Thursday, December 31, 2015

Make the Most of Breaking Your New Year's Resolutions

Talking about how to stick with New Year's resolutions seems to be almost as big a tradition now as making resolutions in the first place. Just compare the number of blog posts and Facebook updates where people simply talk about their resolutions in a satirical way, indicating they fully expect their discipline and dedication to collapse, but they're going to keep making the resolutions anyway. We acknowledge that we need to start new habits, but we have come to expect failure at keeping them.

Instead of being resigned to failure, or giving up the resolution tradition altogether, we should make use of our broken resolutions. The older I get, the more I discover that failing in a task has as much to teach me as success - sometimes more. People who examine why they failed and keep on trying again are often the most extraordinarily successful people. As a society, we commonly praise those we admire for their successes, but once you start to look into the whole story of their lives, you find there were far more failures than successes. The successes just get the attention. But they didn't come without pressing on through the failures.

Here are just three ways to benefit from broken resolutions.

Don't Be Prideful About Achieving Perfection

Too many people set "all or nothing" goals. They aim for a target for the year, and then get discouraged when they lose traction and fall short of their goal. This often leads to giving up entirely. But if you've improved over last year, keeping to the goal more than you did before, that's often a victory even if it falls short of your expectations. Saving 5% of your income isn't as exciting as saving 10%, but it's a whole lot better than 0%. Losing 8 pounds or exercising only every other week is still improving your health even if you were aiming for twice that. If you take encouragement from your progress, and then challenge yourself to do even better next year, you gain much more than if you just give up because you can't hit perfection.

People who think in terms of making the most of what they've managed to do are more likely to keep trying, because they are valuing every little effort. People who insist on being perfect tend to quit permanently as soon as they've fallen behind on their schedule or routine, ending up with nothing. Often the problem is pride: so many people depend for self-confidence on looking successful and "together" that they won't accept anything less. Last month I shared the lesson an admiral drew from Navy SEAL training: a regular challenge designed to force trainees to deal with failure caused those who couldn't accept being less than perfect to quit the program. Only people willing to keep trying in spite of "failure" became Navy SEALs. Those who wanted to be perfect didn't. How's that for success? 

We need to get over ourselves and our insecurity and just do the job, even if it isn't pretty. Falling short of our own expectations but still getting results is far better than pretending to be perfect.

Be Willing to Build on Failures and Wait on Success

If what you are trying to do is important, it will probably be difficult. Don't confuse failing to reach your goal at the moment with having wasted your efforts. In fact, the more valuable your goal, the more you will probably stumble and fail in getting there. There are very few things in life that don't require some experimentation, trying different methods before finding the one that works. Thomas Edison put it perfectly: “Negative results are just what I want. They’re just as valuable to me as positive results. I can never find the thing that does the job best until I find the ones that don’t.” Don't give up on an important goal just because you feel like it's taking too long or you aren't seeing forward progress. Figure out what went wrong last time and how you can improve on it. That's forward progress.
“Our greatest weakness lies in giving up. The most certain way to succeed
is always to try just one more time.” -Thomas Edison

At the same time, don't underestimate the profit to your soul even when you don't reach your goal. Working hard at something is never wasted, because it always accomplishes inner work in your mind, heart, and soul. This is probably one reason the Scriptures encourage hard work: "In all toil there is profit, but mere talk tends only to poverty." (Proverbs 14:23); "It is good for a man that he bear the yoke in his youth." (Lam. 3:27). The number of inventions and discoveries that have been accidentally uncovered while someone was trying and failing to do something else is quite impressive. Even so, the work in the inner man is more valuable. “Who you become while you are waiting is as important as what you are waiting for.” (Nicky Gumbel of the Alpha Course). Your soul is going to last forever; most of your resolutions will pass away with this earth. Make the most of the discipline, whether you hit the goal or not.

"Three failures denote uncommon strength. A weakling has not enough grit to fail thrice." - Minna Thomas Antrim

Be Willing to Let God Show You a Different and Better Goal

There are also times where the reason you aren't making progress is simply that you have the wrong goal. One of the precious ways that God shows His love and faithfulness to us is that He shepherds and directs us toward what we need, even when we expect or want something different. Our development is not random; God has a master design that He intends to follow through. "And I am sure of this, that he who began a good work in you will bring it to completion at the day of Jesus Christ." (Phil. 1:6). After all the sins and misguided zealotry of his former life, Paul could say of his new, radically different life in Christ: “But by the grace of God I am what I am, and his grace toward me was not in vain.” (1 Cor. 15:10). God had a plan Paul could not have imagined, but it was so glorious that he considered his previous achievements to be rubbish. (Phil. 3:4-8).
Your God and Savior loves you enough to keep you from making too much progress in the wrong direction. The only way to be alert to this is to be humble enough to let the Scriptures shape your priorities and your understanding of your identity, and take to heart the feedback and observations of other people you can trust.  It is true that often when we realize the necessity of a change of course, it may be a while before we find any joy in doing it. If you have had your heart set on being a musician, it is rough going to find out that God created you to be a lawyer. But it is far worse to try to find your satisfaction in being a musician if the Lord created you to find your joy and fulfillment in being a lawyer. The promise of God's blessing for those who submit to His way is a constant theme in Scripture: “Listen to advice and accept discipline, and at the end you will be counted among the wise. Many are the plans in a person’s heart, but it is the LORD’s purpose that prevails.” (Proverbs 19:20-21).

