By / Dec 29

Can one day really make that big of a difference? The calendar turns 365 times every year, but there’s something special when the last day of the year gives way to January 1. The New Year promises a fresh start. So we review, we dream, we plan, and finally, we resolve.

We do these things with the hope that the New Year will be better than the last one, but ultimately we don’t live for just one better year. Our purpose in life is not limited by time. God created time and placed us inside of it for now—but not forever. When time is no more, we will remain. So we live this moment, this day and this year with eternity in mind.

Annual goals are important, not because they are ultimate, but because they focus our lives on what is paramount. So with a timeless future in view, here are four suggestions for the New Year.

1. Make returning to Jesus a way of life.

When Jesus said, “Follow me,” he wasn’t asking his disciples for a one-time decision to put him on the top of their to-do list. Instead, he was inviting them to an ongoing relationship based on authenticity, intimacy and sacrifice. He was worth their lives, so he didn’t hesitate to ask for their full devotion.

For us, this devotion is expressed in a love relationship with Jesus where we communicate with him in daily Bible reading and prayer, where we respond to him through personal submission to his will, where we live in community with other believers and where we invite others to follow him through our witness and service. This relationship, however, does not come without a fight.

The world, the flesh and the devil war against us and attempt to siphon our affections away from God. The apostle Paul confessed this temptation in Romans 7. Daily victory required a daily returning to Jesus to set his mind on the things of God rather than the things of the flesh. So practically, repentance is not just for the wayward prodigal living in gross rebellion; it’s for the most devout followers of Jesus who battle with the prodigal still loitering inside of our hearts, tempting us to run away with him.

2. Make plans that build people.

When Nehemiah returned to Jerusalem, he made a plan to rebuild the wall around the city, then he got to work. Just 52 days later, he finished the wall. It was a remarkable accomplishment. However, Nehemiah’s ultimate goal was not to rebuild a wall, but to rebuild a people. With the wall complete and the city secure, the exiles could return.

God’s redeeming work is still to restore a people to himself for his glory. Any plans we make for any other reason become idols of our heart. Our health, relationships, finances, hobbies and our career are God’s provision for us to display the gospel as we invest in other people. God has not called us to make something of our lives. He has called us to die to ourselves and to live to make much of Jesus and the new life he gives to everyone who will trust in him.

3. Make room for unknown opportunities.

It’s wise to set goals and make plans, but it’s wiser still to place every plan under the subjection of God. The Bible says, “A man’s heart plans his way, but the Lord determines his steps” (Prov. 16:9). The unmet goals from last year may be the result of a slothful lack of discipline and focus, but some of our so-called failures may be the result of us listening to God and obeying him for something much better than our best made plans.

We pray and plan for the New Year, but we recognize that only God is sovereign. As we seek him first, we make ourselves available to him and adjust our lives along the way. This isn’t a rationale for poor planning, undisciplined living or excuse making. Instead, it’s a humble awareness that our inflexible allegiance to our plan could lead us away from God rather than toward him.

4. Make obedience an action.

Plans are for paper, but listening to and obeying God moves us to act. After the whiteboard dream sessions for New Year planning are over, January 1 asks this question, “Now what are you going to do?” We soon discover that it’s easier to make plans than to act on them. The snooze button wins our attention or the Facebook status distracts us for just long enough to detour us from even the simplest of tasks.

Knowing God’s will, agreeing with God’s will and even celebrating God’s will are not the same things as doing God’s will. We must learn to think deeply on the things of God and to prayerfully seek Jesus first, but the Kingdom advances through those who take the time and make the effort to act.

“Whatever you do, work heartily, as for the Lord and not for men” (Col. 3:23). Whether the work is majestic or mundane, celebrated or ridiculed, noticed or obscure, we do it with all of our heart. We manage our calendar, eliminate distractions, build relationships that encourage us to fulfill our calling, and then we keep our heart tender toward Jesus. Only he can produce lasting fruit through us. (John 15:5)

Can one day on the calendar really make a difference? When we join the Ancient of Days in his eternal work to redeem sinners and restore the world for the glory of God, every day makes a difference.

By / Dec 23

Watching is a big part of the Christmas season. We watch plays, movies and musicals. We watch parades. We look at light shows. We are awed by the beauty and décor of Christmas. But the good news of Christmas is that God has posted a casting call inviting us to join his story of redeeming love. One man who quickly accepted this invitation was Joseph.

