We All Need Adversity and Affliction

We All Need Adversity and Affliction

My oldest child just celebrated his twenty-first birthday, and it has me thinking about the priceless benefits of adversity, affliction, and deep spiritual wrestling.

I’m thinking about them for two reasons. First, my most beneficial, faith-forging, character-developing, endurance-training, and joy-producing experiences have resulted from my most difficult, painful, fearful, dark, and doubt-inducing experiences. And second, my first real immersion into this reality happened when I was twenty-one.

What I learned was so important, so life shaping, that I long for my son — for all my children, for all who are young (and old) — to receive the same priceless benefits, even though they come through experiences parents often try to shield their children from. I want them to experience real, substantial, deep happiness, and not merely the thin, ephemeral pleasure-buzzes that masquerade as happiness. And like most treasures, such happiness is almost always discovered in the dark places.

Flabby Faith

I grew up in Middle America, spending most of my childhood in the 70s, and coming of age in the mid-80s. Which means my life was easy. Not that it was altogether easy. My working-class family had, like most families, plenty of spiritual, physical, and relational brokenness, sin, and pain. But I had parents who loved me, some really good friends, a solid church, and a decent, if deficient, public education. Above all that, God mercifully brought me to faith in Christ around age eleven. This provided me a spiritual and moral keel as I sailed the volatile waters of adolescence.

But I lived immersed in American affluence, which meant that even at the working-class level, I enjoyed an abundance of discretionary resources and time that had been unprecedented in human history until about a decade before my birth. I watched too much TV, ate too much food, and spent too much time and money on idle entertainment. Which meant I developed very little “grit.”

The summer I turned twenty-one, I felt unsettled. I sensed the softness and selfish orientation of my overall character, and I was troubled that my experiential knowledge of God was much shallower than my theoretical knowledge of God. My experiential understanding of Christian love and faith was much shallower than my creedal understanding of Christian love and faith.

“God, Break Me!”

So, my twenty-first birthday found me praying radical prayers. “God, break through! God, break me!” I really wanted God to transform my authentic, but largely untested, flabby faith into something fibrous, strong, and persevering. I wanted faith that resembled what I saw in the New Testament.

One night, after praying such things with a few friends, one told me that while I was praying, he discerned the Spirit indicating that God was going to answer my prayers, but not in the ways I expected.

This turned out to be very true. A month after my birthday, I was suddenly plunged into a season of trial and affliction on multiple levels — pain I had never known and could never have predicted. It was frightening, it was disorienting, it was depressing, and it was soul-shaking. It tested me on almost every level and pressed me beyond what I thought were my limits. And it was prolonged, lasting a number of years. It was the worst thing I had ever experienced up to that point.

And it was one of the best things that has ever happened to me. The work God did in me through this affliction accomplished all I had prayed for, and more than I had asked or thought. It forced theory into practice, abstract creed into concrete deed. It forced me to really live what I professed — to really believe what I truly believed.

Painful Discipline, Peaceful Fruit

In the middle of that dark time, I wanted out of it so badly. But afterwards, when I began to realize what it had produced in me, how much more real God had become, how much more I trusted the reliability of his word, how deep the roots of faith had pushed, how fibrous, thick, and strong the trunk and branches of faith had grown, and how it was starting to bear spiritual fruit in ways that benefited others, that season of affliction became precious beyond measure. Or, in better words,

For the moment all discipline seems painful rather than pleasant, but later it yields the peaceful fruit of righteousness to those who have been trained by it. (Hebrews 12:11)

It is no overstatement when I say that this experience of hardship, adversity, depression, affliction, and spiritual oppression, along with other, even more difficult experiences since, have shaped who I am and all I do, even to today. They affect my marriage and ministry, my parenting and pastoring. They season all my writing, teaching, and counseling.

Holy FOMO

That’s why now my counsel to young adults, including (and especially) my children, is this: ask God to discipline you. Ask him! Perhaps ask sounds too polite. Plead for it! Grab hold of God, so to speak, and say, “I will not let you go unless you bless me” (Genesis 32:26). For your loving Father’s discipline is a blessing. It’s one of the greatest blessings you’ll receive, since God only “disciplines us for our good, that we may share his holiness” (Hebrews 12:10).

If you want to really know God, if you want to really treasure his word, if you really want fibrous faith, if you really want freedom from addiction to empty, ephemeral pleasure-buzzes, you need a holy FOMO: a fear of missing out on the deep pleasures of God that exceeds your fear of the painful discipline it may require. I’m here to tell you it is worth it. The psalmist is telling the truth:

It is good for me that I was afflicted, that I might learn your statutes. The law of your mouth is better to me than thousands of gold and silver pieces. (Psalm 119:71–72)

I would not exchange any of my discipline-afflictions for anything. In fact, I have made it a habit to keep asking God to discipline me. This isn’t because I love affliction, but because the hope in God I’ve tasted in the promises of God I’ve trusted in the darkest days are the sweetest things my soul has ever known.

True Greatness Is Given, Not Taken

True Greatness Is Given, Not Taken

God made you great — incredibly great, far greater than you yet comprehend. I’m not saying this to pander to your self-esteem. I’m stating a fact — a fact that you, unless you’re the rare exception, vastly underappreciate because you’re so conditioned to value the wrong kind of greatness.

The greatness we’re conditioned to value is hardly great at all. In fact, much of it is smoke and mirrors. And when there is a trace of greatness, it is pathetically small.

Jesus came to deliver us from the blinding and impoverishing power of counterfeit or tiny greatness, and to restore to us both our true God-like greatness and our expansive capacities to enjoy it with God-like, gargantuan humility.

Towering Greatness

You barely have a clue what an absolutely astounding creature you are. That thing inside your skull allowing you to read and contemplate what I’m saying is the most complex, mysterious thing in the known material universe. Your brain, as defective as it might be, is simply breathtaking — more amazing than any star or galaxy.

Your capacities to reason abstractly; solve complex problems through deduction, induction, and invention; organize disorder; plan for the future; understand verbal, written, gestured, and tactile languages; appreciate the subtleties of irony; find discontinuity humorous; and enjoy the manifold beauties of harmony and dissonance, symmetry and asymmetry, color and pattern combinations are nothing short of marvelous genius.

Your capacities for visual, auditory, olfactory, somatosensory (touch, feel, pressure, warmth), and emotional memory are so wonderful we lack adequate superlatives.

And your emotional capacities to love and hate, to worship and despise, to cherish and grieve, to create and destroy, and for joy and sorrow are so far beyond any other known material species that to say, as a human, you are in a league of your own is an astronomical understatement.

You are truly God-like. You, just as you are, possess a greatness so rare and astonishing that could you see yourself for what you really are, most of your chronic battles with inadequacy would disappear.

Tiny Greatness

And yet it’s likely this description of your greatness, of which I’ve barely scratched the surface, does not impress you much. Why? Because you and I have been deceived about what greatness is. We’ve become conditioned to admire tiny greatness.

Tiny greatness is relative greatness — greatness defined and measured by comparison with other people. It’s not enough to possess God-given greatness; we must be greater than other great people or it doesn’t really matter.

