Growing Faith in Times of Uncertainty

“Exercising” Faith

It has been said that faith is like a muscle – it gets stronger with exercise. If this is true, then trials are the Planet Fitness of the Christian faith. They are resistance training – resistance makes us stronger. With the coronavirus pandemic, God is taking us to the gym for a faith workout. Facing and overcoming trials is an indispensable tool God uses to make us more like Jesus. It shows how much Jesus means to us – or how little.

James 1:2-4 says, “Count it all joy, my brothers, when you meet trials of various kinds, for you know that the testing of your faith produces steadfastness. And let steadfastness have its full effect, that you may be perfect and complete, lacking in nothing.” Trials may be hard but the benefits are worth the cost. There’s growth to anticipate on the other side.

There are two contagions in the world right now that are a trial for Christians. One of them is the coronavirus. The other one is fear. Both can be deadly. The coronavirus outbreak has caused degrees of uncertainty that most of us have never faced before. We don’t know how long it will last. We don’t know how who or how many will be infected. We don’t know how bad the economic impact will be.

Uncertainty is part of the trial, because people tend to fear the unknown. In ancient times, God used high levels of uncertainty to test and strengthen believer’s faith. In modern times, we have grown accustomed to the illusion of control and predictability. When we realize how little control we truly have, newly discovered uncertainty provokes new levels of fear. None of us have ever trusted God through the uncertainty of a global pandemic before. It’s is a spiritual muscle we’ve never exercised.

Screwtape’s Advice

In CS Lewis’ book, “The Screwtape Letters,” Screwtape is a demon who gives advice to the his nephew, Wormwood, who is learning how to deceive and tempt his human “patient.” In chapter six, Screwtape advises Wormwood on how to use uncertainty against his patient:

We want him to be in the maximum uncertainty, so that his mind will be filled with contradictory pictures of the future, every one of which arouses hope or fear. There is nothing like suspense and anxiety for barricading a human’s mind against the Enemy. He wants men to be concerned with what they do; our business is to keep them thinking about what will happen to them…

Your patient will, of course, have picked up the notion that he must submit with patience to the Enemy’s will. What the Enemy means by this is primarily that he should accept with patience the tribulation which has actually been dealt out to him… It is your business to see that the patient never thinks of the present fear as his appointed cross but only of the things he is afraid of.

C.S. Lewis, The Screwtape Letters

Screwtape’s advice is to get his patient to succumb to the fears of all the terrible things that could happen, rather than exercise trust in God in the things that actually do happen. In other words, “use the fear of the unknown against him. Cripple him with fear of innumerable ‘worst case scenarios’ to keep him enslaved.” Put simply, as far as Screwtape is concerned, the fear that a terrible thing might happen is just as destructive as when a terrible thing does happen. It matters little whether or not it actually does happen, so long as the patient is in constant dread of the possibility.

Christians Do Not Fear Death

The coronavirus has brought human mortality into sharp focus, and with it stratospheric levels of fear and anxiety. People don’t want to die and the coronavirus is deadly. Christians know that, because of sin, everyone will die, either from the coronavirus or something else. Natural death is the great enemy of the human race. But we also believe that God created as eternal beings, and therein lies the real thing to fear.

Jesus tells us there is actually only one thing to fear: “Do not fear those who kill the body but cannot kill the soul. Rather fear him who can destroy both soul and body in hell” (Matt 10:28). Dying apart from Christ is truly the most terrifying thing that could happen to anyone. For Christians, the matter is already settled. Jesus faced the reality of hell on our behalf, so nothing remains that can ultimately harm us. The Apostle Paul said, “to live is Christ, and to die is gain” (Phil 1:21) and also “the last enemy to be destroyed it death” (1 Cor 15:26). Hebrews 2:15 tells us that Jesus destroyed “the one who has the power of death,” and also delivered “all those who through fear of death were subject to lifelong slavery.” In other words, Jesus saved us from death and also from the fear of death. Death has been defeated already. Why fear it?

The Test of Faith

Christians, the test of our faith right now is how we will respond to a world that is afraid. Afraid of dying, economic collapse, or any number of other things. Satan can use our fear of what might happen just as easily as the things that do happen. But fear is the opposite of faith. It is irrational. It doesn’t care about what’s true, only what’s scary. So, right now, the most Christian thing you can do is trust God, rebuke your fear, and walk by faith.

If the gospel is true and Jesus rose from the dead, then death no longer has dominion over him nor us (Rom 6:9, 1 Cor 15:55). Death is not our master. Christ is. The coronavirus will test how deeply we believe this to be true. Will we live in fear? Will we panic like so many others? Or will we live with the confidence and hope our faith provides?

This is an opportunity to exercise our faith and refuse to allow ourselves to be ruled by fear. God did not give us a spirit of fear, but of power, love, and self-control (2 Tim 1:9). We are not ruled by fear of the coronavirus, or economic collapse, or anything else. They cannot take from us anything that truly matters.

What do these Christian "deconversion" stories mean for the rest of us?

