Expressive Individualism

At the end of last year, Trevin Wax did an excellent series on expressive individualism on his blog at The Gospel Coalition. He mentions the problem of recasting Christianity according to moralistic and therapeutic purposes which distort Christianity by twisting it into something that will appeal to the longing of personal self-discovery and fulfillment. The reason this happens is our own self-deception. Many falsely believe that personal self-discovery or fulfillment will fill the desires of their hearts. In their search for self-glory, they miss the true joy of our real purpose of “glorifying God and enjoying him forever.”

But many lies come very near the truth. We are unique individuals, but this should not lead to individualism. In fact, our recognition of individuality is important. The Bible affirms both our individuality and the error of an individualistic mindset in 1 Corinthians 12:18-27:

But in fact, God has placed the parts in the body, every one of them, just as he wanted them to be. If they were all one part, where would the body be? As it is, there are many parts, but one body. The eye cannot say to the hand, “I don’t need you!” And the head cannot say to the feet, “I don’t need you!” On the contrary, those parts of the body that seem to be weaker are indispensable, and the parts that we think are less honorable we treat with special honor. And the parts that are unpresentable are treated with special modesty, while our presentable parts need no special treatment. But God has put the body together, giving greater honor to the parts that lacked it, so that there should be no division in the body, but that its parts should have equal concern for each other. If one part suffers, every part suffers with it; if one part is honored, every part rejoices with it. Now you are the body of Christ, and each one of you is a part of it.

If we want to combat expressive individualism in our churches, we need to be actively living the life of a body. While bodies do have separate parts with different functions, these parts do not function apart from each other.

This article “How Loneliness is Tearing America Apart” shows us where the expressive individualism of our society is leading. His conclusion shows us that the teaching of the Bible has answers where the teaching of our culture keeps driving wedges and not fulfilling on its promises: “And there lies the challenge to each of us in a country suffering from loneliness and ripped apart by political opportunists seeking to capitalize on that isolation. Each of us can be happier, and America will start to heal, when we become the kind neighbors and generous friends we wish we had.”

If we stop to think about the analogy of a body, it helps tremendously with understanding how to combat this problem. If a part of our body hurts, we care for it. If it is unhealthy, we nurse it. If it works properly, we use it. Some parts of the body minister to other parts. Our feet in conjunction with our legs can carry us to a doctor. Our hands can apply a band-aid. Our eyes can see obstacles in our path, but also beauty to enjoy. Our mouth can voice words of encouragement, truth, warning, or even sing praises.

If muscles are not used, they atrophy, but through use they grow stronger, and used rightly we can help build up other parts of the body as well.

We need the older parts, the younger parts, the friendlier parts, the quiet and dutiful parts—we need all our body parts, not just one segment of them. We need parts that challenge us and help us to see things we may not have seen otherwise. We need parts that encourage us when we lose heart.

Whatever part we are, we cannot separate ourselves from the rest of the body and function properly. We were made for specific, individual purposes, but we were also made to be connected. And while our body may be able to continue functioning with missing limb, we absolutely cannot function without receiving our command signals from the head.

So, my suggestion on combating expressive individualism is to actively shepherd the individuals in our churches. I have been a part of many congregations in my life, with various strengths and weaknesses. One congregation struck me when I joined, because although it was the largest congregation I had ever been a part of, they still managed to function as a body so well.

Upon joining, the elders met with our family. They talked with us to try to learn more about us and our gifts. They assigned us an elder who lived nearby, making his task of shepherding us easier. And as they got to know us better, they quickly encouraged us to use our gifts in the church.

I think another problem that leads to people withdrawing from this kind of church life is lack of gospel focus. Every one of us is a sinner. The more involved we are with each other, the more this becomes apparent. When you move that idea over to the life of an American congregation that is not infused with the gospel, people tend to shrink from getting too close. If a congregation seems like a group of “good people” not “sinners redeemed and sanctified by God’s grace” then it can keep struggling sinners at arms-length from one another.

Everyone desires community, but community comes at a cost. It comes with the price of possibly being hurt by fellow sinners in our congregations. It comes with the cost of having to die to some of our personal desires to faithfully serve our congregations. If we are not fully aware that every one of us is a sinner who will potentially make a mess of church life at some point, then we will probably fail at showing appropriate grace and accountability to other members of our church when they sin against us, or simply make a mistake as they are growing in maturity. Too often churches get caught up in senseless squabbles or unrealistic expectations of others. We should expect to see growth and fruit in our churches. But we should also expect to plant seeds, water, weed, and prune.

