Sunday, May 27, 2012

living, loving, and (sometimes) speaking

“Preach the gospel at all times.
If necessary, use words.”
–Saint Francis of Assisi

The above statement, often attributed to Saint Francis, highlights the priorities of a truly spiritual life, stating what ought to most concern us. While it obviously matters what we say with our mouths, and though truth must be spoken, even more relevant is the way we live.

I am amazed how often we get this backwards, treating our formulations and treatises as if they are the end-all of anything spiritual. Of course words are relevant. Jesus spoke words; indeed, he is the Word. Scripture itself involves words, words that lead to life. In fact I am at this moment sharing these thoughts through the use of words. Clearly, we cannot operate for very long without invoking language and seeking to apply it to our lives. But, and this is the point, words alone are never enough. Indeed, even the words we rightly embrace are words intended, in the final analysis, to transform us.

What Saint Francis is saying is that God is after not merely a series of well-crafted theological formulas or a proper articulation of the good news. Though these matter, the purpose of the truth we have acquired, the intent of the gospel, is to actually find its way into our hearts and lives, dramatically altering the way we live, love, and relate to others.

How are people drawn to faith? What benefits them the most? How does the truth actually change us, and what is this change that we are concerned to facilitate in the lives of others? What is paramount is that we love God and our neighbor, bear fruit, and become increasingly like Jesus himself.

It is obviously important that we and others accurately perceive Jesus, and clarifying this involves some measure of word-usage. But when we are in heaven, the core of our existence will involve beingbeing what we were created to be, being for one another what we only imperfectly fulfilled while here, being image-bearers of divine love and truth.

So it is now. Words are significant, very significant, but nothing compares to a life changed, and nothing better alters another person’s outlook and attracts that person in a positive direction than a life that “preaches” all day long.

Our lives ought to exude compassion and care. The good news—the news that we are loved and accepted, that we are empowered to love, that we have purpose—should flow from our lives in such a way that no one can deny it. Now, being realistic, we can anticipate many a blunder and countless inconsistencies, at least I know I can. But, to the extent that we accept this challenge, this mission, we will be most effective when we pay attention to what Jesus and others have said (using words, of course): “Let your light shine before men in such a way that they see your good works and glorify your Father who is in heaven.” Here’s another one: “By this all men will know you are my disciples, if you have love for one another.” Or, “Whatever you do in word or deed, do all in the name of the Lord Jesus” (Colossians 3:17)—words plus deeds: there’s the balance.

Preach the gospel at all times. Wherever you are and whatever you are doing, be it morning, afternoon, or evening, whether it’s raining or the sun is shining, let the good news, the news of faith, hope, and love, emanate from your life. And, when it’s needed, when the situation and setting warrant it, open your mouth too. Preach the gospel at all times. If necessary, use words.

Saturday, March 21, 2009

the ultimate apologetic

Apologetics and Human Relationships

“Let your light shine before men in such a way that they may see your good works, and glorify your Father who is in heaven” (Matthew 5:16).

These words capture the essence of what truly matters when it comes to our relationships with others. Presenting evidence for the Christian faith or seeking to demonstrate the reasonableness of a theistic worldview, significant as these are, pale in comparison to our ability, as Jesus puts it, to shine. It is in this way that we display righteous and godly living, for such shining draws attention to God. Thus, the God who is invisible to human eyes is made visible through the works of His followers.

A closer look at the immediate context of Matthew 5 makes this even more clear. For instance in verse 13, believers are described as “the salt of the earth” and in verses 14 and 15 as “the light of the world.” We are to live in such a way that we add flavor to society, preventing moral and spiritual decay, and we are to illuminate the ways of God for others. While the manner in which we give expression to these realities may not always be clear, what is clear is that “People of faith, in radical relationship to God, are called to be flavorful salt and a shining light.”[1]

This passage serves to highlight a theme that is all too often neglected in our discussions of Christian apologetics and far too often lacking in our lives. People are attracted to the faith, drawn into a relationship with God, when they see God’s love expressed. Love demonstrated is more important than an academic forum or an intellectual defense. Of course these are not mutually exclusive, and there is no need to choose one over the other. It is important to recognize, however, that whatever arguments we provide, however sound our intellectual processes, these will remain ineffective apart from this “shining” about which Jesus speaks. Love, in other words, is the central apologetic, for it allows everything else that we say or do to find resonance with those whom God calls to Himself.