Our sin nature is pathologically selfish and replaces God with the self as the standard of greatness measure. It calculates the value of everyone and everything else in relation to the self — how we rank in comparison and how they increase or decrease our perceived relative standing.

This is tiny greatness at best, and counterfeit greatness at worst, because it despises the immense, inherent, God-given worth of people and things and instead bases its evaluation on the minuscule differential range of talent and circumstance that result in public admiration, what we call “fame.”

When we’re enthralled with tiny greatness, we value or devalue ourselves (derive our self-esteem) based on where we think we rank in our preferred or accessible social context, and value or devalue others based on how they enhance or detract from our perceived rank, our relative greatness.

The great, tragic irony of a selfish preoccupation with tiny greatness is that truly great things appear small to us, priceless things appear worthles, magnificent things appear boring, and God appears of marginal importance.

A Portrait of Tiny Greatness

The Bible gives us a portrait of the blinding and impoverishing power of tiny greatness in Acts 8.

Simon was a local celebrity in his Samaritan town. A magician of sorts, he had mesmerized the locals with his arts, and they had given him a title: The Great Power of God (Acts 8:10). Simon loved his great reputation and fed off the public’s admiration.

Then one day Philip showed up in town. He preached the gospel and the Holy Spirit came with power, granting Philip signs and wonders beyond anything Simon had performed. Large numbers of Samaritans professed faith in Christ and were baptized, including Simon.

Soon Peter and John arrived and joined in to help with this revival. Simon watched in awe as the apostles prayed and Samaritans were filled with the Holy Spirit. The crowds got bigger. Everyone was talking about the great power of God.

But they weren’t talking about Simon anymore. His star had been eclipsed. And like many who have experienced the euphoric drug of other people’s admiration, Simon wanted that rush again.

So, at a discreet moment, he offered Peter and John a small fortune if they would deal him a fix of the tiny-greatness drug of the Holy Spirit. Peter, who knew from personal experience the great danger of worshiping the idol of tiny greatness (Luke 9:46–48; 22:24–27), mercifully spared Simon no words:

“May your silver perish with you, because you thought you could obtain the gift of God with money! You have neither part nor lot in this matter, for your heart is not right before God. Repent, therefore, of this wickedness of yours, and pray to the Lord that, if possible, the intent of your heart may be forgiven you. For I see that you are in the gall of bitterness and in the bond of iniquity.” (Acts 8:20–23)

God-Like Greatness Is a Gift

Simon is a warning to us. He saw the great power of God with his own eyes, but he didn’t see its real value. He didn’t value God, the gospel, the gifts of the Holy Spirit, the apostles, and his fellow townspeople for what they really were. He shrunk them all down into mere means for the enhancement of his own personal brand. And in doing so, he reduced himself to a tiny, cheap replica of what God actually made him to be.

But hear the gospel in Peter’s words: “the gift of God” (Acts 8:20). This is what God offers us: exchanging a phantasmal, constrictive, destructive life of pursuing tiny, selfish greatness for an eternally substantive, expansive, creative life of awe, joy, love, and worship, seeing everyone and everything in all their God-bestowed glorious greatness.

It’s all grace! It always has been. Everything is a gift, from our inherent priceless worth as human beings created in God’s image to be wonderfully great, to the priceless, supremely great work of Christ that fully redeems us from the guilt of all sin, to the priceless inheritance of eternal life and all that comes with it — it is all the gift of God.

And the more we recognize everything as a gift, the freer we are to enjoy even our own greatness without the devaluating, distorting effect of sinful pride. For gifts are graces freely received, not merits earned. We are great creations because our Creator and Redeemer and Sustainer is preeminently, supremely great, and because he made us like himself.

What makes you great is not your ability to supply the demand of market forces in your social economy of public admiration. In fact, the more self-consciously you strive to achieve relative greatness, the less truly great you become. Your greatness comes as a gift from God. And paradoxically, you will realize more of your true value, and the true value of everything else, when you are less preoccupied with your own value and more preoccupied with God’s.

Lay Aside the Weight of Perfection

Lay Aside the Weight of Perfection

The adage “the perfect is the enemy of the good” has been around a long time. Recently, productivity experts have put a twist on it to emphasize the consequence: “the perfect is the enemy of the done.”

We all know the truth in these sayings. All of us at times neglect to do what we can do for fear of not doing it perfectly. Our cultural term for this is “perfectionism.”

What Fuels Perfectionism?

What we call perfectionism is not the same as the pursuit of excellence, though sometimes the lines can blur. When we pursue excellence, we’re determined to do something as well as possible within a given set of talent, resource, and time limits. But perfectionism is a pride- or fear-based compulsion that either fuels our obsessive fixation on doing something perfectly or paralyzes us from acting at all — both of which often result in the harmful neglect of other necessary or good things.

What’s behind our perfectionistic tendencies? We’re complex beings, so it’s rarely just one thing. In unusual cases, its primary cause is a clinical disorder or spiritual bondage. But as a rule, perfectionism nearly always has its roots in our desire for acceptance and fear of rejection. It can be the garden-variety, pride-fueled, general fear of what people will think of us, or it can be a crippling, conditioned fear of failing instilled into us by an abusive past or present authority figure. And if we’re honest, sometimes it’s a convenient excuse not to do something hard. In other words, it’s not really perfectionism, but indulgence wearing a disguise.

Perfectionism is a common-to-man temptation we all face in our fight against sin. And the wonderful news is that God wants us to live in freedom from its tyrannical rule over us.

“You Must Be Perfect”

But to understand and believe this, we must first understand something Jesus said that sounds contradictory: “You must be perfect, as your heavenly Father is perfect” (Matthew 5:48). This sure sounds like a demand for perfection on the face of it. And it is, and therefore it isn’t.

Jesus, in his Sermon on the Mount, made this statement as the impossible culmination of the (fallen) humanly impossible standards of what it means to not sin in anger, lust, divorce, swearing oaths, and retaliation, as well as what it means to love our enemies.

But just before he launches into this “perfection” section of his sermon, Jesus gives us a clue to what he means: “Do not think that I have come to abolish the Law or the Prophets; I have not come to abolish them but to fulfill them” (Matthew 5:17). Jesus came to perfectly fulfill on our behalf God’s demand on us for perfection.

That’s why the New Testament authors write things like, “by a single offering [Jesus] has perfected for all time those who are being sanctified” (Hebrews 10:14). There is the key to what Jesus meant, and the key to our liberation from the tyranny of perfectionism. Because Jesus perfectly lived, died, and rose again for us, he has already purchased our perfection. And God the Father, though not unaware of the remaining sin that contaminates everything we do, sees us as perfectly righteous in Christ.

In God’s eyes, we have been perfected by virtue of being joined to Jesus by faith, which frees us from needing to earn his or anyone else’s approval through perfectionism. We are free to engage imperfectly in our sanctifying fight against sin!

Imperfect Saints Fill the Bible

The Bible nowhere encourages us toward perfectionism. It promises us perfection — imputed perfection now (2 Corinthians 5:21) and future perfection in the age to come (Revelation 21:3–4) — as a free gift of God’s grace, so that we will be free from perfectionism.

