Is The Joy of the Lord Your Strength?

Is the joy of the Lord your strength?

This question can be difficult to answer — all of the words are so simple and familiar to Christians, yet the statement can get lost in a fog of ambiguity. When life is simple and sweet, we are quick to affirm without understanding, because surely “yes” must be the right answer.

But what about when spiritual complacency sticks to every inch of you, like Mississippi humidity? Or when you’ve allowed sin to overtake you for weeks, months — even years? When the word strength mocks you? When the joy of the Lord feels impossible, evidence against you at trial?

Failure or lack of faith can be the very thing that forces us to squarely confront this question. In that confrontation, where can we turn for help? Like new treasure hiding in an old package, the answer hides in plain sight in Nehemiah 8, waiting to be unwrapped.

To read the rest at Desiring God, click here!

When God's Rules Don't Make Sense

Everyone hates a 35 m.p.h. zone when you could safely go 60. Most drivers faced with that situation, and lack of visible police, will choose to go what they deem the right speed for the road. They know 35 m.p.h. is the law, but because the law seems nonsensical, they break it. No one will be hurt. They’ve made a judgment for a specific situation based on reasonable data without rejecting all highway rules, and nothing is lost for it.

After all, we all want to agree before we obey. And before agreement comes understanding—the embrace of the rationale.

In many cases, acting this way is reasonable, even wise. But in some instances, it’s how we make ourselves God.

Rules about Fruit? Really?

Think back to the paradigmatic sin of the Garden. There was one rule to obey: don’t eat the fruit of a specific tree. Many have asked, even mocked, “Why this rule?” There is nothing wrong with eating fruit; even vegans do it. To obey this rule, a person would have to decide to listen to God’s Word over their own opinion—which demonstrates God’s genius in providing it. The rule itself demonstrates the true locus of righteous obedience: trust in God’s character and intentions.

It would have seemed entirely reasonable for God to give Adam a different rule: Adam, don’t kill your wife and only friend, Eve. Eve, don’t kill Adam. This is different from some rule about fruit; we intuitively feel its righteousness. Murder violates our neighbor’s right to live; it’s horrifying; and Adam or Eve would only bring about their own loneliness. The rule makes good sense to us. In fact, it doesn’t even require us to believe in God at all.

But the fruit was different. “The woman saw that the tree was good for food, and that it was a delight to the eyes, and that the tree was to be desired to make one wise” (Gen. 3:6). Eve looked the tree over after the serpent introduced doubt of God’s goodness into her mind. She analyzed the data and concluded the rule was absurd. She knew it was law, but because the law seemed nonsensical, and because doubt about God’s character had been introduced, she and her husband broke it. They thought they were stepping into enlightenment and freedom.

They were, of course, tragically wrong.

In each age there are some aspects of God’s law that fit comfortably with a given culture, but others that look to be flat wrong. Can we trust God, invisible and mysterious, over what is plain to see? Over what intuitively feels right? Over what seems senseless?

Why would we want to?

Looking at Jesus Changes Everything

There are many possible answers; the most compelling for me is the goodness and trustworthiness of God in Jesus Christ. God is under no compulsion to save us. I have acted treacherously in my own life, and I think God would be right to punish my arrogance, hatred, and lying. But instead of choosing the morally good option of justly condemning me, God chose to send his Son to die in my stead. And Jesus himself chose to come.

We can never know what a shock leaving perfect joy and fellowship must have been for God’s eternal Son. He willingly chose a life of poverty, in a politically occupied country, with an earthly father who probably died young. Jesus’s friends constantly misunderstood him, and those who should’ve recognized him schemed against him. He was a homeless itinerant. Then he submitted to the humiliation and raw pain of a false trial and crucifixion. He never had to do any of it, but he chose it for our sake. Jesus became poor to make us rich. He suffered and died for us, in our place.

I can trust this person. He’s proven forever that he has my good at heart, that he loves me—so much so that he paid a scandalous personal cost. Outside of a relationship with this person, I can’t take the risk of trusting what goes against my cultural instincts. But as I know him more and more—his power, his intelligence, his goodness, his love—I can trust. I can obey. Even before I understand; even if I never quite do.

With Sexual Sin, Truth and Mercy Triumph Over Judgment

In today’s cultural climate, conversations around human sexuality unravel before they even get started. Those of us who hold to the traditional biblical view are often told we’re judgmental, yet the accusation is issued so often that it’s hard to tell a false alarm from a true indictment. As followers of Jesus Christ, we long to embody beautiful orthodoxy. Although the phrase “grace and truth” is shouted from every rooftop, we’re painfully aware of how difficult it is to practice in the context of real relationships and real conversations.

The tension is palpable: It manifests itself as a physical tightness in your chest when someone discloses their sexual attractions for the first time. You feel it, too, as tears on your face, when you can’t figure out how to express your love for your same-sex attracted friend and also affirm God’s singular plan for sex between a married man and woman.

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David Foster Wallace and Worship in the #MeToo World

Evangelicals swoon when people not affiliated with us speak truths we love. A potent example is David Foster Wallace’s assertion at Kenyon College that “[t]here is no such thing as not worshiping. Everybody worships. The only choice we get is what to worship.” This quote entered the Christian bloodstream mainly through Tim Keller’s injection and boosted it like a little caffeine hit.

Wallace had a reason for not living up to Christ’s standard: he was not a Christ-follower. But us?What a rush to have a magnificent thinker support such an important piece of our faith’s foundation. So the irony was palpable when The Atlantic’s Megan Garber published “David Foster Wallace and the Dangerous Romance of Male Genius.” The piece, a part of the #MeToo corpus, exposes Wallace himself as a troublesome locus of devotion. He is a specimen, according to Garber, of the worship of human genius, the very worship he spoke of, a kind of worship that excuses evil. She writes,

A fealty to genius is its own kind of faith: in transcendence, in exceptionalism, in the fact that gods, still, can walk among us. And genius, itself, becomes its own kind of infrastructure. We have organized our art around its potential; we have organized our economy around its promise. We have oriented ourselves according to the light of its stars—and so when they flicker, even momentarily, we lose ourselves. And: We defend ourselves. We delude ourselves. We choose not to question the makeup of the firmament. It’s so much easier that way.