Exvangelicalism

The news that Rhett and Link had deconverted from Christianity came as a shock to those of us who knew them first as Christian missionaries with CRU. But those who knew them first as entertainers were shocked that they ever claimed to be Christians in the first place.

Since I used to work with Rhett and Link when we were on staff with CRU together, I wrote a few reflections about it, as did many others. A few days later, Rhett and Link responded. When I posted my article on Facebook, one of my friends and fellow pastors commented with a great question that is relevant for all of us. I’ve reproduced some of that thread, with further thoughts below.

“What would you say to somebody who reads your article and asks, “So how do I know ‘right now’ if I have true faith or just the appearance of true faith? How can I be sure I’m a real Christian and not just somebody who appears to be a real Christian for a very long time, but doesn’t really have true faith?…”

Is it possible that there was ever a time in Rhett and Link‘s life that they read 1 John, and based on what they could discern of their life and their desires, they experienced assurance that they were Christians. And yet, now that they’ve walked away from the faith, we would say that they were never actually Christians. So my question is, given that phenomenon, how can any professing Christian be certain that they won’t one day fall away., And if they are not certain that they won’t one day fall away, how can they actually have assurance that they are in fact Christians?

– Pastor Andy Barlow, Fellowship Church, Louisville, KY

In my response to Andy, I said the scripture itself presents this tension. The scripture offers us assurance and also warns us against falling away. Assurance is not the same thing as a rock-solid guarantee that we never would nor could fall away. If it were, the warnings would be meaningless. We are told to walk by faith and not by sight, which means we go through life trusting in God even when we don’t have the answers. Yet the scriptures also teach that those who are truly in Christ will indeed persevere in the faith to the end (Phil 1:6). This is a paradox, and we live in the tension. We cling to Christ and his promises, trusting that we are his and that no one can take us away from him (John 10:27-30). And we are also sobered by Jesus’ warning that false converts and even false prophets will arise within the church, so we should be alert (Acts 20:28-30). If we cannot be satisfied within this tension, then we are looking for something beyond faith.

Saving Faith

Ephesians 2:8-9 says “by grace you have been saved through faith. And this is not your own doing; it is the gift of God, not a result of works, so that no one may boast.” Hebrews 11:1 says, “faith is the assurance of things hoped for, the conviction of things not seen.”

We are saved by grace through faith (Eph 2:8-9). The object of our faith is very real, but lies beyond what we can see with our eyes (Heb 11:1). In the Christian life, we walk by faith, not by sight (2 Cor 5:7).

It is like being blindfolded while being led by the hand through a crowded and dangerous area by someone we trust. They’d say, “watch out, there’s a step here.” Or, “duck down, there’s a low ceiling ahead.” The obstacles are there and are very real, but we have to rely on a trustworthy friend to tell us about the things we can’t see. That’s what walking by faith is like.

The spiritual world is very real, and we can’t see it, but God can (2 Cor 4:4). When we become Christians, God enables us to perceive the beauty of Christ by faith, but much remains hidden. So he takes us by the hand, and tells us where to step.

Saving faith produces a conviction in our hearts that Jesus is real, that he has saved us from our sins, that he will return in power and glory, and that our lives should be ordered accordingly.

But sometimes we stumble.

Faith and Doubt

Many true Christians experience seasons of doubt. Their faith is shaken. Thomas famously doubted the resurrection until he had seen it with his own eyes. He wasn’t content with faith; he needed sight before he’d believe. When Jesus appeared to him, he said, “Have you believed because you have seen me? Blessed are those who have not seen and yet have believed” (John 20:29). We are more blessed than Thomas.

Just before Jesus gave the Great Commission, Jesus gathered his disciples together on a mountain. Matt 28:16 says, “And when they saw him they worshiped him, but some doubted.” Written decades later, Jude 22 says “have mercy on those who doubt.” He’s referring to people who truly love Jesus yet are afflicted by nagging, unresolved questions that shake their confidence. Their faith is weak.

The smallest degree of true faith in a perfect savior is sufficient to save (Matt 17:20). But the soul of that truly saved person may not be at peace. He or she will be “tossed to and fro by the waves and carried about by every wind of doctrine” (Eph 4:14). Doubt disturbs the tranquility of the soul.

I’ve experienced this many times in my life, especially during my college years. I was ill equipped to face the ridicule of unbelieving professors who took pleasure in mocking Christianity. I once met with a well known student atheist on campus to share the gospel with him, and found myself unable to answer his objections to Christianity. I almost lost it. Almost.

Faith and Assurance

Jesus said, “Peace I leave with you; my peace I give to you. Not as the world gives do I give to you. Let not your hearts be troubled, neither let them be afraid” (John 20:27). Jesus promises to give us inner peace in this life, which anticipates the perfect peace of eternity with Him. Assurance is the state of the soul that is not doubting but is resting in Christ. God desires this sort of assurance for us (1 John 5:13). Assurance is a fruit that grows on the tree of vibrant and growing faith.

Faith describes how we are saved. Assurance describes how we feel. No one is saved by their feelings, however sincere those feelings may be. Only faith in Christ has saving power. Our fickle feelings are unreliable guides to eternal truth. They are not to be trusted with such important matters.

