Post-Trump Reflections 3: Turning to Assyria for Help

Part 1 – Dueling Moralities

Part 2 – Care of the Poor in Scripture

When we read the Bible, particularly the Old Testament, we get a sense of both the personal nature of sin and the corporate nature of sin. Modern Christians, particularly conservatives who speak out and rally against abortion, understand corporate sin in at least that realm. Though most individual Americans have never had an abortion and few individual lawmakers have ever performed one, conservatives still understand there to be a corporate culpability for the killing of children soon to be viable outside of the womb by the lawmakers that allowed it and the voters who supported it.

The book of Isaiah gives us a depressing look into widespread, national sin that results in widespread, national judgement. It makes the case against corporate sin particularly around two areas: oppression and injustice against the poor explored in the last post (see Is. 1:17) and the idolatry of turning toward a god-less leader to protect from another god-less leader.

I spent the last part of 2016 reading through Isaiah. I understood parts but had questions about others. I noted the strong judgement of God, but I didn’t fully understand exactly what God was judging. But last month, my pastor preached sermons from Isaiah 7-9 during Advent and recommended a commentary on Isaiah by Motyer. That commentary is long and involved, but Motyer’s (and my pastor’s) discussion of the history of the northern and southern kingdoms through Isaiah was super helpful for understanding the specifics of the idolatry which dismantled what was left of Israel at the time.

Here is a historical summary. After the three first kings of Israel—Saul, David, and Solomon—the nation of Israel split. The ten northern tribes, also known as Ephraim or Jacob, were consistently wicked. The two southern tribes formed Judah. They were mostly righteous and still worshiped Yahweh. The Davidic king, King Ahaz, still reigned in the southern tribes at the start of the book of Isaiah.

The big enemy of all of the tribes of Israel was Assyria. The smaller enemy was Syria. The unrighteous northern tribes made an an alliance with Syria to fight Assyria. The southern tribes, Judah, rightly did not enter into this alliance. But Israel and Assyria threatened to invade Judah and set up their own king in place of Ahaz. As a result of this, Judah wanted to align with Assyria. They wanted to align with the worst enemy of all to ward off their other enemies.

Isaiah 7 begins God’s message to King Ahaz of the southern tribes of Judah. After describing the situation at hand, God told Isaiah to say to King Ahaz, “Calm down and be quiet. Don’t be afraid or cowardly because of these two smoldering stubs of firebrands” who plot harm against you. Then God says in v. 7-9:

This is what the Lord God says:

It will not happen; it will not occur.

If you do not stand firm in your faith,
then you will not stand at all.

God tells Ahaz to calm down, be quiet, and hold firm. He did not need to make an unrighteous alliance out of fear, for God would see that none of their enemies’ threats came to pass. But in the next verses, we see that Ahaz’s mind was already made up. God graciously offered Ahaz a sign that God would keep them safe as He promised, but Ahaz replied, “I will not ask. I will not test the Lord.” This is not a super spiritual response by Ahaz but one of a hardened heart. He is terrified, and he has made up his mind of how he will respond to the enemies at his door. There is no point in God offering him a sign, because he isn’t going to obey God either way.

The Lord promised to give them a sign anyway, the great comfort of Isaiah 7:14 – Emmanuel. But by the time this sign is fully recognized, the two kingdoms of Israel will be dismantled. “The king of Assyria is coming,” God says in v. 17. The one Ahaz embraced against God’s warning to save them instead became their executioner.

All this comes to pass as God said, and no part of the nation of Israel is in power again. When the virgin does conceive and has the Son we call Emmanuel, Israel is under Roman occupation, a marginalized people group who remained defeated after Ahaz sold his soul in terror to align with one who would only make it worse.

It takes no effort to see the relevance of the history of Israel in Isaiah to the choices made by enough evangelical Christians to sway the election in Trump’s favor. Two things affect whether we see the book of Isaiah as relevant instruction on how those of us grafted into the Vine should think about modern politics. The first of course is doctrinal persuasions. For those from a dispensational background, the history of Israel is informative but not definitive. We can learn from it, but we should not feel any obligation to be constrained by it. But for those with reformed convictions from Scripture, we fundamentally believe that we ARE Israel, grafted into the Vine as Paul describes in Romans 9-11. And God’s strong words to the king of Judah not to align with a godless oppressor to protect from another godless oppressor are of great importance.

The second thing that affects how we receive these instructions is the same thing that affected King Ahaz. It is simply the hardness of our hearts. Some Christians just can’t hear that voting for Trump as a reaction against both Hilary and ISIS was a rejection of God. And, the difference here is that they don’t attempt to logically defend themselves from Scripture or if they do, they only appeal to the godless nature of the alternatives. Their fear of the alternative is so great that they can not admit they chose against the commands of God.

Psalm 20:7  Some trust in chariots, and others in horses,
but we trust in the name of Yahweh our God.

