The Good Gift of the Will

In Reformed circles, we get skittish when people talk warmly about human will. The “gospel-centered” movement – which aspires to follow the example of the Reformation – sees itself as recovering the purity of grace from the chaff of self-centered Western religion. Part of our self-definition is the rejection of the primacy of human will in salvation or sanctification. That instinct has truth behind it: we are saved, sanctified, and glorified by the gracious will of God.

That being said, what if we’ve been so quick to reject any hint of self-salvation that we’ve lost the beauty and power of the sanctified will?

As a reaction to sermons structured something like this:

  1. The Bible shows that God’s will for your life includes X.
  2. Therefore, go do X.

The “gospel-centered” movement has shifted toward sermons that look more like this:

  1. The Bible shows that God’s will for your life includes X.
  2. You are by yourself unable to do X.
  3. Thank God that Jesus has satisfied the need for X on your behalf.

That shifts our focus from ourselves to God’s substitutionary grace – all to the good. But that isn’t complete. A sermon – a gospel-saturated, God-oriented, Christ-exalting sermon – isn’t complete until it brings the grace of God to bear on our actions in our present life. In other words, on the will.

Here’s a complete picture, that matches New Testament examples like Paul (Romans 12:1ff) and Peter (Acts 2:28ff):

  1. The Bible shows that God’s will for your life includes X.
  2. You are by yourself unable to do X.
  3. Thank God that Jesus has satisfied the need for X on your behalf.
  4. By the grace of God, pursue X with all your heart.

In other words, gospel truth hasn’t saturated us until it compels us to use our wills to act on it.

The will is biblical.

If the word “will” makes you feel icky, pick another. But whatever word you use to define “a person’s ability to weigh choices, pick one, and follow it through,” a plain-sense reading of Scripture shows God treating us as if we have it.

  • “I call heaven and earth to witness against you today, that I have set before you life and death, blessing and curse. Therefore choose life, that you and your offspring may live …” (Deuteronomy 30:19)
  • “If anyone would come after me, let him deny himself and take up his cross daily and follow me.” (Luke 9:23)
  • If then you have been raised with Christ, seek the things that are above, where Christ is, seated at the right hand of God. (Colossians 3:1)

Yes, our will is corrupted by the Fall. Yes, it’s in bondage against God’s glory until God sets it free. But all caveats caveated, the stubborn fact remains: God treats us like we can (and should) make meaningful choices.

The will is commonsensical.

Even the staunchest will-averse Calvinist treats himself and others as if we have the real ability to make real choices. We choose the restaurant where we want to eat dinner. We debate our friend’s choice of restaurant, in the hope that we’ll persuade her to choose ours instead. We ask our growing children to make wise choices about their habits or their friends.

Ministry in chronically poor areas highlights the beauty of a will used well. We can counteract many of the systemic and circumstantial factors that trap someone in poverty; but ultimately, a person must also learn to make and maintain wise decisions to move out of poverty into financial health. It doesn’t happen – or at least doesn’t stick – without the will.

The will is a gift.

Early Church fathers recognized that our ability to weigh and make choices was part of what made us more like God than like the animals. When Psalm 8 describes us as “made … a little lower than the heavenly beings” (v. 5), Eastern and Western thinkers alike saw our decision-making power as part of that special image. Here’s Gregory of Nyssa:

… for the soul immediately shows its royal and exalted character, far removed as it is from the lowliness of private station, in that it owns no lord, and is self-governed, swayed autocratically by its own will; for to whom else does this belong than to a king? (“On the Making of Man”)

The fallen or poorly-used will gives us nothing; but once made truly alive and empowered by the Holy Spirit, the will becomes a means by which we glorify God and become more like Christ. Here’s Paul:

“Have nothing to do with irreverent, silly myths. Rather train yourself for godliness; for while bodily training is of some value, godliness is of value in every way, as it holds promise for the present life and also for the life to come.” – 1 Timothy 4:7-8

And what is “training” but the exercise of the will?

If we’re willing to accept that the will is real and that it might, when redeemed and empowered by grace, be a gift that can be used for God’s glory, how can we work that into our teaching? Some quick suggestions:

  1. Talk about the will.

As you teach the beauty of God’s saving and sanctifying grace, teach how that grace liberates and empowers us to choose more of God’s glory and more of our neighbors’ good. Uphold the goodness and beauty of choices that honor God.

  1. Appeal to the will.

We tend to think we can’t get excited about God’s grace unless we simultaneously diminish human choice. But though the Bible affirms that God’s choice is more important (e.g., John 15:16), it never shies from appealing to the will of its readers. The speakers and writers of the Bible give commands, make appeals, issue warnings, all with the assumption that people might hear them and make different choices on the basis of them.

