Tag Archives: Discipleship

Explaining Hard Things to Our Children

My heart was saddened the day I had to explain to my children that their aunt and uncle were getting a divorce. I struggled as I searched for words that would make sense to them. They were young and not yet acquainted with brokenness in marriage. Since then, I've had to whittle away at my children's naiveté about the world as more and more hard situations require explanation.

difficult-conversations-with-kidsWhen our children are young, they are often isolated from the painful truths of life. Their needs are provided for and their greatest struggles are in sharing their toys. But as they grow, they become more aware of the world around them. They begin to hear about violence, wars, death, disease, and brokenness.

One day, my 7-year-old overheard talk about same-sex marriage on the news. On another occasion, I had to explain abortion and euthanasia. Then there was the time I had to break the news about a dear friend waging a battle against cancer.

For many of these talks, I was unprepared. They came before I thought my children were ready. I wish we lived in a world where I didn't have to explain death, divorce, or abortion. But post fall, this is the reality of life. And I want my children to hear the truth about life, including its heartaches and sorrows, in the context of our biblical world-and-life view.

Explaining the World's Heartache Through God's Story

As we've worked through these issues as a family, there is one story we always come back to: creation, fall, and redemption.

This is the story of the Bible. It is the story that explains what once was at the beginning, how we got to where we are, and how things will one day be. It is the story that brings hope in the darkness of this fallen world. And it is the big story into which all our individual stories fit.

  1. Creation: In a recent talk with our children, we began by returning to the story of creation. We explained God's perfect design for the world, for people, for relationships, for marriages, and for families.
  2. Fall: We then reviewed the facts of the fall, how by the sin of one man, we are all sinful. Each and every person is a sinner; no one does what is right. Sin has also affected the natural world, bringing about disease and death. After Adam's sin, God promised a rescuer in Genesis 3:15. He promised to one day redeem and restore what was broken by the fall.
  3. Redemption: Jesus is the fulfillment of that promise. He came as that Rescuer, living the life we couldn't live and dying the death we deserve. Through faith in his finished work on our behalf, we have been set free from slavery to sin. We are now free to live for him. He is making all things new, beginning with us. As we share the gospel of grace with others, we participate in the mission of his kingdom. One day, Jesus will return for the last time and make all things right. Death and sin will be no more. The redeemed will live forever in his presence.

Teaching Our Kids to Love Like Jesus Loves

Recently, as we talked through and explained a hard situation with our children, we discussed how the redemption Jesus purchased for us affects how we treat the sin in others' lives and how we respond to the brokenness in this world. We talked about the gospel of grace and how we are to love others in light of the love and grace Jesus gave us. We share the gospel with them and pray for them, that they too would know the grace of God through Jesus Christ.

As believers, the story of creation, fall, and redemption is the lens through which we view all of life. It's also the lens we need to teach our children to use as well. As we help our children process life's experiences through this lens, it models for them how they are to view the many trials they will encounter in life. Ultimately, this lens points them to their hope found in Christ alone.

I know many more situations and hard discussions will come up in my life as a parent. As much as I'd like to avoid it, I can't. And I can't sugar coat the realities of life. But I can give my children hope. By recounting the story of creation, fall, and redemption, I can help them understand what happened to God's perfect world, how Jesus came to save us, and how one day, all the hard and painful stories of life will end. And then we'll begin a new chapter, one that will never end.

All their life in this world and all their adventures in Narnia had only been the cover and the title page: now at least they were beginning Chapter One of the Great story which no one on earth has read: which goes on forever: in which every chapter is better than the one before. — C. S. Lewis in The Last Battle

When Jesus Said Farewell

We Christians sometimes buy into a lie. We assume that if we're not like those hateful, judgmental people who call themselves Christians, then the world will see that we're actually pretty reasonable folks and want to follow Jesus. We believe that if Christians just cleaned up our act, then Jesus could finally captivate the hearts and minds of our neighbors.

The only problem with this view is that it has no basis in the example or teaching of Jesus. Nice Christians don't always finish first. Even though Jesus loved perfectly to the end, his closest friends and disciples abandoned him when the political and religious authorities pinned him to the cross. Peter rebounded from his shameful denial of Jesus and vowed to love Jesus by loving his people. His reward? Jesus told him to expect that he, too, would stretch out his hands in unwanted death that would nevertheless glorify God (John 21:15-19).

Christ_Taking_Leave_of_the_ApostlesThe apostle John did not endure such a gruesome demise. But he heard and recorded Jesus' farewell discourse, in which the Son of God told the disciples that the world would hate them just as they hated Jesus and his heavenly Father for convicting them of their sin (John 15:24).

"If you were of the world," Jesus told his disciples on the night he was betrayed, "the world would love you as its own; but because you are not of the world, but I chose you out of the world, therefore the world hates you. Remember the word that I said to you: 'A servant is not greater than his master.' If they persecuted me, they will also persecute you" (John 15:19-20).

