Tag Archives: Relationships

Bitter Breakups and Divine Closure: Our Pain and His Providence

I remember my first failed relationship. I was in junior high and enamored with a girl one year my senior. One day I mustered up the courage to approach her and asked if she would be my girlfriend. Though we hardly knew each other, she said yes.

No one should be surprised that the relationship ended shortly thereafter. Nevertheless, my depraved 14-year-old mind and heart thought that I was in love, and when we broke up, it hurt.

I cringe at the memories of singing love songs (think Usher in 2001) while sobbing in my room, wondering why it had to end.

breakup

Frankly, it was pathetic.

Good, Bad, and Bitter Breakups

Shake your head if you must, but many of us have endured similar experiences in our adult years. Accruing countless breakups before marriage has become the norm.

Many times, we can look back on a relationship and thank God for clearly and providentially intervening. I know I can. But other broken relationships don't readily prompt our thanks.

Perhaps you have dated, courted, or were interested in someone you wanted to marry. Instead the relationship ended, leaving you bitter at the other party or even at God. Maybe the other person is someone you still respect to this day. Or you never got closure and have no idea why it didn't work out.

Ending a relationship without clear reasons or with unanswered questions is tough. I've met many godly young singles still crushed from past relationships. Many of us are acquainted with the feeling of abandonment by a significant other. We have questions. We often demand answers.

The Holy Scriptures offer help. A healthy understanding of God's providence is essential to gaining perspective on our bitter breakups.

Pain and Providence

Recently, I visited a church where the pastor preached on the providence of God and the children of Israel. As he unpacked the first few verses of Exodus, he pointed back to Genesis to show the ways we often overlook God's beautiful providence in the trials and tribulations of this present life.

He talked about Joseph, pointing out how this young man was sold into slavery in a twist of fate that God appointed to prevent the death of Joseph's brothers (and the future nation of Israel) from famine by bringing them to Egypt.

Many of us lack this robust understanding of God's providence. We see it as something that protects us from pain but not something that takes us through pain for our own good. As the pastor rightly observed, for us, providence has become a nickname for "luck."

Providentially Present

So how should a biblical view of providence affect the way we view break ups and failed relationships?

A proper understanding of biblical providence sees God's presence in our pain. When we lose someone significant, feelings of loneliness and abandonment invade our thoughts and emotions. Even if we're surrounded with loved ones who care for us, their words of encouragement and attempts to provide closure rarely bring us comfort. What we really need is divine presence.

Sadly, when we think of God, we sometimes struggle to believe he's near to us. We picture God as a cold dictator, distant and unconcerned with our earthly relationships, bored with our lives and bothered by our troubles. The Holy Scriptures contradict this thinking, reminding us that his hand will lead us and his right hand shall hold us (Ps. 139:10). He's present.

Elisabeth Elliot, author and two-time widow, testifies to this comfort when she writes, "I am not a theologian or a scholar, but I am very aware of the fact that pain is necessary to all of us. In my own life, I think I can honestly say that out of the deepest pain has come the strongest conviction of the presence of God and the love of God."

Providentially Active

However, God isn't simply present and passive. He is alive and therefore present and active. While in college, I was discipled under the umbrella of Reformed University Fellowship. Our campus minister constantly reminded us that in all things, at all times, "God is at work."

The Dutch Reformed theologian and scholar Herman Bavinck taught that the Bible presents a God who is constantly at work in the lives of his people. While Scripture describes the almighty acts of God, it at the same time praises them, in order that we may know the God of the universe is always at work for our good and ultimately his glory.

God is active in our breakups. Scripture is clear that he doesn't just stand nearby watching the affairs of our life unfold, but he in fact orchestrates them (Gen. 45:5; Deut. 8:18; Prov. 21:1). He does so in a way that doesn't violate our moral responsibility, but he is involved.

If we affirm that God is good and loving (Ps. 107:1), we can find comfort in the reality that he is in control of our lives. Why? We, with Joseph, realize that even what is meant for our harm by others, God means it for our good. This can only mean one thing: For those of us in Christ Jesus, our break ups are meant for our good.

Providence and the Gospel

According to the gospel, God is present in the incarnate Lord Jesus and active in his perfect life, death, resurrection, return, and consummation. We wait on the latter two, yet even as we wait "we are sealed with the promised Holy Spirit who is the guarantee of our inheritance until we acquire possession of it" (Eph. 1:14) upon Christ's return. Through the Holy Spirit who lives inside of you, God is present and active.

A biblical understanding of providence, according to Bavinck, makes

us grateful when things go well and patient when things go against us, prompts us to rest with childlike submission in the guidance of the Lord and at the same time arouses us from our inertia to the highest levels of activity. In all circumstances of life, it gives us good confidence in our faithful God and Father that he will provide whatever we need for body and soul and that he will turn to our good whatever adversity he sends us in this sad world, since he is able to do this as almighty God and desires to do this as a faithful Father.

In times of deep distress and pain that a broken heart can sometimes bring, rest in the reality that your Father in heaven is good and gives good gifts to those who ask him (Matt. 7:11). A biblical understanding of providence should move us to contentedly trust the hand of God-even when it comes to breakups.

4 Reflections About Online Dating

Two years ago today I met the woman who would become my wife. The vehicle that brought us together was the internet. So we are an online dating success story.

I guess that success makes me an expert. But I also learned a great deal about myself and God through many disappointments before I met my wife. So consider these four reflections as you discern whether online dating would be appropriate for you.

1. Most of the Dating Doesn't Happen Online

online datingI didn't meet my wife online. I met her in a restaurant on the north side of Indianapolis. And we didn't date online, either. We dated in parks and on running paths, in churches and at our parents' houses, on road trips and in coffee shops (big focus on coffee shops). We dated in person.

Sure, we spent a week or two exchanging information online. And we went through all the typical phases of an eHarmony relationship: structured communication options, emailing, Facebook friendship, texting, and talking on the phone for hours at a time. But we put faces with names at an early stage in the process. We discovered we had overlapping circles of friends on Facebook and through ministry connections. We spent focused time together one-on-one, and also in groups of friends and family.

It wasn't an internet relationship. It was a relationship. (And an uncommonly successful one, if I may say so. We were married six months and four days after we met in person.)

