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When Can I Be A Jackass?

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Since we launched Jackass Theology, the question has come in many different forms: When is it okay to argue with someone over theology? Should we ever confront people with heretical views?

It’s an important question. Here are 5 quick things to consider:

1. Diversity and Disagreement Are Wonderful

Diversity is wonderful. Diversity is necessary. Diversity inherently means that we will passionately disagree. Disagreement is not the problem. No matter how much we try to get others to see from our perspective, many won’t. So disagreement is ALWAYS ALLOWED. In fact, I will say: disagreement should be celebrated. It means that we are exactly as God intended us to be: DIVERSE. Disagreeing with someone doesn’t make us jackasses, it’s how we treat people when we disagree.

2. The Holy Spirit Is Better than Jesus

Those are Jesus’ words. He said that it was better for the Holy Spirit to lead his disciples than for him to continue to lead the disciples (John 16:7). That’s kind of important. If I give you a rule or law about when it is okay to argue and when it is not, without a doubt there will be a million little exceptions to the rule. (Just look in the English language: I before E, EXCEPT after C…) So the minute we make a rule, we then need to talk about all the exceptions, which shows us the shortcoming of law in general. The New Testament is all about how the living Spirit is better than the law, and even better than Jesus being our homeboy. Law is limited. Law can protect. Law can be a tutor, but law is not life.

So when must I confront, wrong thinking? Bottom line: There is no rule. We must come to trust the Holy Spirit in doing our best to be like Jesus in each and every situation.

Turn to Galatians 5 and look at the works of the flesh (jealousy, division, strife, etc.). Compare those to the fruit of the Spirit (love, joy, peace, etc.). If love, peace, and joy demand that you carefully and lovingly speak up, and the Holy Spirit is prompting you to say something, by all means, DO IT (Paul did; so did Jesus). But make certain it is because you love the person, and not because they are offensive to you, or because you are putting yourself in a place of superiority. LOVE LISTENS—A LOT. 

3. Jesus Confronted Religious Hypocrisy

Most of Jesus’ confrontations dealt with the fact that dead religion had failed to bring life to the people of God. Jesus confronted all the things that get in the way of our absolute surrender to him and the Kingdom.

A guiding metaphor in the Gospels is that of a tree. Israel was like a tree, once alive, but so much of their religious systems and practices caused them to miss the heart of God, and ultimately the Messiah. Jesus came to prune the dead religion. When he confronted religious leaders, he was bringing new life by tearing down what was dead.

“When you see RELIGION taking the place of SPIRITUAL LIFE, I believe we have a mandate to lovingly challenge the dead things we have allowed to take the place of a vital, passionate, dynamic relationship with God.”

So when you see RELIGION taking the place of SPIRITUAL LIFE, I believe we have a mandate to lovingly challenge the dead things we have allowed to take the place of a vital, passionate, dynamic relationship with God.  (Bruxy Cavey (@bruxy) has a tremendous book on this subject, called The End of Religion. Read it!)

4. Paul Wrote to Churches that Were Losing the Gospel

Paul regularly wrote to churches at risk of losing the Gospel. This is a great model of when to speak up. But the call is to protect the simple heart of the Gospel. Jesus died for your sin. Everyone who believes is included. DO NOT ADD YOUR CULTURAL PREFERENCES TO IT! This is what the Jews and Gentiles did and it created unnecessary rifts. Paul called churches back to the Gospel as a means of restoring unity rather than creating more factions. 

5. “Who Is My Neighbor” Is a Jackass Question

In Luke 10, when a lawyer was trying to weasel his way out of Jesus’ command to love his neighbor, he asked: “Who is my Neighbor?” He wanted there to be an exception. 

“We often ask questions like ‘Who is my neighbor’ or ‘When am I allowed to confront people’ to get out of the high call to love EVERYBODY, prodigal and Pharisee alike.”

The better question is: “What does love demand of me?” Sometimes love demands some difficult conversations. Sometimes love demands confrontation. But in every single situation love demands patience, kindness, and self-control. In every case, love means always hoping, always trusting, always persevering. If you’re tempted to think of this route as a copout, consider Paul’s statement: “love never fails” (1 Cor. 13:8).

The Missional Jackass

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The Missional Church: I love you and I hate you! Ever since I read Darrell L. Guder’s book in 2004, I’ve been undone. It ruined me forever. It’s nearly on par with the night I read the story of the rich young ruler in my college dorm room and knew I had to leave behind my visions of worldly riches and esteem to follow Jesus into the unknown venture of vocational ministry.

In college, God radically flipped my paradigms. I went from attending church to being trained up to lead, teach, and share my faith with others. I went from consuming church offerings to being the church. It was thrilling, scary, invigorating—the Holy Spirit was palpable. Leaving college I knew that was the dynamic movement I was called to bring to the church. Every believer a priest. Every saint sent to bring Jesus to the world around them.

I left my time in college on fire to train others to do what I did. Then I worked for an institutional church in Southern California. Church wasn’t a movement designed to equip people to be the church where they lived, worked, and played. Sometimes it felt like the overall goal was simply to exist, or to be better than last year.

