You Are Better Having Loved and Lost

You are as precious to God as you have ever been, and he is using every inch of this to make you more like himself.Watch Now

Don’t Check Your Baggage: Why We Never Leave Our Past Behind

Don’t Check Your Baggage

When was the last time you told someone about the worst parts of your past — the deepest, darkest sins you’re most ashamed of?

Why don’t we tell that part of our story more often than we do? If we really believe what we say we believe about the gospel, our past does not define or condemn us anymore. Jesus was pierced in our place for our past (Isaiah 53:5). God has forgiven all of our iniquities (Psalm 103:3). There is now no condemnation (Romans 8:1).

When we have experienced the forgiveness and freedom we find in the gospel, we have the natural impulse to want to put the past behind us. We are new creatures. “The old has passed away” (2 Corinthians 5:17). But with the natural impulse to forget comes a second, seemingly incompatible impulse to divulge — to publish our past. It’s a supernatural impulse to go and tell.

After rescuing a man from wicked, violent, and destructive demonic oppression, Jesus says, “Go home to your friends and tell them how much the Lord has done for you, and how he has had mercy on you” (Mark 5:19).

Go and tell everyone who you were and what you did, and then tell them who I am and what I have done for you. Can anyone really see the power of God in our lives without letting his light shine on our past?

Tax Collectors and Sinners

Matthew walked away from a wicked past, but he did not leave his past behind entirely. Matthew, Mark, and Luke all tell one short story about Jesus mingling with tax collectors, but only one of them had himself extorted money from God’s people for his own personal finances.

“As Jesus reclined at table in the house,” Matthew writes, “behold, many tax collectors and sinners came and were reclining with Jesus and his disciples. And when the Pharisees saw this, they said to his disciples, ‘Why does your teacher eat with tax collectors and sinners?’” (Matthew 9:10–11).

Tax collectors and sinners. Matthew felt those four words more than Mark did — at the same time probably feeling deeper contrition for his own sin and greater compassion for sinners like him. When he wrote about the scandal of Jesus sitting down with these men, he was writing about the scandal of Jesus eating with him.

Foremost of Sinners

Now, when we hear “tax collector” today, we may think IRS, one of the most widely feared and despised agencies in America. But like it or not, the IRS enforces a justly instituted set of rules. Tax collectors in Matthew’s day, though, were often outlaws — men who manipulated the law to extort money from people, even the poor. Zacchaeus, for instance, admits to that kind of evil (Luke 19:8).

And not only did Matthew do the dirty work of collecting the taxes and (likely) abusing his authority for personal gain, but he was a Jew collecting money from fellow Jews in order to fund Roman oppression of Jews. As a tax collector, Matthew would have been considered a traitor and a sell-out, trading away his own people for pennies.

Until two words liberated him from his love affair with money: “Follow me” (Matthew 9:9). Luke says, “Leaving everything, [Matthew] rose and followed [Jesus]” (Luke 5:28).

The Tax Collector

Matthew, Mark, and Luke all also tell the story of Jesus calling the twelve disciples (Matthew 10:2–4; Mark 3:16–19; Luke 6:13–16). Each starts with Simon (Peter) and ends with Judas. Each calls Judas a traitor or betrayer. But only one sees himself in the list.

Matthew begins listing his brothers, “The names of the twelve apostles are these: first, Simon, who is called Peter, and Andrew his brother; James the son of Zebedee, and John his brother; Philip and Bartholomew; Thomas and Matthew . . . ” When he comes to his own name in the list, he stops. He can’t tell this story like everyone else. So he adds three words, “ . . . Philip and Bartholomew; Thomas and Matthew the tax collector; James the son of Alphaeus . . . ” (Matthew 10:2–4).

Instead of trying to leave his past behind, he wanted his readers to know exactly what he had left when he decided to follow Jesus. Those three words were Matthew’s brief opportunity to say, “Christ Jesus came into the world to save sinners, of whom I am the foremost. But I received mercy for this reason, that in me, as the foremost, Jesus Christ might display his perfect patience as an example to those who were to believe in him for eternal life” (1 Timothy 1:15–16).

While he highlights and celebrates the beauty of Jesus throughout his Gospel, he is not afraid to rehearse the wickedness in his own story, reminding us that tax collectors were servants of self (Matthew 5:46), slaves to their cravings (Matthew 11:19), and ignorant of God (Matthew 18:17). That he was selfish, licentious, and godless. But God.

Recovering Lost Baggage

And because Matthew was not quiet about what Jesus had done for him — about the specific, messy, embarrassing, shameful past he had been rescued from — many tax collectors were likewise forgiven and freed.

The first thing Matthew did after deciding to follow Jesus was to throw a party for his fellow tax collectors, so that he could introduce them to Jesus (Luke 5:29). He left behind the sins that had entangled him, but he refused to leave behind others entangled in the same sins. He was not content to be forgiven and forget. His past was his unique, God-given baggage in which to carry the gospel to other tax collectors and sinners.

And because he did not leave his past behind him, many others stopped collecting taxes and started fishing for men. Mark writes about Matthew, “As he reclined at table in his house, many tax collectors and sinners were reclining with Jesus and his disciples, for there were many who followed him” (Mark 2:15).

Free to Remember

Who might hear the gospel more clearly because they heard from you, in your house, in the context of your story? Who might relate to your unique weaknesses, sins, and failures? Throw a party for them, put your past on display, and invite them to walk with you out of slavery and death and into the kind of happiness they will never find in money, or sex, or entertainment, or family, or work. Invite them to follow you as you follow Christ.