In the middle of these situations that will inevitably occur, a gentle breeze of the gospel blowing through the church reminds us of our true need, and the true need of each member of our congregation. It leads to short accounts with one another. Those most prone to be critical of others are the ones who sit on the sidelines. When you move people off the sidelines and put them in the middle of the game, they quickly see their own need for grace and learn to be more gracious.

The gospel brings us to remember that the focus is not on us and should not be. One of the greatest pitfalls of expressive individualism is that it puts the focus and burden on the individual, and that is a burden we are not created to bear. We cannot be self-fulfilled. But we can find fulfillment and purpose in Christ. We can leave our burdens at the cross and live for a kingdom greater than our own.

Expressive Individualism can seep over into the church body and the way we see our local congregation. Rather than viewing our church as a part of the Universal Church, which encompasses the body of Christ in all locations throughout all time, we might tend toward seeing ourselves only as an individual local body.

Looking at the prior examples I mentioned, they mostly involved how we serve one another within a church. Certainly, this matters very much. Unless our local body is healthy and flourishing, it cannot do much else than care for itself.

However, this is not the goal of a church body. Often churches believe they are healthy because they have knowledge of sound doctrine and the people in the body seem to be doing okay. I cannot help but think of the church of Laodicea who was neither hot nor cold. Revelation 3:17 says, “For you say, I am rich, I have prospered, and I need nothing, not realizing that you are wretched, pitiable, poor, blind and naked.”

The church exists beyond the walls of your church building, and even your community. If your congregation is doing “okay” then it should be reaching out to serve the community and even the world. I love reading the New Testament and seeing the interconnectedness of the early church as missionaries and letters were sent from one place to another with words of encouragement or exhortation.

While we cannot allow the expressive individualist mindset to keep us from being involved in the local body, we also cannot allow it to keep us from reaching beyond the local body.

Advent: A Time of Expectant Waiting

Advent is a time of waiting. As an adult thinking of Christmas, it doesn’t feel like it’s that far away. I have seen it come and go each year, and I fully expect it to come shortly this year as well.

For a child, it may seem longer, but often the entire season of lights and songs and the knowledge that Christmas is coming is lovely enough. In the Chronicles of Narnia, we see the concept of a time of expectancy beautifully described. The snow starts melting and Spring finally arrives after years of only winter and never Christmas. This is a sign to the children that they will see Aslan soon.

When I think back to Jesus’ arrival in this world, I wonder how many people were in this frame of mind. How many knew that he would be there shortly?

As I wrote about in my last post, The World Jesus Enters, things looked a bit bleak. The people were expecting a savior, but I wonder how expectant many of them really were.

Years ago, I was a part of a Bible study and going through an incredibly difficult time in my life. The difficulty in my life in that period was so real that I do not even remember what book I was studying at the time, but I do remember the author mentioning that as a Christian waiting was to be with an expectant attitude.

As I sat in the Bible study and we discussed the author’s definition of hope, I remembered that the word for waiting in Spanish is “esperar” and it is the same word used for hope. I thought about the loveliness of a culture in which waiting was equivalent to hoping. At that time in my life, waiting and hoping were nowhere near the same thing. But, as I began thinking through the concept during my Bible study and afterwards, I realized that this is the Christian culture.

We can certainly wait or hope for the wrong things, and if we do we can be disappointed. But if we are living out the faith of the Bible, then we are supposed to be expectantly waiting for the right things—things we are promised in his word.

So, going back in time to the world Jesus entered, I wonder about the different people during that day. How expectant were they? We know Simeon was expecting him to come soon as it says in Luke 2:26 that, “it had been revealed to him by the Holy Spirit that he would not see death before he had seen the Lord’s Christ.” Perhaps Anna knew, too. But I must deduce from the way the Bible points to this special revelation, that most people probably did not know.

I imagine most people were going about their daily business in a broken world, some with hopeful expectancy of God fulfilling his promise of the coming Messiah, but many less expectant. Many, after centuries of waiting might have had only a smidgen of hope left. They may not have seen waiting as synonymous with hoping. While a part of them may have believed and trusted God was sending a savior, another part may have been a bit numb to the idea—a bit callous after long years of waiting.

The counting down of advent can be comforting to us, because it points to a certain day when we can celebrate reality. Each year it follows the pattern of the calendar with certainty.

