God’s Grace Falls Like Manna

This morning I was struck by Joshua 5:12:

“And the manna ceased the day after they ate the produce of the land. And there was no longer manna for the people of Israel, but they ate of the fruit of the land of Canaan that year.”

Consider this: For forty years, God’s people roamed the wilderness, unable to enter the Promised Land. Their sojourn was a result of God’s judgment on a nation that refused to trust Him. When they were promised a land flowing with milk and honey, they recoiled in fear, believing that the giants of Canaan were stronger than the power of God. Consequently, God made the people wander in the wilderness for 40 years, until everybody older than 20 died in the desert (Numbers 14).

And yet, in the midst of discipline and death, God kept providing manna for the people to eat. Think about that for a moment. Despite their sin and rebellion, and despite God’s judgment, He kept demonstrating His grace. He fed them. Day in and day out, he made sure the people stayed alive by raining His manna from heaven, a visible sign that He had not abandoned His people. He still loved them and provided for them.

I don’t know about you, but I need that reminder sometimes. I’m a sinful person, one of God’s people, but still tempted on a daily basis to succumb to the sort of rebellion that marked the Israelites in the wilderness. It troubles me, and from time to time I wonder if God is angry with me. I read Romans 8 and I believe that nothing can separate me from God’s love, yet I still struggle daily to accept that truth.

God kept giving them manna. He keeps providing for me. He keeps bringing me back to His Word. He keeps allowing me to serve Him. His grace does not cease and His love never fails. Like manna from heaven, it rains on me each day, even though I am far from deserving.

It’s raining on you, as well. Every moment that you are here, God is sustaining you with His grace, reminding you that He loves you. He is gently but firmly directing you to trust Him, even during those times of discipline and pain. So look up today. Say a prayer of gratitude for the loyal love of a God whose mercies are new every morning.

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What Have You Always Wanted to Ask a Pastor?

I’m very excited about the launch of Grace’s new website. I think one of the most useful aspects of the new site is the new Resources section. For some time, we have wanted to provide a larger collection of articles, sermons, videos, podcasts, and publications to help equip the body of Christ around the world.

If you look at the FAQs page right now, you’ll notice that it is devoid of content. That’s because we need to hear from you.

What questions do you have for the pastors and leaders at Grace? Your questions can relate to the Bible, theology, college ministry, the spiritual life, or any other topic for which you think we might be competent to provide answers. 

In addition, I’m always looking for new issues to address on this blog. In order to effectively serve my readers, it helps to ask you every once in awhile what topics you would like me to address here.

Your feedback will be extremely useful as we seek to create content that edifies and challenges God’s people.

In the comments below, post your ideas and opinions about what needs to be in the FAQs, on this blog, or in the Resources section of our website. Thanks!

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Pornography and Spirituality: Beyond Simple Solutions

Nearly every week, I’m contacted by young men looking for freedom from pornography. Based upon my own ministry experience and my discussions with other college pastors, I would guess that the majority of college-aged men — and a good number of the women– struggle with porn to one degree or another. Pornography has become an epidemic, both in the world and in the church.

Because pornography is such a devastating spiritual cancer, I’ve noticed that nearly every men’s event, retreat, book, or seminar includes some discussion of the issue. We pull all the men together and start talking about knowing Christ, but the conversation quickly turns into a discussion of how to defeat lust. We provide practical tips, suggest accountability groups, and even tell people to destroy their wireless network adapters. We hand out books on the topic and direct men to online resources geared toward defeating pornography.

I’m grateful that the Church has brought this issue into the light. Sin can’t thrive well in the dark. For many people, discussing it openly is the first step toward lasting change.

However, I’m also concerned that overemphasizing the problem of pornography has unintended spiritual consequences. When we begin to believe that successful spirituality consists of overcoming a particular benchmark sin, we run the risk of falling into legalism. We start to view sin management as the primary goal of the spiritual life, when in fact the primary goal is to know and represent Jesus Christ (Philippians 3:7-11). This means that victory over sin has to flow out of my relationship with Jesus, and not the other way around.

Simply giving up our bad habits, while admirable, will never develop us into mature disciples of Jesus Christ. Tips and suggestions for overcoming pornography aren’t bad. They’re simply insufficient. Although I do refer young men to books and online resources, I’ve started emphasizing a more holistic approach when addressing the challenges of lust. It can be tough to approach the subject this way, because it’s not always simple or clean: I can’t provide a magical ten-step solution to defeating porn.