2. Most of the Dangerous Parts Do Happen Online

My wife was matched to me the day after she joined eHarmony, so she spent less than a month as a member of the online dating community. My story is different. I spent a year and a half experiencing crushing online dating defeats before meeting my wife. During that year and a half, I was thwarted by my own unrealistic expectations. And I fell short of others' unrealistic expectations. Many people in their late 20s try online dating to meet the perfect person they have (surprisingly) failed to meet in real life. This does not work. But the temptation to pore over online profiles for hours at a time in order to unearth the soul-mate who has eluded you all your life-that temptation is real.

I noticed (mainly in retrospect) an interesting phenomenon in my own approach to online dating. When I reviewed profiles, I found myself thinking of each and every potential match as the perfect person for me until I found evidence to the contrary. This is noteworthy because I don't think it is the way I approach other realms of life. In person I adopt a much more guarded perspective. But for some reason when I reviewed all those profiles (and I reviewed a lot of profiles), I thought each one could be the one . . . until I was disabused of my naivety over and over.

I don't know why the temptation to let myself be deceived (or at least misled) in the online context was so strong. Part of it, I'm sure, is that the internet dating medium lends itself to the presentation of the very best version of a person. But whatever the reason, through this experience, I eventually learned to put more stock in the evaluation techniques that work well in normal life. And about that time, I met my wife (who turned out to be every bit as wonderful as I always thought she was).

3. It Goes Deep Right Away

When dating is initiated through most internet sites, it differs from normal dating in at least one important respect: you start out knowing a great deal about the person you are dating. You have invariably exchanged voluminous information before meeting in person. If you think it's going well, you have probably memorized every word on the other person's profile and pondered how your own eccentricities might or might not mix with what you've read. If you're a guy, you have probably considered how the girl's first name would sound with your last name. All this happens before you ever meet in that restaurant for lunch (lunch is always a good place to start).

This kind of dating has a tendency to go very deep very quickly. This is both good and bad. It's good because it helps you weed out people whose worldviews are incompatible with your own. But it's bad because it creates a sense of intimacy that is almost never going to be actualized. I say almost because, by the grace of God, these things do occasionally work out. When they don't, however, this kind of dating leads to a special kind of disappointment. It's the disappointment that comes from letting another person into your life, into the deepest parts of yourself, and then, in some cases quite suddenly, being discarded.

Moreover, even if you are the one who decides not to proceed with such a relationship, there is a unique sense of loneliness that comes when you realize that you have deeply invested in a person, and now you will in all likelihood never speak to—nor have any contact whatsoever with—that person for the rest of your life. It's a feeling you can only know if you've been there. I don't believe it's a reason to stay away from online dating entirely. But it's worth considering.

4. It's Not an Alternative to God's Sovereignty

I told myself the reason I joined eHarmony was that, at the very least, I should do everything in my power to find a wife. On its face I don't think this was a bad reason. But peeling back the layers of my psyche, I think something different was happening. My unspoken thinking—probably not even a fully formed thought—was that God was not working, so I should do it myself. This underlying idea fits well with the structure of online dating. It is work. I received multiple matches every day. Each of them was a possibility, a mystery, a project. Each of them required time and evaluation. I am not exaggerating when I say that I sometimes spent hours reviewing profiles. This is because I would fall several days, or even weeks, behind. Then would follow a marathon session of soul-mate searching.

In this context, it's easy to say you're waiting for God to work, but in reality you believe that you are making things happen. Of course, I hope what you've read so far shows you that this kind of thinking gets you nowhere. Online dating is a beautiful expression of, and by no means a replacement for, God's sovereignty. I firmly believe I would have fallen in love with my wife no matter where we met. It could have happened anywhere, at any stage of our lives. But it didn't. Until it did. In the fullness of time, out of the overflow of his mercy, God was pleased to bring it about. I couldn't make it happen. God could, and he did. Praise God!

False Freedom and the Slavery of Autonomy

You are the generation most afraid of real community because it inevitably limits freedom and choice. Get over your fear. — Tim Keller on Twitter, July 29, 2013

I hate going to restaurants with large menus. As dish after dish stares up at me, with tempting descriptions following one after another, the thought of choosing only one paralyzes me. I usually narrow my choice down to one of two options, and then, when the server finally arrives, I glance down and impulsively order something else that just caught my eye. Or, if it's a restaurant I know, I just end up playing it safe with my regular meal. I'm scared of committing myself to a food choice, making the wrong one, and losing out on all the other good meals I might have enjoyed that night.

My restaurant anxieties are, I think, a small, admittedly ridiculous microcosm of the problem with choice-making among my generation (millennials) in general. It's not that we make bad choices (though sometimes we do); it's that we are bad at choosing. Why? We have a screwy view of the relationship between freedom of choice and happiness. Americans value freedom and choice in general, but being the iPod generation who grew up with thousands of choices at our fingertips (it takes me four minutes to choose an album for a five-minute drive), the problem's metastasized for us.

Taking too long to choose a song is annoying but not really that big a deal. The problem comes with the larger issues in life, especially relationships. Being a millennial myself and working with them every week, I see this problem all the time. Inability to choose inevitably leads to inability to have the real community we were created for.

Freedom, Choices, and Fears

If I were smarter, I'd probably provide some intellectual history and talk about the transition from the classical views of community, freedom, and happiness with Aristotle or Augustine, to the shift we see in the modern period in Kant and Mill (autonomy, utilitarianism, modern individualism) and eventually trace this trend to the radically bastardized forms we find today. But I'm not Charles Taylor, so I won't.

Instead, I'll just note that we've arrived at a point culturally where unconstrained freedom and choice are considered "hypergoods," goods valued in and of themselves regardless of their use or non-use. This forms the underlying, largely unexpressed background to our more everyday fears and desires that keep us from choosing community. It's the setting in which our (non)-actions become intelligible and defensible to those around us and ourselves.

Though there are likely more, at least four street-level reasons stand out to me for why we're scared to limit our freedom and choice by committing to actual community.

1. Fear of missing out.

I didn't know it, but my friend Katie told me that #fomo (fear of missing out) is a thing. And it makes sense. We're a generation of experience junkies who are terrified of missing out on anything. The thought of not being in that Instagram pic at X cool experience is painful. For many of us, our deepest need is to taste and try everything and travel everywhere, which can end up meaning we've settled nowhere and don't really know anyone. We're ready to go any place for action by perpetually never having any place to be. Just try and get a college kid to sign up for something more than a day in advance and you'll see what I mean.

