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“Change my desires so that I desire you alone”

October 15, 2018

For the past six months or so—thanks to my daughter’s influence and example—I have been journaling in my Bible. (They make Bibles for exactly this purpose, and this is the one that I use.) For me, who likes to write, this experience has been deeply fruitful. I’m currently journaling my way through the Proverbs. What follows is my reflection on Proverbs 15:15-17, mostly in the form of a prayer. (I am literally transcribing from my handwritten notes.)

See Psalm 37:4; Matthew 6:33. From Solomon’s perspective, there is a kind of cheerfulness of heart that is immune to external circumstances. These verses make a point very similar to Jesus and the rest of God’s Word: We find genuine happiness in God alone. I’ve experienced enough of this happiness to know it’s true. But I need more!

Lord, can I dare to ask you to give me more? I confess that too often my heart is NOT cheerful (v. 15). I confess that too often I find my treasure in so many other people, places, and things. I need you to melt my heart! Change my desires so that I desire you alone—and the things that belong to you. I’m not even asking you to “work with me,” synergistically, the way we Wesleyan-Arminians so often want you to work. I’m not asking that you would COOPERATE with my free will. I’m asking you—I’m pleading with you!—TAKE CONTROL! Give me grace that obliterates my stubborn, sinful heart. Override my free will. I won’t mind, I promise! Only give me a joy that finds complete satisfaction in you! O God, I want that so badly!

Teach me, God, that “a little with fear of the Lord” is greater than the greatest treasure. If you have to afflict me (I say this with fear and trembling) with a  “thorn in the flesh” (2 Corinthians 12:7), as you did with my brother Paul, please do so. Give me this severe mercy if that’s what I require to find my treasure in you!

In my pastoral prayer yesterday, I prayed for victims and survivors of this most recent, devastating hurricane, which has nearly wiped whole towns off the map (like Mexico Beach, FL). I said in my prayer that many of your children are enduring a “severe trial.” I chose those words with care: For some of your children—not all and likely not many, but for some—this “fiery trial” (1 Peter 4:12) will be their greatest blessing. Why? Because, like me, they have found their treasure in something or someone other than you. And now, possessing very little, this experience will lead them to repentance—sweet repentance!

Like comedian Stephen Colbert, who told an interviewer in 2015 that coming to grips with the death of his father and two of his brothers at age 10 was the equivalent of “learning to love the bomb,” some of these victims and survivors will, by God’s grace, be able to say, “I love the thing I most wish had not happened”—because, in losing their treasure in houses, possessions, and even family or friends, they will find their true treasure in you. (Needless to say, your children who died in the hurricane are experiencing your grace and love in a way that those who are left behind are unable to experience: They have found their treasure in a way that we, on this side of eternity, can only dream! “For to me to live is Christ, and to die is gain.” Phil. 1:21).

Podcast Episode #31: “One-Conditional Love”

October 13, 2018

It’s become a truism within Christian circles to speak of God’s “unconditional love” for humanity. But is this the most accurate way to describe God’s love? In this episode, following the lead of the late United Methodist theologian Thomas Oden (who first popularized the phrase “unconditional love” within theology), I argue that God’s love is best described as “one-conditional,” not unconditional.

As I warn in this episode, the difference between the two couldn’t be more consequential.

This is the second of two podcasts on the authority of scripture. 

Podcast Text: 2 Timothy 3:16-17

You can subscribe to my podcast in iTunes, Google Play, and Stitcher.

Hi, this is Brent White. It’s Friday, October 12, 2018, and this is episode number 31 in my ongoing series of podcasts. 

You’re listening right now to “Unconditional Love,” by the Altar Boys, from their 1986 album, Gut Level Music. The Altar Boys were a Christian punk band—yes, they had that sort of thing back in the glorious ’80s, when I was coming of age. This song was not one of their original compositions, however. It was written by two Christian musicians—the former “queen of disco,” Donna Summer, and producer-songwriter Michael Omartian. If you remember the eighties the way I do, you’ll recall that the song was a minor hit for Ms. Summer in 1983, and the music video featured the Jamaican boy band Musical Youth, who had just had a hit on MTV with their song “Pass the Dutchie.”

In a little while, I’ll switch gears and play the song “Crossfire” by Kansas from their 1982 album, Vinyl Confessions. This was the second album the band made after lead guitarist and songwriter Kerry Livgren—the writer of “Carry On, Wayward Son” and “Dust in the Wind”—was converted to Christianity, along with bass player Dave Hope. 

You’ll hear that song later. But I’m starting with the Altar Boys because we Christians today practically take for granted that God loves us with un-conditional love. We use that expression all the time: unconditional love. In fact, I still remember an argument I got into many years on my blog with a dear Christian friend who challenged me on the notion of God’s unconditional love. God’s love, he said, is not unconditional. And I thought his words were borderline heresy! 

Imagine my surprise, then, just a few years ago, when I read a theological memoir called A Change of Heart by a well-respected theologian—who also happens to be United Methodist—named Thomas Oden. (Oden died in 2016.) In this memoir, he sheepishly admits that he was responsible for either coining the phrase “unconditional love,” or at least popularizing and applying it for the first time to theology—and to God’s loving relationship with humanity. He said he borrowed the concept from the psychotherapeutic work of psychologist Carl Rogers. 

