The Greatest Gift

Of all the customs surrounding Christmas, it occurs to me the most singular, the most distinctive, is the custom of giving one another gifts. You realize how unique that is. There are other special occasions, birthdays, anniversaries, weddings, Father’s Days, Mother’s Days, and so on, in which somebody is given gifts. You bring your gifts to somebody, but the real question is … How many holidays do we have in which all of us give gifts to all of us? The answer is only one, and it’s right that we do it at Christmas because it highlights, it makes real, the central event, in some ways, the central truth of Christmas.

 

Jesus Christ came at Christmas, but he didn’t just come. He was given. ‘For unto us a child is born, unto us a Son is given …’ Jesus didn’t just come. He was a gift. That’s the central event of Christmas, and all the gift giving, in a sense, makes that real. Jesus was given. ‘For God so loved the world, that he gave his only begotten Son …’ Jesus did not just come. He was a gift.

 

There’s one place in which Paul is so overwhelmed by the thought of it that he breaks into praise, and he says, ‘Thanks be to God for his unspeakable gift,’ an unspeakable gift, an inexpressible gift. It’s beyond description. It’s beyond comprehension. Whenever Paul thinks about it, even for a while, his imagination and his heart explode.

– Tim Keller (from the sermon “His Name Shall Be Called” — December 23, 1990)

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The Gospel Must Argue With You

The gospel, if it is really believed, removes neediness – the need to be constantly respected, appreciated, and well regarded; the need to have everything in your life go well; the need to have power over others. All of these great, deep needs continue to control you only because the concept of the glorious God delighting in you with all His being is just that – a concept and nothing more. Our hearts don’t believe it, so they operate in default mode. Paul is saying that if you want to really change, you must let the gospel teach you – that is to train, discipline, coach you – over a period of time. You must let the gospel argue with you. You must let the gospel sink down deeply into your heart, until it changes your motivation and views and attitudes.

~ Tim Keller

Trembling, Spread Thin, and the Need for Discipline

As a brief preface before getting into the entry, I just wanted to let you know that this blog post will hit on a number of different topics–most specifically the idea of thinking through a Gospel-lens, how suffering/trials are used for our good, and how we must discipline ourselves to remember this and work towards various goals.

I suppose I could publish them in multiple different posts, but I feel like they are coherent enough to lead into each other, and that seen as a whole they provide a synthesized context to think over and work to implement.

This is something I’ve been mulling around in my head for quite some time and I pray that you will find it useful.

———

“This is the one to whom I will look: he who is humble and contrite in spirit and trembles at my word.” ~ Isaiah 66:2

Not the religious guy who thinks he’s got his life together.

Not the legalist who worships a checklist Christianity (which, let’s be honest, is no Christianity at all).

But he who is humble. He who understands his depravity and unworthiness and yet can rejoice in his worth in Christ!

The one who trembles at the word of God because he understands that it has the power of life and death (Proverbs 18:21) and is living and active (and therefore applicable, meaningful, and piercing)(see Hebrews 4:12).

This is humbling to me because if I’m not careful and intentional to remember this truth I will drift into the first category. It’s like the old hymn says: “Prone to wander, Lord I feel it.”

A.W. Tozer has a very telling quote on this topic. He says, “You can know the truth and quote it verbatim, but you’re spiritually cross-eyed until it changes how you live.” We must know from the outset that this Gospel deeply affects every part of us. Furthermore, the Gospel provides a proper lens on our lives and circumstances–a sort of proper view of things as they ought to be seen.

Left to myself it is easy for me to become overwhelmed with what’s going on in and around me: jobless and struggling to get hired somewhere, relationship-less (in the context of a girlfriend/future spouse/etc.), prone to constant idolatry and slipping into pointless sins that I know will not satisfy, enslaved to the need to be approved and liked by others, insecurities and deficiencies ever on my mind–likely because I’m comparing myself to others instead of to Jesus.

Not only does the Gospel expose all of these in me, but it also reinforces my identity because of the Gospel. I am not “sinner” but “saint”; not unwanted but adopted; not defeated but victorious. In addition to these truths the Gospel also provides examples I can draw on to instill hope.

