“So this is what God’s really like.”

This summer, I’m preaching a very short sermon series from the Psalms on praying your emotions. Last week, I preached on Psalm 3, “Pray Your Fears.” In two Sundays, I’ll be preaching from the darkest Psalm, chapter 88, “Pray Your Sadness.”

I’m re-reading parts of a few books as research for the sermon. One book I turned to was C.S. Lewis’ A Grief Observed. It is a tremendous little book about his journey after losing his wife Helen. When I read it the first time, I remember thinking that the book was one of the most raw, honest, yet refreshing books I had read. Essentially, A Grief Observed is the tear-stained pages of Lewis’ journal. I’m thankful his most delicate emotions were put on paper and published.

Listen to this devastating and liberating quote from Lewis in the very first chapter of his book:

[W]here is God? This is one of the most disquieting symptoms. When you are happy, so happy that you have no sense of needing Him, so happy that you are tempted to feel His claims upon you as an interruption, if you remember yourself and turn to Him with gratitude and praise, you will be—or so it feels—welcomed with open arms. But go to Him when your need is desperate, when all other help is vain, and what do you find? A door slammed in your face, and a sound of bolting and double bolting on the inside. After that, silence. You may as well turn away. The longer you wait, the more emphatic the silence will become. There are no lights in the windows. It might be an empty house. Was it ever inhabited? It seemed so once. And that seeming was as strong as this. What can this mean? Why is He so present a commander in our time of prosperity and so very absent a help in time of trouble?

I tried to put some of these thoughts to C. this afternoon. He reminded me that the same thing seems to have happened to Christ: ‘Why hast thou forsaken me?’ I know. Does that make it easier to understand?

Not that I am (I think) in much danger of ceasing to believe in God. The real danger is of coming to believe such dreadful things about Him. The conclusion I dread is not ‘So there is no God after all,’ but ‘So this is what God is really like. Deceive yourself no longer.’

Gender, Sexuality, and the Gospel (Part 3)

In my previous post on gender, sexuality, and the gospel, I wrote about three gospel principles/themes that come up in 1 Peter for Christians living in a culture largely opposed to Christianity. Based on those principles, in this last post, let me propose five basic ways we can engage our culture on the issues of gender and sexuality in a loving, wise, and winsome way.

Be Salt and Light
We were never called to redeem culture or create a Christian colony. We are called to be salt and light in a dying and dark world (Matt. 5:13-16). So Jesus, not politics, is ultimate. If we are salt and light, we not only have the opportunity and calling to tell the better story (my first post), but to live it. The simple truth is the Western church has not been exemplary in terms of sexual purity and marital health. We must do a better job of modeling what the gospel does to marriage, parenting, and singleness.

Being salt and light also means we must be vulnerable with our own sexual, relational, and gender brokenness. We can show people what we have been redeemed from to get the spotlight off of specific sins (i.e. homosexuality) and onto Jesus. Finally, being salt and light means we seek people’s reconciliation. To do this we must listen, ask questions, and sincerely thank people for sharing when they share intimate personal stories about their sexuality. This will earn us the right to have the harder conversations in the future and, hopefully, lead people to Jesus.

Focus on Root, not Fruit 
If your LGBT neighbor or friend talks to you about gender or sexuality and you go right after their specific sin then you only reinforce what they believe about their identity. You are agreeing with them that, in their totality, they are this gender or that or this orientation or that. And when you do this, you are only going after the fruit their life is producing. But we must go after the root.

What do I mean? The human problem is a worship problem. We sin because we are sinners. Thus we do not simply do bad things; there is something fundamentally wrong with us. We are bad. Romans 1—a chapter that zeros-in on homosexuality—makes it clear that we are all exchangers of true glory for false glory. It doesn’t matter if I am a heterosexual sinner or a homosexual sinner. Sin—the condition that inclines me to self and away from God—makes us worship something other than Jesus. That is the main problem of our LGBT friends. In the words of Rosaria Butterfield, a former lesbian turned Christian and pastor’s wife, “Don’t assume that the worst sin in your gay and lesbian neighbors is their sexuality. It is unbelief.”

