The Dancing Puritan

Monday, January 27, 2014

Learning From Sin

Do you learn from your sin?  The grace of God is an instructing grace. His grace teaches us how to fight sin. When I am tested, I often do not respond as I should; nor as I desire. Too often I allow fatigue, frustration, and a feeling of being overwhelmed, to feed my sinful heart. I need the grace of forgiveness and I need the grace of instruction.

Below are twelve prayer requests that grew out of my reflection on Scripture this morning and that are directly related to my sin. I want to learn from my sin. Therefore, I pray for:

*Wisdom to make considerate, wise, and clear decisions.

*Enablement to respond well, when tested.

*Humility to repent quickly to God and others.

*Bigness to not allow small things to become personal, competitive, and large.

*Vision to keep God's glory and the good of others in view--in my attitude, words, and deeds.

*Strength to not fall when the burdens of life feel crushing.

*Perspective to know what is important, what is not, and to see the big picture.

*Decisiveness to not leave those under my leadership hanging by the thread of my indecisiveness.

*Leadership to lead faithfully, decisively, lovingly, and wisely.

*Knowledge to know the mind of God, have the mind of Christ, and to bleed Scripture.

*Action evidenced in walking in accordance with the Word of God.

*Love abundant for God and others.

My sin always dishonors God, hurts others, and wounds my own heart. My desire is to honor God, love others, and to have a heart that beats with a passion for godliness.

What about you? Will you seek today to learn from your sin?

Tuesday, January 21, 2014

Later we will dance, later we will play.

We will talk, perhaps later today.
We will read the mail and then we will play.
The lawn needs mowing and there are letters to write.
We will make sure, that we visit tonight.

The phone is ringing, texts are coming through.
People are needy, what can we do?
There will be time, perhaps later today.
Yes, later we will dance, later we will play.

There is always time for cultivating important relationships, . . . later. Right? That seems to be the way that we often think and live. You may have read the little booklet by Charles Hummel, The Tyranny of the Urgent. In that book/essay, Hummel argues that we often neglect truly important things (time with spouse and children come to mind) for urgent things that, comparatively speaking, are not that important. 

How often do you push spending time getting to know your spouse aside, for some other duty (important or not)? How often have you told your children, "I am too busy."  Of course, we cannot talk to our spouse at any time, nor can we constantly be available to play with our children. That is not the point. There are duties that must be attended to in order to survive. That truth is also an indicator of the challenge. We have to eat and drink in order to survive. We have to be employed in order to buy the supplies that we need to eat and drink. Without a job and without food, we die.  Relationship building is not necessary in the same way as food and drink. We can physically survive without healthy relationships (at least for a while). We cannot survive, for long, without food. C.S. Lewis in The Four Loves argues in that way, regarding friendship.

Life is about a lot more than mere survival. It is still "not good" for us to be alone. It is very possible to be alone even in the midst of a busy family and while surrounded by people.  Isolation does not need a cave in order to thrive. Isolation can be found in a packed stadium of screaming fans at a football game. Isolation can lurk in your heart while surrounded by family and friends. Marriage, in and of itself, does not cure loneliness. When the relationship is pushed aside because of overwhelming responsibilities, death slowly occurs. At first it may not be obvious. Sometimes in the midst of the full-plate-schedule, it is not even noticed.

People die of starvation very day. Their death is not a result of the absence of the necessities of life. Their death may not even put them beneath the cold dirt in a cemetery. Death comes when relationships are smothered by activity. 

Death comes when you stop the journey of knowing those closest to you.  Go to war against death by giving yourself to relationship building. From a foundation of knowing God, get to know your spouse, get to know your children, and get to know your friends.

Wednesday, January 8, 2014

A Simple Plan for Reading Non-Christian Literature

This is part two on reading non-Christian literature. Part one is here.

                        How can you incorporate non-Christian literature into your reading? That question is built upon the assumption that Scripture permits the reading of non-Christian literature.

                        First, it is essential to make Bible reading a top priority. God washes and sanctifies his people by means of the Bible.[1] If you are not receiving a substantive intake of God’s Word, then you should first be concerned about reading Scripture, and not non-Christian books.