The easy observation is that even when we reject the true God, humans can’t avoid being drawn to his image. Broken bearers though we may be, the brilliance of the Creator still breaks through in the best of his creature-creators. Can anyone outside of Christ be blamed for gravitating towards what whispers of the godly? Certainly not.

But in the case of Wallace, and of many others, that moth-like pull to light can blind to egregious offense. He is documented as a stalker and abuser of the woman he supposedly loved, writer Mary Karr. The things he did were terrifying—following her five-year-old home from school, throwing a coffee table at her, trying to buy a gun. Garber cites an article in the Guardian by Wallace’s friend and colleague Glenn Kenny where he attests that Wallace fans seethe when these truths are brought back up. They claim that they distract from his literary glory and are beside the point. Garber relates this to similar responses she got from training the spotlight on another problematic creator, Roman Polanski, demonstrating that it is a broader phenomenon, not somehow limited to Wallace’s cult status.

Fans like these simply refuse to acknowledge the ugliness and evil in what they love, and as Garber says, they lose themselves.

Sadly, we can lose ourselves, too, just the same way.

See, it can be easy to cluck our tongues at the non-believers. Poor souls, misdirected.  Looking at The Atlantic and other publications can stir up sympathy for those outside, or in some sad cases, schadenfreude. But this is a dangerous distraction.

As different streams of reckoning flow over the cultural landscape, leaving no topography untouched, we especially need to look to our own house. Sexism has washed over us in the church; perhaps, rather, it has had its own walled in fountain in our midst. Racism has been perpetuated like a favorite family tradition, to our shame. Writers and teachers of greater caliber and stature than myself are saying as much. Thabiti Anyabwile, Beth Moore, Russell Moore and others have all written persuasively—will the church listen? We need repentance, for we have sinned. When we see ourselves acting just like the world, should we not tear our garments?

I certainly don’t have all the answers for what to do with the reality that all of our human heroes, and institutions, fail us. There are so many genera of failure, so many species of fallenness, that no article length treatment could approach a taxonomy. Nonetheless, we need to encourage each other to have the conversation in healthy ways. That can be very difficult if we’ve never learned what that health looks like, indeed if we’ve never learned what deep repentance looks like. Are we able to learn those things, and humbly teach each other? It will require a willingness to examine, to really look—not to hide our eyes from our own failure, or that of our favorite institution.

Who has the words to grieve that Wallace could write what we believe and betray it constantly in his own life? Near the end of his Kenyon College speech he said, “The really important kind of freedom involves attention, and awareness, and discipline, and effort, and being able truly to care about other people and to sacrifice for them, over and over, in myriad petty little unsexy ways, every day. That is real freedom.”

We nod our heads with those lines, we feel the biblical rhythm of them. Who has words to grieve that we, that I, can every day still refuse them in action? Wallace had a reason for not living up to Christ’s standard: he was not a Christ-follower. But us? We have the Spirit, and the words of the prophets. If we enjoy being observers of culture, critiquing it as well as valuing it, then especially among us we need to watch the world and bring the lesson home.

We will not be spared, but godly grief remains open to us. Honesty and recompense remain open to us. Blood-bought forgiveness remains for us. Sisters and brothers, let us embrace them, refusing to be blinded by creature worship, and inspired to Christian action by Creator worship. To have that worship fuel the call Wallace made, but that Jesus embodied: being able to truly care about other people and sacrifice for them. That is real freedom.

(This piece appeared on Christ and Pop Culture)

Review: Made For Friendship

Does the Bible discuss friendship?

If you have to pause for a moment to wonder, you’re not alone. The short answer is Yes, of course the Bible discusses it. But compared to some of its other major themes, friendship doesn’t get much air time. And though friendship is one of the most common relationships in the world, it has not been too much discussed in Christian literature.

Into this situation comes Drew Hunter’s Made for Friendship: The Relationship that Halves Our Sorrows and Doubles Our Joys. This appears to be Pastor Hunter’s first foray into lay theology. The slim volume is divided into three parts: The Necessity of Friendship, The Gift of Friendship, and The Redemption of Friendship.

The first two parts, which make up the bulk of the book, are a bit sluggish. Hunter sometimes feels as if he’s writing to people who don’t understand friendship at all and who have never experienced it. He writes early that “friendship is, for many of us, one of the most important but least thought about aspects of life” (23). This simply doesn’t ring true for me. It doesn’t reflect my web of relationships, especially among women, and especially my work as a campus minister. Yet it is basically the presupposition he founds his work upon.

Disconnection with a main premise can make reading a slog, so I’m sure this affected my approach. However, his elementary engagement with the meaning if friendship made it difficult for me to imagine who the audience for the book is. However, he personally seemed to benefit much from the information he discovered in research, so I trust there are more like him in the church who need it.

Some of the biblical elements in the opening sections were questionable. For example, when testing whether a statement about the importance of friendship by a Medieval theologian is true, he runs straight to his life experience, not Scripture (25). This fails to convince, especially if the audience really is friendship-ignorant. They may not have their own good experiences to fall back on, and if his don’t ring true for them, where do they go?

Similarly, on page 79 he declares, but does not seek to prove, that “marriage…should be the closest friendship.” This is not biblically required, and potentially places a burden on marriages that they cannot bear. A marriage is a unique and good blessing, but it does not have to be where one’s best friendship lies, though it certainly could be. That sounds more like our current culture speaking.

