Book Recommendation: The Secret Thoughts of an Unlikely Convert
I finally finished reading Rosaria Butterfield’s fascinating autobiography. Her writing is full of wisdom, flavor, and honesty. More importantly, her story of conversion is God-magnifying and very insightful. She details the very interesting path she took to find Christ. She truly was an “unlikely convert.” An atheist-agnostic who prided herself in an openly homosexual lifestyle, she disdained ignorant evangelicals. She was a tenured professor at a research university and was quite popular in her community. However, despite her opposition to Christianity, she eventually became a follower of Jesus.
Her story is full of insight, perspective, and wonder. She is able to analyze her own sin struggles, idolatrous thoughts, and search for God in a way that avoids oversimplification.
Christians would do well to learn from her experience to see how they can reach the “unlikely” people in their lives with a message that is honest, patient, and life-changing.
The first few chapters are riveting. The last few are denominationally specific and might not appeal to a wide audience. However, it’s her story and she can tell it how she wants.
An extended interview with the author can be found online:
A brief audio summary of her conversion can be found at desiringgod.org.
A few of my favorite quotes from the book:
“It has always seemed to me that without the proper response to failure, we don’t grow, we only age. So I was and am willing to take the risk of being wrong for the hope of growing in truth.”
“The truth is, feminists have been more successful rhetoricians at the core of major U.S. universities than have Christians, even though most of these universities have Christian origins.”
“Here’s what I think happened: since all major U.S. universities had Christian roots, too many Christians thought that they could rest in Christian tradition, not Christian relevance. Too often the church does not know how to interface with university culture because it comes to the table only ready to moralize and not dialogue.”
“During one sermon, Ken pointed to John 7: 17, and called this “the hermeneutics of obedience.” Jesus is speaking in this passage, and he says: “If anyone is willing to do God’s will, he will know of the teaching, whether it is of God or whether I speak from myself.” Ah ha! Here it was! Obedience comes before understanding.”
“…repentance requires greater intimacy with God than with our sin.”
“I had to lean and lean hard on the full weight of scripture, on the fullness of the word of God, and I’m grateful that when I heard the Lord’s call on my life, and I wanted to hedge my bets, keep my girlfriend and add a little God to my life, I had a pastor and friends in the Lord who asked nothing less of me than that I die to myself. Biblical orthodoxy can offer real compassion, because in our struggle against sin, we cannot undermine God’s power to change lives.”
“How do I judge my own sincerity? The saving grace of salvation is located in a holy and electing God, and a sacrificing, suffering, and obedient Savior. Stakes this high can never rest on my sincerity.”
“Learn how to glean good lessons from bad teachers in an effort to be a good teacher to those undergraduates under your care.”
“It’s better to be wrong on an important subject than right on a trivial one, as long as you are willing to learn from your mistakes.”
“This experience taught me a powerful lesson about evangelism: the integrity of our relationships matters more than the boldness of our words.”
“It took me a while to figure out how I felt about the Bible verses on the placards. On the one hand, the Bible had become my life, my guide for life, my paradigmatic mirror in which I found meaning and direction. I loved (and love) the Bible, gorging on huge chunks at a time. But these skinny verses, taken out of their rich and complex context, were just sitting out there on placards, naked and rude. I felt an immediate aversion to the aesthetic even as I identified with the message. For example, John 3: 16 without John 3: 17 seems to balance itself in the wrong place.”
Studying the Bible, Preaching, and GPS
Have you ever wondered how we used to navigate the world before cell phones, gps, and the internet? I remember walking the boardwalk at Virginia Beach in college while talking on the phone as my friend directed me to his location. The thought crossed my mind, how did I used to find people? Did we actually make plans and meet at the designated time and place?
Recently I was asking a teenager for directions. His response, “I don’t know, I always just follow the GPS.” This is one of the first generation of drivers in which GPS devices are ubiquitous. The result, many people have no idea of how to get from place to place without being told every step along the way. In the end, if someone doesn’t know how to think for themselves, even with someone telling them where to go, they take the wrong turn.
Even when following a GPS device there is a need for discernment, interpretation, and thinking for yourself.
(*Note* NBC Universal will not allow me to put this clip up but they also will not make it available on their website. Here is an alternate link of inferior quality that will let you sort of watch this clip. http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=BIakZtDmMgo Now back to our programming.)
This same problem is pervasive in the church. First, many pastors merely parrot the latest Christian celebrity, fad book, or acceptable commentary. In fact, I know a reasonably well-known pastor who blatantly plagiarizes sermons. I’m talking about a pastor who has spoken at seminaries, held state denominational positions, and more. For whatever reason (and I have my suspicions) many pastors skip the hard work of biblical exegesis. Rather than think for themselves, the merely say what they’ve been told.
Second, many Christians merely listen to the pastor’s word and never interpret and discern it for themselves. I sometimes wonder whether pastors want people to only take their word or be equipped to think for themselves? Is this some power grab meant to keep the laity subservient? I’m not willing to buy into that sort of conspiracy. However, a good deal of ineptitude and laziness might be in play. It is much more difficult and less gratifying to the ego to empower rather than just preach.