Joseph was a blue-collar man who made a living as a carpenter in the small village of Nazareth. He fell in love with a young girl named, Mary. They were making plans to be married, but it was discovered that she was pregnant. We can only imagine the sense of loss and disappointment he felt, but he loved her and did not want to disgrace her. So he decided to call off the engagement privately. That is when an angel of the Lord appeared to him to inform him that Mary had conceived by the Holy Spirit and would give birth to a Son who “will save his people from their sins” (Matt. 1:21).

Bad news suddenly turned to good news as God invited Joseph to enter his story. Joseph never hesitated and “did as the Lord’s angel commanded him” (Matt. 1:24).  On the night Jesus was born, the best spot Joseph could find for Mary to give birth to the Son of God was a borrowed stable in Bethlehem. Shepherds visited, and everyone was amazed. A few months later, wise men from the east arrived to worship Jesus.

Despite challenges and awkward moments, Joseph was riding the waves of the miraculous. It was an immaculate conception here and an angel sighting over there. It was one extraordinary event after another. It was everything we would want Christmas to be. And then after the wise men left, the story took an unexpected turn.

“After they were gone, an angel of the Lord suddenly appeared to Joseph in a dream, saying, ‘Get up! Take the child and his mother, flee to Egypt, and stay there until I tell you. For Herod is about to search for the child to destroy him.’ So he got up, took the child and his mother during the night, and escaped to Egypt. He stayed there until Herod’s death, so that what was spoken by the Lord through the prophet might be fulfilled: Out of Egypt I called My Son” (Matt. 2:13-15).

Joseph had not planned on raising the newborn King as a refugee, but that is what was happening. Now joining the Christmas story was not just exciting, but it was deadly. For Jesus to live, Joseph’s plans had to die, but Joseph never hesitated because he knew who Jesus was.

A right Christology produces a faithful missiology. In other words, a right view of Jesus, knowing who he is and why he has come, leads us to forfeit even our best intentions to do whatever it takes to make Jesus known in the world. Christmas is not a sentimental story to watch, but a salvation story to join. Joseph shows us how.

We join the Christmas story when we listen to God.

Sometimes we think of Joseph as an awkward bystander to the Christmas narrative. He was not the biological father of the baby. He was not royalty. He was not a theologian. He did not even make hotel reservations in Bethlehem. We may be tempted to think of him as the Ray Romano of Christmas, yet Joseph was anything but disengaged or incompetent.

Matthew records Joseph’s genealogy to prove his credentials. The angel appeared to Joseph and invited him to go behind the scenes to see what God was doing to redeem the world, and Joseph readily embraced it all. He was a man who walked with, listened to and obeyed God.

There was no rationalizing, no procrastinating and no excuse making. There was no seeking advice and no praying about it. When Joseph heard from God, he responded without reservation. He must have had many questions, but none of them were more important than listening to and obeying God.

We join the Christmas story when we take what God gives.

Joseph and Mary packed up Jesus and their belongings for a 175-mile hike to Egypt. Historians tell us that, more than likely, the first part of their trip was through rugged terrain. They had the gifts of the wise men to fund their journey and their stay in Egypt. And even in Egypt, they were likely in a community of Jewish refugees who had resettled there to escape the oppressive rule of the Roman Empire.

All of this reminds us that, just because God sends an angel to call us, does not mean he will send an angel to deliver us. The uncommon work of God is often accomplished through common means. When Herod threatened Jesus, God could have miraculously rescued this family. Instead, he warned Joseph, and Joseph strapped on his sandals, packed up their things and walked through the dark desert to relocate his family to a foreign country.

Making Jesus known often means being comfortable with inconvenience, laboring in ordinary work and staying faithful in obscure, uncelebrated and unremarkable obedience.

We join the Christmas story when we persevere into the unknown.

How long would they stay in Egypt? The angel didn’t say. And Joseph never asked.

As it turned out, they likely stayed in Egypt only a few months, but they didn’t know that when they started the journey. They were willing to miss birthdays, funerals and weddings. They were willing to take their only son away from parents, grandparents, aunts, uncles and friends. They were willing to grow old in a foreign land if that’s what it meant to make Jesus known.

God’s activity to redeem the world is always an open-ended assignment. Hosea prophesied, “Out of Egypt I have called my Son.” Joseph likely knew the Law and Prophets, but how all the pieces fit together was a mystery to him. But it was no mystery that God’s eternal purpose was more important than his own plan.