That’s why God goes to great lengths to expose the imperfect, clay feet of the Bible’s faith heroes. Abraham, the great model of faith, has his Hagar episode. Moses, the great Christlike prophet, has his disqualifying rock incident. Aaron, the great Christlike high priest, has his golden calf disaster. David, the great Christlike king, has his Bathsheba affair. Peter, the great apostle and Christ-confessor, trips over his clay feet throughout the Gospels and beyond (Galatians 2:11–14). And Acts and the Epistles give us a warts-and-all view into the imperfect lives of the earliest Christians.

God knows our perfectionistic temptations and tendencies, and so he fills the Bible with stories of his amazing and phenomenally patient grace toward sinners who continued to imperfectly fight with, and stumble in, their sin throughout their earthly sojourns. He wants us to know that perfection in behavior and motivation is completely out of our experiential reach in this age.

Live Free from Perfectionism

God has something far better for us to strive toward than our idealized imaginations of perfection, which only end up enslaving us.

Perfectionism’s subtle, but great danger is its self-orientation. Since it is a fear- or pride-fueled effort to win approval for the self, its primary focus is de facto on self, not God or others. In other words, perfectionism, even in the battle against sin, is not motivated by love or faith. And “whatever does not proceed from faith is sin” (Romans 14:23).

But God wants us to be free — free from the tyranny of pride and fear. He wants us to live in the freedom of knowing that he has our past, present, and future perfection issues completely covered.

In our ongoing battles with sin, God is not looking for perfect, externally performed behavior or perfect, internally performed motivation from us. God is looking for love and faith, knowing full well both will be imperfect, no matter how much we grow in them.

You Are Free to Fight Imperfectly

God is calling us to the wonderfully refreshing experience of getting our eyes off ourselves and how we’re measuring up, and onto Jesus (Hebrews 12:2). He wants us to stop pursuing or being paralyzed by perfectionism so we are free to pursue love (1 Corinthians 14:1; 1 Timothy 1:5) and pursue trusting him with all our hearts (Proverbs 3:5). And if perfectionism has an inordinate influence on us, God will mercifully design circumstances to defeat our best efforts to fight sin “successfully” until we learn where our freedom really comes from.

In Christ, you are free! You are free to follow Jesus imperfectly. You are free to fight the fight of faith defectively, because that’s the only way you will ever fight for faith in this age.

Perfectionism is a ponderous weight we must lay aside in the race of faith (Hebrews 12:1). God doesn’t want us to focus on performing perfectly; he wants us to focus on living out a childlike, dependent faith through authentic acts of love (Galatians 5:6).

Is Your Pain the Root of Porn Use?

Is Your Pain the Root of Porn Use?

The real root of sexual sin — all sexual sin — is pride. Therefore, I argued recently that the most powerful weapon against sexual impurity is humility.

One reader wrote to me with an objection. He shared how for over two decades he had unsuccessfully battled an addiction to pornography. This sin destroyed his marriage, ruined friendships, and killed aspects of his ministry as a Christian.

He had prayed countless times over those years for deliverance, but couldn’t get free until about a year ago when the Lord helped him address deep emotional pain and face certain fears. Now he experiences much greater freedom. Pain and fear, he said, were “the root issue[s] that drove me to use porn to medicate.” He believes his pride in hiding his sin contributed to his bondage, but his pain was at the root.

I’m grateful this reader so humbly shared his past struggle and his current freedom (praise God!). The issue he addresses is an important one, and I didn’t address it clearly in my article. While I believe deep emotional pain can play a significant role in our sexual sin, I don’t believe pain is ever at the root of sin.

Pain and Sexual Sin

What does the Bible have to say? I’m amazed that the Bible never references our past pain when directly addressing our sexual sin. Why might that be?

Is it because we now experience whole new levels of evil and abuse that didn’t occur back then? Clearly not. Are we more sexually broken now? No. A survey of the sexual prohibitions in Leviticus 18–20 — the sinful sexual practices of the inhabitants of Canaan (which are probably not exhaustive) — reveal just how long sexual perversion and abuse have been part of the human experience.

Is it because the Bible was written before we really understood human psychology and the effects of emotional pain? No. The ancients had different cultural and value blind spots than we have, but they were by no means psychologically ignorant. The Bible in particular is amazingly penetrating when it comes to the human psyche. The New Testament love ethic, which if embraced brings profound emotional healing and health, remains far more radical and progressive than twenty-first-century people are generally willing to be (Luke 6:27; 10:27; Romans 12:9–21; 1 Corinthians 13:4–7; 1 Peter 4:8).

Then, why is it that when we read about the woman at the well in John 4, the adulteress in John 8, the incestuous man in 1 Corinthians 5, general human sexual immorality in Romans 1, or any other text where sexual sin is mentioned, the Bible doesn’t identify emotional pain in connection to our sexual sin? It’s because the Bible doesn’t see pain as the root issue. It tells us that we are “tempted when [we are] lured and enticed by [our] own desire,” which “when it has conceived gives birth to sin” (James 1:14–15).

God Knows Your Pain

But the Bible is anything but silent about our pain. The whole book is about the glory of God in our salvation from the psychologically destructive guilt of sin and deliverance from all emotionally wounding evil and futility.

The world has no therapy to compare with the healing our damaged and diseased souls experience when we receive God’s complete forgiveness of our sins and extend the same forgiveness to those who’ve sinned against us (Luke 11:4; Matthew 18:21–22; Romans 12:19–21).

God is more in touch with our pain than we likely grasp or perhaps believe. Jesus came to endure all the same temptations we face and to suffer more rejection, abuse, and horror than we ever will. And he did this so he might not only be the perfect sacrifice for our sins (Hebrews 9:25–26), but also become the most sympathetic, compassionate, merciful high priest we could possibly have. In him, we draw near to God despite all our defilement, and receive all the grace we need for all our brokenness from his incomprehensively big, loving heart (Hebrews 4:14–16).

Pride Manipulates Pain

So, what role does emotional pain play in our sexual sin? It makes us more vulnerable to our own sinful pride.

In saying this, I am not blaming victims of sexual, physical, or emotional abuse for the damage others have inflicted upon them. The damage is real and horrible. I have dear loved ones who have suffered unspeakable things and consequently struggle in numerous ways, including sinful sexual issues. I tremble over the judgment that will befall the perpetrators if they do not repent and seek refuge in the only real refuge: Christ.

But what is going on inside us when we try to medicate our pain through sinful sexual thoughts or behaviors? We are experiencing the terrible reality that our enemies are not only external abusers. Our worst enemy is within. This enemy seizes the vulnerability of our legitimate pain, which cries out for real healing and manipulates it as an opportunity to consume others for its own benefit.

And the awful truth is this enemy is our own sin nature. I identify this sin as pride, because throughout church history pride has typically been considered the source sin, the deepest sin root for every sin fruit.

