Bavinck’s Christian Worldview

It wasn’t until I started reading Herman Bavinck’s The Wonderful Works of God (I already owned his four-volume Reformed Dogmatics but had only dabbled in it) that I decided I wanted to read everything that Bavinck had written.

That decision prompted me, in 2020, to purchase his recently-translated (2019) Christian Worldview which I wish I deeply regret not having access to before I completed my PhD in Apologetics and Worldview. I regret it because this little book answered some puzzles yet unsolved after those four years of intense reading and writing.

I read Christian Worldview in 2020, and now I’m re-reading it because, even though it’s short it’s highly concentrated. Reading it without plenty of time to absorb the thoughts bears some similarities to eating eating frozen orange juice concentrate instead of drinking it diluted it in water. If you’ve never had that culinary adventure, you’ll just have to take my word for it: Christian Worldview is deep and dense.

If that excites you (or even if it doesn’t), you might be helped by a diagram Bavinck’s main ideas. His central thesis is that some of philosophy’s knottiest problems only get knottier when philosophy alone tries to yank out the knots. Or, to change the analogy somewhat, “autonomous thinking” (i.e., thinking disconnected from Christian Scriptures) always tumbles into self-defeating ditches. Christianity, on the other hand, reconciles these problems. It fits the world like key-and-lock. It provides the best explanation for what exists.

So what problems is he talking about? Three in particular:

  • The epistemological problem of how we know we can know anything
  • The metaphysical problem of what reality really is
  • The ethical problem of how people should behave

I put these issues into a table which, for me at least, clarifies what Bavinck is doing:

In the area of…we see a tension between…which, without the Christian worldview veers into the self-defeating extremes of…
EpistemologyThinking and BeingSkepticism or Dogmatism
Materialism or Spiritualism
MetaphysicsBeing and BecomingAtomism or Dynamism
EthicsBecoming and ActingNomism or Antinomism

In a later post I hope to condense how Bavinck shows that the Christian faith reconciles these problems. For now, it is fascinating to observe that, writing in the early 20th century, many of Bavinck’s words now seem prophetic. Between us and Bavinck, we have seen two world wars, the collapse of socialism, sexual revolutions, and the rise of radicalism. Bavinck insisted that as long as societies disconnect themselves from God, the true, good, and beautiful, they will attach to something else—be it their own race, nation, or self.

The Magic of Writing

In the month of November, my wife and I decided that we would spent thirty minutes writing every weekday evening of the month. We didn’t quite reach that goal, but we wrote a lot more than we would have if we had made no goal at all. Because I spend a lot of my workday writing anyway (crafting emails, preparing sermons), I decided I would write about things I would not normally write about. So, on one of our first evenings of writing, on a whim I decided to write on a topic that popped into my mind, “The Magic of Writing.”

Here’s what came to my mind.

There is really no such thing as a magician—if by a magician we mean someone who can really appear or disappear, or really read another’s mind. The man we call a magician—who conjures a pigeon from his hat, makes a coin disappear and then reappear behind your ear, and seems to know, without looking, which card you chose—is simply a person who has practiced over and over again to make the difficult appear easy. The genius of the magician comes in concealing the effort. No one enjoys watching a magic show in which the magician fumbles and sweats—unless, of course, the fumbling and sweating themselves are part of the magician’s design to amuse his audience.

The same could be said of writing. To read with ease and pleasure is to view a magic show in which the effort has been cleverly concealed. The reader is delighted only because the writer has done his or her best to come across fresh and relaxed.

But the difference is that while there is really no such thing as a magician—there is such a thing as a writer, and—ironically—there is more “magic” in the writer than in the magician. The magician, on the one hand, only appears to make the coin appear in your ear. But the writer does better. He really does make something appear, not in your ear, but in your mind. She tells a story, crafts an argument, presents a metaphor and conjures it in your consciousness so powerfully that you can’t unthink it. That, in fact, is the magic of writing—the concealed effort of producing a real effect across time and space.

But how does the writer do it? A magician, when asked that question, will feign seriousness and ask in a sober tone, “Can you keep a secret?” Then with an annoying glee he whispers, “So can I,” to the disappointed inquirer.

