The Secret to the Christian Life

Do you still get angry? Do you fight with others in actuality or even in your own mind? Do you know why? I do. And I think you can stop. In fact, I think your whole life can change if you can understand two verses of the Bible. 

James 4:1-2 “What causes quarrels and what causes fights among you? Is it not this, that your passions are at war within you? You desire and do not have, so you murder. You covet and cannot obtain, so you fight and quarrel. You do not have, because you do not ask.”

The secret to the Christian life, that is, the answer to the question: How shall we then live, is given in these two verses.

James is writing to Christians in a church. They are fighting with each other pretty intensely over something or other. What is it? It doesn’t matter. They should not be treating each other this way, because they should not be feeling so murderous and angry. 

Why are they feeling murderous and angry? Because they have “passions” at war within them.  

This is “lusts” right? No. It’s the word for “pleasures,” the same word we get our word “hedonism” from. My translation:

“Why do you fight? You want pleasure, and your desire for pleasure is at war with another one of your desires for pleasure, AND, with someone else’s desire for pleasure.

So, desire for pleasure is wrong? Sure, if you don’t want to have any enjoyment of life at all. But is that what you want? Is that what God wants for you? You might be thinking: “No, God wants me to have pleasure in him.”

But how will you do that if you shut down your pleasure mechanism, which is what you’d have to do. You’d have to train yourself to be stoic. If you’re stoic, you won’t take the right kind of delight in God.

So, desire for pleasure must not be wrong, and I guess I can take pleasure in some things.

Ok, logically, that must be true. So it’s ok that we take pleasure in some things. So how is it that our pleasures get at war inside us and with others? 

I think it is because we have not done the hard work of prioritizing our life and values.

Pleasure is something I get when I gain something that I value: God, success, sex, cake, something beautiful, lot’s of things. The lack of pleasure comes from not getting those things when I’d like them, or losing them when I had them. It feels bad. It feels like pain, or depression. It should feel bad. This is not sinful.

So here’s how I do it: I set priorities logically based on what I perceive to be the facts of reality and causality. These are the things that I value, that is, the things that I act to gain or to keep. I make sure these things are the proper things for the way God has called me to live. 

It starts with my ultimate purpose: To enjoy and glorify God. He is my highest value. If I were thrown in a dirty dungeon to starve to death, I’d still have my highest value. You want your highest value to be the hardest thing for anyone to take away.

My penultimate purpose is my life: I believe in the biblical principle stewardship, so I believe life is not about what you have, but what you do with what you have. The most basic thing I have is my life. While I am on earth, I value staying alive and enjoying it if I can without corrupting my other values. Because of this, my next value is…

My health: I can’t do any of the important things of life if I not only don’t stay alive, but don’t have any strength or energy.

My work: I have to produce something in order to provide for me and my family. You could convince me that my family is a higher value than my work, but in the sense that I would tell a young man who wants to find a wife and have a family that he needs to get a job first, I put producing as a higher priority. If I don’t, all the Millers (that’s me and my wife and kids) die. I also put handling finances/investing in this category, and any mundane daily work as well. I put dishes, diapers, home repairs, and lawn work in this category. Work is producing some kind of order. But this would not justify workaholism, because my next value is…

My wife: Marriage has to be attended to. It is such an important part of joyful life and it brings attention and glory to God. I want my marriage to be fulfilling, and encouraging. Romance, connection, and cooperation are the key areas of focus and all equally important.

My Children: The kids come before any other relationships outside the marriage. I won’t put friends, church members, or extended family before my kids. The areas of focus in order of importance are: Their faith, love between us, character training, education. I suppose I might put my home in this category as well, because my home is the place for my family to live.

My church: For me, this is mixed up in my work, since I am a pastor, but I still try to think of my church as my church family separate from thinking of my job as the pastor of that church. Otherwise, worshiping on Sunday with my church family feels more like work and less like gathering with my brothers and sisters in the local expression of the worldwide Body of Christ. One is not restful, the other is.

Service to the community, the poor, and my geographical neighbors: This is not optional for Christians. We make time for it after the other things. If you are tempted to put this before the stuff above, seriously rethink that logically.

