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
Handkerchiefs and Demons?
To enter the Kingdom is to enter a war zone. The Holy Spirit makes God's invisible Kingdom visible, by the means of extraordinary miracles and deliverances. Yet only those commissioned by God should enter the fray.
The King's Domain
Acts 19: 8 And he entered the synagogue and for three months spoke boldly, reasoning and persuading them about the kingdom of God.
Praying the Bible by Donald S. Whitney
Since prayer is talking with God, why don’t people pray more? Why don’t the people of God enjoy prayer more? I maintain that people—truly born-again, genuinely Christian people—often do not pray simply because they do not feel like it. And the reason they don’t feel like praying is that when they do pray, they tend to say the same old things about the same old things. When you’ve said the same old things about the same old things about a thousand times, how do you feel about saying them again? Did you dare just think the “B” word? Yes, bored. We can be talking to the most fascinating Person in the universe about the most important things in our lives and be bored to death. As a result, a great many Christians conclude, “It must be me. Something’s wrong with me. If I get bored in something as important as prayer, then I must be a second-rate Christian.”
Indeed, why would people become bored when talking with God, especially when talking about that which is most important to them? Is it because we don’t love God? Is it because, deep down, we really care nothing for the people or matters we pray about? No. Rather, if this mindwandering boredom describes your experience in prayer, I would argue that if you are indwelled by the Holy Spirit—if you are born again—then the problem is not you; it is your method.
The Spirit’s Presence Prompts Prayer Notice that very important condition—“if you are indwelled by the Holy Spirit”—for no method will enliven prayer for a person who isn’t indwelled by the Holy Spirit. Such a person has no sustained appetite for prayer, no longterm desire for it. When God brings someone into a relationship with himself through Jesus Christ, he begins to live within that person by means of his Holy Spirit. As the apostle Paul writes to followers of Jesus in Ephesians 1:13, “In him you also, when you heard the word of truth, the gospel of your salvation, and believed in him, were sealed with the promised Holy Spirit.” In 1 Corinthians 6:19 Paul also reassures believers in Christ, “Your body is a temple of the Holy Spirit within you, whom you have from God.”
Just as you bring your human nature with you whenever you enter any place, so whenever the Holy Spirit enters any person, he brings his holy nature with him. The result is that all those in whom the Spirit dwells have new holy hungers and holy loves they did not have prior to having his indwelling presence. They hunger for the holy Word of God, which they used to find boring or irrelevant (1 Pet. 2:2). They love fellowship with the people of God, finding it unimaginable to live apart from meaningful interaction with them (1 John 3:14). Hearts and minds in which the Holy Spirit dwells feel holy longings unknown to them previously. They long to live in a holy body without sin, yearn for a holy mind no longer subject to temptation, groan for a holy world filled with holy people, and earnestly desire to see at last the face of the one the angels call “Holy, holy, holy” (Rev. 4:8). This is the spiritual heartbeat of 100 percent of the hearts where the Spirit of God lives.
A person may be just nine years old, but if the Holy Spirit has come to him or her, then these hungers and desires are planted there (expressed in nine-year-old ways, of course, but they live there because he lives there). And a person may be ninety-nine with a heart encrusted by the traditions and experiences of the years, but pulsing underneath is the ever-fresh, evergreen work of the Holy Spirit manifested in every person in whom he dwells. And according to the New Testament letters of both Romans and Galatians, another of the supernatural heart changes the Spirit creates in all Christians is to cause them to cry, “Abba! Father!” (Rom. 8:15; Gal. 4:6). Thus when someone is born again, the Holy Spirit gives that person new Fatherward desires, a new heavenward orientation whereby we cry, “Abba, Father!” In other words, all those indwelled by the Holy Spirit really want to pray. The Holy Spirit causes all the children of God to believe that God is their Father and fills them with an undying desire to talk to him. “Something Must Be Wrong with Me” Nevertheless, while this Spirit-produced passion is pushing against one side of our soul, colliding with that is our experience. And our experience says, “But when I pray, frankly, it’s boring.”
And when prayer is boring, we don’t feel like praying. And when we don’t feel like praying, it’s hard to make ourselves pray. Even five or six minutes of prayer can feel like an eternity. Our mind wanders half the time. We’ll suddenly come to ourselves and think, “Now where was I? I haven’t been thinking of God for the last several minutes.” And we’ll return to that mental script we’ve repeated countless times. But almost immediately our minds begin to wander again because we’ve said the same old things about the same old things so many times. “It must be me,” we conclude.
“Prayer isn’t supposed to be like this. I guess I’m just a second-rate Christian.” No, the problem is almost certainly not you; it’s your method. If you have turned from living for yourself and your sin and have trusted Jesus Christ and his work to make you right with God, God has given you the Holy Spirit. And if you are seeking to live under the lordship of Jesus Christ and the authority of God’s Word (the Bible), confessing known sin and fighting the lifelong tendency to sin instead of excusing it, then the problem of boredom in prayer is not you; rather, it is your method. And the method of most Christians in prayer is to say the same old things about the same old things. After forty years of experience in ministry, I am convinced that this problem is almost universal. Virtually from the beginning of their Christian life, it seems that nearly every believer suffers from this habit. When prayer consists of the same spoken sentences on every occasion, naturally we wonder at the value of the practice. If our prayers bore us, do they also bore God?
Does God really need to hear me say these things again? We can begin to feel like a little girl I heard about. Her parents had taught her the classic bedtime prayer for children Praying the Bible 16 that begins, “Now I lay me down to sleep.” One night she thought, “Why does God need to hear me say this again?” So she decided to record herself saying the prayer, and then she played the recording each night when she went to bed. Perhaps you smile at her story, but you have prayer recordings in your head; they’re just a little longer or more sophisticated. Recorded in your memory are prayers—your own or the prayers of others—you can repeat mindlessly. I pastored a church in the Chicago area for almost fifteen years. During the worship service one Sunday morning the ushers came forward to receive the offering, and one of the ushers was asked to pray.
As the man was praying, I could hear someone else talking. I thought, Surely this person will stop in a moment. Then I realized it was a child, and I said to myself, Some adult will quiet this child any second now. But as the talking continued, I opened my eyes and saw in the second row the five-year-old son of the usher who was praying. Soon it became obvious that the little boy was praying the same words as his dad; not repeating after him but in unison with him. It was like when entire congregations pray the Lord’s Prayer in unison; instead this was a father and son praying “Dad’s prayer.”
The Protection of Church Discipline
On this latest Dividing Line broadcast, I brought a third teaching in a series on the Church, dealing with the often neglected subject of Discipline. A Church failing to exercise discipline among its members is an unloving Church, walking in disobedience to Christ. - JS
Stand Fast In The Liberty
What do you do with your guilt? The message of the world stands totally opposed to God and His Word on this issue. Rather than suppressing the voice of conscience, God has much to say regarding the remedy - summed up in the word "atonement".
The New Testament on Church Membership
Hour 1: Returning to guest host on this Dividing Line broadcast, I was able to walk through several New Testament texts which only make sense in the light of formal Church membership.
Hour 2: Having previously established that formal Church Membership is a biblical mandate and requirement, I then discussed what it entails as God’s intended blessing for disciples of Christ.