Rejoice and Tremble – Michael Reeves

What does it really mean to fear the Lord? Michael Reeves answers that question in Rejoice and Tremble: The Surprising Good News of the Fear of the Lord. Not only does he answer that question, but as the title suggests, he shows us why fearing the Lord should lead to rejoicing. I know. That’s a bizarre concept in our contemporary culture. Rejoice and Tremble recaptures and beautifully illustrates such this important concept that has long been neglected in the church.

Fear of the Lord

What do you think of when you hear the phrase, “The fear of the Lord?” Most churched people would probably think of Proverbs 1:7— “the fear of the Lord is the beginning of knowledge.” Or maybe they would think of Proverbs 9:10 — The fear of the Lord is the beginning of wisdom. I grew up in the church and heard those verses preached. I don’t remember ever getting a deep, satisfying explanation of what fearing the Lord actually means.

It’s odd when you think about it, because the fear of the Lord is mentioned throughout scripture. Reeves points out that David prays about it in Psalms. Solomon writes about it in Proverbs and Ecclesiastes. The prophets mention it repeatedly. Mary sings about it after being visited by Gabriel. Paul mentions it to the Colossians and Corinthians. It’s all over the place. Yet, we don’t hear much about it today, because the idea of fear confuses us. It seems negative. We mistake it to mean being afraid of God.

Rejoice and Tremble gives the deep, satisfying explanation the church has often left wanting. Reeves writes:

My aim now is to cut through this discouraging confusion. I want you to rejoice in this strange paradox that the gospel both frees us from fear and gives us fear. It frees us from our crippling fears, giving us instead a most delightful, happy, and wonderful fear.

Culture of Fear

Reeves begins by addressing the culture of fear in society today. We live in a strange paradox. Research shows we live more safely than any group in history. Yet, anxiety and fear permeate our lives. When you have more to lose, you fear losing it more.

There is a ‘moral confusion’ in our society as well that contributes to our anxiety. Reeves writes, “When your culture is hedonistic, your religion therapeutic, and your goal a feeling of personal well-being, fear will be the ever-present headache.” We’ve removed the fear of the Lord from our culture, only to fear the idols we’ve set up in his place.

Sinful Fear & Right Fear

Reeves spends the next two chapters contrasting sinful fear with a rightful fear of God. It is sinful fear that drives us away from the Lord. He uses Exodus 20, the parable of the ten minas, 1 Samuel 12, and some great quotes to illustrate “a contrast between being afraid of God and fearing God: those who have the fear of him will not be afraid of him.”

When your culture is hedonistic, your religion therapeutic, and your goal a feeling of personal well-being, fear will be the ever-present headache.

Michael Reeves

In contrast, a right fear of God “as Charles Spurgeon put it, ‘leans toward the Lord’ because of his very goodness. Reeves starts with Jeremiah 33, but he uses so many great examples from scripture to illustrate a right fear of the Lord, I had to make myself stop highlighting. I was simply highlighting the whole book. I’ll give you this quote:

The living God is infinitely perfect and quintessentially, overwhelmingly beautiful in every way: his righteousness, his graciousness, his majesty, his mercy, his all. And so we do not love him aright if our love is not a trembling, overwhelmed, and fearful love.

Radical Renewal, Not Self-Improvement

The book then examines fear of God as creator and fear of God as redeemer. It looks at how to grow in a right of fear of God. Reeves writes, “What we need is a radical renewal—not self-improvement but a profound change of heart—so that we want and love and long differently.” How do we get that change of heart? Through faith in Jesus’ work on the cross.

The final chapters look at growing in the knowledge of the Lord, which leads to a right fear, rather than the inward self absorption society promotes. The book concludes with a look at how we will rejoice and tremble in eternity: “But on that last day, the glory of the Lord will fill the earth, and his people will fall down in fearsome wonder, delight, and praise.”

Throughout Rejoice and Tremble, Reeves supports every point with scripture. He weaves in insightful quotes from puritans, Spurgeon, Lewis, and the reformers. As I mentioned previously, I found myself highlighting and underlining so much, I had to stop. I was looking at entire pages highlighted. It is a relatively short book, so obviously there could be more in depth exegesis. However, I found Rejoice and Tremble to be the best and most accessible explanation of the fear of the Lord I’ve read. I highly recommend it. You can pick up a copy here.

J.I. Packer: His Life and Thought

J.I. Packer’s passing was one of the great losses of 2020. If you are looking for a short introduction to his work, J.I. Packer: His Life and Thought by Alister McGrath is the perfect book for you. McGrath does an excellent job of alternating short biographical sketches with what Packer was working on at the time and the impact it had on the church.

Focus

McGrath points out in the introduction that many think of Packer as a North American theologian. People don’t know much about his impact on evangelicalism in the United Kingdom. He writes:

This book focuses on Packer’s origins, education and ministry in the United Kingdom, which were an essential part of his formation as a Christian and as a theologian.

McGrath begins with the quintessential Packer origin story. Packer was apparently always a bookish child, but a childhood accident that prevented him from being able to roughhouse made him even more so, which really set the course of his life.

The book follows Packer through key moments and phases in his life. McGrath zooms in on important time periods, like Packer coming to faith and stumbling upon the Puritans when he needed a practical theological framework. He goes into detail around the writing of Packer’s important works and some of the controversies that he dealt with. And then he zooms back out to summarize periods of teaching and serving in ministry.

Structure

As the title suggests, McGrath weaves chapters between the biographical narrative to explain Packer’s theological thoughts. McGrath includes just enough details to keep the narrative flow of the book, while also giving a taste of Packer’s theology and writing. And then he brings right back into the biographical narrative. As previously mentioned, the book focuses on his time and work in the UK, while only spending a few chapters at the end to summarize his popular time in North America.

J.I. Packer: His Life and Thought made me want to read more Packer. In just a short book, it made it clear that Packer had a deep love for the practical aspect of theology. It wasn’t just abstractions and theory to him. He wanted to know how to live out his faith in a deep way, and that’s what he studied, taught, and wrote about.

