Discernment is a good & biblical word, but it’s taken on a very not-good connotation. How do we reset after publicly doing it wrong for years? It starts by remembering the purpose of discernment.
One of the first Christian books I read as a new believer was GK Chesterton’s Orthodoxy. I’m still not entirely certain what motivated me to pick this book up—I could have chosen any number of other titles—but this was the one. I devoured it, leaving nary a page unmarked. My mind was on fire as I read each sentence. I didn’t understand most of what I read (Chesterton tends to not make it easy for his readers), but I didn’t care. Whatever else you could say about what he wrote, he was excited. Passionate. He believed what he wrote, and I wanted more.
A friend told me I needed to read this book, that it would change my life. Knowing God by J.I. Packer. It took me months to read, each page a rich meal. The words of a man who knew much about God and also knew God intimately. Who wanted his readers to know that “the width of our knowledge about [God] is no gauge of the depth of our knowledge of Him.”
Mere Christianity was in my hands, a book I didn’t know existed. CS Lewis, in my mind, was the author of a wonderful children’s book I read as an eight year old. But this was no fairytale. It was the work of a man whose delight was found in working his way “through a tough bit of theology.” A man captivated by big questions and even bigger ideas and a God simply too glorious for him to fully comprehend.
Chesterton, Packer, and Lewis. These men didn’t teach me what to think, necessarily. They didn’t teach me what I was supposed to believe. Instead, these are the men who are to blame for creating in me a hunger for something I never knew I wanted. A wonderful gift that has sustained me throughout some of the most difficult times of my adult life. A deep love of theology. One I am forever grateful for.
We’ve been going through the book of 1 John for the last several weeks at our church. It’s been both a blessing and a near-constant challenge. A blessing because there is so much good news in this epistle—some of the most striking words I’ve read in Scripture are here, including:
- “Little children, let us not love in word or speech, but in action and in truth” (1 John 3:18).
- “The one who does not love does not know God, because God is love” (1 John 4:8).
- “We love because he first loved us” (4:19).
- “This is how we know that we love God’s children: when we love God and obey his commands” (1 John 5:2).
- “For this is what love for God is: to keep his commands. And his commands are not a burden” (1 John 5:3).
Challenging because these same words give us a much deeper picture of love than the world does. We typically think of love as a feeling, as affection (which it is). But John goes beyond that and shows us that love has legs. And it inevitably expresses itself in obedience to God’s commands.
That is what it means to love.
Every so often there’s some hubbub that follows a pastor being on a TV show. Often what happens is this: the pastor is asked a few softball questions, or some that are easy wins. But inevitably, the “gotcha” questions come out—questions about hot topics like homosexuality and abortion. The ones that are there to remind the audience that you’re not like them.
A megachurch pastor from New York was hit with these recently. John MacArthur has been asked multiple times. Ditto Russell Moore, and Albert Mohler, and countless others. Even Joel Osteen’s been hammered with them.[1. I’m not picking on Osteen by mentioning him here, nor anyone else named or alluded to for that matter.]
And then there’s the rest of us, the people who don’t appear on TV. We’re not exempt from the gotcha questions just because we don’t have the kind of influence that puts us in those situations. We get them from our family members. We get them from friends. We get them from coworkers.
And in every instance, in the same way that pastors and Christian leaders who are challenged with the gotchas must, we must make a choice: we can tell the truth, hopefully in a gracious and respectful way. Or we can try to dance around the issue. But whether we’re on TV or in a coffee shop, dancing doesn’t work. So let’s not do that. The most loving thing we can do for people far from God, especially if our goal is to lead them to Christ, is to tell the truth.
I don’t know what it’s like to be a middle child.
I know about the stereotype, of course. “The oldest child gets all the awards, the youngest gets all the love, the middle gets nothing,” and all that. I have a middle child. My middle daughter and I spend a lot of time together. We talk and read and go for outings and adventures. I want her to know my love for her isn’t a share of what’s available for the three kids. I always try to remind her that I love her with all the love I have for her. So, I don’t think the stereotype is true of her experience. I certainly hope it’s not, anyway. I’m sure she’ll tell me eventually.
