Does She Spark Joy? Sorting Through Marie Kondo

To read this article at desiringGod, click here.

I didn’t seek out Marie Kondo, but I can’t seem to escape her.

My news feeds, my Netflix previews, even at my women’s ministry meeting at church, there she is. It’s as if everyone is announcing that she has been raised up for such a time as this. Her mission? The decluttering of our households.

Kondo launched a new documentary based upon her organization process, popularized by her international best-selling book The Life-Changing Magic of Tidying Up: The Japanese Art of Decluttering and Organizing. Her method, however, is not merely about finding new tricks for storage, or encouragement towards a yearly Goodwill donation. Instead, her call is for people to move through their possessions item by item, asking a simple question: Does this spark joy in you? If yes, it stays. If no, it leaves. What could be simpler than that?

The Gospel of Kondo

My interaction with Kondo’s method has been somewhat indirect. I’ve encountered her ideas through book reviews and her documentary, but especially through the reactions of my friends and acquaintances who are seeking to implement her tactics. Whether writing on social media or discussing their process in person, the tone of conversations sound not like watercooler chatter about a hot reality show. Instead, it reminds me of the focus and effort of serious amateur runners comparing our training schedules and personal bests.

The immensity of the response proves she’s on to something. Americans are glutted with stuff, spilling over with things. We all just came out of Christmas, which for many of us means trying to figure out where to stash our new items when we were already bursting with the old.

We all know that advertising lies to us, that it sells us products we don’t need with promises they can’t keep. That knowledge isn’t power. Though our loneliness and dissatisfaction remain, we continue to try to plug these emotional holes with toys. We believe our stuff should make us happy, even though all the evidence points away from this. What a strange walking by faith we Americans live.

Yet we sense that our relationship with things is disordered. Kondo is not the first or the only person interacting with our intuition here — see the growth in the tiny-house movement and minimalism more generally. But there is something in her approach that seems to scratch our itch.

Has Kondo Uncovered Something?

She doesn’t rip through like a bulldozer, condemning our hoarder tendencies or shaming us for what we’ve gathered. Instead, Kondo asks us to engage our emotions towards our things — to unlock our gratitude for them. Perhaps their service to us is complete, but we can still recognize what they gave to us and be thankful for that. Shame is replaced by joy. Doesn’t this have a gospel ring? By going through this process, we’re encouraged to be less dependent on our stuff — less owned by it. Kondo wants to reinstate our agency in our relationship to what we possess, instead of being owned by our possessions.

How freeing this is! It is clear that many of those who are working through the Kondo method are reaping true benefit. Materialism is one of the deadliest plagues of American life, and this method feels like a sturdy sword placed in the hand just in the nick of time.

But while Kondo may have solved one massive problem, the movement seems to have uncovered an even bigger one. One headline screams, “Marie Kondo’s deceptively simple ‘Tidying Up’ tips are spreading the gospel of joy when Americans need it most” (NBC). Doesn’t that seem to be just what we need? Doesn’t it seem to line up with what we believe?

Kondo has led many of us to declutter our homes, minds, and hearts, but it’s what we find underneath, where all our things once were, that matters most. The problem is that Kondo is still asking for our stuff to be what sparks our joy. Just a smaller portion of stuff.

Decluttering People?

Yes, she militates against our hoarding, which is good. Yes, she encourages us to be people of gratitude. Amen! But when we ask each thing whether it brings us the right amount of joy, we’re still thinking of things as the locus of contentment.

Perhaps more significantly, this method of decluttering could incite us to think of human beings transactionally as well. I’m not implying this is Kondo’s intention, but it’s not hard to apply the mindset in this direction. Counselors and clinicians rightly warn of allowing narcissists and other toxic people to abuse us. But if we spring-load our minds to keep only what brings us a specific amount of joy, we’re liable to let that mechanism bleed into our relationships, too. Is life truly about how each thing, or person, makes us feel?

What then is a proper response for a Christian? Kondo is meeting a real need, a true problem some of us (though certainly not all) have. Perhaps we can see past the magnetic Marie towards a gospel solution. One that has been hiding in plain sight in the shadow of an often-misused Scripture: “I can do all things through him who strengthens me” (Philippians 4:13).

The Secret to Abundance

It’s not unusual to see this verse commandeered for tasks it was not designed for, like promising athletic prowess or career success. Like all statements, though, it must be understood in its context. In the verse just before, the apostle Paul writes, “I know how to be brought low, and I know how to abound. In any and every circumstance, I have learned the secret of facing plenty and hunger, abundance and need” (Philippians 4:12).

Secret. Isn’t this exactly what Kondo is tapping in to? We Americans do not precisely know how to abound. Not in the sense that we aren’t stacked with plenty — clearly we are. No, in the sense that right in the middle of abundance, we’ve lost our way. We don’t know how to thrive in abundance. It drowns us instead of lifting our boats. There just has to be a secret to mastering this, instead of letting it master us, right? How can we be the richest and yet unhappiest people of all time?