I was on staff at seven churches between between age 20 and 30. Each church was different; the people were beautiful. God used each environment to grow and challenge me, but I was always frustrated by the overall goal of the church. It was like nobody believed the average person could make disciples or even tell their neighbors about Jesus. It seemed like the church was only interested in providing religious services. And the people were only interested in attending them.

Eventually I landed where I am now: a small-to-mid-sized church in the suburbs. This time I was the Lead Pastor, so I could make the changes I longed to see. We eliminated programs and redeveloped systems. We called people to higher expectations of disciplemaking and missional living. We changed a lot. We are still changing a lot.

In all the change, through all the prayers, we saw a lot of fruit. Leadership stepping into their call as disciplemakers, people hosting parties and dinners in their homes for the community, the gospel being shared by “average” church people. There have been many highlights over the last decade.

There are many who caught the vision, but there are many more who didn’t. Those who didn’t ended up leaving and going to other churches because the preaching was better, the children’s ministry more dynamic, the youth group larger, the expectation less, the worship more powerful, etc. Many people drifted to the mega churches and the institutional churches: the thing I was fighting so hard to be distinct from.

Here comes the jackassery. When people reject your leadership, when they don’t want to go where you are going, and you need to continue to lead, it is tremendously difficult not to vilify everyone else.

When people reject your leadership, when they don’t want to go where you are going, and you need to continue to lead, it is tremendously difficult not to vilify everyone else.

In order to lead, you have to fight for something. Leadership requires the sacrifice of untold hours, heartache, tears, and prayers. You absolutely need to believe that the sacrifice is worth it. So you create the enemy, you create in your mind who the problem people are. My enemies became mega churches and everyone willing to settle for church as usual. I thought—and often still think—very jackassy things about them. It’s not right.

The bad guys were everyone who was satisfied with sermons and youth programs and rock n roll over disciple-making. The enemy was all the churches and the places that provided these consumer services. They produced programs I didn’t care about, with resources I could never ever imagine having. But the people I ministered to cared about these things. Often, they chose them over me.

For some, you are fighting for doctrinal integrity, Reformed Theology, reaching lost people, or miraculous signs. Anyone who is not fighting with you is settling for something lesser.

Honestly, it’s hard to fight for something that matters without becoming a jackass.

I’ve dedicated 15 years of blood, sweat and tears to developing a missional ministry, and I feel only mildly successful at it. I still believe in it with the same tenacity I felt the first day I read Guder’s book. But I’m more jaded now. I used to believe that the idea itself was so compelling that if we only tried it, the masses would flock to join. Not the case.

Much as I believe in missional church, I’m tired of vilifying and scoffing and rolling my eyes at people who don’t.

If I can’t be missional without being an ass, then something is seriously wrong. I’m not better because I’m convicted to do church a certain way. I’m just a guy serving Jesus in a mission field packed with a radically diverse methods. Honestly, I throw up a little bit in my mouth every time I see a mega church raffle off a car at Easter. But it doesn’t mean they are bad or that they are not key players in God’s plan and kingdom.

God has spoken through asses, he has used prophets and burning bushes. He has used house churches, institutional churches, Orthodox, Catholic, Protestant, Augustine, Calvin, Luther, Luther King Jr., Whitfield, Evans, and Bell. He has drawn thousands to himself through tent revivals and crusades, miraculous healings, and intellectual ivory towers. He has used simple preachers like Billy Graham and philosophical scholars like Soren Kierkegaard. He uses all of these people. Their methods are so different. Their ways all unique, but something tells me their methods where never the point.

In Hebrews 11, so many different people are highlighted, and in every case what mattered was simply their faith to hear and respond. What mattered was their courage to act on the Holy Spirit’s conviction for them in that place and at that time.

Can you say this with me: I’m not the only one doing ministry the right way. If I have even a modicum of success it isn’t because I figured out the perfect formula, it is because the Holy Spirit decided this time to do something special.

The method is never the answer. God is.

Being missional is my method. Often I’m a missional jackass. What’s yours?

Have Fewer Opinions

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You have too many. That’s just my opinion, of course. But I’m serious about it. I know because I have too many opinions. I actually feel obligated to have more opinions than I do.

Do you ever feel this pull to be more opinionated about more topics?

In their dated but insightful book How to Watch TV News, Neil Postman and Steve Powers landed a thought that felt so freeing to read:

“Reduce by one third the number of opinions you feel obligated to have. One of the reasons many people are addicted to watching TV news is that they feel under pressure to have an opinion about almost everything.”

– Neil Postman & Steve Powers, How to Watch TV News, 1993

Depending on your age, you may need to swap out “social media” for “TV news,” but the point works either way.

I have read so many stinking articles on the Mueller report: what he’s trying to say in it, why he said what he did and why he left out what he left out, whether or not Barr was accurate in his summary, and why every single writer’s take on it is the most important thing in the world. I keep feeling this pressure like I need to know! But I don’t.

The problem is bigger than social media. As a pastor, whenever I’m talking to someone in a struggling marriage or in a difficult parenting situation, or even when I’m talking to a recent high school or college graduate, I warn them: Listen, you’re going to have to figure out what God is calling you to do here. But you should also know that a lot of people are going to share their opinions with you about what you should do. Most of them mean well, but most of these opinions will not be helpful.