If we have left our life of sin to follow Christ, we are free from our past, never to be defined or constrained by it again. But we never completely leave it behind, because God says something uniquely stunning about himself through our past — our tax collecting, our fits of anger, our quiet jealousy and envy, our drunken self-pity, our sexual immorality, our self-righteous morality (or whatever you were freed from).

Someone you know — someone struggling with the same sins you once committed against God — needs to hear what God has done for you.

My Greatest Mistake in Dating

I got lots of things wrong in dating, but as I think back over my mistakes and failures, one error rises above the others, and in many ways explains the others.Watch Now

Do You Regret Your Dating History?

Do You Regret Your Dating History?

Do you regret your dating history? 62% of Christians say yes.

Crossway recently surveyed seven thousand readers about singleness and dating. The data looks at our desires to be married, our levels of satisfaction in relationships, and the spiritual consequences of trends in our dating. The number that leapt off the page for me was 62.

Nearly two thirds of not-yet-married Christians express regret over previous relationships. That means the critical questions in dating are not just whom to date, how to date, and when to wed, but what to do when we get it wrong. And the reality is most of us get it wrong at some point along the way.

I started dating too young (11 years old). I dated too much (six serious relationships before I graduated from high school). I made too many promises and crossed too many boundaries. If I could take anything back or do anything over in my life, it would be in my dating history.

The regret we carry often feels like it weighs more than we do, but that’s because we’re not meant to carry it around with us, and certainly not our own. As I have wrestled with my own regret, two verses in particular have renewed and revolutionized how I process my failures and mistakes in the past.

When I Fall

I can remember exactly where I was sitting in August of 2008, wrestling with guilt and shame and regret over failed relationships and sexual sin, wondering if I would ever overcome my broken history, when a friend recited Micah 7:8–9 from memory:

Rejoice not over me, O my enemy;
     when I fall, I shall rise;
when I sit in darkness,
     the Lord will be a light to me.
I will bear the indignation of the Lord
     because I have sinned against him,
until he pleads my cause
     and executes judgment for me.
He will bring me out to the light;
     I shall look upon his vindication.

I had read the words before, but I had never really read them. It felt like I was hearing the gospel for the first time all over again. The prophet feels the weight of his sin: “I will bear the indignation of the Lord because I have sinned against him” — real regret, real guilt, real shame. The next words are some of the most stunning in all the Bible: “ . . . until he pleads my cause and executes judgment for me.”

We sin against him; he pleads for us. He is the prosecuting attorney and our defense. And he’s never lost a case. If you are tempted to let regret eat away your hope, you have lost sight of who your God is. Micah writes a few verses later,

Who is a God like you, pardoning iniquity
     and passing over transgression
     for the remnant of his inheritance?
He does not retain his anger forever,
     because he delights in steadfast love.
He will again have compassion on us;
     he will tread our iniquities underfoot.
You will cast all our sins
     into the depths of the sea. (Micah 7:18–19)

He does not linger over your past; he passes over your iniquities. He does not resent pardoning your sin. If you are his, he delights to have compassion on you. He does not keep a quiet log of your transgressions to hurl against you in court. No, he buries every forgiven sin, paid for in full with the blood of his Son, at the very bottom of the deepest sea. Never to be dug up by anyone ever again.

Two Kinds of Regret

Now, some regret belongs at the bottom of the ocean. Other regret needs to be nailed to the cross first. The apostle Paul, for instance, writes,

I rejoice, not because you were grieved, but because you were grieved into repenting. For you felt a godly grief, so that you suffered no loss through us. For godly grief produces a repentance that leads to salvation without regret, whereas worldly grief produces death. (2 Corinthians 7:9–10)

Worldly regret — grief over the consequences of sin that does not grieve the sin itself — ebbs and flows with what our sin costs us in this life, rising higher on the shore of our minds some days and less on others. Eventually it will fall like a tidal wave when death brings us to God. But godly regret — grief over the way we have ignored, rejected, and offended God — produces a repentance that defeats death and enjoys eternity. Godly regret longs for God to look great — first in forgiveness, and then in grace-filled righteousness (Psalms 25:11).

Does your regret about your dating history lead you to God and away from sin? We will never attain perfection in this life, but forgiven children of God are men and women who increasingly hate their sin and prefer righteousness. Are you grieved by your past mainly because of what your sin cost you, or because of what it cost Christ?

What’s Next?

The Bible does not tiptoe around guilt and regret. Isaiah saw a vision of God that revealed the wickedness of the prophet’s own heart. He cries out, “Woe is me! For I am lost; for I am a man of unclean lips, and I dwell in the midst of a people of unclean lips; for my eyes have seen the King, the Lord of hosts!” (Isaiah 6:5). Confronted with infinite perfection and power and justice, Isaiah is undone. Regret leaves him in a puddle on the ground.

But the God who calms the waves also raises puddles:

Then one of the seraphim flew to me, having in his hand a burning coal that he had taken with tongs from the altar. And he touched my mouth and said: “Behold, this has touched your lips; your guilt is taken away, and your sin atoned for.” (Isaiah 6:6–7)

Your guilt is taken away. Your sin is atoned for. If God himself has paid for our sins, and declared us guilt-free, we have no right to wallow in shame anymore. We waste so much time wishing we would have done it all differently — chosen differently, said differently, touched differently. God does not call us to redo yesterday, but to do something new today — because of his mercy, in his strength, and for his fame.

So what should you do? Isaiah “heard the voice of the Lord saying, ‘Whom shall I send, and who will go for us?’” (Isaiah 6:8). Is the prophet too ashamed of his sin to step forward? No. “Here I am! Send me” (Isaiah 6:8). Once filled with regret, now filled with godly ambition. Not wallowing, but witnessing.

