My Favorite Book (of the Bible)

In an online course I’m taking on research and writing, my professor encouraged the class to pick a favorite book of the Bible as a go-to topic to focus our writing around. His inspiration for that recommendation was from a sermon by Pastor John Piper in which Piper encouraged his listeners to make a life-project out of getting to know one favorite book of the Bible really deeply. That simple suggestion sparked some serious reflection on what my favorite book of the Bible would be.

I realized I had never really considered that question before. I have a favorite verse: Second Corinthians 9:8. I have a favorite chapter: Romans chapter 8. I have several favorite Psalms: 46, 63, and 130, among others. Jonah is a little book that I have studied and taught often. Philippians is a book I have memorized. But if I had to pick one book as my favorite, what would that be?

I figured it would have to be a book that I keep coming back to again and again, both in my own devotional life and also in my teaching and preaching. It would have to focus on key themes that have become my heartbeat and passion. It would have to contain multiple large sections that continually minister deeply to my heart. And if it were to become a life-long project of plumbing its depths, it would have to hold my curiosity and interest throughout varying seasons of life.

So as I thought through the various sections of Scripture that I am regularly drawn to, what God brought to mind was 2 Corinthians chapters 3-5 and portions of chapters 1, 9 and 12. In those sections are themes of transformation, suffering, dependence, hope, and glory. It is the intersection of those themes that is becoming more and more the driving passion of my ministry to the Church. So 2 Corinthians takes the prize as my favorite book in the Bible.

Granted, there is much in 2 Corinthians that I have not studied very deeply and which may not carry the same interest to me as these favorite sections, but as I compared this book with other possible favorites, I became more and more convinced that this was the one for me to invest deeply in for the remainder of my life on earth.

What about you? If you are a Christian who reads the Bible, what is your favorite book? I pray that this consideration might spark in you the same kind of interest and desire as it has surfaced in me. And feel free to leave a comment–I’d love to hear your favorite book of the Bible too.

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Hurry Kills Love

We are immersed in a culture that places a premium value on efficiency and speed–after all, “Time is money.” But what we often fail to realize is the immense toll on our relationships that stems from our frenetic, hurried pace. Jesus’ life modeled for us a pace that was not dictated by hurry, where the value of relationships superseded the value of efficiency.

Making space for the inefficiency of relating deeply with God and people is a goal I am both continually striving after and continually struggling with. The following quotes have been–and continue to be–a source of challenge and encouragement in that process. So don’t rush through them and immediately jump to the next thing on your task list, but linger long enough to allow the truth of them to sink into your heart. Better yet, print them out and go find a quiet corner where you can be alone and unhurried with God as you read and consider how He would have you respond.

Dr. Richard Swenson, in his book The Overload Syndrome: Virtually all of our relationships are damaged by hurry. Many families are being starved to death by velocity. Our children lie wounded on the ground, run over by our high-speed good intentions. God, I suspect, doesn’t fit any better into our breakneck schedules than our children do. We walk fast, talk fast, eat fast, and then announce, “Sorry, I’ve got to run.”

Jesus never seemed in a hurry. Time urgency was not only absent from His life, it was conspicuously absent. Creating a margin—that space between our load and our limits—is perhaps one of the best ways to allow Christlike spontaneity and interruptibility back into our lives. Margin blunts hurry and allows us to focus on the divine appointments God sends our way.         [pg 125 & 132]

 

Paul Miller, in his excellent book A Praying Life: Theoretically, Jesus could have concentrated on his Father while he healed people. He could have used his deity to protect himself from the slowness and inefficiency of life. When the bleeding woman interrupts him on the way to Jairus’s house, Jesus could have healed her without stopping to connect with her as a person (see Luke 8:40-48). But he doesn’t. When he rejects Satan’s temptation to turn the stone into bread, he rejects efficiency and chooses love (see Matthew 4:1-4).

Jesus’ example teaches us that prayer is about relationship. When he prays, he is not performing a duty; he is getting close to his Father. Any relationship, if it is going to grow, needs private space, time together without an agenda, where you can get to know each other. This creates an environment where closeness can happen, where we can begin to understand each other’s hearts.

You don’t create intimacy; you make room for it. This is true whether you are talking about your spouse, your friend, or God. You need space to be together. Efficiency, multitasking, and busyness all kill intimacy. In short, you can’t get to know God on the fly.      [pg 46-47]

 

John Ortberg, in The Life You’ve Always Wanted: We must ruthlessly eliminate hurry from our lives. This does not mean we will never be busy. Jesus often had much to do, but he never did it in a way that severed the life-giving connection between him and his Father. He never did it in a way that interfered with his ability to give love when love was called for. He observed a regular practice of withdrawing from activity for the sake of solitude and prayer. Jesus was often busy, but never hurried.   Hurry is not just a disordered schedule. Hurry is a disordered heart.

