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 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.”
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.”
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.
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)
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]
Here’s a sermon I preached at Nansemond River Baptist Church in July from Acts 9 and the famous conversion of Saul.
As you might have realized, I write a lot about the relationship of patriotism and Christianity (see here, here, here, and here). For one of my readers the “straw that broke the camel’s back” was a post entitled “The Idolatry of Patriotism” (a summary of the issue at hand that I thought was very helpful). This particular reader (who will remain anonymous) has been continually angered by my thoughts on nationalism, patriotism, and politics. I, personally, feel that my opinions on these issues are centered on the gospel of Jesus and need to be heard. There are so many causes to which we can align ourselves; I want my supreme focus to be on the gospel of Jesus Christ.
All this to be said, a few years ago my aforementioned disgruntled reader wrote me a message entitled “My Swan Song” that said:
“When in the Course of human events, it becomes necessary for one people to dissolve the political bands which have connected them with another,… a decent respect for the opinions of mankind requires that they should declare the causes which impel them to the separation” (Declaration of Independence, July 4, 1776).
Therefore: It has long been a policy of mine that I will not have any magazines or similar materials enter my home that I find contrary to my core value system, as a Christian. I am now going to apply that same rule to the only [sic] FB material that frequently not only comes into my home, but places itself on my computer desktop.
You and those who share your views are in my prayers.
Your Brother in Christ Jesus…
I felt this was worth sharing with others because it illustrates how misplaced priorities can make allies seem like enemies and vice versa.
1. Notice that this note quotes the Declaration of Independence rather than the Bible.
2. It is Biblically allowable and culturally helpful to familiarize yourself with things that are “contrary [to your] core value system.” By interacting with positions that are thoughtful, though contrary to your own, you will solidify your beliefs and articulate them in a pluralistic society. The Ostrich approach is not the Biblical approach.
3. The gospel and the gospel alone should be the dividing line for Christians. My views on nationalism and patriotism are wholly consistent with the gospel of Jesus Christ according to the Scriptures.
4. While I appreciate the sentiment of brotherhood alluded to in the closing it appears that this “brother” sees me as more dangerous than his political allies. I think it is important to remember that the gospel which binds us is infinitely more important than the politics that might separate us.
5. Finally, it is important that we are willing to submit all of our opinions, philosophies, and beliefs to the Lordship of Christ and the teaching of the Bible. While I may be off on my analysis of history I am trying to critically evaluate the role of nationalism in the life of a Christ follower. In addition, I do not want naïvety or dishonesty to characterize my appraisal of the historical data. I am not free to make history say what I want it to say.
I hope this is helpful for those of us who continue to truthfully and lovingly discuss meaningful issues regarding what it means to be a follower of Christ. Though it is a struggle, I must always be willing to examine my life and beliefs in light of the Scriptures rather than try and mold the Scriptures to support my political and historical opinions.
You see, this is Paul’s farewell to the Ephesian church. A church that occupied the majority of his last missionary journey and where his protégé was an elder. His farewell to the Ephesian elders is filled with tears and heartache. He is convinced that he will not see his friends again and his conviction proves true.
In his farewell I am reminded of true gospel ministry. A ministry that is sacrificial rather than demanding, honest rather than flattering. It is rooted in humility and thoroughness. Such ministry has a deep foundation in truth and is developed in meaningful relationships: “It is more blessed to give than to receive.”
All that to be said, I find it interesting that the very last words Paul speaks to the Ephesian elders regards the dangers from within the church that will come. Communication in that day and age was spotty and travel was dangerous, there was a high likelihood they would not receive any future instruction from Paul and he left them with these words:
Keep watch over yourselves and all the flock of which the Holy Spirit has made you overseers. Be shepherds of the church of God which he bought with his own blood. I know that after I leave, savage wolves will come in among you and will not spare the flock. Even from your own number men will arise and distort the truth in order to draw away disciples after them. So be on your guard! Remember that for three years I never stopped warning each of you night and day with tears.
As I thought about these last words I was reminded that the danger for Christians is more frequently from within the church than without. This is no excuse to abandon the church but rather a call to guard the health of our faith community.
Dangers from without are easier to spot. They are different and distinct. Such is the case with many “overt” sins. Maybe this is why Christians often point to “outsider” sins (e.g., homosexuality, drunkenness, etc.). They’re easy to spot! But just because they are more visible does not mean they are more dangerous.
Sin that grows within the community of faith is much more difficult to identify because it takes Christian language and even Christian scripture and cleverly mixes it with false teaching. I finally settled on two major dangers that are present within the church that often receive Christian justification: traditionalism and existentialism.
Imagine a wide, asphalt highway with two great ditches on each side. If the highway is the firm sure ground of Biblical truth, then two ever present dangers are the lure of traditionalism on one side and the elevation of feeling on the other. The difficulty in navigating the highway of truth is that we are often tempted, by distraction or danger, to swerve off of its sturdy path.
When you ask people to make godly decisions they too often have no Biblical foundation on which to base their choices. As a result, the default mode is often traditionalism. Such traditionalism is seen in the kind of thoughtless repetition of doing things a certain way because they’ve always been done that way. Much like Einstein’s definition of insanity, traditionalism is unable to look outside of personal experience to find a better option.
On the other extreme is the particular modern lure of “feelings.” Most people have no solid criteria by which to discern right from wrong and good from bad. As a result, they are at the whim of their feelings. They tell me they “feel” like they’re in love or it just “seemed” like the best thing at the time. That tickle in your stomach is probably just gas. This too shall pass.