Of course, at each election cycle, we are choosing between the “lesser of two evils.” I was willing to vote for both Romney and McMullin, neither who claim orthodox Christian faith. The difference is the pains that the God of the Bible seeks to warn us against exactly what evangelicals did in choosing Trump. God specifically warns us against both oppressors and fools. And often, these two characteristics coincide.

God gives us much wisdom on recognizing a fool …

Proverbs 10:18  The one who conceals hatred has lying lips, and whoever spreads slander is a fool.

Proverbs 10:23  As shameful conduct is pleasure for a fool, so wisdom is for a man of understanding.

Proverbs 12:16  A fool’s displeasure is known at once, but whoever ignores an insult is sensible.

Proverbs 12:23  A shrewd person conceals knowledge, but a foolish heart publicizes stupidity.

Proverbs 14:9  Fools mock at making restitution, but there is goodwill among the upright.

Proverbs 14:16  A wise man is cautious and turns from evil, but a fool is easily angered and is careless.

Proverbs 18:2  A fool does not delight in understanding, but only wants to show off his opinions.

… and warns us clearly on the results of associating with known fools.

Proverbs 13:20  The one who walks with the wise will become wise, but a companion of fools will suffer harm.

Proverbs 14:7  Stay away from a foolish man; you will gain no knowledge from his speech.

Proverbs 17:12  Better for a man to meet a bear robbed of her cubs than a fool in his foolishness.

But, though the warnings from Scripture are grim, in the final post of this series we will reflect on the fulfillment of the promise God gave in the midst of the hardness of King Ahaz’s heart. The rest of Isaiah contrasts the utter destruction Ahaz’s hardness against God’s warning brought upon the people of God with the coming hope of restoration through the Promised One. We too who are struggling after this election season (whichever way we voted) can find much hope in the promises of God in Isaiah, as we who see the problems with Trump face the same temptations to guard ourselves from his evil through unholy alliances that have undone the people of God time and again.


  • This episode of the Pass the Mic podcast with Andy Crouch is relevant to this discussion.  I highly recommend it.

Post-Trump Reflections Part 2: Care of the Poor in Scripture

In the first post of this series, I looked at the dueling moral cultures of the conservative South and the more liberal Pacific Northwest, based on observations during the significant time I lived in both. I’ve noted from living in two starkly different cultures how easy it is for Christians to assume their preferred culture more closely aligns with Scripture. Instead, there is power in getting out of our comfort zone in order to understand our own personal blindspots. I have experienced culturally accepted immorality in both cultures, but I’ve seen God’s common grace in each as well.

Today, I want to look specifically at social justices issues, particularly the care of the poor and marginalized, that I have seen divergent cultural attitudes between the South and Pacific Northwest.

After the election, I posted what I called 30 Days of Social Justice on the Practical Theology for Women Facebook page. I did it so I could sit for a while simply in God’s Word, meditating on what He thought about the poor and marginalized, the disabled and immigrant. An interesting thing came from my efforts to find 30 different quotes from Scripture or respected Bible teachers on the subject. First, though I was generally familiar with the laws from Deuteronomy and Leviticus on the care of the poor, I was struck by their clarity and specificity. Second, I found an essay entitled The Duty of Charity to the Poor by Jonathan Edwards, famed reformed puritan who wrote Sinners in the Hands of an Angry God.

I don’t always agree with the old guys. Jonathan Edwards had his own cultural blindspots around slavery, so there are certainly things to challenge on his understanding of the image-bearing dignity of all humanity. Yet, it is noteworthy that this puritan that you could never accuse of being a cheap-grace softy saw a Biblical case for government involvement in the care of the poor. His writing on the subject has solidified my conviction. Sadly, sometimes I need an old guy to convince me that what I’m reading in Scripture says what it seems to say, but I also believe this is a function of the historical church that modern Christians often overlook. There is much new thinking of the last 40 years in some hallways of Christianity whose disastrous results could have been avoided by respecting the old guys.

Concerning the Christian duty toward the poor, let’s first look at the most specific Scripture passages which come from the Old Testament Law, Deuteronomy 15. Here is a summary:

v. 1-3 Every 7 years, you must cancel all the debts of your neighbor or brother.

v. 4-5 If you obey these laws carefully, the Lord is certain to bless you and there will no longer be any poor among you.

v. 7-8 You must not be hardhearted or tightfisted against any of your neighbors or brothers who have a need.

Note particularly the wording of verses 9-11.

9 Be careful that there isn’t this wicked thought in your heart, ‘The seventh year, the year of canceling debts, is near,’ and you are stingy toward your poor brother and give him nothing. He will cry out to the Lord against you, and you will be guilty. 10 Give to him, and don’t have a stingy heart when you give, and because of this the Lord your God will bless you in all your work and in everything you do. 11 For there will never cease to be poor people in the land; that is why I am commanding you, ‘You must willingly open your hand to your afflicted and poor brother in your land.’

Here is Jonathan Edward’s conclusion from this passage.

