Answering More Common Objections
My latest interview on the Iron Sharpens Iron radio program is now posted here at this link.
We got to talk about some important issues, dispensing with many man-made traditions along the way. - JS
Conviction in a time of rapid change
Ligonier.org: On August 25th, we were joined by Dr. John MacArthur, president of The Master's Seminary, and Dr. Stephen Nichols, president of Reformation Bible College. We discussed the urgency to stand with conviction in a time of rapid cultural change.
Christus Victor! Christ is conqueror!
Christ conquered the devil at the cross, but how exactly did He do that?
The Blessed Man Unveiled
The way of the righteous contrasts strongly with the way of the ungodly. Yet who among us truly qualifies to be blessed by God? Only as we understand Law and Gospel can we rightly interpret this Psalm.
Creation... the Fall... the Rescue... the Restoration
God’s love for the world was seen in the giving of His one and only Son so that all those who believe in Him would in no way perish but instead have everlasting life for sure.
Dressed to Kill!
As Christians, we are born into a war zone where our enemy rages against us, seeking to devour us. This intense spiritual conflict will continue as long as we remain in this world. God commands us to put on the whole armor of God and to stand against the schemes of the devil. Here's how.
Luther and the Tower
Romans 1:16 For I am not ashamed of the gospel, because it is the power of God that brings salvation to everyone who believes: first to the Jew, then to the Gentile. 17 For in the gospel the righteousness of God is revealed—a righteousness that is by faith from first to last, just as it is written: “The righteous will live by faith.” (NIV)
Martin Luther was a man plagued in conscience because of his sin, knowing God had to be just in punishing him. Light broke through the dark, foreboding clouds when he came to understand Romans 1:17.
The Heart - A Factory of Idols
Got Questions about Free Will?
My interview with Chris Arnzen concerning free will is now posted and available to be heard here. - JS
Loving Well by William P. Smith
I stood outside, shivering in the cold, “talking” to God. Venting would be the more honest description. I had just thrown down the papers I was working on and stalked out of the room after unloading on one of my children, who had been repeatedly interrupting me every few minutes. My parting words were, “I am so frustrated right now. It doesn’t matter what I say or do, you don’t get it. It doesn’t matter if I speak gently to you. It doesn’t matter if I ignore you. It doesn’t matter if I explode!
You just keep coming. I don’t know what to do with you.” I hate those times. I have no interest in verbally bashing my kids, making them feel like I’m never satisfied with them. And yet, I also don’t want them to grow up believing that the world is all about them. What I’d just done wasn’t terribly loving (I get that), but in that moment I didn’t have any idea what else to do, so I ended up doing something that broke down the relationship instead of building it. Ever been there? That place where, despite the fact that you really do want to love the people around you, somehow it all goes south? Either you do something to shred the friendship or you face something you don’t know how to handle. You’ve tried everything you do know, and nothing seems to help. As a pastoral counselor, I have lots of friends who share those feelings. Friends like Tasha and Maurice. Tasha is unhappy with her job and would really rather stay home with the baby, only they can’t afford to have her do that. So every time she comes home, she complains to Maurice about how bad work was. Maurice, however, doesn’t know what to do with her complaints. His preferred role of being the funny, lighthearted guy just doesn’t seem to work like it used to with her. So he prefers to switch on the TV during dinner and watch it into the night, or play card games with her, or do some other activity that safely insulates him from an intimidating conversation. She likes him, but feels alone and abandoned. So guess what she does about her loneliness? She complains about it, adding it to the complaints about her job. And when she complains, he feels more helpless and confused, so he finds new ways to ignore her. And ’round and ’round they go. You wouldn’t say he’s a bad man or she’s a miserable woman, but they don’t know how to engage each other in a helpful way. Most of the time, my friends and I don’t set out trying to hurt anyone, especially those we really care about. We’re relational creatures, made in the image of the great communal, three-in-one God. We long for relationships. Intentionally undermining our closest relationships would be counterproductive to our whole nature and desire. And yet we do just that. We watch them slip through our fingers—or worse, we see ourselves actively poisoning them simply by doing what feels right in the moment. Because you’ve picked up this book, you probably know what broken relationships feel like. You see yourself damaging your closest friendships or not knowing how to bring healing when someone else harms them.