The most serious sign of hurry sickness is a diminished capacity to love. Love and hurry are fundamentally incompatible. Love always takes time, and time is one thing hurried people don’t have.

It is because it kills love that hurry is the great enemy of spiritual life. Hurry lies behind much of the anger and frustration of modern life. Hurry prevents us from receiving love from the Father or giving it to his children.      [pg 79, 81, 83]

May God grant us the grace to set aside our hurried hearts in order love well, like He does.

 

Does God’s Anger Explain His Love?

Good & Angry is a book with a bright red cover, written by Professor and Biblical counselor David Powlison. In chapter 10, Powlison makes the startling statement: “You can’t understand God’s love if you don’t understand his anger.” God’s anger and his love are two different but complementary expressions of his goodness. It is precisely because God loves so deeply that he has to be angry at anything that harms the ones he loves.

In the chapter, Powlison spells out four ways in which God expresses his love for his children through his anger:

  1. “In love, the anger that your sin deserves fell on Jesus, not on you.”
  2. “In love, God’s anger works to disarm the power of your sin.”
  3. “God’s anger will deliver you from the pain of other people’s sins.”
  4. “God’s anger serves as a warning and check to protect us from returning to a lifestyle of sin.”

For the Christian, these four aspects of God’s anger and love serve to comfort different aspects of our human struggle. In our fearfulness or self-condemnation, we can remember that Jesus took God’s anger against our sin. In our discouragement and weakness, we can remember that God’s anger works within us against what is wrong with us. In our feeling overwhelmed by aloneness or the unkindness of others toward us, we can remember that God’s anger will one day destroy every cause of pain and sorrow, and he will defend us. In our despair and temptation, we can remember that God’s anger will discipline the ones he loves, including us, so that we might share in his holiness.

In this season of my life, I especially resonate with this reality that in my discouragement over my weakness and regular failure to love my daughter rightly, God’s anger is working to right what is wrong within me. He is not angry with me or disappointed in me, but his anger is aimed at breaking the sin that still clings so closely to me and that keeps me from experiencing the fullness of life in him. To have a God who merely “accepts me as I am” would not be comforting–it would eventually lead to despair–but to have a God whose deep love for me is committed to making me holy, that is truly a comfort, even in the uncomfortableness of wrestling with my habitual sin. God’s anger that works to rid me of my sin explains his love as something far deeper than niceness or tolerance. The love of God expressed in his anger is a holy love…and a love that gives all to make the beloved holy also.

Powlison concludes: “God’s wrath is your hope. God’s wrath is my hope… Wrath is our hope because love masters anger. God’s loving anger resolves the entire problem of evil in a way that brings him inexpressible glory and brings us inexpressible blessing. The God who is love justly condemns evil, severs the power of remnant evil, brings relief from suffering, and protects us from ourselves.”  [pg. 121]

May you–and may I–experience the hope that comes through the loving anger of our righteous and good God.

Good News for a Weary Parent

I’m reading a book by Paul Tripp, called Parenting: 14 Gospel Principles That Can Radically Change Your Family, in preparation for a seminar my wife and I are teaching at the JEMS Mt Hermon Family Camp coming up next week. Reading books on parenting, especially books by people of such wisdom and experience as Paul Tripp or Elyse Fitzpatrick, often tend to produce guilt and discouragement in me, as I see how far my parenting is from the grace-saturated and Gospel-driven parenting that is described. Therefore when these writers (whom I look up to so much) honestly admit their parenting failures, God stirs some hope in me–that He can redeem and bring good out of my own failures as a parent too.

One section of Tripp’s book is especially convicting (or maybe I should put it this way: many sections are quite convicting, but I’m only going to write about this one!), in which he is expounding the principle that as parents we “have no power whatsoever to change [our] child.” He writes:

“God has given you authority for the work of change, but has not granted you the power to make that change happen. But we buy into the delusion of thinking again and again that that power is ours. We think that if we speak just a little bit louder, or stand a little bit closer, or make the threat a little bit scarier, or the punishment a little more severe, then our children will change.” [pg. 61]

Instead of using tactics of fear or reward or shame to try to produce change in our children, “Parenting is about your humble faithfulness in being willing to participate in God’s work of change for the sake of your children.” This is hardest for me in the parenting of my adopted daughter with special needs. My hopes that her capacity for reason and communication and self-care would increase through my parenting have gradually been drying up over the course of the almost five years that she has been in our family. Thus my patience is being replaced by cynicism, my kindness by harsh words, and my gentle shepherding by power and control. I have admitted many times in desperate prayer that I cannot bring change in my daughter, and yet I keep going back to these same old strategies to try to prove that I am actually capable of producing change.

