15 Questions to Consider Before Joining a Church

There are many good resources out there on the marks of a biblical, healthy church. I don’t wish to add my own thoughts to an area that’s already been addressed by people more seasoned and wise than I. But I have found over the past ten years that there are other important questions that tend not to be considered or asked. Questions that will have a profound impact on the culture and practices of a church, and that will deeply impact—for better or for worse—the congregation.

It’s not about searching for perfection, since that’s clearly impossible. But as I move forward in life, these are questions that I’ll be asking. I’ve chosen not to provide an explanation of why I think each question is important, nor have I provided scriptural references to accompany each question. I could have. But to be honest, I simply lack the time to do so, and I also think there’s value in allowing readers to ponder these questions on their own.

They’re not the only questions to ask. Some of them may not even be the most important questions to ask. (Like I said, others have already covered that territory well.) But they are, I think, quite important.

How do they (or don’t they) make space for lament in corporate worship?

How does Scripture inform how they do corporate singing? (Who leads that time? How loudly are the voices and/or instruments of the song leaders amplified? How are songs chosen? What is or isn’t done with the lighting?)

What is their position on abuse in marriage? On divorce in cases of abuse?

Who are the pastors accountable to and what does that look like? Where can a member bring concerns about a pastor?

Who are the elders accountable to and what does that look like? Where can a member bring concerns about an elder?

What is the process for assessing the character qualifications of pastors and elders? Are current pastors and elders subject to ongoing character assessment, and if so, what does that look like?

What do they understand the biblical responsibilities of a pastor to be? An elder? A deacon?

Is the pastor primarily focused on his congregation, or is he invested in a broader-scale media ministry to the outside world, and how might that impact his congregational ministry? If he is on social media, how does he present himself and interact with others?

What practices or systems are in place to ensure that each member is known and shepherded by an ordained officer of the church? (Or, if they find that unnecessary or not possible, why do they find it unnecessary or not possible?)

How do they provide special care, relationship, and assistance to single women? To widows? To the chronically ill? To those with special needs?

How do they view pastoral responsibility for soul care/counseling?

Do pastors counsel female members in need of counseling? Why or why not?

What are the strengths and weaknesses of this congregation?

What books, authors, and historical figures have influenced the pastor the most and why?

How would you describe the culture of this church (not the stated mission or what the website promotes, but what the actual experiential culture is)?

Are Compassion and Indignation Mutually Exclusive?

Compassion. Indignation. What comes to mind when you think about these words? You might say that we could sum up almost everything we see on social media or hear in political campaigns under one of these two words.

Under the banner of “compassion,” we find those who insist that calling any human behavior wrong or sinful is necessarily unloving and uncompassionate. And under the banner of “indignation,” we find those who are self-righteous and acerbic.

The problem is that words can’t be defined however we’d like to define them. When we wrongly define a word, we corrupt its true meaning, ripping the word out of its proper domain and context. Continue reading at Tabletalk magazine.

The 4 Best Books I Read in 2022

Without further ado or fluffy introduction, here we go:

Rejoice and Tremble by Michael Reeves

I love everything I’ve read by Reeves. He is a refreshing voice in the evangelical world because he’s willing to challenge ideas and ways of thinking within the subculture that get repeated so often that we don’t really stop to question or challenge them (or fear that we must be wrong, so we don’t say anything or raise the questions). In this book, he masterfully tackles the topic of the fear of God, pointing out ways that we commonly misunderstand what this means.

Top Quotes:

“Just as it was in the garden, Satan’s chief labor is to misrepresent God. He would present him to us as purely negative threat, the embodiment of anti-gospel. When we perceive God as pure threat, we will run from him in fear; wishing that the heavenly ogre did not exists.”

“When people become simply afraid of God, they will never entrust themselves to him but must turn elsewhere for their security.”

“In this childlike fear, there is not an atom of that fear which signifies being afraid. We, who believe in Jesus, are not afraid of our Father… It is not the awe of creatures before their tremendous Creator. It is the overwhelmed devotion of children marveling at the kindness and righteousness and glory and complete magnificence of the Father.”