Joseph refused to simply watch the Christmas story from a distance. He gladly abandoned his plans to join God’s redeeming work to make Jesus known. Whatever story, whatever plan, whatever platform, whatever future we think we are building for ourselves, Jesus can build a better one because he is simply a better Savior of the world than we are.

By / Jan 11

In previous years, people would ring in the New Year with noisemakers, large crowds, and dropping balls. My husband Steve and I have often taken a quieter approach, spending the days around the start of the new year planning for the months ahead. But after weeks of opening Christmas cards that all sound the same theme––nobody’s plans panned out in 2020––we’re left wondering how we should go about planning for 2021? Should we even bother? 

The book of James offers perspective:

Come now, you who say, “Today or tomorrow we will go into such and such a town and spend a year there and trade and make a profit”—yet you do not know what tomorrow will bring. What is your life? For you are a mist that appears for a little time and then vanishes. Instead you ought to say, “If the Lord wills, we will live and do this or that” (James 4:13-15). 

James tells us that it’s not planning that’s the problem, but presuming––taking for granted that our will is God’s will, rather than the other way around. James isn’t condemning planning for travel or profitable business activity, but rather, assuming that your travel and business will unfold according to your plans, with no regard for how the Lord might move you this way or that. 2020 humbled us. We are not in control. We are small, and circumstances swirl around us, with no regard for how they mess with our plans. 

But this is no reason to neglect planning for the year ahead. Scripture is full of encouragement to consider our ways (Haggai 1:5,7), count the cost (Luke 14:28), seek counsel (Prov. 15:22), understand the times in which we live (1 Chron. 12:32), and recognize how short our lives are in order to grow wise (Psa. 90:12). 

Keep planning, stop presuming

God tells us to submit our plans to him, asking him to guide us in our decisions, to bless us in our endeavors, and to strengthen us to trust him should he cause things to unfold differently that we want them to. In the process, we reap several benefits—unity, intentionality, and living in reality. Let’s unpack these one by one:

Family unity. It takes effort to agree on a shared plan. But the alternative is pulling in different directions all year long. Over the years, we’ve moved from a battle of the wills to sharing a common mission. Whether you can take a couple of days away, or just a few hours in a coffee shop, it’s worth making time to talk through and then integrate your commitments, expectations, and hopes for the year ahead. Working to agree on your priorities for the next 12 months has the potential to produce much clarity, unity, and fruitfulness in your family. 

Intentionality. It can feel overwhelming to realize how much will be required of you in the year ahead––and that’s just the stuff you know about in advance. But agreeing on which items to include at the start makes it less likely that you’ll be sidetracked when distractions arise. Getting your shared priorities down on paper also makes it more likely that you’ll do what you’ve decided is essential and even what’s desirable. Without planning, it’s easier to end up frittering your days away on time wasters, never getting to what was most needed and most enjoyed. Planning helps you avoid the pitfall C. S. Lewis described in Letters to Children:

Remember that there are only three kinds of things anyone need ever do. (1) Things we ought to do. (2) Things we’ve got to do. (3) Things we like doing. I say this because some people seem to spend so much of their time doing things for none of these three reasons…

Reality check. We tend to think we can do more than we possibly can in less time than it actually takes. Looking at just one commitment in isolation, it’s easy to think you can get it done. Writing them all down provides a helpful reality check. When you start compiling a list of all the commitments of everyone in the family––work, school, church, social, travel, etc.––you feel your limitations. You can’t do everything, but rather than defensively responding to whatever happens to be right in front of you, it’s much better to do what you decide is most important. That requires setting priorities.

To do that, we look at our calendars to see what’s coming in the months ahead, talk about what should be most important in the next four quarters, and list the milestones we, and our children, will reach. We’ve found it helpful to ask a few questions to help us identify, and remember, what will be important in the coming months. Questions like:

  • What are our major commitments? 
  • What will we celebrate?
  • Where will we travel?
  • What ministries will we support?
  • What are our health needs and goals?
  • What are our learning and reading goals?
  • What home maintenance or improvement projects should we take on?
  • What are our financial opportunities or limitations?
  • What will our daily and weekly routines look like?
  • Where do we need to grow spiritually?
  • What would shape the year ahead most dramatically?