Sometimes these unhealthy patterns and reactions can feel so natural that you don’t even think about how they came about. You might not even realize how many of them you’ve adopted from other people. You may only be aware that, in the moment, the strategy seems to get you what you want. Patrice pulls away from situations she doesn’t like by withdrawing from people and refusing to talk to them. Her reaction makes complete sense when you learn that for her whole life she witnessed her father controlling her mother with the silent treatment. You probably wouldn’t be too surprised to discover that this was the example he had while growing up in his home. Each generation learned how to relate to others from the generation before, even if those ways soured the closest relationships they had. We are all fully responsible for the ways we mistreat each other, and we have all learned from the bad examples we’ve had. Nature (your own sinful inclinations) and nurture (the things you’ve experienced from others) join forces to undermine your relationships. They produce what the apostle Peter refers to as “the empty way of life handed down to you from your forefathers” (1 Peter 1:18, niv). Some people have more “empty way of life” quotient than others, but every person has embraced a legacy of emptiness—patterns of relating that seem right in the moment, but that ultimately tear friendships apart. These patterns are truly insane.
What else can you call it when you repeatedly engage your children, spouse, parents, or friends in the same destructive ways even though you realize you’re driving them away? For someone like Patrice, the empty ways she deals with are primarily identified by the ongoing presence of evil. People in those positions experienced an aggressive negative relational style and had to react to it. Some become comfortable adopting the model as their own by taking the junkyard dog approach. They relate to others with the belief that, “If what wins arguments and protects me in this family is being loud, sarcastic, or insulting, then I will be the loudest, meanest, most caustic person in the room!” Others who have no interest in competing at that level develop self-protective strategies that keep everyone else at arm’s length.
Empty ways of life, however, are not always defined by the active presence of evil. Just as often they are characterized by the absence of positive elements that would foster healthy relationships. Nick’s wife noted that his parents essentially ignored him after providing for his physical needs. Robert’s family was more extreme. He didn’t know what a hug felt like growing up. No one touched in his family nor wanted to. They didn’t own a couch, only a collection of individual chairs. Walking through his living room daily reinforced the relational message “you are on your own in this life.” That lack of physical connection mirrored the lack of intimacy at all other levels. Little wonder that these men struggled to know how to connect with their wives and kids. Other families are not as dramatic in their dysfunction but still leave out many crucial relational elements. Some people never heard a parent say “I’m sorry; please forgive me.” Others don’t know what it is to hear “I love you. I’m proud of you. I’m so glad to see you!” Still others didn’t experience someone pursuing them, inviting them back to relationship when they’d strayed, or simply affirming their feeling that life isn’t very nice sometimes. Without experiencing a healthy way of relating in your life, it’s really hard to know it’s even missing, much less that it’s an essential element to give someone else.
The absence of positive relational interactions gets passed on just as surely as the presence of negative patterns. Spend just a little bit of time with God’s people and you’ll quickly learn that empty ways of life abound even in the middle of the redeemed community. Small home fellowship groups don’t know how to embrace the quirky single guy who comes for a few weeks, so he quietly drops off the radar. Warring factions break out in the congregation over what style of music we sing or how we decorate the building. Elders approach their congregation with a heavy hand or back way off with no hand. Leaders fail, like they have all the way back to Noah, and no one knows how to put Humpty Dumpty together again. People are lured into church by hearing the language of intimacy, authenticity, and genuineness, but when they experience their absence, they are left feeling even more hurt than before.
