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Joshua Harris: An Opportunity for Empathy

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Author Joshua Harris influenced a whole generation of evangelical Christians with his book I Kissed Dating Goodbye. Now he has a new documentary, called I Survived I Kissed Dating Goodbye, about his new ideas on dating.

This last weekend, Joshua Harris posted this on Instagram:

“My heart is full of gratitude. I wish you could see all the messages people sent me after the announcement of my divorce. They are expressions of love though they are saddened or even strongly disapprove of the decision.

“I am learning that no group has the market cornered on grace. This week I’ve received grace from Christians, atheists, evangelicals, exvangelicals, straight people, LGBTQ people, and everyone in between. Of course there have also been strong words of rebuke from religious people. While not always pleasant, I know they are seeking to love me. (There have been spiteful, hateful comments that angered and hurt me.)

“The information that was left out of our announcement is that I have undergone a massive shift in regard to my faith in Jesus. The popular phrase for this is ‘deconstruction,’ the biblical phrase is ‘falling away.’ By all the measurements that I have for defining a Christian, I am not a Christian. Many people tell me that there is a different way to practice faith and I want to remain open to this, but I’m not there now…

“To my Christian friends, I am grateful for your prayers. Don’t take it personally if I don’t immediately return calls. I can’t join in your mourning. I don’t view this moment negatively. I feel very much alive, and awake, and surprisingly hopeful. I believe with my sister Julian that, ‘All shall be well, and all manner of thing shall be well.’”

Joshua isn’t the first or last person whose soul-searching journey led them out of the faith. Sometimes when someone leaves it is obvious that they are doing it in a willful desire to justify sin (think Prodigal Son). Other times it is about the wearisome nature of the church and its subculture, the dissonant value systems between Christians and their Christ, or the deafening silence of God. In these moments I empathize with Josh’s struggle.

Empathy is an important word. In Romans 12, Paul says, “Rejoice with those who rejoice, and weep with those who weep.” That means empathetic living. Opening yourself up to feel what others feel is a tremendous way to love people.

Sympathy can have a tinge of superiority. I feel sorry for you because you are experiencing pain. Sympathy is not the same as empathy. Empathy says, I feel pain as you feel pain.

The important thing about feeling what others feel is recognizing that you CAN ACTUALLY feel what others feel, and you CAN feel it without condoning ALL of their behaviors or beliefs.

My kids constantly celebrate things and cry about things that are objectively stupid. But I love my kids so I celebrate their stick figure drawings with them and I show empathy for their imaginary bruises (sometimes). The truth is that loving my kids doesn’t mean that I need to think that all the things they celebrate and cry about are wonderful and accurate. It’s enough to see someone I love sad, or someone I love happy. The question is: Can I join them in their pain and joy?

I want to be clear. I do not know Joshua Harris personally, but I am sure that the last several years of his personal life and faith life have been filled with both tears and joy. Tears over the emotional and spiritual turmoil of coming to grips with what you truly believe. His divorce may be amicable, but that doesn’t mean there were not hours upon hours of hurt and pain involved in coming to this decision. Have you ever felt these type of emotions? Have you ever struggled in your relationships? Have you ever changed your mind on something you believed? Have you ever been scrutinized and/or attacked by strangers who don’t know you?

Objectively, these things suck. You don’t have to assume a person is sinless to acknowledge that these things suck and to weep with the one who weeps.

Can you weep with Josh? I’m not asking if you can weep about the fact that he is stepping away from his beliefs. Nor am I asking how his situation makes you feel about Christian leaders. I’m asking if you can weep over his pain. Don’t make this about you. This is about him and his wife and his kids. Can you be sad for him about the things that are painful for him?

And now I’m going to ask for more than most of my readers would probably consider: Josh said he feels awake, alive, and hopeful. Given everything he’s been experiencing, this may be the first time in a while he’s felt these things. Can you rejoice with him?

“Joshua Harris made a heavy announcement. Will we weep with him as he weeps AND rejoice with him as he rejoices? Or will we make this about our opinions and expectations and lose sight of the person in process?”