                        Secondly, you should read good Christian books. Some books, such as Pilgrim’s Progress by John Bunyan, have stood the test of time and should be digested for your good. Charles Spurgeon is reported to have read Bunyan's classic over 100 times. Counsel from a godly Christian on what Christian books are excellent books, should be sought.

                        Thirdly, you need to be discerning with your non-Christian reading. There is so little time and so many important books to be read. Reading is certainly a valuable use of time, but wisdom is required. Thousands of new books hit the market every year. Not all can be or should be read. What are  the standard works from every time period that should be considered? Seek counsel and check reading lists offered by others. Dr. R. Albert Mohler often evaluates books. He is well known for being a trustworthy source for book recommendations.[2]

                        Fourthly, after completing steps one through three, make a list of books that interest you. Consider books of history, poetry, classics, business, and more. Evaluate authors like C.S. Lewis (a Christian but not all of his books would be classified as “Christian books") and J.R.R. Tolkien (again, a professing Christian, but The Lord of the Rings Trilogy is not distinctively Christian).  Once a list is made, have it evaluated by someone that you trust.

                        Fifthly, classify the reading of non-Christian literature as a secondary priority and then consider when, in your schedule, is a good time is to read such works. Use your best time to read Scripture and godly books. Read non-Christian books at other times. If you find that non-Christian books are dominating your schedule, then scale back and seek accountability from a godly friend.

Benefits of Reading Non-Christian Books

                        First, reading non-Christian books can help expose you to various other worldviews. It is generally wiser and safer (when possible) to evaluate worldviews via the written word rather than direct engagement by a non-Christian. The written word is special in this way. You can read a paragraph and stop to ponder what has been read. You can evaluate it, look up what others think about the arguments being presented, and come to conclusion. Though God will help when non-Christians confront you directly, reading in advance can help prepare you for such encounters.

                        Secondly, remember that a non-Christian book may not necessarily be an anti-Christian book. You need to be careful about reading books that attack the Christian faith. False teaching is dangerous. That being said, you can read, to great benefit, stories not written from a distinctly Christian perspective. Look for books that engage the mind, stir the emotions, and help you to think more creatively. As a Christian you should be able to read the book from a God-centered perspective.

                        Thirdly, reading non-Christian books can give you great insight into human behavior and depravity as a window to the soul.[3] Though Scripture is sufficient to inform about the depravity of man and his behavior, reading non-Christian literature can furnish you with vivid illustrations from post-biblical times to the present.

                        Fourthly, reading non-Christian literature can cultivate character and creativity. A friend shared with me this opinion, “Reading builds character and vocabulary. God has given some people the talent of a great imagination and they are able to bring a story to life. I think as long as the story is not blasphemous or vulgar; give thanks to God and enjoy it.”[4]  I think that he is right. Just as God has given taste buds that help us to enjoy a variety of flavors of food and drink, he has built creativity into the heart of man. There is much to learn and enjoy from reading good books, Christian or non-Christian. However, it is essential to remember that we are never free to dishonor God. Jerram Barrs writes in Echoes of Eden, “ . . .literature deepens and broadens our experience. What is true of literature is true of all the arts. In the enjoyment of others’ creativity, I enter into a vision and richness beyond my own”[5]

[1]John 17:17, Ephesians 5:26.

[2]Visit and type in “books” or “reading” in the search field.

[3]Response (adapted) was given by a friend, Jon Hoover.

[4]Response given by friend, Roy Monkus.

[5]Barrs, Echoes of Eden, 31.

Scripture references from the English Standard Version

Monday, January 6, 2014

Reading Non-Christian Books

To read or not to read, that is the question regarding non-Christian literature.

Jerram Barrs in the book Echoes of Eden writes, “Should Christians only enjoy the art of fellow Christians?”  He then considers how Christians use and participate in all sorts of things that were made by non-Christians.

   . . . there is not a Christian in the world who does not daily benefit from the creative gifts and hard work of the unbelievers around him or her. Our clothes, our food, our homes, our public buildings, our transportation, our furnishing, our machinery, and our technology—the greater part of all this has been designed and made by people who are not Christians.” 