When Oden first began writing about God’s unconditional love, he was a progressive Christian theologian. But he changed. In the late-’60s he experienced a conversion of sorts; by his own admission, he embraced orthodox Christianity—not capital O orthodox; he remained a humble Methodist. But he was no longer enamored with innovation in Christian theology; when it came to theology he liked the old stuff. In fact, he told Christianity Today that he had a dream once in which he saw his tombstone. His epitaph read as follows: “He made no new contribution to theology.” Oden became, in his own words, an “orthodox, ecumenical evangelical.” Read the rest of this entry »

To remove every “plausible source of false happiness”

September 21, 2018

In case you missed the news a couple of weeks ago, Geoffrey Owens, the actor who played Elvin Tibideaux on The Cosby Show back in the ’80s and ’90s, was photographed while working as a cashier at a Trader Joe’s in Clifton, N.J. The photo was accompanied by unflattering articles on the Fox News website and the U.K.’s Daily Mail.

I was heartened by the reaction to these articles: Many prominent people, including fellow ’80s TV star Justine Bateman in the tweet above (who asked his permission to re-post the grocery store photo), rose to Owens’s defense, accusing the photographer, the news media, and online gawkers everywhere of “job shaming.” The controversy even led to two new TV gigs for Owens: on a Tyler Perry-produced show and on N.C.I.S.

In a New York Times interview today, Owens was asked what advice he had for other struggling “non A-list” actors: “My advice is get a job at Trader Joe’s and have someone take your picture without you knowing it.”

I’m glad he can laugh about it! All’s well that ends well.

Now allow me to get down off my moral high horse: I was one of those online gawkers. First, for some reason, I was surprised by the change in his appearance. As a first-generation viewer of the Cosby Show, shouldn’t “Elvin” remain that 20-something nebbish who married the stronger, more confident Sondra—as if—surprise, surprise—middle age doesn’t happen to all of us? Deeply unfair on my part, I know! Then I felt pity: “How the mighty have fallen! After all, he was on a number-one TV show for years, back when that meant something—back before the prime-time audience splintered into a thousand different pieces.

Worst of all—who am I kidding?—I felt a sense of relief: “While I’ve never been famous, I’ve never made a lot of money, and I’ve never been nearly as successful in my respective career(s) as he has been in his, at least I’m not a cashier at Trader Joe’s! Here’s one more person to whom I can feel superior, at least for the moment.”

But for now, I want to say a word about my second emotion: pity. Why did this photo evoke that emotion within me?

Because I secretly believe, all evidence to the contrary, that assets like fame, popularity, career success, awards, good looks, money—all of which he surely possessed even as a supporting actor on the number-one sitcom in America—are life’s greatest treasures. Therefore, when I see him today, I see a man who lost everything.

How could I not feel sorry for him? How tragic!

But instead of feeling sorry for him, why not feel sorry for myself? Because my reaction to the image of the present-day Geoffrey Owens proves that I don’t believe the gospel of Jesus Christ the way I should.

After all, hasn’t Jesus warned me not to lay up treasures on earth where moth and rust destroy and where thieves break in and steal (Matthew 6:19-24)? Hasn’t he warned me to be “rich toward God” rather than rich in possessions (Luke 12:21)? Hasn’t he told me that my greatest treasure by far is found in him (Matthew 13:44-46), and, indeed, that he doesn’t tolerate even a close second in anyone or anything else (Luke 14:26)?

Yet I keep looking for my treasure outside of him. Why?

In my quiet times recently, I’ve been Bible-journaling my way through the minor prophets. I’m on Habakkuk. Just yesterday, I read the following from chapter 2:9, which, in context, is directed to the king of Babylon:

“Woe to him who gets evil gain for his house, to set his nest on high, to be safe from the reach of harm!”

How vain the king was to “set his nest on high, to be safe from the reach of harm,” as if it’s safe from the reach of God himself!

Yet am I so different? While I won’t bother telling you what’s inside my particular nest, suffice it to say that I have one, and when it’s empty, I feel angry, insecure, and unsatisfied. Why? Is Jesus not enough for me?

Unless or until he is, I’ll never be as happy in life as I want to be.

C.S. Lewis described my condition well in his book The Problem of Pain:

As St. Augustine says somewhere, ‘God wants to give us something, but cannot, because our hands are full—there’s nowhere for Him to put it.’ Or as a friend of mine said, ‘We regard God as an airman regards his parachute; it’s there for emergencies but he hopes he’ll never have to use it.’ Now God, who has made us, knows what we are and that our happiness lies in Him. Yet we will not seek it in Him as long as He leaves us any other resort where it can even plausibly be looked for. While what we call ‘our own life’ remains agreeable we will not surrender it to Him. What then can God do in our interests but make ‘our own life’ less agreeable to us, and take away the plausible source of false happiness?[1]

Does God love love me enough to want me to be truly happy? Then I shouldn’t be surprised when he plunders the “nest” I refer to above—when he takes away every “plausible source of false happiness.” Have your way, Lord! “Let me be full; let me empty. Let me have all things; let me have nothing. I freely and heartily yield all things to thy pleasure and disposal.”

Consider the apostle Paul. He doesn’t say, in Philippians 3:8, “I count everything as loss because of the surpassing worth of knowing Christ Jesus my Lord and doing the apostolic work to which he’s called me.” He counts everything as loss—even his work—in comparison to knowing Christ!

This convicts me. Because I want Jesus and… This “and” makes me miserable.