It is not merely a commendable thing for a man to be kind and bountiful to the poor, but our bounden duty, as much a duty as it is to pray, or to attend public worship, or anything else whatever.

Then from Leviticus 25

5 “If your brother becomes destitute and cannot sustain himself among you, you are to support him as a foreigner or temporary resident, so that he can continue to live among you. 36 Do not profit or take interest from him, but fear your God and let your brother live among you. 37 You are not to lend him your silver with interest or sell him your food for profit. 38 I am Yahweh your God, who brought you out of the land of Egypt to give you the land of Canaan and to be your God.

The wording here causes us to seek out God’s instructions on the treatment of foreigners, which can be summed up with Leviticus 19:33-34.

 “When a foreigner lives with you in your land, you must not oppress him. You must regard the foreigner who lives with you as the native-born among you. You are to love him as yourself, for you were foreigners in the land of Egypt; I am Yahweh your God.”

I grew up in a religious affiliation that did not value the Old Testament Law, and when I point out such requirements in the Law, I still hear from some a simple dismissal of it since we are no longer under the Law. However, that understanding misses how Jesus talks of the Law. Remember that He didn’t come to “abolish the Law but to fulfill it.” In particular, He fulfilled it’s requirement of punishment, which is why there is now “no condemnation for those who are in Christ Jesus” (Romans 8:1). The Law was our tutor on both the character of God and all the ways we fall short of it. Note how both Leviticus 19 and 25 use the phrase, “I am Yahweh your God.” These passages are about the character of God and how we as His image-bearers are supposed to live among each other.

Thankfully, the New Testament continues these instructions so that we are protected from the temptation to write them off with the fulfillment of the Law.

Luke 6:35 Do good and lend, hoping for nothing in return, for then you are like your Father in heaven who causes the sun to shine on the just and the unjust.

2 Cor. 9:5-7 Give, not begrudgingly or because you are forced, for God loves a cheerful giver.

Mt 23:23 You have forgotten the weightier matters of the Law like justice, mercy, and faith.

Galatians 6:2 Bear one another’s burdens and so fulfill the law of Christ.

That last instruction from Paul in Galatians is key to understanding the elemental way God speaks throughout Scripture of the duty of charity to the poor.  Most Christians agree that the Bible teaches the care of the poor, widow, and immigrant. I submit that it is not just the poor, widow, and immigrant Christian, otherwise the parable of the Good Samaritan has no meaning. But though most agree on the general need for Christian charity, our divergent opinion by culture is around the question of the government’s involvement.

Most Christians agree that the government’s roll is to generally restrain sin against others. But what constraints on sin should government regulate? We don’t legislate general morality, and I don’t believe government’s role is to restrain my personal sin. But when my sin affects others, government is right to step in and protect. Generally, we accept government restraint of those that harm others without consent. We prosecute murder, not suicide and rape, not adultery.

Consider Romans 13.

3 For rulers are not a terror to good conduct, but to bad. Do you want to be unafraid of the authority? Do what is good, and you will have its approval. 4 For government is God’s servant for your good. But if you do wrong, be afraid, because it does not carry the sword for no reason. For government is God’s servant, an avenger that brings wrath on the one who does wrong. 5 Therefore, you must submit, not only because of wrath, but also because of your conscience. 6 And for this reason you pay taxes, since the authorities are God’s public servants, continually attending to these tasks. 7 Pay your obligations to everyone: taxes to those you owe taxes, tolls to those you owe tolls, respect to those you owe respect, and honor to those you owe honor.

To bring this full circle, a lack of charity, as the Bible presents it, is a sin against the poor, and it has victims. That’s really the sobering thing that Jonathan Edward’s essay helped me to see. This is why God speaks through the Bible of hearing the “cry of the poor” …

Prov. 21:13 The one who shuts his ears to the cry of the poor will himself also call out and not be answered.

And defending the rights of the destitute.

Isaiah 1:17 Learn to do what is good.
Seek justice.
Correct the oppressor.
Defend the rights of the fatherless.
Plead the widow’s cause.

The Bible challenges the popular American view that my money is my own, and I have absolute rights over it. Charity to the poor was not an over-and-above-the-call-of-duty kind of moral act. It was a baseline moral requirement in God’s society, similar to commands against fornication or murder, and it is linked to theft.

Isaiah 10:1-3 Woe to those enacting crooked statutes
and writing oppressive laws
to keep the poor from getting a fair trial
and to deprive the afflicted among my people of justice,
so that widows can be their spoil
and they can plunder the fatherless.
What will you do on the day of punishment
when devastation comes from far away?

This led Jonathan Edwards to conclude

It is fit that the law should make provision for those that have no estates of their own. It is not fit that persons who are reduced to that extremity should be left to so precarious a source of supply as a voluntary charity. They are in extreme necessity of relief, and therefore it is fit that there should be something sure for them to depend on. But a voluntary charity in this corrupt world is an uncertain thing. Therefore the wisdom of the legislature did not think fit to leave those who are so reduced upon such a precarious foundation for subsistence. But I suppose not that it was ever the design of the law to make such provision for all that are in want, as to leave no room for Christian charity.”