On the other hand, much of what I want to emphasize is stunningly simple, because it’s a back-to-the-basics approach to discipleship. Here are a few of the questions I ask when somebody is struggling with pornography:

  • Tell me about your daily relationship with Christ. Are you spending time in the Scripture? Do you pray?
  • Are you actively connected to the body of Christ through a local church? Are you isolated from other believers?
  • What situations and feelings seem to bring your struggle with lust to the forefront of your mind? In other words, are there certain “triggers” that you can learn to manage with the Spirit’s assistance? (Interestingly, most people have never paused to consider the emotional, situational, and psychological patterns that contribute to sin struggles.)
  • Do you eat a lot of junk food? Do you exercise? Do you manage your discretionary time well, or do you waste it? (Often a lack of discipline in one area of life spills over into other areas).
  • What thoughts and images do you allow your mind to dwell upon during the day? Are they pleasing to God or prone to invite temptation later in the day (Phil 4:8)?

That’s just a short list, but you can see that these questions require thoughtful answers. Although it might be necessary to tear out one’s wireless adapter, it’s not going to address the issues at the heart of a person’s struggle with lust. Although accountability and confession are critical parts of the maturity process, they won’t produce lasting change if they are merely used as a way of easing one’s temporary guilt over sin. Sin that is deeply rooted in the heart cannot be destroyed through external behavioral change. In addressing sin, we must begin to dig deeper, even though it’s inefficient and time-consuming.

What I’m arguing, in a nutshell, is that true change only takes place when we draw closer and closer to Jesus. We do so in the power of the Holy Spirit, who can transform us into His image. It’s usually not an easy or quick process. There are no shortcuts or sure-fire methods to overcoming pornography or any other sin. There is, however, the promise of maturity for those who will steadily and patiently submit themselves to God and allow Him to perform the slow and often painful work of transformation (Hebrews 6:1-2).

I’d like to hear your thoughts. Do you think the way the Church handles the issue of pornography is healthy? What do you think about the holistic approach I’m recommending?

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The Hunger Games and Christianity: Are They Incompatible? (Repost)

(For the next few weeks, I’m quite busy preparing for the Fall semester. I’ll be out of the office a good deal for various retreats and speaking engagements. Instead of writing new material I will be re-posting some of my more popular articles, as well as some of my personal favorites.)

(Note: If you haven’t read The Hunger Games or seen the movie, you should know that this post contains spoilers. I can’t think of any way to discuss it without giving away certain critical plot points.)

I read The Hunger Games trilogy a few months ago, and I saw the movie this week. Several people have asked me to comment on the story from a biblical perspective — are there moral problems or ideas in it that contradict a Christian worldview?

For those who aren’t familiar with the story, I’ll provide a brief summary. The books are set in a post-apocalyptic North America, known as Panem. The country is divided into 12 separate districts and all of them are ruled with an iron fist by the authoritarian government in The Capitol. To demonstrate its power, The Capitol requires each district to participate every year in a brutal contest called The Hunger Games. Each district must choose one boy and one girl between the ages of 12 and 18. The 24 contestants are released into a large outdoor arena and forced to fight to the death. The last contestant alive is declared the winner and receives a hero’s welcome and a lifetime of financial provision for his or her family. The story primarily revolves around Katniss Everdeen, one contestant from District 12, who enters the Games in place of her younger sister. Katniss is a courageous (yet often morally ambiguous) character who has to make some tough decisions about the value of life and the consequences of violence.

The books are filled with dark themes, even though they’re marketed to a “young adult” audience (presumably pre-teens and teenagers). But how does the book stack up to a Christian understanding of the world?

Here are a few themes in the book that relate to Christianity, along with my assessment of the book’s strengths and weaknesses in those areas: 

1. Violence and war are never ideal. If you haven’t read the books you might be inclined to think that Collins is glorifying violence. In fact, quite the opposite is true. Her clear goal is to raise serious questions about our culture’s obsession with violence and what that obsession does to the hearts and minds of our youth. As I read the books, some uncomfortable thoughts kept coming to my mind. In my younger years I watched dozens of movies that truly did glorify violence. For example, I’ll never forget watching a Tarantino film that included a brutal killing. The killing was timed and executed in such a way that it made the theater audience laugh. What sort of culture uses violence as a form of amusement? Collins raises that question masterfully. A quick scan of the Scripture tells us that God doesn’t like violence: “His soul hates the wicked and the one who loves violence” (Psalm 11:5b). The Hunger Games ought to make you reevaluate how you view violence — not only as a form of entertainment, but also as a means of settling conflict. Collins is probably more strictly pacifistic than the Scripture, but she raises some excellent questions.