Knowing God

Packer also had a love for the local church and people. He knew very earlier that he wasn’t being called to just academics. His calling was to serve God’s people as a “theological educator.” Throughout his career in the UK, he was always concerned with teaching “how to do theology,” rather than just giving people the final product. Even into his retirement years, Packer emphasized the churches need to rediscover the “lost art of catechesis.”

Packer states:

Christians who know their faith, can explain it to enquirers and sustain it against skeptics, and can put it to work in evangelism, church fellowship, and the many forms of service to God and man for which circumstances call.

J.I. Packer: His Life and Thought packs a lot into a short read. You can’t help love Packer’s humble desire to help people know God and live out their faith in practical ways. It’s a great introduction into his work. You can get a copy here.

The Rise and Triumph of the Modern Self

As I was reading The Rise and Triumph of the Modern Self by Carl R. Trueman, I knew very early that it would be one of my favorite books of the year. I can say without hyperbole The Rise and Triumph of the Modern Self is the most profound cultural analysis I’ve read.

“I’m a woman trapped in a man’s body” is the springboard of the book. Not long ago that statement would have been considered nonsense, and anyone saying it would be morally suspect. Today, if you even question the validity of that statement, you are considered a bigot and deemed unworthy of any social standing, platform, or even livelihood. How did we get from point A to point B? That’s what Trueman attempts to answer.

The Modern Self

You should understand that The Rise and Triumph of the Modern Self is not a lament or even an apologetic. Trueman doesn’t attack anyone or promote a political viewpoint. He offers very few strategies for Christians at the end, but even hesitates to do that. Trueman says that’s not what this book is about. He simply explains the historical narrative of how our culture thinks about selfhood and identity today.

Trueman writes:

At the heart of this book lies a basic conviction: the so-called sexual revolution of the last sixty years, culminating in its latest triumph—the normalization of transgenderism—cannot be properly understood until it is set within the context of a much broader transformation in how society understands the nature of human selfhood. The sexual revolution is as much a symptom as it is a cause of the culture that now surrounds us everywhere we look, from sitcoms to Congress.

Plastic & Pliable

Trueman structures the book in four parts. The narrative of concepts build on one another through history. Part one lays the groundwork for the concepts he will return to throughout the book as he examines what he calls a “long and complicated story.” Trueman builds off the work of philosophers Philip Rieff, Charles Taylor, and Alasdair McIntyre. He introduces and uses their concepts frequently. You’re going to want to read this chapter slowly and highlight key terms like mimesis and poiesis, social imaginary, and expressive individualism. They come up again.

Part Two begins the historical narrative and focuses on concepts introduced by Rousseau, the Romantics, Nietzche, Marx, and Darwin. I found this part of the book fascinating, because we don’t typically think about or mention these historical figures very much, but they had a profound influence on how we think. The most surprising to me is Nietzche, who I imagine most people don’t really know much about at all. These thinkers psychologized identity and the idea of selfhood. Human identity became plastic and completely pliable.

Trueman writes of Nietzsche, Marx, and Darwin:

These three effectively strip away the metaphysical foundations for both human identity and for morality, leaving the latter, as Nietzsche is happy to point out, a matter of mere taste and manipulative power games.

Sexualized & Politicized

Part Three focuses on psychology, and specifically Freud and others who advanced Freudian concepts. Trueman explains how these concepts sexualized psychology. Building on the concepts of those who came before, identity became sexualized. Building on Marx’s concepts, identity then became politicized, which means sexuality also became politicized.

Part four brings us to our current day and culture. Trueman explains how the concepts previously mentioned have worked together to currently shape our society and culture. Part four examines the rise and acceptance of the erotic. It explains how the concepts of the therapeutic self have played out in higher education and the Supreme Court. Finally, it examines the rise and acceptance of transgenderism. All of these concepts demand that traditional frameworks be labelled and destroyed.

A Dangerous Place

My interpretation is that our modern obsession with identity—psychologically, sexually, racially, therapeutically—has created a culture that worships “self” like no other. In fact, we worship our ability to self-identify and self-create to the point that identity is completely pliable. Anything goes, unless of course I feel it threatens my concept of selfhood. Our culture is now anticulture. “Everyone did what was right in his own eyes.” (Judges 17:6) It’s a dangerous place to be.

The Rise and Triumph of the Self is extremely well researched and written. It is a long book. It also uses a lot of unfamiliar terms, which may make it a difficult read if you’re not familiar with them. I read it very slowly to digest it. However, it is very rewarding and the most important cultural analysis of the year. I highly recommend it. You can get a copy here.

Favorite books of 2020

What time of year is it? That’s right. It’s time for endless lists of favorite books of the year. I’m actually writing my list fashionably late. Most of the important people posted their lists a few weeks ago. I’m going to keep it short. I’m picking my five favorites books that I read this year.

Gentle and Lowly: The Heart of Christ for Sinners and Sufferers by Dane Ortlund

greatlywondering.com - Gentle and LowlyYou should be highly skeptical of any favorite books list in 2020 that doesn’t have Gentle and Lowly on it. We all needed this book in 2020. Dane Ortlund does a masterful job revealing the heart of Christ for sinners. In my review, I said it’s like being wrapped in a warm Puritan weighted blanket for the soul. It’s theologically rich and deeply encouraging. Do yourself a favor and get a copy of this as a gift to yourself. You can read my review here.

Deep Discipleship by J.T. English

Deep Discipleship - greatlywondering.comHave you thought about the discipleship process at your church? Can your church’s discipleship take someone from being a new believer to being a pastor? J.T. English asks some challenging questions to get us to examine the state of discipleship in our local church. This is probably the most practical book I read this year. It certainly got me thinking about my church and how we can improve our discipleship process. I think Deep Discipleship will be extremely helpful to churches for years to come. You can read my review here.

The Rise and Triumph of the Modern Self by Carl R. Trueman

greatlywondering.comI haven’t finished this book yet, but I already know it’s one of my favorites this year. I’m reading it slowly, because there is so much to take in. “I’m a woman trapped in a man’s body.” That statement would have been considered nonsense and morally suspect just a generation ago. Yet, it is full of meaning today and to question it is now considered morally suspect. Trueman looks back through western culture to figure out how our society has changed to understand and essentially worship self. It’s a fascinating and disturbing read. I will post a review as soon as I finish it.