In a sense, when things are going poorly in some area (or many areas) of my life I have a tendency to amplify it/them like it’s the most painful and hopeless thing to ever happen.

Enter Paul:

imprisoned, beaten, lashed, stoned and left for dead, shipwrecked, lost at sea, constantly pursued to be killed, hungry/thirsty frequently (see 2 Corinthians 11:23-28) and yet he is the one who proclaims that all these things are happening for a purpose (and even more so, are happening for a good purpose)!

He says “I am afflicted, but not crushed; perplexed, but not driven to despair; persecuted, but not forsaken; struck down, but not destroyed; constantly reminded of the death of Jesus.” (2 Corinthians 4:7-10)

Why?

That His life (that is, Jesus’ life) might also be declared and made known as great in us (2 Corinthians 4:10)! And “to show that the surpassing power belongs to God and not to us” (2 Corinthians 4:7).

Now I come to terms with a very sobering question I have to ask myself: If God is intentionally at work in these difficulties, who am I to believe that He is absent and inactive in my own? It is for this purpose that we ought to be more wrapped up in the treasures of the Gospel than the pressures in and around us. This is how Paul is able to proclaim in 2 Corinthians 4:18 that we “fix our eyes not on what is seen, but on what is unseen, since what is seen is temporary, but what is unseen is eternal.”

The following quotes really set the tone for where I am going next:

“The only way to dispossess the heart of an old affection is by the expulsive power of a new one.” ~ Thomas Chalmers

 

“[Christians are] a people conquered by a Superior Affection.” ~ David Platt

This is where we must necessarily shift gears for a bit. I touched on it a little bit earlier but I see it absolutely necessary to flesh this out in a little more detail.

Herein lies the concept of discipline.

I mentioned before that if unchecked I will drift into a self-centered mentality and it would be easy to become overwhelmed by my circumstances and slip into a “woe is me” mentality, and with that in mind we must be disciplined and urgent/intentional in our approach to this.

The idea of disciplining ourselves is anything but natural. I mean just be honest.. what went through your mind when I brought up the idea of discipline? Likely not “Yes! I really hoped I would get called out to do things I didn’t really want to do!”

Think about the various examples in our everyday lives (excerpted from a Desiring God blogpost by Jon Bloom found here: http://ow.ly/ngCB0 ):

–Healthy, nutritious food often requires discipline to prepare and eat while junk food is convenient, tasty, and addictive.

–Keeping the body healthy and strong requires frequent deliberate discomfort while it only takes constant comfort (laziness, no change in routine, etc.) to [head in the opposite direction].

–You have to make yourself pick up that nourishing but intellectually challenging book while popping in a DVD is as easy and inviting as coasting downhill.

–You frequently have to force yourself to get to devotions and prayer while sleeping in or catching up on sports or checking Facebook is almost effortless.

–Learning to skillfully play beautiful music requires thousands of hours of tedious practice.

–Excelling in sports requires monotonous drills ad nauseum

–Learning to write well requires writing, writing, writing, and rewriting, rewriting, and rewriting. And usually requires voluminous reading.

–It takes years of schooling just to make certain vocational opportunities possible.

You get the idea. The pattern is this: the greater joys are obtained through struggle, difficulty, and pain, while brief, unsatisfying, and often destructive “joys” are right at our fingertips.

Why is this?

Because God, in His great mercy, is showing us everywhere, in things that are just shadows of heavenly realities, that there is great reward for those who struggle through and persevere (Hebrews 10:32-35). He is reminding us almost everywhere to walk by faith in a promised future and not by sight of immediate gratification (2 Corinthians 5:7)

Paul speaks further into this issue by using the analogy of an athlete. 1 Corinthians 9:25-27 says that “every athlete exercises self-control in all things. They do it to receive a perishable wreath, but we an imperishable. So I do not run aimlessly; I do not box as one beating the air. But I discipline my body and keep it under control, lest after preaching to others I myself should be disqualified.”