A sampling of relevant texts will help to make this clear:

■ John 13 –

John’s Gospel records that Jesus showed His love for others by washing His disciples’ feet (John 13:1-17). This, He did as “an example” (15). If the Master, i.e., Jesus, can serve others, how much more must we? A little later in the same Chapter, Jesus utters this challenge:

A new command I give you: Love one another. As I have loved you, so you must love one another. By this all men will know that you are my disciples, if you love one another (John 13:34-35).

The focus, once again, is love, in this case the love of Jesus’ disciples for one another. When this attitude permeates a faith community, it has an impact on outsiders. What Jesus is saying, in other words, is that our sacrificial concern for others, our willingness to love others (both within and outside of the faith), is an apologetic that shows that we are in fact His.

■ John 15 –

The necessity of love is made clear in John 15:17, which reads as follows: “This I command you, that you love one another.” Jesus is straightforward and to the point, and this is no mere word of advice. Instead, it takes the form of a command. To care for other believers and–by way of extension–those without faith, is not an option but rather the essence of our created and redemptive purpose. God has sent His Son, and His Son’s requirements can be boiled down to this: “Love one another.”

Later in John 15, the author addresses the subject of misunderstanding and persecution, which are sure to occur when someone seeks to follow Jesus. Yet, despite difficult realities, those who follow Him are to retain a love for one another and for all people. Jesus even promises the aid of the Holy Spirit, who testifies of God’s Son:
26When the Helper comes, whom I will send to you from the Father, that is the Spirit of truth who proceeds from the Father, He will testify about me, 27and you will testify also, because you have been with Me from the beginning.[2]
Though, in one sense, the world–the organized system that dishonors truth and righteousness–is outside the scope of Jesus’ concern, being rather the recipient of divine displeasure, in another sense, some of those within the world will indeed hear the message and believe. For the sake of others, and with the help of God’s Spirit, we must demonstrate love.

■ John 17 –

In this passage, Jesus reflects on the relationship He has with God and how this spills over into the lives of those who follow Him. “I have made Your name known to them, and will make it known so that the love with which You loved Me may be in them, and I in them.” (John 17:26).

Again, Jesus prays to His Father, asking that their shared love (i.e., as Father and Son) would flow into the lives of others. In other words the love that originates in the triune God is revealed to us. Experiencing this love in all of its personal, infinite, and emotional force, transforms us and enables us, in turn, to share this love, God’s love, with others.

■ Luke 6 –

Luke further explores this motif as he records the command to love our enemies, seeking the betterment of even those who hate, curse, and mistreat us. Jesus expects that we will live in a way that is driven by mercy (Luke 6:32-36). The so called “golden rule” summarizes this: “Treat others the same way you want them to treat you” (Luke 6:31).

Again, it is plain to see that followers of Jesus are to embody a distinct lifestyle, one in which love for others is the dominant theme and motivation. If ever we are to have a positive influence in the lives of others it will be by means of a sincere concern for their well-being.

■ 1 Peter 3 –

Another example is found in 1 Peter 3:13-17, which is often used as a proof text for apologetics. As often cited, this passage tells us to “make a defense” (NIV: “give an answer”) and “give an account” (NIV: “the reason”) for our hope. What is sometimes missed, however, is the larger context. Our answer and reason, our communication of a clear and cogent apologia, will be ineffective if we fail to share it with “gentleness and respect” (3:15). Whatever else this entails, a Christian apologetic includes far more than intellectual feasibility and consistency. The driving force of a persuasive apologetic is the life that we live. Specifically, it is our willingness to genuinely care about the people we encounter. Even, as in this text, if we are maligned for our faith, we must keep a clear conscience and maintain proper behavior. (3:16-17). Again, love must win the day.

■ Colossians 4 –

Colossians adds to this mix of practical, others-centered injunctions.
5Be wise in the way you act toward outsiders; make the most of every opportunity. 6Let your conversation be always full of grace, seasoned with salt, so that you may know how to answer everyone (Colossians 4:5-6).
“Outsider” is not a pejorative term but a description of those who do not currently embrace Jesus. These individuals, our fellow human beings, are to be the object of our concern and the recipients of our love. Far from being “religious projects,” they are people we should appreciate and care for.

