Remembering PaPa

My PaPa died on Thursday. It was his 82nd birthday. Having spent a significant amount of time with him at various points in my life, I wanted to remember and honor him. And the best way I can do that is to do the thing I enjoy, and write about him. These are the 6 lessons I learned from my grandfather, Edward Bird.

He was Subtle yet Strong

As a kid, I always admired my PaPa’s ability to lift giant rocks, move seemingly immovable objects, and work all day long on draining PaPa and Metasks. My hands would blister 15 minutes into a stump removal project, but he would unflinchingly smash away at the roots for hours until the remnants of the tree which we cut down the day before were fully erased. But he never flaunted his strength. You never saw him lifting weights or flexing or bragging about how much he could lift. He would just lift bags of concrete or multiple sheets of drywall without a word. PaPa’s subtle strength taught me that real strength doesn’t come from working the weights in the gym, but from working hard to better the lives of those you love. Those same hands that could fell a tree with a crosscut saw would also gently cradle his grandchildren and great-grandchildren.

He Appreciated the Small Things in Life

Anyone who knew PaPa for any length of time could see that he was essentially a hoarder. My amazement for his massive collection as a child turned to confusion and then suspicion as an adult. But I’ve often thought that there’s something I missed in my estimation of his copiously organized stacks of treasures in the labyrinth of his West Virginia basement. You see, PaPa didn’t collect what we thought of as junk simply because he needed it; he collected his prizes because he saw value in the stuff we see as valueless. He reminded his grandkids to take small bites of their food in order to savor every morsel. I’m pretty sure that he never missed a single sunrise. He took me and my siblings out to collect aluminum cans, teaching me that hard work can be fun and rewarding. He taught me that a dollar saved is a dollar earned as we labored over nail-filled 2×4’s until they were clean and ready to be reused.

He was Passionate about his Beliefs

He was a Christian with an unflinching belief in his God. Some may have found his beliefs as odd or extreme, but he found them reliable and emboldening. He always seemed open to talking about what he PaPa and Lanebelieved. I’d like to think of PaPa’s faith as what supported him through years of loneliness and sickness. His God cared for him on the mountaintops and in the valleys. God strengthened his arms as a younger man caring for his family, and God strengthened his mind as an aging man in hospice care, remembering the word “baby” after we visited him. There’s something attractive about this simple faith. PaPa taught me that there are things worth believing in, even if it makes people uncomfortable.

He Avoided Technology Distractions

PaPa never seemed to struggle overmuch with adapting to new technology, but he had little to no time for innovations that would waste his time. I remember staying at Grammy and PaPa’s West Virginia home one summer. For some time we worked on a tool tote which we built from scratch. I often wanted to pull out the power tools, but he insisted that I learn how to use a handsaw. Then, instead of settling in front of the TV after a hard day of work, PaPa would go out on a walk. To him, walking the railroad tracks or hiking along a busy road brought him far more joy than any TV show ever could. His form of Minecraft was building sheds and toys and raised bed gardens. PaPa taught me to hold technology loosely and to find more meaningful ways to enjoy life.

He Relished Acceptable Risks

I get the feeling that PaPa would find the riskless society in which I’m raising my daughter as not very fun. I remember cutting down a huge tree in the front yard that required that someone pull the rope in the direction we needed it to fall. He was inevitably the one happy to stand in the path of destruction. He even more happily posed me as if I had been crushed by the tree when my mom came out to look. He enjoyed the thrill of taking his grandkids on hikes along a busy highway. And he built us the most incredible rope swing one time. I can hardly imagine my mom’s reaction when she returned home to see her pre-teen children hoisted dozens of feet in the air on the makeshift trapeze. Oh, but it was immeasurably fun. And I think he may have learned this from his dad. My mom told me that her PaPa (my great-grandfather) would shoot across multiple lanes of traffic while announcing, “you can’t live forever!” So the tradition lived on. PaPa taught me that an acceptable amount of risk always seems to pay off in the end.

He Cultivated a Bevy of Skills

We live in an era of specialization. Most of us live our entire lives only learning a single trade. But PaPa and his generation were the supreme generalists. He could ride a bike backwards or draft anEd and Me with PaPa.jpeg architectural or engineering model. He could construct just about anything as long as he was supplied with the proper amount of wood and nails. A veritable panoply of magic tricks came with him on every visit. He taught me how to cut sheetrock like a boss (a skill I did almost by instinct a couple months ago). He made his own cistern. He could build the best fires and lay a pristine pad of concrete. He could cut his own hair and do a little investing on the side. He cooked and canned food, often using food he raised in his carefully composted garden. He read frequently and did everything in life with a winsome attitude that would turn the most recent acquaintance into a friend.

An Observation:

We’re all role models. We teach by our lives what is important and what is unimportant. We all mess up and emphasize the wrong things from time-to-time. PaPa and his culturally unique values are a reminder to me and my generation to reconsider what we esteem as the most important goals in life. Is a safe, single-trade, faithless, grandiose, technology-crammed life really worth living? Or is there something more satisfying to pursue during this fleeting journey?

16 Questions the Guest Preacher Should Ask

I hope these questions are helpful for my friends who are called upon to preach in a new church from time-to-time.

  1. Which service do you want me to preach and when does it start? If there are multiple services, you need to find out which ones you’re expected to cover. When you figure out when the service starts, plan to arrive at least 15-20 minutes early so you have time to greet people, connect your media, get your wireless microphone, and calm your nerves.
  2. Would you like me to attend another service or Sunday School? Some churches would find it helpful if you attended a Sunday School class, but others don’t see it as necessarily helpful. Get a sense of the importance of this meeting, if it exists, and plan accordingly.
  3. Who will be introducing me? This question is especially important if the lead pastor is out of town. You need to know who to especially introduce yourself to and who to be watching for your queue from to go onstage.
  4. What’s the usual order of service? This question not only helps clarify when you’ll be going onstage, but also flags any liturgical anomalies that you may do well to be aware of.
  5. How much time is usually allotted for the sermon? You need to ask about sermon duration so that you can begin shaping your content for the amount of time you’ll have. I often do a practice run to make sure that I’m in the ballpark of the time that I’ve been given. As a guest speaker, I’m pretty sure that it’s a cardinal sin to preach too long. You’ll never get a congregation angry at you for letting them out a few minutes early.
  6. When do you usually finish? This is a slightly different question than the previous one. Sometimes an excited worship leader, other liturgical elements, or an unusual announcement prior to the preaching may eat into your allotted time. You need a method to gauge if this has happened.
  7. Who closes after a guest speaker preaches? How is this done? Some churches always have an altar call. Some churches never do it. Making assumptions here could lead to a major faux pas. The ideal is to be able to hand off the service closing to someone who knows the people and the process.
  8. What Bible version do you typically use? Even if the version is one that you don’t typically use, you’ll gain more rapport with the congregation if you’re quoting the text that most of them have in front of them. This question also needs to be asked early on because it will determine the English version that you’ll “stew” in (read, re-read, memorize, etc.).
  9. Do you typically use projected media? If so, how do I connect to it or where do I need to send material/links? As a guest speaker, you need to be cautious about being reliant on technology. Even if you’ve carefully asked the right questions and prepped your tech, you can still hit an odd hitch as you’re getting set to preach. Remember that you’ve usually got only a limited time to get this right. Have a backup method for deploying your media and, worst case, be capable of delivering your sermon without any technology.
  10. Do you use a portable microphone? If so, where will I get it and will there be someone to show me how it works? This isn’t usually too complicated, but sometimes you may be dealing with some odd mic that doesn’t work normally. Pro tip: even if the sound guy tells you that he’s not going to have your mic hot until you get up to preach, keep it off and remember to turn it on while you’re on your way up to the platform.
  11. How much room is on the podium for a Bible, notes, etc.? Pulpit real estate is at a premium. Some churches have tiny pulpits that are comfortable for the pastor who may preach with different pulpit material than you do. As more and more younger preachers bring iPads and other tech with them onstage, the variety of what a preacher can expect has only broadened.
  12. What do you wear when you preach? And don’t just take a “professional” or “business casual” category answer on this one. People mean different things when they use dress categories. Get a specific answer (i.e., “jeans and a button-up shirt untucked”) and don’t deviate from it.
  13. How would you describe your style of preaching? What have you been preaching on lately? Although you have your own style as a preacher, it is helpful to understand the norm at this church. Maybe if the pastor tends to do exegetical studies of books of the Bible, you could do an exegetical study of a one-off topic? If the pastor has been doing a deep dive in Romans, it may be healthy to do a narrative passage.
  14. What is the congregation like? Young/old, quiet/interactive, new/old Christians, jobs, backgrounds, approximate attendance? Truth preaches anywhere, but it never hurts to understand the audience you’ll be speaking to. Jesus didn’t have to study in order to know the hearts of his listeners, but Paul definitely understood the philosophers on Mars Hill. Every bit of information you get should shape how truth will be presented.
  15. Does your church have a missions statement? You need to know what this church is and isn’t all about. Follow up this question by asking: What are some major red flags of what you don’t want someone to preach about? Are there any practical or theological issues that you think might be important for a guest preacher to know? I try to use questions like this to draw out go/no-go zones. Regardless of how you feel about a church’s hangups or pursuits, it’s not your job to do a drive-by sermon on any of these issues. If there’s an issue that is too big for you to ignore, consider declining the invitation.
  16. Can we meet before I preach in order to get to know each other? Also: How can we follow-up afterward? I think this is the most frequently missed question on the list. Meeting before you speak can help you better understand the heart and philosophy of the pastor. If you’re able to meet on the church property, you can get a feel for the auditorium, platform, pulpit, microphone, etc. Following up gives you a great opportunity for a critique of your preaching and an ongoing relationship with the pastor.

