Give Me a Break

We are a people who love breaks. We love lunch break, coffee break, Christmas break, summer break. We want others to give us a break. Maybe the most masterful ad campaign of the modern era is “You deserve a break today.”

We live in a time when we can take breaks and (because enough other people haven’t) expect that there will still be food at the store in the wintertime. God has blessed our economy enough that we don’t feel the squeeze too badly, and we can relax more often with less consequences than our grandparents could. This is not an exhortation against vacations, but against faulty expectations.

Jesus asked His disciples,

Will any one of you who has a servant plowing or keeping sheep say to him when he has come in from the field, ‘Come at once and recline at table’? Will he not rather say to him, ‘Prepare supper for me, and dress properly, and serve me while I eat and drink, and afterward you will eat and drink’? Does he thank the servant because he did what was commanded? (Luke 17:7–9)

If this sounds unjust to our ears, it may be because we forget our place. We want to say, “I would never treat someone like that.” But such a response shows that we’ve imagined ourselves in the wrong position. Jesus continued,

So you also, when you have done all that you were commanded, say, ‘We are unworthy servants; we have only done what was our duty.’ (Luke 17:10)

We are the servants not the master. We are not working for our salvation, we work because He saved us. The Lord does give us occasional breaks so that we can rest, and that is so we can get back to the daily, weekly, monthly, yearly labor He has for us to do. So as a friend of mine likes to say, Get after it!

Your Neighbor’s Slop

It is a universal law that all men seek their own advantage. It is obvious by reflecting on one’s own motives, it is obvious by looking at one’s neighbors and at the history of humanity. It is an inescapable reality that parents know, that philosophers and policy makers write about, and that advertisers depend on. Every human being thinks about himself or herself first.

The question is not if this is true, the question is if this is good. It’s hard for most of us in conservative Christian circles to consider, but if there was no god, what would be bad about self-interest and self-preservation? Or for those who grew up in a culture with a pantheon of selfish gods, knowing that we become like what we worship, a culture of self-firsters makes sense.

Worldly wise men have even attempted to build nations on the principle. Thomas Hobbes in his book Leviathan provides a perfect example. Here’s his argument (in my words, not his). Men are pigs, but they can’t help being pigs. Don’t tell them that being a pig is bad, just try to convince them that they’ll actually get more slop overall by not stealing their neighbor’s slop. If the neighbors get mad they might kill you, meaning less slop for you. Fear is a powerful motivator.

God’s Spirit says that this is fleshly. The self-principle in man produces immorality, impurity, enmity, strife, jealousy, fits of anger, rivalries, dissensions, divisions, envy, and “things like these” (Galatians 5:19-20). It is natural, but it’s not good.

The alternative is to walk by the Spirit and “those who belong to Christ Jesus have crucified the flesh with its passions and desires” (Galatians 5:24). Of course it’s natural for us to listen to our flesh, and this is why we need to meditate on the cross. As John Owen might have told Hobbes, “Be killing self or it will be killing you.”

The “Institutes” Twice a Year

Wisdom is as wisdom gets along with other people. It’s more often phrased, “wisdom is as wisdom does,” but the right sort of wisdom does right in relationship.

The apostle Paul referred to two types of wisdom: the wisdom of man and the wisdom of God. Man’s wisdom always tries to exalt man for his wisdom. God, in His wisdom, sent His Son to take the form of a man and die on the cross in the place of men who were trying to exalt themselves for their wisdom.

The apostle James also described two types of wisdom. His alternatives came from cosmically different ends and apply to the person sitting next to you.

Who is wise and understanding among you? By his good conduct let him show his works in the meekness of wisdom. But if you have bitter jealousy and selfish ambition in your hearts, do not boast and be false to the truth. This is not the wisdom that comes down from above, but is earthly, unspiritual, demonic. For where jealousy and selfish ambition exist, there will be disorder and every vile practice. (James 3:13–16)

It’s as if James was spending a weekend and Corinth and decided to write a letter.

But the wisdom from above is first pure, then peaceable, gentle, open to reason, full of mercy and good fruits, impartial and sincere. (James 3:17)

It doesn’t matter how much you read your Bible if you are watching porn; tolerating impurity, let alone pursuing it, is not wisdom. It doesn’t matter if you come to church every Lord’s day if you won’t stop envying the other girl who’s getting more attention than you; that’s hellish. If you’ve read all the Reformers and read through Calvin’s Institutes twice a year but are unwilling to hear that you have an anger problem from any of the ten people who care about you, the demons rejoice.

All of these relational conflicts reveal which “wisdom” is in our hearts, and there can be no friendly neutrality between the world’s wisdom and God’s wisdom. What harvest is coming from what you’re sowing?

Spiritual Adulting Is Hard

You know what is really hard? Spiritual adulting.

“Adulting” as a verb is relatively new. It was on the Oxford shortlist for “word of the year” in 2016. The Oxford online dictionary defines it as: “The practice of behaving in a way characteristic of a responsible adult, especially the accomplishment of mundane but necessary tasks.” Here is their example usage: “It feels really good to take a step back from adulting and have someone else cook dinner for me.”