And it’s our pride that wants to believe sinful sexual gratification will medicate our pain. And it’s not just sex. Pride wants to believe other sinful perversions of good things will also medicate. It moves us to medicate with overeating, anorexia, alcoholism, and workaholism. It moves us to try medicating with “cleaner” obsessive pursuits, like academic or athletic achievement, fitness, others’ approval, social status, parenting success, and ministry success. Pride even moves us to try medicating with medication — the sinful use of prescription or illicit drugs.

Address Pain, Kill Pride

This is why I say pride, not pain, is the root of sexual (and other kinds of) sin. Pain provides a vulnerable weakness and therefore an opportunity for sin. But it’s sinful pride that seizes that opportunity to pursue our selfish desires (James 1:14).

There’s no question that pain can be a significant factor in our battles with sexual sin. Deep soul-wounds can make us vulnerable to particular sinful temptations, so to address sexual struggles we often must address pain-induced vulnerabilities.

But the root of sin is pride, not pain. Pride perverts. When pain wants comfort, and we are drawn to seek comfort in sin, pride is manipulating our legitimate desire for healing into a selfish pursuit of consuming others. And if we capitulate and then experience conviction or are somehow exposed, it will quickly morph into self-pity and make this defense: “I did this because I am wounded.” But that’s not true. We feel pain because we’re wounded; we pursue sin because we’re prideful.

We must address our pain with the healing God offers. But we must also be killing our pride. Which is why our most powerful weapon against sexual sin is humility.

Always ‘Be’ Before You ‘Do’

Always ‘Be’ Before You ‘Do’

A few months back, I purchased a pair of shoes. Printed on the side of the shoebox was the company’s slogan: Go. Do. Be.

Do you see anything wrong with this advice? I hardly gave it a thought at the time. But now I’m giving it a lot of thought, because this kind of advice destroys lives.

Now, to be fair, the shoe company’s slogan is only a pithy restatement of something we’re all spring-loaded to believe already. “Go. Do. Be.” is a core belief about what makes us who we are. It’s part of the code in the operating system of every person’s fallen human nature. But this belief is a virus — an alien code infecting everyone, including Christians — and is the cause of many of our greatest “crashes” of misery.

“Go. Do. Be.” is “a way that seems right to a man, but its end is the way to death” (Proverbs 14:12). We must examine ourselves carefully and honestly. For the degree this ethic-virus wields influence over us is the degree to which we don’t experience the freedom for which Christ has set us free (Galatians 5:1), fail to live in Christian love toward others (John 13:34–35), and neglect the Great Commission (Matthew 28:19–20).

To Be or Not to Be?

I didn’t notice the virus embedded in the slogan, or how much it still infects me, despite my gospel-celebrating theology, until I recently listened to a very helpful message by Ken Fish, where he describes this deadly virus with even greater clarity.

Ken emphasizes that, until the gospel really gets a hold of us, we seek our identity — who we are — through this progression of ethical reasoning: if we do ___, we will have ___, and then become ___. And how we fill in those blanks, where we believe our identity comes from, governs how we live.

This is powerfully clarifying. Think about it for a moment. Are any of your familiar, recurring anxieties and fears rooted in the belief that if you don’t do ___, you’ll never have ___, and therefore never become ___? How much of your time and energy expenditures, your financial issues, your social-media activity, your battles with envy, your relational conflicts, maybe even your ministry labors are being fueled by such “to be or not to be” fears or desires?

Ancient Hack

The “Do. Have. Be.” virus has been around a long time. The infection happened in Eden when the serpent successfully hacked our operating systems as he tempted our first forebears (Genesis 3:4–5): if you eat the fruit (do), then you will acquire God’s wisdom (have), and become like God (be).

Do you see what happened? Satan pursued our ancestors’ (and our) destruction by offering them (and us) a false gospel of an impossible identity, and selling it as the path to true happiness, rather than the path of complete childlike, soul-resting trust — the path of righteousness on which their Great Shepherd-God was leading them (and us) (Psalm 23:3).

Eve (and Adam), don’t be content with just being like God as image-bearers when you can be like God by becoming gods yourselves. God’s holding out on you guys. If you stop trusting God and start trusting yourselves, you won’t need to be an eternal recipient of divine wisdom welfare. You don’t always need to be dependent on God to tell you what to do and not do. You can decide for yourselves!

If you do this thing, you will have something better, and it will make you become something awesome.

But this turned out to be horrible, truly diabolical advice. It was a false gospel to believe, a “Do. Have. Be.” ethic-virus corrupting our operating systems, turning our lives into a chase of an identity-carrot on a stick we can never reach — a search for a holy identity-grail we can never find. This has been the history of fallen humanity ever since: a destructive, despairing rat race to hell.

Gospel Reinstallation

Until God the Son, the Gospel Made Flesh before us, stepped into the world to destroy this false gospel — this virus-work of the devil (1 John 3:8).

Jesus came to deliver us from this hellish, enslaving, futile rat race by declaring to us the true gospel and doing everything necessary so that we might be born again (John 3:3). Being born again means receiving a new nature, a new operating system that restores our three-word identity ethic-code from the satanic “Do. Have. Be.” virus, back to the Manufacturer’s original ethic-code “Be. Do. Have.

“Be. Do. Have.” is a simple description of a profound, revolutionary gospel transformation in us. Instead of seeking our identity through doing-having, our progression of ethical reasoning becomes: we are ___, therefore we do ___, resulting in our having ___. And how we fill in those blanks, where we believe our identity comes from, governs how we live.

Living out of the “be” instead of the “do” makes all the difference in the world. Instead of chasing our identity by trying so hard to “do,” we receive our true identity (be) as a free gift of grace from our loving Creator God (Ephesians 2:8; 1:4–5). We are free to follow our Good Shepherd along the righteous paths of good works (do) he prepared for us (Ephesians 2:10). And we trust him to supply (have) everything we need (Philippians 4:19), knowing we will never again want for any good, necessary thing on earth and someday dwell with God forever, completely free from the effects of our old, virus-infected operating system (Psalm 23:1–3, 6).

Living with Duel Systems

But for now, we Christians live with duel operating systems: what the Bible calls the “old self” and the “new self.”

Do not lie to one another, seeing that you have put off the old self with its practices and have put on the new self, which is being renewed in knowledge after the image of its creator. (Colossians 3:9–10)

It’s clear in this text, and many others in Scripture, that the old, infected operating system still wields influence over us if we allow it. If we are not careful, or we’re not honest, the ancient virus will deceive us and enslave us. We will stop living in the freedom Jesus purchased and provided us and live again in slavery to our old self.

This results in the death of our love for others, for we become too preoccupied with seeking our “being” in our “doing” to want to serve others (Galatians 5:13). The cascading effect is that we also neglect the kingdom work in general, leaving some part of Christ’s commission unfulfilled (Matthew 28:19–20).

Always ‘Be’ First

Is it any wonder Satan works so hard to get us to live according to the old operating system? If he can convince us to believe the “Do. Have. Be.” lie, we no longer threaten his kingdom, since we’re too busy building our own. If he can get entire churches and wider Christian cultures to live by this lie, he significantly slows the spread of Jesus’s kingdom.

How do we know how much the old virus is affecting us?

