How to Shipwreck Your Theology

A Mother’s Rebuke

A few years ago, English-speaking fans of Karl Barth were rattled by an essay which shed new light on the personal life of the 20th-century giant of theology. Many had already known about Barth’s love for a woman who was not his wife, but few had read his private letters, which painted a clearer and more disturbing picture. The basic facts of the situation are uncomfortable, to say the least. While unhappily married to Nelly, Barth invited another woman he loved, Charlotte von Kirschbaum, to share a home with him and his wife—an arrangement that lasted for almost 35 years. Even those who try to see Barth in the most charitable light admit that “Barth’s love for both Nelly and Charlotte . . . caused duress to all of them,” and that it was Nelly, Barth’s wife, who “experienced the most pain and endured the most trauma.”

In light of Barth’s behavior—which conflicted with his own theology of marriage—a question from his mother wields more punch than hundreds of pages of his own theological treatises: “What is the most brilliant theology good for,” she asked, “if it is to be shipwrecked in one’s own house?” Besides delivering a scathing rebuke, Mrs. Barth’s question points to something essential about how we must approach theology: we grasp it not only with our minds but also with our hearts and actions. In other words, right knowledge about God should produce right actions for God. If we refuse to align our behavior with our theological beliefs, those beliefs can become worse than useless for us. Beliefs and behavior must be held together.

Theology: More Than Intellectual

Of course, this is far from saying that we should care little about studying theology if only we live good lives. To the contrary, we are called to exert mental energy as one of the many ways we fulfill the Greatest Commandment: “Love the Lord your God with all your . . . mind” (Matthew 22:37). After all, the Christian faith is based on God’s written revelation, requiring at the very least the mental effort of reading to comprehend it. The psalmist reminds us of the intellectual challenge of understanding God when he cries, “How precious to me are your thoughts, O God! How vast is the sum of them! If I would count them, they are more than the sand” (Psalm 139:17). It is good and necessary for us to submit to the rigors of studying Scripture—to comprehend its historical context, apply sound hermeneutics, draw theological conclusions, and make practical applications.

Further, it is good for us to study the contributions of theologians throughout the centuries who—as God’s gifts to the church—have clarified and expounded the meaning of Scripture. Indeed, every Christian must exercise his or her best mental energy to know God—that is, to understand theology.

But theology is more than an intellectual exercise, for our mind, will, and emotions are deeply connected. We assimilate truth, not only with our minds, but also with our affections and, yes, even our actions. Wouldn’t you sense that something is skewed in a person who listens to, for example, “Gabriel’s Oboe,” without feeling at least a twinge of sentiment? Or who reads about the Jewish holocaust without feeling enraged toward the Nazis? Is there anything less disturbing about a theologian who affirms that God sustains his every heartbeat, but feels little sense of duty toward him? or a Christian who sings about “the old rugged cross,” but does not feel compelled on the deepest level of being to love and live for the Jesus who died there?

Voices from the Past

In his treatise On the Religious Affections, Jonathan Edwards makes this point abundantly clear: “Nothing is more manifest in fact,” he insists, “than that the things of religion take hold of men’s souls no further than they affect them.” In other words, you will know what you believe by what moves your affections. And you will know what moves your affections only by what moves you to action. There is no truer test of what you believe than observing how you behave.

This symbiosis between belief and behavior shines clearly in Lewis Bayly’s The Practice of Piety (interestingly, the book that nudged John Bunyan toward his conversion). Bayly begins this book with a summary of Christian doctrine. But on the heels of heavy theological discussion, he exhorts his readers to align their behavior with these truths (I’ve updated his language a bit):

If you believe that God is almighty, why do you fear devils and enemies, and not confidently trust in God? If you believe that God is infinite, how dare you provoke him to anger? If you believe that God is the sovereign good, why is not your heart more settled upon him than on all worldly goods? If you believe that God is a righteous judge, how dare you live so securely in sin without repentance?

This link between belief and behavior is also aptly expressed by William Perkins’ definition of theology as “the science of living blessedly forever.” Sadly, this practical, hortatory tone is missing in many modern books on theology. Is it because their authors are afraid that readers will snub them as preachy or unintellectual? On the contrary, I think it is odd not to turn to exhortation, adoration, or exultation when confronted with truth about God.

