The Joy of the Lord Is Your Strength

The Joy of the Lord Is Your Strength

“I think it’s fair to say that many Christians don’t believe God is happy.” It’s an insight from Randy Alcorn, in his book Happiness. “If we did believe it, wouldn’t we be happier?”

It’s not that Christians don’t want God to be happy, it’s just that we are slow to understand the theology that God is always, essentially, and completely happy. We may believe that he is sometimes happy — that makes sense to us. But is God always, essentially, and completely happy at the core of his being?

That is a question that we have a hard time understanding, and one of the most common questions we get in the Ask Pastor John inbox: If God is so happy, why does he seem so angry in the Bible?

It’s a legitimate question for us to deal with, but under the surface it reveals our weird theological agnosticism about God’s happiness. How we answer the question will determine everything about how we view the Christian life — and how we search for holiness.

If we do not embrace the happiness of God, we jeopardize three precious realities in our own lives.

1. Your joy rests on God’s joy.

In a fallen world, cursed and made vain at so many points, we are fundamentally unhappy and prone to long bouts with unhappiness. We are made “happy” by having stuff, getting gifts, or feeling like we belong in a group.

In stark contrast, God is happy within himself. As Aquinas said so clearly, “God is happiness by his essence: for he is happy not by acquisition or participation of something else, but by his essence. On the other hand, men are happy by participation.”

We read our acquired happiness onto God (“God will finally be happy when X, Y, and Z all go his way”). We think God is merely happy by participation — just like us.

But God is happiness. Joy is fundamental to his triune nature. To find God is to find the fountain of all joy, so beautifully and simply put by Augustine: “Following after God is the desire of happiness; to reach God is happiness itself.” We participate in joy when we reach the essence of all joy: God himself.

Or take it from one of the most careful theologians of our age: “God is essentially blessed and happy” (Richard Muller, 3:382).

Yes, thank you for all these quotes, but please show me texts, you ask.

The foundation for this point is laid in 1 Timothy 1:11, where Paul extols “the gospel of the glory of the blessed God.” God is essentially blessed. His blessedness — his happiness — is central to his glory. This text shows us that God’s expressive glory is essentially linked to his inner joy (The Joy Project, 116–119). God’s majesty is his radiating joy, and that joy is what he promises to us. His holiness and beauty attract the elect to him. God communicates his majesty as beams that burn out from the solid, rocket-fuel radiance of his inter-Trinitarian joy.

See this truth, and embrace it, and your life will find an eternity of joy-fuel for this life — and the next one.

2. God really does delight in you.

When we assume that God is fundamentally angry, and simultaneously know that we are nothing special — not unique or extraordinary in our service — we cannot believe how on earth (or in heaven) the God of the universe would sing over us his song of delight (Zephaniah 3:17).

How can a holy God delight in me?

It was a preacher named Henry Donald Maurice Spence (1836–1917) who made a point I cannot forget: “God is so joyous that he finds joy even in us.”

Let that land for a moment. God’s song of joy over his justified children is not merely the sum of the joy we attract from him; it’s also the multiplication of his abundant joy exponentially expressing itself out over us. Joyful people more easily express joy, just as God delights to rejoice over his children, because he is essentially joyful.

3. The happiness of God is the strength you need.

The text on this point is a familiar one, but one we don’t stop to think about more carefully. “The joy of the Lord is your strength” (Nehemiah 8:10). Whether the “joy of the Lord” here refers mainly to the joy he has in himself, or to the joy he gives us, we have no real hope of joy or strength unless God is happy (John 15:11).

God does not give us any joy outside of the joy he has in himself already. Which means, God’s happiness is our strength.

It’s a remarkable point delivered to Nehemiah and a people who were ravaged by war, weakened by insecurities, and constantly reminded of their own fragility.

And this is where we find our strength: for life, for pain, for trials, for marriage, for child-raising, for missions, for everything. The strength we need for this life is found in the essential joy of God.

You will never be spiritually stronger than your God is happy. God’s joy is our strength. Settle it biblically. God is essentially happy within himself.

Simply Human

Simply Human

We are not gods.

We are not angels.

We are not beasts.

We are human beings.

But what does this exactly mean?

For centuries, the church has been forced to cut through a lot of weird assumptions about what it means to be human. Some of the church fathers implied humans are creatures caught in the middle of a tightrope — suspended somewhere between angels on one side and wild beasts on the other.

Sometimes we lean precariously towards the beasts; sometimes we walk forward towards the angels — all the while never quite sure who we are. We seem destined to live every day with twitching knees and slippery feet, trying to keep our balance along this tense rope of existential uncertainty.

Thus, for many, we can only exist in tension between two things: what we are not and cannot become (the angels), and creatures we dare not try to imitate (the beasts).

Yes, to be human is to have similarities with the angels (we worship God). Yes, to be human is to be in some type of correlation with the animal kingdom (God cares for us in analogous ways as he cares for sparrows and other animals).

But while there are links, we are not angels, and we are not wild animals. We are human beings.

Our Framework

God “knows our frame; he remembers that we are dust” (Psalm 103:14). We are not dust because we are sinners; we are dust because we are human. We are dust because we were originally formed from the dirt of the ground. And that means for all of us, dust is our base composition (Genesis 2:7; 3:19, 23; 18:27).

God’s pity toward us is not that we have become dust through fault of our own, but that he intentionally designed us as dust from the very beginning.

And God remembers that we are dust — he never forgets it. To be made of dust is to be weak and transient and needy and fragile. To be made of dust is to be easily crushed (Job 4:19). And God never un-remembers this fact.

God is our Potter. He never overlooks how he made us, and from what he made us. We get harsh with one another, and we get harsh with our kids, when we forget this fundamental truth about our shared human nature. But God never makes this mistake because he never forgets how he made us. We were mud in the Potter’s hands. So, he never disregards that we are dust. He knows our strengths and abilities. He knows all of our inherent dis-abilities. “He knows us even better than we know ourselves” (Kidner, 399).

Dust is the great leveler of all human achievement (Ecclesiastes 3:20). God is the One who returns us back to dust (Psalm 90:3; 104:29).

To be dust is to be a finite creature.

Resurrection Hope

God breathed his life into Adam’s dusty form. And in that moment, what God made on that day was not a super animal, neither a half-beast nor a half-angel. God made Adam and Eve fully human.

But he also made us from dust so that we would all anticipate a new body in the future, a glorious body more suited to live in the eternal joy of God’s presence.

Your dead shall live; their bodies shall rise.
You who dwell in the dust, awake and sing for joy!
For your dew is a dew of light,
and the earth will give birth to the dead. (Isaiah 26:19)

To be human, to be dust, is to be situated for the future resurrection. God made us dust, not as an end, but as a means to resurrect us into the glory of a spiritual body (1 Corinthians 15:47–49).

Our greatest hope is that “this perishable body must put on the imperishable” and “this mortal body must put on immortality” (1 Corinthians 15:50–58).

But for now, we are dust, placed a little lower than the angels (Psalm 8:5–8). Even Jesus, for a time, took his place alongside us, a little lower than angels (Hebrews 2:5–9).

This is because, for now, all of us pre-resurrected humans are dust. And while we often forget this fact — to our own burnout and despair — God never forgets.

Held Together by Miracle

It’s true, man is a complexity of paradoxes. “Man is neither angel nor brute,” said Pascal. “The unfortunate thing is that he who would act the angel acts the brute.”

Yes, we often fail to live up to the dignity God has given us. But foundationally, we don’t find our calling somewhere in striving toward the angelic life, or in avoiding the beastly life. No, we find our calling as God’s specially designed image-bearers. Made of dust, made male and female by the Potter’s intentional design (Genesis 1:27; 5:2; Matthew 19:4).

