Brave Words with a Broken Heart

Our love grows soft if it is not strengthened by truth, and our truth grows hard if it is not softened by love. —John Stott

John Piper has tried to capture this reality with the term “brokenhearted boldness.” The word boldness is self-evident, connoting truth and confidence and courage and strength. The word brokenhearted is not quite as obvious. It refers to a spirit of contrition, trembling, sympathy, and gentleness. People who are “brokenhearted” put on “compassionate hearts, kindness, humility, meekness, and patience” (Colossians 3:12).

Brokenhearted boldness is not a phrase you will find in the Bible. But once you have eyes for it, you’ll see the concept everywhere. I would like to point to a few places where it emerges in the teaching of the apostle Paul.

Weights and Seasons
Before we turn to Paul, however, it may be helpful to reflect on how these two things — boldness and brokenheartedness — are often combined.

For instance, Aristotle proposed that reason should take two virtues and locate the golden mean between them. If you have too much courage, you’ll end up with recklessness. If you have a deficit of courage, you’ll end up with cowardice. It’s when you have the right proportion of virtues — just enough courage and just enough humility — you’ll end up with a balanced scale of true virtue.

Another tactic for putting together the virtues — one more common to Christians — is to think of each of them as being fitting for different seasons or occasions. On this approach, Christians could paraphrase chapter three of Ecclesiastes, “For everything there is a season, and a time for every matter under heaven: a time to be brokenhearted, and a time to be bold.” Yes, God calls us to be both. But not necessarily at the same time.

Christian Alternative
A better way to put the two together is to see the call to brokenhearted boldness as a desirable steady-state description of the Christian life.

This looks different than the 50/50 approach of Aristotle, because the Christian ethic has a different calculus. Instead of aiming for an abstract ideal formed by reason, it seeks to conform to a Person — one who is both a lion and a lamb (Revelation 5:5–6), who is infinitely transcendent but became incarnate to dwell among us. We follow the whole Christ, full of grace and full of truth (John 1:14).

It also looks different than the call for us to be brokenhearted at times and bold at different times. Of course there is some truth to this. Funerals look and feel different than weddings. But Paul spoke of his own life and ministry “as sorrowful, yet always rejoicing” (2 Corinthians 6:10). He said that we should speak the truth in love (Ephesians 4:15). Our truth-speaking, he said, should “always be gracious, seasoned with salt” (Colossians 4:6). Paul was never ashamed to preach the gospel (Romans 1:16), and yet he was quick to identify himself as “the very least of all the saints” (Ephesians 3:8), “the least of the apostles” (1 Corinthians 15:9), and even the chief of sinners (1 Timothy 1:15).

Familiar Backbone
We readily associate Paul with no-fear boldness:

“Be strong in the Lord and in his mighty power” (Ephesians 6:10 NIV).
“The Spirit God gave us does not make us timid, but gives us power” (2 Timothy 1:7 NIV).
“My dear brothers and sisters, stand firm. Let nothing move you” (1 Corinthians 15:58 NIV).
“[Do not be] frightened in any way by those who oppose you” (Philippians 1:28 NIV).
This is the muscular Christianity of the apostle — shipwrecked, beaten, stoned, imprisoned, mocked, and absolutely undeterred. Nothing could stop him from proclaiming the good news of Jesus Christ.

Less Familiar Tears
Less noticed, however, is the spirit of love Paul intended to permeate every act of gospel courage and correction. For example, immediately after writing, “Stand firm in the faith, act like men, be strong,” he adds, “Let all that you do be done in love” (1 Corinthians 16:13–14).

John Stott wrote, “The truth is that there are such things as Christian tears, and too few of us ever weep them.” Whatever else may be said, we can at least say it was not so with Paul. Paul spoke to the Ephesian elders in Acts 20:31, reminding them that for three years, day and night, he would “admonish every one” — that’s the bold part we know so well. But he did this hard work of admonishment “with tears” — there’s the brokenhearted spirit we tend to miss.

In Acts 20:19, Paul notes that he endured “trials that happened to me through the plots of the Jews” — there’s the stiff backbone. But he did it “serving the Lord with all humility and with tears” — that’s the lowly spirit.

Reflecting back on his painful visit to the Corinthian church and a hard letter he had written them, he claimed, “I wrote to you out of much affliction and anguish of heart and with many tears, not to cause you pain but to let you know the abundant love that I have for you” (2 Corinthians 2:4).

Even in Harsh Honesty
Even Paul’s harshest language — used against false teachers when the nature of the gospel was at stake — is enveloped by this theme.

Right before he warns against the evil teachers of Philippians 3:2 as “dogs,” he says that the church should “rejoice in the Lord” (Philippians 3:1). Immediately after the comment, he meditates on his own imperfection and why he has no confidence in the flesh (Philippians 3:4–16). He calls upon them to imitate him, noting that “For many, of whom I have often told you and now tell you even with tears, walk as enemies of the cross of Christ” (Philippians 3:18).

Paul was bold enough to identify and call out enemies of the Christ; he was tender enough in spirit for it to pain him to the core, so that tears wet his face as he sought to fight back the wolves.

In the book of Galatians, where he says that the Judaizers who think they can be justified by circumcision should just “cut themselves off” (Galatians 5:12, my translation), he says a few verses later that anyone caught in a transgression should be restored “in a spirit of gentleness” (Galatians 6:1).

Critics of what I am identifying here often dismiss this as the “tone police.” But Paul himself told the Galatian church that he was perplexed by them and longed to see him face to face so that he could change his “tone” (Galatians 4:20). Speaking hard words was not at the heart of who he was, even if he had to do it at times. Critics often point out that niceness is not a fruit of the Spirit. But I would remind them that kindness and gentleness are (Galatians 5:22–23).

Fearlessness with Gentleness
Paul recounts to the church in Thessalonica his shame-filled suffering and says, “We had boldness in our God to declare to you the gospel of God in the midst of much conflict” (1 Thessalonians 2:2). He aimed to please God, not man (1 Thessalonians 2:4). But he also notes, “We were gentle among you, like a nursing mother taking care of her own children” (1 Thessalonians 2:7).

When Paul wrote his Pastoral Epistles, he explained that gentleness was a requirement to be an elder (1 Timothy 3:3). He told Timothy to pursue both steadfastness and gentleness (1 Timothy 6:11). He told Titus “to avoid quarreling” and instead “to be gentle, and to show perfect courtesy toward all people” (Titus 3:2). Even when a pastor is required to correct false teaching with a sharp rebuke (Titus 1:13), it should be done from a heart of gentleness and with a longing for God to grant the gift of repentance (2 Timothy 2:25).

This is not a man who delighted in the cleverness of his sarcasm, satire, and mockery. When he had to use harsh words, they were meant to keep at bay the ravaging wolves, not to beat up on the wandering sheep. Paul sought to imitate “the meekness and gentleness of Christ” (2 Corinthians 10:1), urging his readers “to walk in a manner worthy of the calling to which you have been called, with all humility and gentleness, with patience, bearing with one another in love” (Ephesians 4:1–2). The words that come out of our mouths, he said, should be “only such as is good for building up, as fits the occasion, that it may give grace to those who hear” (Ephesians 4:29).

Rare Qualities of a Saint
No one doubts that Paul was bold. But we often forget that he was also meek. Jonathan Edwards wrote that “Religious sorrow, mourning, and brokenness of heart are . . . frequently spoken of as a great part of true religion. These things are often mentioned as distinguishing qualities of the true saints, and a great part of their character.”

This certainly describes what we see in the letters of Paul. And we would do well to imitate his brokenhearted boldness today.

The Future of Christianity Is Africa

Stories published in the sober British medical journal The Lancet don’t normally inspire sensational headlines. But one recent piece on current and future trends in global fertility has called forth some stunned and stunning reactions. The article describes what the BBC terms a ‘Jaw-Dropping’ Global Crash in Children Being Born, as most areas of the world move toward what we thought of (until recently!) as very low Danish-style fertility rates. In the words of researcher Christopher Murray, “I think it’s incredibly hard to think this through and recognize how big a thing this is; it’s extraordinary, we’ll have to reorganize societies.”

Arguably, this is one of the most significant trends facing the world in the coming century.

Although The Lancet article didn’t touch on matters of religion, that is, in fact, one of the arenas most affected by this shift. Last year, in an article I wrote for TGC, I discussed the intimate relationship between fertility rates and levels of religiosity. That’s now the subject of my new book, Fertility and Faith: The Demographic Revolution and the Transformation of World Religions (Baylor University Press). Briefly, I argue that societies with high fertility rates have high levels of religious faith and practice, while declining fertility correlates closely to shrinking institutional faith, and to secularization. Let me stress, this doesn’t necessarily mean a decline in actual belief, but rather in expressions of faith: believing can continue after belonging has all but vanished.

