At Least as Dangerous as Porn

At Least as Dangerous as Porn

When you think of the kind of trials that test your faith (James 1:2), do you ever think of material prosperity as one of them? Most of us don’t. We tend to think of suffering, adversity, and loss that put us in places of significant need.

And we try to avoid experiencing such needs if at all possible. If such experiences come, we really want, and therefore pray, for God to deliver us from the needy seasons as soon as possible. For surely a God who loves his children would not want them experiencing need, right? He’d want to bless us, right? Right. Unless need happens to hold greater, richer spiritual blessings than plenty. In that case, needy seasons would be greater gifts to God’s children than plenteous seasons.

Think about the testimonies you’ve heard of people’s powerful encounters with God. Ask yourself how many of those stories of powerful, transformational, life-altering, love-producing, sanctifying encounters with God were the result of being lavished with worldly prosperity. If you’re like me, you come up empty. But if you know any, you can probably count them on one hand with fingers left over.

On the other hand, how many of those stories involve people in some way being, as we say, brought to the end of themselves? Let that sink in for moment: we tend to encounter God more profoundly in our places of need than in our places of prosperity.

At Least as Dangerous as Porn

In fact, if we take the Bible seriously, material prosperity should frighten us, in some sense, because the Bible says frightening things about it:

  • Jesus: “Children, how difficult it is to enter the kingdom of God! It is easier for a camel to go through the eye of a needle than for a rich person to enter the kingdom of God.” (Mark 10:24–25)

  • Paul: “The love of money is a root of all kinds of evils. It is through this craving that some have wandered away from the faith and pierced themselves with many pangs. But as for you, O man of God, flee these things.” (1 Timothy 6:10–11)

  • James: “Come now, you rich, weep and howl for the miseries that are coming upon you. Your riches have rotted and your garments are moth-eaten. Your gold and silver have corroded, and their corrosion will be evidence against you and will eat your flesh like fire.” (James 5:1–3)

Not to diminish the dangers of sexual sin (1 Corinthians 6:9–11), but have you ever noticed that the New Testament issues more dire warnings against the spiritual dangers of material prosperity than sexual immorality? Jesus didn’t say it’s harder for a sexually immoral person to get into heaven than a camel to squeeze through a needle’s eye. He said it about rich people. And most people who read this live in one of the richest nations in the history of the world.

Do we tremble? Why is it that prosperous Christians aren’t forming accountability groups like crazy to help us keep our lives free from the love of money (Hebrews 13:5)? We know that desensitization to sexually immoral images or videos is dangerous to our souls, but are we at all in touch with the effects of wealth after many decades of being immersed in a prosperous culture? How has it affected us? How desensitized are we — especially in light of the fact that, according to the Bible, prosperity is at least as spiritually dangerous as pornography?

Trial of “Facing Abundance”

Another thing to notice: listen to how Paul speaks of abundance when writing his thank-you letter to the Philippian Christians for providing for his needs in prison:

Not that I am speaking of being in need, for I have learned in whatever situation I am to be content. I know how to be brought low, and I know how to abound. In any and every circumstance, I have learned the secret of facing plenty and hunger, abundance and need. I can do all things through him who strengthens me. (Philippians 4:11–13)

Does it strike you as strange that Paul speaks of abundance in the same way he speaks of need? He speaks of both as requiring faith, which means both are distinct kinds of faith-trials. Over years of trial and testing, he learned the secret of facing both circumstances.

We know that being materially “brought low” is a trial. But do we think of materially “abounding” as a trial? If we don’t, it may be that we are too accustomed to it, too comfortable with it — desensitized to it. And if this is the case, we’re in a dangerous place.

Abundance easily obscures our vulnerabilities, giving us a misleading sense of security, and often a false sense of independence. The danger lies precisely in the fact that it doesn’t feel dangerous. We tend to like the feeling it gives. Being people whose sinful, self-centered pride is far more pervasive and powerful than we are usually aware of, we love the sense of autonomy and indulgent opportunities wealth affords. We love not feeling needy. We consider that normal.

But according to Jesus, we are completely needy. We need him like branches need the vine (John 15:5). The problem is that prosperity has a tendency to mask that need. And this is why for most people, abundance is spiritually harder to face faithfully than need. In need, we are likely to be more in touch with our true need before God. Need has a way of humbling us. But in abundance, we are less likely to be in touch with our true need and it has a way of fueling our pride.

Strength to Abound

If we live in prosperity, we must take the Bible’s warnings earnestly to heart. For the sake of love, we must help each other keep our lives free from the love of money and what that means for us. We must be as vigilant to be prosperously pure as we seek to be sexually pure. Both money and sex are gifts from God, but both can also destroy us if we are not careful.

It takes tremendous spiritual strength to not be seduced by material wealth, to not transfer our trust in God to the material abundance wealth affords. Stay alert for prosperity’s seduction. It promises happiness and security and independence, but without the grace of God — without a mature, wholehearted faith in God — it will lead to many pangs (1 Timothy 6:10). For money is as seductive as sex, perhaps more so.

Remember Paul’s lament over those whose love of money caused them to wander away from the faith (1 Timothy 6:10). Remember Jesus’s lament over the rich man who could not follow him because he owned many possessions (Mark 10:21–23). And remember Paul’s example:

In any and every circumstance, I have learned the secret of facing plenty and hunger, abundance and need. I can do all things through him who strengthens me. (Philippians 4:12–13)

We need strength to abound. We need strength to resist prosperity’s siren song. And therefore, we need as much of God’s strength in abundance as we do in need, and very likely more.

How to Resolve Most Relational Conflict

How to Resolve Most Relational Conflict

Few things sap more of our joy, are as emotionally demanding and mentally distracting, as relational conflict. And few things wreak as much havoc and destruction on lives as relational conflict. And so much of it is avoidable.

Of course, not all conflict is avoidable. Some disagreements are based on issues so fundamental to truth, righteousness, and justice that conscientious conviction demands we stand our ground, even if it shatters a relationship. After all, even Jesus made it clear that for some of us, his coming would result in the painful severing of the important and meaningful and intimate relationships in our lives (Matthew 10:34–36).

But most of our conflicts in life are not over such fundamental issues. They erupt over secondary, or peripheral, or trivial, or even utterly selfish things. And there’s only one path to peace in these cases.