  • We examine the anxieties and fears governing how we live — why we are so afraid (Matthew 8:26; 10:28).
  • We examine how much we serve money — why we are pursuing our educations, our careers, and our lifestyles (Matthew 6:24; Luke 12:15). As Ken Fish says, “‘Do. Have. Be.’ is . . . embodied in the middle-class lifestyle.”
  • We examine the root of our busyness — whether we are really seeking the kingdom first (Matthew 6:33).
  • We examine our use of social media — how we are trying to get our “being” through the “doing” of seeking others’ approval. As we browse, do we find ourselves coveting others’ worldly identities?
  • We examine our engagement in Jesus’s mission — how much we’re trying to help free others from their satanic enslavement to the false gospel. Are we ashamed of Jesus because publicly identifying with him and his gospel will harm the “being” we’re “doing” so much to obtain (Luke 9:26; Romans 1:16)?

These are just a few suggestions, but they are helping me see my virus-infection more clearly.

Jesus came with the true gospel and the gift of the new birth to set us free (John 8:32). We must not allow the old, corrupt virus to dictate our lives. We must refuse to “submit again to a yoke of slavery,” by living out of the old “Do. Have. Be.” ethic (Galatians 5:1). “For freedom Christ has set us free,” so let us “stand firm” by living out of the liberating gospel ethic of “Be. Do. Have.” (Galatians 5:1).

When it comes to the source of our identity, discerning and then choosing which operating system governs how we live, we must always “be” first.

The Real Root of Sexual Sin

The Real Root of Sexual Sin

The most powerful weapon against sexual impurity is humility. Patterns of sinful thought and behavior are fruits of a deeper root. If we want to stop bearing bad fruit, we must aim our primary attack against the root. And the root of sexual sin is not our sex drive; it’s pride.

We live in an age dominated by Darwinian explanations of biology and psychology. So we easily absorb certain naturalistic assumptions. One such assumption is that our sexual drives and impulses are remnants of our primordial, bestial ancestors, and therefore we deal with them with cages of external personal and social restraints.

This is a very conflicted perspective. It views us as both victims and monsters. On one hand, we’re victims of our ancient past, and on the other hand, we’re sexual monsters if we express our primal impulses in ways not sanctioned by the prevailing level of social tolerance.

It’s also a wholly inadequate explanation in view of the consuming of our sexual problem. The degrees of human sexual depravity, distortion, and destruction are of such a nature that nearly everyone thinks things and many do things that we have no other word for than evil.

Sex Is Not the Problem

It’s shocking how little our inner evil bestial impulses have to do with our primal genetic intent: procreation. No other human instinct has so many deviations in its expressions. Our culture can’t keep up with the expanding sexual definitions. LGBTQ is now just shorthand for LGBTTQQIAAPPK (lesbian, gay, bisexual, transgender, transsexual, queer, questioning, intersex, asexual, ally, pansexual, polygamous, kinkiness). And this is likely obsolete already. It’s getting tragically ridiculous.

But since Darwinism denies any basis for assigning moral value to anything, we can’t term something a “perversion,” because this word has moral connotations. So we’re trying to solve the problem of human sexual perversion by eliminating the concept of sexual perversion. But this can’t scale to embrace all sexual expressions without destroying people and society.

And it won’t work, because the root problem isn’t actually a sexual one.

Root of All Sin

What does the Bible diagnose as the root of human sexual perversion — what we often and rightly call sexual brokenness? We can see it clearly in Romans 1:21–26,

For although they knew God, they did not honor him as God or give thanks to him, but they became futile in their thinking, and their foolish hearts were darkened. Claiming to be wise, they became fools, and exchanged the glory of the immortal God for images resembling mortal man and birds and animals and creeping things. Therefore God gave them up in the lusts of their hearts to impurity, to the dishonoring of their bodies among themselves, because they exchanged the truth about God for a lie and worshiped and served the creature rather than the Creator, who is blessed forever! Amen. For this reason God gave them up to dishonorable passions.

“Dishonorable passions,” which refers to sexual sin in all its deviant heterosexual, homosexual, and other expressions, is a manifestation of humanity unhinged from its Creator. The real root of perversion, bearing fruit in expressions of sexual perversions, is human pride.

Pride is a black hole of consuming selfishness at the core of fallen human nature. Pride’s nature is to consume, to bring into the self. It sees other people, all of creation, and God himself as things to use in service to the self’s desires.

We all know this by experience. We know the more we feed any expression of pride, whether through sex or anger or covetousness or whatever, pride’s appetite grows and urges us to consume more and more.

So just as gluttony or anorexia is pride infecting and manipulating the self’s orientation toward food, or greed is pride infecting and manipulating the self’s orientation toward money, sexual immorality and perversions are pride infecting and manipulating the self’s orientation toward sex. Sexual sin is unhinged human pride rejecting the Creator in order to sexually consume others for the benefit of the self.

Personal Pride, Corporate Judgment

This does not mean, however, that there’s an exact correlation between the nature of our particular sexual brokenness and our personal rebellion against God. We are all born with natures in rebellion against God. But our individual sexuality is shaped by a host of biological, personal, family, and social/cultural influences. Some factors we’re born with, some may have been abusively forced upon us, and some we sinfully embrace and nourish. The Bible acknowledges all these factors.

But when Paul says God gives up a people “in the lusts of their hearts to impurity,” he’s mainly (though not exclusively) referring to a corporate judgment. The more a people unhinge themselves from God’s ordained limits, the more God removes the restraints on the sexual expressions of pride, resulting in a societal slide into consuming sexual destruction.

So what we must keep in mind that no matter what sexual orientation or dysfunction or distortion we’re dealing with, our biggest personal and corporate problem is not sexual; it’s pride.

You Are Not Your Own

Our most powerful weapon in the fight against sexual impurity is not a cage to hem in our depraved impulses, nor is it increased tolerance of sexual deviancy, but a profound humility. And humility is a deep realization and embrace of the truth that we are not our own. This is why Paul gave the Corinthians this counsel regarding sexual sin:

Flee from sexual immorality. Every other sin a person commits is outside the body, but the sexually immoral person sins against his own body. Or do you not know that your body is a temple of the Holy Spirit within you, whom you have from God? You are not your own, for you were bought with a price. So glorify God in your body. (1 Corinthians 6:18–20)

Yes, fleeing from an enticing sexual temptation — taking behavioral action — is necessary. But notice that Paul’s primary emphasis is not behavior modification, nor is it deliverance from demonic oppression, both of which are realities of our complex human experience and so have some place in our fight for sexual purity. Paul sees the primary issue in our sexual struggle as the remaining pride within us.

That’s why the key to our freedom, the great killer of our sexual sin, is in our embracing this reality:

I have been crucified with Christ. It is no longer I who live, but Christ who lives in me. And the life I now live in the flesh I live by faith in the Son of God, who loved me and gave himself for me. (Galatians 2:20)

This is what it means that we are not our own. This is what sin-killing humility looks like. This is the death of pride and all its perverting power over us.

