Tuesday, December 31, 2013

Counting Down: The Best of 2013

In looking back on 2013, I wanted to add a slight twist to the typical “Top Ten” idea. What I’ll do this time around is count out my ten favorite happenings—not necessarily blog posts—at Happier Far, beginning with number 10 and working my way up to the biggest highlight of the year. To a limited degree, the order of these items is influenced on reader popularity, but I’ve also arbitrarily bumped a few of them up or down as seemed best to me.

10. Paradise Lost. To be honest, this is on the list simply because I love the book so much. Frankly, I was surprised (and somewhat disappointed) by how little interest the Paradise Lost series initially generated here on the blog, although the last couple entries have enjoyed a larger readership. We’ve made it through eight of the twelve books in the poem, so we’ll finish things up in 2014. And since I’m a glutton for punishment, I may eventually delve into the four books of Paradise Regained sometime in the future. (To those wondering if that’s a threat or a promise, it’s both.)

9. The Expulsive Power of a New Affection. I have reaped countless spiritual benefits from “translating” Thomas Chalmers’ nineteenth century sermon into modern English. It was a pleasure and a privilege to share the results of my efforts on the blog as well. Here’s the final lineup of the entries: “When You Can’t Give Up the Sins You Love” (here), “‘Just Say No’ Doesn’t Work” (here), “Why Those in the World Cannot Love God” (here), “How to Avoid the World’s Seduction” (here), and “Finding an Attraction to True Beauty” (here).

8. Changing Views of the Bible. The Lutheran distinction between law and gospel has forever altered my perspective on the Christian faith. I spent several weeks explaining what this distinction is and why it so radically matters to our Christian walk. Here is the final lineup of the series: “Lutherans Know Something We Don’t Know” (here), “What’s Law Got to Do with It?” (here), “Using the Law Unlawfully” (here), “The Gospel We (Don’t) Believe” (here), “Does Jesus Have a Double Standard?” (here), and “Accidentally Hating what God Loves” (here).

7. When Big Names Pat Little Backs. God condescends to show His face to the undeserving. I have been the recipient of His unmerited favor in a myriad of ways, one of which is the encouragement from some popular and influential Christian figures. I’m constantly blown away by how approachable Gene Veith is, and by his gracious endorsement of my blog writing—particularly the Law vs. Gospel series. Football legend Inky Johnson has not only encouraged me in my writing, but he also granted me an interview for a blog post earlier this year, then reposted it on his own website. His humility and graciousness are a blessing to me. And one of the main reasons for my increased blog presence is the encouragement of my friend (and soon to be published author) Trillia Newbell. Because of her advocacy for me, I also had the privilege of writing an article for the Gospel Coalition earlier in the year. Through their interactions with me, these individuals illustrate the graciousness of God in the gospel to undeserving sinners.

6. You. Yes, you are on the list. Friends, family, acquaintances, and other visitors: so many of you have provided me with positive, instructive, and even corrective feedback. Bloggers like Chip Gruver and Steve Martin have been enormously kind with their repeated encouragements. The responses I have received from you all have encouraged me in God’s use of the talents He has given me. I am further encouraged that others have found Happier Far to be a means of grace in their own lives. Thank you for walking on life’s journey with me.

5. Fatherhood. If we were talking strictly about my personal life, this would be higher on the list. Becoming a father has been one of the greatest experiences I’ve ever had. It also afforded me the opportunity to write what has become one of this year’s most popular posts: “Confessions of a New Father: I Wasn’t Prepared for This.”

4. Telling My Own Story. As an amateur theologian, it’s easy for me to intellectually dissect doctrines and dogmas from afar, keeping them at arm’s length. But theology was meant to have real life implications, and God has made sure to make the wheels of my theology leave some tire marks on the road of real life. Rather than study the Bible as a specimen under a microscope, I have had to face God’s truth in my own experience, making my study both more painful and incredibly more beneficial. It has been a privilege to blog about a few key incidents from the last year or so. “How One Hebrew Word Changed My Heart” (here), “What I Learned from Wetting My Pants” (here), and “One Thing About Christianity that Still Bothers Me” (here) are the three highlights. Intensely personal, these stories help show how God’s grace splashes down into our experiences. I hope they have benefited you in at least some small way.

3. Sex and Nudity in the Movies. My evolving views on cinematic sexuality have been heavily influenced by Scripture and the progressive insights of author and pastor Wayne A. Wilson. This year, I wrote two posts on the topic. The first, “Sex, Lies, and Star Trek” (here) may very well be the most popular post of 2013. True, a few other posts received more hits, but this piece had no help from famous outside sources (except for possibly pastor Wilson himself, with whom I directly corresponded about this post). The follow-up piece was equally controversial, and equally necessary: “When Is Public Decency Acceptable?” (here). We will definitely revisit this issue in 2014.

2. Shannon’s Wordsmithing. Yes, God has gifted me in the area of writing, but I would be remiss if I failed to acknowledge that God has also gifted me with the superb language, rhetoric, and editing gifts of my wife Shannon. Brainstorming ideas, generating blog titles, writing effective attention grabbers, selecting pictures—everything I’ve done this past year has been affected by Shannon’s expertise. Her involvement has dramatically improved the quality of my blogging. As in our family life, Shannon’s influence here at Happier Far has been invaluable.

1. Learning to Love. Too often, I’ve used truth as a weapon of mass destruction rather than an agent of healing. God has really done a number on me this year, helping me to grow in my desire and ability to let His love more effectively color my thoughts, words, and actions. It’s hard to pinpoint a definite starting point for this process, but a milestone took place in early February when I wrote “Dan Cathy, Chick-fil-A, and the Love of Jesus” (here). During that time, I experienced a growing desire to demonstrate the character of Christ while interacting with others—especially those with whom I disagree. As the year progressed, I often returned to the topic of loving others: “I Love Jesus, but I Hate the Church” (here), “Treating Fellow Christians Like Enemies” (here), “Blog First, Ask Questions Later” (here), “Being Offensive and Charitable” (here), and “Loving Someone Who is Trying to Kill You” (here), as well as the sex and nudity articles discussed already. This doesn’t mean I will shy away from hard topics (like I did here in “The 3 Habits of Highly Effective Heretics”), but it hopefully means that my treatment of others will better mirror the grace and truth Christ displayed in His relationships.

