No Lifehacks for Obedience

I have read a variety of books about productivity and getting things done and how to figure out what’s best next. I kind of like the genre. I have tried a lot of task apps, todo systems, and techniques for processing information. These have a place. We are created for good works, and being able to plan and organize and aim our good works is a good thing.

But. There is often a but. But, efficiency and effectiveness can become idols. Not only can they become false gods, they are not gentle gods, they are cutthroat. There is always someone serving those gods better than you who get greater rewards, and there are always items left on the list every day that didn’t get done to burden your guilt. Most of the books and articles and lifehacks offer an answer. You must change something in your circumstances in order to do better.

The assumption is that the problem with your productive service is your environment. What you need is a list organized like this. What you need is a clean desk like this. What you need is a place to store all your papers, digital or analog, like this. What you need is to carve out blocks of uninterrupted quiet time like this.

One danger of these sorts of “this-es” is that they tempt us to see our neighbor (family member, friend, co-worker) as an inconvenience, a hindrance to “our” work. But it is not blessed to blame. It is not blessed to lust for quiet, and get angry, when God clearly isn’t giving it to you. Pastors tell other pastors the story of Jonathan Edwards who regularly spent thirteen hours a day by himself in his study. While I’m thankful for some of his fruit, he left his wife Sarah to run the house. That is not more spiritual, it’s more selfish.

Let us be zealous for good works as Paul told Titus to tell his people. Go ahead and make a list, and get an app if you need to. Let us redeem the time because the days are evil. And let us never think that if we could just control our environments then we could obey God. Obey Him always and in everything.

Proverbial Nose Bleeds

How many ways can you have a bad day? I’m not sure, but I know for sure how to make one worse.

Maybe the “bad” is due to your body. It’s not traceable to anything foolish you did, it’s due to something in God’s sovereignty, and it causes you some amount of suffering. Maybe the bad is in your mailbox, or email inbox. Out of what seems like nowhere to you, God sent you a bill, or a criticism, or an “opportunity” that will take you a week just to decide what to do. People have had it worse than you, but this is bad.

I have come back from the land of attempted sanctification and can report a guaranteed way to multiply the problem. I’m going to tell it to you know, for free, it doesn’t take long to teach. If you want to make it worse, see what’s bad and then get mad. Anger will pour vinegar on the soda of your papier-mâché volcano. Eruption!

Solomon wrote a lot about anger, and about how fools get angry. It starts with too high a view of the man in the mirror.

If you have been foolish, exalting yourself,
or if you have been devising evil,
put your hand on your mouth.

For pressing milk produces curds,
pressing the nose produces blood,

and pressing anger produces strife.

(Proverbs 30:32-33)

Anger starts when you’ve decided that you are doing things God’s way, or rather that what you’ve decided is as good as God’s way. If God’s way isn’t happening, which by this point you’re seeing very clearly from your perspective on high, you get angry. Anger never dances alone for long. It wants a partner, or rather, a target, and so it “produces strife.”

Now your bad day, which may have been God’s plan to get glory (as in John 9), has you hot and your wife in fight or flight and your kids (or coworkers) questioning if you are as #blessed as your bumper sticker claims.

But, good news, Jesus already bled for the proverbial nose bleeds you’ve caused, and His grace is like cool milk to a heart on fire.

Knots and Nooses

Give a sinner a knife and he will find knots to cut. He doesn’t want things tied together, he wants things loose. Give a man a rope and he will make a noose. He claims he wants justice, punishment for those who deserve it. A knife is good, but in a culture of lynch mobs, a knife is good for cutting nooses. Rope is good, but in a culture of relativism and emotional goo, it’s good for tying knots that hold things together. Sin doesn’t need different tools, sin uses the good tools toward wrong ends.

Law and grace are misused gifts. The law is good for revealing the righteousness of God and our need for a Savior. Sinners use the law to accuse and condemn our neighbor. Grace is good for delivering us from the guilt and grasp of sin. Sinners use grace as a justification to plunge deeper into it.

What should we do? We should listen to God’s Word and not be choosy. We should hear all that He has to say, and learn what He loves and what He hates. But we overestimate our abilities and stop listening before He finishes speaking. God loves the perfect and hates perfectionism. He loves when His people walk in the Spirit and He hates when we try to walk in the Spirit apart from our feet.

Sinners are strict when they ought to forgive and compromise they ought to stand. We need to be ruthless with our sin, and never sin by being ruthless with our neighbor. We have many good gifts, let us use them as obedient sons.

A Candle Under Your Hoodie

There is a somewhat famous statement in Christian circles that “it is better to marry than to burn.” That’s a poetic way to talk about passionate, erotic desire for someone else. In itself, there’s nothing wrong with passion, but there is only one safe direction for sexual desires: your spouse.

Remember King David. He was already married, but then he saw Bathsheba, and in many ways his life was undone. It was unlawful desire. It destroyed him and many lives around him.