Isaiah’s life has been given new purpose, direction, and hope. His past is about God. His relationships are about God. His broken, sinful, regrettable history has become a canvas on which God himself has painted unique, undeniable, incomparable beauty. Instead of throwing it away in guilt and shame, Isaiah frames and displays his canvas for as many eyes and hearts as possible.

Let your regret become another reason to tell someone about what God has done for you. Walk others on the path out of devastating worldly regret into the healing power of godly regret.

Dating with a History

If the holy, sovereign God can love you and use you despite your dating history, then you can learn to love again. When he leads you into another relationship, you don’t have to pretend like your previous relationships never happened. In fact, to cover your past is to hide the grace and mercy God has shown you — to minimize what he has done in your life — and to risk falling into the same sin.

If you will ever be truly happy in marriage, you (and your spouse) will need to resonate deeply and joyfully with this confession:

Christ Jesus came into the world to save sinners, of whom I am the foremost. But I received mercy for this reason, that in me, as the foremost, Jesus Christ might display his perfect patience as an example to those who were to believe in him for eternal life. (1 Timothy 1:15–16)

Your history does not disqualify you from dating or marriage. It qualifies you as a candidate for grace, and as an ambassador of true Love — the kind that dies to make his beloved beautiful again (Ephesians 5:25). Your past may be precisely what God uses to prepare you most for marriage — if you allow your past to lead you to him, to confess your sins, to walk away from temptation, to strive to love differently, and to date in a way that makes much of Jesus.

The Golden Rule in Christian Dating

The Golden Rule in Christian Dating

Have you ever struggled to keep track of all the different dating advice you’ve heard? Consider this single golden rule for Christian couples.

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There Is No App for That: Are We Trading Our Present for Pictures?

There Is No App for That

Two years ago this week, I trapped myself under a canoe — on land.

It was a four-day fishing trip in Minnesota’s Boundary Waters — a series of beautiful and remote lakes just off the coast of Lake Superior. I had been invited along with some veteran outdoorsmen, real men who had done this trip (or one like it) for years.

When we set out on our first and longest portage — rugged walking paths used for transporting canoes and gear between lakes — I naïvely (and arrogantly) strapped on my sixty-pound bag, tossed one of our forty-pound canoes on my shoulders, and took off on the half-mile hike. Yes, I trapped myself under a forty-pound canoe.

A hundred yards in, I knew I was in trouble. The weight was too much. I didn’t know how to carry a canoe solo. My pride was too thick. But I pressed on, my shoulders screaming, my shirt soaked with sweat, my canoe banging into everything in a fifty-foot radius — like a human maraca rolling around in a pinball machine.

Less than halfway, I couldn’t take another step. I kneeled down and rested the canoe on the ground next to me. But my backpack was caught in the canoe seat. I wrestled with the little strength I had left, but was quickly exhausted and forced to surrender. Anyone in their right mind would have simply taken off their backpack, but not me. I saw no way out, so I laid there waiting for someone to rescue me — a grown man trapped under just forty pounds of plastic.

One Hilarious Nightmare

I remember almost everything about that walk — feeling the rocky and unpredictable ground of the “path,” not being able to see beyond the nose of the canoe, tasting the sweat streaming over my eyebrows, smelling the Kevlar inside my forty pounds of buoyant captivity, listening intently for one of the guys to come and pull the canoe off of me. It’s a nightmare that makes me laugh every time I think about it.

No one took a picture of the moment, but no picture could have told the whole story. The memory is far bigger and more vivid than any attempt to capture it.

Those four days were filled with memories like these — smelling the crisp, clean air each morning, tasting fresh walleye cooked over an open flame, dipping my hand in the cool water beside our boat, watching an eagle patrol the fifty yards around our campsite, listening to the roar of wildlife at night while lying in our tents.

I look at the pictures a couple times each year. They’re both unbelievably beautiful and terribly disappointing. I wouldn’t trade the pictures for much, but I definitely wouldn’t trade the memories we made on the trip for the couple hundred pictures we have.

As spectacular as cameras are today, they simply cannot tell the whole story God is telling everywhere in what he has made. Our pixels pale in comparison to his unprocessed, unfiltered creativity. Instagram’s attempt to do the Boundary Waters justice is as clumsy as me lying there on the ground like a beached crustacean.

Capturing the Present

Seeing what I see now, I spent too much time trying to capture the Boundary Waters — trying to take the perfect picture, or to photograph every spectacular scene, or document every memory. I fell victim to one of the great temptations of our age. By trying to capture our present for the future, we often ironically trade our actual experience of the present for images to look at in the future. Instead of really enjoying this moment — this feeling, this view, this conversation — we focus on trying to preserve this moment to re-enjoy someday. Not realizing, of course, that we’re often robbing ourselves of joy in the process.

Similarly, our phones often convince us to trade away our present for someone else’s past. In his excellent book on our love-hate relationship with our phones, Tony Reinke recounts, “My wife said, ‘Compulsive social-media habits are a bad trade: your present moment in exchange for an endless series of someone else’s past moments.’ She’s right about the cost. Our social-media lives can stop our own living” (12 Ways Your Phone Is Changing You, 101).

When we stop to post our own pictures, or scroll through someone else’s, we pay for those joys with the currency of our present. Instead of being a window into the world, our phones often become a trapdoor out of our world. A fun escape from reality.