Warring Passions

James nails us when he says, “What causes quarrels and what causes fights among you? Is it not this, that your passions are at war within you?” (James 4:1) God knows that we need to be told this. But it’s not that we don’t already know this. We often admit it to ourselves in the privacy of our own thoughts. We just have such a difficult time admitting it to someone else.

How many times following a conflict, once we’re alone, have we felt convicted over the sinful way we spoke to or treated someone? How many times have we then fantasized the kind, loving things we wish we would have said, and rehearsed the forgiveness and reconciliation we wanted? And then how many times, when it comes to actually saying something to the person, have we found it suddenly so hard to own up to our sin, and so started softening and qualifying our apology? Even sometimes resurrecting the conflict rather than resolving it.

Why do we do this? Why is conflict resolution so hard for us?

Why Do We Hold Back?

We know the answer: it’s just ugly, selfish pride. We don’t want to place ourselves in the vulnerable place, we don’t want to lose all negotiating leverage in the relationship. We don’t want to admit how foolish and selfish we really are. Once that cat’s out of the bag, we’ll never be able to bag it again. We’d rather our passions remain at war than surrender our pride, even if it means our families, friendships, and churches suffer the collateral damage.

James wants us to take this very seriously, which is why he minces no words in calling us to account. He calls these warring passions friendship with the world and spiritual adultery, and says that giving into them puts us at enmity with God (James 4:4). When we allow them to govern our behavior, we act like God’s enemies. And, as Jesus’s parable about the unforgiving servant illustrates (Matthew 18:21–35), that is serious indeed,

The Only Way to Peace

You cannot negotiate or compromise with pride; you must kill it. And this is likely the most difficult faith-fight we will ever engage in.

Pride is the enemy inside us that speaks to us like a friend. Its counsel sounds so much like self-protection, preservation, and promotion that we’re often blinded to the fact that it’s destroying us and others. It rises in great indignation as a prosecuting attorney when others’ pride damages us, but it minimizes, qualifies, excuses, rationalizes, and blame-shifts our behavior when we damage others. We can be easily deceived into believing that our pride wants to save us, when really, it’s our internal Judas betraying us with a kiss.

We must, to use an old term, mortify it — put pride to death. And there is only one way to do this: we must humble ourselves.

The Promise in Humility

We must reject the counsel of our pride and accept the instruction of our Lord, who says “humble yourselves,” because the humble will ultimately be exalted, but the proud will ultimately be horribly humbled (1 Peter 5:6; Matthew 23:12).

And, yes, this is hard. Killing pride is hard. It requires courage — the courage of faith. For it means nothing less than placing ourselves in the vulnerable place where we fear we may (and just might actually) be rejected; in the weak position where we will lose our negotiating leverage; in the lowly place where we are forced to admit how foolish and selfish we really are. We must trust God with the loss of reputation capital we might experience, and with the possibility that others could use our confession and humility to their advantage.

We must trust God that his promise through the apostle James is more reliable than the promises our pride makes: that if we humble ourselves, he will “[give] more grace,” because “God opposes the proud but gives grace to the humble” (James 4:6). More grace will flow the more humble we become.

What Makes You Shine

When our sin is fueling a relational conflict, pride tells us to hide the truth behind the disguise of deceitful defensiveness and manipulative anger. A façade of dignity seems more valuable than God’s glory, and preserving our reputation seems more valuable than preserving our relationships. But God tells us to humbly expose our sin, because his glory (and a restored relationship) will satisfy us far more than superficial posing and a false reputation.

When through humility we put away selfish grumbling and prideful disputing, we “shine as lights in the world,” showing ourselves to be God’s children (Philippians 2:14–15). Pride conceals this light, but humility lets it shine bright. It is humility that really makes us shine.

That’s why Jesus said, “Blessed are the peacemakers, for they shall be called sons of God” (Matthew 5:9). The peacemakers that shine brightest are not those who merely mediate between conflicted parties, but those who, by their humble example of admitting sin and graciously forgiving others, demonstrate how peace is made — the only way real peace is made.

Do you have a relational conflict? Then you have an invitation from the Lord to show the redemptive power of the gospel, to lessen the hold pride has on you, and to allow more of his grace to flow to you and through you by humbling yourself. It is an invitation to submit yourself to God, resist the devil, and watch him flee from you (James 4:7).

Do You Look Like Your Father?

Do You Look Like Your Father?

Each of us who is reconciled to God through Jesus Christ is a unique child of God. Each of us is conformed to the glorious image of God the Son, the very image of the invisible God, in unique ways (Romans 8:29; Hebrews 1:3).

But all of us are meant to bear the glorious family resemblance.

How God Reveals His Glory

“Please show me your glory,” Moses pled with God (Exodus 33:18). God granted Moses this request saying, “I will make all my goodness pass before you and will proclaim before you my name ‘The Lord’”(Exodus 33:19). Then God called Moses to ascend Mount Sinai and he hid Moses in a cleft of a rock, shielding him from a lethal dose of his holy glory and proclaiming,

“The Lord, the Lord, a God merciful and gracious, slow to anger, and abounding in steadfast love and faithfulness, keeping steadfast love for thousands, forgiving iniquity and transgression and sin, but who will by no means clear the guilty, visiting the iniquity of the fathers on the children and the children’s children, to the third and the fourth generation.” (Exodus 34:6–7)

When humans ask God to behold his glory, to see the beauty of his nature, this is what he shows them. When humans want to know what God is really like, this is what he tells them.

This is the most famous self-disclosure of God in the Old Testament (Numbers 14:18; Nehemiah 9:17; Psalm 86:15; 103:8; 145:8; Joel 2:13; Jonah 4:2). And when the Son finally appeared in the last days — the very imprint of the Father’s nature (Hebrews 1:2–3) — this is the holy glory, the holy name he most clearly manifested in the world (John 17:6).

And this is the glorious and holy family resemblance that God’s children — individually and collectively in the church — are meant to bear.

Merciful and Gracious

The first thing God says about himself is not that he wishes to bring judgment upon the guilty, but that he is “merciful and gracious . . . forgiving iniquity and transgression and sin.” This is astounding in light of his holiness — a holiness that when apprehended by the most God-fearing sinners fills them with utter dread (Isaiah 6:5) or makes them fall as if dead (Revelation 1:17). The first words of our holy God’s self-disclosure are gospel!