We should not be surprised that Christians today so easily forget or overlook these bracing words from Jesus. Just days after Jesus said farewell, while they hid behind locked doors in the aftermath of the crucifixion, the disciples obviously missed the significance of their Savior's teaching: "In the world you will have tribulation. But take heart; I have overcome the world" (John 16:33). They had expected triumphant, bloody insurrection, and instead he gave them a cold, empty tomb. Only in the aftermath of the resurrection, when they saw and heard and touched Jesus in the flesh, did they finally begin to understand that the way of glory passes through Golgotha.

Acting Like Jesus

When we assume the world will love us if we start acting like Jesus, then we're not actually acting like Jesus. We love to cite Jesus washing the feet of his disciples as evidence of the kind of humble compassion we should emulate. Indeed, it is. But eleven pairs of these feet washed by Jesus scattered away in fear, and one infamous pair scampered to find the chief priests and officers to arrest Jesus as he prayed.

Love for the world motivated by anything other than love for Jesus inevitably fails to offer the kind of love the world needs. Don't think that Jesus would be any more popular in our day than he was in his own hometown, even his own family. Jesus was known to speak with uncommon authority because he told the truth about bankrupt religious practice. He would do the same among us, calling out the religious and non-religious for idols we have harbored.

When our love is motivated more by approval of the world than faithfulness to Jesus, then we turn against other Christians we believe hinder our goals. Have you noticed this trend? Consider someone who fears that Jesus' teaching against greed (Matt. 6:19-21) hinders churches from reaching upwardly mobile young professionals. His enemy becomes those Christians who teach "poverty theology" and reject the goodness of creation and the necessity of amassing resources in order to advance the kingdom of God. Notice: rarely do you hear anyone openly say we should disobey Jesus' teaching. After all, Jesus told his disciples that if they would abide in his love, then they must keep his commandments (John 15:10). Rather, the person asking you to disobey Jesus instead seeks to convince you that the church won't grow and the world won't follow Jesus unless you love the world enough to rethink your biblical interpretation. Should you plug your ears to this siren song, you will be accused of being part of the reason why the world has rejected Jesus.

But as we've already seen from the example of Jesus, we could change the content or confuse the clarity of his teaching, but the condition of our hearts would still prevent us from following him. Not until Jesus breathed his Spirit on the disciples (John 20:22) so they could recall what he taught them earlier about the coming persecution (John 16:2) did they finally find the strength to obey and proclaim the good news. Apart from the Spirit it's impossible for us to resist the world as necessary. The world tempts and confuses Christians. Even the enemies who try to kill us think they offer service to God (John 16:2). The apostle Paul regarded himself zealous in his love of God until Jesus blinded him with forgiveness for his sins and grace to walk in true righteousness. When Jesus reveals himself he gives believers eyes to see our sin as futile and his teaching as good and perfect.

Love One Another

Along with sending his Spirit, Jesus gave us a key test of discipleship before he said farewell. "A new commandment I give to you: just as I have loved you, you also are to love one another. By this all people will know that you are my disciples, if you have love for one another" (John 13:34-35).

We can see the problem when other Christians lose Jesus by lacking love and prayerful concern for their enemies (Matt. 5:44). But how many of us have likewise forgotten Jesus because in our pursuit of the world we have not loved fellow disciples? We're so eager to win the world's approval that we violate the most basic commandments and dare to invoke Jesus' name in our defense. Don't trust anyone who attempts to justify his anger at other Christians. And don't think you can win the world by disobeying any of Jesus' commands. Jesus' life, death, and teaching offer our only sure basis for unity among the body of Christ and effective mission in the world.

"Unity should never be attained at the cost of truth," Andreas Köstenberger and Justin Taylor write in their new book, The Final Days of Jesus, "yet unity is essential among God's people, particularly in regard to a shared mind and purpose and mutual love in the work of fulfilling Christ's mission to the world."

In keeping with Passover custom, Jesus and his disciples would have likely sung Psalms 113-118 together before he said farewell. As Jesus prepared to drink the cup given by his Father (John 19:11) and ascend the cross, the words of Psalm 118 in particular must have offered great comfort and courage in his unique mission. We know he had cited Psalm 118:22-23 in debate with Jewish religious leaders: "The stone that the builders rejected has become the cornerstone. This is the LORD's doing; it is marvelous in our eyes" (Psalm 118:22-23).

We must also consider the repeated refrain that begins and ends this beloved psalm: "Oh give thanks to the LORD, for he is good; for his steadfast love endures forever!" (Psalm 118:1, 29). His covenant love endures even the worst cruelty the world can conceive. It endures the betrayal of close friends. It endures age after age, from Jesus until now and forevermore.

We, too, need these comforting, sobering words today. "It is better to take refuge in the LORD than to trust in man. It is better to take refuge in the LORD than to trust in princes" (Psalm 119:8-9). We must neither seek nor expect the world's approval. And we must claim the promise of God's Word that we can find refuge in Jesus. As he empowers us to obey his commandments and love his disciples, we testify to a watching world that Jesus has come from the Father (John 17: 23) offering eternal life to all who repent and believe (John 17:3).