So I don’t know anything about Geoffrey Owens. But based on the evidence in the photo above, I have absolutely zero reasons to feel sorry for him. For all I know, he has Jesus (and he certainly has the opportunity to have Jesus), in which case he has a treasure far better than fame, popularity, career success, awards, good looks, and money.

God, out of your great love for me, do what’s necessary to make me believe it.

1. C.S. Lewis, The Problem of Pain (New York: HarperOne, 1996), 94.

Podcast Episode #30: “Listen to What the Man Said”

September 18, 2018

In this lengthy podcast episode, the first of two on the subject, I tackle the question of the authority of scripture. We hear many authorities in our culture—even within today’s Church—telling us, in so many words, “The Bible can’t be trusted.” As I argue in this episode, you may as well say, “God can’t be trusted,” because it’s clear from Jesus’ own teaching that the Bible is God’s Word.

I want us instead to “listen to what the man said” and regard scripture the same way Jesus himself did. I want this episode, along with the next one, to serve as an antidote to the skepticism about the Bible that is rampant in our culture and is harming our fellow believers—especially Christian young people.

Podcast Text: 2 Timothy 3:16-17

You can subscribe to my podcast in iTunes, Google Play, and Stitcher.

Hi, this is Brent White. It’s Monday, September 17, 2018, and this is episode number 30 in my ongoing series of podcasts. You’re listening right now to a #1 hit song from 1975 called “Listen to What the Man Said” by Wings—written and sung, of course, by Paul McCartney from the album Venus and Mars.

And the reason I wanted to play this song is that I have discerned a troubling trend among my fellow Christians, not least of which my fellow United Methodist clergy: And that is, they often say that when it comes to the Bible, we need to “listen to what the man said”—the “man” in this case being Jesus—and not necessarily pay close attention to what the rest of the Bible says. Especially the Old Testament! They often speak as if the God revealed in the Old Testament isn’t quite the same as the God revealed in “the man,” Jesus. Therefore we can’t quite trust what the Old Testament has to say.

So one of the purposes of this week’s podcast, and next week’s, is to say, “Yes, by all means, let’s listen to what the man said. But we can’t even know who the man is, or make sense of what he said… apart from the whole counsel of God, which includes the Old Testament.”

If you don’t believe me, consider Luke chapter 24. This is Easter Sunday. Two disciples of Jesus were on their way from Jerusalem to their hometown of Emmaus—about a seven-mile journey. The resurrected Jesus appears to them on the road, but, Luke tells us, “their eyes were kept from recognizing him.” Jesus asks them what they’ve been talking about. They explain to him the shocking events of Good Friday and how, today, on Sunday, they heard the reports from the women who went to the tomb: that it was empty, and that angels appeared to them and said that Jesus had been raised. These two disciples were confused; they didn’t know what to make of any of this.

Jesus said, in verses 25 and 26, “O foolish ones, and slow of heart to believe all that the prophets have spoken! Was it not necessary that the Christ should suffer these things and enter into his glory?” Then in verse 27, Luke writes, “And beginning with Moses and all the Prophets, he”—that is, Jesus—“interpreted to them in all the Scriptures the things concerning himself.” Did you hear that? “Beginning with Moses and the Prophets”—which is shorthand for the entire Bible—Jesus interpreted “in all the Scriptures the things concerning himself.” So: they were walking on the road for about two-and-a-half hours. Assuming Jesus was with them for most of the way, then he must have spoken to them for a long time about what the entire Old Testament had to say about him. Right? There must be a great deal of information in the Old Testament about who Jesus is, why he came, what he accomplished, what his gospel means!

In spite of this, I have actually had United Methodist pastors tell me, “I don’t like preaching from the Old Testament.” Why? “Because I like preaching Jesus.” Aye-yai-yai… I like preaching Jesus, too. And I like preaching the gospel. And I do so in every sermon I preach—whether my sermon text is from the New Testament—be it the four gospels, or Acts, or the Epistles, or Revelation—or from the Old Testament. Because, as I’ve said before, I find Jesus—and I find his gospel message—on nearly every page of the Old Testament! In fact, I would venture to say that if you don’t find Jesus and his gospel there, you’re probably not reading it right!

But I know, I know… There are challenging passages in the Old Testament. What do you do with the ones that seem… at odds… with Jesus’ example and teaching? For example, the Passover story in Exodus 12… In that story, God himself passes through Egypt and strikes down the firstborn male in every family whose house wasn’t covered by the blood of the lamb. Hold on… The blood of the lamb as protection against God’s judgment and wrath? That sounds familiar… That sounds like what Jesus did… on the cross… Jesus, the very one of whom John the Baptist said, “Behold, the Lamb of God, who takes away the sin of the world.”[1] Read the rest of this entry »

A new blog post (and podcast episode) is coming soon!

September 12, 2018

To my longtime readers and listeners: I am working on a lengthy podcast episode on the authority of scripture, which I will post here shortly. Thanks for your patience!

When Christians Get It Wrong, Part 3: Jesus was hard on us ordinary sinners, too!

August 30, 2018

While this is Part 3 of this series of posts, it’s the second part of my examination of the first chapter of Adam Hamilton’s book When Christians Get It Wrong. (Read Part 1 and Part 2.)

In this chapter, Hamilton is mostly concerned with religious hypocrisy. Christians “get it wrong” when they act in ways that are inconsistent with the faith they profess. Who could disagree?