What is it that makes us feel like we have to have an opinion about what other people should be doing? What do you think about the Mueller report? What’s your cap for how much a pastor should spend on shoes? Who should be watching Game of Thrones? And coming soon to everything you’ll see, hear, read, and watch for an entire year: who should become (or stay) the next President?

“Can I ask you to give up the opinions you’ve done almost zero research on or to stop posting on the issues you think you know about just because someone ranted about it on Facebook?”

It’s not uncommon for me to scroll through Twitter and see several statements like, “If you’re a pastor and you don’t speak out on ______ this week, then you’re part of the problem.” Or some variation thereof. It’s hard to read that and not think, Oh shoot, yeah, maybe I should say something about that. But I don’t know a ton about that thing. I’d better learn about it real quick so I can share my opinion.

What if we really did try to hold 33% fewer opinions? Honestly, think of how many opinions you find yourself expressing that you’ve done almost zero research on. Think of the issues you think you know about just because someone ranted about it on Facebook. Think of the people you don’t know very well but about whom you have a pretty strong opinion. Maybe we could let all of those opinions go.

Wouldn’t it be amazing if the only opinions we held were hard-earned? If we tried to use phrases like “I’m not sure” or “I haven’t looked into that” or “I could be wrong here” when speaking about issues where we haven’t sought out multiple voices and read multiple articles and done some real soul-searching and engaged in some respectful dialogue? You’ll all be fine—better, actually—without my lazy, ill-informed take on the Mueller report. What opinions could you spare your friends, family, and the online community?

I fully acknowledge that there is such a thing as a Silent Jackass, and I am often that guy. Sometimes we need to roll up our sleeves and learn about someone else’s struggle so we can help. Don’t let some vague pressure force you into these opinions, let love for real people pull you in. Loving your neighbor will mean understanding what her experience is like. And that takes time. But if it’s time you’re invested in loving someone, it’s worth it.

Can we give this a try? It might help with how awful and heated and shallowly divisive things have been lately. But truly, that’s just my opinion.

Becket Cook: WWJD LGBT?

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The following is a guest post from Becket Cook, a friend of ours, a Hollywood set designer, and the author of A Change of Affection: A Gay Man’s Incredible Story of Redemption.


On Sunday, September 20, 2009, I walked into an evangelical church in Hollywood called Reality LA as a self-proclaimed atheist and a gay man; two hours later I walked out a born-again Christian who no longer identified as gay. The power of the gospel utterly transformed me during that service. I now live as a single, celibate man.

It wasn’t condemning guilt heaped on me by Christians that spurred the transformation. It was the power of God. I am happy to deny myself and take up my cross and follow Jesus, because He’s infinitely worth it!

Let’s start by asking the obvious question: What would Jesus do with regards to those in the LGBT community? Would He distance himself from them? Would He refuse to interact with them? Would He look at them as a lost cause and move on? Would He protest gay pride parades? Would He hold up signs with condemning slogans scrawled across them? Would He reject them?

Quite the opposite.

In the Synoptic Gospels, we see Jesus dining with “sinners and tax collectors.” This was incredibly counter-cultural. Instead of acting like the religious folks of His day, He deigned to dine with “those people.” This unexpected action mortified and mystified the religious class. They were downright indignant. In His typical fashion, Jesus schools them:

I came not to call the righteous, but sinners. — Mark 2:17
Jesus focused on individuals, not groups (the story of the Samaritan woman at the well, for example). He was after people’s hearts, hence His deeply personal approach to those whom He encountered.

Of course, Jesus never compromised the truth: Unless you repent, you will all likewise perish. — Luke 13:3

But Jesus was the master of balancing grace with truth. He does this perfectly throughout the Gospels.

My sister-in-law, Kim, was a natural at this. For me, she was a great example of how a Christian should respond to this issue. She has been a strong believer since early in her childhood. I met her when I was in high school, and she started dating my older brother, Greg. She and I always had a special bond; we enjoyed chatting and hanging out with each other. Years later, after I came out as gay to my whole family, my relationship with Kim remained the same, even though she was what I would have called a Bible-thumping, evangelical Christian. I knew that she knew that I knew that she believed homosexuality was a sin, but I never felt an ounce of condemnation from her. She never sat me down to explain to me that I was sinning. She never quoted Bible verses to me. She never judged me for my lifestyle. Instead, she did something far more dangerous: she prayed…for twenty years!

Over the years, while living in Los Angeles, I would go back to Dallas (my hometown) for Christmas. One of the highlights of my visits was getting together with Kim at the nearest coffee shop. We would chat for hours. I would talk about guys; she would talk about God. She was genuinely interested in my life, and never once said to me, “You know, you’re still sinning.” She was very open about her faith and would talk about what God was doing in her life. But this didn’t bother me, because I sensed an unconditional love from her. Her love for me didn’t increase or decrease based on whether or not I was in a relationship with a guy at that particular moment. In other words, she didn’t withhold love from me because of the way I lived my life.

She did two key things throughout the years: she loved me unconditionally and prayed for me without ceasing. That’s it. And it worked!

I was recently invited to a small dinner party at an incredibly beautiful home in Malibu. A friend from church was a work colleague with the owner, who was a gay man. Much to my friend’s and my surprise, the owner wanted to hear more about Christianity. He was curious as to why two gay guys would give up that life to follow Christ. Of course, we were more than happy to have this opportunity to share the Gospel with this group of relatively hardened skeptics, both gay and straight. The only problem was that our gracious host had failed to mention to his friends that two evangelical Christians, who had both been saved out of the homosexual life, were the guests of honor!