Beauty of Standard Def

Reinke writes, “We must learn to enjoy our present lives in faith — that is, to enjoy each moment of life without feeling compelled to ‘capture’ it. . . . Get off your phone, go camping, gaze at the stars, hike in nature — whatever brings creation closer and richer than pixels” (100). Richer than pixels. The highest-definition pixels may satisfy a certain level of curiosity, imagination, and wonder, but they are painfully limited compared with God’s creation. Like a moped maxing out at thirty miles per hour on an interstate highway.

For starters, we only experience reality through our phone with two senses — seeing and hearing. And often only one or the other. Technology is striving to touch the other senses, but any artificial experience someone else creates for you will be just that: artificial. No number of screens, or pixels, or chips can compete with the actual universe God sustains every second of every day (Hebrews 1:3). The world around us is not being recreated, copied, or faked. It is a fabric of real decisions, made every day by a real, sovereign, wise, and creative Father, to help us see and know and enjoy him.

We’ve heard over and over that a picture is worth a thousand words. With the invention of the smartphone and the rise of social media, though, I wonder if we’ve experienced some inflation. Today, a real-life, all-five-senses, undistracted, unprocessed, unfiltered, even undocumented experience of this world might be worth a thousand pictures.

By all means, take pictures and share them with others, but beware of trading away today for pictures. If we miss the present while we photograph the present, we’re left with a picture. But if we live in the present and make the memories first, the pictures we take and share will be filled with deeper, fuller meaning and joy. Pictures are meant to punctuate our memories, not replace them.

Back from the Future

Not only do our pictures pale in comparison to what God is painting all around us, but one day they will all be lost, like losing dozens of irreplaceable family albums in a house fire. We will have our precious memories forever, but our pictures are all fading away. We will not have our Instagrams in heaven, even if they were backed up on the cloud. Like so many other good, beautiful, and imperfect gifts, they will be swept up in God making all things new (Revelation 21:5).

This present world, and our best pictures of it, are passing away (1 John 2:17; 1 Corinthians 7:31). We may remember it forever — a massive, whirling, textured, and mysterious testimony of God’s infinite glory — but our experiences of it will be more durable than our photos of it.

Before we enter into the new heavens and new earth, with sinless eyes wide open to all of its perfection and beauty, we will surrender even our most prized possessions here — even the albums we have looked at again and again. But our experience of this world — broken and dark and painful as it is — will prepare us to enjoy the world to come even more. If we are alive today to the world that is passing away, we will be all the more alive forever to the one in which we live with God (Revelation 21:3).

Then we won’t need to preserve what we love in pictures, because nothing we love will ever be taken away. We will look at Jesus face to face (1 Corinthians 13:12; 1 John 3:2; Revelation 22:4) — no camera, no filter, no editing, no selfies — and spend eternity seeing more of his beauty, more of his power, and more of his love in the new world he is making.

We will enjoy the memories we made here on earth and make memories every new day in paradise, as we infinitely scroll through glory for all eternity.

Regardless of what Apple may invent or promise tomorrow, there is no app for that.

The War We Need: Not a Review of ‘Dunkirk’

The War We Need

The 106 minutes felt like months. Every moment pulsed with adrenaline and fear, waiting for another German assault — bullets from behind, bombs from above, torpedoes from below.

Some 400,000 soldiers utterly exposed — not storming the beach, but retreating in the sand, only to be pummeled with a hailstorm of heavy explosions. Only twenty miles of water stood between them and their homeland (twenty-five world-class swimmers have been able to swim it). But the Nazis made the English Channel an ocean for one week in 1940.

On the brink of military disaster in the Battle of France, Churchill called for an immediate evacuation. He had hoped to rescue 45,000 men, a horrifyingly small ten percent of the troops trapped at Dunkirk. He believed the other 355,000 to be lost, save a miracle.

As many have written, Christopher Nolan has made a masterpiece, but I will not try to review Dunkirk. Dunkirk is the kind of movie that reviews you.

Strangers to War

The vast majority of my generation has never seen war like this. Modern warfare, since the attack on 9/11, is real warfare, with real risk and real causalities — devastating thousands of families. Brave sons and daughters have been lost in Afghanistan, Iraq, Syria, and elsewhere. But the wars have not been felt across America like World War I, World War II, or Vietnam. Many millenials, myself included, are simply strangers to war.

I was not in danger while I watched Dunkirk (except, maybe, for a heart attack). But I felt the danger involved in that kind of war more acutely than ever before. Everything is at stake. The next moment is not guaranteed, or even expected. The enemy hides behind the corner, under the water, and in the clouds. Death hangs over you at all times, making every second of life so much more real, so much more urgent, so much more precious.

A film like this holds a hundred lessons, but the next day, I feel one more deeply than the rest: all of life is war. The peace, comfort, and luxury of life in America today are lying to us, lulling us into a spiritual nap, while hell hangs in the balance and heaven makes hell against evil. The realities of World War II are far closer to our actual reality. It may not feel like it, but we are engaged in the greatest war ever fought. In fact, as followers of Christ, it is not hard to see ourselves among the 400,000 at Dunkirk — so close to home, yet surrounded on every side, and praying for deliverance.

What Is War?

For strangers of war, life often feels more like Call of Duty than the Battle of Dunkirk. When we read passages about warfare in the Bible, we’re more likely to picture ourselves on a couch with a Bluetooth controller, than in an RAF fighter plane battling the Luftwaffe.

God says, “Beloved, I urge you as sojourners and exiles to abstain from the passions of the flesh, which wage war against your soul” (1 Peter 2:11). Satan loves to shoot holes in the engine of our imaginations, and watch fuel pour out of the meaning of the Bible’s metaphors. He wants us to see “war” and think video game, not life and death. When the apostle Paul says, “Fight the good fight of the faith” (1 Timothy 6:12), he meant fight, not play. He meant violent confrontation, not occasional recreation.