Extended family: They technically come before service to the community, but none of mine live close.

Leisure: Reading and playing the piano are my leisure activities. I don’t have time for any others (well, Mario Cart with my kids too), although there are things I would do if I had much more time (fishing, golfing, playing softball, singing in a choir).

Nice things: Having something I like is a bonus, but not a huge priority. I’d like a nicer car (I have 2006 Hyundai), but I value financial freedom more.

That’s the main stuff. To get any of it out of order will cause confusion, a war of pleasures/passions. For instance. I say I value family over reading. If I am trying to read more than I really have time to, and one of my kids is trying to get my attention, I might blow up on him. If I am aware of my value priorities, then I would get the proper pleasure from putting my book down, a lesser value, and talking to my child, a greater value.

Some of these values could seem like they are equal and need to be balanced as though they were. What I mean is, they are all important when it is possible to have them all in the course of your regular life. Work is really important, but things get messed when you cross a line into the other really important things in your life. So you balance intelligently based on your true and righteous values. You pick your values based on principles. If you currently don’t feel like making your health a high priority, then you need to readjust based on logic, not on what you feel like. If you don’t feel like putting your wife ahead of your friends, then you need to readjust your values based on logic, based on truth, based on what you thought was best when you were in your right mind with God with some space for visioning and planning.

Have you taken space for visioning and planning? Do it. Figure out what is important, and make those things important. Your “pleasures” will begin to align with your values in the right order. They won’t be at war with each other, because each of your values will know its proper place. Your emotions, the pleasure and pain mechanisms, will begin to serve you. This is the secret to never having “fights and quarrels.” It is the secret to a peaceful enjoyment of a powerful and productive life abundant. It is a life that glorifies God and brings a smile to the face of your good Father in heaven, who loves you very much.

Principles are Better than Laws Part 11, No Adultery

God gave his people hundreds of laws and commandments in Scripture, and while as Christians we don’t observe as many as the Jews did under Mosaic law, we still have plenty. We’ve been discussing the major ones in this series, and today we’ll continue through the Ten Commandments with Exodus 20:14.

“You shall not commit adultery.” 

This is fairly straightforward: there is someone who is not your husband or your wife… don’t sleep with them. But Jesus already came and made this more complicated in his Sermon on the Mount when he said,

“27 “You have heard that it was said, ‘You shall not commit adultery.’ 28 But I say to you that everyone who looks at a woman with lustful intent has already committed adultery with her in his heart” (Mt 5:27-28).

I said that he made it more complicated, but perhaps he actually simplified it. Is it easier to avoid adultery when you allow yourself to lust at your leisure, or is it actually easier if you don’t even toe the line? The very next thing he says is radical: 

“29 If your right eye causes you to sin, tear it out and throw it away. For it is better that you lose one of your members than that your whole body be thrown into hell. 30 And if your right hand causes you to sin, cut it off and throw it away. For it is better that you lose one of your members than that your whole body go into hell.”

How could your eye cause you to sin? If he is still talking about adultery, and he must be, then surely the action begins with looking. After that, the hands get involved. 

There is one way to look at this. Traditionally, you might say that Jesus is saying, “if you commit adultery, you will go to hell. If you even look lustfully at a woman, you will go to hell. In order to avoid going to hell, you must do whatever you can to avoid these two things.”

I suppose this is all true in some sense, but the reality is more complicated than that. The speaker here will at some point die for those who commit adultery and for those who lust. They will not be able to save themselves. Even if they cut out their eyes and cut off their hands, it won’t make them good enough to stay out of hell. We need Christ’s atoning sacrifice for that. So why all the bother with commands and rules?

Why does Jesus give them so much instruction for living? Why does he take rules that are already kind of hard to follow and make them impossible by saying that even if you imagine sexual sin, you are committing sexual sin, because it is about the heart? Why not just get to the punch line and tell us that he is going to atone for our sin with his own blood?

There are a lot of reasons that have been fleshed out by theologians. An important one is that we need to know the extent of our sin, or at least some extent of our sin, before we can understand that we are desperate for a savior. Why would we turn to Jesus if we think we are good enough already? There is nothing wrong with thinking you are good enough if you actually are, but reading the Bible and getting into the presence of the perfect God will cure that.