I won’t repeat my argument about why those phenomena should be linked—see my earlier article—but the model works well around the world, and applies to all faith traditions. Tell me the fertility rate of a particular nation, and I can make a reasonable assessment of the strength or weakness of institutional faith in that society.

Tracking Fertility
Although we can track fertility in various ways, we commonly use the total fertility rate (TFR), which measures the average number of children who would be born to a woman over her lifetime, assuming she survives to the end of her reproductive life. If that TFR figure for a particular country is around 2.1 children per woman, then the population will remain broadly stable, and that level is termed replacement rate. If the rate is much higher than that, say 4 or 5 per woman, then we will see an expanding population.

Tell me the fertility rate of a particular nation, and I can make a reasonable assessment of the strength of weakness of institutional faith in that society.

A fertility rate below 2.1—what we call sub-replacement—results in a contracting population and an aging society. Those figures have enormous religious consequences. Sub-replacement societies tend to be secular, or are undergoing the process of secularization at a high rate. As the United States rate settles around 1.7—a typical Scandinavian rate—it makes it likely that the country will be moving rapidly toward European religious conditions.

Although the relationship isn’t perfect, we see this trend in the growth of the so called “nones,” those rejecting any identification with a religious tradition or denomination. Already, the number of American “nones” is around a quarter of the population, comparable to the figures for evangelical Protestants or for Catholics.

Fertility, Africa, and the Fate of Christianity
What do these demographic predictions mean for the fate of Christianity? I believe the trends will indeed accelerate the decline of faith in Western societies. But I want to stress another component of these current trends that has received far less attention in media reports: some parts of the world will retain high rates of both fertility and faith in the coming decades. Those regions will increasingly be the global centers of Christianity.

Above all, this means Africa. To return to that Lancet study: “The population of sub-Saharan Africa is expected to triple in size to more than three billion people by 2100.” Already by 2050, a list of the 20 countries with the world’s largest populations will include at least six black African nations: Nigeria, the Democratic Republic of the Congo (DRC), Ethiopia, Tanzania, Uganda, and Kenya. All are still marked by high fertility, with TFR’s far-above-replacement level. Taken together, according to this projection, those countries alone will have more than 1.1 billion citizens.

The impact will be immense. In the words of Christopher Murray:

We will have many more people of African descent in many more countries as we go through this. Global recognition of the challenges around racism are going to be all the more critical if there are large numbers of people of African descent in many countries.

That is true. But think about this in religious terms. Africa has two flourishing and expanding faiths—Christianity and Islam—and both will profit from demographic expansion. These societies continue to be vigorously religious: high fertility is characterized by high faith.

High fertility is characterized by high faith.

One 2015 survey asked respondents whether they felt religious. Atop the list were three African countries—Ethiopia, Malawi, and Niger, all at 99 percent—and all the top 25 nations were located in Africa, the Middle East, or Southeast Asia. Each of these nations reported religious sentiments with response rates of 95 percent or higher. At the other extreme were 23 nations drawn mainly from Europe (14 nations) but with several Asian nations also. When asked about the role that religion played in their lives, Africa produced some of the highest numbers reporting “very important”: 98 percent in Ethiopia, 88 percent in Nigeria, 86 percent in Uganda.

This demographic story also draws the emerging map of the world’s great Christian centers. Already by 2050, Africa will be home to more than a billion Christians, by far the largest concentration on the planet. That doesn’t take African migrants living around the world into account, that mighty Christian diaspora. The rate of numerical change is astonishing—and accelerating. By 2050 a list of the 10 countries worldwide with the largest Christian populations will include several African members, including Nigeria, Ethiopia, the DRC, and Uganda. Between 1900 and 2050, the African share of the global Christian population will have grown from barely 2 percent to more than 33 percent. I scarcely dare to extrapolate those numbers as far into the future as 2100. (Throughout, I’m defining Christianity and Islam in broad terms, without too much concern about theological or denominational specificity.)

Africa’s Demographic Story
Any number of African countries illustrate this story of growth, the main variable being the relative strength of Christianity and Islam. When the 20th century began, the lands that would become the nation of Kenya had a tiny population of 1.5 million, although precise estimates are difficult to come by. That number grew spectacularly. National population reached 10 million by 1966, 30 million by the end of the century, and (probably) 50 million today. By 2050 Kenya could have 95 million people. In religious terms, the Christian proportion of the population has unquestionably swelled since the mid-20th century, to reach a modern figure of perhaps 80 percent or 85 percent. But the increase in raw numbers is staggering—growing from perhaps 4 million Christians in the mid-1960s to more than 40 million today and conceivably to 75 million by the middle of this century. Here, as in all sub-Saharan African nations, levels of religious practice are staggering by the standards of Europe or North America. High fertility, high faith.

Or take Nigeria. In 1900 the lands that became Nigeria had around 16 million inhabitants, of whom a tiny fraction were Christian—perhaps 180,000. That same area now contains almost 200 million people, a figure that could exceed 400 million by 2050. Even if Christians don’t make a single new convert in that land but merely retain their current share of population, then between 2020 and 2050 the number of Nigerian Christians will grow from around 90 million to more than 180 million. At that point Nigeria will be one of the most significant centers of Christianity worldwide. Put another way, between 1900 and 2050, Christian numbers would have grown by at least a thousandfold. Though this is somewhat speculative, the Lancet study offers some predictive power. Nigeria’s population of 800 million may boast 400 million Christians!

In Uganda, Christianity was new in 1900, but has since become the dominant religion. Perhaps 40 percent of Ugandans are Catholic, 32 percent Anglican, and 13 percent Protestant. Muslims make up 13 percent. If, for the sake of argument, we assume that the balance of faiths has held more or less steady, this means that the number of Ugandan Christians has grown from 3 million or 4 million in 1950 to 37 million today, with a possible expansion to more than 80 million by 2050.

As the century proceeds, Christianity will become ever more markedly a religion of Africa and the African diaspora.

Likewise, in 1900, Ethiopia had around 12 million people, rising to 40 million by 1980 and around 100 million today. By 2050 the figure could be 180 million. If we assume that Christians represent around half the total, then the number of Ethiopian Christians will have grown from 6 million in 1900 to more than 90 million in 2050, and, again, that assumes no conversion or evangelism.

Christianity, the African Religion
In 2002 my book The Next Christendom explored Christianity’s shift to the Global South. I suggested that this move would become more pronounced as time progressed. Since the book was written, the main change has concerned the plunge in fertility rates in many nations across Latin America and East Asia, which certainly affects any detailed estimates of Christian numbers.

But what hasn’t changed is my central emphasis on Africa. As the century proceeds, Christianity will become ever more markedly a religion of Africa and the African diaspora. African numerical dominance within the faith will arrive sooner than I argued—and it’ll be more sizable, too.

It’s not just the declines in fertility that are “jaw-dropping”!

We Will Get Through This

During this pandemic, quarantine, and sheltering at-home orders, I’ve found myself drawn to Bible stories of liberation and freedom from captivity.

We were created to be free—not isolated, alienated, held in captivity, or exiled indefinitely. Even so, such things happen, and it happened to the people of God during a period of 70 years we call the Babylonian captivity.

They’d been warned.

Warning

In the early days of the COVID-19 pandemic, President Trump and a team of doctors gave daily briefings. Day after day they presented numbers and charts that I found informative . . . and incredibly frightening, yet I made myself watch because I’ve lived long enough to know warnings are important (whether I like them or not).

For many years, God had tried to warn the descendants of Judah that trouble was coming. God had chosen Judah and his descendants from among the tribes of Israel for a special place in his plan (Genesis 49:1, 8-10). And that plan, according to Jeremiah, included trouble with people from the north.

Jeremiah announced God’s warning: “Because you have not obeyed my words, behold, I will send for all the tribes of the north . . . and for Nebuchadnezzar the king of Babylon, my servant, and I will bring them against this land and its inhabitants, and against all these surrounding nations” (Jeremiah 25:8-9; all Scriptures are from the English Standard Version).

God also spoke warnings through the prophet Habakkuk: “I am raising up the Chaldeans [Babylon], that bitter and hasty nation, who march through the breadth of the earth, to seize dwellings not their own” (Habakkuk 1:6).

Most scholars agree that the Battle of Carchemish in 605 BC was an inciting incident in the story of the Babylonian captivity. This battle began after the Babylonian and Median army, led by Nebuchadnezzar, pursued the Egyptians and the Assyrians south to Carchemish and handily defeated them. Nebuchadnezzar emerged from this battle as one of the most powerful leaders in the world.