The Bible also challenges us when we ask, “Who deserves such charity or justice?” Who is an image bearer of God? Who gets to be a recipient of mercy? When I ask this question, I am reflecting a lack of understanding of mercy and justice as Jesus presented it in the gospels. Jesus’ parable of the good Samaritan reflects the summary of Old Testament law on justice and mercy – treat others the way you want to be treated. Love your neighbor as yourself. Well, then, who is my neighbor? It is even the unconscious guy on the side of the road, overlooked by his own, with whom you do not share nationality or religion. Treat THAT person the way you want to be treated. Love THAT neighbor as yourself. And in so doing, you have fulfilled all the Law and the Prophets.

Beyond these basics, there are a great many things to debate concerning government care of the poor, particularly the best way to curb government’s notorious bureaucracy and inefficiency. And based on your views of dispensationalism and end times, you may remain unconvinced that the Old Testament Law has any bearing on the NT church. In my experience, that theological/doctrinal difference strongly influences how believers react to arguments for government care of the poor in Scripture. Whatever negative reaction you have to this post, I simply encourage you to consider the Scripture I’ve referenced and, if all Scripture is given by inspiration of God and is profitable for training us in righteousness, consider what that might mean for your views of both your and your government’s duty of charity to the poor.


Sex, Violence, and the UFC

*I’ve edited MMA to read UFC in several references.  I think there is a culture among the formal sport that does not correlate exactly the same to private training and exercise.

I interrupt my regularly scheduled Post Trump series to offer some thoughts on a recent article at The Gospel Coalition against female mixed martial arts fighters. Though I’ve been thinking through my Trump thoughts for 6 weeks and these thoughts for less than 48 hours, I’ve been engaging on the topic via twitter and comments on the original post the last 2 days. As I did so, I realized that the issue of female UFC fighters raised around the recent Ronda Rousey fight played into things I have been thinking on for years, particularly since my days sitting under my UFC loving, violence promoting, former pastor Mark Driscoll. The TGC article used gender norms as the particular foundation for criticism of female MMA fighters, but I have a different concern with women in MMA, the overlooked concern (at least among Christian writers) of the interplay of sex and violence particularly evident in MMA, and long evident in the sport before women became fighters in the ring. This issue plays into my long concern over modern re-interpretations of Genesis 3:16 that frame the battle of the sexes as women wanting to dominate men.  This can result in a lack of awareness of the long road of sexualization and abuse that sets up many women to step out of gender norms that were used against them without penalty by male powers, in this case men with physical power in a sport that glorifies violence.

Aimee Byrd pointed out in a tweet that, while the TGC article focused on sexualization through gender non-conformity, explicit sexualization has long occurred in the UFC through supposed gender conformity as well, for instance, the ring girls. I was also struck by a statement in the original TGC post –

“Including women has … allowed the UFC to develop progressive credentials, improving the reputation of a sport that has had an unwelcome association with domestic abuse and had an exceedingly male-dominated audience.”

This was key, and down the rabbit hole I fell.

HBO’s Real Sports with Bryant Gumbel did an expose in 2015 on the disturbingly high rates of domestic violence among MMA fighters as compared to both NFL players and the larger population as a whole.


Turns out that MMA has twice the rate of domestic violence of the larger population and three times the rate of the National Football League. So you have a culture that is sexualized around gender norms that is also excessively violent toward women. It only makes sense to me that the next iteration of fixation for male fans of the sport would be violence between women in the ring, which of course is still sexualized.

Time Magazine noted this back in 2013 when things first started taking off for Rousey.

One issue that has persisted is the sexualization of female fighters in conversations about the sport. About a month ago, UFC fighter Conor McGregor apologized for a tweet he sent about the sexual things Rousey and Tate might do; UFC president Dana White later said that it was “real dumb.” (The UFC is reportedly working on social-media guidelines for its fighters.) Even mere weeks before the Ultimate Fighter finale, a Fox Sports blog post about whether fans were beginning to root for Tate rather than Rousey was given the headline “Are Ronda’s fans no longer aroused?” That headline was later changed but the original can still be found in online archives, complete with the implication that the reason fans are tuning in may not be just an athletic interest in who wins and who loses.

Since the earliest days of creation after the Fall, women have worked the system they’ve been given, and rarely has the system been a righteous one. Some such as Esther have worked unjust systems righteously, while others like Rachel and Leah not so much. In Rousey’s case, if she wants to compete (as opposed to being either ignored or exploited) in a culture known for sexualization and violence toward women, it makes sense that it requires sexualization and violence.

Rousey says that “she’s aware that women are judged on looks in any industry so she may as well accept it.”

“… she’s just glad to be written about. ‘I want everyone to talk as much as possible about everything. As long as they’re talking, I’m happy. The bills get paid. I can feed my dog,’ she says.”

