As a professor at Houston Baptist University, each spring I guide a group of students through the Stoic Meditations of Marcus Aurelius. As part of that journey I always confess, to the surprise of many students, that if it could be proven Christ didn’t rise from the dead, I’d abandon Christianity and become a Stoic.
I mean that. If the resurrection didn’t happen, then Christianity is a hoax. If Christianity is a hoax, then God has not really spoken. And if God hasn’t really spoken, then the best plan of action is to rein in one’s passions, curb one’s desires, and conform to nature. In a word, play it safe. And nobody plays it safer than the Stoics.
No matter what life throws at you, the Stoic knows how to handle it. That is why the three greatest Stoics were an emperor who ruled Rome at the height of her power (Marcus Aurelius), a Roman philosopher and playwright who performed the successive roles of tutor of, advisor to, and conspirator against Nero (Seneca), and a slave who later gained his freedom and set up his own philosophical school (Epictetus). Can one imagine three more different lives? And yet, all three ascribed to the same Stoic philosophy, gaining from it the same kind of solace, tranquility, and equanimity.
If it could be proven that Christ didn’t rise from the dead, I’d abandon Christianity and become a Stoic.
Though Aurelius’s Meditations is the best-known Stoic work, the most accessible, and the best place for the modern reader to start, is the Enchiridion (or handbook) of Epictetus. A. A. Long—professor emeritus of classics and literature at the University of California, Berkeley—offers a new translation of the Enchiridion, together with nine selections from his Discourses, in How to Be Free: An Ancient Guide to the Stoic Life, the newest addition to Princeton’s Ancient Wisdom for Modern Readers series. This volume ventures into the internal life, offering advice on how to find freedom within despite one’s external circumstances.Internal Freedom
Although Epictetus won his freedom from slavery, Long explains, his advice on how to become free is neither political nor economic. The mind is “the one and only domain in which people can, if they so dispose themselves, be absolutely and unconditionally free, sovereign, and unimpeded” (xxvii). In the thought of Epictetus, the
principal burden of slavery shifts from the outer to the inner, from the physical to the mental, and philosophy not manumission becomes the source of liberty. You are enslaved . . . if you set your heart on anything that is liable to impediment, whether because your body lets you down, or passions and emotions have you in their thrall, or you attach your well-being to things that depend on others—people, property, popularity, or simply luck. (xviii)
Although Long concedes that Epictetus’s Stoicism may not fit today’s “fashion for authenticity, expectation, display of feeling, and self-assertion,” he then counters his concession by suggesting that Stoicism is “particularly applicable to our hectic world of social media, sound bites, validation, outrage, attention-seeking, and self-imposed anxiety” (xxiii).
Given the growing fear and free-floating angst across our nation—especially among young people whose smartphones provide them with a constant stream of anxiety-inducing events over which they have no control—a good dose of Stoicism may be just what the doctor ordered.
How much happier and more relaxed would we all be if we took to heart the opening lines of the Encheiridion, lines that sum up succinctly the foundation of Epictetus’s Stoicism:
Some things in the world are up to us, while others are not. Up to us are our faculties of judgment, motivation, desire, and aversion—in short, everything that is our own doing. Not up to us are our body and property, our reputations, and our official positions—in short, everything that is not our own doing. Moreover, the things up to us are naturally free, unimpeded, and unconstrained, while the things not up to us are powerless, servile, impeded, and not our own. (3)Relatable Wisdom
The strength of Long’s vigorously colloquial but never dull, chatty, or excessively informal translation can be seen in his use of the phrase “up to us.” Rather than translate the Greek phrase as “within our power” or “under our control,” as most translators have done, Long chooses to give Epictetus a contemporary, slightly edgy feel without sacrificing his timeless appeal or his simple dignity and gravity. Here are some other “quotable quotes” from Epictetus that Long renders in a fresh, punchy style:
- If you go out to bathe, picture what happens at a bathhouse—the people there who splash you or jostle you or talk rudely or steal your things. . . . Then, if anything happens that gets in the way of your bathing, you will have the following response available: “Well, this was not the only thing I wanted; I also wanted to keep my will in harmony with nature. I shall not do that if I get angry about what is happening.” (11)
- Don’t ask for things to happen as you would like them to, but wish them to happen as they actually do, and you will be all right. (17)
- If you ever find yourself looking for outside approval in order to curry favor, you can be sure that you have lost your way. (33)
- If I can get it and preserve my honor and integrity and moral principles, show me the way, and I will get it. (35)
- If someone in the street were entrusted with your body, you would be furious. Yet you entrust your mind to anyone around who happens to insult you, and allow it to be troubled and confused. (43)
- Draw up right now a definite character and identity for yourself, one that you intend to stick to whether you are by yourself or in company. (61)
- When you have accustomed your body to a frugal regime, don’t put on airs about it, and if you only drink water, don’t broadcast the fact all the time. (83)
- The signs of a person making progress are these: criticizing nobody, praising nobody, blaming nobody, accusing nobody, and saying nothing about oneself to indicate being someone or knowing something. (85)
Over the last decade, psychologists and counselors have increasingly, and wisely, advised their patients to distinguish between the things done to them, which they can’t control, and their reactions to those things, which they can and do control. Such advice lies at the core of Epictetus, and Long’s colloquial translation helps draw that out in a way that is both theoretical and practical.
Increasing the book’s usability are its attractive, economical size and shape; it can be comfortably held in one hand or tucked in a pocket. As an added bonus for the classical scholar, Epictetus’s Greek and Long’s translation are printed on facing pages. These features make it an ideal gift for the serious student of the classical world or the general reader in search of tips for achieving balance and equanimity in our modern hectic world.Christian Wisdom?
The Christian reader will be struck by the many moral-ethical parallels between Epictetus’s handbook and the teachings of the New Testament, which was completed a generation or so before the Encheiridion was assembled.
The Encheiridion lays down rules that read like a pagan version of the Sermon on the Mount (Matt. 5–7), especially when Jesus instructs his disciples to stop worrying about food, drink, and clothing: partly because our heavenly father will supply us with those things; partly because no one, by worrying, can add a single hour to his life (6:25–34). Epictetus’s tone and approach, meanwhile, recall Paul’s triumphant proclamation that he has “learned in whatever situation I am to be content. I know how to be brought low, and I know how to abound. In any and every circumstance, I have learned the secret of facing plenty and hunger, abundance and need” (Phil. 4:11–12).
The Stoics knew well how to adapt themselves to all situations, whether good or bad, but they lacked the further revelation of a loving and involved God who knows what we need, cares about what we need, and supplies what we need.
That “secret” of which Paul speaks was known to the Stoics, but only in part. The Stoics knew well how to adapt themselves to all situations, whether good or bad, but they lacked the further revelation of a loving and involved God who knows what we need, cares about what we need, and supplies what we need.
Both the Stoic and the Christian look inward; however, while the former finds only an impersonal inner light to guide him, the latter finds the Holy Spirit of God indwelling him.
Stoicism may afford us some rest and peace in the present darkness of our world, but it lacks the power or wisdom to point us to a final rest that transcends worldly troubles and that will fulfill the true and proper desires placed in us by our Creator.
I went to graduate school to help the poor.
I wanted to study economic development—to determine what causes poverty among the global poor and what can be done about it. More than any other field within economics, development seems to exist for the sole purpose of making the world a better place for those most in need.
But after my first year of graduate school, I became a macroeconomist. Rather than study the forces directly affecting the poorest of the poor, I now study abstractions like the global financial system. The main actors in my research are not the global poor, but the global wealthy—bankers and financiers investing unimaginable sums of money, with no consideration at all for how their money-slushing affects farmers in Malawi.
When I told one of my professors I wanted to study macro, he sharply told me, “How are you ever going to help anybody?” Then he turned and literally walked away. He was an expert in poverty intervention; I would become an expert in Wall Street intervention. In his eyes, and perhaps in the eyes of many Christians, I had sold out.
Meanwhile, back in 2008, the once-obscure market for American subprime mortgages took down the global financial system, leading to a collapse in global economic activity unseen since the Great Depression.
The financial crisis had U.S. roots, and yet it shook the whole world. Developing economies lost about 8.5 percent of income growth. That meant that farmers in Malawi and Mongolia and all over the developing world were on average 8.5 percent poorer than they would have been had the global financial system not collapsed. If not for the U.S. crisis, the economy of Madagascar would likely have grown by 7 percent, but instead it shrank almost 5 percent; in Madagascar, bank losses on American mortgages took away 12 percent of the incomes of 20 million people.
To serve the poor, we need experts in poverty intervention like my professor. But that’s not all we need.
To serve the poor, we need experts in poverty intervention. But that’s not all we need.
If the U.S. financial system can be made slightly more stable by limiting some forms of risk-taking—well, no farmers in Malawi will ever notice directly. But well-designed and effective macro and financial policies mean the whole world will be better off. To answer my professor, good macro policies will help everybody. Including the global poor. Maybe even especially.Not Beyond Reach
It’s not easy. Mitigating catastrophes is hard. Preventing financial crises is probably impossible. Policies to stabilize the global financial system and the global economy are tricky to get right. But much is at stake.
Especially because sometimes good macro policies are not beyond our reach. Sometimes we know exactly which policies will help and which will lead to a state of chaos and fear.
My dad emigrated from Venezuela when he was young. Venezuela is now one of the most unstable countries in the world. Poverty rates exceed 76 percent. The economy is about 40 percent smaller than it was three years ago. Inflation has reached 80,000 percent per year—which is an almost meaningless number—what do prices even mean at that rate?
While the full story of the Venezuelan economy is complex, the outcome was perfectly predictable and avoidable. Venezuela became increasingly—and unnecessarily—dependent on oil revenue to finance government spending. Oil prices collapsed. The government printed unending amounts of money to finance its spending. The currency’s value collapsed, and prices skyrocketed. The government imposed price controls, which led to shortages of basic necessities like food, water, and diapers. Black markets flourished, and official markets seized up. Now only the richest of the rich can afford food and medicine.
This was an avoidable crisis for 30 million people. No amount of poverty intervention strategies would have stopped it. But good macro policy would have.
This was an avoidable crisis for 30 million people. No amount of poverty intervention strategies would have stopped it. But good macro policy would have.Renewal at Multiple Levels
When Israel returned from exile, it needed both micro interventions and macro institutions. The people needed Ezra to call them to personal holiness, Nehemiah to organize economic activity, and Esther to establish macro-level policies that would allow Israel to do those things without getting slaughtered. Rebuilding Jerusalem required spiritual, economic, and political renewal at multiple levels.
Like Israel, Venezuela needs multi-pronged renewal. They need disaster relief. They need private enterprise. They need health services and distribution networks for food. They need churches to provide material and spiritual care for the people. And they need better high-level institutions.
But if they get those things without a responsible economic policy, they’ll be back in the same dilemma.
Economic policy matters. For the care of the poor, for the providing of jobs, for the development of the earth, for the advancing of God’s kingdom—economic policy matters.
As Christians, we should all be grateful for my professor, whose life’s work is understanding the on-the-ground minutia of poverty. We should also be grateful for good policy at high levels. That’s another way that Christians can go and do likewise.
Why adopt children?
Here’s how my wife and I answered that question for ourselves: Our decision should be driven by theology, not biology. It’s one’s theology, after all, that will determine one’s biography. What you believe about God will inevitably shape how you live.
And in biblical theology, we see that adoption was never God’s “plan B.” It was always “plan A.” God’s purpose has always been to adopt a people for himself. He is an adoptive Father. And the church is an adoptive family of brothers and sisters.
So the process of earthly adoption—for Christians—must be grounded in the reality of our heavenly adoption. We’ve been adopted by God, and nothing in us merited it. We can take no credit. God chose us in Christ before the foundation of the world; in love he predestined us for adoption (Eph. 1:3–5).
This perspective should produce humility in every child of God—and transform how we go about the process of earthly adoption.Do the Word
Humility is the undercurrent of all compassion ministry. We’re to receive with meekness the implanted word—the gospel—day after day. This is how we’re sustained and sanctified. We’re to receive the word, value the word, and do the word (James 1:22).
If we don’t “do the word,” then we call into question the extent to which we’ve internalized it. Imagine I tell my kids to do their chores at the start of a Saturday—giving them careful instruction as to what must be done—and then I come at the end of the day asking whether they’ve done what I asked. “No, Dad, we haven’t actually done the chores,” they reply. “But look! We’ve done an in-depth study on vacuuming, mowing the lawn, and taking out the trash; we’ve even written this informative manual on it for others to read and enjoy!” What do you think I would say to them?
Adoption was never God’s ‘plan B.’ It was always ‘plan A.’
Here’s my point: in today’s world, we don’t have a shortage of information; we have a shortage of application. This is precisely what James addresses in his book. James was concerned that God’s people not merely be hearers of the word of God, but doers as well (James 1:22). So he effectively says, “In case you don’t get it, let me illustrate it for you.”
If anyone is a hearer of the word and not a doer, he is like a man who looks intently at his natural face in a mirror. For he looks at himself and goes away and at once forgets what he was like. But the one who looks into the perfect law, the law of liberty, and perseveres, being no hearer who forgets but a doer who acts, he will be blessed in his doing. (James 1:23–25)
I love how James calls the Scriptures “the perfect law,” “the law of liberty.” The Scriptures set you free; they don’t enslave you. Notice what James says about the one who does the word: “He will be blessed in his doing.” The blessing is in the doing, not merely in the hearing.
The Bible is like a mirror, James says. Most of us look in the mirror every day. Sometimes we don’t like what we see, and we recognize immediate changes that need to take place. Likewise, James is illustrating the purpose of the Bible: as you internalize it, you will be changed.Charmed and Changed
There are a lot of people who are charmed by the Bible but not changed by the Bible. They have a certain admiration for God’s Word; maybe they even have a big one in their home. They don’t read it, but they do sort of “pet it” now and then. They’re often charmed but never changed.
But here’s the thing about the Bible: It shows us more about ourselves than a mirror ever could. It shows us internal reality. And the purpose is that we would be transformed.
The book of James is deeply instructive for us here. In James 1:26–27, the apostle gives us three practical means of “doing the word”: (1) a controlled tongue, (2) a compassionate ministry, and (3) a clean life.
He then outlines the rest of the book after these three subjects. In chapter two, he talks about compassion, “neighbor love.” In chapter three, controlling the tongue. In chapter four, remaining unstained from the world.