The first question on whether to read non-Christian literature, concerns the rightness of such reading. Is it biblical?  Immediately you are faced with the challenge of no explicit passage that deals with the question directly. However, do not be dismayed. When there is no direct instruction on a particular topic, then it is important to look for principles and examples in the Bible (for whatever the question may be). There are several guiding principles that can be garnered on the subject of reading non-Christian literature.

The Principle of Cleanness
The Apostle Paul writes, “I know and am persuaded in the Lord Jesus that nothing is unclean in itself, but it is unclean for anyone who thinks it unclean” (Romans 14:14). He is speaking specifically of food and drink but there is application for anything else. Paul is interested in Christians showing love to one another. He wants them to consider one another, even in their eating and drinking. Everything is clean, Paul says (vs. 20). However,  Christians should not create situations that cause other Christians to stumble.

I Corinthians 8 is a similar passage. There Paul deals with whether Christians should eat meat that has been offered to idols. Since idols have “no real existence” (4), then eating food offered to idols is not a problem (unless a weaker brother is hurt as a result). Comparing reading non-Christian books to eating or drinking is not exact. However, eating, drinking, and reading all require intake. The food offered to idols in I Corinthians had been touched and handled by non-Christians. However, it was acceptable for Christians to enjoy, as long as they were committed to loving their fellow believers. Reading a non-Christian book, in and of itself, is not an issue. However, flaunting the freedom to read such a book before a weaker brother/sister who is opposed to such reading, is a problem. The problem is not the book; the problem is a lack of love. Assuming that a non-Christian book does not dishonor God, nor hurt a fellow believer, then the book (like food handled by non-Christians) is acceptable. It is clean when bathed in love.

The Principle of Goodness
God created everything good and nothing, unless explicitly sinful, is forbidden. Because of sin, all good things are not as they ought to be and they stand in need of redemption. An unbeliever cannot please God because faith is required, which the non-Christian does not possess. However, that does not mean that the non-Christian cannot do anything of value.

Interestingly, that which is produced by sinners will ultimately be fully enjoyed by believers. Solomon writes in Ecclesiastes, “For to the one who pleases him God has given wisdom and knowledge and joy, but to the sinner he has given the business of gathering and collecting, only to give to one who pleases God . . ..” (2:26).  Philip Ryken observes:

Sometimes the transfer of property takes place in the present life. There are some good examples of this in the Bible, like the Canaanites who lost their cities to the children of Israel, or wicked Haman who had to dress his mortal enemy in the royal robes he thought to have claimed for himself (see Esther 6). 
That doesn’t always happen, of course—at least not right now. In fact, one of the vanities of a fallen world is that while the righteous suffer affliction, many sinners seem to prosper. But it will not always be like this. At the end of history, the wealth of all nations will be brought into the kingdom of Heaven (see Revelation 21:24). The meek really will inherit the earth, as Jesus promised (Matthew 5:5). According to the justice of God’s sovereign providence, his people will receive what sinners have gathered. As Jesus said, ‘To everyone who has, more will be given, but from the one who has not, even what he has will be taken away’ (Luke 19:26). Ecclesiastes: Why Everything Matters (Crossway Books).

Since Christians will enjoy fruit from the labors of non-Christians, then such things may be enjoyed today, in a redemptive way. All literature (Christian and non-Christian) is produced under the impact of the Fall and is in need of redemption. As well, the Bible never necessarily forbids Christians from partaking of those things, produced by non-Christians. Should it be imagined that only Israelites under the Old Covenant, or Christians under the New Covenant, planted, cultivated, and gathered all of the food that was prepared, the wine that was enjoyed, or the carts upon which goods were transported? Nothing in Scripture implies such a thing.

The Old Testament account of Daniel is instructive. Even though Daniel and his friends would not eat the king’s food or drink the king’s wine, they still ate food that was planted, cultivated, and harvested by the king’s men, albeit vegetables.  Even if it could be argued that the vegetables were planted and cultivated by Israelites, they were still a part of the king’s kingdom.