Listen to and Challenge Cultural Narratives
Cultural narratives are stories that society tells that are assumed to be true but are actually myths. If we are going to persuade people that the gospel tells a better story than the culture, then we must show how the Bible intersects them but offers something far more meaningful and satisfying. In his recent book Preaching, Tim Keller lists several cultural narratives. I’ll summarize the two most applicable ones as they relate to gender and sexuality.

  • Identity narrative (“Be true to yourself”). This narrative tells us that being yourself is the ultimate virtue. The problem? No one is truly him/herself because of their independent, inner feelings. We are all products of our social environment. And if we are slaves to the changing tides of culture, we will never be be satisfied with ourselves. We will always be striving to achieve and become what we think (or others think) we should be. This is exhausting. The gospel, however, gives us a new identity in Christ, one that is received, not earned.
  • Society narrative (“It’s your choice”). This narrative tells us that individual choice is best for society. In this storyline, freedom means freedom from constraints. “I can do whatever I want,” is the mantra. Intolerance is the only sin in this storyline. The problem? Society actually cannot flourish unless people surrender their rights and personal choices. Furthermore, self-created meanings based on my “choice” are actually very selfish and intolerant of other people’s choices. The gospel, however, shows us that we become free when we submit to Christ who gave up his freedom and died in our place, thus giving us the power and motivation to sacrifice for others. 

So listen for these, and tell people the true and better story.

Be a Triage for the Wounded Refugees
If Holy Spirit is moving—and he always is—then we are going to see lost children leave the far country to come home. The church must be prepared to deal with people who leave the LGBT lifestyle. This also means that we must be prepared to give people room to struggle with same-sex attraction as they seek to understand Jesus. Yet for those who are ready or are already following Christ, while we must be prepared for people to struggle with their sexuality, we also must call them deny themselves and carry their cross. Whoever follows Jesus must surrender everything to him.

Know Where the True Battle Lies
Finally, we fail if we see people in LGBT community as our enemies—at least, our ultimate enemies. In some sense, people who oppose Jesus are our enemies. But the gospel gives us the power to love our enemies and pray for those who persecute us. And the gospel is also the only power to make enemies our beloved friends in Christ. Ultimately, our battle is not against flesh and blood but against spiritual forces in the heavenly places. And those forces have been defeated through the cross. We must pray and engage our neighbors knowing this reality.

Gender, Sexuality, and the Gospel (Part 2)

In this second post on gender and sexuality, I want to address what gospel-driven and Scripture-based principles give us a foundation for practicing a life of love and truth in the midst of cultural opposition when it comes to gender and sexuality (and many other issues, mind you). The general culture is quickly becoming more and more hostile to Christianity. While people’s values (i.e. what their heart truly loves and desires) in the culture have always varied and, typically, been opposed to the gospel, the norms (i.e. accepted behaviors) have not. We have had Christian norms for many decades. How do we respond now that our culture is not as favorable to Christian norms as it once was?

Our current cultural situation gives Christians an opportunity to not just tell a better story of gender and sexuality (that was the point of my first post), but to live a better story. To do this, we need to listen to a first century pastor who wrote to his beloved churches when they lived in a time of fierce opposition (much more fierce than what we are experiencing today). The pastors name is Peter, and his first epistle is all about holiness, submission, and suffering. It’s as instructive for us in the 21st century as it was for Christians in the first century.

There are probably dozens of themes and principles we can extrapolate from this letter which would help us develop wise and winsome gospel-centered practices. But I’ll pull out just three of them. 