However, Hunter’s definition of friendship, “an affectionate bond forged between two people as they journey through life with openness and trust,” (80) does offer some specificity that is welcome. He unpacks this definition with a combination of common sense, folk wisdom, and appeals to scripture. For the person struggling with understanding friendship, this section will probably prove the strongest.

Interestingly, at the end of the section he remarks, “These [criteria] characterize deep friendship, but not necessarily good friendship” (92). This was perhaps the first time in the book I wanted Hunter to say more, and yet he did not. Is his statement true? If so, how can you tell if you’re deep but not good? Many people are caught in unhealthy relationships; working through this idea could have been a real gem in the volume.

Hunter’s final two chapters fall under “the Redemption of Friendship” and are his strongest. Here he engages most with the full breadth of the Bible and illumines the theme of salvation as an act to establish friendship. Hunter sometimes writes as if friendship is the highest category for understanding Christ’s work, whereas it would be more accurate to nuance it as one among many. Still, it is a precious one indeed.

Hunter is effusive and encouraging in his lengthy treatment of Jesus as best and most faithful friend. In his final chapter, he digs deeply into that topic and then spins out six practical ways the friendship of Jesus impacts the Christian life. I think this chapter of the book would make a fantastic stand-alone document that I would be happy to share with my church community.

Hunter’s love of God and his earnestness show throughout his writing. It is easy for the reader to tell that he is engaged with his topic. He says many, many things that are true and helpful. Though the book at times unfortunately feels like a whole that is less than the sum of its parts, I am confident that it will be used by the Lord for the encouragement of his people. 

*I received a copy of this book for review from Crossway*

Embracing Our Transgender Neighbor on God's Terms

Transgender questions today carry an urgency unimaginable even five years ago. Most churches and Christians find themselves exposed due to their lack of theological and pastoral preparation. What does the Bible have to say about living life in a gender-nonconforming way? What can faithfulness to Christ look like for a person who desires—who might even say needs—to live such a life?

Into this infant conversation comes Transforming: The Bible and the Lives of Transgender Christians, by Austen Hartke. To read my review of this work for Christianity Today, click here!

I Left Same-Sex Romance for Love

It’s easy for people to misunderstand why I left a life of romantic and sexual relationships with women. They string the list of renunciations together like a necklace — no to former love, no to former sexual patterns, no to fulfilling unasked-for attractions, no to a way of life — and to some this looks like a type of adornment. To many more, a chafing collar.

My life, however, is sustained by a resounding yes, a yes that is only found in Jesus Christ. Like a diamond that weighs down your hand, that makes you avert your eyes for its rainbow brilliance, coming to know Jesus has continually revealed just how dingy, superficial, and man-made the things were I used to consider treasure.

But God has saved me and shown me that saying yes to Jesus is far better.

A Better Authenticity


Perhaps nothing carries more cultural cache today than the longing for the authentic, especially in the self. But how can we tell what our authentic self is? The answer of the culture around us is to look deep within, mining our desires. Because these spring from within us, they must be the keys to who we are. We have only one life. The greatest tragedy is to waste it by forcing ourselves into someone else’s mold.

This finds force especially in the realm of sexuality, where boundaries are cast as repressions that strangle the true self. Because I still experience but don’t pursue same-sex attractions, the world calls me foolish, like someone trying to dam the Mississippi with popsicle sticks. They see a no to those attractions as too feeble to hold back their desires.

And they’re right. That no is too weak to resist what naturally wells up within me. But the better authenticity Jesus Christ has revealed to me is strong enough to withstand, and overcome, because it woos me away.

If giving free rein to my desires was the key to life, why had it only sometimes brought me happiness? Just as often, I reaped mediocrity or pain. Contrary to what I believed, pursuing my natural desires did not create fulfillment, nor were my desires fully trustworthy just because they were, and are, “real.” An itch can be very real, yelling out to be scratched. But for some ailments, scratching just deepens the wound. A different cure must be found.

A Better Truth

Jesus taught me the truth about myself: that I was born a broken image-bearer. Created in God’s image, I was still able to reflect certain things about him. My desires themselves were often expressing real needs that God had built in to me; sex was his idea first. But I wasn’t able to understand them rightly.

I was born into rebellion, a spiritual stillbirth. My image-bearing was warped, a rotted house frame that would collapse under any life tacked to it. My desires needed interpretation, not blind obedience. Even in innocence they were only meant to be signals, not masters. Now fallen, they require extra scrutiny, because they arise in my flesh, which is naturally hostile to God (Romans 8:7).

Jesus taught me that my authentic self was not this fallen creation. My authentic self is the one covered by his righteousness, forgiven by his atoning death, washed by his Spirit, welcomed into his family, wielding the sword of his word. Jesus had purchased me out of slavery to my desires and given me his power to understand and redirect them. The fear of the Lord is the beginning of wisdom, and self-control is a fruit of the Spirit.

A Better Freedom

In fact, I am more than a conqueror in Christ. He has equipped me not merely to say no, but to grow in understanding the goodness of his design in the first place. I have nothing to fear in naming my temptations, because there is no condemnation for me in Christ and I have the Spirit’s power to escape them (1 Corinthians 10:13). Denying them, repressing them, does not give me power; it tends only to deceive or delay. Calling them by name and submitting them to Christ alone robs them of the power of darkness and secrecy. In the light they are exposed in their tatters.

In the light I can begin to see that, at their best, sexuality and marriage are electrifying because they reveal God’s powerful longing to be with his bride and our anticipation of oneness with him. When my temptations are strong, I can remember that each and every one of us is born sexually broken, but not so broken that we are beyond re-creation in Jesus. His gift of sexuality can be reclaimed and experienced as originally designed, whether in celibacy or opposite-sex marriage, as we grow in knowledge of him and knowledge of self.