Part of what appeals so powerfully in Kondo’s method is gratitude — replacing our careless, callous attitude towards our things with thankfulness. Our hearts easily grow numb, and so the process of engaging them meaningfully in our daily lives awakens something profound. Christians as well as non-Christians feel it.

Kondo’s background and Shinto-influenced worldview, however, cannot supply the correct destination for that healthy thanksgiving. She speaks her gratitude to the items themselves, as if they have ears to hear and hearts to receive that thanks. Truly they have no life in them. They did not give themselves. The gifts were not designed to receive these valid human responses. They were only ever meant to act as signposts to the Giver himself.

Possessed by God

When we are rooted in Christ, our abundance rests not in how much or little we own, but in who owns us. Earthly possessions don’t just enter our lives quietly. They take up space, demand upkeep and protection, and tether our hearts. We find we have less trust for people, less time for hospitality, less emotional space for God.

Being possessed by Jesus produces just the opposite. As we grow in him, we soak in the abundance of forgiveness and grace — treasures not meant to be hoarded but shared extravagantly. When we seek first his kingdom and his righteousness, we view our things as gateways towards praising God and serving others. And what if our many things get stolen? As the author of Hebrews celebrates, “You joyfully accepted the plundering of your property, since you knew that you yourselves had a better possession and an abiding one” (Hebrews 10:34).

Kondo says, only keep the items that spark your joy. Paul says, “I can do all things through him who strengthens me” (Philippians 4:13), because he first could say, “I count everything as loss because of the surpassing worth of knowing Christ Jesus my Lord. . . . I have suffered the loss of all things and count them as rubbish, in order that I may gain Christ” (Philippians 3:8).

A Better Possession

Marie Kondo wants us to say goodbye to things we don’t need, so we can gratefully hold on to what we already have that sparks our joy. Yet we know deep down that even the most immaculately folded shirt, as organizationally helpful as it might be, cannot ultimately do this. Our most beloved and meaningful trinkets won’t really make us happy now, nor will they make it past the heavenly gates.

If there is life-changing magic in tidying up, how much more power resides in the gospel truth of being owned forever by God. Because of Christ, when the Father looks at us, he feels joy. He will never move us to the discard pile. Instead, Jesus promised that his Father’s house has many rooms, where he is preparing a forever place for us. Grounded in this irrevocable promise, we can sing with an ancient prophet, “Though the fig tree should not blossom, nor fruit be on the vines . . . yet I will rejoice in the Lord; I will take joy in the God of my salvation” (Habakkuk 3:17–18).

Maybe the Kondo craze can wake us up to the treasures we already possess in Christ, the greatest spark of joy. Even better, perhaps it can spur us to share the wealth.

Review: DeYoung on the 10 Commandments

Click here to read this review at TGC

Quick, can you name the 10 Commandments?

Some of you who attended Bible drills as children might have your pneumonic at the ready. But many Christians are vaguely familiar with the commandments at best. Others who didn’t grow up in the church—like myself—may have never given a thought to memorizing such a list. After all, didn’t Christ come to fulfill the law? What does Sinai have to do with us?

Into this scene comes pastor and prolific author Kevin DeYoung with his new work, The 10 Commandments: What They Mean, Why They Matter, and Why We Should Obey Them. DeYoung isn’t interested in shaming the church for our lack of knowledge. Nor is he interested in a memorization challenge. He’s interested in equipping us for holiness and mission. He does so by clarifying points of confusion, using up-to-date examples, and pointing to the deep realities beyond the outward simplicity of the statements.

Do they still apply? Which ones? What do they mean in light of God’s mercy revealed in Jesus?

Highlighting the timelessness and goodness of God’s commands, pastor Kevin DeYoung delivers critical truth about the 10 Commandments as he makes clear what they are, why we should know them, and how to apply them. This book will help you understand, obey, and delight in God’s law—commandments that expose our sinfulness and reveal the glories of God’s grace to us in Christ.

Not Our Instagram Vibe

But first, DeYoung wants to frame the larger “why” at play in studying the Decalogue. The church isn’t ignorant of the 10 Commandments because we’ve tried hard and failed. No, there is a type of apathy involved. Along with that, we have a cultural allergy to authority and rules. Thunder, lightning, a booming voice, and chiseled tablets aren’t exactly our Instagram vibe right now.

This makes the introduction of this book more important than usual. DeYoung thoughtfully meets the culture by prodding us to see that we all care about morality, even when we say we don’t. We feign open-mindedness and tolerance, while establishing new rules that are right in our own eyes. Because of this, we need universal laws—a code that is transcendent, timeless, and wise. We need to see that these laws aren’t oppressive but good, because they were designed by Someone Good. DeYoung poignantly asks, “Have you ever thought about how much better life would be if everyone kept the Ten Commandments?” (21).