Deep Before Wide: A Vision for Returning Discipleship to the Church

"I don't know any pastor who has been more personally fruitful in discipleship ministry than Randy Pope," Tim Keller observes. "Nor do I know of any church leader who has had a more sustained, lifelong commitment to making the ministry of discipleship a pervasive force throughout his whole church."

Pope sat down with Mark Mellinger to discuss his vision for and experience with church-anchored discipleship over the past 25 years. "Discipleship is laboring in the lives of a few to give away your life and the gospel," explains the founding pastor of Atlanta's Perimeter Church and author of Insourcing: Bringing Discipleship Back to the Local Church (Zondervan, 2013) [written interview | TGC13 workshop]. "If you want to see lives change, you've got to do it life-on-life." 

How does this vision get worked out practically? "We start small and invest deeply in the lives of a few," Pope says. "It's important to go deep before you go wide." At Perimeter this process entails small groups that gather weekly to invest time in truth, equipping, accountability, mission, and supplication ("TEAMS").

Watch the full nine-minute video to see Pope discuss leadership development, training clinics, how this vision fuels global missions, and more.

Randy Pope from The Gospel Coalition on Vimeo.

Can Youth Ministers Actually Work with Parents?

For years I always told the pastor, parent, or anyone else who asked that of course I am partnering with parents. We never want to be that youth ministry that does not work alongside parents, sense they are the primary disciple makers. However, a few years ago I realized that when it comes to working out this priority I was just giving lip service. Talking to other youth ministers I realized I was not the only one. How do the youth minister and parent practically work together to see that discipleship is actually happening in our teenagers' lives, as opposed to working in isolation and only pretending that we are working together?

55018ce7-83c3-48ef-a922-8a40ef187ca0The following elements must be in place for the relationship between youth ministers and parents to work in reality and not just on paper.

Communicate Regularly

Yes, you already know that communication is a key to every relationship. However in my experience the youth minister normally only talks to the parent when something is wrong or when he needs a house for the youth ministry's high-energy weekend. The youth minister and parent have to be talking on a normal basis. If nothing else it is always a good idea to clue in your parents on what you are preaching every Wednesday night or Sunday morning. When you have your sermon or lesson prepared, email, text, or Facebook message the parents to let them know what you're teaching and give them some helpful questions so they can be prepared to discuss what they learned when they come home. Also, the youth minister needs to have regular meetings with parents to talk vision, upcoming events, and to hear from parents their questions and concerns.

Pray Together

You can either say it or actually plan it. Telling parents you are praying for them and their children is one thing, or you can actually set up a time to pray with them and for them. In our student ministry we meet with dads every other Monday morning before work to pray for them and with them. In this time we hear their concerns and join with them to lift up their children to the Father. One more summer camp alone probably won't get your student to finally "get it." That work comes from the Lord and especially through the parent in his or her life. Praying for your students' parents is how you truly pray for your students' growth.

Spend Time with Parents

As much as youth ministers want to hang out with students at high school football games or get breakfast before school, they need to initiate relationships with the parents. Ask a dad to lunch, sit by parents at a game, and invite parents over for dinner and coffee. Get to know them and have a relationship with them. This context will make things a lot easier on yourself as you communicate your vision. If this relationship does not develop it is unlikely that parents will know the youth minister's mind and heart, and they will likely always wonder about the direction of the youth ministry.

Create Pro-Family Calendars

If you want to go beyond lip service in partnering with parents, make sure you are not overloading your ministry calendar with events. A few years ago a group of parents asked me to free up spring break from ministry events so they could actually see their children. After listening to the group I found out their schedules were so busy that they were not spending adequate time together as families. Instead of going into a speech on their schedules, meet parents halfway and help them. Lectures to parents on what they are doing wrong is not going to be productive in the end. Coming alongside them to offer solutions is the loving and proactive thing to do.

What Could Be 

What would it look like if most, even all parents supported you and prayed for you because they actually knew what you were trying to do? Your resources would have no limit. You need parents! In all your events and preaching, you will rarely get to the heart of students without knowing and spending time with their parents. They are the main disciple makers, and they can help you understand their children better than you could ever on your own. If this is not happening it is only because you have not taken the time to share your heart with the parents about the vision God gave you. You may be able to point out their weaknesses, just as quick as they point out yours. But they could use your prayer and resources more than your quick-tempered resentment.

Parents, what would it look like to know that what you teach at home is being echoed by the youth minister at church? Parents, you need the youth minister! The youth minister has real influence with your children, and he can be used to help shape and grow their minds and hearts. The youth minister will never replace you but has potential to be an important voice if you will give him your support, prayer, and time.

The youth minister and parent are each other's best allies when they work together. If we want our students to persevere with faith after high school, having joy in Christ and not in sin, parents and youth ministers have to support and encourage each other. Discipleship starts to go deep in the teenage years, and the whole church must cooperate. What's at stake? Only the future family of the church.