I think tradition can be a vibrant connection to our Christian heritage and feelings directed toward God are lovely but both our traditions and our feelings must serve in submission to the truth of God’s word. “We have the prophetic word made more sure” (2 Peter 1:19). Our feelings and our traditions can easily be co-opted by suave communicators. They can quickly make you think that God is all about making you feel good or the Bible is a book that justifies the way things have always been done. The only light in such darkness is the revealed word of God, to which we would “do well to pay attention” (2 Peter 1:19).
Next time you have to make a decision ask yourself, “what does the Bible say?”
There is this perpetual myth floating around that has implications for our understanding of wisdom, decision-making, and the will of God. It is a myth that is pervasive but proves wanting with a little Biblical and logical examination. However, without being examined many use it as an excuse to ignore any counsel that is contrary to choices they already want to make or have made.
I call it, “THE MYTH OF EXPERIENCE.”
Can I Know If I Haven’t Tried?
This myth has a number of iterations. For example, I do a lot of ministry with families. Some of the most fruitful pastoral opportunities involve teenagers and their parents. However, I do not have any children of my own. Therefore, when I have a difference of opinion with a parent over a particular issue the invariable response they give is, “you don’t understand because you don’t have kids.” Really? A doctor doesn’t have to have a disease to know the cure.
The whole purpose of advice is to help others avoid experiencing something that is bad or harmful or help them try something they haven’t tried. If experience is necessary then Christians can just get rid of the Bible and start experimenting (it appears some have already started down this path). This goes along with the old notion that “people have to learn the hard way.” Maybe some people choose to learn the hard way but they sure don’t have to learn the hard way. If possible, I would rather learn from the mistakes of others than experience them myself.
I am not trying to denigrate the value experience can have. Those who have made poor choices or experienced particular things are able to understand and empathize in a more robust way with others in similar situations. However, their experiences are not necessary for godly decision-making or figuring out “what is right.”
Experience Can Be Negative
It is important to remember that experience is not always positive. First, some experiences irreparably harm you or have consequences that never go away. In addition, personal experience makes objectivity more difficult than it already is. None of us see the world from a completely fair and unbiased perspective. None of us interpret history objectively. No Christian can look at the Bible and fully understand its meaning without being affected (either positively or negatively) by their own worldview and experiences. As a result, it might be possible that someone who has not experienced a particular situation may be able to more fully appraise the possible outcomes without being unfairly influenced by their own past.
Experience Can Cloud Objectivity
Most of us interpret things the way we want them to be rather than they way they are or should be. I have a recent example that makes this perfectly clear. I have some mutual friends that recently had a baby. On her blog, my friend carefully explained all of the positives of breastfeeding in public. Her main arguments were based on the fact that it was natural (it’s a part of the human body’s natural experience) and necessary (a baby has to eat). Purely because I sensed a logical inconsistency I pointed out that a lot of activities are natural and necessary (e.g., going to the bathroom) but our society still requires us to do them in private. Now, I’m not trying to rile up all of the lactating mothers out there. I’m just using this recent incident as an example. My friend (as a mother) was having a hard time seeing things from an unbiased point-of-view and was insinuating that when my wife and I have a baby we’ll understand. Basically, since we haven’t experienced this situation we have no right or ability to comment! Personal experience will increase our empathy of how difficult this issue is but it shouldn’t change our understanding of the issue at hand. One could argue that I am just as biased in the other direction since I do not have a hungry child whose cries melt my heart. That is my point, experience actually makes it harder to achieve objectivity (in both directions)! Since no one can remove their experiences or lack thereof, how do we decide what is right? We’ll get to that a little later.
Age and Experience
Another variation of this myth involves age. Many people argue that “experience = wisdom.” We all know this isn’t the case. I have met a some older people that are exceeding experienced and exceedingly wise. On the other hand, I have met a lot of experienced, elderly people who are immature and unwise. What is the difference? Experience is not synonymous with wisdom. One can be wise and inexperienced. One can also be old and inexperienced. I have met a number of elderly people that haven’t experienced a lot in there lives. However, wisdom and experience combine to make an unmatched resource for discernment, advice, encouragement, information, and much more.
Wisdom and Truth Are Independent of Personal Experience
How can one find wisdom? The theme of wisdom is prevalent throughout the Bible. In the New Testament, Jesus is described in terms of the Old Testament wisdom literature (e.g., Prov. 8:1-36, 1 Cor. 1:18-25). Jesus is the Word and Wisdom of God. There is hope for those of us who don’t have sufficient life experience. We can still have wisdom via the person of Jesus Christ.
For the message of the cross is foolishness to those who are perishing, but to us who are being saved it is the power of God… For the foolishness of God is wiser than human wisdom and the weakness of God is stronger than human strength… It is because of him that you are in Christ Jesus, who has become for us wisdom from God (1 Cor. 1:18, 25, 30).
When Paul is talking to Timothy he explicitly tells him that his youth and, in some regard, inexperience do not negate his calling, his giftedness, and (most importantly) the truth that he has received (1 Timothy 4). The mature in his congregation are worthy of respect but the foundation of the church is not on their experiences but on the Word of God to which they must be faithful.
Ultimately, it is not one’s experience or inexperience that should guide decision-making. Jesus is the power and example of wisdom; he is the truth.
1. Experience is not necessary to make the right decision.
2. Experience does not equal wisdom.
3. Experience is not always positive, it can be harmful.
4. Personal experiences can cloud one’s ability to make a sound, Biblical decision.
5. Experience and wisdom work together to produce godly discernment and judgment.
6. Experience is not the final determiner of what is wise and true, Jesus is.