By / Nov 30

Where would we be without our friends? They bring such joy to our lives and such comfort in seasons of difficulty, great and small. A shoulder to cry on. A couch to sleep on. A hand to hold.

Friendship is deeply important. The book of Proverbs shows the great practical and spiritual benefits that friendship brings into our lives (Prov. 11:14, 18:24, 19:20, 27:17). Whatever our circumstances, friendship offers us innumerable joys.

Since friendship is so important, we must invest intentional care into it. Have you ever spent time thinking about your goals in friendship? We all want and need friends, but have you ever thought why you want them? We have goals for our work, our family and our finances, but do we consider the importance of goals in our friendships? After all, if our friendships are so important to us, shouldn’t we be intentional in how we think about them, pursue them and grow them?

When we look at Jesus’ life and how he interacted in social settings, his aim was that those he came in contact with would come to know the Father and turn from their sin. Jesus was clear on his reason for walking this earth (Luke 5:22-24, 31-32, 19:10; John 8:19, 17:3). We, now his friends by means of his blood, must follow his example.

The art of surrender

In his wildly helpful book, You Are What You Love, James K. A. Smith encourages Christians to apply some much-needed evaluation to the DNA of our friendships. Smith observes the surrounding culture and the aim behind much of what is constantly before us, arguing that many of the activities that promise to build a sense of community, in reality, actually breed a sense of competition instead.

Within the hemisphere of social media and seemingly innocent activities we participate in, the mindset of competition slowly but surely infiltrates the foundation our friendships. We become obsessed over who is wearing the better clothes, whose blog gets the most traffic, whose marriage is healthier, who abides by the most of Dave Ramsey’s principles. The joys of sports become platforms to shame others. Weekend excursions to the mall become secret missions of self-comparison.

As time passes, our friendships become battlegrounds where we fight against our deepest insecurities and maintain our most precious identities, rather than expose them by serving and caring for our friends. We need to take drastic measures against these toxic pesticides that are wreaking havoc within the soil of our friendships.

Scripture is clear that as we become like Jesus, we must lay ourselves aside and seek out the needs of others, finding ways to serve them, honor them, encourage them and bless them before we have thoughts about bringing focus and attention back to ourselves. In Luke 14:7-11, Jesus rebukes a few wedding guests, explaining we should not compete for distinguished status when we’re around others. Instead, we must seek to give others recognition and honor them in the presence of our friends and acquaintances. Seek the lowest place in the room, Jesus says.

Paul writes in Philippians 2:2-4 that we should exert more energy and brain power thinking about others’ interests, preferences and needs than we do our very own. The Christian shouldn’t act with competitive motives, seeking to get ahead or rise above another person. The Christian’s directive from God’s Word is clear: stay low and focus on others. Don’t worry about how you measure up.

As Christians, we are alive because Christ died. Christ alone accomplished our salvation, the most important victory of all time, through an incomparable act of grace. This had nothing to do with our effort or ability. Ephesians 2:8-9 is clear that we had nothing to do with it because we would never be able to save ourselves. In light of this glorious act, we can’t boast in our own efforts, but instead we boast in God’s amazing kindness. If the most important event in history could not have been accomplished by any one of God’s creatures, why tirelessly seek the high ground to boast in anything that’s less important?

Instead of competing with others, raise a white flag of surrender. God himself surrendered his status in order to give it to us. If he did this for us, we most certainly should do this for each other.

The joy of redirection

So much of what our friendships should be is discipleship. We might think of specifics when we hear the word discipleship, such as a once-a-month coffee meeting, Scripture memory, sexual accountability, evangelism, etc. But when we think of each of these, isn’t this what Jesus calls us to on a regular basis in our friendships?