When, immediately after the first course was served, our host turned to me and asked if I would share my story with everyone at the table, I almost choked on my fennel salad. But as I was detailing the story of my conversion, I saw a look of genuine interest on the faces of the listeners; that is, until one of them asked the $64,000 question: “What about your sexuality?” As I addressed that issue, there was a sudden shift in the room. The mood quickly changed from polite interest to semi-hostile disgust. I tried my best to explain why homosexual behavior was incompatible with Christianity, when suddenly the discussion at the table became very animated. Various guests were chiming in with their own views, not only on this incendiary subject but on “spirituality” in general.

After our second course, the conversation started to become heated. So much so that at one point, when I felt like it was getting out of hand, I stopped everyone and said: “Guys, guys. I just want you all to know that the only reason I drove an hour out to Malibu on a school night during midterms (I was in seminary at the time) is because I love you! That’s it. I’m not here to win an argument. I’m here because I love you. Period.” Everyone was taken aback by this unexpected expression of my motives. A few of them seemed dumbstruck. The temperature in the room instantly dropped, bonhomie was quickly restored, and the evening ended on a good note. We didn’t experience a mass conversion that evening, but I was thankful for the opportunity to share what God has done in my life. Seeds were planted.

According to Jesus, the second greatest commandment is to love our neighbor as ourselves.

“Love people without condemning. Billy Graham famously said, ‘It is the Holy Spirit’s job to convict, God’s job to judge, and my job to love.’ This could make all the difference in the world.”

We know what happened when the lawyer was foolish enough to put Jesus to the test by asking who his neighbor was. After telling the Parable of the Good Samaritan, Jesus asks the lawyer which man in the parable proved to be a neighbor to the man who fell among robbers. The lawyer responds,

The one who showed him mercy.

Jesus told him to go and do likewise (Luke 10:25-37).

Let us also do likewise. Get a coffee or share a meal with a gay family member or friend. Love him or her without condemning. This could make all the difference in the world. I think Billy Graham put it best when he famously said, “It is the Holy Spirit’s job to convict, God’s job to judge, and my job to love.”


A Word from Jackass Theology
We, Ryan and Mark, appreciate Becket and his story so much. God has carried him through a lot, and when the time was perfect, God got Becket’s attention and grabbed his heart. While we know there are severe disagreements regarding issues related to the LGBT community, Becket’s story is a great example of God’s love traveling through loving relationships.

We highly recommend Becket’s new memoir. It’s an incredible story, and he challenges all of us—gay or straight–to give ourselves fully to Jesus.

In an effort to stand firm on God’s truth, we have joined many other Christians in treating beautiful people made in God’s image like jackasses. This is yet another area where we have had to confess our jackassery and ask, as Becket does, What Would Jesus Do? On the other hand, Becket has also taken a lot heat regarding his book because he now holds a non-affirming stance. All of this is Becket’s story, he’s sharing what happened to him and the convictions he developed. Jackassery can flow in both directions; we all need to relate to one another in love. Becket’s story is a reminder that we don’t have to drop our convictions to love and value another person. Remember that Jesus said the world would know that we are his disciples by our love (John 13:35), not by our impeccable moral standards or firmly articulated convictions.

The Weary Jackass

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When God at first made man,
Having a glass of blessings standing by,
Let us (said he) pour on him all we can:
Let the world’s riches, which dispersed lie,
Contract into a span.

So strength first made a way;
Then beauty flowed, then wisdom, honour, pleasure:
When almost all was out, God made a stay,
Perceiving that alone of all his treasure
Rest in the bottom lay.

For if I should (said he)
Bestow this jewel also on my creature,
He would adore my gifts instead of me,
And rest in Nature, not the God of Nature:
So both should losers be.

Yet let him keep the rest,
But keep them with repining restlessness:
Let him be rich and weary, that at least,
If goodness lead him not, yet weariness
May toss him to my breast.


– “The Pulley,” George Herbert, 1633

I was recently struck by this little poem from the 17th century English poet George Herbert, pointed in its direction by the modern American poet Christian Wiman (whose work you have to read).

It’s the concept of weariness that stands out to me.

“We’re all wearily doing the best we can. We are all falling short of someone’s expectations, including our own. We can choose then to be a jackass to someone else, or to let that weariness lead us to find Rest.”

I have had the sense for some time now that we’re all wearily doing the best we can. Every one of us is falling short of what we want for ourselves, what others want and demand of us, and what God seems to be calling us to. I regularly fall into a space where I’m not necessarily depressed, not necessarily sinning, but definitely feeling as though I’m letting everyone down. I’m never doing enough for my family, for my congregation, for my friends, my neighbors, myself. It’s not always despair, but it’s an awful feeling.

I don’t believe I’m wrong in these situations. Certainly I’m choosing not to see the mountain of blessings and victories that stand all around me and in my not-so-distant past. But I can always point to many failings.

I feel so dang tired in these moments. And it’s here, in this space, that Herbert’s poem speaks to me. I don’t think he’s angling for theological precision (we shouldn’t need this reminder regarding poetry, but…). I think he’s making a profound point about the human experience. And saying something vital about God.