2. Fear of settling. 

Collin Hansen has pointed out we've been told our whole lives not to "settle" for anything, especially not in relationships. I see guys and girls in their 30s still feeling out their "options," not risking the commitment because they just can't "settle." (Not that every single in their 30s is doing this, or that singleness per se is bad.) Whether it's a job, dating, or picking a church—or not picking a church because we're worried we won't find the right person to date—we're paralyzed about actually committing to someone or some place because we might be settling for less.

3. Fear of being hurt.

It's not all the fault of narcissism and selfishness. In some ways our generation has more reasons than any before it to distrust and fear commitments and communities. The U.S. divorce rate testifies to the emotional wreckage many of us walked through as children as we watched our (or our friend's) parents' marriages destroyed. Corporations and public institutions we trusted have betrayed that trust. To commit to community, then, is to commit to risk being hurt yet again.

4. Fear of accountability. 

We're community-phobic because we're accountability-phobic. We're anti-authoritarian to a degree that inhibits us from seeing the value and necessity of loving correction and accountability for how we use our freedom. We avoid community because we're scared for anyone to know us well enough to call us out on anything. So we simply don't commit. We date casually, switch jobs constantly, and find the idea of actual membership in a church overwhelming. And this is "freedom" and "happiness."

Particular Choices and True Freedom

The problem with this whole approach, though, is there comes a point when not choosing becomes a choice (Kierkegaard, Either/Or). Not choosing anyone means choosing no one. Not choosing anywhere means choosing nowhere. Ironically, the inability to make a choice is not freedom but slavery to autonomy.

In the Bible, we see that true freedom has a covenantal flavor. God, by definition, is free, unconstrained, and unbound. All of our freedom derives from his. And God demonstrates his freedom—the freedom of sovereign love—in making a choice, a covenant, binding himself to a people in condescending love. Analogically, we find our greatest freedom in making an actual choice instead of just keeping our options open. Freedom is found in choosing the particular, not choice in general.

Tim Keller gets at this point in The Reason for God. Discussing the issue of freedom and boundaries, he points out that freedom isn't just unconstrained choices without boundaries, but rather finding the kinds of boundaries that liberate us to be fully alive (pp. 47-50). When you choose, you can actually get in on something. But if you constantly keep your options open, you're not actually free to enjoy or know anything. Some meals at that fabulous restaurant need reservations months in advance. Getting to that must-see concert demands time, energy, effort, and blocking out that day on the calendar for no other purpose. Finishing a book requires not starting 100 others at the same time.

We see this point at work in love, too. While some guys might find the freedom of dating girl after girl appealing, we find the joy of deep freedom in finally landing. When you choose someone to love, yes, you have to sacrifice other choices, other options, other ways the world might have been. But you're finally free to give yourself to her, fully and completely. You're free to spend time getting to know her instead of briefly and casually perusing the surface-level presentations of the millions of other women out there. You can be fully open and fully known, instead of just browsing through relationships. That's the difference between joy and mere amusement.

Of course, this choice does involve risk. Keller reminds us of that famous passage in C. S. Lewis's The Four Loves on the risk of love:

To love at all is to be vulnerable. Love anything and your heart will be wrung and possibly broken. If you want to make sure of keeping it intact you must give it to no one, not even an animal. Wrap it carefully round with hobbies and little luxuries; avoid all entanglements. Lock it up safe in the casket or coffin of your selfishness. But in that casket, safe, dark, motionless, airless, it will change. It will not be broken; it will become unbreakable, impenetrable, irredeemable. The alternative to tragedy, or at least to the risk of tragedy, is damnation.

That's where many of us are headed because of our fear of the vulnerability that comes with joining and loving a community. We'll end up damned to an empty freedom filled with little hobbies, Instagram photos full of nice trips, and updates of great experiences without any deep or lasting relationships with any of the people in them.

Risking True Community

At some point, we must risk the choice of community. We must trust that the God who determined the time and place of our birth and life (Acts 17:26) is also the one who chose to become a particular man in a particular place—a man who risked love, suffered the rejection we fear in our place, and saved us from our misguided attempts at self-damnation to bring us into community with the triune God himself. Only then will we overcome our fears of loving particular people in particular places and experience the deep joy of love, of knowing and being known, of community.

If you're wondering where to begin this bold step of entering community, but don't know where to start, I'd suggest your local church, the body of which Christ is the head (Col. 1:18). A church that believes and preaches the gospel will depend on grace and be ready to give it. Christians there will be humble and therefore vulnerable, honest with their own failings and safe to deal with yours. More importantly, the church is called according to God's purposes and sustained by his promises—God's own covenant people kept by his sure Word.

Why You Can't See Your Biggest Flaws

In my last article, I wrote about the 18th-century pastor John Newton, who showed us that most Christians live with obvious character flaws that ruin both their joy and also their Christian witness. But why do so many Christians live this way?

Our natural virtues, which come from inborn temperament and family nurture—such as our talents, aptitudes, and strengths—are good things. But each has a "dark side." People with prophetic gifts—great directness, often good at public speaking or writing—can have problems listening to others and taking advice. People with priestly gifts—sensitivity, often good at listening, giving counsel, showing mercy—often can be too concerned to make people happy. They may be cowardly or overly sensitive themselves to criticism. A generous person may also be undisciplined and irresponsible in financial matters. Thus his generosity is really a facet of his too-impulsive character.  

Virtues of gifts and temperament have a corresponding "dark side" because our gifts and natural temperament are bound up with the idols that dominate any not heart filled with the gospel of grace. Without a thorough knowledge of the gospel, we look to good things—human approval and relationships, the exercise of power and accomplishment, the control of our environment and self-discipline, the enjoyment of comfort, privacy, and pleasure—and make them into pseudo-salvations. So the person who makes an idol out of human approval may be a sensitive artist, and the one who makes an idol out of power might be a courageous leader. But gifts and temperament in the service of idols—and this is our normal state—always are a mixed blessing. They have a good side—they produce virtuous behavior—but they lead the person into a corresponding sin or vice as well.  