This one is probably much more difficult to wrap you head around. You may feel that celebrating with Josh is celebrating sin or celebrating walking away from Jesus. (Many readers are doing exactly that, this one is easy for many of you.) I want to be clear, I do not believe the Bible calls us to celebrate sin. So without celebrating sin, is it possible to rejoice in the journey that Joshua is on? Is it okay to be hopeful for him? Is it okay to celebrate some of the freedom he now feels from the religious expectation that has likely oppressed him his entire life? The freedom of finally being honest about what he believes and the state of his marriage? It is truly a soul-crushing endeavor to be living a lie. He must feel free in this moment. He seems excited. I am happy for him. Not happy that he “fell away;” happy that the burdens and expectations saddled upon him have been lifted and that possibilities for the future are wide open. I pray blessings upon Joshua Harris. I want good things for him.

To be clear, in my paradigm, that means I also pray that he comes to see that Jesus was not the source of his frustration: religion was. I pray he comes to know the easy and light burden of Christ in new ways. I pray God works all these things for his good. But that’s what I want for him. Empathy doesn’t start there. Empathy begins by listening and understanding him.

Watchdog Theology

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Be careful who you associate with. Stay away from those people—and teachers in particular—who are spreading dangerous doctrine. It would be great if everyone stuck to biblical truth, but that’s not the case, so we have to be ready to break company with those who are outside the bounds of orthodoxy.

It’s clearly good advice—it’s biblical after all—and we all believe it.

But Jesus didn’t. 

In his day, Jesus was accused of being morally loose. Why? Because he hung out with people who were morally loose (Matt. 11:19). He “associated with” them. Jesus was pretty strong against the Pharisees for being false teachers, but he didn’t shun them. We see Jesus eating in their homes (Luke 14) and meeting with them for theological discussion (John 3).

“Jesus didn’t divide the way we do. He wasn’t afraid of who he was seen with or who others would assume he was partnering with. Yet this drives much of Evangelicalism.”

Bottom line: Jesus didn’t do the kind of dividing we tend to feel is our biblical obligation. He said strong things to people, but he wasn’t afraid of who he was seen with or who other people would assume he was forging partnerships and sharing a lifestyle with. Yet this drives much of Evangelicalism.

I’ve seen Romans 16:17 flying around recently as a warning against associating with people who teach false doctrine:

I appeal to you, brothers, to watch out for those who cause divisions and create obstacles contrary to the doctrine that you have been taught; avoid them. For such persons do not serve our Lord Christ, but their own appetites, and by smooth talk and flattery they deceive the hearts of the naive. For your obedience is known to all, so that I rejoice over you, but I want you to be wise as to what is good and innocent as to what is evil.

Pretty straightforward, right? But read it again. It doesn’t at all say what I’ve always assumed it says. Paul isn’t telling us to divide from people who disagree with us theologically. What does he say? He tells us to avoid people who cause divisions and create obstacles! I don’t see how to take this other than as a warning against the very people who are constantly warning usabout people who teach different doctrine. Am I missing something? Or is that just what it says?

Some of the watchdog theologians I have read seem to be experts in identifying dangerous doctrine or doctrine that may not seem terrible in itself but that leads down a dangerous path. I wonder what this means in connection to Paul’s statement to “be wise as to what is good and innocent as to what is evil.” Is this just Paul’s way of saying focus on the positive?

The truth is, I have been this watchdog theologian. If you had mentioned Rick Warren in my presence several years ago, I would have given you several reasons why his ministry was deficient. Dangerous even. Guess how many of Rick Warren’s sermons I had heard or how many of his books I had read? Zero. I literally knew nothing about him firsthand, but I was in this watchdog culture that taught me that he was dangerous. 

So I barked along. 

I’ve been devastated when friends turned charismatic. I no longer considered them ministry partners. I’ve prayed for friends who identified themselves as—dare I say it?—Arminian. 

I followed many in my watchdog crowd in taking shots at the “Emerging Church”—even years after it stopped existing in recognizable form. I can’t tell you how many books I’ve read just because I knew I would disagree with themand wanted to be able to warn people about the dangers therein. 

I am the watchdog theologian. I still have this knee-jerk impulse to bark at certain groups.

“In my former life, warnings against false teaching were infinitely more important than calls to unity. But I completely missed how much the New Testament emphasizes unity.”