The Best Yes


This is not limited to sexuality. Our flesh tries numerous tactics to deceive us, promising us that if we use God’s gifts in our own ways, we’ll create a better life. It’s as old as the garden. But money, power, family, health, rest — every good thing God dreamed up for us — crumbles and rots when we snatch it out of his hand. A yes to temptation is a yes to disappointment, pain, and ephemerality. Resisting it without Christ only kicks the can down the road or plunges us into a different deadly trap.

But a yes to Jesus clothes us in righteousness, stands us up in dignity, and blesses us with purpose. A yes to Jesus frees us to discover the gifts he’s given us, and even more shockingly, to discover that right where we are weak, he is strong. A yes to Jesus pulses us with a life so vibrant that we realize this indeed is the authenticity we have always craved, because we are connected to life itself, and all God’s promises to us are yes in Christ (2 Corinthians 1:20).

Friends, this is a beautiful yes, a yes that excludes all lesser things. It is not a yes to be pitied, but one to be desired.


This piece originally appeared on Desiring God.

Review: The Gospel Comes With A House Key

Rosaria Butterfield’s new book, The Gospel Comes with a House Key, should include a trigger warning. It is presented on some level as a tidy book on hospitality, bringing up images of clean houses and doilies, of pleasant, polite conversation.

Instead one is confronted with secret meth addicts, an excursus on gay nightclubs, rebukes of church failings, and just a whole lot of soup. This is no mere hospitality volume, this is a practical theology of discipleship. Was this a product of mis-marketing?

Or, more likely, have we been catechized into a faulty vision of hospitality?

Butterfield expertly weaves her book together, narrative the warp and theological reflection the woof, to create a seamless whole. We need narratives of a particular life, because the universal can be so large as to lose us. In seeing the practicality of what the Butterfields do, the possibility of it opens up in our own lives. And this, of course, is where the fear sets in.

Fear, because hospitality does indeed expose our American idols of comfort and control. Fear, because welcoming strangers is in fact dangerous. Fear, because we can’t see it to the end, and perhaps because we know our own frailty.

And fear, of course, can lead to rationalizing. We see an admirable life, and our hearts appreciate it. But as soon as that life makes a demand on us, we want to justify our inaction. We label ourselves too busy, too introverted, too feeble. Certainly this was what I said to myself at various points in the reading.

Butterfield will have none of this. She makes pains to explain that she too is busy, introverted and feeble, and she anchors planning around these weaknesses in the call of Christ to come and die. That’s why it’s not about hospitality, but discipleship. She firmly roots the use of our homes in the very principles of true Christianity: sacrifice, love, welcoming of the other even at great cost.

She is most moving in two conversion narratives. First, she recalls how her family wooed a recluse into friendship, and how that wooing was used by the Spirit to draw that unlikely man to Christ. This narrative runs through the whole book, watering it like a steady stream, pointing to the fruitfulness that God can work through radically ordinary hospitality. The second is the deeply empathetic story of Butterfield’s relationship with her mother, it’s toxicity and resolution in the mother’s deathbed conversion.

Both episodes show that hospitality is primarily oriented towards mission, and nothing less. The home becomes hospital, both birth and delivery ward as well as nurturing the sick and injured. The effect is inspiring, and self-evidently Christian.

That doesn’t mean that the work doesn’t have weaknesses. Though she is careful to caveat that hospitality doesn’t have to look precisely how her family runs it, the overall presentation of the book can militate against those caveats. Additionally, her declarations about how wives should function in the home may create such a distraction for some readers as to cause them to miss the bigger point. And the declarations themselves are perhaps not quite nuanced enough for the callings and giftings that exist in many husband-wives teams. I offer that light critique as a complementarian myself, who believes in the goodness of loving male headship and joyful self-submission of wives as the way God has designed family to work.

The book also would have benefited from more ways for the principles it contains to be brought home. Perhaps questions at the end of the conclusion to direct the reader would help the lessons land.

Nonetheless, these don’t undermine the many good things that Butterfield offers. She is realistic, unashamed, and fervently Christ-centered. She is never trying to trick, but rather trying to call you out of being tricked by your own sin. Each of us longs for a life of meaning but most of us instead construct something dull, dead, and numbingly safe or worldly. Butterfield invites us to see that Jesus is and has always been the challenge, the adventure, the life we have wanted. 

I was deeply challenged by this book, in the best way. Both the difficulty and the beauty of the call to steward my life and home in a radical way weighed heavy upon me. I didn’t feel the condemnation of the accuser, telling me what a poor job I do; instead I felt an upward call to start where I am, to pray for Christ’s strength in my weakness, to anticipate both hardship and beauty if I follow through. The part that gives me pause is my own capacity to be inspired yet do nothing. That would be a tragic misuse of this book, and one I feel so capable of committing.

The best way to avoid that end, I believe, will be if discussion of these principles becomes more normal in our Christian circles. This book, and hopefully others like it, seem to be just what the church needs today, if only we’ll act in the Spirit after reading. Buy it, read it—even better, put it into practice.

*I received a promotional copy of this book from Crossway for review purposes.

Grace and Peace from an Anarchist Pacifist

When a self-described anarchist pacifist writes of themes that resonate with my worldview, I sit up and notice.  This morning I spent time reading a piece in the Atlantic by just such a woman: Quinn Norton.  Apparently, she has been recently slandered on the internet and constructed into a caricature of herself.  This is ironic, because she studies precisely this phenomenon. 

The whole article is written with a combination of humility and confidence that I have found rare in secular spaces. I’m not familiar with any of Norton’s other writings, so I can’t pretend that I understand her point of view in totality, but her lack of defensiveness while defending herself felt deeply resonant with how we are called to engage with the humans around us as Christians.