But then Hamilton writes something like this (emphasis mine):

If you read the Gospels carefully, Jesus never got angry with prostitutes, adulterers, or ordinary “sinners.” Nor did his actions turn such people away. In fact, Jesus drew “sinners” to himself by the thousands. He made such people feel at ease. The only people Jesus had words of judgment for in the Gospels were the religious folks. What angered him the most about these people, particularly the religious leaders, was their judgmentalism, their hypocrisy, and their failure to love.[1]Where to begin? First, a quibble about the word “anger.” Is it accurate to say that Jesus got angry with anyone—at least in the sense of losing one’s temper? (How else do we use the word today?) If getting beaten, whipped, spat upon, and nailed to a cross failed to make Jesus angry, why would he get angry with mere Pharisees and other opponents?

Yes, I know that Jesus’ overturned the money-changers’ tables in the Temple and drove out the merchants and their livestock. If that’s “anger,” however, it’s a righteous kind of anger of which most of us are incapable. But our Lord is not guilty of the anger he describes in Matthew 5:21-22, which he says is on the same spectrum as murder. His prohibition against it is broad and severe: “everyone who is angry with his brother will be liable to judgment.” We like to qualify our anger: “Yes, I agree with Jesus that most of the time anger is unwarranted, but in this particular case it’s justified. Let me explain why.” Instead, Jesus says, Don’t get angry. Ever! So we can assume that he didn’t, either.

More importantly, though—even with a nuanced understanding of the word “anger”—is it fair to say that Jesus “never” got angry with “prostitutes, adulterers, or ordinary ‘sinners,'” that he “drew ‘sinners’ by the thousands” and “made such people feel at ease”? What about Jesus’ fellow Nazarenes, who, far from feeling “at ease,” “took offense at him” (Mark 6:3). In fact, Luke tells us that when the townspeople heard his sermon, “all in the synagogue were filled with wrath. And they rose up and drove him out of the town and brought him to the brow of the hill on which their town was built, so that they could throw him down the cliff” (Luke 4:28-29). Jesus “marveled because of their unbelief” (Mark 6:6) and said, “A prophet is not without honor, except in his hometown and among his relatives and in his own household” (Mark 6:4). Was Jesus not “angry” with these “ordinary ‘sinners'”?

And while Jesus drew ordinary sinners “by the thousands,” the apostle John reports that when “many of his disciples”—at least a portion of the 5,000 who were miraculously fed by Jesus—heard Jesus’ preaching the Bread of Life discourse, they said, “This is a hard saying; who can listen to it?” (John 6:60) Consequently, “many of his disciples turned back and no longer walked with him” (John 6:66). Jesus’ teaching, in other words, repelled not merely ordinary sinners, but disciples as well. They did not feel “at ease.”

Jesus’ own family also failed to feel “at ease” with him. They believed he had literally lost his mind (Mark 3:21). Jesus spoke “words of judgment” against them when he said, “Who are my mother are my brothers?… Here are my mother and my brothers! For whoever does the will of God, he is my brother and sister and mother.” Jesus was implying that his own immediate family were not doing God’s will, whereas the disciples gathered round him, who unlike his family believed in him, were his true family.

Jesus spoke words of judgment against the Rich Young Ruler (not one of the “religious folks” to whom Hamilton refers above) in Mark 10:17-31 (and parallels), against several Galilean towns and villages filled with ordinary sinners (Matthew 11:20-24)—indeed, against the entire city of Jerusalem (Matthew 23:37-39; Luke 19:41-44), the vast majority of whose citizens were ordinary sinners.

And what about the would-be disciples he risked chasing away with his startling demands (Luke 9:57-62):

As they were going along the road, someone said to him, “I will follow you wherever you go.” And Jesus said to him, “Foxes have holes, and birds of the air have nests, but the Son of Man has nowhere to lay his head.” To another he said, “Follow me.” But he said, “Lord, let me first go and bury my father.” And Jesus said to him, “Leave the dead to bury their own dead. But as for you, go and proclaim the kingdom of God.” Yet another said, “I will follow you, Lord, but let me first say farewell to those at my home.” Jesus said to him, “No one who puts his hand to the plow and looks back is fit for the kingdom of God.”

There’s no indication here that he was talking to “religious folks” in this passage, yet who doubts that Jesus did the opposite of making his hearers feel “at ease”?

Was Jesus speaking of merely “religious folks” when he spoke the “words of judgment” found in Matthew 7:21-23,

Not everyone who says to me, “Lord, Lord,” will enter the kingdom of heaven, but the one who does the will of my Father who is in heaven. On that day many will say to me, “Lord, Lord, did we not prophesy in your name, and cast out demons in your name, and do many mighty works in your name?” And then will I declare to them, “I never knew you; depart from me, you workers of lawlessness.”

And what about the parables of Jesus, whose judgments were often against both religious leaders and ordinary sinners. Is the man not wearing proper wedding attire in the frightening postscript to the Parable of the Wedding Banquet (see Matthew 22:1-14only supposed to be a religious leader? What about the five unprepared virgins of Matthew 25:1-13, or the poor servant who buried his talent in Matthew 25:14-30, or—for that matter—any member of the human race identified as “goats” in Matthew 25:31-46.

You can probably think of other examples of Jesus getting “angry” or at least making ordinary sinners uncomfortable. These are enough to make my point.

While it’s true, as Jesus says, that “the tax collectors and the prostitutes are entering the kingdom of God ahead of” the scribes and Pharisees (Matthew 21:31), that’s only because these ordinary sinners recognized the extent of their sinfulness and need for repentance. As Jesus elsewhere says, “Whoever has been forgiven little loves little” (Luke 7:47). The sinners to whom Hamilton refers knew they had been forgiven much.