But the reason I want to chew on here is that there is a principle at play. Jesus is not simply talking about the place we will go to pay for our own sins when we die if we don’t believe. He is also talking about the place we are already in on this earth if we walk in that kind of darkness, hell on earth. Let’s consider adultery more carefully.

What is the big deal about it? Why include it in the commandments? Why should God care if we commit adultery? We have to start with the question: what is marriage? The Bible tells us that God invented the institution of marriage for the sake of multiplying his image-bearers on the earth and for the sake of showing the eventual relationship between Jesus and his bride, the Church (Eph 5:22-33). This is known by sociologists as the conjugal view of marriage. Along with the conjugal view of marriage came laws about divorce. At one time, you could not seek a divorce except on the grounds of adultery, because the state thought your marriage was in the best interest of society, because society, and particularly the next generation, was dependent on the stability of the family.

While I believe there are problems with civil governments legislating morality, the fact is that marriage was redefined by no-fault divorce laws (and probably birth control). With no-fault divorce laws, the conjugal view was replaced by the revisionist view. This view says that the goal of marriage is happiness. People get married and stay married because it makes them happy. This is shaky ground for a marriage, because it means that if for some reason your marriage is not making you happy, you can quit. If happiness is the main priority, then you should quit if it’s not making you happy.

Again, Jesus said render unto Caesar what is Caesar’s and unto God what is God’s, so I don’t believe in secular state governments legislating morality (there is a difference between fundamental laws like murder and property rights versus laws about non fundamental reality, like decency laws, marriage laws, etc. I’ll talk more about this in the next post about stealing stuff). That said, for a serious Christian, and I would counsel a non-Christian the same way, there should be a higher goal than happiness if you want your marriage to work out in the long run, and if you want your life to be great…which should make you happy.

I’m all for happiness. I just know it doesn’t come by pursuing it directly. What’s more, I fear God, and he said that marriage is to be permanent in this life. What God has joined, let not man separate (Mk 10:9). So what happens when we commit to the conjugal/biblical view of marriage? Why is this a helpful principle for living?

First, I can make a right decision before I am able to understand it. The prohibition against adultery comes with the prohibition against most divorce. If I have locked the door and thrown away the key on my marriage, and if I am committed to no one but my wife, then I don’t have much to consider when facing the choices. If I subscribe to this as a principle, then it orients me as a person who fears God enough to do what he says. I become a man who fears God and lives as though I do.

The impact of that decision on my marriage over time will be positive, because if I don’t have any option to quit, I might as well try to learn how to make it work. If my marriage is hard at anytime, then it will build my character and teach me powerful things about myself, about God, and about life. And what’s more important to me as a Christian is that it shows the world around me the commitment of Jesus to his own bride, the Church. 

Second, if I not only obey this commandment but also go as far as Jesus in the Sermon on the Mount, I will constantly direct my mind towards God, truth, and purpose. How else does one live the Sermon on the Mount? Doing this is the key to an amazing and abundant life in God. Other than putting my faith in Jesus, putting my mind on Christ, reality, and his Word is the most powerful thing I can do to live well.

Be committed to the wife or the husband that you have on principle, and of course, out of obedience to God. Go even further and follow Jesus’ standard in the Sermon on the Mount. It is one of the most counter cultural practices that Christians are called to, and one of the most powerful principles for the abundant life.

Life Together

As a pastor, which in my context means one of five elders of a local church who happens to be the one who goes by pastor and works full time at the church, I am obsessed with biblical Christian community.  I have been a part of several iterations of Christian life together, and these range the gamut between practically communal, to a church on an interstate exit where some members live an hour apart from one another. What I have learned to this point, is that what is more important than the style and quantitative aspects of community, is the mindset toward Christian community. In short, how does one think about the experience?

Dietrich Bonhoeffer (the Christian pastor who was executed for trying to help assassinate Hitler) has been my tutor in this area, and I have read his magnificent Life Together dozens of times. I am planning to hand copy the book next, so that I can work toward memorizing every word. It resonated with me twelve or fifteen years ago when I first read it in the midst of church planting, and it has shaped my thinking more than any other book outside the Holy Bible (because it is so biblical). So if you have read it, you will see where I am coming from. If you have not read it, stop reading this, and go find a copy. Read that.