Tuesday, December 24, 2013

The Nativity: As Told by Children

You know you’re sick when you look at your adorable baby girl and you have no desire to hold her. That’s how my wife and I felt for part of last week. In God’s kindness, Shannon and I weren’t hit with the worst of our sicknesses concurrently; one was always able to take care of Elanor while the other remained in bed. Still, I wasn’t exactly in a condition to do a lot of writing.

That being the case, and since this is Christmas Eve, I won’t take much of your time. But speaking of adorable children, I thought it’d be fun to share a video project I helped work on a few years ago. We interviewed several young children about the Christmas story, then edited the resulting clips together to provide something of a “script” for other children to act out. What resulted was a nice blend of cuteness and humor. I hope you enjoy the video.

Tuesday, December 17, 2013

THE HOBBIT: THE DESOLATION OF SMAUG (2013) – Film Review

Having loved the first Hobbit movie, and knowing that The Desolation of Smaug would include scenes from my favorite parts of the book, I entered the theater with great expectations. To put it bluntly, I left the theater with great disappointments. In fact, even before the end credits rolled, I was morosely nursing the wounds—the desolation, so to speak—that Peter Jackson had inflicted upon me.

I wish I could say watching the movie was only as bad as eating lembas bread. Unfortunately, it was more distasteful than that.* In the review below, I will refer to the movie as Desolation—and not just because it’s good shorthand. As a reminder, I rate my movies based on three criteria: morally objectionable content (C), artistic merit (A), and my personal opinions (P).

CONTENT (C): 7 out of 10
Desolation has the dishonorable privilege of being the first Middle Earth movie with a couple lines of sexual innuendo between a male and female character. It’s sad when Tolkien’s source material is soiled by such content, even if it is “minor.” On another occasion, one dwarf reports that he told an elf to “go [Dwarvish word] himself.” Other than that, the most potentially objectionable content—from a moral standpoint, that is—is the violence. As with An Unexpected Journey, Desolation has a few instances of what I would consider unnecessary gore. Finally, certain characters make questionable moral choices regarding their treatment of others.

ARTISTRY (A): 5 out of 10
Both the cinematography and editing take a turn for the worse with Desolation. In George Lucas fashion, Jackson relies heavily on CGI shots. Many of these pan and swirl into oblique angles. The effect is distracting, not impressive. The battle scenes are littered with close-up shots, blurry action, and quick cuts, making it hard to discern who is doing what to whom. This isn’t supposed to be another entry into the Jason Bourne franchise.

This film strays more from Tolkien’s source material than any of Jackson’s previous efforts. Some of these choices, such as fleshing out the character of Bard, are laudable. Other additions, such as giving the Dwarves a more active role in the confrontation with Smaug, are understandable, if not entirely successful. Still other embellishments, which involve the inclusion of new characters, are both needless and sometimes cringe-worthy.

Understandably, the filmmakers are more confident in their work, considering their enormous artistic and financial success with the Lord of the Rings trilogy. This success may be part of the reason why Jackson feels comfortable branching out, but it is this very branching out that weakens the narrative. The Lord of the Rings comprised three movies based on three volumes—or, in Tolkien’s mind, one incredibly large volume. I can’t imagine trying to fit that story into one or two movies.

The Hobbit, on the other hand, is just one book, and a smaller one at that. It appears fairly obvious at this point that The Hobbit should have been split into no more than two movies. The source material is being stretched too thin—like butter scraped over too much bread.

PREFERENCE (P): 4 out of 10
I never expected The Hobbit to cater to all my personal preferences. However, the movie did me no favors by simultaneously condensing and embellishing my favorite part of the book—the Mirkwood section (especially the spider sequence). It’s one thing to use artistic license with the Mirkwood material, but it’s another to gut a large portion of it and replace it with utterly superfluous.

Without going into details, I will say the romantic tension inserted into the story is implausible at best. I did finally warm up to the character of Tauriel, but her role in the narrative is sometimes frustrating. She can act recklessly from time to time. Whenever I responded negatively to a rash decision Tauriel made, Shannon just reminded me, “Hey, it’s Kate. What did you expect?” (To be fair to actress Evangeline Lilly, she’s a fine thespian. In fact, she only agreed to play the part of Tauriel on the stipulation that there would be no love triangles. The filmmakers evidently agreed and then went back on their word later in the process. As it stands, the character of Tauriel, like Kate from the TV series Lost, tends to lean toward the impetuous side of things.)

Many of the embellishments just didn’t work for me, including the added material with Bard and Lake-town. And while I enjoyed the official introduction of Smaug, the dragon’s extended role only served to eventually drag the film down into the realm of the ridiculous. I’m sad to say that one of the highlights of the film for me was making fun of it with our friends after it was over. That’s certainly not how The Desolation of Smaug should have ended.

CAP score: 53%

* Disclaimer: I have never actually eaten lembas bread. My statement is based solely on assumptions formed by watching the Lord of the Rings trilogy.

Tuesday, December 10, 2013

One Thing About Christianity that Still Bothers Me

I’m not quite sure what it was that teed me off initially. Our Sunday morning started innocently enough: we woke up and began the process of getting ready for church—something that involves more gymnastics these days, now that we have a newborn daughter. (I’ve never had to deal with projectile poop before.)

I was finishing changing Elanor’s diaper when she spat up, ruining the outfit I had just wrestled her back into. Seeds of impatience sprouted out of my mouth: “Your timing sucks,” I told my uncomprehending daughter. After switching out her clothes, I brought her out of the room, only to encounter Cliff Bar (our cat) in front of me, seemingly determined to get tangled up in my legs as I walked. Juggling a baby and dribbling a cat aren’t activities you want to combine.

“You’re really stupid, you know that?” I barked at the cat. (Huh. Pun not intended.) In response, my wife Shannon put out her arms and asked for Elanor, advising me to take my shower so I could be alone for a while.

Being alone didn’t do much for me. I knew my anger was unjustified. I knew I had sinned in my heart, not to mention my mouth. I knew I needed to repent. The thing was, I couldn’t quite get over the fact that I had gotten so terribly upset over so small an incident.