But I have to wonder what it’s like for people who have legitimate baggage from life as a middle kid coming into the Christian faith. How does it affect their relationship with God as their Father? Do they struggle to believe He actually cares about them—in a different way than we all do? Do they believe their prayers and needs are less important than someone else’s? Like I said, I have no idea. But I do know this: in God’s family, there are no middle children.
In his letter to the Galatians, Paul wrote:
For as many of you as have been baptized into Christ have put on Christ like a garment. There is no Jew or Greek, slave or free, male or female; for you are all one in Christ Jesus. And if you belong to Christ, then you are Abraham’s seed, heirs according to the promise. (Galatians 3:27-29)
There is so much good news here, isn’t there? You and I, no matter our history, gender or ethnicity, are all equal in Christ. We are “one in Christ Jesus.” In Jesus, we are equal before God, with no restriction or limitations on His love for us.
The Father’s affection for each of us is always more than we can imagine. He always has time to hear from each one of us. No problem is too big or too small. No need is too insignificant. In Christ, there are no middle kids. He loves us with all the love He has for us. And that love is infinite.
As I read through the Old Testament, I keep thinking back to a big question. I keep wondering why did God keep pursuing these people the way he did? Why did God continually pursue those who rebelled against him? Why did he keep sending prophets to warn them, and not just let the consequences of their actions (and their worship) catch them unawares?
For that matter, why does he still do that with us today? Why would he pursue a guy like me, who spent years openly mocking him, and only bought a Bible in order to make fun of a friend for believing nonsense?
Why does he love people like me—why does he pursue people like me who clearly haven’t done anything to deserve his affection?
And the answer is, as cheeky, as it sounds, “just because”. He does it because it pleases him to do so. He does it because it brings him glory. Because in doing so, those around us can be amazed by him and give thanks to him. That those who continue to run away might actually find themselves drawn to him.
He pursues us because he wants to. He saves us because of his mercy. He does it all because he is good, no matter how bad we are.
Maybe that’s hard to remember. Maybe it’s hard to believe at all. But it’s true. He doesn’t accept me because of what I’ve done. He accepts me because of what Jesus has done for me. But why did Jesus do this for me?
“Just because.” There really is no better news than that for us. As hard as it is for us to hear, and as difficult as it is for us to believe, the “just because”-ness of the love of God is what we need.
Toward the end of the 19th century, J.C. Ryle wrote, “There has been of late years a lower standard of personal holiness among believers than there used to be in the days of our fathers. The whole result is that the Spirit is grieved! And the matter calls for much humiliation and searching of heart.”
Ryle’s concern is just as true in our day as it was in his own. Regardless of our role in our congregations, many of us are aware of an uncomfortable presence in our churches. An almost apathetic, perfunctory approach to our faith—a spiritual funk. We go to church at least a couple times a month. We (maybe) sing a few songs while we are there. We read our Bibles as much as two to three times a week. We pray before our meals and when something big happens…
And in our honest moments, we recognize we’re all prone to this sort of apathy. This feeling of being fake. It’s not an “out there” problem. It’s not an issue for someone else, but not me. It’s something each of us personally has to deal with.
A while ago, I was reading a book offering a solution to the problem. And it’s answer was personal piety. Read your Bible, sing songs, pray, share your faith, listen to expository preaching… that kind of stuff. And I think these things have their place, certainly. I’m all for reading the Bible regularly, praying, singing, evangelizing and sitting under faithful preaching. (And I hope you are, too.) But I have to wonder if it’s not that simple—if the answer isn’t just being more personally pious.
At least, not entirely.
Maybe the reason so many seem apathetic is because we have a flawed understanding of what a past generation called “religious affections.” Jonathan Edwards, for example, carefully considered genuine vs questionable evidence of our love for God. And he found that many of the things we point to as evidence might be—but they might be fake.
- A desire to speak of spiritual realities and the Bible may be evidence we love Christ, but it may not.
- A desire to sing songs may be evidence, but it may not.
- A desire to pray may be evidence, but it may not.
But Edwards went on to say that if we want to know if our claim to love Christ is true, we need only look at one thing: our love for one another. And this makes sense because, as Jesus said, “By this all people will know that you are my disciples, if you have love for one another” (John 13:35). And elsewhere we are consistently told this same thing: to love one another. To pursue each other and spur one another on in love and good deeds.