Yet even more, we need the gospel. Being convinced of the law’s goodness might fool us into thinking we actually can create the type of order they describe—if not in the whole world, then perhaps in our individual lives. As Tim Keller is fond of noting, we humans tend to ping from irreligion to legalism as quick as a pinball. DeYoung is just as quick to correct this tendency: “The Ten Commandments are not instructions on how to get out of Egypt. They are rules for a free people to stay free” (24).

From here, DeYoung takes us chapter by chapter through each of the 10 commandments. It’s clear that this work is written by a seasoned pastor: there’s always a structure of questions, exhortations, or examples to keep the audience on track. It’s a strength that DeYoung doesn’t use the same framing for each chapter. Like a good exegete of both Scripture and culture, he anticipates the particular confusions of each commandment and plans his treatment to engage them. This is an eminently practical book.

A particularly strong example is the way DeYoung clarifies and translates the second commandment. On first blush, a 2018 reader might not understand what making graven images has to do with her life. It sounds so far away and implausible. But DeYoung shows that the heart behind this law is “against worshiping God in the wrong way” (42). We begin to see that this happens today, just in different forms.

Yet in an age of individual expression, we still need to be walked through the “why” of the second commandment. Isn’t sincerity of intention enough? Here DeYoung exposes what is at stake in keeping this word: the glory of God in the world. The reader is invited to and coached in theological reflection, which adds a depth and richness to the faithful life that rote obedience could never achieve. Such moments happen frequently through 10 Commandments, and are its chief strength.

Reclaiming Treasure

In order for an even wider audience to be able to relate to the book, I wish DeYoung had included more examples beyond the nuclear family. And given the book’s strong beginning, a more robust epilogue that reiterated how God’s good law relates the gospel would’ve been appropriate. Nonetheless, DeYoung’s book is a helpful entry into the current climate. Personal moral failings and terrible atrocities continue to fill our screens and timelines. The church and the world are hungry for true righteousness, even if they don’t realize it.

What better time for us to rediscover and reclaim the treasure of the law, rightly understood in relationship to the gospel of grace?

How to Love Our Transgender Neighbors

Click here to read this article at desiringGod

How do you know you are a woman or a man?

Perhaps you would simply say, “Because of my body.” After all, the physical differences between males and females are not difficult to spot. This objective, physical reality is what the word sex describes.

Yet many of us concede that we also feel like a man or a woman. How do we describe this feeling? Surely it doesn’t have to mean full alignment with the qualities our culture often assigns to men and women. For example, I’m more “think-first” and less “feel-first” than most women. I love sports of all kinds, including football. Makeup and ultrafeminine clothing don’t bring me to life; they shut me down. My primary romantic and sexual attractions are to other women. Yet I have never for a moment doubted that I was a girl, that I am a woman. I have felt comfortable and secure in being female, even as tomboyish as I am.

The ways we live out our given sex in the world is commonly known as gender. Gender can be manifested in how we dress, the hobbies we have, the roles we play. We fall all along the spectrum of how closely we align to various (and changing) cultural gender expectations and expressions. This is normal. Your story may be similar to mine, or quite different. Yet most of us, no matter our place on that spectrum, are not troubled by our sex and gender. Being a female or male, and thus a woman or man, simply is.

But for people who identify as transgender, it doesn’t seem simple at all.

What Is Transgender?

Though transgender is an umbrella term for many experiences, at its most basic, it describes people whose internal, subjective sense of gender or identity doesn’t match the objective sex they were born into.

Some people respond to this friction by living according to their subjective sense, as opposed to the gender that matches their sex. A transman is a female in sex who lives in the world as a man. A transwoman is a male in sex who lives in the world as a woman.

A small percentage of transgender people elect to surgically align their bodies with the gender they identify with. In the past, this surgical procedure was called a sex change, though more people are now calling it gender affirmation surgery. But most trans people do not have surgery for a variety of reasons ranging from preference to affordability. Instead, they may wear different clothes and take hormones that affect their hair patterns, voice frequency, and things like fatty tissue. They may also choose a new name and use pronouns that match their gender identity.

These are consequential and often controversial decisions, made because that internal feeling is so compelling. What would it mean to not feel like you were the sex you were born into? To feel this so strongly that you would say you know you’re the other gender?

For many, it is extremely disorienting and psychologically painful. But we need to be careful. Like many things, these feelings occur along a spectrum. Some transgender people feel slight incongruence between their sex and gender, whereas others feel it debilitatingly. Some experience distress at the presence of their feelings, while others do not. There is no one-size-fits-all trans experience.

For example, some people reject the sex binary altogether. That is, they don’t feel only masculine or only feminine, but may choose to express aspects of both at once, or express them differently from one day to the next. They reject being only man or woman, and may identify as genderqueer, nonbinary, or gender-fluid.

Is the Gospel Big Enough?

In my experience, many Christians are not sure what to do at this point in the conversation. Some even become angry or shut down. That response is due sometimes to convictions, sometimes to confusion, and sometimes to both.