If Jesus came down hard on religious leaders’ “judgmentalism, hypocrisy, and failure to love,” he did so because these sins, especially, had a way of insulating their practitioners from the gospel. After all, if your prayer begins, “God, I thank thee, that I am not as other men are,” you won’t believe you need a Savior—that you are as other men are—helpless sinners in need of God’s rescue plan through his Son Jesus. This the necessary starting point, the sine qua non, of the gospel.

But as I’ve said before, our United Methodist tradition often fails to preach the first half of the gospel; we head straight for grace and forgiveness without first dealing with sin, God’s judgment, wrath, and hell. We tell our fellow sinners, “There, there… It’s not so bad” when, actually, it is that bad. In fact, apart from our faith in Christ and his atoning death on the cross, it’s much, much worse!

In the video that accompanies this chapter, Hamilton urges us Christians to be like Jesus. While that would be wonderful, of course, I wonder if it’s pastorally helpful advice. Do any of you have much success “being like Jesus” for any length of time? I don’t. Here’s a better idea: Read Luke 7:36-49. Identify with the “woman of the city, who was a sinner.” She is who we are or ought to be—sinners who have been “forgiven much” and who, therefore, delight in loving and serving Jesus.

1. When Christians Get It Wrong, rev. ed. (Nashville: Abingdon, 2013), 11.

Devotional Podcast #29: “Death & the Gospel According to the Beatles”

August 29, 2018

In this episode I challenge us Christians to ask ourselves which gospel we believe: the gospel according the Beatles or the gospel according to Jesus. Don’t answer too quickly! We all know what the “correct” answer is… but what does our heart say?

Devotional Text: Matthew 6:19-21

You can subscribe to my podcast in iTunes, Google Play, and Stitcher.

Hi, this is Brent White. It’s Tuesday, August 28, 2018, and this is episode number 29 in my ongoing series of devotional podcasts. You’re listening right now to a song called “Girl,” by the Beatles, which I recorded directly from their 1965 LP Rubber Soul, on Capitol Records.

“Girl” is one of the best Beatles songs from one of their best albums, which means it’s a pretty darn good song! I played a longer portion of the song to introduce this episode than I normally do in these podcasts because I needed to get to the song’s third verse! Listen to these words about the eponymous “girl” to whom the song is directed:

Was she told when she was young
That pain would lead to pleasure?
Did she understand it when they said
That a man must break his back
To earn his day of leisure?
Will she still believe it when he’s dead?

John Lennon told Rolling Stone magazine in a 1970 interview that this verse is an attack on the Christian idea that suffering can be good, necessary, and redemptive—that “pain would lead to pleasure,” as the song says—indeed, that living a faithful Christian life is a life of self-denial, but this self-denial is worth it because it leads, ultimately, to lasting happiness and joy—in heaven if not before. As Jesus himself said, “If anyone would come after me, let him deny himself and take up his cross and follow me. For whoever would save his life will lose it, but whoever loses his life for my sake will find it.”[1]

Did the girl in the song grow up believing this—back when she was young and naive; back when her parents made her go to Sunday school; back before she had a mind of her own or could think for herself? If so, the song says, don’t believe it anymore! It’s not true! 

From the singer’s perspective, pain never leads to pleasure; it’s never good or necessary; pain is an enemy that disrupts or interrupts or otherwise distracts you from living “your best life now”; and death is the greatest enemy of all! The sooner the girl realizes this, the better. 

Besides, from the singer’s perspective, the girl will realize it eventually—when the worst thing happens to her. And the worst thing in the case of the song is the death of this unidentified man—perhaps her father—who obviously believed in Jesus, who “broke his back to earn his day of leisure”—who’s now dead. 

“Will she still believe it when he’s dead?” the singer cynically asks. The answer: “No… no, she won’t.” Whatever comforting Christian convictions, or principles, or—worse—platitudes she grew up with will come crashing down in the light of the harsh, cold reality of death. And when they come crashing down, well… she’ll realize that she needs to live for herself and not for others—and certainly not for God.

So the song is a cautionary tale: you’re going to die some day, too, dear listener… just like this man that the girl loved. Except… here’s the good news: it’s not too late for you to avoid the mistake that he made. You don’t have to end up like him; you don’t have to miss out on life the way he did! 

So… repent while there’s still time, the song says. Turn away from faith in God; turn to yourself; turn to pleasure; turn to getting as much out of life as you can while there’s still time. Read the rest of this entry »

Adam Hamilton’s When Christians Get It Wrong, Part 2: Hypocritical Christians… like me?

August 15, 2018

To read Part 1 of this series, click here.

In C.S. Lewis’s Screwtape Letters, Uncle Screwtape, a demon who is experienced and successful in leading human “patients” to hell, apprentices his nephew Wormwood in the art of temptation. Wormwood’s patient has recently become a Christian. From Screwtape’s perspective, this fact alone does not spell disaster: the patient, he says, may yet become apostate and arrive safely in hell.