Only humans are made according to the image of God. No other creature enjoys this designation — not angels, not any beast. God looked through the corridor of time by his sovereign vision and planned a being who could be united to the Godhead via incarnation for the purpose of redemption. Jesus is that being — fully God and somehow also fully creature — a special creature, a special body, soul, and mind, that could be united to God for the purpose of living on earth and then to be crucified and raised from the dead. A human.

The perfect image of God (Christ) becomes the glorious pattern which gave shape to a being that no angel nor wild beast could match. God created Adam and Eve (and you and me) to reflect his Son, and to make a path of redemption in the story of his creation. This is the unmatched glory of being a human creature. We are dust made according to the image of Christ.

We are not angels. We are not gods. We are not wild animals. We are human beings, specially designed for a glorious redemptive purpose.

We are human.

Dust Before a Father

And yet, “we are not iron, and not even clay,” said Spurgeon. “We are dust held together by daily miracle.” Amen. And this is fundamentally what it means to be human. Dust, held together every single moment by miracle, needy of God’s sustaining mercy every nanosecond of our lives on earth. We are upheld every moment of the day only by the grace of a loving heavenly Father who never forgets what we so often forget ourselves: We are creatures of dust (Psalm 103:13–14).

God is our Father, and this is the seminal cause behind what it means to be human. We are not caught somewhere between the angels and the worms. Fundamentally, to be fully human means that we are called to embrace our place as God’s children, and embrace God as our Father.

We are called to fear God, as an obedient son rightly respects his own father. “It is almost as if this God is looking for reasons to be as forbearing as possible,” writes Don Carson. “But it is also true that a human father is likely to be far more compassionate and forbearing with a son or daughter who ‘fears’ him and basically respects him” (FLG, 2:25).

When we stand in our dusty frames with hearts that fear God, the Potter sees us and has compassion on our muddy forms. He remembers that we are dust. And we remember what it means to be human in the first place.

Prisoners of Self: Incessant Autobiography in the Smartphone Age

Prisoners of Self

The man doting over a smartphone screen, scrolling through media with his fingertips, is like a gorilla meticulously picking out little bugs from his own hair.

That was the subversive quip of anthropologist Thomas de Zengotita. For both the screen addict and the gorilla, neck-down focus is the attentive posture of self-image grooming.

The association here is funny (and not funny), and if C.S. Lewis were alive in the digital age, I think he’d be letting out a hearty laugh at the correlation. He would certainly offer up many warnings to us, and probably one of them would be the dangers of getting preoccupied with self-image care, or, what he called, “incessant autobiography.”

In his absence, I’ll do my best to explain his connections.

Satan as Globetrotter

Lewis’s warning against “incessant autobiography” originates from his reflections on John Milton’s Paradise Lost in a little book Lewis published as A Preface to Paradise Lost.

There Lewis is struck by Milton’s Satan, and his repressive self-focus.

Milton’s Satan, not unlike the Satan of Scripture, is a globetrotter, traveling from the heights of heaven all the way to the depths of hell. A freewheeling presence with limitless powers of travel and presence, teleporting around the cosmos with what seems to be a freedom of range unmatched by any other creature (Isaiah 14:12–13; Job 1:7; 2:2; Luke 10:18; 1 Peter 5:8; Revelation 12:9).

But by his cosmic travels, Satan is driven deeper into a corrupting narcissism. Unconcerned with any values or judgments outside of himself, he becomes his own god, or so he thinks. In reality he is a creature stuck inside the eternal prison of himself. He seems to have an unlimited supply of frequent flier miles to travel the cosmos, but in reality, he is bound inside the solitary confinement of himself, a prison he can never escape.

Milton’s Satan is stuck. Everything he says is propaganda about himself. He has no hope of escaping the acid of his narcissism. He cannot simply be a creature in the presence of his Maker. He speaks only about himself. He loves only himself. He is focused on only himself.

Thus, writes Lewis, “To admire Satan in Paradise Lost, is to give one’s vote not only for a world of misery, but also for a world of lies and propaganda, of wishful thinking, of incessant autobiography” (102).

Adam in Quarantine

In stark contrast we find Milton’s pre-fall Adam, who thrives in the reverse condition, observes Lewis.

Adam talks about God, the Forbidden Tree, sleep, the difference between beast and man, his plans for the morrow, the stars and the angels. He discusses dreams and clouds, the sun, the moon, and the planets, the winds and the birds. He relates his own creation and celebrates the beauty and majesty of Eve. . . .

Adam, though locally confined to a small park on a small planet, has interests that embrace “all the choir of heaven and all the furniture of earth.” Satan has been in the Heaven of Heavens and in the abyss of Hell, and surveyed all that lies between them, and in that whole immensity has found only one thing that interests Satan. (102)

Satan has been everywhere, and all he can think about is himself.

Adam has been just about nowhere, and all he can think about are the wonders around him.

Adam is confined, and yet his mind fixates on universal marvels. This profoundly insightful comment from Lewis opens up to us a whole world of thought in the age of smartphones and social media (not to mention global travel).

Sin’s Boredom

We cannot miss these two contrasts.

First, Satan is a picture of self-centered boredom; Adam is a picture of God-centered awe.

Satan has fallen in a trap Tim Keller calls “advanced sin.” Advanced sin makes you especially bored and especially boring. Why? “Because all you’re ever worried about is how you’re doing, how you look, how things are affecting you. There’s always a grievance. Incessant autobiography. You can never get out of yourself. You’re always feeling sorry for yourself.

“Sin makes you mediocre. There’s nothing more boring than somebody who’s always worried about how they look. Sin makes you these very uninteresting, unprincipled, shallow, boring people. Sleepless, unsmiling concentration on the self. That’s the essence of sin. Sin does not make you bad before it makes you boring,” warns Keller. “That’s the primary thing about sin. Incessant autobiography.”

“There is indeed something Satanic about a person who has no interests other than themselves,” says Lewis. Such self-consummation, such narcissism, reflects the truest and deepest boredom of Satan himself.

Smartphones and Travel

Second, we see a profound contrast about the ways boundaries allow the mind and heart to feast on the wonders of God and creation.

Adam has embraced his embodied finitude, embraced his home, his local garden, and from this rootedness, his heart expands out into all the expanses of the cosmos around himself. Adam is alive to wonder and filled with heartfelt celebration as he focuses on what is outside of himself. This is because Adam is grounded.

Milton saw it. Lewis saw it in Milton. Keller sees it in Milton and Lewis. And Chesterton saw it, too.

There is a humility that allows us to be rooted people. “The moment we are rooted in a place, the place vanishes. We live like a tree with the whole strength of the universe,” G.K. Chesterton once wrote.

“The globetrotter lives in a smaller world than the peasant. He is always breathing an air of locality. . . . The man in the saloon steamer has seen all the races of men, and he is thinking of the things that divide men — diet, dress, decorum, rings in the nose as in Africa, or in the ears as in Europe, blue paint among the ancients, or red paint among the modern Britons. The man in the cabbage field has seen nothing at all; but he is thinking of the things that unite men — hunger and babies, and the beauty of women, and the promise or menace of the sky. . . . [The] globetrotter . . . has not the patience to become part of anything” (Works, 1:60).

Adam’s life is intentionally rooted in one place. He was created for one place. Called to serve one place. And once you find yourself rooted deep in such a place, then your interests naturally branch out into the cosmic and universal.

Wonder’s Boundary Line

Living within physical boundaries and limitations — like the boundary line around orthodox theology — awakens us to new glories. Boundaries evoke a new sense of worshipful wonder, said Chesterton, as “the largest wilderness looks larger seen through a window.”

Physically, this is what rivets us to movies like The Swiss Family Robinson (1960). “Though at first the ocean surrounding the island on which the Robinsons shipwreck seems like a limiting edge, after a while they realize the wealth and beauty of the island and create their own society, a society that we (the audience) find rich and adventurous — thus the appeal” (Harden, 17).