But can the writer do much better? Maybe it depends on the inquirer. If the inquirer is hoping for a quick way to impress people, with cheap props, smoke, and mirrors, no doubt he will be as disappointed as the person asking the magician to reveal his secrets.

But if he is unafraid of long hours of unnoticed labor, reams of manuscripts never read, the arduous task of punching and prepunching a sentence until it yields precisely the shape he intends—and is willing to conceal that labor for the benefit and delight of his readers—then maybe he will go to his task of writing determined and hopeful, and learn the magic of writing.

Jonathan Edwards’ Method of Study

When someone impresses us with his or her depth of thought and literary output, we naturally want to know their “secret.” It’s not necessary to argue that Jonathan Edwards was a formidable intellect. Did he have a particular method that allowed him to think through a topic with such rigor and clarity?

Yes, he did, and I recently came across his explanation of it in a rather obscure place: a footnote in Charles Bridges’ classic The Christian Ministry. In this passage, Edwards explains his “method of study.”

My method of study from my first beginning the work of the Ministry, has been very much by writing; applying myself in this way to improve every important hint; pursuing the clue to the utmost, when anything in reading, meditation, or conversation has been suggested to my mind, that seemed to promise light in any weighty point; thus penning what appeared to me my best thoughts on innumerable subjects, for my own benefit. The longer I prosecuted my studies in this method, the more habitual it became, and the more pleasant and profitable I found it. The further I travelled in this way, the wider the field opened; which has occasioned my laying out many things in my mind to do in this manner, (if God should spare my life) which my heart hath been much set upon.”

This explanation immediately made sense to me, since I have found in my experience that the very act of writing serves, at the very least, to reveal to me what is unclear in my own mind. The mind may be home to disconnected subjects and predicates, but the pen demands that these subjects and predicates be joined in a way that is logical and orderly. I lay it down as a rule: writing well and thinking well go hand in hand.

Two Resources for Preaching

When it comes to preaching—and, for that matter, many areas in life—my motto is always learning. Once you stop learning, you not only stagnate: you revert. Still, it is helpful to have a tried-and-true method for accomplishing a task, especially when you are called to accomplish that task, again and again—with excellence.

Over the course of several years, and heavily influenced by classic texts on the topic, I’ve developed two resources which I use nearly every time I prepare to preach. The first is an overview of the entire task of preaching. I use it to make sure I have the essential components in place. The second takes a deeper dive and guides me along the preparation process.

I offer these resources here for anyone who might find them helpful as a resource—or even as a launchpad for a discussion into the nature of Christian preaching and how we can do it better.

One caveat: if you ask me a few months from now for a copy of these resources, I can almost guarantee that, though the essentials will be the same, a few things will be tweaked here and there. After all, I’m always learning, and right now I’m reading Chris Anderson’s TED Talks which I’m sure will give me some insights into how to be a better communicator.

After all, the Word of God deserves to be delivered in the clearest, most compelling way possible.

Sermon Preparation Overview – Includes a readiness checklist, the purpose of every sermon, the essential steps in preparation, and a basic template for a common sermon.

Sermon Worksheet – Walks you through the essential building blocks of the sermon in two stages: (1) the exegetical stage and (2) the sermon stage. In the exegetical stage, you must discover the structure and meaning of the passage, its redemptive aim, and key themes. In the sermon stage, you must shape these discoveries into a format that may be delivered verbally to a particular audience within a set amount of time. The sermon stage requires that you identify the (1) kernel of the sermon (or “throughline,” thank you Chris!), (2) tensions, (3) residual impact, (4) rhetorical structure, (5) emotional journey, (6) illustrations, (7) introduction and conclusion.

The Preaching of 18th-Century Revivalists in England

Eighteen years ago, my parents gave me a book by J. C. Ryle which I have picked up again: Christian Leaders of the 18th Century. It contains brief biographical sketches of men who “shook England from one end to another”—men such as George Whitefield, John Wesley, William Grimshaw, and Daniel Rowlands.

Reading sections of this book again nearly two decades later, now as a preacher and pastor, I find myself drawn to and stirred by J. C. Ryle’s description of these leaders’ preaching:

“They wisely went back to first principles,” Ryle writes, “and took up apostolic plans. They held, with St. Paul, that a minister’s first work is to ‘to preach the gospel.'”