The Danger We Face

But is there really a danger here? What do we risk losing when we separate belief from behavior? We easily think of many things: personal integrity, strength of character, our testimony. But there is one danger we tend to overlook: when we separate belief from behavior, we risk abandoning the beliefs themselves.

Here’s how it happens: when our behavior conflicts with our beliefs, the clash creates such cognitive dissonance that instead of living with the cacophony, we tend to abandon either the beliefs or the behavior. For example, a pastor will find it psychologically and spiritually agonizing to condemn the sin of adultery while he engages in illicit sexual liaisons. Tortured by such cognitive dissonance, he faces two options: either abandon his behavior (adultery), or revise his belief (that adultery is wrong, or that it is wrong in his particular case). Of course, he can try to live with the dissonance, but few can bear that strain for very long. It is often said that as beliefs go, so goes behavior. But it is true the other way around as well.

As behavior goes, so goes belief. We tend to justify our behavior by our beliefs. And when we continually embrace behavior that conflicts with what we believe, it is likely that we will adjust our beliefs to accommodate our behavior.

Thus, it is possible to abandon beliefs, not just by falling prey to intellectual snares and doctrinal aberrations, but by living in contradiction to our beliefs. This is what the Apostle Paul talks about in 1 Timothy 1:19, when he reports that Hymenaeus and Alexander “made shipwreck of their faith,” by rejecting a “good conscience.” Note the order: rejecting their conscience (right behavior) led to the shipwreck of their faith (right beliefs). This danger hounds us with every sermon we hear, with every Bible verse we read, and with every decision we make. Any of us could be a Hymenaeus or Alexander.

Hold Faith and a Good Conscience

With the stakes so high, with this peril lurking at every corner, our duty is urgent yet simple: Hold “faith and a good conscience” (1 Timothy 1:19). In one hand, tightly grip your faith; in the other, grip the behavior that this faith requires. Don’t let go of either. “Keep a close watch on yourself [your behavior] and on the teaching [your beliefs]. Persist in this” (1 Timothy 4:16).

Every time we sit down to read our Bibles, every time we get interested in an online theological debate, we would be wise to remember the words of Karl Barth’s mother: “What is the most brilliant theology good for if it is to be shipwrecked in one’s own house?”

What To Do When Envy Strikes

Merriam-Webster defines envy as the “painful or resentful awareness of an advantage enjoyed by another joined with a desire to possess the same advantage.” That’s a pretty good definition of what I’ve felt plenty of times. Maybe you know the feeling as well. You see someone who has or does something you want to have or do. You compare yourself with that person, and suddenly you feel unhappy, rotten, and sullen. It feels like you’re stranded in a cold downpour, while that person is dancing in the warm sunlight.

Social media can make it even worse. You are naive, carefree, and innocent of envy—until their photos, tweets, or status updates send a shower of sparks igniting those feelings of envy. It could be anything: the engagement pictures, the luxurious vacation, the exciting conference, the career promotion, the book deal, the doting spouse, the adorable children. And suddenly your carefree spirit evaporates. In its place is a vague, seething resentment.

And this resentment leads to something rather bizarre: we try to disdain the very thing we’re jealous of. Like the fox in Aesop’s fable who couldn’t reach the grapes and stormed off muttering, “I’m sure they were sour anyway,” we silently slander that person’s character or poke holes in his or her accomplishments. It might go something like this: “Sure, nice engagement pics—but how can they justify the cost?” “OK, he went to that conference, but isn’t he becoming quite the conference junkie?” “And the promotion? Go ahead—let your family and health suffer while you take on even more stress.”

Yes, I’ve been there. But I’ve also found—through painful experience—that applying certain truths from Scripture can help confront envy when it strikes.

Interrogate your envy.

The psalmist interrogated himself when he felt downcast. “Why are you cast down, O my soul?” (Psalm 42:5, 11; 43:5). Why shouldn’t we do this when we feel envious?