I want to invite you to think about transgender concerns not primarily as topics to be discussed, but as issues affecting real people, human beings made by God. Many transgender people (though not all) are extremely vulnerable to homelessness, suicide, and abuse ranging from verbal insults all the way to murder. And even if they were not vulnerable in these ways, as image-bearers of our God, they deserve for us to treat them with dignity, respect, and love. If we have any battle to fight, it’s with spiritual forces of evil, not flesh and blood (Ephesians 6:12).

Therefore, we have an important question to ask: Is the gospel big enough for our trans neighbors?

We who have lived the miracle of rebirth know that no one is more powerful than God. He alone brings the dead to life, and defines life correctly. Still, confusion and conflict jostle our newsfeeds and our minds. How can we begin to understand what coming to Christ would look like for someone who identifies as transgender, or for someone who identifies as genderqueer?

Our Story of Rescue

God has given us his Spirit and his word so that we can be “ambassadors for Christ, God making his appeal through us” (2 Corinthians 5:20). As good ambassadors, we ache to represent our Sovereign accurately and discerningly. We are on his mission to rescue sinners — to extend the same rescue that Jesus has brought to us.

Our culture believes in the power of story, and God’s authoritative Story gives us a framework to understand even very difficult experiences. No brief treatment could begin to answer all our questions about how to love our trans neighbors, but we can gain some bearing in the conversation by looking briefly through the biblical lens of creation, fall, redemption, and glorification.

Creation: Male or Female

Eden was not yet perfection, but it was good. God’s initiative, power, and love were on display as he set up a planet bursting with potential that was waiting to be realized. In the midst, he placed two humans, the potential realizers. In Genesis 1–2, God created a man first, and then declared this man insufficient by himself for his noble task (Genesis 2:18). Therefore, God also created a woman, and together they received the cultural mandate of Genesis 1:28: “fill the earth and subdue it.”

The creation of humanity into the twofold structure of sex — male and female — is purposeful and good. God has freedom in his authority. Had he wanted to make one sex, or more than two, he could have. But he decided to make only two, and according to Genesis 1:27, this sexual difference is a fundamental part of what it means to be a human, an image-bearer, a vice-regent of God in the world.

Male and female was not just an Eden phenomenon: you also are human, and you have a sex. You did not choose your sex any more than you chose your parents. Your sex was given to you by a loving and wise God. How you respond to your God-given sex is part of how you respond to God himself. But because we no longer live in the garden, that response from birth — for all of us — is treachery.

Fall: Not Shocked by Sin

If creation was defined in part by relationship and purpose, sin is marked by alienation and frustration. Scripture shows that the fall touches everything: men, women, and the entire world we live in (Genesis 3:16–19). This fallenness includes our very bodies. Not everything in the world or in our bodies is meant to be the way it is. God has a revealed will — that which he declares he desires. He also has a will of permission — what he has allowed given the reality of the fall. Our feelings and circumstances are twisted and unstable from the beginning. They may be very real, even so powerful that they feel decisive, but they are unable to guide us toward life (Jeremiah 17:5–6).

Not one of us is unscathed. We are each born glad rebels, rejecting God for our own meaning-making. We are each alienated and frustrated in our roles and relationships. That some people experience alienation or frustration in relation to their sex should not surprise us at all. That others chafe against the goodness of the sex binary, desiring to blur the distinctions between male and female partially or entirely, also should not shock us. Which one of us has not desecrated a good gift of God, by viewing pornography, or lying to a loved one, or worshiping success?

Paul wrote that “we all once lived in the passions of our flesh, carrying out the desires of the body and the mind, and were by nature children of wrath, like the rest of mankind” (Ephesians 2:3). One big mistake we can make as we think about our trans neighbors is to forget that we are one with them apart from Christ. One in fallen humanity. But also one in being able to be lifted up.

Christ: Grace and Patience

In the death and resurrection of Jesus Christ, we can find life. He is our one hope. Only his death can pay for our sin (Romans 3:23–24); only his resurrected life can give us power by the Holy Spirit to receive transformation now and life eternal (Romans 6:4). Salvation includes the breaking of the curse of the fall even today, while we live on an imperfect earth (Romans 8:20–23). We must repent of our unbelief and receive Christ by faith.

As Christians, we know with tears that being in Christ does not heal all sickness or remove all temptation and sin (Matthew 6:12–13). For example, though I was born again almost fifteen years ago, I still battle same-sex attraction, as well as pride, selfishness, and a host of other struggles. I have seen growth in understanding and in obedience because of the Spirit, though the progress has been slow and uneven. Hasn’t each of us had frustrations and alienations that have lingered?

We should expect that this also will be true for our trans neighbors who come to Christ. It will be a journey to figure out how to live in their given sex and how to express gender in biblically appropriate ways. God compares life in him to the growth of a tree (Psalm 1:3; Isaiah 61:3). These things can be slow, so gradual they are sometimes imperceptible. Will we be patient with each other?

We can and must affirm that God created humanity male and female. We can and must also walk patiently with all people who struggle to know what that means for them right now.