What characterized this apostolic, nation-shaking preaching? Ryle tells us:

  1. They preached everywhere.
  2. They preached simply.
  3. They preached fervently and directly.

Ryle also tells us the substance of their preaching:

  1. The sufficiency and supremacy of Holy Scripture
  2. The total corruption of human nature
  3. That Christ’s death upon the cross was the only satisfaction for man’s sin
  4. Justification by faith
  5. The universal necessity of heart conversion and new creation by the Holy Spirit
  6. The inseparable connection between true faith and personal holiness
  7. God’s eternal hatred against sin, and God’s love towards sinners

Be Careful What You Call Christian Persecution

In the final beatitude on the Sermon on the Mount, Jesus teaches his followers to expect persecution. “Blessed are you,” he declares, “when others revile you and persecute you and utter all kinds of evil against you falsely on my account” (Matthew 5:13).

But we must carefully consider what we call persecution. Certainly, persecution involves being mistreated, but for what reason? on whose account? We commit a logical fallacy when we reason: “Persecution involves mistreating Christians. I am a Christian who is being mistreated. Therefore I am suffering Christian persecution.”

Unfortunately, many Christians hastily take the bucket marked “persecution”—and put into it all kinds of things that don’t belong there. Yes, persecution means suffering and mistreatment. But Jesus is not talking about just any kind of suffering and mistreatment. Neither is he talking about just any kind of persecution. There is religious persecution, but there is also racial persecution. There is persecution based on genetics or military or police service.

Jesus qualifies Christian persecution in three phrases:

  • “For righteousness’ sake” – 5:10
  • “On my account” – 5:11
  • “For so they persecuted the prophets who were before you” – 5:12

Each phrase illuminates the other two, suggesting the following general definition of Christian persecution: it is the mistreatment that arises specifically because of one’s allegiance to Christ. A person’s loyalty to Christ entails, of course, living and speaking righteously, which is why Jesus’ says that it is “for righteousness’ sake” and that it bears some resemblance to the mistreatment experienced by the Old Testament prophets.

The righteousness in view here is not self-righteousness, but rather the deeds of joyful, Spirit-energized obedience lived out by God’s people (see Matthew 5:16). It is, to put it simply, living a Christlike life. And that allegiance, that kind of living, will put a person on a collision course with others and their values. This is why Jesus puts his persecuted hearers in line with the prophets of the Old Testament—prophets like Noah, Elijah, Elisha, Isaiah, Jeremiah, and Daniel. They spoke as courageous ambassadors of God’s righteousness. Moreover, because of their allegiance to God, they disturbed the consciences of those around them. That is why we must say that the persecution Jesus is talking about is persecution of a very specific kind. It is mistreatment that arises specifically because of one’s allegiance to Christ.

There are many reasons a person may want to mistreat you, but unless it has this specifically as its cause: “for righteousness’ sake,” and on account of Christ, it is not Christian persecution, and it does not have the promise of blessing nor the command of joy attached to it. If we fail to see this distinction, we will end up calling persecution what is not persecution.

I was helped by Martyn Lloyd-Jones’ study on this passage (see “The Christian and Persecution” in Studies on the Sermon on the Mount), and borrow heavily from him in noting carefully what Jesus did not say.

1. Jesus did not say, “Blessed are those who are persecuted for self-righteousness’ sake.”

You will arouse people’s consciences enough by simply doing the right thing not matter what and doing it with a humble spirit. To parade your good deeds with a high head and a haughty spirit is to invite needless suffering, and that suffering cannot be properly called Christian persecution.

2. Jesus did not say, “Blessed are those who are persecuted for being difficult.”

We too easily bring trouble upon ourselves by being objectionable, harsh, and rude. It is not a sign of godly zeal to be obnoxious, deliberately hateful.