I think we can learn a lot about the end goal of discipleship from what we’ve already looked at in Jesus’ own life: pointing others to the Father and repenting of sin. That’s the goal for us in a discipleship context, and it’s the goal in our friendships. Daily, through every interaction we have, our aim should be helping others get to know Jesus more intimately by getting to know each other more intimately. One of the biggest ways we do this is heeding Paul’s exhortation (2 Cor. 1:3-7) to give comfort to others in their pain out of the same comfort we ourselves have received.

Because we have gone through seasons of great difficulty, we can bring comfort to others through sharing those times and how God has been faithful. When we surrender our need to compete, we’re free to be vulnerable and transparent about our own struggles, sins, victories and defeats. We can do this because as we think on Christ, we remember our mission to point others back to the Father. We can experience friendship in complete freedom when we lose the desire and fight to be better than others because we know Christ is the most glorious of all.

So our goal isn’t to elevate ourselves, but rather to elevate Christ crucified (1 Cor. 15:3-4). Our desire is that others would find hope in the salvation of the Son. That’s our goal in human interaction. That can happen just as well in the car or at J. Crew as it can in a formal coffee meeting at Starbucks.

That’s the nature of true friendship, and it is the antidote to protecting our friendship from the toxic destruction of pride and self-congratulation. We do this through daily acts of humility, both internally with our minds and externally with our actions, and through a constant redirection of focus from ourselves to God. The Son came so that we could know the Father, and now, we live within the context of our friendships in ways that bring others to know the Son.

By / Jul 8

It was eight years ago when an old college friend sent me an email that said, “You need to join Facebook.” Intrigued by the idea of connecting with people I hadn’t seen in years, I joined. Little did I know how much a website could form and shape my life. Since then, I’ve accumulated more friends than I’ll ever know in person. I learn about politics and international news from my constantly moving feed. I see pictures of my nieces and vacation photos of friends. I also read opinions on nearly everything, from the serious to the ridiculous.

A lot has happened in social media since I joined. There are more options to connect virtually with other people than ever before. Don’t want to read paragraph-long updates? Try Twitter. Prefer to just look at pictures? Try Instagram. Want to send messages that self-destruct? Try Snapchat.

Lonely among so many friends

You’d think that with all the options to connect with people 24/7, we would feel closer to our friends. You’d think we would feel more loved. You’d think we’d be less lonely. In fact, you’d think that if we were struggling in our life, because we have such a broad network of connections, we’d feel loved and supported by the multitudes.

But according to a recent article in The Wall Street Journal, researchers at Oregon Health and Science University did a study with older adults to learn what kind of social contact or lack thereof might predict a person’s diagnosis of clinical depression in two years. With 16 million adults diagnosed with major depression, prevention is an important topic of research. What they found was that only face-to-face contact made any difference. Virtual connections made no impact.

So despite all the online friends we have and countless hours we spend exchanging messages and comments and likes, we are lonely. Though we might be able to stay on top of what people are doing in their daily lives and stay informed on the comings and goings of our friends, it’s not the same thing as being with them in person. As fun and entertaining as social media is, it’s no substitute for real, flesh and blood community.

Created for community

Friendship and community is not a human invention. God is a community in himself. Existing for all of eternity past, God the Father, God the Son and God the Holy Spirit have enjoyed the love and fellowship of their perfect triune community. In creating mankind, God desired for us to participate in that community and know the perfect and joyous love the Godhead share.

But God didn't create man to be in community with him alone. After he created the world and Adam, God said, "It is not good that the man should be alone; I will make him a helper fit for him" (Gen. 2:18). God created man and woman to be in community together, to create families and live together, bearing the image of and reflecting the three-in-one God.

Scripture is all about community. God chose the Israelites to be his people. "And I will walk among you and will be your God, and you shall be my people" (Lev. 26:12). They lived and worshipped him together in community. Following the death, resurrection and ascension of Christ, God then instituted the church, the Body of Christ as a community of believers. "Now you are the body of Christ and individually members of it." (1 Cor. 12:27).