And we should notice how James joins two things that evangelicals often separate: compassion and purity. We tend to migrate to one of these positions. Some groups of Christians are all about being unstained from the world, but they’ve never lifted a finger for the poor. Other groups are all about social ministry but don’t seem concerned with what God says about marriage, for example. But James puts them together.
James puts two things together that evangelicals often separate: compassion and purity.
It’s possible to be about both public compassion and personal holiness. Need an example? See the life of Jesus. He put these two together perfectly. No one was more holy than Jesus, and no one cared for the poor like Jesus did.
James’s goal is to bring his people to maturity. And in highlighting some of these blind spots Christians can have, he’s helpful for us. (See Collin Hansen’s book Blind Spots for more on this idea.)God as Father
So what is it, then, that James says about caring for orphans? “Religion that is pure and undefiled before God the Father is this: to visit orphans and widows in their affliction, and to keep oneself unstained from the world” (James 1:27).
Notice he adds two words: “the Father.” He didn’t have to say that. He could have just said, “Religion that is pure and undefiled before God. . . .” But James wants to emphasize the Fatherly nature of God. Why do we care for the fatherless? Because God is a Father to the fatherless. That’s who he is.
The word visit is also loaded, for James means more than simply “stop by for a chat.”
This little word appears in pivotal places throughout redemptive history. In Genesis 21, Sarah can’t have a child, so the Lord “visits her.” Same word. In the Book of Ruth, the people of Israel are starving. So what does God do? “The LORD visits his people” with bread (Ruth 1:6). In Luke 7:16 Jesus goes to the widow of Nain, whose son has died. When Jesus brings him back to life and hands him to his mother, the people exclaim, “The Lord has visited us.”
No one was more holy than Jesus, and no one cared for the poor like Jesus did.
When God visits people, it means he’s getting involved. He’s intervening. This is what James has in mind. In fact, this is the Greek word from which we get a word for “pastor.” To visit the orphan is to shepherd the orphan—to get involved with, to identify with, to care about the plight of the orphan. And we’re to do no less for widows in their affliction.
But why? Ultimately because this is what God has done for us in our affliction. He has come to visit us.Heartbeat of the Gospel
Jesus told his disciples, “I will not leave you as orphans, I will come to you” (John 14:18). We’re not superior to the orphan, the widow, or the stranger. No, in the gospel we are the orphan, and God has adopted us; we are the widow, and Jesus has become our groom; we are the stranger with no homeland, and we have inherited the kingdom.
In the gospel, we are the orphan, and God has adopted us.
Ultimately, orphan care is about reflecting the heart of the gospel. And we do all of this as an act of honor to Jesus, who has loved us and come for us. Why do we care for orphans in their affliction? Because God has cared for us in our affliction. He has made us his sons and daughters.
How, then, might we do this practically? I’ll conclude with 21 ways.21 Ways to Get Involved in Orphan Care
- Pray—”Father, what do you want me to do to help with the orphan crisis?”
- Start small—talk, read, volunteer.
- Support good organizations—such as 127 Worldwide.
- Speak up—orphans are not only powerless, they are also voiceless.
- Be alert and practice hospitality—cultivate sensitivity to the needs around you in your life now.
- Sponsor others in the process of adoption.
- Care for the functionally fatherless—those who have fathers who are present physically but not emotionally or spiritually.
- Provide practical care for adoptive/foster parents.
- Fund adoptions.
- Provide for needs as you hear about them.
- Train leaders.
- Plant churches—planting churches in hard places is one of the best ways we can care for the poor and the marginalized.
- Promote/support in-country adoption.
- Move—go live among the poor and the orphan.
- Visit with purpose; have a plan.
- Provide transitional assistance as orphans “age out” of orphanages.
- Use your vocational skills.
- Fight trafficking
- Prevent orphans—fight poverty and poor education, which often perpetuate the breakdown of the family unit.
We are, sadly, familiar with pastors having to leave the ministry because of sexual impropriety. These incidents seem to occur with such frequency as to be barely newsworthy to a watching world.
But another, equally sad trend has developed in recent years: Pastors having to leave for bullying.
While we should be concerned by this trend, perhaps we shouldn’t be surprised. The apostle Peter expected this possibility back in the first century. Writing to pastors, he warned that they shouldn’t be “domineering over those in [their] charge” (1 Pet. 5:3). But while domineering pastors aren’t a new problem, they do seem to be more and more evident in the Western church today. In some cases bullying goes on for many years, either unrecognized or unchallenged. Which raises some important questions: What leadership virtue are we mistaking bullying for? Which trait is such a priority that we aren’t even aware when it is deployed in an ungodly, and biblically prohibited, way? In short, why do we end up with bullies as prominent pastors?CEOs and Generals
My observation is that this process plays out in slightly different ways on either side of the Atlantic. It is common in American churches to borrow leadership wisdom from the business world. The pastor is the CEO. His role is to bring success, often and especially measured in numerical terms: The church needs to grow in membership and giving. In the UK, it’s slightly different. The church tends toward a military model. The pastor is the three-star general who directs everyone to do the right things.
There is obviously much to be learned from both successful CEOs and also great generals, but both models can quickly become toxic. When either becomes the primary model for Christian leadership, is it any wonder that domineering pastors result? The pastor-as-CEO approach might foster entrepreneurialism and risk-taking, but it easily becomes results-oriented. The pastor-as-general approach might foster perseverance and grit, but it easily becomes task-oriented. One produces swagger: Their word is law because they’re economically indispensable to the church. The other produces presumption: Orders must be followed because the general “knows” what is best for every person. In each case we either tolerate or fail to see traits of bullying, because ministry ends justify ministry means.
No matter how dazzling in the eyes of men, loveless pastors vanish into nothingness in the sight of God.
But this must not be. Paul warns us about even superlative gifting wielded without love: “If I have prophetic powers, and understand all mysteries and all knowledge, and if I have all faith, so as to remove mountains, but have not love, I am nothing” (1 Cor. 13:2).
Paul doesn’t simply say that loveless giftedness is “compromised” or “diminished in effectiveness.” He doesn’t even talk about the resulting ministry, but only the person exercising the gifts—and they are nothing. Giftedness at the expense of character is never finally effective. No matter how dazzling in the eyes of men, loveless pastors vanish into nothingness in the sight of God.Problems with Domineering Leadership
So we need to look closely again at what Peter says:
Shepherd the flock of God that is among you, exercising oversight, not under compulsion, but willingly, as God would have you; not for shameful gain, but eagerly; not domineering over those in your charge, but being examples to the flock. (1 Pet. 5:2–3)
Here Peter draws three contrasts about the work and heart of an elder: there must be willingness, not compulsion; service, not greed; and he must lead by example, not by coercion.
To domineer is to bring something into compliance by force. In the context of pastoral ministry, it happens when the flock assents to things by compulsion rather than by the work of the Spirit in their hearts. It involves the use of intimidation, threats, or bullying. There may be some connection with the previous contrasts Peter has just made: being domineering is a form of greed (“shameful gain”)—greed for power over others. And just as Peter has already said that an elder must serve willingly (v. 2), so too those who follow must follow willingly.
To domineer is to misunderstand the role of the pastor. Yes, there is a real authority attached to the office. The writer to the Hebrews tells us to “obey your leaders and submit to them” (Heb. 13:17). But he continues, “For they are keeping watch over your souls, as those who will have to give an account.” The first part guards against anticlericalism on the part of the congregation, the second against authoritarianism on the part of the leadership. The pastor is to serve joyfully, just as the flock is to follow willingly. Although the pastor is set over the flock (1 Thess. 5:12), that is not his only relationship to it. Peter reminded us that the flock is not only “under you” (implying the pastor’s primary identity is one of hierarchical superiority), but also “among you” (reminding the pastor that he’s not above the flock, but is in fact a member of it).
To domineer is to be worldly. Jesus said, “You know that those who are considered rulers of the Gentiles lord it over them” (Mark 10:42). That is the way of the world around us, but it shouldn’t be true of the local church—“it shall not be so among you,” (v. 43). There is much we can learn from secular insights into leadership, but we must also recognize there is to be a clear contrast between how leadership is exercised in the secular world and how it is exercised in the church. We can learn from CEOs and generals, but pastors are not meant to be CEOs and generals.
We can learn from CEOs and generals, but pastors are not meant to be CEOs and generals.
To domineer is to go against New Testament’s teaching on church governance. Christians will have differing convictions about precisely how churches should be structured, but one thing seems incontrovertible from the Scriptures: Churches are to be led by plural eldership. The New Testament nowhere speaks of a church elder in singular terms. The church may have a lead pastor, but there is to be a plurality of those who share leadership responsibility. No one person is meant to be in charge. Now, it is easy to have plural eldership in theory and yet still have a pastor who rules the roost. The key is whether there is clear accountability and correction, and whether that can be—and actually is—executed.Leadership Catastrophe
Being domineering is catastrophic for a flock. It seems effective in the short term—it gets things done!—but it is disastrous in the long term. What Paul says to the Romans about dealing with those “weak in faith” is instructive here. Those weak in faith (Rom. 14:1) abstain from certain foods or observe certain days even though God doesn’t require them to. But if this has become a conscience issue, they shouldn’t be coerced into changing their practice: “Whoever has doubts is condemned if he eats, because the eating is not from faith. For whatever does not proceed from faith is sin” (Rom. 14:23).
Paul is highlighting a broad principle that applies beyond the immediate discussion about food and special days. Whatever does not proceed from faith is sin.
If a believer has certain doctrinal views or behaves in certain ways simply because a domineering pastor has coerced them to, then those views or actions are not proceeding from faith. It is not the Spirit of Christ who has brought them about, but the forcefulness of a leader. This is catastrophic because the believer isn’t being led by the Lord, but by man. Believing even the right things is no good if it is for the wrong reason.
The flock is to be led, yes—by beauty of example, not force of personality.Antidote to Domineering Leadership
The antidote to being domineering, then, is to lead by example rather than by coercion: “Not domineering over those in your charge, but being examples to the flock” (1 Pet. 5:3).
The flock is to be led, yes, but not by force of personality. The flock is to be led by beauty of example. Being domineering is bad leadership; and the answer to bad leadership is not no leadership but the right kind of leadership.
Again, there is authority in the office of being an elder (Heb. 13:17). There will be times when a pastor needs to call for that office to be respected and honored. But the people should be obedient to their leaders not because they’re terrified of them, but because they’re inspired and encouraged by them. Ultimately, it should be because the leaders point them to Christ by their example and spur them to their own love and good deeds.
Years ago I was driving through a rural area of west Tennessee, on my way to a little cottage on the Pickwick Dam in north Mississippi, where I’d take a couple of days away to write. Much was on my mind. I had large decisions in front of me—decisions that would shape the whole course of my future. My immediate problem wasn’t the course of my future, but the course of my actual journey at the time. I was lost.
Every turn I took seemed to get me farther out into the woods and farther away from any recognizable landmark. This was before the advent of global positioning technology, and even if it were now, such technology would have done me little good, since my phone couldn’t access a signal. I turned into the first driveway I saw to tinker with my phone long enough to get a cell signal to call someone who might give me directions. It took a moment or two for me to realize that I was in a church graveyard, and my phone was still the deadest thing there.Graveyard Wonderings
Sometimes, not often enough, I feel a strong prompting to stop everything and pray. Sometimes, far too often, I ignore that prompting, and conclude that I’m too busy to stop. This time I had no choice but to stop. I had nowhere to go. I stopped and walked around that graveyard, and churchyard, praying for God to grant me some wisdom and discernment about the large life decision I had in front of me. As I wandered in front of the little Baptist church building, I was still praying, but my eyes were lazily scanning the red brick in front of me.
I stopped as I read the cornerstone, engraved sometime in the years before I was born. The date was there, and right beneath it: “Herman Russell Moore, pastor.” I stopped praying, startled. Herman Russell Moore was the name of my paternal grandfather, who died when I was 5 years old. And my grandfather was a pastor, serving many churches in Mississippi and Tennessee. When my phone finally had cell service, my first call wasn’t to my office, but to my grandmother. I gave her the name of the church and asked if she’d ever heard of it. “Of course,” she said. “Your grandfather was pastor there.”
Your life is worth living, precisely because it isn’t your life at all.
I was stunned speechless, and just kept repeating to myself, “What are the odds?” But I didn’t want to waste the sign, whatever it was that in God’s providence had directed me there. So I kept praying, walking around the graves. I wondered about the people there, in the ground beneath me. How many of them had heard my grandfather preach the gospel? How many found Jesus in the church behind me? How many had prayed with my grandfather to receive Christ, or at the funeral of a loved one, or maybe even, like I was then, as they were facing a major life decision. They were gone now.
But I then thought about who in the ground beneath me might have been a thorn in the flesh to my grandfather. How many had criticized his preaching or questioned whether he did hospital visits often enough? Maybe someone had even, as is sadly all-too-regular practice in some churches, started an anonymous letter campaign to oppose the building of that sanctuary. They were gone too.Perspective
In that moment, I came to realize that maybe, as Tolkien put it, “not all who wander are lost.” Perhaps I was there for just this reason, to contemplate that whatever it was that had filled my grandfather with joy during his time here, and whatever had kept him up worrying at night, much of it was buried beneath me. The building, where the gospel was, I presumed, still preached, was still there. But even that wouldn’t be permanent, but would one day be swept aside by time, replaced by—who knows?—a restaurant chain or a Buddhist meditation clinic. All of that would also be swept away in the trillions of years of cosmic time stretching out ahead of us.
The decision I was mulling seemed so important to me at the moment. It seemed to be of existential importance. And yet, as I stood on cemetery grounds, I was reminded that I would die. I, like this church, and like my ancestor who served it, would pass away as a vapor (James 4:14), as a forgotten stalk of grass (Ps. 103:15–16). My decision seemed, on the one hand, even more important. After all, my grandfather’s ministry here was part of a chain of decisions, without which I wouldn’t even exist to contemplate that place.
I was reminded, despite the fact that I was . . . just a dying creature, who would one day be forgotten, along with all my big plans and my fears and anxieties.