In other words, accept the discipline of having your way directed by the Lord’s will rather than by your own desires and expectations, and you will be blessed. “Humble yourselves, therefore, under the mighty hand of God so that at the proper time he may exalt you[.]” (1 Peter 5:6). It is a good and precious thing to be shaped by the mighty hand of God.

Tuesday, December 29, 2015

What Drives You? Does Christianity Capture Your Head But Not Your Heart?

See if this feels familiar: you know what kind of person you want to be, and why you believe in it. But as you take stock of the past week, you are uncomfortably aware that many of the things you have actually done don't line up with who you want to be or what you believe is right. And let's not even mention the past year. Mostly little things, perhaps (so you tell yourself), but a person's reputation and the effect you have on other people is made up of little things. Someone once observed: "Nothing ever changes us except the things we do every day." We know intuitively that when our actions keep differing from our beliefs, something is not right.
This is one of those problems that is common to every man and woman. Even Paul the Apostle expressed how exasperating and discouraging it can be: "For I have the desire to do what is right, but not the ability to carry it out. For I do not do the good I want, but the evil I do not want is what I keep on doing." (Romans 7:18-19). Let me compare two powerful answers to this dilemma.
A Solid Worldview May Not Be Enough

One way that Christians have helped each other confront this problem is emphasizing a conscious worldview that considers how Christianity relates to everything we do, and what that means about how we should act. A worldview is something everyone has even without thinking about it; we all have basic beliefs about reality and what life is about that drive our decisions and our priorities even when we don't think about why we're doing them (here's a more thorough definition). Your worldview generally determines how you will respond to new information or choices. For instance, if you believe at a fundamental level that a meaningful life can only be achieved by making enough money to be able to influence politics and social change, then even when you aren't thinking through those assumptions, you will typically make decisions that prioritize earning money and advancing your influence and power. Sometimes you may not even connect those decisions with the ultimate goal of influencing government and society; but because you had settled in your mind early on the idea that this is what makes for a successful life, it's second nature for you to see any option that increases your money and power as the naturally desirable choice. Those goals have become synonymous in your mind with "value" or "good." Your worldview has shaped the choices you make even when you aren't thinking about why you make them.
Emphasizing a Christian worldview (or biblical worldview) typically means challenging people to examine their underlying beliefs and assumptions about what is good and what life is about, and then training Christians to be conscious about centering their priorities on the things that God has taught us to value. It means lining your beliefs and priorities up with what Scripture reveals about God's priorities and how He wants us to act, and it also means recognizing that God's purpose for your life encompasses everything you ever do. A genuine Christian should be taking the lead from God's word in every area, not simply areas that seem "religious." Worldview is a comprehensive answer to all the questions of life, not a set of rules that apply only in certain circles or subjects. The goal is to make sure that a Christian will recognize decisions and patterns of behavior that are inconsistent with God's character and His commandments, so that we can avoid those actions and choose ones that honor God.

Are You Ruled By Worldview or Desire?

There is a lot of value to worldview theory and teaching. I listed some great examples of how to teach and study a biblical worldview at the end of this post. But even knowing the right thing to do is often not enough. So you should get to know one of the most helpful and insightful critics of worldview approaches: James K.A. Smith, a professor at Calvin College. Smith has observed that what drives our decisions is more often desire than worldview. He has illustrated that even when people hold firmly to a biblical worldview, they often act against that worldview because of their desires.

This is extremely valuable, because it reveals that changing what you believe about life isn't enough to clean up your behavior. You also have to transform and reform what you love. The best place to dig deeper into this is Smith's fascinating new book, "You Are What You Love." Another of Smith's insights is that even Christians with a biblical worldview may have cultural practices and habits that essentially fuel and serve their contrary desires. We may not simply be acting against what we believe; our habits may also be feeding and nurturing even more powerful resistance to doing what is good. Christian bookseller extraordinaire Byron Borger summarizes Smith's reasoning:

"Christian formation that only teaches data -- Bible truths or worldviewish principles or theological doctrine, no matter how right or profound or astute --  but doesn't really shape our deepest desires, loves, priorities and such isn't going to be truly transformative. And in fact, our Christian worship practices may be "thin" and less influential, while our secular cultural liturgies may be "thicker" and truly impact how we see and feel about the world." (Borger, BookNotes column (scroll down a page)). In other words, we may be practicing a way of life that actually promotes and feeds our worship of things other than God.

You may have heard similar thoughts before, but part of the goldmine in Smith's work is his labor to identify and uncover these "cultural liturgies" and to help us discover patterns of genuine worship that need to be woven into our lives. The concept may sound simple, but the heavy lifting is in the application. Borger commends Smith's books for "deep and wise visions of spiritual imagination and how worship, among other things, effects our human flourishing and the tone of our discipleship." And Borger's crowning point is that Smith's work, so far embodied in two large and widely-acclaimed volumes, is distilled down in this upcoming book You Are What You Love so that Christians who don't have the time to read an academic textbook can glean all the best parts. (As a bonus, Borger's BookNotes column is one you should save for regular reading if you care about feeding your mind - he really knows his Christian authors and books.)