And this is why God’s children are also to be full of mercy and grace. This resemblance is evidence that we have really encountered and been transformed by God — that we have been forgiven much because God his children loves much, and so we extend his grace to others (Luke 7:47).

Slow to Anger

The second thing God says about himself is that he is “slow to anger.” More gospel! The most holy person in existence, the one whose dignity is most marred, who is most offended and righteously outraged by our sin, is also the person most willing to bear great indignity and offense because he really cares for us. He restrains his great wrath, which requires more power than we can yet imagine, and “is patient toward [us], not wishing that any should perish, but that all should reach repentance” (2 Peter 3:9).

And God’s children, the recipients and beneficiaries of his great holy patience, are also to share his great, holy patience with sinners. For one of the ways he means to show his patience toward sinners is through our patience toward sinners.

Abounding in Steadfast Love and Faithfulness

The third thing God reveals about himself is that he is “abounding in steadfast love and faithfulness.” Gospel upon gospel upon gospel! He is gracious, he is patient, and he is full of love. His love abounds, which means he has lots of it! His love is steadfast, which means it outlasts our failings and frailties. And his love is faithful, which means once covenanted, he will never withdraw it.

And God’s children bear this loving resemblance: we love one another just as he loved us (John 15:12). In fact, the world will know we are the children of God by the abounding, steadfast, faithful way we love one another (John 13:35).

By No Means Clearing the Guilty

The forth glorious thing God discloses about himself is that he “will by no means clear the guilty.” Wait, this sounds very different from the other three disclosures. This doesn’t sound like gospel! Oh, but it is. It is the very thing that makes the gospel so good. It is the clear manifestation of God’s holiness, which is the ground of all our happiness.

If God lets the guilty go unpunished, he is not holy, he is not just, and he is not good. And if he is not good, eternity with him would not be heaven, but hell. We could never be happy with an unholy, unjust God.

And this is the whole point of the cross of Jesus Christ, the crux of human history. In the cross, God is able to be both “just and the justifier of the one who has faith in Jesus” (Romans 3:26). In the cross, the guilt of sin is fully paid for and the repentant guilty sinner is justly pronounced not guilty. In the cross, far more than at Sinai or in any other historical act of his mercy or judgment, God reveals himself to be merciful and gracious, slow to anger, abounding in steadfast love and faithfulness — and by no means clearing the guilty.

And therefore, God’s holy children, who take after him, do not minimize the seriousness of sin. They are never to call evil good (Isaiah 5:20). They are never to obscure the truth that God’s righteous judgment will come upon sinners who do not repent and trust Christ — a warning God clearly and repeatedly issues in Scripture. And they continually point others to the cross, the true cleft in the rock foreshadowed in Moses’s experience on Sinai.

Behold and Be Transformed

If we want to see the glory of God, he has manifested himself to us clearly in his holy word: he is merciful and gracious, slow to anger, abounding in steadfast love and faithfulness, and he will by no means clear the guilty — meaning he never allows the guilt to go unpunished. And he has most clearly manifested this fourfold glory in the cross of Jesus Christ. It is there for us to behold.

So let us look! For the more we look, the more “we all, with unveiled face, beholding the glory of the Lord, [will be] transformed into the same image from one degree of glory to another” by the power of the Holy Spirit (2 Corinthians 3:18). We too will increasingly bear the glorious, holy family resemblance.

The First Tremor: Peter Waldo (Died by 1218)

The First Tremor

More than three hundred years before Martin Luther was born, an unlikely reformer suddenly appeared in the city of Lyon in southeast France. His protests against doctrines and practices of the Roman Catholic Church were strong tremors foretelling the coming spiritual earthquake called the Reformation. And the movement he launched survived to join the great Reformation. He is known to history as Peter Waldo.

The First Tremor 385geyj3

Many details about Waldo are not known, including his name. We don’t know if Peter was his real first name, since it doesn’t appear in any document until 150 years after his death. His last name was most likely something like Valdès or VaudèsValdo (Waldo) was the Italian adaptation. We also don’t know the year Peter was born or the precise year he died — historians disagree over whether he died between 1205 and 1207 or between 1215 and 1218.

But we do know a few earthshaking things.

A Rich Ruler Repents

In 1170, Peter was a very wealthy, well-known merchant in the city of Lyon. He had a wife, two daughters, and lots of property. But something happened — some say he witnessed the sudden death of a friend, others say he heard a spiritual song of a traveling minstrel — and Peter became deeply troubled over the spiritual state of his soul and desperate to know how he could be saved.

The first thing he resolved was to read the Bible. But since it only existed in the Latin Vulgate, and his Latin was poor, he hired two scholars to translate it into the vernacular so he could study it.

Next, he sought spiritual counsel from a priest, who pointed him to the rich young ruler in the Gospels and quoted Jesus: “One thing you still lack. Sell all that you have and distribute to the poor, and you will have treasure in heaven; and come, follow me” (Luke 18:22). Jesus’s words pierced Waldo’s heart. Like the rich young ruler, Waldo suddenly realized he had been serving Mammon, not God. But unlike the rich young ruler who walked away from Jesus, Waldo repented and did exactly what Jesus said: he gave away all he had to the poor (after making adequate provision for his wife and daughters). From that point on, he determined to live in complete dependence on God for his provision.

A Movement Is Born

Waldo immediately began to preach from his Bible in the streets of Lyon, especially to the poor. Many were converted, and by 1175 a sizable group of men and women had become Waldo’s disciples. They too gave away their possessions and were preaching (women as well as men). The people started calling them the “Poor of Lyons.” Later, as the group grew into a movement and spread throughout France and other parts of Europe, they became known as “The Waldensians.”

The more Waldo studied Scripture, the more troubled he became over certain doctrines, practices, and governing structures of the Catholic Church — not to mention its wealth. And he boldly spoke out against these things. But since the Church officially prohibited lay preaching, Waldo and his ragtag band drew opposition from church leaders.

A Sign to Be Opposed

The Archbishop of Lyons was particularly irked by this uneducated, self-appointed reform movement and moved to squash it. But in 1179, Waldo appealed directly to Pope Alexander III and received his approval. However, only five years later the new Pope, Lucius III, sided with the Archbishop and he excommunicated Waldo and his followers.

In the earlier years, the Waldensian movement was a reform movement. Peter Waldo never intended to leave the church, and he held to numerous traditional Catholic doctrines. But after the excommunication, and continuing beyond Waldo’s death, the Waldensian’s Protestant-like convictions increased and solidified.