I hope these questions are helpful. I’ve missed a couple of these in some instances and have learned from my mistakes. There are probably a few questions that you shouldn’t ask, the chief of which is anything related to compensation for speaking. Speak out of a desire for ministry and not for money. For some great additional insights on filling pulpits, see Dane Ortlund’s excellent article.

May God bless you as you preach his Word!

Contextualization: Perspective from a Church Planter

[Micah Colbert has served as a church planter in two continents. He’s worked as a missionary in Ghana for 4 years. He currently serves as Lead Pastor of Gospel Life Church, a multi-ethnic, Gospel-centered church plant in Buffalo, NY.]

Throughout your ministry, is there a particular occasion when you had to consciously engage in contextualization in order to get the message across? If so, when?

A conscientious minister of the gospel is always involved in the practice of contextualization in order to communicate his message. Why? Because context determines meaning. If I am not aware of my context, then the message I am seeking to communicate and the hearer’s interpretation of what I am saying may be two dramatically different things.

What are some of the greatest challenges that the missionary faces in doing contextualization?

One of the greatest challenges missionaries face in practicing contextualization is taking the time to thoroughly immerse themselves in the “life context” of the people. This requires a tremendous amount of humility (becoming a learner before taking on the role of a teacher), patience, and a willingness to break out of one’s comfort zone.

What would you say to a missionary who claimed that they didn’t need to contextualize in order to communicate to the target culture?

I would say, “DON’T GO… for the glory of God, the cause of truth, and the good of the people, DON’T GO!!!!”

How should contextualization shape the ministries of American churches and Christians in their cultural contexts?

Being aware of our cultural context enables us to communicate truth in a way that “hits home” for our listeners. People of all generations want to see how God’s eternal truths relate to the daily grind of work, relationships, etc. Ministries that are “out of touch” simply cannot make disciples who penetrate their spheres of influence with the gospel.

The Predicament of Progressive Fundamentalism: The Breaking Points (Part 3)

This third article is written to help individuals and and churches make a marked departure from fundamentalism. Some churches work under the assumption that changing a handful of traditional practices (e.g., new music in their worship, a new translation, more relaxed clothing) signals a marked departure from fundamentalism. And it may indeed demonstrate an incipient form of emergence from the movement. But changing some external practices isn’t tantamount to emergence at all. In this article I’m going to suggest that departure from fundamentalism requires much more. It involves the following actions:

  1. You must let go of the prestige of the power politics of fundamentalism.
  2. You must be willing to enter unfamiliar waters.
  3. You must begin to minister to your community at the expense of allowing the church to be a place for fundamentalists to engage in their weekly stained glass masquerade.
  4. You must forcefully resist legalistic restraints on the liberties of the Body beginning with your leadership.
  5. You must introduce diversity into the church Body beginning with your leadership.
  6. You must preach a full Gospel.

For those of you asking, “why should I bother?”, I’ve written two previous articles on the problems of pursuing fellowship with fundamentalists and the blessings of pursuing relationships with the evangelical community.

You must let go of the prestige of the power politics of fundamentalism.

Fundamentalists look at leadership as power instead of service (cf. Luke 22.25-26). Remaining in the movement and connected to the power-players of the major institutions of fundamentalism is a huge draw for the pastors and leaders who desperately crave the validation of other leaders in the movement. Don’t fall prey to this trap. Yes, when you leave fundamentalism, you’re likely to become a nobody. You’ll be a tiny fish in the great big sea of evangelicalism. You won’t be able to namedrop anymore, and you won’t be invited to speak in conferences and whatnot. Count all your accomplishments and successes in the eyes of those who keep score as nothing but dog poop and cling to Christ with reckless abandon (Phil. 3.8-9).

Here’s what it may look like to let go of the prestige and power politics of fundamentalism:

  1. Don’t be afraid to name names and point out explicit cases of legalism where it poses a danger to the flock.
  2. Stop recommending fundamentalist schools to your high school students.
  3. Stop inviting/accepting fundamentalist speakers or organizations to your church.
  4. Reset: Leave your church and become a congregant/pastor at a non-fundamentalist church.
  5. Pursue an elder polity with a diverse set of leaders that divests the leadership of a strong central individual.
  6. Avoid referencing fundamentalist institutions from the pulpit or in small groups.
  7. Give recognition to and encourage those who don’t fit the fundamentalist mold.
  8. Develop meaningful mentorship and service relationships with Christians outside of fundamentalism.

You must be willing to enter unfamiliar waters.

One man who left fundamentalism years before I did warned me about three challenges in breaking free from fundamentalism. Those challenges are essentially the following: mental, principial, and emotional. The mental break often comes when we recognize that the movement is not truthful–what we’ve been told doesn’t match experience or Scripture. The principial break comes when our consciousness are no longer bound by the same taboos of fundamentalism; we are now practicing the things which we once condemned based on tradition. The emotional break comes when we are no longer comfortable remaining in fundamentalism–the relationships that held us there are gone. I tend to think that these breaks come in different orders for some people. For me, it was mental > principial > emotional, but I’ve heard many say that their experience is more mental > emotional > principial. Also, I think that some of these breaks are harder on some people than for others. For me, the mental and principial breaks came rather painlessly. The emotional break was very difficult.

