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]

 

A Puritanical Notion

How do you view the call to holiness in the Christian life? If you, like me, have grown up in a so-called Christian setting, you might have gathered that the Christian life is about learning to do a bunch of things that you really don’t want to do, and letting go of all the things you would prefer to do. Or if you’re not a Christian, perhaps you’re wondering why you would ever want to go to heaven, if heaven consists mainly of an unending monotone chanting of “Holy, holy, holy!”

We tend to think of holiness in the same way we might think of a kale salad–with a bit of a sigh and a resigned sense of responsibility, because after all, it would be much better for us than that bag of chips or slice of chocolate cake. (If you love kale salad, I apologize for using it in such a derogatory manner here!) So if we’re “being good” we’ll skip the junk food and eat the kale salad, even though we’d rather have the cake.

If that’s how we tend to view holiness, then when we read of someone who says: “Holiness is a most beautiful and lovely thing. [It] is of a sweet, pleasant, charming, lovely, amiable, delightful, serene, calm and still nature,” we might roll our eyes and wonder where they got such a crazy notion. But that is in fact what Jonathan Edwards wrote about holiness.

In the same note, Edwards admitted the reality that is often still the case for us as well: “We drink in strange notions of holiness from our childhood, as if it were a melancholy, morose, sour and unpleasant thing…” In other words: like kale salad. So how could Edwards move from a childhood notion of holiness as morose or unpleasant, and come to see it instead as sweet and lovely and serene?

From what I’m learning about Jonathan Edwards, he viewed holiness as only a divine attribute, and therefore impossible for us as humans to attain. Therefore the only way for Christians to grow in holiness is for us to participate in the holiness of God. But that is in fact what we do! In regeneration, we are united to Christ, and in that union, as I Peter 1:4 says, Jesus “has granted to us his precious and very great promises, so that through them you may become partakers of the divine nature…” Christ is holy, and because we are united to Him, we partake in His holiness. And that holiness is not sour, but sweet; not morose, but delightful.

In C.S. Lewis’ book, The Screwtape Letters, Lewis wryly comments on how the satanic powers have successfully hijacked the word “puritanical” to bend it to their own deceptive schemes. Though it technically means “that which is characteristic of Puritans,” it has come to be synonymous with “strait-laced, stuffy, prudish, prim.” But that is not at all what characterized the Puritans, and certainly not the Puritan preacher Jonathan Edwards, as is clear from his depiction of holiness as “sweet and ravishingly lovely.”

May God open the eyes of our hearts to see the beauty of holiness, that we would not merely resign ourselves to it as an unpleasant but necessary thing, but long for it and strive after it (Hebrews 12:14) as a sweet fruit of our union with Christ.

Watch Out!!

If your 2-year-old daughter was unknowingly walking toward danger, you would use the strongest words and tone necessary to get her to stop; in fact, you wouldn’t hesitate to physically restrain her and pull her away from the danger, if needed. Likewise if your friend or parent started experiencing symptoms of a stroke, you would not be apologetic in demanding that they immediately go to the hospital.

If that is how we automatically respond when a loved one is in danger, why do we recoil when a pastor, or a friend, warns us of the very real danger of hell? If a loved one’s soul is in danger of being in torment forever apart from the mercy of God, why do we squirm and fidget and feel like we’re being tremendously unloving to say such a thing to them?

One possible reason is that we have relegated hell (along with God’s wrath against sin) to the category of “archaic” or “puritanical,” and therefore consider anyone who still believes in such a ludicrous notion to be rather backward or small-minded. Unfortunately, though, hell doesn’t just disappear when people stop believing in it.

Another reason might be that any discussion of hell elicits images of street-corner preachers shouting hellfire and brimstone condemnations. Perhaps even Jonathan Edwards’ famous sermon, Sinners in the Hands of an Angry God, comes to mind–and we’re not sure if that’s an accurate portrayal of the loving God we think we know.

Or maybe we’ve simply bought in to the relativistic worldview of the culture around us, that proudly proclaims each individual’s right to decide their own beliefs and determine their own destiny. And therefore for anyone to claim that they know something absolutely smacks of arrogance and presumption.

The more that I read of Jonathan Edwards’ sermons and writing (and I’ve probably read over 700 pages in the past few weeks!), the more impressed I am at the depth of his pastoral heart. And the more convicted I am of how small and self-serving my own love for others usually is. Edwards speaks of hell often, and solemnly warns his listeners and readers to consider the condition of their soul and turn to God so that they might be saved from the wrath that they are most certainly headed toward. He warns those who think they are saved, spelling out in great detail the ways to distinguish true assurance of salvation from self-deception or emotionalism. And he does all of this without apology or hesitation–simply because he loves his people.