On the other hand, my decision seemed much less important. I was reminded, despite the fact that I was, at the time, a young man in the whirl of the prime of my career, that I was just a dying creature, who would one day be forgotten, along with all my big plans and my fears and anxieties. At that moment, the thought of my mortality didn’t leave me with a sense of futility or dread. The thought was strangely liberating, freeing me, if just for a second, to reflect on what really matters—to give thanks to God for giving me a gospel to believe and people to love.Lessons Learned
That’s what I pray Matt McCullough’s Remember Death does for you. I pray that you come away from a book on mortality with a sense of clarity about what really matters—about who really matters. I pray that this book, as it leads you to reflect on your own coming demise, gives you a sense of joy, of gratitude, of longing to be part of that great cloud of witnesses in heaven. I pray that this book is useful to you, but I pray more that this book turns out to be a waste of your time. I pray that you and I don’t ever actually succumb to death, but that, instead, we are part of the generation that sees the eastern skies explode with the glory of the returning King of Israel, the Lord Jesus Christ.
But, even if so, the lessons of this book will be worth your time, to call you away from seeing yourself as a messiah or as a devil, as a Caesar or as a Judas. Your life is worth living, precisely because it isn’t your life at all. Your life—at least in this moral frame—has a beginning and an end. But your life—your real life—is hidden with Christ (Col. 3:3). That then gives you the freedom to lose your life in sacrifice to others, in obedience to God, in order to save it.
I wish that I could say that my accidental visit to that church graveyard permanently changed my life. I wish I could write that I don’t still grapple with an illusion of immortality or with worry about tomorrow. I can’t say that. What I can say, though, is that sometimes God will let us get a little bit lost, so that we might look about and realize that we aren’t phoenixes rising from our own ashes but we’re sheep, following the voice of a shepherd, even through the valley of the shadow of death. Maybe such a moment of clarity will come for you as you find yourself lost in the truths of this book. If so, you might realize that you aren’t as lost as you think, but that you’re instead being led through the graveyard of your own fallen life, onward toward home.
This is an adaptation of the foreword to Remember Death: The Surprising Path to Living Hope (Crossway, 2018).
- To Grow Spiritually, Start Thinking About Death (Collin Hansen and Matt McCullough)
- Remember Death. Enjoy a Life of Hope. (Phil Letizia)
- 20 Quotes from a Profound New Book on Death (Ivan Mesa)
- Momento Mori: What It Means and Why It Should Matter to You (Matt McCullough)
- I’m Dying. You’re Dying. Jesus Lives. (Matt McCullough)
- The Spiritual Benefits of Dying (Phil Letizia)
One in every nine Christians in the world lives in an area, or in a culture, in which Christianity is illegal, forbidden, or punished, according to the latest report on global persecution by Open Doors USA. That’s a 14 percent increase over the previous year.
For the past 27 years, the organization has published the Open Doors World Watch List, a global indicator of countries where human and religious rights are being violated, and those countries most vulnerable to societal unrest and destabilization.
During the World Watch List 2019 reporting period, in the top 50 countries, a total of 1,266 churches or Christian buildings were attacked; 2,635 Christians were detained without trial, arrested, sentenced and imprisoned; and 4,136 Christians were killed for faith-related reasons. On average, that’s 11 Christians killed every day for their faith.
Countries are ranked by the severity of persecution of Christians, calculated by analyzing the level of violent persecution plus the pressure experienced in five spheres of life: church, national, community, family, and private. Based on the report’s research, the top 10 nations where Christians found it most dangerous and difficult to practice their faith are:1. North Korea
Persecution type: Communist and Post-Communist Oppression
Estimated number of Christians: 300,000
How Christians are suffering: “The primary driver of persecution in North Korea is the state. For three generations, everything in the country has focused on idolizing the Kim family. Christians are seen as hostiles to be eradicated. There was hope that new diplomatic efforts in 2018—including the 2018 Winter Olympics—would mean a lessening of pressure and violence against Christians, but so far that has not been the case. Kim Jong-un has maintained tight control over the populace, and dissent or worshiping anything else is not tolerated.”
Prayer point: “The situation for Christians is vulnerable and precarious. They face persecution from state authorities and their non-Christian family, friends and neighbors. Pray for their protection.”2. Afghanistan
Persecution type: Islamic oppression
Estimated number of Christians: Thousands
How Christians are suffering: “Afghanistan is an Islamic state by constitution, which means government officials, ethnic group leaders, religious officials and citizens are hostile toward adherents of any other religion. This means any expression of any faith other than Islam is simply not permitted to exist. Additionally, to convert to a faith outside Islam is tantamount to treason, because it is seen as a betrayal of family, tribe, and country.”
Prayer Point: “Christian converts from Islam face strong pressure from family, friends and neighbors and can even be attacked. Pray for these believers to have courage and protection.”3. Somalia
Persecution type: Islamic oppression
Estimated number of Christians: A few hundred
How Christians are suffering: “Estimates suggest that 99 percent of Somalis are Muslims, and any minority religions are heavily persecuted. The Christian community is small and under constant threat of attack. Sharia law and Islam are enshrined in the country’s constitution, and the persecution of Christians almost always involves violence. Additionally, in many rural areas, Islamic militant groups like al-Shabab are de facto rulers.”
Prayer point: “Somali Christians often must hide their faith to stay safe. Pray for the safety and discipleship opportunities for these isolated believers.”4. Libya
Persecution type: Islamic oppression
Estimated number of Christians: 37,900
How Christians are suffering: “After the ouster of former dictator Muammar Gaddafi, Libya plunged into chaos and anarchy, which has enabled various Islamic militant groups to control parts of the country. Converts to Christianity face abuse and violence for their decision to follow Christ. Libya is also home to many migrant workers who have been attacked, sexually assaulted, and detained, which can be even worse if it is discovered they are Christians.”
Prayer point: “Pray for the protection of migrant workers, especially for those who are Christians and face double persecution.”5. Pakistan
Persecution type: Islamic oppression
Estimated number of Christians: 3,981,000
How Christians are suffering: “Under Pakistan’s notorious blasphemy laws, Christians continue to live in daily fear they will be accused of blasphemy—which can carry a penalty of death. Additionally, radical Islamists seem to be gaining more political power, and the new ruling government must maintain good diplomatic relationships with some radical groups. Christians are largely regarded as second-class citizens, and conversion to Christianity from Islam carries a great deal of risk.”
Prayer point: “Pray for Pakistani converts from Muslim backgrounds who suffer the brunt of the persecution in Pakistan. Radical Islamist groups see them as apostates, and their family, friends, and neighbors see their conversion as shameful to the community.”6. Sudan
Persecution type: Islamic oppression
Estimated number of Christians: 1,910,000
How Christians are suffering: “Sudan has been ruled by the authoritarian government of President al-Bashir since 1989. The country has been ruled as an Islamic state with limited rights for religious minorities and heavy restrictions on freedom of speech and press. Christians face discrimination and pressure—multiple church buildings were demolished in 2017 and 2018, leaving some Christians without a place to worship. Christian converts from Islam are especially targeted for persecution.’”
Prayer point: “Pray for converts to Christianity, that they would be able to stand strong in the face of accusations of betrayal.”7. Eritrea
Persecution type: Dictatorial paranoia
Estimated number of Christians: 2,474,000
How Christians are suffering: “Since 1993, President Afwerki has overseen a brutal authoritarian regime that rests on massive human rights violations. In 2018, there were raids on churches, and hundreds of Christians were imprisoned in inhumane conditions. Additionally, there are estimates that other Christians are currently in Eritrea’s vast prison network, but no one knows how many there are or if they are still alive.”
Prayer point: “Thousands of Christians have been imprisoned in Eritrea over the last decade. Pray for endurance for brothers and sisters detained in horrific conditions, and ask God to give them perseverance in their faith.”8. Yemen
Persecution type: Islamic oppression
Estimated number of Christians: A few thousand
How Christians are suffering: “An ongoing civil war in Yemen has created one of the worst humanitarian crises in recent memory, making an already difficult nation for Christians even harder. The chaos of war has enabled radical groups to take control over some regions of Yemen, and they have increased persecution against Christians. Even private worship is risky in some parts of the country. Converts to Christianity from Islam face additional persecution from family and society.”
Prayer point: “The instability in Yemen has created a refugee, food, and health-care crisis. Ask God to help provide food, clean water and safety to the people of Yemen.”9. Iran
Persecution type: Islamic oppression
Estimated number of Christians: 800,000
How Christians are suffering: “Christians are forbidden from sharing their faith with non-Christians. Therefore, church services in Persian, the national language, are not allowed. Converts from Islam face persecution from the government; if they attend an underground house church, they face the constant threat of arrest. Iranian society is governed by Islamic law, which means the rights and professional possibilities for Christians are heavily restricted.”
Prayer point: “Any Muslim who leaves Islam faces a charge of apostasy and can be thrown in jail or worse. Pray that the laws will change, allowing for freedom of religion.”10. India
Persecution type: Religious nationalism
Estimated number of Christians: 65,061,000
How Christians are suffering: “Christians have been targeted by Hindu nationalist extremists more each year. Since the current ruling party took power in 2014, attacks have increased, and Hindu radicals believe they can attack Christians with no consequences. The view of the nationalists is that to be Indian is to be Hindu, so any other faith— including Christianity—is viewed as non-Indian. Additionally, in some regions of the country, converts to Christianity from Hinduism experience extreme persecution, discrimination, and violence.’”
Prayer point: “Pray for Christian converts from Hinduism who are forcefully pressured to return to their national religion.”
Do you know how the late R. C. Sproul came to faith in Christ? Through a football player.
In his obituary on Sproul, Justin Taylor recaps the story:
R. C. was reborn in September of 1957 during the first weekend of his first semester at Westminster College, a progressive Presbyterian school an hour north of Pittsburgh. Following freshman orientation, R. C. and his roommate (whom he had played baseball with in school) wanted to leave their dry campus to go to a neighboring town to drink. When they got to the parking lot, R. C. reached his hand in his pocket and realized he was all out of Lucky Strike cigarettes. They returned to the dorm, which housed a cigarette machine.
As he started to put his quarters in the machine, the school’s football star invited them to sit down at a table. He began asking them questions. They ended up talking for over an hour about the wisdom of God. What struck R. C. was that for the first time in his life, he was listening to someone who sounded like he knew Jesus personally. The football player quoted Ecclesiastes 11:3 (“Where the tree falls in the forest, there it lies”) and R. C. saw himself as that: dead, corrupt, and rotting. He returned to his dorm that night and prayed to God for forgiveness. He would later remark that he was probably the only person in church history to be converted through that particular verse.
Matt Chandler was also converted to Christ through his high-school football team. “I’m going to tell you about Jesus,” Matt’s football teammate told him. “When do you want to do it?”
God uses ordinary athletes to bring glory to his name. This shouldn’t surprise us, since Christian athletes have a unique opportunity.Unique Opportunities
I played football for six years. I had dreams of going pro (what kid doesn’t?), but the Lord had other plans. Instead of going pro, something better happened: I became team co-chaplain at my undergraduate school. And although it was for a short period of life, I reflect on those days with sweet joy.
Something like a mini-revival happened. When the chaplaincy program was created, most athletes showed little to no interest in spiritual matters—there were many years of sowing seed with little fruit. Before my senior year, however, one of the coaches died. Suddenly, the frail nature of life confronted us all. We went from scant fruit to more than 50-plus guys attending post-game devotionals and pre-game chapel. Several were converted to Christ. One is now a pastor. I could go on and on. The Lord loves to use ordinary athletes to lead others to Christ.
Having been around athletes much of my life, here are a few reasons I believe Christian athletes have unique gospel opportunities.1. Close proximity.
When you’re an athlete, you’re constantly around teammates. You work out, watch film, practice, and play together. You’re always rubbing shoulders with someone else. Because of the constant closeness, you have repeated opportunities to share Christ. If you succumb to fear one day and don’t share the gospel, you can make up for it another day. You see each other often.2. Close brotherhood or sisterhood.
There’s a unique familial feel that develops between athletes. You feel like you’re going to war together, like you’d die for a teammate in a heartbeat. In light of this brotherhood or sisterhood, you develop rapport quickly, which can overflow into gospel conversations.3. You’re exposed.
You can’t fake it on a team. Your true self comes out. If you claim Christ but you’re a hypocrite, you’ll put a bad taste in others’ mouths. If you claim Christ and your actions and words align, however, you may not have to summon the courage to initiate every gospel conversation; people will likely come to you.4. Your words carry weight.
God has gifted some with tremendous athletic ability. If you’re one of the starters on the team, don’t waste your influence. If you’re the star player, people will look up to you, follow you, and hang on every word you say. This comes with pressure, to be sure. But Jesus can provide the boldness you need.5. Identity crisis.
Many athletes are still trying answer the question, “Who am I?” Many, if not all, will find their identity in their athletic performance. During this vulnerable time period, seize the opportunity to point others to Christ, encouraging them to let him shape their identity.How to Do It
But how do you start these conversations? And what do you say? Here are a few things to keep in mind:
- Be bold. Athletes love boldness. Unlike many other environments, you’re not walking on eggshells when you’re on a team. You can be yourself. So, like Chandler’s friend, be bold and strike up conversations. But what exactly do you say? Don’t overthink it. Put yourself out there and see what God will do.
- Use the Bible in your conversations. The Spirit works through God’s Word. Remember Sproul’s testimony, how the Spirit used a remarkably obscure passage. He sovereignly moves when and where he wills.
- Get organized. When I served as co-chaplain, we had post-practice devotionals, pre-game chapels, Bible studies, and more. You may not be able to do all that, but being organized goes a long way. Consider starting a weekly Bible study. Scheduling things creates a safe and secure environment for athletes to attend, as opposed to putting all the pressure on spontaneous, informal gospel conversations.
- Say “sorry” when you mess up. You’re going to make mistakes. Perhaps you’ll say something inappropriate or frustrate someone on your team. When this happens, remember the grace that is yours in Christ, and own your mistake: “My bad. That was my fault. I’m really sorry.” Your teammates don’t expect you to be perfect, and you don’t have to be. But if you say you’re a Christian, know that others will be watching you closely, even if they pretend not to notice. So be real about your imperfections. This will help them to respect you.
- Share your testimony. Once you gain some rapport, share your conversion story. This can lead into a gospel conversation.
At the end of the day, the pressure is not on you. The Lord will gather his elect to himself. But if you’re a Christian athlete, you have many unique opportunities to share Christ in ways others do not.
Don’t waste your opportunities; instead, do the work of an evangelist (2 Tim. 4:5).
On April 3 and 4, 2018, in Memphis, Tennessee, The Ethics & Religious Liberty Commission and The Gospel Coalition hosted a special event titled “MLK50: Gospel Reflections from the Mountaintop,” to reflect on the 50th anniversary of Dr. Martin Luther King Jr.’s tragic death. Jackie Hill Perry delivered this talk during the event.