Paul is saying many things in this passage, but for our sake he is saying that he “exercises self-control.. not aimlessly” (so there’s a purpose and objective to it!) and that he does it for an “imperishable (reward).” This athlete analogy helps us envision someone who has a clear goal in mind and trains and disciplines himself (or herself!) to obtain that goal.

Now that we’ve fleshed out this idea conceptually, let’s make it a little more practical, shall we?

Personally, I tend to say things like “I want to know more about what the Bible says than what John Piper (or Mark Driscoll, or [insert your favorite pastor’s/author’s name here]) says.” … You know what that requires of me? To actually stop reading that blog/book and pick up my Bible.

I say “I want to have wisdom and a breadth of knowledge like Tim Keller has” and yet I neglect to pursue the breadth of sources Keller does (and still I expect somehow to absorb information and perspectives that I’m not even encountering!)

I so often expect (progressive) results from my inactivity and a differing set of affections from implementing no change at all into my routine and time spent.

How foolish!

Now pay attention to this next part because I think this really gets at the heart of this issue.

I believe wholeheartedly that much of this struggle comes because our attention and affections are spread so thin in so many directions.

I think as a generation (speaking as a Millennial, at least, I can’t speak on this issue for everyone else) we are content with being OK at a lot of different things, and not exceptional at a few things. We want to know a lot of different technologies, facts, songs, play a bunch of different things (sports, video games) or be a part of a hundred different university clubs, but we don’t often identify those two or three things we truly want to flourish in.

I would challenge you in this: Identify those things for you personally.

I believe everyone has those deep desires and longings and I would encourage you to spend some time (undistracted! imagine that!) identifying what those are for you; then discipline yourself to make progress on them.

Once you have narrowed your focus, I think it’s incredibly important to remember one key principle: it is a process. Usain Bolt didn’t just wake up one morning, walk into a sprinting competition, and break world records or win olympic gold. Tim Keller didn’t walk out of a nursery quoting Sociologists and providing ministry-shaping ideas on urban contextualization. They identifies what they wanted to pursue and they worked towards it (incrementally).

One man I know has memorized entire books of the Bible. I took some time to ask him how he did it and what the process was like and you know what he said?

“I started with a verse.”

Take the time to really think hard about what thing (or few things) you want to flourish and excel in–perhaps what you want to be defined by–and take the first step.

You cannot expect to be a master theologian overnight.

You cannot expect to climb half-dome or Everest if you haven’t even taken a hike in the hills in your city.

Figure out where you want to be, what it’ll take to get there, and just start taking a step, then a second, then a third, and sooner or later you’ll be amazed at the progress that is being made. But it takes that intentionality and discipline to follow through to even work towards that progress.

You don’t get there overnight, but you can ask yourself “what can I do today to enable me to be able to do tomorrow what I wasn’t able to do yesterday?”

Even with this perspective change in mind, there will still be barriers to this discipline. For me, I know I often come into contact with the fear of not doing well at something. I find it hard to pick up running again because my asthma acts up–because I’m not in cardio-shape, and therefore my asthma picks up; see the dilemma? Or I find it hard to get back into rock climbing because I know how good I used to be, and it’s a blow to my pride to not be as good as I know I used to be, and therefore have to appear like a beginner again.

Essentially, I have a fear of failing and a fear of not living up to expectations (even when the expectations being placed on me are my own).

The Gospel helps remind me that because of Christ’s death on the cross and victory over the grave I know that my failures and struggles will ultimately help shape my future successes and that though I may stumble and fall, I am not defeated, and that I can continue with strength that comes from the Lord (see Philippians 4:13).

So I feel like I’m a little scattered with all this, but I hope you see the concepts really merging together. There’s a lot I wanted to say, and I’m sure a lot of it didn’t come together as ideally as I intended, but I hope that in each area something stuck out at you and stuck with you.

My hope is that this post in some way triggers some thoughts and actions for you to begin assessing and implementing to work towards this concept of “disciplining yourself” as Paul said above.