As a result, people cannot see their sins because they look only at their virtues. For example, someone may say, "I'm not abrasive, I just speak very directly." It is true that a direct-speaking person may do good because direct, blunt comments are sometimes needed. But overall the abrasiveness is ineffective, and the person's boldness and confidence comes to some degree from pride and a lack of love. And for this reason, many (or perhaps most) Christians do not work on the supernatural graces of the spirit that are not natural to us, and that mitigate or eliminate the dark side—the besetting sins—of our nature.  

So how can we be shaken out of our lethargy and awakened to our need to grow? Here are some principles I have gleaned from Newton's letters over the years.  

1. Know that your worst character flaws are the ones you can see the least.

By definition the sins to which you are most blind, that you make the most excuses for, and that you usually minimize—are the ones that most have you in their grip. One way we hide our blemishes is that we look at places that our natural temperament resembles spiritual fruit. For example, a natural aptitude for control and self-discipline can be read as faithfulness, and a natural desire for personal approval could look like gentleness or love. Or we mistake a bubbly, sanguine temperament for joy, and a laid-back, phlegmatic temperament for peace. We give ourselves spiritual credit for these things, when actually we aren't growing spiritually at all. The lack of other fruit shows that real supernatural character change is not happening. 

2. Remember that you can't learn about your biggest flaws just by being toldyou must be shown.

There are two ways we come to see our sins and flaws more clearly. One way is that we are shown them by troubles and trials in life. Suffering is "God's gymnasium"—it reveals our spiritual weaknesses just as a workout reveals physical weaknesses.  

We also learn by Christian role models. Sometimes the best conviction comes when you are brought near a person who is living as you should be living. You may not think of yourself as impatient, or abrasive, or over-sensitive until you are brought into close proximity to someone much more patient, irenic, and content. We should make use of these opportunities to grow. They are painful—even being near very holy people can be uncomfortable. But at such times, when we most feel the need for grace, that we find God's grace most desirable. 

3. Be willing to listen to correction and critique from others. 

We just said that no one ever learned about his or her sins by being told. We have too many layers of self-justification to grow without hard knocks. But in addition, as a complement, we need critique and accountability from brothers and sisters.  

There are at least two kinds. First, you can create your own Hebrews 3:13 community. Hebrews 3:13 says we are to "exhort one another daily" so we are not "hardened by the deceptiveness of our sin." Take some other believers that you trust and give them "a hunting license" to talk to you about where you need to grow.  

Second, don't forget the "Balaam's ass" principle. You must learn how to profit from criticism even given by people who are badly motivated, or whom you don't respect. Even if only 20 percent of what they say is true, it may be God speaking to you.  

But, you may ask, how do we actually make changes once we see where we need to change? We will look at that in the next article.

This article originally appeared in Redeemer Presbyterian Church's monthly Redeemer Report.

Resources for One-Anothering the Word

If you have relationships or know someone who does, then keep reading.

Paul Tripp and Timothy Lane have teamed up on a number of writing projects over the years, including How People Change and Relationships: A Mess Worth Making. Earlier this spring, Tripp and Lane were together in Albuquerque along with 700 attendees to address the theme "One-Anothering the Word" at Clarus '13, The Gospel Coalition's Southwest Regional Conference hosted by Desert Springs Church.

These men have thought carefully and deeply from the Bible about how our broken relationships can be redeemed, and about how God actually uses our relationships with "one another" to conform us into the image of his Son. Every relationship, even difficult ones, are a gift of God's grace for our growth in the knowledge and likeness of Christ.

In addition to a panel discussion hosted by Ryan Kelly (audiovideoblog recap), each of the men spoke three times. Below you'll find a round up of their talks, including links to audio, video, and blog summaries, followed by session videos in the order they were delivered. Photos from the conference are available at the TGC Albuquerque Facebook page.

Timothy Lane

"Why Are Friendships So Important?" - Ephesians 4:1-16 (audioblog recap)

"Godly and Ungodly Conflict" - James 4:1-12 (audioblog recap)

"Practicing Forgiveness: What to Do When You Fail" - Matthew 18:21-35 (audioblog recap)

Paul Tripp

"Self-Examination Is a Community Project" - Hebrews 3:13 (audioblog recap)

"The Essential Ministry of the Body of Christ" - Colossians 3:12-16 (audioblog recap)

"The Difference Between Amazement and Faith" - Mark 6:45-52 (audioblog recap)

Four Lies About Introverts

I'm an introvert. Most people who don't know me well wouldn't guess this about me, but it's true. On a practical level, being an introvert means I'm generally more energized by time alone than by time with people, and I have a preference for a less externally stimulating environment. I feel very alive in a quiet, empty room. On the introversion/extroversion spectrum I fall closer to the middle, but still lean decidedly toward the introverted side.

The process of understanding introversion and the way it's expressed in my life has been both a tremendous relief and also an ongoing source of doubt and concern. My daily reality is people-intensive and externally stimulating. I'm married to an extrovert, we have four children, and we live in an urban setting. Our home and surroundings are fun and energetic—not exactly low-stimulus. My husband pastors a large church, and we're involved with many congregations and ministries throughout the world; consequently, our social circles are large and complex. To complicate things even further, my spiritual gifts are often expressed publicly as are the (non-innate!) social skills I've managed to learn and practice over time. These realities, combined with my definite need for quiet and solitude, have often left me and others confused about who I really am.

The lie I'm most tempted to believe is that the way God has wired me is incompatible with the life he's called me to live. The logical conclusion of this lie is that joy and contentment aren't possible—and that constant frustration is inevitable.

It took a while for me to unearth and articulate that lie under the layers of fear, doubt, and insecurity it was producing. I knew these beliefs didn't line up with God's character or promises, but it's taken extended immersion in the truth of God's Word to renew my mind and dismantle that deception. Along the way, I've discovered some subtle and not-so-subtle assumptions I'd unwittingly latched onto over time.

1. Extroversion is the biblical ideal.

There's little question our culture leans toward idealizing extroverts. Those with intrinsically good social skills, who appear to thrive in party-type atmospheres and exude confidence when meeting new people, are often considered worthy of emulation. I spent many years wondering why small talk felt so awkward for me when it seemed so effortless for my friends. In some churches, an appropriate focus on community life can inadvertently favor those who are most comfortable socially, quickest to share their thoughts and feelings, and most likely to throw a party. But there's no biblical precedent for idealizing extroversion, just as there's none for idealizing introversion either. I know extroverts who feel condemned because a quiet environment and time alone are somewhat distracting. They find it difficult to avoid comparing themselves to more introverted, contemplative types and avoid attributing their struggle to a lack of self-discipline when, in fact, a preferred environment has little to do with self-discipline at all.

