Love Thy Body

LOVE your body?  Somehow it just doesn’t seem to fit right, especially if you happen to be a Christian.  Christians are not meant to love their bodies.  They are meant to beat them into subjection (as least, that’s the impression I got as a new believer).

But it’s a very fitting title for the book from which I want to talk about.  Nancy Pearcey, a leading Christian thinker and author, has put together a very compelling case for providing a clear, biblical answer for a confused and mixed-up generation regarding matters of sex and the body as well as numerous other ethical issues we are faced with today.

I wasn’t actually looking for this book.  I bought it almost by accident when searching for good resources to prepare for a new series we are currently going through at our church.  We are covering some of the “biggies” like euthanasia, homosexuality, suffering and evil, pornography and transgenderism.  I’d read Total Truth, another of Pearcey’s works and thought this would be a helpful contribution to my study.  It was more than that.  It completely altered my thinking and provided a whole new framework for understanding where our society is at today in terms of its worldview.

The introduction and first chapter, “I Hate Me” laid the foundation for the rest of the book.  Once I had that in my head everything else fell into place.  In the introduction she writes:

“The problem is many people treat morality as a list of rules.  But in reality, every moral system rests on a worldview.  In every decision we make, we are not just deciding what we want to do.  We are expressing our view of the purpose of human life.” – Nancy Pearcey

To be strategically effective therefore, she says we must address what people believe about the nature and significance of life itself.  In other words, we must engage their worldview.

Pearcey then unpacks that worldview.  In the past, she explains, reality for most people consisted of a natural order and a moral order, integrated into one unity.  But in our modern age, people think that reliable knowledge only exists in the natural order – that which is scientifically proven and can be tested.  Where does that leave moral truth?  It consists merely of personal preferences and feelings.

Some years ago, there emerged a Christian thinker and philosopher called Francis Schaeffer.  Schaeffer recognized this divide running through all Western thought and culture.  He illustrated it with the metaphor of a two-story building.

THEOLOGY, MORALITY
Private, Subjective, Relativistic
_____________________________________________
SCIENCE
Objectively true, Testable

In the lower story is empirical science – that which is objectively true and testable.  On the upper story is the realm of theology and morality, which is considered subjective and relative.  When you hear people say, “That can be true for you but not for me,” you’re looking at the upper story.

Here is the same fragmented world view seen using different terms:

VALUES
Private, Subjective, Relativistic
_______________________________________________
FACTS
Objectively true, Testable

What has happened, Pearcey explains, is our concept of what it is to be a human being has also become fragmented into an upper and lower story, with the body in the lower story and the real person in the upper story.  The two-story worldview for them looks like this:

PERSONHOOD / AUTHENTIC SELF
Gender
________________________________________________
THE BODY
Sex

So, you no longer have an integrated but fragmented human being, in which the body is treated as something different from and in some cases disconnected from the authentic self.

You say, “So what does that mean about anything?”

  • It means a baby in a mother’s womb is not a person until a certain stage (determined arbitrarily it seems, by our culture).  It’s just a body, a fetus; a thing.  It has no personhood.  It is still on the bottom story.
  • It means, if you are mentally disabled, and you have limited neocortical functioning, and can’t make decisions or exercise self-awareness or plan for the future (the upper story), then you don’t qualify as a person, and may be eligible for euthanasia.
  • It means, in the hook-up culture today, what you do with your body sexually does not necessarily have any connection to who you are as a person.  It’s just sex.  It’s just something you do, like eating or drinking.
  • And for the transgender person, it means you have a sex assigned at birth – male or female.  But that doesn’t necessarily mean anything.  Because the “real you” – the authentic self, has no connection to the body.  The real person resides in the mind, will and feelings.  That’s why transgender people often say they are trapped in the “wrong body.”

How is it possible people think this way?  Because of our dualistic worldview, spawned in the period of the enlightenment, nurtured in our education system, and now bearing fruit in society.  For those who saw it coming, it’s of no surprise.  Once you understand the worldview, it makes total sense.