We need community

There’s nothing wrong with making connections online and communicating with friends far and wide over the internet. The problem comes when we think that such connections are a valid substitute for the real thing. Online relationships are not the kind of community we need. That’s because a virtual friend cannot know the real us. A virtual friend cannot bring us a meal when we are sick. A virtual friend cannot hold our hand when we’ve lost all we hold dear. A virtual friend cannot stand by us when the storms of life crash over us.

The New Testament is filled with admonitions for how believers are to relate to one another in the local church. These admonitions are impossible to do from afar. They require face-to-face interaction. They require knowledge of each other’s lives. They require that we live life together. The writer to the Hebrews says, "And let us consider how to stir up one another to love and good works, not neglecting to meet together, as is the habit of some, but encouraging one another, and all the more as you see the Day drawing near" (Heb. 10:24-25). James 5:16 says, "Therefore, confess your sins to one another and pray for one another, that you may be healed. The prayer of a righteous person has great power as it is working." We are to carry each other's burdens (Gal. 6:2), care for each other's practical needs (Rom. 12:13, Heb. 13:16), warn each other of sin (1 Thess. 5:14) and rejoice and mourn with each other (Rom. 12:15). And as Paul wrote in 1 Corinthians 12, we simply can’t function without each other.

God created us to need community, to need connection. We can interact with our friends on Facebook or other realms of social media, but never let us think it is enough. We need real community, the community that our Savior died to create—his church, his Bride, his Body.

By / Nov 16

My friends are good forgivers. In fact, my best friends are women who are hard to offend and quick to forgive. Their love for me has caused them to overlook a multitude of offenses and to continue to think the best of me despite my track record.
Relationships are not for the faint of heart. But they are worth it. When God created relationships, he let us in on breathtakingly beautiful mysteries about himself. As we live in relationship with one another, he takes us into a deeper experience of His love.

Here’s the rub: we have to be willing to navigate hurt, misunderstanding and differences with each other. This can be especially true during the holidays. And while I’m still in kindergarten when it comes to these issues, here are a few helpful things I tell myself when I’m in the thick of a difficult relationship:

1. Be hard to offend.

We are a hypersensitive society, quick to play the victim card. We write about “9 Things You Should Never Say to Your Single Friends” and “11 Topics Guaranteed to Ignite Mommy Wars.”

But meaningful relationships can’t flourish when we’re walking on eggshells.

I’m one to talk: I’m naturally sensitive and have a history of taking things too personally. But by God’s grace, I’m working hard against this tendency because I want to love people, not react to them. Sometimes it’s as simple as growing thicker skin in order to love someone past their rough edges. (So let your friends say something stupid once in awhile. It’s good for you.)

2. Give it time.

As I look back at some of my most intimidating conflicts with family and friends, I realize that time has often played a significant role in resolving our differences and helping us better understand each other. To be honest, I hate that. I want restoration right now. I’m a peacemaker at heart, and I’m miserable when a relationship isn’t in a place of perfect tranquility. But some of the most tender restorations have come years after what felt like an insurmountable difference. God was working in both of our hearts, humbling and maturing us, and that kind of work typically doesn’t happen overnight. The writer of Ecclesiastes says,

“For everything there is a season, and a time for every matter under heaven:

a time to embrace, and a time to refrain from embracing…

a time to seek, and a time to lose…

a time to keep silence, and a time to speak.”

God can give us the wisdom to know when to pursue immediate restoration (embrace, seek, speak) and when to step back and wait on him (refrain, lose, keep silent).

3. Give fresh grace.

That friend or family member you’re at odds with? You have a fresh and abundant supply of grace to offer them today. God’s mercies are new every morning—for you, for them. It’s easy to start viewing someone through their history of offense, but as L.M. Montgomery once wrote, “Isn’t it nice to think that tomorrow is a new day with no mistakes in it yet?”