The next generation, I imagine, will be one worth watching. A week or so ago, the largest youth protest since Vietnam took place when thousands of youth from across the nation used their voices to speak out against violence, gun violence, and to speak for gun control. Generation Z, as they’ve been called, has already begun to champion what matters most to them with a passion and conviction that I would think they must have learned from the generations before them.
Many of them have seen the protests against police brutality, done by folks maybe a decade or so older than them. They have seen the bent knee during a national anthem and understood it to be a revolutionary act. They have watched their Twitter timelines fill up with a 180-characters-worth of honest and grieving words. Words that have stirred in them a desire to be just as loud for what is right as the silent are being for what is wrong. This generation has learned some things from us. Well, some of us that is.
Some of us may not have been alive to get close enough to the windows to see a sit-in in action at a segregated lunch counter. We weren’t there to wave as the Freedom Riders rode past us, resolute in their mission even if it meant that they might die on their way home. Some of us weren’t old enough to watch as Martin and others walked across the Edmund Pettus Bridge in Selma, Alabama. But when we found out about it, it did something in us. It taught us that to care about injustice is to do something about it.
To put ourselves in harm’s way even if that means peace for my neighbor that this work, this work of loving our neighbors and making sure others will do the same, ain’t always comfortable. But by example they’ve shown us that it’s worth it.
When it comes to the generation before us, we’ve learned some things. But there are some of us that have learned other things. Some may not have been there to hear the sound of a body swinging back and forth on a tree, the cracking of the branch and the laughter of the ones that made the noose.
You might not have been there in the pews when the deacons made sure the colored folks sat in the balcony as not to sit too close to the white parishioners as they heard the preacher tell them that all this segregation that’s going on was the will of Almighty God.
Some of you in this room probably weren’t old enough to see all that the generation before you did. But don’t think that in some way you haven’t been taught by it. Taught to not take the death of a brown body serious even when it swings, or should I say retweets, in front of your face. Taught to stay seated in your pew while oppression happens all around you. Taught not in words, usually, but by living, that this work, this work of loving your neighbor and making sure others do the same, doesn’t belong to you.
Taught that because your beautiful baby boy can walk down the street with Skittles and tea in his hand when no one threatened by the color of his skin that the privilege of safety means that you are exempt from caring about the price of black pigment. Oh, surely we have learned some things. The generations are always teaching by example.
If you read the Book of Ezekiel before, you’ve come across a passage that speaks to this idea of generational teaching. We find the prophet Ezekiel addressing the elders of Israel. God has a message for them, but first he wants to give them a little history lesson. He reminds them about how he rescued the people of Israel out of Egypt, with the promise that he would then bring them into a land flowing with milk and honey. But on the way, as we all do, they started tripping. They, in more ways than one, disobeyed God. And as judgment, God relegated them to a 40-year stay in the wilderness until the entire generation that left Egypt was dead.
But while in the wilderness, the disobedience didn’t cease. They continued to walk in unbelief toward God with their idolatrous ways. But eventually, as God said would happen, each one of them perished until the younger generation was the only generation left. And Ezekiel 20:18, God tells the elders about what he told the children that were left and he says:
And I said to their children in the wilderness, do not walk in the statutes of your fathers, nor keep their rules, nor defile yourselves with their idols.I am the Lord your God, so walk in my statutes, and be careful to obey my rules, and keep my Sabbaths holy that they may be a sign between me and you.That you may know that I am the Lord your God. But the children rebelled against me. They did not walk in my statutes, and were not careful to obey my rules by which if a person does them he shall live.
Moreover, I swore to them in the wilderness that I would scatter them among the nations, and disperse them through the countries because they have not obeyed my rules, but have rejected my statutes, and profaned my Sabbaths, and their eyes were set on their fathers’ idols.
During the 40 years in the wilderness, these children had learned some things.
They’d seen some of their parents worship the gods of Egypt. They remembered when their mothers removed the gold earrings out of their ears and watched them turn them into golden calves. They were there when their father slept with the women of Moab and when their family sacrificed to a god named Baal, a god they knew was not the God of Israel, but a god that they thought was more worthy of their worship than the one who took them out of slavery.
These children grew up in an environment where the people of God had an allegiance to all sorts of idols and lived by all kinds of statutes that they’ve created for themselves. So, when it was their turn to obey God, when they heard the command of God to walk in his statutes and to obey his rules, the only footsteps they chose to follow were the idolatrous feet of their fathers.
And for all we know, they probably thought that generation knew best. Because clearly seeing each and every person in the generation prior to them drop dead in the wilderness wasn’t enough proof that God was not to be played with. The children of Israel had learned some things.
Don’t you find it troubling that the letter, a letter from a Birmingham jail, a letter Dr. King wrote in 1963 to Christians, white Christians to be specific, contains in it the same frustrations being voiced to our white brothers and sisters today in 2018? The letter is 55 years old and yet this generation has not fully improved upon the beliefs and the behavior of the prior.
The urgency of justice is still being questioned. The hearts of many brown and black believers are still disheartened as their brothers and sisters, the brothers and sisters that they share pews with, who seem to be so unwilling to pursue authentic peace, authentic peace that includes the presence of justice and not the peace that prefers the absence of tension.
How could it be that one generation can progress so much and yet be so similar to the generation before them? And all of us, we can see it is because the generations are always teaching in all of us and one way or another have followed in somebody’s footsteps.
If we want to equip the next generation for gospel diversity, we have to start here. Our methods have to be modeled if we expect for them to be followed. But we cannot and will not model what we don’t believe. And guess what? Your children, your mentees, your disciples, the people in your children’s group, your youth group, they are learning from you even if you don’t know yet. They’ve seen who you invite over for dinner. They’ve heard how you pray for your country. And some have never heard one plea for the peace of a black mother whose son was killed in a backyard. Or a petition to a God on behalf of a Hispanic teen who was terrified that she would be deported from the one home that she has always known. They are watching who you watch. They are listening to who you are learning from.
If there is any indifference in your heart toward gospel diversity, you better know that your indifference will be to them a norm to which their world views will be shaped. But just as the next generation can learn some negative things from us all, because God is in us, with his help we can do what some of our fathers didn’t do.
Why? Because we are a chosen race. We are a royal priesthood. We are a holy nation. We are a people for his own possession that we may proclaim the excellencies of him who called us out of darkness and into His marvelous light.
We must show the next generation what it’s like to be a part of a chosen race. A chosen generation. A generation made up of people that are white, and brown, and black, and every other color that God has made for his glory. A generation of folk that God has brought to himself. A generation of people that may have some bad blood inside of their bodies because of sin and their different upbringings, but a generation that will fight for the oppressed in America and beyond, just like the God of Israel fought for the oppressed in Egypt.
Let the next generation see what a royal priesthood looks like. How a people who’ve been anointed by the Spirit, sanctified by God, and brought near to his throne through the Son, show them how they move about the world. Show them what a living sacrifice looks like and how it’s not a lamb or a goat, but a body, and bias, and comfort, and fear, and lovelessness, and pride, and privilege, and how this priesthood lays it all down on the altar to be burned before God, so that we can show the new generation what real worship looks like.
Show them a holy nation. Show them a nation among many, but a nation under one God and with liberty and justice for all. And don’t get it twisted. This holy nation ain’t America, it’s the church of God. It’s the bride of Christ. It’s a nation whose king was a Jewish man killed by an unjust government as ordained by a sovereign God.
This nation looks different than the rest because it’s governed by a God that is good, and holy, and wise, and just, and merciful, and empathetic, and dignifying. And as this holy nation lives among others, the generations will see what it looks like when your ultimate allegiance is King Jesus.
Show them what it looks like to be a peculiar people that belong to God. We don’t really belong to this country. We don’t really belong to a political party. We don’t belong even to our economic status. Heck, we don’t belong to this world. We are a people for his own possession.
And when we believe that, when we believe that we belong to God, we will live completely free from the statutes and the rules that these identities impose on us. That way, we will love not according to what makes us similar, but we will love in accordance to our Savior if only we would just be who we are.
The next generation would learn some things. They would learn something glorious. They would learn about God in us. They would know that the people of God love differently than the world. That the people of God embrace diversity because that’s what God would do.
And that’s what God has done. The next generation would follow in our footsteps and then they would come to realize that as they did, they were actually following Jesus, and not a God made in America’s image. They would come to see that as you set your mind on things above where Christ, he is seated at the right hand of God, the place he went after he did what was just and right, the seat he sat down on after dying and raising on behalf of people, that he died [to purchase] for himself [a people] from every tribe, tongue and nation. They would see that because you set your mind up there where he is, that they can, too.
When we set our eyes on Christ instead of setting our eyes on our fathers’ idols and everything else that keeps us from gospel diversity, you can be sure that is when we begin equipping the next generation for gospel diversity.
Many have rightly warned that evangelicals are losing “a Christian mind” by neglecting the Bible and indiscriminately consuming secular materials informed by non-Christian ideas. But what if it’s not just the content we consume but also the medium in which we read it that poses a danger to our minds?
In Reader, Come Home: The Reading Brain in a Digital World, Maryanne Wolf makes a compelling case that our use of digital devices is changing the way we read, which in turn is profoundly altering the way we think—a chilling prospect for Christians, who believe that through his written Word, God renews our minds, enabling us to think in sanctified ways.Digital Challenges
Although Wolf—a Tufts University professor who has studied the neurological processes involved in the act of reading—has no such spiritual concerns, she believes the stakes in our transition from a print to a digital culture are incredibly high. Again and again she confronts her readers with sobering questions:
- “Will new readers develop the more time-demanding cognitive processes nurtured by print-based mediums as they absorb and acquire new cognitive capacities emphasized by digital media?”
- “Will our youth develop such a passive response to knowledge that eventually the store of what they know and their ability to connect it through analogy and inference will be depleted?”
- “Will the combination of reading on digital formats and daily immersion in a variety of digital experiences . . . impede the formation of the slower cognitive processes such as critical thinking, personal reflection, imagination, and empathy that are part of deep reading?”
- “Will the quality of our attention change as we read on mediums that advantage immediacy, dart-quick task switching, and continuous monitoring of distraction . . . ?”
Wolf obviously sees a strong possibility that the answers to these questions might be yes.
The reason? In her early research, she studied what happens within the brain when we read. Eventually she became concerned about “how the circuitry of the reading brain would be altered by the unique characteristics of the digital medium, particularly in the young.”
Her conclusion is that since the advent of the digital age, “we have already begun to change how we read—with all of its many implications for how we think.”Reading Brain
On the opening page of the book, Wolf declares provocatively that “human beings were never born to read,” by which she means that reading isn’t something our brains are hardwired to do, such as seeing or communicating. Rather, reading is “an unnatural cultural invention” that we must learn. This we’re able to do since our brain cells can make myriad connections, leading to the formation in each emerging reader of a “reading circuit” that links centers of the brain concerned with such crucial tasks as vision, language, cognition, motor functions, and affective functions.
However, she warns that digital devices pose a threat to the development of this mental circuitry—not because digital reading is fundamentally different from print reading, but because the digital medium deluges us with information in byte-sized chunks, promoting information overload and distraction. As evidence, Wolf notes that students today are demonstrating “diminishing familiarity with conceptually demanding prose.”
Wolf sees numerous dangers here: shrinking attention spans that preclude “deep reading” (her term for focused, thoughtful reading), which in turn leads to failure to gain the empathy for others that reading engenders and the kind of personal store of knowledge that enables inference, deduction, and analogical thinking.
Christians might perceive an overarching danger: a reduction in our ability to grasp God’s truth through deep reading of his Word. Clearly God created us with the capacity to learn the complex process of reading so that we might benefit from his written revelation, the Bible. But the Word of God is a challenging book, a prime example of “conceptually demanding prose” that requires attentive, reflective reading. Are we willing to let our digital pottage make us poorer students of this treasure?Reader Recommendations
What is to be done? Wolf’s recommendation isn’t simply that young readers be denied exposure to digital devices—indeed, she is surprisingly open to their use—but that such exposure be meted out in careful doses.
She urges parents of children up to age 5 to read to them often, giving them little access to digital devices. “Human interaction and physical interaction with books and print are the best entry into the world of oral and written language and internalized knowledge, the building blocks of the later reading circuit,” she writes.
As for children 5 to 10 years of age, Wolf wants them develop a “biliterate brain” by learning in both print and digital mediums. Physical books are her preferred tool for reading instruction, while digital devices might be used to teach coding, programming, and creative skills such as graphic arts and musical composition. In other words, she envisions a two-track learning approach, with the understanding that students can safely combine print and digital media only when their mental reading circuits are firmly established around fourth grade. Thereafter, the goal is to prevent those circuits from atrophying.Digital Wisdom
Whether many schools would agree to adopt such an approach, there is wisdom here for Christian parents, who must always be their children’s prime educators. If you’re a parent, read the Bible to your children from an early age, along with age-appropriate Bible storybooks and well-written (and well-illustrated) children’s books. As they grow, introduce them to classic literary works. Let them hear both biblical truth and also beautiful language.
Through the exhausting early years of child-rearing, fight the terrible temptation to let a smartphone or tablet serve as a babysitter, much as parents a generation ago had to resist the siren song of TV. Keep books in your home for this purpose, whether owned or borrowed from the local library.
Don’t let down your guard as your children acquire the ability to read for themselves. Help them find books that appeal to their expanding interests. When the time is right, these might include eBooks, but as much as possible help them use digital devices as tools for specific purposes, not as toys for relieving boredom.
Hopefully by these means, we can raise up children who will be able to read and appreciate challenging texts, especially the Scriptures, which unfold the gospel of salvation through Christ.
Meanwhile, we adults will do well to guard our own minds from the degenerative effects of the digital world. If Wolf is right—and her research seems sound and well-attested—such digital discipline is crucial for Christians who want to grow in their knowledge of God and his truth.
My generation, which came of age in the 1980s and 1990s, was inducted into the idolatry of love through romantic movies and love songs. The film The Princess Bride captured the vibe. It’s a sarcastic fairy tale, but it’s a fairy tale. Picture two blond and beautiful individuals, detached from all family and meaningful relations, alone in the world, beset by misfortune, yet trading ironic quips and saving themselves by the power of “true love.”