In an attempt to expand the Babylonian Empire, Nebuchadnezzar besieged Jerusalem (Jeremiah 22:18-30), capturing King Jehoiakim (good King Josiah’s son), putting him in chains, and deporting him to exile in Babylon (2 Chronicles 36:6) along with 10,000 other people of Judah (2 Kings 24:14). The members of the royal family who were exiled to Babylon included Daniel, Shadrach, Meshach, and Abednego. (A great resource that summarizes the events that led up to the Babylonian captivity is Dr. James Smith’s self-published book, Bible History Made Simple.)

Waiting

God revealed that his plan was for Babylon to rule over the world for 70 years (Jeremiah 25:11-12). For the people of Judah, exile became their normal.

Exile isn’t easy—whether it’s being confined inside your home for several months or away from your home for 70 years! The waiting can be painful; it definitely was for Judah. Some of the pain of the Babylonian captivity was expressed by Jeremiah: “Judah has gone into exile because of affliction and hard servitude; she dwells now among the nations, but finds no resting place; her pursuers have all overtaken her in the midst of her distress” (Lamentations 1:3).

The people were distressed during this time of waiting, but they would learn what we often forget: God never wastes pain. He sometimes allows our hearts to be broken in the hope we will grow to love him more wholeheartedly, he sometimes uses times of captivity to (ultimately) liberate us, and he sometimes uses exile to bring us closer to him.

But it can be hard to see this in the midst of waiting.

It likely was especially hard for Judah, whose home and center for worship was destroyed.

In 587 BC, approximately 10 years after the first deportation of people to Babylon, Nebuchadnezzar destroyed Jerusalem when Zedekiah (whom Nebuchadnezzar had installed as vassal king of Judah) revolted against him and united with the king of Egypt. After seeing his sons killed, Zedekiah was blinded and then taken to Babylon.

With Zedekiah removed, Nebuchadnezzar sent in his general, Nebuzaradan, to finish the job—which he did effectively. Jerusalem was plundered, Solomon’s temple was destroyed, and more people were taken into captivity. The conquerors allowed only a few poor people to stay in Jerusalem to work the land (Jeremiah 52:16).

As the years of exile in Babylon stretched on and on, God encouraged his people, through Jeremiah, to “work the waiting.”

We’ve had choices to make every day during the coronavirus quarantine. We’ve had to choose to be overcome with worry or to overcome worry. We’ve had to choose to shrink back in fear or move forward in faith . . . to shrink into less or grow into more. We’ve had the choice of whether to allow the waiting to work us over or, instead, to work the waiting by seeking to grow into the people God wants us to be.

God wanted his people in Babylon to grow during their time of exile. Through his prophet, God said, “Build houses and live in them; plant gardens and eat their produce. . . . When seventy years are completed for Babylon, I will visit you, and I will fulfill to you my promise and bring you back to this place” (Jeremiah 29:5, 10).

So, the people faithfully worked and waited for God to fulfill his promise, while they also grew into more devoted followers of the Lord. In Divided We Fall, Dr. James Smith notes, “The captivity in Babylon served a useful purpose in the plan of God. Though surrounded by the influence of pagan religion, the people of God were drawn closer to the Lord. Following the exile to Babylon, idolatry was never again a problem to the Jews.”

God is always working in our waiting to bring his plan and promises into fruition. God kept his promises to Judah through a Persian king.

In 539 BC, Cyrus the Great conquered Babylon with virtually no resistance. He repatriated the people Babylon had taken captive. Cyrus granted permission for the Jews to return home and rebuild the temple.

Wondering

Most great stories have a happy ending. And a great ending to any exile is when those who’ve been exiled are allowed to return home.

In Judah’s exile and repatriation, we see a phenomenon that often occurs when people have been imprisoned for a long period of time. At first, prisoners hate the shackles and bars of their cell, but then they grow used to them. Upon their release, if they’ve been imprisoned for a long time, they might even miss their shackles and bars.

If we’re not careful, exile can strip away our identity and keep us from fulfilling our destiny.

Many of the Jews and their descendants who’d been born in Babylon became comfortable there and refused to leave. Exile had alienated them from their homes in practical, significant, and lasting ways. Only 42,360 Jews returned to Jerusalem, but they returned with a clear passion and purpose: rebuild the temple and restore worship. With guidance from Zerubbabel, the grandson of King Jehoiakim, they laid a foundation for the temple—which had been in ruins for almost 50 years—but passion for finishing the temple and restoring worship started to wane. They had to deal with a very real challenge all people who have been exiled must face when they return home or the restrictions are lifted—“What now?”

“The restoration effort got off to a fine start,” Smith noted in Divided We Fall. “But problems arose. The people had other things to do—building homes, planting and harvesting, making a living. Hostility of neighboring Samaritans endangered public safety. Preoccupied with these difficulties, the people became indifferent to the work of rebuilding God’s house. For some years no further progress was made on this vital project.”

“For some years” was actually more than two decades! It took 23 years for the people of God to stop wondering and resume worshipping! Worship in Jerusalem finally resumed in 516 BC when the second temple was completed.

As pandemic restrictions have been easing, one of the biggest challenges I’ve faced as a preacher is wondering what to do to reestablish in-person worship and reopen the church. Everyone has an opinion about when churches should open, how they should open, and even who should be allowed to return for in-person worship. As with the exiles who returned to Jerusalem after 70 years away, it’s hard to keep focus on what needs to happen next with so many voices, pressures, and opinions.

That being said, I’ll try to do what the good people of God did post-exile so many years ago: return home, rebuild, and work to restore in-person worship in a new, fresh, and significant way.

Arron Chambers

Don’t Let COVID19 Turn You Into a Social Media Addict

With America on lockdown, many of us are spending more time with our phones and social media feeds than is normal or healthy. This piece, originally published in 2017, has some advice on how to curb the need for validation, information and entertainment 

Have you ever noticed that your greatest need can produce your greatest vulnerability?

It seems like a thin line exists between seeking the fulfillment of a genuine need and allowing it to become an unhealthy obsession. The introduction of social media into this danger zone only makes it more difficult. For instance, how do we know when we’re looking for affirmation (a genuine need) or validation (unhealthy obsession)?

Personally, I struggle with this when it comes to social media and public speaking. After reading Gary Chapman’s best-selling book, The 5 Love Languages: The Secret to Love that Lasts, I discovered my love language is words of affirmation.

I regularly look for opportunities to get feedback or affirmation of my work. It’s the way I receive love. I’m a pastor, so as I prepare for a sermon, I will put together a group of friends to help me figure out what still needs tweaking and what stands strong within my talk. I put hours into a blog post or article, hoping to hear from people people who gained new perspective or experienced personal change through my words.

But my need for affirmation can turn—and in the past has turned—into an unhealthy search for validation. In seeking to get my need met, at times, I have given people far too much power to validate or invalidate me.

Like many other people, I will check to see if anyone liked that status or commented on that picture far too frequently. I will refresh and refresh, wondering: “Has anyone shared my blog post yet?” “Did I get more subscribers this week?” “Is my traffic up today?” “Please let this go viral.”

On Sunday afternoon, I’ll wonder: “How was that sermon? Did anyone respond? Did anyone share my clever statements on Facebook or Twitter?”

As I express my gifts in very public settings, I’m putting myself in the midst of this battle on a weekly, if not daily, basis. While I want to be affirmed for doing a good job, I can very easily allow my identity to be on the line for validation in the process. While you may not be a public speaker or pastor, you’re out there in this struggle with me in every post, tweet, selfie and snap you share.

This struggle to navigate the line between affirmation and validation is a scrap many of us know all too well. While I believe my struggle is not unique, I think many of us are losing our battle with the dark side of modern technology and experiencing tremendous anxiety as a result.

We’re living in amazing times. Many of us benefit from using social media. We get to connect with people we wouldn’t otherwise. We learn and get exposed to more of our world than the generations before us.

However, the dark side of social media is that likes, comments, shares, retweets, favorites, followers, friends and subscribers become a way to measure our value, rather than our profile’s performance. These “vanity metrics” end up deciding the value of not only our work, but of who we are.

I got tired of feeling like social media owned me. I got fed up with giving other people (some I’ve never met) the power to decide my value as a person.

This led me to take action:

Fast from website stats and social media.

Turning off your notifications or going on a fast from social media could a wise and healthy choice. Hitting the reset button on your use of good tools that have become bad news might be wise—painful, yet wise. Without thoughtfully engaging these tools, we become mastered by them rather than being master of them.