Merely admitting my inability to elicit change in the heart of my daughter is not good news. But what IS good news is that God can bring change. He may not bring the kind of change I am longing for, and He may bring it on a different timetable than what I would prefer, but He can indeed bring change–that is within His ability. Therefore as Tripp sums it up:

“Good parenting lives at the intersection of a humble admission of personal powerlessness and a confident rest in the power and grace of God… God is with you. He wants what is best for you and your children, and no one but he has the power to produce it. He has not placed the burden of change on your shoulders because he would not require you to do what you cannot do. God has simply called you as a parent to be a humble and faithful tool of change in the lives of your children. And for that there is moment by moment by moment grace.” [pg. 70]

 

Don’t Act like an Animal

I just completed Day 2 of an 11-day intensive course at Talbot on the spirituality of Jonathan Edwards, and my mind is spinning. It is wonderful to be taught by a scholar who has made the study of Edwards his life’s work and joy (Dr. Kyle Strobel), but at the same time it is quite overwhelming because the level of his thinking and understanding is so far beyond my own.

One of Edwards’ sermons that we are reading for the course is titled The Importance and Advantage of a Thorough Knowledge of Divine Truth. Though this sermon was delivered in 1739, the content of it is immensely applicable and practical to us today. Here are a few quotes that I found especially insightful and challenging.

Edwards main point is: “Every Christian should make a business of endeavoring to grow in knowledge in divinity.” He describes divinity as “all that we need know…concerning God and Jesus Christ, concerning our duty to God, and our happiness in God.” As a pastor myself, I appreciate Edwards complaint that this business “is commonly thought to be [the] work [of ministers]…and most seem to think that it may be left to them, as what belongeth not to others.” But along with the author of Hebrews, Edwards laments: “For though by this time you ought to be teachers, you need someone to teach you again the basic principles of the oracles of God. You need milk, not solid food.” (Heb 5:12) Every Christian needs to make growth in knowledge of God a primary business, in order to grow toward maturity in Christ.

One of Edwards’ arguments is that one of the capacities that distinguish people from animals is our faculty of understanding and reason. “Therefore it must be a great part of man’s principal business, to improve his understanding by acquiring knowledge.” And not just any knowledge, but primarily “divine knowledge… God gave man the faculty of understanding, chiefly, that he might understand divine things.”

It follows, then, “that the knowledge of [these divine things] will richly pay for all the pains and labor of an earnest seeking of it. If there were a great treasure of gold and pearls hid in the earth but should accidentally be found, and should be opened among us with such circumstances that all might have as much as they could gather of it; would not every one think it worth his while to make a business of gathering it while it should last? But that treasure of divine knowledge, which is contained in the Scriptures, and is provided for everyone to gather to himself as much of it as he can, is a far more rich treasure than any one of gold and pearls. How busy are all sorts of men, all over the world, in getting riches? But this knowledge is a far better kind of riches, than that after which they so diligently and laboriously pursue.”

So don’t act like a brute beast and make it your chief ambition to pursue the things that will not last, but exercise that uniquely human capacity for increasing in the knowledge of God. “If God hath made it the business of some to be teachers, it will follow, that he hath made it the business of others to be learners… God hath never made it the duty of some to take pains to teach those who are not obliged to take pains to learn. He hath not commanded ministers to spend themselves, in order to impart knowledge to those who are not obliged to apply themselves to receive it.” Amen to that!! “The name by which Christians are commonly called in the New Testament is disciples, the signification of which word is scholars or learners. All Christians are put into the school of Christ, where their business is to learn, or receive knowledge from Christ, their common master and teacher, and from those…appointed by him to instruct in his name.”

Long-Suffering

I am not a patient man.

People who know me might say that I am pretty easygoing. My personality assessment would define me as one who is not too easily ruffled. Compared with others, perhaps I tend toward patience in many of my interactions. And for the most part, that is true.

But held up against the Bible’s description of patience, and measured against my Savior’s example of long-suffering, I realize how far from patient I truly am.