What I Learned from a Tattooed, Cussing—and Now Bestselling—Fundamentalist Outcast

Pastrix, Nadia Bolz-Weber's memoir of her journey from alcoholic comic to Lutheran minister, is a poignant read. Her sarcastic delivery drew me in easily, though I got bogged down a bit in the later chapters of her story. Pastrix tugs at the emotions, especially in the early chapters. Nadia tells about being raised in the Church of Christ, struggling with the physical effects of Graves' disease, walking away from the faith as an angry, bullied kid, then eventually becoming the default spiritual leader of a group of her down-and-out comic friends after one committed suicide.

It feels inappropriate to attempt a traditional review of Nadia's book—picking apart the positive and negative aspects of her life story. However, reading Pastrix did leave me with strong burdens, and I can't write about it without getting into how it affected me. So consider this a non-review review.

I reacted emotionally and spiritually to Pastrix differently than I would to a book with a deliberate agenda aimed at changing my beliefs on certain subjects. Does Nadia have an agenda? Probably. Nevertheless, it's her story, and I can't invalidate her story simply because I have differing convictions. But I can learn from her story about the questions others have and the places they're hurting so that I can minister grace to the next young person working to reconcile similar experiences. Most of all, I want my life and discipleship to draw young people toward receiving Scripture as the trustworthy revelation of God to us. There's a growing group of vocal teachers who find spirituality apart from confidence in the Word, and I am burdened—not so much for them, but for the long line of young people waiting after their presentations for these teachers to sign their books. Many are seeking, and I want to be prepared to meet them in their questions and concerns.

Cradle of Christ

Nadia specifically discusses her beliefs about the Bible when she lists five core doctrines that drew her to her Lutheran pastor's church. My head nodded in strong agreement with four of the five, which articulated both our sin and also God's great grace toward us. But it was the fourth point that struck me:

The Bible is not God. The Bible is simply the cradle that holds Christ. Anything in the Bible that does not hold up to the gospel of Jesus Christ simply does not have the same authority.

This analogy has it backwards. The Bible is not Christ's cradle; instead, Christ is the Bible's cradle. He is the lens through which all of the Word makes sense. He is the supporting structure, not the other way around. He is the enfleshed Word—God with us—who holds the key to understanding his written Word. Communicating such truth is one of my deep and heavy burdens. May God help us explain his Word to the next generation of angry, bullied seekers in an accessible way they can understand.

Conservative evangelicals sometimes talk about a war on marriage or a war on orthodox Christianity, but that isn't the foundational issue as I see it. The problem is that people don't understand the Bible—and I mean more than just not understanding specific things it says. People don't understand the overarching story of the Bible itself. Ghandi famously said he liked what he knew of Christ but not what he knew of Christians. But I see an even bigger problem—when people like what they know of Christ but not what they know of Scripture. How can we can know him without confidence in the primary historical document that speaks of him? I've written some about this challenge over the last year (here and here), but my burden has been solidified after reading Pastrix. Believers need to understand the whole of Scripture that they may have confidence in its trustworthiness.

Prove a Point

If you're someone who needs to prove a point or win an argument, I don't recommend reading Pastrix. You'll likely just get frustrated and angry with the perceived misconceptions and illogical jumps in reasoning. But if you like to listen to others—especially those who believe differently than you do—there is much to consider in Pastrix. I gained insight that will be helpful as I have opportunities to disciple young, angry, cynical women. I want to walk with them through their struggle and listen with open ears to the burdens they carry. Nadia's descriptions of her internal battles were helpful to me. If you don't personally resonate with her story, her description may nonetheless be helpful for understanding people who do. She offers remarkable insight into the motivation of a not-quite-atheistic alcoholic comic from a Church of Christ background.

Along with renewing my burden to disciple young believers in the trustworthiness of God's Word, reading Pastrix also reminded me how vital it is for believers to consistently admit their own mistakes and correct wrong teaching or practice. Our politics, personal struggles, and biases tug us away from God's truth, and again and again we must self-correct. We must regularly re-evaluate ourselves in light of the Word, since our hearts are so prone to wander. When angry, alcoholic cynics latch on to our inconsistencies and recognize what's truly sinful, we must lay down defensiveness and make corrections for the sake of the testimony of God's Word.

I identified with a lot of what Nadia wrote—not because I'm a tattooed, cussing fundamentalist outcast, but because I love many who are, and I long to walk with them wisely through their struggle as a good friend who points them to Christ and the trustworthiness of his Word. All of Scripture points to Jesus, and Jesus points to all of Scripture. He didn't come to rip apart the Old Testament but to fulfill it (Matt. 5:17). He affirms every jot and tittle, even while showing how little of it we can understand until we see it through the lens of himself. May we love the Word as he did and disciple others in the same way.

When You're Too Busy to Be Godly

Are you a little bored, undercommitted, struggling to find stuff to do? Yeah, me neither.

In a less awkward interview than with Justin Taylor, Kevin DeYoung sat down with Mark Mellinger to discuss the perennially relevant topic of his new book, Crazy Busy: A (Mercifully) Short Book about a (Really) Big Problem (Crossway).