Someone might object, “Well, the gospel is offensive, isn’t it?” Yes, but the gospel has its own kind of offense. It deeply offends one’s pride, bringing a person to despair of his or her own righteousness. But let us, insofar as possible, not give people a reason to confuse the holy offense of the gospel with the unholy offense of our reckless, insensitive comments or tactless, insulting approaches. If someone will be offended, let it be only because they are hearing the news about a God who is holy enough to punish sin, loving enough to send his Son to die, authoritative enough to call people to repentance, and powerful enough to bring the dead to life.

3. Jesus did not say, “Blessed are those who are persecuted for an obscure theological conviction.

Jesus did not promise the blessedness of suffering for a curiously narrow doctrinal view, or for something that may be of immense importance personally but which is not really central to Scripture, the gospel, the character of God, or holy living.

Here is a great danger. It is not wrong to suffer for your conscience and theological convictions. You may choose to die on the hill of trichotomy or dichotomy, of infralapsarianism or supralapsarianism, of dispensationalism or covenant theology. People may argue with you. They may snub you. Many will simply not understand you. You may feel hurt and call it what you will, but do not call it Christian persecution.

4. Jesus did not say, “Blessed are those who are persecuted for a particular cause.”

Here is where we need much discernment. There are many good causes for which we might suffer. There are many good causes that might even be intertwined with Christian values. And we might choose to suffer mistreatment, ridicule, or loss for these causes, but such mistreatment must be carefully distinguished from persecution on Christ’s account, for righteousness’ sake.

Here Martyn-Lloyd Jones is on point, and reading him is especially valuable because he was preaching not as an American and not in the 21st century, but as an Englishman in the mid-20th century, nearly 70 years ago. He writes:

This is a little subtle and we must be careful. I say that there is a difference between being persecuted for righteousness’ sake and being persecuted for a cause. I know that the two things often become one, and many of the great martyrs and confessors were at one and the same time suffering for righteousness’ sake and for a cause. But it does not follow by any means that the two are always identical. . . . We have to be careful about that very distinction. There is always this danger of our developing the martyr spirit. . . . We must also realize that it does not mean suffering persecution for religio-political reasons. . . .I am not saying that a man should not stand for his political principles; I am simply reminding you that the promise attached to this Beatitude does not apply to that. If you choose to suffer politically, go on and do so. But do not have a grudge against God if you find that this Beatitude, this promise, is not verified in your life. The Beatitude and the promise refer specifically to suffering for righteousness’ sake. May God give us grace and wisdom and understanding to discriminate between our political prejudices and our spiritual principles. . . . Another great danger in these days is that this pure Christian faith should be thought of by those who are outside in terms of certain political and social views.”[1]

Jesus did say this: “Blessed are those who are persecuted for righteousness’ sake. And what is the sake of righteousness? It is the one’s living for Christ, with all that entails.

[1]Martyn Lloyd-Jones, Studies in the Sermon on the Mount (Grand Rapids, MI: Eerdmans, 1959), 131–32.

What Is Preaching?

What is preaching?

Every pastor should be able to answer that question. Unfortunately, we often lose sight of the answer. With the pressing burdens of church administration, the bewildering variety of high-profile preachers, and countless resources available to him, a pastor may find himself asking, “Now what was I trying to do?” only after he has delivered his sermon.

Such a failure to understand his task is a tragedy for both preacher and hearers.

To stave off such a tragedy, I keep this simple definition before me as I prepare to preach:

To preach is to unfold the meaning of a Scriptural text or theme to people so that they experience God’s voice calling them to respond in faith and repentance.

The benefit of keeping such a definition before me made me interested in going back to some of my favorite authors on preaching to see how they defined it. Here are seven.

  1. J. I. Packer, “Why Preach” in The Preacher and Preaching: Reviving the Art

Packer defines preaching as “verbal communication of which the following things are true”:

1. Its content is God’s message to man, presented as such. 2. Its purpose is to inform, persuade, and call forth an appropriate response to the God whose message and instruction are being delivered. 3. Its perspective is always applicatory. 4. It is authoritative. 5. It mediates God’s presence and power.

Packer then gives this summary: “Preaching is an activity for which, and in which, the awareness of God’s powerful presence must be sought, and with which neither speaker nor hearers may allow themselves to be content with this awareness is lacking.”