“No glory even of God should breed terror. When a child is afraid, it is a sign that the word ‘Father’ is not yet freely fashioned by the child’s spiritual mouth.”

Living Life Backward by David Gibson

A friend recommended this book, and I’m so glad she did. I love how David Gibson speaks so practically yet insightfully. This is one of the most accessible and helpful books on Ecclesiastes that I’ve read. I think you’ll find that it challenges the way you think and live and that it provides insights you haven’t thought of before.

Top Quotes:

“Do not be surprised to find yourself in a frustrating situation from which you cannot escape by means of controlling it. Not everything can be fixed. Not everything is a problem to be solved. Some things must be borne, must be suffered and endured. Wisdom does not teach us how to master the world. It does not give us techniques for programming life such that life becomes orderly and predictable.”

“Wisdom can never achieve the kind of control over your life and destiny that you seek. It is God who rules the universe. And so although you can live well, and die well, and know some things truly, you cannot know all things completely. Do not make an idol out of wisdom.”

“To know all there is about everything there is to know, to know it in all ways and at all the right times so that I have every bit of relevant data in front of me, well, that is the kind of control over the world that Ecclesiastes has been teaching me to surrender.”

“Live the life you have now instead of longing for the life you think you will have but which you actually cannot control at all.”

Recovering Eden by Zack Eswine

Gibson’s book quoted this book, so I read this one after I finished Living Life Backward. Eswine is a really gifted writer who knows how to turn a phrase. His writing has a philosophical and poetic bent to it, so if you enjoy gifted wordsmiths, you’d probably like this. But it’s also down-to-earth and practical. I was personally more impacted by Gibson’s book, but that may be because I read it first, so some of the things that punched me in the face in Gibson’s book weren’t new concepts by the time I read this one.

Top Quotes:

“Being wise gives us no immunity under the sun. Those who try to be good and wise in order to get God to do favors for them under the sun will find disappointment.”

“Both good things and bad things happen to us. God is within the thing either way. This means that something larger than our prosperity and something larger than our adversity has a hold on us. What does this mean? We get to lighten up. All our energy spent in trying to control and preserve our lives is next to worthless. There is no secret formula in life that if you could just figure it out or get in with God well enough, you could make everything happen the way you hope. It is time to relax your grip. The whirlwind in your mind constantly trying to figure out everything in order to hold everything together is like chasing after the wind. We add wear and tear to our lives that God does not ask of us.”

Angry with God by Brad Hambrick

I love reading Brad’s articles and books and hearing him speak. He’s a gifted counselor who has a good grasp on trauma and a shepherd’s heart. This is a very small book that packs a very large punch for those who have gone through deeply painful suffering and/or trauma. But even if you haven’t, you really should read it to understand better what the people around you are facing and how to serve them most helpfully (and how to avoid hurting them even more).

Top Quotes:

“Whether our anger is with or at God is largely determined by how we believe God responds to us in moments such as these [referring to deep suffering, grief, trauma].”

“When we read that Jesus wipes away every tear, we notice that those being welcomed into heaven have been crying. Jesus’ instinct is to come near them. He notices their pain. He is tender in his approach. Much of what causes our unrest after suffering is how seldom we get these responses from those around us. Too often when we are hurting, people pull away, look away, and show their discomfort. This adds to our hurt. Heaven will be nothing like this.” (emphasis mine)

“When anger is part of our response to suffering, it is an emotional affirmation of how God sees things. Anger calls bad things bad. Angry grief calls for comfort, not repentance.”

“The people who hurt us with their naïve faith quickly move toward pronouncing everything okay, fail to weep with us, and force an end-of-the-journey perspective on a middle-of-the-journey moment… Sometimes cheerfulness is not situationally appropriate. The moment is bad and should be honored as such. When believers assume that in hard times faith should be fast, cheerful, and already containing hindsight, their attempt to encourage faith has mutated into naivety.”