So how do we know when we're too busy? One telling sign, DeYoung suggests, is when we no longer carve out unhurried time to do the one thing for which Jesus commends Mary—resting at his feet (Luke 10:42). To be sure, the pastor of University Reformed Church admits, life is packed with responsibilities, and the antidote to busyness certainly isn't laziness. But how often do we cross the line from owning our time to our time owning us, without even realizing it?

Without a lucid sense of our priorities, we'll repeatedly sacrifice what is best on the altar of what is good. As DeYoung puts it, "Until we know the things we won't do, we won't actually do the things we say we should do."

The threat of busyness is no light thing, DeYoung warns, for such a lifestyle can lead to spiritual damage. Not only do we cease caring for our soul, we forget we even have a soul. In fact, he suspects, "Busyness has killed more Christians than bullets have."

Watch the nine-minute video to hear DeYoung discuss the snare of screen addiction, the labor to rest, blended and blurred boundaries, and more.

Fighting Busyness from The Gospel Coalition on Vimeo.

Discipleship in the Land of Narnia

C. S. Lewis's classic seven-volume The Chronicles of Narnia series (1950-56) has become a beloved staple in the world of children's literature. The stories aren't just for kids, though.

What exactly was Lewis up to in these tales? In Live Like a Narnian: Christian Discipleship in Lewis's Chronicles, Joe Rigney takes us into the heart of Lewis's magical world and shows us how the stories function, with subtlety and potency, to awaken, expose, inspire, and even disciple. Rigney commends the saga as "a fruitful part of Christian discipleship, so that in reading the Narnian stories, breathing Narnian air, and seeking to live like Narnians, we are transformed into the image of Jesus Christ—the Great Lion and High King Above All Kings."

I corresponded with Rigney, professor of Christian worldview at Bethlehem College and Seminary in Minneapolis, about the worldview-shaping significance of the Chronicles, what we learn about true manhood and facing tragedy, and more.

*********

How would you respond to the charge that you're reading too much into Narnia?

I argue that Lewis had a particular view of education (what we today might call "discipleship" or "spiritual formation"), one that laid a particular emphasis on the "givenness" of reality, on the necessity of proper spiritual and emotional responses to reality, and on the importance of modeling and imitation in shaping these right thoughts and affections. I also argue that Lewis regarded fiction in general and fairy tales in particular as useful tools in molding godly character. Stories are always doing something to us—forming us and instructing us in ways of being human—and Lewis wanted to harness that power in order to hopefully instill Christian virtue in his readers. narnia

Once you've established that Lewis did in fact think this way about discipleship and fairy stories, then it's only a matter of putting the pieces together. No one disputes that the Narnian stories have layers and depths to them. Lewis himself said that they are in some sense "about Christ." I simply try to extend this insight out, in some cases using his essays and non-fiction books as a kind of lamp to enlighten what he's doing in Narnia. In the end, I'd have to say that the proof is in the pudding, and that readers can judge for themselves whether I draw out the right lessons.

Why take on adult questions through children's fiction? 

I think Lewis would challenge the notion that his stories are strictly "children's fiction." Both he and Tolkien believed that the association between fairy tales and children is a modern innovation, and a rather poor one at that. Lewis insisted that a children's story that is only enjoyable by children is a lousy children's story. So I have no doubt that Lewis would approve of the fact that so many adults continue to read and enjoy and learn from the Narnian stories.

Leaving that point aside, Lewis thought that fairy stories (or what Tolkien called "fantasy") have a peculiar value in making things of this world appear in their true potency. In one essay, he commented on the fact that certain kinds of obligation kill desire. For example, we know that we should be moved by the death of Jesus on our behalf, but the very fact of the "should" makes it harder to actually be moved. Fairy stories, by taking us out of our own world, allow the beauty and desirability of the truth to shine forth in all its glory. As Aslan says to Lucy, "This was the very reason you were brought into Narnia, that by knowing me here for a little, you might know me better there."

The last thing to say is that Lewis, I think, was particularly concerned about the trajectory of Western civilization. There were a number of "isms" that he thought should be resisted (and says as much in a number of essays): progressivism, evolutionism, scientism, egalitarianism (which for him is broader than merely the question of gender relations), and so forth. Children, of course, are generally unable to understand, let alone respond, to these "isms," so Lewis weaves key aspects of them—as well as potent responses to them—into his stories.

Lewis once wrote that the important thing about the ideal of chivalry is the double demand it makes on human nature: to be fierce to the nth and to be meek to the nth. How is that ideal represented in the Narnia stories?

This ideal shows up in almost all of the kings and queens of Narnia, but it shines brightest in Peter, the High King, especially in Prince Caspian. Peter is a great fighter and military tactician, able to fight man-to-man with the much larger Miraz as well as strategize about the best way to engage Miraz's army. At the same time, he's a master of tact—ably navigating relational conflict with his siblings, skillfully managing the expectations and desires of Reepicheep and the Bulgy Bears, and showing appropriate honor and respect to Caspian and others. The recovery of this sort of fierce meekness ought to be a major goal of the church today.