Or maybe you saw the teen-bop romance movie Say Anything. If so, you remember the magical moment when the lead character holds a boom box above his head, arms outstretched, outside the second-story bedroom of the girl he loves—a Gen-X version of a damsel in distress needing rescue by her knight. She’s restless in her room, imprisoned by an angry father. The music reverberates upward as the singer proclaims himself “complete in your eyes” in a way he could not be through “a thousand churches” and “fruitless searches.” The hero’s message couldn’t be clearer: Our salvation isn’t in the church. It’s in each other. We “complete” each other.
Though these pop-culture references are dated, you can pick your generation—millennial, Xers, boomers, all the way back to the generation of The Scarlet Letter and before that—and each has its version of the same story. It’s the story of individualism and individualist conceptions of love.Individualism and Love
Love stories have existed for millennia. Yet, in the 18th, 19th, and 20th centuries, a new conception of romantic love began to arise amid a flurry of poetry and novels. Romanticism offered a vision of love decidedly set against the structures, hierarchies, and traditions of the past. According to this view, romantic love involves not just sexual attraction. It involves finding someone who “completes me” (Giddens, 44–45). It starts with looking inside myself: “Never mind father’s expectations, mother’s list of duties, or the vicar’s sermons. Who am I, and what do I need? How do I feel about this other person? Does she understand me? Will she help me become everything I’m supposed to be?” Self-discovery then gives way to self-realization and expression: “This is who I am, father. I will pursue her.
On the American side of the Atlantic, one might think of The Scarlet Letter, where love defies the laws of religion. Similarly, Jay Gatsby in The Great Gatsby tries to divorce himself from the past, rewrite who he is, and enjoy love with an upper-class married woman. His obsessive love battles not against religion but against the laws of old money and class. So it was in book after book on the British side of the pond, like Emily Brontë’s Wuthering Heights or the salacious work of D. H. Lawrence.
Every relationship is a contract that can be ripped up. What’s nonnegotiable is whatever my individual heart tells me is true.
The original Romantics were intentionally reacting against the cold rationalism of the Enlightenment. They wanted to be guided by love rather than structure, internal desire rather than external constraint, spontaneous impulse rather than rational deduction, beauty and freedom rather than efficiency and order. But they remained Enlightenment heirs. They were just as individualistic as those whom they reacted against. In the landscape of the novels, what matters isn’t who people are in relation to their families or trades or religion. These age-old structures don’t define them. What matters is who they are in themselves—what they want, what they feel. Every relationship is a contract that can be ripped up. What’s nonnegotiable is whatever my individual heart tells me is true.
Yet what is intentional in these older novels becomes unintentional and assumed in the popular films of my adolescence. Movie after movie presents handsome teenagers throwing off the oppressive hand of parents and teachers who “just don’t get it.” This is the story of The Breakfast Club and Ferris Bueller’s Day Off and Dead Poets Society and Dirty Dancing and on and on. Each offers a vision of love that looks brave and attractive in its defiance. It’s awake simultaneously to the inner self and also to the mystical glory of love, like a soul in harmony with the cosmos. It courageously casts off all encumbrances in pursuit of its prize, while maintaining an impenetrable moral justification: “I act in the name of love.”
Who would dare go against that?Legalistic and Isolated Love
These days, our world seems to take for granted this view of love—a love rooted in self-discovery and self-expression that justifies breaking every rule. Over dinner, a friend who is my age said to me and my wife, “If two people really love each other, they should be able to be happy. We shouldn’t stop them.” I knew any direct challenge to her claim would be futile. The claim depended on a set of moral intuitions developed in culture through decades and even centuries of morality tales. These intuitions were the unquestioned “of course” that needs no argument.
Notice how romantic love in this tradition becomes the perfect vehicle for sinful human beings to get everything they want: self-absorption and companionship; self-expression and moral approval; self-rule and the blessing of heaven; pleasure and an easy conscience.
We’re happier and less demanding of our spouses when we don’t ask them to play God for us.
Ironically, the individualist’s love story becomes legalistic. Salvation belongs to those who follow the demands of romantic love. Opponents to anything called love are judged and vanquished. If you’re a baker who refuses to bake a cake for a same-sex wedding, for instance, you might find yourself in court. If you’re a high-school student who says that sex, love, and marital commitment belong together, you’ll find yourself excommunicated from the circle of cool kids.
Yet Romanticism’s priests will refuse to call it moralism. They call it pleasure and happiness. Their story culminates in a bed, after all, two lovers embracing one another, having cast off the world, enjoying all the delights of togetherness, staring into one another’s eyes. The camera need not turn to parents or to children, as it never does in The Princess Bride. The couple is the center of the universe. It’s Wesley and Princess Buttercup happily ever after, like in most romance movies.
Could you ask for anything more?Generative and Fruitful Love
Well, yes, in fact. The biblical teaching on love also includes a bed. But it places that bed in a garden, where the couple’s union ultimately yields a flourishing world of rose bushes and apple orchards and a mess of children’s shoes by the front door and swing-sets and skyscrapers. Biblical love creates a far, far bigger universe. It’s not stagnant like a bed all by itself. It has forward motion and a story to follow. It’s generative. It’s fruitful.
Not only that, but the biblical story of love also makes more room for friendships. No one human being can meet all of another person’s emotional, intellectual, and spiritual needs. C. S. Lewis wisely remarked: “In each of my friends there is something that only some other friend can fully bring out. By myself I am not large enough to call the whole man into activity; I want other lights than my own to show all his facets.” I often remind young married couples of this, particularly when they are jealous for one another’s time. Wives should encourage their husbands to find good male friendship, and husbands should encourage their wives to form healthy female friendships. We’re happier and less demanding of our spouses when we don’t ask them to play God for us.
Sure enough, every part of the body needs every other part, Paul says about the church (1 Cor. 12). And how many parts does a body have? To truly experience love, we need far more than what a romantic partner can give us.
- 20 Quotes on How Your Church Should Exhibit Loving Authority (Matt Smethurst)
I didn’t do anything about it for years. Years while I was suffering from traumatic memories. Years when I knew it was wrong. Years when I knew that my silence was allowing sin to thrive. I was miserable in each circumstance. Full of despair as a child, I first imagined ways to kill myself. Decades later, trapped again, I had a folder on my computer with suicide notes ready to go.
I experienced sexual abuse and assault as a child and as an adult. Spanning decades and leaving me confused and broken, my experiences of abuse have shaped my life. It is only through the hand of God and years of guidance from a gifted, educated, godly counselor that I can speak about this topic. I didn’t speak about it for years.
My situation may be unique, but it is not dissimilar from others. There are hundreds of thousands of individuals who have been hurt by the horrific sin of sexual perversion, abuse, and violence. Months ago, a few years after I had been able to escape my abusive situation, I finally reported my abuse to those in the positions of leadership who needed to know.
It seemed miraculous that after years of assuming no one would believe me, they immediately believed me. They immediately took complete, full, biblical action. They immediately cared for me. They protected me.Questions and Confusion
I have repeatedly asked myself questions: Why didn’t I speak earlier? Why didn’t I tell the first time something happened? Why didn’t I go to someone in a position of authority over the various individuals who misused, abused, and assaulted me?
Or, an even a more basic question: When I was abused within earshot of other people, why didn’t I scream? That question still taunts me in the dark nights of my soul.
I’m not alone as a survivor in asking these questions. Similarly, those who haven’t experienced the confusing maze of abuse certainly must wonder these same things as they hear the stories that have come to light. Someone once told me, “The confusion is the abuse,” meaning that through cultivating confusion about what happened, abusers cultivate and perpetuate abuse.
The confusion doesn’t end with the victim; it extends even to those who learn of the abuse. They wonder how it could be possible. It is extraordinarily rare for an abuser to seem like an abuser in ordinary life. Countless people, including those closest to the individual, will recall so many moments when the accused abuser was compassionate, completely appropriate, and even sensitive to other abuse cases.
Questions multiply in everyone’s minds when abuse comes to light. How could this person have done what is being alleged? And, if so, how could the survivor have not spoken up more quickly?
I didn’t tell about my abuse for many years. But, now, I want to push back the confusion and unmask the author of lies. I want other survivors to be set free by the truth that also freed me.Common Reasons
As I’ve thought back over my own situation and talked with other survivors, here are some of the most common thoughts that someone who is being abused or assaulted has thought, not only hurting the survivor, but also prolonging silence about the abuse:
- They’ll think I wanted it to happen or No one will believe me. Abusers are manipulative. They cleverly identify the vulnerable, abuse them, and then redefine truth for them. Even when the survivor’s heart screams the truth, the abuser’s voice is loud in her ears. It convinces her that no one will ever believe she is anything other than an immoral, sinful, willing participant—if anyone even believes anything happened at all.
- It’s really my fault. Abusers often make themselves the victim in the aftermath of the abuse. They didn’t want to do it, but something in the survivor made them. They couldn’t help it. For the vulnerable—and particularly for those who have experienced any other form of abuse—this is particularly plausible. This is also extremely confusing when the survivor knows that he or she said “no,” or demonstrated some other unwillingness to participate, and yet becomes convinced that he or she actually caused it.
- But he’s not really that bad. Abusers are sometimes both villain and hero. It’s possible for someone who is sexually abusing someone else to demonstrate tremendous care for them in other facets of the relationship. This does not in any way discount or minimize the horror, sin, and legal issues associated with abuse and assault, but it does contribute to why a confused survivor may not report the abuse. The abuser’s mixed actions lead the survivor to question whether the situation really is as bad as it seems.
- I don’t want to hurt his family. Abusers aren’t generally living in isolation. They have a family. Often a spouse and children. Perhaps grandchildren. Since abuse most often occurs in the context of relationship, it’s not uncommon for the survivor to know—and even care about—the family of the abuser. And there is no possible way to report sexual abuse or assault without devastating the family of the abuser. This is what most strongly stopped me for so long and is also why this article is being written anonymously. I don’t want to bring any additional pain to those who were also victims in this situation—victims whose worlds have also been turned upside down. They deserve compassion, space, and grace.
Knowing this, how should Christian friends, family members, and leaders respond when a survivor reports abuse? The thing that has been most helpful for me is also very simple: “I’m sorry” and “I believe you.” Those sentences, said with conviction and care, corrected for me the strongest lies and set me on a path to the wholeness that Christ always intended.
If you have experienced abuse in the past, I encourage you to reach out to a counselor or trusted friend and share your experience. If you are currently experiencing abuse, I encourage you to not only share with a counselor or friend, but also to immediately go to the police.
If you are the friend of someone who has come forward as an abuse survivor, pray for them, let them know you are sorry and you believe them, then let them determine what they share and how they share it. And as you pray, pray also for the abuser and his or her family, that they too might experience the fullness of Christ in their circumstances. Sexual abuse is naturally destructive, but we serve a supernatural God who can redeem the bleakest of circumstances for all of those who have been harmed.
Small towns and rural areas across the world need churches; they won’t be reached with the gospel by default. And many such places in the United States are growing increasingly secular—churches are dying faster than new ones are being planted.
While it’s right to highlight the need to plant churches in large, growing urban centers, we would be mistaken to assume that the gospel will automatically “float downstream” from big cities. If we don’t intentionally give ourselves to seeing churches planted in rural communities, then it won’t happen.
But this is not an easy task. Many aspects of rural life go against the grain of our glory-hungry dispositions. Life and ministry in small towns probably won’t win you a large following. You probably won’t grow a big church. You probably won’t receive much recognition. And it will probably be hard.
But if you choose to plant a church in a small, forgotten part of the world, you will have the life-giving opportunity to say, with John the Baptist: “[Jesus] must increase, but I must decrease” (John 3:30).
What small towns need is men and women willing to count the cost and plant churches that faithfully proclaim the gospel in their communities. We need leaders who have a concern for the glory of Christ in the forgotten corners of the earth.
One such brother is Will Basham, who I’m excited to welcome to the podcast today.
You can listen to this podcast episode here.
My brother and I had a nightly childhood ritual of asking one another’s forgiveness for a list of vague sins. Having been warned not to let the sun go down on our anger, we made sure to cover all possibilities of sins we may have committed during the day. “Aaron, I’m sorry for yelling at you, hitting you, being selfish with the Nintendo, and tattling on you today. Will you forgive me?” His answer, along with his own confession, came back to my room in return. Thus we slept in the peace of the slightly remorseful.
When I read Psalm 51 (written by David after the prophet Nathan confronted him with his sin), I realize how lacking my childhood confessions were. Even many of my confessions in adulthood leave much to be desired.
Often we treat repentance as a statement—an “I’m sorry, please forgive me” that checks a box and (hopefully) alleviates our guilt. But if we look closely at Psalm 51, we see that repentance is a turning away from sin and a turning toward God—a process that doesn’t merely alleviate guilt but cultivates deep joy.
So how do we grow in a joy-giving habit of repentance? Here are eight steps.1. Define the sin.
The first step to meaningful confession is understanding what sin is. David uses three different words for it in Psalm 51: “iniquity,” “sin,” and “transgressions” (vv. 1–3). Each term has been deliberately chosen for its unique meaning. “Transgression” is rebellion against God’s authority and law, “iniquity” is a distortion of what should be, and “sin” is missing the mark. David also says his sin is deep—there is no minimizing or excusing it.2. Appeal to God’s mercy.
The psalm begins: “Have mercy on me, O God, according to your unfailing love” (v. 1). Here, David appeals for forgiveness based on what he knows about God’s character: that he is merciful. David knows God is committed to him in a relationship of “unfailing love”—and when we come before God in repentance, we do so because of his covenant with us through Christ.3. Avoid defensiveness and see God rightly.
David’s sin hurt multiple people. He committed adultery, orchestrated a murder, and tried to cover it all up. And yet he says to God, “against you, you only, have I sinned” (v. 4). How can that be? Sin is missing the mark—God’s mark. Our sin does hurt others, and we must seek forgiveness from them, but all sin is ultimately against God.4. Look to Jesus.
David writes, “Cleanse me with hyssop, and I shall be clean” (v. 7). He knows hyssop signifies purification with blood (see Ex. 24), and he knows that blood alone can make him clean. What he doesn’t know is exactly how this will be done. But we do. We have the full revelation of Jesus, who “has appeared once for all at the culmination of the ages to do away with sin by the sacrifice of himself” (Heb. 9:26).5. Ask God to break and heal you.