I recently deleted my Google Analytics and MailChimp apps from my iPhone and left them off for several weeks. I now have to work harder to check my stats. I took a 24-hour social media fast last weekend because I saw some unhealthy habits developing. Without access to the numbers, I found more joy in the actual work.

In the recent #MillennialMusical, created by Lin-Manuel Miranda and The Rock, one character gave up social media and found a fresh perspective. But when a good thing has become a bad thing—or even worse an idol—fasting can break the destructive pattern.

While fasting can break the pattern, most of us aren’t going offline forever, so we have to learn how to be healthy and engaged online.

Identify good sources of affirmation.

We must learn how to discern good and bad sources of affirmation. I’ve found that the difference is often found in exploring the source of affirmation. Asking questions helps clarify things here. How close are we to the sources we’re seeking? How much trust and history have we established with these people?

When I realize I’m looking for strangers to let me know if I’m OK, something is off. When the response of people we don’t know on our phone matters more than the people we are physically with, we need change.

Who are the people who matter most to us? We must create regular opportunities for affirmation from them. Remind them of your need for encouragement. When we’re tempted to go look elsewhere, we must remind ourselves of what the people who matter most think about you.

Recognize that no amount of likes or comments or retweets will ever be enough if that decides your value.

Growing up, The Sandlot and Cool Runnings were two of my favorite movies.

For the uninitiated, Cool Runnings is inspired by the true story of the first Jamaican bobsled team to compete in the Olympics during the 1988 Games in Calgary, Alberta. This fictionalized version is comical and emotional.

While there are countless lines I could quote from the movie, I think about one scene often. The scene is a conversation with the captain of the team, Derice Bannock and the team’s coach, Irv Blitzer.

In the scene, Darice asks Irv why he cheated when he was a bobsledder on the American team, costing himself a gold medal. Irv’s response rings in my ears today, “If you’re not enough without it, you’ll never be enough with it.”

Those words are so powerful. They challenge me. Whenever I think about this scene, I write my own sentence, “If I’m not enough without ________, I’ll never be enough with ________.” How would you complete those sentences? What do you place the most value in?

It’s one thing for social media to be a place where we get affirmed, that’s a normal human need. But when it becomes a place where we look for validation, I’m not sure we’ll ever get enough.

If we’re not enough without another like, retweet, comment or share, then we’re always going to be looking for “just a little more” at every stage of your life. 50 won’t be enough, I’ll want 100. 1000 won’t be enough, I’ll want 2000. We’ll never arrive at enough followers, friends or subscribers. “More” is a mirage; from far away, we think our thirst will be satisfied. But when we get close, our only option is to drink sand.

I believe that “Am I enough?” may be the most important question we ask ourselves today. If we’re enough without “it,” then we can actually achieve “it” and thrive. We can receive the things we seek without them destroying us.

Tips to Discuss Politics, Race, Religion and Other Controversial Topics

Who has not been exposed to or may be even involved in discussions of controversial topics these days?

It seems that talk of politics, race, religion, and a whole host of other controversial topics are swirling around us everywhere we go. Some topics we can ignore and avoid, and others we get sucked into. Some discussions we get reluctantly and others we get into too eagerly. There are numerous pitfalls to having these discussions that we all want to avoid, so today, I want to offer eight tips for discussing controversial topics that will hopefully help your discussions be more productive and respectful. Being that the USA is in an election year (2020), politics seems to be on everyone’s mind, so let’s start with this quote from a book that I reviewed a few years ago entitled “Before You Hit SEND: Avoiding Headache and Heartache” by Emerson Eggerichs to set the stage:

“Some people enter politics because they derive personal fulfillment from the ‘gotcha’ approach to issues. It isn’t about what is true but about the political chess game. The key is to put a better spin on a matter than the other candidate and to put the opposition in checkmate…In political circles the rule of thumb is never admit a mistake or that you don’t know something. Thus, keep talking in an interview to sound like an expert, all the while aware that you don’t know. Feeling on the hot seat, and determined never to be wrong, but fully cognizant that the information is insufficient or incorrect, keep moving your lips, weaving and ducking as best as your polemical skills permit.”

If this sounds all too familiar to you and you’re tired of it, keep on reading!

Controversial Topic Discussion Tip #1: You Could Be Wrong
It is important to recognize that we could be wrong about what we believe about reality. Interestingly enough, a challenge could actually be a blessing in disguise. It could be an opportunity for us to let go of false beliefs and acquire true ones. Of course, challenges do not always result in a changed belief; they can also result in a more nuanced and more strongly defended belief. But regardless of the ultimate result of a challenge, when we see it as an opportunity, we give the other person a respect that is often missing from discussions today.

When we demonstrate that we can have a rational discussion where arguments are presented and granted when they are sound, we demonstrate that we are committed to truth. We demonstrate that we understand that we are not perfect and do not necessarily have everything figured out. We also demonstrate that we are willing to hear others out, understand the reasons that they hold the other view and carefully consider those reasons. Greg Koukl summarizes this quite well in his book “Tactics: A Game Plan For Discussing Your Christian Convictions“:

“A commitment to truth — as opposed to a commitment to an organization — means an openness to refining one’s own views. It means increasing the accuracy of one’s understanding and being open to correction in thinking. A challenger might turn out to be a blessing in disguise, an ally instead of an enemy. An evangelist who is convinced of her view, then, should be willing to engage the best arguments against it.”

Controversial Topic Discussion Tip #2: Find Common Ground
This is so important. Regardless of who you are discussing a controversial subject with, you can find some sort of common ground with them. The very fact that we are all created in the Image of God provides a strong set of commonalities that we can begin with. If we hold to the same worldview, in general (this discussion just being one of working out the details), then it is important to recognize that up front. Even if you remain in disagreement at the end of the conversation and agree to pick up the conversation again later, it is important to affirm where agreement exists. Again, Greg Koukl offers wisdom here from “Tactics“:

“As a general rule, go out of your way to establish common ground. Whenever possible, affirm points of agreement. Take the most charitable read on the other person’s motives, not the most cynical. Treat them the way you would like others to treat you if you were the one in the hot seat.”

Controversial Topic Discussion Tip #3: Assume Good Will
Speaking of charitable motives, always assume this. No one likes to have their character attacked, particularly when they know that they are not deserving of such an attack. Even if we do not attack one’s character verbally in our discussion, we may still be doing so in our minds as the conversation progresses (or regresses). It is important that we focus on the person’s claims and arguments for the claims rather than their motives because their motives logically have no bearing on the truth of their claims.

Further, when we assume good will, we are more willing to understand where someone is coming from. When we understand where they are coming from, it gives us an opportunity to address a deeper concern that they have with our opposing view- we can offer them a logically, rationally, and evidentially supported alternative that takes into account their deeper commitment. When we understand that the other person ultimately has good intentions, it allows us to show kindness while we speak and defend truth. In his book “Before You Hit SEND: Preventing Headache and Heartache,” Emerson Eggerichs lists out the important reasons why kindness in controversial topic discussions is vital:

“Kindness eases others, which enables them to hear the substance of our concern. Kindness demonstrates and builds trust. Kindness affects the emotions, which is key when seeking to inform or persuade. Kindness maintains a relationship, and relationship determines response. My communication kindly demonstrates who God is.”

Controversial Topic Discussion Tip #4: Listen To Understand
Listening is vital to the discussion. If we are truly there to defend a position and, hopefully, convince the other person that our view more closely matches reality than the one they presently believe, we have to be able to properly understand their current view. It does us no good to argue against a view that the person does not hold. If we have soundly defeated a view and offered ours as an alternative, but the view that we have defeated is not what the other person holds, we have not given them a reason to abandon their view in favor of ours. We’ve given them reasons to not accept that other view, yes, but we have not given the reason to change from the view that they currently hold. Listening takes patience. We cannot always be eager to sneak in a rhetorical jab or present the next logical “gotcha!” We need to focus on what the other person is saying in order to understand to ensure that what we are about to present actually addresses and applies to their claims.

Controversial Topic Discussion Tip #5: Ask Honest Questions
One of the great ways to listen is not just being quiet and focusing but asking clarifying questions. Questions like “what do you mean by that,” or “how do you get from X to Y in your logical thinking” helps us to learn about other views and the reasons why people hold those views. Asking honest questions in order to learn demonstrates that we are willing to consider and engage other views (Tip #1) as they actually are rather caricatures of those views.
Some people may have even considered the views that they espouse more deeply. Foundations and implications may not have crossed their minds. This is also where asking honest questions can be helpful. Jonathan Morrow speaks to the wisdom of asking questions:

“People may not ask…questions of their own beliefs or think carefully about the way they view the world, but they still have a worldview. And it affects every area of their lives. Every person–knowingly or not– filters the information that enters their minds through their worldview. They then make sense of that information based on their worldview. This process is automatic and the filtered information shapes their beliefs and influences how they function in society, including the smallest decisions they make.”