Freedom is not the freedom to express our pride-fueled sexual desires. Freedom is the humble belief that we are not our own, and therefore not enslaved to our all-consuming pride, but free to be what God created us to be.

Love the One You’re With

Love the One You’re With

It can be really hard to love the church. Every Christian, who’s been one for very long, knows this.

The earthly church has always been a motley crew. It’s never been ideal. The New Testament exists because churches, to differing degrees, have always been a mess — a glorious mess of saints still polluted by remaining sin, affected by defective genes, brains, and bodies, and influenced by life-shaping pasts.

This mess rarely looks glorious to us up close. It looks like a lot of sin and a lot of blood, sweat, and tears invested into a lot of futility. It often looks like something we’d rather escape than join.

But this is the way it’s supposed to be. Because the mess is what draws out the one thing that advances the church’s mission more than anything else. And this one thing is why we must not, for selfish reasons, leave the church.

The Church We Didn’t Choose

Jesus’s very first disciples didn’t get to choose each other. Jesus chose them (John 15:16). They just found themselves thrown together.

The very next generation of early Christians didn’t get to choose each other either. They too were thrown together with others they likely wouldn’t have chosen: Palestinian and Hellenistic Jews, Jews and Gentiles, educated and uneducated, slaves and slave owners, impoverished and aristocrats, former zealots and former tax collectors, former prostitutes and former Pharisees.

And Jesus gave these early disciples, and all disciples afterward, an impossible command: love one another (John 15:17). It had to be impossible to obey in mere human power because this love was meant to bear witness of Jesus in the world (John 13:35), and to give visible evidence of the invisible God (1 John 4:12). It had to demonstrate that “what is impossible with man is possible with God” (Luke 18:27).

And Jesus gave his disciples an impossible context in which to carry out this impossible command: the church (Matthew 16:18) — a community of diverse, sin-polluted, defective individuals from all sorts of life-shaping pasts living life together in an impossible love.

Then Jesus gave his church an impossible mission: preach the gospel throughout the whole, God-rejecting, Christ-hating world (Luke 21:17; John 15:18), and plant impossible communities among every people where diverse, sin-polluted, defective individuals from all sorts of life-shaping pasts would live out Jesus’s impossible command to love one another (Matthew 28:19–20).

Impossible love, impossible community, and impossible mission: this is a plan doomed to fail. There’s no way this works, unless a God exists who makes possible the humanly impossible.

And here we are, two thousand years later. The impossible mission has produced impossible communities carrying out this impossible command throughout much of the world. For all the church’s problems, and they are legion, something miraculous is at work here.

Miraculous, Struggling Community

But the church rarely looks miraculous at any given moment. “The church,” as we most directly experience it, looks like the less-than-ideal local church we belong to, made up of ordinary people struggling to get along, struggling to figure out how to “do church” in a world of constant change, and struggling to do its part to fulfill the Great Commission.

Struggling doesn’t look or feel miraculous. It’s fatiguing, frustrating, and at times exasperating. Struggling can make us want to give up.

But we must not give up on the church. Because it’s the messy things — those extraordinarily difficult and painful things that can drive us crazy — that provide the very opportunities for the humanly impossible love of Christ to be exercised, giving visibility to the existence of the invisible God.

According to the New Testament, a church’s success is not measured by the number of its attenders, the size of its budget, the excellence of its event production, or the scope of its public influence. Its success is measured by the quality of its love. A church that most effectively witnesses Jesus in the world pursues love through:

  • Honoring each other (Romans 12:10),
  • Contributing to meet each other’s needs (Romans 12:13),
  • Showing hospitality to one another (Romans 12:13),
  • Rejoicing over each other’s joys (Romans 12:15),
  • Weeping over each other’s griefs (Romans 12:15),
  • Pursuing harmony with each other in spite of differences (Romans 12:16),
  • Not excluding the lowliest members (Romans 12:16),
  • Submitting to each other (Ephesians 5:21),
  • Persistently striving for agreement over thorny issues (2 Corinthians 13:11),
  • Using individual freedom in Christ to serve each other (Galatians 5:13),
  • Bearing with each other’s weaknesses, foibles, and immaturity (Ephesians 4:2),
  • Covering each other’s multitudinous sins with forgiveness (1 Peter 4:8; Colossians 3:13),
  • Stirring up each other to press on in the mission of love (Hebrews 10:24),
  • And not neglecting to meet regularly together (Hebrews 10:25).

And what calls such love out? Read each line again and ask what situations prompt such opportunities to love. The short answer is: lots of various kinds of struggling. It’s the messy struggles that call out love.

Churches are designed to be communities of impossible love that only work if God is real, and Christ’s sacrifice is real, and heaven is real. In void of love, the community falls apart or degrades into consumer event products, empty formalism, formless “spirituality,” social advocacy groups, or essentially civic gatherings — all dying or dead remains of a past vitality.

Graciously Disappointing Community

Jesus did not design the church to be a place where our dreams come true. Actually, it’s where many of our dreams are disappointed and die. And this is more of a grace to us than we likely realize, because our dreams are often much more selfish than we discern.

Our personal expectations easily become tyrants to everyone else, because everyone else fails to meet them. When we are more focused on how others’ failings and foibles obstruct the ideal community we want to pursue than we are on serving those others and pursuing their good and joy, our expectations can kill love, which impedes the real mission.

Jesus designed the church to be a place where love comes true, where we lay our preferences aside out of deference to others. It is meant to be a living laboratory of love, a place where there are so many opportunities, big and small, to lay down our lives for each other that the love of Christ becomes a public spectacle.

That’s why when it comes to church in this age, the picture of community we should have in our minds is not some utopian harmony, but Golgotha. In living life together, we die every day (1 Corinthians 15:31). We lay down our lives for each other (1 John 3:16).

Love the One You’re With

Over forty years ago, Stephen Stills sang, “If you can’t be with the one you love, honey, love the one you’re with.” Though he certainly didn’t write this with the church in mind, we can draw a redemptive application.

There are numerous legitimate reasons to leave a church, and departures are one more messy opportunity to extend gracious love. But we must have a healthy suspicion of our motives if disillusionment, restlessness, boredom, discontentment, burnout, relational conflict, and disappointed expectations are fueling our impulse to leave. Often these fruits have roots in selfish soil. We must not love the church we can’t be with — that idealized community of our imagination. We must love the one we’re with.

We don’t get to choose the disciples we live with; Jesus does. We get thrown into a motley group of sin-polluted, defective saints, among whom, in our own ways, we are the polluted, defective foremost (1 Timothy 1:15).

What we get is the incredible privilege of and plethora of opportunities for loving these fellow disciples like Jesus loved us. We get to love them, warts and all. Because it is through the mutually self-dying, forbearing, forgiving love warty disciples have for one another that Jesus is most clearly shown to the world and his mission is most powerfully advanced.

Love Yourself Less

Love Yourself Less

This will date me: the year I graduated from high school, Foreigner released its pop megahit, “I Want to Know What Love Is.”

This quintessential 80’s power ballad went platinum, not because of its vague, incoherent verses, but because, I believe, its title refrain asks a profound, universal human question: What is love?