So try this: corner your envy with a couple pointed questions, and don’t let envy get out of the corner until it has told the whole truth. What, exactly, are you envying? Why is that so important to you? After carefully thinking through—and perhaps writing down—the answer to these questions, you might discover that your envy is founded on a wholly irrational comparison. You might realize that you have chosen an arbitrary segment of someone else’s life and put it side-by-side with an arbitrary segment of your life. You might even discover that what you have envied is not enviable at all, especially when you consider your vastly different life situations. Asking why you have envied that particular thing might reveal that you have elevated a relationship, possession, or circumstance, to the status of God of your life. You must ask yourself, “Will the object of my envy really save me, comfort me, or protect me, no matter what?”

Confront the lie at the root of envy.

When you have thoroughly interrogated your envy, you are ready to hack at its root. And the root of envy is this lie: “I will find deep happiness and meaning if I’m like that person in such-and-such a particular way.” We find this lie so believable because we are painfully aware of how wretched our lives are. So we compare, admire, and crave to be like those we think embody our ideals.

But here’s what makes this lie so pernicious. There is only one person really worth envying. There is only one person of whom it can be truly said, “I will find deep happiness and meaning in being like that person”—and that Person is Jesus Christ. Only Jesus Christ perfectly fulfilled God’s ideal for human beings, which is to thrive in a relationship with Him. And as both God and man, Jesus Christ did exactly that and he did it perfectly. He could say with complete honesty: I always do the things that are pleasing to [my Father]” (John 8:29).

So if anyone should be envied, it should be Jesus. But this envy comes with no angst, for God intends believers to be like Jesus (Colossians 1:28, Hebrews 2:10-11). In fact, if you are a believer in Christ, God is orchestrating every circumstance in your life to become more like him (Romans 8:28-30). For those of us who struggle with envy, we must learn to confront the lie of envy with this truth: Christlikeness is infinitely more valuable than others-likeness.

Recognize God’s goodness and sovereignty.

When we succumb to envy, we are failing to recognize that God has a good purpose in bestowing our unique life situations (see Genesis 50:20). Part of the beauty and wonder of God’s creativity is that he made us unique, and it is this uniqueness that displays God’s glory (Psalm 139:13-14). A purpose of our being conformed to the image of Christ is that “he might be the firstborn among many brothers,” not the firstborn among many clones (Romans 8:29, emphasis added). In other words, God wants you to display Christlikeness through your unique, divinely-bestowed personality, your strengths and weaknesses, your opportunities and challenges. While someone else’s circumstances might be objectively easier and more pleasant, both you and they must find ultimate meaning and happiness in the same thing—in showing Christlikeness through the kaleidoscope of your special circumstances.

We will struggle with envy as long as we have a sin nature. But informed by Scripture, we can begin to reduce the hazy resentment, identify our idols, and learn to find true delight in becoming more and more like Christ.

*This post originally appeared on RootedThinking.com

Faithful Wounds: Friendship and Honesty

When preparing to preach on the theme of friendship from the book of Proverbs, I was interested in discovering the marks of a wise friend. During my research, I found that one of the most prominent marks of a wise friend is honesty. A wise friend tells the truth, even when that truth might be unwelcome.

Proverbs stresses the importance of being an honest friend in at least two ways: first, by showing the contrast between an honest friend and the flatterer; second, by highlighting the value of truth-telling in friendship.

Flatterers are not true friends. By telling someone what they wish were true about themselves, flatterers prey on one’s hunger for self-esteem. As the inspired sage puts it: “Those who flatter their neighbors are spreading nets for their feet” (Proverbs 29:5). Such flattery works only when because both the flattered and flatterer have a loose commitment to the truth. An honest person does not flatter because he is committed to telling only the truth. An honest person will not be flattered because he is committed to believing only the truth.

A wise friend, in contrast to the flatterer, is willing to tell his friends the truth even when doing so puts him at risk. “Better is open rebuke than hidden love,” the maxim goes. “Faithful are the wounds of a friend; profuse are the kisses of an enemy” (Proverbs 27:5-6).

The value of a truth-telling friend is personal to me. A friend confronted me once for not being completely honest. After that painful conversation, I did not think, “I’m not going to hang out with that guy any more.” Instead, I thought, “Now that is a true friend.”

Someone who goes along with others, whatever they do, is a follower. Someone who tells others just what they want to hear is a flatterer. Someone who tells others the truth—with love and loyalty—no matter what, is a friend.