But I’m beginning to see that some of the passages I’ve used to justify this approach don’t say what I thought they said. I’m beginning to see that unity is a FAR bigger deal in the New Testament than I ever would have imagined. In my former life, the warnings against false teaching were infinitely more important than admonitions to be unified. I’d make statements like, “There can’t be any unity without the truth.” I was being a jackass. 

I don’t know how it all works. I’m still learning, processing, and discussing. But I know unity is worth working toward. And for the first time in my life I’m trying to take seriously Paul’s warning to avoid those who cause divisions.  

Stuck at Home on Mother’s Day

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What a weird Mother’s Day! Add the one day we all stop to appreciate the mothers in our lives to the long list of things that the Coronavirus is ruining. For many moms, Mother’s Day always carries a tinge of disappointment anyway. You never truly get to relax the way you wanted to, the kids still get in fights even though they promised dad they wouldn’t, the chores don’t actually get done for you (they’re just postponed until you do them yourself on Monday), etc.

For many mothers, this might be the worst Mother’s Day yet. The one day that should feel special now has to (by law) look just like every day of the last two months. No special brunch, no time off to go wander the town or the mall or Target.

Here’s the thing, motherhood is all about the extremely local and the extremely specific. If you have younger kids, the badges of your motherhood are house imprisoned right next to you. Though we all long for a broader significance, for a broader recognition of what we do, of who we are, the true significance of parenting is always found within arm’s reach.

“Motherhood is all about the extremely local and the extremely specific. The badges of your motherhood are house imprisoned right next to you. The true significance of parenting is always found within arm’s reach.”

I wish you could all gather with whomever you want to today. I wish you could stand up in church and be rightfully applauded for what you do all day everyday. I wish we could have parades in your collective honor and could send you to resorts to recover from the many wounds of mothering.

But there are a few things I know about motherhood. I know that the vast majority of what you do as a mother is completely hidden from view. I cannot imagine all the tiny lessons you teach your children when the situation arises. All the times you heroically muster just a little more patience and thereby model God’s grace in an important but seemingly ordinary moment. All the self-sacrificial acts that are as big as offering your very body to bear a tiny human and as small as eating something gross for lunch or making four versions of lunch so that everyone will be happy. I know that as a mother, you are constantly doing heroic acts that are not recognized as such. I know that you often lay your own needs aside in an effort to show love, only to receive grumbling or anger in return. I cannot imagine the staggering amount of sleep you’ve gone without for the good of your family. I know that your kids, who see firsthand every sacrifice you make, are entirely incapable of recognizing your selflessness for what it is. I also know that your husband, wonderful though he doubtless is, has never come anywhere near to noticing or appreciating everything that makes you such a great mom.

“I know that as a mother, you are constantly doing heroic acts that are not recognized as such. I know that you often lay your own needs aside in an effort to show love, only to receive grumbling or anger in return.”

Motherhood often goes unnoticed. And no symbolic gesture on a given day of the year has ever been able to fix that.

Not only that, but motherhood comes with all sorts of pains. For some of you, you carry an enormous amount of guilt over what you could have done or should have done better at a given stage in your child’s life. For many of you, the pains of infertility or death make Mother’s Day the most painful day of the year. In these cases as well, no symbolic act or compassionate word on Mother’s Day can fix the pain.

Here’s what I know about Mother’s Day, and every other day of the year for that matter. You are seen and loved, today and always. Every human observer is imperfect in their observations here. Whether through immaturity (your kids), inattentiveness (your husband), judgmentalism (your parents?), or basic human sinfulness (literally everyone), the people around you can see and appreciate some of what you do, but will never come close to appreciating you truly.

However, there is one who sees and knows it all, and that is Jesus. Every sacrifice you’ve ever made for your family, he has seen and knows precisely what it cost you. Every frustration and pain you’ve ever experienced with regard to motherhood, he knows well and is very aware of precisely how bad it has hurt you. Furthermore, he knows better than anyone—better even than you yourself—all the ways you have failed or sinned as a mother. But the beauty in all of this is that his love for you is so great, that he literally came to suffer and die in your place to wipe away your failures and empower you to live in grace. None of your shortcomings matter in the shadow of the cross. None of your guilt is legitimate anymore. None of your pain is permanent. None of your sacrifices are wasted.