I mention these kinds of breaks because the emotional break, for me, was tied to the awkwardness of breaking from fundamentalism. If you’ve spent all your life in fundamentalism, you probably don’t know many Christians who aren’t fundamentalist. You’ve had little to no experience in non-fundamentalist churches. Your family may become antagonistic. You’ve got a lot to lose by leaving the movement. You’re officially leaving the fishbowl, and life is going to get weird. Emotional stability because we know what to expect in our church or in our families is a hard thing to lose. Fundamentalists often lose emotional stability because their salaries are dependent on fundamentalist churches or parachurch organizations. Your emotional break from the movement is tied to a break from the financial security provided by your employer.

I know it’s idealistic for a young almost 30-year-old guy to say to you, “pick up and leave all you know, it’ll be worth it!” But I have it on the authority of someone much greater that the best things in life require taking up a cross and following a road of suffering (Matt. 16.24-26). For the fundamentalist, keeping the taboos and regulations isn’t a road of suffering, it’s a path of security and comfort. Jesus is calling you to reject that life. Are you willing to follow Jesus if it means that every relationship in your life is going to get turned upside down (Matt. 10.34-39)?

You must begin to minister to your community at the expense of allowing the church to be a comfortable place for fundamentalists to engage in their weekly stained glass masquerade.

My experience within mainstream and progressive fundamentalism has shown me that one of the greatest weaknesses within the movement is a failure to engage the culture. In these churches, there’s a tension between the desire to evangelize and the desire to make church comfortable to fundamentalists (both inside and out). And ultimately, the pull to make church comfortable to the legalism of fundamentalism seems to win out. All of this catering is done in order to maintain the status quo whereby fundamentalists who still ardently hold to legalistic rules can live their entire lives without the discomfort of any cultural adjustments.

But can you count on more than one hand the number of people who’ve been baptized in your church this year who aren’t church kids? Do the people in the pew have accountability and training on evangelism? Would the surrounding community miss your church if it disappeared this week? Is the church service one that your average 20-something would feel comfortable inviting his lost co-worker to visit? But the constraints of fundamentalist legalism often keep churches from contextualizing in order to reach people with the Gospel. Spiritualized standards on dress and music styles force fundamentalist churches to create their own subculture–a subculture to which the outsider must conform if they wish to join in fellowship. This results in 3 dangerous possibilities: (1) the outsider never comes to the faith because the subculture is too bizarre or oppressive, (2) the outsider comes to faith and feels like a second class citizen because she isn’t familiar with the subculture, or (3) the outsider comes to faith and also adopts the subculture, but is unable to distinguish between the two. Minister to your hurting community at the expense of the fundamentalists’ comfort.

I once knew a family who attended a progressive fundamentalist church and they had two pre-teen boys who were pretty spirited and would get in trouble often. After a number of run-ins, the leadership of the church told the parents that their kids would not be allowed to ride the church bus to activities and were required to pursue outside counseling. The family left the church shortly thereafter. My point here is that even within progressive fundamentalism, if someone doesn’t quite fit or looks a little too messed up, your church has no place for them. If broken people don’t fit in your churches, then you’re doing church wrong. If you only want the cleaned up Christian school kids and not the rough kids from the community, you’ve neglected the “least of these” (Matt. 25.40).

“If an individual had the right haircut, associations, clothing, music and entertainment standards then they were part of the club.  If a child or teen was compliant to the standards of cultural fundamentalism they were welcomed into the fellowship.  If the externals are not ‘correct’ then there is little patience or grace is extended.” – Mitch Nichols

You must forcefully resist legalistic restraints on the liberties of the Body beginning with your leadership.

There’s this idea that is prominent in fundamentalist circles that leadership must hold a higher standard than Scripture in a number of areas. While Jesus comes eating and drinking (Matt. 11.19), the fundamentalist pastor must abstain from alcohol or even the appearance of drinking alcohol. Even progressive fundamentalist pastors who recognize that drinking in moderation isn’t a sin still cater to the taboos of their congregation by hiding their beliefs or practices on the issue. Progressives behave similarly in terms of music and entertainment. In fact, most progressive pastors live in two separate worlds: in public they appear to hold every fundamentalist taboo, but in private they hold to basically none of the fundamentalist taboos. But until fundamentalist churches are ready to start tearing down the wall of legalism at the leadership level, the congregation only feels reaffirmed in their own legalism. Even in progressive churches, it’s common to see the pastoral leadership urge more progressive lay leadership to remain silent about their views on music, alcohol, or politics. I remember being told on several occasions an entire list of theological and practical topics that I couldn’t mention in my teaching in a progressive fundamentalist church. So I stayed silent unless the text addressed the matter explicitly (and even then, I often avoided hitting the issues head-on if possible).

Let me say this to my progressive fundamentalist friends: If your requirements on your pastors and lay teachers in terms of their standards of conduct and expectations of silence on certain issues would exclude even Jesus from serving at your church, you’ve lost track of the Gospel.

I was one of these recipients of forced legalist restraints. After studying Scripture and wrestling with the arguments on the issue, I came to the position that it wasn’t a sin for a Christian to drink alcohol in moderation. On a couple of occasions I spoke with those who were forcing their view on this issue on others and told them that they had no Scriptural ground for doing this. My approach (while in line with Scripture) got me branded as reckless or unbridled. But here’s the irony, throughout the entire time, I never drank alcohol myself (and still never have). One day my wife and I posted anniversary pictures in a fine dining establishment that served our non-alcoholic drinks in stemmed glasses. Months later, the pastor of my progressive fundamentalist church and I were discussing how I could help in the church and he proceeded to mercilessly attack me over this photo for being “insensitive to the consciences” of my fellow church members. He told me that my behavior was “not pastoral” and cast into doubt future opportunities for service in his church or any other church. Eventually the deacons and pastor of the church would tell me that, on a “subjective” basis, future opportunities for ministry had been significantly paired back and they encouraged me to leave the church. But this kind of unbiblical hard line on extra-biblical standards is necessary within the context of fundamentalism if a church wants to retain its position in the movement and avoid provoking any issues with legalists in the church.

There’s an even scarier bit of nonsense that floats around progressive fundamentalist churches, and it runs like this: “if someone is going to be disenfranchised in the church, it needs to be the Gospel-centered crowd, because the legalists complain louder.” I think this perspective likely leads to some of the glacially slow rates at which progressive fundamentalist churches address legalism in the congregation. Instead of moving the church in the right direction while the wind is in their sails, the progressive fundamentalists wait until the momentum has all but died out as they try to make the legalists comfortable. By the time that the progressive fundamentalist churches are ready to make the next move, those who were moving with them have abandoned ship. For many of us, it’s no longer a tenable option to wait another 5-10 years to be part of a healthy church. Pastors: stop putting a Gospel-centered course on hold at the expense of your flock. Both the progressives and the old guard fundamentalists need your leadership in a biblical direction.

Progressive fundamentalists have lines which they feel that they cannot cross due to their seared consciences (1 Tim. 4.1-5). No, these aren’t driven by their interpretation of Scripture, but by the sociological pressure of fundamentalism. Do your next-generation leaders have the freedom to publicly practice their Gospel liberties in your church, or are you running scared of the legalists and then have enforced those restraints on your sheep? Break the cycle! I’m all about telling someone that they probably shouldn’t order a drink when they’re out to dinner with a recovering alcoholic, but if you’re with a fundamentalist, go ahead and order two (both for the fundamentalist). The weaker brother may (but may not always) need to be accommodated (Rom. 14.1-12), but the legalist deserves no quarter (Col. 2.4, 8, 16, 18). Don’t adjust to the climate of the Body on these issues. Lead by example and shut down any possibility of being used as a reason for a congregation’s ongoing legalism.