What Is Love?

We know Foreigner’s producers understood this, at least intuitively, as a religious question, because the song builds into a gospel choir anthem by its end. We all share their intuition.

We know that eros is more than sex, and agape more than sacrifice. We know love is more than a feeling, but certainly not less than a feeling. We know it’s not just a decision, and we know it requires resolve. We know it’s not just a noun, not just a verb, and not just an adjective.

Our greatest stories, songs, poems, even our greeting cards, all bear witness that we know there is something transcendent and ultimate about love. We can’t help ascribing mystical, even metaphysical qualities to it. Yet with all the words we devote to it, we find love simply cannot be contained in human language. Like beauty or glory, it is easier to point to love than to define it.

This is a clue.

God-Haunted Love

Love, like beauty and glory, is a God-haunted human experience. We all know love is transcendent because we innately know “God is love” (1 John 4:8).

The knowledge that love is meant to be a sacred thing is a deep, often suppressed memory in the human soul that God exists (Romans 1:18–19), that he is holy (Revelation 4:8), and that love is at the core of his nature. And therefore, love, in all its unsullied forms, is from God (1 John 4:7), which is why it’s beyond words: love is ultimately inexpressible and filled with glory (1 Peter 1:8).

This makes love a stubborn apologetic, a velvet-covered hammer smashing hollow materialistic assertions. Love simply refuses to be reduced to a genetic illusion or an enlightened self-interest that evolutionary biology speculates we adapted for survival. We all know better. That isn’t what love is.

Humans in every culture have always most admired the most selfless, even self-sacrificial expressions of love far more than desperate acts of self-preservation. Christianity, with its self-sacrificing God, didn’t create this admiration. It just most beautifully and gloriously fits the shape of love our souls most admire and deeply desire — like the missing puzzle piece we’ve always been searching for.

Love points to God. We know this deep down. Our biggest problem is that the god we want to see at the end of the pointer is often a false one.

The End of Love

The year after Foreigner pleaded to know what love is, Whitney Houston sang a chart-topping answer: “Learning to love yourself: it is the greatest love of all.” It also sounded like a song right out of church.

But it’s a worship song to a different, but all too familiar god: self. It celebrates the tragic myth fallen humanity has always wanted so badly to be true: We are worthy of our own supreme love and worship.

It’s a tragic myth because, when believed, it proves to be the death of love. It makes the wrong god the source and object of ultimate love (“the greatest love of all”). We are not love, and love has not come from us, because we are not God.

God is love. And when love is detached from God, it loses its true meaning. When we make ourselves the ultimate reference point for love, love devolves into whatever each of us wishes it to mean. Everyone loves in the way that’s right in his own eyes, and therefore also hates in the way that’s right in his own eyes.

This is the world as we know it. It’s the human story: the rejection of God resulting in the diseasing and disintegration of love. Humans defining love for themselves has led them to become supremely “lovers of self” (2 Timothy 3:2), and so live “in the passions of the flesh, carrying out the desires of the body and the mind . . . by nature children of wrath” (Ephesians 2:3).

It is not hard to understand why there is so much confusion, heartbreak, and violence in the world. Many of the horrifying things we see in the news are what the disintegration of love looks like.

Loving ourselves supremely is not the greatest love of all. It’s the end — the death — of love.

The End of Selfishness

This is why the Christian message is good news for everyone who really wants to know what love is.

The God of love, the God who is love, the God from whom all love comes, so loved us that he gave his only Son to become love incarnate and lovingly sacrifice himself to liberate all who believe in him from the suicidal slavery of supreme self-love (John 3:16). Jesus showed us what love is, the greatest love of all: laying down one’s life for one’s friends (John 15:13).

But Jesus is not content with us merely observing and admiring his love. For freedom he has set us free (Galatians 5:1). Our freedom is more than being loved; it is entering fully into the experience, the fellowship of love by loving God and others in the same way: “just as I have loved you, you also are to love one another” (John 13:34).

And loving the way Love loves means some kind of self-dying, for as he laid down his life for us, we lay our life down for our brothers and sisters (1 John 3:16). But as self-worship proves to be the death of love in this fallen world, this self-sacrificing proves to be the resurrection of love in this fallen world.

The love of Christ in the life of Christians is the end of selfishness and the foretaste of what Jonathan Edwards called heaven: “a world of love.”

All who wish to know what love is must look to whom love is. For God is love. And if we wish to experience true love, we must love in the way he loved us.

You Become What You Eat

You Become What You Eat

Hope is to our soul what energy is to our body. Just like our bodies must have energy to keep going, our souls must have hope to keep going.

When our body needs energy, we eat food. But when our soul needs hope, what do we feed it? Promises.

Why do we feed our soul promises? Because promises have to do with our future, and hope is something we only feel about the future — about ten minutes from now, or ten months, or ten thousand years.

We’re never hopeful about the past. We can be grateful for the past. The past can inspire or even guarantee a hopeful future for us. But all the wonderful things that have happened to us in the past will not fuel our hope if our future looks bleak.

However, if our future is promising, our soul will be hopeful even if our present is miserable, because hope is what keeps the soul going.

So, we “eat” promises, which our soul digests (believes) and converts to hope.

Toxic Soul Food

When feeding the body, there is “healthy food” and there is “junk food.” Both will, in the short run, produce energy. But healthy food provides the right kinds of energy, enhances the operation of the body’s complex systems, strengthens its resilience against disease, and increases its durability and longevity. Junk food, on the other hand, has essentially the opposite effect in all these areas, and contributes to the breaking down of the body over time.

Similarly, there are “healthy promises” and “junk promises.” Both will, in the short run, produce hope. But healthy promises provide the right kind of hope and promote health throughout the complexities of the human soul. Junk promises prove ultimately toxic and lead to soul-death.

Both physical and spiritual nutrition are important, because we always become what we eat. We must take greater care, though, in what we feed our souls, because so much more is at stake.

The world and the devil are very aware that we feed our souls promises, which is why, like junk food, junk promises are everywhere. They are heavily marketed (notice every temptation to sin is a promise of some kind of happiness), attractively packaged, tasty (though not truly rich), convenient, and have a particular allure when you’re running low on hope. They deliver a fast buzz of false hope and ruin your appetite for truly healthy promises.

But junk promises always disappoint because their buzz is followed by a hope-plunge into guilt, shame, and emptiness. They never deliver the happiness they promise because our souls are designed for a far better hope. And yet, junk promises can be addicting, because our hope-plunge can send us back seeking another fast, false buzz.

Living Food

“Man does not live by bread alone, but . . . by every word that comes from the mouth of the Lord” (Deuteronomy 8:3; Matthew 4:4). Our souls are designed to be nourished by God’s “precious and very great promises” (2 Peter 1:4).

But these promises are not mere human words; they are living and active (Hebrews 4:12), proceeding directly from the living Word, Jesus Christ (John 1:1). He is the Word of God (Revelation 19:13) and “all the promises of God find their Yes in him” (2 Corinthians 1:20).