I was moved by her explanation of why she spent time with abject sinners, indeed how she could form friendships with them.  The language of sin is mine, not hers, but when one is referring to a Neo-Nazi, I don’t think it’s unwarranted.

What she says in her defense is worth quoting at length:

“In my pacifism, I can’t reject a friendship, even when a friend has taken such a horrifying path. I am not the judge of who is capable of improving as a person. This philosophy also requires me to confront him about his terrible beliefs and their terrible consequences… I don’t support what my terrible friend believes or does. But I strongly advocate for people with a good sense of themselves and their values to engage with their terrible friends, coworkers, and relatives, to lovingly confront them for as long as it takes, and it would be wrong to not do so myself. I had what I now see as the advantage of coming from a family of terrible people. This taught me that not everyone worthy of love is worthy of emulation. It also taught me that being given terrible ideas is not a destiny, and that intervention can change lives.”

This, I would think, is as close as person far from Jesus can get to grace and truth. And if Norton is this close conceptually, perhaps she is not far from the kingdom of God.

We see the shocking grace first. Humans often love to be publicly censorious regarding their moral pet peeves, to make judgments of guilty or innocent and then move on, the verdict rendered. But Norton refuses to do this. She flatly rejects  the idea that anyone is beyond, can we even say it, salvation, or that deep patterns of sin are the final arbiter of one’s life. Isn’t this just what we see in the New Testament? Jesus was willing to associate with known, loathsome sinners such as Zacchaeus; he understood and modeled the very same thing.

But notice, too, the truth.  Norton doesn’t practice blind acceptance.  She demands that error be corrected, lovingly, and she targets the best place to do this: within the context of true relationship. Just so the church; as siblings in Christ, while not taking God’s seat in judgment, we are commanded to be each other’s keeper.  We have to take out our own eye-log so that we can help with our sister with her speck. I don’t know about you, but I wouldn’t let a stranger touch my eye!  That assumes a level of trust beyond acquaintance.  

If Norton has this all figured out, why do we even need the gospel? Perhaps we should all sign up to be anarchist pacifists!

However, both Scripture and experience teach us that there is an impossible gulf between “not far from the kingdom of God” and “in Christ.”  Not even instincts like Norton’s can make that leap. We are made in the image of God, but we are broken beyond self-repair. This means that we often have enough of the good sense of God to diagnose what is wrong, sometimes even enough of his common grace to see what is called for in response. But we are in our flesh—we try to fix these problems with our own intelligence, our own charisma, our own strength. It can’t but fail, even where it succeeds.

If Norton convinces her Neo-Nazi friend to renounce his views, she will have done real good. Praise God for that. But she will not have saved his soul, nor hers. And she will be faced with the temptation of self-righteousness in the wake of success.

Norton’s system relies on her belief in the power of persuasion, that human love and intention can overcome the death grip of sin.   But we believe that only God in Christ through the Spirit has the power to break our sin, to make real changes in the world that last forever – both in individuals and in communities. And we who know Christ, whose lives are hidden in him, have access to this spiritual power, to live in the world with grace and with truth because Jesus has forgiven us and is transforming us. Let Quinn Norton’s words stir us up to recognize that the world is in hungry need of what only God can provide through his people, and let us act accordingly with the gifts and circumstances he’s given us.

A Surprising Liberation

“What surprised me was that confession wasn’t humiliating—it was liberating.”

I sat across from a young woman who said this sentence so calmly, even casually. Yet these words hit me with full force. They dismantled one of the stealthiest lies in sanctification: that admission of wrongdoing is disaster.

It’s important to note what kind of confession she was not talking about, which is the naming of an act or thought to God in prayer as wrong. As she described her process of first trusting and following Jesus as a young adult, she had been quick to understand scripturally and logically that one should confess sins to God. After all, he knows everything anyway, and it seemed like a time-tested religious practice. She didn’t experience this act as humiliating, nor did she expect it to. But neither did she experience it as fully liberating.

Perhaps you’ve been there as well. You’ve believed (perhaps functionally if not theologically) that your piety is all about you and God, so naming your sins to him will check them off. After all, 1 John 1:8-9 is a promise! For certain missteps, confession before God alone moves you to a different place. But all of us have experienced periods of time where, no matter how often we may acknowledge something as sin in prayer, there seems precious little relief.

Richard Foster states it well in his classic work Celebration of Discipline, when he reminds us of our tendency to “doubt our forgiveness and despair at our confession [to God privately]. We fear that perhaps we have made confession only to ourselves, and not to God.” The lack of sensing liberation can lead us to doubt the efficacy of our prayer, or even God’s character.

This is precisely why we have been given to each other. Because of the Holy Spirit who lives inside each Christian, we have the power and authority to minister God’s forgiveness. We are God’s new priesthood and with the authority of God’s Word and the power of his presence, we can receive and provide the balm of peace.

Why do we not seek it out? Perhaps we believe that if we were truly known, we would be rejected. After all, not every Christian is mature enough yet to appropriately handle the tender things of another person’s heart. Or it could be that we believe the lie that we are the only ones who have failed this way, this many times, or for this disgusting reason. If I’m honest, at times I have somewhere in the corner of my heart believed that if I didn’t speak a thing out loud, that it would disappear along with its consequences. This is especially true if my sin involved (in my limited view) only myself.

These are each lies, powerful lies. But each, in the right circumstances, can feel true.

And yet there is something far more true, which is the power of God’s work through his promises. He never lies to us, he never misleads us. And in this case, he has promised that there is healing in confession to one another (James 5:16).

This is precisely what my friend experienced. The Spirit was urging her to confess her sin, and she sought out her pastor. She spoke to him, halting due to embarrassment, but she was able to get to the end. Bracing for what would come, she received warm words of thankfulness, forgiveness, and acceptance. This was when she made her discovery: the act hadn’t shamed her, it had freed her. The weight had been lifted.