If you are blindfolded and you have confidence in your guide, you can walk confidently and without fear. But if you are not confident in your guide, you will move more slowly and cautiously. You doubt whether you are truly safe. You may wonder if you have the right guide in the first place.

It has been said that “It is not the strength of your faith but the object of your faith that actually saves you.” Someone with saving faith may experience doubt or assurance, depending on the strength of his faith. When his faith is strong, he enjoys God’s peace and assurance. When his faith is weak, he questions his salvation and experiences doubt. The true Christian may experience both at different times.

Counterfeit Faith and False Assurance

My friend Andy pressed the question further, asking if it were possible for a person to experience assurance of salvation at one time, only to later reject the faith and prove themselves to have never been converted? He asks, how can any professing Christian be certain that they won’t one day fall away? And if they are not certain that they won’t one day fall away, how can they ever have real assurance that they are in fact Christians?

We have to recognize that the scriptures speak to different people in different situations. True Christians need to grow in their confidence that Christ has saved them and will preserve them in the faith. Cultural Christians, who lack true faith, should not feel assured of a salvation he does not possess. False assurance emboldens people in unbelief, which is exactly what cultural Christianity does. It makes unsaved people feel saved, which is the worst sort of unbelief. People in this condition need to hear the warnings about falling away.

Many who have deconverted from Christianity will say that they experienced a form assurance at one time. How can this be? How can they be assured that they possess something they never truly possessed?

The distinction between faith and assurance is again helpful. We humans are masters of self-deception. Cultural Christianity excels at self-deception. Cultural Christians eagerly proclaim how much God is pleased with them. Their self-righteousness is the perfect mate for their self-deception.

First John says that we should expect this sort of thing. After all, these are the last days which are marked by the spirit of antichrist. This is where people profess Christ and yet deny him. “Who is the liar but he who denies that Jesus is the Christ? This is the antichrist, he who denies the Father and the Son” (1 John 2:22). As for those who deconverted from Christianity, John says, “they went out from us, but they were not of us; for if they had been of us, they would have continued with us. But they went out, that it might become plain that they all are not of us” (1 John 2:19).

Jesus tells the same story: “Not every who says to me, ‘Lord, Lord,’ will enter the kingdom of heaven, but the one who does the will of my Father in heaven. On that day many will say to me, ‘Lord, Lord, did we not prophesy in your name, and cast out demons in your name, and do many mighty works in your name?’ And then will I declare to them, ‘I never knew you; depart from me, you workers of lawlessness’ (Matt 7:21-23).” Jesus does not say, “I no longer know you,” but “I never knew you.

I do not question that Rhett and Link at one time thought themselves to be committed Christians. But their deconversion reveals that they were actually committed to something other than true Christianity. Their hope, commitment, and assurance was in some other gospel (Galatians 1:6-9). They may have had an experience of assurance, but it was a lie. They never truly knew Jesus. He said so himself.

Simply put: those who end up denying Jesus never knew him in the first place, no matter how much assurance they felt at the time. They were self-deceived. At least now they’re honest. “Former Christian” is the cultural Christian’s way of reconciling outer identity with their inner unbelief. They never knew Jesus. They hold him in contempt (Heb 6:4-6). Their unbelief is now consistent, inside and out.

Conclusion

These are the paradoxes we see in scripture: a person can be saved but not feel saved. And a person might feel saved but not be saved. If our faith is genuine, our feeling on the matter will be a great blessing and comfort. But if it isn’t true, our feelings will be our greatest source of self-deception. As cultural Christianity continues its decline, these “ex-vangelical” stories will also continue. So, what should we do in respond to this paradox of faith, doubt, and assurance?

First, don’t rely on feelings. The substance of our faith is Christ, not our feelings.

Second, examine yourself. This is a healthy practice, in moderate doses. It sobers the soul because it acknowledges our capacity for self-deception. Paul says, “Examine yourselves, to see whether you are in the faith. Test yourselves. Or do you not realize this about yourselves, that Jesus Christ is in you?—unless indeed you fail to meet the test!” (2 Corinthians 13:5).

Third, remember that we are all saved the same way: by grace through faith. In my church, the most common salvation testimonies we hear is from cultural Christians who came to our church, heard the gospel of Jesus Christ, and responded to him in faith. Many were raised in church but later realized they never truly believed. When they came face to face with the truth of the gospel, they searched their hearts, repented of their sins, and embraced Christ by faith. This is quite common.

Fourth, build your faith through regular intake of scripture. To understand assurance better, a great place to start is the book of 1st John. John weaves the paradoxical themes of assurance and warning throughout the letter. And he teaches that the evidence of saving faith is to know, love, and obey Jesus as Lord (1 John 5:2).