But it is, as Pearcey states, a destructive and dehumanizing view of the body.  The Bible gives us a vastly different view.  The human body is the handiwork of a wise and loving God.  Mankind is the pinnacle of his creative work.  He forms him from the dust of the earth and breathes into him and he becomes a nephesh, a living soul (Gen 2:7).  Man is an integrated whole – soul, mind and body.  He is, in mind and body, an image bearer of his Creator.

Pearcey summarizes with this,

“The Bible does not separate the body off into a lower story, where it is reduced to a biochemical machine.  Instead the body is intrinsic to the person. And therefore it will ultimately be redeemed along with the person – a process that begin even in this life.

A biblical ethic is incarnational.  We are made in God’s image to reflect God’s character, both in our minds and in our bodily actions. There is no division, no alienation.  We are embodied beings.”

You see then, what this means.  It is a game-changer in terms of how we view all the difficult ethical issues of our day, from euthanasia, abortion, and sexuality.  Christians need not be throwing their arms up in despair.  Armed with helpful resources such as this, we can tackle these issues head-on, wisely, respectfully and biblically.

There is so much about this book I haven’t said.  This post doesn’t really do it justice.  I would encourage you to get this for your shelf.

Better still, put it on your coffee table for all to see.

Nancy Pearcey is considered by The Economist as “America’s pre-eminent evangelical Protestant female intellectual.”  She presently serves as professor of apologetics at Houston Baptist University.  She is co-author with Chuck Colson of How Now Shall We Live? and is the author of several other books including Total Truth, The Soul of Science, and Saving Leonardo.  

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Top Twenty Christian Books

A few weeks ago, an individual in our church asked me to write a post on the best Christian books to read.  “Hang,” I thought to myself, “that’s a tough call.”  There is SO much good stuff out there – where do I start?”  Yet, I remember as a young Christian asking the same thing to many Christian leaders and Pastors.  I wanted to know the books that had the most impact on their lives.

So here’s my top twenty.  Of course, not everyone is going to agree with this list, as it is entirely subjective.  Yet I do believe there is content here that you will find in many other “best Christian books” lists.  Some of these are classics (such as “Pilgrim’s Progress” and “The Knowledge of the Holy”), having been around for years, and others appeared only the past decade.   Some influenced me early in my Christian life and others more recently.  There is a real good mix here – theology, biography, church history and apologetics.  It’s not an exhaustive list, and doesn’t cover the entire spectrum of the Christian life or hit every Christian doctrine.  They are just, simply put, great books.

These are not in order of priority, with the exception of the first five, which I would recommend that every Christian read at some point or another.  So here we go:

1. Pilgrim’s Progress, by John Bunyan.

It’s a classic.  I believe every Christian, young or mature, should read this book – seriously.  I suggest a modern language version; you’ll find it easier and more pleasurable reading.  But the original rendition is still fine.

2. The Knowledge of the Holy, by A.W. Tozer.

This little book packs a serious punch.  Tozer explores the different attributes of God and then at the end of each chapter invites you to bow down before the greatness of God.  The opening words in the first chapter are priceless: “What comes to our minds when we think about God is the most important thing about us.”  Read that again.  Think about it for a moment.  Then get hold of the book.

3. A Praying Life: Connecting with God in a Distracting World, by Paul Miller.

Every Christian should read books on prayer from time to time in order to keep their prayer life alive (I do this annually).  This the best of the bunch.  It is encouraging, grace-filled, faith-filled, and not condemning!  The opening chapters on becoming like a little child and learning to talk to God as Father are precious beyond words.  It will change the way you view God as well as prayer.

4. Knowing God, by J.I. Packer.

If you want to know what God is like, this is your book.  It’s sold millions of copies and still continues to benefit thousands of Christians around the world.  You’ll learn more about God as well as yourself.  You’ll come to understand the weight of sin and the beauty of the gospel.  “Sons of God” (chapter 19) is all about our adoption and has to be one the sweetest, richest chapters on the reality of our salvation I have ever read.