How does King Lune of Archenland's character in The Horse and His Boy show us what true manhood does—and doesn't—look like?

Lune is my favorite character in the Narnia books, fundamentally because he's the sort of man I want to be when I grow up. He's an affectionate father with a twinkle in his eye and laughter in his gut. He doesn't lose his cool when taunted, he's not afraid to get his hands dirty cleaning kennels, and, when the battle rages, he's the first out of the gate to fight. His words about kingship to Shasta are my favorite lines in the story, and around my house, if you ask what it means to be a man of God, you'll hear: "It means to be first in, last out, and laughing loudest."

Shasta and Digory are little boys who suffer great tragedy and are comforted and restored by a face-to-face encounter with the Great Lion. How does Lewis's own childhood tragedy lurk in the background, and what can we learn from him about walking with God through pain and suffering?

Lewis lost his mother to cancer when he was about 9. The loss of his mother was compounded by the subsequent "loss" of his father to grief and instability. In his autobiography, he describes himself and his brother as "two frightened urchins huddled for warmth in a bleak world." I think that's a perfect description of Shasta and Digory. Shasta is an orphan raised by an abusive father, and Digory's mother is on her deathbed. The similarities to Lewis's own story are obvious.

Much could be said about the way Lewis perhaps works through his own childhood trauma in the stories, by reuniting Shasta with his father and restoring the health of Digory's mother. But, as you note, the central element in the stories is that both Shasta and Digory (like Lewis himself) come face to face with the Great Lion, and after that encounter (which in both cases involves Aslan sorrowing with the boys), everything is different. I like to think that the restoration of the parents is Lewis's way of displaying what Jesus meant when he said, "Truly, I say to you, there is no one who has left house or wife or brothers or parents or children, for the sake of the kingdom of God, who will not receive many times more in this time, and in the age to come eternal life" (Luke 18:29-30)

On My Shelf: Life and Books with Elyse Fitzpatrick

On My Shelf helps you get to know various writers through a behind-the-scences glimpse into their lives as readers.

I corresponded with Elyse Fitzpatrick, author of numerous books, about what's on her nightstand, what she's learning about following Jesus, books she re-reads, and more. You can learn from Fitzpatrick in various workshops at The Gospel Coalition 2014 National Women's Conference.

*********

What's on your nightstand right now?

Tactics: A Game Plan for Discussing Your Christian Convictions by Greg Koukl, Bono on Bono: Conversations with Michka Assayas, and, just for fun, The Voyages of Dr. Doolittle by Hugh Lofting. (When you say nightstand, I assume you mean iPad . . . )

What are you learning about life and following Jesus?

He's got it all. As I've gotten older and see how I've worried and fretted for so much of my life, and I look back on how he's kept and guided me, I can see that he really is so trustworthy. You know I can write that, but in the middle of the night I have to remember it—and, more importantly, believe it.

What are some books you regularly re-read and why?

I regularly re-read Les Miserables by Victor Hugo, Till We Have Faces by C. S. Lewis, The Suffering Savior by F. W. Krummacher, and The Hammer of God by Bo Giertz. I don't think I need to explain why Les Mis should be read and re-read—if for no other reason than as a writer I need to be humbled before someone who really knows how to use words. I re-read Lewis because I need to remember I'm loved, and my self-perception is probably not correct. I re-read Suffering Savior because I forget him and what he's done, so that book needs to be read every Lenten season. Last, I re-read The Hammer of God because I keep forgetting the earth-shattering power of the gospel.

What books have profoundly shaped how you serve and lead others for the sake of the gospel?

Of course, everything by Tim Keller; On Being a Theologian of the Cross by Gerhard O. Forde; Luther's Commentary on Galatians; and anything by Mike Horton, especially Christless Christianity.

What biographies or autobiographies have most influenced you and why?

William Wilberforce, John Newton, and Dietrich Bonhoeffer most recently. I need courage and the backbone to stand for the truth.

What are your favorite fiction books?

See some of the above, plus Flannery O'Connor, Brett Lott, and P. D. James.

********** 

On My Shelf: Life and Books with Nancy Guthrie

On My Shelf helps you get to know various writers through a behind-the-scences glimpse into their lives as readers.

I corresponded with Nancy Guthrie, prolific author and prominent conference speaker, about what's on her nightstand, what she's learning, her favorite biographies, and more. You can learn from Guthrie as a plenary speaker at The Gospel Coalition 2014 National Women's Conference.

********** 

What's on your nightstand right now? 

Since I've been working on a five-book series, I've had a next chapter needing to be written for the past four years, which has profoundly shaped my reading. But I finished writing the series this summer, so August was my month to read some things I've just wanted to for the pleasure of it. I went to the bookstore (yes, an actual brick-and-mortar bookstore) to look for some fiction. But I've realized I enjoy memoir more than fiction and so, with the promise of Ralph from the behind the counter that I wouldn't be able to put it down, I bought Surprised by Oxford by Carolyn Weber. He was right. With my appreciation for the biblical theology of people like Vaughan Roberts, and as a regular watcher of Inspector Lewis, a trip to Oxford is on my wish list. Weber took me there through the pages of her book. More than that, she invited me into the heart and mind of a skeptic who allowed me to see Christ and Christianity and Christians in a fresh way. The openness, humor, honesty, and integrity of her coming-to-Christ journey drew me in.