Live Not By Lies: A Manual For Christian Dissidents by Rod Dreher

Live Not By Lies CoverIt’s appropriate that Rod Dreher wrote the foreword to the previous book on this list. Live Not By Lies is a challenging examination of the rise of soft totalitarianism in the United States. It’s hard to argue with his thesis as cancel culture rages all around us and social media continues to make Orwell’s 1984 look like reality. But here’s what makes Live Not By Lies especially interesting. Dreher interviews Christians who lived through hard totalitarianism under communist soviet rule. How did they do it? How did they keep their faith? You can read my review here.

The Town by William Faulkner

greatlywondering.comThis book wasn’t published this year. Being a former English major, I tend to alternate between nonfiction and fiction. Fiction has a special ability to build empathy and understanding. Not to mention it reads much quicker than nonfiction. The Town really highlights fiction’s ability to make the reader see through another person’s eyes, even if you don’t agree with them.

It is the second book in Faulkner’s masterful trilogy about the Snopes family, set in Yoknapatawpha County, the fictional Mississippi county Faulkner created for many of his stories. Three characters tell the story from alternating viewpoints. The more you want to hate the Snopes family, the more Faulkner develops characters and unfolds the inner life of the town. The reader slowly begins to see why people are the way they are.

That’s it. Those are my favorite books of 2020. I know I personally needed good books to get through this year. I hope this is helpful, and here’s to happy reading next year.

Advent and Nahum?

It’s advent season, and I’m teaching through the book of Nahum. I know. It’s weird, right? I didn’t particularly plan to teach through this book during advent, but things just happened that way. The even stranger thing is it has kind of made sense. 

Nahum’s name means comfort, which dovetails nicely with advent, comforting Christmas carols, and looking forward to Jesus coming into the world. The difficult part is the book of Nahum is a prophecy that is all about wrath and judgment—two topics no one wants to talk about, especially at Christmas. If we’re being honest, those two topics are completely offensive to western therapeutic culture, which holds self as the highest authority.

However, justice is a hot topic and buzzword these days. In order to have justice, there has to be a judgment of what’s right and wrong to begin with. In order for things to be made right, judgment has to take place. 

A stronghold and refuge

When Nahum writes this prophecy, the Assyrians have been terrorizing the Israelites for hundreds of years. In fact they had destroyed the northern kingdom of Israel and taken them into exile. Nahum’s message of God’s judgment and wrath on Nineveh and the Assyrians brings the Israelites comfort. God is setting things right. He is giving them justice. 

Nahum doesn’t begin with wrath and judgment. He begins with who God is, and the entire first chapter is dedicated to explaining God’s characteristics versus the Assyrians. God is Jealous and avenging (Something else we don’t like to talk about and find offensive, but that’s another discussion.) God is slow to anger. He is great in power. He will not clear the guilty. No one can stand before His indignation, because he is magnificent. And the culminating and comforting characteristic—The Lord is good. He is a stronghold and a refuge in times of trouble.

Setting things right

Chapter 2 of Nahum describes in vivid detail the destruction of the city of Nineveh, and chapter 3 describes the fall of the Assyrian empire. God brings the cruelty of the Assyrians to an end. Their powerful empire melts away right in front of their eyes. They can’t believe it. They’re in shock.

Tim Mackie says one of the big takeaways from the book is that Nahum presents Nineveh as an example of how God will not allow violent, arrogant empires who refuse to humble themselves to endure. We see that throughout history—Assyria, Babylon, Persia, Rome, the Mongols, the Ottomans, the Spanish empire, the Portuguese empire, the British, on and on. Yes, maybe even America. We don’t know. In His time, God will set things right by His standard, not ours, because His standard is perfect and holy.

The reversal in fortune the Assyrians experience should sound familiar. We shouldn’t be surprised. Read the Sermon on the Mount in Matthew chapters 5-7. Jesus takes what the world thinks makes a mighty and powerful kingdom and flips it on its head.

The kingdom

That doesn’t just apply to pagan nations or empires. When the Israelites turn from God and refuse to humble themselves, God brings judgement and justice with the intention of bringing them to repentance, so He can show them grace and bring them back into relationship with Him. Having a relationship with God is the ultimate good. It also applies to our own little empires we build in our private circles and in our minds. 

Ultimately, what kingdom is God interested in? He’s interested in the Kingdom of God. He wants us to be citizens of His Kingdom, but in order for that to happen things have to be set right. Judgment has to take place.

He flips the idea of what the world thinks makes a mighty kingdom on its head again. Advent is looking forward to the coming of the King. He doesn’t come as a mighty warrior, like the Assyrians. He comes as baby. The King comes down from his throne, becoming man. He is tempted, but lives a perfect life, so that He could pay the price for us to be set free from the slavery of sin. On the cross, He takes the judgment on Himself. Three days later, He rose from the grave, conquering sin and death—setting all things right once and for all. 

As Christians, adopted into the family of God, we are not called to be part of any earthly empire. Earthy empires will fail. We can mourn the state of society, and we should prayerfully intercede for it. But ultimately, we are called to be part of the Kingdom of God. Jesus is the only way into that Kingdom, because He is the King. 

Deep Discipleship by J.T. English

I was almost convinced that Gentle and Lowly by Dane Ortlund was going to be my favorite book of the year, but Deep Discipleship by J.T. English gives it a run for that spot. Having facilitated Bible studies and small groups for years, I’m especially interested in discipleship and spiritual growth. Deep Discipleship diagnoses the churches’ discipleship problem and reframes key questions to point us to solutions that will grow robust followers of Christ.

What’s The Problem

English starts the book by diagnosing the discipleship problem in the church. He writes:

Over the past several decades the Western church has noticed alarming symptoms of our discipleship disease. Some of these symptoms include people leaving the church; students dropping out of church after high school; attendance dropping; and perhaps most important, a lack of seriousness among our people about what it really means to be a follower of Christ.

He goes on to say that the church has assumed that the problem is we’ve asked too much of people. So, what does the church do? Lower the bar of discipleship. I’ve heard it called “putting the cookies on the bottom shelf.”