5. Tortured for Christ, by Richard Wurmbrand.

This may surprise some that I have this book as one of my top five.  But I think it is a must read for every Christian.  Pastor Richard Wurmbrand endured fourteen years of Communist imprisonment and torture in his homeland of Romania.  He documents the sufferings he endured, but also the sweet communion with God he enjoyed through, by the indwelling Holy Spirit.  His strong faith and love for his torturers will inspire and encourage you.

6. Spiritual Disciplines for the Christian Life, by Donald Whitney.

A rich Christian life doesn’t come without discipline, and in this book Donald Whitney examines many different disciplines for the Christian life, such as Bible reading, prayer, journaling, fasting, and solitude.  This is the best book on this subject in my view; it’s biblical, practical and thought-provoking.

7. The Ultimate Priority: Worship, by John MacArthur.

This is not a book about worship in the church.  It says little about music styles and taste.  This is about the heart, and will help you think rightly about what true worship is all about.  It also spells out what true worship isn’t.

8. The Rare Jewel of Christian Contentment, by Jeremiah Burroughs.

This is my all-time favourite of the Puritan Paperback series.  Burroughs defines contentment as “that sweet, inward, quite, gracious frame of spirit, which freely submits to and delights in God’s wise and fatherly discipline in every condition.” (p.19).  He then unpacks that in the remainder of the book.  If you find yourself struggling with contentment in your job, marriage, or any other situation, this book is for you.

9. Christ’s Call to Discipleship, by James Montgomery Boice.

I can’t tell you how many times I’ve picked this book off my shelf in my sermon preparation.  This still the best book on discipleship that I’ve ever read!  It will challenge your perspective on Christianity in a number of areas and make you ask some hard questions about the superficiality of the contemporary church.  Boice doesn’t sugar coat anything, so prepare to be challenged.  I can’t recommend this book highly enough.

10. Desiring God: Meditations of a Christian Hedonist, by John Piper.

There are few books that have my understanding of what it means to love God than this one.  Loving God is more than just duty, it is delight. “One has already made a god out of whatever he finds the most pleasure in,” writes Piper.  His mission is this book is to have you finding your greatest pleasure and delight in this life in God.

11. Trusting God: Even When Life Hurts, by Jerry Bridges.

All of us will go through trials of some sort, and this book will equip you to trust God in even the most difficult circumstances.  The chapter of the Sovereignty of God is just brilliant: personal, biblical, and faith-filling.  My favourite quote: “Trusting God is not a matter of my feelings but of my will.  I never feel like trusting God when adversity strikes, but I can choose to do so even when I don’t feel like it.  That act of that will, though, must be based on belief, and belief must be based on truth.” (p. 52). Bingo!

12. The Reason for God, by Tim Keller.

In an age of doubt and skepticism, Tim Keller offers wise, winsome answers to those who are asking questions.   This is a great book for believers because it gives a solid platform on which to stand when thrown difficult questions, and a great book for skeptics, atheists and agnostics, because it provides a challenging argument for the existence of God and the reasonableness of the Christian faith.  You should always have one of these one your shelf to give to an unbeliever.  Then go have coffee with him (or her).

13. Shadow of the Almighty, by Elizabeth Elliot.

Every Christian is familiar with the story of Jim Elliott and his four missionary friends who were speared to death trying to reach an unreached tribe in the jungle of Ecuador.  But few know about his life.  In this book you’ll follow Jim from childhood through school and into adult life.  It’s filled with excerpts from his personal diary, letters to Elizabeth when he was courting her as well as a plethora of other spiritual jewels which will enrich your soul.  If you are going to read one Christian biography in your life, read this one.

14. The Holiness of God, by R.C. Sproul.

R. C. Sproul, in this classic work, puts the holiness of God in its proper and central place in the Christian life.  He paints an awe-inspiring vision of God that encourages Christian to become holy just as God is holy.  This is not a safe book.  Once you encounter the holiness of God, your life will never be the same.