The Two-Factor Authentication of True Christianity

In our increasingly technological society, greater measures are continually being developed to protect us against malicious hackers seeking to gain access to our identity. To prove to vendors that we are who we claim to be, we often must provide not just one proof of our identity but two, known as “two-factor authentication.”

But the proof of our identity as Christians through two-factor identification traces back thousands of years to the inspired words penned by the Apostle John. And because it’s all too common to emphasize one reality to the neglect of the other, we need to be reminded that assessing ourselves using only one of these two factors both jeopardizes our own souls as well as conveys an inaccurate portrait of God and the gospel.

In a nutshell, 1 John reveals that we must pass two tests, not one, to authenticate our claim to Christianity: the doctrine test and the love test. In saying this, I don’t mean to assert that we are saved by our own efforts or our own ability to pass tests. Rather, I am saying that the reality of our confession of faith can be revealed as true or false based on the fruit we produce.

The reason this is so important is that there is a concerning tendency in the church today to place all the emphasis on one test while considering the other test as optional. We see this in two competing extremes. First, the liberal church embraces the pursuit of love, but by denying the inerrancy and authority of Scripture, the result is the natural man’s constantly shifting definition of love, not God’s.

Perhaps in an attempt to guard against falling away from biblical orthodoxy, other churches and Christians have exalted correct doctrine as the one and only test of true faith, relegating a life of love as optional rather than essential to genuine Christianity.

The problem with both extremes is that the fallen human heart tends to emphasize and glorify what comes most naturally to it. For some, that means living with great love and compassion for fellow man but rejecting the truths of Scripture, all the while convincing themselves that they are true Christians. For others, that means delving deep into theological knowledge and becoming biblical experts but bearing the fruit of pride, harshness, selfishness, and partiality, all the while convincing themselves that they are true Christians.

To those who embrace a version of love that is not tethered to biblical truth, consider John’s words:

“Who is the liar but he who denies that Jesus is the Christ? This is the antichrist, he who denies the Father and the Son. No one who denies the Son has the Father” (1 John 2: 22).

“And we have seen and testify that the Father has sent his Son to be the Savior of the world. Whoever confesses that Jesus is the Son of God, God abides in him, and he in God” (1 John 4:14–14).

“Whoever believes in the Son of God has the testimony in himself. Whoever does not believe God has made him a liar, because he has not believed in the testimony that God has borne concerning his Son. And this is the testimony, that God have us eternal life, and this life is in his Son. Whoever has the Son has life; whoever does not have the son of God does not have life” (1 John 5:10–12).

And to those who maintain pure doctrine yet do not bear the fruit of love, be sobered by John’s words:

“Whoever says he is in the light and hates his brother is still in darkness” (1 John 2:9).

“We know that we have passed out of death into life, because we love the brothers. Whoever does not love abides in death. Everyone who hates his brother is a murderer, and you know that no murderer has eternal life abiding in him” (1 John 3:14–15).

“If anyone says, ‘I love God,’ and hates his brother, he is a liar; for he who does not love his brother whom he has seen cannot love God whom he has not seen” (1 John 4: 20).

John addresses both tests together when he says:

“And this is his commandment, that we believe in the name of his Son Jesus Christ and love one another, just as he has commanded us” (1 John 3:23).

“Everyone who believes that Jesus is the Christ has been born of God, and everyone who loves the Father loves whoever has been born of Him” (1 John 5:1).

While both the doctrine test and the love test are critical in helping us to assess whether we are in the faith, the particular danger for professing believers in the Reformed world tends to be resting our confidence exclusively on our adherence to sound doctrine. Something that should give us pause is considering this question: Can you think of someone in the Bible who has perfect doctrine but who stands under God’s judgment and is alienated from Him? When we realize that the answer to this question is “Satan and the demons,” it’s a sobering thought. As James says, “You believe that God is one; you do well. Even the demons believe—and shudder!” (James 2:19).