A lot of women watching Rousey fight simply admire her strength. I’ve been concerned at times over my physical dependence on men, some I could count on and some I could not. For women who’ve been verbally or physically bullied by men, Rousey’s strength is inspirational. For women who’ve been sexually assaulted, developing a version of her skills seems a basic survival skill, for the gender norms of physical strength have long set up women for abuse.

Men, in contrast, seem to enjoy Rousey for a different reason. She became the next iteration in the female wrestling contest.

Females fighting seems to be more interesting to males than to other females, and the ten best female fights in movies certainly attract more than their fair share of male attention.”  1

I’m always curious when a woman steps out of conservative Biblical comfort zones for how women should behave. I’ve learned that there is almost always a larger story, a provocation that prompted her response. Sometimes, such a woman pushes us to consider whether our comfort zone is cultural or Scriptural. The TGC article makes the case that discomfort with female MMA fighting is Scriptural rather than cultural. I’m not going to challenge that per se, but having sat under a conservative reformed pastor who for years promoted MMA, I would like to encourage more Christian male leaders to step back and examine the culture that provokes or promotes it. I’m hoping for a little less criticism of feminism and a little more inspection of masculine oppression that sets it up as the safer, self-respecting option for a large number of women in modern society.



Post Trump Reflections: Dueling Moralities

I live in a complex world. I was raised a southern conservative evangelical but was plopped down in adulthood in the liberal, socially conscious Pacific Northwest for thirteen years. The dueling moral codes of my upbringing and my Seattle culture made me squirm at first. But more importantly, they made me think. I was uncomfortable at times in Seattle. I didn’t always fit. But now that I have moved back to the South, I am uncomfortable here as well.

Though I was raised to see southern conservative culture as morally superior, I no longer believe it is so simple. I have seen in particular the horrible blind spots defended by some southern Christians around the basic dignity of mankind made in the image of God. I went to a private elementary and high school that did not allow blacks to attend until 1985.  I then went to a southern conservative Bible college that defended their history of not allowing blacks to attend and their slander of Martin Luther King at his assassination. Even after allowing blacks to attend, they refused to allow interracial dating into the 1990’s. And they repeatedly attempted to defend these positions by way of Scripture. My Presbyterian denomination has recently gone through a period of repentance for the harm they did to others in the south when they did not stand with their fellow image bearers of God fighting for basic dignity and equal rights through the civil rights movement. I’ve been encouraged by repentance and change among conservative Christians the last few years, but clearly southern conservative Christians have no historical corner on the morality market. Even today, many still struggle with conflating political nationalism (a view that perceived spiritual superiority of the United States has caused God to bless the US in unusual ways) with the historic message of Jesus Christ of the Bible.

But neither can I lift up the culture of the Pacific Northwest as morally superior, particularly around sexual ethics and the humanity of the unborn. The Old Testament Law shows that our Creator deeply values fidelity in relationships, and sexual faithfulness in marriage is something that Scripture highlights in every genre and generation. It is an inconvenient truth that both cultures have aspects that positively reflect Biblical guidelines. And both cultures also have great holes in their understanding of righteousness according to Scripture. After all, social justice is commanded as strongly as fornication is condemned in both the Old and New Testament. One culture does it out of independence of religion and the other in the name of religion. Both are deeply flawed. Yet both reflect common grace as well.

And I daily tip toe through it all. Pitfalls on the left. Pitfalls on the right. I want those in more liberal cultures to know that their cry for social justice was God’s idea first, who made all of mankind in His image and names the care of orphans and widows as the purest form of religion. I also want to affirm a conservative understanding of human life before birth and the value of sexual faithfulness and the harm that sexual promiscuity causes to both individuals and communities.

As I navigate these dueling perspectives on morality, I offer some observations.

  1. For many Christians in either culture, visions of morality seem more often influenced by culture than by the Bible, and it often takes getting out of one culture and into another before one recognizes it.
  2. Many of us don’t have a framework for self-inspection or inspection of our preferred culture. We think our moral culture is good and the other perceived immoral culture is bad. We often miss the sins of both opposing cultures or the common grace in both.
  3. In the end, most Christians I observe want to call out the culture with which they do not identify, not the one with which they do.

Over my years living in Seattle coming out of the conservative South, and then moving back to the South after a decade in the Pacific Northwest, God refined my understanding of God’s moral absolutes as opposed to my own. My convictions on the sexual ethics of Scripture and dignity of all human life, including the unborn, became set in stone, but so also did my convictions on the care of the poor and immigrant, the widow and the orphan that flow from the image-bearing dignity of all human life. Social liberals in the Pacific Northwest helped me learn compassion for the least of these and grace for the down and out. My eyes were opened to systemic racism and injustice that I had been blinded to growing up.

