Preaching to Yourself

This year has been an extremely busy one for me, and as a result my reading schedule has been thrown off course. Without even realizing it (until after buying it), Joe Thorn’s Note to Self turned out to be a devotional that both gave me good theology to think about while staying completely focused on Jesus during these past busy months. I’m really glad I managed to get my hands on this.

The author sets the standard for the book well in the title as well as in the introduction: “A good teacher or evangelist is first a good preacher to himself” (p. 24). There is no point in reading this book if you seek merely to feel good afterward or smile while closing the book, only to forget an hour later the wisdom your eyes just passed upon. Thorn unravels truths about God that make you think deeply; he presents theological muses that will only be effective if you apply them to your life. Not only that, but with titles like, “Stop Complaining,” and words like, “Dear Self, like everyone else, you are pretty good at pretending. It is not malicious, but you can put on a good face when in reality things are not good” (p. 67), it’s plain to see he is honest without being overly blunt. He is in-your-face without being rude. He is reflective without being too ambiguous.

Also outlined in the introduction is his objective to talk equally about both God’s law (His standard of living) and the Gospel (the love and grace found in Jesus Christ’s life, death, and resurrection). He does this through various topics, from pride to repentance to honoring your parents. He breaks the book into three parts. The first part, taking an upward perspective, is called “The Gospel and God.” The second part, focusing outward, is called “The Gospel and Others.” The third and final part, focusing inward, is called “The Gospel and You.” Did I mention that he is always staying centered on Jesus?

Devotional-gurus will appreciate Thorn’s refusal to leave them with a pithy word about God that will leave one unchanged, as I fear many devotionals do too often. People who don’t normally read devotionals will appreciate his ability to give them something to think about and live out through their busy schedules.

My favorite part has to be something so powerfully subtle here. While the author doesn’t really spell out how one exactly preaches to themselves, the simple “Dear Self” found at the beginning of each entry goes miles beyond its purpose by training readers to reflect on how their life is immediately impacted whenever they learn more about God and the Gospel.

Covering so many topics means everyone, whether it’s a pastor or someone who has hit rock bottom, has something to learn (and live out!) from Note to Self, and with the Kindle version only costing $3, there’s really no excuse not to pick this up.

Note to Self: The Discipline of Preaching to Yourself

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Porn, Intimacy, and the Male Brain

Author William Struthers teaches the subject of neurology with a Ph.D at Wheaton. This means his book has a very unique, neurological perspective, as most books on pornography are written either by counselors and/or pastors. This book tends to take a much more scientific approach in some chapters, lending to a better understanding for just how porn latches on to the brain. This is both tragic to see and wonderful to learn — it’s much easier to avoid touching a stove when you comprehend exactly how the burns would destroy your hand.

This is not a typical recovery book. The author will not simply give you practical ways to stop watching porn. He instead addresses how watching pornography reveals the deeper need for intimacy in males. When that need combines with both our sinful nature and a corrupted image of true masculinity in our culture, the result is seeking out unhealthy, unsatisfying forms of “false intimacy” that ultimately destroy the lives of men — porn. I hope you can see from this review that Struthers’ work is more than a self-help book. It is much deeper and much more needed than that.

So this book is less about pornography than it is about intimacy. God “wired” humans to be in His image and to receive their deepest needs for intimacy from Him, from a spouse, and other healthy friendships. Not from their computer screens or prostitutes.

I see a lot of criticism for this book because it’s ‘not practical enough’. I truly feel those reviewers have either missed the point of the book or didn’t read it in its entirety. Anyone knows that to erase a tree you have to uproot it completely, and sins and struggles in the lives of humans are no different. He does give some practical advice for stopping a pornography addiction in the last chapter, and I think the brief yet big ideas he addresses suffice. As the author implied, when a man sets it in his heart to repent and let go of an addiction, a mere book is not going to be the sole savior anyway.

Some of the best parts of the book are in the second half dealing with true masculinity. Chapter six outlines what really makes a man Biblically versus what society says, and it’s so great I wish some feminists I know would read it.

One caveat of the book is that at times it feels a bit inaccessible. Because there are some science-heavy parts, some chapters feel either drawn out or like Struthers goes on small tangents that seem a bit irrelevant to the chapter as a whole. Fortunately, this is only a couple cases and does not detract from the book’s message overall. Also, I feel the subtitle (“How pornography hijacks the male brain”) is a bit misleading, for the book is not solely a scientific exploration.

Nevertheless, every man needs to make the effort and read this book. It will convict and rip your heart apart to see why men feel the need to look at a girl’s body instead of her face on first sight or, even more sadly, during conversation. It will sadden you to read how men have lost the ability to appreciate female beauty without making it erotic. It will break you to learn about the neurological buildup that traps so many men into pornography addiction when God intended that buildup for the safe confines of marriage. Of course, brokenness is required if one wishes to repent and give their lives to God.

Most men have an intimacy problem today, which is really why they watch porn. I just hope they get around to seeing that and stumbling upon this direly-needed book.