Eventually, the Waldensians came to reject all claims to authority besides Scripture, all mediators between God and man except Jesus, all sacraments apart from those attested to in the Bible (i.e., baptism and communion), and a host of other Catholic doctrines.

  • They rejected all claims to authority besides Scripture.
  • They rejected all mediators between God and man, except the man Christ Jesus (though Mary was venerated for quite a while).
  • They rejected the doctrine that only a priest could hear confession, and argued that all believers were qualified.
  • They rejected purgatory, and thus rejected indulgences and prayers for the dead.
  • They believed the only Scripture-sanctioned sacraments were baptism and communion.
  • They rejected the Church’s emphasis on fast and feast days and eating restrictions.
  • They rejected the priestly and monastic caste system.
  • They rejected the veneration of relics, pilgrimages, and the use of holy water.
  • They rejected the pope’s claim to authority over earthly rulers.
  • They eventually rejected the apostolic succession of the pope.

The Pre-Reformation Joins the Reformation

Despite the excommunication and Waldo’s death, the Waldensian movement continued to grow for quite a while. It spread into northern Italy, and regions of Spain, Austria, Germany, Hungary, and Poland.

But the Roman Catholic persecution also continued and grew in severity, till by the fifteenth century, the Waldensian ranks had shrunk into small, obscure communities in the alpine valleys of France and Italy. But when the Protestant Reformation burst on the scene in the sixteenth century, most Waldensians became Protestants.

Peter Waldo was proto-Protestant, though he didn’t know it. He was a simple merchant turned prophet, who simply believed in the word of God with all his heart, which he demonstrated with all his life. And in taking God at his word, Waldo turned his world upside down.

One Man’s Dream Destroyed Millions: The Pitiful Legacy of Hugh Hefner

One Man’s Dream Destroyed Millions

Hugh Hefner, the founder of Playboy Enterprises and its chief ideological incarnation, died on Thursday at age 91 at the Playboy Mansion, immersed in the fantasy he created. He will be buried next to Marilyn Monroe, Playboy’s inaugural centerfold.

In 1953, Hefner pulled pornography out of the seedy back cultural alleys, dressed it up in sophisticated costume and speech, gave it a stylish, debonair set, made it look liberating and libertine, and pushed it into the mainstream as Playboy Magazine. He was not so much a revolutionary as a man who understood his times. He knew the “right side of history” when he saw it. He saw the weakness in the flank, struck shrewdly (and lewdly), and won the cultural battle: the old sexual mores have been decisively thrown down and pornography is pervasive. But at what cost?

Seeing People as Roles, Not Souls

Playboy (and the flood of increasingly explicit material that has followed it through the break it made in the cultural dam) is not an enterprise that exists to celebrate the beauty of the human body or the wonder of human sexuality. It is an enterprise aimed at financially capitalizing on the fallen human bent toward objectifying others for our own selfish ends. It encourages both men and women in codependent ways to view embodied souls as embodied roles in the private virtual reality show we call fantasy.

Hefner and many others have become very rich by objectifying women and turning them into virtual prostitutes — mere bodily images to be used by millions of men who care nothing about them, who ravage them in their imaginations for selfish pleasure and then toss them in the trash. Hefner gave these women the fun name of “playmates,” a wicked mockery of both a person and play, adding a terrible insult to horrible injury.

We call this wicked, for it is. But in calling it wicked, we must confront our own wicked proneness to objectify others and resolve all the more to war against it. We humans have a horrible, sinful tendency to view others as roles — too often expendable “extras” — in the epic moving picture of our story, not souls in the real epic of God’s story.

The fallen human nature, unhinged from God’s reality, seeks to construct its own preferred reality. And it uses other people to do it. Let me use as an example what at first might appear as a harmless, fun song, but is anything but harmless.

The Fantasy Girl from Ipanema

In the mid-60s, as Playboy was building steam on its way to becoming a media powerhouse, the Brazilian jazz/bossa nova song “The Girl from Ipanema” was building steam as an international hit, on its way to being the second-most recorded pop song in history.

The song is about a man who daily watches a beautiful girl walk by him on the way to Ipanema Beach in south Rio de Janeiro. She is “tall and tan and young and lovely” and “swings so cool and sways so gently,” passing by like a song on legs. He is intoxicated with her and “would give his heart gladly” to her, but “she doesn’t see” him.

The song is light and breezy and almost sounds innocent. But it’s not. The song is actually a man’s fantasy. The girl he thinks he loves, he knows nothing about. If she turns out to have a lower IQ than he imagines or a serious medical condition, would he still love her? If she heads to the beach daily to escape the sexual molestation of a relative, or suffers from a subtle mental illness, would he still give his heart gladly to her? This girl is not a soul to him; she is a symbol of something he desires and he projects on her a role in a fantasy of his own creation.

This is precisely what we humans are so prone to do: to view others, and the world, as a projection of our own fantasies. Even we Christians can lose sight of the world as a battlefield of horrific cosmic warfare, with people caught in its crossfire needing to be rescued, and see it as the place where we want our dreams — self-centered, self-serving, self-exalting, self-indulgent dreams — to come true. The more we indulge such fantasies, the more inoculated and numb we become to reality and the less urgent we feel about the real needs of other real souls.

The Real Girl from Ipanema

The girl from Ipanema has a Hugh Hefner connection, for she was a real girl. The song’s (married) composers used to sit in a café near the beach, watch her walk by, and talk about the desires she inspired. She was a 17-year-old school girl, sometimes wearing her school uniform and sometimes wearing her bikini.

After the song exploded in popularity, the composers informed her that she was “the girl.” She became a minor Brazilian celebrity, a national symbol of sexual appeal. Eventually she became a Brazilian Playboy Playmate, posing for the magazine as a younger woman and later posing again with her adult daughter — two generations caught and exploited by Hefner’s fantasy. Now she’s 72, trying hard to stay looking as young and lovely as possible, for she is, after all, the girl from Ipanema.

And she’s an example that objectification of other people is not harmless. Her identity has been forged by two men’s lust for her adolescent body. The indulgence and propagation and proliferation of fantasies are not harmless. Real lives get caught in the gears; real souls are shaped and hardened and become resistant to what’s really real, to what’s really true. And they can be destroyed.