In Proverbs 6 Solomon shares wisdom with his son, starting with exhortations to learn from the ant about not being lazy, and then moving to reminders about mom and dad’s teaching on purity. There’s a lot of warning about the “strange” woman in Proverbs, and there are a couple verses about obvious danger.

Can a man carry fire next to his chest

and his clothes not be burned?
Or can one walk on hot coals

and his feet not be scorched?

This is a different kind of burning, and the consequences are unavoidable. The questions don’t reveal information, they are a memorable reminder. How far can you carry a candle around under your hoodie? What number of jumping jacks can you do barefoot in a bonfire? It’s impossible to avoid the pain, and Solomon presses the image into adultery.

So is he who goes in to his neighbor’s wife;

none who touches her will go unpunished.

It is good for a man to touch his wife, it’s not good for a man to touch another man’s wife, or any woman who’s not his wife. It’s good to love your wife, it’s not good to lust for anyone who isn’t (Matthew 5:28).

Where are your passions? Are you guarding your heart? Out of it proceed the issues of love.

Believing Believers

When Jesus came down the mountain after His transfiguration He met a father who had brought his convulsing son to Jesus for healing. The disciples who had remained in the foothills hadn’t been able to heal the boy, and Jesus lamented over such a “faithless generation.” To the father himself Jesus said, “All things are possible for one who believes,” and the father’s famous response was: “I believe; help my unbelief!”

I was thinking about this again after a repeated comment last weekend at the Grace Agenda conference. When it comes to enraging the culture, telling others the good and authoritative news of the Bible, calling them to salvation in Jesus Christ, it was observed that our first and biggest problem is not getting the unbelievers to believe, it is getting the believers to believe. We don’t believe that God is sovereign and that His Word is powerful and that His Spirit works. We are ashamed of the gospel. We fear being reviled and rejected. We back down and back off. We don’t believe God first.

This is true of Christians not only in evangelism and apologetics, this is true in marriage and parenting, in bill-sorting and job-searching, in health problems and home problems, in temptations to anger or impatience or fear or any sin that plagues us. We believers don’t believe God. There are times when I do not believe God.

But Jesus said all things are possible for the one who believes. While we may cry out, “I believe, help my unbelief,” we also ought to cry out, “I believe, forgive my unbelief.” Little faith does not honor the God of promise and power. We are saved by faith, so let’s live by faith.

Blessed Forever

Since the Sunday of New Year’s Eve I have focused our exhortations to confession around the idea of being blessed. We’ve seen 13 #blesseds so far, and this will be the final one for [this series], though certainly not the last one found in the Scriptures.

The reason for the focus, as you may remember, is rooted in the belief that God will give such great blessing to the church across many nations that will provoke jealousy among the elect unbelievers to cause them to desire salvation and blessing in Christ. This has special concentration on the end times, receiving and rejoicing in our blessings so well that a generation of Israelites will believe and be saved.

The final blessing for attention fits both with that scheme of eschatology and with Easter.

Blessed and holy is the one who shares in the first resurrection! Over such the second death has no power, but they will be priests of God and of Christ, and they will reign with him for a thousand years. (Revelation 20:6)

This is the fifth of seven blessings in the Revelation, and the blessing is resurrection and reigning. The “first resurrection” includes all those who believe in Christ and die physically before His return; it’s us, the church. The “second death” is eternal death, and it cannot harm the believers at all; it has no teeth.

The blessed will be resurrected to “reign with him for a thousand years.” This is the millennial kingdom, and we believe that this is actually 1,000 years of Jesus’ future reign as Lord on earth over every nation, and it’s us, with Him. We’re not there yet, but we will be.

God’s blesses His people with the hope of resurrection, He blesses His people with actual resurrection, and He blesses His people post-resurrection as they share in His kingdom. It is all because of Christ. In Him we come to life and reign with Him. We are blessed and will be blessed day and night forever and ever.

Choices as Saints

On the night before Jesus’ crucifixion, when He knew that His hour had come to die, He described the blessed life to His disciples.

Actually, before He described the blessing, He gave a demonstration, by taking up a towel and washing the feet of His guys. It was an act of love. It was an act of humility. It was the way of obedience. And it was an example for them to follow.

I have given you an example, that you also should do just as I have done to you….If you know these things, blessed are you if you do them. (John 13:15, 17)

The #blessed life is not the life that can retell the story of Jesus before the Passover Feast. The #blessed life is not the life that can explain the theological parts of our need to be washed. The #blessed life is not even the life that recognizes a difference between being a servant and master, and that knows that Jesus is the Lord and Teacher. The #blessed life is the life of obedience.

The apostle James knew it too.

The one who looks into the perfect law, the law of liberty, and perseveres, being no hearer who forgets but a doer who acts, he will be blessed in his doing. (James 1:25)

But aren’t Jesus and James too focused on the externals? Shouldn’t they be more concerned about the heart? That’s just it, they are concerned about the heart. They are so concerned about it that they expect that what is in the heart will be visible in obedience.