It’s Mother’s Day, and regardless of how you are or aren’t able to celebrate today, there are people around you who know (imperfectly) your value and contributions, and there is One who sees (perfectly) how special and important you are. Even if you’re having a hard time sensing the love from the humans around you, know that the one who matters most is surrounding you in nothing but perfect love. I pray that you’ll all experience love within arm’s reach, and that you’ll find your true evaluation from true model of all humanity, including motherhood: Jesus himself (Matt. 23:37).

Happy Mother’s Day, Moms.

Do We Still Know How to Apologize & Repent?

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It would seem not. I’m struck by this thought because I find myself frequently asking for forgiveness from my daughters. It’s weird to do. They’re 8 and 10 right now, and we have a great relationship overall. I grow impatient, raise my voice, or overreact. When I do this, it’s because they’re being unreasonable, stubborn, or refusing to listen and obey directions. The thing is, my wife and I teach our daughters that it doesn’t matter what their sister did, their job is to respond in love and grace even when they don’t like what someone else is doing to them.

“My theology tells me that humans are imperfect, so why should it be a rare occurrence that we turn to each other and ask for forgiveness?”

So I find myself apologizing to my daughters often. I’m not perfect about it, but it strikes me as important for my own soul and for their developing understanding of what it means to be a human being. My theology tells me that humans are imperfect, so why should it be a rare occurrence that we turn to each other and ask for forgiveness?

I have a concern about Christian celebrity culture, where big names make big statements and often go too far in speaking against someone or something. Often this involves outright sin and slander. But how often do these key figures backtrack or repent of what they’ve said? From where I’m standing it seems rare. More often they double down. And what I see with the Christian celebrities, I see in all of us (myself included, of course). Especially the online versions of ourselves.

“When a celebrity pastor makes a harmful statement, why is it so rare for them to issue an apology? Why do they more often double down on it? Doesn’t our theology teach us that we’ll need to repent—often?”

I want to share an older story in order to bring some hope to our current situation. Back in 2012, Ann Voskamp’s book Ten Thousand Gifts was very popular. It’s a wonderful book. But when Tim Challies reviewed her book, he was not gracious. It’s not a hateful review, but it’s marked by the sort of watchdog theology and uncharitable interpretations of her work that characterize a certain Christian subculture. As an example, Ann Voskamp describes having a spiritual encounter with God in the Notre Dame cathedral. Challies’ response was to question her understanding of the gospel because she felt the need to travel to a specific location (a location in which poor theology has been preached, nonetheless) in order to encounter God. There are several things like this. It’s sad for me to read now, as it was then.

But then something unusual happened. One day after Challies’ review was posted, Ann Voskamp and her family invited Tim Challies and his family over for dinner. I don’t know if that dinner ever took place, but the mere invitation caused Challies to issue a public apology to Voskamp for his uncharitable review. It really is remarkable. He doubles down on some of his critiques of the book (which is his prerogative as a subjective reviewer), but he reflects on all the things he might have done differently if he had thought of Voskamp as a real human being:

“Something happened inside me when I saw Ann’s name in my inbox… this strange feeling that comes when I suddenly realize that the name on the front of the book—’Ann Voskamp’ in this case—is not some cleverly programmed, unfeeling robot that spits out blog posts and magazine articles and books, but a person. A real person…

“In my review I had treated her as if her words mean less than mine, as if I was free to criticize her in a way I would not want to be criticized…

“I would have said certain things differently had I known that she and I might soon be sharing a meal together… I might have said certain things differently had I considered her an ‘insider,’ a fellow member of whatever little circle of the Christian world I inhabit… I can’t deny that somewhere in my mind lurks this insider and outsider kind of thinking which somehow encourages me to extend greater courtesy to one group than another. I did poorly here and I can see that I need to grow in my ability to critique the ideas in a book even while being kind and loving to its author.”

Challies ended that article by explicitly asking Voskamp’s forgiveness. It’s so refreshing. It’s beautiful, and all the more so because it’s rare.

In this fallen world, we’re all going to be jackasses from time to time. This shouldn’t surprise us. But let’s take a note from Challies and learn to own up to jackassery and repent when we find it.