On the drive to our church meeting, Shannon asked me how I was doing. I answered with something akin to a shrug and a grunt. You see, I had been confronted with one aspect of Christianity that sometimes sticks in my craw: the enormously good news of the gospel reveals just how enormous my sin really is. It rips off the fa├žade of righteousness I love to play dress-up in. It reminds me that God draws near, not to the self-sufficient and morally upright, but to the contrite and lowly in heart (Isa. 57:15). It reveals just how desperate I am for God’s redeeming and renewing grace to rescue me from myself.

I am very much unlike the Apostle Paul. In Philippians 3, he lists all the reasons why he has a right to consider himself an upstanding citizen of the world. He has a lot going for him. But instead of clinging to this list as a source of confidence, he says he would rather treat it like dung. He would rather trade in his greatest accomplishments and be left with nothing. Why? So he could be found in the righteousness of another—namely, Jesus.

I, on the other hand, often prefer dung cakes to humble pie. I don’t like admitting that I’m dust (Ps. 103:14). I don’t like admitting that all my efforts at self-salvation are as productive as a woman giving birth to wind (Isa. 26:18). I don’t like admitting that my cleanest and most righteous deeds are, in and of themselves, menstrual rags (Isa. 64:6).

But in asserting my own false sense of righteousness, I effectively cut myself off from the righteousness God offers to me in Christ. Sure, the gospel puts me in a bad light, but only to position me to receive the light of God’s gracious countenance. I can’t have the latter without the former.

So what happened in the car on the way to church? The Holy Spirit graciously prompted my wife to speak to me. Her encouragement went something like this: “You said Elanor’s timing sucked, but she doesn’t even have timing yet. So really, what you were saying was that God’s timing sucked. So it’s interesting that God perfectly timed our marriage and our daughter and perfectly timed Christ’s coming into the world so that He could forgive you for saying His timing sucked.”

Through my wife’s gracious words of law and gospel, God broke my heart and brought me once again to contrition and humility. I was able to experience godly sorrow and genuine repentance, which, as God has promised, leads to true, regret-free salvation (2 Cor. 7:10). I may be a stubborn sinner, and I may sometimes balk at the path to sweet forgiveness, but thanks be to God that His grace is greater than all my sin!

Wednesday, December 04, 2013

FROZEN (2013) – Film Review

In the kingdom of Arendelle, sisters Anna and Elsa grow up separated by a tragic case of magic. Elsa’s ability to turn her surroundings into ice—a power made more dangerous by its connection to her emotional state—makes her a constant threat to her sister, and to the future of their kingdom.

For years, Elsa’s powers are kept secret, even from Anna. The secret makes an unwelcome public appearance when Anna finally confronts Elsa over her lifetime of ostracism. Soon, the entire land is covered in ice. Elsa runs away, and it’s up to Anna to bring her back and rescue Arendelle from a perpetual state of “always winter, never Christmas” (to steal a quote from another fantasy story).

CONTENT (C): 8 out of 10
The film has a few mild innuendos—two visual and one verbal. All or most of these pass by without notice. (Until I double-checked the content, I had forgotten about one instance and had missed another one entirely.) There are a couple offhand references to bodily functions, but nothing overtly crass or vulgar.

One protagonist’s careless immaturity, while not overtly celebrated, is also never clearly portrayed as negative. I’m also tired of paper-thin Disney princesses, not to mention countless other female leads (digital, hand drawn, and live action). Hollywood’s obsession with thinness isn’t doing anyone any favors.

In atypical Disney fashion, one character takes a few humorous—and welcome—jabs at the prospect of rushing into romance. Love at first sight isn’t a standard by which to base any mature relationship. This sets the stage for a third-act display of love that focuses on self-sacrifice instead of romance.

Voice actor Idina Menzel has called Frozen a “bit of a feminist movie.” If by feminist she means featuring two female leads, then yes it is. But I saw chivalry on display throughout the duration of the story—nothing that would provide confusion for children related to gender roles (although I can sympathize with some people who are more concerned than I am.)

ARTISTRY (A): 6 out of 10
The animation in Frozen is gorgeous, especially when ice-related magic takes place. There are several musical numbers, all of which help drive the story forward and/or provide comic relief. Some of the dialogue, especially between ice harvester Kristoff and Anna, is deliciously clever.

Unfortunately, less attention has been paid to the two female leads. In fact, there are no strong character arcs for either of them. As revealed by the deluxe edition soundtrack, there was originally an additional song entitled “Life’s Too Short” (designed for around the middle of the story and once again as a reprise) that helps provide those necessary character arcs. Alas, the song was jettisoned from the final version of the film, robbing the princess sisters of some much-needed depth.

According to producer Peter Vel Decho, they had a “very short time schedule for this film,” which may be a factor in the above problem. The shortened timeline might also have contributed to some unnecessary slight-of-hand with one character’s motivations. I don’t mind being surprised by plot developments, but I do mind being deceptively misled.

These deficiencies don’t derail the story; they simply lessen its overall effectiveness. It’s still nice to see a movie where sibling relationships get almost as much weight as romantic relationships. I just wish the filmmakers had spent a little more time developing stronger platonic plot points.

PREFERENCE (P): 7 out of 10
It took me a while to…well, warm up to Frozen, but I finally did. For the most part, the musical numbers serve their purposes; I’m just not a huge fan of most of them. Some feel a little too poppy for the context, but maybe it’s just me. The inclusion of Norse mythology elements, while perfectly functional in the film, didn’t engage me much either.

For me, the movie’s saving grace is its humor. There is a sporadic sense of the film not taking itself too seriously, almost on the level of The Emperor’s New Groove. Olaf, the anthropomorphic snowman, is the comedic highlight of the film. Practically everything he said or did had me in stitches. I don’t want to exaggerate, but Olaf may be my favorite Disney sidekick, right up next to Pixar’s Dory.

The intended pathos of the film’s climax didn’t ring true to me—due in large part, I think, to the lack of character arcs in the two female leads. I found myself completely disengaged at the most poignant moment of the film, and that’s saying something. I mean, I’m the guy who cries at children’s movies like hippies cry over beached whales. No tears from me during Frozen. If Anna and Elsa’s growth as characters had been more clearly portrayed I would’ve found the climax more moving.