May we not assure ourselves by only one test and consider the other test as less important. May we not judge our spirituality based on what comes most naturally to our flesh and human temperaments. But as Scripture so beautifully lays out and Jesus so beautifully embodies, may we who are born again step ever more fully into both grace and truth, love and doctrine, confessing our immaturity and failures as we seek to become more like Jesus, the most loving and most truthful person who ever walked the earth.

Love Draws Near

It was my first broken heart. I was a junior in college, dating the person I thought I would marry. But then, instead of a proposal, I was hit head-on with a breakup instead. Reeling from the shock and emotional pain, I called a friend on the day of the breakup. And I’ll never forget what she did.

She came over to my apartment, towing her pale pink sleeping bag under her arm. She walked into my room, laid her sleeping bag on the floor next to my bed, and spent the night so that I wouldn’t be alone. While more than twenty years have gone by since that painful summer night, the memory is forever etched on my mind because of the power of her physical presence. In other words, she was with me. And by being with me in my distress, she reflected the very heart of God … Continue reading on Tabletalk Magazine.

Naomi’s “10-Year Challenge”

At the time of writing, it seems as though the “10-Year Challenge” has resurfaced on social media. If Facebook were a high school classmate, no doubt it would earn the superlative “Most Likely to Tempt to Envy or Depression” by a landslide.

Now we get to see even more of the seemingly wonderful lives of others as they compare the single, childless, apartment-with-roommates life they led a decade ago to the happily married, enough children to fill a Christmas card, homeowner (or graduated to a bigger home) life they find themselves in today. Hashtag “Blessed.”

My intention is not to poo-poo on the sincere expression of gratitude or the attempt to find some pockets of light in a dark world. If someone is confident that participating in the 10-Year Challenge will result in glory to God and will benefit their neighbors who view it, then by all means, post it!

But it did strike a personal chord, since 10 years falls in an interesting place for me. As I thought of what my post would look like, I wasn’t sure whether to laugh or cry. By the grace of God, likely both.

Ten years ago, I was young, healthy, active, adventurous. I was living in L.A. with a great job, a great (at the time) support system, a great condo decorated in the spirit of Anthropologie, active in ministry, surrounded with friends. Was it perfect? By no means. But life was, for the most part, happy, good, fruitful, and it made sense.

Today, I am oldish (dreaded “middle-aged”), chronically ill, houseless, unmarried, and childless. Is it all bad and awful? By no means. But life, for the most part, feels sad, regretful, empty, seemingly lost, too late for redemption, and not making sense.

As I pondered these things, I was reminded of a woman who understands. A woman who also would have (and did) find the 10-Year Challenge in her life pretty discouraging. We find this woman in the Old Testament book of Ruth: Naomi. Ten years earlier, by her own account, she left Israel full. She had a husband. She had sons. They were setting out for Moab due to famine in Israel.

While in Moab, she seemed to be getting fuller. Her two sons married. The family was growing. They had food to eat and could support themselves. But then, in a narrative arc that shares similarities with Job, Naomi loses her husband. Difficult to be sure, but at least she had her two adult sons to provide for her. That is, until not just one, but both of them died.

After living in Moab for ten years, Naomi returns to Israel accompanied by her plucky daughter-in-law Ruth. Imagine moving back to a place you’d lived ten years earlier, but with a life that had imploded since you left. I know what that feels like. I was in L.A. for ten years before I had to move back to Texas, the land of my childhood and college years. I didn’t want to see anyone from the previous life I’d led so many years ago. I didn’t want to face the conversations of “What’s been going on with you for the past ten years?” After all, who wants to hear that story? And I certainly didn’t want to tell it.

That’s what Naomi had to do. The “whole town was stirred” by her return, and the women asked, “Is this Naomi?” She told them not to call her Naomi (which means “pleasant”), but Mara (which means “bitter”) because she left Israel full but has now come back empty. And not just by bad luck, but “the Lord has testified against me and the Almighty has brought calamity upon me.”