For one thing, Wormwood needs to attack him while he’s worshiping in church. Distract his patient’s mind with thoughts of how ridiculous his neighbors in the next pew seem—how, for instance, they dress shabbily; how they sing off-key. Screwtape continues:

I have been writing hitherto on the assumption that the people in the next pew afford no rational ground for disappointment. Of course if they do—if the patient knows that the woman with the absurd hat is a fanatical bridge-player or the man with the squeaky boots a miser and an extortioner—then your task is so much the easier. All you then have to do is to keep out of his mind the question ‘If I, being what I am, can consider that I am in some sense a Christian, why should the different vices of those people in the next pew prove that their religion is mere hypocrisy and convention? You may ask whether it is possible to keep such an obvious thought from occurring even to a human mind. It is, Wormwood, it is! Handle him properly and it simply won’t come into his head. He has not been anything like long enough with the Enemy [that is, God] to have any real humility yet. What he says, even on his knees, about his own sinfulness is all parrot talk. At bottom, he still believes he has run up a very favourable credit-balance in the Enemy’s ledger by allowing himself to be converted, and thinks that he is showing great humility and condescension in going to church with those ‘smug’, commonplace neighbours at all. Keep him in that state of mind as long as you can.[1]

I thought of this correspondence when reading Chapter 1 of Adam Hamilton’s When Christians Get It Wrong. The theme of the chapter is, Christians often behave in ways that are inconsistent with the faith they profess. (In other breaking news, water is wet.) Here is one typical passage, in which Hamilton shares the experience of one anonymous young woman:

I’m thinking of the Christians in my school that I see every day. They judge everyone constantly. It’s annoying, and a lot of people don’t really like it or like them because of it. I have a really good friend who claims to be a really hard-care Christian but he smokes weed all the time and drinks and does all these things, and he’s just not a Christian at all.[2]About her experience, Hamilton writes, “But this phenomenon is not unique to young adults. No doubt you can think of examples of Christians who were judgmental, hypocritical, and unloving.”

“You’re right, Rev. Hamilton! I can think of examples. In fact, I saw one living, breathing example of a judgmental, hypocritical, and unloving Christian when I looked in the mirror this morning!” In fact, even as I write these words (if you can’t tell from my tone) I’m feeling morally superior to you. A part of me wants my readers to recognize this superiority, admire my boldness in criticizing a well-respected leader in my denomination, and appreciate my self-awareness, which I hope they’ll mistake for humility.

See… I am a mess. I’m a sinner! And I’ve been a professing Christian for thirty-plus years! While I won’t excuse my sinfulness, I will point out that I am exactly the kind of person whom Jesus Christ came into the world to save: “Those who are well have no need of a physician, but those who are sick. I came not to call the righteous, but sinners” (Mark 2:17 ESV).

Honestly, is Adam Hamilton’s experience with sin different from mine? Has he already been entirely sanctified (as we Methodists might say)? If not, how do Screwtape’s words not apply to him, to the young woman he quotes above, to John, the young veteran whose conversation inspired this book, or to anyone else? If I, being what I am, can consider that I am in some sense a Christian, why should the different vices of those people in the next pew prove that their religion is mere hypocrisy and convention?

See, while I wouldn’t deny for a moment that we Christians “get it wrong,” often, I would add that we Methodists, specifically, get it wrong when our doctrinal emphasis on sanctification causes us to lose sight of our justification. (I’ve said this before.) What I mean is this: We Methodists need to hear again and again that we are, in Luther’s phrase, simul justus et peccator (“both righteous and sinners at the same time”). We never outgrow the good news that we are sinners justified by God’s grace alone! Not an iota of holiness on our part (by which we Methodists often twist to mean “self-improvement”) will play a role in making us more or less acceptable before God.

Why? Because we are made holy and perfect before God for one reason alone: Christ has imputed his righteousness to us as a free gift. This truth ought to make our hearts sing!

Instead, we Methodists worry about cheap grace. So, as Lutheran theologian Gerhard Forde says, we attempt use sanctification as the “final defense against a justification too liberally granted.” He continues:

God alone does the justifying simply by declaring the ungodly to be so, for Jesus’ sake. Most everyone is willing to concede that, at least in some fashion. But, of course, then comes the question: what happens next? Must not the justified live properly? Must not justification be safeguarded so it will not be abused? So sanctification enters the picture supposedly to rescue the good ship Salvation from the shipwreck on the rocks of Grace Alone. Sanctification, it seems, is our part of the bargain… The result of this kind of thinking is generally disastrous…[3]… as my own experience bears witness.

Don’t misunderstand me: I completely agree that we Christians must repent of hypocrisy and all other sins as we become aware of them. We must pray that the Holy Spirit will give us the power to overcome these sins and expect that he will. The Bible says that our lives must “bear fruit in keeping with repentance” (Luke 3:8), because faith without works is dead (James 2:17). But this fruit, our good works, and the extent to which the Holy Spirit enables us to overcome our sin, play no role in saving us. Good fruit, as Jesus says, is merely evidence of a healthy tree (Matthew 7:17). Only God can make the tree healthy. Once he does, the good fruit will follow.

Am I wrong? When we are justified and born again, does God say, “Now let’s wait and see how it goes”? Heaven forbid! Instead, he says, “Today salvation has come to this house” (Luke 19:9). While it’s true that we Methodists believe in the possibility of backsliding, backsliding isn’t the result of any sin other than the abandonment of our trust in Christ.

So getting back to Hamilton’s apologetic concerns for this book… When a young person challenges Hamilton on the hypocrisy of many (most? all?) Christians, he could turn it around on the person: “Yes, and if Christ will save a sinner as bad as that, don’t you think he can save you, too?”

To say the least, God’s mercy toward sinners is a feature of Christianity, not a defect.