To use a cooking illustration, it is more gratifying to bring out the perfectly cooked dinner than to take someone in the kitchen and teach them how to cook. I believe that the best leaders can do both. I believe that they can both cook and teach others to cook for themselves.
So, what is my challenge to those who preach God’s word? First, do the hard work of studying the Bible. Second, teach your hearers how to study, think, and apply God’s word for themselves.
Everyone is So Easily Offended
It seems that everyone is so easily offended. I’ve watched from the sidelines as comedians navigate which words are in and which words are out (sometimes at the expense of honesty). Political correctness dominates the cultural conversation but usually without a careful understanding of language and morality. Instead, arbitrary preference and magical words restrain truth-telling.
The same seems true in the church. So many people are looking for an opportunity to be offended. Often they are offended on behalf of other people (an odd phenomenon). It just seems that a lot of amateur referees are waiting to blow their whistles. As a result, those who are called to lead and challenge are often forced to mute the force of their message for fear of upsetting or unsettling. There is no room for pandering in the church (2 Tim. 4:3).
There are clearly things in the Bible that are offensive. In fact, God’s Word intentionally offends and disrupts (1 Cor. 1:18, 21, 23; Gal. 1:10, 5:11, 6:12-14). Jesus was anything but politically correct. Paul was far from gentile in his speech. The prophets of the Hebrew Bible are not the kind to invite to a formal dinner party.
Sometimes, to expose sin and make room for truth it takes a disturbance. Maybe this comfortable ‘don’t rock the boat’ attitude is hampering our growth in Christ. In my life, my greatest times of spiritual growth come in the midst chaos. I’ve learned more from the teachers that have challenged me than the ones who let my complacency suffice.
Recently, I read this interesting quote: “the easily offended are missing the point.” If I am on guard (always critiquing, always judging) then I am not listening, gleaning, discerning, or participating. As the same author reminds, “Learn how to glean good lessons from bad teachers.”
Christian, What is the Foundation of Your Happiness?
I have said for some time that my favorite book on pastoral ministry is John Piper’s Brothers, We Are Not Professionals. While every point may not be exactly in line with my own pastoral convictions, it gets the essentials right, puts the focus in the right place, and is never short on challenging statements.
The second edition of this book was just released. The pastors at our church are working through this book at our monthly meeting. With the new edition came a few new chapters. I wanted to share a portion of one such chapter. The author is trying to explain how God can be for his glory and for us. In defending why he as (over?) emphasized God’s self-glory he describes the plight of many Christians (so-called):
I feel a special burden for the millions of nominal Christians who are not born again who believe God loves them and yet are on their way to hell. And the difference between them and a born-again believer is this: What’s the bottom, the decisive foundation, of their happiness? As you penetrate down deeper and deeper to the core, or the bottom, of what makes you happy?
Millions of nominal Christians have never experienced a fundamental alteration of that foundation of happiness. Instead, they have absorbed the notion that becoming Christian means turning to Jesus to get what you always wanted before you were born again. So, if you wanted wealth, you stop depending on yourself for it, and by prayer and faith and obedience you depend on Jesus for wealth. If you wanted to be healthy, you turn from mere human cures to Jesus as the source of your health. If you wanted to escape the pain of hell, you turn to Jesus for the escape. If you wanted to have a happy marriage, you come to Jesus for help. If you wanted peace of conscience and freedom from guilt feelings, you turn to Jesus for these things.
In other words, to become a Christian, in this way of seeing things, is to have all the same desires you had as an unregenerate person — only you get them from a new source, Jesus. And He feels so loving when you do. But there’s no change at the bottom of your heart and your cravings. No change at the bottom of what makes you happy. There’s no change in the decisive foundation of your joy. You just shop at a new store. The dinner is still the same, you just have a new butler. The bags in the hotel room are still the same; just a new bellhop.
Holiness, Grace, and Mission (Isaiah 6:1-8)
A two part series I recently preached on Isaiah’s encounter with God and how it informs our understanding of grace and the Christian mission:
Familiarity with Sin (Part 2)
In yesterday’s post I discussed the need uncage the gospel. Jesus is the only person worthy of the risk to which Christians are called, a risk that involves everything (Matthew 10:38-39). On the flip-side of the sin of familiarity is my often too familiar relationship with sin.
In the same way that I try to maintain and manage the gospel (to avoid its totalizing demands), I often try to manage my sin. My point is simple: sin is not to be tamed, it is to be killed. I have learned to regulate my sin so as not to be caught or not let it interfere with my life. Even when I have my sin “under control” I am not often experiencing the reality of the freedom from sin that God promises (Romans 8:2).
Even with the most positive intentions, I find that most strategies regarding sin are centered around management rather than victory. The Bible clearly tells us to flee from temptation (e.g., 1 Cor. 6:18, 10:14; 1 Tim. 6:11; 2 Tim. 2:22). However, avoidance is not a strategy for overcoming sin. In fact, there is a time to not only flee but to fight (e.g., James 4:7).