Glory: Our Struggles Will End

“Behold!” says Paul in 1 Corinthians 15:51–53.

I tell you a mystery. We shall not all sleep, but we shall all be changed, in a moment, in the twinkling of an eye, at the last trumpet. For the trumpet will sound, and the dead will be raised imperishable, and we shall be changed. For this perishable body must put on the imperishable, and this mortal body must put on immortality.

Someday, our struggles against sin will be done. We will rest in the complete victory that Jesus won for us in the new heaven and new earth. We will rest in glorified, beautiful bodies. All of us who feel the frailty of aging, who weep with painful chronic injury, who can’t shake feeling we’re not supposed to be the sex we were born with — we will find rest if we trust in Jesus. There is not a tear that won’t be wiped away by our tender, powerful God. The promise of future peace doesn’t take away present pain. But we know that the one who makes the promise cannot lie, and we have hope.

Is the gospel big enough for our trans neighbors? Is it big enough for us, for our pain, disappointment, and sins? In fact, it is the only thing big enough for us all, “for it is the power of God for salvation to everyone who believes” (Romans 1:16).

Let’s live like we believe it.

Learn the Bible's Story to Understand Your Own

Click here to read this review in TGC

Have you ever tried to picture heaven and worried you’ll be bored? Clouds, robes, harps—these cartoon images abound and fail to rouse longing. The idea of singing an infinite loop of praise choruses can fill us with dread. Some sure promises lift us up, like when God declares he will wipe away all our tears. But what about our tears now? Our lives are often heavy, and our open Bibles can seem mute in the face of our questions. What does ancient Israel have to do with my hurting child, my lost job? How could the promise of future golden streets palliate current global poverty or systemic injustice?

Nancy Guthrie—a Bible teacher, speaker, and host of Help Me Teach the Bible, a podcast of The Gospel Coalition—wants to speak life to God’s people in the midst of confusion. Her latest work, Even Better than Eden: Nine Ways the Bible’s Story Changes Everything About Your Story, puts forth a simple premise: We must read the Bible as one grand story. It has a beginning, a middle, and an end—and the distinctions between these parts matter, even to our everyday lives.

Read the Story Rightly

Why would this knowledge be transformative? As Christians we know that the Scriptures start at the beginning of creation and wrap up when Christ comes again. Yet this is right where Guthrie presses us. What do we imagine when we picture that coming day? What would be the consequences of letting that future soak our present?

Experienced Bible teacher Nancy Guthrie traces nine themes throughout the Bible, revealing how God’s plan for the new creation will be far more glorious than the original. But this new creation glory isn’t just reserved for the future. The hope of God’s plan for his people transforms everything about our lives today.

Written for individuals and small groups alike, this book will help you understand God’s plan for the future of his people—life in a garden even better than Eden—in order to experience the glory of this new creation in your life even now.

Guthrie argues from decades of experience as a Bible teacher that we often stumble right out of the gate on these important questions, because we misunderstand the beginning. She writes, “We tend to think of [Eden] in perfect and even ultimate terms” (12). But Eden was never meant to be the end. It’s not where Christ is preparing a place for us. Instead, Eden was chock-full of potential—potential that was stymied with the fall, but which God through Christ by the Spirit is restoring.

Eden, then, isn’t the goal we run toward. Instead, it’s like a treasure chest containing down payments of what we will one day receive in full. Guthrie invites us into nine mini-stories stretched across Scripture—the wilderness, the tree, God’s image, clothing, the bridegroom, sabbath, offspring, a dwelling place, and the city—to see just how glorious and life-changing these treasures truly are. She also shows us how to read the Bible with wisdom, joy, and hope.

With Wisdom

The amount of biblical data Guthrie processes as she traces each of her themes through the whole canon is impressive. She holds up familiar passages, turning them so a given theme can refract through it with added meaning.

Take, for example, the theme of clothing. Guthrie argues effectively that we don’t see a redemptive arc back to the nakedness of Eden. Rather, we press toward a new type of clothing: immortality. But this topic isn’t merely found in Genesis and 1 Corinthians. She argues that the extensive, even exhaustive descriptions of Aaron’s priestly garments in Exodus picture our need for covering that is glorious, beautiful, and holy. The high priest couldn’t enter naked. Just the same with us: unless we’re clothed with the righteousness of Jesus Christ, we can’t enter God’s presence.

Over and over again, Guthrie reveals the redemptive significance of familiar Bible stories. She demonstrates how to translate knowledge (the possession of information) into wisdom (the right use of knowledge). Readers are inspired to consider other well-known stories, and ways they may whisper the gospel freshly. Furthermore, Guthrie demonstrates that even difficult passages must connect somehow to this bigger story. Will we wrestle with God to get their blessing?

With Joy

A choice fruit of wisdom is joy, which Guthrie tends like a patient gardener. But she isn’t unfamiliar with grief. A main theme of the book is how massively the sin of our first parents interrupted what might’ve been a trajectory of glory. She shares her own and other people’s stories of deep pain, including the loss of children. Yet even in these tender, vulnerable places, she shows how various redemptive themes bring balm.