I have experienced this in my own life as well. It is hard to explain the logic of how the forgiveness and embrace of a Christian can bring a flood of relief when, by Christ’s blood, we know that forgiveness is secure before that act of corporate confession. But ours is not always to understand the how—it is to claim the gift.

Is there a secret weighing down your heart today? Perhaps it is from last week, perhaps it is from fifteen years ago, but no matter the time it whispers in your ear. You may have built an elaborate fortress of justifications for why you’ve only brought it to the Lord, and not to his people. Certainly some of those reasons are respectable looking from the inside. Even so, you’re choosing a prison of your own making. Jesus has given you a three-toothed key: his words, his presence, and his people. Use it, and experience the freedom of a fresh wind of forgiveness.

But maybe you are reading this without a heart weighed down. Praise God for this! What would it mean to shepherd this blessing well? Confession involves at least three parties: God, the one who confesses, and the one who receives the confession. May the Lord strengthen us to execute both human roles well under his guidance, by his authority and grace. 

Review: Paul Tripp's Sex in a Broken World

Imagine you’re a stranded early 20th century pedestrian on a back road of Georgia, and you need to get to Atlanta in a hurry. Suddenly a man comes along and says, “You can’t do it on your feet! But guess what, you can use a car! A car can get you there!” Delighted, you say, “Great! How do I operate a car?” But instead of teaching you to drive, the man just goes on and on about how powerful the car is, and how beautiful the car is, and the fact that it can carry you great distances, without really mentioning how to put the key in the ignition and put the gas pedal into action.

As someone who has struggled significantly with sexual sin—particularly in my early years as a Christian—this is how I would have felt after reading Paul Tripp’s latest book, Sex in a Broken World: How Christ Redeems What Sin Distorts.

Let me explain.

It must be stated that there are many things in this book that Tripp does well. For example, there is certainly no book about sex in the Christian market in which God features so prominently. Naturally other Christian volumes take God into good account, but Tripp represents God as big, personal, and ever present. God’s character and motivations are always in view, and no one could escape this read without understanding that Tripp is fully convinced that God in Christ is full bodied and our only hope.

God is that only hope not merely because he is so grand, but because we are so wretched. Tripp walks his readers slowly and convincingly through biblical and real-world evidence that we are our biggest problem when it comes to sex. This is a point that needs to be underlined for most conservative Christians, who love to publicly and privately hand wring over the depravity of the world around us in 2018. Tripp wants to pop this bubble with good-old fashion theological anthropology: we are sinners, and everything we touch we break, no matter our circumstances.

Tripp works wonders here because he doggedly pursues the root of sexual sin, which is ultimately a rejection of God’s authority over us. He works logically through to bring this point out as self-evident by the end. He begins with a rejection of the sacred/secular dichotomy that compartmentalizes sexual behavior, and shows how sex is always a contingent set of acts related to all of a person’s life. Because it is, just like any part of life it must be exercised in God’s way, which is fundamentally relational. Tripp in fact doubles down on this last point, to great effect.

By the closing of the book, the reader has been exposed to dozens of realistic stories of sexual problems, thoughtful biblical theology, and many, many expressions of the gospel truth that only God can save us from our “sexual insanity,” Tripp’s rallying cry. So how does it fall so flat?

While Tripp is explicit about the fact that we are our own problem, and that only taking hold of the gospel can transform us, he fails at explaining how—just like the fictional man praising the car to the pedestrian. For a book to get theology so right yet miscarry on application is heartbreaking. Tripp rebukes us for being so individualistic in our view of sex, but in the end, he’s as helplessly individualistic in his presentation of sanctification.

What do I mean by individualistic? Simply that he affirms that a believer must grasp on to God’s truths as revealed in His word, but he says nothing of service about the other two things Jesus has given us to actualize these promises: His Spirit and His church. Learning a truth can truly be life-changing, but what about when we know a truth that doesn't seem to be penetrating our hearts? God is not limited, he can work with reflection questions at the end of chapters. But he has given us so much more in the Spirit and in each other. So while Tripp doesn't mean to, he will leave many with a functional white-knuckling through sexual sin, despite his good intentions. This is tragic.

There is another way that the book disappoints, which would have been unnoticed fifteen years ago but is inexcusable in 2018: it does not in any way speak to the goodness of God’s design of sexual complementarity nor to the challenges that same-sex attracted believers face, save a one sentence mention of a woman attracted to women near the end of the book. It feels as if the topic is an afterthought to Tripp, which is a luxury the church can’t afford right now. We have failed those in the church who are sexually broken in this way by ignoring them, why perpetuate this? Tripp had such an opportunity to paint a picture of God’s grandness in sex in this area, and he declined.

I have no doubt that Paul Tripp loves Jesus with all his heart and has been a great service to many people in the body of Christ. I have no doubt that this book will sell and encourage. But Tripp can do better—and the church must say so.

*I received an advance digital copy of this book from Crossway for reviewing purposes*

A Resolution for Redemption

The back end of Christmas can fall with a thud. The anticipation has built for weeks, especially if you’re a kid, and how can any single day bear that weight? Yes, the presents can give you a thrill, and the time with family may truly be precious. But even the best Christmas ends, and then we’re cleaning the dirty dishes and fixing the toys that have already broken, and piling up all the garbage into overstuffed containers.

For some, Christmas isn’t even joyful to begin with. It can be a harsh reminder of a loved one who isn’t there because of death or estrangement, or it can confront you with the fact that you can’t give or receive the nice gift, that you weren’t blessed with the family you have in your mind.

And then in the midst of Christmas hangover, we gear up for New Year’s Resolutions, which are often promises instantly broken, or expressions of our desperate desire to be different than we have been. As Americans, it’s hard for us to shake our instinctual belief that we can make ourselves into the best versions of us if we just have enough time and willpower.