Some of the legalistic restraints of fundamentalism that need to be addressed and pushed back are:

  1. Not allowing certain Bible translations.
  2. Expecting “Sunday morning best” (often set by the pastor)
  3. Not allowing or shaming women who wear pants to church
  4. Expecting monolithic views on issues such as eschatology and free will/divine sovereignty.
  5. Not allowing cooperation with other evangelical churches or ministries in your area.
  6. Not allowing the use of materials from evangelical writers or ministries in your church.
  7. Expecting full backing of the Republican political agenda
  8. Not allowing believers to openly use alcohol in moderation
  9. Not allowing for music in worship that has been written by evangelicals
  10. Not allowing for stylistic variation in music or worship liturgy
  11. Not allowing for alternate forms of church governance such as elder polity

You must introduce diversity into the church Body beginning with your leadership.

Leadership within fundamentalism is protected like a castle. Any semblance of lay leadership is vigorously defended; pastoral leadership is even more so. If someone doesn’t possess the proper fundamentalist pedigree or maintain the appropriate legalistic standards in public (see above), they’ll only be shut out of ministry at a variety of levels. I would urge the leadership of progressive fundamentalist churches to immediately begin pursuing diversity in the lay and pastoral leadership of your church. Encourage and equip men to teach who haven’t had a background within fundamentalism. Let the church learn from those who’ve been moved by God without sharing in their same linear background. Hire other pastors who have no familiarity with fundamentalism. In doing so, you’re helping to breathe life into your church and to equip the church to take steps to move beyond the gasping and choking movement.

I remember talking with someone who was involved in the hiring process for a position at a progressive fundamentalist church a couple years back. One of the men on the committee told me that they had a perfectly suited candidate, but he had received 100% of his education and mentoring in Southern Baptist circles. The committee member told me that “we discussed this with the pastors and we just don’t feel that the congregation is at the point where it’s ready to hear that Southern Baptists are okay, much less hire one.” That’s the predicament of progressive fundamentalism.

Another quick thought on diversity: diversity also means that leaders in your church are going to come to different opinions from you. This should be welcomed and mutually respectful dialogue should be maintained. A proper implementation of a plurality of elders allows for more than one perspective to be heard in the church. Your fundamentalist background resists this kind of diversity of thought, but the Gospel’s all-nations, slave and free, Jew and Gentile bounds reminds us that the diversity of the body and the diversity of the leadership is not just a good thing but a godly thing (Gal. 3.28).

You must preach a full Gospel.

Fundamentalism thrives where a small gospel is preached. The gospel of fundamentalism is the thing that people believe in order to get saved and to escape hell. The end. As mainstream and progressive fundamentalists have begun to appreciate the Gospel in its fullness over the past decade, there has been a decisive shift toward conservative evangelicalism. The Gospel’s power in the life of the believer is the problems I’ve outlined above. The Gospel shows us the Jesus of humble service rather than Pilate of political power plays. The Gospel shows us that God cares about the outsiders and the hurting even to the point of moving past those who think they’re okay (Matt. 9.12). The Gospel eliminates the need for legalistic standards that we use in order to make ourselves look better than others. The Gospel shows us a God who is passionate about diversity in his Church. A church that gained a deep appreciation for the Gospel will move away from fundamentalism.

So don’t neuter the Gospel. Progressive fundamentalists know that the Gospel strikes hard against the legalism of fundamentalism, and it’s easy to pull the punch of the Gospel in order not to hit legalism with all the power that Scripture allows. Many progressive fundamentalist pastors know that the Bible warrants preaching a full Gospel address of a particular topic. Let’s call this a 10/10. But instead, the preacher will beat around the bush and preach a 7/10 because he knows that he has some in the congregation who will get angry at what the Gospel has to say about their legalism. These 4/10 types will sit for years in the congregations of progressive fundamentalist churches and believe that they appreciate and apply the Gospel, but, in reality, they’ve just been coddled by church leaders who can’t or won’t be bold with the Gospel.

Preaching the Full Gospel

I recently heard of a progressive fundamentalist pastor who was bold enough to preach a message that addressed some of the legalism of fundamentalism explicitly. But a nearby fundamentalist parachurch organization that employs many of the members in the church conveyed to the pastor how disappointed they were about the sermon. A compromise was reached where the sermon available online was modified to leave out the most damning portions of the message in order not to convict the legalists. To me, this is Gospel equivocation. The Apostles would be ashamed of this kind of milquetoast behavior.

Don’t back down. Glorify God by making much of the Gospel. Give your people the hope that is found in the Gospel. Be Gospel Militant!

The Predicament of Progressive Fundamentalism: The Benefits of Leaving (Part 2)

Previously, I outlined some of my the problems with fundamentalism and offered a plea to my progressive fundamentalist brothers, but I didn’t want to just end there. With any journey out of something, you are also moving toward something else. As I’ve moved away from fundamentalism, it isn’t because I’m angry or merely disillusioned with the movement. Yeah, I’ve been kicked in the chops a time or ten by fundamentalist leaders. But I’m not leaving because of that. In fact, I was dead set on staying and getting busted on for the rest of my life until God showed me that not only did the fundamentalists not want me, but that I needed what my evangelical brothers and sisters had to offer.

So this post was only supposed to list 5 benefits, but after some of the comments on my previous post, I’ve thrown in an extra one for good measure. Here we go:

You will grow spiritually as a result of your substantial interaction with your evangelical brothers and sisters.

Fundamentalism tends to skew either toward an intellectual dryness or an emotional vapidity. In spending time with my evangelical brothers, I’ve found that truth and love tend to work more in equal parts. Having been more familiar with the cold intellectualism of fundamentalism, I’ve rediscovered an “affective” dimension of my faith even while interacting with academics in an evangelical seminary. In my experience, evangelicals do a far better job expressing love, engaging in humble service, and enjoying the work of the Holy Spirit in their worship and growth in sanctification than I’ve seen in fundamentalist circles. There are exceptions in both cases, but this has been the norm from my experience. All but a couple of my fundamentalist seminary professors seemed to have to flip a switch to transition from teaching theology or Greek to talking about pastoral implications of the doctrine or text. In my evangelical seminary experience, doctrine and life were more closely intertwined. I’ll never forget the very emotional moments in class when my professors would tear up as they shared how the text had impacted their lives.

From evangelicals I’m learning that love means more than just being nice to those who are nice to you. It means investing in the lives of others. From evangelicals I’m learning that joy means more than a smile when they pass you in church. It means delighting in Jesus and his people even when that doesn’t seem logical.  From evangelicals I’m learning that peace means more than avoiding open hostility. It means leaving your gift at the altar until the relationship is made right. You’ll grow in these basic Christian characteristics (Rom. 14.17; 15.13; Gal. 5.22) by seeking out your evangelical brothers and sisters.

Another area of growth will be clearer recognition of your own pride and legalism. As long as you remain comfortably within the fishbowl of fundamentalism, you won’t have to look far in order to find someone more legalistic than yourself. But once you start connecting wholeheartedly with your evangelical brothers and sisters, you’ll suddenly discover the legalistic bent of your own heart and the desperate need of your congregation in this area. I once tried to explain to a leader in a progressive fundamentalist church that legalism still existed in his church. I’ll never forget his blank look as he replied, “what legalism?” He insisted on pointing out how far the church had come and how different they were from other fundamentalists, but I urged that he consider that legalism is a bent of the heart (my own included) and could never be eradicated. So when I followed with the question, “so you would say that no one in your church struggles with legalism?”, his reply was simply: “no.” Remain in fundamentalism and you’ll be like a fish that doesn’t know that it’s wet.