It’s only as funny as it is destructive. The love and embrace of childishness crossed a cultural threshold where it has become so bad, and so endemic, that it’s more comfortable to laugh about it than to cry about it. We do not live in an age that cares about maturity.

Even as Christians we can tend to talk about spiritual growth, about spiritual fruit, without talking about spiritual maturity. Let’s call it spiritual adulting. The author to the Hebrews scolded his readers:

You need milk, not solid food, for everyone who lives on milk is unskilled in the word of righteousness, since he is a child. But solid food is for the mature, for those who have their powers of discernment trained by constant practice to distinguish good from evil. (Hebrews 5:12b–14)

These were not new believers. They had been at it for a while; “by this time you ought to be teachers” (the first part of verse 12). But they were not at the point of τέλειος, of being “mature.” And what does maturity look like? It looks like having and using power to discern good from evil.

Here are some sample questions for Christian grown ups and those who should be growing up in Christ.

  • What does spiritually adulting Facebook engagement look like? What do spiritual adults “like”? What do they complain about, and how?
  • What do spiritually adulting sleepovers look like? This is for younger ladies, but they should be thinking about it. What games would they play? How would they talk?
  • What do spiritually adulting Halloween parties and and costumes look like?
  • What does spiritually adulting movie watching look like? This is not just about adult viewing, but spiritually mature adult viewing.

A Moral Pebble in Your Shoe

Rather than appreciate collateral blessings, our unbelieving culture would rather maneuver Christians off the hill of blessing altogether. More than that, they want us to feel guilty about the good we have. The right way for us to respond, which we’re discouraged from doing by the ones without the good, is to boast more. This requires a little fleshing out, and it’s not something that can be done properly in the flesh.

Here’s an example. A university professor claims that a mom and dad who read to their kids give their kids an unfair advantage of “familial relationship goods.” He said, “I don’t think parents reading their children bedtime stories should constantly have in their minds the way that they are unfairly disadvantaging other people’s children, but I think they should have that thought occasionally.” So it might not be the worst thing ever, but it’s still a moral pebble in your shoe.

There are many other and less laughable and more pervasive examples. You should feel guilty for having so much food when others are starving. You should feel guilty for buying and wearing clothes that others can’t afford. You should feel guilty for having White (skin) Privilege. You should feel guilty for not being a woman, or identifying as one, or however that works.

Really, you should be feel guilty for being a Christian. Saying you have a Savior implies that others need to be saved, and that’s rude. Saying Jesus is the Savior is exclusive and not tolerant. You hater. Don’t enjoy something that others can’t, let alone something that offends them.

Some men do puff themselves up, look down on others, treat others with contempt and injustice. Some do abuse their privileges and cause real hurt, so said Solomon in Ecclesiastes 8:9.

But when we remember the gospel, the word of the cross, the sovereign grace of God, we will not feel guilty for receiving these things from Him as gifts. Jesus is our wisdom, our justification, our purpose, our life (1 Corinthians 1:30). In God’s kindness He gives marriages and kids and food and clothes and gender and generational, systemic fruitfulness. So let us keep on bragging in the Lord (1 Corinthians 1:31). To do otherwise is to displease Him.

Kneeling on Sundays

Of all things, kneeling on Sundays is in the news these days. Interesting, isn’t it? Our society still finds a story in symbols and liturgy. This does not mean that the ones kneeling or the ones standing or the ones talking about it on TV understand the story, but they all know that bodily posture matters. It has for a long time.

Oh come, let us worship and bow down;

let us kneel before the LORD, our Maker!

(Psalm 95:6)

To be sure, it is possible to assume a position, to do it without much thinking, or even to do it as a lie, thinking the opposite of the communicated posture. It is also possible for position to be a discipline; the heart is not feeling it but putting the body in place reminds the heart of its proper pace. There are also those who are physically incapable of getting into or maintain some position (standing or kneeling).

But none of those change the created reality that certain positions communicate and are expected to communicate.

In our local church’s Sunday morning liturgy we stand to hear the word of God read. We honor God’s gracious revelation in a position of attention. We also get on our knees in humility for our confession of sin. We honor God’s gracious redemption in a kneeling position.

The cross of Christ does not allow us to keep our pride, or to parade our self-righteousness, or to validate our impressiveness. The cross humbles all who come to it, and there is even liturgical opportunity for others to watch us honor God as we kneel before Him.

Bearing Their Gravitas

Which do you think is the greater problem in the church, placing too much value on preachers or too little? Good arguments could be made on both sides.

The existence of “celebrity” pastors is, sadly, a real thing. Calling some of them celebrities is unfair, since we typically call a celebrity someone who is famous for being famous. There are these types of celebrity pastors with mega-church book sales and TV audiences though they have nothing to say near as self-helping good as Marcus Aurelius/Tony Robbins. There are also “famous” pastors in the Reformed and exegetical parts of the evangelical landscape. These preachers probably didn’t intend to garner a bursting field of followers, but that we spend more time reading the notes in the study Bible than the verses in the Bible may be an indication that we’re giving them too much attention.