Wired for Intimacy: How Pornography Hijacks the Male Brain

‘Community’ Review: Your Bible Study Ain’t Right Yet

Community groups (small groups) are not easy to execute successfully. Most churches tackle them incorrectly, like they are just another program or a once-a-week Bible study without much depth. Brad House has written Community, an amazing book outlining how not to do small groups and much more on how to do them in a way that keeps Christ the center of everything. Best of all, the book is barely 200 pages long, meaning you can easily finish it in a week or so and still take away great and godly wisdom on how community groups function in light of the Gospel.

How do you stay in the Gospel when practically talking about groups of people? Moreover, how do you even define a broad term like “community?” Luckily, House simplifies this by anchoring the definition of community primarily in 1 Peter 2:9-10. He revisits that passage as he underscores different issues within a community all throughout the book.

The author points readers into a new direction for small groups unlike most people have experienced before, a direction that requires organization, discipline, and authentic repentance. He spends good length outlining what both leaders and simple laymen need to repent of in a community; how else will people grow if they don’t repent of the sin directly in the way first? I feel that many Christian, practical books call for new methods in various fields but fail to talk about repenting of specific and relevant sins there.

In dealing with depending on the Lord to defeat sin that clouds true community, House also beats the drum on mission and how integral it is for Christians in small groups to passionately grasp it in their lives and neighborhoods. This is one of the heartbeats of the Gospel that can’t be missed (of course none can be missed). He also comprehensively covers what sorts of events and projects community groups can undertake in their neighborhoods, what a true small group leader looks like, and how churches should rally their groups together in an organized way without making them just another church event. Instead, the venue Christians should use to live out the Gospel each week should be their small groups.

The honesty in this book is powerful. House calls on leaders to take time to research the needs of the areas where small groups meet and readily admits that differing groups will reach out to places differently based on demographic factors. Also, he’s not afraid to name the sins that disqualify leaders and community groups from being effective for Christ. He provides statistics to reveal just how much the church has failed with community in recent years, and he displays many graphs and charts to visually lay out what he is saying. While the material is not complex at all, lazy leaders and readers should probably stay away from this one.

Another evident feature of the book is resources. At many points while reading leaders will wonder how in the world they will be able to integrate everything House is saying into their own communities, but he literally acknowledges that hurdle and generously gives a plethora of tips and valuable methods along the way (not to mention there is plenty of extra content at the back of the book to assist leaders further). Towards the end of the book he tells the story of community at Mars Hill and takes the time to talk about the lessons they’ve used for leaders and community groups over the years. It is humbling to see just how much House has poured what the Mars Hill team has learned and tried with community into this book. In short, there is plenty of inspiration here to help any leader brainstorm and seek the Holy Spirit in nurturing true community where they’re at.

The one thing I will say is that Community is pointed at a specific audience. I believe the best audience for this one is higher-up pastors, elders, and small group leaders (I say this being a community group leader of three years and a first-year CG coach). But even if the standard layperson purchases this, the impressive blending of practicality, theology, and motivation will not be easily missed. To be honest, this is one of my favorite books I was able to read in 2011. Thank you so much for this, Brad House. I have walked away from this book with so much insight that I’ve already been able to pass down to my leaders. It’s already making an impact.

Community: Taking Your Small Group off Life Support

 

 

Generous Justice

If there’s one thing we Americans do not do well, it’s handling money. We lose it. We spend it. We don’t like giving it away. Those of us who actually do handle money well tend to have the wrong attitude about it (pride much?), putting us back at square one. We typically forget that our money is not really ours at all. It’s God’s. We also tend to neglect what we are supposed to be doing with God’s money. Not only that, but we are supposed to be dealing with all of our resources, including time and possessions, in the same manner. This is where Generous Justice comes into play. Did you know that how you handle your money and things tells about how you understand the Gospel? Oh, how this book packs a punch. The kind that sends Mike Tyson into Build-A-Bear.

At first glance the cover may come off as being about penal substitution or something, but this book entails something much simpler yet deeper. God’s “justice” is more than just punishing the bad guys. Tim Keller takes a theological dive into Deuteronomy and unveils that true justice (called mishpat in Hebrew) is also about doing the right thing for the people as is due, like serving widows, feeding the poor, and providing for the needy. Keller uses Scripture to show that God expected Israel to leave no one behind in terms of material need, and that same provisional love extends to Christians today.

Using a combination of Scripture and anecdotes, the author paves the way on how to do social justice God’s way, not the political way or any other. The whole premise of the book is founded on Christ’s love for us. Keller asserts that a Christian should be able to look at a homeless person and feel love that causes them to provide for the person’s needs, because on a spiritual level we are all poor like the homeless man. We had no hope, and God showed us His grace, thus providing us with what we need (God’s justice). After experiencing God’s grace as such, we treat people in need with that loving justice as well (hence the subtitle, “How God’s Grace Makes Us Just”). In other words, if you aren’t generous with your time and money, that means you may not really understand the Gospel. Big words.