There’s lots that could be said, but my purpose in the post isn’t to do a Bible study on Ruth. The point is, Naomi’s 10-Year Challenge only reminded her of how good life used to be and how awful it was now. She wasn’t growing into fulfillment and fullness as the years of her life passed and time began to write its lines upon her face. She was caught in a spiral of senseless-seeming loss that put her in a financially and relationally vulnerable situation, and life became more of a living death.

What about you? Can you relate to Naomi? Does the thought of the 10-Year Challenge evoke more lament and grief in you than lightheartedness and glee? If you can’t relate to Naomi, do you have friends who can? Brothers and sisters in the body of Christ who can? If no one comes to mind, will you go find them? Because they need you.

To those grieved by the 10-Year Challenge, I have good news for us. If you know how the book of Ruth ends, you know that God’s purpose was to make Naomi full and pleasant once again. Stories like Naomi’s and Job’s can be a double-edged sword in that the ending is partially encouraging, partly discouraging. It’s encouraging because we see the full purposes of God played out and the story has a happy ending that includes temporal blessing. We know that’s true for us spiritually and eschatologically, but we also know it’s not a promise that things will end up full and pleasant during the rest of our earthly lives.

We need patience. And we need hope. The fullness will one day fill the emptiness to overflowing. The bitterness of life will one day give way to pleasantness. Not simply in a disembodied spirit existence in the sky somewhere, but with a real body on a real new earth in the presence of God. The 10-Year Challenge is only discouraging because it’s situated in the middle of the story. But the story isn’t over yet. And I promise, for everyone who loves Jesus and is loved by the triune God, our stories will end just as wonderfully as Naomi’s and Job’s. It’s the Eternity Challenge, and it will be worth the wait.  

A Brief Letter to the Christmas Have-Nots

Dear Friend,

I’m sorry. I’m sorry that the holidays end up reminding you more of the world’s brokenness than its beauty. Or perhaps better said, that your little piece of the world is more brokenness than beauty. I’m sorry that social media just makes you feel more isolated and alone when you see the spouses, children, and homes that you don’t have. Maybe you once had them and lost them; maybe you never had them at all. But either way, it hurts.

I’m sorry that there’s so much injustice and inequity in the world. That doing the right things and making wise choices didn’t always lead to good outcomes for you, while you see those who made poor choices end up with great outcomes. Life in a fallen world doesn’t play by the “rules,” and I’m sorry.

I’m sorry that you’ve hoped and prayed for children for years, but you still don’t have them. I’m sorry that you’ve hoped and prayed for marriage for years, but you still don’t have a spouse. I’m sorry that you work really hard, but you still can’t afford a house. I’m sorry that you long for friends, but they seem really hard to find. I’m sorry if you currently have those things and they bring more pain than joy. I’m sorry that you maybe had those things and lost them, and you wonder if you’ll ever feel ok or be happy again.

You’re not the only one. Truly. I know it feels like you are. And in your immediate circle of friends and acquaintances, you might be the only one. But there are many walking a road similar to yours, even if you don’t know them or see them and social media makes it seem like they’re non-existent.

To the sad, the depressed, the lonely, the confused, the poor, the brokenhearted and heavy-laden, Jesus came. He came to restore shalom to a world destroyed by sin, and in these “dark streets shineth the everlasting light.” He is our only hope, and only in Him are the shattered pieces of creation refashioned into a mosaic of beauty, truth, and goodness. The next time He comes to earth, He’s bringing this kingdom with Him. And all will be made right when He appears. So run to Him, walk to Him, or crawl to Him.

“O Christ, save me from the pain of holidays and special days! Lead me, O Lord, through this layered confusion of celebration and lament, of things present, and things past. Let me make of this day a new thing. Though holidays may be hard days, O God, by the movement of your mercies may they also become holy days, teaching me again and again to entrust to you my many griefs, as often as these unavoidable days uncover and reveal them. Indeed let me learn, year by year, O Lord, how this long pain might be transformed into the groanings of a faith actively yearning toward a glorious and certain resurrection.” – Every Moment Holy, Volume 2, pages 287-289.