They had hoped finally to find a safe place where they could experience being loved, only to realize that Christians are not really all that good at it. Instead of being welcomed and embraced, often they can end up isolated and alone. So they walk away discouraged and cynical— with good reason. Does any of this resonate with your own experience? Over the past twenty-five years of professional and volunteer ministry, I have yet to meet the person who doesn’t struggle at some point in his or her relationships. Maybe you find yourself undermining the relationships that are most important to you. Or maybe someone else is hurting you and you don’t know how to invite that person to something better. Or maybe you just find your relationships stagnate and don’t grow richer. If that’s you, you’re not alone. And you don’t have to settle for these empty ways of life. You can exchange those patterns for others that promote deep unity and peacefulness—patterns that offer a satisfying and rich relationship to the people around you. In short, you can learn to love well. Jesus Loves us out of Emptiness Peter draws our attention to the empty ways of life only in order to highlight that we have been redeemed from them by the precious blood of Christ (1 Peter 1:18–19). God cares about the hold these destructive patterns have on you, and he made a way to free you from them. They don’t have to control how you live and react in your relationships. Now you may expect me to fill the rest of this book with lists of helpful hints and biblical principles for maximizing the positive things and minimizing the negatives in your relationships. But escaping an empty way of life does not rely on principles—it relies on a person. And not just a person who comes and does things for you or is an example outside of you, but a person who comes and relates to you. I’m afraid that too many times we hold up Jesus as though he were simply a model of brilliant living—one who would inspire us to live a holy life in the same way that we extol the virtues of George Washington, Abraham Lincoln, Mahatma Gandhi, and Mother Teresa. The problem with that thinking is that models alone are unable to make you want to follow their example.
They point out the way for you to go, but they don’t empower you to walk down that path. They might inspire you, but inspiration alone is not enough to actually move you. Over the years I have heard a number of great stories of people who have done amazing things or overcome incredible obstacles—a father who enters marathons, pushing his wheelchair-bound son; a married couple who adopts 19 children with special needs over the course of their lifetime; or the concert musician who plays at Carnegie Hall because of the countless hours of practice she spent with her instrument. Those examples are stirring. Inwardly I cheer for those people and wish them the best. Though I am inspired by their stories, however, my own lifestyle has not changed in the least. It takes far more than inspiration to escape an empty way of life.
I’ve not yet been driven by these examples to take up jogging, adopt even one child, or pick up an instrument. They truly are praiseworthy examples, but they’re outside of me. Therefore, by themselves, they are insufficient to move me. Jesus is different. His examples of loving and serving are not things that happen outside of me–things I dispassionately observe. Far from being an uninvolved spectator to his reconciling work, I’m a recipient of his gracious actions. He is my example, but he is also my experience. In experiencing him, I not only develop a personal sense of what he calls me to, but I also gain the power to live out that calling with others. God understands that you don’t always know how to love people, so he does not insist you figure out how to bootstrap yourself into relationships. Instead, he makes sure you already know exactly what love is before he requires you to love others. As the apostle John put it, “In this is love, not that we have loved God, but that he loved us . . . if God so loved us, we also ought to love one another” (1 John 4:10–11, in larger context of vv. 7–21). It’s only after having been loved that you respond with love.
You love him back, and you reach out to share with others a tiny portion of the love that you yourself have received. In my relationship with God, what’s always been most important is the quality of his love for me, not the quality of my love for him. It’s only as the reality of his love becomes my present experience that I will be more concerned about expressing my love to others than insisting they express theirs for me. It’s only after having been loved that you respond with love. You love him back, and you reach out to share with others a tiny portion of the love that you yourself have received. xx IntroductIon Too often I get this order backward with my children, like when I blew up at my child earlier. Those are the days when I keep careful track of all the ways it seems they don’t care nearly enough about me. I become consumed with how they don’t consider the pressures of my schedule when they want me to chauffeur them to their next sports game or to the store. I grumble about how they don’t respect my property as they trample through the garden or slam the doorknob through the drywall. And I fume over how they’re more interested in my money than my friendship. I confess, I have a hard time being greeted at the door after a long, hard day with “Hi, Daddy—can I have my allowance?” In those moments, I get caught believing that what most needs to change in my family is them. They need to be more considerate, more respectful, and more grateful. In other words, I wrongly believe that our relationship is dependent on the quality of their love for me. That’s backward from the way I experience Jesus. The way he treats me, both historically and in the present, gives me the experience of being loved. And it is that experience that allows me to respond to him and extend myself to others, which is the real need of the people I live with. My family needs me to pursue them like Jesus pursues me.
They need me to forgive them like Jesus forgives me. They need me to like them, engage with them, and share myself with them just as Jesus likes me, engages with me, and shares himself with me. And that’s where there is a disconnect for many people. They don’t have a sense of the risen Christ relating to them in real time in a helpful, positive way. Whether I’m serving in my home church or traveling to others, I regularly interact with people who can explain historically what Jesus has done for them and who genuinely look forward to what he will do in eternity. But his present activities in their lives remain a cloudy mystery