  1. Holiness in exile. Peter shows his readers that the gospel makes you a new people who live in a new way (1 Pet. 1:15). Because we have been saved by a holy God, we are called to live exemplary lives even while we are surrounded by people who are not following and obeying God.
  2. Submission in suffering. Peter shows his readers that the gospel frees you to model the submission of Christ and suffer with him because you are the people of a better nation (1 Pet. 2:1-12, 13-17). Even if human governments do not honor God, we are still called to honor the government. This doesn’t mean we disobey God, of course. But it means that even in suffering, we are called to submit, not disparage, slander, or overthrow our leaders.
  3. Expect trials and respond graciously. Peter shows his readers that the gospel reveals that if we belong to Christ, we should expect suffering and be gentle and respectful of opponents (1 Pet. 3:8-22; 4:12-19). In Peter’s words, it is not strange when hard things come! What is strange is that biblical norms were accepted for so long.  We should have expected the kinds of things we are seeing in the culture to have happened much sooner than they did. And while this decline happens and continues to worsen, our job is not necessarily to change the circumstances but point people to true hope in Jesus.

If these truths sink down deep it will lead to a radically different way of approaching the issues of gender and sexuality and, more importantly relating to the people who hold views which are at odds with the Scriptures. That will be our final post.

Gender, Sexuality, and the Gospel (Part 1)

Over the next week, I’m going to write three posts addressing gender and sexuality through the lens of the gospel. In this first post, I want to provide an overarching biblical vision for gender and sexuality that will help explain why Christians believe what they believe about these issues.

Why do Christians believe that transgenderism and same-sex relationships (and marriage) are wrong? It goes beyond “proof-texting,” meaning, this is about more than a couple isolated verses here and there in the Bible. Yes, there is Leviticus 18 and Romans 1 and others. The text of Scripture is clear (even non-Christian scholars agree).However, the biblical vision for gender and sexuality is just that: a vision. it is an entire narrative that is woven throughout the fabric of the Bible. It’s a picture of the good life, the life God intended for us.

The Bible is, first and most of all, a story. It’s a story of God’s creation and, consequently, his redemption of that creation. In the beginning, when God created the universe (Gen. 1-2), what we see is that God has designed the world to work in complementary pairs. He makes light and darkness, water and land, night and day, evening and morning, and so on, finally culminating in the creation of mankind as male and female. And the beautiful union that happens between male and female constitutes marriage. So we see that from the very beginning, gender and sexuality were designed by God to be complementary, not uniform.  

As the biblical story continues, what we come to find out is that the male-female union is a reaffirmation of the goodness of creation and a living parable of God’s intention for gender, sexuality, and, consequently, marriage. Ultimately, the complementarian nature of each gender and the male-female union are signposts for how God relates to his people. We see this foreshadowed in Hosea and the Song of Songs in the Old Testament and fully revealed in Ephesians 5 in the New Testament. God does not use our gender, sexuality, and marriage as an analogy of his relationship with humans because it’s convenient. It’s not like God said, “Hey, marriage seems to be a hit with them, so I’ll use that as an analogy.” No, God created and designed gender, sexuality, and marriage with the express purpose in mind that it would point to to the relationship of God with his people through Jesus. That’s the ultimate marriage. That’s why gender and sexuality matter. 

Now when we get to the end of the story in Revelation 21, what we come to see is that the New Jerusalem comes down out of heaven. And what does it come looking like? As a bride adorned for her husband. This Bride, the Church, is prepared and given to her Husband, Jesus Christ. On that day, everything God has planned and Christ accomplished will be made consummate. Thus our gender and sexuality and marriages are pictures of an ultimate reality—something that has happened in Jesus and something that Jesus will finalize when he returns. 

It’s clear then that what Christians believe about gender and sexuality go far beyond a few verses here and there. It’s a whole narrative that’s showcasing the beautiful vision God has for his people, our life together, and our life with him. 

Helping Pastors Fight for Holiness

A couple weeks ago I wrote a post on how a ministry environment can play a role in a pastor’s pursuit of holiness. In this post, I want to sketch out four things churches and pastors can do together to help cultivate an environment conducive to holiness, rather than burnout or disqualification (whether sexual, financial, leaving the faith altogether, etc.).