That said, the greatest influence many pastors ever exert is ruining a party when they arrive; it’s a spiritual gift. Whether it’s because they take themselves too seriously so that no one else could possibly bear their gravitas, or because they are too lazy to actually keep up with others, it’s hard to see how they influence much of anybody. People will listen unless its about a personal problem because the pastor doesn’t have a professional counseling degree. People will listen unless there’s something more exciting on their phone. Well, it doesn’t even need to be that exciting.

I bring up the question because the church in Corinth had, to some degree, divided themselves according to their favorite teacher/leader. Not only did they have their preference, they made their pick the only (see 1 Corinthians 1:12).

Paul addressed the problem in one way, which was to put the cross of Christ at the center. The word of the cross kills the pride of man, no need for rivalry. I also think we’d do better if we, preachers and people, were more Kuyperian. Preachers have their place, God has assigned them necessary work in the sphere of the church, and yet their work is neither at the top (God’s highest calling) or the end (God’s final goal). If we remembered that we’d probably be able to appreciate what preachers do without dividing over our favorite.

Perspective Fail

Our pursuit of righteousness is not only a personal pursuit. Paul urged his disciple, Timothy:

Flee youthful passions and pursue righteousness, faith, love, and peace, along with those who call on the Lord from a pure heart. (2 Timothy 2:22)

We are in a battle against the world, the devil, and the sinful flesh (see Ephesians 2:2-3). There are “opponents” within and without (see 2 Timothy 2:25). Each soldier must do his part, fight in his part of the field, but it is because he is part of something bigger.

I bring this up not only to remind us that we’re supposed to fight, or even that we’re supposed to fight together (instead of against one another). We need to see the context or we’ll inevitably have a perspective fail.

Our problems seem bigger when we are the end of our concerns. We increase our burden if we think we’re the only ones struggling. Then we’re found to be adding the sin of pride onto whatever the first sin is, acting as if our sin is the worst or that no one else understands. On the other hand, our problems, our trials and temptations, seem smaller when we remember that we’re part of something bigger. That doesn’t mean our problems don’t exist or that we can ignore them and don’t need to confess when we sin, but it does mean that it would probably be easier if we stopped thinking we were so special.

“No temptation has overtaken you that is not common to man” (1 Corinthians 10:13). That includes the temptation to isolate ourselves in the battle against temptation. We fight along with all those who call on the name of the Lord.

The Debt Immense

Because of the way God created the world many things of value can be shared, but with totally different results. A shared reward is divided, a shared laugh is multiplied. A shared space subtracts the amount of room for you, a shared discovery adds to the joy.

There are similar created mysteries regarding debt. Some debts are big and others small, but a bigger debt might be less burdensome depending. What is owed? Who is it owned to? A small debt to a stingy lender is much worse than a great debt to a generous one. There are even some debts that compound joy as the debt increases.

In John Milton’s Paradise Lost he imagines many of the heavenly and hellish scenes before and during the fall of man. But before getting to Eve’s temptation and Adam’s sin he describes Satan’s decisive discontent in Satan’s words:

in a moment quit

The debt immense of endless gratitude, 
 So burdensome, still paying, still to owe;

Forgetful what from him I still received,

And understood not that a grateful mind 
 By owing owes not, but still pays, at once

Indebted and discharged; what burden then?

These lines describe true economics whether or not they describe Satan’s true thoughts. It is one of the reasons why Genesis 1:1 is so offensive because it means that there is a God we answer to, a God we are born without our choice already in debt to.

But this debt of gratitude we owe is a debt that increases our joy as we pay it and as the debt itself increases. It can’t be otherwise. God deserves more thanks the more He gives, and we are more joyful the more we are thankful. The more we owe and the more we pay, the more truly free we are.

Jealous of a Complainer

How do you know that God is willing and working in you for His good pleasure? As you are working out your salvation with fear and trembling what is the result? If you could choose just one act of believing obedience to make a dent in the world, what would it be?

It’s possible that one thing answers all those questions. Though he doesn’t use the word, it connects Paul’s thoughts in Philippians 2:12-16. He called the Christians to work out their salvation (verse 12), remembering that God is at work in them (verse 13), and then reminded them that they are 
“children of God without blemish in the midst of a crooked and twisted generation, among whom you shine as lights of the world” (verse 15).

Certainly the Philippian believers stood out for their morality (“blameless and innocent”) as well as for their different authority (“holding fast to the word of life”). But the way they became these bright lights is by obeying Paul’s command at the beginning of verse 14: “Do all things without grumbling or disputing.” Stated positively: they were thankful. God wills that we give thanks always. Saved people are thankful people. And thankful people stand out in a crooked and complaining generation.

We should be Christians living in the world and with one another in such a way as to provoke good jealousy among others, eventually all Israel (see Romans 11:11, 14), who will want what we have in Christ. But have you ever heard of someone being jealous of a complainer? “Wow, you see all the bad things so accurately. You really put into words all the grumbling feelings I have. I wish I could have your spirit of fussiness.”

There could be someone who hears us complain and is jealous of all our blessings that they see better than us that we aren’t giving thanks for. In that sense they are jealous of a complainer, but not of our complaints. Let us repent and recount our blessings in thanks.