The Danger of Misdiagnosis

Churches have created programs designed to entertain and keep as many people coming back as possible. We’ve watered down doctrine and deep biblical study. In exchange, pastors have developed quick self-help, step-based positivity messages full of tweetable quips and hip graphics. Essentially, the church has begun to use marketing and business strategy to gain and keep consumers, instead of using the Word of God to make and grow disciples of Jesus. 

English says the church has misdiagnosed the disease and prescribed the wrong treatment. He writes:

People are leaving the church not because we have asked too much of them but because we have not asked enough of them. We are giving people a shallow and generic spirituality when we need to give them distinctive Christianity. We have tried to treat our discipleship disease by appealing to the lowest common denominator, oversimplifying discipleship, and taking the edges off what it means to follow Christ.

The why Behind The What

If churches are bringing in crowds with slick marketing and  Bible-lite sermons, how can it be wrong? Don’t the ends justify the means? English addresses the question of “why does deep discipleship matter” in the first chapter.

English uses a short example from the prophet Habakkuk to illustrate that world history is heading towards the kingdom and prescence of God. That’s the future of the world. That’s our future. That should be our greatest hope and aim. He writes:

The main aim of this book, the call to deep discipleship in our churches, is for the sole purpose of pointing ourselves and those we lead toward the infinite beauty of the Triune God. Success in ministry is not found in building programs but in building disciples—disciples who love God with all of their heart, soul, strength, and mind (Luke 10:27). Christ is the goal, not better or more impressive ministries. He is what we want. 

English argues that there are two challenges in our culture that the church has to overcome to have deep discipleship: Self-centered Discipleship and Spiritual Apathy. I found myself underlining and taking notes on so much throughout this whole book, but especially here in the first chapter. I don’t want to overload this review with quotes, but English nails the why behind deep discipleship in this first chapter. 

The What

Each chapter of Deep Disicpleship reframes a question that English thinks the church should be asking itself. The question in chapters 2 and 3 is “Where should we form holistic disciples?” English’s answer is in the church. Chapter 3 digs into where specifically discipleship should happen in the church.

These chapters hit home for me having just heard a deacon nominee give his testimony about growing up in the church, but not feeling like he was taught doctrine, theology, or spiritual disciplines. He had to go to seminary for that. I have a similar story and feel like I had to seek those things for myself outside of the local church. English makes a strong argument that the local church should be raising up its next deacons, Bible teachers, and even pastors. 

English writes:

Someone should be able to come to faith, grow in the faith, and walk in Christian maturity solely from being formed by a local church. That is the basic sequence of the gospel. We are orphans who have been adopted into Christ’s family. Then, as adopted infants, we learn how to grow into mature members of the household—all of which can happen in and through the local church.

English goes on to lay out four distinctives that make the local church the primary place for deep discipleship: place, people, purpose, and presence. He walks through an explanation of each. He also goes on to discuss the difference between learning spaces and community spaces and the roles they play in discipleship.

THe How

Chapters 4 and 5 really get into the meat and potatoes. They answer the questions “what do disciples need” and “how do disciples grow.” English was previously on staff at The Village Church where he developed what they call the Training Program. It’s a one year intense discipleship program within the church itself.  So, these aren’t just theories and concepts. He has very successfully put them into practice. These two chapters get into the practical “how do we do this?”

 Most churches are unsure how all of the pieces fit together—classes, curriculum, groups. What I like about English’s approach here is he leaves room for individual churches to evaluate their congregations and answer questions to determine what their church’s scope and core essentials are. It’s not a one size fits all solution. 

However, he does lay out three broad topics or buckets disciples need: Bible, beliefs, spiritual habits. He writes:

A healthy disciple must be growing in the understanding of God’s Word, founded on distinctively Christian beliefs and practicing spiritual disciplines. What does every disciple need? They need Scripture, doctrine, and spiritual habits.

Scope and Structure

Deep Discipleship gives enough examples, approaches, and questions to help churches determine the best scope and competencies for them. I especially appreciated the discussion on structured levels of discipleship, which allows people to eventually grow into leadership. 

As one example states in the book, people should not stay at an 8th-grade level of discipleship for 40 years in the same class. People should be continually growing in their faith and spiritual maturity. Eventually, they should be disciples who are making disciples, teaching Bible studies, and leading. Which leads to chapter 6.

Where do They Go

You may be asking where is evangelism in all of this? Chapter 6 is dedicated to how deep discipleship leads to evangelism. English writes:

A culture of deep discipleship is not intent on sending a few, but on sending all. A deep discipleship church is also a missional church. A church that trains also sends. Christian maturity does not hinder mission; it fuels mission.

I like how he states there are no graduates from these discipleship programs. There are only “commissioned participants.” The chapter goes on to discuss that they don’t just emphasize people being called to national or international missions. Those are obviously important. However, they also discuss those who are called to serve in the church as volunteers, people who minister to their neighborhoods, those called to missions in their secular occupations, as well as those being called to vocational ministry.

Deep Discipleship

English closes Deep Discipleship with a chapter on how to implement this model in your church. As in previous chapters, the recommended questions and approaches leaves room for churches to find what will work for their individual congregations. This is not just a discipleship model for megachurches with large staffs. English discusses how this approach can be scaled for churches of all sizes. 

Deep Discipleship is probably the most practical and important book regarding discipleship in the local church that I’ve read. I can’t recommend it enough to those looking to grow deep, robust followers of Christ. I’m sure I will be coming back to this book over and over through the years. You can get a copy here.

Live Not By Lies | Rod Dreher

Historians are going to have a wealth of events to study from 2020.  Perhaps more than the year 1968. No doubt one thing they will analyze will be the unabashed rise of totalitarianism in the West, which is the topic of Rod Dreher’s new book Live Not By Lies. Dreher analyzes the rise of what he calls “soft totalitarianism” in the US by talking to people who lived through totalitarianism in the Soviet Bloc. As he did in his book The Benedict Option, Dreher focuses on how Christians can preserve their faith during these troubling times.   

What is This?