The comparisons aren't helpful and neither is holding up an ideal the Bible does not. The body of Christ includes persons at all points on the introversion/extroversion continuum, and no one's contribution is more important than another's. We're all responsible to spend time both privately and corporately with God and others in worship, study, prayer, and service. Caving to a cultural standard that doesn't line up with scriptural truth is destructive to individuals and to the body of Christ.

2. Introverts don't like people.

This has perhaps been the lie that's stung most for me. I care deeply about people, but I need time alone to recharge in order to be able to give them my best. It's taken me years to view this as good stewardship rather than some sort of flaw I need to overcome. Actually, and perhaps ironically, the chief thing that's kept me from loving people well has been my attempt to be someone I'm not. The more I've tried to be that "life of the party" girl, endlessly accommodating others without considering what I need to recover, the less capacity I've had to actually love people well.

We're all responsible to obey biblical commands related to loving people sacrificially and living hospitably and generously. And it's a cop-out to use introversion as an excuse for self-protective isolation. But there's not just one or even ten "right" ways to love people well. I've learned to get better at small talk and interacting with strangers, because it's important and necessary, but it's never going to be my greatest strength. I've become much more comfortable in opening our home to small and large groups of people, both in planned and spontaneous ways, but going deep with one or two people over coffee is always going to be a place where I thrive. Accepting my God-given introversion, I still allow myself to be stretched or uncomfortable. But I passionately pursue opportunities where I can love people deeply with my gifts and life, and then humbly take responsibility for what it looks like for me to be refreshed.

3. Solitude is selfish and indulgent.

Now there's a reality here that can be true. If my choice to be alone is primarily to serve myself and intensify a me-oriented focus, it is a problem. But for a long time I believed solitude for the purpose of prayer, Bible study, or worship is necessary, but anything beyond that is probably frivolous. However, I've come to experience great benefits from a variety of solitary activities. Solitude in itself isn't inherently helpful or harmful, but the underlying purpose is pivotal. I can go for a run by myself to clear my head and enjoy God's gift of nature—or to sinfully distract myself from something I need to confront. I can sit alone in a coffee shop in order to think deeply and process life events—or to worry about things beyond my control. When I cooperate with the way God has designed me, and surrender my solitude to him, he uses it to refresh my soul in often unexpected and powerful ways.

4. Introversion is incompatible with teaching and leadership gifts.

Last year, after an acquaintance watched my husband and me team-teach in front of a few thousand people, he remarked in a good-natured way that I couldn't possibly be an introvert. I knew he meant this as a compliment, and I also understood his confusion. People who are confident and capable in front of large audiences don't exactly fit the introverted stereotype. And while it's true many introverts aren't comfortable in front of people, I am. How much of that is due to my natural personality, gifting, or years of training in music, theater, and teaching, I don't know, and it probably doesn't matter. What I do know is that once the adrenaline wears off after such an event, I need some silence and solitude in order to be replenished. I'm passionate about teaching God's Word, and I love to get to use my gifts in this area, but it's equally important for me to take necessary steps to make room for quiet rest. By God's grace I'm learning to see my more public and more private sides not as incompatible or inauthentic, but as balances to each other. 

Additionally, my leadership gifts aren't expressed in the same way as my extroverted husband. I tend to lead best from a more contemplative place. My creativity flourishes, and my best ideas rise to the surface when I have time to be alone more so than when I'm brainstorming with others in a highly dynamic environment. Since there is no one-size-fits-all model for leadership, our churches will be best served when there's room at the table for extroverted and introverted leaders alike.

Accepting the realities of my God-given personality has been a process of sanctification. I've had to repent of people-pleasing and trying to be someone I'm not. I've had to humbly acknowledge my limits and weaknesses and to live in God's strength rather than my own. Ultimately, this process has been about God and his kingdom, not me. The more I rest in his gracious acceptance of me in Jesus, the more free I become to be myself for his glory. And that's a place where joy and contentment abound.

Peacemaking: A Gospel Necessity

As long as we live around and work with people, we might as well brace ourselves for being hurt. They will hurt us on purpose but also unintentionally. It's just part of living in this world. Yet it's a strange thing when you see believers in the church who will not speak to one another but talk to everyone else about the person with whom they have conflict. If God has reconciled us to himself through Christ, how can we not pursue reconciliation with one another?

As I work with students in college ministry, I am grieved when I see Christians upset with one another but unwilling to resolve their frustrations in the manner God has prescribed. Yet nothing gives me more joy when I see two students go directly to one another to confess, ask forgiveness, and experience restored friendship as a result.

Blessed Are the Peacemakers

Jesus said peacemakers will actually be blessed (Matthew 5:9). Yet we do not naturally make peace. When we feel hurt by someone, we may respond in one of these ways:

  1. Avoidance: We may completely ignore the person, not making eye contact or pretending that we just don't see him or her. There may be an "elephant in the room," but it feels more comfortable to pretend the issue doesn't exist. We brush it under the rug and may even build up walls of bitterness in our hearts. Perhaps we gossip about the person who hurt us, making the issue even more dramatic. Avoidance can be driven by a fear of confrontation.
  2. Accusation: When we respond with accusation, we aren't afraid to address the ways we have been hurt, but we do it in a way that lacks love and grace. We are harsh and abrasive, coming at the other person with an accusatory tone. Our hearts are far from humble. We have no problem telling the other person that he was completely out of line, essentially saying, "How could you do such a thing?" There is no category for imperfection in our minds. We expect other people never to fail and are devastated when they not only fail but directly harm us in the process. Accusation is often driven by pride and anger.

Rather than giving into avoidance or accusation, Christ presents us with a better way. He has given his disciples the ministry of reconciliation as described by Paul in 2 Corinthians 5:18. Rather than venting to others, reconciliation means we go directly to the person, following Matthew 18:15-17. Meeting with the person one-on-one can be scary and therefore requires courage that can only come from the Lord. If we pray with sincerity about our conflict, God delights to not only give us perspective on the situation, but also the strength and courage we need to go directly to the person and resolve the issue. When we meet with the one who has wronged us, we express the ways in which we have sinned and ask for forgiveness. Although we may need to graciously and gently share how we have personally been hurt, our primary goal is reconciliation. Indeed, we forgive because Christ has forgiven us (Colossians 3:13). Grateful for God's canceling the debt we owe, we extend mercy to others. Peacemaking is driven by love.