Asking honest questions demonstrates to the other person respect and demonstrates a spirit of humility a heart of a student. Listen, understand, and appropriately critique in a loving and kind manner. I will refer you to both of the books already mentioned above for more on this tip.

Controversial Topic Discussion Tip #6: Get Your Facts Right
This cannot be emphasized enough. It is important that our claims match reality, meaning that we need to get our facts right. This affects the persuasiveness of our presentation in multiple ways. First, if we do not have our facts right, then any conclusions that we draw from those incorrect claims will be questionable. We simply cannot use false claims about reality to come to true conclusions about reality. It is not logical, and no one would be reasonable to accept a conclusion that is dependent upon something false for its truth.

Second, when we do not have our facts right, it appears that we do not value truth enough to verify claims. This could be because we are gullible, lazy, or simply just want to believe that our conclusion is true, so we’re looking for any confirmation of it. When we do not check the claims we make for truth before we use them to persuade someone to our view, it demonstrates that we are more committed to a view than to what is true.

Third, if we value a particular view over what is true, why should anyone trust us about anything else that we claim? Getting our facts right is not just an issue of making a sound argument, but an issue of personal character and trust. If we do not take the time to investigate our claims before using them, we should not be trusted. I’ll quote Eggerichs again, here:

“Perhaps in many cases we didn’t know it was untrue. No harm, no foul. Even so, an honest error in judgment does not make it okay, especially when we repeatedly make such mistakes. The real point here is to the lazy and neglectful individuals who keep making mistakes and claim they did not know the truth. They may be innocent, but one becomes guilty of carelessness and inattentiveness. We must aggressively get our facts straight to avoid a routine of ‘honest’ mistakes.”

Controversial Topic Discussion Tip #7: Avoid or Qualify Speculation
Part of getting our facts straight is to communicate the difference between what we understand to be facts and what we are speculating about what those facts mean for the future. Speculation can get quite emotional because it tends towards two extremes: either a “best-case scenario” or a “worst-case scenario.” The first gives people a utopianistic feeling and expectation. The second gives people a fearful feeling and expectation. Both of those are strong drivers of strong action and rhetoric, but they are only founded in speculation. We do not want to give someone a false impression and cause them to react according to that falsehood.

Speculations about all sorts of things take place in conversations, but it seems that speculations about future events and individuals’ motives tend to be the most damaging. Obviously, no one can see the future. We can certainly look to history and notice a pattern of certain conditions preceding or coinciding with certain events, but because we are not omniscient and may be overlooking an key condition that may change the whole outcome, speculating about the future needs to be done carefully and with qualification. Some people may choose to just avoid it altogether.

Obviously, too, no one can see the heart of another individual. When we speculate about the “pure evil” or “purely altruistic” motives someone may have for defending a particular political policy or view of the world, we tread on dangerous territory here, as well. We do not want to be guilty of encouraging character assassinations or character glorifications. The character of a person has no logical bearing on the truth of their claims, so we need to focus not on their character but on the claims being made to argue for or against their truth. It is wise to simply avoid speculating about motivations for holding a particular view.

Controversial Topic Discussion Tip #8: Learn to Use Reason Well
Communicating truth to those we wish to persuade is only part of the discussion. The other important part is using truths together to come to reasonable and true conclusions and to avoid using truths together to come to unreasonable and false conclusions. We may present a series of true statements, but if we present them together in such a way that they do not connect logically, then we run the risk of believing and promoting unreasonable or false conclusions. We also run the risk of being unable to identify where another’s reasoning has gone wrong even though we know that their conclusion is incorrect.

Norman Geisler describes logic like this:

“Logic is a way to think so that we can come to correct conclusions by understanding implications and the mistakes people often make in thinking.”

Going back to speculation for a moment: Speculation often results from the mistakes using of true claims to support implications that do not follow. The reciprocal error is made, as well: an implication (conclusion) that either necessarily follows from the true propositions and the valid reasoning or true propositions when taken together yield a high probability of or are all best explained by an implication are accused of being speculation. This error often results from the misunderstanding of logic and mistakes in thinking. But when true claims are used correctly, logic is understood correctly and we adjust our thinking to match both, both errors regarding the acceptance of speculations and rejection of implications can be avoided.

There are numerous fallacious ways to reason using true claims that will lead us and others to false conclusions. We need to learn not only how to use logic (connect true claims together) correctly, but we also need to learn how to avoid fallacies in our attempts to connect one true claim to another true claim. When we learn these, we not only can guard our communication, guide our discussion, and clearly present our case, but we can also analyze others’ claims and be able to respectfully and lovingly ask questions that will guide the other person to see the error that they are making.

As a bonus, learning to reason well gives the first tip I offered in this post (recognize that you could be wrong) a solid and reasonable foundation. The first tip is not a call to be malleable in your thinking simply because we don’t want to offend or we all want to get along; it is a call to recognize that we all hold wrong beliefs about this world and that those wrong beliefs can be positively identified, removed from our worldview, and replaced with true beliefs about the world. Learning to reason well gives us the tools to adjust our beliefs to match reality and to communicate that knowledge to others. Finally, if you want to learn how to reason well, I highly recommend the book “Come, Let Us Reason” by Norman Geisler for its introductory view of logic that is easy to follow for anyone who desires to learn.

Luke Nix

When Christians Take Christians To Court

Music has often proved a contentious issue in church life, and so it came as no surprise to hear that Sheffield Cathedral’s decision to shut down its choir in favour of a more inclusive music team has provoked a backlash. The Save Sheffield Cathedral Choir group, it would appear, is seeking independent legal advice over that decision and may pursue legal action.

When I read this, I couldn’t help thinking that the apostle Paul would have been horrified to hear it. Now, I am not trying to belittle the distress the group is experiencing. I sympathise with everyone involved in this painful dispute, not least those who stand to lose their jobs and potential scholarships. But legal action against fellow believers? When I reflect on what the apostle Paul has said, I can only think that it has to be a no-go area for Christians.

When we read Paul’s first letter to the Corinthians, it is obvious that some church members were contemplating going to law with each other and I reckon it is difficult to read Paul’s response without seeing it as a stinging rebuke (I Corinthians 6).

Paul is not naïve. He knows that disputes will occur. Human nature and behaviour make that inevitable. But his very first words on the subject make it abundantly clear that they shouldn’t be behaving like this.

“When one of you has a dispute with another believer,” he writes, “how dare you file a lawsuit and ask a secular court to decide the matter instead of taking it to other believers.”

The word ‘dare’ is a strong one and underlines the sense of shock and horror he must have been feeling. As a devout Jew, Paul would have been brought up to believe that seeking redress in secular courts was simply not acceptable. Indeed, the late New Testament scholar Leon Morris quotes Rabbi Tarfon in the Talmud, who used to say, “In any place where you find heathen law courts, even though their law is the same as the Israelite law, you must not resort to them.”

But Paul’s sense of horror cannot be explained by his traditional Jewish background only. As he saw it, their behaviour was a contradiction of the Christian way of love. The Greek Philosopher Plato argued that the good man would prefer to suffer wrong than do wrong, but Paul took this much further and said that “going to law” was an admission of defeat. His words are remarkably challenging. “Why not just accept the injustice and leave it at that?” he says. “Why not let yourselves be cheated?”

I have no idea if the Save Sheffield Cathedral Choir group is correct when it talks of “spurious claims” and “cynical timing”. They may or may not be right in asserting that. The pain felt by the Sheffield Choir Group is very obvious and that should make us all sad. But Paul’s teaching clearly suggests that even a legal victory can be nothing more than a spiritual defeat because you lose the moment you decide to go to court.

Paul goes one step further too because he reminds the early believers that as members of God’s family, they should be able to settle such issues within the church family. After all, he says, if you are going to judge angels you are surely capable of sorting things out now. “I am saying this to shame you,” he writes. “Isn’t there anyone in all the church who is wise enough to decide these issues?”

We should pray for those who are caught up in this painful conflict of interests, and as we do so, I think we should ask the Lord to raise up someone who can help both sides reach an amicable settlement. The church gets more than enough negative coverage in the press as it is.