  1. Cultivate the will.

Our ability to make choices and act on them is like any other ability: it needs to be practiced. Is it possible to have a highly disciplined sinner? Absolutely. But the Bible equally affirms the beauty of a highly disciplined saint. We should challenge ourselves and challenge one another to practice godliness, and celebrate when we see our wills made stronger.

Image: “The Education of the Children of Clovis,” by Alma Tadema

 

To Brag on My Wife a Lot

A few months back, I published about a goal-setting guide my wife Allison had developed – a system-plus-agenda downloadable.

This weekend, she released a print version with a full-year agenda for 2017, and this thing is dope.

Over the last few years, she’s pulled together some of the most valuable productivity-related wisdom out there: from Stephen Covey, Greg McKeown, Matt Perman, and others – and added her own insights to make a tool that helps you start with a personal big-picture vision and turn that into concrete goals you can write into your planner.

I could say lots more, but she says it better. You should watch the video below and then go buy the thing – I’ll be using it for 2017.

Reclaiming Meditation

When you hear the word “meditation,” what comes to mind?

A yoga studio?

Sitting cross-legged and trying to empty your mind?

For most of the West, “meditation” has generally become more associated with Eastern religions than anything else. When we stumble across the word in Scripture – in Psalm 1, say – we aren’t necessarily sure what to do with it:

Blessed is the man
who walks not in the counsel of the wicked,
nor stands in the way of sinners,
nor sits in the seat of scoffers;
but his delight is in the law of the Lord,
and on his law he meditates day and night.

He is like a tree
planted by streams of water
that yields its fruit in its season,
and its leaf does not wither.
In all that he does, he prospers. (vv. 1-3)

And that loss is a shame, because Christian meditation is a rich practice that was close to the heart of Christians for centuries. Look among the monks of the Middle Ages, the Puritans of the early modern era, or the evangelists of the 19th and 20th centuries – all of them, without fail, will point to words like Psalm 1 and commend this practice.

But what is it?

Not emptying, but filling

In contrast to Eastern meditation, which uses either silence or a repeated formula to try to empty the mind, Christian meditation tries to fill the mind with Scripture or other truths of God. At its heart, meditation is thinking deeply about God or about God’s Word.

One helpful if kinda gross analogy is that of a cow chewing its cud. Cows (outside of farms) can grow to hundreds of pounds entirely by eating grass: no small feat, if you’ve ever tried to live on protein-less salad alone. But cows can manage it because they have four stomachs through which food is processed; they swallow some grass, process it, spit it back up, chew it (that’s the cud), swallow again, and repeat, until they pull every bit of nutrition there is to pull out of that grass.

In the same way, the living and active words of the Bible can be that life-giving to us: but too often we don’t take time to get out the nutrition that’s there to be had. We skim a text, pray for 30 seconds, and go our way without coming back to what we’ve read.

Mind, soul, heart, strength

In putting this into practice, the most helpful way for me to actually meditate is to adopt Jesus’ command to love God with all our heart, soul, mind, and strength. I don’t do all of these even in a good meditation session – and those have been few and far between since we had kids – but when I can, I try to look at a passage of Scripture through these lenses:

The mind: What is there to learn?

  • What’s the main point of this text?
  • What information does it have to teach: about God, about the world, about how I know God or live with God?
  • Does this remind me of other passages of Scripture? What extra light do they shed on the text?

The soul: What is there to imagine?

  • Is there a story or a poem I can try to make real in my mind?
  • What images or ideas is the writer using? What is he saying with those?
  • How can I put myself into the story?

The heart: What is there to feel?

  • What’s the emotional tone of this passage? What does the author feel so strongly about?
  • What does this passage show about what God loves or hates? Do I feel the same way he feels?
  • How can I paint the beauty (or ugliness) of this thing in a way that moves me like I should be moved?

The strength: What is there to do?

  • If this were radically true in my life, how would my day change?
  • What is God asking or commanding in this passage? How does he provide for someone to do that?

This is a sample list rather than an exhaustive one – there’s not a single prescription on “how to meditate” in the Bible – but hopefully it can be a helpful start!

Practical Tips

I’ll close with some very practical tips:

1. Silence is golden

If you can do this in absolute quiet, that’s hands-down best. If for whatever reason you can’t manage that, create an environment that’s as undistracting as possible: instrumental music without 30-second commercial breaks, etc.

2. Use pen and paper

At this point in my life, trying to think clearly without writing is like flapping my arms to fly. I need a journal if I’m going to put down thoughts in any coherent order for any amount of time.