As we end 2016 and begin 2017, I’m going to offer two (and maybe three) more posts in this Post Trump series. In the next one, I want to look at dueling visions of care of the poor. I don’t know many Christians who would argue against care of the poor, but I know a number who believe government shouldn’t be involved in it and decry the “welfare state.” I have been studying Scripture to understand God’s heart for the poor and the role of representative government in their care.  In the third post, I will look at the warnings of Isaiah 7-9, as the southern tribe of Judah turned toward the king of Assyria to protect them from warring northern tribes. Ungodly alliances destroy, and God offers through the prophet Isaiah a somber warning for us all as modern evangelicals grapple with alliances with Trump. If I do write a fourth post, I am interested, still from Isaiah, in exploring the hope we have in God’s promises of Zion, both those ushered in by the first coming of Jesus and our hope for their final fulfillment through His second. These have blessed me as I grapple with demoralization over the state of the church in America even as I see God working in the next generation of believers to build the foundation of true faith, with all the fruits that flow from it.

Happy New Year, folks.

For You have been a stronghold for the poor,
a stronghold for the needy person in his distress,
a refuge from the rain, a shade from the heat.
When the breath of the violent
is like rain against a wall,
like heat in a dry land,
You subdue the uproar of barbarians.
As the shade of a cloud cools the heat of the day,
so He silences the song of the violent.  Isaiah 25:4-5

My Favorite Book of 2016

It’s no secret that I appreciate Hannah Anderson’s writing. I wrote a review for Made for More when it first came out. I remember thinking at the time that I wished I could write like Hannah. Like Desiring God or Knowing God, I felt that Made for More would become a classic. Hannah’s writing transcends the trappings of a cultural moment. She writes in a way that my grandmother and my granddaughter could both relate, despite the century difference in the ages in which they lived. Made for More opened my eyes to the deep meaning surrounding the fact that I was made in God’s image. “We must find a North Star. And not simply because our circumstances change, but because we ourselves are more than the roles we play in this present world. We are large, deep, eternal beings, and only something larger and deeper and more eternal will satisfy the questions in our souls.”

My favorite book that I read this year, Hannah’s Humble Roots, was not the sequel to Made for More but it does work as a companion. While Made for More focuses on the ways we are like God, Humble Roots explores the essential ways that we are not. God is God, and I am not. And this simple truth is essential to find rest for our souls.

Before the official release, I rapidly perused Humble Roots and endorsed it. But once I got the final version in my actual hands, it took me a long time to read it well. Don’t mistake this to mean that it is a hard or confusing read. It is not a particularly long book, and its words are easy to understand. But it is deep and thoughtful. I long ago learned that first, I am simply not a strong reader, and second, I can only take in one deep concept at a time. If I read something that makes me think, well, I have to stop and think on it a bit. Each chapter of Humble Roots gave me something to ponder, something on which to reflect. So I took my time to reflect, never reading more than a chapter a day.

Hannah immediately pulled me in with her opening scenario, lying awake at night in her bed unable to sleep with the weight of a thousand obligations she needed to meet with home, family, and ministry the next day. I have done this. My sisters have done this. My friends have done this. Restful sleep for earnest Christian women is sometimes a far off goal. Hannah’s gardening metaphors as she pondered various aspects of humility and trust in the God who made us was a balm to my soul. Trust. Which leads to rest. It’s a simple formula, but her explorations of it in each chapter helped the principle to settle in my soul.

I finished the book a few weeks ago (yes, I really do read slowly), but I have thought about the concepts she explored probably daily ever since. I really can’t give a more glowing review than that. Humble Roots made me think. And it is still making me think. Just as Made for More made me think and does still to this day.

Hannah is my friend, and we write together here. But though I like her as a person, the great blessing of my friendship with her is that she sharpens me in the best sense of Proverbs 27:17. I have grown spiritually through my friendship with Hannah. Through her writings, I have come to a better understanding of both the God of the Bible and His revelation of Himself to us through it. If you haven’t yet read Made for More or Humble Roots, get them and read them. May you too be caused to know your North Star and find rest for your weary soul in the process.

Dying to Self in the Age of Self-love

I am going to be raw and honest in this post. And I hope I’ll be a little bit encouraging too. I am emerging from a brutally hard season in life. But even as I emerge with my feet on more solid ground than I’ve felt in a long time, I still face a life that was not the one I envisioned as an earnest Christian teenager in youth group and then Bible college. I don’t like to talk about the details of that season publicly, because despite my freedom to share myself, public writers must grapple with the effects of their story on the others in their lives who haven’t signed up for publicity and don’t benefit from the sharing. I feel free to share privately things that I won’t share publicly and have worked to be upfront and honest with those whose ministries intersect with mine. I am at peace with how I’ve been able to work that out so far.

The bottom line for my life is that I am looking toward a life of persevering in some very hard things for the long haul. And no amount of peeling off layers of myself to get to my core heart is going to rescue me from the twists and turns my story has taken. But don’t hear fatalism in that last sentence. Like the woman diagnosed with terminal breast cancer, there is a precious jewel hidden in the layers of suffering and self-sacrifice with what seems a permanent blight on one’s life.