If I were to boil down the book to the single most important point, it would be this: Christian community is a reality in Christ. One participates in it by faith before taking any concrete steps toward deepening the relationships. If a group of people are gathered for the sake of worshiping God, growing in faith, taking the ordinances (Lord’s Supper and baptism), fulfilling the Great Commission, and that group is centered on the Gospel of Jesus Christ, then it is a church family. 

It is a local expression of the world-wide, across time, in Heaven and on Earth, Body of Christ.  God has assembled it. That church is a gift from him to the members. Whatever shape it is going to take will be by his grace, and for the sake of his glory. Ours is to be thankful for the fact of its existence, and for whatever it might look like at any given time. The relationships are bound by Christ and what he has done. The members are connected by the Holy Spirit. Christ is the center, and we are bound to it by faith. We are bound to each other by faith and faith alone.  

The first thing one must do is praise God for the church, and be thankful that we are not alone.  We should be thankful for whatever it is, because it is nothing short of a gift. It is not ours to judge, but to participate by faith, trusting the God who gathered this local church to make it into whatever he desires it to be, as the members participate as faithfully and thankfully as we are capable. 

The Bible says to “work your own salvation with fear and trembling” (Phil 2:12). Our salvation is a reality in Christ, but we are to work it out after taking that on faith. This means that we will look to him every day in order to conform to the likeness of Christ, growing all the days of our lives, and it is “God who works in you, both to will and to work for his good pleasure” (Phil 2:13).  We start with a reality, our salvation in Christ alone, and work it out, knowing that God is the one working in us.  This is a mystery but we know it is good.  

Christian community is the same.  We are bound in our local church by faith. It is a reality in Christ.  Our relationships are Christ centered.  We’re not bound by any commonality or fondness but Christ.  Then we work for the rest of our lives to close distance with one another in a faithful way, thanking God for the privilege of Christian fellowship.  Here are the steps: 

  1. Thank God for what you have, no matter how paltry it seems to you.
  2. Pray for closer connections.
  3. Reach out and give of yourself and build some friendships primarily on the love of God in Christ. If these friendships can’t handle conflict, disagreements, annoyances, you didn’t center them on Christ.
  4. Go back to steps 1-3 until you die or Jesus returns.

A Christian Approach to Relating to Others Part 4, The Outcome of the Truth is the Right Outcome

The Outcome of the Truth is the Right Outcome

One main reason that people lie is that they are attempting to control outcomes.  But outcomes are never really in our control, and thinking they should be is a recipe for misery.  We don’t need to think about outcomes because God is already doing that. “The lot is cast into the lap, but its every decision is from the LORD” (Prov 17:1).  And who else but God even could do that?  Think about it. There are a million, billion, trillion things that God is doing at any given moment.  Your situation affects and is affected by countless other situations involving other people and other processes.  You could never unwind it, at least not 99.9% of it, and the .1% you can see is more than enough to keep you busy.  

So what do we have?  Process.  How we live will determine a lot.  If you want the best outcomes possible, though they are barely predictable, you must walk straight.  You must obey God and move in such a way that is pleasing to him.  Jesus told us exactly how to do that: seek first the kingdom of God and his righteousness (Mt 6:33).  Follow God, and walk.  If you do this, you will love the outcome, thought you had not been able to predict it.  Walk according to principles, in this case, the principle that the outcome of the truth is the right outcome, and you will love what God does; you will be strong, and you will like yourself.  Don’t you want to see what God has in mind for you?  Don’t you want to see what he thinks is the best life for you?  Trust him. 

How does this relate to other people?  It relates because, remember, we are in the business of building trust.  As you relate to others it is important that you have integrity.  This means that you must not lie to anyone.  You must act right towards others.  It also means that you must not lie to yourself.  This should be fairly obvious by now.  But the next part might not be as obvious to you: you must not allow others to lie to you and get away with it.  Why?  Because you are committed to truth, and this will serve you well. 