When given the opportunity, we must assist others, which includes interacting with them and sharing what we know of the good news. To this end our conversation is to be “full of grace.” Contrary to the defensive and critical approaches that abound, our lives are to be governed by grace, that is, controlled by the overarching recognition that God accepts us freely in Jesus. As a result, we are to treat each case individually, providing what each person requires. The “seasoned with salt” metaphor probably entails living in a manner that adds flavor to the lives of those we encounter. We attract people to the faith, in other words, not by forced presentations or overly judgmental statements but by making the lives of others better. Love, once again, is a powerful component of an authentic apologetic.


This sampling of texts helps to orient us to that which is of utmost importance. We are to love one another, acting as conduits of divine love, sharing our hearts and lives with those God brings our way. There are many, of course, who have acknowledged the need to love, pointing out the hypocrisy of a message devoid of a changed life. But the life of love is no mere addendum to a Christian apologetic. Indeed, love is the very essence and driving force of apologetics, the chief means through which people are drawn to faith and inspired to join the journey with the Savior.

Christian apologetics can and does involve a number of features. Truth must be explained and misconceptions corrected. Theology must be defended and argued for. False ideas must be countered and replaced with authentic ones. And we must allow the sheer force of truth to hold sway in our lives. But, at the end of the day, what truly matters is that we come to the realization that there is–How can we describe it?–love in the universe. This love is personal, real, and most profoundly expressed in the incarnation, life, death, and resurrection of God’s unique Son, Jesus. Through Him there is forgiveness and reconciliation with God and one another. Because of Him there is purpose and hope and genuine compassion. In Him love takes on a tangible form as the eternal deity becomes a human, thereby joining us to our Maker. Through Jesus, God’s love flows through us and out to others. Our responsibility, our honor, is to shine forth this love. To the degree that we do, we engage in the ultimate apologetic.[3]


1. Elaine A. Robinson, Godbearing: Evangelism Reconceived (Cleveland, Oh: The Pilgrim Press, 2006), 98.

2. Though the immediate reference is to the first disciples, the broader application seems to include future followers, as well (Cf. John 17:20).

3. Although I wasn’t initially aware of it, I believe I borrowed this heading from Art Lindsley, Love The Ultimate Apologetic: The Heart of Christian Witness (Downers Grove: InterVarsity Press, 2008). I recommend this work.

Monday, March 09, 2009

is evil a problem?

One of the greatest arguments against belief in God is the reality of human suffering and evil. Historically, this is sometimes referred to as the problem of evil.

Some theists (believers in God), however, prefer to call it the so-called problem of evil. It appears to be a problem, but it really isn't one. To this end, a friend of mine recently asked me what I thought of the issue. I offered this brief reply.

This is a tough one. I think I'd say this:

(1) For us, evil is definitely a problem, both emotionally/personally and theoretically/ theologically. Obviously, we all grapple with evil and its many manifestations. Anyone who has encountered really bad stuff and believes in a sovereign God has to wrestle with this seeming inconsistency.

Why would a good God who possesses all power allow for such and such? And, if He is truly sovereign, how can He "get off the hook"?

While our experiences, emotional makeup, and theological assumptions all play a role in how we approach these matters, I cannot get away from the fact that–at least in my opinion–there is indeed some sort of "problem" with at least some of the manifestations of evil.

(2) Evil is not a problem for God. Since He is entirely good and wise, there is not taint of frustration on His part. He does not fret or ponder how He's going to explain this or that (though I believe He understands why we wonder about such things and is sympathetic).

The point here is that God has done absolutely nothing wrong, and in the end it will make sense (or at least sense enough).

(3) We accept by testimony of Scripture, personal experience, and through the use of our minds that evil is not ULTIMATELY a problem. All of this is–how shall we put it?–laced with faith? We "see" what we cannot currently see, and we trust that it will one day make sense, though it often
makes no sense now.

I suppose we could say that evil is a problem (for us), no problem for God, and we by faith accept God's verdict on the matter. We thus (like the biblical characters) complain about the real difficulties and inconsistencies we observe and feel, but our complaints are saturated by at
least some degree of faith. Indeed, when we express our doubts to God, our genuine ignorance and pain in the face of the apparently unfair, given that our complaints are made TO God, we are simultaneously expressing faith. :-)

Hope this makes sense!