From a human perspective, the first and second advent are not like this. From God’s perspective, these events happen with absolute certainty. But as we anticipate the second advent of Christ, we know that “concerning that day and hour no one knows, not even the angels of heaven, nor the Son, but the Father only.” (Matthew 24:36)

The celebration of advent is a comfort to us, a reminder of the period of waiting mankind experienced before Jesus’ first coming. It is a reminder that this period of dark waiting had a hopeful and celebratory end.

Now, we follow suit. As we experience this time each year, we remember that Christ came, and our hopes have been fulfilled. At the same time, we are also pointed forward to his second coming, because in some sense we are still waiting.

Some are not joyfully celebrating advent right now. Some may not be in a place of recognizing that we can wait expectantly, because it seems so dreary. Some may be in a dark pit like I was several years ago when the idea of tethering waiting and hoping together seemed odd.

I want to encourage you today, to rest in God’s word. As we await Christ’s second coming, we have more to look forward to than children awaiting Christmas day. We know that after the presents are opened and the lights are taken down and the feasts are digested that many people will enter post-Christmas blues as they see that what they have been anticipating is now over.

We who await the second coming of Christ are awaiting a celebration of perfection that will never be over. We are awaiting Christ making all things new. We are awaiting a time of no more sorrows or tears. We are awaiting the never-ending Christmas feast that will satisfy every longing of our hearts for eternity.

The World Jesus Enters

It’s that time of the year again—the time of the year when we turn our thoughts to the incarnation of Christ. As I returned from Thanksgiving celebrations, I found myself opening my Bible to Matthew 1 and soaking it in a bit. The setting of this chapter is right before the birth of Christ.

The chapter opens with a genealogy, which to many people might not be the most fascinating way to begin a chapter. But if you have done your Biblical homework, you probably understand the significance of this genealogy and why it would be both essential and exciting news.

The people of God had been waiting for a savior. It began in the garden directly after the fall, and then continued later as God made a promise to a man named Abraham, and then to Isaac, Jacob, and Judah. Prophecy tells us the Messiah will come from the line of David. So, if we begin reading this genealogy with the background story of the Old Testament, it can be exciting as we see the unfolding redemptive plan of God throughout the generations. We can wonder at the perfect spacing of 14 generations between Abraham and David, David and the Babylonian captivity, and then from that time to Christ.

But with Old Testament knowledge, we can look at this line of names and marvel in a different way. These names remind us of the kind of world the Messiah enters.
The people on this list were sinful men.

Abraham’s deceit had led his wife to be taken into another man’s house. His failure to trust God had led him to heed Sarah and take a concubine. His son Isaac followed his father’s deceitful example. His great-grandchildren sold their own brother into slavery. The first woman mentioned in this genealogy is Tamar, and we can remember the sketchy circumstances by which she ended up conceiving Perez and Zerah. The next woman mentioned is Rahab, whose occupation would raise eyebrows. The list continues, and we see the King after God’s own heart fell into adultery and murder. The wisest man fell into gross idolatry and things got worse from there as we continue through a line of kings who, despite warnings from the prophets, follow idols and lead their people into the Babylonian captivity.

And yet, we can look at this list through another lens. Hebrews 11 reminds us that Abraham, Isaac, Jacob, Rahab and David all had faith in God.

This list of Jesus’ ancestors brings reality and hope together in the same way the incarnation of Christ does. This list shows us the sinful world Christ would enter. It reminds us that the greatest men of faith did not rest on their own merit but trusted in the future Messiah.

We see the imperfection of our world even as we pass from the genealogy into verse 19:

And her husband Joseph, being a just man and unwilling to put her to shame, resolved to divorce her quietly.

Jesus would enter a world of shame and divorce. Although the angel came and prevented a divorce between Mary and Joseph, he still entered a world of shame and a world where divorces occur.

Do you ever struggle with the reality of your world? I know I do. This world is filled with pain. This world is filled with sin. Every day you face it in one way or another. An argument, unkind words, selfishness, pride, malice, envy, deceit, unfaithfulness, and the list grows from there.

What a depressing thought that is if we don’t follow this knowledge with the hope of the Messiah.

Joseph is in the middle of this kind of situation as he considers divorcing Mary.

But as he considered these things, behold, an angel of the Lord appeared to him in a dream, saying, ‘Joseph, son of David, do not fear to take Mary as your wife, for that which is conceived in her is from the Holy Spirit. She will bear a son, and you shall call his name Jesus, for he will save his people from their sins.’