But the limiting edge of our mortal lives gets lifted in the digital age. Smartphones are a portal into the heights and depths of the known universe. Our addiction to smartphones is the love of freedom from boundaries, the ability to escape all the limits of space and even of time. We become globetrotters. And all our freedom merely breeds inside of us more boredoms, making it harder to wonder in the presence of universals.

Are You Stuck in the Mirror?

The sum of all this? We are quick to use technology and travel as escapes from the boundaries of place-ed-ness. We hate being confined to our physical location. We are desperate for escape. We travel so that we can validate ourselves on social media. We take trips, not so that we can enjoy other places, but so that we can showcase ourselves.

For many, global mobility is driven by the desire to craft the next chapter in our “incessant autobiography.” And while at home, we travel the virtual world but find ourselves stuck inside of our own narcissism. What we project to the world becomes our driving motive, the aim of our travels, and the end of our digital lives. We become boring and blind to wonder.

Whether we find ourselves addicted to global travel or addicted to scouring the worldwide web, we need Christ to sever the narcissism of our hearts, to protect us from the poison of relentless self-focus, and to free us from the awe-killing prison of our own “incessant autobiography.” We were made to be rooted, and to be rooted, to find awe and wonder outside of ourselves.

Turn My Eyes from Worthless Things

Turn My Eyes from Worthless Things

Aldous Huxley called it “man’s almost infinite appetite for distraction” (Revisited, 35).

And sixty years later, our endless desire for “the totally irrelevant” has finally been matched by the endless offerings of irrelevance in our smartphones. We love to be fed worthless things.

This onslaught of produced media is a major problem for us all because we can focus our minds only on a limited number of stimuli that come at us. So, how do we discern and navigate the digital age with wise discretion?

Attentional Becoming

In the first volume of his landmark work, The Principles of Psychology, William James (1842–1910) takes a stab at explaining what it means to be an “attentive” being (1:402–458). James defines human attention, at its root, as implying “withdrawal from some things in order to deal effectively with others, and is a condition which has a real opposite in the confused, dazed, scatterbrained state which in French is called distraction” (404).

Attention is the skill of withdrawing from everything, to focus on some things, the opposite of the dizziness of the scatterbrained who cannot attend to anything.

Thus, attention determines how we perceive the world around us. “Millions of items of the outward order are present to my senses which never properly enter into my experience. Why?” James asks. “Because they have no interest for me. My experience is what I agree to attend to. Only those items which I notice shape my mind — without selective interest, experience is an utter chaos” (402).

James argued that of the million possible things that could fixate our minds right now, we have chosen to attend to one thing (this sentence). Thus, this paragraph is shaping your cognitive experience of life right now, not the million other things around you at the moment.

That’s attention.

In other words, we’re not simply creatures of our environment; we are creatures shaped by the selective input we choose to focus on in our environment. Big difference. We really only see what interests us, and what interests us, we attend to. This is the fundamental nature of how each of us experiences our world.

Thus, there are few more important skills for our flourishing than learning the art of refocusing a wandering mind, because “the faculty of voluntarily bringing back a wandering attention, over and over again, is the very root of judgment, character, and will” (424).

Welcome to the Digital Age

James could not have predicted the digital mass-media age, but he would not be surprised at our declining powers of attention. Even Scripture, written in a pre-mass-media age, offers relevant warnings for us today. And these are even more significant for us.

So, what does the Bible say about the media we ingest?

  • What movies should we watch?
  • What movies should we avoid?
  • Which television shows are appropriate?
  • Which television shows are inappropriate?
  • What does binge-watching do to our souls?
  • Which celebrities (if any) should we follow online?
  • What types of images should fill our Instagram feeds?

All of these questions are complicated by the fact that I know my own heart wants to attend to things that are vain and worthless. So, when these questions of the media age barrage me, and I am unsettled when I think of my own heart, I turn to the psalmist. He helps us to see one universal principle that provides immediate answers for our lives. The principle appears in the forms of both a God-centered resolution and a Godward plea.

The God-Centered Resolve

First, the psalmist proclaims his personal resolution in Psalm 101:3:

I will not set before my eyes
anything that is worthless.

The term here — worthless — is a compound. Literally: without + profit = worthless.

It is “the quality of being useless, good for nothing” (source). And for the psalmist, something that is “without profit” is not simply reduced to neutrality — it is evil in the sight of God. Why?

We are heirs of eternal, glorious wealth, so our lust for any worthless thing is an offense to God. Thus, the psalmist makes the resolution, “I will not set before my eyes anything that will not profit my soul.” God’s incomparable, eternal glory builds this unshakable, God-centered resolve.

The Godward Plea

Next, the psalmist entreats God in Psalm 119:37:

Turn my eyes from looking at worthless things;
and give me life in your ways.

Worthless things include “anything that is unsubstantial, unreal, worthless, either materially or morally” (source). As in the first passage, the word here translated “worthless things” fits into the Old Testament’s surprisingly vast and comprehensive vocabulary for moral evil (source).

But do “worthless things” fit into our vocabulary for moral evil today?

The warning here is against trusting in anything with an inherent promise that proves hollow in the end. A worthless thing is something false — not false as in a bold-faced lie, but false in its effectiveness, “the idea that hopes and expectations prove false when placed in persons or things that are ineffective and therefore untrustworthy” (source).

This prayer is a plea from a son to a father. God must literally take our head in his hands, and divert our eyes in another direction away from empty things.

And we have such a Father, whom we can ask to fill our hearts with what is eternally valuable (Psalm 119:33–40). Only in the pleasures of our heavenly Father do we have hope, as his children, to turn our eyes and our hearts from worthless things, and to refocus our attention on eternal things.

This is the psalmist’s urgent prayer and plea: “God, grab my head, and turn my eyes from looking at worthless things; and give me life in your ways as I behold the inestimable worth of your glory.”

Worthless

Worthlessness covers over a breadth of very serious sins: rebellion, idolatry, moral evil, falsehood, lies, and deception. All of these sins fit under the category.

But worthlessness extends far more broadly. It forces on us the question: What really brings value, meaning, and purpose to our lives? Biblical ethics is not about simply avoiding corrupting things. It is about learning to enjoy and embrace the things that truly bring meaning and purpose and eternal joy into our lives. The worthless things of this world form a steady stream of eye candy. I must firmly resolve not to set my eyes on worthless things, but I must also resolve to know that the worthless things will allure me in those moments when I need God to act on my behalf.

A Big Deal or Not?

As Charles Spurgeon said, “It is the tendency of things that are gazed at to get through the eyes into the mind and the heart.” Worthless things in the eye, gazed at, become worthless things lodged in the heart. Our precious attention gets used for futile ends.

We understand this. Today we talk about “ingesting media” as though we eat it. Media goes inside of us, enters our bloodstream, and becomes a part of us. The Puritans used to call the eyes the “eye-gate,” an entrance into the heart. If you let worthless things linger in your eyes, you will inherently muse on their promises, the drawbridge of discernment will lower, and those worthless things will enter into your heart’s affections.

“Let not my eye betray my heart unto vanity” was a common Puritan prayer, echoing the resolve and prayer of the psalmist.

Eye Candy in the Digital Age

Even if the Bible was written in a pre-mass-media age, it still delivers principles that are incredibly relevant and important in the digital world. Our smartphones constantly put before our eyes worthless things. Idols. Lust-driven images. Appeals to our materialistic desires. We endlessly scroll through things that are not, on the one hand, explicitly wrong and wicked, but, on the other hand, are things without any value-add to our joy or purpose on this planet.

Paul’s commendation applies fittingly to what we give our attention: “Whatever is true, honorable, just, pure, lovely, commendable, excellent, or worthy of praise,” fill your attention with these things (Philippians 4:8).

Whatever things are without worth, don’t gaze at them.

The End of the Matter

One writer summarized William James’s contribution on human attention by offering this synopsis of the psychologist’s warning: “When we reach the end of our days, our life experience will equal what we have paid attention to, whether by choice or default” (Wu, 7).