In the face of all of this, it is so helpful to remember that Advent is the season of anticipating a birth, and a birth is never just about one day. We rejoice in birth because it’s a beginning, it’s the promise or the hope of years to come. It bursts with potential. After all, it’s not as if Jesus came only as a baby.

In Galatians 4:4-5, Paul writes “But when the fullness of time had come, God sent forth his Son, born of a woman, born under the law, to redeem those who were under the law, so that we might receive adoption as sons.”

I love this verse about the birth of Jesus, because it is alive with the purpose of it.

First of all, Paul teaches that it came at just the right time. When his prophets had been silent, when his people had been conquered, and way before the invention of YouTube to broadcast it all, God said Yes, this is it. It’s comforting to know that he loves to work in situations that to our eyes look questionable.

Second, Paul centers us on the reality of Jesus’s personhood. Yes, he was without sin, but he decided to place himself under the law he wrote. He decided to take on the limitations of flesh that he created. In love, he became one of us, from diapers to puberty to brutal death, all while demonstrating his deep care for us miserable sinners. He wasn’t just born, he was a man who really lived—and in him, we can too.

This is what I need in this sluggish, dark cold week between holidays. I don’t need to dig down deep and make myself new. I don’t need more stuff. I need to breathe in and welcome my redemption, to stop and speak with my Father who loves me. I need to remind myself of the goal of Christ’s life, and that he achieved it to the full.

For 2018, I don’t have any grand promises to make myself about me, but I do have a grand good news to share, as do you. May the Holy Spirit give us courage and opportunity to do so.

Review: All But Invisible

I had the great pleasure of writing a joint review with Ed Shaw of Nate Collins's All But Invisible for The Gospel Coalition, which you can read there, or below.

There has been a recent avalanche of books from a biblical and traditional perspective on same-sex attraction. Each brings a different viewpoint, with many writing from their own experiences of same-sex attraction. Both of us also experience same-sex attraction; we’ve benefited immensely from the variety books on this topic and trust that the church has as well.

The latest addition is from Nate Collins in All But Invisible: Exploring Identity Questions at the Intersection of Faith, Gender, and Sexuality. Collins—a partner associate at The Sight Ministry, a Christian organization based in Nashville that provides resources and support for individuals, families, and Christian organizations regarding LGBT issues—likewise writes out of experience and from a traditional, biblical approach.

But what justifies yet another book on these subjects? More books are justified by the other, more powerful cultural avalanche that has nearly buried us all—the new attitudes and approach to gender and sexuality created by the sexual revolution of the last 50 years. More recently, acceptance of same-sex marriage has slipped in the evangelical church through the influential books of James Brownson (at an academic level) and Matthew Vines (at a popular one).

Complex Differences

In response, those of us coming from a traditional perspective have had a lot of rescue work to do. But both avalanches have left us with a new landscape where some differences of opinion have emerged among those who espouse a traditional view on same-sex attraction. There has been friendly fire on issues like:

  • Origins: What causes same-sex attraction—is it nature or nurture?
  • Identity: What contemporary labels can—or should—a Christian use or avoid?
  • Orientation: Is it just sexual acts and fantasy that are sinful, or is it every aspect of someone’s same-sex attraction?
  • Change: What expectation of change is possible or necessary for the same-sex-attracted Christian?

These complex and subtle differences require deep thought, and Collins’s book is an important entry in this category. He provides new vistas in this conversation which deserve our attention. Though he lands in some different places than we do (for instance, in how we choose to label our sexual orientation), we both benefited from reading his book.

All But Invisible has some considerable strengths. Collins is well-read and engages with more secular texts (especially on gender and minority groups) than many of us have time or ability to. His description of the way church culture has encouraged the internalized shame of “nonstraight” brothers and sisters is crushing and highlights what we need to repent of and work against. Perhaps most helpful is his call for same-sex-attracted Christians to acknowledge—rather than hide or minimize—such attraction as a real part of their experience, and, like all truths about us, to put it into submission to who we are in Jesus Christ. It’s not erased; it’s transformed.

Aesthetic Orientation?

The most important idea is Collins’s presentation of aesthetic orientation. He argues that viewing gayness and straightness through the primary lens of sex urges misrepresents the experience of gay people and furthers the stereotypes of gays and lesbians as sexual deviants. Instead, he proposes placing the locus of orientation in beauty, rather than sex. This move has at least two strong positives that are desperately needed in the conservative church.

First, it militates against both shame and stereotype: we don’t need to feel guilty when we notice God-given same-gender beauty; we do need to confess sin when we imagine having sex with the beautiful person in question. Moral culpability is rightly placed on our response to temptation, not on the presence of temptation itself.

Second, it rightly captures the nuance of attraction. That pull toward another human is so much more than physical, and those of us who experience same-sex attraction deal with this pull in many ways.

However, the label of “aesthetic orientation” also presents some mild problems. It relies heavily on the subjective experience of each person’s attraction, and may overemphasize the difference between straight and gay responses to beauty on this basis. Collins writes:

If we are to speak of an aesthetic orientation and use it to differentiate between gay and straight, we would say that both gay men and straight women are, for example, less aware (in general) of the beauty of feminine personhood than straight men or lesbian women. (150)

And it isn’t merely among females; straight males, too, can have a deep draw towards male beauty that manifests in joy, appreciation, and intimate friendship, though it’s true that the art of friendship has seemed to wane in the recent generations. Beauty itself doesn’t seem to be able to hold the key to what it means to be gay, because deep same-gender appreciation and draw exists across orientations. Though Collins has excellent reasons for wanting to disassociate the center of being gay from sexual and romantic feelings, those feelings are precisely the difference between those who are identified as gay and those who are not. Instead of taking up the mantle of aesthetic orientation, the church should become more nuanced in our discussion of what same-sex attraction is, recognizing that it’s not less than sexual attraction, but also more.