So it’s simple: you and your church have much to gain by interacting more deeply with these brothers and sisters.

“Christians have no right to reject from their fellowship those whom God himself has accepted.” – Doug Moo

You will discover helpful viewpoints on issues that you may not have considered.

Fundamentalism suffers a great loss because of its sectarian disconnectedness from the rest of Christianity. I recently read an excellent DMin thesis from a fundamentalist seminarian who went to great lengths to convince his fundamentalist brothers that they were actually missing out on an excellent method for discipleship by not adopting small group ministry models. He saw one of his substantial hurdles in this thesis as the unwillingness of fundamentalists to adopt a practice that didn’t seem to originate in-house, as it were (81-83, 90-92).

But I think ministry models are only the beginning. While fundamentalists are often conversant with published knowledge in the evangelical community, their awareness of challenges and approaches on major issues (e.g., biblical approaches to same sex attraction, mandatory reporting, etc.) often woefully lags far behind. Growing up in fundamentalist circles, we were simpy told that homosexuality was a sin (it was often implied that it was a worse sin than others) and laws against same-sex marriage were championed as a means to keep homosexual sin at bay. So needless to say, I was woefully unequipped to speak with a friend who came to me and said: “I’m attracted to other guys; am I a Christian?” Evangelicals have a far better track record of approaching issues with same sex attraction and homosexuality both in personal discussions and political confrontations.

For another example, most fundamentalist churches (with only a few exceptions) simply don’t disciple well. Many from a fundamentalist background can identify with this statement:

“I personally received no follow up or discipleship after making my profession of faith.” – Mitch Nichols

Now we could argue that maybe evangelicals have an equal problem with discipleship, but I’ve personally seen consistent and concerted efforts toward discipleship in evangelical ministries, the likes of which I’ve never seen in fundamentalism. And if making disciples is what Jesus called us to do, then we need the benefit of learning from those who are fulfilling the Great Commission (Matt. 28.19). Frankly in areas such as discipleship, you and your church have much to lose by failing to interact with your brothers and sisters.

You will experience the freedom to engage your culture with truth in fresh ways.

Whether you are conscious of it or not, your fundamentalist baggage keeps you from freely engaging with your culture in lots of non-syncretistic ways. Just take a moment to look at your church’s Great Commission efforts. It’s either not happening or largely happening in culturally insensitive ways (e.g., knocking on doors). Evangelicals have, for years, been evangelizing postmoderns and those from post-Christian cultures. You have much to gain by learning from them.

In fundamentalist settings (although not exclusively reserved to fundamentalists), contextualization is rarely taught and both the results and practice of contextualization are often feared. And I think I know why. I remember sitting in a class under Dr. David Beale at Bob Jones Seminary when he drew parallels between various movements during the Reformation and H. Richard Niebuhr’s categories of Christ and Culture. I remember vividly the feeling of surprise that hit me: “you mean there are systematically thought-out methods of engaging with culture besides just creating our own subculture and hiding in it?!?” I was blown away. Over the following months I began pouring myself into studying contextualization, transitioned to another seminary, and gained fresh opportunities to engage with those who were contextualizing in a biblical way. I’d been looking for thoughtful, thoroughgoing, biblical ways to interact with my culture similar to those used by Christ and the Apostles. Fundamentalism doesn’t provide that, can’t provide that. The evangelical community engages with the culture in multiple ways (see Keller, Center Church) and not just the “against culture” approach modeled by fundamentalism.

You’ll be able to know that you did your best to point the next generation to Jesus and not to your subculture.

Countless thousands of kids growing up in fundamentalism have wanted nothing to do with Christianity after interacting with the pride and lack of love that pulses through the movement. All it takes is an awakening to the fact that the regulations we’re given don’t match up with reality and Scripture, and the whole system comes crumbling down. And for some, the frame of Christianity or orthodoxy comes down along with the facade of the fundamentalist movement. I’m not saying that your kids won’t leave the church if you leave fundamentalism. That’s been happening for decades. But it’s one thing to see your kids leave the church because they’ve been confronted by the Gospel and they don’t want it. It’s another thing to see them leave because of the stuff you’ve added to the Gospel.

I’ve watched all 3 of my siblings struggle with their faith in the subculture of fundamentalism. I’ve wrestled with my own faith and found myself defeated and questioning whether or not it was worth going on living. Yeah. The oppression and isolation of fundamentalism immobilizes and sucks the life out of your kids. The Gospel does the exact opposite. Ditch fundamentalism and give your kids the Gospel. Clear the clutter that will keep your kids from seeing Jesus.

When I got well-nigh excommunicated (to me, placing a cap on the degree to which a lay servant in the church is allowed to use his gifts is equivalent to excommunication if I am right that gifting = responsibility to serve) from my progressive fundamentalist church for “subjective” and non-doctrinal and non-ethical reasons (read: I was found lacking in fundamentalist sensibilities), I was faced with a decision. Do I try to find another progressive fundamentalist church, spend years gaining another congregation’s trust, continue to live my life in a way that keeps the legalists happy, and still risk making these progressive fundamentalists unhappy too, or do I go ahead and pull out of the movement entirely? The one thing that made me go with the latter option was my daughter. I saw her bouncing around on the living room floor, loving life and bursting with energy. The last thing I wanted her to do is to grow up with the dark struggles that I endured under fundamentalism. I want her to grow up watching her mommy and daddy praising Jesus and worshipping with people who are looking for the best in her. I want her faith to be a joy and not a burden. So I left fundamentalism. And you should too.

You and your congregation will be able to enjoy the freedoms that they have in Christ instead of enduring the bonds of legalism.

If you’ve begun to grasp the implications of the Gospel, you’re probably acutely aware of a bevy of personal life choices that you’re not free to discuss in private or on social media. You make dozens of decisions a day based on what will avoid raising the ire of the legalists. You encourage others in the church to do the same for the sake of unity. You’re constantly trying not to step on landmines of the fundamentalists–landmines that are largely preoccupied with things of earth (Phil. 3.19). Yes, ironically, fundamentalists seem preoccupied with separation from the world, but instead can’t stop talking about the things of earth: don’t wear, don’t drink, don’t listen. But this isn’t what Jesus saved you and your church to…not do(?). The motions that the legalists want you to go through aren’t necessary to keep them from slipping into sin; they’re yokes of slavery (Gal. 5.1). Their regulations won’t even overcome the power of the flesh, as the guardrail premise suggests (Col. 2.23). The legalist who seeks to enforce their rules on the people in your congregation deserves to hear a resounding “NO!” Breaking from the demands of fundamentalism allows you to stand with confidence and resist the fundamentalists’ extra-biblical militancy with the authority of Scripture (Col. 2.20).

“For me to draw dividing lines that He has not drawn grieves Him, hurts the body of Christ, and hinders the work of the Great Commission.” – Matt Olson

You will be able to speak truth without fear.

Pastors all have their concerns when they step into the pulpit regarding what they should say or not to say. But progressive fundamentalist pastors maintain an additional set of concerns when they step into the pulpit. You know that if you’re preaching through Colossians 2, for example, you’re going to remain a little coy about exactly what Paul was condemning when he spoke about those who tried to enforce rules on “eating and drinking” (v. 16). Right now you’re inhibited from speaking with all the force of the Apostle when he passionately lashed out against the legalists in defense of the Galatian believers (5.12). Gain the freedom to speak loudly where the Bible does.