I’ve been reading a compilation of Jonathan Edwards’ sermons on I Corinthians 13 (the book is titled Charity and Its Fruits: Living in the Light of God’s Love), and what Edwards says about verse 4 of that “love chapter” of the Bible is very sobering and convicting to me. In modern English we do not use the term “long-suffering,” but that is what the word “patient” in I Corinthians 13:4 means. Edwards says that this patient quality of love is called long-suffering, or suffering long, for this reason:

Because we ought meekly to bear not only a small injury, but also a great deal of injurious treatment from others. We should continue in quiet frame without ceasing still to love our neighbor, not only when he injures us a little but also when he injures us much, when the injuries which he does are great. And we should not only thus bear a few injuries but a great many, and though our neighbor continues his injurious treatment to us a long time…. The meaning is not that we should bear injuries indeed a long time, but may lawfully cease to bear them at last; but the meaning is that we should meekly bear injuries though they are long continued, that we should not only bear it when men injure us a little while and then soon repent of it, but we should meekly bear it though they continue in their injuriousness a long time, yea, let it be ever so long.  [pg 100]

If that is not convicting enough, Edwards further says that the manner in which we meekly bear injurious treatment for a long time is not with a “bitter exasperated countenance” nor with “rash and hasty expression” but with “peaceableness and calmness” and grace. If needed, a person…

…may reprove his neighbor; but if he does, it will be with politeness and without bitterness, which still shows the design to be only to exasperate. It may be with strength of reason and argument and serious expostulation, but without angry reflections or contemptuous language. He may show a dislike of what is done, but it will not be with an appearance of high resentment; but as a man would reprove another that has fallen into sin against God, rather than against him; and as lamenting his calamity more than resenting his injury, and as seeking his good rather than his hurt; more to deliver him from the calamity into which he has fallen than to be even with him for the injury he has brought on him.  [pg 98]

Oh that I could truly see and lament the calamity of another’s sin against God as the far greater problem than that person’s injury to me! What would that look like to meekly bear injury against myself without contempt or resentment but truly with sorrow for the calamity that person will face before God because of their sin?

And lest I bemoan the fact that injuries against me seem to happen so often, Edwards cautions that I should not be so surprised.

If we are not disposed meekly to bear injuries, we are not fitted to live in such a world as this, for we can expect no other than to meet with many injuries in this world. We do not live in heaven, or a world of purity, innocence and love. We dwell in a fallen, corrupt, miserable, wicked world; a world that is very much under the reign and dominion of sin…. Men who have their spirits heated and enraged, and rising in bitter resentment when they are injured, or unreasonably dealt with, act as if they thought some strange thing had happened to them. …it is no strange thing at all; it is no other than what is to be expected in such a world…. A wise man does not expect any other and is prepared for it, and composes his spirit to bear it. [pg 106, 107]

I am not a patient man. I complain all too easily about the short suffering that I face. My spirit gets easily ruffled and resentful from others’ injurious treatment toward me. Edwards’ apt application of Scripture pierces my pretense of patience and shows me how desperately I need the Spirit of God to grow this fruit in my heart.

Strategic Selection

Many years ago, I was taught a useful little motto that has stuck with me ever since: Do few things, and do them wellIn other words, it’s better to be truly effective with a few key plans than to try to do everything and end up doing nothing well.

Jesus didn’t teach this motto per se, but His strategy of making disciples operated by this principle. He selected twelve men to be with Him and learn from Him, and He invested the majority of His time in equipping those few to carry on His work after He was gone. And that strategy was so effective that we who follow Jesus today are the direct result of its genius.

Robert Coleman says it this way in his excellent book The Master Plan of Evangelism: “Though [Jesus] did what he could to help the multitudes, he had to devote himself primarily to a few men, rather than the masses, so that the masses could at last be saved. His concern was not with programs to reach the multitudes, but with men whom the multitudes would follow.”

What is perhaps perplexing, though, is that the men Jesus selected–the men on whom hinged the success of His whole strategy–did not at first glance appear to be the best qualified for the job. They had no academic degrees, nor any professional training. None of them belonged to the priesthood. Only a few had perhaps some considerable means, but none would be considered wealthy. Most of them came from the despised section of the country–the region of Galilee. They were impulsive and petty and prejudiced. Not exactly the most promising bunch of world-changers.

Coleman says: “Yet Jesus saw in these simple men the potential of leadership for the Kingdom. They were indeed ‘unlearned and ignorant’ according to the world’s standard (Acts 4:13), but they were teachable. Though often mistaken in their judgments and slow to comprehend spiritual things, they were honest men, willing to confess their need. Such men, pliable in the hands of the Master, could be molded into a new image–Jesus can use anyone who wants to be used.”

The same principle holds true today for we who would follow Jesus in His grand disciple-making mission. “We must decide where we want our ministry to count–in the momentary applause of popular recognition or in the reproduction of our lives in a few chosen people who will carry on our work after we have gone. It will be slow, tedious, painful, and probably unnoticed by people at first, but the end result will be glorious, even if we don’t live to see it. Really it is a question of which generation we are living for.”

So if you are following Jesus, who are the few that you will strategically select to pour your life into and train up to do the same?