When I’m struggling to offer this kind of grace to an offender, chances are I’ve forgotten how much I’ve been forgiven. Think of it this way: if my offenses against God filled the pages of all the books in the New York Public Library, your offenses against me would fit on a small Post-It Note. When I revel in the fact that my library of sin was burned up—I’m motivated to go set fire to that measly little Post-It Note.

4. Cultivate a loving thought life.

Do you have conversations in your head with “that person”? You know, those monologues where you say all the zingers you’ve wanted to say but haven’t?

The fruit of relationship begins in the soil of our thoughts. So if our inner lawyer is rising up in our defense, if we’re constantly replaying another’s faults and failings, if we’re mentally preparing for the next offense, then that relationship will bear defensive, fault-finding fruit.

On the other hand, if we’re applying God’s truth to a difficult relationship—if we’re resolved to love past our differences by God’s power—then no matter what choices the other person makes, we will reap the fruit of a free and forgiving spirit. We’ll no longer feel at the mercy of someone else’s actions.

5. Stop acting surprised.

There should be a disclaimer at the outset of every new relationship, be it friend, roommate, spouse or in-law: “At some point along the way, I will miserably fail you, hurt you and anger you. Guaranteed.” So, we should stop acting so surprised when it happens.

Yes, we have the best of intentions to love each other, but the truth is, we’re two sinners in relationship, and things are going to get messy from time to time. Don’t make the mistake of putting your friend or family member in the place of God. It leads to unrealistic expectations and unnecessary hurt. God is perfect. They are not.

If we’re going to enjoy authentic, life-giving, loving relationships, we need to be ready to forgive (and be forgiven). Seventy times seven.

Easier said than done, isn’t it? We’re going to fail often at forgiving and loving—but he won’t. Today, let’s turn our thoughts away from others’ failures and to the One who loved us with His very life and forgave us seventy times infinity. We love because He first loved us.

PLEASE NOTE: This article is addressing everyday relational offenses (between believers), not serious issues of abuse or immorality.

Scriptures referenced: Prov. 10:12; Eccl. 3; Lam. 3:22-23; Matt. 18:22; 1 John 4:19.

By / Jul 30

In a culture that constantly celebrates women’s independence and freedom, it is strange that a movie about bondage—Fifty Shades of Grey, based on the fastest selling paperback of all time by the same title— is so eagerly anticipated.

All of a sudden, words like “submission,” “master” and “obedience” are not only acceptable, but erotic. In a conversation on The View about Fifty Shades of Grey, Barbara Walters suggested that “when you go home, you want the guy to be in charge.” After reading the series, Walters also stated, “It raises the question about whether or not women like to be submissive . . . that’s the theme of the book.”

And it will be the theme of the movie.

A dangerous form of submission

Research indicates that women involved in bondage, dominance, sadism, and masochism (BDSM), which are glorified in the book and will likely be in the movie, are more prone to act as the submissive than the dominant. One survey found that 89 percent of females active in the BDSM lifestyle preferred playing the submissive. This often places women in positions of extreme humiliation.

You would think today’s Christian woman would not find appeal in such abuse. But Barna research found no statistical difference in the percentage of Christian women versus non-Christian women who read the book. A major Christian publisher discovered that it was the top read among its buyers in 2012.

The current normalization of erotica is going to do to Christian women what the advent of internet porn did to men—increasing the temptation to explore very dark and harmful sexual sin. But the Church is acting like it’s not happening. As my co-author, psychologist Dr. Juli Slattery, and I point out in our recent release, Pulling Back the Shades, it is happening to Christian women near you.

This seems to have come out of left field. But has it, really?

Yearning for strong men

While I’m extremely thankful that I have the ability in our culture to vote, own property, and make more money than my husband, the feminist movement has also taken something from me and other women in the Church. The mantra that “you don’t need a man” has created a culture of strong women and weak men. Now we secretly yearn for the very thing our independence has destroyed—strong, confident men.