That is a warning for all of us in the digital age. And it echoes the urgent resolve and plea of the psalmist. Fundamentally, we can take God’s word for it. Every worthless thing that fills our attention has long-term consequences, killing our joy in attending to God in his word, distorting our lives, and simply adding more dead weight on our pilgrimage toward the eye-ravishing home that awaits us.

12 Ways Your Phone Is Changing You

Never offline, always within reach, we now wield in our hands a magic wand of technological power we have only begun to grasp. But it raises new enigmas, too. Never more connected, we seem to be growing more distant. Never more efficient, we have never…

Denzel: Your Phone Is Changing You

Denzel: Your Phone Is Changing You

“Are you using your phone, or is your phone using you? Can you put it down? Can you turn it off?”

These were the blunt rhetorical questions asked by Denzel Washington in a recent interview with BBC television. “I’m not knocking the phone,” the actor reiterated. “We have to at least ask ourselves — around the world — what is [the smartphone] doing to us?”

Our smartphone addictions have led us to a rather odd cultural moment. As I write, Apple’s stock price has surged to a record high ($147.90/share), partly on the news that Apple now has a cash surplus of $256.8 billion, and partly driven by rising buzz around the ten-year anniversary iPhone (to release this fall). But as the market prepares for the most impressive iPhone yet, many signs are beginning to emerge to indicate that the smartphones are behind a growing uneasiness in our culture.

For teenagers, the endless need to gain approval and popularity, once largely isolated to the school day, has lost its boundaries. With never-ending social feeds, teens now never escape the pressures of peer approval. But the challenges persist for all demographics. Content fatigue is setting in for many, especially exhaustion from political tensions. Loneliness seems as unabated as ever, as friendships among middle-aged men have dropped to epic lows, generating a whole demographic of men who find themselves socially dislocated and isolated.

One journalist recently opened an article with this thought experiment: “Try to pinpoint the last time you took a purposeless walk through the late spring breeze, when there was no itch in your hand to reach for a mobile device, and you felt like the wind and sky around you had nothing to disclose to you other than the vast and mysterious sympathy of existence itself. Was it 2007? Or as far back as 1997? Does just asking the question make you feel ill?”

What Are Smartphones Doing to Us?

The question is not merely rhetorical. We feel the changes inside of us. We all know that the more addicted we become to our phones, the more prone we are to all sorts of psychological and physiological consequences.

Study after study has shown that too much time on our phones has profound effects on our physical health, including (but not limited to) inactivity and obesity, stress and anxiety, sleeplessness and restlessness, bad posture and sore necks, eye strain and headaches, hypertension and stress-induced shallow breathing patterns. The physical consequences of our unwise smartphone habits often go unnoticed, because in the matrix of the digital world, we simply lose a sense of our bodies, our posture, our breathing, and our heart rates. Our overwhelming focus on projected images causes negligence with regard to our bodies.

We get that, and there is no lack of books, even by Christians, which address the long-term harm of these physiological concerns.

But behind all of these consequences of our smartphone abuses are the underlying causes: the cravings, the hopes, the anxieties, and the hidden desires inside of us that feed our habitual impulses toward our phones. These are the spiritual concerns that I put in my sights as I began aiming my project.

For three years I asked questions — reading, researching, interviewing thoughtful leaders, counselors, ethicists, pastors, theologians, and philosophers, anyone I could find to help in investigating the emerging effects of the smartphone on the Christian life. The end product was my new book.

Smartphone Habits, Gospel Opportunities

But it was not until a missionary friend in the Middle East explained to me how my book was being used in her neighborhood, as a bridge into the gospel with Muslim friends, that it first dawned on me just how extensively the anxieties of the digital age reach around the globe, and how they force all of us to reckon with deeper questions of life, beyond the physical consequences.

If research tells us that a tsunami of digital distractions are crashing into our lives, we need situational wisdom to answer three spiritual questions: Why are we lured to these distractions? What is a distraction in the first place? And perhaps the most foundational question of them all: What is the undistracted life?

Simply by asking the deeper questions, Christians can move the conversation this deep, this fast.

I see twelve ways that our phones are changing us, and — more importantly — twelve ways that Scripture presses us deeper, moving us from cultural concerns to the eternal issues that hang in the balance. So, here are twelve cues you can use to move your conversations about phone abuse toward the gospel.

1. We Get Addicted to Distraction.

Our phones are a candy bowl of sugar-hits whenever we want them, and it’s impossible to be offline for any amount of time without feeling the anxiety of withdrawal. But hidden under these hyperpalatable distractions is the billion-dollar question that people across the world would love to get answered: What is the undistracted life? The answer is carefully explained by Paul in one chapter of Scripture (1 Corinthians 7).

2. We Ignore Our Flesh and Blood.

We ignore our neighbors, and we ignore people around us. We text and drive and endanger others on the road. We attend parties and spend our time gazing at a 4-inch screen. Our phones push us to evade the limits of embodiment, to live in the cognitive and ethereal realm of a virtual world. But Scripture exhorts us to celebrate the countercultural beauty of the flesh-and-blood church. And Jesus labors to show us that our neighbor is anyone who shares the same place as us (Luke 10:25–37).

3. We Crave Immediate Approval.

Smartphones put us in instant contact with friends, family, and strangers. We can see and be seen right now. We publish a picture and refresh our feeds to see who is watching and approving. But this craving for human approval kills faith (John 12:42–43). Yet we find it so hard to put our phones away. We fear one another, and we want admiration from one another, so we cultivate an inordinate desire for human approval through our social media platforms. For those of us who struggle here, Jesus’s warning is very clear: “Whoever loves [his social network] more than me is not worthy of me” (Matthew 10:37). Scripture reminds us over and over again of the supreme value of our approval before God and what’s at stake when we forget this.

4. We Lose Our Literacy.

Smartphone abuse doesn’t make us il-literate, it makes us a-literate. We grow lazy with our literacy and powers of concentration. Christians are a “people of the book,” but Scripture is now for most of us, the oldest, and longest, and most complex book we will ever seriously encounter in our lives. The daunting nature of Scripture puts a premium on serious literacy. Jesus’s most common rebuke is a stinging question: “Have you not read?” To not have read means to not have comprehend Scripture, and this is to be in a dire place of spiritual hardening. We see that true, eternal literacy is a supernatural gift of seeing invisible glory.

5. We Feed on the Produced.

Our phones condition us to assume that the buffet-like offering of new digital media will never end. With such an offering, our necks crane down, and we grow blind to the created beauties around us. Scripture tells us to stop, look up, and see God’s raw power and presence — in the splendor of nature and in the grace of the people around us — and to let divine gratitude swell in worship of him (Romans 1:18–23).

6. We Become Like What We “Like.”

Or more accurately, we become what we most love, and whatever we most love is offered to us on our phones. We are porous beings. Whatever we focus our attention on is the thing we are becoming. We are surrounded by images of bodies we cannot resemble and luxuries we cannot afford. Yet our desired self-projection slowly morphs who we are. We become what we are most attracted to, a profound mystery. Instead, Scripture beckons us to behold the transforming glory of Jesus Christ, and to find our transformation in his image. Either our idols shape us into their own dead image (Romans 1:18–27; Psalm 115:4–8; 135:15–18), or Christ shapes us into his glorious image (Romans 12:1–2; 2 Corinthians 3:18; Colossians 3:10). This is Anthropology 101.

7. We Get Lonely.

Smartphones tempt us toward unhealthy isolation and a creepy voyeuristic enjoyment of looking at others from behind the safety and secrecy of a screen. We want to connect, but we also want the safety of our phones to buffer us from others and to broker our relationships. Technology makes relationships cleaner and easier. Or so we think. But Scripture commands us to focus our attention on those who are least likely to appear in our feeds: the needy, the poor, the elderly, and the cognitively disabled.