And this is much harder to do, in many ways. There are ways we can fake it till we make it in our expressiveness in worship gatherings. However, the height of our hands is rarely a solid evidence of the internal realities of the heart. A smart person can talk a big game for a while on Bible stuff, too. But what we can’t fake—at least not in the way we think—is love.
So what does this have to do with the quote from Ryle? Perhaps this: A lower standard of personal holiness is only concerned about our personal emotional response. But personal holiness does not execute personally. True holiness—and true love or zeal for Christ—is always concerned with love for others. We live it—we practice it—day by day.
And we’re going to get it wrong. We’re going to act unloving at times, or struggle to actually want to love others. But if we desire Christ, we will grow to love those he loves. And that’s something you can’t fake.
One of my favorite things is to hear my kids tell me they love me. Hannah, my middle girl, always wants me to be home. Always. In fact, after coming home from one trip, she told me in tears that I should never go away again. I should just stay home, and go to work, and then come back home again at night. When I get home from work, Hudson excitedly shouts, “Hey guys! Dad’s home!” and then rams his head into my pelvis while giving me a hug. Abigail loves nothing more than to cuddle, whether it’s convenient or not.
I am indeed, a much loved and very blessed man, friends. I try to do lots of fun things with the kids whenever possible, but they don’t love me because I’m the “fun” dad. They love me because, along with their mom, I help provide stability to their world. That’s what we do with schedules, routines and even discipline. And because they have a stable home, they are free to be themselves.
Strangely, we don’t seem to look at God the same way. While it’s understandable for the non-Christian, sure, but even many believers struggle to be thankful that God is on his throne. Many seem to want him to be anywhere but. Many would prefer a god of love—a god who is love, but who wields no authority. What they want, though, is god they can control. And when they’re reminded that this god doesn’t exist, they lash out.
Spurgeon reminded his hearers—and us today—of this truth when he preached,
Men will allow God to be everywhere except on his throne. They will allow him to be in his workshop to fashion worlds and to make stars. They will allow him to be in his almonry to dispense his alms and bestow his bounties. They will allow him to sustain the earth and bear up the pillars thereof, or light the lamps of heaven, or rule the waves of the ever-moving ocean; but when God ascends his throne, his creatures then gnash their teeth; and when we proclaim an enthroned God, and his right to do as he wills with his own, to dispose of his creatures as he thinks well, without consulting them in the matter, then it is that we are hissed and execrated, and then it is that men turn a deaf ear to us, for God on his throne is not the God they love. They love him anywhere better than they do when he sits with his sceptre in his hand and his crown upon his head. But it is God upon the throne that we love to preach. It is God upon his throne whom we trust.
We don’t want a God who has authority in our lives. We want one we can control. We think it’s easier. We think it’s even possible. But it’s not. Even if we believe in a toothless god, we don’t really love it, because we know in our hearts it doesn’t exist. And we don’t have any confidence in such a god anyway, because we’re left without any real sense of stability. We merely have what seems right in our own eyes. And that is an unstable foundation for even the most consistent person.
But we do have something, or rather, someone, better: the true God—the maker of the heavens and the earth, and Father of our Lord Jesus. The one does sit on his throne, and who does what is right and just, whether we like it or not. This is the God we ought to run to because he is the only one worthy of love.
One of the things that’s always astounded me is how we don’t seem to really think deeply about God’s character. We might look at attributes such as God’s love–which is absolutely essential to our understanding of him—but if we do, we tend to elevate that to his essence. We don’t bother to get to the core of who God is.
But the thing about God is, he wants us to know his character and rejoice in it.
The chief attribute of God
Just think about Abraham for a moment. Abraham is one of the only men to be called a friend of God. He is the one to whom the great promise of an offspring who would be a blessing to all the nations was given. He was the one who miraculously was given a son when he and his wife were well beyond childbearing years. He knew God—he understood his character. And he wasn’t afraid to approach God on that basis. Consider Genesis 18:22-26:
So the men turned from there and went toward Sodom, but Abraham still stood before the LORD. Then Abraham drew near and said, “Will you indeed sweep away the righteous with the wicked? Suppose there are fifty righteous within the city. Will you then sweep away the place and not spare it for the fifty righteous who are in it? Far be it from you to do such a thing, to put the righteous to death with the wicked, so that the righteous fare as the wicked! Far be that from you! Shall not the Judge of all the earth do what is just?” And the LORD said, “If I find at Sodom fifty righteous in the city, I will spare the whole place for their sake.”