Practice a Plurality of Elders
You might read this and, at first, say, “Well, most churches whose pastors have had to resign have multiple elders!” Yes, they may have the elder tag assigned to others. They may have multiple people around the board table once a month. But often what happens is that churches only hold to this doctrine theoretically, but they do not biblically practice it. When happens all too often is that the paid pastor becomes the professional minister and/or the face of the church. However, throughout the New Testament, whenever elders are mentioned, it’s always plural and there is never a sense that there is one dominant person. To be sure, some elders may have different emphases or primary areas of oversight. Some may have understandably less time to give because of other employment outside the church. Yet, all elders/pastors/overseers are called to teach, disciple, and keep watch over the entire congregation in some fashio (Acts 20:28; Heb. 13:17; 1 Pet. 5:1-4).

Churches, are you surrounding your senior pastor with other called and qualified men who also do the work of a pastor?

Replace Yourself
The old apostle Paul, writing to the young Timothy said, “What you have heard from me in the presence of many witnesses entrust to faithful men who will be able to teach others also” (2 Tim. 2:2). This is what Paul himself did with Timothy (1 Tim. 1:18). This means pastors should be working to both raise up new leaders and equip everyone in the church to do the work of ministry. When pastors are in the business of entrusting the gospel to others they 1) remind themselves that this is not a one-man show; 2) display to the congregation that their desire is to do what pastors are called to do, that is, equip the saints (Eph. 4:11-12); 3) put into practice the doctrine of the priesthood of all believers (everyone is a minister, not just the paid pastor); and 4) must step out of the limelight from time to time to give others the space and opportunity to lead. In the gospel, Jesus gives up himself and his glory to make his people look great—spotless and blameless—before the Father. Pastors should be doing the same for up-and-coming leaders and others in the church.

Pastors, are you willing to replace yourself and equip others to do the work of ministry so that you are not doing everything all the time?

Plant Churches
You will not find a single verse in the Bible that commands church planting. There isn’t a how-to chapter written in any New Testament book either. But after Jesus gave the command to make disciples (Matt. 28:19-20) and after the Holy Spirit came at Pentecost, how did the apostles respond? The book of Acts tells us they went around the Roman Empire planting churches. And the rest of the New Testament corpus reveals that their work was dedicated to 1) advancing the gospel to new areas, and 2) building existing churches up in the gospel. The response of the apostles helps us see that the goal of Jesus’ church was to plant Jesus-worshiping communities of salt and light everywhere. When we are doing the work of church planting, we are forced in a position to have multiple leaders (#1 above) and replace ourselves (#2 above). Church planting reminds us that our churches are not about one man who is so dynamic or visionary or available or talented, but about the God-Man, Jesus Christ and the power of his gospel.

Churches and pastors, do you plan to spread the gospel, raise up new leaders, and take the focus off human personality and giftedness by planting new congregations?

Treasure the Gospel
This is, of course, something that supersedes and undergirds everything else. Without treasuring the gospel, everything else just becomes a pragmatic method. Paul said, “I do not account my life of any value nor as precious to myself, if only I may finish my course and the ministry that i received from the Lord Jesus, to testify to the gospel of the grace of God” (Acts 20:24). How would Paul finish well? Testify to the gospel of the grace of God. This means pastors will be held accountable not mainly to ministry results and performance, but to growing in Christ and the grace of the gospel.

Churches and pastors, do you treasure the gospel more than anything else? Is your goal to build a great brand for the church or name for the pastor or testify to the grace of God in the gospel?

Fight the Good Fight
There’s no cure-all for pastors winning the fight for holiness. We can’t manufacture results and I don’t mean to imply that at all. However, if churches and pastors ban together to do these things, by God’s grace, I think we’ll see more pastors finish the fight of faith and not flake out early. These are three things I want to see become staples in my pastoral service. Without them, the possibility for loneliness and vulnerability is too great.

What do you think? What other things would you add to help pastors fight for holiness?