Finally, pray that you will richly enjoy God’s peace and assurance in your life. Christ is your life and your salvation, and he is committed to keep your feet from stumbling. Do not obsess over whether or not you’re saved, but focus your attention and your prayers on enjoying the salvation you have. A good place to start is to pray the doxology at the end of Jude, claiming God’s promises for your life:

“Now to him who is able to keep you from stumbling and to present you blameless before the presence of his glory with great joy, to the only God, our Savior, through Jesus Christ our Lord, be glory, majesty, dominion, and authority, before all time and now and forever. Amen.” Jude 24-25

The Deconversion of Rhett and Link

Last night, I found out from an article posted on Facebook that two of my former colleagues in ministry, Rhett McLaughlin and Link Neil, have abandoned the Christian faith.

I used to work closely with Rhett and Link when we were on staff with CRU together. We planned our annual winter conference together where Rhett and Link were the emcees and I led the worship music. They were hilarious. They were so creative and fun to work with. My CRU ministry in Louisville hosted them for a training on effective evangelism. It was a riot. I still remember the Lionel Richie jokes.

Once upon a time, I would have thought of Rhett and Link as friends. Over the years, it’s been exciting to see them become world famous internet celebrities. So many of us who know them celebrated their success, thinking, “what an incredible opportunity to spread the gospel!”

So the news of their apostasy hit close to home. It’s heartbreaking. I fear for their own souls, for their wives and their children, and for the souls of so many Christians who looked up to them.

I’d like to make two observations.

There’s No Such Thing as “Deconversion”

No one ever goes from belief to unbelief. Rather, they go from one type of unbelief to another type of unbelief. Cultural Christianity is a type of unbelief. It is unbelief that has dressed up in the clothing of Christianity. It looks like faith, but isn’t real faith. Second Timothy 3:5 says that this sort of unbelief has “the appearance of godliness, but denying its power.” Two verses later, it goes on to say that these people are “always learning and never able to arrive at a knowledge of the truth” (2 Tim 3:7). In other words, some forms of unbelief can appear godly for a while, and even acquire great knowledge and learning in Christian things, but never truly embracing Christ in the heart.

In fact, every apparent deconversion is actually a reconversion. As deconversion stories have become more and more common, a familiar pattern is evident. They begin with some nagging question about God or Christianity that they can’t resolve. Then they seek answers from respected Christian thought leaders, but are unsatisfied with the answers. Then something in their personal lives forces a decision: “should I stay or should I go?”

Someone might say, “yeah, but I know them! They were sincere believers! They were Christian leaders! They even devoted years of their lives to teaching other people to share their faith. I know they were true believers.” But Paul says otherwise – none of those things are sufficient evidence of genuine faith. Their outward “form” seems godly, but there is no true spiritual life or “power” within (2 Tim 3:5). They may even continue learning more and more about Christianity, but there is no true “knowledge of the truth” within them (2 Tim 3:7). Deep within them, they even “oppose the truth” (2 Tim 3:8). In other words, what we see on the outside does not always match what’s going on on the inside. As 1 Sam 16:7 says, “For the Lord sees not as man sees: man looks on the outward appearance, but the Lord looks on the heart.”

When we hear these stories of deconversion, they often sound like they’re simply quitting the team. “I used to be a Christian, but now I can no longer hold to these beliefs.” But that’s only half the story. No one simply walks away and becomes neutral. No one goes from playing on the team to sitting in the stands. He always joins the other team. A deconversion from Christianity always entails allegiance to a new master.

The LGBTQ Tipping Point

Sexuality is often the tipping point for cultural Christians. It’s the issue that brings about a personal crisis of faith. LGBTQ issues have become powerful “defeater” beliefs against Christianity. As the logic goes, a God who is not on board with the LGBTQ agenda is not a God worth serving. One article about Rhett and Link said, “they both felt a deep discomfort with biblical sexual ethics, which they perceived to oppress women and their LGBTQ+ friends.”

The LGBTQ agenda is the new master who takes no prisoners. The world is demanding total allegiance to the agenda, and there are penalties for non-compliance. Those who do not fully endorse this agenda are considered hate mongers and bigots. If they are prominent Christians, they are targeted for cancellation so an example can be made of them.

Of course, Jesus demands total allegiance to his agenda. Jesus said, “whoever is not with me is against me” (Matt 12:30). Jesus announced his agenda when he said, “the time is fulfilled, and the kingdom of God is at hand; repent and believe in the gospel” (Mark 1:15). He came to save people from their sins and give them new life through his death, burial, and resurrection. Christians are called to take up our crosses and follow him (Matt 16:24), which includes our sexuality (Matt 19:4-6).

A house divided cannot stand (Mark 3:25). The Bible’s teaching about sexuality is fundamentally irreconcilable with what the world is currently promoting. It has become the wedge issue that is forcing Christians everywhere to choose their allegiance. If following Jesus puts us at odds with the LGBTQ agenda, then following Jesus will make us unpopular, at the very least. 

That’s the issue with cultural Christians. If someone is a cultural Christian, their outward expression of Christianity requires cultural support and approval. But when culture no longer supports and approves of Christians, it should not be surprising that Christians choose to reconvert to a culturally approved belief system. The new culturally approved belief system is the LGBTQ agenda, and it will continue to expose more and more cultural Christians.