Solving the “weak man” problem with bondage, dominance, sadism and masochism is about as illogical as curing obesity by promoting anorexia. Both are dangerous distortions of appetite. The problem must be solved by providing the right nourishment to feed the starved souls of women.

It is Scripture that should be informing the Christian conversation on submission and strength; not the leading voices of third wave feminism and not erotica that celebrates transgressive sexual lifestyles. While it has to be noted that some legalistic sects of Christianity do control women, and that is not biblical, a true Bible-based approach leads us to thoughtful and balanced instruction on strength and submission.

Women aren’t second-class

I am one of many Christian women who prefer strong men and find my preferred form of submission in the Bible. The Hebrew language, which is the original language of the Old Testament, referred to the first woman as ezer kenedgo. The word ezer means “helper” and the word kenedgo means “to accompany.”

We believe that God created the first woman with the intention that she would accompany man in order to help him. But the power in submission isn’t found until you look more carefully at how these words are used throughout the whole of Scripture. Only two references in the Bible point to a woman’s being an ezer, a helper. All the rest describe Someone else in that role: God himself (Ps. 33:20; 146:5). God is called our ezer multiple times in the Old Testament.

Being a helper is no second-class position. What a privilege we have as females to reflect the concerned helping quality of God our Maker. He certainly does not walk subserviently behind us, but comes tenderly alongside us in a position of strength. That’s what it means to be a helpmate. This places submission in the light of incredible power and strength, not weakness.

Women who walk in the strength of submission do not fear the strength of men, nor do they have to stifle it. We revel in God’s design, and that gives us what our hearts long for in men: strength that is protective to the point of being willing to lay their lives down as Christ did for the Church.

In the absence of this kind of strength and submission, our Christian women will fall for the most horrific counterfeits. And they are. Let’s start taking our cues from the Bible so we can be led to a strength that doesn’t involve whips and chains but the hard work of preferring one another within the context of male and female relationships

By / Jul 23

In 1996, I was a young, newly married man struggling with unwanted same-sex attraction. My life had been centered around church and Christian activities. Yet, in all my years in the church, the only words I heard about homosexuality were condemning ones. I certainly had never heard anything redemptive with regard to homosexuality.

Embracing ear-tickling theology

Fearful of sharing my struggle in the church, and growing increasingly despondent, I began to look for hope elsewhere. Slowly but surely, like Paul talks about in 2 Timothy 4:3-4, I became unwilling to endure sound doctrine, and instead, sought teachers who would teach me according to my feelings. My ears were desperate to be tickled, and I found what I was looking for in the relatively young gay Christian movement.

Today, that movement is no longer young. It has been slowly moving from the fringe to the mainstream. Many mainline denominations have adopted its tenants, believing that the Biblical prohibitions against gay sexuality and identity do not apply to modern homosexual identity and expression. For many Christians, it is hard to understand how anyone could believe a theology that strays so far from orthodoxy. Why do so many people, gay and straight alike, seem so desperate to have their ears tickled?

Choosing what’s wrong in order to feel loved

In my personal experience, and in my experience with many people who either struggle with unwanted same-sex attraction or who self-identify as gay, it is not intentional rebellion that causes most gay-identified men and women to adopt a gay-affirming theology. It is, instead, a great desire to be loved, accepted, affirmed and simply ‘ok’ with God. Unfortunately, most of us did not find that in our more orthodox churches. My acceptance of a pro-gay theology was my final attempt to reconcile the feelings that raged inside of me and yet seemed to be unacceptable to God. The gay Christian movement spoke directly into my inner conflict.

While my surface likely looked fine, my insides were a mess. Imagine being a young boy with a deep, unquantifiable sense of being different and being called a fag in the 6th grade of your Christian school. Imagine the horror of attractions in junior high that seemed to validate the names that were more and more frequently hurled your way. Imagine hearing your pastor describe homosexuality as an abomination and wondering if you were an abomination. Imagine what it might have been like to attempt to forge a loving, trusting relationship with a God who seemed to be disgusted by you. Imagine names, and bullying and self-hatred and self-loathing and fear of what you might really be. Imagine praying every night for God to make you like the other boys and your prayers never seeming to be answered. Imagine dating girls to try to quell the rumors.