Do you have a baby on the cusp of potty training? That will require a different focus than  a toddler who will be starting kindergarten, an adolescent who’s a recent convert and is considering baptism, or a son or daughter who’s ready to head to college. How about noteworthy birthdays, anniversaries, graduations, or family reunions? Different seasons will require different plans. And the achievement of all these milestones benefit greatly from planning ahead.

After we have a broad outline of what will fill our time, we invite our kids to join the conversation. When they were little, we asked them what they like doing most, as a family, when we have vacations or free Saturdays. Together we would make a list that included things like picnics, neighborhood bike rides, roasting marshmallows outside, bowling, and trips to the library. We also talked about fun activities and tourist attractions nearby we would enjoy visiting in the year ahead. We would tape that list to the fridge and refer to it when we saw free time on our calendar. It gave us shared things to look forward to and cut down on disagreements about how to spend those blocks of time.

Now that our kids are older, they bring their commitments, important dates, aspirations, and expectations, too. Including their input isn’t always seamless. But even imperfect planning is better than none. And it gets easier to plan the more you do it.

The power of routine

Writing a plan is the starting place. But to really get things done, you have to put them into your routine. Is exercise important to you? You likely have a regular time of day and days of the week when you work out. How about family discipleship? If it’s not part of your daily rhythm, it’s not likely to happen regularly. The same thing goes for church involvement, hosting friends, reading the Bible, family meals, budget review, reaching out to neighbors, the list is endless. Whatever is most important to you is what you make time for. And what you make time for is what you will get done. 

The best thing about working to fit priorities into your routine is that inertia begins to work for you instead of against you. Any time you take on a new commitment, your current routine works against you, and it’s tempting to fall back into old patterns, but if you press through to start a new routine, you can begin to see inertia working for you. I remember seeing that happen when we started trying to add family devotions with Bible reading after dinner. The first few nights were a struggle as it disrupted patterns we already had. Our 4-year old, especially, was thrown off and often seemed distracted. But at the beginning of the second week, he surprised us when he went and got the Bible and set it beside Steve’s plate—to have ready for our new routine.

Knowing the power of routine makes a review of our regular patterns a key part of our planning each January. What will our daily, weekly, and monthly routines look like? What will yours?

Plan with prayer

Most importantly, begin your planning with prayer. The evil one is keen to disrupt this sort of intentional work through all manner of distractions: spilled drinks; bickering or distracted children; incoming text messages or Post-Christmas Sale! e-mails; as well as bigger challenges of disagreements between spouses over what the plan and priorities should even be. We have learned, and must relearn––every year it seems––that it’s always wise to ask the Lord for protection, help, and wisdom at the outset. 

No matter how our plans unfold in 2021, God’s good, all-wise plans will stand:

I am God, and there is no other;
I am God, and there is none like me,
declaring the end from the beginning
and from ancient times things not yet done,
saying, “My counsel shall stand,
and I will accomplish all my purpose,” (Isa. 46:9-10)

For unity in your family, for realizing your limitations, and for doing what you must and most want to do, it’s worth making the effort to plan humbly and diligently, even in a year that’s difficult to plan. We should work heartily, knowing that we will do this or that, if the Lord wills.

By / Jul 22

Since the advent of social media, much has been written about the unique kinds of pressure these various platforms have brought to our lives. The thing that probably concerns me the most are the significant ways social media has affected each of us by ratcheting up the pressure to perform. We attempt to paint pictures of our lives that make us seem happy and fulfilled, interesting and enviable. Sometimes we seek to impress others with our possessions or try to wow them with our experiences. Some people seek to overwhelm their followers with their wit or intellect, while others aim to impress with their humor. As almost everyone engaged on social media knows, each time you log in there is enormous pressure to perform.

And if that wasn’t bad enough, the pandemic has only served to heighten the problem. That’s because in this time of plague, most of us are “living” our lives online. Because many of our normal opportunities for in-person social interaction aren’t available to us—at least not in a form we find desirable—we’ve moved our conversations to Facebook and Twitter. And we’ve spent countless hours creating or consuming content for Instagram, YouTube, or TikTok. While we are living our lives in lockdown, we’ve continued to make the internet our home. And as we find ourselves investing even more of our time and attention in the digital world, I think it’s worth considering what effect this might have on our souls.