I have several of these blights on my life physically, which I will use to talk about lessons learned from spiritual and emotional blights as well. I have been a type 1 diabetic for over twenty years. But this year, for the first time, I showed the first signs of damage to my eyes. In conjunction, my body showed symptoms again of ankylosing spondilitis that had previously gone into remission. So I started up the first line of medicine, the easy one with the fewest side effects, that had pushed it into remission the last time. But the doctor called me Wednesday. Blood work showed problems. I will likely have to discontinue and start another one that has even more side effects. (And, yes, I see a chiropractor, talk with a naturopath, and eat a mostly gluten-free diet.)

It’s becoming natural to think of dying to myself as I face more and more physical issues that evidence the fact that my physical self is truly dying (though not any time soon). It’s actually helpful that, unlike a hard marriage or family relationship or ministry commitment, I can’t escape these physical symptoms. I can’t run from them, so I have to face them head on and figure out how to live abundantly in light of them. And that learning has equipped me to persevere in the other issues in my life that I could run from if I did not feel constrained by God’s instructions through the Word.

My dad has been a great encouragement to me. He has chronic heart failure, and we almost lost him last March. But he recovered enough to get out of the hospital, and after a day at home, he drove back up to his farm to sit in the office and “tend to business.” He bought a Gator (a farm utility vehicle like a golf cart) to drive between the tractor shed and the Quonset hut, where he restores old tractors. His hip has been bothering him, and he moves slowly. But he moves, one slow step in front of the other. He gets 10% done in a day compared to his prime years, and I fully expect to find him slumped over a tractor one day. But I applaud him for his perseverance. He models for me how I want to face both my physical limitations and my emotional ones.

Sometimes, obeying God is hard. Many days, submitting to God’s laws feels restricting. It is one thing to honor our faithful God by faithfulness in relationships when the relationships are easy or affirming. But God is faithful to us when we are faithless (2 Tim. 2:13). He persevered with us when we turned away from Him. Jesus followed through on doing the right thing at great cost to Himself.

But that sounds … hard. And herein is the great paradox that Jesus Himself taught us.

Luke 9:23-25  Then he said to them all: “Whoever wants to be my disciple must deny themselves and take up their cross daily and follow me. For whoever wants to save their life will lose it, but whoever loses their life for me will save it. What good is it for someone to gain the whole world, and yet lose or forfeit their very self?

This is a true statement from Jesus. God doesn’t need me to affirm it for it to be true. But it is true nonetheless, and I can attest to that from my own experience. And this truth encourages me to persevere, stumbling physically and emotionally at times.

There is great talk of self-love in Christian circles right now, the kind of self-love that promotes a perceived circumstantial happiness. When I hear of Christian bloggers or authors or even just professing Christians in my own private life diverging from orthodox Christian faith or values because it is “too hard,” I feel a depressing weight on my shoulders. Their quest for happiness outside of orthodoxy demoralizes me in a way that a combative atheist never could. They demoralize me in a way that even my own particular burdens of suffering do not.

I opened up the psalms Thanksgiving morning, in the calm after prepping before thirty-something family members descended on my grandmother’s newly remodeled home into which I had just moved. It was Psalm 19, and David’s words resonated deeply with me as I contemplated yet another “Christian” author/blogger finding themselves in a way that was markedly divergent from an orthodox understanding of Scripture.

David reflects –

7 The Lord’s Instruction is perfect,
reviving one’s very being.
The Lord’s laws are faithful,
making naive people wise.
8 The Lord’s regulations are right,
gladdening the heart.
The Lord’s commands are pure,
giving light to the eyes.
9 Honoring the Lord is correct,
lasting forever.
The Lord’s judgments are true.
All of these are righteous!
10 They are more desirable than gold—
than tons of pure gold!
They are sweeter than honey—
even dripping off the honeycomb!
11 No doubt about it:
your servant is enlightened by them;
there is great reward in keeping them.
12 But can anyone know
what they’ve accidentally done wrong?
Clear me of any unknown sin
13 and save your servant from willful sins.
Don’t let them rule me.
Then I’ll be completely blameless;
I’ll be innocent of great wrongdoing.
14 Let the words of my mouth
and the meditations of my heart
be pleasing to you,
Lord, my rock and my redeemer.

Dear friend who is struggling with a weight on your shoulders, one that may seem lighter to bear if you walk away from God’s instructions – DON’T BUY THAT LIE. It was the first lie ever told, and it remains Satan’s great summary temptation. “God’s instructions are a limitation. They will keep you from all you are meant to be.”

No, it is not true. Embrace the path of suffering in obedience to God’s instructions. Lose your life. Let go of yourself and your expectations. And trust God to meet you in it, redeem your story, and give you a place of import in His larger story. As you lose your right to your story, you emerge in a much greater One, and what you will find is WORTH IT.

If you are wresting through such a losing and finding, I highly recommend Tim Keller’s The Freedom of Self Forgetfulness. It is subtitled, The True Path to Christian Joy. I loved those meditations, and I can give testimony of their truths.  Wesley Hill’s Washed and Waiting was also a great encouragement to me as I wrestled with these truths.