Then last week I ran into my friend, Ashley Cleveland, at the park where we both like to walk, and she pulled a hot-off-the-press copy of her memoir, Little Black Sheep, out of her Jeep and gave it to me. As an accomplished songwriter, Ashley has a way with words. Even more, she figured out how to write a book that's all about herself and yet reflects personal insight more than inflated ego. The way she writes with grace and acceptance about the imperfect people in her life made me want to extend that kind of grace and acceptance to imperfect people in my life. And the way she writes about her Shepherd made me grateful he's my Shepherd, too.

What are you learning about life and following Jesus?

In the last couple of weeks, I've read a couple of books in preparation for interviewing the authors for the Christ the Center podcast. Amie Byrd's Housewife Theologian is a winsome call to women to be thinking Christians. And reading Barbara Duguid's Extravagant Grace, in which she works from the writings of John Newton to deal with sin and guilt, is like lingering over lunch with a wise friend willing to confess her own embarrassing struggles with sin, making you not feel so alone. I'm still thinking through the implications of Barbara's book in regard to God's sovereignty over the sin in my life, and pondering statements like this: "At this very moment, you are exactly as holy and mature in your faith as God wants you to be."

It thrills me that as I'm working my way ever-so-slowly through classes at Covenant Theological Seminary, mostly through distance education, the reading continually calls me to worship and wonder at the salvation I've inherited and the Savior to whom I'm united. Perhaps my favorite book from my latest class was Jesus: Lord and Savior by F. F. Bruce. The book expanded my understanding of the person, ministry, and words of Jesus by placing them in the social, political, and religious state of Palestine under the Roman Empire in the first century. Anthony Hoekema's Saved by Grace deepened my understanding of aspects of salvation including regeneration, conversion, justification, sanctification, and perseverance. I'm grateful a full understanding of this miracle wasn't required when I was brought from spiritual death to life, and that even now I don't have to grasp it perfectly to enjoy full confidence in its benefit.

What are some books you regularly re-read and why?

There are several books I tend to pull off my shelf over and over again as I work on writing projects and correspond with people who write me. I go back to Michael Williams's Far as the Curse Is Found: The Covenant Story of Redemption to find words to explain the purpose of things like the failed kings in the Old Testament and the healing ministry of Jesus in the New. My copy of The Goldsworthy Trilogy has proved to be worth more than its weight in gold in providing the framework that runs through Scripture of "God's people in God's place under God's rule," understanding the importance of order and disorder in the Wisdom Literature, and the way God speaks and guides. I pulled out Wayne Grudem's Bible Doctrines again this week to look for verbiage to respond to some readers of my Genesis study who wrote to me struggling with the suggestion that God chooses who will be his.

What books have most profoundly shaped how you serve and lead others for the sake of the gospel? 

When I look back on the books that had the greatest effect on me at key points, I can't help but remember reading that big green Decision-Making and the Will of God by Gary Friesen and J. Robin Maxson in college. When I met my future husband, David, who had taken classes from Friesen at Multnomah School of the Bible and had also read the book, it was one of the places we immediately found common ground. More recently a book I've read and re-read on this issue is Guidance and the Voice of God by Phillip Jensen and Tony Payne. It's much shorter and clearer, and I simply think everyone should read it. For example, I love this statement: "Many of our problems with guidance stem from precisely this: we ask the wrong questions, and then wonder why we cannot find answers. . . . We should ask the questions that God thinks are important, and these are the questions he has answered in the Bible."

Randy Alcorn's Money, Posessions, and Eternity is another book that's had a big effect on my husband and me. Randy's personal example in regard to ministry and money is challenging, as is his questioning of accepted practices concerning ministry fundraising, honorariums, and benefiting from money raised by lotteries.

I've read my share of books on grief and death, but the only one I've bought in bulk to provide to grieving couples we minister to through our Respite Retreats is Grieving, Hope, and Solace by Albert Martin, which uniquely offers comfort less in the intermediate state in God's presence and more in our confident hope of resurrection.

If I were to pick one book that's had the biggest effect on me personally and in how I minister to others, it would have to be John Piper's Desiring God. This volume brought about a seismic shift in my understanding of what God desires from me and for me.

What biographies or autobiographies have most influenced you and why?

I recently re-read Corrie ten Boom's The Hiding Place and was reminded why it is such a significant book. I want to believe God will give me the grace to be faithful should I ever face anything like Corrie and Betsy did, but I admit it's hard to imagine. About 10 years ago, I worked with Gracia Burnham when she returned to the United States after having been held captive in the jungles of the Philippines and losing her husband in the battle from which she was rescued. She wrote about this tragedy in In the Presence of My Enemies. I rarely step into the hot shower in my comfortable house without thinking about what it was like for her to survive in the jungle all those months without the comforts of clean running water, soap, a shower, a toothbrush, privacy, and more than enough to eat.