Don’t be deceived, hearing about pride from the Word but then not considering what pride is in your life that must be mortified. The same goes for worldliness, sexual immorality, and anger. Get specific about your sins to confess, and get specific about your choices as saints. Blessed are you not just when you know, but when you do.

(For a chapter’s worth of blessing for obedience and cursing on disobedience read Deuteronomy 28.)

Cosmic and Concentrated

Blessing runs in two directions at the beginning of Paul’s letter to the Ephesians. We bless God, which is to say that we glorify Him in praise, and He blesses us, which is to say that He gives us favor; He protects and provides and gladdens. We bless because He first blessed us.

The Father’s blessing to us is both cosmic and concentrated. He blesses us “with every spiritual blessing in heavenly places.” I’m not totally sure what to do with that, other than thinking that it’s real good. Every blessing, as in, not missing one? And heavenly places, as in, the places where thieves can’t break in and steal and moths can’t eat away and rust can’t corrupt? In the heavenlies is the seat of His rule, the place His will is always done speedily and gladly. Our blessings are limited only by the Father’s ideas and abilities and resources.

Our blessings are also centered. The Father “has blessed us in Christ” (verse 3). The Father has predestined us to receive grace in such a stunning way so that it praises the glory of His grace, and “he has blessed us in the Beloved” (verse 6) with this grand grace.

“In Him” we were chosen to be holy and blameless (verse 4). “In Him” we have redemption and forgiveness (verse 7). “In Christ” we see the working of God’s plan for the fulness of time (verse 10). “In Him” we have obtained an inheritance (verse 11). “In Him” we were sealed with the promised Holy Spirit (verse 14).

All of these blessings are in Christ, and we who believe are in Him. We are blessed in Him who is over all things and who fills all in all.

Sex Is for Fruit

“Blessed the man that fears Jehovah and that walketh in His ways.” Yes, and amen to the one-hundred and twenty-eighth Psalm. And what form does the blessing referred to in verse 1 take? In addition to eating the fruit of the field (verse 2), God’s blessing includes enjoying the fruit of the womb (verse 3).

Sex is a blessing, for enjoyment and pleasure and closeness in marriage. Sex is for fun, and sex is for fruit. This fruit is a blessing, says God. The man blessed by the Lord will have children “like olive shoots around his table.” By the Lord’s blessing he may even see his “children’s children,” his grandchildren (verse 6).

Recognizing this blessing does not require that every married couple needs to have as many kids as they possibly could. It does mean that every newly married couple should not reject this blessing on principle. Recognizing this blessing also means finding days-old, dried-up pieces of pasta stuck to the floor underneath the kitchen table, or the fine powder of fist-crushed pretzels in the crevices underneath the car seat in the back of the van. It means inconveniently timed disobediences to deal with, or inconveniently timed emotional breakdowns to work through, or math homework that needs to be rewritten for the fifth time, while you watch.

But these are part of the olive shoots. These are part of the blessing. And too many of our kids don’t get that we get that they are blessings. They have father hunger rather than hunger to father. So they think that growing up and getting married is about the ceremonial wedding-dress pageant, or for the honeymoon-night undressing, or they run the other way and think that God thinks less of all those things and only wants us to be “spiritual.”

God bless us with kids, and God bless our kids with a vision of generational fruitfulness rather than merely moments of satisfying their physical pleasures.

Most Likely to Be an Arbiter

I don’t plan to make this an exhaustive series of exhortations covering all the blesseds in the Bible, but part of the method of staying on the subject for so many weeks is to make the point that God loves to bless His people and that there are lot of ways He does so.

For now let’s go back into the Beatitude orchard and note the seventh in line: “Blessed are the peacemakers, for they shall be called sons of God.”

Like the first six in the list, “peacemakers” describes a kind of person. It is one word in Greek, made up of two parts, the verb for “make” and the noun “peace” (very nuanced in translation, as you can tell). A man who makes peace is a man who intervenes in disagreements and disputes, who reconciles divided parties, who works to calm conflicts and bring fighting friends back into fellowship.

Peace cannot always be made, and there are certain occasions when peace should not be pursued. Jesus said “Do not think that I have come to bring peace to earth. I have not come to bring peace, but a sword” (Matthew 10:34). We are to fight against sin and fight for the faith once for all delivered to the saints. But even then we defend the faith for sake of justified peace. We kill our sin for sake of holy peace. We call for the unrepentant and heretical to repent for sake of eternal peace.

That said, most of us weren’t voted “Most Likely to Be an Arbiter” in our graduation class, and the world does not know that we are Christians by our peacemaking. We are much better at stirring things up, or being stirred up. But, as fun as it may be, Jesus did not say “blessed are the contrarians.”

Why are peacemakers blessed? It certainly doesn’t feel happy in the midst of most conflict, either between you and someone else or when trying to help two other people. But God makes it blessed because it is a share in God’s own work. God makes peace. God gets in the middle. He is a Mediator at heart, or at least He is in flesh, and that’s why Jesus says the peacemakers will be “called sons of God.” When we make peace we are acting like our Father.