Human Frailty and Earthly Madness: Reflections on an ER Visit

Life can change in a split second—and often through everyday, mundane activities. That happened to me last week while in the midst of eating dinner, I started choking on a fishbone that got lodged in my throat. It was around 6pm, and I was at the ER by 7pm. I know that going to the ER is no one’s favorite activity, but for me, it’s especially and particularly difficult for a couple of reasons.

One, I’ve been quarantined for the most part for the past two years due to my chronic health issues and concerns over how I would fare with COVID, and going to the ER runs a bit counter to that endeavor. Two, the primary issue with my ongoing chronic mystery illness is what has been not-so-eloquently named Myalgic Encephalomyelitis. Or, if you prefer a simpler but far more irritating name, Chronic Fatigue Syndrome (which is irritating because of how poorly the name matches the actual experience of it).

The reason that number two is such a big deal is that I am usually winding down by 8pm every night and going to sleep by 9pm. For years. This is my rhythm. This is how I manage to function during the day enough to work a full-time job from home. Staying up past 9pm for me, the best I can describe it, would be like someone waking up a healthy person at 3am by dumping water on them and making them go run three miles. That’s what it feels like.

Of course, it was an unusually busy night at the ER. One woman with her ill daughter, I overheard, waited five hours in the waiting room before she was brought back. And I got there at 7pm. I didn’t know how I was going to make it until the wee hours, but I also knew that choking to death on a fishbone lodged in my throat wasn’t going to work either, so there I sat. For hours. Way past my bedtime.

I think a fair portion of what’s dysfunctional in me is my nervous system, which under severe stress like I was that night will start doing something crazy. My legs start shaking and flopping around out of control. That hasn’t happened in a long time, but that night was quite the show in that regard. Thankfully, though, not until I was brought into a room, though it would have entertained everyone in the lobby, I’m sure.

As I sat there undistracted by my phone (which was almost out of battery and I couldn’t use it), I thought. A lot. For four hours. And then some more. And here’s what I thought about:

1. We as humans are so much weaker than we like to think we are.

It’s kind of ridiculous to think that something that was as thin as a thread and as short as my fingernail could potentially end my life. I’m a lot bigger than a fishbone. But as amazing and adaptive and wonderful a creation as the human body is—as much as it can overcome amazing adversities and odds—it is also still very weak and fragile. It really is only the sovereignty of God as He breathes life into our lungs that gets us through fifteen seconds of one minute of one hour of one day.

2. We as humans are so much more impotent and ignorant than we like to think we are.

I know that there are skilled, wise, compassionate medical professionals out there, but those aren’t the ones I tend to end up with. After four hours, a CT scan, and what I’m sure will be thousands of dollars billed to my insurance company, they really couldn’t do anything other than tell me that it wasn’t going to kill me or obstruct my airway, and that I’d have to go see an ENT because they don’t have the nasopharyngeal scope in the ER. Seriously? That’s another story, but the point is, as much as we have discovered about the human body over thousands of years—and to be sure, many of those discoveries have been amazing, lifesaving, life-advancing discoveries—anyone who is chronically ill or has a mystery illness can easily tell you that for every one thing that medical science knows or has discovered, there’s probably a thousand things they don’t know or have yet to discover. It really is only the omnipotent, omniscient God who comprehensively understands the human bodies and earth that He has made.

3. Life in this world often doesn’t play by the rules.

Among other ideas for my memoir title, I think An Ecclesiastes Girl in a Proverbs World sums up what I feel like a lot of the time. Things just don’t seem to ever go right or according to plan. And sometimes, it just seems flat-out unfair. I try to steward my health by eating salmon, and a stupid little bone gets stuck in my throat and compromises my ability to speak, eat, drink, lay down, and breathe. The ER staff kept affirming that I was a higher priority, yet I kept seeing people who came after me get taken back before me. People who could talk, eat, drink, and weren’t choking. The guy who came in wearing no shirt who burned his stomach frying chicken strips (ostensibly with his shirt off at the time as well, or else I don’t know how he would have burned his stomach) got taken back immediately and was in and out while I sat there in the waiting room. Life doesn’t play by the “rules” in the sense that wise choices don’t always lead to better outcomes. We like to think so because that would give us control and therefore quell the persistent, low-grade anxiety of living in a world gone haywire through sin, but it just doesn’t work that way.