Matthew 1:20

If the Bible had failed to show the reality of the world of Jesus’ ancestors, might this have been less amazing to us? If we somehow bought into a sanitized, watered-down version of the Bible, might we miss the truth and power of this message? It’s when Joseph’s hopes are crushed, his betrothed appears to be unfaithful, and he is contemplating divorce that the angel shows up and gives him hope—not just in his future marriage, but for all sinful men for all time!

All this took place to fulfill what the Lord had spoken by the prophet;
‘Behold, the virgin shall conceive and bear a son, and they shall call his name Immanuel.’

Matthew 1:22-23a

God with us.

The incarnation.

There are days when I struggle mightily to keep my head up in the world in which we live. The real world is often difficult. But it is precisely this broken and sinful world that Jesus entered. He entered it knowing just what it is like—the very worst of it. He entered because it is like this.

Some days I struggle to enter the hard places of life. I have seen God work and redeem on so many levels, but as we continue in this world, we will continue to see more until his second coming. On these days I am both convicted and comforted by Jesus who willingly entered this world.

I am beyond thankful for the God who despite everything we have done chose to be with us.

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In addition to blogging, Stefani Carmichael is an author, counselor, wife, mom, and houseparent to teenage girls. 

Justice

Sitting in the middle of a congregation of Africans, Asians, and other Americans, in Addis Ababa, Ethiopia I could not help but think of how our worship of God in heaven would consist of every tribe worldwide. The pastor taught on the parable of the talents, a text I had taught to my own children so many times. I have always believed it important to be a good steward of my time, money, and talents.

But today, as the sermon ended we sang the hymn “Take My Life and Let It Be” by Frances Havergal, I couldn’t help but notice that in addition to the usual verses, a verse had been added that began, “Take my intellect.” As I sang those words, tears streamed down my face.

I have never been one to be swayed by emotionalism and that is certainly not the case this morning. No one else had an emotional response to this sermon, but it convicted me. I may be giving in many ways, but this hymn reminded me of the way God had gifted me and how I should be using that gift.

I saw great things happen because of that trip. In less than a year through connections from that trip, he has provided money to help an amazing ministry to orphans, a grant to help build a new home to bring children out of extreme neglect and into a loving environment and partnered with an organization that will bring continued help to this ministry.

God is at work.

His work in me during that trip encouraged me to restart my blog and use everything I have at my disposal for his glory. God has gifted me with words and my job is to speak.

Returning home, desiring to share the great need of these orphans, I re-entered blogging in the middle of a Christian conversation on social justice. Who knew helping those in need and loving others was such an issue?

I am not going to define social justice and argue for or against it. I see that those concerned with this term are looking at how it has been used historically and ways they may fear that movements around the term are headed. Some people are wrestling with the idea of a social gospel that is replacing the gospel.

Let me be as clear as possible: I am 100 percent pro-gospel. I am also 100 percent pro-loving others.

If we ever hope for real justice in society it will come through the gospel. We are all sinners, in need of a savior, Jesus Christ. Without his atonement, none of us could ever hope to stand before a Holy God.

I hope that none of us who proclaim the gospel of Jesus Christ will get lost in arguments that would detract us from following Christ in obedience. My concern is that those who are against the term social justice would leave Christians confused, and perhaps lead some to be less concerned about loving our neighbors as we ought.

If we look at Acts chapter six, we see that the widows in the church were not receiving the food they should be receiving. Men were chosen to serve these women, so that other men could remain focused on teaching the Word of God. From the very beginning of the church, we see that there was a focus on both physical and spiritual needs. The elders focused on the teaching of the word, while the deacons focused on acts of service.

Do not merely listen to the word, and so deceive yourselves. Do what it says. Anyone who listens to the word but does not do what it says is like someone who looks at his face in a mirror and, after looking at himself, goes away and immediately forgets what he looks like. But whoever looks intently into the perfect law that gives freedom and continues in it-not forgetting what they have heard but doing it-they will be blessed in what they do. Those who consider themselves religious and yet do not keep a tight rein on their tongues deceive themselves, and their religion is worthless. Religion that God our Father accepts as pure and faultless is this: to look after orphans and widows in their distress and to keep oneself from being polluted by the world. James 1:22-27

While the gospel does show that what we do will never earn our salvation, we see in this passage in James and in countless other places in scripture that obedience to the word is of utmost importance, and obedience to the word means loving God and others, since that is the summary of the law that Jesus gives. In this passage, it shows that love ought to include caring for the orphans and widows—those who were vulnerable in society. We see countless places in the Bible where we learn that our God cares about those who are vulnerable (Psalm 68:5, 82:3, 146:9, Exodus 22:2, Isaiah 58:7) In addition to the orphan and widow, these and other passages also include foreigners and the poor. As Christians, we are certainly called to look at the distress of others and act accordingly in love.