15. Disciples are Made, Not born, by Walter A. Henrichsen and Howard G. Hendricks

This is the go-to book on discipleship.  My wife and I have taken scores of people through this in our discipling.  It’s a great book for training leaders (especially Youth Group Leaders) because the emphasis is on life-on-life transformation, not activities and entertainment.

16. Don’t Waste Your Life, by John Piper.

I took a group of men through this book a number of years ago.  Some of them are still talking about it.  On the back cover it reads, “Most people slip by in life without a passion for God, spending their lives on trivial diversions, living for comfort and pleasure, and perhaps trying to avoid sin. This book will warn you not to get caught up in a life that counts for nothing.  It will challenge you to live and ide boasting in the cross of Christ and making the glory of God your singular passion.  If you believe that to live is Christ and to die is gain, read this book, learn to live for Christ, and don’t waste your life!”

17. The Screwtape Letters, by C.S. Lewis.

I could recommend a lot of different books by C.S. Lewis, but this one is probably my favourite.  Written as a conversation between a senior demon and a younger demon, it provides fascinating insights into the ways of Satan.  You’ll never think of the devil the same way again!

18. Church History in Plain Language, by Bruce Shelley.

Every Christian should be somewhat acquainted with their history.  And there’s plenty of it (over 2000 years worth).  As the famous quote goes: “Those who cannot remember the past are condemned to repeat it.” (George Santayana).  In order to remember it, you first need to know it!  You’ll learn everything you need to know about the early church councils and the battles that were fought, famous Christian leaders as well as heretics (there’s a good dose of them).  You’ll also learn about great periods such as the forming of the Bible, the first Pope and the Reformation.  Easy reading, as well as accurate, which is why I like recommending this book.

19. Humility: True Greatness, by C.J. Mahaney.

There are few things more important to God than humility.  If you want to grow in humility, read this book (it’s worth it for chapter 2 – “The Perils of Pride” alone).

20. Found: God’s Will, by John MacArthur.

Navigating the decision-making process as a Christian can be so confusing in life, whether it’s deciding on a new job or making a choice on which church to go to.  MacArthur strips away the confusion and makes it all very simple.  You could read this in one setting.  It’s short, simple and to the point. Great for a new Christian as well as leaders.

 

 

Living with Margin

margin-heroOne of my favourite things to do while on summer holiday (aside from lying on the beach and eating ice-cream) is reading.  I typically take an assortment of books with me and believe it or not, manage to get through most of them.  I went to pick up the pile I had gathered from my office when a book on my shelf caught my eye.  Remembering Spurgeon’s words about the merits of re-reading good books, I grabbed it, added it to my pile and walked out.

And I’m glad I did.

The full title is “Margin – Restoring Emotional, Physical, Financial, and Time Reserves to Overloaded Lives.”  It’s author, Richard Swenson is a medical doctor as well as a committed Christian.  You don’t have to be a Christian to get something out of this book.  In fact, you could be anti-Christian and get a lot out of this book.  Much of it is about common sense – sense that our Grandparents and Great-grandparents survived on and we, for the most part, have forgotten.

Swenson wrote this book because day after day he sees patients whose lives are literally falling to pieces.  He writes, “Some people come in for broken legs; others, broken hearts. Some have irritable colons; others, irritable spouses.  Some have bleeding ulcers; others, bleeding emotions.  And compounding these wounds, many patients show signs of a new disease: marginless living.”

So, what is “marginless living”?

“Marginless,” writes Swenson, “is being thirty minutes late to the doctor’s office because you were twenty minutes late getting out the hairdresser’s because you were ten minutes late dropping the children off at school because the car ran out of gas two blocks from the gas station – and you forgot your purse.” (p.13)

Sound familiar?

My grandparents didn’t go around complaining about how “stressed” they were (nor for that matter, did my parents).  As Swenson points out, no one talked about stress until the 1950’s.  Now almost EVERYONE is stressed.  But why?