I stick around for movie credits (as everyone should), and my stick-to-itiveness was rewarded this time with a couple Easter eggs at the end, including a funny “disclaimer.” If you see the movie, stick around to check it out.

CAP score: 70%

Tuesday, November 26, 2013

One Reason Why I’m Not Thankful

It’s not a pleasant discovery to make when you’re late for work. My heart experienced that sick, sinking feeling as I realized that our car was stuck in the garage with no way to get it out.

For some inexplicable reason, I had left the keys in the ignition the night before. Not content with that level of carelessness, my psyche had also decided to leave the keys turned so the battery was engaged—all night long. Our car’s precious energy slowly drained out while Shannon and I slept blissfully unaware.

To make matters worse, I had driven forward into the garage the night before, making it impossible for another car to reach our engine with standard length jumper cables. (In my defense, it takes me 20 minutes to safely back the car into the garage without busting through a wall, so I was just saving time and repair costs.)

Throughout the day, I was painfully aware of the inconvenience of not having a car. It was, I think, a good illustration of the old adage, “You don’t know what you’ve got till it’s gone.”

In fact, I think that’s one of the biggest reasons why I’m not as thankful as I should be. There is so much amazing grace in my life that I count a lot of it as “normal.” So many of my blessings exist day after day after day. Their constancy makes me take them for granted. In planning my schedule, I consider it a given to have, say, a working car.

I don’t think I’m alone here. We might label many of God’s gracious blessings as undeserved gifts, but we’re tempted to balk when those gifts don’t work properly, or when they’re taken away altogether. It’s as if we think God owes us the grace we have received. But earned grace is an oxymoron, and only an ox or a moron would claim God owed him grace.

To help us avoid being oxen or morons, I wanted to meditate briefly on the amazing goodness of God in one particular area. There are a lot of blessings to choose from, not the least of which is my new daughter, but I wanted to look at something we tend to overlook: those astounding technological advancements we know as our cars.

Isn’t “astounding” an exaggeration? Not in my opinion. Think about it: If we need to travel out of state and back, it’s possible nowadays to do so in a matter of hours. We can drive hundreds of miles within a day’s time—comfortably. On horseback, the same trip could easily have taken weeks, if not months. With the time it would take for me to visit one of my company’s jobsites on a horse, I could hit up a dozen grocery stores, four restaurants, and have a lengthy stay reading a book and sipping a Frappuccino at Starbucks. And unlike in Oregon Trail times, I’m not in constant danger of getting dysentery. Cramped legs maybe, but not life-threatening infections.

Not only do we have the ability to travel great distances in short time periods, but we also do so in style. Even basic cars come with climate control features. Consider the amazing luxury we take for granted. On cold winter days, it’s possible to ride with warm air blowing into your face—or feet, or both (you get to decide!)—while you’re protected inside a cabin that shields you from the frozen air. On hot summer days, you simply turn a dial (or push a button) and out of those same vents flow refreshing cool air.

GPS features make navigation astronomically easier. All you need is an address, and you can choose a route based on its length, travel time, road conditions, and other factors. If you happen to miss a turn or an exit, no problem! Your car can compensate by recalculating the route. It’s like a souped up, genetically enhanced Lewis and Clark with you at all times. The world is your navigational oyster.

Those are just three aspects to modern-day automobile travel. We haven’t even mentioned cruise control, rearview cameras, adaptive headlights, seat warmers, night vision, tire pressure monitoring, blind spot detection, and radar-based automatic braking. At the rate technology is advancing, Superman himself will eventually travel by car just to save on time and effort.

Yes, God’s blessings are everywhere. They surround us every day. That may make them easy to overlook, just as a fish might not be aware of water. But that leaves us with no excuse for unthankful hearts—much less for any sense of entitlement. God’s goodness endures through the ages, not so we can take them for granted, but so we can have an endless reason to give thanks.

Tuesday, November 19, 2013

Confessions of a New Father: I Wasn’t Prepared for This

Looking back, I realize I should have been more aware of what was coming. I had definitely seen enough signs. And yet the true nature of the approaching changes never really struck me—not until reality itself pulled me into its clutches after my daughter’s birth. I guess it’s like they say: there are certain things you just can’t know or understand until you experience them.

You see, I was expecting to enjoy my newborn daughter. What I didn’t expect, and what I wasn’t fully prepared for, was being drastically bulldozed over by an overwhelming array of euphoric emotions and paternal affections.

Yes, I expected my daughter to be like a heartwarming drink from a fresh fountain of God’s goodness. But I have discovered that fountain to be more like a perpetual geyser. I am soaked to the bone, and being this drenched has never felt so amazingly good.

I should have known what was coming when Chloe, my niece, was born and subsequently stole my heart. Being involved in her early life—babysitting, reading books with her, watching her laugh at movies—was the closest thing I had yet experienced to being a parent, and it was a sweet privilege.

I should have known what was coming when my wife and I felt our daughter move in the womb for the first time. It was just a small bump against Shannon’s belly, but it was the first signal we could actually feel from Elanor moving. I erupted in a laughing fit that was an overflow of pure joy.

I should have known what was coming, having read in Scripture that children are a gift and a reward from God Himself (Psalm 127:3). In fact, an abundance of children are as beneficial to a father as a quiver full of arrows is to a warrior in combat (vv. 4-5). There is no substitute for the joys of parenthood.

Now, has it all been smiles, giggles, and prancing through toy stores in slow motion? Of course not. In the few shorts weeks we’ve had Elanor, there have been times of frustration and anger, loss of sleep, and even hopeless bewilderment.

In fact, I’d rather be in bed right now, but I’m up with my daughter, who’s in between crying fits. Her laments are a mix between the sounds of a strangled duck and the staccato hoots of Count von Count from Sesame Street. (Our cat’s not too fond of the noise. Right now, she’s actually streaking from room to room in frustration.) Life with my precious daughter is sometimes challenging.