If you’re wondering what totalitarianism is—

According to Hannah Arendt, the foremost scholar of totalitarianism, a totalitarian society is one in which an ideology seeks to displace all prior traditions and institutions, with the goal of bringing all aspects of society under control of that ideology. A totalitarian state is one that aspires to nothing less than defining and controlling reality. Truth is whatever the rulers decide it is. As Arendt has written, wherever totalitarianism has ruled, “[I]t has begun to destroy the essence of man.”

I grew up in the 1980s during the Cold War. It seems bizarre to me to even need a discussion on the dangers of totalitarianism; yet, here we are. From cancel culture having people fired for differing opinions on Twitter to mobs screaming at passive diners to raise their fists in solidarity at restaurants, totalitarianism is being accepted. Let’s be honest. It’s even being celebrated by some. I realize that not everyone will agree with that statement. Many will not agree with Dreher’s conclusions in Live Not By Lies, but it’s very difficult to ignore the facts. 

The same..

Dreher interviews Christians who lived through brutal totalitarianism in the Soviet Bloc, and here’s what he found:

What makes the emerging situation in the West similar to what they fled? After all, every society has rules and taboos and mechanisms to enforce them. What unnerves those who lived under Soviet communism is this similarity: Elites and elite institutions are abandoning old-fashioned liberalism, based in defending the rights of the individual, and replacing it with a progressive creed that regards justice in terms of groups. It encourages people to identify with groups—ethnic, sexual, and otherwise—and to think of Good and Evil as a matter of power dynamics among the groups. A utopian vision drives these progressives, one that compels them to seek to rewrite history and reinvent language to reflect their ideals of social justice.

…but different

These Christians survived absolutely brutal persecution. Dreher describes horrific torture methods used by the Soviets. Many of the people he interviews or their family members spent decades in prisons or gulags. As Dreher examines how they maintained their faith, it’s obvious that there are differences in the totalitarianism we face. In some ways, what we face is even scarier. Dreher writes:

To be sure, whatever this is, it is not a carbon copy of life in the Soviet Bloc nations, with their secret police, their gulags, their strict censorship, and their material deprivation. That is precisely the problem, these people warn. The fact that relative to Soviet Bloc conditions, life in the West remains so free and so prosperous is what blinds Americans to the mounting threat to our liberty. That, and the way those who take away freedom couch it in the language of liberating victims from oppression.

structure

Live Not By Lies starts with a brief history of the rise of totalitarianism in Russia. He looks at the sources and the parallels with what is happening in the US today. Dreher analyzes what he considers the two factors driving “soft totalitarianism” today: the social justice movement and surveillance technology, which has become a huge part of our consumerist culture.

The second part of the book examines forms, methods, and sources of resistance. Dreher attempts to answer the following questions by examining exactly what the Christians in the Soviet Bloc did in order to survive:

Why is religion and the hope it gives at the core of effective resistance? What does the willingness to suffer have to do with living in truth? Why is the family the most important cell of opposition?… How did they get through it?… Why are they so anxious about the West’s future?

difficult topics

Obviously, this is a contentious topic. Live Not By Lies discusses some difficult topics. Dreher has already been attacked and criticized. He doesn’t seem to accept the media-driven narrative of the death of George Floyd and the social justice movement. How exactly does he describe the soft totalitarianism affecting the US? Dreher writes:

Today’s totalitarianism demands allegiance to a set of progressive beliefs, many of which are incompatible with logic—and certainly with Christianity. Compliance is forced less by the state than by elites who form public opinion, and by private corporations that, thanks to technology, control our lives far more than we would like to admit…

Today’s left-wing totalitarianism once again appeals to an internal hunger, specifically the hunger for a just society, one that vindicates and liberates the historical victims of oppression. It masquerades as kindness, demonizing dissenters and disfavored demographic groups to protect the feelings of “victims” to bring about “social justice…”

This is what the survivors of communism are saying to us: liberalism’s admirable care for the weak and marginalized is fast turning into a monstrous ideology that, if it is not stopped, will transform liberal democracy into a softer, therapeutic form of totalitarianism.

The rub

For Christians, therein lies the rub—“liberalism’s admirable care for the weak and marginalized.” Aren’t Christians supposed to care for the weak and marginalized? The answer is yes. Christians should and do care for the weak and marginalized. The problem is ideology in these movements is king, and the ideology is ultimately atheistic and therapeutic. Christianity is allowed as long as it bends to the ideology, not the other way around. 

These movements are trying to use totalitarianism to create a utopia based on their ideology. As Mark Sayers says in one of my favorite quotes, “They want to create the kingdom of heaven, but without the King.” That is their end goal. Ask yourself, what is the end goal of Christianity? What happens when the goals of the ideology clash with Christianity?

Dreher writes:

In therapeutic culture, which has everywhere triumphed, the great sin is to stand in the way of the freedom of others to find happiness as they wish. This goes hand in hand with the sexual revolution, which, along with ethnic and gender identity politics, replaced the failed economic class struggle as the utopian focus of the post-1960s radical left.

original sin

It all goes back to the original sin: the individual wants to be a god. The individual wants to create his or her own brand of heaven where the only sin is anything causing unhappiness. In that kind of culture, even using the pronouns “his or her” is controversial because it could offend someone. Dreher writes:

Christian resistance on a large scale to the anti-culture has been fruitless, and is likely to be for the foreseeable future. Why? Because the spirit of the therapeutic has conquered the churches as well—even those populated by Christians who identify as conservative. Relatively few contemporary Christians are prepared to suffer for the faith, because the therapeutic society that has formed them denies the purpose of suffering in the first place, and the idea of bearing pain for the sake of truth seems ridiculous.

What can we do?

Honestly, the scariest part of all this is we unsuspectingly welcome totalitarianism. We live in a far more technologically advanced society than the 1980s Soviet Bloc. The opportunities and ability to surveil private life are unbelievable. As Dreher says, “There’s nowhere left to hide.” It’s almost cliche to point out anymore. We are far more similar to the society in Huxley’s Brave New World, than we are Orwell’s 1984. Why? Because we happily invite our oppressors into every aspect of our lives, as long as we’re kept happy with endless entertainment and shiny consumer goods. We don’t want to offend anyone, and we don’t want to suffer. Dreher even recounts how one Soviet Bloc survivor he talked to is horrified at the use of smartphones and Amazon Echo in US homes. They lived the nightmare described in 1984.