My favorite parts of this book were the practical ones. Tim Keller talks bluntly about the difference between numbered donations and actually getting your hands dirty in your community. In the last third of the book the author wades through many practical issues: what generosity looks like as a Christian individual, how the church works out this concept of being generous, and how the church can play a role in fighting corrupt local policies.

All in all, Generous Justice tackles a subject many Christians shy away from in an easy-to-read manner. This book really resonated with me as I feel that being generous (namely with money) has always been a bit of a struggle for me. I definitely recommend this to everyone, but if you have a hard time giving at any level you especially need to get your hands on this thing. You’ll how the heart of God goes out to those who society has long left behind.

Generous Justice: How God’s Grace Makes Us Just

Rid of my Disgrace

There are some subjects people tend to skirt around in conversation and relationships. Subjects so uncomfortable, their mention only brings up a wrecked past, a rough childhood, or a particularly disconcerting uncertainty for those unfamiliar with it. One such subject is sexual assault, and sadly, it is not spoken out about enough by pastors and families.

Justin and Lindsey Holcomb have written this book to ‘come out’ on sexual assault, unveiling the myths as well as the tragic truths behind it. After getting through the first two chapters, it’s plain to see how heavy of a burden sexual assault is. However, the Holcombs overcome this age-old problem in an extremely Biblical manner, and end up amplifying the Gospel’s goodness and power over every evil thing, namely sexual assault.

The book starts out with its foundation in the Word, opening with Tamar’s story of rape in 2 Samuel 13. The title directly comes Tamar’s outcry in the passage — “Where can I get rid of my disgrace?” — just before her brother, Amnon, rapes her. As the authors indicate, her cry encompasses the dirtiness often felt by victims of sexual assault.

The first two chapters alone open up the depth of the book, explaining what sexual assault is in all connotations of the phrase and all the latest stats on sexual assault, victims, and perpetrators. Did you know that one in four women and one in six men will be sexually-assaulted in their lifetime? How about about that every two minutes someone in the U.S. is sexually assaulted? Did you know that one study reported up to a third of girls and a fifth of boys have experienced incest? These three stats are found in chapter two, and there are many more. It is simply staggering. Great care is also taken in this chapter to show how ‘self-help’ books and positive thinking actually do much more harm than good; stats are even provided to back that up!

The bulk of content is spent with each chapter outlining a specific emotional reaction to being sexually assaulted, like shame, distorted self-image, anger, etc. The authors outline exactly how a victim may react with each given emotion (emphasizing how normal it is), how destructive it ends up being, and how the Gospel rescues from it, promising much better. Just before each chapter, there is a personal story told by someone who was abused sexually and reacted as shown in the given section. This serves to make each chapter more real and credible.

As the end draws closer, the last three chapters detail how sin gave birth to the sexual wrongs and outline all instances of God’s grace throughout the Old and New testaments. Since the book 1. is all about God’s grace, and 2. always returns back to a Scriptural base, providing these last parts really helps solidify the assurance of God’s loving character written about in in Rid of my Disgrace.

When you put all the stats and anecdotes and pain together as you turn each page, it becomes clear the content is overwhelming. If a victim came to you seeking advice here, what would you say? If you’re a victim afraid to speak out, where would you start? Perhaps this is why so many pastors and leaders (wrongly) avoid this topic.

But where words fail, Christ does not. That’s the point Justin and Lindsey constantly reiterate, and it’s much needed. This topic is too much for man. Fortunately, readers are reminded from beginning to end here that Christians are God’s kids, whether abused or not, and that no amount of sin or disgrace could overpower God’s saving love.

There are two primary audiences prime for reading this: victims and leaders in ministry. As the book thoroughly goes through its content with a tone of restoration, it’s plain to see that Justin and Lindsey want to reach out to everyone who has been sexually offended. And make no mistake, this is a book of healing. While there are plenty of books on how to correctly counsel in this difficult area, few (if any) speak so directly and pastorally about the issue. Even if you’ve never been abused, you’ll undoubtedly feel healing in some area as you hear God speak to you through the pages about guilt, despair, and the like.

The second audience, ministry leaders, would be at a huge handicap to skip over this one. There’s a big handful of footnotes (which I absolutely gobble up), making the Holcomb’s masterpiece an excellent resource for extended research and reading. Also, I personally have never gone through sexual abuse, so most of the intense content here was completely unfamiliar to me. If anyone had come to me with this sort of victimization seeking godly advice before, I’d be completely unprepared. Now, I feel like I have a great place to start. I have a feeling that as I go through seminary and be in ministry years down the road, I’ll be coming back to Rid of my Disgrace above others.

If you are a victim of sexual assault, God wants to speak to you through this book. Hey, leaders and pastors, every one of you needs this on their bookshelves. I sincerely praise God for what he has done through the Holcombs. Also, if you’d like to get an idea of what the book is like, the Holcombs also wrote a brief article about the Bible and sexual assault. Don’t miss it.

Rid of my Disgrace: Hope and Healing for Victims of Sexual Assault