I’ll deal with the rest of Chapter 1 later.

1.C.S. Lewis, “The Screwtape Letters” in The Complete C.S. Lewis Signature Classics (New York: HarperOne, 2002), 189-90.

2. Adam Hamilton, When Christians Get It Wrong, rev. ed. (Nashville: Abingdon, 2013), 9-10.

3. “The Art of Getting Used to Justification,” mockingbird.com, 29 November 2012. Accessed 15 August 2018.

Adam Hamilton’s When Christians Get It Wrong, Part 1: Cultural Christianity is dead

August 13, 2018

If you’ve been reading my blog for a while, you know that for many years I’ve been an outspoken critic of United Methodist mega-church pastor Adam Hamilton. For example, this post remains the most-read post I’ve written on my blog—by far! Rev. Hamilton himself tweeted that he would respond to this series of posts from last year. I’m still waiting, but he’s a busy pastor, and who am I to him? I wouldn’t respond to me, either.

But I haven’t only been critical of Hamilton: Way back on November 22, 2011, I gave him a rave review! Read it for yourself! (A lot of water under the bridge since then, I guess.)

Still, a men’s Bible study group at my church is reading his little book When Christians Get It Wrong. So I thought it would be helpful for me to gather my own thoughts on the book here. You might find it helpful, too.

In the book’s introduction he says that this book “was born out of a conversation” with a disillusioned young war veteran named John, recently returned from Afghanistan and Iraq, who talked to Hamilton about the reasons he rejected Christianity. John’s reasons, Hamilton said, correspond to those cited by Kinnaman and Lyon in their book unChristian (which I’ve also read). Hamilton’s book, he said, is written primarily for John and his fellow young adults who are abandoning Christianity in larger numbers than previous generations, for the same reasons cited by Kinnaman and Lyon.

When Christians Get It Wrong, therefore, serves an apologetic purpose: to win back these young apostates to the Christian faith. Young people have, he says, been “frustrated and turned off by what they have heard from and experienced with Christians.” So the theme of Hamilton’s book is that what they’ve experienced isn’t real Christianity, or they’ve misunderstood it. Hamilton wants to show them what real Christianity looks like, and his vision, he believes, will be so compelling that they’ll change their minds.

A worthy goal, I’m sure.

Still, we pastors, especially, should be reluctant to take at face value the reasons an unbeliever gives for moving from faith to skepticism. We are all sinners, after all—and complicated ones at that. At our best, we hardly know ourselves or the reasons for the things we do. Instead, we know our “cover stories.” Too often, we who see through a glass darkly remain oblivious to many of the underlying impulses that give rise to them.

Also, Hamilton presumes that John and all these young people are (or were) authentically Christian at some point; that they were genuine believers who have now left the faith.

But Hamilton can’t know that. None of us can. We pastors are painfully aware that, despite our best intentions, no catechism or confirmation class, no “walking the aisle” at the end of a sermon, no praying a sinner’s prayer, no baptism, can ensure that a young person who professes Christian faith is born again. Only God knows.

But if, despite appearances, young people were never born again—if the seed of the gospel fell among rocks or thorns and failed to take root—will they themselves know it? Of course not. They will instead grow up to say, “I used to be a Christian, but I’m not anymore.” And since we all like to think of ourselves as rational people, we’ll look for reasons—and any old reason will do (sometimes), especially those that make us appear more intelligent, more enlightened, or more compassionate than we otherwise might seem. (See this post for more on this topic.)

Hamilton writes:

I hope and pray that this book will help some young adults find faith once more and become followers of Jesus Christ. It is also my hope that the book might chart a path for Christians in how we can “get it right.” Churches that “get it wrong” may lose an entire generation of young adults, the future of the church.[1]

By all means, I’m all for correcting Christians who “get it wrong.” Nevertheless, it’s not our job to make the gospel something other than what it is: “folly to those who are perishing… a stumbling block to Jews and folly to Gentiles” (1 Corinthians 1:18, 23). Did the apostle Paul sometimes “get it wrong”? Since he was “foremost” of sinners (1 Timothy 1:15), he would agree with me that he did. But he didn’t get his gospel wrong (Galatians 1:8), nor the God-breathed words that the Holy Spirit guided Paul to write.

So Paul was completely right about the gospel, yet of this gospel most of his audience would say, “That’s foolishness!” and of its messenger—the most successful who ever lived—”What an idiot!” or “You’re out of your mind!” (Acts 26:24)

Needless to say, if that was true for Paul as he sought to convert the lost people of his day, it will be true for us!

Therefore, we shouldn’t be surprised when most “young people”—or anyone else—tell the Church that Christianity is, in so many words, “folly” and a “stumbling block.” What else would we expect them to say? Christendom, that once-powerful cultural force that used to produce nominal Christians but no longer does, is dead. Young people today will less often identify as Christians merely because their parents or grandparents did. Those days are gone, and good riddance! “For the gate is narrow and the way is hard that leads to life, and those who find it are few” (Matthew 7:14). That’s always been true, no matter what popular opinion polls would say.

Besides, I know plenty of young people, even today, for whom Christ continues to be “the power of God and the wisdom of God” (1 Corinthians 1:24). How does that still happen, if things are as bad as Hamilton fears?