To understand this issue at an individual level:

“Only in recent years has the movement begrudgingly acknowledged that it needs people like me, and seeks my support, my money and my time.  But it still only wants me on its own terms and that includes my silent acquiescence, and that is a price that the Gospel does not demand.”  – Mitch Nichols

Are you willing to continue to pay the price of silence? I’m not. I remember a time about 4 years ago when I heard the following statement from a fundamentalist leader:

“There’s a basic fallacy that is quite prevalent today in the matter of the worship of fundamental Bible believing people. The fallacy is this: it’s all about the gospel. That’s a fallacy. All kinds of compromise can come into the church under that false…premise.” – Bob Jones III

I posted that quote on my Facebook with no comment for or against. Within a few hours, my progressive fundamentalist pastor called me asking that I pull the quote down. He told me that citing that statement was tantamount to calling out this leader and that calling out a local Christian leader would absolutely jeopardize my future ministry. So I immediately deleted my post. I gave them my silence. Now it’s not that my pastor thought Bob Jones III was right; in fact, he agreed that the man was dead wrong. But progressive fundamentalists have to play the politics game with fundamentalism and aren’t allowed to directly call out the broken theology and practice of the movement.

When you break from fundamentalism, you’ll be able to speak out and protect the sheep in the way the Bible calls us to.  And that’s why you’re reading this post today.

Tomorrow I’ll discuss some of the breaking points (although I’m now non-committal on exactly how many points there will be) from fundamentalism as people and churches make the move toward post-fundamentalism.

The Predicament of Progressive Fundamentalism: Intro (Part 1)

Defining Fundamentalism

Christians who label themselves “fundamentalist” come in all shapes and sizes. When some hear this term, they pejoratively associate it with all Christians with more “conservative” positions than they themselves hold. But the way I’m using the term here is different. I’m using it of a particular segment of people who are part of a particular sociological movement within conservative Christianity. This movement claims a heritage that stems from the fundamentalist-modernist controversy in the early portion of the 20th century, but has, in reality, abandoned its historical roots in pursuing theological conservatism (Beale, In Pursuit of Purity, 5 – “Historic fundamentalism has changed.”). Today fundamentalism pursues cultural conservatism (conserving elements of seemingly holier bygone eras) and has added a singular approach to doctrinal error (distanced separatism).  But in reality, the conservative evangelicals from whom they have separated are the true fundamentalists, waging battle royal for the faith against liberalism and the far left of evangelicalism. They are the front line of infantrymen. Fundamentalists are the artillery troops who conveniently find themselves huddled miles from the fight. And instead of dropping shells on the enemy, they safely lob shells at their own front line troops. I say “safely,” because they rarely/never receive a return volley, but, rather, kind accolades. I think this is for two reasons: (1) they have no substantive relationship with evangelicals, and (2) evangelicals have legitimate issues that they’re battling against rather than the groundless critiques of the fundamentalists.

The Problem of Fundamentalism

The problem of fundamentalism is visible at a foundational level. The movement’s pursuit of separatism in an attempt to reach the highest ground of Christianity has been the path that has placed fundamentalism on the cliff. This spirit has been helpfully and powerfully critiqued by Phil Johnson (see “Dead Right” Part 1 and Part 2). Another excellent critique on sound biblical grounds comes from my friend and colleague Stan McCune. I’ll add a little to the already solid argument against fundamentalism as I set up my plea to progressive fundamentalists.

Why Distanced Separation is a Problem

I really have no simpler argument on why the fundamentalist preoccupation with separation is a problem than to point to the Pharisees. Most of you who’ve been raised in fundamentalism, like me, are already rolling your eyes. You don’t get the connection. Here it is: the word “Pharisee” is Aramiaic for “Separate Ones.” And for whom did Jesus reserve his strongest, loudest, and longest critiques during his ministry? Was it the liberal Sadducees?  Was it the corrupt politicians? Was it the sinful prostitutes and murderers? Nope, nope, and nope. It was the Pharisees. Separate ones: Jesus is pointing at you.

An Example of the Problem: Broken Scholarship

One recently noted result of the fundamentalist separatism is that fundamentalist scholarship, at its best, is intentionally not currently contributing to the scholarly community and is even fearful of publishing with reputable evangelical publishing houses. And I firmly believe that they’ll continue in this insular vein of academics because it’s rooted in the very core of what fundamentalism is all about–separatism. As the dean of a fundamentalist seminary once wrote me:

“Our purpose in our PhD programs is to train men for academic leadership [in] fundamentalist, separatist ministries, not in broader evangelicalism, so we are not much concerned about their responses to us and whether their doors are opened or closed.”

Another Example of the Problem: Fear of Evangelical Scholarship

This broken form of separatism is exemplified by my interaction with one of the upper echelon leaders at Bob Jones University (probably referred to as a “mainstream” fundamentalist organization). I asked him about connecting with churches in the movement and he didn’t even bother asking about my theology; he immediately told me:

“With all due respect, you’ve sought out seminary training outside of fundamentalism, and so you frankly have no place in fundamentalism. I couldn’t recommend you to fundamentalist churches with your kind of background.”

Rather than valuing those who’ve existed outside of their fishbowl, fundamentalists immediately slander, mark, and avoid those who aren’t fully inbred within the movement. This has been blatantly apparent to me since my first visit to my regional ETS meeting.

The Obvious Problem: Hyper-Fundamentalism

I’d like to briefly dive into the fishbowl of fundamentalism in order to broaden our perspective of what’s wrong with fundamentalism. The much maligned hyper-fundamentalist is the go-to bogey man of fundamentalism. A self-identified fundamentalist once described this person as maintaining some or all of the following eight characteristics (adapted from Kevin Bauder in Four Views on the Spectrum of Evangelicalism, 43-44):

  1. His loyalty to an organization, movement or leader is unquestioning.
  2. His stance on extra-biblical or anti-biblical issues is militant.
  3. He views any form of association with another believer as full endorsement of even their errors.
  4. He is unable to receive criticism.
  5. He views academia and Christian intellectuals in a negative light.
  6. He holds nonessentials as tests of fellowship.
  7. He sees militant political action as essential.
  8. He practices double standards in his personal ethics.

Bauder sees these behaviors as indicative of the most extreme wing of the movement (FVSE, 44), but those who’ve had thoroughgoing interaction with the movement would likely see elements of this behavior more widespread–behavior which breeds easily in a culture which prizes distanced separatism from the rest of Christianity.

“You may be thinking that I am pointing to a discomfort with hyper-fundamentalism, and in some cases that is true.  However, the subculture as a whole seems to blur the Gospel and even at times consciously or unconsciously attempts to add to it.”  – Mitch Nichols

Why the Hyper-Fundamentalist Problem isn’t Going Away

Part of the fundamentalist’s inability to see the scope of their problem is rooted in their sectarian mindset. By remaining largely within the confines of their own movement, they don’t see their own pride or legalism because they’re constantly comparing themselves to the behaviors of the more radicalized fundamentalist. The insular and sectarian tendencies of the movement ensure that hyper-fundamentalist tendencies are allowed to grow and thrive because no fundamentalist has to look far to find someone more “hyper” than themselves.

In spite of the fact that the characteristics of hyper-fundamentalism which Bauder defines permeate more of the movement than I think Bauder can admit, I do agree that there is a more moderate segment of the movement (for a more extensive interaction with the work, see my review here). And I also agree with him that this segment of fundamentalism is rapidly diminishing (FVSE, 46) in favor of either the radicalized extreme of the movement or a more progressive brand of fundamentalism that appreciates more of what their conservative evangelical brothers are doing (FVSE, 45). It’s this progressive wing of fundamentalism that I’ve been involved with for the past 6 years in particular, and my article is aimed at addressing some of the issues in this portion of the movement.