Conclusion

My encouragement for those of us who are discouraged by these deconversions is to take heart. We can only see what’s on the outside, but Jesus can see what’s on the inside. Deconversions are not a new thing. Paul said “times of difficulty” like this would happen “in the lat days” (2 Tim 3:1). He goes on to give two examples, Demas (2 Tim 4:10) and Alexander the Coppersmith (2 Tim 4:14). These deconversions don’t mean something is wrong with the Christian faith, but rather the truth of scripture is confirmed. 

Jesus himself experienced the worst reconversion of all, when one of his own followers, Judas Iscariot, betrayed him with a kiss. God was sovereignly able to us that deconversion to bring about salvation for everyone who would truly believe.

Two Kinds of Freedom

“For freedom Christ has set us free; stand firm therefore, and do not submit again to a yoke of slavery.”

Galatians 5:1

There are two kinds of freedom: positive freedom and negative freedom. Both are good and both were purchased by Christ at the cross.

Negative Freedom

Negative freedom is freedom from constraint, which is what we most often think of when we think of freedom. It’s the flag-waving, fireworks setting, parade watching, “let freedom ring” singing sort of freedom that we celebrate on Independence Day. The “Independence” part says we are not ruled by or dependent on another nation, but are in-dependent.

In the Christian understanding of freedom, that’s only halfway there. Paul says, “Christ has set us free” from the “yoke of slavery” of sin, but that’s only the negative part of freedom. Yes, we are free from sin. But Christian freedom always has two parts. There’s a freedom from and a freedom to.

Positive Freedom

Positive freedom is the freedom to act. Paul says “for freedom Christ has set us free,” meaning that our freedom has an action or a goal that it was meant for. Negative freedom alone is not true freedom because freedom is never a goal in and of itself. Freedom is always oriented towards something else. Freedom is the reality through which we pursue other goals.

For example, Independence Day is an annual opportunity to give thanks to God for the freedom we enjoy every other day of the year. But a true celebration of freedom includes not only freedom from the constraints that could bind us, but freedom towards the good things we want to do.

Galatians 5:1 refers to both kinds of freedom when it says, “for freedom Christ has set us free.” The “for freedom” part is left open ended, because positive freedom is where we truly express the gift we’ve been given. But the verse also warns us against falling into a new form of slavery while calling it freedom. We can trade one kind of slavery for another. When freedom becomes an end in itself, it becomes a new form of tyranny. Negative freedom without positive freedom is no freedom at all.

Modern freedom is often conceived of as freedom from the past, from tradition, from morality, from someone else telling us how to live our lives. They walk right out of that prison into a new one. The new prison is still slavery with new traditions and moralities guarding the cells. We can even be enslaved by our own passions and desires (Gal 5:24).

There’s a good reason why many African Americans are not as excited to celebrate Independence Day. This holiday marks freedom from English slavery but not American slavery. Paul goes on to say, “you were called to freedom, brothers. Only do not use your freedom as an opportunity for the flesh, but through love serve one another.”

Christian Freedom

Christ has purchased both negative and positive freedom. We are set free from the penalty and power of sin, and set free to obey God from the heart in the power of the Spirit. True freedom in Christ is freedom and power to obey – to will and to act towards that which is good. In Christ, we have new ability to desire and to act upon what is truly good.

The exercise of this freedom takes time and intentional effort, however. It is refined and strengthened through Spirit-led discipline, much like a musician mastering an instrument. A child who is first learning the piano is free in one sense, but is not yet free in another sense. He did not give himself the ability to play; that ability is given by God. But he must develop the gift. He is free to take lessons and free to practice, but may choose to not do so. So he is free from the constraints preventing him from learning Mozart, but he is not free to actually play Mozart until he dedicates himself to learning and practice.

Christian freedom is like that. Christ has set us free from sin so that we will no longer be ruled by it. But that’s only half-way freedom. We are also free in the Spirit to devote ourselves to will and to act towards what is truly good. We are free to live in a God honoring way that is good and right in the world. Our freedom is not merely freedom from the penalty of sin in our past, but freedom to do what is good in the present and future.

Many Christians squander this opportunity. We limit freedom to the forgiveness for the past and miss the opportunities of the present. Like the child who is free to take lessons and learn Mozart, we often choose not to. But let’s at least be honest about it. We are missing out on the true benefits of freedom. Let’s not content ourselves with playing chopsticks and calling it Mozart.

Sabbatical Update

This summer, after 17 years of vocational ministry, I took my first sabbatical. It was a much needed and appreciated time of rest, prayer, reading, and fun with my family. We have been incredibly blessed to take this time away, and I am thankful to my church and my elders for granting me this sabbatical and handling the ministry of the church while I’ve been away. Since I am coming back to work next week, I’ve prepared a simple report on how I’ve approached this time.

The purpose of this sabbatical was to get extended rest. Pastoral ministry isn’t just a career – it’s a calling. It’s the sort of calling that blurs the lines between “work life” and “personal life.” The biblical qualifications for pastors are mostly personal and related to character (1 Timothy 3, Titus 1, 1 Peter 5). In one sense, a distinction should be made between the work that elders do and the elders themselves who do the work. But this distinction is elusive. Elders are still elders even when they’re not at work. There’s the tangible work they do, such as preparing sermons, praying for the congregation, pastoral care, studying and teaching, and so forth. And there’s the intangible work, which the apostle Paul describes as “the daily pressure on me of my anxiety for all the churches” (2 Cor 11:28).