“We do not wrestle against flesh and blood, but against the rulers, against the authorities, against the cosmic powers over this present darkness, against the spiritual forces of evil in the heavenly places” (Ephesians 6:12). The worst wars in history are merely a shadow of the most important war — the war that decides whether you spend eternity paying reparations for your sins or celebrating your miraculous evacuation from condemnation.

A movie like Dunkirk makes Call of Duty suddenly look like Candy Crush. And finally makes life feel like life, again.

War Within

The Bible uses war imagery to describe our battle against Satan and all his demons, but it also uses war to describe what is happening inside of us. The beach at Dunkirk is the shore of our hearts. The boats are floating perilously on the waters of our thoughts and desires. Temptations do not just hover over our heads, like bombs waiting to be dropped at precisely the right moment, but they are planted like mines in our indwelling sin.

James writes, “What causes quarrels and what causes fights among you? Is it not this, that your passions are at war within you?” (James 4:1). Similarly, Paul confesses, “I see in my members another law waging war against the law of my mind and making me captive to the law of sin that dwells in my members” (Romans 7:18–19, 23). Are you aware of the battle being fought for your heart — the rifles, tanks, missiles, bombs all being fired inside of you every minute of every day? Are you prepared to fight for your life?

Sadly, we feel the weight of Nolan’s war far more acutely than we feel the weight of our own.

Mirage of Peacetime

Not everyone should see Dunkirk. Even without graphic violence or profanity, the relentless suspense may overwhelm many. But we all need to feel the reality of war. John Piper has said, “Until you know that life is war, you cannot know what prayer is for.”

The church never settles into peacetime, waiting for another Hitler, or another Stalin, or another Kim Jong Un to rise. They are plastic pawns compared with our enemy, and he never rests or surrenders. But his defeat is secured, and his days are numbered. The English Channel between us and victory is a lifetime of fighting a war we cannot lose. Every new day is a new battle, another real step toward victory.

The horrors and realities of life-and-death war are one of the most compelling and true pictures of the Christian life. God has written this into history, into the Bible, and (through his common grace) into Dunkirk, because nothing else quite captures the gravity and severity of our reality.

Dunkirk uncovers a war many of us need to see, because we all need to be reminded that life is war.

Do You Know How to Rebuke?

Do You Know How to Rebuke?

When was the last time someone sat you down to tell you that you were wrong?

These have been some of the most memorable and important conversations in my life, the conversations when someone I loved — father, mother, mentor, pastor, roommate, friend, wife — had the compassion and courage to tell me when I was out of line. However I felt in those difficult (and often painful) moments, I now treasure those memories — the kind confrontations, the caring corrections, the loving rebukes.

We all need a steady diet of friendly course correction, because our hearts — even our new hearts in Christ — are still susceptible to sin (Hebrews 3:13; Jeremiah 17:9). Do you value the hard conversations that keep you from making more mistakes, and guard you against slowly wandering away from Jesus?

One reason rebuke is often underappreciated — in our own lives, and in many of our local churches — is because we have such small definitions for rebuke. If we are truly going to speak the hard truth in love — or appreciate when others say the hard thing to us — we need a bigger, fuller picture of what this kind of love looks like in relationships.

Reprove, Rebuke, Exhort

As the apostle Paul closes his second letter to his son in the faith, Timothy, he says,
“Reprove, rebuke, and exhort, with complete patience and teaching” (2 Timothy 4:2).

Paul is building steel reinforcements into this young pastor’s ministry. He warns Timothy that people will turn away from faithful preaching, preferring instead to listen to messages that conform to their desires and make them feel good about themselves. They will gladly trade away truths for myths, as long as the myths make much of ‘me’ — and downplay their sin and need for help and change.

Paul may be talking specifically about public preaching, but what he says about Timothy’s ministry has everything to do with our rebuking. Do you love the people in your life enough to “reprove, rebuke, and exhort,” even when they don’t want to hear it?

Reprove with Honesty

Why reprove, rebuke, and exhort? It may sound redundant and excessive at first, as if Paul was saying, “Rebuke, rebuke, by all means, rebuke!” The three words are related, but distinct, each highlighting a critical aspect of healthy, biblical correction.

The word Paul uses here for “reprove” appears several other times in his letters, and can mean simply to rebuke (Titus 1:13) or correct (Matthew 18:15). But in most or all of the uses, it means to reprove by exposing sin or fault. For instance, Paul writes, “Take no part in the unfruitful works of darkness, but instead expose them” (Ephesians 5:11). Or, “As for those who persist in sin, rebuke them in the presence of all, so that the rest may stand in fear” (1 Timothy 5:20).

Similarly, the apostle John writes, “Everyone who does wicked things hates the light and does not come to the light, lest his works should be exposed” (John 3:20). And then again, about the Holy Spirit, “When he comes, he will convict [or expose] the world concerning sin and righteousness and judgment” (John 16:8). Timothy, be ready to call out sin, not just when it’s convenient, but when it’s needed, and even when it’s socially uncomfortable or costly to do so.

To care for each other well, we need to ask God for the courage and faith to tell the truth about sin, and expose it as such, even when doing so might offend someone we love.

Speak Up with Boldness

“Reprove, rebuke . . . ” This is the only place Paul uses this word, but it appears almost thirty times in the New Testament, all but two in the Gospels — and in every instance but one, Jesus is the one doing the rebuking.