David prays, “Let the bones you have crushed rejoice” (v. 8). When God reveals our sin to us, it’s painful. It’s never pleasant to confront just how unholy we are. But like a doctor resetting a fractured bone, it is God who breaks, God who sets, and God who heals.6. Be comforted by the Spirit.
Next David prays, “Do not . . . take your Holy Spirit from me” (v. 11). But the fact that David is grieved over his sin is a sign that the Spirit is at work in him. Have you ever been so discouraged by your sin that you’ve wondered, How can God love me? Surely I’m not really a Christian. Take comfort in knowing that the grief you’re experiencing is a sign that you have the Holy Spirit working in you, causing you to hate what God hates.7. Rejoice and proclaim truth.
In verses 12–15, David asks God to make him so joyful about his salvation that he can’t help but proclaim the gospel to others: “Open my lips, Lord, and my mouth will declare your praise.” This is important, because so often we do the opposite—we wallow in our sin and draw back from serving others because we think we’re unworthy. But the joy of forgiveness should compel us to share the good news with friends, family, co-workers, and neighbors.8. Resolve to obey.
We can do all the steps above, but if we’re planning to sin in the same way again, then grace isn’t truly taking root. What God desires is the mark of true repentance—a heart that is “broken” by sin and truly “contrite.”
As Puritan pastor Thomas Watson wrote, “‘Til sin be bitter, Christ will not be sweet.” If we come to God with a heart set on obedience, he “will not despise” it because of Christ’s sacrifice on our behalf (v. 17).
Unlike my childhood bedtime apologies, practicing this kind of repentance has led to deep joy as I learn to hate my sin and love my Savior more. It has also led me to open up with others, not seeking to hide my sin, but enlisting others in praying for me and building a community of women who fight our sin together. Like David, it’s my joy to tell others of God’s grace and forgiveness, depending on Christ each step of the way.
After years of watching the prosperity “gospel” advance in America, Africa, and beyond, a backlash is coming—one grounded in the Word of God and the gospel of grace. It’s thrilling to see.
The new documentary American Gospel: Christ Alone, directed by Brandon Kimber, takes aim at this scourge. America has always been a pragmatic, can-do kind of country, and the film argues that the material focus of the prosperity “gospel” suits American culture.
In offering this searing critique, which applies not merely to “them” out there but to us (for many of us love money and ease more than we might be comfortable admitting), Kimber first establishes what the true gospel is: good news centered in the finished work of Christ. Standing in the place of sinners like us, Jesus has absorbed the perfect wrath of the Father and made a way out of hell and into heaven. When we trust Christ as our Lord and Savior by God-given faith, we are instantly justified and counted righteous in God’s sight, the very merit of Christ’s now being our own (Gen. 15:6; Rom. 5:1–2; Eph. 2:8–9). Numerous evangelical theologians and pastors comment on this truth in the film, together building a clear and potent case for faith in Christ.True Stories of True Faith
American Gospel traces the stories of real Christians whose lives have intersected with prosperity teaching in some way. One woman sobs as she recounts how health-and-wealth teaching ripped her life apart, piece by piece, until she had nothing. The film also introduces us to Katherine Berger, a woman suffering from numerous dreaded illnesses—one after another, it seems—who nonetheless radiates bright faith in God.
Also prominent in the film is Costi Hinn, nephew of faith-healer Benny Hinn. Costi served on his uncle’s team as a “catcher” who witnessed apparent miracles around the clock. His testimony—soon to release as a book—takes us into the seamy experience of the faith-healer, an enterprise that preys on the poor and suffering to enrich the flush and covetous.
The moment that crystallizes the shameful nature of faith-healing comes when Costi discusses how Benny Hinn would (and does) “heal” people with minor ailments. When it came to terminally ill children and other sufferers facing profound challenges, the “healer” refused. This was the first jarring note in Costi’s young life that eventually led him out of prosperity religion (and that’s what it is—a different religion than biblical Christianity).
American Gospel does not hold back; the camera pans back to the outer boundaries of auditoriums at Hinn crusades, where desperate parents cradle diseased children, ignored, unwanted, and unhealed. We watch this, and we hear Justin Peters testify to this experience personally, and we cannot help but feel both sadness and righteous anger—Christ’s own anger. The money-changers are still in the temple, still making God’s name a mockery.
The money-changers are still in the temple, still making God’s name a mockery.
This is an exact parallel of what Jesus did not do. He did not enter the ministry to make money. He did not work in the name of God to be popular and liked. He did not heal those who could do anything for him. Rather, he came to the physically and spiritually poor and made eucatastrophes of them all—not only addressing their bodies but, in many cases, saving their souls. He was not in it for himself; he was in it for the Father’s greater glory and the sinner’s true salvation. “I glorified you on earth, having accomplished the work that you gave me to do” (John 17:4). Sadly, Christ’s name is invoked by “faith healers” like Hinn and others whose ministries don’t reflect him.Call Your Skeptical Friends
American Gospel succeeds in its mission. It shows the spiritual and even eternal stakes of prosperity religion. It reveals the danger of allowing any endeavor, however virtuous on the surface, to seep into the preaching and application of the biblical gospel. The movie champions the true, saving gospel, and it unpacks this message with clarity and conviction. Here’s hoping many viewers will come across American Gospel on various streaming platforms (iTunes, Amazon, Vimeo), and that Christians will find opportunities to watch the film with unbelieving neighbors and friends. The prosperity “gospel” is a great foil by which to evangelize, for it is patently a sham to many outside of the church. A film like this could be a great apologetic for those with a skeptical bent, for example.
A film like this could be a great apologetic for those with a skeptical bent.
Though nicely shot and edited, the film could be a bit tighter, and the summation of the gospel message takes some time to unfold. So many voices speaking to different issues can begin to send the brain whirling, though I did appreciate how Kimber mixes in Christian leaders both well known and also lesser known. As is not uncommon today, American Gospel presents the gospel message primarily in terms of justification, which is the heart of the euangelion but not the doctrinal sum. The film references the local church but could say more about its importance. Similarly, the moral implications of the gospel are somewhat muted in American Gospel. If we must not make the moral dimension of Scripture the point of every passage, neither should we lose sight of it. But these are small critiques, not major ones.High Stakes
The prosperity gospel comes with a terrific cost, as all false teaching does; it does not merely ruin intellectual systems, it ruins individual lives. We see this firsthand in the film.
American Gospel does not merely “destroy arguments” of the prosperity kind in keeping with apostolic aims (2 Cor. 10:4–5). It also shows us that the natural man craves miracles: healing, wealth, favor, better “benefits” and sales “commissions” (this is literally what a Bethel pastor leads a congregation to ask God for), a life stripped free of suffering and challenge. But the miracles God brings in most of our lives are often quite different: quieter, less showy, but powered by the saving gospel.
Instead of immediate healing, Christians may well be called to persevere in suffering. Instead of wealth, we may be called to learn contentment in our situation. Instead of coming back from the dead as in “heaven tourism” books, we must all face death and square with mortality. Instead of the cessation of trials upon the exercise of faith, we may be called to endure trials over the long haul. Instead of undimmed favor with power-brokers, we may be called to anonymity and unappreciated toil. Instead of a life of globe-hopping circuit-riding, we may be called to tuck in with our families (especially our children) and love them well, normal day by normal day. Instead of experiencing an unbroken string of personal triumphs, we may take many hits as we await the ultimate cosmic triumph of our warrior-savior, Christ Jesus. These are “ordinary miracles,” the very work of God in us.
Instead of immediate healing, Christians may well be called to persevere in suffering. Instead of wealth, we may be called to learn contentment in our situation.
God will do as he wishes with each one of us. True believers may prosper in earthly terms (this is not uncommon, and our God is a very, very generous and wonder-working God)—or they may not. The point is this: Let us be careful about which gospel we follow. Let us follow the true gospel, not the American one. Let us not believe in secular Christianity, which is what prosperity religion really offers. To this and every other counterfeit we offer not faith, but truth spoken in love—truth calibrated to destroy the lies of the Devil and to rescue the ones who are perishing.
Generation Z has taken over college campuses across the country. While social psychologists and authors write books analyzing this generation, college and campus ministries have been on the front lines, seeking to contextualize the gospel to this fresh generation of college students.
As a college pastor myself, I’ve thought a lot about effective discipleship for Generation Z. I believe the following six points are of increasing importance for the current generation of college students.Three Challenges 1. Radical Individuality
We have more options than ever to find the ideal worship service. Whether through online sermons, podcasts, or apps, choosing the right “church” is only a swipe away. In the context of Christian communities on campuses, the crushing burden of individuality and declining in-person interaction due to a spike in smartphone usage has resulted in unrealistic expectations for socializing (as well as rising rates of depression and anxiety).
Students seeking raw, authentic friendships often find Christian settings wanting, especially when vulnerability is covered by a thin veneer of Christian niceness. On the other hand, radical individuality also raises unrealistic expectations for having personal needs met, pet sins untouched, and the “service” to be on par with one’s favorite restaurant or local gym—leaving little room for “dry” seasons and mistakes by other community members. Strangely enough, I’ve seen this more often with students who grew up in the church than with new believers.
Radical individuality raises unrealistic expectations for having personal needs met, pet sins untouched, and church services to be on par with one’s favorite restaurants or local gym.
2. Unbridled Speech
I’ve lost count of the number of college students I’ve personally known who stopped coming to campus ministries and churches because of gossipy Christians, an increasingly growing problem in an age where unfiltered, dehumanizing speech via social media has become normal. This commonly plays out as either character assassination of peers or discrediting leaders, ministries, or churches through complaining to other students instead of having the courage to talk to their leaders directly (1 Tim. 5:1). Unfortunately, with ongoing revelations of misconduct by Roman Catholic priests and high-profile pastors, some of their distrust of church leaders is justified.
However, we often forget that after sexual immorality and the teaching of false doctrine, few sins are as strongly and explicitly condemned in Scripture as gossip, slander, unbridled criticism, and sowing division among believers (Prov. 6:16–19, 19:5; Ps. 101:5–7; Jas. 1:26). In addition to condemning those who spread strife and division, Scripture also chastises those who entertain or give audience to lies, gossip, slander, or divisive speech (Prov. 16:28; 17:4).3. Hyper-Sexualized Culture
Whether due to our hyper-sexualized culture, new attitudes toward sex and gender, the solidarity and courage inspired by the #MeToo movement, or a combination of all three, I’ve observed (and heard from other leaders) a disturbing increase in the number of sexual assault crimes committed against female college students in recent years. Further, if Gen Xers introduced online pornography to the world and Millennials normalized it, Gen Zers are the true generational victims of pornography.
If Gen Xers introduced online pornography to the world and Millennials normalized it, Gen Zers are its true generational victims.
Rarely do I meet college students whose addiction to pornography began after middle school (many start in elementary school), and rarely do I meet students who haven’t at least entertained the thought of engaging in hookup culture. In my context there are also many female students just as addicted to pornography as male students are. It shouldn’t surprise us, then, to see this generation’s confusion over sexual ethics.Three Opportunities 1. Pursue Church Membership
It all starts here for healthy college-aged Christians. Spiritual formation and maturity is best demonstrated by service to a local church and submission to godly elders (Heb. 13:17). I cringe when I think about all the times I disregarded the wisdom of older folks in my life as a college student—only to realize as an adult that they were right all along. Save yourself the heartache of learning from mistakes and pursue mentorship from older folks in your church. As Proverbs 13:20 says, “Whoever walks with the wise becomes wise, but the companion of fools will suffer harm.”2. Pursue Missional Friendships
Pursuing missional friendships means pursuing authentic Christian friendships with those who won’t only tell you what you want to hear but also what you need to hear, even when it hurts to hear it (Prov. 27:6). Pursuing missional friendships also means pursuing non-Christian friendships and sharing the gospel with these friends, praying that through the friendship and stories you share they might come to embrace Jesus. The college years are a deeply formative time of openness for young people. Seize this season to share the gospel through your own stories of God’s faithfulness, through Christ, in your life. Don’t waste your college life by hanging out only with Christian friends.
Don’t waste your college life by hanging out only with Christian friends.3. Pursue Biblical Justice
My experience working with this generation has given me great hope for continued gospel-oriented conversations about certain social justice issues. Gen Z has a heart for justice, but they don’t always know how to connect it to faith or draw on the wealth of biblical texts about justice. There is a real opportunity to help disciple Gen Z in understanding and pursuing biblical justice.
I’m also encouraged by the willingness of these students to work with people of all faiths and backgrounds to pursue justice and the common good—what Francis Schaeffer called “co-belligerence” against common social ills. Discipling Gen Z in this will entail cautions against relativism (“all faiths are the same”) but also opportunities for winsome dialogue and apologetics, helping students articulate how a Christian worldview offers the best basis for pursuing justice, the best solutions for addressing injustice, and the ultimate hope of the gospel.
“If the Lord is entirely sovereign (which he is), and if he is always good to you in Christ (which he is), well then, when we grumble and complain in any circumstance, we’re actually denying God’s involved. Denying that he’s being good. And who do we think we’re grumbling and complaining against?” — Brian Davis
Text: 1 Thessalonians 5:18
Preached: November 26, 2017
Location: Risen Christ Fellowship, Philadelphia, Pennsylvania
You can listen to this episode of TGC Word of the Week here.
- 4 Reasons We Can Be Thankful in Times of Trouble (Joe Carter)
- Gratitude Is Hard to Do (Joseph Rhea)
- 3 (Evangelistic) Reasons to Quit Complaining (Megan Hill)
One hundred years ago today, the Eighteenth Amendment of the U.S. Constitution was ratified, prohibiting “intoxicating liquors” in the United States and launching the era known as Prohibition. Here are nine things you should about Prohibition and how the religiously inspired temperance movement transformed America.
1. The roots of Prohibition were planted in the pre-Civil War era. From the 1790s to the 1830s, the religious revival known as the Second Great Awakening strengthened the role of Protestant influence in the realm of politics. Out of the revival came a renewed interest in using politics to reform society and correct the ills of the nation. American Christians began numerous progressive reform movements such as those launched to abolish slavery, champion women’s rights, and reduce the problematic consumption of alcohol.
2. During the 1800s, Christian men and women began the temperance movement, an effort to limit and ultimately discontinue the consumption of alcohol. By 1830 the average American older than 15 years of age drank the equivalent of 88 bottles of whiskey a year, three-times as much as their 21st-century descendants drink. At the time, Americans also spent more money on alcohol each year than the total expenditures of the federal government. Alcohol abuse was blamed for rampant domestic violence and impoverishment. A pamphlet called the “Christian Temperance Catechism” said that American society suffered more from intemperance than all other forms of sin and was “the cause of three fourths of all of the disease and proverty [sic] and sorrow and crime in our land.”