Born to perform

To some degree, there has always been a performance culture. Human beings, after all, are frail and insecure creatures. From the earliest age we learn to evaluate the ways that others perceive us. These social pressures shape our behaviors and personalities in ways large and small. We learn to repeat or give up certain behaviors simply because of the positive or negative reactions they receive. A lot of this is natural. Everyone wants to be liked and accepted, because, deep down, every person wants to be loved. And so we perform. We tailor our words and actions, even our attire and mannerisms, to win the approval of our families, peers, and those we admire.

To be sure, there are helpful forms of this behavior. Being a part of a family inherently entails learning to imitate or avoid certain things, whether it is language or religion or relational habits or any number of other things. And this behavior also makes sense, to a degree, when talking about one’s friends. Though we’ve heard ample warnings about peer pressure, every relationship or group has a set of boundaries or rules (though these are more often implicit than explicit) and certain rhythms and patterns of interaction that define them and give them meaning. These things are not only unavoidable, but oftentimes recognizing and adapting to them help us to enjoy the fullness of the relationships that God designed us to desire.

But social media raises the stakes so much higher. When we post online, we’re not just talking to those who know us intimately and love us unconditionally or even to a specific group of people. Instead, to post on social media is to seek the approval of everyone all at once. Even if you know who most of your followers are, you are rarely speaking to individuals, but to a nameless, faceless void. That reality breeds enormous pressure. And, over time, that pressure has a deep and meaningful effect upon our souls.

False evaluations

The results of this are predictable. Instead of interactions intended to connect us with the people we know and trust, our posts on social media will be seen by a vast range of people. No wonder there is so much pressure to perform online. In what other scenario do you find yourself being evaluated by every person you know (and don’t know) all at once? But there’s even more. To make the pressure even more acute, built into each platform are specific mechanisms to (publicly!) quantify exactly how much you are valued and appreciated. Likes. Comments. Views. Shares. Retweets. Each one of these are built-in evaluation measures. And whether we like it or not, every time we post we are offering the internet a chance to tell us exactly how much we’re worth. How much people care. How much we matter.

Through Jesus, we receive a new identity, one for which we never have to perform (2 Cor. 5:17). Because of Jesus, all of the love and acceptance we crave so deeply has been richly provided to us.

Obviously that is a toxic way to think about one’s value. And it is little wonder why some of the happiest and most productive people we know refuse to spend time on social media. Why do we willingly give others that much power over us? But even if you’re not ready to give up social media, it is critical to rightly estimate its value instead of wrongly utilizing it to assess your own. It is tempting to look at the feedback your posts receive as some kind of validation. As though more engagement means you are somehow more desirable or more acceptable or even more normal. But those are horrible benchmarks. Handing over your sense of self worth to a random assortment of people mindlessly scrolling through their feeds is no way to estimate your intellect or your abilities or your value. And the number of times people click on something you’ve posted is no indication of how much your life matters.

The “auditioning problem”

As I’m writing this, I’ve just started reading Douglas Murray’s book, The Madness of Crowds. In the book, he’s talking about a related problem. In part, Murray is addressing the kinds of pressures that each of us experience, not just online but everywhere, to conform our attitudes or behavior to win the approval of our peers. In discussing this phenomenon, he mentions the idea of an “auditioning problem.” Murray uses the phrase to refer to the behavior we see so often where a person goes to great lengths to demonstrate he is on the right side of a given issue or social cause or that she supports the right party or politician or movement. 

This activity is very common today, and we see it all the time, especially online. To prove their commitment and demonstrate their bona fides, people find themselves going over the top in support of a cause that has piqued their interest, passion, or attention. To prove they belong, they perform. They make outlandish, incendiary, or excessive statements about the righteousness of their cause or (perhaps more frequently) the contemptible nature of the opposition. Or, sometimes they take part in reckless, provocative, and sometimes illegal behavior as a form of protest or activism. Again, all to prove they “belong” and to secure the acceptance and applause of those with whom they so desperately wish to be identified.

A better answer

I can’t help but think about how much the gospel applies here. One of the very best things that we find in Jesus is acceptance (Titus 3:5). When we meet Jesus, we find someone who knows us fully and accepts us unconditionally. There is a reason Billy Graham so often had the song Just As I Am played during his crusades. One particular stanza deeply resonates with this theme of acceptance: “Just as I am, Thou wilt receive, Wilt welcome, pardon, cleanse, relieve. Because Thy promise I believe, O Lamb of God, I come.” As Graham preached to the masses about the love of God, he sought to impress upon them the reality that in coming to Christ they were obligated to bring with them nothing but themselves (Eph. 2:8-9).