I have walked a hard path, and I continue to walk a hard path. But God gave me manna to sustain me at the hardest points and has blessed me abundantly even through the taking away of things I thought I couldn’t live without. He has proven Himself to me, and He has proven the goodness of His words. When others encouraged me that I was not constrained by God’s instructions, I found instead abundant grace and help when I felt convicted that I was. But it requires faith to stay in that process. I can not produce such faith in you. And you can’t produce it in yourself. Lean into the One who can, and may you look back in future years in praise of the One who turns stones into bread, water into wine, and loss into life abundant.

God’s Animal Kingdom Come

I took a break Saturday from wrestling with God over the election results. I did something that didn’t seem to serve any present need in the world. It didn’t minister to my kids or my church. It didn’t further my writing ministry or help any of my community college math students. Instead, my parents watched my boys for the day so I could go out on a boat and help with a NOAA survey of inland bottlenose dolphins in Hilton Head, South Carolina. Knowing my love for marine mammals, my dad in particular encouraged me to do it despite my feelings of guilt for bailing on my parents and kids.

So I drove to Hilton Head and joined a crew who spent the day cruising inland waters in cold and windy weather. We didn’t see many dolphins until the very end of our day, when we stumbled upon a group of 8 or 10, including a mom with several juveniles. Sea birds hovered close to the dolphins as they were feeding, and one of the juveniles rose out of the water for a bit with what seemed the intent of trying to interact with the birds. We saw several other types of dolphin behavior, and despite the weather, I had a great time.

Then today, as I was making dinner and my young, curious cat watched me from the opposite island countertop (I don’t let her get on the ones where I make dinner), meowing at me from time to time in her little communicative way, it dawned on me what these interactions with animals mean to me. When I communicate with an animal or watch them communicating with each other, it pulls at my longing for God’s kingdom come. The lion lay with the lamb in the Garden of Eden, and some animals apparently even communicated with humans if we can infer anything from the fact that Eve exhibits no surprise when the snake begins talking with her.

After the Fall, though, mankind killed animals for food and the lamb became prey for the lion.  Humanity didn’t just harm animals for survival, many humans have harmed animals out of spite, hardness of heart, or worst of all a perverse pleasure in inflicting pain.

Isaiah 11 speaks of the day when animals once again coexist peacefully with humans and each other.

6 The wolf will live with the lamb,
and the leopard will lie down with the goat.
The calf, the young lion, and the fatling will be together,
and a child will lead them.
7 The cow and the bear will graze,
their young ones will lie down together,
and the lion will eat straw like the ox.
8 An infant will play beside the cobra’s pit,
and a toddler will put his hand into a snake’s den.

This peace between mankind and animals and between predator and prey is just one facet of the peace of God’s kingdom when all is restored. Isaiah goes on to talk about others that hit me where I have most wrestled this election season.

4 He will judge the poor righteously
and execute justice for the oppressed of the land.
He will strike the land
with discipline from His mouth,
and He will kill the wicked
with a command from His lips.
5 Righteousness will be a belt around His loins;
faithfulness will be a belt around His waist.

9 None will harm or destroy another
on My entire holy mountain,
for the land will be as full
of the knowledge of the Lord
as the sea is filled with water.

When I see a young dolphin interacting with a seabird or my cat meows to me that she wants another snack, I hear echos of something far off and much bigger, though I can’t quite get to it from where I am right now. It reminds me of the day when no one harms another, when life is valued, the oppressed are uplifted, and dignity is restored. Righteousness reigns in that day, because the world is filled with the knowledge of God like the ocean is with water. That is an inspiring, hopeful image.

God’s kingdom is coming. And He doesn’t come back to a marginalized church fighting off attackers in a corner of the world. That’s Scofield and Darby’s 20th century invention, not the historic understanding of Christ’s return to the church. In fact, look just a bit past our own disillusionment with American evangelicalism and rising secularism, and you will see a vibrant growing church in Africa, South America, and Asia. The basic dignity of human life is respected in more and more areas of the world. Poverty rates worldwide are at an all-time low and life expectancy at an all-time high.

Isaiah ends his prophecy,

10 On that day the root of Jesse
will stand as a banner for the peoples.
The nations will seek Him,
and His resting place will be glorious.

And with Jesus’ repeated declaration during His earthly ministry that the kingdom of heaven is at hand, I am encouraged to enjoy my interactions with my communicative cat and young dolphins having fun with seabirds, because it breaks into my discouragement when I feel overwhelmed with the pain and rancor, abusive speech and contempt for the weak in the world. It reminds me of Eden and what was likely the daily experience of Adam and Eve before the Fall. It reminds me too of the promises of God that the end is coming and it will be glorious. I hope in that Day.

Matthew 10:7 And proclaim as you go, saying, ‘The kingdom of heaven is at hand.’