3. In 1826, two Presbyterian ministers founded the American Temperance Society (ATS). Within five years there were 2,220 local chapters of ATS throughout the country with a combined membership of 170,000. And within 10 years there were more than 8,000 local groups with a total membership of more than 1.5 million. The ATS originally focused on voluntary abstinence from distilled spirits, but came to support the legal prohibition against all alcohol. In 1851, they convinced the Maine legislature to pass a statewide prohibition on selling alcohol. A dozen states passed similar laws, though they were overturned a few years later.
4. A new American temperance organization called the Anti-Saloon League was formed in 1893. The League began by using local churches to spread their anti-alcohol message and attempt to change local laws. By 1913 their influence had grown to the point where they were able to lead a national prohibition. The organization was able to help get many “dry” (i.e., anti-alcohol) politicians elected, and in December 1917 the U.S. Congress proposed a Constitutional amendment for nationwide Prohibition. By January 16, 1919, the Eighteenth Amendment had been ratified by 36 of the 48 states, making it the law of the land.
5. The text of 18th Amendment stated: “After one year from the ratification of this article the manufacture, sale, or transportation of intoxicating liquors within, the importation thereof into, or the exportation thereof from the United States and all territory subject to the jurisdiction thereof for beverage purposes is hereby prohibited.” This only forbade the manufacture, sale, and transportation of “intoxicating liquors,” leaving consumption legal. The National Prohibition Act, known as the Volstead Act, was enacted to carry out the intent of Amendment. The Volstead Act defined intoxicating liquor as any beverage containing more than 0.5 percent alcohol by volume. This came as a surprise even to some Prohibition supporters, who assumed that beer and wine would be exempt under the Amendment.
6. In 1923 a wealthy banker and Prohibition enthusiast held a national contest to coin a new word best describing “the lawless drinker.” The winning entry was “scofflaw,” a compound of the words scoff and law. During the Prohibition era, America became a nation of scofflaws. The illegal production and sale of alcohol—which became known as “bootlegging”—was taken over by organized crime syndicates. Tens of thousands of illicit liquor stores and nightclubs—known as speakeasies—also sprung up to serve the demand. Several states refused to enforce the alcohol ban altogether, while those that did found their legislatures and police forces corrupted by black-market bribery.
7. Although many Americans—particularly in urban areas—flouted the law, Prohibition did have the intended effect of reducing overall alcohol consumption. According to a study conducted by MIT and Boston University economists in 1991, alcohol consumption fell sharply at the beginning of Prohibition, to approximately 30 percent of its pre-Prohibition level. During the next several years, however, alcohol consumption increased sharply, to about 60 percent to 70 percent of its pre-prohibition level. The level of consumption was virtually the same immediately after Prohibition as during the latter part of Prohibition, although consumption increased to approximately its pre-Prohibition level during the subsequent decade.
8. The popularity of Prohibition began to wane during the era of the Great Depression. During his 1932 presidential campaign, Franklin D. Roosevelt called for a repeal of the Eighteenth Amendment. After his election he signed an amendment to the Volstead Act in 1933 allowing the manufacture and sale of light wines and 3.2 percent beer. That same year the Twenty-first Amendment—a repeal of the Eighteenth Amendment—was proposed by Congress on February 20, 1933, and was ratified by the requisite number of states by December 5, 1933.
9. Even after the repeal of Prohibition in 1933, some states maintained a ban on alcohol within their own borders. Kansas had a state ban on alcohol until 1948, Oklahoma maintained a ban until 1959, and Mississippi remained alcohol-free until 1966. Currently, 33 states still have laws that allow localities to prohibit the sale and/or consumption and possession of alcohol.
Other posts in this series:
Events and Discoveries in 2018 • Apostles’ Creed • George H. W. Bush (1924–2018) • Religious Freedom Restoration Act • Jim Jones and the Jonestown Massacre • Out-of-Wedlock Births • Bethel Church Movement • Christian Hymns • Hurricanes • Infertility • The STD Crisis • Equal Rights Amendment (ERA) • Russian President Vladimir Putin • Supreme Court Nominee Brett Kavanaugh • MS-13 • Wicca and Modern Witchcraft • Jerusalem • Christianity in Korea • Creation of Modern Israel • David Koresh and the Branch Davidians • Rajneeshees • Football • The Opioid Epidemic (Part II) • The Unification Church • Billy Graham • Frederick Douglass • Memphis Sanitation Strike of 1968 • Winter Olympics • The ‘Mississippi Burning’ Murders • Events and Discoveries in 2017 • Christmas Traditions • Sexual Misconduct • Lutheranism • Jewish High Holy Days • Nation of Islam • Slave Trade • Solar Eclipses • Alcohol Abuse in America • History of the Homeschooling Movement • Eugenics • North Korea • Ramadan • Black Hebrew Israelites • Neil Gorsuch and Supreme Court Confirmations • International Women’s Day • Health Effects of Marijuana • J. R. R. Tolkien • Aleppo and the Syrian Crisis • Fidel Castro • C.S. Lewis • ESV Bible • Alzheimer’s Disease • Mother Teresa • The Opioid Epidemic • The Olympic Games • Physician-Assisted Suicide • Nuclear Weapons • China’s Cultural Revolution • Jehovah’s Witnesses • Harriet Tubman • Autism • Seventh-day Adventism • Justice Antonin Scalia (1936–2016) • Female Genital Mutilation • Orphans • Pastors • Global Persecution of Christians (2015 Edition) • Global Hunger • National Hispanic Heritage Month • Pope Francis • Refugees in America • Confederate Flag Controversy • Elisabeth Elliot • Animal Fighting • Mental Health • Prayer in the Bible • Same-sex Marriage • Genocide • Church Architecture • Auschwitz and Nazi Extermination Camps • Boko Haram • Adoption • Military Chaplains • Atheism • Intimate Partner Violence • Rabbinic Judaism • Hamas • Male Body Image Issues • Mormonism • Islam • Independence Day and the Declaration of Independence • Anglicanism • Transgenderism • Southern Baptist Convention • Surrogacy • John Calvin • The Rwandan Genocide • The Chronicles of Narnia • The Story of Noah • Fred Phelps and Westboro Baptist Church • Pimps and Sex Traffickers • Marriage in America • Black History Month • The Holocaust • Roe v. Wade • Poverty in America • Christmas • The Hobbit • Council of Trent • Halloween and Reformation Day • Casinos and Gambling • Prison Rape • 16th Street Baptist Church Bombing • Chemical Weapons • March on Washington • Duck Dynasty • Child Brides • Human Trafficking • Scopes Monkey Trial • Social Media • Supreme Court’s Same-Sex Marriage Cases • The Bible • Human Cloning • Pornography and the Brain • Planned Parenthood • Boston Marathon Bombing • Female Body Image Issues • Islamic State
What comes to mind when you think of Christian apologetics? How is it done, and whose responsibility is it? Some prominent Christian leaders recently shared what comes to their minds—the steady publication of apologetic-themed books, ongoing public debates, and the proliferation of blogs and social media. Citing these trends, two leaders declared that we’re experiencing the “golden age” of apologetics.
I’m not convinced. Though I don’t wish to minimize the intrinsic value of much of the apologetic work, I do suspect it’s contributed to an impoverished view of apologetics as a purely intellectual discipline conducted primarily by professionals. Far from being in its golden age, apologetics is now rarely found in the one place where it must be found—local churches.
Far from being in its golden age, apologetics is now rarely found in the one place where it must be found—local churches.
I fear that in many churches, apologetics is seen as a daunting task to be outsourced rather than a joyful calling to be embodied as a way of life. Churches are thus left with a secondhand “drive-by apologetics” that doesn’t witness to a particular people and place. We need a better way.
In Apologetics at the Cross: An Introduction for Christian Witness, authors Joshua Chatraw and Mark Allen show us a strikingly better way. As faculty members at Liberty University, Chatraw and Allen “sensed a disconnect between apologetics and the local church” and between apologetics and other disciplines (13). As a corrective, the church must recover what they call “apologetics at the cross.” Comparing the layout of the book to the construction of a house, they construct their proposal in three parts: the foundation, the walls/exterior structure, and the interior practice of apologetics at the cross.Gospel Foundation
In part one, Chatraw and Allen begin by laying a distinctly biblical foundation for apologetics (chs. 1–2). After surveying how apologetics is practiced in the New Testament, they conclude: “An apologetic should be measured by the degree of clarity with which it points to and functions in light of the most important event in human history [i.e., the death and resurrection of Jesus Christ]” (61).
In many churches, apologetics is largely seen as a daunting task to be outsourced rather than a joyful calling to be embodied as a way of life.
This point carries two important considerations. First, the goal of apologetics must be to “clear the debris of doubt out of people’s paths and propel them forward toward the gospel” (137). While this point should seem obvious, it’s lost on some for whom apologetics seems to “simply be [about] intellectual respectability or a defense of theism, as if belief in any deity will do” (29). However, second, we mustn’t merely tack on the gospel to the end like some sort of appendage. The gospel must shape the entire way we do apologetics, guiding us to humbly focus on the needs of others and graciously show them how their needs are met in Christ.
As Chatraw and Allen show, the Bible places ultimate importance on the goal and character of apologetics and “does not outline any single, definitive apologetic method,” but instead “makes many different kinds of appeals and persuades at various levels using contextualized arguments” (105). They then draw insights from a variety of sources in the Christian tradition (chs. 3–4).Apologetics as Map-Making
Building on the biblical and historical foundation that’s been laid, in part two (chs. 5–9) Chatraw and Allen turn to construct the “walls” that provide the framework for apologetics at the cross. In chapter five, they encourage the reader to view apologetics as a map-making enterprise in which Christians “lead people on a journey to our ‘hometown’—the Christian faith” (105). The authors then survey four prominent apologetic methodologies that offer competing ways to draw such maps: (1) classical apologetics, (2) evidential apologetics, (3) presuppositional apologetics, and (4) experiential/narratival apologetics.
Though Chatraw and Allen helpfully summarize key strengths and weaknesses of these methodologies, they don’t champion any one as “the map” to use. Rather than relying on a single map, “apologetics at the cross stresses that different people find different arguments and collections of arguments more persuasive than others” (130). For this reason, Chatraw and Allen strive to equip readers with the resources necessary to begin drawing contextualized maps of their own.
These maps should lead people to a common destination—the gospel. In light of this, Chatraw and Allen identify four gospel implications (chs. 6–9) that ought to frame the map-making process:
- We are called to take people to the cross (i.e., the gospel) through word and deed (ch. 6).
- We are called to demonstrate cruciform humility before God and others (ch. 7).
- We must appeal to the whole person for the sake of the gospel (ch. 8).
- We must contextualize through the lens of the cross (ch. 9).
Having explained the framework for apologetic map-making, Chatraw and Allen devote part 3 (chs. 10–13) to guiding us through the actual process of drawing maps to the Christian faith. Because you can’t draw a useful map without knowing the place a person is starting, the first step (ch. 10) is to “step inside an unbeliever’s cultural framework and work from the inside out” (197).
The gospel must shape the entire way we do apologetics, guiding us to humbly focus on the needs of others and graciously show them how their needs are met in Christ.
The authors provide a series of diagnostic questions that help the apologist go inside the unbeliever’s framework to “challenge it on its own terms by helping them see that it is inconsistent and unlivable,” and then working their way out by “lay[ing] the groundwork for them to take Christianity . . . more seriously” by demonstrating how the gospel alone addresses their need (217).
While drawing maps to the Christian faith, apologists must be prepared to clear debris along the road. To this end, Chatraw and Allen address some prominent cultural attitudes (ch. 11) and rational “defeaters” (ch. 12) that affect an unbeliever’s ability to accept the plausibility of Christianity. Rather than offering a “universal map for answering each defeater so you can memorize and then mechanistically recite it,” they provide “trajectories for responses that you can personalize when you are drawing a map to answer a particular set of challenges to Christianity” (251).Urgent Corrective
What comes to mind when you think of Christian apologetics? If it’s anything less than the gospel of Jesus Christ, then it isn’t Christian apologetics, Chatraw and Allen say. With its call to recognize “the gospel [as] both the goal and the lens through which the apologetic task is approached,” Apologetics at the Cross stands as an urgent corrective to those “apologists of glory” who seem more interested in winning a respectability contest than in leading unbelievers to the cross (318).
What comes to mind when you think of Christian apologetics? If it’s anything less than the gospel of Jesus Christ, then it isn’t Christian apologetics.
This book also offers a timely corrective to churches and individual Christians who outsource the work of apologetics to academic and parachurch professionals (318). In their closing paragraph, Chatraw and Allen beautifully emphasize the need for local churches to function as a corporate apologetic for Jesus Christ:
A healthy church remains central to a healthy apologetic. Cruciform lives, functioning as apologetic portraits to the world around us, are not ultimately or primarily cultivated by attending weekend conferences, watching your favorite apologist on the internet, or even reading books like this. The wisdom of the cross, so central in drawing the right apologetic map for the right situation, grows within the rich soil of God’s people singing, reading, feasting, praying, and confessing around God’s Word. (318)
Christians who are ready to take up the call to draw life-saving, contextualized maps for their unbelieving neighbors will find Apologetics at the Cross an excellent place to begin. It’s one of those rare books that capably surveys historical and contemporary issues while constructively offering practical insights and tools. When ready to move on, the reader will be pointed in fruitful directions by an array of resources the authors recommend for additional study.
Simply put, Apologetics at the Cross is the best single-volume introduction to apologetics available today and is sure to become a standard textbook.
Editors’ note: Joshua Chatraw and Mark Allen will be leading a workshop on “Augustinian Apologetics for Everyday Conversations” at our 2019 National Conference, April 1 to 3 in Indianapolis. You can browse the complete list of 74 speakers and 58 talks. The conference is fast-approaching, so register soon!
In 2004, businessman Terry Looper—founder and CEO of the $6 billion Texon energy company—was partway through negotiating a sale when he realized he’d forgotten to pray about it.
“I hadn’t even tried to get neutral,” he said. “Getting neutral” is his term for pushing down any greed or selfish ambition, quieting his heart, and listening for the Holy Spirit’s leading.