The gospel tells us that because of Jesus our sins have been wiped away (Rom. 6:23). Not only that, but we have peace with God and have been adopted into his family as sons and daughters and heirs with Christ (Rom. 8:12-25). Through Jesus, we receive a new identity, one for which we never have to perform (2 Cor. 5:17). Because of Jesus, all of the love and acceptance we crave so deeply has been richly provided to us. In fact, the apostle Paul tells us that God has lavished his grace and love upon us (Eph. 1:3-14). And when we think about our identity in Christ, we can see how meaningless the cheap praise we work so hard for on social media really is. Constantly performing only leaves us exhausted. But Jesus invites us to cease striving from our efforts and to come to him, where we can find rest for our souls. We need not perform. We need only to believe.

By / Jul 22

Our world is in turmoil. All you need to do is turn on the news or open your social media apps to find a volcano of responses—differing opinions on how to handle the world health crisis, whether states should reopen or stay closed, accusations of racism and injustice, and tense debates that seem like personal attacks. If you desire states to reopen, some think you don’t truly care about the health of our nation. If you desire them to stay closed, then you’re said to be promoting an economic crisis. If you march in a protest, you’re accused of contributing to the riots and anarchy. If you choose not to protest, you’re accused of not caring about racial injustice. It’s a lose-lose situation. 

In our fallen world, we can’t be too surprised at the outpouring of emotional and angry responses. Yet in the midst of all of the turmoil, do followers of Christ appear any different than our unbelieving neighbors? Have we considered how our responses affect those watching and listening to us? All it takes is a quick look at Twitter or Facebook to see the mud-slinging between the body of Christ when there is a difference of opinion. From name calling, to snarky remarks, to shaming—even questioning whether someone can really be a Christian while holding to their view. Do we believe the best about our brothers and sisters in Christ, or do we assume the worst? 

Galatians 5:14-15 gives us a dire warning, “For the whole law is fulfilled in one word: ‘You shall love your neighbor as yourself.’ But if you bite and devour one another, watch out that you are not consumed by one another.” 

As Christians, we’re to be beacons of light and hope. We’re to offer peace to a hurting world by pointing them to the sacrificial love of Christ. We’re to love our neighbor as we love our own body, caring for and nourishing it. But our biting words begin to consume our thoughts and affections, leading to animosity toward those sitting in the church pew next to us with different views. It’s a slippery slope that leads to division in the body of Christ and an ugly witness to the world. 

Dealing with different opinions and opponents

How will we draw the unbelieving world to Christ if we’re shaming and slamming one another, standing self-righteously in our own opinions, unwilling to listen to those around us? We’re supposed to be known by our love for one another (John 13:35). How can we have unity in our churches when so many varying opinions exist? The Bible speaks to how we’re to interact with those around us, especially with those who stand in opposition to what we believe. 

Titus 3:2 reminds us to avoid quarreling, to be gentle, and to show perfect courtesy toward all people. Notice that it doesn’t say we’re to show perfect courtesy to those who agree with us, but to all people. This includes those who are diametrically opposed to what we’re saying. 

James 1:19 reminds us to be quick to hear, slow to speak and slow to anger. Have we truly listened to those who share a different opinion than our own? Or are we formulating our response and just wanting to be heard? 

In 2 Timothy 2:14, Paul instructs Timothy to charge the people “not to quarrel about words, which does no good, but only ruins the hearers.” Yes, we should defend the gospel. But how many of our debates as believers are unprofitable? People are listening to our conversations within the church. And Paul gives us a dire warning: that these types of quarrels will destroy the hearers. Are our words promoting love in the body of Christ? Or are they leading to division? 

Later, in 2 Timothy 2:24-25, Paul gives Timothy a model of how followers of Christ should behave, “And the Lord’s servant must not be quarrelsome but kind to everyone, able to teach, patiently enduring evil, correcting his opponents with gentleness.” Paul acknowledges that we will have opponents. And, we’ll have different opinions within the body of Christ. There will be instances where it is appropriate to passionately defend our view. Yet, will we do so with a spirit of gentleness or pride? Our words are to be sweet like honey, increasing persuasiveness and full of grace.  