Daniel and his friends were faithful to obey the Old Testament dietary laws. They were also faithful not to eat food that was intimately connected to false religion. Beyond that, the Scripture tells us, “As for these four youths, God gave them learning and skill in all literature and wisdom, and Daniel had understanding in all visions and dreams” (Daniel 1:16). What was their curriculum? Their studies were made up of the “literature and language of the Chaldeans” (4). The Bible does not condemn Daniel and his friends for working for the king, (a fully secular workplace), eating vegetables grown in the king’s domain, or reading and learning the literature of the Chaldeans. Many of the things in the king’s kingdom were good. And though Daniel and friends refused some things, they did not refuse all things (vegetables, water, literature, employment). They redeemed their participation in government and their eating and their drinking, by not violating God’s law.

Certainly it is clear, that it is possible to participate in a secular government, and to eat and drink food and wine produced by non-Christians, in a way that is honoring to God. If Christians were to have no contact with non-Christians then they would have to leave the world. Admittedly, the references mentioned, mostly have to do with eating and drinking, but we are drawing application concerning anything produced by non-Christians. Christians are not forbidden to read non-Christian books and, as in the case with Daniel, it is possible to read such books in a redemptive way. This does not mean, of course, that Christians are free to indiscriminately read Christian or non-Christian books.

The Principle of God's Glory
Christians can enjoy anything that is not forbidden (explicitly expressed, or by necessary implication) and do so to the glory of God. God provides, for his people, “everything to enjoy” (I Timothy 6:17).  Paul condemned, on the one hand, an ascetic religion where folks withdrew from pleasure out of a false sense of spirituality. On the other hand he combated putting one’s hope in riches. Paul’s point is that Christians are not to trust in riches but they are to trust in God who “richly provides us with everything to enjoy.” Everything, not sinful, can be enjoyed by believers. Paul writes, “So whether you eat or drink, or whatever you do, do all to the glory of God” (I Corinthians 10:31). The “whatever you do” would include anything that is not forbidden by Scripture.

There is a way to read a non-Christian book to the glory of God. How? Reading for the good of others is but one way. To apply a part of Paul’s teaching in I Corinthians 10, Christians who are invited to dine with an unbeliever are free to do so if they want, even if the meat served was offered to idols. They are free because “the earth is the Lord’s, and the fullness thereof” (vs. 26). Imagine a scenario where a Christian is given a popular book on business that was written by a non-Christian. Perhaps the Christian prefers to only read books written by John Piper. However, he realizes that he can show love to his non-Christian friend by receiving the gift of a non-Christian book. He is free to receive and read, if he can do so without sinning. He is also free to fully enjoy, to the glory of God, reading the book.

The picture that emerges from Scripture is that God has created a bountiful earth occupied with creative people made in his image. Yes, his image has been marred by the sin of those people. Nevertheless there remains evidence of the image of God. The character of God is written even on the heart of the non-Christian. One might look into a broken mirror and see an imperfect reflection, but a reflection nevertheless of the real person. The reflection is distorted but still exists. God’s image remains, even in fallen man, in some way. When excellent non-Christian literature is produced, then God gets the glory, because man is made in his image. The excellent literature displays the creativity of God. The Christian can glorify God by receiving God’s gifts with prayer, thanksgiving, and in accordance with Scripture.

The Principle of Sanctification
Christians, who read non-Christian literature, should make their reading holy. They do this by thanking God for the gift of creativity in their fellow man. They do so by prayerfully, asking God to protect them from being led astray by and to teach them lessons from their reading. They do so by examining everything that they read by Scripture. If they are reading something that is contrary to God’s will, they should evaluate what is read in light of the Bible. They should be led in their reading to think on “whatever is true, whatever is honorable, whatever is just, whatever is pure, whatever is lovely, and whatever is commendable . . .” (Philippians 4:8).

Clearly, pornography is an example of a type of literature that is forbidden. However, that does not necessarily mean that all literature that deals with inappropriate sexual relationships is forbidden. The Bible gives us, in some detail, the sordid account of David and Bathsheba. However, never in Scripture is sexual immorality glorified. When reading the story of David and Bathsheba, the Bible does not use salacious language, and it does not present the story in a way that is sinfully provocative. Sin is presented in all of its ugliness and against the backdrop of God's redemptive grace. It is possible, even in non-Christian literature, to present a story of sexual immorality in such a way that the awfulness of sin is magnified and the grace of God is exalted. The Bible is not a clean book in the sense that it does not whitewash sin. It addresses sin, sometimes by way of story. Therefore, when encountering sin in a story written by a non-Christian it is not correct to assume that reading the story is necessarily sinful.