That’s the sort of pressure that can’t easily be quantified. You don’t clock in and clock out from those pressures. The pressure is spiritual and eternal. You don’t go home after counseling a troubled marriage and stop caring about the couple. It weighs on your soul while your having dinner with your family. It sits in the back of your mind and invades your thoughts. It’s always there.

For this reason, extended seasons of rest can be greatly rejuvenating for a pastor, because it provides a pressure relief valve for these daily anxieties. It is a time to trust God’s sovereignty and recognize that, at best, we are but weak men. Jesus will build his church. We are not the savior.

For this sabbatical, I had four broad goals: (1) to deeply enjoy Christ for who he is apart from ministry work, (2) to enjoy my wife and children and have lots of fun memories together, (3) to disrupt my daily rhythms and normal habits, and (4) to focus of deep rest – mind, body, and soul – and return energized for the next season of ministry.

The way I went about this was to unplug and leave town. I took trips alone (prayer retreat to a cabin), with my wife (to San Fransisco, Yosemite and Sequoia), and with my family. My kids wanted to do an RV Road Trip, so we rented an RV and spent two weeks out west exploring US National Parks (Zion, Bryce Canyon, Arches, and Grand Canyon). We visited some of the most beautifully breathtaking places I’d ever seen. Each place was so different, but they all stirred up the humbling pleasure of human smallness and the wonder of God’s creation.

I also had a stack of books to work through, including “The Religious Affections” (my third time through it) by Jonathan Edwards, “Charity and its Fruits” by Jonathan Edwards, “How (Not) to be Secular” by James K. A. Smith, “The Shallows: What the Internet is Doing to our Brains” Nicholas Carr, “Boundaries” by Henry Cloud, “The Grace of Shame” by Tim Bayly, Joseph Bayly, and Jurgen von Hagen, “Gilead” by Marilynne Robinson, and “A Man Called Ove,” by Fredrik Backman.

I focused much of my prayer time on spiritual health, emotional health, deeper friendships, and God’s leading for the next season of ministry.

Now, as I prepare to come back to work, I am rested spiritually, mentally, and physically. I have prayed much, read much, and traveled much with my family. We have made great memories together that we will always cherish.

Even though I have rested from the daily pressures of ministry, the work of the ministry has never been far from my mind. My prayer (and the prayer of my elders) has been that this would not be a vacation for it’s own sake, but a time of rest and renewal in Christ that will help sustain me for continued ministry.

It is, after all, a calling, not just a career.

Our Collective Consciences are Seared

Over the last few weeks, I have forced myself to watch every single one of the Center for Medical Progress videos exposing Planned Parenthood’s sale of fetal body parts to StemExpress. I was shocked by the cavalier conversations about “tissue” and “procurement.” The most recent video was the most horrifying of all: a fully intact male child, still clinging to his last moments of life on a metal dish, awaiting his final resting place in a bio-hazard bag.

At this point, I’m sure many people will simply close this browser window and numb the pain of that mental image with a funny article at the theonion.com. But that says something about us. As much outrage that has registered over the past few weeks about this video, some might say that we should chill out for a moment. Dana Milbank of the Washington Post calls this “antiabortion extremism.” Some might be really bothered by all the outrage over Planned Parenthood and hope that the videos and the moral noise would turn down to a reasonable level.

What bothers me, however, is the lack of outrage.

Our society’s collective conscience has been seared, and these videos are, if we’re willing to watch them, forcing us to acknowledge that we are now living in Nazi Germany, 2015. Of course, that seems over the top. It’s easy to condemn the Nazis. The view from our moral perch in 2015 makes those crimes against humanity easy to see. You can tour Auschwitz and see for yourself.

How is it that we can universally condemn the death camps of 1944, but not the death camps of 2015? How is it that a single politician can openly support and defend the practice of abortion and still get elected? How is it that an entire political party can make pro-abortion part of its platform?

It’s because our collective consciences have been seared. A seared conscience lacks moral clarity. A seared conscience has been worn down through continued exposure to evil to no longer see it for what it is. Things that are undeniably right or wrong get buried with obscurantist language like “tissue” and “specimen.” Voters morally relativize when they support pro-choice candidates because “he’s good on economic policy” or “he cares about the poor.” Many Christians are eager to voice their concern for the poor and oppressed in 3rd world countries, but not eager to voice their concern for poor and oppressed unborn children. Many pastors love to talk social justice, but only about trendy causes.

There is no greater or more pressing social justice issue in our country today than justice for the unborn. God’s heart in the Bible is continually concerned for four groups of people: the poor, the stranger, the widow, and the orphan. Is anyone poorer or more vulnerable than the unborn? Is anyone more of an orphan than the child of an unwanted pregnancy?

You simply cannot support abortion and claim to be about social justice. This is the greatest social justice issue of our time.