The problem, Dr. Swenson argues, is PROGRESS.  Progress is moving ahead at a speed that we are no longer able to keep up with.  If we don’t create sufficient margin in our lives, this progress creates more and more problems.  The problems then create more stress in our lives and in trying to deal with this added stress, we add more and more activities which results in overloading.

Overloading occurs when the expectation placed upon us (or the ones we place upon ourselves) exceeds that which we are able to bear.  This can occur physically, mentally, emotionally, financially or spiritually.  Camels can bear great loads.  But if another straw is placed on an already overloaded camel, it’s back is broken.  Its back is not broken by the straw, but by the overload (hence the common phrase “the straw that broke the camel’s back”).

We all have our limits – physical limits, emotional limits, mental limits, financial limits.  When these limits are pushed beyond what we can bear, the result is overload.

WP_20180125_003The perscription says Swenson, is margin.  Margin is the amount allowed beyond what is needed.  Margin gives freedom and allows for rest.  Margin is the breath we have at the top of the stairs, the money we have at the end of the month, and the sanity we have at the end of a working week.  When we are overloaded, we have no margin (or we have negative margin).  If, however we are careful to avoid overloading, margin reappears.

Re-reading this was refreshing as well as enlightening.  Because this is exactly what I need in the coming year.

All well and good, you say, but is this notion of his biblical?  Is it prescribed for us in Scripture?  Yes.  It just comes under a different name: availability.  Swenson points out that the modern assumption for the Christian life is “all that is good and all that God wants us to accomplish is possible only in a booked-up, highly efficient, often exhausted way of life.”  But is this true?  Swenson argues no.  Instead God calls us to walk the second mile, carry other’s burdens, and witness to the truth of God at any opportunity.  And in order to do that we need margin in our lives, so we can be available.

“God expects us to be available for the needs of others.  And without margin, each of us would have great difficulty guaranteeing availability.  Instead, when God calls, He gets the busy signal.” (p.99)

Ouch.

What it all comes down to is a call to reorient ourselves to what really matters in life.  And what really matters are relationships.  When we look at the great progress western civilization has made in the past five decades, it is all in the area of the physical – better technology, communication, transportation etc.  But there has been little or no progress in emotional, spiritual and social wellness.  And it’s in these areas that we are all feel the most pain.

“God has shown us the road to health, the path to blessing – it is the way of relationships,” Swenson writes.  “Somehow we just keep taking our expensive automobiles to our posh offices to make another hundred thousand dollars, while all the time our relationships vaporize before our eye and our loneliness deepens.” (p.239)

How very true.

But we do not need to despair.  There is hope.  Relationships can be restored – we just need to create margin for them.  We just need a little more space, a little more breath at the top of the stairs and sanity left at the end of the week.

“If stress crushed your spirit by poisoning you with despair, then either conquer stress or walk away – but don’t stop relating.  If that malignant, universal enemy of relationship health, marginless living, leaves you panting for air and desperate for space, then go and take margin back.  Hack it out of your cultural landscape.  And guard it for the sake of your God, yourself, your family and your friends.  Health cannot be too far behind.”

Wise words.  I recommend you get the book.

Putting a spoke in the wheel

When the Church has a Responsibility to Challenge the State

My summer reading began with Bonhoeffer – Pastor, Martyr, Prophet, Spy.  It is a masterpiece by Eric Metaxas and won many book awards.  Now I see why.   Most know something about the story of Dietrich Bonhoeffer and his resistance to Hitler and the Nazi regime and final execution, only weeks before the Allied invasion.  But few know of his incredible courage and passion for truth and justice in the face of monstrous evil.  If he was alive today, I believe this man would not allow the church of the West to remain in the sleepy state that is currently in, but would be calling it to repentance and moral action.