Jesus himself repeatedly showed his concern with the whole individual. His miracles included providing food on multiple occasions, healing from a fever, lepers, the paralyzed, the blind, deaf, and mute, the demon-possessed and the dead. Jesus cared about others physical needs, as well as their spiritual needs. He preached the sermon on the mount, but he also fed the 5000. In fact, in the sermon on the mount, he warns against practicing righteousness for others to see, and the example he uses is about giving to the needy. He instructs to do it privately rather than publicly, but he certainly does not say it does not matter.

In fact, in the well-known passage on suffering in Romans 8, we learn that God is using everything to conform us to the image of Christ. If his goal is to sanctify us, shouldn’t we like Jesus be concerned with the physical and spiritual well-being of those around us as Christ was?

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

But he, desiring to justify himself, said to Jesus, “And who is my neighbor?”  Jesus replied, “A man was going down from Jerusalem to Jericho, and he fell among robbers, who stripped him and beat him and departed, leaving him half dead. Now by chance a priest was going down that road, and when he saw him he passed by on the other side. So likewise a Levite, when he came to the place and saw him, passed by on the other side. But a Samaritan, as he journeyed, came to where he was, and when he saw him, he had compassion. He went to him and bound up his wounds, pouring on oil and wine. Then he set him on his own animal and brought him to an inn and took care of him. And the next day he took out two denarii[a] and gave them to the innkeeper, saying, ‘Take care of him, and whatever more you spend, I will repay you when I come back.’ Which of these three, do you think, proved to be a neighbor to the man who fell among the robbers?” He said, “The one who showed him mercy.” And Jesus said to him, “You go, and do likewise.”
Luke 10:25-37

Obviously, we know we cannot love perfectly like this parable describes. This is why we need the gospel. This man could not be justified by loving God and his neighbor perfectly. None of us can be. And yet, while we cannot be saved by our good works because we all fall short, God has not saved us for us to continue living sinful lives. Our hearts are to be transformed by the gospel so that more and more, this is the way we live.

We have all failed at God’s justice. We all have failed in our task of loving God and others. We all need Christ’s perfect atonement. We all need him to stand in our place, so we can stand at all. And once he has rescued us, we should all cherish his justice so that we increasingly love others as Jesus did.

So my plea to my brothers and sisters in Christ is, please don’t pass others by out of confusion. Please don’t use arguments as an excuse. Our world is full of both physical and spiritual needs. Jesus ministered to both, and Christians are to minister to both as well.

A Matter of Perspective

I don’t know about you, but some days (every day) I need to grab a breath of fresh air and gain some perspective. Some days facing the world, political drama, rubbing against the lives of those nearby and hearing the unkind words of those far away jumbles together into a giant mess that can be a bit disheartening.

Fortunately, it is only disheartening from my limited perspective, which is why it is so important to stop and look at life from a different frame of reference regularly. From my perspective, I see a lot of corrupt people. I often wonder who is telling the truth. I see a lot of hurt, and a lot of hurt people hurting other people whether they want to or not.

This often mixes together with good things. Blessings abound in my life, to be sure. The more I enter relationships with others, the more I see both beauty and pain, joy and chaos.

Alongside others, this can be far too much. It can make you want to retreat even though you know you should not. At these times, I realize I do need to retreat, but just long enough to be replenished and to love again. My source of love is the God who is love, and if I am not filled with his Spirit, I have little joy and nothing to offer.

In the middle of life’s challenges, navigating in love is so essential if we don’t want those things to get worse. But in the middle of these days, we are also in need of wisdom. Wisdom seems a bit sparse at times, but we have been told where to find it.

“The fear of the LORD is the beginning of wisdom, and knowledge of the Holy One is understanding.” Proverbs 9:10

Often when people discuss the fear of the Lord they explain that the fear of the Lord is not terror but reverence and awe. Or conversely, they might do the opposite as a reaction, reminding people that we do really have reason to fear God in the way we generally think.