People Are Souls, Not Roles

It is tragically appropriate that Hugh Hefner will be buried next to Marilyn Monroe. Monroe was not merely the inaugural centerfold of Playboy Magazine; she became and remains the poster girl of 20th century American sexual objectification. Nearly sixty years after her suicidal death, she remains a sexual icon in most people’s minds, not a broken soul who knew the despairing loneliness of being a sensual image desired by millions, yet a person truly loved by very few. Hefner encouraged millions and millions of men and women to view people in the very way that destroyed Marilyn Monroe.

That’s why, men (and of course not just men), on the occasion of Hugh Hefner’s death, let us resolve all the more to abstain from fantasy passions of the flesh, which wage war against our souls — and not just ours but others’ souls as well (1 Peter 2:11). When we look at a woman, whether she’s Marilyn Monroe, the girl from Ipanema, a co-worker, classmate, fellow church member, another man’s wife, or our own wife, let us say to ourselves and, when needed, each other: “she is not your playmate!” She is not an object who at seventeen you might in selfishness wish to use for your own lusts and throw away, or at 72 you might in selfishness not notice at all.

She is not an embodied role player in your virtual reality show. She is an embodied soul whose worth in God’s eyes exceeds all the wealth in the world. She is God’s creation, not an object for your sinful recreation.

Hugh Hefner called himself “the boy who dreamed the dream.” Yes, he dreamed his dream, he lived his dream, and his dream made him rich. He died still dreaming. Only God knows how many souls have been damaged and destroyed by his dream. May God have mercy.

What Do You Really Love Most?

What Do You Really Love Most?

What are you seeking? I don’t mean in the abstract philosophical sense, as in “I’m a seeker of truth” or “I’m just looking for happiness.” I hope you seek the former and I know you seek the latter. No, I’m asking down here, on the runway, where you actually do things. What are you really seeking?

There are other ways to phrase the question:

What do you really want?
What are you dreaming about having?
What’s fueling your hope for the future?
What’s capturing your attention most?
What are you focusing your reading on?
What are you searching the internet for?
What are you spending your time and money on?
What are you making plans to pursue?

Or we could ask it negatively: What desired person or thing is fueling your depression and cynicism, because as much as you want him or her or it, they seem unattainable?

What are you seeking? Your answers will tell you what you love.

Love Always Seeks

It is the very nature of love to seek the beloved, whether our beloved is a human lover (Song of Solomon 7:10) or money (1 Timothy 6:10) or some other worldly thing (1 John 2:15) or God (Deuteronomy 4:29; 6:5). We cannot help but seek what we love. And we cannot help but grow disillusioned, bitter, and even hopeless if we don’t believe we can have what we love.

Pursuit is the mark of real passion. That’s why David wrote such things as, “One thing have I asked of the Lord, that will I seek after” (Psalm 27:4), and “O God, you are my God; earnestly I seek you” (Psalm 63:1). When he composed these psalms, he was consumed with love for (desire for) God. And love compelled him to seek his beloved.

And it’s why Paul wrote things like, “for the love of Christ controls us” (2 Corinthians 5:14). The Greek word, synechō, translated in the ESV as “controls,” others have translated as “compels” (NIV) or “constrains” (KJV). What Paul meant was that the love of Christ urged, even forced him to action, to pursue what captured his heart in ways that caused some to accuse him of being out of his mind (2 Corinthians 5:13).

Love controls, compels, constrains us. Love pursues. Love must act because love in word only is no true love; for true love always produces action (1 John 3:18).

Have We Lost Our First Love?

The first indicator that we have lost our passion for God, that he is no longer our preeminent love, isn’t embracing false doctrine, falling into immorality, or out-right apostasy. In fact, we might even still be serving Christ and enduring hardship with a measure of faithfulness that most observers would commend. No, the first warning sign can be seen in Jesus’s words to the church in Ephesus:

I know you are enduring patiently and bearing up for my name’s sake, and you have not grown weary. But I have this against you, that you have abandoned the love you had at first. Remember therefore from where you have fallen; repent, and do the works you did at first. If not, I will come to you and remove your lampstand from its place, unless you repent. (Revelation 2:3–5)

Though the Ephesian Christians were still toiling, patiently enduring evil adversity (Revelation 2:2), they no longer were burning with desire and therefore no longer earnestly seeking Christ. The love of Christ no longer controlled and constrained them like it used to. And the “works” they no longer did was the whistleblower of their loss of affection for Christ. Jesus considered this a serious problem and his warning was urgent.

It is a serious problem, because if what we love the most drives our pursuits, and Jesus is not what we love the most, we will be spending our energies and resources elsewhere, however orthodox we may yet remain at the creedal level.

What Are You Really Seeking?

So what are you seeking? What we do when given the choice, what we choose to pursue, what we want to seek are indicators of what has captured our affections.

Is the love of Christ controlling, compelling, constraining us, or is something else? Are we serving Christ out of an affection for him that makes it hard not to, or out of a sort of weary, dreary obligation? Or do we no longer do the works of faith like we used to do — not because the focus of our calling has changed, but because we just no longer have it in us like we used to?

Jesus’s call to the Ephesians to repent was not mere warning, but gospel. Repentance is an escape from the bondage of sin, whatever it is. The very fact that repentance is possible, because of what Jesus has done for us in the cross, is astoundingly wonderful news! The call to repent is a call not to have our shame exposed and bear God’s stern frown on us. It’s a call to return by the grace of God to the place of greatest hope and fullest joy.

It’s not a question of whether we will seek out what we love. The question is, what are we really seeking? Our works are our whistleblowers, because they tell us what we love. And if we do not love what we ought, God has provided us a way to escape from bondage and to return to joy.

And then let us again quest for the real Treasure: “Seek the Lord your God and you will find him, if you search after him with all your heart and with all your soul” (Deuteronomy 4:29).

Imitate Me: Laying Aside the Weight of False Humility

Imitate Me

Are you humble enough to point to your own life as an example to others of godly living?

I think most of us consider self-effacement and self-deprecation — admitting our sin and brokenness and pointing to others who excel us in holiness — as marks of humility. And they certainly are, when they are true.

But what are we to do with statements in the Bible like Philippians 4:9?

What you have learned and received and heard and seen in me — practice these things, and the God of peace will be with you.

Have you ever told someone in so many words, “If you want to know how to ‘walk in a manner worthy of the Lord’ (Colossians 1:10), listen to what I say and look at what I do and follow my example”? If not, why?