2. Even the most innocent and noble among us are capable of terrible sin. Katniss has some wonderful character qualities. She’s resourceful, courageous, and even selfless when it comes to protecting her family. On the other hand, she has a vicious streak and readily kills other Tributes once she enters the arena. Her rationalizations for killing are reasonable and atrocious at the same time. Every reader probably asks himself, “How would I respond in a situation like this? Would I be the brutal killer or the meek victim?” By juxtaposing Katniss with the mild-mannered Peeta, we see the true dilemma of the book in black and white. Peeta is noble and refuses to allow his character to be sullied by the Capitol’s manipulation. Unfortunately, though, that requires him to depend on stronger and less scrupulous players like Katniss. In a dog-eat-dog world, are you the eater or the eaten? Is there a third alternative? If so, Collins doesn’t tell us what it is. Whether she intends to or not, Collins affirms the biblical doctrine of human depravity. Nobody is innocent and all of us need redemption (Romans 3:9-18).

3. Redemption is difficult, complex, and costly. Here’s where I think The Hunger Games falls short of a Christian worldview. Redemption from the cycle of violence and destruction is never complete for Katniss or her fellow Tributes. In fact, at the end of the third book (spoiler warning), Collins gives us the impression that Katniss ends the violence and war by killing President Coin, another act of violence. Her slow journey out of the  madness is assisted by the love of Peeta and the healing properties of time. Unfortunately, the book provides no permanent hope or promise of redemption. This obviously contrasts sharply with a Christian understanding of the world. Redemption from all sin, violence included, has been accomplished by Christ’s work on the cross (Colossians 1:19-22; Romans 5:18-19). The answer to violence and death is not more violence and death. The wounds of sin won’t be healed through time or good romance. They’ll be healed on the day our Savior returns, bringing heaven to earth. The only way to find true redemption is to trust in Him and await the day He makes everything right again. While we wait, we live in such a way to reflect His grace and the redemption that He offers. The Hunger Games sets up the problem well, but doesn’t provide us with a good solution.

One other note: I really don’t think these books are kids’ books. Obviously, each parent needs to decide what his or her child or teenager is able to absorb. Some teenagers are probably mature enough for the themes and challenges the book poses, but some are not. And I certainly wouldn’t let a teenager read them without following them up with a serious conversation about the story’s violence and where redemption is truly found.

If you’ve read the books or seen the movie, what would you add to my assessment here? 

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Dating Paralysis and the Christian Student

(For the next few weeks, I’m quite busy preparing for the Fall semester. I’ll be out of the office a good deal for various retreats and speaking engagements. Instead of writing new material I will be re-posting some of my more popular articles, as well as some of my personal favorites.)

I’m about to open up a can of worms, but here goes…

Some time ago, a friend of mine sent me this article from World Magazine about the challenges faced by Christian college students as they approach the subject of dating. While the culture around them encourages random “hook-ups” and sexual immorality, Christian students often retreat to the opposite extreme, refusing to date until they are fairly confident they’ve found The One. The reasoning is something like, “If I avoid dating, I can avoid immorality, heartbreak, and insensitivity toward others. I’ll just wait until I really, really like somebody — enough to probably marry her — and then ask her (and her parents) to consider beginning a serious relationship that’s headed toward marriage.”

In the past ten years that mindset was most notably popularized by Joshua Harris in his book  I Kissed Dating Goodbye. The book is referenced in the article as one of the factors causing the current confusion many Christian college students have about dating. As a college pastor for the past seven years, I’ve observed that many, if not most, Christian students do in fact take an approach similar to the book. Even if they don’t agree with its principles, guys and girls are afraid to simply go on a date, for fear it might be construed as the prelude to something much more serious. And it isn’t only men who are guilty — men often don’t ask, but I’ve known women who won’t go on a single date unless they feel confident that the guy is their one true love.

This paralysis troubles me for a few reasons:

The Bible never addresses the subject of dating. Before you write that angry comment, let me clarify. The Scripture does talk about male/female relationships quite a bit. It draws clear boundaries around sexual behavior — not even a hint of sexual immorality (Ephesians 5:3). The only appropriate context for sexual activity of any kind is marriage (Hebrews 13:4). The Bible is also quite clear that Christians are to marry only Christians (1 Cor 7:39; 2 Cor 6:14-18).