The Predicament of the Progressive Fundamentalist

Yes, by comparison, the progressive fundamentalist seems like a less abrasive kind of fundamentalism, but there are some major challenges with this segment of fundamentalism. From my perspective, in a taxonomy of fundamentalism from hyper to mainstream to progressive (some prefer “old-time”, “traditional”, and “historic” as labels that slightly overlap what I’m aiming for here), progressive fundamentalism can be bifurcated into divergent fundamentalists and emerging fundamentalists. Divergent fundamentalists accept some theological or practical outliers from mainstream fundamentalists (e.g., use of “sanctified” CCM or willingness to study at evangelical institutions), but still stand resolutely committed to remaining embedded in the fundamentalist movement. On the other hand, emerging fundamentalists accept both the theological and practical outliers from mainstream fundamentalism, but (in contrast to divergent fundamentalists) are decisively and inevitably headed out of the fundamentalist movement and desire renewed fellowship with conservative evangelicals. A church or pastor would be considered post-fundamentalist after they have finished parting ways (often a result rather than an intention) with the movement of fundamentalism and its unbiblical practices and have begun substantial new mutual relationships with the broader conservative evangelical community.

I think that most progressive fundamentalists would agree with me that fundamentalism is a deeply flawed movement. Most progressive fundamentalists have begun to deeply value the Gospel’s role in their sanctification and now recognize the legalistic prohibitions that fundamentalism places on the leadership and congregants in their churches. Most progressive fundamentalists (and even hyper and moderate fundamentalists) see problems, but do they see the solution? They’ve seen the issues for at least a decade now. But who’s willing to do what needs to be done for the sake of their own souls and for the souls in their care? Or will progressive fundamentalists continue to sit on the fence while they acclimatize to their “safe” forms of legalism and pride on the fringe of a toxic movement? There are a few in the movement who recognize the problems and are fighting to retain the next generation of leaders, but they presume (1) that reform is actually possible and (2) that the value of remaining in the movement is somehow greater than leaving it. They tell us that the their movement is not on sinking sand, but that the issues we’re seeing are the mere foibles of a few–problems with the edifice and not the foundation of the movement (McLachlan, Reclaiming Authentic Fundamentalism, 3-4). But I would strongly contend (1) that reform is not broadly welcomed (even hotly resisted) even in the “moderate” wing of the movement and (2) that the dangers of remaining in the movement are far worse than leaving it (I’ll get to that soon). And I think that my generation sees these two points acutely. In our experience, fundamentalism has only doubled down and pushed us out. The divergence and emergence of fundamentalists has driven the rhetoric of hyper and mainstream fundamentalists into a furious frenzy. They don’t want you and your efforts to reclaim or reform the movement.

A Plea to Progressive Fundamentalism

My plea to my conflicted progressive fundamentalist brothers is to immediately and decisively pursue full fellowship with your evangelical brothers at the expense of relationships within the broken fundamentalist movement. The movement is radicalizing toward hyper-fundamentalism and diminishing in the middle, and you’re in the danger of maintaining sole or primary fellowship with believers who have a radically inferior view of the Gospel, which could tempt you to become dormant in your pursuit of the Gospel and proud of your standing. I plead with divergent fundamentalists to begin emerging from the movement. I plead with emerging fundamentalists to stay the course and become post-fundamentalist. You need the benefit of Gospel-centered fellowship and the removal of fundamentalist restraints on your church and people. You need to leave the unbiblical movement behind you for the sake of your own spiritual health.

The “moderate” fundamentalists scorn your position as a reckless experiment, from which you will return groveling in hopes of acceptance back into the fundamentalist network.

“Ridicule from the New Fundamentalists is not at all surprising, but most of our friends are keeping their head down hoping all this will pass over. In five years you will hear a large collective ‘Oops’ after we have lost an entire generation of our preacher boys.” – Fundamentalist Pastor quoted approvingly by Rick Arrowood

Surprisingly, I’m going to tell you that these fundamentalists are partly right. If you see progressive fundamentalism as an end in and of itself, if you think that you can carve out a safe existence on the fringe of fundamentalism (i.e., becoming a clan of “divergent” fundamentalists), you’re grossly mistaken. Your church and organization will dwindle out of existence by attrition; those who are still enamored with separatism will leave, and those who you’ve shepherded toward the Gospel will continue moving while your church slams on the brakes to avoid leaving the movement. Your personal growth in the Gospel will be hindered as you continue to exemplify the legalistic constraints of fundamentalism.

But here’s where I hope the fundamentalists are dead wrong: I believe that “emerging” fundamentalists truly don’t intend to stay in the fringes. They rightly want to pursue full fellowship with conservative evangelicalism even if it results in the loss of fundamentalist connections. And I hope to urge these believers to take the next step in this awesome journey. In the next two articles, I will offer 5 [edit: now 6] benefits in letting go of fundamentalism and 5 [edit: now 6] breaking points you need to push through as you and your church leave fundamentalism.

5 Questions We Ask about Trials (And How Jeremiah Answers them)

“Everything I had hoped for is lost!” Have you ever felt like you’re just running on fumes? Do the trials you’re going through this week make you feel like you’re in the middle of a desert and you just drank the last drop of water from your water bottle? If you’re in the middle of a trial, you can probably resonate with these mournful words from Lamentations 3.18.

Maybe you’re on the sad long road toward divorce. You’ve done everything you can think of to resolve the problem, but it just seems inevitable.

Maybe you watch as your mother fights a protracted battle with cancer. Has God just walked out on you and your family?

Maybe you’ve struggled for years with depression and suicidal thoughts. No therapy or drugs or prayer seems to be helping.

Maybe you’ve been slandered by friends at school or at work or at church and they’ve dragged your name through the mud. You feel like trash right now and you just want to disappear.

“Everything I had hoped for is lost!” You get it. And you’re asking the tough questions that come with this place in life. Jeremiah seems to have been asking those questions too. In Lamentations 3, we get a peek behind the curtain on the answers to those questions. Jeremiah the prophet is writing here after his whole country has been destroyed and his friends and family have been taken captive. Yes, it was because many in the nation kept sinning against God, but this didn’t take away the hurt. What a devastating time for this prophet — everywhere he looks there’s pain and trial. So he laments; he cries out to God. Everything has been taken away from him. It’s a nightmare that he can’t wake up from. He keeps pinching himself and saying, “just let me wake up and this all be over. Please, oh please!”

In Jeremiah’s pain we begin to see answers to these common questions we ask when we’re in trials:

How do I re-engage with God when I’ve totally lost hope?

This is where I’ve found myself time and again over the past month or so. When so many people you’ve ministered to and alongside suddenly turn against you and you feel hurt and discouraged, you know that you need God. But where do you start? God feels distant, mean, or uncaring. You feel like you can’t just pick up where you’ve left off with him. Things were different then. Now you’ve got this insurmountable and unavoidable pain in your life. And you’ve got to figure out how to make sense out of what’s happened and re-engage with God. Jeremiah re-engages with God in two ways.

First, we must overlay our grief with God. We’re not called to ignore our grief. Jeremiah thinks of his grief like a deer which has been shot in the guts (Lam. 3.13). It reminds him of the nastiest thing he’s ever tasted (19). He even goes back to discussing his grief (c. 4). We’re supposed to be brutally honest about it. We need to talk about it. But we must place God over top of it. Think of those science books for children that had plastic overlays of the digestive or circulatory systems which could be placed over a picture of a person. I think that a lot of times, we look at God as a separate paper page. Either we turn to God and forget our grief, or turn to grief and forget God. But God and grief are meant to work together. In the moments of our greatest grief, God is there. The Gospel shows us this at the cross. God and grief play well together because he knows what grief is all about. One could even say that he is acquainted with it (Isa. 53.3).