Which brings me to a particular part of the book that I would like to draw your attention to.  It concerns the responsibility of the church to the challenge the state, when it is not acting as the state should be.  In Romans chapter 13 verse 1 Paul says,

“Let everyone submit to the governing authorities, since there is no authority except from God, and the authorities that exist are instituted by God.” (Romans 13:1)

The governing authority at this time, was the Third Reich, which had just come into power.  They were implementing policy after policy restricting civil liberties and granting to themselves greater and greater power.  One policy that was particularly disturbing was called “The Aryan Paragraph” which stated that Government employees must be of “Aryan” stock, anyone of Jewish descent would lose his job.  If the German church (essentially a state church), went along then all pastors with Jewish blood would be excluded from ministry.  Many were confused as to how to respond.  Bonhoeffer instinctively knew something had to be done and that needed to be thought through very carefully.  The result was his essay, “The Church and the Jewish Question.”

Bonhoeffer argued that the church does play a vital role for the state.  What is that role?  The church he said, must “continually ask the state whether its action can be justified as legitimate action of the state, i.e., as action which leads to law and order and not to lawlessness and disorder.”  In other words, it is the church’s role to help the state be the state – both in terms of creating an atmosphere of law and order and not creating an atmosphere of excessive law and order.  If the state is responsible for encouraging excessive law and order (as the Nazi’s were doing), then the church has a responsibility to correct that, because that is a condition which will limit freedom of speech, civil liberties and particularly – gospel proclamation.

Bonhoeffer then outlined (and this is where it gets interesting) three possible ways in which the church can act toward the state.

1. The first, was for the church to question the state regarding its actions – to help the state be what God ordained it to be.

2. The second way (and here is where he gets bold), was “to aid the victims of state action.”  Bonhoeffer stated, “The church has an unconditional obligation to the victims of any ordering of society, even if the do not belong to the Christian community.”  He was referring of course, to the Jews.  He then quoted Galatians 6:10: “Do good to all men.”

3. The third way the church can act toward the state he said, “is not just to bandage the victims under the wheel, but to put a spoke in the wheel itself.”  It is sometimes not enough to simply help those crushed by the evil actions of the state; at some point the church must take direct action against the state to prevent it perpetrating evil.

In the spring in 1933, Bonhoeffer made himself very clear: he was declaring that it was the duty to stand up for the Jews.  This was long before the Jews began to suffer the horrors they would suffer in a few years.  As far as Bonhoeffer was concerned, the writing was on the wall.  Metaxas then writes,

“Bonhoeffer’s three conclusions – that the church must question the state, help the state’s victims, and work against the state, if necessary – were too much for almost everyone.  But for him they were inescapable.  In time, he would do all three.” (p.155)

I personally found all this to be very provoking.  I had always taken the view that Christians should submit to the government in an almost passive manner and any protest must only be done by petitions and letters.  Well after reading Bonhoeffer’s response, I’m thinking differently.

To be sure, we don’t have a Nazi State here in quiet, little New Zealand.  But we are seeing some changes in policy coming down the pipe that are alarming and in my estimation, coming very close to points number 2 and 3.  I’m speaking of euthanasia and the deadly effect that could have on our aging and mentally ill as well as physically challenged.  If life could be snuffed out quickly with the help of a relative or physician, many people could become helpless victims.  Human life – life made in the image and likeness of God, will no longer be seen as precious in our society, but something to be eradicated when it interferes with the progress and improvement of society.

Will the time come when Christians in our small nation will have to take a stand?  Will they be bold and courageous enough, as Bonhoeffer was, to take on the state?  Will I?  Would I put my life on the line for the cause of truth and the protection of the helpless?

I very much hope that I will.

FOOTNOTE: Many in Bonhoeffer’s day believed Hitler was a Christian. He was anything but. Hitler was a master pragmatist; he made statements in public that made him sound like he was pro-church or pro-Christian, solely for political gain. In private, he made a tirade of comments against Christianity and Christians. According Hitler, Christianity preached “meekness and flabbiness,” and was not useful to the National Socialist ideology, which preached “ruthlessness and strength” (Metaxas, p.166).  In a meeting between Himmler and Reinhard Heydrich, Heydrich said, “Just you wait. You’ll see the day, ten years from now, when Adolf Hitler will occupy precisely the same position in Germany that Jesus Christ has now.”  His words were chillingly accurate.