How can this be? It’s not by simply looking forward, twiddling your thumbs, and waiting for heaven while everything burns down around you. That type of eschatology has been preached before and been found lacking. While it emphasizes the goodness of what is to come, it has no power to meet the challenges of today.

Guthrie instead labors to show that the promises of the future should shape us now. Someday God will permanently dwell with us, but even today he has died to be with us wherever we go. We’re never truly alone. Someday we will perfectly reflect his image back to him, as we were designed to do. Our sin and flaws will be gone. But even now he is changing us from one degree of glory to another. Someday we will embrace perfect rest, released from cursed work into purposeful, joyful action. But even now we’re invited into peace. Even now we can reclaim our work as unto him alone.

To read this book is to remember how God sees and knows us. He will never leave us nor forsake us, and he infuses every day with his presence and purpose. We can look for it, and we can find it.

With Hope

But sometimes the realities of our broken world only find their suitable conversation partner in the world to come.

The story of the bridegroom is a case in point. Marriage was designed to bring blessing to God’s people. Even more, it was designed to communicate the unique, intimate, and joyful relationship between God and his chosen ones. Embedded into every culture are living pictures of God’s faithfulness, so that humanity might understand.

But everywhere this picture is defaced. Husbands and wives leave, physically or emotionally. They give their bodies to another. Or less perniciously, though not less grievously, they’re taken by illness or accident. Some men and women who long for marriage never attain it, and their hearts and bodies can ache. What way forward can be found in a sign ripped down?

Guthrie asks us to lift our eyes. All earthly marriages point to a coming consummation, the joy of which will overwhelm us. No one who is in Christ will be denied that wedding day. No believer will find his or her future spouse lacking. Even pain can teach what something should be, because we can feel what’s missing. As Guthrie writes, “Our less-than-perfect marriages or our longings to be married can serve to whet our appetite for this perfect marriage to come” (90).

This doesn’t remove the pain of adultery or unwanted singleness now, but it challenges us to answer the most prominent question of the Bible: Can we trust this God? No trite “yes” will do. Instead the broken body of Jesus, and his resurrection to indestructible life, invite us to consider who he is, and who he promises to be for us.

Our Only Hero

Guthrie cherishes the fact that Jesus is the Bible’s hero, the true second Adam, the one who redeems all things. Even Better than Eden is an invitation to experience him as that Hero in your own life, now and forever. It’s also a subtle tutorial in how to read your Bible with purpose, and it gives tools to communicate this many-faceted gospel to the world.

Read Even Better than Eden and lend it to a friend. May it stir us up to love and good works now, even as we say with eagerness, “Come, Lord Jesus!”

I Found Hope in My Husband's Chronic Illness

Click here to read this piece at CT Women.

My husband Andrew’s foot ailments have given me a curious window into the Christian life.

Before he and I were dating, his first swelling incident was misdiagnosed by a college nurse, and we only discovered the mistake when it happened again five years later. Both seemed like freak incidents. Then in 2012, on a summer mission trip in the Middle East, his left foot swelled up and left him on the couch for the remainder of the trip. Much of his life since has been progressively couch-bound.

Every contradictory explanation added to the pain. How do you treat something that you can’t pin down? In 2013—around the same time that we found out we were pregnant—we discovered that one of the bones in Andrew’s feet had broken so many times that it had died. I didn’t even know bones could die. It would have to be removed, lest his body begin to eat it away, clearing itself of the decay.

Andrew doesn’t have an interesting injury story—he didn’t kick down a door to save a child or get into a fantastic sports accident. His feet are simply shaped all wrong for bearing weight, and it took two decades for that harvest to reap its fruit. Looking at him, one would never guess his body is so structurally unsound or that he’s had four foot surgeries in five years.

Even though his disability is often invisible to others, his vulnerability has dramatically changed our family life. Our daughter has always known her dad with some kind of “boo boo.” Sometimes she knows what’s going on because he has a giant pink cast on his foot that is highly visible. Other times his pain is hidden. He can’t play with her outside, even though he can walk around the house without crutches. The invisible danger of further injury always crouches nearby.

At the beginning of our life together, I was waiting for Andrew’s body to be normal again. After we did this procedure or got those orthotics, we’d have our life back, I thought. I was pragmatic, optimistic, even blasé. But years of doing one thing after another finally shook me by the shoulders: This constantly vulnerable state was here to stay. So were all the emotions that went with it. Realizing this caused me to enter into them truly for perhaps the first time.

Andrew and I would never have asked for his ailments, and we often pray for God to heal them. Nonetheless, living with them has brought many hard-won lessons that illustrate how we’re called to live as Christians in the world.

First, we live with constant awareness.