This echoes truth found throughout the Bible and throughout Christian history. It sounds an awful lot like Solomon in Ecclesiastes:

“All things are full of weariness;
a man cannot utter it;
the eye is not satisfied with seeing,
nor the ear filled with hearing.”

– Ecclesiastes 1:8

It also nods to the appropriateness of the promise in Hebrews that “there remains a Sabbath rest for the people of God, for whoever has entered God’s rest has also rested from his works as God did from his” (Heb. 4:9–10). And Augustine’s famous statement in his Confessions: “You have made us for yourself, and our hearts are restless until they rest in you.”

“You have made us for yourself, and our hearts are restless until they rest in you.” -Augustine

We are tired. In our exhaustion, we bite and devour one another. This is not okay. But it’s certainly comprehensible. I wonder how much of our jackassery could be eased if we found true rest? All of the judgment we receive and are afraid to receive. All of the preemptive lashing out we perpetrate in pursuit of at least partial self-protection. All of the insecurity and distrust and bad faith. How much of this stems from our weary striving? From feeling hard-done-by? From feeling pulled apart and harassed?

“Let him be rich and weary, that at least,
If goodness lead him not, yet weariness
May toss him to my breast.”

What if we could reclaim our weariness? Lead us not into jackassery but deliver us from evil. If God’s good gifts are not always enough to lead us to his presence, to lead us to enjoy his world and the people he has made, then perhaps weariness will toss us back to Jesus, the true source of rest. The one who stands content in Christ does not need to prove himself. The one who sees in her weariness a need that only Jesus can fulfill will not try to deny, diminish, or deflect the pain of weariness by lashing out.

Exhaustion may be the impulse we need to return to the place we belong. And this seems to be by design. Why else would God have established a rhythm of work and Sabbath rest? Why else would he create bodies that require sleep? Why else would he continually call us to find rest in him?

“Come to me, all who labor and are heavy laden, and I will give you rest.”

– Matthew 11:28

Kierkegaard: Love Believes All Things

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In his brilliant book Works of Love, Søren Kierkegaard lays out a concept that would absolutely revolutionize our lives, our churches, and our society. It’s simple, but the impact would be profound. And it’s simply this:

LOVE BELIEVES ALL THINGS

That’s it, just a phrase from 1 Corinthians 13:7. But if we actually took it seriously, life would never be the same.

It’s common for us to be afraid of getting someone wrong. We hesitate with our love. It takes us a while to warm up to someone, we try not to really invest in a person until we know they’re not going to let us down. I know this reality very well. I’m pretty gregarious in general, but I’m suspicious of a lot of people. I’m afraid to think too highly of a person until I have a reason to raise my view of him or her.

Kierkegaard affirms that we’re right to be afraid of getting someone wrong, but he says we’re fearful in the wrong direction. We shouldn’t be afraid of thinking too highly of a person. We should be terrified of thinking too little of them. If you think too highly of a person and treat them well, then you find out they’re actually a jerk, then you’re likely to get hurt. But if you think too little of someone, then find out they’re an amazing, loving person—what then? You’ve sidelined someone unnecessarily. You’ve limited their potential. You’ve robbed yourself of an opportunity and you’ve diminished that person.

Maybe you’re not convinced yet. If this doesn’t sound right to you, it’s probably because you, like me, have a jacked up view of love.

“We should be more afraid of thinking too little than of thinking too highly of a person. If I think too highly of them I might get hurt. If I think too little of them, I demean their humanity and am not loving.”

Kierkegaard urges us to see it like this: It’s impossible for someone to steal something you’re trying to gift to them. If you’re trying to put money in someone’s pocket, and that person grabs the money and walks away with it, have you been robbed? They may feel like they’re making off with your money, but you’ve accomplished your purpose. You wanted to give them something, and they took it.

This is not how we tend to think about love.

We often love because we want to be loved in return. When we love someone and that love is not reciprocated, we feel like it was a waste, or that we’ve been taken advantage of, or that we made a mistake. But for Kierkegaard, love is something we owe to the people around us (Rom. 13:8). It’s something we are called to give at every opportunity, and the goal of love is blessing the neighbor standing before us, not receiving back what is being given away.

So if you love someone, and they take your love and only hurt you in return, has your love not done what it set out to do? You can’t be robbed if you’re trying to give it away. You can only be duped in loving someone if you were expecting something in return.

This is easy enough to do with the people we are naturally inclined to love. Kierkegaard calls this preferential love, and at its worst, it’s just a form of self-love (meaning that we’re doing it for the benefit we receive). It’s much more difficult to love a stranger or enemy without expecting anything in return. But is this not Jesus’ message in the parable of the Good Samaritan? Don’t forget that Jesus told this parable in response to the question: “And who is my neighbor?” And don’t forget that would-be Jesus-followers asked him THAT question in response to his command to “love your neighbor as yourself.”

If your goal is to love the person who stands before you, then you won’t stop loving them because they mistreat you in return.

“Love does not assume the worst. It simply believes that each person is worthy of love. It believes that each person is capable of love. It’s not afraid of being duped, because its only goal is to give itself away.”

That’s powerful. And it would change everything. Think of that in terms of the people living in your own house. But don’t stop there. Think of in terms of the people living on your street.