The truth is, when we look up the original word in the Hebrew lexicon , it includes all these forms of fear, and adds respect, reverence and piety.

Proverbs come in distinct forms, and this one has two parallel parts. We understand the first better as we look to the second. If we do that, we see that “fear of the LORD” is parallel with “knowledge of the Holy One.” Basically, we learn from this that this fear of the Lord has to do with knowing who God is.

Do you want to be wise? Know God.

In his word, we learn of a God who is holy. This passage itself parallels the name of the LORD with the “Holy One.” The only reason we will ever be able to stand before God at all is because of Christ. If we stand in rebellion against him, we should fear in the most common modern usage of the term.

Yet, we also learn of a God that is deserving of awe. He created all things. Do the mountains fill you with wonder? Does the immensity of the universe humble you? Then marvel at the God who created them. If we can delight in a wonderful book, painting or movie, how much more can we delight in the creator of creative people? How much more can we delight in the One who made everything out of nothing. Our creativity is but a reflection of His.

We can marvel at His creation because it is beautiful, diverse, and detailed beyond our comprehension. Yet, we can also stand amazed at his power to create. A God who can create all of this deserves this kind of fear.

We learn of a God who is both just and merciful. In a world where justice sometimes seems completely illusive, we see stories of those who cried out over injustice and were heard by the God of the universe. As our nation questions who is telling the truth in the highest matters of justice in the land, I am thankful for the God who knows and sees all things, even the hearts of men. His justice is impartial in a world where partiality and partisan politics seems to rule.

And yet, justice itself can be a frightening thing when we sit in the seat of the accused and guilty. When we ourselves deserve wrath due to justice, he found a way to save us. When we, his creation, rebelled, he pursued us in love. He found a way to satisfy his justice and free us.

We learn of a patient God who perseveres throughout centuries, and yet a God who knows every hair on our head and every tear we have cried.

We learn of a God who can laugh at rulers who plot against him. The mightiest rulers in the world are as nothing to him. Fear God, and you don’t have to fear principalities or powers.

What kind of knowledge do we need to have of God to gain this wisdom? Learning about Him through reading His word is great, but if we know about Him in the same way we know about Gandalf it does not lead to the wisdom mentioned. We may think Gandalf is a great character, but we also know he is not real. The wisdom of knowing God comes from a belief in him. This knowledge is a relational knowledge, that differs from knowing about something.

When you trust in God and know him relationally as your Father, that knowledge grows and deepens with time through his word and prayer. When you first experience the fear of a real and holy God, followed by the awe and reverence of his grandeur and love… that’s just the beginning of wisdom.

Today, if you are struggling and in need of perspective, take a step back and spend time with God in prayer. From His perspective, our concerns are small, and He can handle them. From His perspective, the time is short, and our difficulties are light and momentary compared to eternity.

On Sovereignty and Stewardship

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Overview of Addis Ababa, Ethiopia

September 11, 2001 as planes crashed into the twin towers and the pentagon, I discovered just how much I had placed faith in the United States of America. After a year of searching I found my heart resting with more security than ever in the sovereignty of God, as it should.

At the same time, this newfound knowledge allowed my heart to rest enough to marry and pursue a family, without guilt at not being able to solve the economic struggles of the former Soviet Union (as I had once hoped to do).

The sovereignty of God is a true, sweet, and necessary doctrine if one is to live a life without anxiety, for which I will forever be grateful. It has brought me through many difficulties and upholds me in the darkest days.

Fast-forward fifteen years, and the Lord began placing on me a desire to pray that I would love him with all my heart, soul, mind, and strength and my neighbor as myself. I couldn’t get past this being the summary of what God desires for our lives, and so I began praying this daily.

Let me warn you, that praying this prayer may not look like what you expect. As I prayed this, I found God confronting me with my deepest fears and leading me to face them, because as it says in 1 John 4:18, “perfect love casts out fear.” Repeatedly I found myself crying out that God would help me love and forgive when I wanted desperately to run and not look back.

During this time, a friend invited me on a mission trip to Ethiopia. God immediately began making this seemingly impossible trip happen. He provided over half the funds and childcare before I even agreed to go. Inside I wrestled with what we could do in a short-term mission trip, and God reminded us regularly that it was not about what we could do, but what He wanted to accomplish.