So friend, take heed! Where does your soul stand before God? Hell is real–the mercy of God through Jesus is your only hope, so cry out to Him and put your trust in Him while you still have opportunity. Do not delay! And Christian, on what are you basing your confidence? Is there evidence of your union with Christ, in an increasing awareness of your sin and a growing dependence on God’s mercy to put that sin to death? Don’t presume that you are entitled to salvation, and don’t treat it flippantly (like, “Of course, I’m saved!”), but “Examine yourselves, to see whether you are in the faith” (2 Cor. 13:5).

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.”

The Cost of Retreat

Retreats are costly. Not always financially–I’m finishing up a personal retreat at The Oaks Conference Center and they have a Shepherd’s Rest cabin that is free for pastors and missionaries–but retreats are costly in other ways. By definition retreats require setting aside a large chunk of time, and that is a huge cost. Retreats usually imply going away from your usual setting of family or work or friends, which also involves a significant cost.

But retreats are not just costly for the person retreating. There is also a cost paid by those who grant the space for a retreat. I know that firsthand–allowing my wife to get away for a day or a couple nights means that a lot more responsibility is on me to cover for the things she would normally do in our home and family. And when I am away, as I have been the past couple nights, I know it adds extra work and burden on my wife. Our kids also bear some of that cost, as they have extra chores added to their plates when one of us is on retreat. Realizing how costly it is for those who love me makes me value the time away even more, and pushes me to be very intentional in how I utilize such a gracious and costly gift.

Retreats are costly. But not retreating carries an even greater cost. Endlessly plugging away at life and work without pulling aside to refocus and be refreshed in Christ leads only to burnout. Refusing to ask a spouse or friend to cover for you, or refusing to release a spouse or friend to go, may save some of that cost up front but, like an unpaid credit card, accrues a much greater cost later on.

So I’m tremendously grateful for my wife and children, who have absorbed the cost of allowing me space to retreat, not just this time, but regularly! And I’m grateful to God for the refreshment and renewed focus that He brings through a retreat like this. Retreats are costly, but they are definitely worth the cost.

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.

The Discipline of Singing

It is not my position as a pastor that pushes me to sing in worship whether I feel like it or not. Rather, it is my increasing experience that the intentional act of singing words that are true helps my heart to turn toward God and away from self.

If Luther is right (and I believe he is) that sin prompts us to “turn in on ourselves,” then worship songs that speak of God and the Gospel are a powerful antidote. (Granted, there are plenty of worship songs that do not focus on God or the Gospel, but instead tend to assist our souls in turning inward.) And yet the songs themselves cannot serve as an antidote unless we intentionally enter in to singing them wholeheartedly.

And that is why I believe that singing can be a spiritual discipline. Certainly it doesn’t have to be a discipline, and it isn’t always a discipline, but sometimes it may be chosen as a discipline. Singing becomes a discipline when in my flesh I say “I don’t feel like singing” or “I don’t want to sing” and yet I sing anyway. In that place, I do not sing because I’m happy, but I sing to make myself happy in Christ. And in that place, I do not sing because life is comfortable and good, but I sing to remind myself that God is good even when life is not. Singing as a discipline is not a response to joyful feelings but a catalyst for them.

But the only way that intentional singing can become a catalyst for joyful feelings is when what is being sung is deeply and powerfully true. In order to pull my sin-sick eyes off of myself and onto the God who saves, and in order to straighten out my inward-curving gaze, I must be singing words that point me compellingly to the Gospel so that I become captivated by the beauty of Christ.

At the retreat I led this past weekend, I struggled to sing Keith and Kristyn Getty’s song “When Trials Come” because I felt so empty and weary, and yet those beautiful–and true!–lyrics breathed new life into my soul as I chose to sing them despite how I felt. So join in with me, and see the triumph of the cross even in the midst of your weariness.

When trials come no longer fear
For in the pain our God draws near
To fire a faith worth more than gold
And there His faithfulness is told 
And there His faithfulness is told

Within the night I know Your peace 
The breath of God brings strength to me 
And new each morning mercy flows
As treasures of the darkness grow 
As treasures of the darkness grow

I turn to Wisdom not my own
For every battle You have known
My confidence will rest in You
Your love endures Your ways are good
Your love endures Your ways are good

When I am weary with the cost
I see the triumph of the cross
So in its shadow I shall run
Till He completes the work begun
Till He completes the work begun

One day all things will be made new
I’ll see the hope You called me to
And in your kingdom paved with gold
I’ll praise your faithfulness of old
I’ll praise your faithfulness of old