Baxter’s Plea for Unity Among Pastors and Churches

Fewer books have had a greater shaping force on my convictions about pastoral ministry than Richard Baxter’s The Reformed Pastor (“Reformed” is not used in a theological sense: it means something like “changed for the better”).

At the close of an especially stirring section (“The manner of this oversight”) Baxter pleads that his fellow pastors seek to promote unity among themselves instead of splintering into factions based on petty differences. The consistency of our human nature to seek self-aggrandizement by enlarging the distinctions that make us differ from other churches makes Baxter’s words both timeless and timely. But since Baxter wrote over 350 years ago, his vocabulary and syntax may be challenging for the modern reader. Accordingly, I have taken the liberty to “translate” Baxter’s exhortation, using contemporary wording, while attempting to retain the force and vigor of his argument.

As fellow pastors, we are allies in a common cause. Therefore, we must be diligent to cultivate union and communion among ourselves and seek to promote the unity and peace of the churches we oversee. We must realize how critical this unity and peace is to the wellbeing of the church as a whole, the strengthening of our common cause, the good of the individual church members, and the advancement of Christ’s kingdom.

Instead of being instigators of conflicts among churches, pastors—of all people—should themselves feel the sting of these divisive wounds. They must accept as part of their calling the responsibility to prevent and heal divisions. They must be willing to work day and night to discover ways to close up breaches between churches. Instead of bending their ears to divisive rumors, they must listen to ideas for mending conflicts, and even come up with ideas of their own and be willing to carry them out.

To bring about such unity, pastors must have a clear grasp of the ancient simplicity of the Christian faith, and of the foundation and center of universal Christian unity. We have an inbred arrogance that turns zeal for suppressing error and maintaining the truth and into a pretense for wrecking and ripping apart the church of Christ. Pastors must learn to recognize and abhor this tendency in themselves. They must be willing to impose no other rule than the rule of Scripture, which takes precedence over church confessions and other writings. Pastors must know the difference between certainties and uncertainties, essentials and non-essentials, universal truths and personal opinions.

When dealing with controversies, pastors must be careful listeners. Some doctrinal errors are real; others are merely semantic. Let us not accuse a brother of heresy before we understand what he is actually saying. We must patiently get to the bottom of an issue so we may see the real point of difference, and not make it seem greater than it actually is. Instead of fighting with our brothers, let us combine our forces against our common enemy. Let us fellowship with each other, communicate with each other, and hold meetings together without letting smaller differences of judgment come between us. As much as we are able, let us do the work of God together. The purposes of our organizations should not be to make laws, but to avoid misunderstandings, to mutually encourage each other, to maintain love and fellowship, and to be unified in the work God has charged us to do.

Is God’s Plan to Keep You Safe and Comfortable?

When preparing to preach on Romans 8:28 last Sunday, I was reminded of an imaginary dialogue I have seen floating around the web from time to time. Many people have found some sense of comfort in this dialogue, supposing that it illustrates God’s good sovereignty at work in the lives of his children.

The dialogue goes something like this:

Person: Why did You let so much stuff happen to me today?

God: What do you mean?

Person: Well, I woke up late. My car took forever to start. At lunch they made my sandwich wrong, and I had to wait. On the way home my phone went dead just as I picked up a call. And to top of it all off, when I got home, I just wanted to soak my feet in my new foot massager and relax. But it wouldn’t work! Nothing went right today! Why did you do that?

God: Let’s see. . . . The death angel was at your bed this morning and I had to send one of my angels to battle him for your life. I let you sleep through that. I didn’t let your car start because there was a drunk driver on your route that would have hit you if you were on the road. There was salmonella in the first sandwich that was made for you, and I didn’t want you to catch that. I knew you couldn’t afford to miss work. Your phone went dead because the person that was calling was going to give false witness about what you said on that call. I didn’t even let you talk to them so you would be covered. Oh, and that foot massager? It had a shortage that was going to throw out all of the power in your house tonight. I didn’t think you wanted to be in the dark.

Person: I’m sorry, God.

God: Don’t doubt that My plan for your day is always better than your plan.

Of course, it is possible for God to intervene in specific ways to keep people from getting sick or hurt or dying. But the dialogue leaves us with the impression that God is working all things for the “good” of our staying safe and healthy. It says that our consolation is to be found in believing that God allows some minor inconveniences in order to shield us from greater disasters.