Rob James is a Baptist minister, writer and church and media consultant

The Power of Weakness

Acts 18:1-172 Corinthians 11:22-28

Paul pressed ahead through a mind-boggling series of intense hardships. Are they Hebrews? So am I. Are they Israelites? So am I. Are they descendants of Abraham? So am I. Are they ministers of Christ? I have more claim to this title than they. I have worked harder than any of them. I have served more prison sentences! I have been beaten times without number. I have faced death again and again. I have been beaten the regulation thirty-nine stripes by the Jews five times. I have been beaten with rods three times. I have been stoned once. I have been shipwrecked three times. I have been twenty-four hours in the open sea.

In my travels I have been in constant danger from rivers and floods, from bandits, from my own countrymen, and from pagans. I have faced danger in city streets, danger in the desert, danger on the high seas, danger among false Christians. I have known exhaustion, pain, long vigils, hunger and thirst, doing without meals, cold, and lack of clothing.

Apart from all external trials I have the daily burden of responsibility for all the churches.

On top of all that, the Lord gave him a thorn in the flesh. The Lord answered his desperate prayers to remove the thorn—whatever it may have been—in a most unexpected manner. The Lord simply answered, “My grace is sufficient for you, for power is perfected in weakness” (2 Corinthians 12:9).

Surprised? “You mean, I don’t have to be super strong and endure each trial relying on my own resources?” It’s not like that at all. In fact, the only way you qualify to receive His strength is when you admit your weakness, when you admit you’re not capable and strong, when, like Paul, you’re willing to boast in nothing but your weakness and God’s power.

Taken from Great Days with the Great Lives by Charles R. Swindoll

When Your Gray-Haired Parents Get Divorced

The Wall Street Journal recently reported that “gray divorce” is on the rise in the United States. According to research conducted at Bowling Green University, the divorce rate among adults aged 50 and older has doubled since 1990. As a result, there’s a growing number of adult children grieving their parents’ divorces.

Gray divorce isn’t just a secular phenomenon; it’s permeating our churches, too. Three weeks before my own wedding, I learned my mom and dad’s marriage was coming to an end. Since then, I’ve met several adult Christians in similar situations. We’re all searching for wisdom and encouragement as we face this uncharted territory together.

Secular resources offer some help, but they often focus on self-protection and don’t give much hope. What we really need is a biblical perspective on living as adult children of divorce.

God has taught me important truths amid my own grief. If you’re a child of gray divorce, I pray God will use these truths to help you, too.

God Knows Our Pain
One day, my son came home and shared he was sad for his friend because her mommy and daddy aren’t married anymore. I’m sure most people would feel similarly—we hate when young children have to experience conflicts they don’t understand, instability they can’t control, and grief they don’t have the maturity to process. The emotional toll of divorce on kids can be devastating.

I wish people would understand the toll it takes on adult kids, too.

The divorce rate among adults aged 50 and older has doubled since 1990. As a result, there’s a growing number of adult children grieving their parents’ divorces.

Sure, we don’t have to pack up our things every other weekend to go visit Mom or Dad. We even have the option to walk away from our parents entirely if we so choose. But a unique grief comes with being an adult child of divorce.

As grown kids, we mourn decades of traditions and memories. Compared to young children, we’re often less shielded from conflict and more aware of our parents’ sin. In many cases, divorce also forces us to take on additional financial, familial, and emotional burdens.

Friends and family sometimes expect adult children of divorce to “get over it” quicker because we’re grownups. But grownups hurt, too.

Thankfully, God knows the pain that comes with divorce, and he doesn’t expect us to stifle our tears. Instead, he patiently collects each one in a bottle and records them in his book (Ps. 56:8). As the psalmist declares, “He heals the brokenhearted and binds up their wounds” (Ps. 147:3). We can be comforted because God knows our pain.

Hope in Christ
Divorce raises many questions in an adult child’s mind. Were my parents unhappy this whole time? Did they ever really love each other? Could I have done anything to help save their marriage? Will the patterns I learned from my parents hurt my own marriage and family someday? Do I even know these people anymore?

As we wrestle with such questions, it can feel like the ground beneath us is crumbling. In these moments, we have to remember that our firm foundation is not found in our earthly families—it’s found in Jesus Christ.

A unique grief comes with being an adult child of divorce.

Jesus is our one true hope. Through his blood, we’ve been adopted into a better family with a better trajectory. We are God’s children forever, and our Father will never change. No matter what tomorrow holds, we can take heart knowing that the Lord is and will always remain “gracious and merciful, slow to anger and abounding in steadfast love” (Ps. 145:8).

Walking in Obedience
Though they’re no longer married, your parents will always be Mom and Dad. The world may tell us to walk away from these relationships when things get difficult, but God calls us to imitate himself and walk in obedience to him (Eph. 5:1). And obedience means honoring our parents even when it’s hard. The command to honor them doesn’t come with exceptions—or time limits (Eph. 6:2–3). There’s no “divorce pass” that allows us to walk away so we don’t get hurt.

You might think your parents don’t deserve honor, and you may be right. But the Bible says “while we were still sinners, Christ died for us” (Rom. 5:8). God honored the dishonorable—you and me—by making us alive with Christ, raising us up with him, and seating us with him in a place of honor, despite our own dishonorable state (Eph. 2:5–6).

How, then, do we imitate Christ? By honoring our parents whether they’re deserving or not. This doesn’t mean we turn a blind eye to sin; instead, we ask God to help us love our parents with wisdom. For example:

If your parents insist on speaking ill of each other, loving them in wisdom could mean asking them not to do so when they’re talking to you—and then redirecting or even ending uncharitable conversations.
If the divorce reveals that your parent is abusive, loving them in wisdom could mean removing yourself or your loved ones from harm, involving proper authorities, and praying for your mom or dad from afar.
If one parent has left the other to pursue someone else, loving them in wisdom could mean treating everyone involved with respect, but also explaining that you won’t celebrate this new relationship.
Whatever your situation, you can rely on Christ to supply all the love, forgiveness, and wisdom you need to walk in obedience.

Forever Faithful
If you’re grieving your gray-haired parents’ divorce, I’m so sorry. This is one club that no kid—young or old—ever wants to join.

Divorce is not good, but we can take heart knowing that our God redeems the worst of circumstances and will work all things together for the good of his children (Rom. 8:28). He really will. Our earthly parents may fail, but our heavenly Father is always faithful. May he comfort you in your sorrow, give you hope in his Son, and use these trials to make you more like himself.

Chelsea Stanley

N. T. Wright: The Pandemic Should Make Us Humble—and Relentlessly Practical

Between around-the-clock news reports, interviews with public health experts, and pundits hashing out the pros and cons of different disease-fighting strategies, we’re hardly at a loss for information and perspectives on COVID-19. Yet there are still many questions we struggle to answer with complete confidence: Why has this happened? What should we do in response? And where is God in all of this? In God and the Pandemic: A Christian Reflection on the Coronavirus and Its Aftermath, theologian and author N. T. Wright shows how Scripture speaks to our confusion and uncertainty. Andy Bannister, director of the Solas Centre for Public Christianity in Scotland, spoke with Wright about his book.

Many Christians have already written books about the pandemic—everyone from John Lennox to John Piper, and even people with names other than John. What inspired you to contribute your own book?

Back in March, Time magazine asked me if I would do an article on the pandemic. It got a rather provocative headline: “Christianity Offers No Answers About the Coronavirus. It’s Not Supposed To.” I wanted to say that this drives us toward the Romans 8 position, where the Spirit groans within us with groans beyond words (v. 26)—this is an extraordinary thing for Paul to say. And what it says to me is that we are supposed to be humble in the face of this, not to think we should know all the answers.

After the article appeared, I began to get feedback. People emailed me to ask, “How can you say that?” And I was informed about what people were saying on Twitter (I never look at Twitter myself). All the while, I kept hearing people use Scripture in a way that seemed less than fully adequate. The book is an attempt to explore how Scripture, in its entire narrative and flow, really speaks to the circumstances we’re experiencing today.

When COVID-19 hit, it seemed many of us were taken by surprise. Do you think the Western church has been living with comfort and security for so long that we have forgotten how to deal with darkness, suffering, and crisis?

Absolutely! I was talking to a senior church leader a few weeks ago about this, and he remarked: “You know, Tom, we don’t do lament very well. We’re not used to it. But nor do we celebration terribly well either. What we mostly seem to do is complacency.” And I think he’s right. I keep hearing Christians asking, “Could this be the end of the world?” And I want to remind them that things like this have happened again and again. For example, in 1917–18, there was the great Spanish flu pandemic, during which churches in some parts of the world were shut for a year. We forget that we have been here before.

Furthermore, for my baby boomer generation, which grew up after World War II, we haven’t had a war on our territory. We haven’t had a pandemic. Sure, we’ve had a couple of economic crises, but we’ve managed to weather those, more or less. So we’ve just muddled along and carried on as though nothing too bad is going to happen. We forget about history.