So sharpen your worldview so that you can recognize if your choices are out of step with the character and wisdom of God, but dig deep into James Smith and similar authors who help shape your heart so that you will not only know the good you ought to do, but you will have the desire to do it too.

Worldview Training:
Worldview Academy and PDF of Concepts in Curriculum on Christian Worldview
(Re)Thinking Worldview: An Interview with Mark Bertrand
The Colson Center for Christian Worldview and Christian Worldview Journal
Francis Schaeffer, How Should We Then Live? 

Wednesday, November 18, 2015

Get Used to Failure if You Want to Overcome It

Failure is something we all dread. The fear of failure often produces tremendous anxiety. The experience of failure often produces depression and shame and bitterness. Notice those are all emotions that Christians are told to resist and overcome. We are not meant to sit alone after a loss, feeling sorry for ourselves and wondering if we have what it takes. We are meant to put our trust in God and keep going. (See 2 Corinthians 1:8-10.) Easier said than done, of course. But here is one of the most encouraging lessons I've seen on why you should simply make peace with failure and keep pressing on through it.

Naval Admiral William H. McRaven, a Navy SEAL for 36 years and ninth commander of U.S. Special Operations Command, gave an extraordinary commencement address in 2014 to the University of Texas at Austin. You may have seen it shared widely on Facebook and in many blogs and business and professional magazines. The YouTube video embedded below has had over 3.4 million views, and rightly so. The speech is remarkable because Adm. McRaven drew on ten lessons from Navy SEAL training that apply to pretty much everything in life and work for anyone. They're all good, but there is one that made a huge impression on me. It's the lesson of the "sugar cookie."

Several times a week, the instructors would line up the class and do a uniform inspection. It was exceptionally thorough. Your hat had to be perfectly starched, your uniform immaculately pressed and your belt buckle shiny and void of any smudges. But it seemed that no matter how much effort you put into starching your hat, or pressing your uniform or polishing your belt buckle — it just wasn't good enough. The instructors would find "something" wrong.
For failing the uniform inspection, the student had to run, fully clothed into the surfzone and then, wet from head to toe, roll around on the beach until every part of your body was covered with sand. The effect was known as a "sugar cookie." You stayed in that uniform the rest of the day — cold, wet and sandy.
There were many a student who just couldn't accept the fact that all their effort was in vain. That no matter how hard they tried to get the uniform right, it was unappreciated. Those students didn't make it through training. Those students didn't understand the purpose of the drill. You were never going to succeed. You were never going to have a perfect uniform.
Sometimes no matter how well you prepare or how well you perform you still end up as a sugar cookie. It's just the way life is sometimes.
If you want to change the world get over being a sugar cookie and keep moving forward. 

Mark this: the people who gave up and went home - the ones who didn't become Navy SEALs - were the ones who couldn't accept failure. The ones who succeeded and became SEALs were the ones who learned to get used to failure and keep going. The point of the exercise was to ensure that everyone ended up a "sugar cookie." No illusions here that some people always get it right while others fall short. The only way forward was to accept that you were going to fail, and to keep trying anyway. What sent some of the men home was simply pride. Our fear of failure, and our avoidance of situations where we might fail, does not come from an urgent need to accomplish important things. The people who accomplish important things are the ones who keep trying and failing until they get it right. Our fear and avoidance is due to our vanity in wanting to look successful and impressive. The ones who went home were the ones who couldn't handle the idea of having to look like a failure in order to get to the point of success. 

Bonus points if you're thinking: Kobayashi Maru. This was the infamous test at Starfleet Academy in Star Trek that every person training for command must take. And it was deliberately impossible. This quote by Spock in the 2009 Star Trek film captures it perfectly: "The purpose is to experience fear. Fear in the face of certain death. To accept that fear and maintain control of oneself and one’s crew.” The purpose of this training exercise was never to succeed. The purpose was to learn to maintain courage and control even when everything failed; to avoid giving in to panic or despair. The lesson is to never let your perception that you are failing or your fear of losing tempt you into giving up. The people that succeed are the ones that refuse to give up after failing (or after thinking they've failed).

The application for Christians is critical: more often than anything, it's our doubts about how we're doing and our own insecurities that discourage us and cause us to get derailed. Very often we are on the right track spiritually but we lose heart because we can't see that things are working out. Our perception is that we've failed, and we shrink back from what seems hopeless. 

Keeping our faith fixed in God includes persevering in doing the right thing even when the evidence of our senses tells us we're losing. We trust in God's point of view instead: "When I thought, 'My foot slips,' your steadfast love, O LORD, held me up. When the cares of my heart are many, your consolations cheer my soul." (Psalm 94:18-19). One of the precious comforts in Scripture is that God often does His most glorious work when it looks like it's already too late. Think about how the disciples felt for those three days after Jesus died upon the cross. And then...

We need to stop keeping score of our "successes" and worrying if we think our "failures" outnumber them. We need to stop measuring ourselves against other people or against what we think a successful Christian should look like. Everybody ends up a sugar cookie sooner or later. Instead, we need to keep following Christ in every way we can, and trust Him to make the most of the results.

"Therefore do not throw away your confidence, which has a great reward. For you have need of endurance, so that when you have done the will of God you may receive what is promised." (Hebrews 10:35-36)

Friday, November 13, 2015

Is Happiness a Vain and Worldly Thing or a Christian Thing?