But that’s a serious misunderstanding of God and his plan for his children.

Because sometimes the drunk driver does hit the van filled with children. Sometimes the sandwich does poison us so that we get sick and miss work and lose pay. And sometimes people do use our words to destroy our reputation. And sometimes the divorce papers do show up on the kitchen table. And sometimes the diagnosis comes as cancer. And sometimes the power goes out and everything goes dark.

If the outcome of God’s plan is the “good” of keeping you healthy and wealthy and comfortable, then it wasn’t good for the Apostle Peter because he died a martyr’s death. And it wasn’t good enough for Paul because he was beheaded. And it wasn’t good enough for Jesus because he died on a cross. And it isn’t good for the many Christians, past and present, whom God allows to suffer in excruciating ways.

The problem with the above dialogue is not just that it misses the point of Romans 8:28. It also scorns the glory of God, mangles the plan of God, and exchanges hope in God for a pitiful, contemptible counterfeit.

No, God is not a genie who is busy keeping you from salmonella and drunk drivers and cancer and power outages. He is infinitely better than that. He can use those things for a higher purpose that will satisfy you infinitely more than health and safety and comfort—and, most importantly, will bring glory to himself. The “good” of Romans 8:28 is not comfort and safety, but his children being conformed to the image of Christ for the glory of God (Romans 8:29).

Your ultimate conformity to the image of Christ is the only thing that simultaneously exalts God and thrills every part of your being.

In light of that—not some imaginary dialogue in which your inconveniences are justified by God’s shielding you from disasters—we can say with the Apostle Paul: “I consider that the sufferings of this present time are not worth comparing with the glory that is to be revealed to us” (Romans 8:18).

Robert Murray M’Cheyne’s “Personal Reformation”

“Start by reading something that will warm your spirit,” Martin Lloyd-Jones advises preachers who struggle in their prayer lives. “Get rid of a coldness that may have developed in your spirit. You have to learn how to kindle a flame in your spirit, to warm yourself up, to give yourself a start.”

I’ve taken that advice to heart, and Robert Murray M’Cheyne is my kindling of choice. As a young man, he wrote out what he called his “personal reformation”—a continual and deep examination of his heart and behavior. There were three parts to this “personal reformation,” highlights of which I include below.

1. To maintain a conscience void of offense

“I ought to confess my sin the moment I see it to be sin. . . . If I go on with the duty, leaving the sin unconfessed, I go on with a burdened conscience, and add sin to sin.”

2. To be filled with the Holy Spirit

“I ought to study the Comforter more—His Godhead, His love, His Almightiness. I have found by experience that nothing sanctifies me so much as meditating on the Comforter, as John 14:16. And yet how seldom I do this! Satan keeps me from it. . . . If I would be filled with the Spirit, I must read the Bible more, pray more, and watch more.”

3. To gain entire likeness to Christ

“I am persuaded that nothing is thriving in my soul unless it is growing. ‘Grow in grace.’ ‘Lord, increase our faith.’ ‘Forgetting the things that are behind.’ . . . I ought to strive for more purity, humility, patience under suffering, love. ‘Make me Christ-like in all things,’ should be my constant prayer.”

How Christian Suffering Is Different

My current preaching series in Romans 8 has led me to examine the theme of Christians and their suffering. Suffering for a believer is radically different than the suffering of those who are not “in Christ,” and we see this difference in three important ways:

  1. When believers suffer, they suffer “with Christ” (Romans 8:17). This doesn’t mean only that Christ is present in our suffering: it means also that Christ transforms our suffering into something meaningful and full of purpose.
  2. When believers suffer, they suffer temporarily. The transitory nature of our suffering finds expression here in the words “this present time” (8:18) as well as in 2 Corinthians 4:17 (“this momentary light affliction”). Our fleeting suffering stands in contrast with the tragic suffering of those who persist in unbelief, whose suffering will be forever.
  3. When believers suffer, their suffering is the path to glory. This is the theme that Paul takes up in 8:18-30, in which he weighs “the suffering of this present time” against the eternal weight of glory—a glory so immense that the creation, the Spirit, and we ourselves groan for it to be consummated. In light of this magnificent glory, we may, with Paul, “consider that the sufferings of this present time are not worth comparing with the glory that is to be revealed to us” (8:18).