But that’s how all of life works. Nothing truly worth holding onto is easy. In our saner moments, who wants to settle for “easy?” Lust may be easier than love, but fleeting pleasures can’t hold a candle to marital bliss. A free ride through life may be easier than hard work, but the meaninglessness of endless vacation can’t compare with the satisfaction of vocation. Being the master of your time and money might sound appealing, but the “burden” of family provides a wealth of relationships that cannot be equaled.

As blogger Matt Walsh has pointed out, the good things of parenting are difficult to illustrate “because they’re so deep and transcendent and immeasurable.” Those words accurately describe my experience of fatherhood thus far. Parenting my precious child alongside my wonderful wife has provided countless deep, transcendent, and immeasurable joys.

So yeah, I wasn’t adequately prepared for being a father. But that’s far from a bad thing. It’s just another glorious example of 1 Corinthians 2:9: “Eye has not seen, nor ear heard, nor have entered into the heart of man the things which God has prepared for those who love Him.”

Tuesday, November 12, 2013

Finding an Attraction to True Beauty

The Expulsive Power paraphrase
Part 5

The previous words have, I hope, served in some degree to provide practical help to those who are desperate “not [to] love the world,” but who feel that their fleshly desires and tendencies are too strong.

There is no other way to keep the love of the world out of our hearts than to “keep [ourselves] in the love of God” (Jude 21). And there is no way to keep ourselves in the love of God other than by “building [ourselves] up on [our] most holy faith” (Jude 20). The denial of the world is impossible to those who reject the gospel. But not loving the world is possible, even as all things are possible, to the one who believes the gospel.

In closing, let us consider one more illustration. Picture a man who could stand on the edge of the world and observe its abundance: rich produce and culinary delights, luxurious homes, the joys of human companionship, and all the other blessings the earth can offer.

If he turned around after taking in this attractive scene, he would be confronted with the dark expanse of space. Do you think he would willingly say goodbye to the earth and wander through endless emptiness? Would he even be tempted to reject the cheerful attraction of the earth and leave it behind?

Certainly not! Rather, he would cling to the world and shrink away from the desolation of space. His satisfaction would be found in keeping his feet firmly planted on the earth.

However, what if he turned from the world to look into outer space and found himself peering into heaven itself? His senses would be overwhelmed with superior glories, sweeter sounds, and greater beauties. He would see a heartfelt joy spread among all its inhabitants. He would discern peace, piety, and love to a degree higher than he had ever known. Every heart would be filled with gladness and every person would be united in goodwill toward each other and toward their generous God. He would look in vain to see even a hint of pain, decay, or death, and he would soon realize that no other place in the universe was as inviting and welcoming as this place was.

In this situation, wouldn’t his perspective change? Would not the expanse of space (once a wilderness) become a land of enchantment, and the world (once a land of enchantment) become a wilderness? Where empty space could not lure him, a land with beautiful scenes and society most definitely could.

That is how it is for all of us. The best way—indeed, the only way—to cast out an impure affection is to accept a pure one in its place.

And so, let us not try to change the existing tendencies of the human heart. We may very well be tempted to attach ourselves to the things of this world, as if this world is what matters most. But let us comprehend the superior attraction of that world which is to come. Only then will we avoid doing violence to our human nature. And only then will we be able to die to this present world and live to the more lovely world offered to us through the gospel of the kingdom of God.

photo credit: h.koppdelaney via photopin cc

Tuesday, November 05, 2013

How to Avoid the World’s Seduction

Part 4

To do your best at any particular job, you want to use the most effective tools. Trying to deny worldliness without faith is the same as trying to work without the right set of tools. As we have begun to see, the most effective tool—indeed, the only effective tool—for turning us from lovers of the world into lovers of God is the gospel.

It is only in the gospel that God stands revealed as an object of confidence to sinners. It is only in the gospel where our desire for Him is not chilled by the barrier of guilt that hinders every approach not made through Christ, our mediator (1 Timothy 2:5). The gospel brings us hope, with which we draw near to God. To live without hope is to live without God, and if the heart is without God, the world will then have control over it.

The world’s control over the heart is destroyed only when a person sees and embraces God as revealed through Christ. Then we no longer look on God with terror as an offended lawgiver. Instead, we are enabled by faith (which is God’s own gift) to see His glory in the face of Jesus Christ. In the gospel, we hear Him proclaim goodwill, full pardon, and complete acceptance to those who turn to Him in repentance.

Only when a heart has been regenerated can it experience a love that overshadows, and ultimately drives out, its love of the world. When we are released from the spirit of bondage and received by the Spirit of adoption, we are brought under a new and better master—One who delivers us from the enslavement of our heart’s former desires. In this way, saving faith brings life to a heart that is otherwise dead to the influence of any other offer of salvation.

The gospel is designed to both pacify the sinner’s conscience and purify his heart. It does not do just one or the other. Take away the pacifying, and the purifying is taken away as well. On the flip side, the more a conscience is pacified, the more it is purified. In other words, the more a conscience is soothed by the gospel, the more it is sanctified by the gospel.

This is one of the great secrets of the Christian life: the more you view God as a giver of free, unmerited, unending grace, the more enabled you are to live in obedience to Him. The more attractive God appears to you, the less attractive the world will appear. Your love for God will spring out of your awareness of God’s love for you. In effect, you will experience and demonstrate the truth that the gospel creates what the law commands.

The person who views God as saying, “Obey me or else” will be filled with a constant fear of punishment, and this fear will eat away at his confidence to interact with God. If, in awareness of his sin and shame, he persists in “making it up” to God, he is actually pursuing his own selfish pride and not God’s glory. By trying to prove himself through obedience, he reveals a heart of disobedience; he is approaching God strictly on his own terms.

In the gospel, God’s acceptance is given freely, without money and without cost (Isaiah 55:1), so that a person’s security in God is placed beyond the reach of any disturbance. The Christian can rest in God’s presence just as one might relax with a friend. Through the gospel, an understanding is established between God and man: God delights to show goodness to His children, and His children find the truest possible sense of gladness in the beauty of this goodness. Salvation by free grace, salvation based not on works but on the mercy of God—salvation such as this is just as effective in delivering our wayward hearts from worldliness as it is in delivering our corrupt souls from condemnation.