8. We Get Comfortable in Secret Vices.

Online anonymity is an illusion, but behind the fake veil we indulge in forbidden fruit, like pornography, a poisoned apple that destroys our spiritual appetite. Scripture calls for the utmost vigilance in protecting the desires of our hearts, through radical self-discipline in the face of virtual sin that feeds our sinful imagination. “If your eye causes you to sin . . .” — that’s a warning for us to reclaim today (Matthew 18:9; Mark 9:47).

9. We Lose Meaning.

Viral videos, breaking news, snaps, and texts all grab for our immediate attention on the fast-moving surface of social media. But Scripture calls us to seek wisdom by earnestly clawing for it like a treasure hidden underground, invisible to skimming eyes scrolling down a screen of ephemeral bytes (Proverbs 2:1–15).

10. We Fear Missing Out.

Of all our digital fears, the pain of getting left out seems to cut the deepest. As if it is some unwritten contract we signed, we believe that we will never miss out, as long as we enslave our attention to our phones. We pull down to refresh. And do it again. But Scripture tells us of a place none of us has seen, where everything we’ve ever missed out on in this life will be replaced and restored forever (Acts 3:21).

11. We Become Harsh to One Another.

Gossip has always been a favorite pastime of sinners envious of one another. But now we can text and snap rumors or incriminating photos and evidence. On a crystal screen, slinging dirt seems so easy, so hygienic, so sanitary. Scripture helps us to realistically see the sinfulness of man — to see all the dirt and baggage we carry around ourselves — and then helps us to show grace and mercy toward one another. Contrary to the impulses of online outrage, we are called to cultivate a heart of gentle patience as we bear with one another’s weaknesses and shortcomings (Ephesians 4:2).

12. We Lose Our Place in Time.

Our attention span is shattered into 9-second bursts, as we struggle to manage the waterfall of texts, snaps, photos, breaking news prompts, and new and weird and crazy and scandalous things. Conditioned to think that what is most important is what’s happening online right now, we can concentrate on nothing. Our digital ADD makes us lose our sense of place in the world. But Scripture reveals to us a cosmic, universal storyline that roots our existence in something bigger than the immediacy of our feeds. The word “remember” occurs about 400 times in the Bible, and there’s a precious rooting of ourselves in history — in God’s story — that we must have to flourish in this life.

Flourishing in “Never-Offline” Culture

All of Denzel Washington’s questions point to the emerging anxieties of our “never-offline” culture — faced by those in our hometowns, our neighborhoods, and in places all around the world. And these smartphone questions open new doors into a labyrinth of eternal questions.

Yes, we’re all being digitally distracted to death (and we welcome it). And yes, all the studies say that we need less screen time (but we really don’t want to hear that). As we humble ourselves and learn the art of digital self-control, we can speak into our generation with pointed insight into the purpose of our lives and what it means to flourish in the digital age — undistracted with eternal purpose in view.

With Scripture in hand, Christians are positioned to pick up the conversation where the culture can go no deeper in the search for answers, and we can move the discussion forward into ultimate realities and eternal possibilities. And that means moving the conversation from the digital offerings of our shiny new devices to the eternal offerings of our gracious Savior.

To this end, endless opportunities are in front of us.

Instagram Generation: Four Ways Smartphone Cameras Are Changing Us

Instagram Generation

A spectacular waterfall exposed me to how my smartphone habits are getting passed to my kids.

The North Shore runs along the north half of Minnesota, along Lake Superior. From Duluth to the Canadian border, 150 miles of shoreline feature giant cliffs, massive rock formations, and huge square boulders thickened by high concentrations of iron. The scene is weighty and chaotic — a crime scene of brawling monsters who spun boulders across the landscape like dice.

The shoreline cliffs are so tall, and the lake itself is so large, the water stretches out into the far horizon like endless ocean. High upon a hill, this was our view from a cabin where we ended last summer together as a family.

The woods to the west, the slope of the land to the water, and the tall cliffs produce a series of beautiful waterfalls cut into the rock. Along those 150 miles you can visit 130 documented waterfalls. One waterfall not on that list included a gem hidden about 300 yards down the hill from our cabin, a gorgeous, thundering, 25-foot tall waterfall, a tight cascade of water that drops into a big bowl pond, maybe 80-feet across.

Down in the pond, dark basalt walls horseshoe under the waterfall and around the sides, and the pool opens up to a little river on the other side. The plunge pool is made of dark stone carved out by water and ice over thousands of years. The water itself is tinged rustic red, but it’s so deep the pond is ink black.

Over the pond, on one side of the shore, a gnarled tree had grown out of the boulders. And from one of its thick, old branches hung a rope swing. Standing on a boulder, you could swing over and into the pond. We spent the day at this secluded pond at the base of the rushing waterfall.

What’s the Point?

Here is the scene that I remember most: The sun is out, it’s getting warmer, and our 15-year-old son explores the place more fully and he returns with enough mustered-up courage to ask if he can jump off the 25-foot waterfall.

My wife and I look at each other, look at the falls, look at the rock face that bulges out, and say, “No way. No, you cannot. You’ll break your neck!”

To be fair, at this point we don’t know what, if any, boulders are under the surface of the water.

So, he went off and found little footholds in the horseshoe walls and started jumping in at five- or ten-feet up.

At the heat of high noon, three guys appeared out of nowhere at the top of the 25-foot falls — road workers scuffed with black asphalt. They stripped to shorts, and the first one stepped up to the edge of the waterfall, launched himself off the cliff, and lunged feet first, nose plugged, into the black pool below, just as naturally as if he’d been doing this for years (which he probably has). A second guy followed. By that time, the first guy had climbed back up and on to the waterfall edge to jump in again. Cooled off, re-dressed, they soon left.

All the momentum (and now the evidence) swinging firmly in his favor, our 15-year-old son returned to repeat his plea, and our case against it seemed to be gone.

“Okay, so you want to jump,” I said. “I’ll let you jump off the 25-foot waterfall under one condition. We are not going to video record the jump. Not on your phone. Not on my phone. Not on mom’s phone. But you can jump.”

And you can imagine what happened next.

He threw his arms up in the air and said with exasperation, “Well then, what’s the point?!”

Teaching Moment

Was I simply emotionally torturing him? Maybe. It was certainly an object lesson I could not pass up.

Once upon a time in the life of social media, we could share things we had already accomplished. You’d be at home at your computer and you’d remember: “Oh yeah, I was at this party and I have some pictures on my digital camera, so now a week later I’m going to share a picture on Facebook.” Those days are gone. Now, at the party we are thinking of what we can shoot and share immediately to let other people see and know what we’re doing at that moment.

So much of social media turns our lives into a stage. We set the scene. We frame the camera. The people around us become actors and actresses. We become the director and the producer — even the starring actor if we want to.

Shareable moments become little stage-plays.

Now, in itself, our sharing is not inherently wrong. But we often do it without thinking about it. It’s instinctive. And that’s the danger — the not thinking about it.

Point being made — yes, we let our son jump off the 25-foot waterfall. Yes, he lived. Yes, his mother survived. Yes, we recorded it. But we made an agreement that he could share it online with his friends only after we returned home a few days later. And he had to voluntarily give up his phone for the last two days of the trip, which was the unplugging we wanted him to enjoy.

Sharenting

I laugh at the story, but the sad reality is that my son is living out a pattern that I unconsciously instilled in him. For the last ten years, he has been an actor in front of my iPhone.

It’s called “sharenting” — a term for parents who have shared lots of things about their children online over the years. We posted their birth photos, and shared their baby pictures, and their first steps, and their first smiles, first words, first this, first that — they’ve all been documented and shared on Facebook and Instagram and Twitter.

In other words: The phenomenon of teen selfies is the product of sharenting. We are a generation of parents who raised our children with a constant camera in their faces, and now a decade later we’re just beginning to see the impact of our habits on the next generation. And the next generation is passing along certain habits unknowingly to the generation after them.