Miserable Roommate

I once had a roommate who made my life miserable. Her behavior and speech made me feel as though she hated the world, including me. Stomach in knots, I was filled with fear in the very place that should have been a refuge to me. I would go and work out at the gym just to get out, because there was so much tension in our apartment. Thanks to my roommate, I ended up in great shape physically. I was stronger and burned a ton of calories. But if I was honest with myself, I knew I was handling the situation poorly. Not only was I giving into the "avoidance" pattern in response to conflict, I was also developing a lot of bitterness in my heart toward her. When our lease was up and it was time for us to move out, I was more than slightly excited that I'd never have to live with her again. I may have even taken a picture of her empty room to remind myself that she was gone.

A few years passed and I rarely thought about that awful situation, except for an occasional, "I'm so thankful I don't live with her anymore!" But in my times of prayer, God began to bring my old roommate to mind. I would ask the Lord to "please reveal any area in my life that is displeasing to you," and he kept bringing her to mind. God wanted me to ask her to forgive me for ways I had not loved her well when we lived together. I thought, But she is the one who needs forgiveness! For several months he reminded me of my former roommate and called me to action. With God's strength, I finally wrote and asked for her forgiveness over ways I sinned while we lived together. To my surprise, she quickly responded with grace and ended up saying that she should be the one asking for forgiveness.

Several months later, this same old roommate asked if we could talk. She needed counsel and encouragement while going through a tough situation. I listened and tried to comfort her as she poured out her heart to me. After I hung up the phone, I thought, Wow. Now that is the power of reconciliation! All I did was write her and ask that she forgive me, and now she felt that she could be vulnerable with me—that I wouldn't condemn her when she was struggling. I am still amazed at God's faithfulness in restoring that relationship. Before pursuing peace with her, I would have not been able to look her in the eye if I ran into her somewhere. I would not have been able to smile at her with sincerity. But after the effort at peacemaking, a weight was taken off my shoulder and doors for ministry with her opened up.

I praise God for using me to bring reconciliation in even a small way. I am far from perfect, but by his grace I seek to obey God's command to "live peaceably with all" (Romans 12:18). God wants every one of his children to embrace the ministry of peacemaking. This ministry is so crucial because it testifies to the validity of the gospel of Christ. Not only does peacemaking in relationships remind us of the truth of the gospel in our own lives, it also can be evangelistic. If the watching world sees Christians bickering with one another, holding grudges and gossiping about one another, they will have a hard time seeing the beauty of the gospel. If we only know how to deal with conflict through avoidance or accusation, what kind of message do we send? But if nonbelievers see Christians work through their hurts when they are wronged and ultimately respond with grace and forgiveness, they will observe the outworking of the gospel in action. Peacemaking, driven by love, is essentially living out the gospel in our relationships.

More Choices, Less Commitment

"If I lived in Iowa, I'd be married with four children by now." Gregg Blatt is the CEO of Match.com's parent company. He's a 40-something bachelor living in Manhattan, and it's not entirely clear whether his wry comment aims to slight Iowa or New York.

Either way, it's clear that overwhelming choice can cripple commitment. Blatt himself wonders whether the glittering promise of online dating—your perfect match is only a click away—encourages us to become never-satisfied consumers of relationships, always looking to upgrade. And if we suspect we can easily find a superior choice on the Internet, how might that knowledge negatively affect the desire to invest in our current relationship, or even marriage? Assuming we one day get tired of compulsive consumption and decide to stop playing the field, will we be able to? Might the intoxication of choice lead to the death of commitment—and contentment?

Dan Slater thinks so. His recent article in The Atlantic implies that online dating, far from making marriage easier, is actually making it harder—by making commitment less likely:

The positive aspects of online dating are clear: the Internet makes it easier for single people to meet other single people with whom they might be compatible, raising the bar for what they consider a good relationship. But what if online dating makes it too easy to meet someone new? What if it raises the bar for a good relationship too high? What if the prospect of finding an ever-more-compatible mate with the click of a mouse means a future of relationship instability, in which we keep chasing the elusive rabbit around the dating track?

Slater's dog-track metaphor is strikingly apt. The rabbit isn't real, it's never caught, yet the greyhound still obsessively chases it. And the multiplying "rabbits" (as provided by the proliferation of online dating services) deceive us into believing that the odds of catching one have improved exponentially. In reality, as our expectations of relational satisfaction have risen, so has the likelihood of disappointment—and with it, the chances that we will keep on compulsively chasing. Of course, this process suits the online dating companies. "[T]he profit models of many online-dating sites are at cross-purposes with clients who are trying to develop long-term commitments," Slater observes. "A permanently paired-off dater, after all, means a lost revenue stream." That's why most of the users on Match.com are return customers, coaxed back into activity by plaintive "How could you leave us?" emails, and the consumer's own relational restlessness. 

Lowering the Bar

Evidence also suggests that even if we do finally commit to someone, the multiplicity of options makes it less likely we'll stay committed. Psychologist Barry Schwarz, author of The Paradox of Choice, argues that "a large array of options may diminish the attractiveness of what people actually choose, the reason being that thinking about the attractions of some of the unchosen options detracts from the pleasure derived from the chosen one."

In 2011, Mark Brooks, a consultant to online dating companies, published the results of an industry survey titled "How Has Internet Dating Changed Society?" The survey responses, from 39 executives, produced the following conclusions:

  • "Internet dating may be partly responsible for a rise in the divorce rates."
  • "Above all, Internet dating has helped people of all ages realize that there's no need to settle for a mediocre relationship."
  • "Low quality, unhappy, and unsatisfying marriages are being destroyed as people drift to Internet dating sites."
  • "The market is hugely more efficient. . . . People expect to—and this will be increasingly the case over time—access people anywhere, anytime, based on complex search requests. . . . Such a feeling of access affects our pursuit of love. . . . [T]he whole world (versus, say, the city we live in) will, increasingly, feel like the market for our partner(s). Our pickiness will probably increase."
  • "Internet dating has made people more disposable."