When I had strep throat in high school, I became painfully aware of how often a human needs to swallow. But as soon as it passed, I rarely thought about that vital function again. Similarly, in the life of faith, a crisis often brings some spiritual reality close and creates urgency where there was none. We are driven to vigilant prayer, scriptural study, Communion, even to fasting. The experience can be poignant, but oftentimes when the storm is over, our diligence and discipline also come to an end.

With Andrew’s long-term injuries, we have gained a mindset of constant awareness, which can be exhausting. Even when nothing is acutely wrong, we think about his body many times a day and speak about it just as often. Is there any progress? Is anything particularly weak or strong today?

In the same way, although much of our Christian life is an invisible reality, it should be constantly in our mind’s eye, because it is reality still. There is nothing about my body that necessarily shows I am risen with Christ, yet my union with him is even more real than my weight upon a chair. Accordingly, Paul urges us to set our minds on things that are above (Col. 3:1–2) and to think about it daily. Is there any progress in my faith? Is there anything particularly weak or strong today?

Second, we pursue constant action.

Awareness without action is foolish. We stay aware of Andrew’s long-term ailments so that we can act purposefully and wisely. Every day, he wears high compression socks. Every day, he intentionally limits his time on his feet. Every day, he treads as lightly as possible.

In the same way, our awareness of being united to Christ produces constant action. Every day, we pray and read our Bible. Every day, we seek the encouragement and correction of fellowship with brothers and sisters in Christ. Every day, we strive for grace-fueled obedience and limit our exposure to situations that tempt us to evil.

Actions are also more than everyday habits; sometimes unique circumstances call for unique choices. For example, if Andrew is having a good day with his feet, he may play with our daughter outside. But we’ll make sure that he ices his surgery wounds before and after. If he’s having a bad day, we’ll dramatically minimize his movements and in doing so have to say “no” to what might otherwise be good, healthy experiences.

Just so with our faith. If we’re having a good day—our faith is strong, our desire to draw near to God is high—we act accordingly. Perhaps we’re more boisterous during worship or quick to share the gospel with a neighbor. But we also have bad days, too. If despair clouds our spirit or we lose a battle against temptation, we may ask for prayer or read helpful verses to reframe our hearts and minds. These carefully calibrated actions are the mark of a Christian.

Finally, we live in constant anticipation.

The comparison between long-term ambiguous disability and our status as Christians may feel slightly mismatched. The first is unfortunate, a result of the fall. The second is a profound reversal of that fall, a great source of joy.

Yet we live on this side of heaven and can only see the beginning of Christ’s work—what is often referred to as the “already/not yet” of the Christian life. The Bible repeatedly encourages us to look to the future of Christ’s second coming, which should produce eager waiting. But unfortunately, the crush of the “not yet” can cause the “already” to lie limp in our hands.

For our family, that means we’ve cried thousands of tears because of the losses wrought by Andrew’s ailments—the many bottles of pain-killers taken, the many medical bills to pay, the many lost opportunities. Our daughter has made innumerable requests of her father that Andrew’s body forces him to deny. In other words, for all our awareness and action, we can’t take away the reality of his injury.

However, we know that God is bringing us to a new and better home, free from sin and free from pain. If Andrew’s ailments have brought us anything, then, it has been the joy of longing for this future home and eagerly waiting for it. Chronic illness has made the promise of our own resurrection very sweet for us, and we look forward to the day when Andrew will one day walk in a resurrected body with new and steady feet.

As Paul writes in Corinthians, “Listen, I tell you a mystery: We will not all sleep, but we will all be changed—in a flash, in the twinkling of an eye, at the last trumpet. For the trumpet will sound, and the dead will be raised imperishable, and we will be changed. For the perishable must clothe itself with the imperishable, and the mortal with immortality” (1 Cor. 15:51–53).

Resurrection life is so much more than a new body—but it is certainly not less. We will rejoice in the presence of our Maker, completely remade.

That’s something worth waiting for.

Review: Aimee Byrd's Why Can't We Be Friends

If avoidance isn’t purity, what is? In a culture saturated with both sexual liberty and sexual misconduct, Christians long for a better way forward. Yet some of us wonder if our solutions haven’t merely triggered other problems. We grieve that #MeToo includes #ChurchToo. Created male and female and in God’s own image, how do we find a way in today’s world that honors, rather than isolates?

Into this fray steps author and speaker Aimee Byrd. Her recent work Why Can’t We Be Friends? implores the church to re-examine its instincts and practices when it comes to male-female relationships.

One of the fundamental ideas Byrd attacks is that avoidance is the substance of purity. The thought goes, if a man is not around a woman, he doesn’t have occasion for sin. What this has led to in many churches and ministries is a separation of men from women. Sometimes this looks like refusing to be in a room alone together, or sharing a meal one on one, or giving rides home late at night. Byrd questions the biblical rationality of this approach, using a three-pronged approach.