And ultimately you MUST remember this: there is grace.

We can rejoice and operate in freedom because these strivings and our ability to attain goals do not define us. Christ has accomplished it all for us because He knew we would fall short. He knew we’d mess up, get distracted, and run to other things we know do not ultimately satisfy. And guess what? He STILL chose to die for you.

Christ STILL calls you “brother” and “sister” and accomplished for you adoption into the family of God. This should free us to strive all the more–not to earn what we cannot earn, but because our place is secure in Him and this instills in us a new set of hopes and desires to love and follow Jesus and make much of God with our lives!

The Love of Christ

I know people who have said: ‘I would follow Christ, but I do not think I can keep it up. I do not trust myself. I think he’d get tired of my failures.’ Please look at him in the garden. Look what his love for you has already enabled him to endure for you. If he had turned away from suffering and the cross, we would have been lost, but he didn’t do that. Hell came down on him, and he would not let go of us. His love for us has already taken everything that the universe could throw at it and it held fast— and you think that you are somehow going to upset him? Is Jesus going to look at you and say, ‘Well, that does it! Infinite existential torment was one thing, but I can only take so much!’? If this suffering did not make him give up on us, nothing will. So Paul can essentially say, ‘Nothing can separate us from the love of Christ’ (Romans 8: 38– 39). The Lord says, ‘I will never leave you; never will I forsake you’ (Hebrews 13:5).

This is the love you have been looking for all of your life. This is the only love that can’t let you down. This is bombproof love. Not friend-love, not personal acclaim, not married love, and not even romantic love – it is this love that you are after, underneath all your pursuit of those others. And if this love of active obedience is an active reality in your life, you will be a person of integrity; you will be a person of prayer; you will be kind to people who mistreat you. If you have this love you will be a little more like him. Look at him dying in the dark for you. Let it melt you into his likeness.

~ Tim Keller (from The Obedient Master)

A Hope That Overwhelms Grief

I have heard it said before that “when things are going well we talk about God, but when things are tough we talk to Him.” I would say this is abundantly accurate.

C.S. Lewis in The Problem of Pain says “We can ignore pleasure, but pain insists upon being attended to. God whispers to us in our pleasures, speaks in our conscience, but shouts in our pains; it is His megaphone to rouse a deaf world.”

In reflecting on my own season of trials, suffering, difficulty, and a slew of circumstances not working out the way I thought they would, I was brought to Genesis 50:20 where Joseph says “you meant evil against me, but God meant it for good.” For me, I know that Satan would want nothing more than for me to functionally “curse God and die” (as it is said in the book of Job) but I know that God is working something greater out, and because of that I can count this present suffering as joy–knowing that I am growing more aware and secure in Christ because of it (see James 1:2-4).

Besides, our God is in the business of turning defeat into victory.

We see this almost entirely throughout the Bible, don’t we? We see this in Genesis with Abraham and Isaac and with the story of Joseph’s abandonment by his brothers; we see this with Moses and the Israelites in Egypt, being delivered from Pharaoh, across the Red Sea, in the wilderness, etc.; in countless battles and struggles in the Old Testament; and most significantly we see this with Jesus on the cross (and ultimately His resurrection, ascension, and promised return)!

It is Truth like this that causes David’s cup to overflow in Psalm 23 while still in the valley. His circumstance has not changed, yet his disposition has been eternally altered.

Tim Keller puts it extremely well when he says “The Christian faith has a hope that overwhelms grief. This hope doesn’t get rid of the grief or pain but sweetens and shifts it.”

Again we say, ‘what Satan intended for evil, God (rightly) redirects for good.’

This is why the author of Hebrews can say “we are not of those who shrink back and are destroyed, but of those who have faith and preserve their souls.” (Hebrews 10:39)

This truth grows in us a trust and a confidence otherwise unattainable. This truth is what propels Paul in Romans 8 to say “if God is for us, who can be against us?” (v.31)

This is why we can echo with 1 Thessalonians 4:13: “(we do not) grieve as others do who have no hope” and with numerous Psalms that proclaim “God is doing all of this so that He alone may be magnified! It is for HIS namesake and HIS glory that He does it!”