The freeness of grace, which so many are tempted to think provides an excuse to sin, is actually what enables the heart to fight against sin. Far from being a seed that sprouts into worldly living, free grace is the seed of an inclination against worldly living. To the degree that you compromise the freeness of this grace, to that degree you will take away one’s ability to love God and reject worldliness. The most powerful transformation that can occur within a sinner is when, under the belief that he is saved by free grace, he is taught by that same grace to “deny ungodliness and worldly lusts” (Titus 2:11-12).

Because of the gospel, the Christian need not lose heart. Even if he cannot effectively discern the corruption of the world, he can still aid himself in destroying the world’s influence in his life. All he needs to do is continually remind himself of the gospel.

If you are unable to understand the true nature of the present world, you can still study what has been revealed from the world to come. If you are unable to observe and dissect sinful desires, you can still wield the only weapon that destroys those desires: the gospel. You may not be able to bring into light the hidden recesses of human nature, with all the weaknesses and lurking appetites that belong to it. Nevertheless, you do have a truth in your possession that, like a black hole, will swallow up all such lurking appetites.

Therefore, never stop using this powerful instrument in putting an end to your love of the world. Use every legitimate method of instilling in your heart a love of Him who is greater than the world. If at all possible, clear away the shroud of unbelief that hides and darkens God’s lovely face. Never cease to affirm that in the gospel, which reconciles sinful people to their Maker, the God of love presents you with a kaleidoscope of His endearing qualities.

photo credit: reinvented via photopin cc

Tuesday, October 29, 2013

Why Those in the World Cannot Love God

Part 3

The command to withdraw one’s affections from earthly things is, to the worldly man, the same as a call for his self-extinction, since his affections are set on nowhere but the world and cannot be transferred elsewhere. He may have a strong sense of the futility of life, but he will resist any attempt to shift his heart’s tendencies away from this life. To him, all such attempts are impractical.

Based on the wisdom of this world, he considers himself beyond such ideas as setting our affections on things above (Colossians 3:2), or walking by faith (2 Corinthians 5:7), or having no confidence in the flesh (Philippians 3:3), or having our citizenship in Heaven instead of on earth (Philippians 3:20). When he observes these “overly spiritual” principles, the worldly person decides that Christianity is impossible to carry out.

He does not see the love of God in sending His Son into the world. He does not see the tenderness of God toward man in not sparing His own Son, but delivering Him to death for us all (Romans 8:32). He does not see the sufficiency of the atonement, or of the sufferings that Christ bore as a substitute for sinners. He does not see both the holiness and compassion of God in passing over the sins of His creatures through the sacrifice of the Creator Himself.

The worldly person does not turn to God for peace, pardon, and reconciliation. Therefore, when told to turn away from the visible and temporary delights of the world, he finds nothing left to look at. He is separated from the joys of eternity by the wall of his own sin and guilt. If he doesn’t believe that Christ has destroyed this wall, he cannot look in faith toward the things that are unseen and eternal (2 Corinthians 4:18).

You can tell a man to be holy, but how can he obey when his fellowship with holiness is a fellowship of despair? If he is burdened by a guilty conscience, he cannot grow in godliness. He must see that the atonement of the cross establishes both the justice of the divine lawgiver and the safety of the offender. Christ’s work is what opens the way for the salvation and sanctification of a sinner’s heart. And a forgiven sinner is free to entertain kind thoughts of his Maker once God has brought him near and declared peace to him.

Separate the truth of the gospel (“Christ died for sinners”) from the command of 1 John 2:15 (“Do not love the world”) and you will separate the cause from the effect. The result will be either a legalistic system that is impossible to live by or a set of empty convictions that result in nothing. We must bring the demand and the gospel together, which enables the true disciple of Christ to obey the command by the power of the gospel. He has put on the armor of God, and with these spiritual weapons he will gain the higher ground and win the battle. Of course, such a victory requires superhuman effort, but the power of the gospel is equal to the task.

photo credit: ~Aphrodite via photopin cc

Tuesday, October 22, 2013

“Just Say No” Doesn’t Work

The Expulsive Power paraphrase
Part 2

In a sense, those of us in wealthy societies are especially familiar with the futility of worldly pursuits. Boredom is more prevalent in a first world country, where amusements are in abundance, than it is in a third world country, where entertainment is scarce. In the climate of our modern Western culture, the very multitude of our enjoyments has extinguished our power of enjoyment. Due to the sheer number and variety of distractions available, we reach a point of fatigue, unable to find any lasting satisfaction. With amusements and technology always at our fingertips, we eventually grow to see our colorful surroundings in black and white. Like King Solomon in Ecclesiastes, we discover that all our pleasures leave an aftertaste of futility and frustration.

It isn’t necessary for a man to experience pain in order to be miserable. All he needs is to look on everything with indifference. His unhappiness comes from his numbness: He is dead to all around him, and alive to nothing within him but the weight of his own useless existence.

Even when we acknowledge that worldly pleasures don’t satisfy, we still often pursue them. Why? Because desire is a universal and unchangeable human condition. Under the impulse of desire, we pursue an object to receive gratification.

Our habits of choice may be something openly sinful, such as sexual immorality. They may be focused on alcohol, video games, movies, or the approval of others. They may even be related to inherently good things, like work or leisure.

Whatever it is, our chosen interests are so captivating to us that we aren’t easily distracted from them. We develop strong habits in pursuing them. They may fail to satisfy us at times, but we refuse to give them up—even if the pleasure they provide is accompanied by negative consequences (nagging guilt, sexually transmitted diseases, poverty, loss of friendships, or even the coming vengeance of God).

If a pursuit brings only fleeting pleasure, such as pornography or illicit sex, your heart will still not let go of it any easier than it would submit to torture. Such is the grasping tendency of the human heart: it must have something to lay hold of. And if that object is stripped away without being replaced, the heart will experience a void as painful as starvation feels to the stomach.

Therefore, it isn’t enough to acknowledge how empty your pursuit is. You must direct your mind’s eye to another object—something powerful enough to free you from the grip of the first. In other words, a present desire cannot be gotten rid of simply by being destroyed. It must be replaced.