Monday, February 16, 2009

12 thoughts on spirituality and facebook

The other day, my brother sent me an article about facebook. It can be found here, and it wouldn’t hurt to peruse it. It states, among other things, that facebook could be an example, a demonstration, of the egotistical, self-loving attitude that too often permeates our society. Having briefly considered the matter (and the rest of the article), I offer this rudimentary response. I first provide a brief introduction, followed by a dozen thoughts on facebook and its implications on spirituality.


By itself considered facebook should probably be considered a neutral means of communication. The pencil, the computer, a text message–they can all be used to promote either healthy or unhealthy ideas. By means of these and other instruments, you can send a love song, a death threat, or anything in between. They can each be used in helpful and harmful ways, in other words.

There are of course positive and negative features to every avenue by which humans connect, and facebook is no exception. The positive might include, for instance, that facebook allows us to express ourselves creatively and to relate to those who are not in our immediate presence. When my (eventual) wife was still at college and I was already home, our phone would have been significantly reduced had such technology been available. Negatively, facebook can obviously provide access to a false world in which we believe (as the article states) that we are on center stage and everyone is watching.

This all said, I thought I would sent out this note, for it helps me to make some sense (and at some level to defend) my own use (or misuse?) of facebook. This is nowhere near an exhaustive list, but perhaps it’s a start. Well, here goes . . .


1. We live in this age. So, it’s important to live in this age faithfully and appropriately, whether on facebook or anywhere else.

2. There is such a thing as faithful and appropriate, but these require that we look outside of ourselves to others and, especially, to God for guidance, direction, wisdom, and strength. Neither facebook nor any other endeavor can be engaged in effectively if we ignore such resources.

3. There is a certain narcissistic tendency that is revealed via facebook, but this is rather a societal tendency than something isolated to facebook. Facebook merely provides a platform by which we give expression to whatever tendencies govern us.

4. One ought to be careful about what one says publicly, and some of us seem to take little time thinking about the implications of the messages (or pictures) we send. I have learned this when writing, for people read what you have to say and always have a permanent record of it. What we say (and especially write) ought to be tempered with humility and wisdom, and when we mess up it’s best to fess up.

5. Then again, there is also a need (and in some postmodern circles a greater tendency) to be genuine or authentic. Too many people, especially in “church circles,” are consumed with maintaining the plastic images they project to others; this way, I suppose, they can “appear” spiritual to other plastic individuals. In contrast, it’s okay to laugh, cry, express frustration or anger, and a whole host of other emotions. These are good because they are human. To the degree that facebook facilitates these matters, it is a refreshing thing.

6. We are made in God’s image, and the God in whose image we are made is a triunity (a 3 in 1/1 in 3 being). As God is a relational deity, we, his creatures, are born to relate, to connect with others. Facebook is simply another avenue by which we express our social inclinations. We are creatures who relate, and it is up to us to relate in helpful and dignified ways.

7. In the grand sweep of things, it’s likely that facebook is simply one more tool along the way. Something else will eventually become popular. At that point, facebook will either adapt or be absorbed by newer avenues of communication. Thus, we mustn’t make facebook an idol any more than we should a computer, an online chat group, or anything else.

8. Facebook and other technologies (emailing, chat rooms, gaming, etc.) ought not so dominate our existence that they crowd out other important aspects of healthy relationships (face-to-face contact, etc.).

9. God is on facebook. Don’t fall off of your seat! What I mean is that if He is everywhere present, as traditionally perceived, we can expect His presence (via human beings) among the various connections. This ought to breed humility and a careful spirit, but it also is a reason for celebration, for it means that good and ultimately helpful things can be accomplished through facebook. (By the way, God is everywhere else, too!)

10. Facebook serves as a microcosm of a greater story, one in which God actually does see and hear and read everything about us. If you have any sense, this will seem a bit (or a lot) scary.

11. Facebook also reminds us of what we often forget. We require forgiveness and grace or else we are in big trouble. Again, God knows everything about us (whether or not we display some of these matters over facebook), and–according to Christian tradition–he freely accepts us anyway because of his Son; he came, in other words, not to condemn us but to restore us to himself and our true humanity. Forgiven for facebook blunders and for all of the other foolish things we ever do = grace.