Randy Alcorn has written the essay I have been waiting for someone to write. This is an important thing to get clear. We see so many people wrecking their lives and their souls by pursuing "happiness" in all the wrong places that we can become skeptical and critical of the idea of happiness itself.

Some Christians have dismissed happiness as a worldly and self-centered idea that is different from Christian joy and satisfaction. They try to explain Christian joy as something different and spiritual, and they treat happiness as a self-indulgent desire. This is very confusing to our hearts, especially to those who struggle for joy, because it makes us feel criticized for some of our legitimate efforts to be happy. And yet we cannot get away from them. As Christian philosopher and mathematician Blaise Pascal famously said: "All men seek happiness. This is without exception. Whatever different means they employ, they all tend to this end." (Pensées, #425).

This has been one of my first priorities in writing a blog, and I've tackled the search for joy a number of times from the very early posts to If You Struggle With Joy You're Not Alone and a string of posts here from 2013 on C.S. Lewis (including Don't Let Being Unhappy Make You Feel Guilty).

But for the present, I just encourage you to read Randy Alcorn's post. Here's a preview:

An ungrounded, dangerous separation of joy from happiness has infiltrated the Christian community. The following is typical of the artificial distinctions made by modern Christians:
Joy is something entirely different from happiness. Joy, in the Biblical context, is not an emotion. . . . There is a big difference between joy and happiness. Happiness is an emotion and temporary; joy is an attitude of the heart.
Judging from such articles (and there are hundreds more out there), you’d think the distinction between joy and happiness is biblical. It’s not.
John Piper writes, “If you have nice little categories for ‘joy is what Christians have’ and ‘happiness is what the world has,’ you can scrap those when you go to the Bible, because the Bible is indiscriminate in its uses of the language of happiness and joy and contentment and satisfaction.”
Here’s a sampling of the more than one hundred Bible verses in various translations that use joy and happiness together:
  • For the Jews it was a time of happiness and joy, gladness and honor. (Esther 8:16, NIV)
  • I will turn their mourning into joy. . . and bring happiness out of grief. (Jeremiah 31:13, HCSB)
  • Give your father and mother joy! May she who gave you birth be happy. (Proverbs 23:25, NLT)

The relationship between joy and happiness in these passages refutes two common claims: (1) that the Bible doesn’t talk about happiness, and (2) that joy and happiness have contrasting meanings. In fact, the Bible overflows with accounts of God’s people being happy in him.

Thursday, November 12, 2015

Be Confident About God's Love for You - He Commands It

Distrusting your own motives and your desires is a prudent habit. We have good reasons to be suspicious of our own judgment about what is right and wrong: the clearest evidence of this is how often we do get it wrong, only to come to our senses later and regret our foolishness. But when self-examination and distrust of our hearts crosses over into doubt about whether we are accepted and favored by God, we are going straight against God's counsel to us. Doubting ourselves is one thing; but we are not meant to doubt the faithfulness and constancy of God's love. One of my greatest comforts is that God actually commands us not to doubt His love. It's not just something I want to be sure about; the Lord insists that I be sure about it.
"And we desire each one of you to show the same earnestness to have the full assurance of hope until the end, so that you may not be sluggish, but imitators of those who through faith and patience inherit the promises." (Hebrews 6:11-12 ESV)
"I write these things to you who believe in the name of the Son of God that you may know that you have eternal life." (1 John 5:13 ESV)
"Assurance" is another way of saying confidence in God. There are two dimensions or parts to assurance: having confidence that God truly is who He says He is and will do all He has promised; and having confidence that you are indeed forgiven by God for all your sins and accepted as His child (being "saved").1  The second part of assurance is believing that you have personally received salvation and forgiveness and that you are now accepted by God. If you don't have the first part secure, trusting God to be who the Scriptures say He is and trusting that He will do what He has promised, the second part doesn't give you much confidence. Being sure you are God's child is an uncertain comfort if you don't believe God is dependable. But if you get the first part straight and still doubt that God specifically loves and accepts you, then you will be doubtful and insecure about whether you personally will benefit from His dependability and faithfulness. So it is crucial to work on being confident that God loves you personally and fully intends to fulfill all His promises in your life.

Spurgeon nails the most important part of this: "[W]e shall never find comfort or assurance by looking within. But the Holy Spirit turns our eyes entirely away from self ... We shall never find happiness by looking at our prayers, our doings, or our feelings; it is what Jesus is, not what we are, that gives rest to the soul. If we would at once overcome Satan and have peace with God, it must be by ‘fixing our eyes on Jesus.’" (Morning and Evening, p. 360). Assurance is found in seeking to know God in the fullest way possible, largely through examining the Scriptures, which display the best and most complete picture of Him we can have, and through seeking Him directly in prayer. And here it is also vital to remember that Jesus Christ is the way God has revealed Himself to us, and it is through Jesus that we come to know God. "He is the radiance of the glory of God and the exact imprint of his nature, and he upholds the universe by the word of his power." (Heb. 1:3). "No one has ever seen God; the only God [Jesus], who is at the Father's side, he has made him known. (John 1:18). If you would know God, fix your eyes on Jesus.