Now think of it in terms of the people you meet in the midst of theology debates, Facebook quarrels, and Twitter threads. Think of it with regard to the people you consider theological off base. (Do you love someone because you think you can convince them to change their view, or do you love them regardless of their theological views?) Think of it with regard to people living in the U.S. illegally. Think of it in terms of people you dislike. Do you love liberals AND conservatives? Calvinists AND Arminians? Baptists AND Methodists? Evangelicals AND Atheists? Donald Trump AND Barak Obama? The conservative community AND the LGBT community?

Love believes all things. It’s not suspicious of everyone. It’s not assuming the worst of everyone. It’s not looking for ways that everyone else can serve its interests. It simply believes that each person is worthy of love. And it believes that each person is capable of love. It’s not afraid of being duped, because its only goal is to give itself away.

Imagine how this one simple concept could transform all of our interactions.

Heroes & Villains

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Stories can be compelling. You listen to people long enough and you realize that nearly every conversation is a form of storytelling. Some are like, “Dude, the other day I was moving my grandmother into her house and we dropped the dresser down the stairs! That sucked!” Protagonist, antagonist, conflict, and resolution.

Others are more subtle in their plot line. “Did you hear what so-and-so said about such-and-such? Can you believe that?” It isn’t some super long narrative, but it is a narrative, told by a narrator.

Narrators get to decide who the heroes and villains of each story are. When your friend tells you “so-and-so said such-and-such,” the intonation of their voice, the purse of the lips, and the roll of their eye tells you what you should think about the story. They are immediately, even if unintentionally, offering you a hero or a villain.

Marital counseling brings out the 9-year-old in everyone. This is why marriage counselors like to meet with both partners. When it comes to conflict in a relationship, each person truly believes the other is to blame. If you only get one side of the story, you will often be wooed into perceiving the other spouse to be the villain. Even the worst and most obvious of offenses (e.g., marital infidelity) can be understandable depending on who controls the narrative.

You know who else does this? 9-year-old boys. I know because I have two. They tattle and twist, shift blame, and point fingers until they are blue in the face. Every time they are offended or hurt or frustrated it is at the hand of the other. They are constantly jockeying to get my wife and I to demonstrate that we do in fact love one of them more than the other.

In the Church, we have our heroes and we have our villains too. I read a critical article from the Gospel Coalition Australia on “the dangers of the Bethel Church,” which outlined the pitfalls of their global healing movement. The author says “Jesus Culture, Bethel Music, and Awakening Australia” are “gateway drugs” to Bethel’s weak theology and cultish revivalism. As much as I love the Gospel Coalition (and I really do), the voice in this particular article sounds awfully similar to my pre-pubescent twins. There’s so much finger pointing and so little charity.

This whole “unreliable narrator” phenomenon is actually happening right now as you read this article. In this story, I am the hero, sent to fight all the jackassery that turns us against our fellow believers and makes us feel justified in magnifying other people’s shortcomings like bad caricature artists. Meanie heads like the Gospel Coalition are the villains in this chapter because they oppose the unity Jesus prayed for in John 17. Of course, there’s always another way to tell the story.

If narrators are unreliable, who can we trust? What is true? Who are the real HEROES and VILLAINS?

Actually, this is the wrong question, derived from the wrong job description. Our primary mandate is LOVE: love of God, love among believers, even love of one’s enemy.

Jesus spent a long time going over this.

If narrators are unreliable, who will help us discern these things? Who CAN we trust? Fortunately, loving human beings doesn’t depend on accurate story telling. Justice does, but love does not. Justice must get to the bottom of who did what to whom. Insurance companies need to calculate percentage of culpability, but love doesn’t need that. In fact, love can be given, and is best received, when it isn’t deserved in the slightest (insert the often told but never old story of “The Prodigal Son” in Luke 15).

If the Bible tells any story, humans have a single job: Love. Love God. Love others. God has a more complicated role. He must love. He must judge. But he is far more qualified, and is way better at seeing through our BS.

In the biblical story, human beings often play the role of the villain (with some help from the adversary). God is the hero.

“We are all unreliable narrators. So how will we determine who is the hero and who is the villain? Fortunately, loving human beings doesn’t depend on accurate story telling. Justice does, but love does not.”

Sure, we have our moments when we get to play like heroes. People at Bethel worship Jesus with passion. It’s contagious. GLOBALLY CONTAGIOUS! In that way, and many more, they are my heroes. Leaders and pastors at the Gospel Coalition fight for the clarity of the gospel, and much more. Their passion for Jesus has carried me through very low seasons in life and ministry. But if I need to choose which child of God is the favorite, I can’t. I love them both. They are for now Spirit and Flesh. Which means for now, they are hero and villain. As am I.

The Feast

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Scripture says it in many ways, but basically, God is calling you to join him at the table for a meal. After all the heartbreak and rebellion and doubts and struggle, the Bible ends with a picture of God’s people joining him for a marriage feast. But even now, the table is open. God’s work in this world consists of drawing us in to sit and eat.

In Jesus’ parable of the prodigal son (Luke 15:22–32), one son runs off to spend his portion of his inheritance while the other son stays at home with their father. When the young prodigal returns home in shame, the father runs to embrace and restore him, while the older brother pouts outside and refuses to join the party his father throws to celebrate the son’s return.