For our improvement, or to our demise, we are fundamentally creatures of imitation, copying the habits and behaviors we see in those around us (Romans 12:2; 1 Corinthians 4:16; 11:1; Philippians 3:17; 4:9; 1 Thessalonians 1:6; 2 Thessalonians 3:7–9; Hebrews 6:12; 13:7; 1 Peter 1:14; 2:21; 3 John 11).

Techno Marriage

All our selfies, sharenting, and digital impulses are the product of a revolutionary technological marriage:

Social media+smartphone camera+mobile web

The merging of these three techno-wonders has fundamentally shaped our self-perception, our self-projection, and everything between.

Instagram

To show you how the power of a platform can condition our habits, I’ll focus on Instagram, the popular photo and video-sharing app launched six years ago.

Today alone, 95 million new images will be uploaded to the platform. If Facebook has become a minefield of explosive debates, and if Twitter has become home to life-sucking trolls, Instagram has emerged as a respite from what makes social media most ugly. The platform is largely peaceful and friendly — a more happy haven.

And Instagram is changing us.

Instagram is changing concert design.

Es Devlin, a 45-year-old designer in the U.K., maybe best known for designing Beyoncé’s concert stages, said: “If you look at most concerts before 2003, the photos were taken by professional photographers near the front and you’ll see a big, godlike image of the pop star and a load of lights behind them. That’s how the imagery was recorded, and that’s how most people who didn’t go would perceive the show.”

“Cut to cameras on phones. Suddenly that event [the pop concert] is being recorded from every angle, therefore my work is suddenly being seen from every angle and understood in a different way. So it’s a big shift,” she says. “The artists I’m working with are bombarded with images of themselves and their shows. They are aware that many people will perceive their shows through those [images on social] media. So to a degree we’re designing [concert stages] to a square at the moment. That’ll probably change. Instagram may suddenly become a triangle” (source).

Instagram is causing teens to buy fewer clothes.

In 2003, teens spent about 30% of their budget on clothing. Today it’s around 20% (source). Why the drop?

One, the price of technology is up. Fewer than half of teens in 2003 owned a cellphone, but now you’d be a teen-freak if you didn’t have a full-fledged smartphone. The New York Times connects the drop in clothing sales to the growing cost of smartphones. More and more teens say that smartphone cases and the style of your headphones make a more important fashion statement than any one outfit (sources).

No surprise, teen-focused brands like Aéropostale, Pacific Sunwear, Wet Seal, Abercrombie & Fitch, American Eagle, and others are financially hurting. These bricks-and-mortar stores and mall-centered companies are closing in part to poor, inflexible business models, and of course due to the ease of online shopping, and because of those rising smartphone costs.

But Ken Perkins, a retail expert, studied the drop in teen apparel purchasing and added this factor: “Teens are more interested in dining out with friends, attending shows, concerts, and sporting events they can post to social media than they are about their wardrobes” (source).

Wardrobes are Instagrammable, yes, but teen money is becoming more and more directed at shareable spectacles — certain unique Instagram-worthy experiences with friends.

So it’s no surprise . . .

Instagram is changing vacation marketing.

An article about the VRBO surge in Palm Springs quotes Jaime Derringer, the founder and editor of a large website that tracks design trends, who said: “This is the Instagram generation and it wants an experience associated with an area. And in Palm Springs, that means the desert, the sun, the palm trees, and the midcentury modern house. You want to stay at places that are Instagram-worthy because you are living your life as content” (source).

Vacationing is expected to produce immediately sharable content. So, if you want to rent out your home, it should be Instagrammable.

Outdoor adventure companies are beginning to advertise this promise to their clients: We will stage you for the perfect Instagram selfie as part of your kayaking, hiking, or zip lining experience (source).

Instagram is how we validate our travel.

Instagram is also changing our daily devotions.

You may remember the satirical video by comedian John Crist about how to stage the perfect Instagram shot of your morning devotions. “No matter what verse you choose to feature, you always want to make sure you highlight multiple verses with multiple colors. Because, after all, what’s the point of having devotions if no one knows about it?”

Later, after explaining how to stage all the right Jesus junk and trinkets in the background of your Bible, he says, “And remember, anything leather-bound is really going to pop with that Valencia Instagram filter” (source).

So, what’s the point of personal devotions if you cannot Instagram them? And what’s the point of coffee shop devotions if you cannot snap at least one shareable image of the foamy latte, Bible, and rustic table? Thanks to Instagram, our most intimate moments with God have become shareable performance art.

Even more — to take this point one step deeper: We post to Instagram the opening moments of the concert, the uneaten meal on the table, the unengaged devotional setting, the soon-to-begin vacation experience, all before we have tasted the experience ourselves. Not only is our social media life scripted in realtime, but it’s also a foreshadowing of our near-future lives. We showcase what we ourselves have not yet entered into. We find ourselves always lagging behind, always playing catch-up to the public projection of our Instagram persona.

My Habits Condition Others

We live online, and we love it! We are not victims of the digital age. Nobody forces us to live online. We want to go online. We want to be distracted. We want to be in the social mix. We want to escape our boredoms.

Disconnection anxiety and the fear of missing out are struggles on the inside of us. It’s all so addictive. So, we keep going back. We cannot stop. It’s like sugar. Or in the words of one psychiatrist, the smartphone is “a portable dopamine pump” (source).

And our children are taking their cues from us.

So, I wasn’t surprised to see the recent news headline: “Children as young as 13 being treated for addiction to mobile phones.” But the story never disclosed the deeper patterns.

We reinforce certain habits in each other, and we have passed them along to our kids.

So with my son, at the lip of a waterfall, eager to frame and record the moment to immediately share on social media — it’s not all on him. He’s been raised to do this. I bear some of the burden and the guilt for this pattern in his life.

My point is that step one in helping our kids navigate the vast reaches of the digital world is not encircling them with a wall of screen limits. Step one is for mom and dad to face up, fess up, and repent of the digital habits we have allowed to dominate our own lives. How often have our kids seen us check out and stare into our smartphone feeds, or laugh at inside humor in our texts and tweets, or gaze at viral videos on a laptop? We have conditioned them. They need to know we’re in this together with them, all of us trying to figure all these things out together. We may favor different apps, but we all feel the tug of the same root desires that — for good or bad — keep pulling us back online.

Two Keys to Flourishing in the Digital Age

Two Keys to Flourishing in the Digital Age

Always connected to the web, always connected to social media, a smartphone with a camera is the most addictive tool of communication ever invented.

Packaged with all its potent blessings come the amplification of its curses. Our phones can allow unnecessary habits in the silent spaces of our lives. And our phones can feed the most insidious impulses that live inside of our hearts.

We all seem to sense that — for good or bad — our smartphones are changing us, our habits, and our relationships. We all know it. We feel it. We seem to be more productive, and yet we are more distracted. We seem to be more connected, and yet we are more alone. We seem to be more knowledgeable, and yet we are less likely to understand the very purpose of our lives.

The more important questions are these: What can be done about it? And do we Christians have anything relevant to say to the perplexing questions facing our digital age?

After three years researching and writing my new book on smartphone habits, I say emphatically: Yes!

Let me show you the relevance of the Bible for the “never-offline” smartphone generation.

Four Important Questions

First, technology is a gift from God, when we use it for human flourishing. But new technology is merely a collection of new tools we invent and share and use to make things go faster and run more smoothly. Technology makes what we do easier, but it cannot answer our deepest questions.

Specifically, technology cannot answer these four questions:

  • Who am I?
  • What am I here for?
  • What am I called to do?
  • And am I succeeding or failing at it?

Technology will not answer these four foundational questions of life.

Scripture does.

Luke 10

Luke 10 is a good example of Scripture’s relevance in the “never-offline” culture. The chapter begins with Jesus sending out 72 disciples to preach the gospel. All social media gospel spreading in the digital age really can be traced back to the democratization of the message in this sending moment (Luke 10:1–24).