I was fascinated when I recently reread the letters of Martin Luther, one of which I quote in the book. Luther had to cope with this kind of stuff every few years, either for himself or for people in neighboring towns who cried out, ”Help! We’ve got a great epidemic. People are dying. What do we do?“ Luther talks about obeying the rules concerning taking medicine, helping practically where you can, and not getting in the way and giving the disease to others if you might be infectious. He was very pragmatic, effectively saying, This is how we cope. Let’s not make a big theological fuss about it.

Your book draws on plenty of Old Testament themes, especially from the Psalms and Job. Concerning the latter, you argue that “part of the point of Job is precisely its unresolved character.” Do you think Christians today seem to struggle with ambiguity because they lack a firmer grounding in the Old Testament?

I think the New Testament has a place for ambiguity as well. There are many places in the New Testament which end with a kind of dot-dot-dot, question mark, because that’s called living by faith.

Overall, I think part of our problem is the rationalism of the last two or three hundred years in the Western world, which has soaked into the church because the rationalist critics of Christianity have said things like: “Aha, look, modern science shows us that Christianity is false!” In response, rationalist Christians have said, “No, let’s show how it is all completely rational!” That can lead to us wanting to have the answer to everything, and so we want to say things like: “Because God is sovereign, he must either have done this deliberately or at least permitted it deliberately.” We think that we should be able to see what he’s up to. But I really don’t think we are given that kind of access.

One of my favorite moments in the New Testament is in Paul’s letter to Philemon about the slave Onesimus. He writes, ‘Perhaps the reason he was separated from you for a little while was that you might have him back forever” (1:15). In other words, Paul thinks that perhaps he might be able to see what God was up to in this situation. But he’s not going to say so definitively.

There’s a humility here that we need. Now that could spill over backwards into an attitude of “We know nothing, so who cares?” That wouldn’t be wise either, because we are given guidelines. But knowing all the details is, as the saying goes, above our pay grade. It’s God’s job. Our job, when God lets us know what we have to do in this particular situation, is to get on with it.

When you talk about the Gospels, you emphasize the example of Jesus standing at the tomb of Lazarus, weeping. What might you say to somebody who isn’t a Christian, who is wrestling with the problem of suffering, and who asks: “What good is a weeping God? I can weep. Anybody can weep. What we need is action; we need something done! How does Jesus weeping help?”

There’s plenty of action in the story, and the action grows out of the tears. As is often the case, in fact, tears in the Gospels sometimes are the crucial element. What they show is that the God who made the world, who became human as Jesus of Nazareth, is not sitting upstairs somewhere, looking down and saying, “Okay, I’ll sort out your mess.” Rather, he’s the God who comes and gets his hands dirty and gets his hands pierced in order to be where we are and to rescue us from there. It’s profoundly comforting to know that when I am grieving, as Paul says in Romans 8, Jesus is grieving with me, and the Holy Spirit is grieving within me. And this is one of the things that marks out the Christian faith as distinct from pretty well any other worldview that I know.

What does the rest of New Testament—and in particular the role of the Holy Spirit—have to teach us about our response to the pandemic?

Romans 8, which I just mentioned, is one of the greatest passages in the whole Bible. When I was working as a bishop, if I was interviewing people for parish jobs, I would sometimes ask: “What’s your desert-island Bible text?” And to make it harder, I would add, “You’ve already got John 20 and Romans 8, so don’t go there. Those are too obvious.”

Romans 8 is full of glory. It’s full of salvation. It’s full of the work of the Spirit. It’s easy to get carried away, however, and imagine that once we’re through the difficult parts of Romans 7, we’re just sailing on a high all the way to Paul’s affirmation that nothing can separate us from the love of God (8:38–39). But you still have to go through the dark tunnel of Romans 8:18–30, especially verses 26 and 27, which speak of the Spirit interceding for us in our weakness.

When the world is in a mess, as it is in general but particularly at times like now, it would be very easy to imagine the church standing back and saying, “What a pity the world is in such a mess. But we at least know the answers.” But no, Paul says that when the world is groaning in labor pains, then even we ourselves—who have the firstfruits of the Spirit, the stirring of God’s new creation within us—are groaning as we wait for our adoption as sons and daughters, the redemption of our bodies (Rom. 8:23).

You might say, okay, so the church shares the mess that the world is in, but surely God knows what he’s doing. Well, in a sense, yes, God knows what God is doing. But here we strike the mystery of the triune God, because Paul says that at that very moment, the Spirit groans within us with inarticulate groanings. Furthermore, alluding to Psalm 44, one of the great psalms of lament, Paul says that the God who searches the heart knows the mind of the Spirit, because the Spirit intercedes for God’s people according to God’s will (Rom. 8:27). In other words, God the Father knows the mind of the Spirit. But the mind of the Spirit is the mind that has no words to say for how terrible things are right now.

This is a very strange business. But what I think what it means is this: that in order to rescue the world, God comes in the person of his Son to take the weight of sin upon himself. And God comes in the person of the Spirit to be the one who groans in the church, at the place where the world is in pain. That is how God then moves by those labor pains from the present state of horror and shame in the world to salvation—the total new creation, which is what we’re promised.

The idea of the Spirit’s grieving and groaning takes me back to something you touched on earlier, namely lament. Throughout the book you say we need to “embrace lament.” Is this something we have forgotten a bit in the modern church? If so, how do we rediscover it?

Yes, I really think some of us have forgotten it. For those in a tradition where we use the Psalms all the time, it helps that we come through lament quite frequently. When I’m praying the Psalms, day by day, I will often hit one of the psalms of lament—and often this is what I need, because these bad things are going on in my life.

At other times I might come across psalms of lament when I am personally feeling quite cheerful. So then, as a spiritual exercise, I try to think my way into the situation of people that I know about around the world: either friends of mine or people I’ve seen on television or in the news who are in a terrible situation now—people in a horrible, squalid refugee camp, or whatever the case may be. And I pray the psalms of lament trying to embrace them in the love of God.

We need to remember that lament is not just for Lent. It’s also built into Advent, as we prepare for Christmas. Those are seasons we can use to develop liturgies of lament that bring the pain of the world into the presence of God, using psalms of lament—like Psalms 22, 42, and 88—that prefigure what Jesus prayed on the cross: “My God, my God, why have you forsaken me?” (Matt. 27:46). Sometimes those prayers come out the other side into the light. And sometimes, like Psalm 88, they simply don’t. They stay in the dark. And there’s a sense that God is with us in that darkness.

Toward the end of the book, you talk about the church and its response to various lockdown orders. You argue that our willingness to suspend in-person gatherings and conduct services online may have accidentally reinforced the idea the secular idea that faith is a private activity. How do we navigate the tension between the call to corporate worship and the importance of public health?

I begin with the point that Luther made that we must not spread infection. That’s irresponsible. It’s playing around with other people’s lives. And if we love our church buildings more than we love our neighbors, then woe betide us. The fact is, most of the churches in the UK are old buildings, which makes it very difficult to deep-clean them. And I take that very seriously.

But on the other hand, I worry that online church can easily tempt us into saying, “Oh, we don’t need to meet in person, because these are spiritual matters.”

So can you can worship God in your bedroom, in you pajamas, as much as anywhere else? Well, in a sense you can. But Christianity is a team sport. It’s something we do together. Think of the fruits of the Spirit: love, joy, peace, patience, kindness, graciousness, gentleness, faithfulness, and self-control (Gal. 5:22–23). All of those are things we do together. You can’t be practicing them apart from one another. And so the sooner we can come back together wisely, the better.

As for receiving the Eucharist, yes, we can receive that on the screen, but there is also a sense of fasting, of deprivation, of exile, because the body of Christ—the larger family of the people of God—is not physically present with us.

I’ve long thought that the most important response to evil and suffering isn’t words so much as action, even action that may be costly. Jesus modeled this for us. So, in light of the suffering caused by the pandemic: What should Christians be doing now? How then should we live?

There’s a fascinating passage in Acts 11, where the disciples in Antioch hear from a prophet that there’s going to be a famine (v. 28). They don’t respond: Oh dear, what can this mean? Is God angry with us? Does this mean the Lord is coming back? No, they’re very practical. They ask: Who is going to be most at risk? What can we do to help? And who should we send? The result is that Paul and Barnabas are sent off to Jerusalem with money for the poor church there (v. 29–30).

It’s similar at the start of John 9, the story of the man born blind. Jesus is relentlessly practical and discourages his disciples from asking whose fault this was or whether some sin was to blame (v. 3). It wasn’t actually anybody’s fault. The important question is what God would have us do in response.