Full disclosure: I don’t recall ever saying something like this — certainly not as straightforward. It’s not that I don’t want my life to be exemplary. I certainly do. But I’m so conscious of my failings that I think I would immediately begin to qualify such a statement. Why?

The most significant factor is my pride. I don’t hold myself up as a godly example like Paul did for two proud reasons: my life is not as exemplary as Paul’s, and I don’t want others to think I’m proud.

Don’t Look at Me

To admit that my life is not as exemplary as Paul’s is a humble admission — not because I’m such a humble person, but because the admission is true. Humility is not a human emotion or demeanor; it’s simply the lack of pretense. Humility is the acceptance and honest confession of what is actually true. So my admission is humble, as far as it goes.

But the deeper question is, why is my life not as exemplary as Paul’s? And the answer is harder to admit: I’m more selfish than Paul was. I’m not as passionate about the gospel (Acts 20:24), not as joyful (Philippians 4:1), not as thankful (1 Thessalonians 5:18), and not as focused and rigorous in my pursuit of attaining the resurrection as Paul was (Philippians 3:11). I don’t anguish over the state of lost people (Romans 9:1–3) or discipline my body like Paul did (1 Corinthians 9:27).

Why don’t I do these things or pursue them with greater tenacity? I could try to let myself off the hook by saying, “I don’t have Paul’s capacities.” This is doubtless true; God gave Paul and me different capacities. But I also know in my heart that I’m not pursuing and experiencing these things in the same manner Paul would have had he shared my constitutional limitations.

Which means, the pride of unbelief and selfishness is active in me — unbelief that greater joy in God is to be had if I pursue these things with greater abandon. And I don’t want others to look too hard at my life and see these things.

I also fear sounding proud to others. Telling people to look at me as an example sounds pompous. However, if there is something in my life that is exemplary that might help you, but I don’t say anything because I’m more concerned with how you view me than with helping you increase your joy, that’s just pride borrowing humility’s clothes. I love me more than I love you.

Look at Me

Paul was not a proud man. He considered himself the foremost sinner whom God saved by grace alone (1 Timothy 1:15; Ephesians 2:8). He knew that he was what he was — including being the hardest working apostle — only by the grace of God (1 Corinthians 15:10). He lived his whole life by faith in Jesus and put no confidence in his flesh (Galatians 2:20; Philippians 3:3). And yet he could say without guile practice what you see in me.

We might be too quick to assume that Paul pointed to himself as an example because he was an apostle. There is, of course, some truth in this. Paul knew he had unique authority as an apostle. But I think he would correct us if we think his example was merely due to his apostolic status, because earlier in the same letter he wrote,

Brothers, join in imitating me, and keep your eyes on those who walk according to the example you have in us. (Philippians 3:17)

There were others whose lives were also exemplary and worthy of imitation. In fact, the entire New Testament teaches us that the fruit of our lives — the observable way we live — is intended to bear witness (to exemplify) that God exists and is the rewarder of those who seek him (Hebrews 11:6). All leaders, in whatever their large or small spheres of influence, are expected to be examples of what living by faith means:

Remember your leaders, those who spoke to you the word of God. Consider the outcome of their way of life, and imitate their faith. (Hebrews 13:7)

Do you not wish to be someone who without pride or shame can tell others, “Be imitators of me, as I am of Christ” (1 Corinthians 11:1)?

Imitate Me as I Imitate Christ

That’s what we’re after: so experiencing the reality of Christ in us that we can point others to Christ in us.

Paul could say imitate me because he had pressed on to make the reality of Christ in him, the hope of glory, his own, because Jesus had made him his own (Philippians 3:12; Colossians 1:27). He had not been conformed to the world, but had profoundly experienced his soul being conformed to the image of Christ (Romans 12:2; Romans 8:29). He had put God’s promises to the test and seen God provide all he needed in every situation (Philippians 4:11, 19). He had fully embraced the ministry the Lord gave him (Acts 20:24), had walked in the obedience of faith (Romans 1:5), and had kept the faith (2 Timothy 4:7). Therefore, he could say in all humility — not merely because he was an apostle, but because he was a faithful disciple — “Be imitators of me, as I am of Christ.”

Let us also lay aside every weight and prideful sin that makes us timid to hold ourselves up as examples of Christlikeness (Hebrews 12:1). Such timidity often has its root, not in godly humility, but in pride — pride that wants to conceal our tolerated disobedience and fleshly indulgence, or pride that fears what others think of us. Let us with humble honesty confess our sinful failings in order to be increasingly free of them, and our capacity limitations in order to benefit more from others’ gifts. But let us also be humble and honest enough to point to the grace of Christ in us that is meant to help others walk in a manner worthy of the Lord.

Be Patient with Your Slow Growth

Be Patient with Your Slow Growth

We value speed today far more than we realize, and that makes the painfully slow process of our sanctification and personal transformation confusing and frustrating.

We live in an era of such rapid technological advancement and in a society that so values efficiency, productivity, and immediate results that we can hardly help but assume that the faster things happen, the better. Therefore, we often don’t value the precious benefits of slow growth.

Speed Shapes Us

For most of human history, most people’s lives were mapped on to the relatively slow cyclical rhythms of the seasons. Life was demanding and difficult because it had a primary, and at times ruthless, focus on subsistence, and so was largely dictated by the annual migration patterns of fish and herd animals, plant and fruit cultivation and harvesting, rainy seasons, and available sunlight.

One of the things this did was produce and reinforce in the minds of people, because of sheer necessity, an understanding and valuing of slow, incremental progress toward an aimed-for reward. Food, clothing, and housing were obtained through arduous, sustained effort and care.

In America, this has all but disappeared from living memory. For generations now, a superabundance and wide variety of food has been available and largely affordable a relatively short distance from nearly every home — prepared, packaged, and FDA-approved. We do not have to work nearly as hard, nor do we spend nearly the percentage of our annual income on food, water, and shelter as our ancestors did.

On the whole, these have been immense blessings. But our abundance and increasing conveniences on every level have shaped — and in some ways warped — the way we view time. We now expect that nearly everything should happen fast and with little or no inconvenience.

Slow Grown

But factors that are most beneficial in fueling productivity and economic growth and improved bodily health of individuals and cities are not necessarily factors that are most beneficial in fueling the spiritual growth and health of individual souls or churches.