4. Being God’s child doesn’t lessen the suffering we experience.

All of these four truths can be hard to swallow (pun twistedly intended), but this one may be the hardest perhaps. And that’s the truth that being God’s child really doesn’t lessen the suffering we experience. It doesn’t soften the blows. It doesn’t tone down the intensity of the storms. Sometimes, whether stated or implied, it seems like there’s a belief floating around that being God’s child grants us the equivalent of a Disneyland Fast Pass for earthly travails. To be sure, I prayed a lot that night. I prayed and asked God that I would be seen quickly and wouldn’t have to wait given my health issues. But that didn’t really happen. I waited as long as everyone else. I prayed that I’d have really wise and compassionate care. To be fair, I’d say that somewhat happened. But the point is, from a temporal perspective, God didn’t push me through the waiting room faster because I’m His child and the other people aren’t. I didn’t get VIP treatment from God in my suffering. What I did have was the conviction by faith that He would strengthen me to endure, that I wasn’t abandoned even though I wasn’t temporally favored, and that death or life, no matter which one, would ultimately lead me to life eternal.

I was tempted to add a number 5 on the topic of the dehumanization that often occurs within the context of severe illness or injury in the medical system, but that’s another topic for another time. And if anyone’s curious, I’m doing better now, chewing very carefully, and a bit hesitant to ever eat salmon again.

Entitlement: When Grace Isn’t Grace

Few people would disagree that a sense of entitlement permeates our culture. But as the Preacher said, “There is nothing new under the sun” (Eccl. 1:9). While shifts in worldview over the past few decades may have poured gasoline on the fire, a sinful sense of entitlement was sparked for the first time in the garden of Eden, and since that day, this tendency to sinful entitlement has been embedded in our fallen DNA. Click here to keep reading at Tabletalkmagazine.com…

Are You “Godlier” Than God?

They’re subtle. They’re just biblical enough to sound right. But the greatest deceptions are the ones that contain the most truth. As I reflect on things I’ve seen and heard among Christians over the years, sometimes I have to wonder: Are we trying to be godlier than God?

As humans, we tend toward extremes rather than hitting the balance. We don’t take things far enough, or we take them way too far. It’s easy to do. But when it comes to spiritual things, the results can be damaging, even devastating, when truth is bloated and applied beyond the bounds of what God Himself has prescribed. And when these quasi-truths are paraded as truth, people can be damaged and led away from the heart of God Himself.

I’m sure there are many examples, but I’ll speak to a couple that burden my heart the most.

One way Christians sometimes seem to be godlier than God is in the area of grief. The truth is that death stinks. Death, in and of itself, is bad. Which is why the concept of turning funerals into “celebrations of life” can so easily miss the mark. To be clear, I know there are times when someone’s death can in some ways bring relief to family and friends. When someone has been suffering long with pain, it’s a relief for the person to be released from their pain and their soul soar to God. But even then, death is still separation, and separation is still bad. It is still wrong. It still hurts. We weren’t created to be separated from the people and things we love.

Therefore, attempting to mask over the grief with celebration can potentially be harmful, because people need to grieve. Grieving is normal. In fact, it’s kind of abnormal to NOT grieve in the face of death or separation or loss. Consider this, if you want your funeral to be a celebration of life—your funeral is not for you. Your funeral is for those whom you leave behind. You won’t need to grieve, but they will. And perhaps a celebration isn’t in their best interest (then again, perhaps it is. Again, I’m not saying that’s wrong to do. Just pointing out it’s not necessarily godlier or better to do so in all situations).

I’ll often hear people laud the fact that the widow of a man who died was smiling and singing and praising God at his funeral. And of course, that’s well and good if that’s what is in her heart and is helpful to her. But it troubles me that Christians see rejoicing in the face of death as the only appropriate expression of strong faith, the only response worthy of emulation. Can strong faith not cry, grieve, and mourn at the funeral? And for days, weeks, and months after? If not, then Jesus certainly wasn’t an example of strong faith when He wept over dead Lazarus.