Also, I do a lot of writing on the computer, but even so I focus better with a print Bible and print journaling than digital.

3. Try to memorize

Even if all you can manage is one phrase or one image, do what you can to remember it and come back to it during the day – the practice itself will make you a better memorizer, and will keep truth fresh in your mind.

4. Talk about it

I’m an internal processor, so I learn best through writing. But – especially if you’re an external processor – what you’re learning will stick better if you tell someone about it. Have a check-in with someone where you talk about what you’re meditating on and where it’s leading you!

Image: “Saint Augustine,” by Philippe de Champaigne

Wedding Homily – Nathan and Morgan

This weekend, I had the privilege of officiating my first wedding! It was a great time; even though I didn’t have the opportunity to counsel the couple in their months of preparations, I’ve really enjoyed getting to know Nathan and Morgan and am praying for their best in the years to come. Below is the homily I gave for them, based on a passage from 1 Corinthians 13:

Love is patient and kind; love does not envy or boast; it is not arrogant or rude. It does not insist on its own way; it is not irritable or resentful; it does not rejoice at wrongdoing, but rejoices with the truth. Love bears all things, believes all things, hopes all things, endures all things. Love never ends.

Nathan and Morgan, you are in love, and in that love you have decided to make a public, lifelong covenant to one another before God and before the people gathered here today. If we look at the bookends of the Bible – its first three chapters and its last three chapters – we see marriage at the bookends of history. At the beginning, the first man sees the first woman and breaks out in the first recorded poetry, he’s so excited! And at the end is the marriage supper of Jesus and the Church, a feast to celebrate that eternal relationship. Marriage is so important that God uses that as the living image of our relationship with Him. Christian marriage looks back to that first delight between a man and a woman and forward to that eternal delight between God and God’s people.

Marriage is a covenant, which is a unique kind of commitment. The pastor who performed my marriage distinguished a covenant from a contract. A contract is based on mistrust; I’m going to promise you certain things, and you’re going to promise me certain things, and if you don’t give me those things the deal is off. A contract is held together by self-interest.

But a covenant is a relationship based on trust instead of mistrust. I make a covenant with you because I know and love you, and I want to tie myself to you. I want our relationship to be stronger, and I want you and everyone else to know that I’ve bound myself to you. It’s based on trust.

And a covenant is held together by love. I don’t stay in a covenant because you’re keeping up your end of our deal; I stay in it because I love you, and I’m going to keep choosing to love you no matter what. I’m devoted to your good, and I’m going to pursue that with everything in me.

In the passage I just read, Paul describes the kind of covenantal love that it takes to make a Christian marriage work. Nathan, Morgan, the vision of covenantal love in this passage is laced with delight and joy, like a wedding-day. It’s big enough to include the times when marriage feels easy. But this vision is also balanced with seriousness and sacrifice; it’s big enough to include the times when marriage feels hard as well. I want to encourage you with three actions that this covenantal love does.

First, covenantal love gives. Paul says that love does not envy or boast; it’s not arrogant or rude. It does not insist on its own way. The flipside of all those things is that love gives to others. It gives delight and praise to the other. It gives attention. It gives the benefit of the doubt. Rather than taking everything I can from the other person, I give every good thing I can for their benefit.

Love inspires and charges each of you to always ask, “How can they benefit from this? How can I bless them today? What can I give them, for their greater good?” This means simple things like gifts, kind words, or a back rub. It will also mean weightier things, like forgiveness or affection that feels undeserved. As you grow together in love, each of you should always be asking, How can I give to my wife today, or how can I give to my husband? Covenantal love gives.

Second, covenantal love endures. Paul says that love is not irritable or resentful; he also says that it bears, believes, hopes, and endures all things. Covenantal love commits itself to its beloved through everything. It’s so committed to the relationship that it’s willing to work through anything that comes its way. It holds fast to the other in good, easy, wonderful times; it also holds fast to the other in hard times.

Many days, being together is going to be the easiest thing in the world for you; you’re going to have a lot of delight to share. But there will be days where your relationship is tough. This kind of love compels us to ask ourselves, How can I forgive this wrong? How can I let God’s grace cover this and keep looking to them in love? That commitment – that covenantal love – is going to add new dimensions of beauty to your marriage as you learn to hold fast to one another in everything. Covenantal love endures.