  • “He rose and rebuked the winds and the sea, and there was a great calm.” (Matthew 8:26)
  • “Jesus rebuked the demon, and it came out of him, and the boy was healed instantly.” (Matthew 17:18)
  • “He stood over her and rebuked the fever, and it left her.” (Luke 4:39)

When Jesus rebuked someone or something, he demanded, in effect, on God’s authority, that it cease and desist. Winds quieted. Demons exorcised. Fevers dismissed.

And sin forsaken. Jesus says, “Pay attention to yourselves! If your brother sins, rebuke him, and if he repents, forgive him” (Luke 17:3). Timothy, after you have exposed sin for what it is — deceitful, empty, fatal, evil — summon your brother to stop, on the basis of God’s word and authority. Open the Bible, point to or quote a particular text, and call for repentance. And if he repents, extend forgiveness from that same Book and with that same authority.

If we are going to rebuke well, we must ask God to show us in his word what sin is, and what it is not. And having seen sin in one another, we must consistently and boldly — and graciously — speak up and charge one another to change, to turn, to cease from sin.

Build Up in Love

Reprove, rebuke, and finally, “exhort.” When you rebuke one another, expose sin, call for repentance, and exhort one another.

Paul uses this word far more than the other two. Over and over, he is appealing to believers to walk in a way worthy of the gospel.

  • “I appeal to you, brothers, by the mercies of God, to present your bodies as a living sacrifice, holy and acceptable to God.” (Romans 12:1)
  • “I appeal to you, brothers, to watch out for those who cause divisions.” (Romans 16:17)
  • “I urge you, be imitators of me.” (1 Corinthians 4:16)
  • “I urge you to walk in a manner worthy of the calling to which you have been called.” (Ephesians 4:1; see also 1 Thessalonians 2:12).

What makes the charge to exhort any different from the charge to rebuke? One prominent thread in Paul’s 48 uses suggests that wrapped up in all his exhortations is a strong desire to encourage, comfort, and build up other believers.

He uses the same word when he writes, “Encourage one another and build one another up, just as you are doing” (1 Thessalonians 5:11). Or, “Do not rebuke an older man but encourage him as you would a father, younger men as brothers” (1 Timothy 5:1). He also says, “You should turn to forgive and comfort him, or he may be overwhelmed by excessive sorrow. So I beg you to reaffirm your love for him” (2 Corinthians 2:7–8).

Timothy, when you expose sin and call for repentance, aim to build up your brother in his faith, hope, and love. Resist the natural, sinful impulse to heap guilt and tear down, and instead correct in order to encourage. All Christian correction aims at restoration. We are people who relentlessly have something good to say.

If we are going to rebuke well, we must ask God to help us reprove and rebuke with compassion and hope — to speak the truth in love (Ephesians 4:25).

Recipe for Loving Rebuke

Satan would love for us to simplify rebuke to something small: “tell someone else they are wrong.” That kind of proud and shallow vision creates division, not delight in God. But God himself gives us a fuller vision for loving rebuke, with greater color and texture and warmth.

Despite what our society suggests at every turn, to point out sin in one another, and call for change, is not necessarily hate speech, but it may be a courageous act of genuine love. When you see a brother or sister in Christ acting out of line with the gospel — either because of blind ignorance or stubborn rebellion — ask God for the grace and humility and love to gently expose the sin, appeal for repentance, and build up your beloved.

The Great Prize in Christian Dating

The Great Prize in Christian Dating

I got lots of things wrong in dating, but as I think back over my mistakes and failures — dating too young, jumping from relationship to relationship, not being honest with myself or with others, failing to set or keep boundaries, not listening to friends and family, not prizing and pursuing purity — one error rises above the others, and in many ways explains the others:

My dating relationships were mainly a pursuit of intimacy with a girlfriend, not clarity about whether to marry her.

In my best moments, I was pursuing clarity through intimacy, but in a lot of other moments, if I’m honest, I just wanted intimacy at whatever cost. “The pursuit of marriage” was a warm and justifying pullover to wear over my conscience when things started to go too far physically and emotionally. But even clarity through intimacy misses the point and gets it backwards. I should have been pursuing clarity in dating, and then intimacy in marriage. That simple equation would have saved me and the girls I dated all kinds of grief, heartache, and regret.

Your Last First Kiss

Most of us date because we want intimacy. We want to feel close to someone. We want to be known deeply and loved deeply. We want sex. We want to share life with someone of the opposite sex who will be involved and invested in what we’re doing and what we care about. With the right heart, and in the right measure, and at the right time, these are all good desires. God made many of us to want these things, and therefore wants us to want these things — with the right heart, in the right measure, and at the right time.

Think about your last first kiss in a relationship (if you’ve already kissed someone). Why did you do it? You knew you were risking something, that this wasn’t the safest way to give yourself to someone. What was driving you most in those brief moments before you let your lips touch?

For me, every first kiss was driven more by my own desires than by God’s desires for me. Every first kiss until I kissed my wife for the first time, seconds after asking her to be my wife. Before Faye, I had let what I wanted outweigh what I knew God wanted, and what I knew was best for the girl I was dating. I craved intimacy, and I knew I would find it in marriage. So, I punched “marriage” into Google Maps, jumped on the highway, and ignored the speed limits. Instead of waiting to get to my destination to enjoy emotional and physical intimacy, I pulled over and bought something quicker and cheaper on the side of the road.

Intimacy — romantic or otherwise — is a beautiful and precious gift God has given to his children. But like so many of God’s good gifts, because of our sin, intimacy can be dangerous. The human heart is wired to want intimacy, but it is also wired to corrupt intimacy — to demand intimacy in the wrong ways or at the wrong time, and to expect the wrong things from intimacy. That means intimacy between sinners is dangerous, because we’re prone, by nature, to hurt one another — to do what feels good, instead of caring for the other person; to promise too much too soon, instead of being patient and slow to speak; to put our hope, identity, and worth in one another, instead of in God.