12. Facebook is also cool and allows for creativity, and both the cool and the creative are–within the confines of wisdom–good and God-given things.

More . . . ?

Sunday, February 08, 2009


Have you ever done anything wrong? It’s a stupid question, I know. We’ve all messed up in numerous ways. We’ve violated our consciences, hurt our loved ones, damaged our own souls, and ignored God’s requirements. There are good things we’ve failed to do and bad things we should never have done.

We’re all guilty. More times than we’d like to admit, we have disregarded truth and placed ourselves in a precarious position before our Maker. But this is not the entire story, for the same One whose ways and commands we’ve ignored, the very same Creator whose heart we have broken, has promised to forgive our countless misdeeds and restore our sanity, making us whole.

When we screw things up–and we’re so prone to in many obvious ways–there is often a sense of shame that accompanies our behavior. We’ve blown it, and we know it. Though we’ve promised a million times to “get it right,” we once again find ourselves humbled by our own foolishness choices.

At this point, we tend to beat ourselves up. Having recognized the error of our ways, we simmer in a mixed state of anger and frustration, wanting to make things right. Personally, I understand these reactions, for they at least indicate that we possess a distaste for that which is harmful and idiotic; at least our frustrations reveal that there is indeed something (and Someone) to which (to whom) we are accountable.

But there is a better way, the way of mercy and restoration, the way of forgiveness and grace. You see, God is not some concept for theologians to debate. He’s not trapped within the confines of “religious” activities. And he’s certainly not to be considered a disinterested deity, a deity who is unconcerned about our lives.

No, God is a personal being, a being who has sent his one and only Son to earth in order to rescue and restore us. Indeed, it is because of his Son that you and I can unhesitatingly turn to him at any moment. We don’t have to wait until Sunday. We need not go to church. Our relationship with him is not for a second dependent on the presence of some member of the clergy. While Sundays, church, and clergy all have their proper place, all you really need is right in front of you. You need this same God, who promises that he will not forsake you.

So, you’re struggling with a sense of remorse. You feel guilty because you are guilty. That is, your awful feelings are a result of your inappropriate choices. So, what do you do? Sometimes, when we mess up, there is restitution to pay–if you’re caught running a stop sign, saying you’re sorry doesn’t eliminate the fact that you may have to pay a fine. Other times, there are important practical things we can and should do (e.g., apologize to someone we’ve wronged). But, at the end of the day, our sense of stability and peace is provided by the God of love.

In one place it is stated like this: “As far as the east is from the west, So far has He removed our transgressions from us” (Psalm 103:12). You can’t get any more separated than east is from west! This is another way of saying, God will forgive us, and he won’t ever remind us of our previous indiscretions. He can do that, after all, for he is God.

So, you’ve done it again. Welcome to the club. We’ve all “been there” more times than we know. The way ahead, however, is not all darkness and gloom. The path before us is one of forgiveness and grace, and it is ours–at any moment, in any place, whatever the specific circumstances–when we simply and sincerely ask for it. So, ask!

But what is next? Well, I think it’s relatively simple. When someone has done something wonderful for you, you think about it, and you appreciate it. What, then, ought our response be? What does God require? Simply that we turn him where we are, asking for his restorative grace and invigorating love, reflecting on how good he must be to freely grant us such forgiveness. There is no formula. There are no special words. All we need is simple faith, ongoing faith, and he takes care of the rest. Indeed, he provides “the rest.” By childlike faith, we can be (will be) restored.

Sunday, January 25, 2009


People talk about it a lot, especially when they have some sort of need. But, what is prayer? Some see prayer as a formal act that is performed in a formal setting, i.e., church. Others see it as the repetition of words or the mouthing of a formula. While not necessarily denying any of these avenues, here are some additional thoughts about prayer.

Prayer is . . .

• an acknowledgment that we do not have all of the answers (and can’t even formulate all of the proper questions). Since it is true that we lack complete knowledge, the prayer impulse is completely sensible and wise, for it fosters an attitude of humility.