When reading non-Christian books it is important, upon encountering accounts of immorality, to not be provoked to sin. Discernment will be needed and godly counsel should be sought. The distinctions between good and bad should be obvious. Thinking on what is pure, does not necessarily mean never reading about murder, violence, and sexual immorality. However, one should be very careful, prayerful, and safeguarded by Scripture. The same is true when considering genres such as science fiction, fantasy, and various forms of mythology.

We have a daughter who enjoys reading and has benefitted from the books of Rick Riordain, author of the Percy Jackson series. We allow her to read those books, but not without further instruction. We also provide books for her that are explicit in sound doctrine. And she is faithful to read the Bible.

If reading God’s Word is not a priority, then there is an obvious problem. The Bible teaches the importance of reading, meditating on, memorizing, and obeying Scripture. The Bible is the only book that is inspired by God. It, therefore, should be front and center of every Christian’s life. The Bible is the book by which all other books must be measured.

Reading non-Christian literature can be an exciting adventure of experiencing beautiful language, engaging topics, and result in numerous benefits. When reading such literature it is important to be well grounded in the Bible, prayerful, thankful, and discerning. It is also important to consider others when speaking or writing about such literature. Though there is freedom in Christ for such reading, wisdom is required.

Think of all the things, enjoyed by Christians, that were made or designed by non-Christians. Jerram Barrs in Echoes of Eden writes, “This truth should not trouble us at all, but rather cause us to magnify the grace of God, who gives to all so generously.”  He concludes, “The question we need to ask about any human artifact is not, Is this made by a Christian or a non-Christian? But rather the question that Genesis 1 prompts us to ask: Is this good?”

Next time: A Simple Plan for Reading Non-Christian Literature

Wednesday, January 1, 2014

Suggestions for 2014

Have there been any big changes in your life since midnight? What is the first day of 2014 looking like for you? Here are a few quick suggestions:

1.  Pick up a Bible and meditate.

There are many helpful Bible reading plans available. Find a good one, create one of your own, and get to reading in a purposeful way. Read the Bible meditatively. What that means is to chew on the text, turn it over and over in your mind, commit some or all of it to memory, ponder it, and pray through the passage. You may actually read less of the Bible but remember more, by reading meditatively. Donald S. Whitney writes in Spiritual Disciplines for the Christian Life, "Whatever way you choose, discipline yourself for the purpose of Godliness by committing to at least one way of improving your intake of the holy Word of God" (38).

2.  Pick up a journal/pen and write.

Write your reflections on Scripture and life in a journal (the kind with paper). Writing with a real pen (I use a fountain pen) is more enjoyable than typing on a computer. My guess is that a real (rather than virtual) journal will mean more to those who inherit you writings than one on a hard drive or in the cloud somewhere. Of course you could print your electronic entries and put them in a notebook.  My wife uses a Rhodia journal to note her prayers. Rhodia makes high quality journals. I am presently using a TWSBI notebook. I also carry a Field Notes pad in my pocket so that I can make quick notes throughout the day.

3.  Pick up a book and read.

A lot of smart folks will be releasing their book lists over the next few weeks. Take a look at some of those lists and prayerfully consider them for your 2014 reading list. Don't think that you have to read the latest books on the market.  Do you need to think more creatively?  Are you wanting to strengthen your understanding of some aspect of history? Are you struggling with theological terms? Are you fascinated by biography? Look for books that will help you to clear out the cobwebs that are fastened to the roof of your brain. Expand your reading into areas that you normally would not choose.

Getting Ready to Launch.

Before you launch today, ask yourself a question. Why should I meditate, journal, and read? Let me suggest a wonderful book that will help you to answer that question. Spiritual Disciplines For the Christian Life by Donald S. Whitney will help you to know why and how to discipline yourself. The book is built around I Timothy 4: 7 "Discipline yourself for the purpose of godliness" (NASB). I recommend that Whitney's book be the first book that you read in 2014.

BTW: I own a small bookshop and we have books, journals, and pens. Send me a message here if you are interested. We can make some excellent recommendations for you.