This is astounding isn’t it? Look at what he says in this bold appeal: “Far be that from you that the righteous be swept away along with the wicked,” he says. “Shall not the Judge of all the earth do what is just?”
What is he basing this appeal on?
God’s character—he knew God was (and is) just. We know of his hatred of sin from Genesis 18:21, a sin so great that he came to personally judge it. Because he is a holy God, he would administer justice. He could do nothing else.
This is one of the attributes Abraham recognized—the attribute which is arguably the defining one of God. It is the one angels sing of (Isaiah 6:1-3), which prevents him from even looking at sin and not taking action (Habakkuk 1:13), of hating wickedness in all its forms (Psalm 5:5; 11:5).
But this same holiness also undergirds his compassion.
Holiness and compassion
That’s why Abraham could ask with complete integrity, “If there are fifty righteous people in the city, will you spare it?” And then again presume to ask about sparing the city for the sake of 45, 40, 30, 20 and 10. God in his compassion, his merciful loving kindness, would execute justice, but he would not destroy the righteous along with the wicked—and in fact, he was even willing to spare the wicked for the sake of the righteous!
That’s the sort of amazing God we serve—one who is generous as to extend mercy to the wicked for the sake of the righteous.
And that’s the gospel, isn’t it? For the sake of the true righteous one, Jesus Christ, wicked people such as you and me are spared what we are due and instead not only given pardon, but welcomed into God’s family. We are declared more than friends—we are children!
But that’s the thing about God: if we don’t do our best to grasp what we can of his character—understanding the natural limits we all face—we wind up with a lopsided view of him, one that doesn’t represent him at all. You and I, we have got to know God’s character as best as we are able. We have got to do our best to know and be thankful for every aspect of him, his overwhelming love and his perfect justness. His incomparable holiness and his unimaginable kindness.
We need it all. All the time. No matter what.
One of the greatest lies we tell children is a nursery rhyme: “Sticks and stones may break my bones, but words will never hurt me.” I remember repeating this to myself as a little boy, over and over again, with tears running down my face, as the terrible things other kids said about me kept repeating in my head. I was desperate for it to be true.
It never was.
So I get how so many Christians feel living in a thoroughly post- or anti-Christian culture, as many of us do in the West. Recent political decisions only officially made legal what was already approved culturally. Those who hold to the traditional or biblical definition marriage have long been called intolerant, bigots, homophobes, and numerous other pejoratives. One website ran an entire article that existed only to direct the F-word (and I don’t mean “fundamentalist”) at us, and particularly politicians and political figures who voiced concerns about or opposition to legalizing same-sex marriage.
The intolerance of tolerance is at work.
The hurtful words are terribly discouraging. No one wants to be called a bigot, or a hate monger—no one. And yet, this is what is happening and will continue to happen until the West falls or Jesus returns, because we have to understand that love has its limits. There are places that, because we love people, we cannot go and ideas we cannot embrace or endorse.
I was reminded of this again by Sam Storms in his devotional, To the One Who Conquers: 50 Daily Meditations on the Seven Letters of Revelation 2-3. In writing of Jesus’ commendation of the Ephesians, Storms describes them as a church that had “20/20 discernment.”
They hated evil—period. No ifs, ands, or buts. Whatever form evil took, whether ethical or theological, they stood resolute in their opposition. No compromise. No cutting of corners. Their love was revealed in their intolerance.… This was their most stellar achievement. No heretical concept could ever raise its ugly head in Ephesus without being decapitated by the swift stroke of biblical truth. (41)
The Ephesians understood that Christian charity could not give room to false teaching within the church. Whatever else was going on in the culture, whatever trials they would face, whatever persecution they would be forced to endure, they would; but they could not suffer the usurping or perversion of biblical truth. And, again, Jesus commended them for this. Why? Because, as Storms writes, Jesus hates moral and theological compromise.