Looper makes decisions by spending time in prayer and Bible reading, consulting with colleagues and family, watching for circumstances, and asking God for “peace in my gut.” (His book detailing the process, Sacred Pace: Four Steps to Hearing God and Aligning Yourself With His Will, releases next month.)
He’d forgotten the last part about peace.
“After all those months—I wasn’t supposed to sell,” he remembers. “I couldn’t believe I’d been negotiating for a year to sell this division, and I wasn’t even supposed to sell.”
At the risk of angering his board and his potential buyer, Looper pulled out.
Following how he feels the Holy Spirit leading isn’t unusual for him. When he started his company in 1989, he felt convicted to limit himself to 40-hour weeks and no sales goals.
“I don’t ever recommend entrepreneurs starting a company or a ministry on 40 hours a week,” he said. “But I do recommend anything the Lord convicts them to do.”
His approach is unconventional, but not unusual for Christian businesspeople.
“I do look for that peace for big changes in direction,” said Fred Heldenfels, president and CEO of Heldenfels Enterprises. (The company manufactures and installs concrete structures.) “On the other hand, if we all acted like Gideon every day and asked for a sign on the fleece, you’d be testing God, and you wouldn’t get anything done.”
Christians in business—especially those whose choices affect employees and company direction—often wrestle with how to follow God in their decisions.
TGC talked to five of them about the best practices they’ve developed to discern God’s will in situations that aren’t explicitly addressed by Scripture.1. Realize God Cares About Work Lightstock
Eric Stumberg grew up in a family of Christian entrepreneurs, where the rules for being a believing businessperson included: Don’t work in an immoral industry. Don’t do anything illegal. Work hard. Talk to people about Jesus. And give money to the church, so pastors and missionaries can do the real work of God.
It wasn’t until a retreat in 2013 that he realized that “Jesus would call people to the marketplace as businesspeople,” he said. “The Lord gives us different assignments in the way he’s made us.”
The realization changed his life and his business.
“I was like, ‘Wow, that is awesome news! I have to dig more into this,’” he said. He told his friends, started a book study, and talked his church into bringing in speakers on faith and work.
Okay, so what’s next? he thought. A decade earlier, he’d started Tengo Internet, a company that provides WiFi access for outdoor spaces such as campgrounds and state parks.
He started paying his employees full benefits, telling Made to Flourish that “compensation is also a theological issue. . . . I didn’t want people to be unable to get medical care.” He did a market analysis to find out living wages and bumped up his base pay. And when he moved into a new space, he designed extra offices to be leased to someone else—currently an Anglican church planter and a nonprofit that fights sex trafficking—at below-market rates.
There’s no decision—whether about health care or customer service or office space design—that doesn’t have a theological basis and implication, he said. And that includes who to hire.2. Hire (and Fire) with an Eye Toward Calling
“When I was 16 years old, someone gave me the book Think and Grow Rich by Napoleon Hill,” JP Morgan Securities senior vice president Jeff Durkee said. “I wish they would’ve given me a Bible.”
Hill wrote that “wise people make decisions quickly, and change them very slowly, if at all,” Durkee said. The message was reinforced by a manager who told Durkee “if you can’t tell within 15 minutes if a guy is a jerk or not, you shouldn’t be in management.”
“I carried that model for decades,” Durkee said. “My early hiring was not good.”
Thirty years later, while reading Proverbs, he learned that gentle words and many counselors are a better way to go. Now he interviews potential employees multiple times, spending a lot more time getting to know and assess them.
LifeWay president and CEO Thom Rainer checks for three things—character, competency, and chemistry.
“I haven’t always gotten it right,” he told TGC. His weak spot is competency—if he likes a person’s character and personality, he can sometime hire without making sure the person can do the work.
“Some of the most difficult conversations are where people I have a good relationship with didn’t make it, because they weren’t the right fit at the right time,” he said.
Stumberg tries to “think about if they can do the work, and if they should do the work.”
That distinction can also be called “discerning your calling.”
“It’s kind of math,” he said. “If God calls everybody, and I am part of everybody, then God calls me. . . . When you hire somebody, that’s a factor—are they called to be here or not for a season of life?”
When you hire somebody, that’s a factor—are they called to be here or not for a season of life?
To figure that out, Tengo Internet assesses potential hires for competency and personal compatibility.
“And then we pray,” Stumberg said. Sometimes, someone in leadership will feel a “check”—what they call an instinct or gut reaction—that something is wrong with a potential hire. Once in a while, that’s enough to refrain from hiring somebody—say, if they’re a family member of a current employee, and the relationship between them is difficult.
But since Stumberg hires veterans freshly out of the military, people with difficult family situations, and people with a lot of student or credit card debt, that uneasy feeling is often “less of a deal breaker and more of a red flag,” he said. “We sense something is off in our gut, so we pray about it and think about it.”
Once hired, Stumberg’s employees “probably get more chances than they normally would because . . . there’s a different level of ownership of leadership around the sins of people,” he said. He aims to disciple and shepherd them in their work, and that carries a different burden than someone looking for competencies right off the bat.
He’s careful with his hires, because “there is no neutrality in the gospel,” he said. “You’re either in the kingdom of heaven or of Satan. You can’t make a decision that doesn’t have an implication” for kingdom work.
Making those decisions is a lot easier when your fellow leaders understand gospel motivations.3. Seek Unity Among Leadership
“Once, I was trying to sell a division, but my biggest customer said they didn’t want me to sell to their biggest competitor,” who wanted to buy it, Looper said. “They had been a gracious customer of mine, but they were also 40 percent of the business,” so removing their part from the sale wasn’t going to make the buyer happy.
He prayed about it, and felt God was leading him to honor the customer’s wishes.
“The investment banker, management team, and board said I was crazy,” he said. But Looper owns the majority of his company, so he has the latitude to make counterintuitive decisions. (This one worked out. He carved off and kept his best customer’s part, which then grew on its own.)
When a leader in a Christian company wants to follow God into those sometimes foolish-looking decisions, it helps to have everybody on board.
At Tengo Internet, all three members of the leadership team are Christians. “Sometimes when we’re wondering which product to offer or direction to go, we pray,” Stumberg said. “Sometimes we feel peace or confirmation. If someone says, ‘I’m not for that,’ then it will not win. We have unity before we charge forward.”
You can’t make a decision that doesn’t have an implication for kingdom work.
He links that pursuit of unity back to Psalm 133:1: “Behold, how good and pleasant it is when brothers dwell in unity.”
At Suntech Building Systems, the leadership team doesn’t usually pray together. But executive vice president and COO Brad Larson does pray about decisions privately.
“I would also ask myself, Is there any fear of missing out involved? Is there any unhealthy ambition? Are we growing for growth’s sake?” he said. “We’ve done that before, and it’s horrible.”
His leadership team is also made up of Christians. “To be equally yoked is really important,” he said.
Stumberg uses the same language. When a friend asked his advice on whether it would be a good idea to buy into a business, Stumberg asked him whether he’d want to be yoked to the current owner. (He didn’t.)
“Why spend energy to yoke yourself to someone you don’t want to be yoked to?” Stumberg said. “We don’t need to put a ring on it. Let’s just keep dating”—in this case, remaining employer and employee without binding together as co-owners.
Being equally yoked doesn’t mean you always agree, Heldenfels said. “But knowing that most of my leadership team members have been believers is important to me, and gives me a certain confidence that at least the values and priorities are shared.”
That’s especially helpful if the company looks at power and money in a countercultural way.4. Hold Power and Money Loosely
As Looper found out, sometimes following God will cost you a business deal. And as Stumberg discovered, sometimes it’ll cost you in salaries and benefits.
“One of our core values is to do the right thing no matter what it costs,” Larson said. He’s in construction business, where customers, general contractors, and subcontractors all argue over who covers unexpected costs. For Larson, following God might mean paying for someone else’s mistakes, not filing a lawsuit when he has legal grounds to do so, or fessing up to a mistake even if it might lose him a customer.
Or it might mean sacrificing to give other people margin—such as pricing services lower than the maximum market rate or not asking employees to “give 110 percent” and be constantly available, Stumburg said. “That’s not caring for them. If you’re taking more than is in them, that’s not sustainable. That’s exploitative.”
It can be expensive to follow God. But it can also be profitable. Looper has “never been disappointed” when following Scripture and prayer to his decisions. And Heldenfels—who is facing rising construction costs due to administrative tariffs on steel—isn’t worried.
“God has worked out situations like this before,” he said. “I can see with hindsight God’s hand on us, and his providence with giving us just the right project at the right time.”5. Rely on Daily Prayer and Bible Reading
“God sees the future, and I don’t,” Looper reasons. “He knows what’s best, and I just think I do. He loves the people around me more than I ever could.”
Discovering God’s character and will through Bible reading and prayer, then, is crucial.
“I virtually do not leave the house until I’ve prayed, mediated, and read Scripture,” said Durkee, who also has two friends who pray for him. “I put that armor on virtually every single day.”
Reading the Bible doesn’t mean you’ll find a verse to back up your latest business plan, Stumberg said. “But if you’re always in Scripture, that’s always forming you into the mind of Christ, so you can say, ‘This sounds right and true.’”
Even then, not every decision is the right one, Heldenfels said. “There are a lot of decisions made. Sometimes my instinct is to do something counterintuitive, and it doesn’t always work out. Certainly, my life would be a lot less stressful if I batted 1,000 percent, but I don’t.”
Larson doesn’t either. “I don’t ever assume that I am sanctified enough to make the right call,” he said. “My default mode is selfish and sinful, so I’m going to make decisions that benefit me. I want to be so immersed in God’s Word and in good teaching and counsel that I protect the people in my care from myself.”
Ultimately, the most important leadership skills aren’t about tactics, but about the leader’s heart, Larson said. “Whether a pastor or a CEO, the most important thing we can do for our leadership ability is to shepherd our heart in the gospel and be washed in grace.”
I love hymns accompanied by booming pipe organs in cavernous cathedrals. I also love hymns accompanied by synthesizers and drum machines in warehouse-style evangelical megachurches. Both can be beautiful ways to worship our great God, and I think more churches should make room for both styles (and everything in between).
South of Royal is a church-based worship band that demonstrates the “synthesizers and drum machines” style of hymnody. Called everything from synth pop rock to indie synth worship, the band is pushing the musical boundaries of worship in wonderful new ways. Their combination of “theologically conservative yet musically adventurous” is something I believe more gospel-centered churches should emulate. God created us to be creative; why shouldn’t church musicians be known as the most creative of all musicians?
Based out of The Village Church in Dallas, Texas, South of Royal gets its name from the church’s location (one block south of Royal Lane) and also from their posture before the King. I recently asked the band a few questions about who they are, what they’re trying to do, and what they might say to other worship leaders looking to push aesthetic boundaries in church music. Watch a music video for South of Royal’s “Hold Fast” below, followed by our Q&A.What’s the story of South of Royal? What is your goal as a band?
Steven Cooper (songwriter, bass, synth): We started as a worship band at The Village Church Dallas (on Walnut Hill). Daniel Clay, our lead singer, was the worship pastor there, and the rest of the worship band is made up of volunteer members of the church. In 2016 we started looking for ways to put our own spin on songs we were playing at church.
Daniel Clay (songwriter, vocals, keyboards): We wanted to start using different instrumentation and try out new arrangements to popular worship songs and old hymns. Coop has always been a fan and collector of synthesizers, growing up in the ’80s I guess, so he started playing a moog instead of a bass, and our drummer started incorporating more electronic drums, drum machines, and samples. Then we took off from there. Our hope is that people will not only sing our songs when they are at a church service, but that they would be encouraged by it in a difficult season of life, turn it up on their way to work, while working out, or on a Saturday morning. We also hope to show that worship or church music doesn’t have to sound like a certain style. There are so many topics, instruments, and sounds available to us. Christians should be leading the way in creativity in musical writing and production. Even if our contribution to this end is slight, we hope that someone might stumble across our music and be motivated to try something new.For musicians who make music primarily in the context of the local church but whose music also reaches beyond their church, how does this relationship work? What are the cautions and opportunities of having dual audiences (a specific local community and a general global church)?
Clay: We started writing songs in response to what we were experiencing ourselves and what people in our church were walking through. Our intention was to give voice to the needs of people in our circle, reminding them that they aren’t alone and that there is hope in Christ. Of course, we wanted it to have wider appeal than just our church. But that wasn’t what drove our writing. It seems that writing from a personal and local perspective has borne a broader audience than writing from a broader perspective would have.
I would say focus on what’s around you and how you might be a benefit to the people you know. Being specific will likely appeal to more people (by accident) than purposefully striving for mass appeal ever could. I would also say to never use your congregation or position as a platform to gain a following. Probably 50 percent of our church has no clue who South of Royal is, and I love that . . . usually. We sing our songs but don’t push our band.How would you encourage worship leaders and musicians in local churches who want to push musical boundaries but who might feel constrained by the limitations of tradition and congregational tastes?
Cooper: I would encourage them to start the process slowly, but steadily. If you hear other instruments or arrangements in your head, or wish you could lead songs from other styles of music, you should share that with your congregation. I don’t know how the church benefits from a worship methodology that says all songs should sound the same and be led from acoustic guitar.
I don’t know how the church benefits from a worship methodology that says all songs should sound the same and be led from acoustic guitar.
At The Village Dallas, we used to start off worship sets with something new. One song out of the four would have an unorthodox musical element or new vibe for worship music. We started by subtly rearranging songs we were already singing, perhaps replacing a traditional bass guitar with a bass synth, or using more loops and a drum machine rather that the live kit behind a plexiglass shield. To take it a little further, we started rearranging old hymns. It was helpful for the congregation to already feel comfortable with the lyrics and basic melody of the song. We took “All Hail the Power of Jesus’s Name” and wrote new music around it, including a new chorus (listen on Spotify).
It’s going to be too much for a worship leader to show up one Sunday with three original songs all led from a synthesizer, while also mixing in a hip-hop feature. I think you need to communicate why the band is trying new sounds and ideas and gradually introduce them over time.Where can people listen to your music?
We just released our latest single, “The Future Is Yours,” and we are headed back into the studio to record five more songs in 2019. You can hear our music on all major online platforms like Apple Music, Spotify, Amazon, iTunes, and so on. Here is a link to our latest single: http://smarturl.it/yodvqb
- How One Church Is Making Scripture Sing (Chris K. Davidson)
- Biblical Theology Set to Music: ‘Hebrews’ by Psallos (Victoria Emily Jones)