We tend to focus on the sons in this story, but we should ask: What is the father’s goal for each of his sons? To get them to sit down together with him at the table. What are each of the sons resisting in their own way? Sitting down for the family meal.

Why the table?

It’s a place of celebration. A place of relationship. A place of healing. Of mutuality. Of equality. Grace. Blessing.

The two sons are invited to join their father at a table. Not a classroom. Not a temple. What the father was after was not education or ritual. He was after relationship. It wasn’t about what they could offer. It was about them.

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When we are able to get past the madness that drives us to the far country in search of pleasure or significance or autonomy, we can set aside all of our shame and come back to the father just as we are. In these moments, we know we simply belong. As is. We can stop trying to live large or make a name for ourselves. Stop running from the relationship we know deep down will be the purest and most meaningful we will ever experience.

The father is calling: “Come home. Join me at the table. It’s time to celebrate.”

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When we are able to release our outrage that the prodigal has returned, to stop demanding penance or some positive contribution from our brothers who have failed, we can set aside all of our self-righteousness and come back to the father just as we are. In these moments, we know that we and all of our siblings belong at the table. There is no one we want to see excluded. We acknowledge that the table was made for this. We let go of our longing to celebrate accomplishments and we long to celebrate people. We see beyond the costumes and affectations and affiliations of our brothers and we simply see them. And our love for them leads us to first accept the father’s invitation to the table, and then to stand beside him as he invites the prodigal.

The father is calling: “Come home. Join me at the table. It’s time to celebrate.”

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Jesus ate his way through the Gospels. We often find him at a table. With people who are celebrating life (John 2), with all sorts of “sinners” (Luke 5, 19), and with his followers (Luke 22, 24). Jesus even ate with Pharisees (Luke 11, 14), which means he did not bar anyone from the table, though some meals were more awkward than others.

“God’s work in this world consists of drawing us in to sit and eat. You’re invited. But eating means celebrating that everyone is at the table again.”

The table is vital because a meal is more than a meal. It’s a celebration of the relationship. The meal is the relationship—the relationship takes place around the table.

You’re invited. But eating means celebrating. And actually, the feast is a celebration that everyone is at the table again. You don’t get to celebrate only yourself or only your favorites. The feast flows out of the father’s joy—we get to share in his joy. And his joy is over the gathering of all his children, including the ones who have not cleaned themselves up and those who nearly refused to come because of their disgust over the guest list. They all belong at this table. Celebrating means eating and drinking together. As equals. It’s more than a handshake or contract. It’s a party. The point is to enjoy being together.

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The meal continues at our tables. There we meet with Jesus still as we join with older and younger brothers to celebrate the relationship. How different would the Church look today if instead of whispered gossipy exchanges we actually sat down at a table, looked each other in the eyes, and enjoyed the relationship? Celebrated it?

The feast will happen with or without us. The question is whether our disapproval of the guest list will keep us from joining our brothers. And our father.

Jackass by Association

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Being a pastor in a denominational church has great benefits. It also offers unique opportunities for jackassery. My favorite thing about our denomination right now is pastoral cohorts that Ryan and I are a part of. A few times each year we’ve been flying across the country to join other pastors in our denomination for training, encouragement, and support. These times have been rich and ministry-shaping.

But it struck me on one of our trips that in order to meet with these pastors, we were driving past hundreds of churches in our immediate area, then flying over thousands upon thousands more. We have a connection with a handful of pastors across the country through our denomination. And that’s great.

But I wonder: Does it make sense that we partner with churches who share a doctrinal statement rather than churches that share a mission field?

“Does it make sense that we partner with churches who share a doctrinal statement rather than churches that share a mission field?”

I’m not talking about smoothing over real differences or pretending like theology doesn’t matter. The mission of the church I’m part of will be very different than the mission of a church that worships Zeus, for example. Differences make partnership difficult. And partnership can only happen if each party avoids selling out what they’re passionately committed to.

But associating only with churches in my denomination, I’m skipping over several churches whose doctrinal statements are virtually identical to mine. To the unchurched, our churches would be indistinguishable except perhaps for the size of the congregation.

I don’t have a great answer for this, but I’d love to see churches join together around a common mission and “mission field” to AT LEAST the same degree we partner with denominations, associations, and coalitions.

I actually feel blessed in this area right now. I meet monthly with a few of my counterparts in nearby churches. Ryan does the same. We share ideas, problems, and resources. We pray for each other. Our churches aren’t doing a ton of events together, but it’s clear we’re on the same team, clear that we’re rooting for each other.

To be clear, I’m NOT saying that denominations or associations are bad. I find real benefit in ours. I’m NOT saying that individual churches shouldn’t be distinct. Each church must pursue its unique calling. I’m also NOT arguing against valuing doctrinal agreement. I wish we had more. And here’s the big one: I’m NOT saying I have any of this figured out.

What I AM saying is that prioritizing an association over a mission is dangerous. At best, it misses the point. At worst, it compromises the purpose of the Church’s existence. Choosing to work with people who formulate their theology exactly as we do rather than with people who are actively loving the same people we are seems wrong. It seems like a jackass move.