Before we speak, post, or respond, let’s examine our own hearts. Do we truly care about the injustice surrounding us? Or, do we want to prove ourselves to be right? Do we need to respond publicly to every opinion that’s different than our own? Can we admit that we might be wrong about something? 

Our main concern as believers should be to glorify God with our words and actions and to uphold the value of all humans as being made in the image of God. Our hearts should mourn the trouble that surrounds us, and we should be zealous to love our neighbor, regardless of our differences. Let’s keep first things first and remember that our words and actions are representing Jesus to a watching world. 

By / Aug 26

Not pretty enough. Not smart enough. Not accomplished enough.

In a culture dominated by social media, these are the messages that we’re constantly being fed. This destructive comparison has especially affected the younger generation and young women, contributing to increasingly higher rates of depression and suicide. For victims of abuse and domestic violence, the shame and insecurity caused by others can be crippling.

Self-love fights back against shame and low self-esteem with the message that we need to start loving and accepting ourselves just the way that we are, flaws and all. We can’t love others if we don’t first love ourselves, proponents say. True confidence and security, then, comes from self-love.

But is this really the case?

What is self-love?

At its root, self-love is the pursuit of one’s own well-being and happiness and the avoidance of shame and insecurity. It rests on this idea described by the Buddha,

“You can search throughout the entire universe for someone who is more deserving of your love and affection than you are yourself, and that person is not to be found anywhere. You yourself, as much as anybody in the entire universe, deserves your love and affection.”

According to this way of thinking, we are all inherently lovable and worthy of affection. Some liken it to being your own best friend or partner, your own personal cheerleader. It may take the form of self-care practices like relaxation or indulgence in your favorite foods, “being kind to yourself” by reciting positive affirmations and mantras, or meditating on your own strengths and accomplishments.

It’s important for Christians to note the difference between this way of thinking and where the Bible says our worth comes from. The idea that humans have inherent worth is one that is affirmed throughout Scripture. God bestowed dignity upon us when he created us in his image (Gen. 1:26-27). It is his image in us that gives us value—value that exists apart from our appearance, life experience, or contribution to society. This is why the Bible so clearly calls us to protect, defend, and care for all of life—because all people are made in the image of God.

What does the Bible say about self-love?

Many point to Jesus’ command in Mark 12:31 as evidence for the Bible’s support of self-love. We should love our neighbors as we love ourselves, so it must follow that we cannot love others if we do not love ourselves first. This reasoning, however, misinterprets the text, which rests on the assumption that all of us already love ourselves. We may still struggle with insecurity, but, as described in this context, we all still naturally pursue our own happiness and well-being.

2 Timothy 3:2-4 warns us of the last days, when people will be “lovers of self” rather than “lovers of God.” It reminds us of our tendency to love ourselves above God. Our love of self can become destructive. While the self-love movement suggests that we are all inherently good and loveable, the gospel reminds us that apart from Christ, “none is righteous” (Rom. 3:10) and “no one does good, not even one” (Rom. 3:12). It is true and good that we are created in the image of God (Gen. 1:27) and that this reflection of his image gives us inherent worth, but it can become dangerous if we forget the reality of our sinful nature apart from Christ.

Where can we find true love, acceptance, and confidence?

The heart of the self-love movement—pursuit of happiness and well-being—is not unfamiliar to God’s design. But it does miss the target. Instead, the Bible teaches that “in [God’s] presence there is fullness of joy; at [his] right hand are pleasures forevermore” (Psa. 16:11).

The Bible does not diminish the struggle of insecurity or depression. Rather, it offers a greater hope and confidence, one that far surpasses the promises of the self-love movement. It tells us that “while we were still sinners, Christ died for us” (Rom. 5:8). Through Jesus, “we are children of God, and if children, then heirs—heirs of God and fellow heirs with Christ” (Rom. 8:16-17). This is our greatest confidence: that the King of kings has adopted us as his sons and daughters, not through any work of our own, but through his great mercy and grace in Christ. He has fulfilled the law so that we may be fully accepted. This truth should instill deep confidence and obliterate all pride.

The gospel not only frees us from our comparison culture and the pressure to meet the world’s standards, it allows and encourages us to look at ourselves for all that we are—broken sinners in need of a Savior—not with denial or a kind of shallow optimism, but with the power of him who has overcome sin and death. What’s more, the gospel empowers us not only to acknowledge our weakness, but also to boast in it, for God’s “power is made perfect in weakness” (2 Cor. 12:9). In Christ, there is no place for self-glorification nor self-loathing, because our new identity as God’s children has been freely bestowed upon us.