The more you know God, the more you see He is trustworthy. And the more you know God, the more you discover whether what you see is lovely and appealing and precious. One of the best confirmations that you are accepted and loved by God is that you love what you see of Him. And because our Lord loves us, He does not want us to neglect that source of joy and comfort.
The seventy-two returned with joy, saying, “Lord, even the demons are subject to us in your name!” And he said to them, “I saw Satan fall like lightning from heaven. Behold, I have given you authority to tread on serpents and scorpions, and over all the power of the enemy, and nothing shall hurt you. Nevertheless, do not rejoice in this, that the spirits are subject to you, but rejoice that your names are written in heaven.” (Luke 10:17-20)

1 For those interested, here is the definition from Louis Berkhof's Systematic Theology: "There is a twofold assurance, namely, (1) The objective assurance of faith, which is 'the certain and undoubting conviction that Christ is all He professes to be, and will do all He promises.' … (2) The subjective assurance of faith, or the assurance of grace and salvation, which consists in a sense of security and safety, rising in many instances to the height of an 'assured conviction that the individual believer has had his sins pardoned and his soul saved.'" (pp. 562-63).

Tuesday, November 10, 2015

A Wise Man Never Trusts Himself Completely

J.C. Ryle (from Banner of Truth):

'Let it be a settled principle in our religion, that there is an amount of weakness in all our hearts, of which we have no adequate conception, and that we never know how far we might fall if we were tempted. We fancy sometimes, like Peter, that there are some things we could not possibly do. We look pitifully upon others who fall, and please ourselves in the thought that at any rate we should not have done so. We know nothing at all. The seeds of every sin are latent in our hearts, even when renewed, and they only need occasion, or carelessness, and the withdrawal of God's grace of a season, to put forth an abundant crop...The servant of Christ will do wisely to remember these things.
"Let him that thinketh he standeth, take heed lest he fall" (1 Cor. 10:12).
A humble sense of our own innate weakness, a constant dependence on the Strong for strength, a daily prayer to be held up, because we cannot hold up ourselves, these are the true secrets of safety.'

Bottom line: the only one you can always trust is God Himself. The Bible gives us the standard against which to test our desires and motivations. It is always reliable, even when we are not. And God counsels and advises us through the Holy Spirit and prayer. But to receive that counsel, you must be often in the Word of God and spend time earnestly baring your heart to Him in prayer. You don't hear what you don't listen for. "Cease to hear instruction, my son, and you will stray from the words of knowledge." (Proverbs 19:27)

Imagination Serves God... if It Is Shaped by God

The imagination sometimes gets overlooked as a tool of faith. Some people see the imagination as a tool of fantasy and daydreaming, something that people use to escape from the really important business of life. Others may be put off by the association of imagination and "imaginary," as if talking about using the imagination about God somehow implies He isn't real. But the fact is that without imagination, we can't really encounter God.
Now faith is the assurance of things hoped for, the conviction of things not seen. For by it the people of old received their commendation. By faith we understand that the universe was created by the word of God, so that what is seen was not made out of things that are visible. (Hebrews 11:1-3 ESV)

the conviction of things not seen. That sure sounds like a job for imagination.

There are many other good examples in Scripture: “The imagination is a necessary component for reading fiction books, non-fiction books, and, of course, for reading the Bible. God’s book engages our imaginations by the parables of Jesus, the poetry of the Psalms, the adages of the Proverbs, and, of course, the apocalyptic language of the prophets. But what makes human imagination even more incredible is how we experience in our minds things we did not, have not, or cannot experience ourselves. The book of Revelation is one example.” (Tony Reinke, Dragons and Holiness). In the past several months, I have noticed some exceptionally good articles on by various authors examining the imagination at work in faith. Here's my quick summary connecting the dots.

Imagining for Good or for Evil

Like anything else, the imagination can be misused. Bryce Young captured both sides well a few days ago in a thoughtful post: Imagine Your Way to Joy. He starts out by confronting "an often-overlooked aspect of sin: the power of imagination." Young observes: "For sin to be accepted, approved, and even celebrated in our own minds, it must first be nourished by something stronger than just our senses. The seeds of sin, though sown in the flesh, are protected and watered by our imaginations. Sin is supplemented by story, an alternative narrative — an imaginative world in which sin does not afflict the conscience as easily because in that world, wickedness credibly plays the part of virtue."

Imagination allows us to construct an "alternate reality" where we rearrange what is right and wrong so that we can justify our desires. In our minds, we can bend the rules until the wrong direction seems natural and right. Have you ever noticed how most people who are caught up in some sin will rationalize it by saying they think God understands? In their minds, they can imagine God's reaction to be anything they want. And conveniently, they usually imagine His reaction supports what they feel and desire.