“Prioritizing an association over a mission is dangerous. At best, it misses the point. At worst, it compromises the purpose of the Church’s existence.”

It’s easy to get along with people who think like you do. It’s easy to be “unified” when your only contact is gathering to talk about the things you already agree on. It’s not bad, but it’s not full-fledged unity. It’s not an all-out pursuit of the mission. At least, not if that’s all it is.

It’s often harder to love someone living in your town than someone across the country. But which matters more? Should I feel accomplished because I’m able to love the pastor in Texas who believes what I believe, teaches the way I teach, and reads all the same books I read? That’s easy. How much better to love the pastor down the street who has different emphases, different style, but is trying to bless the same neighborhood I’m trying to bless? (When I type it out, it all seems so obvious. Should I be embarrassed to be writing this like it’s some kind of realization? Has it been obvious to everyone but me this entire time?)

It’s not the associations that makes us jackasses. It’s the tendency to hide in echo chambers rather than partnering with the people who are around us. I’m not going to stop learning from and encouraging people from around the world. But I want to keep doing the same with people around the block.

Why We’re So Prone to Exclude

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“Us” and “them” isn’t just a problem to fight against, it’s a universal human experience. In fact, you could argue that this is necessary to belonging: you can’t be part of a group without drawing a line around it. Exclusion is inevitable, and demonization follows on its heels.

I’ve been reading Tim Keller’s Making Sense of God, which is resonating with me on this topic. Keller presents a summary from the philosopher Miroslav Volf on “four ways that we can assert and bolster our self-worth by excluding others” (from Volf’s book Exclusion and Embrace). These are wonderfully descriptive and convicting.

(1) The most blunt and effective means of bolstering self-worth by excluding is either killing or forcing someone out of our living space. It seems barbaric, but American history and politics show we’re not above this. On a personal level, this might look like moving to a new neighborhood or joining a different church to avoid interactions with someone.

(2) Volf also lists assimilation as a means of exclusion. In this approach, you can have your arms wide open to newcomers, but the price of entry is complete assimilation. I’ll love you as long as you become just like me, adopting my values, culture, beliefs, and enemies. Keller quotes Volf: “We will refrain from vomiting you out…if you let us swallow you up.” This one stings, both as an American and as a Christian.

(3) Next is dominance. We will accept people who are different than us as long as they remain consciously inferior, allowing us to be dominant. You can belong, but only if you play your role. Keller’s examples include: only working certain jobs, only receiving certain levels of pay, and only living in certain neighborhoods. We’ve definitely seen this at work inside and outside of the Church. This makes me think of some of the crap Beth Moore has had to deal with, but that’s just the tip of the iceberg.

(4) The last approach to exclusion that Volf identifies is demeaning and ignoring people who are different. You can tolerate them, but you’re still disgusted by them. You ignore their opinions, needs, and contributions. Volf says we like this approach because it gives us “the illusion of sinlessness and strength.” As a Christian, are you ever proud of the way you “tolerate” weak or sinful Christians, or do you find yourself grieved that many aren’t making the same choices you do? If so, this one is yours.

I find this list convicting because it accounts for those who consciously exclude and demean, but it also leaves room for people who do this with subtlety, perhaps even unconsciously. But it’s not just the WAY in which we exclude. Some suggest that exclusion is NECESSARY for the formation of a personal identity. That honestly terrifies me! Are Ryan and I just the biggest jackasses of all (probably) for calling attention to something we just need to accept and move on with as politely as possible?

Is there no solution for this? Can we really not have an US without a THEM?

Volf (with Keller’s elaboration) explains that there is, of course, one solution to this. It’s Jesus. It’s the gospel.

Think about the absolutely game-changing power of the gospel. If it’s about finding the US who share something fundamental in common and excluding the THEM who aren’t like us, then all that binds us together is our similarity. It’s what Kierkegaard calls a PREFERENTIAL LOVE—we love the people we prefer, the people who bring us joy.

But Jesus offers us something different. He offers us humility, whereby we are freed from the compulsion to believe that we are better than everyone else. He offers us self-sacrificing love, whereby one person can put another’s best interests above their own, even incurring pain so that someone else doesn’t have to. He offers us forgiveness, whereby when an offense enters the relationship, peace and wholeness can be restored. He offers us God’s very Spirit, who transforms us from the inside so that we become a conduit of God’s love, joy, peace, patience, kindness, goodness, gentleness, and self-control.

“Just as Christians spent decades copying ‘secular’ music and adding a Christian veneer, so we seem to be appropriating the vitriol around us and adding Bible verses to give it a Christian twist.”

Don’t underestimate this. Human beings are wired for “othering” in a fallen world. As Christians, we are not exempt from this. But as Christians, we claim to be transformed by the very thing the world needs in this regard. As society around us “bites and devours one another” to the point that they are “consumed by one another” (Gal. 5:15), we don’t have to play along.

I’m not convinced that we realize this. Just as Christians spent decades appropriating the musical styles of the best “secular” bands, adding a Christian veneer, so we seem to be taking the vitriol, the polarization, and the arrogant superiority that flies all around us and adding a Christian twist. We fight the way everyone else does, but we attack each other with Bible verses!

It’s gross, and it needs to change. Thank God he has given us a path forward. May we stop with all of the exclusion and lean into Jesus. He is the only hope we have.