Intimacy makes us vulnerable, and sin makes us dangerous. The two together, without covenant promises, can be a formula for disaster in dating.

Different Prizes in Marriage and Dating

God is the greatest prize in life for any believer — at whatever age, in whatever stage of life, and whatever our relationship status. But is there a unique prize for the believer in marriage? Yes, it is Christ-centered emotional and sexual intimacy with another believer.

Before God, within the covenant of marriage, two lives, two hearts, two bodies become one. A husband and wife experience everything in life as one new person. “Couple” doesn’t describe them well enough anymore. Yes, they’re each still themselves, but they’re too close now to ever be separated again (Mark 10:9). God has made them one. Their things are not their own. Their time is not their own. Even their bodies are not their own (1 Corinthians 7:4). They share all and enjoy all together now.

Sex is the intense experience and picture of their new union, but it’s only a small slice of all the intimacy they enjoy together now.

Safety for Intimacy

The reason that kind of intimacy is the prize of marriage and not of our not-yet-married relationships is because that kind of intimacy is never safe anywhere outside of the lifelong covenant called marriage. Never. There are lots of contexts in which romantic intimacy feels safe outside of marriage, but it never is. There is too much at stake with our hearts, and too many risks involved, without a ring and public vows. Without promises before God, the further we walk into intimacy with another person, the further we expose ourselves to the possibility of being abandoned, betrayed, and crushed.

In a Christ-centered marriage, those same risks do not exist. We are together — in sickness and health, in peace and conflict, in disappointment, tragedy, and even failure — until death do us part. When God unites us, death is the only thing strong enough to separate us. That means intimacy is a safe and appropriate experience in marriage.

For sure, marriage is not perfectly safe. Married people are still sinners, capable of hurting one another, even to the point of abuse or divorce. But faithful married people are not leaving people. Just like God is not a leaving God.

Dating’s Great Prize

While the great prize in marriage is Christ-centered intimacy, the great prize in dating is Christ-centered clarity. Intimacy is safest in the context of marriage, and marriage is safest in the context of clarity. If we want to have and enjoy Christ-centered intimacy, we need to get married. And if we want to get married, we need to pursue clarity about whom to marry.

We don’t pursue clarity by diving into intimacy. The right kind of clarity is a means to the right kind of intimacy, not the other way around. Careful, prayerful, thoughtful clarity will produce healthy, lasting, passionate intimacy. Any other road to intimacy will sabotage it, leaving it shallow, fragile, and unreliable.

Much of the heartache and confusion we feel in dating stems from treating dating as practice for marriage (clarity through intimacy), instead of as discernment toward marriage (clarity now, intimacy later).

In dating, we often experiment with intimacy until it basically feels like marriage, and then we get married. The risks may seem worth it (even necessary) because of how much we want to be married (or at least everything that comes with being married). But in reality, the risks are not worth it, and they’re certainly not necessary. God did not mean for us to risk so much in our pursuit of marriage.

For sure, we always make ourselves vulnerable to some degree as we get to know someone and develop a relationship, but God wants us to enjoy the fullness of intimacy within a covenant, not in some science lab of love. In Christian dating, we’re not trying marriage on for size, but trying to find someone to marry.

Questions We Ask

Pursue clarity, and postpone intimacy. What does that look like practically? One test for whether you are pursuing clarity or intimacy is to study the questions we ask in dating. We ask different questions when we’re pursuing clarity more than intimacy.

How far can we go?
How late should we hang out?
What kind of touching is allowed?
Is he Christian enough for me to date him?

Versus:

Does he love Jesus more than he loves me?
Does she follow through on her promises?
Do I see him showing self-control, or compromising to get what he wants?
Is she willing to lovingly tell me when I’m wrong?

Healthy relationships may still need to ask questions in the first set, but they’ll be way down the list. When we’re after intimacy without clarity, we ask the first set and often overlook or minimize the second. But when we’re pursuing clarity, we’ll start asking new questions. Here are some examples of questions you could ask in your pursuit of clarity:

  • What have you learned about each other lately — stories, habits, character traits?
  • How have you each grown in your relationship with Jesus since you started dating?
  • Are you both committed to abstaining from any form of sexual immorality?
  • What flags, if any, have others raised about your relationship?
  • What obstacles are keeping the two of you from getting married?
  • Are you each being driven by your own desires, or by God’s desires for you?
  • In what ways is your relationship different from non-Christian relationships?

Questions like these — and countless more like them — uncover what we really want in dating, and where we’re likely to leave Jesus behind. They’re the bumpers that keep us out of the gutter, guarding us from impatience and impurity. But they’re also instruments of true love — the well-made parts that keep our car on the highway to marriage. They keep us focused on where we are headed and what really matters. They’re the agents of clarity.

Refuse to Settle for Singleness

Refuse to Settle for Singleness

Anyone who has been blindsided by a breakup has wondered whether singleness might be better than marriage after all.

The impact — so foreign, so violent, so unexpected — rips your stomach out of your body, leaving you disoriented and insecure. You step out of the car, and survey the damage. You’re no mechanic, but you fear your heart might be totaled. Repairs may take weeks, maybe longer. What will it all cost?

For a few minutes, or days, or longer, you’re not even sure you want the car back, not sure if you’ll ready to pull out onto the road again and put yourself at risk. Maybe I’ll just take the bus to work from now on. Surely a lifetime of loneliness would be better than a lifetime of brokenness — of more almost-marriages and devastating disappointments. Maybe I’ll cut my losses, and just settle for singleness.