2. John Stott, Between Two Worlds: The Challenge of Preaching Today

Stott provides several biblical metaphors: town crier or herald (1 Corinthians 1:23), sower (Matthew 13:3), ambassador (2 Corinthians 5:20), steward (1 Corinthians 4:1), shepherd (Acts 20:28), and workman (2 Timothy 2:15). He then suggests a further metaphor—that of bridge-building: “It is because preaching is not exposition only but communication, not just the exegesis of a text but the conveying of a God-given message to living people who need to hear it, that I am going to develop a different metaphor to illustrate the essential nature of preaching. . . . The metaphor is that of bridge-building.”

A more succinct statement is found in “A Definition of Biblical Preaching” in The Art and Craft of Biblical Preaching by Robinson and Larson. “To preach,” Stott writes, “is to open up the inspired text with such faithfulness and sensitivity that God’s voice is heard and God’s people obey him.”

3. Jason Meyer, Preaching: A Biblical Theology.

“My thesis is that the ministry of the word in Scripture is stewarding and heralding God’s word in such a way that people encounter God through his word.

4. Tim Keller, Preaching: Communicating Faith in an Age of Skepticism.

I couldn’t find a concise definition of preaching in this excellent book, but Keller does provide a fine description of the task of preaching: “It is ‘proclaim[ing] . . . the testimony of God’ (1 Corinthians 2:1)—preaching biblically, engaging with the authoritative text. This means preaching the Word and not your opinion. When we preach the Scriptures we are speaking ‘the very words of God (1 Peter 4:11). You need to make clear the meaning of the text in its context—both in its historical time and within the whole of Scripture. This task of serving the Word is exposition. . . .

It is also proclaiming to ‘both Jews and Greeks’ (1 Corinthians 1:24)—preaching compellingly, engaging the culture, and touching hearts. This means not merely informing the mind but also capturing the hearer’s interest and imagination and persuading her toward repentance and action. . . . [A good sermon] must build on Bible  exposition, for people have not understood a text unless they see how it bears on their lives.”

5. John Piper, Expository Exultation: Christian Preaching as Worship

Piper offers a definition of preaching in response to a question about corporate worship: “If it is beautifully fitting that Christians gather regularly for corporate worship, what is it about preaching that makes it so important for that gathering? My answer is that preaching itself is worship and is appointed by God to awaken and intensify worship. It does this by heralding the reality communicated through the words of Scripture, which was written to create and sustain worship. To say it another way, the preacher simultaneously explains the meaning of Scripture and exults over the God-glorifying reality in it. Exultation without explanation is not preaching. Explanation without exultation is not preaching. Therefore, preaching—expository exultation—is peculiarly suited for Christian corporate worship, for worship means knowing, treasuring, and showing the supreme worth and beauty of God. Preaching helps people do this by doing it. Preaching shows God’s supreme worth by making the meaning of Scripture known and by simultaneously treasuring and expressing the glories of God revealed in that biblical meaning.”

6. Haddon W. Robinson, Biblical Preaching: The Development and Delivery of Expository Messages

“Expository preaching is the communication of a biblical concept, derived from and transmitted through a historical, grammatical, and literary study of a passage in its context, which the Holy Spirit first applies to the personality and experience of the preacher, then through the preacher, applies to the hearers.”

7. Martyn Lloyd-Jones, Preaching and Preachers.

This is not exactly a definition either. It is more like exclamations about preaching that gets to the heart of what it is. Regardless, it has deservedly become a classic statement on the subject:

“What is preaching? Logic on fire! Eloquent reason! . . . Preaching is theology coming through a man who is on fire. . . . What is the chief end of preaching? I like to think it is this. It is to give men and women a sense of God and his presence. . . . I can forgive a preacher almost anything if he gives me a sense of God, if he give me something for my soul, if he gives me the sense that, though he is very inadequate in himself, he is handling something which is very great and glorious, if he give me some dim glimpse of the majesty and glory of God, the love of Christ my Savior, and the magnificence of the Gospel. If he does that I am his debtor, and I am profoundly grateful to him. Preaching is the most amazing, and the most thrilling activity that one can ever be engaged in, because of all that it holds out for all of us in the present, and because of the glorious endless possibilities in an eternal future.”

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

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.