I confess to having been “on-the-fence” about short-term mission trips sometimes. I know there is a desperate need for missions, and yet I struggle with small questions like, “Is this the best way to do it?” I confess at times those questions have kept me from doing all that I should. This is but one area where my fear of not doing something well enough could keep me from doing anything. I must come to grips with the truth that I will never do anything well enough, but God does call me to do what I can.

As I prepared for this trip, I read about Ethiopia, and my heart opened as I read about the plight of orphans in that country. My former concerns about poverty in other countries resurfaced. I am ashamed to say, I had stuffed a lot of those concerns and numbed them with the “Sovereignty of God.” I had used a true doctrine in a wrong way to numb my heart rather than fuel God’s work.

As I wrote earlier, I fully believe in the sovereignty of God. He certainly doesn’t need me to help orphans in Ethiopia or to bring the gospel to all nations. And yet, God’s call on our lives is to love him first and others next. As I have sought to do that, I have noticed him reawakening long dormant desires in me.

I admit, that as an immature believer, I probably could not have handled seeing the things I did in Ethiopia. The overwhelming need would have been crushing, and I would not have been strong enough to share hope without being crippled by despair.
Instead, I have been blessed to see God shine a light in many ways while we were there, and since. I have been blessed to see what the Lord can do, and through the process my belief in God’s sovereignty has deepened.

At a church in Ethiopia, the pastor providentially shared a sermon on the parable of the talents. Amid great poverty, I was given a powerful reminder that I was a steward of all that I have. My time, my money, my intellect, my entire life is not my own to do with what I please.

Why did the man bury his talent in the sand?

FEAR

The God who reigns and pursued me with his love also asks me to love Him and others, not to live in fear doing nothing. God pressed me with another area of fear in my life and planted a seed in my heart that would birth this blog. Why should I not use the gift of writing the Lord has given me to encourage others?

I may not have time to blog as much as I would like, but one thing I know, is that I cannot let fear be the cause of dissuading me. If I don’t blog, let it be because I am too busy loving my husband, my children, my dorm girls, my church family, orphans…. Don’t let it be because I am burying any talent the Lord has given me in the sand.

Please understand that I am not advocating neglecting the responsibilities God has already given you. When you pursue loving God with everything, you will find priorities matter. In this journey, I have failed time and again at getting this balance right. In those moments, I thank God anew for his sovereignty. His plans will not be thwarted by my imperfections. I don’t want to encourage you to neglect your family or other God-given priorities to pursue something else. Sometimes in our efforts our call is to step back.

I think of David’s desire to build the temple.

“My father David had it in his heart to build a temple for the Name of the LORD, the God of Israel. But the LORD said to my father David, ‘You did well to have it in your heart to build a temple for my Name. Nevertheless, you are not the one to build the temple, but your son, your own flesh and blood—he is the one who will build the temple for my Name.’”

1 Kings 8:17-19

If you have a desire to do something that is outside of your realm to pursue at this time, be comforted by this passage. God saw David’s heart to build him a temple and commended him for it even though his sovereign plan entailed Solomon building it instead.

God’s sovereignty is a comfort to us at times when we cannot do what God has placed in our hearts. At those times, we can pray and entrust those desires to the God who sees our hearts.

At the same time, sometimes we have more than enough and fail to see it. Sometimes we have more that we can give. Sometimes we hold back rather than offer all. Our children, our churches, our ministries are blessed to a degree by pouring out our lives further as we do see just how greatly God has already provided for us. This is an intricate balance, and one that we must constantly bring before God.

Where are you in the balance today? Are you failing to trust God’s sovereignty by holding back out of fear? Are you failing to trust God’s sovereignty by not resting in an area that is outside your control? This is a tension to be wrestled with as we seek God’s heart. Sometimes we need to lay a situation at his feet, but sometimes He shows us ways He can use us. There will always be people using their talents for his glory, and his glory will always be displayed. But, which servant will you be?

Book Review: “Why Can’t We Be Friends?” by Aimee Byrd

Why

Aimee Byrd’s new book “Why Can’t we be Friends? Avoidance is not purity,” addresses the relationships between men and women in the church. This topic certainly falls within the scope of pursuing love for God and others, so I was more than happy to review this book. Does loving our neighbor include neighbors of the opposite sex? Of course, it does.

My lack of understanding of this topic is one of the reasons I was drawn to this book. I desire to love others and encourage unity in the body of Christ, and yet I fail at it regularly. I write in a desire to pursue a course and encourage others to pursue it, not as a model of someone who has it all figured out.