But imagination can also get you out of trouble too. When you feel a strong temptation or desire for something, and at the moment it seems like you couldn't possibly be content or satisfied without giving in, imagination allows you to experience the feelings that will come with standing firm and keeping faithful to God. At the moment, the self-denial seems painful, but later on you will be grateful for having stayed true to the Lord, and the blessings of a clean conscience will seem very sweet. But you don't feel that in the moment of great temptation - and so you need imagination to remind you what those rewards of faithfulness feel like. Young concludes:
From all this, you might begin to think that we should suppress imaginative activity. Imagination may appear to be a distraction from the pursuit of truth, or worse, a misleading trail away from it. Fidelity to reason alone, unpolluted by creations of the imagination, may appear a much safer stewardship of our cognitive capabilities.
However, dismissing the imagination from the Christian life will neither save us from sin nor help us grow in righteousness. In fact, all hope of putting off the old man and putting on the new rests in a God-given, Christ-purchased, Spirit-empowered redemption of the imagination. ...
By using the imagination to envision the possibilities of our faithful service to God, we also find help in fighting our sins. The problem is that we are far too easily pleased with the imaginary worlds in which our sins find shelter. The glorious stories that act out God’s purposes will always be more beautiful than the stories we throw together to explain away our sins. So, we kill sin by expending imaginative effort to envision the superior delight and beauty of God’s stories over the twisted, ugly plots we write to justify evil. 

The imaginary life we build up around some desires can be overpowering and very hard to give up. Even when we are convinced that we need to do that, and we direct our imagination to consider the glory and joy of pursing God instead, there is normally a gap between breaking off from the pleasure of deceitful sin and actually experiencing the satisfaction that comes from embracing God. For that, I strongly recommend Breaking Free from the Spell of Fantasy, an article from several months ago that left a strong impression on me.

Letting God Shape Your Imagination

Our imagination is a powerful weapon and tool, but it has to have something reliable to guide it. And that something is not going to be found within ourselves. I recalled Jon Bloom's description in an August post:
Everything God creates is good (Genesis 1:31). But we must take this in large measure on faith because under the curse of the fall, our fallen perceptions often don’t see it. And our fallen natures often don’t believe it. We are disordered and pathologically self-centered. We are out of sync.
The only things fallen humans tend to believe are good are those that sate our appetites, increase our personal prestige, align with our preferences, pleasantly interest us, operate within our desired timetable, and are convenient and comfortable. In the scope of the created universe, these add up to only a very few things. (Let Good Things Run Wild)

When our imaginations are used to make sin seem normal or okay, they aren't doing it on their own. They are conspiring with our hearts, which desire things they shouldn't. Then the imagination tries to serve the desires of the heart by creating an illusionary world in which fulfilling those desires seems good or even inevitable. Jon Bloom summed it up perfectly in another post: "Our hearts were never designed to be followed, but to be led."

Bloom's description that follows, on how our hearts should be led, is excellent, and his points apply to the imagination as well: let your imagination be used and used freely, but let it be directed and shaped by God. Your imagination can be a slave to your desires or it can serve God by shaping your heart and desires. Let the Scriptures and the life of Jesus define the nature of your invisible world.
If we make our hearts gods and ask them to lead us, they will lead us to narcissistic misery and ultimately damnation. They cannot save us, because what’s wrong with our hearts is the heart of our problem. But if our hearts believe in God, as they are designed to, then God saves us (Hebrews 7:25) and leads our hearts to exceeding joy (Psalm 43:4).
Therefore, don’t believe in your heart; direct your heart to believe in God. Don’t follow your heart; follow Jesus. Note that Jesus did not say to his disciples, “Let not your hearts be troubled, just believe in your hearts.” He said, “Let not your hearts be troubled, believe in God; believe also in me” (John 14:1).
So though your heart will try to shepherd you today, do not follow it. It is not a shepherd. It is a pompous sheep that, due to remaining sin, has some wolf-like qualities. Don’t follow it, and be careful even listening to it. Remember, your heart only tells you what you want, not where you should go. So only listen to it to note what it’s telling you about what you want, and then take your wants, both good and evil, to Jesus as requests and confessions.

Thursday, November 5, 2015

Why Chesterton Chose a Priest to Be a Detective - Father Brown's Reason and Religion

There's an interesting and thoughtful take here from Dr. Mitchell Kalpakgian on how Chesterton had Father Brown employ spiritual rationality (retaining a healthy balance of reason and common sense right alongside his very deep convictions about the supernatural - in fact, retaining it because of them) to solve crimes, along with a Christian insight into human nature and human depravity. 

One of the delightful treasures about Father Brown is the story of how Chesterton got this idea of creating him. Chesterton had been visiting a friend, father John O'Connor, and he was repeatedly stunned by how broad and deep the priest's knowledge of human depravity proved to be. It had been no surprise to him that the Church would know a good deal more than him about good, but that it also knew a good deal more about evil was a shock. After one such meeting, Chesterton overheard a couple of young men saying to one another that they felt it wasn't right for a man to be like that priest and shut himself up all cloistered and cut off from life, that it created a naiveté and ignorance of the world. This was Chesterton's reaction to this irony:
To me, still almost shivering with the appallingly practical facts of which the priest had warned me, this comment came with such a colossal and crushing irony, that I nearly burst into a loud harsh laugh in the drawing-room. For I knew perfectly well that, as regards all the solid Satanism which the priest knew and warred against with all his life, these two Cambridge gentlemen (luckily for them) knew about as much of real evil as two babies in the same perambulator.
To this broad experience of the fallen human heart and its consequences, Chesterton added a deep conviction about reason and common sense. He exploded the shallow myth that a churchman must be a bit weak in reason and somewhat gullible simply because he happens to believe in miracles and the supernatural. Chesterton rather proved that point himself in his life: even his atheist friends like George Bernard Shaw considered the Catholic writer to be one of the towering intellects of the 20th century. In his first Father Brown story, The Blue Cross, his priest-detective defends reason against a tall impostor posing as another priest:

   The taller priest nodded his bowed head and said:
   "Ah, yes, these modern infidels appeal to their reason; but who can look at those millions of worlds and not feel that there may well be wonderful universes above us where reason is utterly unreasonable?"
   "No," said the other priest; "reason is always reasonable, even in the last limbo, in the lost borderland of things. I know that people charge the Church with lowering reason, but it is just the other way. Alone on earth, the Church makes reason really supreme. Alone on earth, the Church affirms that God himself is bound by reason."
   The other priest raised his austere face to the spangled sky and said:
   "Yet who knows if in that infinite universe—?"
   "Only infinite physically," said the little priest, turning sharply in his seat, "not infinite in the sense of escaping from the laws of truth."

As the impostor reveals himself, demanding the priest surrender a holy relic he wants to steal, an exchange takes place where the priest one-ups the thief each time in criminal tricks:

   "How in blazes do you know all these horrors?" cried Flambeau.
   The shadow of a smile crossed the round, simple face of his clerical opponent.
   "Oh, by being a celibate simpleton, I suppose," he said. "Has it never struck you that a man who does next to nothing but hear men's real sins is not likely to be wholly unaware of human evil? But, as a matter of fact, another part of my trade, too, made me sure you weren't a priest."
   "What?" asked the thief, almost gaping.

   "You attacked reason," said Father Brown. "It's bad theology."

Chesterton wrote some 52 short stories featuring his "dumpy little priest" detective, and for a time in the early 20th Century, Father Brown was nearly as popular as Sherlock Holmes. Part of this charm was due to the very different style and reasoning Chesterton employed in the stories. Father Brown knew what was in his own heart, as a human being corrupted by sin, and therefore he was in a position to deduce the desires, motives, and passions that tempted other men and women to commit crimes. I would be remiss if I didn't give you a link to where Father Brown himself explains his method of solving crimes, but this commentary captures the contrast well:
Father Brown was inspired in part by Chesterton’s good friend Father John O’Connor, a priest in Yorkshire. The central idea was that no other figure was better suited for solving crimes. In one story, the cornered murderer, having listened to Father Brown’s explanation of how he worked out the sinister truth, cries out: ‘How do you know all this? Are you a devil?’
‘I am a man,’ replies Father Brown, ‘and therefore have all devils in my heart.’ ...
The great pleasure of Father Brown is that he represents a step away from the icy inductive logic of Sherlock Holmes. There are still clues, though they do not just stand there as facts; it is how they are interpreted that counts. And the interpretations are frequently paradoxical. On the other side of Father Brown are the sleuths of Agatha Christie — Marple and Poirot — who, while understanding crimes of passion, have nothing in the way of passion themselves. Conversely, Father Brown has an innate, unstoppable optimism; whatever one’s beliefs or non-beliefs, as a narrative device it is very clever.
Sinclair McKay, Bring back Father Brown (The Spectator: Dec. 14, 2009). 

Wednesday, November 4, 2015

Christianity, Superstition & Gullibility (G.K. Chesterton)

As only Chesterton can say it. Believing in something supernatural is no reason at all to take other supernatural or spiritual ideas at face value without careful scrutiny. The Christian is in an excellent position to resist superstition and gullibility precisely because he is acquainted with something truly spiritual and supernatural.

"'I should hardly have thought, sir,' he said, 'that you had any quarrel with mystical explanations.'

'On the contrary,' replied Father Brown, blinking amiably at him.
'That's just why I can quarrel with 'em. Any sham lawyer could bamboozle me, but he couldn't bamboozle you; because you're a lawyer yourself. ... It's just because I have picked up a little about mystics that I have no use for mystagogues."
The Arrow of Heaven, in The Incredulity of Father Brown, 1926

"'Besides, you have no business to be an unbeliever. You ought to stand for all the things these stupid people call superstitions. Come now, don't you think there's a lot in those old wives' tales about luck and charms and so on, silver bullets included? What do you say about them as a Catholic?'

'I say I'm an agnostic,' replied Father Brown, smiling.

'Nonsense,' said Aylmer impatiently. 'It's your business to believe things.'

'Well, I do believe some things, of course,' conceded Father Brown; 'and therefore, of course, I don't believe other things.'
The Dagger with Wings, in The Incredulity of Father Brown, 1926

"'You see, it doesn't quite do for a man in my position to joke about miracles.'

'But it was you who said it was a miracle,' said Alboin, staring.

'I'm so sorry,' said Father Brown; 'I'm afraid there's some mistake. I don't think I ever said it was a miracle. All I said was that it might happen. What you said was that it couldn't happen, because it would be a miracle if it did. And then it did. And so you said it was a miracle. But I never said a word about miracles or magic, or anything of the sort from beginning to end.'

'But I thought you believed in miracles,' broke out the secretary.