In the midst of all of that inner turmoil, I found myself living my life with an underlying, pervasive sense of fear and abandonment from God and I worked harder and harder to try and scrub my secret sin away. I was striving for perfection in almost every other area of my life to somehow make up for my struggle. But it seemed to follow me everywhere. Even as a law student who had never told anyone of my struggle and never acted on it, I read rumors about myself in a bathroom stall and got gay propositions in my school mailbox. I got married with the sincere hope that marriage might fix me, but ended up feeling trapped, illegitimate and completely unknown. My life felt like one giant lie after another until I found something that told me God did love me and He didn’t care what I was or what I did. I was finally ok being gay.

A theology that left me desperate . . . again

I found all of that that in gay theology. I didn’t find gay theology because I wanted to be rebellious. I found it because I was desperate. And my tickled ears felt incredible . . . for awhile. I began attending a gay-friendly church. As much as I wanted it to be good, it was shallow and fell flat.  I continued to read my Bible, but it too fell flat as my piecemeal study of it proved as shallow as the gay-friendly church. I began to pull away from any personal connection with my Christianity and plowed forward into a life more and more defined by my sexuality. Gay Christianity provided some sense of spiritual security for me, but I began to feel emptier and emptier. I had found a god who did not condemn me but who was also decidedly powerless and benign. Over time, I realized that I felt as far from Him as I had before.  

This new theology empowered me to leave my wife, but six months later I was feeling less and less connected with God and more and more committed to my gay identity. While my heart was still determined and my resolve to make homosexuality work for me was strong, I surprisingly found myself reading the testimony of a man who had walked away from homosexuality. In his story, I discovered the Jesus I had been looking for all along.  

The truth that sets us free

I hungrily re-opened my Bible and found that Jesus DID love me, DID accept me, and DID understand me just as I was. And He loved me too much to leave me there. He beckoned me on a journey–not sending me off on my own but offering to walk alongside me and empower me all the way. I found a mentor who persistently walked me through the Word in order to help me see the reality of who I was in Christ –not a straight Christian, not a gay Christian, but simply a follower of Christ and a child of the King. We found a church that offered both truth and grace; where people were real and changed lives were evident.

I thought I wanted license to be who I was, but found that license did not free me. I needed liberty–not liberty in the form of changed feelings, but freedom from being defined, identified and controlled by my feelings. I found that in a Jesus who was willing to get muddy as He personally rescued me from the pit in which I had not even realized I was stuck.  

I often wonder how my life might have been different if I had been introduced to this Jesus as a child. What if I had known more about the reality of living in a fallen world, the reality and purpose of struggle, and the fact that surrender to Jesus is very different than simply making demands of Jesus? What if I had heard stories of hope and power from real people dealing with real issues? What if my pastors had not used canned sermon illustrations but had revealed a little more of their own humanity and the way Jesus rescued them from their own pits? I don’t really know and, honestly, I am grateful for each component of my journey today. But I do know that there are many people, just like Paul told Timothy about, who do not endure sound doctrine because they, too, are desperate for someone they have never met through legalism or sanitized, cultural Christianity.  

Will we judge the precious souls who find solace in gay Christianity as rebels beyond hope, or will we introduce them to the true Jesus, who calls all who know Him to costly discipleship and offers every person transformation at a level far deeper than the surface of their feelings? Will we push them away to an empty world of licensed behavior, or will we do the harder work of introducing them to the great Liberator and Author of freedom? Sound theology should fill our minds and our hearts as we welcome desperate people and, in our mutual desperation, discover true identity in Jesus!