I sat on that side of the road a half a dozen nights or more, paralyzed by my failures in dating and ready to give up on my dreams for marriage.

The Other Side

Others of us, though, never got our license. We’ve wanted to find someone — someone to call and text and date, and maybe marry. But there’s never been an opportunity — never a “he” or “she” for me. A breakup begins to sound like paradise compared to always wanting, always waiting, always missing out. At least you had someone to lose. If I stopped trying to get married, maybe not being married wouldn’t hurt so much. Maybe I should just settle for singleness.

Whether you are worn out by dating, or desperately wanting to date, you never have to “settle” for singleness. If your heart is God’s first — despite what you might feel and despite what society might say — you never need to settle for singleness, because singleness is never second-best. Marriage is very good, but singleness may be even better. Is your view of God big enough to believe that could possibly be true? Do you trust him enough to learn to love your singleness, even while you want to be married?

What Does God Say?

First, what does God have to say about singleness? He inspired the apostle Paul to write this:

Now concerning the betrothed, I have no command from the Lord, but I give my judgment as one who by the Lord’s mercy is trustworthy. I think that in view of the present distress it is good for a person to remain as he is. (1 Corinthians 7:25–26)

The word for “betrothed” here is actually closer to “unmarried” than to “engaged” and can refer both to men and women. Paul is speaking to single Christians (not necessarily fianceés), just like he did earlier in 1 Corinthians 7: “Now as a concession, not a command, I say this. I wish that all were as I myself am. But each has his own gift from God, one of one kind and one of another. To the unmarried and the widows, I say that it is good for them to remain single, as I am” (1 Corinthians 7:6–8).

It seems the believers in Corinth were like many believers today. They wanted to be married, and may have dreaded the prospect of having to “settle” for singleness. Paul works hard to turn their hearts over. He wants them, and us, to prize and maximize singleness — and get married if we have to.

Christian Life to the Full

Most of us today have been conditioned to think of marriage as the ideal, and wonder whether we could ever survive singleness. Paul thinks it should be the other way around. In his mind, there is a simplicity, and freedom, and unity to an unmarried heart in love with Jesus that every Christian should envy.

And as beautiful and indispensable as marriage might be in the church, Paul sees that it does not make following Jesus any easier or more complete. In fact, it puts some distance between us and Christ — a necessary distance, a God-ordained distance, a Christ-exalting, gospel-declaring distance — but a distance. Much of the time and attention and energy we would have spent alone with our Lord, or evangelizing the lost, or discipling younger believers, is now spent caring for a spouse, or for a family.

Paul loves that kind of ministry — husbands caring for wives, wives caring for husbands, parents caring for children — we see that all throughout his letters. But here in 1 Corinthians 7, he’s correcting a common misconception: that the fullest Christian life happens only in marriage. No, the fullest Christian life happens only in Christ.

And singleness allows us to focus and invest ourselves in Christ and his mission in some ways marriage will not.

Do You Trust Me?

Because of the series of controversial things Paul says about singleness and marriage in 1 Corinthians 7, we might pass over one of the most important verses. Paul writes, “Now concerning the betrothed” — the unmarried, the single — “I have no command from the Lord, but I give my judgment as one who by the Lord’s mercy is trustworthy” (1 Corinthians 7:25).

Paul goes out of his way in 1 Corinthians 7 to make it clear that it is not sin to marry — meaning men and women in love with Jesus can make much of Jesus by marrying a husband or a wife in love with Jesus. His counsel is not about right or wrong, but about good and better. He says later in this chapter, “He who marries his betrothed does well, and he who refrains from marriage will do even better” (1 Corinthians 7:38).

Now, you can choose to believe that or not. Because Paul says it’s not “a command from the Lord,” we may be tempted to hear, “Take it or leave it.” But Paul is not saying, “Take it or leave it.” Rather, he is saying, in effect, You can trust me. You really can. It may not seem like it right now, but I know what is best for you.

Best Book on Singleness

So, do you trust him? Do you trust him about singleness? Do you trust him about your singleness?

Do you trust him about marriage? Do you trust him about work, and sexuality, and truth-telling, and money, and the local church, and evangelism, and forgiveness, and heaven, and happiness? The question underneath all of our questions about singleness, dating, and marriage really is, What role does God’s word play in your life?

Is the Bible a library of really good ideas that may or may not apply to you? Or is it the foundation under and conscious guide for all your life, hope, and happiness? Do you really want God’s word to inform and shape and direct absolutely everything you think, say, and do?

When Paul says, “He who marries does well, and he who refrains from marriage will do even better,” he wasn’t writing an opinion piece. Those were words breathed out by God and profitable for you — for your singleness, for your marriage, for your ministry — that you may be complete, 2 Timothy 3:16–17 says, equipped for every good work.

Single After God’s Heart

I want you to want to think about singleness the way God thinks about singleness — no matter what anyone else thinks about singleness.

And I want you to want to feel about singleness the way God feels about singleness — no matter what you or anyone else feels about singleness.

If we thought and felt about singleness the way God thinks and feels about singleness, none of us would ever “settle” for singleness. We might long to be married, and pray for God to bring us a husband or a wife, and pursue a godly person God puts in our path, but we also will prize every precious second of singleness God gives us, because it’s filled with its own unique joys and purpose and blessings.

If your life is mainly about Christ, and not marriage, refuse to settle for singleness, and choose instead to dive deeper in your love for him and wider in your love for others.