'Yes,' answered Father Brown, 'I believe in miracles. I believe in man-eating tigers, but I don't see them running about everywhere. If I want any miracles, I know where to get them.'"
The Miracle of Moon Crescent, in The Incredulity of Father Brown, 1926

"It's part of something I've noticed more and more in the modern world, appearing in all sorts of newspaper rumours and conversational catchwords; something that's arbitrary without being authoritative. People readily swallow the untested claims of this, that, or the other. It's drowning all your old rationalism and scepticism, it's coming in like a sea; and the name of it is superstition.' He stood up abruptly, his face heavy with a sort of frown, and went on talking almost as if he were alone. 'It's the first effect of not believing in God that you lose your common sense and can't see things as they are. Anything that anybody talks about, and says there's a good deal in it, extends itself indefinitely like a vista in a nightmare. And a dog is an omen, and a cat is a mystery, and a pig is a mascot, and a beetle is a scarab, calling up all the menagerie of polytheism from Egypt and old India[.]"
The Oracle of the Dog, in The Incredulity of Father Brown, 1926

Father Brown's friend Professor Openshaw, after the priest debunked the fear and mystery surrounding a book which appeared to make anyone who opened its pages vanish:
"'But you must admit the accumulation of incidents was rather formidable. Did you never feel just a momentary awe of the awful volume?'

'Oh, that,' said Father Brown. 'I opened it as soon as I saw it lying there. It's all blank pages. You see, I am not superstitious.'"
The Blast of the Book, in The Scandal of Father Brown, 1935

Tuesday, November 3, 2015

What a Transformationist Model Looks Like in Culture: Showing God Is Great

Having summarized in my last post what H. Richard Niebuhr described as the Conversionist (or Transformationist) model of Christians interacting with the culture, I wanted to give a good example of what that looks like. Here is the beginning of a recent message John Piper gave in which he described how our transformed lives as Christians affect what people around us see about God. The full video is embedded at the end.

John Piper on Romans 12:1-2: 

I appeal to you therefore, brothers, by the mercies of God, to present your bodies as a living sacrifice, holy and acceptable to God, which is your spiritual worship. Do not be conformed to this world, but be transformed by the renewal of your mind, that by testing you may discern what is the will of God, what is good and acceptable and perfect. Romans 12:1-2

We are going to look at the first two verses in Romans 12 and talk about the will of God, what it means, how to find it, and what it means to have your mind renewed to find it.

As you know, chapter 12 follows the first eleven chapters. And it begins with a glorious “therefore” (“I appeal to you therefore”). The wonders that he is calling us into in walking with Christ in a renewed way are built on massive theology in chapters 1-11. It doesn’t get any bigger than Romans 1-11. It doesn’t get any deeper than Romans 1-11. And this is what it was all building towards: new minds discerning the will of God and lives of worship.

“I appeal to you, therefore brothers [on the basis of Romans 1-11 and all the glories there and the pillars that suck down into the bottomless foundations] by those mercies [the mercies of God that I have unfolded for 11 chapters] present your bodies [that is, your whole bodily life, what you are everywhere you go including everything you do] as a living sacrifice. Your bodily existence is not going to die. It goes up on the altar, but it won’t die so that it ceases to live. It dies so that it lives a different way. As a living sacrifice, holy and acceptable to God.

It is possible, Christian, to live pleasing to God. Don’t overstate the doctrine of the justification of the ungodly. Don’t make it cancel other Scriptures. People are doing that today by taking the doctrine of justification of the ungodly, a beautiful, Romans-taught doctrine, and extrapolating from it that you can’t please God, that you can’t be acceptable to God day by day. All you can do is confess that you are ungodly and bank on the righteousness of Jesus. That is false.

You are now called — built on justification by faith alone and accepted on the basis of the righteousness of Christ alone — to offer sacrifices to God in your body that please him, sacrifices that he smiles upon. This afternoon you can do something that pleases God. You can make a phone call that pleases God. You can speak a word of sweetness and kindness to your spouse that pleases God.

A Life of Worship

Present your bodies as a living sacrifice, holy and acceptable to God which is your spiritual worship. Do not be conformed to this world, but be transformed by the renewal of your mind that by testing that you may prove [or discern] what is the will of God, what is good and acceptable and perfected and, thus, thus, live a life of worship.

The aim of these two verses is that all of life becomes worship. "Present your bodies, your bodily life as living sacrifice, wholly acceptable to God which is your spiritual worship." In other words, the aim of all human life is that God in Christ be displayed as infinitely valuable. That is what life is for, to live your life in such a way that by what you say, what you think, what you feel, what you do with your arms and your lips and your eyes and your legs and your hands, all will show he is more valuable than anything.

That is what worship is: showing God’s value, supreme value over all other things. So if you have a job, do your job in a way that shows that Christ is supremely valuable. And if you can’t do that at your job, either change jobs or do verse two better.

When your life becomes worship, God begins to look valuable to other people. God looks infinitely worthy when others look at you. When they look at you, it looks like you value God more than money. It looks like you value God more than power. It looks like you value God more than illicit sex. So what is with you? They want to know the reason for the hope that is in you.

You probably don’t have to change jobs. That would probably be a mistake. That is not going to solve the problem. But verse two will solve it. And that is what we are going to think about for a while here.

You Are New, Now Get New!

Verse two is Paul’s answer to the question: How all of life becomes worship (from verse one). It doesn’t call for mere change your external behavior. It says, “Be renewed in your minds.” Now I have got to step back and get a little Pauline theology in here so that “being renewed” is understood in the context of what has really happened to you, Christians.

For the rest, see the video below.