In so many ways, we have reached a cultural moment. The Center for Medical Progress has given us a personal tour of Auschwitz. But, unlike Auschwitz, this tour is not a “never forget” matter of history. It’s still happening, right under our noses. I live only six blocks from Cincinnati’s Planned Parenthood clinic. It’s happening in my own neighborhood.

Many have not watched the videos yet. They’re painful and abhorrent. But we must know what’s going on. We don’t have to pay a fee or listen to a tour guide. Simply enter and pray for God to inform your conscience.

I plan on participating in protest Planned Parenthood tomorrow. Details can be found here.

To watch the videos and more information, go here.

Injustice Never Gets the Last Word

Cincinnati’s Racial Wound

On July 19th, an old Cincinnati wound that has been slowing healing for the past 14 years was reopened when white University of Cincinnati campus police officer Ray Tensing shot and killed African American Samuel Dubose. Mr. Dubose was pulled over for not having OH state tags on the front of his car. Major news outlets from around the world have been covering this story (Cincinnati.comMSNBC, BBC, Foxnews). Before the grand jury’s indictment was announced, the mood around town was tense. University classes were cancelled. Police were on high alert.

Personally, this all hit home because the shooting occurred in my home neighborhood, Mt. Auburn. The church I planted 5 years ago is home to dozens of UC students who walk to church each week. On July 19th, while I was preaching a sermon about how Christians can faithfully navigate America’s cultural decline, Samuel Dubose was being shot in the head and killed less than a mile away.

The Best and the Worst

Earlier this month, I was proud to call Cincinnati my home when we hosted MLB’s All Star game and local legend Todd Frazier won the home run derby. It was electric. Downtown Cincinnati is vibrant and alive, with a gorgeous riverfront park that invites people from all over the region to sit on our city’s front porch. Just north of downtown, Over the Rhine is a neighborhood undergoing its own unbelievable renaissance, with millions of dollars of redevelopment being invested. This isn’t just hometown pride, others have taken notice, such as National Geographic. Even local Cincinnatians who have inherited her inferiority complex have asked forgiveness and fallen in love (language alert) all over again with our city.

Yet our problems persist. Much of Cincinnati’s current success is due to a dark past of racism and injustice, even if so many of us are unaware of it. For better or worse, this is the city I love and have committed my life to. This is the neighborhood where my kids play. This is where my church is. But we’re sick of the caution tape. We’re sick of the teddy bear memorials on street corners.

We see the best and worst of city life.

The Samuel Dubose shooting shows us that we’ve still got a long way to go. When a white person is pulled over by the police for a minor traffic violation, we think, “Oh crap. I might get a ticket.” But many African Americans don’t have the same experience. Some will tell you getting pulled over by police can be a terrifying experience. And now there’s video evidence (**graphic**) that proves the point. Samuel Dubose should be alive today. Prosecutor Joe Deters called this the most asinine police incident he’s ever witnessed. His outrage gave voice to countless African Americans who feel unfairly targeted and mistreated by police who haven’t had video evidence.

Righteousness and Justice

The bible frequently pairs the words “righteousness” and “justice” (see Psalm 72 for example). Righteousness is the standard of what is truly good, rooted in God’s holy character and love. Justice is the community’s response to unrighteousness and injustice.

As the church, Christians should pray for and promote God’s righteousness in our city, but also fight against injustice when we see it. In so doing, we are pointing people to the good and righteous King who ultimately provides both.

Fighting for righteousness and justice shows us that God himself is the Ultimate Good. Proclaiming God’s righteousness exposes the sin in our world, our cities, and in our own hearts. Fighting for justice shows us that God is bringing all injustice to an ultimate end.

The Hope of God’s Kingdom

That’s the hope of God’s Kingdom. Jesus is the righteous ruler who will bring God’s righteousness and justice to us. And Jesus’ kingdom was bought and paid for through the ultimate injustice, the cross.

Jesus himself was an innocent man who was unfairly targeted by the authorities. Jesus was convicted of a crime he did not commit. Jesus was tortured and killed by people who hated him. There is no greater injustice than what happened at the cross. Yet in Jesus’ resurrection, we see that injustice never gets the last word. Life does. And having conquered the ultimate enemy, death, Jesus promised that all injustice will be made right and God’s righteousness will be absolute.

That is the Christian hope.

Until Christ returns, Christians bear witness to God’s Kingdom in every part of the world. We proclaim a righteous God, who took upon himself all the world’s injustices, and will make all things new in the end.

Injustice never gets last word.

 

How to do a family devotion

The lost art of the family devotion

One of the most important responsibilities for the Christian family is to pass on the faith to the children. But the thought of leading a family devotion sounds about as fun as a root canal. Schedules are busy, kids get antsy and hard to keep still, and  activities pull the family in a hundred different directions. Is it even possible?

I believe it is, and its not as hard as you might think. I have four kids. One girl (10 years old), and three boys (ages 8, 6, and 4). Life is chaotic and busy, and yet we’ve been able to find a weekly rhythm where we do a family devotion. It doesn’t need to take a lot of time, the parents don’t need to be theology experts, and the kids will enjoy it more than you may expect.