What could possibly give more hope to our sinful souls than Jesus’s promises to forgive all of our sins completely, to remove all of the Father’s judgment and wrath against us, to always be with us (Matthew 28:20), and to give us eternal life in God’s presence with full joy and pleasures forever (Psalm 16:11)? Only in him do we find “a future and a hope” (Jeremiah 29:11).

This is why Jesus called himself the bread of life (John 6:35). The past grace of his death and resurrection guarantee a never-ending stream of hope-giving future grace for us extending into eternity. To eat these promises is to eat this living bread and live forever (John 6:51).

And Jesus has made the Bible the storehouse of nourishing, living soul food for his saints. It is stocked full of promises, and he invites us to come eat our fill for free (Isaiah 55:1)!

You Can Change

This living soul food is more vital to our ultimate health than bodily food. But learning to eat well for the sake of our body’s well-being has valuable lessons for eating well for our soul’s well-being. And one of those valuable lessons is that our taste preferences can be changed.

Our tastes are conditioned by habits and wrong ways of thinking about food. Like eating healthy food, eating healthy promises requires more work to plan — new habits of discipline that aren’t as convenient and entertaining as junk promises. And if we’ve become conditioned to heavily processed, sugary, empty-carb promises, artificially engineered to be addictive, we may find the taste and texture of true food less enjoyable at first.

But these habit and taste preferences will change as we stick with it and increasingly experience the benefits of substantial, hope-sustaining and deepening benefits.

The only way to break a habit of eating junk food promises is cultivating a taste for rich, nourishing, long-lasting, deeply satisfying, and true promises. It takes eating real food to develop the taste for real food. We must be patient. Old tastes do not diminish and new tastes are not acquired overnight. We might find it helpful to change some bodily food habits at the same time, and let that experience illustrate the spiritual reality. But as we press in, God will meet us and help us “taste and see” that he is good (Psalm 34:8).

“The God of hope” wants us to feast on his promises and be filled “with all joy and peace in believing, so that by the power of the Holy Spirit [we] may abound in hope” (Romans 15:13).

Judge Not?

Judge Not?

Jesus said, “Judge not, that you be not judged. For with the judgment you pronounce you will be judged, and with the measure you use it will be measured to you” (Matthew 7:1–2).

This teaching of Jesus is widely misunderstood. A common reduction we often hear is, “Don’t judge me.” What’s interesting is that this reduction is the inverse application of Jesus’s lesson. Jesus is not telling others not to judge us; he’s telling us not to judge others. What others do is not our primary concern; what we do is our primary concern. Our biggest problem is not how others judge us, but how we judge others.

Caution: Judge at Your Own Risk

Actually, when Jesus says, “Judge not,” he’s not really issuing a prohibition on judging others; he’s issuing a serious warning to take great care how we judge others. We know this because Jesus goes on to say,

“Why do you see the speck that is in your brother’s eye, but do not notice the log that is in your own eye? Or how can you say to your brother, ‘Let me take the speck out of your eye,’ when there is the log in your own eye? You hypocrite, first take the log out of your own eye, and then you will see clearly to take the speck out of your brother’s eye.” (Matthew 7:3–5)

It’s not wrong to lovingly help our brother remove a harmful speck from his eye. It’s wrong to self-righteously point out a speck in our brother’s eye when we ignore, as no big deal, the ridiculous log protruding from our own.

So, Jesus is placing, as it were, a neon-red-blinking sign over others that tells us, “Caution: judge at your own risk.” It is meant to give us serious pause and examine ourselves before saying anything. Our fallen nature is profoundly selfish and proud and often hypocritical, judging ourselves indulgently and others severely. We are quick to strain gnats and swallow camels (Matthew 23:24), quick to take tweezers to another’s eye when we need a forklift for our own. It is better to “judge not” than to judge like this, since we will be judged in the same way we judge others.

Jesus takes judgment very seriously. He is the righteous judge (2 Timothy 4:8), who is full of grace and truth (John 1:14). He does not judge by appearances, but judges with right judgment (John 7:24). Every judgment he pronounces issues from his core loving nature (1 John 4:8).

Therefore, when we judge, and Scripture instructs Christians to judge at times (1 Corinthians 5:12), we must take great care that our judgment, like Christ’s, is always charitable.

Be Quick to Believe Innocence

The first way to take great care how we judge is to be slow to pronounce guilt when evidence is scant or hearsay or ambiguous. This runs counter not only to fallen human nature, but also our media-saturated culture that encourages hair-trigger judgments. We are wise to practice something codified in our judicial system.

In the United States, when a person is accused of a legal transgression, but the evidence against him is inconclusive, our jurisprudence demands we presume his innocence until sufficient evidence can demonstrate his guilt beyond a reasonable doubt. Such demonstration is typically not quick or easy.

Be Thorough Before Pronouncing Guilt

Circumstantial evidence is not placed before a “reasonable” judge who then renders a verdict based merely on his judicial common sense interpretation. Millennia of human history have taught us that appearances can be deceiving and “reasonable” people have conscious and unconscious biases that shape how they interpret evidence.

So, our courts demand a rigorous process of evaluating evidence in an effort to ensure that deceptive appearances and biases do not distort the truth. This process requires diligence, patience, and restraint. And while reasonable doubt regarding a person’s guilt persists, we are bound to believe — at least in a legal sense — the best about that person. We give him “the benefit of the doubt.”

When Paul wrote, “love believes all things” (1 Corinthians 13:7), he was talking about this kind of charitable judgment. Christians are called to believe the best about each other until sufficient evidence confirms beyond a reasonable doubt that a transgression has occurred.

Aim for Restoration

When evidence does confirm that a transgression has occurred, a second way we take great care how we judge is to “aim for restoration” (2 Corinthians 13:11).

If we’re personally involved in such a situation, our goal in confronting someone caught in sin or, if necessary, initiating a process of church discipline, is to gain back our brother or sister (Matthew 18:15). Our goal is not punitive, but redemptive. We must vigilantly remain “kind to one another, tenderhearted, forgiving one another, as God in Christ forgave [us]” (Ephesians 4:32). Even if the guilty person is unrepentant and fellowship must be severed, the purpose remains redemptive for the offender (1 Corinthians 5:5) and for the church (1 Corinthians 5:6).

Keep Quiet If Possible

If we’re not personally involved or are distant observers, we can still aim for the person’s restoration by, if possible, not saying anything. A wise rule of thumb: the greater our distance, the greater our ignorance. And ignorant commentary about a person or situation is never helpful and is usually nothing more than gossip or slander, which Jesus calls evil (Matthew 15:19).

We must remember how faulty our perceptions are and how biases distort our judgment. We often think we understand what’s going on, when in reality we do not. From a distance, love covering a multitude of sins (1 Peter 4:8) looks like not repeating a matter (Proverbs 17:9).

Judge with Right Judgment

How we judge others says far more about us than how we are judged by others. This is why God will judge us in the manner we judge others, not in the manner they judge us. Therefore, we must judge with right judgment (John 7:24). And right judgment is charitably quick to believe innocence, charitably slow to pronounce guilt, charitably redemptive when it must be, and charitably silent if at all possible.

And when in doubt, “judge not.”