God created us as organisms, not machines. There are millions of reasons why the fullness of time when God sent forth his Son occurred in the first century (Galatians 4:4). But one reason was so that the Son would frequently use agricultural metaphors to illustrate spiritual truths. Think of the parables of the sower (Matthew 13:1–9), the wheat and weeds (Matthew 13:24–30), and the mustard seed (Matthew 13:31–32). Think of metaphors of the fruit-bearing trees (Matthew 7:16–18), the vine and branches (John 15:1–8), and the reaping of souls as a harvest (Matthew 9:37–38; John 4:35–38). And Jesus’s apostles also used such metaphors, for instance spiritual fruit (Galatians 5:22–23) and fields (1 Corinthians 3:6–9).

Something that the original hearers of these parables and metaphors would have intuitively understood, because of their familiarity with agricultural processes, is their gradual, progressive nature. Many of us probably miss the meaning because the processes are so foreign to us. Christians are slow-grown, and fruit-bearing typically comes after an arduous time of maturation.

The same goes for churches. There’s a reason we call the process of starting of new churches “church planting” and not “church manufacturing.” We admire stories of explosive church growth, just like we admire stories of explosive business growth. That’s not wrong, but it is not typical. And even what looks like a sudden harvest is usually due to an unseen, prolonged season of arduous sowing and watering and cultivation (John 4:35–38).

Benefits of Slow Growth

God designed us to develop habits of obedience and holiness slowly and incrementally because the process teaches and trains us to live by faith rather than by our often inaccurate perceptions and emotions. The waiting teaches us to trust more in the truth of what God says than the impulses of what we see or how we feel.

The long-term beneficial effect of slow, incremental transformation through the exercise of habit rather than impulse develops, over time, deeper, richer, more complex and nuanced affections for God, and integrates our beliefs into our whole being. There are things I am just beginning to really grasp now, well into middle age, that I didn’t appreciate when I was younger.

God’s ways with us may not seem efficient to us. We might even think they are needlessly slow and inefficient. But none of God’s ways are needless, and God is not slow; he’s patient (2 Peter 3:9).

And he wants us to learn patience, too — it’s one of his slow-growing spiritual fruits (Galatians 5:22). Don’t be discouraged with your slow growth or with your church’s. Determine to “dwell in the land and cultivate faithfulness” (Psalm 37:3 NASB). And bear in mind the broader principle captured in Jesus’s words to Peter: “What I am doing you do not understand now, but afterward you will understand” (John 13:7).

Examine the forces that shape your expectations. Do not let wrong assumptions fuel your discouragement or disillusionment. Your Christian life and your Christian church is much more like patient, faithful, slow farming than modern, efficient manufacturing. Trust your divine Farmer, your Vinedresser. He has very good reasons for maturing Christians and churches slowly, and not mass-producing them more quickly.

No One Follows Their Heart

No One Follows Their Heart

No one actually follows their heart. I know that sounds odd, given the prevalence of our cultural creed to “follow your heart.” But if we think carefully about what the “heart” really is and how it functions, we will see that this creed doesn’t make sense, and why it ends up confusing and misleading people.

A few years ago, I wrote an article titled, “Don’t Follow Your Heart,” in which I argued that, considering the heart’s pathologically selfish orientation, it is not a leader we should want to follow.

Some readers objected, arguing that as Christians our hearts of stone have been replaced with new hearts of flesh (Ezekiel 36:26), and therefore should be reliable to follow. I understand the point, though I believe it to be naïve. Romans 7 (and much of the New Testament) bears witness to — and my extensive personal experience and observation confirms — an active, deceptive sin nature still infecting the regenerate person, requiring us to remain wary and vigilant.

But in pursuing greater clarity, I’ll push my argument one step further and say, No one follows their heart. Because God did not make the heart to work that way.

What Is “the Heart”?

What do people mean when they say, “Follow your heart”? I doubt most have thought carefully about it. Since it’s always wise to know who one’s leader is before we decide whether it’s wise and safe to follow, we must ask, what is this immaterial thing we call “the heart”?

Have you ever tried to concisely answer that question? It might seem manifestly obvious at first — until you try it and realize the water is deeper and trickier than you thought. Here’s my attempt: the heart is the biblical metaphor for the part of our inner being (soul) that is the source of our affections.

Affections are our strong inclinations toward or away from someone or something. We tend to call these inclinations “loves” or “hates.” Affections are the gauges in the soul that tell us how much or little we treasure persons or things.

So we can say the heart is our soul’s treasurer, because Jesus said, “Where your treasure is, there your heart will be also” (Matthew 6:21). And since God is the supreme treasure in existence, we are to have the greatest affections for him — we are to love him with all our hearts (Matthew 22:37).

Beware the Power of a Phrase

Our heart desires what it treasures. In other words, the heart is a “wanter.” So, when people say, “Follow your heart,” what they really mean is, “Pursue what you want.” But saying it this way casts a revealing light and blows away some of the dreamy, euphemistic haze from our cultural creed.

Words are powerful. They can cut through a tangled overgrowth and reveal glorious truth or devious lies. Or they can obfuscate and manipulate and deceive. “Follow your heart” and “pursue what you want” are good examples of what I mean.

“Follow your heart” has a noble, heroic, adventurous, courageous ring to it. And it seems to carry a weight of moral obligation, as if to deny it would be to betray ourselves. It sounds nearly sacred. If someone is on a quest to follow their heart, it feels almost like a violation to question whether they should.

But the phrase “pursue what you want” is more crass, and its inherent dangers are more readily apparent. When we hear it, we intuitively recognize the moral ambiguities in play and feel ambivalence due to the selfishness we know infects our motives. We might disagree on what wants should be pursued, but we are all agreed that not all wants should be pursued. We all know our hearts have plenty of wants that aren’t good for our hearts.

But more than that, “pursue what you want” clarifies who follows what. The key words in this phrase are “what” and “want.” Our “wants” follow the “what.” If our heart is our “wanter,” it follows “what” it wants. If our heart is our treasurer, it follows (or pursues) what it treasures. In other words, we don’t follow our treasurer; our treasurer tells us what treasure to follow.

You Never Follow Your Heart

This is why the phrase “follow your heart” is confusing and misleading. It’s sort of like saying follow your follower, or treasure your treasurer, or want your wanter.