The Christian’s call to die to self

For Christians, the Bible distinguishes between the old self and the new self (Eph. 4:22-24). In a culture that prioritizes the self at all costs, the Bible teaches us to die to our old selves and to “put on the new self, created after the likeness of God in true righteousness and holiness” (Eph. 4:24). Because of Christ’s sacrifice for us, we are no longer bound to self-interest but can follow the call to “deny [ourselves] and take up [our crosses] daily and follow [Christ]” (Luke 9:23). As Jesus said, “whoever would save his life will lose it, but whoever loses his life for my sake will save it” (Luke 9:24).

One danger of the self-love movement is that it may lead us to merely accept our old selves as they are, suppressing any desire for change. But God desires much more for us than this; he desires our sanctification, our conforming to the likeness of Christ (Rom. 8:29). It is only when we have died to our old selves and put on our new self that we are truly freed to love others. “We love because he first loved us” (1 John 4:19), not because we love ourselves first.

Living with an outward focus

I’ve found that in my own struggles with body image, insecurity, and feelings of inadequacy, the key hasn’t been to think of myself higher or to love myself more. Instead, freedom has come as I’ve filled my mind with thoughts of God and his promises. It is only when we start to see God for who he really is that we will be able to see ourselves for who we actually are. We will delight in his creation, not because we are the ones worthy of our affection, but because we know that he is a good and perfect creator.

There’s nothing wrong with combating insecurity. We should fight it, however, with the truth of Scripture—truth like that from Psalm 139:14 that says we are “fearfully and wonderfully made.” If our sole aim in meditating on this verse is to increase our own self-esteem, though, we’ve missed the point. Our delight in his wondrous creation of our bodies should align our hearts with David’s, whose song was a prayer of praise to God (Psalm 139:14). Worship is the ultimate aim, not self-worth.

So I encourage you—when you experience the crippling effects of insecurity, don’t look inward, look outward. Remind yourself of your God-given identity and of his sacrifice to make the unworthy worthy. Fix your eyes on the cross, and let the weight of your sin and inadequacy turn your heart to worship of the only One truly worthy of all our love and affection.

By / Jul 28

As a minister to students, a new school year provides fresh opportunities to disciples young people. And one of the ways we can do this is by providing our teenagers with good books. Tim Challies has a list, 10 Books Every Christian Teenager Should Read, that I couldn’t agree with more. As I was thinking through other books I might add, I came across some other lists that are worth checking out: 27 Books Christian Teens Should Read and Top 10 Books for Youth Groups.

These books provide a helpful guide for student ministers as they seek to equip and send out students for the gospel.

I also want to suggest some of the books we have used or hope to use within our own student ministry. Additionally, I have categorized these books within some of the essential categories we think through within our student ministry. Some of these books are written with teenagers in mind—many of them are relatively short and accessible—but all of them are worth every teenager reading. Additionally, I think these books provide a helpful guide for student ministers as they seek to equip and send out students for the gospel.

Gospel Clarity: Helping students know and share the gospel

Trustworthy Faith: Helping students grow confident in what they believe & why

Personal Holiness: Helping students fight sin and walk in holiness

Purity Matters: Helping students pursue purity and understand their sexuality

Spiritual Discipline: Helping students develop disciplines for growth and maturity

Meaningful Community: Helping students desire & enjoy life together in the local church

Missional Living: Helping students see their everyday life in light of God’s mission

Disciple Making: Helping students know what it means to be a disciple and make disciples

If you are a parent, some of these books would make a great gift. Others would be a helpful tool to use to walk through a difficult issue your teen may be facing. If you are a student minister, some of these books may provide direction for a teaching series. Others may prove helpful in thinking through your approach to various topics. Either way, I hope the Lord uses them to help anchor the teenagers around you in the gospel.

This article originally appeared here.

In a changing world, your children will have questions you may not know how to answer. Join us for the fourth annual ERLC National Conference on “Parenting: Christ-Centered Parenting in a Complex World” on August 24-26, 2017 in Nashville, TN, this event will welcome key speakers including Russell Moore, Jim Daly, Sally Lloyd-Jones, Todd Wagner, and Jen Wilkin. Learn more here.