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

Lifting the Weights

People treat their relationship with God like it’s a movie, something they pay a little bit of money for to entertain them for a little bit of time. No wonder many of us feel like we’re watching boring re-runs. No wonder many of us become lazy sitting on our couches watching, or entitled, since movies are made for our glorious entertainment. No wonder many of us are left doubting so much and not knowing what to do, like you just paid $10 to see a terrible movie with no one to even talk about it with after.

We need to open our eyes. God is not here to entertain us. It’s not a give-and-take thing; that’s religion. Instead, you were bought with a price. Glorify God with your body (1 Corinthians 6:20). Worship him by being a living sacrifice (Romans 12:1).

I wish Christians would compare their relationship with God more like going to the gym. It’s not easy. Sure, it’s refreshing and good for you, but it takes a lot of work. There’s no point in going once a month or even once a week to be honest. To get any sort of growth you have to keep at it consistently, and you’ll have to accept doing exercises you may not enjoy. At first. And if you go to the gym for the wrong reasons, it shows. That’s a lot like how an authentic relationship with God is.

It sounds like too much work to be of any worth, until you have been going to the gym consistently for years. Is it any less work? No. However, you’ll have grown in mind and body so much the fruit and benefit of the work will happily keep you motivated. All the heavy lifting has paid off and always will, so long as you keep investing.

The amusing thing is that God is far more than weights or any cardio routine. We marvel at what a gym can do to a man or woman who takes the time to invest, but how much more will God do to the servant that faithfully invests in him? Instead of doing power cleans twice a week for two years, go and invite your unbelieving friends and neighbors over once a week for two years. Get up early to pray five days a week for twenty years. Mentor someone once a week for five years. How much more will God do to your soul, your innermost being, than weights will do to your physical, decaying body? Didn’t Jesus say your soul counts for so much more anyway?

“His divine power has granted to us all things that pertain to life and godliness, through the knowledge of him who called us to his own glory and excellence, by which he has granted to us his precious and very great promises, so that through them you may become partakers of the divine nature, having escaped from the corruption that is in the world because of sinful desire.” 2 Peter 1:3-4.

Some of us need to change the way we see God in our lives. Who serves who? Who puts in the work? Who gives grace, and who gets glory?

Time to go to the gym.

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

Unseen Beauty

If you look to the right, you’ll notice a peculiar picture. It’s a Rorschach inkblot. Made by the talented Robert Farkas over at Threadless.com, this one’s not an official inkblot (FYI, professional inkblots actually are not available publicly, even though Rorschach tests aren’t used much anymore). Remember Rorschach from Watchmen? You get the idea.

Typically, there are three types of people who look at this picture:

The first group of people see a conglomeration of ink and are either dumbfounded or unimpressed.

The second group of people (which included myself originally) realize this is a creative Rorschach inkblot and usually leave it at that.

The final group of people instantly see the image within: the wolf. Just the face. Do you see it yet?

How cool, right? When you look closely at the details, you’ll notice the mountains, the trees, and the birds making up the image which typically are present in a wolf’s habitat. The distinct harmony between the parts and the whole reveals the unique beauty of this piece. Needless to say, I bought the shirt-print of this design.

I absolutely love this kind of stuff. It’s not because of the wolf (although I do like wolves a lot), but rather because there is that unseen beauty in every nook and cranny of the design, both illicitly and implicitly shown. Visual art isn’t really my thing, but it’s these sorts of designs with hidden elements of significance that really draw me in. They’re special.

I know I’m definitely not alone in this, and it’s in these sequences of deep wonder that a lot of people really come to worship God more: finding a gorgeous view (for me, my girlfriend) from an off-path on a mountain trail, listening to classical music, seeing animals in the wild, etc. The fingerprints of God are all over creation, and they reflect His majesty (Job 26:7-9, 11-14, Psalm 104: 24-25). As God romances us with these things, we’re apt to look for them more.

Except for one place. People. That’s usually where most Christians don’t look.

We don’t normally see unseen beauty in homeless people.

Hidden significance is not something we often look for in those with disabilities.

How about unbelievers? Most Christians are too afraid to engage them and shy away from getting out of their comfort zone.

Everyday strangers? I think we pass by most without any compassion or curiosity to their needs whatsoever.

Here’s the reality, though – every single human being is made in the image of God, and God loves His image-bearers. Does everyone need Jesus? Yes. Are people good? No, no one is.

But you can’t deny that in the loves and hobbies and preferences and strengths of humanity, God has planted His image there. He finds value in us, and He desires that everyone would come to Him (1 Timothy 2:3-4).

If you pass by every stranger on the street knowing they bear the image of the Almighty Creator, how will this change your relationships? Who will you give time to you didn’t before?

Faith is twisted when we let God shape how we look at certain parts of creation but not the creation He cares for most: humans. It doesn’t really matter how we interpret art, cool shirt designs, or whatever intrigues us to look deeper; the fact is that Jesus died for humans. He wants to redeem humans.

If we ignore this, then we really don’t get the picture at all.