Strong faith cries. Strong faith grieves. Let’s not try to be godlier than God when death comes, and let’s certainly not impose on others an ethic that’s more stoic than biblical. While Christians should absolutely be the ones with the most hope in the face of death, they should also be the ones who see and feel the profound horrors of death the most.

As R.C. Sproul notes in his teaching series “Surprised by Suffering”:

“One of the things that distresses me in the Christian community is that somehow this idea has gotten around that it is wrong for Christians to grieve or mourn. And that when we go to a Christian funeral, we should see those who have just lost a loved one rejoicing and grinning and smiling and having toast unto the glory of God because their child or husband or wife has now simply passed onto glory, and isn’t it a wonderful thing to go from this world to heaven. Well yes, it’s a wonderful thing to go from this world to heaven. But when Jesus went to Lazarus’ funeral, He cried because He entered into the pain of the situation that comes from separation. Yes I can rejoice that my loved ones have gone to a better place, but I and those who are left behind have to face the enormous burden of living life without the presence here of someone that we love. And that’s an occasion for grief and mourning. We need to learn how to mourn and to allow people to express their grief.”

Or to put “godlier than God” another way, let’s not try to be more “spiritual” than the earthy humans God created us to be and wants us to be.

Another way it seems Christians sometimes seek to be godlier than God is in the area of rewards. The Bible speaks often and plainly about storing up treasure in heaven. It speaks clearly that those who have given up certain worldly treasures will have treasure in heaven to recompense what they gave up. It strongly suggests that those who suffer more in this life will receive greater reward in the eternal state. For those who suffer in this life, it can be a great motivator.

But some Christians want to cry “foul” at this notion. To them, it seems dirty. They argue that Jesus is the reward being spoken of (contrary to what the text literally says), and any Christian who would want rewards other than Jesus is an opportunistic spiritual gold-digger.

What’s interesting here is that God Himself is the one who has chosen to provide motivation to His people in this very “earthy” way. He knows who we are. He knows our frailties. After all, He’s the one who made us, so He’s the one who knows best how to motivate us, especially in our fallen state.

And so if God Himself is offering rewards as a motivator for godly living, how can we be “godlier” than that by spiritualizing all the references to rewards and calling them dirty? Could the pursuit of rewards go off in a bad direction? Of course… anything can. Could people be motivated to please God for the wrong reasons? Of course. We do it all the time. The point is, we can’t reduce or alter what God has said because we’re afraid that people might take it in a bad direction. We need to let the truth stand as God has delivered it without trying to doctor it. When it comes to rewards, we can’t try to be godlier than God.

On this topic, R.C. Sproul says the following:

“There are degrees of reward given in heaven. I’m surprised that this answer surprises so many people… We owe much of this confusion to the Protestant emphasis on the doctrine of justification by faith alone. We hammer away at that doctrine, teaching emphatically that a person does not get to heaven through his good works. We emphasize this doctrine to the extent that people conclude good works are insignificant and have no bearing at all upon the Christian’s future life… Again, it may be surprising to people, but I’d say there are at least twenty-five occasions where the New Testament clearly teaches that we will be granted rewards according to our works. Jesus frequently holds out the reward motif as the carrot in front of the horse—’great will be your reward in heaven’ if you do this or that. We are called to work, to store up treasures for ourselves in heaven.” (Now, That’s a Good Question! pp. 287-289)

All to say, just because something sounds very spiritual doesn’t mean that it is. Just because something seems very spiritual doesn’t mean that it’s what God wants or what He says in His Word. The problem with culture, even Christian culture, is that when it’s the air we breathe every day, we can become blind to where we get off track. It can be difficult to have clear eyes and ask good questions when we just assume that what we’ve heard is right without really exercising critical thinking and discernment to test everything, and after that, to hold fast to what is good.