Notably, Collins acknowledges that “one of [his] main arguments in this book is that being gay (understood as an aesthetic orientation) is not sinful in itself” (303). This is also why he engages extensively with Denny Burk and Heath Lambert’s counterclaims in their recent volume Transforming Homosexuality. Pastors, theologians, and strugglers throughout the church are making good-faith efforts to parse this question.

We believe with Sam Allberry that “desires for things that God has forbidden are a reflection of how sin has distorted me, not how God has made me” (Is God Anti-Gay?, 30); that is, our sexualities are fallen. But ever since we responded to Christ in repentance and faith, our union to him has removed the need for any lasting guilt or shame about our sexual feelings. This leaves us free to unashamedly acknowledge any ongoing same-sex attraction and use all the tools of the Spirit to say no to temptation. Our moral responsibility concerns what we do with our attractions, which leaves us in a remarkably similar place to Collins, which needs to be underlined. This conversation is between brothers and sisters—it is no war.


The biggest weakness of All But Invisible is its academic tone. While we need well-researched, carefully argued books, the pace and language of this volume means that most won’t be able to get to the best parts or have the patience or time to digest its arguments fully. The temptation will be to soundbite it, which would be a travesty.

Though the structure of the book is clear, and Collins constantly references where he’s going, he often muddies the waters through digression and wordiness. A longer conclusion that drew together the different strands the book explored would’ve been much appreciated and would’ve help alleviate confusion. Because of these deficiencies, this work wouldn’t be our first recommendation for someone just beginning to explore these issues—they should start with Allberry, Butterfield, or Hill.

Still, Collins has provided us with a number of thoughtful reflections on some of the more puzzling and contentious aspects of the new landscape we’re living in today. Many of us writing on—and living out—this experience from a biblical and traditional perspective are actually closer to each other than we often think. We long for the same things: dignity, holiness, and fullness of life for all people in the church, but especially for nonstraight Christians who have experienced exclusion and shaming for too long. We’re grateful that Collins has joined this much-needed and continuing conversation.

They Both Lead to Fire

“There are only two paths in life, and they both lead to fire.”

Fire and brimstone preaching is a well-known, and often mocked, feature in certain types of ministry. The technique centers around the motivation of fear. By stoking the listeners’ imaginations around the horrors of hell, and the certainty of their going there, the preacher hopes to spur to repentance. Salvation from this motivation can derisively be called “fire-insurance” for this reason. People don’t want to burn, right?

I heard a pastor open up Matthew 3:1-12 this past weekend, and he made the provocative statement above. What if the choice isn’t between fire and no fire, but rather between types of burning?

The Matthew passage contains the introduction of John the Baptist and his ministry in the wilderness. A fulfillment of prophecy, John was preparing the hearts of Israel to receive their coming Lord. But it seems that some of the religious elite came to spy out what was going on, or at very least they came to participate but in a compromised way. John understands them immediately and warns them: Every tree that does not bear fruit is cut down and thrown into the fire.

There it is, that stark message. Turn or burn. He’s not being cheeky though; John is deadly serious.

Directly after this word, he compares his ministry to that of the Coming One. John is known for baptizing in the river, but he declares to those surrounding him that there was a more dramatic baptism on the way. That one would be administered by someone much mightier than John, and it would be with the Holy Spirit and—there again—with fire.

Some debate has circled around just what this fire means. Is it just a representation again of judgment for those who don’t accept the Spirit? Perhaps. But I side with Greek scholar Grant Osborne here, who sees this construction as representing a total package, not an either/or. That is, some would be baptized with “Spirit and fire.”

Who would these be? Well, who were the ones who were baptized with water? They were those who were repenting of their sins, those who responded to John’s message. Similarly, those who would be baptized with the Holy Spirit and fire will be those who respond to the message of the one who brings that specific baptism, that is, Jesus Christ.

The pastor who preached this sermon did an admirable job exhorting his congregation to consider which path they were on—the fire of judgment, or the fire of the Spirit? But it stirred up in me a connected thought: do we in Christ expect fire, do we welcome it? Should we?

Fire is used to destroy, but also famously to refine. Unlike wood or straw, fire applied to gold doesn’t destroy. Instead, you find that impurities in the gold rises to the top, and can be skimmed off the top. If this process is continually done, you can work the gold over to a level of purity never found in the natural world, when gold is pulled from out of the earth.

The gold during this process is in a distressed state. It isn’t solid, but molten. It’s vulnerable in a way, to spilling, to its shape changing. It’s only in this state that the gold can be remodeled into jewelry or bars or what have you. The comparison to spiritual formation is clear: to receive the purifying fire of the Spirit is to be completely at his mercy, but also to be moving towards greater and greater purity.

Frankly, we wouldn’t mind the purity, but the process is unwelcome. We don’t want the fire of hell, but isn’t there a way to sit happily in the middle, safe from all this burning?

This safety is less desirous than we imagine. Safety from vibrant relationship to Christ.  Safety from developing our gifts to serve and bless. Safety from transformation, from putting away the habits that depress and haunt us and putting on Spirit empowered practices that give us access to joy and peace. Safety from a life fully lived. Perhaps we can have this safety—but do we want it? Is too much of this counterfeit safety a signal that it’s not Jesus we’re after, but a crude self-preservation? Is this a self worth preserving?

The advent of Jesus into the world, into a life, never leaves things the same. To expect any different is not to know him. This is a threat, but it’s also the fulfillment of what we’re chasing after all day long. If we have said yes to Jesus, let’s keep saying yes. Let’s today put ourselves under the influence of the Spirit by faith, trusting that he loves us. He alone can bring us to himself, and give us a new, forever self along the way. The refining fire is a fire of passion, and the one who wields it is skilled for our good. Can we trust him enough to choose it? What, really, is the alternative?