More than that, let’s take a note from Ann Voskamp and begin inviting people to dinner. Notice that what prompted Challies’ response was Voskamp inviting him to a meal. It was the simple relational gesture that acknowledged him as a human and initiated a relational path forward that helped him see the jackassery. That’s powerful stuff. We all have so much room to grow in this. We need more of these stories.

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.

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.

What Piper, Bell, MacArthur, & Hatmaker Have in Common

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Saying that we’re all jackasses and we need to love more is different than saying that everyone is always right. We’re not arguing for some vague, anemic ecumenism or for universalism. We are not all right. In fact, we would go so far as to say we are all incredibly wrong in very different and important ways. There are things each of us lacks, things each of us overemphasizes. The thing that binds us together is our deep lack, our deep need, our deep inability to see clearly, understand fully, or live with integrity.

Have we forgotten Paul’s words?

“For now we see in a mirror dimly, but then face to face. Now I know in part; then I shall know fully, even as I have been fully known.” (1 Corinthians 13:12)

John Piper is not exempt from this. NT Wright is not exempt. Martin Luther King Jr., John Calvin, Rob Bell, Jen Hatmaker, Science Mike, John MacArthur, and Tim Keller are not exempt. Your pastor is not exempt. We are not exempt. You are not exempt. We all see poorly. But the gift is that we all see different things poorly. We are not all blind to the same things. That is the beauty of the body. Collectively we see far more clearly. Collectively we help to eliminate blind spots instead of increasing, perpetuating, or even parading them.

I love to do puzzles with my kids. But what the kids love most about doing puzzles is putting in the final piece. In fact, one of my kids loves to bypass all the work of putting together the puzzle by sneakily snagging a few pieces. He disappears for a few hours while the family labors over the puzzle, then returns at the end to victoriously put in the final missing pieces. This treasonous crime is easy to pull off because of the nature of a puzzle. A puzzle equally depends on every piece. It doesn’t matter which puzzle piece he takes. In the end, it will be the most important piece because in a puzzle the most important piece is the one that is missing.

“We all see poorly. But the gift is that we all see different things poorly. We are not all blind to the same things. That is the beauty of the body. Collectively we see far more clearly.”

We don’t look at the body of Christ this way. We haven’t learned much since the Corinthian church. Or since Jesus’ call for unity. We don’t care about the pieces that are missing. In fact, we tend to think that the only pieces to the puzzle that are of any value are the ones shaped like us. Or perhaps the ones connected to us. But the most important pieces are the ones that are missing: the ones that have been cast aside, forgotten, or undiscovered.

Jesus warned us to enter his kingdom through the “narrow gate.”

“Enter by the narrow gate. For the gate is wide and the way is easy that leads to destruction, and those who enter by it are many. For the gate is narrow and the way is hard that leads to life, and those who find it are few.” (Matthew 7:13–14)

We have tended to equate the narrow gate with right doctrine. Entering through the narrow gate has meant associating with the right camp. But this wasn’t Jesus’ point.

“We have tended to equate the narrow gate with right doctrine. But Jesus is the narrow gate. His narrow gate was absolute surrender that produces deep love of God and others.”

Based on our patterns of association and disassociation, it seems we believe the narrow gate is about expository preaching, or only singing hymns, or emphasizing social justice, or being Republican or standing against abortion or promoting tolerance. None of these things has anything to do with Jesus’ concept of the narrow gate. He is the narrow gate. His narrow gate was absolute surrender that produces deep love of God and others. Jesus said nothing of worship style, he laid out no complicated doctrine. He commissioned the disciples in Matthew 28 to teach all that he had commanded, but when you look at the sum of Jesus’ commands, this is the picture we get: eat with sinners, serve the poor, and if anything hinders you from keeping in step with him, leave it behind. Never ever ever ever confuse religion for love, or self-righteousness for surrender. Ask, seek, knock, find. Don’t assume you know more than anyone else.

In other words, Jesus’ teaching (and therefore the narrow gate of surrendering to him) comes down to this: Love the Lord your God with everything you have and love your neighbor as yourself.

Even Trump Has the Spirit

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According to John Calvin, even Donald Trump has the Spirit. And that goes for Mussolini, Mueller, and Ronald McDonald.