• equally, an awareness, an intuitive sense, that there is indeed something (and Someone) bigger that we are. Not only are we smaller than some would assume, but there is a corresponding something/Someone that/who is larger than any of us have completely envisioned. This encourages the relational impulse in us, the need to connect to this Someone.

• built on the assumption that this something/Someone is actually good and powerful– good enough to care and powerful enough to do something about our circumstances. This, I think, is an encouragement, for it teaches us that Gos is approachable.

• a realization, however subtle, that we have value. Indeed, the reason we sense the need to look outside of ourselves to another is because we believe that there is help available. Thus, prayer prompts humility (as mentioned above), not humiliation, for we instinctively know that a good God values us.

• an actual connecting to this Someone, comforting our hearts and allowing us to sense or comprehend his plan, purpose, and presence (the alliteration is coincidental . . . or is it?). God is not merely a theory, an idea, or a belief. He is a real person with whom we can connect. This makes prayer personal in a dual sense: we are (1) people who connect to (2) the ultimate Persons (i.e., trinity).

• that which enables us to see our lives within the context and the presence of a being who declares his love for us and also demands our devotion to Him. It is thus ethical, moral, and devotional in focus, along with being personal.

• evidence that this Someone who actually exists is not a mere Anyone, a being we get to define and create out of whole cloth. While we must, by the nature of the case, walk by faith, this faith is neither irrational nor imaginary. Having connected with this Someone, we instinctively lean into his purpose and seek to know something of his identity. Without getting into a prolonged argument or debate, this Someone appears to be revealed most unambiguously and clearly in the One who specifically came from God (as God) to live among us. This Someone, in Christian terms, is Jesus. Whether we know a little or a lot about him, whether we are confident or doubtful in our faith, he is the I Am, the One who comes to us in grace and love and embraces us in spite of our ignorance and foolishness.

Prayer, it seems to me, involves our hearts and lives (formally or informally) connecting with God, bathing in his love, cognizant of his presence, keenly (or not so keenly) aware of our association with Him. It is intentionally recognizing that all of life is sacred, and all of life is his (since he creates and sustains it). When you think of it this way, it makes perfect sense that we would be invited to “pray without ceasing” (1 Thessalonians 5:17).

Saturday, January 24, 2009

25 things

This is something I wrote for facebook. Why? I don't know. :-)

1. I love my wife and kids.

2. I love work/teaching.

3. I love (at least some of) my school kids.

4. I love writing and often have multiple projects going on simultaneously. (I’ve written 2 books . . . so far.)

5. I wrote a dictionary article for a major Christian publisher on the subject of extraterrestrials.

6. I love to read and tend to be reading 5-10 books simultaneously.

7. I’m ranked in the top 100 in the world in Pi recitation, having recited Pi to something like 250 digits.

8. When I was younger (note the implication: I’m still young but not as young as I once was. Who is?) I was able to leap high enough to hit my head off the bottom of a basketball backboard. Hmm, perhaps that explains a lot. :-)

9. As a kid, my favorite basketball player was Dr. J.

10. When I was younger, I played basketball for hours each day.

11. When I was younger, I once did 1,234 consecutive sit ups. I stopped because I was bored.

12. When I was younger, I could leg press the entire universal gym leg press stack with one leg. Honest.

13. I’m still young . . . just not younger. :-)

14. When I was younger, I did a lot of running, and I’m still running. See, I told you I am still young. :-)

15. I love the old Western Bonanza because of the values it represents, and I love Seinfeld because I think it’s a brilliant comedy (despite some of the questionable values).

16. I love music.

17. I believe that “music” is playing every day, God’s music, and it is up to listen for (and to) it.

18. My great aunts (my dad’s aunts) had a major impact in my life.

19. One of my best friends and I almost always conclude our conversations with KP, which means Keep Praying.

20. I love cake batter.

21. I am a strange combination of levelheadness and crazy emotion. Was that schizophrenia? :-)

22. I love movies and watch them all of the time.

23. A good friend of mine, who used to be a professional body builder and who lives in Florida, always makes it a point to give me a call and visit each Christmas season. Talk about faithful! We’ve been friends since kindergarten, which we attended in something like 4 B.C.

24. I’ve used the word “I” entirely too much in writing this.

25. I could easily write much more. Oops, there goes that “I” word again. I will shut up. :-)