**********

Also in the On My Shelf series: Jared WilsonKathy KellerTullian TchividjianJ. D. GreearKevin DeYoungKathleen NielsonThabiti AnyabwileCollin HansenFred Sanders, and Rosaria Butterfield.

Abuse Does Not Take Away Use

In my online forays, I've observed it's increasingly common for people to explicitly reject a doctrine, or the notion of orthodox teaching in general, on the basis of its abuse. You'll often read something along these lines: "I grew up in a church that had a heavy emphasis on doctrine X (depravity, judgment, sola scriptura, etc.). My pastors and elders used that doctrine to berate people, cow them into submission, or excuse horrible evils." So now, whenever they hear doctrine X, they can't accept it because they know (feel) it's a tool being used to control them or bring about another harmful result. In fact, some will go further and elevate this reaction into a principle of theological methodology: if a doctrine could be or has been used to hurt or damage, it must be rejected out of hand.

I understand the impulse. For those who have been beat down with the Bible like it's a weapon, or doctrines like they're billy clubs, when they see someone pick them up—even as agents of healing—some post-traumatic stress makes sense. It can be hard to distance or differentiate a doctrine from its uses, especially if that's all you've ever known. It doesn't matter if someone's trying to offer you an oxygen mask; if someone used one to choke you out in the first place, you're going to flinch when you see it.

Everything Gets Twisted

Any doctrine can be distorted or misused to harm others. Tim Keller makes this point in The Reason for God: Belief in an Age of Skepticism when speaking about the way Christianity has been distorted throughout church history. Many would look at the way Christianity has been used to justify horrible evils as evidence of its inherently flawed character. Keller points out, however, that even universally praised values like reason, freedom, and equality have been the battle-cry of unjust regimes like the reign of terror in revolutionary France. Instead of providing evidence of Christianity's falsehood, maybe these abuses point to the (Christian) fact that something is so wrong with the human heart that we can take anything, no matter how good and true, and use it for wicked ends. This is true not only of doctrines we're more culturally apt to reject (like judgment, original sin, or inerrancy), but also of those we typically find appealing.

For instance, we tend to like the idea of a gracious, nonjudgmental God. After all, a deity who loves and affirms us unconditionally, mess and all, seems kind and gentle, almost impossible to imagine as a tool of oppression or power. Yet criminals also use this doctrine to justify themselves. If God doesn't judge, then how dare we? If God would never punish, then how can we punish oppressors? In the same vein, I've seen people excuse glaring character defects like pride, narcissism, harshness, and insensitivity on this premise: "It's just my personality; God made me the way I am." Well, your "personality" stinks because you're a jerk.

Or take the classic teaching on forgiveness. Christians are told God is a forgiving God, having forgiven all our sins in Christ at the cross. We're then told to forgive those who sin against us as Christ has commanded. Unfortunately some have taken this teaching on forgiveness and used it to force victims to "forgive" their abusers in ways that essentially brush over sin and ignore the reality of justice.

Pick almost any doctrine (creation, fall, grace, and so on) and you'll find some way it has been abused and applied improperly. Given this reality, if our main criterion for accepting or rejecting a doctrine is whether it can be used to harm others, we'll be left with a mere two-word creed: "I believe."

Abusus Non Tollit Usum

One of the most important rules I've learned in my theological studies is abusus non tollit usum—"abuse does not take away use." Basically, fire can destroy, but it's also good for cooking or keeping your home warm; an oxygen mask can still save your life, even if someone choked you with one; scalpels still cut out cancer, even if someone got injured with one. In the same way, doctrines can still be good, true, beautiful, and helpful despite the ways they've been abused or misconstrued in the past.

As always, Jesus points the way forward. When correcting the Pharisees and Sadducees' distortions of scriptural teaching, he didn't do it by throwing away God's Word. He quoted it and pointed to its true meaning (Matt. 9:12-13; 12:1-8; 19:4; 22:29, 41-45). In the Sabbath controversy, he didn't deny the Sabbath command but brought relief with a renewed, deeper understanding of what the command was always about—human flourishing. Or take Paul, who didn't reject Torah when he corrected the Judaizers who said Gentiles weren't full members of the covenant by faith alone but needed the practice of Torah as well. Paul didn't discard Torah; he went back to Torah to make his argument (Gal. 3-5).

Though difficult, Jesus teaches us that we must strive to distinguish true doctrines of the Christian faith from their distorted applications and expositions. You may end up rejecting some some bad theology as you hold firmly to precious truths. I'd encourage you to search the Scriptures, though, before rejecting something only on the basis of your negative experience. It may take some years of books, conversations, good churches, and perhaps a good biblical counselor, but it's worth it not to reject some key truth of the gospel just because some wicked teacher ruined it for you.