That's frightening. But online dating is surely not the only cause of commitment-phobia. As Slater points out, gender may also play a role, though "researchers are divided on the question of whether men pursue more 'short-term mates' than women do." Certainly, with young women in the United States much more likely to graduate from college than their male peers, and college graduates much more likely to date other college graduates, men seem to have the luxury (or rather, the curse) of choice.

Then there is the pornography epidemic. It raises (or rather, lowers) the bar on what we expect of a prospective spouse because of its unremitting insistence on physical performance and cosmetic beauty, over and against mental and moral qualities. As Christian men, we may pray unctuously for the Lord to provide a wife of noble character (Proverbs 31:10-31), but our hearts are being continually conditioned to lust after the wife of maximal hotness. "Charm is deceitful," God protests, "and beauty is vain!" But we dismiss him like one of those impertinent pop-ups that gets in the way of what we really want to see.

Devastating Results

The devastating societal results are already being ruefully catalogued. The sexually graphic film Shame (2011) sees a porn-addicted Michael Fassbender sloping from one brief encounter to another. Together in a hotel room with a beautiful woman who believes in monogamy, he is unable to perform. Because his only commitment is to an endless, open-ended lack of commitment, real intimacy eludes him. And by the time the film ends, we're not sure it will ever be regained.

Or take George Clooney in Up in the Air (2009). He plays a character whose aversion to emotional commitment means that, according to his own family, he has essentially ceased to exist. Taken in by the false promises of sexual "freedom," he has withheld commitment for years. And now that he wishes to give it, he's no longer free to do so.

Pointedly, The Velveteen Rabbit appears briefly in the film. It's a children's story about a stuffed toy rabbit who becomes real when he is loved. At one point, the rabbit asks the wise Skin Horse how the process happens.

"It doesn't happen all at once," said the Skin Horse. "You become. It takes a long time. That's why it doesn't happen often to people who break easily, or have sharp edges, or who have to be carefully kept. Generally, by the time you are Real, most of your hair has been loved off, and your eyes drop out and you get loose in the joints and very shabby. But these things don't matter at all, because once you are Real you can't be ugly, except to people who don't understand."

It's a mesmerizing, sad story about how real love—real commitment—inevitably unmakes us. Perhaps that's partly why we're so afraid of it. But the story also explains why that "unmaking" is such a desirable thing.

It's how you become "real."

Our Undoing

Truly committing to another human being will certainly be our undoing. It requires substitutionary sacrifice: your life is subsumed in the quest for the other's contentment. In the case of marriage it means each person forsaking all others, which to the world looks like a very shabby prospect.

But this selfless giving of oneself to another human being holds unique power to make both the lover and the beloved truly beautiful. By losing their lives, they have gained them. But we can only taste this if we commit—and allow other to commit to us.

Committing to love at great cost to ourselves is the most desirable choice we can make in God's universe. He demonstrated this love for us on a tiny hill outside Jerusalem. He made the choice to love self-sacrificially. Forsaking all others, he committed himself to a particular people, at a particular time, in a particular place. Even the living God—powerful, sovereign, utterly free, whose triune nature means that he does not depend on others in order to love and be loved—nevertheless committed himself to love one bride.

Will we trade the deceptive and ever-declining thrills of choice-idolatry for the unique pleasures of commitment? We should do it, and soon. Because even if, by God's grace, our chains fall off, even if our dungeon flames with light, we may be powerless to get up and leave, because our hearts have been crippled. We put off commitment and venerate choice, idly believing that we will commit when we are ready. But when that day finally arrives, we may realize with widening eyes that we're no longer choosing sin. Sin is choosing us. We will have become imprisoned by choice.

And for those of us who have experienced this prison first-hand, isn't it strange when the world describes us as "butterflies"? That is too delicate, too lovely. Brothers and sisters, let me propose a more fitting insect: the moth. Drawn to the light but finally unable to enjoy it. Dulled. Restless. All-consuming.

Church Was Great! Let's Not Talk About It

We've just heard the Word read and proclaimed, sung the praises of our great God, and petitioned him for mercy in our time of need. And then we spend our time afterward talking about last night's movie, the game, the hobby, the state of the nation, or whatever. Anything but the great truths of the gospel we've just heard and by which we're saved. Why do we do this?

"Drive-thru church" doesn't help. We have six other commitments on Sunday, so we aim to get through church as efficiently as possible on the way to the next thing. Some of us have just never thought about having conversations about the sermon (apart from pestering the preacher about something). Others know it's crazy to talk about everything but God, yet they still feel uncomfortable striking up "spiritual" conversations. We've never been in a context where this is normal. Sometimes, perhaps too often, we leave the service with no sense of engaging with God by Word and Spirit, and so we have nothing to say to anyone.

For still more, the underlying problem is our consumer view of church---an unsurprising consequences of "what's in it for me" contemporary Western culture. "Church is put on for me by the professionals and their teams," we assume. With this mindset, engaging in spiritually encouraging conversations certainly won't be on the agenda.

Ironically, those with a serving mindset---the antithesis of consumerism---can also find it difficult to get into "God talk" at church. The busyness of serving can keep us from stopping to encourage others and can let us feel we've done enough by helping to organize things.

Why We Meet

But why should we use our conversations at church to encourage one another in the faith? Because that is the reason why we meet.

But encourage one another daily, as long as it is called Today, so that none of you may be hardened by sin's deceitfulness. (Heb. 3:13)

And let us consider how we may spur one another on toward love and good deeds. Let us not give up meeting together, as some are in the habit of doing, but let us encourage one another—and all the more as you see the Day approaching. (Heb. 10:24-25)

The church gathers God's people to hear his Word, respond in obedience, and use our gifts and abilities to strengthen one another in the faith. All believers are involved in building Christ's church. Therefore, we shouldn't see ourselves merely as part of an organization called "St. Hubert's Church," but as servants of God's people, eager to meet the needs of others even if it means stepping out of our comfort zone.

Not the Only Ones

I love our heritage of expository preaching delivered by godly, studious, articulate pastors. But somehow we've inadvertently communicated that they're the only ones (plus a few others on the stage, perhaps) who do the work of encouraging and building. If that's your assumption, read the New Testament (e.g., 1 Cor. 12-14; 1 Pet. 2) again with an eye toward how the whole body builds itself up, with each part doing its work by speaking gospel truth in love (Eph. 4:15-16).