Human experience demonstrates this truth. Think, for example, of the last time you indulged a sinful desire that you had grieved over just the day before. Why wasn’t your sorrow enough to keep you from falling back into the same sin again? Because your sinful addiction wasn’t replaced by a superior desire. Until you experience the satisfaction of a greater pleasure, your sin patterns will take you in a never-ending cycle of desire, sin, and regret (James 1:14-15).

A Sunday morning sermon may help you see the emptiness of earthly pleasures. As you are reminded of how short life is and how death swallows all the joys and interests of the world, you may find yourself emotionally affected. You may even feel that a life-changing experience has taken place and that you will finally be free from your sinful cravings.

But then Monday morning comes along, accompanied by all the distractions of the world. And the machinery of the heart demands that you fill the void left by the vacant worldly pleasures. Before you know it, you are once again pursuing the sin you thought you had learned to hate. When you have no new affections to replace your old ones, the church can easily become a playground for fleeting emotions instead of a school for obedience.

It is said that nature abhors a vacuum. Well, so does the human heart: the room inside it may change one occupant for another, but it cannot be left empty without experiencing intolerable suffering.

Imagine telling a person to set fire to his own property. He might obey, painfully and reluctantly, if he saw that his life depended on it. But he would gladly burn his property to the ground if he saw that a new property worth ten times as much would instantly spring up from the ashes. In a situation like this, something more is going on than just displacing an affection; one treasure is being traded in for another.

photo credit: vlauria via photopin cc

Tuesday, October 15, 2013

When You Can’t Give Up the Sins You Love

Pornography and illicit sex. Drug addiction. Life-consuming video games. The world is a smorgasbord of tantalizing pursuits. And when it comes to forbidden pleasures (or good pleasures gone awry), our solution is usually something along the lines of, “Just say no.” Abstinence—from whatever we’ve become addicted to—is the key to victory.
 
This “solution” is filled with good intentions, but is it the right solution? Put another way, is the seduction of sin destroyed by mere avoidance of sin? I believe the answer to that question is no. Abstinence only works when a superior solution is established.
 
What is that superior solution? For the answer, I want to look at one of the most paradigm-shattering sermons I have ever been exposed to. You may have heard of it: The Expulsive Power of a New Affection, by Thomas Chalmers.
 
Yes, Thomas Chalmers has been dead for over 150 years. Yes, his sermon’s old-fashioned language is hard to slog through. But it contains a foundational truth that will rock your world.

Over a period of several months, I went through the painstaking—but highly rewarding—process of “translating” Chalmers’ sermon for easier accessibility. With Shannon’s help, I made the following adjustments:

  • Paraphrased it using modern-day English
  • Shortened it by taking out some redundancies
  • Rearranged it to help with flow
  • Eliminated some archaic illustrations, updated some others, and added a few transitions

It is my hope that the powerful truths of this sermon might be more readily available to a modern audience. Toward that end, this and the next four blog posts will show how Chalmers’ sermon can revolutionize how we deal with the tempting pleasures of sin. So, without further ado, here is the first installment in our series.
 


The Expulsive Power of a New Affection
A Sermon by Thomas Chalmers
Paraphrased, Revised, and Abridged by Cap Stewart

Central thought: I can’t learn to hate the sin that I love until I learn to love something else even more.

There is no greater warning against worldly, carnal desires than what 1 John 2:15 says: “Do not love the world, nor the things in the world. If any one loves the world, there is no love in his heart for the Father” (1912 Weymouth New Testament).

Not loving the world is indispensable to those who would follow Christ. “And do not be conformed to this world” (Romans 12:2a). “[Y]ou once walked according to the course of this world [i.e., you don’t—and shouldn’t—now]” (Ephesians 2:2). “Set your mind on things above, not on things on the earth” (Colossians 3:2). “Pure and undefiled religion before God and the Father is…to keep oneself unspotted from the world” (James 1:27). “Do you not know that friendship with the world is enmity with God? Whoever therefore wants to be a friend of the world makes himself an enemy of God” (James 4:4).

You can use one of two methods to keep your heart from loving the world:
  1. Try to convince yourself how empty worldly pleasures are. This, perhaps, will cause your heart to consider worldliness as being unworthy of your affections.

  2. Set your sights on another object that is more worthy of your delight—namely, God Himself. This will persuade you to replace an inferior affection with a new one.
My goal is to show that the first method is useless, and that the second method is the only way to rescue the heart from the worldly desires that control it. Before we get to the solution, though, we need to better understand the problem of worldliness.

photo credit: fakelvis via photopin cc

Tuesday, October 08, 2013

Predestination: Yes, God Does Keep Some Secrets from Us

Let’s continue our blog series on Paradise Lost by looking at Books 7 and 8.

Summary
Book 7:
Raphael recounts how God created the world, in what amounts to Genesis 1 in poetry form.

Book 8:
Adam shares the story of his first few moments of life.

Meditation
On a couple occasions, Adam asks Raphael for more information about creation. His curiosity is completely innocent, and Raphael answers willingly enough, but with the caveat that some of God’s ways are beyond human comprehension. God will never withhold knowledge that will make us happier (7, line 117), but because God alone is omniscient, some of His truths are “suppressed in night” (line 123).

…heaven is for thee too high
To know what passes there; be lowly wise (8, lines 172-173)

We may not like to hear it, but God does keep some cards close to His chest. “The secret things belong to the LORD our God, but those things which are revealed belong to us and to our children forever, that we may do all the words of this law” (Deut. 29:29).

One of the “secret things” that belong to the Lord is the doctrine of election, more popularly called predestination. Yes, the Bible talks about election. To ignore it is to skirt the edges of the ignorance we denounced in our last Paradise Lost post. Proponents of free will are in danger of this error. (It’s an error I committed frequently. When I didn’t believe in election, I simply pretended Romans 9 didn’t exist; I willingly denied truth that was readily available to me.)

At the same time, advocates of predestination—and especially those who call themselves Calvinists—need to be careful not to try figuring out exactly how election works. We mustn’t rely too heavily on human logic to make sense of the mystery of predestination. We may end up explaining how certain verses don’t really mean what they say—and that isn’t humble hermeneutics. Martin Luther warns us that “what is above us is none of our concern. For thoughts of this kind, which investigate something more sublime above or outside the revelation of God, are altogether hellish.”