The subtitle to Live Not By Lies is “A Manual For Christian Dissidents.” The second part of the book specifically gives the strategies the Christians in the Soviet Bloc used to maintain their faith and survive. If you haven’t guessed it, the title of the book has a lot to do with it. The title comes from a quote by Solzhenitsyn, a Christian who survived the gulags. And yes, their Christian faith was crucial to their survival. In fact, much of what our society wants Christians to let go of turns out to be crucial for surviving totalitarianism. Let’s not fool ourselves. There will be suffering, but we must persevere.

conclusion

This is a difficult topic. It’s hard to hear these comparisons and read these stories. It’s difficult to step outside the ideologies and narratives that seem to want to help people and really see what the end goal is. I think the strategies presented in the second part of the book will be essential in the coming years. Live Not By Lies is not a happy book, but it’s a necessary book. I recommend you read it and ask yourself the hard questions.  You can get a copy of the book here.

Piercing Heaven: Prayers of the Puritans

I bought Piercing Heaven: Prayers of the Puritans edited by Robert Elmer recently. I’ve had it on my want list for a while, but what made me pull the trigger was watching Puritan: All of Life to the Glory of God. By the way, the documentary is pretty expensive. The only affordable option I found to stream it was through Faithlife. That being said, Piercing Heaven has been a blessing.

The book organizes the prayers by practical topics, for example, “Help Me Ask for Help,” “Prepare My Heart For The Lord’s Day And The Lord’s Table,” “Help Me Through My Time of Sadness and Suffering,” and “Help Me Rest in God’s Love.” I love it, because it emphasizes the Puritans’ desire to focus on God in very practical ways in all aspects of life.

These prayers feel more accessible and perhaps more usable than those in The Valley of Vision. I feel like I can pray these prayers without feeling too ornate or poetic or archaic. They feel very natural. That may be because they often prayed God’s Word back to him. That’s not to say these are “lite” prayers. Elmer writes in the introduction:

Their aim was neither casual nor perfunctory prayer. The prayers of the Puritans shook lives to the core, pled with a sovereign God for mercy, and praised him in the brightest sunshine of grace.”

Elmer has updated some of the language in these prayers edited from sermons and other writings, which also helps make them accessible. Rather than go on, I’d like to just share some excerpts from the prayers.

This excerpt comes from the end of a prayer in the section titled, “Forgive My Sins.”

Precious Lord! May I, like Paul, be able to say, “not as though I had already attained”—because I long to catch up to and hold fast to you, Christ Jesus, even as you have caught up to and held fast to me.

So come, Lord Jesus, to your bride the church. Be the fountain of life to all your redeemed, until you bring your church below to join your church above, so they will dwell together in the light of your countenance, forever, amen.

I especially like this prayer in the section titled, “Prepare My Heart for the Lord’s Day and the Lord’s Table. The following are excerpts—

There can be nothing better than to praise your name, O Lord, and to declare your lovingkindness in the morning, on your holy and blessed Sabbath day…

…We declare your greatness and power. Yours is the glory and the victory, and we praise you. Everything in heaven and earth is yours. Yours is the kingdom, and you excel as Lord of all. Riches and honor come from you. You reign over all. You give grace to all. Power and strength are in your hands…

…May my chief delight be to dedicate myself to your glory and honor, not my own way or my own will. When I cease from my works of sin, as well as the works of my daily calling, may I, through your blessing, feel in my heart the beginning of that eternal Sabbath, which I will celebrate with saints and angels in unspeakable joy and glory, to your praise and worship, in your heavenly kingdom forevermore. Amen.

If you’re looking for a prayer book, I highly recommend Piercing Heaven. It’s something you can use both in private and in public worship. You can pick up a copy here.

Finding the Right Hills To Die On – Gavin Ortlund

Finding the Right Hills To Die On: The Case for Theological Triage by Gavin Ortlund is definitely a book for our times. Although, if you think back through the history of the church, you’ll see it’s a book for any age where Christians disagreed on various secondary doctrines. In other words, someone should have written this book a long time ago. Ortlund’s premise is simple. Not every doctrinal hill is worth fighting for and dying on. Not every doctrine is worth sowing division among believers and splitting the church. The question is how do we determine which doctrines are worth fighting for and which aren’t?

Theological triage

Ortlund writes in the introduction, “There’s an old saying (I can’t remember where I heard it): ‘There is no doctrine a fundamentalist won’t fight over, and no doctrine a liberal will fight over.’” That’s an oversimplification, as old sayings often are. However, you don’t have to look far to find the grain of truth in it. Ortlund goes on to write:

This book is about finding the happy place between these two extremes—the place of wisdom, love, and courage that will best serve the church and advance the gospel in our fractured times. In other words, it’s about finding the right hills to die on.

Al Mohler’s idea of “theological triage” inspired the idea and subtitle for Finding the Right Hills To Die On: The Case for Theological Triage. In the medical world, triage is the process of prioritizing, when faced with many injuries, what injuries get treated first. What gets the quickest and most attention? You don’t want to be treating a sprained ankle when someone is bleeding to death a few feet away.

I remember watching M.A.S.H as a kid. When the helicopters brought the wounded in from the battlefield, Hawkeye and the other doctors quickly went from one gurney to the next determining who needed to go immediately to the operating room, who could wait, and who was too far gone to help. That’s the triage process.

Ortlund writes:

Sometimes we flatten out all doctrine—either because we want to fight about everything or because we want to fight about nothing. More commonly, we have some kind of functional theological triage, but we have not thought it through very self-consciously. As a result, it is determined reactively by our circumstances and temperament rather than proactively by Scripture and principle.

Categories

Ortlund proposes four basic categories to help determine which hills are worth dying on. Doctrines that are—

  1. essential to the gospel itself”
  2. urgent for the health and practice of the church”
  3. important to Christian theology, but not enough to justify separation or division among Christians.”
  4. unimportant to our gospel witness and ministry collaboration.”