If you’re thinking, “I thought only Christians have the Spirit,” keep reading. Calvin doesn’t completely disagree with that sentence, but he has an important clarification.

The problem we’re trying to address here is that we can all be jackasses. This leads us to dismiss and demean other human beings. We have this hard-wired tendency to equate the Spirit with ourselves and the people who are very similar to us. It’s easy to see the Spirit of God working in someone who is all about the things you’re all about. But what happens when the Spirit is working outside of the boundaries you carefully maintain?

John Calvin insisted that we ought to learn from and appreciate the insights and skills of everyone around us. This goes for those you admire and those you don’t. It goes for Christians and non-Christians. This is a bit surprising, perhaps, given Calvin’s emphasis on human depravity. But he insists that the knowledge and abilities of human beings—including unbelievers—are gifts they received from the Spirit:

“Whenever we come upon these matters [skill and understanding] in secular writers, let that admirable light of truth shining in them teach us that the mind of man, though fallen and perverted from its wholeness, is nevertheless clothed and ornamented with God’s excellent gifts. If we regard the Spirit of God as the sole fountain of truth, we shall neither reject the truth itself, nor despise it wherever it shall appear, unless we wish to dishonor the Spirit of God. For by holding the gifts of the Spirit in slight esteem, we contemn [deride, demean, blaspheme] and reproach the Spirit himself.”

– John Calvin
“If the Spirit is the sole fountain of truth, we shall not despise the truth wherever it appears, unless we wish to dishonor the Spirit. For by holding his gifts in slight esteem, we blaspheme the Spirit.” – John Calvin

Did you catch that? Not only do we need to acknowledge that everyone—including non-Christians—have “that admirable light of truth shining in them,” but we had better be careful to heed and appreciate their insights lest we blaspheme the Spirit. Jesus told us that anyone who speaks against him will be forgiven, but the unforgivable sin is “blaspheming against the Holy Spirit” (Luke 12:10). There’s debate about what that means, but let’s agree it’s a strong warning. John Calvin isn’t Jesus, but in this passage, he’s connecting the demeaning of another person’s gifts with the unforgivable sin.

“We cannot read the writings of the ancients on these subjects [law, philosophy, medicine, and math] without great admiration. We marvel at them because we are compelled to recognize how preeminent they are. But shall we count anything praiseworthy or noble without recognizing at the same time that it comes from God? Let us be ashamed of such ingratitude, into which not even the pagan poets fell, for they confessed that the gods had invented philosophy, laws, and all useful arts.”

– John Calvin
“Shall we count anything praiseworthy or noble without recognizing at the same time that it comes from God? Let us be ashamed of such ingratitude.” – John Calvin

The word “ingratitude” is important. Calvin is saying that the Spirit of God has placed many gifts all around you. He is trying to show something to you, to give something to you. So when you look at what another person has to offer and refuse it (often in the name of being “spiritual” or “biblical”), you are being a g*sh d@rn ingrate.

If the Spirit is the source of the engineer’s knowledge and skill, the artist’s aesthetic sensibilities and prophetic voice, and the philosopher’s quest for the truth, then we had better admire what we see, receive, and learn. Regardless of whether or not you agree with that person theologically. Regardless of the degree of heresy or paganism you associate with them.

We’ll all have to apply this to whatever people we have a hard time with. As an example and a confession, I have a hard time with Donald Trump (hence the title). It’s okay for me to disagree with many of his policies and be grieved by many of his tweets. But if I treat him as less than human and dismiss everything about him, I’m the one resisting the Spirit. And I don’t want to be that kind of jackass. Who do you need to apply Calvin’s quote to?

If we fail to rejoice in the beauty and truth created and taught by the people around us, then Calvin tells us to be ashamed of our ungrateful selves. The “pagans” don’t even demean the Spirit in this way because they see a divine source behind these good things.

When you talk to a person who is very different than you—even someone you might be tempted to view as an enemy on some front—can you still hear the voice of the Spirit? If not, you demean the Spirit of God, from whom all of God’s good and perfect gifts flow. Don’t be an ingrate. Glorify God for all of the truth and beauty that his Spirit has brought into this world from all sides.

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

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.