Any appeal to grace to justify sin is repugnant to our Lord. Any attempt to rationalize immorality by citing the “liberty” we have in Christ is abhorrent to him and must be to us. True Christian love is never expressed by the tolerance of wickedness, whether it be a matter of what one believes or how one behaves. (43)
This is the position we find ourselves in today. The culture has spoken and, while we can (and I believe should) disagree with the outcome, we should at least acknowledge the reality. This means the hateful and hurtful words are going to keep coming, with a promise they’ll stop as soon as we are willing to stop believing what we believe. If we can just embrace same-sex marriage, and then polyamorous relationships, we can all get along. But is that the best way to demonstrate love to our unbelieving neighbors and our fellow believers?
No. Instead, we need to be willing to affirm that love has its limits. And just as the Ephesians were forced to in the face of the Nicolaitian heresy, we must ask what we must say no to for the sake of our devotion to Christ—and in order to demonstrate the love of Christ to all.
Nearly three years ago, my wife deleted her Facebook account and hasn’t looked back. She’s now on her second Twitter account, having deleted the first after she found the people she was following were a little too intense (and sure) in their belief that Obama is letting America go to pot so he can declare martial law, thus becoming Barack the First. Now, even though she’s occasionally tempted to pack it all up, she routinely unfollows people when they’re getting consistently cranky.
She is a reluctant social media user. And she is wiser than many of us, I suspect.
Part of the issue for her—and for me, too—is the clickbait we Christians keep shoving at one another. Now, it’s usually not the “Someone ate a sandwich and YOU WON’T BELIEVE WHAT HAPPENED NEXT” all-caps type of nonsense promoted by Buzzfeed and Answers and the like.
No, ours is of a different sort. It’s outrage (and fauxtrage) and open letters and op-eds—some helpful, most not—about everything from a theologically liberal Christian coming out in support of something most people already assumed he supported, or a celebrity who is deeply confused about his identity, or issues that were handled wrongly at one church or another, or blog posts carefully examining every word a pastor has to say, looking for the one thing that could discredit him…
These are the really tempting stories to share because they get attention. (They got your attention, right?) And many of us feel a particular need to bring to light the injustices that happen when church leaders handle situations wrongly or we feel it’s important to shine the light on wolves in sheep’s clothing. And certainly, there are times when this is necessary (so please don’t hear me as saying the sins of churches and their leaders should never be spoken of publicly).
But maybe it’s not a good idea to be sharing these all the time. I wonder if we’re being just a little too liberal with it and not considering its effect on other believers. After all:
- What does it do to a believer when he or she feeds on a steady diet of stories detailing the faults of church leaders they may not have heard of otherwise?
- What does constantly being inundated with story after story after story of things they can’t do anything about do?
Now, I again, I don’t want to be so crass as to suggest that sin should remain hidden, for what is hidden will always come to light (as we’ve seen time and again). But is it not helpful for us to consider whether or not what we’re sharing demonstrates love for those who follow us on Twitter or Facebook, or read our blogs? Should our greatest concern be not to point out faults, but to encourage and build up believers in the faith?
Love doesn’t conceal truth, nor does it treat sin lightly. But it also doesn’t leave us wallowing in the muck and mire. And this is what I see lacking in so much of the conversation around so many issues. There are so few pleas to not lose heart. There seem to be no exhortations to think upon whatever is good and true. No appeals to consider what is honorable and just. No pleas to press into what is pure and lovely. No giving thanks for what is commendable and praiseworthy. Of all these Paul instructs us to think on, and yet publicly we spend so much of our time considering the exact opposite.
We speak with so much fire, but seem to do so with so few tears.
Friends, this should not be said of any of us.
Around seven years ago, I was having lunch with my former pastor, and we were talking about my tendency to wield truth as a hammer, smashing falsehood indiscriminately, without considering the collateral damage. My actions and my words were inconsistent with the grace I’d been shown in the gospel. I wasn’t acting out of love for those around me, even when I was right in what I was saying. I wasn’t speaking out of a desire to build others up, but to tear someone down—or more often to build myself up.
And that’s a dangerous place to be. It’s lacking in love. It’s barren of joy. It’s out of step with the Spirit.
My fear is that many of us are saying so much and not paying attention to the effect we’re having on those around us. We are rightly concerned about the piles of dead bodies left by domineering pastors, but we’re not checking to ensure we’re not creating piles of our own in the process.