With all this in mind a particular quote yields a helpful context: “If we would talk less and pray more things would be better than they are in the world; at least we should be better enabled to bear them.” ~ John Owen.

You see, it is seasons like these that force our eyes off of ourselves and exclusively to Christ. He is the One we turn to; in Him (alone!) we trust, for He is trustworthy. His very self is declared “Faithful” and “True” (Revelation 19:11) and many verses echo the truth proclaimed in 1 Thessalonians 5:24 that says if God promises: “He who calls you is faithful; He will surely do it.”

This is a hope that overwhelms grief.

The Definition of Idolatry

There is a difference between sorrow and despair. Sorrow is pain for which there are sources of consolation. Sorrow comes from losing one good thing among others, so that, if you experience a career reversal, you can find comfort in your family to get you through it. Despair, however, is inconsolable, because it comes from losing an ultimate thing. When you lose the ultimate source of your meaning or hope, there are no alternative sources to turn to. It breaks your spirit.

 

What is the cause of this ‘strange melancholy’ that permeates our society even during boom times of frenetic activity, and which turns to outright despair when prosperity diminishes? De Tocqueville says it comes from taking some ‘incomplete joy of this world’ and building your entire life on it. That is the definition of idolatry.

~ Tim Keller (from Counterfeit Gods)

Skeptical of Skepticism

Everybody knows that there are emotional and psychological reasons why you might want to believe in God. In fact many skeptics at some point make the argument that believing in God is simply an intense form of wish fulfillment. But seldom do people point out that we all have enormous emotional and psychological reasons to disbelieve in God. How so? In looking at a book like the Bible or at a message like the gospel, anyone sees fairly quickly that if it were true you would lose some control over how you can live your life. Who can say they’re objective and neutral about that proposition? Thomas Nagel is honestly acknowledging this. He knows he can’t say, ‘I am completely objective and indifferent in looking for the evidence for God, but I just don’t have enough evidence.’ I hope you see that no one can truly say such a thing with integrity. We all have deep layers of prejudice working against the idea of a holy God who can make ultimate demands on us. And if you won’t acknowledge that, you’re never going to get close to objectivity. Never.

 

Let’s say you’re a judge and suddenly a case comes before you concerning a company in which you own stock. And the decision will have a huge impact on the price of the stock. Would you be allowed, or would you allow yourself, to rule in the case? No, because you couldn’t possibly be objective when you know that if the decision goes a certain way you’re going to lose all of your money. So you recuse yourself. Here’s the problem: With Christianity, we’re all in that very position. When it comes time to decide whether its claims are right or wrong, you have at least some vested interest in them being wrong. But you don’t get to recuse yourself; you can only look at the evidence. Therefore, I’d like to suggest some ways to deal with this dilemma. 

 

First of all, doubt your doubts. Be skeptical of your own skepticism. Why? Because you realize that you are not completely objective. Maybe you have a very religious parent whom you dislike. Or you may have had a bad experience with an inconsistent and insensitive group of Christians. On top of that, as we have observed, few people can entertain an invitation to give up their freedom without some prejudice against it. You’re afraid of the claims of Christianity being true – that’s fine. If we’re honest, we all are. You’ll never be fair-minded with the evidence if you don’t acknowledge that you can’t be perfectly fair-minded. So what should you do about this? You could simply slow down, so you don’t come so quickly to skeptical conclusions. Also, you should recognize that if Christianity is true, it is not just a set of rational, philosophical principles to adopt— it is a personal relationship to enter. So, to take seriously at least the possibility that it is true, why not consider praying? Why not say, ‘God, I don’t know if you’re there but I do know what prejudice is like, and I’m willing to be suspicious of it. Therefore, if you are there and if I am prejudiced, help me get through it.’ Break the ice with Jesus— talk to him. No one has to know you are doing it. If you’re not willing to do that, I suggest that you’re not willing to own the prejudice that we all start with.

~ Tim Keller