The goal in all of this is the unity of the church. Ortlund points to Jesus’ prayer in John chapter 17. Jesus prays in verse 23, “I am in them and you are in me, so that they may be made completely one, that the world may know you have sent me and have loved them as you have loved me.” Jesus prays for unity. The ultimate purpose of this unity is not just internal church health, but the advancement of the gospel.

Finding The Right Hills To Die On includes two chapters on both the dangers of sectarianism and doctrinal minimalism. I may be overemphasizing this point, but it’s important to note that Ortlund is not recommending that we ignore heresy for the sake of unity. He calls ignoring heresy doctrinal minimalism, which he labels dangerous. Ortlund doesn’t even recommend that we ignore differences of opinion. He points out that throughout church history people have been martyred for various nonessential doctrines. What he recommends is that we have a thoughtful process to determine which differences of opinion or errors are worth causing division in the church.

pRactical application

Part 2 of the book demonstrates the practical application of “theological triage at work.” Ortlund walks through each of the four categories he suggests using specific doctrines as examples. He suggests helpful questions to ask oneself, or for churches to ask themselves, to determine where doctrines rank for the individual or the church.

For example, Ortlund uses the doctrines of the virgin birth and justification by faith alone as examples of the first category—doctrines essential to the gospel itself. He walks the reader through the thought process for why he places those doctrines in that category. He looks to scripture, church history, and previous theologians to demonstrate how he came to his determination that those doctrines are essential and worth fighting for.

I found it extremely helpful that Finding The Right Hills To Die On includes the differences in opinion of very well-known and respected theologians throughout church history on secondary and tertiary issues. It’s eye-opening to realize that Jonathan Edwards, B.B. Warfield, John Owen, John Knox, Martin Luther, and so on did not all agree on every doctrine. Yet, most thoughtful and reasonable Christians would not call them heretics.

A call to humility

Ortlund closes the book with a call to humility. He writes:

The greatest impediment to theological triage is not a lack of theological skill or savvy but a lack of humility. A lack of skill can simply be the occasion for growth and learning, but when someone approaches theological disagreement with a self-assured, haughty spirit that has only answers and no questions, conflict becomes virtually inevitable.

I know I personally need to learn and apply that. When discussing doctrines with people who have differing opinions, too often I find myself valuing being right, rather than valuing their relationship and the unity of the Church. In the age of Twitter and discernment blogs, Finding The Right Hills To Die On is a valuable book. You can get a copy here.

Psalm 119: Assurances During a Pandemic

A month or so ago, our Sunday School class began studying Psalm 119. The last Sunday we were able to meet before the coronavirus mandate banning groups of 10 or more, we looked at two stanzas: verses 49-56 and 57-64. I hope these thoughts point you to God’s assurances during this pandemic.

We all have moments of doubt, fear, and anxiety in life. The last few weeks have been full of them. The enemy doesn’t have any new tricks. He goes back to the first one and asks “Did God really say?” Yes, God really did say. That’s the assurance and certainty we can find in God’s Word, and Psalm 119 keeps pointing us back to the Word.

Verses 49-56 read:

Remember your word to your servant;
you have given me hope through it.
This is my comfort in my affliction:
Your promise has given me life.
The arrogant constantly ridicule me,
but I do not turn away from your instruction.
Lord, I remember your judgments from long ago
and find comfort.
Rage seizes me because of the wicked
who reject your instruction.
Your statutes are the theme of my song
during my earthly life.
Lord, I remember your name in the night,
and I obey your instruction.
This is my practice:
I obey your precepts.

Psalm 119:49-56

We can rest

Earlier in Psalm 119, King David mentions that he’s suffering. People are slandering him. People in positions of power are plotting against him. He says people taunt him. Where does he go for assurance that everything is going to be okay? Where does he turn for courage?

Verses 49-50 say, “Remember your word to your servant, in which you have made me hope. This is my comfort in my affliction, that your promise gives me life.” The first place David goes for comfort during affliction is the promises of God.

We have all experienced suffering to varying degrees in life. However, COVID-19 has brought a whole new level of fear and anxiety that most of us haven’t experienced before. Yet, it is ultimately the result of living in a broken world because of sin. Life does not function the way it was originally designed, and because of that we have things like diseases, suffering, and anxiety.

About six years ago, a young husband and father in our church had been diagnosed with a cancerous tumor. The doctors were worried that surgery to remove it would be difficult. I don’t know all of the details, but through a series of events the tumor miraculously disappeared. I remember on a Sunday morning after that he got up in front of the church and just read promise after promise and praise after praise from the Word. He was crying. We were crying. It was powerful.

We can rest in the promises of God regardless of the circumstances. Throughout life, there are going to be times of great difficulty, like the pandemic we see today. During those seasons, it may even be difficult to see God through the pain. When those times come, we can find great comfort in the promises of God.

No other promise like this

Romans 8:1–2 says, “Therefore, there is now no condemnation for those in Christ Jesus, because the law of the Spirit of life in Christ Jesus has set you free from the law of sin and death.” If you have put your faith in Christ, you are not under wrath. You are under mercy—grace upon grace. You can lean into the promise that sin and death have been defeated and eternal life is yours. There’s no other promise like that.

Dane Ortlund writes in Gentle and Lowly:

When the relationship goes sour, when the feelings of futility come flooding in, when it feels like life is passing us by, when it seems that our one shot at significance has slipped through our fingers, when we can’t sort out our emotions, when the longtime friend lets us down, when a family member betrays us, when we feel deeply misunderstood, when we are laughed at by the impressive—in short, when the fallenness of the world closes in on us and makes us want to throw in the towel… right there, we have a Friend who knows exactly what such testing feels like, and he sits close to us and embraces us…

Our tendency is to feel intuitively that the more difficult life gets, the more alone we are. As we sink further into pain, we sink further into felt isolation. The Bible corrects us. Our pain never outstrips what Jesus himself shares in. We are never alone.