Second, we must rediscover God. Often it’s in the times of darkest trials that when we begin to see the person of our God with greater clarity. His love is steadfast, his mercies are endless, his faithfulness (or, reliability) is great (22-23). As you find who God really is you will find hope. Our trials show us that God isn’t just the ignorant grandfather in the sky; we want him to care about sin and injustice and to right the wrongs. Our trials show us that God isn’t the angry policeman in the sky; only when everything else is stripped away can we see the care and love of our Heavenly Father. The Gospel shows us God is a God of justice who won’t let sin slide, but that he’s a God of compassion and mercy who took the penalty of sin on himself.

Will I be able to make it another day?

If you’ve been there, you’ll never forget the feeling. If you’ve ever run out of energy to take another step or if you’ve ever felt like suicide could be a viable option, you’ve been there. But there’s hope. Jeremiah shares your pain and reminds us of a powerful truth.

Remember that each day will have its own challenges (Matt. 6.34 – “Therefore do not worry about tomorrow, for tomorrow will worry about itself. Each day has enough trouble of its own.”), but Jeremiah tells us that each day will have its own grace (Lam. 3.23a). Now the prophet doesn’t mean that God becomes different. What he’s saying is that our trials allow us to see fresh expressions of God’s mercy. You’ll see dimensions of his love tomorrow that you’ve never seen before in your life. You’ll screw up and need fresh opportunities for God’s grace.

But God gives us this grace day by day. This means that we can’t just ask for grace and coast for a month. We need to rely on him every day. It also means that there will come times when you feel like you’ve hit the wall and can’t make it any further. You’ll feel like your resources are exhausted. And then, like manna for the people of Israel, a new day comes along with fresh mercies. As you hear the alarm ring on Monday morning, your alarm isn’t the siren for the beginning of the Monday morning blues, but a signal for a fresh day of God’s mercies!

Where should I turn after I’ve lost so much?

Jeremiah tells us that there’s a treasure that we’ve overlooked (24). It reminds me of a time early in my married life when I was working for just over minimum wage and I could barely keep up with the bills each week. After a particularly stressful week when we’d paid for groceries on the credit card, I checked the mailbox that Sunday and found a letter that had likely been in the box for most of the week. It was my tax refund check. I’d been full of anxiety and worry all week long, but there’d been a check in the mailbox the whole time. I think we treat Jesus like this a lot too. Jesus is there to address your anxieties and worries, but yet we never bother to look for him until we’re in a bind. So God uses trials to show us that he’s all we ever need.

Let your newfound treasure renew your hope. With Jesus, you have everything; without Jesus, you have nothing. You may have lost your home or job, but no one can take Jesus away from you. Your husband may leave you, but Jesus will never leave you. Jesus is your everlasting portion when everything else is in limbo.

How am I supposed to respond?

Responses in the middle of a trial aren’t easy. I’ve heard it said that trials bring out what’s really inside of people. I’m not entirely certain of this, but I do know that trials force us to wrestle with unique situations that call for unusual responses. Often when everything falls to pieces, it’s hard to know whether your responses are right or wrong. A mix of emotion and spiritual struggle often result in actions that seem best at the time. Nothing’s simple. People that are on the outside of your trial looking in will be Monday morning quarterbacks about how you should’ve reacted to the suffering. But I like to think that God isn’t like that. Instead of standing with his arms crossed in the distance, he’s running full steam toward us, giving us every grace for every sin, every wrong response. But Jeremiah does give us some ideas on how to respond.

Responding to God

Jeremiah tells us that our response to God should be one of trust. Trust his goodness (25). He isn’t just able to bring you out of this trial whole. He wants to bring you out. Trust in his coming deliverance (26). He doesn’t work on our timetable, but this doesn’t mean that he isn’t working to deliver you. Trust in his sovereignty (27). The process and timing of our suffering has a maturing effect. God allows trials in our lives at particular times in order to prepare us for what’s next.

Responding to Others

Our response to others needs to be humble. Don’t complain about your trial (28). If you complain, you’ll just draw attention away from what God’s doing and place all the attention on yourself. Don’t be proud (29). Be willing and able to admit wrong. Show grace to those who’ve hurt you. Don’t seek revenge (30). Let God right your wrong. Let him raise up people who will advocate for you.

Finding Hope to Respond

But how on earth are we supposed to react like this? I don’t know about you, but this is a difficult calling. Frankly, I tend to be the type who’d love nothing more than to open a can of whoop-[rear] on those who’ve hurt me. But I’m enabled to respond appropriately when I recognize three truths about God. God has greater things in store for me ahead (31). I’ll lash out or walk away from God if I lose hold of this confidence. And this confidence in a future hope is driven by another truth about God. God is absolutely compassionate toward me (32). I can endure the most uncompassionate snarks from fellow-believers so long as I know that God’s compassionate arm is there to hug me when I cry, support me when I fall, and defend me when I’m attacked. This is my God. He’s so compassionate that Jeremiah says a third incredible thing about God. God doesn’t want us to suffer (33). Suffering is related to the fall, and the fall was not what God wanted for his people. He wanted so much better for us. And, guess what? God went to every length to ensure that your suffering will come to an end. One day our suffering will be glory because of this truth–God doesn’t send suffering on his people from his heart.

But what about the injustices that have been done?

Jeremiah isn’t ignorant of the real injustices that have happened. Just because God cares about our suffering doesn’t mean that he overlooks the injustices that have happened to us. To those who’ve wronged us (and to the cry for justice in our hearts) Jeremiah reminds us of 3 truths.

  1. Don’t forget that God is watching (34-35). My favorite line from the Bourne series is when in the middle of the manhunt, Jason Bourne calls the CIA agent who’s hunting him. Watching her from within the obvious easy range of his lethal abilities, he tells her: “Get some rest Pam, you look tired.” In a single instant, the agents’ entire perspective on their situation shifts because they’ve become aware that one who holds their life in his hands has them in his sights. But I, personally, would rather be in Bourne’s crosshairs than in God’s (Matt. 10.28). Take comfort or fear in the fact that those who unjustly bring trials into the life of the believer do not go unnoticed by God Almighty.
  2. Don’t forget that God is judge (35 – “Most High”). God is the one who has the prerogative to right the wrongs. Human courts of justice can be perverted. Even the God-given method of conflict resolution in the church can be turned on its head. But God is the Supreme Court of the Universe. And it’s his verdict that really counts. Your boss’ harsh review of you isn’t the final word. That boy at school who humiliated you doesn’t have the final word. Those Christians who’ve attacked you don’t have the final word. God does.
  3. Don’t forget that God angry with injustice (36). Those who have a position of influence and use it to hurt or harm don’t just flip the lever of God’s justice, they unleash the angry arm of God’s wrath. And deep down we really believe that this makes sense. If there’s a God, he needs to be ticked when the killer goes free because he’s got the right skin color. If there’s a God, he needs to look with fury on those who kill children or those who make themselves rich on the suffering of others. If there’s a God, he must be angry with those who abuse children and traffic women. The fact is that deep down we really want a just God for every abuse and sin in the world except our own.

The Gospel teaches us that God has seen us in the crosshairs of his wrath, but that he turned the anger of his justice on his own Son so that we might not only escape, but that we stand forever as righteous in the sight of the Most High God.