First, she asserts that the avoidance of one gender by the other buys too much in to the world’s hyper-sexualization of humans. Culture uses sex to sell every conceivable good. It also tells us famously that men and women simply can’t be friends, because the sexual tension would mount up too high. It’s as if the main things our bodies are for is erotic play. Byrd rightly presses us to consider if the church has bought this lie. She cites the True Love Waits and Silver Ring Thing movements as evidence that “Christian faith has become its own movement that focuses on our sexual desires as key to our identities” (63).  She asks in effect, Do we also subtly believe that our sexuality is the main thing about us?

This brings us to Byrd’s second point. While it is reasonable for Christians to take sexual sin seriously, using avoidance as our only tactic against it doesn’t build positive virtue. That’s like avoiding a knee injury by never running. Sure, you’re not going to over-tax the joint. But neither will you make it strong. The same with our muscles of obedience. Byrd notes that “we don’t purify ourselves through abstinence. We purify ourselves by fixing our hope on Jesus Christ” (71). We must learn what to do with our thoughts, feelings and urges when they arise. We should never court temptation, but we must know how to seek Christ if it does arise. If our main hope is avoidance, we will not stand when the fight does come to our door.

What I especially liked about this point was the way Byrd pushed against the church’s tendency to bill marriage as a type of salvation. This is our sanctioned cross-gender relationship, and where you can express your sexuality. But “while faithfulness is marriage is expected, it is not necessarily virtuous” (74). You may be faithful by default, not because of spiritual devotion. After all, many non-Christian people practice deep devotion to spouse without having any connection to Jesus Christ. What Christians need is development into Christlikeness, whether married or single, so that by the Spirit we can refuse the evil and choose the good.

Byrd’s third critique is her most persuasive: avoidance of cross-gender interaction obliterates the practice of sibling-hood. She shows that all throughout the New Testament, Christians are called brothers and sisters. The text is also littered with the famous “one another” passages, which call us to practical love and service of all. If we spend no time together, how are we able to do these things? More troubling, are some of our acts of avoidance causing us to keep certain commands of Christ unfulfilled?

If a woman was forced to walk back to her hotel alone in dark, unfamiliar city because a Christian man had a policy of not being alone in a car with a woman, would that be love - or legalism? Assuming he is an upright man, he would not have sinned against her during that ride. So then it would be perhaps more about protecting his reputation than protecting his sister in Christ. We know that Christ was always concerned about holiness, but not about reputation. People accused him of having a demon! He kept on loving anyway. This doesn’t mean that we don’t take seriously the Bible’s call to be above reproach. It does mean we need to evaluate what that call means by the example of Christ and the command to love our neighbor as ourselves.

These three arguments alone justify engagement with this book and with this topic. But they don’t smooth over the weakness of the book. Two deserve mention.

First, in chapter six Byrd writes, “God's design was to produce women not only as sexual partners, haven-makers, and baby mamas to men, but also as friends to walk side by side with them”(100). Of course women are more than sexual partners and mothers. That is the best of the sibling argument – we see in the Bible that we are meant to be brothers and sisters. But, does that mean the same thing as being friends? I’m not so sure.

Not much is said about friendship in the Scripture. Byrd points to David and Jonathan, and Ruth and Naomi as model biblical friendships - and both of these friendship dyads are same-gender. The difficulty is that friendship is never well defined by the Bible. It is not the main category it traffics in. Even our culture is contrary. Friendship is either glib (certainly not what Byrd is pressing for), or it is a deep bond.  I’m not trying to say let’s not be friends. I am questioning what friendship looks like when the possibility of attraction lurks, which may be why the Bible doesn’t speak much to cross gender friendship. And I also question how much we should try to put our cultural views of friendship onto the biblical metaphor of brothers and sisters, because they might in fact be markedly different.

This leads to the second weakness: Byrd’s ambiguity on the nature of attraction, and what that means for everyone, including especially same-sex attracted Christians. Her section heading on page 87 warns not to confuse attraction with temptation. But then in the subsequent pages she is confusing as to whether attraction is temptation, or even if it is sin! For example, on 91 she writes, “If you are married and find yourself romantically attracted to someone other than your spouse, or if you are single and find yourself romantically attracted to someone who is off limits for any reason, then you need to confess this to the Lord in prayer and not put yourself in situations that fuel romantic feelings.” We need more clarity on this topic in 2018, not less. This is a major weakness and a sign that we need more writing on this important topic.

This is especially true for those of us who experience same-sex attraction. We need deep relationship just like everyone else. But if cross gender is closed off because of their sake (because people can be attracted to us even if we aren’t attracted to them!), and same gender carries troubles of attraction, what do we do? Surely the answer isn’t isolation. Surely the answer comes in building positive virtue in Christ by the Spirit. But these things can’t be discussed at length in a book review.

Aimee Byrd offers the church a next step in this important conversation of male-female relationships in the body. It should be read and applauded for the strengths it brings. It should also push us to think better and more critically about how to fulfill robust holiness in our interactions with each other. We must answer these questions with biblical faithfulness and with winsome love. May God give us help and strength!

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.

To read the rest, click here to get to CT Women!

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.