I’ll pick up the story in the next scene, in Luke 10:25, what we call the parable of the Good Samaritan.

And behold, a lawyer stood up to put him [Jesus] to the test, saying, “Teacher, what shall I do to inherit eternal life?” He [Jesus] said to him, “What is written in the Law? How do you read it?” And he [the lawyer] answered, “You shall love the Lord your God with all your heart and with all your soul and with all your strength and with all your mind, and your neighbor as yourself.” And he said to him, “You have answered correctly; do this, and you will live.”

Here we find the two love commands. In two other similar accounts in the Gospels, Jesus himself states the same summary. Here it’s a lawyer. This scheming lawyer fishes for self-justification, and misses the point.

Nevertheless, the lawyer is not stupid. He boils down the entire moral will of God into two categories:

  1. Love God with all that you are.
  2. Love others as yourself.

Jesus commends the lawyer’s summary. He’s right.

Love Command One

Here’s the primary love command: Treasure God with everything you are! This is the chief vocation for humans.

We were created to express a heart-soul-strength-mind, holistic embrace of God. Faith is a response to seeing God’s glory and goodness. In the light of his beauty, faith desires nothing on earth more than him and cherishes him above even the most beloved father or mother or son or daughter. Faith joyfully gives all our earthly assets in this life to buy a field that holds the priceless treasure of Christ. Faith considers everything in this life as loss compared to the supreme worth of knowing Christ. That is saving faith. It is seeing and hearing and tasting and touching — holistic metaphors for all the various expression of how faith is treasuring God with all that we are and all that we have (Psalm 34:8; 73:25–26; Matthew 10:37; 13:44; Luke 10:27; 14:33; John 6:35; Philippians 3:8).

In the words of Piper: “Jesus’ demand to love God with all our heart and soul and mind and strength means that every impulse and every act of every faculty and every capacity should be an expression of treasuring God above all things” (What Jesus Demands, 82).

This is our primary vocation — and it’s a lofty one.

Now, the lawyer knows that a whole-life embrace of God is the most important thing in the universe. What the lawyer doesn’t see is that this expression of faith is nothing short of a miraculous gift of God’s sovereign grace.

Love Command Two

Here’s the second love command: Love your neighbor as yourself. This is the resulting human vocation, which comes out of the first vocation.

Love God.

Love others.

These are the two pillars of all human flourishing — true in the Old Testament, affirmed in the ministry of Jesus, and no less relevant for digitally savvy Christians today.

By affirming these two love commands, Jesus is saying that these are the two load-bearing commands — on them “depend [or hang] all the Law and the Prophets” (Matthew 22:40).

So, if you lose the second pillar (to love your neighbor), ethics will collapse and crumble into a heap of pious religious jargon that fails to demonstrate the value of God in service to others. Or, if the first pillar crumbles (to love God), ethics collapses into secular social work that cannot, and will not, give expression to the overflow of God’s all-satisfying beauty.

All human flourishing rests on these two pillars.

Who Is My Neighbor?

Next, the text forces us to ask this question in Luke 10:29–37:

But he [the lawyer], desiring to justify himself, said to Jesus, “And who is my neighbor?” Jesus replied, “A man was going down from Jerusalem to Jericho, and he fell among robbers, who stripped him and beat him and departed, leaving him half dead. Now by chance a priest was going down that road, and when he saw him he passed by on the other side. So likewise a Levite, when he came to the place and saw him, passed by on the other side.

“But a Samaritan, as he journeyed, came to where he was, and when he saw him, he had compassion. He went to him and bound up his wounds, pouring on oil and wine. Then he set him on his own animal and brought him to an inn and took care of him. And the next day he took out two denarii and gave them to the innkeeper, saying, ‘Take care of him, and whatever more you spend, I will repay you when I come back.’ Which of these three, do you think, proved to be a neighbor to the man who fell among the robbers?” He said, “The one who showed him mercy.” And Jesus said to him, “You go, and do likewise.”

The image of a dying man in the street is so relevant today, after the terror attacks in Boston, Paris, and now in London and Russia. Sadly, it has become a universal experience to see pedestrians bleeding out on public streets.

Now, the lawyer himself misses the whole point — he’s not searching for justification in a Savior; he’s seeking self-justification in front of the Savior.

The Ultimate Neighbor

This whole episode for the lawyer will make no sense until he sees Jesus inside the story. Those with eyes of faith will see that we are the man in the gutter of sin and desolation. The pressures of the world, the sinfulness of our flesh, and the conniving of the devil have jumped us, knocked us out cold with brass knuckles, and left us in total ruin and death.

In the cross, we find Christ as the Greater Levite. Christ is the Ultimate Mercy Giver. Christ is the Ultimate Neighbor. Christ is the Greater Priest who does not stand at a safe distance near the Purell dispenser. He draws near to me to get his hands dirty and to shed his own blood for me while I am in my most broken place. The One born in a barn because all the hotel rooms were booked is the Savior who makes for you an eternal home in his Father’s house. Don’t miss the echoes of Jesus in this parable.

In other words, “you’ll never become a radical neighbor for others until you see that you have been radically neighbored by Christ” (Keller).

Your Neighbor

So, this text answers the question: Who is my neighbor? That phrase, “your neighbor” — appears over 60 times in the Bible, mostly in Leviticus, Deuteronomy, and Proverbs. The stress, as Jesus points out here, is on embodied place-ed-ness.

For the purpose of an illustration, imagine that you and I, who don’t recognize each other, are sitting inside the same Starbucks coffee shop. At that moment, I exist in the room, and you exist in the room. This is where our bodies coincide. At that moment, we become neighbors in a way that we were not neighbors earlier in the day, not because we follow one another on Twitter, but because our physical presence now overlaps in proximity.

Embodied place-ed-ness.

Sitting as apparent strangers in the same room, we are neighbors. In this moment, we are now responsible to care for one another. If one of us needs medical attention, the other is obligated to offer help, and to not walk away.

My point is that neighboring is rooted in space and time. To have a body is to be obligated to others. We have obligations to our parents, perhaps to a spouse, to children, to a local church, to a boss, and to a neighborhood. And in many of these situations — in the home and church — we have gender-specific obligations to one another. To be a creature is to be obligated to others. That’s fundamental to neighboring.

But in the digital age, when we lose a sense of our bodies, we quickly find ourselves in isolation from others, and our sense of what it means to be a true neighbor evaporates.

The resulting fallout of this isolation is why the Surgeon General of the United States, Vivek Murthy, has made it his mantra: “The most prevalent health issue in the country is not cancer or heart disease or obesity. It is isolation.” Social disconnection. Even in those areas that most root us — our marriages and jobs — our culture has taught us the dance of having one foot in and one foot out never quite committed to anything. We like to keep our options open.

So, when a beaten neighbor is lying on the metaphorical path of our lives, we are quick to jump over to the sidewalk of escape on the other side of the street. For many of us, that escapism is found in the virtual world of our smartphones.

The Main Point

All of these points in Luke 10 link our evolving smartphone habits to the ancient parable of Jesus.

Here’s the point:

The priest sees the man in the street, but he’s rushing off to God’s temple to dispense his priestly work. He’s clean, pure, unsoiled, and perhaps his shift begins soon — so he absolutely cannot stop to dirty himself with this filthy, bloody, dying guy in the street. The Levite sees the man, too, but he’s apparently running late for his preaching gig. He cannot stop for the same reason: ministry expectations beckon for his faraway attention. You begin to see the problem here rather quickly. Setting your mind on good and noble things, like remote ministry possibilities, can eventually callous you to the flesh and blood needs around you.

Giving over your attention to virtual possibilities, even finding an important role online, can blind you to the gospel needs lying at your feet.

If that is not a prophetic warning for Christians in the digital age, I don’t know what is.

Good or Essential?