So for us, we should start with our neighbors, friends, and family, asking who we could help by bringing some food, tools, or medical supplies. Maybe our church could get involved with something like running a food bank. In short, we should ask: What can we do?

In his wonderful book Dominion: How the Christian Revolution Remade the World, the historian Tom Holland points out that many things the church and only the church used to do have now been taken on by the wider secular society. Thus many doctors and nurses who would not call themselves Christians have picked up this strong imperative to look after people, even at the potential cost of their own lives. That is a noble thing. But in the ancient world, it was only the Christians who did that. So in a sense, some of that Christian ideal has spread out into the world. And we should thank God for that.

But in the church, we have been doing things like medicine, care of the poor, and education from day one. They are deep in the church’s DNA. So Christians should be reclaiming that tradition and holding onto it—and not just when there’s a pandemic going on.

Things You Should Know About Death

Since the beginning of 2020, the COVID-19 pandemic has resulted in more than 700,000 deaths, including the death of more than 160,000 people in the United States. Yet while death has become a daily focus for many Americans, we are often unfamiliar with terms and concepts related to mortality, such as how death is defined, what constitutes the dying process, how we know when a disease has caused “excess” deaths, or whether we can die of “old age.”

To help clear up some of that confusion, here are nine things you should know about death and dying in the United States.

1. For much of modern history, the accepted medical standard for determining death was the heart-lung standard, i.e., the permanent absence of respiration and circulation. But in the mid-20th century that view required a change. As the Christian bioethicist C. Ben Mitchell once said, “One seemingly inauspicious technology [flexible tubing] turned the world of medicine upside down . . .” That technology was flexible plastic tubing, which made possible such functions as artificial respiration and intravenous feeding. “Prior to the advent of current technology, breathing ceased and death was obvious,” said the 1981 President’s Commission for the Study of Ethical Problems in Medicine and Biomedical and Behavioral Research. “Now, however, certain organic processes in these bodies can be maintained through artificial means, although they will never recover the capacity for spontaneous breathing or sustained integration of bodily functions, for consciousness, or for other human experiences.”

2. By the 1960s, improvements in the ability to maintain respiration and circulation made it possible to keep alive people who had irreversible brain damage and who would remain in a permanent coma. A committee at Harvard Medical School met in 1968 settled on irreversible coma as a new criterion for death. The so-called Harvard criteria of “brain death” quickly became a commonly used definition of death in American hospitals. In 1981 the President’s Commission—along with the American Bar Association, the American Medical Association, and the National Conference of Commissioners on Uniform State Laws—recommended a new definition for determining death:

An individual who has sustained either (1) irreversible cessation of circulatory and respiratory functions, or (2) irreversible cessation of all functions of the entire brain, including the brain stem, is dead. A determination of death must be made in accordance with accepted medical standards

This proposed definition became a model state law known as the Uniform Determination of Death Act (UDDA).

3. From 1981 to 2014, the UDDA was enacted in 41 states, as well as the District of Columbia and the U.S. Virgin Islands. Even states that haven’t formally adopted the UDDA, though, tend to have similar standards. Yet as the physician Ryan Montoya has noted, there is no uniform standard for determining death that is the same throughout the United States. For example, North Carolina doesn’t have a heart-and-lung provision while “Louisiana and Texas completely eschew the total-brain-death clause from their hospital definitions of death.” The phrase “in accordance with accepted medical standards” is absent from Georgia law and, Montoya says, appears in equally vague forms in Minnesota (“generally accepted medical standards”), Maryland (“ordinary standards of medical practice”), and Florida (“in accordance with currently accepted medical standards”).

4. When a person suffers a potentially fatal threat to their health (e.g., disease, injury), their impaired condition may be either reversible or irreversible. If the condition is reversible, appropriate medical intervention and treatment exists that may possibly restore a person to a state where they are no longer in imminent danger of dying. However, if no effective intervention or treatment is possible, the condition is irreversible (i.e., terminal), and the impaired condition will lead to death. This is what is meant when we say that a person is dying or has entered the dying process. Although we may not be able to know with certainty, we can often determine how near a person is to death, whether death is imminent or non-imminent. Imminent is when a person is expected to die in a relatively short period of time, such as hours, days, or weeks. If a person is not expected to die for months or years, then death is considered to be non-imminent. (From a Christian perspective, the dying process is the final stage of the living process, since those who are in the process of dying are still in the process of living. Those who are dying must therefore be treated with the same respect and consideration due to all living human beings.)

5. Death is classified by manner, mechanism, and cause. The manner of death is the determination of how the injury or disease leads to death. There are generally five manners of death: natural, accident, suicide, homicide, and undetermined. Death by natural causes is the result of any disease process, such as infection, cancer, or heart disease, while the others are deaths that have external causesMechanism of death is the immediate physiologic derangement resulting in death, such as a hemorrhage or cardiac arrhythmia. A particular mechanism of death can be produced by a variety of different causes of death. The cause of deathis the specific disease or injury (whatever the manner) that lead to the death.

6. In the study of health-related issues within a population, the term mortality is related to the number of deaths caused by the health event under investigation. Mortality is usually represented as a rate per 1,000 individuals, also called the death rate. (The calculation for this rate is to divide the number of deaths in a given time for a given population by the total population.) The term morbidity is the state of being symptomatic or unhealthy for a disease or condition. It is usually represented or estimated using prevalence, the proportion of the population with a given symptom or quality. Comorbidity is the simultaneous presence of two chronic diseases or conditions in a patient. Knowing the rate of morbidity and mortality can help us determine the rate of excess deaths, which is typically defined as the difference between the observed numbers of deaths in specific time periods and expected numbers of deaths in the same time periods. According to the Centers for Disease Control, the total predicted number of excess deaths from February 1 to June 3, 2020, in the United States is between 148,482 and 202,836.

7. Mortality is also ranked using leading cause-of-death data, which represent the most frequently occurring causes of death among those causes eligible to be ranked. The latest data available in the United States (2018) shows the 10 leading causes of death were heart disease (655,381), cancer (599,274), unintentional injuries (167,127), chronic lower respiratory diseases (159,486), stroke (147,810), Alzheimer’s disease (122,019), diabetes (84,946), influenza and pneumonia (59,120), kidney disease (51,386), and suicide (48,344). Seven of the 10 leading causes of death were chronic diseases. If the same number of deaths from COVID-19 had occurred in 2018 and included only the number of death to date (August 5), the disease caused by the novel coronavirus would be the fourth-leading cause of death for the entire year.

8. Contrary to the colloquial saying, no one dies of “old age.” When someone of advanced age dies it is because they have an underlying illness, infection, or injury that caused a cessation of respiration and circulation. “It’s not like as you get older your heart beats more slowly until, finally, late one night, it just doesn’t give another squeeze,” says David Casarett, professor of medicine and section chief of palliative care at Duke University School of Medicine. “Aging puts you at risk of a variety of illnesses from cancer to dementia, any of which may end your life. But don’t blame old age.” While you can’t die of “old age,” you can be “scared to death” or die of a “broken heart.” Fear—or any strong emotion—can lead to a fatal amount of stress hormones, such as adrenaline, that can be toxic to organs such as the heart, the liver, the kidneys, and the lungs. An example is takotsubo cardiomyopathy, or broken-heart syndrome, in which acute emotional stress precipitates a sudden temporary weakening of the muscular portion of the heart.

9. According to the Bible, death is common—only Enoch (Heb. 11:5) and Elijah (2 Kings 2:11-12) never died—but not natural. Death entered the world because of the sin of one man (Rom. 5:12) but was conquered by the death and resurrection of Jesus (1 Cor. 15:21). Death is so unnatural that God sent his one and only Son as a sacrifice so that we might have life (John 10:10; Rev. 1:18). Death should therefore be considered an enemy—but a defeated enemy. Although this enemy may win a temporary victory over us, those who know Jesus will ultimately be victorious. We can therefore struggle against death knowing that when we lose our life, we will gain it back in the resurrection. We do not need to fear death, nor hold on to life too tightly. We can trust that God is in control and that for those who love God all things work together for good (Rom. 8:28). However, we should also not be foolish or reckless in way that might hasten death unnecessarily, whether our own or our neighbors, since our lives do not belong to us. As Paul says in Romans 14:7–8, “For none of us lives to himself, and none of us dies to himself. For if we live, we live to the Lord, and if we die, we die to the Lord. So then, whether we live or whether we die, we are the Lord’s.”

For further reading: Remember Death: The Surprising Path to Living Hope by Matt McCullough

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