As I study and preach through this section of Scripture, I marvel at how timely and relevant God’s Word is—not only for my church but also for me personally. Whether intense or mild, our suffering can prompt us to wonder, “Is this really worth it? Why would God allow this?” This passage is like a bugle call to hope and assurance.

Yes, God lovingly orchestrates our suffering for our good!

Yes, it is so “worth it” that present suffering doesn’t even register on the scales.

Yes, infinite, pain-eclipsing joy awaits us when we are finally conformed to the image of his Son.

That’s glory.

You can find a recording of the sermon I preached on this passage here.

Read Less. Reflect More.

“Readers are leaders and leaders are readers.”

Yes, but that dictum can be misleading. One does not become a leader simply by reading. And one does not become a better leader simply by reading more.

But what about those successful people who post their reading lists on social media near the end of the year? “Here are the 623 books I read this year,” they proclaim to their wide-eyed admirers. I’ll grant that there some people intelligent enough to read that many books and profit from it. But I think those people are few and far between.

And I am not one of them.

Reading serves many purposes, but the purpose of the best kind of reading—the kind that improves you as a person—is to help you think. And if you are reading so much that you are not thinking, you need to read less, not more.

In saying this, I’m in good company. In his essay “Of Studies,” Francis Bacon counsels us to read “to weigh and consider” — an exercise that takes time and mental effort. “Some books,” he continues, “are to be tasted, others to be swallowed, and some few to be chewed and digested.”

Again, the purpose of reading is not to swell your brain with facts, much less to give you a cause to boast, but to discourse with great ideas, and in so doing, to raise you above the level you were. Not all books have that element of greatness, and even those that do possess them only in some parts. (This is, by the way, one reason why I think we should feel no obligation to finish a book that is proving itself to be a waste of time. Get what you need out of a book, then get out of the book!)

Another author hammers this point with even more force: “The passion for reading which many pride themselves on as a precious intellectual quality is in reality a defect; it differs in no wise from the other passions that monopolize the soul. . . . The mind is dulled, not fed, by inordinate reading” (A. G. Sertillanges, The Intellectual Life).

Of course, the title of this post must be qualified. You must read—a lot, perhaps— to stay current in your discipline. But don’t panic that you aren’t keeping up with all the tweets, all the blogs, all the new books.  If you are reading so much that you have little time for deep reflection, then read less and reflect more. After all, the ideas we think are new are usually just old ones recently remembered.

Center on the most important books.

Most of all, learn to think well.

The Secret to a Productive Morning

The early morning hours are the most precious hours of my day.

After a shower and some coffee, morning is when I most alert, most creative, and most energized. Out of every hour of the day, I will protect mornings most fiercely.

But my mornings also have a couple big enemies. First, too much sleep. Second, the dozens of menial tasks that need to be done to get ready for the day.

Here’s the sad reality: the most precious time of my day can be ruined by oversleeping, or by the need to get things ready for the day.

But I discovered this simple principle. The best way to have a productive morning is to have a disciplined evening.

That’s it. Be disciplined enough to get everything you can possibly do the night before: clothes laid out, coffee ready. I even lay my Bible open to the passage I’m going to read. And—this is important—go to sleep when you should. Discipline yourself to use your horizontal time for actually sleeping, not for using your phone. Let the wise be warned.

If it helps, think about it this way. You become a servant the night before so you can be a king in the morning.

If this isn’t already your habit, try it. Your morning self will thank your evening self for freeing up those most precious hours of the day.

A Pastor’s Ministry Focus

Before I began pastoring my current church, a friend recommended The New Pastor’s Handbook: Help and Encouragement for the First Years of Ministry. And how thankful I am for his recommendation!

Here’s an excerpt I especially appreciate:

“As pastors, we must resolve to study, live, and teach the Scriptures. Our people need us to know, breathe, and abide in the Word of God. They need us to have a daily encounter with the living Christ through his Word, because it is from this Word that we have something to give them. We teach, reprove, correct, train, and equip on this foundation. Apart from knowledge of the Word, we have no competence in the ministry” (from The New Pastor’s Handbook by Jason Helopoulos)

Enough said.