Unlike Luther, John Wesley was an advocate of free will, yet he agreed on our need for humility in mining the depths of God’s wisdom. Commenting on Deuteronomy 29:29, he says that the ways of God “are often times hidden from us, unsearchable by our shallow capacities, and matters for our admiration, not our enquiry.” When we are “lowly wise,” we humbly and willingly accept our limitations in the face of God’s omniscience.

There is definitely room for debating Biblical doctrines, even weighty ones. There are many mysteries that God has revealed, either in full or in part. But where mystery remains, let us not pretend to know what God has not taught.

How do we know when we are being lowly wise? When we step into the waters of God’s mysterious providence and, instead of complaining about getting wet, we admire the unsearchable wisdom of God that is “past finding out” (Rom. 11:33). We know we are being lowly wise when we can say along with King David, “LORD, my heart is not haughty, nor my eyes lofty. Neither do I concern myself with great matters, nor with things too profound for me” (Ps. 131:1).

Far from making Him cold and distant, God’s omniscience comforts me with the promise that His knowledge is infinite. Therefore, He can be trusted with all my cares, longings, and needs, for He is both aware of them all and aware of what is truly best for me.

So let us praise God for what He has revealed, and let us admire Him for the knowledge He has kept secret. We may not know all His mysterious ways, but we do know His heart, and it is a heart that lavishes unending grace on undeserving and repentant hearts. Knowledge of this amazing love is more than enough.

photo credit: Erik Daniel Drost via photopin cc

Tuesday, October 01, 2013

The 3 Habits of Highly Effective Heretics

These days, it’s popular to crack down on things like hate, hypocrisy, and heresy. Well, okay, the first two vices aren’t cool—and rightfully so. Depending on your definition of those words, it can be wise and good to oppose them. But heresy has put on lipstick and a short skirt, and many in the church have responded by trading in their spectacles of discernment for hairspray and cologne.

Yes, we should be opposed to hate (Jas. 2:1-9) and hypocrisy (Gal. 2:11-13), but members of the early church had a healthy concern for what is arguably our greatest danger: heresy. Impure doctrine can often be a cause of hatred, hypocrisy, and a host of other problems. In the end, all wrong behaviors stem from wrong beliefs.

One place where Paul warns against heresy is Philippians 3:17-19.

Brethren, join in following my example, and note those who so walk, as you have us for a pattern. For many walk, of whom I have told you often, and now tell you even weeping, that they are the enemies of the cross of Christ: whose end is destruction, whose god is their belly, and whose glory is in their shame—who set their mind on earthly things.

Paul gives two facts about heretics: 1) they are enemies of Jesus Christ, and 2) their end is destruction. What I want to briefly examine, through, are what he points out next: the three habits displayed by heretics.

1. Their belly is their god.

A person’s functional god is whatever he or she obeys most readily. He who constantly refuses to consider the opinions of others and he who can’t move without the approval of others are both serving a functional god.

Here, the heretic is described as following the dictates of his belly. The word “belly” might be better translated as “heart.” In other words, heretics are swayed by their feelings more than anything else. They go with what they feel is true and right and good.

It’s easy for this to happen. The “follow your heart” mantra is everywhere in our society, including the church. Accordingly, heretics make many of their appeals based on the subjective and emotional. They encourage us to be true to ourselves and to follow where our own hearts lead. True happiness, fulfillment, and satisfaction can only come from following the god in our gut. It’s a deadly lie that heretics love to live out loud (Rom. 16:18).

2. Their glory is in their shame.

People who follow their hearts don’t stop seeking to do what is right. They just do what is right in their own eyes. And therein lies the problem: evaluating what is right and wrong with their own eyes. The Bible specifically mentions this tendency, and never with approval. For example, “The way of a fool is right in his own eyes, but he who heeds counsel is wise” (Pr. 12:15). (See also Deut. 12:8; Jud. 17:6, 21:25; Pr. 21:2.)

When heretics in the church treat their hearts as the ultimate moral compass, they come to accept or even promote those things which are shameful. Evil is called good and good evil. Love is called hate and hate love. Vice is called virtue and virtue vice.

Heretics are like the early American slaveholders: boldly professing Christianity while making a case for culturally acceptable, yet grossly unbiblical, practices. They take pleasure in falsehood, not realizing that they have learned to enjoy dark deeds even in broad daylight (2 Pet. 2:13).

3. They set their mind on earthly things.

That is, “all they think about is this life here on earth” (NLT). Or, “this world is the limit of their horizon” (Phil). This truth is made even clearer in the next verse, which says true Christians recognize they are citizens of another world—i.e., heaven.

Being concerned with earthly things is not sinful in and of itself; what is dangerous is to be so caught up in earthly pursuits that you act like a citizen of earth instead of an ambassador from a faraway—and countercultural—land.

To quote C. S. Lewis in Mere Christianity, “If you read history you will find that the Christians who did most for the present world were just those who thought most of the next. . . . [T]he English Evangelicals who abolished the Slave Trade [and many others] all left their mark on Earth, precisely because their minds were occupied with Heaven. It is since Christians have largely ceased to think of the other world that they have become so ineffective in this.” If this statement is true for lukewarm Christians, it is even more true for heretics.

Two takeaways:

1) If we’re honest, we’ll acknowledge that the seeds of heresy lie in every human heart. We are all capable of the above three habits. Realistically, we have all at least dabbled with them. Heresy is dangerous—and even deadly—but if our pointing fingers never feel our own spiritual pulses from time to time, something is wrong.

2) The proper response to heresy is not gloating. It is grief. The heretic is, ultimately, an enemy of God—even if he speaks behind a pulpit and publishes bestselling books. Thus, his destination is destruction. This news should be sobering, not a cause for salivating.

Let us weep along with the Apostle Paul that there are those in the church—professing Christ with their lips!—who are living their lives as enemies God—crucifying Christ again by their actions (Heb. 6:6). May we display God’s grace by experiencing painful sorrow rather than pleasurable self-righteousness over the heresies that threaten to stain and sully Christ’s bride.

photo credit: Nick in exsilio via photopin cc