Jesus clearly wants the lawyer to see the sin of his own neighbor-neglect and repent. In this parable we see the sin of our smartphone abuse, the sin of our hyperconnectivity to the virtual world — even in performing good ministry online. We so often are tempted to withhold mercy from those around us — our families, our roommates, our colleagues, our classmates, our church members, and yes, our neighbors.

Neighboring, defined by Jesus, puts great stress on how our bodies root us in a particular place, as both gift-getters (receiving mercy) and gift-givers (offering mercy).

Radical neighboring is embodied neighboring. Face-to-face. Real needs met. And there is no exemption clause because you have five hundred followers online.

Offline Authenticity

Taken together, Luke 10 says to all of God’s disciples: Yes, like the 72 sent out, go into the digital world as far as your online influence will spread, and proclaim the good news of Christ — but — don’t get so wrapped up in those opportunities that you forget your essential vocations: (1) to cultivate a genuine love of God above everything, and (2) to care for the needs you see immediately around you.

To put it another way, you can fake online authenticity for a while, but not forever. It will catch up to you. Our authenticity offline is always the basis for our authenticity online.

So, if God has called and equipped you to be a Twitter sage, or a hip-hop artist, or an Instagram evangelist, or a podcaster, or a writer, or a social media social activist, or a digital creator of any type, you must take breaks from the scuttle of those ministry expectations — those expectations out in the remoteness of the virtual world — in order to reconnect with the ultimate purpose on this planet that grounds all our flourishing: To be embodied children of God, feeding our faith on the truth of God, cherishing him with our entire being, and then, out of our abundance, serving our neighbors.

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How Calvinists Miss the Key to Happiness

How Calvinists Miss the Key to Happiness

We Calvinists can be a wacky band of brothers and sisters, diverse in many ways, and we don’t always get along. But together we celebrate five of the most incredibly profound theological truths, that bind us together, about how God saves sinners, generally summarized in the acronym TULIP:

T — Total Depravity (Total Inability)
U — Unconditional Election
L — Limited Atonement (Definite Atonement)
I — Irresistible Grace
P — Perseverance of the Saints

Each point deserves a long discussion to spread the wealth of biblical evidence. But here I simply want to connect TULIP to the joy of the Christian life, and to do it I’ll pick on Greg Forster and his book The Joy of Calvinism: Knowing God’s Personal, Unconditional, Irresistible, Unbreakable Love.

I am picking on Forster not because his book is erroneous, but because his book is representative of the limits of most Calvinists in exploring the connection between true doctrine and deep joy.

Forster’s book is a commendable description of why Calvinism matters and how it should influence every area of our lives. Joy is central to Christian obedience (see Philippians 3:1; 4:4; 1 Thessalonians 5:16), and Forster understands this well.

But jumping too quickly to these apostolic commands preempts the important spadework of digging down to the solid theological bedrock indicatives that hold up the weight of the high calling of the joy imperatives. Calvinism is especially suited for this work.

Settled Certainty

It comes to a head late in Forster’s book. The affections are fully brought into the discussion, and Forster introduces his key summary phrase, “Joy is a settled certainty that God is in control.” This dogmatic definition of joy emerging from Calvinism is repeated four times in the conclusion of the book and serves as a repeated crescendo to the entire project.

When we reach the very end of the book, we read these capstone sentences: “In heaven we will have the full joy of God for the same reason we will fully glorify him — because we will fully know that he is in control, and always was, and always will be. Only through that truth can we truly place all our trust, all our hope, and all our love in God without reservation; and only through that truth can we receive back the full joy of God” (154).

Forster’s premise for the joy of Calvinism is not complicated: “Joy is a settled certainty” and a “full knowing” of God’s sovereign power. God is in complete sovereign control over our lives, and in knowing this “we receive back the full joy of God.” Eternal joy, then, is an eternal and unshaken confidence in God. This is the heart of sovereign joy, according to Forster.

The book’s subtitle has signaled this conclusion all along: The Joy of Calvinism: Knowing God’s Personal, Unconditional, Irresistible, Unbreakable Love.

Deeper Roots

Yes, there is a joy in discovering God’s sovereignty — in knowing it, and in gaining new confidence in him. We should have no qualms with that. But the book cannot end there. To sign off at this point is to stop short of the true joys of Calvinism.

To be saved is to enter the new covenant, through the sacrificial blood of Christ. And to enter the new covenant is to be introduced — by God’s sovereign initiative — into the presence of new divine joys, God’s very own felicity. God is inherently “blessed,” or, better, inherently full of joy. Joy is the radiance of God’s glory (1 Timothy 1:11).

We also know that God’s promise to break into human depravity, to redeem the world, and to liberate sinners from their sinful bondage did not (and cannot) rest on the initiative of sinners (Ezekiel 11:19; 36:26).

Instead, God’s promise rests on the blood of his own Son. Christ’s blood inaugurated a new covenant (Matthew 26:28). There is no understanding of Christ’s work in the new covenant without seeing how tightly the gift of joy is bound up with this new work of God (see Jeremiah 31:12–14, in the new-covenant context of Jeremiah 31:31–40; also Joel 3:18 and Hebrews 12:22–24).

The joy of the elect was Christ’s purchase. The cost was Christ’s blood.

Where Does Joy Come From?

In this marvelous achievement of our Savior, Calvinists can make bold statements like these:

  • “Jesus Christ creates and confirms and purchases with his blood the new covenant and the everlasting joy of our relationship with God” (John Piper).

  • “That’s what Christ bought for us when he died and shed the blood of the new covenant. He bought for us the gift of joy in God” (John Piper).

  • “Christ purchased for us spiritual joy and comfort, which is in a participation of God’s joy and happiness” (Jonathan Edwards).

But not only is joy the express purchase of Christ’s blood in the new covenant, within this new covenant, the presence of the Holy Spirit in the life of God’s children is identified in Scripture with the presence of God’s joy. Where the Spirit of the Lord is, there is joy (see Luke 10:21; Acts 13:52; Romans 14:17; Galatians 5:22; 1 Thessalonians 1:6).

At root, the joy of Calvinism is a joy purchased by Christ and emerges from the ever-present Spirit within us.

The Joy Project

This is why I find it more compelling to explain the joys of Calvinism not on the basis of cognitive conviction or daily obedience, but as a sovereign initiative of God. This thought developed into the structure of my book The Joy Project.

There I make the point that the joy of Calvinism is not a joy that hovers around the periphery of the Christian life, waiting until we intellectually comprehend that God is in complete control of everything around us (and in us). No, God’s “Joy Project” goes way deeper than the thrill of discovering his sovereignty.

In the words of Spurgeon, “All the gifts of sovereign grace are intended to give us joy.” Yes, the gifts of sovereign grace are themselves the key conduits of our joy.

God acts to give us his own happiness! By his own initiative, and by his own inventiveness, and by his own design, which unfolded in Christ, God has sovereignly orchestrated — from the beginning of time — our deep and enduring joy.

Nothing short of our triune God — Father, Son, and Holy Spirit — took action to fill us with God’s own happiness. Here, and here alone, we arrive at the basis of the Calvinist’s joy.

Joys of Calvinism

So, by all means, yes, discover God’s sovereignty and rejoice in the fact that God has control of the universe, reigns over all evil, and navigates the course of our lives. Grasp this truth from the Bible. Stand on this truth with the joy of faith.

But most foundationally, we must see that the Father elected us for joy, the Son purchased joy for us, and the Holy Spirit is now the divine presence of joy within us, applying that joy to our hearts now and always.

In other words, God ensures our joy from two directions. Joy comes out of our hearts because God has first put joy there. God’s purchased joy is our joy. It may seem redundant at first, but one perfectly good way to say it, as Piper does, is this: “Christ-treasuring, blood-bought joy will sustain my joy.” That’s exactly how we Calvinists should speak of happiness.

Forster shows himself to have reached a level of theological awareness we can wish all Calvinists would one day reach when he writes, “Real Calvinism is all about joy” (15). Amen! I believe he is more right than he knows.