Simple: Ultimately, it’s not up to us to convert people. For as often as Christians “get it wrong,” which is often, the Holy Spirit continues to “get it right,” and to do his good work: “The wind blows where it wishes, and you hear its sound, but you do not know where it comes from or where it goes” (John 3:8). “And I, when I am lifted up from the earth, will draw all people to myself” (John 12:32). “And this is the will of him who sent me, that I should lose nothing of all that he has given me, but raise it up on the last day” (John 6:39).

So, as we diagnose problems for which Hamilton’s book purports to be a solution, let’s proceed with caution… The sky may not be falling after all. More soon.

1. Adam Hamilton, When Christians Get It Wrong, rev. ed. (Nashville: Abingdon, 2013), 3.

Living with a “wartime mindset”

August 10, 2018

Pastor John Piper understands how high the stakes are.

In my previous podcast episode, I talked about the inadequacy of most Christians’ efforts (including my own) to witness. I said that all Christians are ministers who are called to this task, as evidenced by the Great Commission that Christ gave to his Church.

Yet I’m sure that some listeners thought, “Yes, but I’m not bold enough to witness: I couldn’t do what the woman on the subway train in Manhattan did, for instance [not that I think I could, either]; I couldn’t muster the courage to give a Bible to an unsuspecting stranger (much less a celebrity who’s openly hostile to Christianity), as in the Penn Jillette story. The very prospect fills me with fear. I’m an introvert, after all. I’m too shy! I’ll have to leave witnessing to people who have a gift for it.”

Other listeners likely fear that certain techniques for witnessing risk “turning people off” to the gospel. (One point I made in the podcast, however, is that the gospel will turn many people off, no matter how well or poorly we present it.) Other listeners disagree with any self-conscious technique or effort to evangelize. They believe that we should follow the prompting of the Spirit and let opportunities for witnessing flow organically. Any ulterior motive to share the gospel with someone, rather than enjoy a relationship on its own terms, spoils the effort.

While I would argue against these objections, that’s not my point today… My point is, even if you disagree with something I said in my podcast, I hope we can agree on this: We live in a world in which the vast majority of people (judging only by objective demographic surveys) need Jesus and the gift of eternal life that’s available through him. Moreover, we have a deadly Enemy, Satan and his demonic forces, working to thwart even our most well-intentioned efforts to convince people of the truth of the gospel. We are at war, as Paul says in Ephesians 6, the stakes of which are higher than any merely human war.

So I’ll grant that, for any number of reasons, you may feel unqualified to witness. Fine… Given that nothing less than heaven or hell hangs in the balance, however, let’s figure out what you can do to reach lost people with the gospel: First, if you’re a parent, consider the lives of your children your most important mission field and respond accordingly: You are constantly “witnessing” to them, whether you know it or not. They are learning from you every moment about who Jesus is and how important he is to you. Your example will have a far greater influence on how they’ll spend eternity than anything they learn at church. You have an awesome responsibility! Don’t take it lightly.

What else can you do (whether you’re a parent or not)? Pray for people you know and love who aren’t yet in a saving relationship with God through Christ. Pray that God would send someone to reach them with the gospel and convert them, even if it’s not you. (Have you noticed, for example, that “prayer request” time at church focuses inordinately on loved ones who are physically sick. How often does someone ask for prayer for a loved one’s soul? Where are our priorities?)

Pray for the Holy Spirit to empower your church to be bold and successful in evangelism—not just “sheep-stealing,” which is what counts as evangelism in most churches. On that note, stop worrying about “growing the church” and worry instead about making disciples. Invite unbelieving or lightly committed Christian friends, neighbors, and co-workers to church. Support and encourage your church in its evangelism efforts. Give more money and volunteer more time for the cause of Christ in your church and world. Live in such a way that people outside the faith notice that you treasure your relationship with Christ above all earthly treasures. Pray for revival in your church. Pray for an outpouring of the Holy Spirit. Pray especially for your pastor or pastors as they seek to be faithful to their call!

In fact, you and I should live with what pastor John Piper calls a “wartime lifestyle”:

The phrase is helpful… It tells me that there is a war going on in the world between Christ and Satan, truth and falsehood, belief and unbelief. It tells me that there are weapons to be funded and used, but that these weapons are not swords or guns or bombs but the Gospel and prayer and self-sacrificing love (2 Corinthians 10:3-5). And it tells me that the stakes of this conflict are higher than any war in history; they are eternal and infinite: heaven or hell, eternal joy or eternal torment (Matthew 25:46).

I need to hear this message again and again, because I drift into a peacetime mind-set as certainly as rain falls down and flames go up. I am wired by nature to love the same toys that the world loves. I start to fit in. I start to love what others love. I start to call the earth “home.” Before you know it, I am calling luxuries “needs” and using my money just the way unbelievers do. I begin to forget the war. I don’t think much about people perishing. Missions and unreached peoples drop out of my mind. I stop dreaming about the triumphs of grace. I sink into a secular mindset that looks first to what man can do, not what God can do. It is a terrible sickness. And I thank God for those who have forced me again and again toward a wartime mind-set.[1]

That second paragraph, especially, convicts me. “I drift into a peacetime mind-set… I begin to forget the war. I don’t think much about people perishing.” Instead, I worry about worship attendance; I fret over the already-saved leaving for another church (and taking their tithe with them); I’m too easily satisfied with “church growth,” which relates to marketing and sales, rather than making disciples.

But no longer… Lord, help me live with a wartime mindset. Place people in my lives who will hold me accountable to live this way. Amen.

1. John Piper, Don’t Waste Your Life (Wheaton, IL: Crossway, 2009),111-2.