Three ingredients in a family devotion

I was first challenged to do family devotions while in seminary by my spiritual disciplines professor, Dr. Don Whitney. He suggested that every family devotion should have three main ingredients: singing, reading, and prayer. Simple.

Wednesday night is family devotion night at the Clary house. The kids even look forward to it and make sure to remind me of it.

For the singing part, I ask each kid to choose a worship song and then find it on YouTube with the lyrics (like this and this). My oldest son and I grab guitars and play along, but everyone sings along. We turn the volume up loud and have fun with it.

Next, for the reading part, we choose one Bible verse or story and then talk about what it means. Sometimes I’ll ask one of the kids to read, sometimes my wife or I will read it if its longer or harder to read. This time is challenging and humbling because kids are always thinking and they have excellent questions. Even as a pastor, I often find myself without answers, and I’ll just tell them, “that’s a great question; I don’t know the answer.” That’s OK. We don’t have to have all the answers, we just need to provide a space where the kids can ask.

Finally, we pray. Usually by this time, my four year old is losing his mind and can’t sit still any longer. The others are getting antsy, too, and that’s fine. We ask each child for something they want to ask God for and then we pray. Sometimes we give each child time to pray, and sometimes my wife or myself prays for everyone.

Don’t expect it to be magical

What I’ve described above can take just a few minutes or could go much longer, depending on how many kids and what comes up.   Honestly, sometimes I look forward to this and we have a great time together. But more often, it tests my patience as kids fight over songs and say unkind things to each other. And on occasion, by the time we’re finished I’m more frustrated than when we began. Trying to herd cats for 15 minutes can try anyone’s patience. It’s not magical, its often an exercise in discipline to just get through it. But as the kids grow older, the prayers, the songs we sing, and the scriptures we read give the Holy Spirit kindling to burn. It helps them to hear mom and dad confessing sin and thanking Jesus for his grace again for another week.

It can be amazing or exhausting. Either way, we’ve invited God to our home and worshiped him together as a family. And in these few minutes we recognize that Jesus is King of Kings and Lord of the Living Room.

Bible Reading Plans for 2015

I presented a simple Life Planning Tool in a previous post. As the calendar turns over to another year, this is a great opportunity to evaluate your life’s priorities and make some changes. Many decide to read through the Bible starting in January, and there are plenty of tools to help you do this.

For many people, the thought of reading through the Bible is daunting and seems like it would take forever. But it can be much more easily done by breaking it up into readable chunks and reading for a few minutes per day. According to the graphic, it only takes about 70 hours and 40 minutes to read the Bible at “pulpit rate.” With a good plan, this can be done in a year.

Here are my two favorite tools that I have used to help me keep track.

1. Discipleship Journal printable plans. If you’re old school and like to use paper and bookmarks, this is the way to go. Several plans are available here to print out. You can fold the paper up and use it as a bookmark and check the box for each chapter that you read.

2. Youversion Bible App. With this app you can choose from several Bible reading plans and the app keeps track of your progress. It also has the option to listen to audio recordings of deep-voiced dudes reading the Bible to you. Sadly, there’s no Morgan Freeman option.

For me, I’ve decided that I’m going Amish with my Bible reading this year. I have found that using an app simply introduces too many distractions. When I sit down in the morning to read the Bible, holding an iPad in my hand tempts me to check sports scores, read blogs and news, and play a few words in Words With Friends before I ever open the Bible app. My focus this year will be reading from my ESV Study Bible and using a paper study plan that I’ll check off everyday. This will hopefully help me keep focused and on track in 2015.

Life Planning Tool for 2015

A couple of years ago, my friend Brian Howard shared with me a life planning tool to help me prioritize and set goals for my personal life. Businesses and churches have many resources to help people be more productive and focused on the job, but most of us live our personal lives on autopilot. It is no less important for us to know what to prioritize in our personal lives and have a plan of action than our professional lives.

Over the last couple of years, this life planning tool has been very helpful for me to intentionally think through what are some of the most important things in my life and develop a plan of action for them. When I first used this tool a few years ago, I discovered an unexpected priority that I spent a year working on: patience. I prayed about this almost daily and saw God do some great things in my life regarding patience as a result. In 2014, I spent the latter half of the year focused on my personal health and wellness, lost 35 pounds, and am now in the best physical shape of my life. I have not yet completed a life plan for 2015, but as this year draws to a close, I will be thinking more about my life and what lies ahead.

I’ve taken Brian Howard’s life planning tool and reworked it to better fit the way I think. My version of the Life Planning Tool is available here if you’d like to give it a try and implement for 2015.

Some personal goals you may consider:

  • Read through the Bible
  • Pray the prayer covenant every day.
  • Date your wife one night every week
  • Plan a personal budget, get out of debt, and give more generously
  • Spend more time with your friends or family
  • Read more extensively
  • Lose weight and exercise
  • Make a career change

If your personal life is in need of attention, the Life Planning Tool can help you think through your life, hear from the Holy Spirit, and make a plan for action.