When our lives are connected to Christ we are not managing our sin or hoping to avoid situations over which we have no control but are actually fighting our sin.
If you live according to the flesh, you will die; but if by the Spirit you put to death the deeds of the body, you will live (Romans 8:13).
John Owen, the seventeenth century Oxford theologian and churchman, is famously quoted in reference to this verse: “Be killing sin or it will be killing you.”
Now, this post could easily devolve into a hodgepodge of strategies for “sin-killing.” I suspect there is a place for such strategies but the focus in Romans 8 (and 7 for that matter) seems to be clearly focused on the reality of salvation and the hope of redemption. We have been set free from sin and death by the Spirit (v. 2). Sure, there is a fleshly way to live and a Spirit way to live (vv. 5-8) but, as Paul says, you “are not in the flesh but in the Spirit, if in fact the Spirit of God dwells in you” (v. 9).
So, whatever battle exists between the flesh and Spirit occurs in the “in between” of the “already” and “not yet” (as so many theologians have reminded us). Therefore, the outcome of our spiritual war is not in question though the battle continually rages. Our sure victory provides all the more motivation and confidence that we can, in fact, destroy our sin. Our sin is not something we have to learn to live with.
Sin of Familiarity (Part 1)
Seek to see and feel the gospel as bigger as years go by rather than smaller. Our temptation is to think that the gospel is for beginners and then we go on to greater things. But the real challenge is to see the gospel as the greatest thing — and getting greater all the time.
I’ve been thinking a lot lately about my unhealthy familiarity with the gospel. I’ve sat through thousands of sermons. I’ve seen all sorts of clever illustrations and explanations. I’ve heard preachers whisper with seriousness the importance of the cross and scream with passion our need for a savior. I must confess, after a while I just got used to it all. I’d heard it before; it seemed familiar.
When I say the gospel became familiar, I am not speaking of intimacy and depth of knowledge. I mean something more like the famous phrase that says “familiarity breeds contempt.” I became presumptuous toward God and his grace. I took it all for granted.
That’s just the way we tend to be. Things that are magnificent and awe-inspiring quickly become normal and, dare I say, we feel entitled toward them. It reminds me of a famous bit from comedian Louis C. K.:
Many of us bring an entitlement mentality into our relationship with Christ. His love and grace becomes expected. As a result we enter God’s presence with an ease and flippancy that is unthinkable in the Bible. Paul was never so presumptuous; though he knew his salvation was secure he still approached God with humility.
“I desire to know Him and the power of His resurrection, participating in His suffering, being molded by His death, if, perhaps, I might attain the resurrection from the dead”
Philippians 3:11 emphasis added
I can’t help but think of Isaiah’s experience in the presence of God (Isaiah 6). Just compare the prideful and audacious attitude of Uzziah (2 Chronicles 26) with the humble “woe is me” attitude of Isaiah (Isaiah 6:5). Isaiah’s experience was life-altering. He could not be in God’s presence without conviction of sin, an experience of forgiveness, and a clear commission to go and tell others. It seems that I’ve so domesticated the gospel that I’ve effectively minimized its totalizing commands.
I remember another stand up comedian discussing the infamous Siegfried and Roy incident. The famous (and famously flamboyant) Las Vegas duo successfully trained wild cats (e.g., lions, tigers, etc.) to stand on glittery balls, jump through flaming hoops, all while being poked with sticks and such. Not the wisest idea if you ask me. You see, if a domesticated housecat gets mad at you, it might hurt but you’ll win. Anything I can punt 25 yards is gonna lose. However, when a 600 pound tiger gets mad — you lose! And so it happened for half of the Las Vegas duo. Doing the same show over and over again does not negate the fact that a wild animal is not safe.
The gospel is not something to be domesticated or tamed. The gospel cannot be treated as simple and safe. The gospel can never be routine and mundane. The gospel is not to be managed or maintained. The gospel is to be obeyed. We are to risk everything to follow Jesus and spread the life-changing news of his death and resurrection.
New Testament Theology of Discipleship
In the summer of 2011 I preached a four part series on “Discipleship.” It ended up being a sort-of stripped down presentation of “discipleship” according to the gospels or maybe even the first steps in a New Testament theology of discipleship.
Part 1: “Discipleship is Everything” Matthew 4:18-22
Part 2: “Why Jesus Said You Should Hate Your Parents” Luke 14:24-35
Part 3: “Barriers of Discipleship” (Luke 18:18-30)
Part 4: “To Know and Be Known” (John 10:22-30)
Finding the Will of God
Recently I preached a two part series on “Finding the Will of God” at Nansemond River Baptist Church. You might be surprised at my take on the matter from 2 Peter 1. So many people want to find God’s will but go about it in a completely incorrect way. God’s design is much clearer and straightforward than most of the faux-spiritual hoops we try to jump through.
“Finding the Will of God” (Part 1)[vimeo https://vimeo.com/48242688]
“Finding the Will of God” (Part 2)[vimeo https://vimeo.com/48691164]