Perhaps some of you are thinking, I may not talk much about God and what we've learned in the sermon, but I do show love in lots of other ways, through caring for people in need and asking how to pray. But encouraging someone isn't only putting our arms around them and urging them to press on. What gives courage is the truth of the gospel. We see a clear example of this in 1 Thessalonians 4:18: 'Therefore encourage each other with these words." In context, "these words" that encourage are the words of the gospel (1 Thessalonians 4:13-17).

Here's my question for you: Do you come to church expecting God to use you to minister to others, to encourage them in faith, hope, and love through the Word? Are you asking him to provide such opportunities?

What to Ask

So how do we start these encouraging conversations after church? Asking "What did you get out of the sermon?" might work, but often you'll get a blank look or worse. Here are a few suggestions:

  • Pray during the service that God would lead your conversations, and pray for specific people around you.
  • Listen to what God is saying to you through the sermon (or songs, creeds, and so on) and formulate a comment or question to start a conversation. This past week at our church, the sermon was on what it means to praise the Lord, from Psalms 146-150. Since I was thinking about this article (and, I hope, for more godly reasons), I picked out two things to try as conversation-starters after church.
  • With another couple we somehow got into a conversation about their blended family, and I reminded them of God's favor towards the alien, orphans, and widows (Ps. 146). Since the husband is not yet a believer, I was deliberately talking about God's character. I have no idea what effect it had on him.
  • Even if the conversations don't always get off the ground, your enthusiasm for learning the Bible and knowing God will be contagious. And non-Christians will see that church isn't dull and boring but fascinating and life-shattering.
  • These intentional conversations after church will sometimes lead to prayer for one another. Why not stop for a moment and give thanks or petition God for some need?
  • Another way to deepen our fellowship is to ask each other how we came to salvation in Christ. Sometimes we've been in church with people for years without ever learning their story. The other day at church I asked a guy named Phil how he became a Christian, and we discovered God had worked in us in very similar ways as young men. The door is now open to building a friendship with this brother. What a joy!

Family, Not an Audience

The benefits of working at these encouraging conversations go way beyond the few minutes after church. Our gatherings are enriched, and our partnership with one another in the gospel is enhanced. We know each other as God's family, not as anonymous audience members at a performance.

Moreover, I'm convinced we don't "gossip the gospel" with our unbelieving neighbors and friends at least in part because we've never learned to talk about God and our Christian life, even with other Christians. How will we engage unbelievers about God's grace in Christ if we don't talk with our brothers and sisters about these great truths—especially after listening to a sermon together?

If your church gathering doesn't include coffee and refreshments after the service, let me encourage you to consider doing so. You'll set the pattern of staying afterward to minister to others, and, after a while, it will be quite normal.

Too costly? Going deeper in Christian friendship and stirring up one another to love and good deeds? I don't see much cost there.

Building a Better Small Group

Small groups embrace people from all walks of life, in every region of the country, and in communities of every size. Churches have employed the small group model to create opportunities for a greater range and depth of pastoral care and spiritual support in community. And membership in these groups shows no sign of waning. Numerically speaking, more people of faith meet today in small groups than ever. As encouraging as the figures may be however, the quality of this fellowship often leaves something to be desired.

Participants can become too polite, hesitant to delve into each other's lives. These meetings become more of a support group than one where the Spirit-led life is encouraged and challenged. Some grow quite comfortable with the lack of challenge. This may, in part, be due to the second of four worrisome characteristics: biblical illiteracy. Perhaps the casual perusal of Scripture typical of small group meetings has kept participants from understanding the larger story of God's revelation, who he is, and what he wants to do in the world. Individualistic interpretations, then, lead to a third concerning trait of today's small groups: God becomes too small. God becomes one who serves us rather than the one who is worthy of our worship and service. Perceived as less of an external authority and more of an internal presence, he exists to ease life's difficult situations. This picture of God results in a kind of faith and teaching that focuses more on feelings and getting along in life than on humble obedience to or reverence toward a transcendent God. The result? Too little life transformation. This fourth trend will persist so long as the other three characteristics remain. So how can we build a better small group?

Holy Conference

The English Puritans are rarely remembered as being communal, but they were. Their meeting in groups small enough to "afford our doings before men" would be their equivalent to our contemporary small group, but with clear differences. So the rediscovery of the Puritan practice of Holy Conference is relevant and timely. Conference was the type of intentional conversation---sparked by particular questions---that Puritans practiced with one another when meeting together in small numbers.

Biblical literacy and soul care converged. Knowing Scripture was the litmus test for authentic and devoted lives. They deployed this knowledge as pastors conferenced with other pastors. One Puritan pastor described a time of conference with another pastor as a time of remembering God's mercy on their calling and sharing the state of their walks with God and various testimonies of faith. It had become a regular support that brought relief, further knowledge, and growth in godliness. As pastors conferenced with members of their congregations, Richard Baxter noted these leaders became more acquainted with their parishioners, and better knew how "to watch over them . . . . to preach to them . . . to lament for them, and to rejoice for them, and to pray for them."

Believers who gathered and conferenced with other believers grew in faith, knowledge, and love for one another. And as husbands and wives conferenced with each other, it was also their responsibility as parents to conference with their children and others in their household who lived or served there.

Know God and His Word

Key to the exercise of conference is the desire to know God through his Word more fully and to live out his truth. Questions posed in conference could not be answered with quick and pithy responses, because the focus was on God's Word and the soul. They required thought, deep reflection, and transparency---elements key to any flourishing small group. Well-formatted questions applied to a sermon message or Bible passage furthered understanding and application.

Here are a few questions the Puritans found useful in conference, redesigned for our contemporary understanding:

  • What does God want you to know about him? About yourself?
  • For what is the soul thankful?
  • What are the words or actions that demonstrate your soul's love for Christ?
  • What is your soul afraid of God knowing?
  • What stands now between God and your soul?

Consider asking these types of questions and, more importantly, answering them with attentiveness to your own heart and the hearts of others. In good company and conference the goodness of God and the struggles of life meet in loving acceptance, godly direction, and transforming community.

This centuries-old practice, exercised by those who held God's Word in high authority, remedies spiritual drift that loses track of the "true north" of biblical knowledge and spiritual growth. Those who exercised it longed to keep themselves and others within the compass of God's Word. As the Puritans experienced this "kind of paradise," be ready to discover greater depth and meaningful engagement in your conversations and community.