Now we are getting into the realm of courage.  You must walk honestly, but you must also walk courageously.  It takes courage to tell the truth, especially when there will be pain involved.  If you aren’t willing to tell the truth, then it means you either do not trust God, or you have not worked trusting God into the place in your mind and heart that makes your decisions.  It takes constant vigilance and practice to do that.  Dont’ quit.  

But it also takes courage not to allow anyone to lie to you. The simple reason for this is that it will be uncomfortable. If you call them on their bull, they will not like it, and they might not like you.  If they are a worthy heart to get close to, then they will appreciate your honest and brave feedback.  If they are not, you don’t want them around anyway.  If you have up until now lived your life in such a way that you closely monitor people around you for signals about your own worth in their eyes, because you were taught to live that way: people-pleasing, then this will be difficult.  But pressing through and learning to do this will change you like almost nothing else.  

Look at what they said about Jesus:

Teacher, we know that you are true and teach the way of God truthfully, and you do not care about anyone’s opinion, for you are not swayed by appearances (Mt 22:16).

This is incredible. The literal translation of that last part is, “for you don’t look at faces.” If you tend toward people-pleasing, then you are an expert at reading faces. Jesus didn’t try. He just said what needed to be said in the most loving but direct way possible. Granted, it can be helpful to see how people are reacting, to read their faces for the sake of understanding their feelings, but searching for approval so that you can form your opinions (which will not be your opinions) is to shirk responsibility for being an image-bearer, because being an image-bearer requires you to have your own opinions, that is, your own judgement, or if you like, discernment.

Knowing this is not half the battle.  It is at best 5% of the battle.  95% percent is in the doing.  Most people know what is right, and yet almost no one changes.  People that live like this, truly righteous and just in their approach to other people, are extremely rare.  Instead they are scheming, lying, manipulating, coercing, evading, resenting, and in the end, hating.  It is a form of hate to treat people dishonestly for any reason.  It is the most loving thing you can do to act in relation to others with total integrity.  

Integrity is a great word.  It means “whole.”  Think of the math word integer, a whole number.  Anything else is fractured and fragmented.  If you are a fragmented person, you will not feel strong, and you will not like yourself much. You will have no good reason to have genuine self-esteem.  You will depend on the approval of others and your ability to hide the truth from yourself.  You can try, but you will fail, and God does not like it, especially after sending his Son to die so you can, among other things, be honest. Have hope; break off the bondage of untruthfulness. 

Thou Shalt Not Kill

Another way to see that value of human life is to realize God’s hatred for murder. From Genesis 4 we see that the taking of a life runs contrary to God’s ways and nature.  The law is crystal clear on the matter.  God reserves the taking of a human life for himself alone.  Even when the state or an army is authorized to do it, it is by the power vested by God to protect an individual entity from doing so.  And if God so values life, so should we.  

Thou Shalt Not Steal or Covet

When considering how to treat others, consider that God tells us in the Word that it would be wrong to take or covet another man or woman’s possessions.  Why? Because it belongs to them.  More accurately, it belongs to God who has given it to them for stewardship.  In that sense it belongs to them, and what belongs to others, we are not allowed to appropriate for ourselves. They have special value by nature of being possessed by one of these image-bearing creatures with intrinsic value and, as it turns out, inalienable rights.  It is not just to take something from someone just because you can.  

Incidentally, this is how we know it is OK to own private property. God’s command to protect it means that he sees it as under our authority.  God gives a lot of credence to what is under the authority of one his image-bearing creations.  Consider that the reason the whole world, including all the people in it, were cursed at the fall was because Adam rebelled, and Adam was in charge of everything.  So Adam went down, and now the “whole creation has been subjected to futility” (Ro 8:20).  “For as in Adam all die.”  The good news is that in the very same way, “in Christ, shall all be made alive” (1 Cor 15).  All we have to do is put ourselves under Christ’s authority and he replaces Adam.  Everything owned by a person is considered under a person’s authority.  God protects it with his law so that it is not right to take or covet something that belongs to another.  

Tomorrow let’s look at what the Bible has to say about treating others better than ourselves and how that relates to what we have been saying about justice, dominance, and trading value for value.