And third, covenantal love guides. Paul says that love does not rejoice at wrongdoing, but rejoices at the truth. Covenantal love guides the other person toward truth; the idea is that each of you can look toward the same thing and rejoice in it. Just as your family and loved ones have shaped and guided you over the course of your lives, you will have a special role in shaping and guiding one another from here forward. Just as love protects its beloved from harm, love guides its beloved toward truth and goodness and beauty.

And specifically, Christian love guides its beloved toward the God who is both the greatest good in the universe and also the one who makes this kind of love possible. In God, we have a love who gives: he has given us the blessings of the creation, the blessings of relationships like this, and the gift of his own Son’s life on our behalf. In God, we have a love who endures: Jesus gave his own life to have a relationship with his Bride, and he bears with our joys and strengths and weaknesses and failings every day into eternity. And in God, we have a love who guides: the Holy Spirit in our hearts draws us toward truth and slowly transforms us into God’s own image. Nathan and Morgan, God is the author of love; if you place yourself in his giving, enduring, guiding covenantal love, your marriage will grow in delight and beauty and love from this day unto the rest of your lives.

Let’s pray.

O God, Author of love, we praise you and thank you that you keep covenantal love for your people. We pray now that you would bless Nathan and Morgan in this covenant they are about to make. Let their marriage be one of ever-deepening love; let them always give to one another, endure for one another, and guide one another toward you, in dependence on you. We pray these things in the name of Jesus, through the Holy Spirit, amen.

TGC Review: The Heroic Path by John Sowers

John Sowers’s The Heroic Path: In Search of the Masculine Heart is an Areopagus work. Let the reader be prepared: this is neither a careful exegesis of texts touching on manhood, nor a systematic theology of gender. Sowers isn’t out to write either book. The Heroic Path is an introduction and invitation to men who know little of either masculinity or Christianity.

Sowers, author of Fatherless Generation (Zondervan, 2010) and president of The Mentoring Project, begins by acknowledging that modern Americans view masculinity with something like a statue-to-the-unknown-god approach (Acts 17:23). The modern American man has a welter of desires, intuitions, fears, and confusion about what manhood means—especially if, like Sowers, he grew up without a father. Sowers tries to show how these desires, fears, and confusion find their fulfillment, relief, and resolution in Christianity.

You can read the full review at The Gospel Coalition.

Hippocratic Oath for Writers

Writing is a rewarding and a dangerous endeavor. To dare to submit words before others – words that may spread and exist far beyond the scope of my life – is to risk folly, scorn, and the danger of influencing others for evil. Whatever a person’s religion or philosophy, most think that setting oneself up as a teacher or a sage is risky business.

On a related note, I think the Hippocratic Oath is a really beautiful historical artifact. Developed by the ancient Greek physician Hippocrates as an ethical guide for the practice of medicine, it’s been handed down in some form or another for almost two and a half centuries as a standard for physicians.

There should be a Hippocratic Oath for writers: a similar ethical commitment that anyone aspiring to deal with matters of Truth, Goodness, and Beauty with publicly shared words. To that end, and in the hope that someone might one day formulate a better one, here is a Hippocratic Oath for writers based on the modernized Oath attributed to Louis Lasagna of Tufts University:

Before God, to whom I will give account for every word I write, I swear to fulfill, to the best of my ability and judgment, this covenant:

I will respect the insights of the literary forbears in whose steps I walk, and gladly share such insight as is mine with those who are to follow.

I will seek to communicate truth, goodness, beauty, and charity in my writing, by whatever means best conveys them.

I will apply, for the blessing of my readers, all insight and skill within my power, avoiding those opposite traps of pandering and disdain.

I will remember that writing is an interaction between two humans, and that warmth, sympathy, and understanding may outweigh polemic or rhetorical craft.

I will not be ashamed to say “I understand not,” nor will I fail to refer to writers who bring clarity and blessing to their readers.

Most especially must I tread with care in matters of eternal significance. My words may impact the ultimate destiny of a human being; this responsibility must be faced with great humbleness and awareness of my own frailty. Above all, I must not play at God.

I will remember that I have two audiences: first are human beings, who have dignity and relationships and the need for truth; and second is God, who is the source of all truth, goodness, and beauty and the judge of all words. My responsibility is to give proper honor to both of these audiences, if I am to represent truth through words.

I will remember that I remain a member of society, with special obligations to all my fellow human beings, those who understand truth, goodness, and beauty as I do as well as those who do not.

I will expose error, evil, and ugliness when I discover them, in a way that does the greatest honor possible to those who might live under them.

If I do not violate this oath, may I enjoy life and art, respected while I live and remembered with affection thereafter. May I always act so as to preserve the finest traditions of my calling and may I long experience the joy of sharing truth, goodness, and beauty with those who read my work.