory from the One for whom it is meant.
  4. Let your reasonableness be known to all – One of my pastors recently preached through Philippians 4, noting the importance of Paul’s command to, “Let your reasonableness be known to everyone” (v. 5). He noted the translation of the word “reasonableness” is tricky, but that God’s intention is for his children to be marked by gentleness, peace, and humility. In his examination of the passage, Trevin Wax explains it as “spreading grace in a culture of judgment.”[1] The online arena is a wonderful opportunity for us to proactively “walk in wisdom toward outsiders, making the best use of the time,” and react to people we encounter with gracious, truth-filled speech (Col. 4:5-6).
  5. Do not react quickly – Speaking of reactions… Have you ever felt the repercussions of responding too quickly? I do not know about you, but I wish I were less familiar with that sinking feeling in my stomach and the flush in my cheeks immediately following a careless word. When we are face-to-face with someone and speak without considering them, there is a healthy shame that surfaces in the wake of our words. Facing the consequences of our speech is a grace because it guards us from false religion; from deceiving ourselves and wielding unbridled tongues (James 1:26). One of the dangers of modern communication is this guard is often removed. Beloved friend, resist the temptation to react hastily online and instead heed the wisdom of James to “be quick to hear, slow to speak, slow to anger” (v. 19).
  6. Do not repay evil for evil – Like money, sex, and all other things gifted by God, the existence of the internet is not inherently evil. But few places evidence the evil intent present in the hearts of humanity more than the internet. No matter what evil comes up against you, recall God’s command through 1 Peter 3:9: “Do not repay evil for evil or reviling for reviling, but on the contrary, bless, for to this you were called, that you may obtain a blessing.” Christians have a unique opportunity to honor God through gentleness, respect, tenderness, and humility. In A Gospel Primer, Milton Vincent writes:

“I should expect every day to encounter circumstantial evidence of God’s commitment to my dying; and I must seize upon every God given opportunity to be conformed more fully to Christ’s death, no matter the pain involved.”

It is easier to cut back with words than it is to lay bleeding at the foot of the cross, but that is the very place we find our Savior. In our death, he grants us life and words of life to share with others—even others who hate us as they hated him.

  1. Do not replace “real” relationships – One of the reasons I love my job is because I get to meet people from all over the world who are “for the Church.” Social media makes it possible to connect with others and hear stories we never could have otherwise. Especially in the past decade, the increasing presence of technology has powerfully aided global communication (and, to that end, the Great Commission). But here is the thing: there is no need for any of it without keeping in mind God and neighbor. God does not value you based on how many followers you have, but he does number the hairs on your head. God does judge your church based on how well-designed your graphics are, but he does care about the unity of his body. God commands us to love him and love one another in real, messy, hard ways. Whenever it is within our power, our shirts should be stained with the snot and tears of those we hold crying in hospital rooms and our arms should be open to hug a church member on Sunday morning. Paul wrote letters when necessary, but his heart yearned to dwell with his brothers and sisters in Christ. Should we not feel the same?

The way we use social media communicates what we think about ourselves, others, and God. Let’s steward it wisely.

[1] https://www.thegospelcoalition.org/blogs/trevin-wax/reasonableness-age-outrage/