But the Bible never prescribes a certain way to find your mate — that wasn’t the concern of Scripture, since arranged marriages were the cultural model. Before you advocate returning to that model (and as a father of two daughters it does seem attractive to me at times), talk to a Christian woman from a strictly Muslim background and ask her if she favors arranged marriages. Every model has its drawbacks. My point is simply that the Bible does not provide a clear statement for us regarding dating vs. courtship vs. arranged marriages.

Dating does not always lead to immorality or emotional heartbreak. It is true that in our culture, dating is often accompanied by sexual immorality, deception, mindgames, and emotional devastation. But it doesn’t have to be that way. It is possible to have lunch with a person without leading them on, sexually misusing them, or playing emotional games. Sin is not so much a consequence of a particular model of dating as it is of sinful people who hurt and misuse other people. Notice that the people in the article who are practicing courtship are still playing deceptive games — trying to show up at the right times in the right places, flirting, lurking, etc.

How can we avoid those outcomes when we date or court? I think there are a couple of ways. First,  young men and women should involve their parents in the dating process, if possible. I realize that not every parent is a wise one, and not every parent is even a Christian, but if you have godly Christian parents I’d encourage you to ask their feedback about your dating life. When my kids reach dating age (around 47 years old), I plan to meet their dates, help them set boundaries, and assist them in evaluating marriage prospects. If your parents are non-Christians or won’t give good input, seek wisdom from the Christian community: pastors, godly friends, mentors. Second, use the Scripture as a model. When I preach on dating, I use Proverbs 3:3 as a guideline: “Do not let kindness and truth leave you; Bind them around your neck, Write them on the tablet of your heart.” Are your actions toward dating partners straightforward and truthful? Are they consistent with Scripture? Are they kind, seeking the best interest of the other party? If so, you’re probably doing alright.

Finally, I think the way many students are approaching dating right now is born out of fear rather than trust in the Lord. As I read the article in World, I got the impression that these students were crushed by pressure and fear. Particularly interesting was Brett Harris’s comment intending to defend guys who don’t initiate — these men are afraid of rejection so they simply avoid the risk.

Avoiding dating will certainly help you avoid certain kinds of pain, but it will lead to other kinds of pain. There is simply no way to avoid pain if you’re interacting with other people — we don’t seek it out, and we do all we can to keep from hurting others, but it happens. Learning how to deal with conflict, misunderstanding, and even rejection is a part of the sanctification process. We don’t want to be reckless, but relationships do require a degree of risk. No way around it. The upside is that risk can often pay off — I can’t tell you how glad I am that I risked asking out Shannon. And that she risked going out with me in the first place, even though she felt a bit uncertain whether I was really marriage material.

I do agree that the purpose of dating is ultimately to find a mate, but you can’t really know in our culture if a person is a suitable mate until you spend some time together. Especially in college, most people don’t live with their nuclear families. We don’t live in small towns where we’ve known the same people for 20 years. A different culture might require different models of dating than we saw in 19th century New England or 1st century Palestine. That’s not bad, as long as you follow the clear Scriptural commands about sexual morality and Christian marriage.

Bottom line: I think fear of mistakes and lack of trust in the Lord has led Christian college students to withdraw from developing healthy and godly relationships with the opposite sex. Men, I’d challenge you to take a few risks and go out on a few dates. Be clear with your intentions and above reproach with your actions, but don’t operate out of fear for your reputation or what everybody might think about you. And ladies, don’t be afraid to say yes, even he’s not your picture of the perfect mate. There might be more in there than meets the eye.

Paul’s Proclamation of God’s Grace

Just a Friday afternoon quote for your reflection and encouragement. This comes from a book by F.F. Bruce, called Paul: The Apostle of the Heart Set Free (pages 18-19)

“Paul’s pre-eminent contribution to the world has been his presentation of the good news of free grace…The God whose grace Paul proclaimed is the God who alone does great wonders. He creates the universe from nothing; he calls the dead to life; he justifies the ungodly. This third is the greatest wonder of all: creation and resurrection are consistent with the power of the living and life-giving God, but the justifying of the ungodly is prima facie a contradiction of his character as the righteous God, the Judge of all the earth, who by his own declaration ‘will not justify the ungodly’ (Exodus 23:7). Yet such is the quality of divine grace that in the very act of extending it to the undeserving God demonstrates ‘that he himself is righteous and that he justifies the one who has faith in Jesus’ (Romans 3:26). “

In other words, the Gospel demonstrates God’s justice and righteousness, even though forgiveness seems on its face to be inconsistent with justice. But God’s justice and mercy meet in the person of Jesus Christ, and that is the message that Paul consistently and forcefully proclaimed. All praise and glory to the God who creates life, gives new life, and justifies the ungodly!