Whatever trial you’re going through, including this pandemic, it’s not because God has left you. He hasn’t forsaken you. He’s right there with you every step of the way.

assurances during a pandemic | greatlywondering.com
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The THeme of My Song

In verses 51 and 52, David is being ridiculed and disrespected, but he doesn’t turn away from the Word. That’s where he finds comfort. In verse 53, He has a righteous anger about arrogant people who forsake God’s law. In verse 54, the NIV says “Your decrees are the theme of my song.” God’s Word runs through everything in his life. It’s the theme. I love how the ESV puts the end of verse 54—“in the house of my sojourning.” To sojourn is to stay somewhere temporarily. In other words, this world is not my home, but wherever I am your Word is the theme of my song.

The night is often a time that fear and worry can creep in. Our minds start racing. In verse 55, David says he remembers the name of the Lord. He calls on God in the night. When we’re having one of those nights, we can reach out to God in prayer, and He hears us.

The stanza ends with David saying keeping the Word is a blessing that has been given to him. Have you ever thought of it that way? A lot of times we think of the law as being something that constrains us, but David calls it a blessing.

My POrtion

The Lord is my portion;
I have promised to keep your words.
I have sought your favor with all my heart;
be gracious to me according to your promise.
I thought about my ways
and turned my steps back to your decrees.
I hurried, not hesitating
to keep your commands.
Though the ropes of the wicked
were wrapped around me,
I did not forget your instruction.
I rise at midnight to thank you
for your righteous judgments.
I am a friend to all who fear you,
to those who keep your precepts.
Lord, the earth is filled with your faithful love;
teach me your statutes.

Psalm 119:57-64

This is a really key concept to grasp. When you read a review of a restaurant, it may say, “they have good size portions for the money.” Or they may say, “the portion size is small.” What does that mean when we talk about portions? The portion is what you get.

David says, “The Lord is my portion.” God is what we get through faith in Jesus. We get nearness to God. We get relationship with God. And He is enough regardless of life’s circumstances. That’s the true gift of faith.

One of the biggest lies told is that if we put our faith in Jesus everything in life is going to go our way. That’s not the promise of the gospel.

The promise of the gospel is that if you repent and put your faith in Jesus, you will be reconciled to God through Christ’s work for you on the cross. You get a relationship with God, and He’s going to be there no matter what comes your way. If you lost everything in this world including your life, only one thing matters. Do you know God?

He MEans Good For Us

David goes on through this stanza fleshing out what that means—The Lord is my portion. Look at verse 58. One thing it means is that God is gracious or kind to us according to his promises. Earlier in the psalm it points out that God is going to do what is good for us, because He is a good Father. He extends grace to us.

I’ve heard it put this way: God uses a scalpel in our lives like a surgeon. Yes, it leaves a wound, but he is dealing with what might ultimately hurt and kill us. It is strategic, loving, and for our good.

In verse 59, David says when I think about my life and how I’m living, I turn my feet to your Word. Testimonies in this context typically means instructions. In other words, I have thought about where I’ve been, and I’m turning my feet in the direction you are instructing me to go. Later in this same psalm he says, “Your word is a lamp to my feet and a light to my path.” He means good for us and leads us in that direction.

Hesitation

Verse 60 is sometimes a tough one. Sometimes we want to wait and see how things are going to play out, before we decide to do what God told us to do from the beginning. If things look like they’re going south, then we’ll use God as a back up plan. We’ll turn to God in desperation when everything else has failed.

Have you ever read the story of Deborah and Barak in the book of Judges? Barak hesitates to do what the Lord told him to do. He wants an insurance policy to make sure God will do what God said He would do. So, Barak makes Deborah go with him. Well, by hesitating and insisting on an insurance policy, Barak misses out on the blessing. Jael gets the blessing, and we don’t even know who she is until the end of the story. David says I hurry and keep your commands. I’m not waiting or delaying.

Verse 61 talks about how the sin of others causes us to experience suffering and pain. David has mentioned several times in Psalm 119 that other people are attacking him and plotting against him. Regardless, he does not forget God’s Word.

Assurances during a pandemic
Photo by Fletcher Clay on Unsplash

Always available

With God as our portion, we enjoy His constant presence, His grace, and His testimonies. We also receive the invitation to approach Him at any time. Verse 62 says, “At midnight I rise to praise you, because of your righteous rules.”

This is a great promise. God is always available, even in the dark. Think of God’s invitation to us. No one else makes these kinds of invitations. Are you socially awkward? Depressed? Ashamed? Jesus calls you to Him. He says come and be with me. I will give you rest.

Do you remember the parable of the persistent widow? There’s a judge who is a jerk. This widow keeps coming to him, pestering him to give her justice against her enemy. Eventually, the judge breaks down and gives her justice. Jesus says if a wicked judge will answer someone who’s persistently asking, God will certainly give justice to his people who cry out to him day and night.

Jesus says, “I want you to come to me. Keep asking. Keep knocking. Keep seeking, because I want to be gracious to you. That delights me. I’m available to you.” It’s an incredible invitation.

I can’t help but quote Dane Ortlund again:

The Christian life, from one angle, is the long journey of letting our natural assumption about who God is, over many decades, fall away, being slowly replaced with God’s own insistence on who he is.

God tells us we have the freedom to approach him in confidence any time we want to with honest prayers. We don’t have to hide what we’re feeling—our doubt, fears, or frustrations. We can bring all of that to Him, and His graciousness promises to cover it all.

assurances during a pandemic | greatlywondering.com
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Assurances During a Pandemic

In verses 63-64, David is highlighting that he has been given companions who walk through life with him, in both joy and suffering. Those companions are the people of God. That’s the church. God puts other believers in our lives to endure trials and celebrate good times with us.

Sometimes in our pride, we don’t let others into our lives when we are struggling or when we are in pain. When we do that, we are robbing ourselves of a blessing. We have to be vulnerable enough to invite people into the messiness of our lives in order for them to respond with compassion and empathy and mercy. They become a tangible expression of the presence of God in our lives. He ministers to us through his Spirit and His people.

As we go though this trial together, make a conscious effort to embrace the promises of God. He is near to the brokenhearted. God delights in doing good for us. He is available to us. He gives us other believers to walk with through this. Let’s embrace his promises and assurances during this pandemic.