The truth is that you never actually follow your heart. The heart is the part of you that follows what you want. That’s why the Bible never instructs you to follow your heart. The Bible only instructs your heart to do what God designed it to do: to feel right affections. God tells your heart to treasure what is truly valuable (Matthew 13:44), to love what is right for the right reasons (Matthew 22:37–39), to trust what is true (Proverbs 3:5–6), and to hate what is evil (Psalm 97:10).

What you follow — what you pursue — is the object that stirs your heart’s affections. The exhortation “don’t follow your heart” bears repeating because I believe the enemy uses the cultural creed “follow your heart” to obscure the truth and manipulate people into deception.

“Follow your heart” is not benign. It’s a powerfully sounding, yet vague, impressionistic idea that sounds so close to being true that, if we aren’t careful, we will simply accept it at face value. And then it becomes a value that informs how we make our decisions and leads us down all sorts of selfish and destructive paths, all the while telling us that we’re simply and nobly being true to ourselves. If Satan can get us to keep our eyes on what we believe are our hearts’ sacred dreams, he knows he can keep us blind to the real treasure.

But God doesn’t want our eyes on our hearts, because hearts aren’t designed to be followed. Hearts are designed to be led and directed (2 Thessalonians 3:5). God wants the eyes of our hearts enlightened to see the real treasure and pursue it (Ephesians 1:18). That’s why he tells us to fix our eyes on Jesus, the author and perfecter of our faith (Hebrews 12:2). God doesn’t want us to erroneously think we follow our hearts; he wants us to know we follow Jesus.

My Soul Thirsts for You

My Soul Thirsts for You

How much do you think about water when you’re not thirsty? If you’re like the average person, not very much. If you’re health conscious, perhaps you think of water regularly as part of your overall wellness regimen — a disciplined hydration.

But how much do you think of water when you’re thirsty? A lot. You can’t help it. It’s near the forefront of your mind. The thirstier you feel, the more water dominates your thoughts. You begin to notice everything that has water connotations: cups, fountains, rain, pictures of water. The greater the thirst, the more earnest the search.

And the thirstier you are, the less you desire other liquids. Soda, for example, is most appealing as a form of liquid entertainment or distraction, and you might crave it if you feel a low-grade thirst. But when you feel parched, you don’t want soda — in fact, you don’t want any other liquid. You want the one thing that will most quench your thirst: water.

Water is really only experienced as satisfying when our real need for it makes us really want it. Likewise, God is only experienced as satisfying when our real need for him makes us really want him.

Earnestly I Seek You

Trudging through arid Judean wilderness, fleeing yet another assassination scheme, David pours out his craving before God,

O God, you are my God; earnestly I seek you; my soul thirsts for you; my flesh faints for you, as in a dry and weary land where there is no water. (Psalm 63:1)

Note carefully: what made David so earnest in his search for God? His thirst for God. And what made him so thirsty? No water — his experienced lack of God.

This is crucial to our understanding God’s ways and why he allows us to experience dry, barren, dark, oppressive seasons: our experienced lack of what we really need makes us really desire what we really need. This is the blessedness of the barren places: they teach us both to want most and to seek most what we need most. This is a painful gift of priceless worth, because it drives us like nothing else to the only fountain that will quench our soul-thirst, which is why David went on to say,

So I have looked upon you in the sanctuary, beholding your power and glory. (Psalm 63:2)

David’s soul-thirst drove him to seek his satisfaction in God. And that’s the purpose of your soul-thirst.

The Ill of All Ills

But David didn’t always feel this way. When he was at the height of his success, when he was wealthy, sated, and secure in his reign, his soul lost its desperate thirst for God. And what happened? Bathsheba became an enticing and intoxicating soul-beverage. He did something in his prosperity he never would have done while wandering the weary, waterless wilderness: he drank from the broken cistern of sexual immorality.

It is a great and sad irony of the fallen human heart: the very thing that makes the barren places blessed — the rousing of a desperate thirst for God — is too often and too easily doused by the very things we consider the blessings of abundance. When we don’t thirst for God, we suffer from a soul-sickness, and it is a serious disease. The hymnist, Frederick William Faber, described it like this:

For the lack of desire is the ill of all ills;
Many thousands through it the dark pathways have trod,
The balsam, the wine of predestinate wills
Is a jubilant pining and longing for God. (“The Desire of God”)

Is Faber overstating the case? I do not think so, for I believe with all my heart that God is most glorified in us when we are most satisfied in him. And we only seek our satisfaction most in God when God is what we desire most.

Better Than Life

A great desire can be — and in most cases should be — pursued through some regimen of discipline. And a regimen of discipline can stoke the fire of a waning desire. But discipline is no substitute for desire.

No act of great faith, no possessing of a great spiritual gift, no great sacrifice of goods, kindred, or this mortal life can take the place of love (1 Corinthians 13:1–3). No outward act of the worship of God can ever replace the inward wanting of God.

When David, pining with a thirst for God, earnestly sought him and looked on his power and glory, he said and wrote the equivalent of a thirsty man’s satisfied ahhh after a long draught of cool water,

Because your steadfast love is better than life, my lips will praise you. So I will bless you as long as I live; in your name I will lift up my hands. (Psalm 63:3–4)

There is no greater earthly experience than to drink of God and taste something that is better than staying alive on earth. Have you tasted that? Too few Christians have, I fear. At least in America it seems we are too easily content to talk about the truth that to live is Christ and to die is gain, without really tasting the truth for ourselves (Philippians 1:21). But once we taste it, we’ll never be content with mere talk.

Let Such Life Be Thine

Do not be content till you taste. Do not be content with a mere theological conviction that it is good to desire God. Do not be content with merely desiring to desire God. And for God’s sake (and yours), do not be content with merely having a reputation with others as someone who desires God. Do not be content till you taste and see that the Lord is good — so good that you realize he not only is the best thing in this life, he is better than this life (Psalm 34:8).

We will only taste of his goodness when we really thirst for him. We will not think much of God if we aren’t thirsty for him. But if our souls are parched for God, and we feel like we’ll faint unless we drink of him, we will seek him earnestly. Intense desire cuts through a thousand distractions and focuses us like nothing else.

So plead with God to receive the blessings of the barren places:

Yes, pine for thy God, fainting soul! ever pine;
Oh, languish mid all that life brings thee of mirth;
Famished, thirsty, and restless — let such life be thine —
For what sight is to heaven, desire is to earth. (Faber, “The Desire of God”)