If you read my blog you might find the post on “The Church in the Storm,” connects with this struggle, as it addresses some of the scandals in the church. A proper view of relationships such as Aimee lays out is one protection against such tragedy. Our culture influences our thinking and affects the church, whether we want it to or not. As Christians, we must be thinking about the messages that the culture gives and questioning whether we believe those messages.

At the same time, I would hesitate to say that Christians have worse relationships between men and women than the world at large. I am thankful for the body of Christ. I would say that perhaps our relationships suffer in a different way.

In the beginning of the book, Aimee writes about our cultural belief in the idea of Harry Burns from When Harry Met Sally that “men and women can’t be friends because the sex part always gets in the way.” She argues that this should not be the position of the church, because the church looks at men and women as brothers and sisters in Christ.

I believe Aimee is right in this. To the extent that we adopt this cultural idea in our churches, we are very much mistaken, and it will probably lead to problems.

Throughout the book, Aimee presents this idea of siblingship that would help our relationships be appropriate. We are not to borrow from a cultural idea of looking at one another as objects, but instead view one another holistically. If we each view one another this way, then we should be able to love, encourage and welcome one another as brothers and sisters in Christ.

Conversely, avoidance of the opposite sex tends to stem from fear in our relationships and not love. This fear is bred in an environment that does not view those of the opposite sex as holistic people and siblings in Christ. This is probably the greatest way that our relationships are stunted in the church as opposed to the world at large. In the world at large, relationships between the sexes may be pursued despite potential sexual attraction, and the barriers to pursuing devastating relationships may not be present. This inevitably can lead to tragic problems. Nonetheless, in the church, fear of the wrong type of relationship can keep us from nurturing appropriate and God-honoring relationships.

Aimee addresses ways that this type of fearful environment might be causing problems, such as when church leadership might be unaware of difficulties their sisters face. Two important ways she discusses are how to help love and protect them through equipping them theologically, and how to create an environment that will help sisters who are oppressed and abused. If men are avoiding their sisters, then women are left vulnerable in these areas.

Our single brothers and sisters may also hurt especially in this area, as I realized by reading this book and through discussion in the launch group. Single men and women have the potential for greater loneliness already because they do not have a partner or family, and if we as a church look down on sibling friendships, then we are not being the family we should be to these men and women.

One might think from this that Aimee is advocating approaching these relationships naively, as though we are not sinners who may struggle with worldly ideologies. I in no way think she is attempting to do this. She makes it clear that she is not telling Christians to pursue any kind of cross-sex friendship movement or telling us to actively pursue friendships of the opposite sex. At the same time, we don’t need to avoid naturally developing, healthy sibling relationships within the church. At times I was left wondering exactly how to approach such relationships in the right way, but I am thankful that Aimee opens this discussion.

On the one hand, women can be left to feel objectified when avoided by men, especially when the reason given is that we are inherently a temptation. On the other side, men don’t want to be accused of false motives for being kind to a sister in Christ, nor should they be feared as the enemy.

I think my favorite parts of the book were those that reminded me of Jesus’ relationships with women. I don’t think anyone can deny he was close to Mary and Martha. He sometimes looked suspect for his loving actions toward women, even with the purest of hearts. Regulations can certainly be helpful and sometimes even wise, but when a man-made regulation comes in the way of us loving our brothers or sisters, then we miss the heart of God’s law. I believe Aimee’s desire in this book is to point men and women toward having the heart of Christ toward one another.
I am reminded of Jesus reply to the Pharisees in Mark 7:6-7:

And he said to them, “Well did Isaiah prophesy of you hypocrites, as it is written,
‘This people honors me with their lips,
But their heart is far from me;
In vain do they worship me,
Teaching as doctrines the commandments of men.’

Having a heart close to the Lord is a far greater challenge than following the Pence rule, whether or not you find the Pence rule to be wise. We may choose to follow certain guidelines for relationships, but we should not bind them on others or look to them as law. Aimee is not arguing for a less holy path. Rather, she is arguing for the harder but better path of sacrificial love that requires deep heart examination and constant dependence on our Lord.

If you would like a more thorough review of Aimee’s book, Amy Mantravadi writes an extensive review here: “Why Can’t We Be Friends?” By Aimee Byrd

Aimee’s book is available at Amazon: “Why Can’t We Be Friends? Avoidance is not Purity” By Aimee Byrd