The Wisdom in Studying Animals

Sheep pictureSometimes, wisdom for the afflicted saints is to go to the zoo.

How’s that for some reformed biblical counsel.

And I’m not joking, just in case you’re wondering. Sometimes, the best counsel for those struggling to endure some severe trials really is to take some time to learn about animals.

You won’t find from the Association of Certified Biblical Counselors’ recommended resources list, I guarantee. But I assure you that my thesis above is consistent with biblical wisdom, because I discovered it from a wisdom book of the Bible. Specifically, I unearthed it from the book of Job. Specifically, from Job 38:9-39:30.

Job, lest you didn’t notice, is world history’s only saint for whose afflictions the Holy Spirit dedicated an entire book of Scripture. Yes, all forty-two chapters of it. The persecution Job experience was the result of a conversation of cosmic proportions, as God Himself nominated Job as the candidate whose conduct would disprove Satan’s blasphemous claim that even the most righteous and God-fearing of men would curse God under the pressure of severe suffering. For over thirty chapters, Job wrestles – dialoguing with his friends, vindicating himself, and interrogating God. He fluctuates between trusting God and attempting to prosecute God. Finally, in the thirty-eighth chapter, out of the whirlwind of foolish counsel from well-meaning but ignorant friends, God speaks. Finally, an answer from heaven. Finally, an explanation for the chaos. Finally, the prospect of an insight into the angelic realm and the hidden counsel of the Almighty.

But God doesn’t tell Job about the cosmic conversation. God never revealed to Job how his suffering would spit in the face of Satan’s claim and demonstrate before all of the heavenly hosts that genuine worship of God can persevere through the most grieving of circumstances. He never explained to Job that his life would serve as an example of faith to encourage the church amidst her later persecution (James 5:11-14).

Instead, in the lengthiest interrogation ever recorded from the Almighty to finite man, God says…

“Can you hunt prey for the lion…” (38:39-40)

“Who prepares for the raven its nourishment…(39:41)

“Do you know the time the mountain goats give birth?” (39:1a)

“Do you observe the calving of the deer…” (39:1b-4)

“Who sent out the wild donkey free…” (39:5-8)

“Will the wild ox consent to serve you…” (39:9-12)

“The ostriches’ wings flap joyously…” (39:13-18)

“Do you give the horse his might…” (39:19-25)

“Is it by your understanding that the hawk soars…” (39:26)

“Is it at your command that the eagle mounts up…” (39:27-30)

Lion. Raven. Mountain Goat. Deer. Donkey. Ox. Ostrich. Horse. Hawk. Eagle – not exactly the ten-point outline that your average ACBC counselor would use to help a man who had lost his possessions, children, and health, and whose wife just told him to curse God and die. But yes, in one of the greatest divine bequeathing of wisdom from Creator to creation, God tells Job to consider the animals.

Job’s response after all of that and more? “I know that You can do all things, and that no purpose of Yours can be thwarted…I have heard of You by the hearing of the ear; but now my eye sees You; therefore I retract, and I repent in dust and ashes” (42:1-6). Needless to say, God knew what He was doing, and Job got the point.

So what was God’s point? Why consider the animals as a Christian during trying times? First, it gives you further insight into God’s glorious and unmatched creative power. But more poignantly, it parks you to the realization that there is so much that is happening in the universe that has absolutely nothing to do with you.

It’s an atomic bomb to the world of the myopic. The cheetah’s ability to sprint at 60 mph, the orca’s ability to learn new hunting tactics, the eagle’s ability to soar for 4000 miles without stopping for food, the mongoose’s ability to outmaneuver and kill a cobra, are all works of the Almighty that exist in their magnificence apart from anything that has to do with you or me. As a Christian, that you matter does not equate to being the center. Those who are suffering would be wise to humbly remember that there is still much in this world that God is doing that has little or no relevance to their problems. And that isn’t to diminish their pains, but simply to de-centralize them. Studying animals, their behavior, and their amazing abilities from a biblical perspectives ultimately serves to remind you and me that we are single leaves in a massive forest – that all things exist for the glory of the God who is remains absolutely sovereign over all of the universe’s affairs as its sole Creator and Sustainer.

How’s that for some reformed biblical counsel.

Discerning the Snake in the Back Yard

snake

Identifying manipulative individuals in your life.

Now the serpent was more crafty than any beast of the field which the LORD God had made…

~Genesis 3:1

I have learned never to associate with a manipulative person.

For the record, you cannot expect anyone – including yourself – to be perfect on this side of eternity.  I’ve learned that I can bear with people who struggle with impatience, anxiety, depression, narrow-mindedness, foul-language, over-sensitivity, and just plain immaturity.  But the characteristically manipulative person, I have learned to avoid like the plague. 

The reason is simple: manipulation is the primary tactic from the playbook of Satan.

It is in Genesis 3:1 where the Bible first unveils the reality of Satan and his existence.  And the choice word used to describe this most evil of God’s enemies is “crafty.”  Dangerous?  Powerful?  Ferocious?  All of the above are true about the devil, but crafty before anything else.  Craft, at least in this connotative sense, refers to the ability to somehow subdue a more powerful and capable adversary using cunning and tactful strategy.  It involves being able to steer others into volitionally doing things that they would otherwise not want to do.  To be a devilish person is to be a crafty person.  And to be a crafty person is to be a manipulative character.

For the record, Christians will struggle with just about every type of sin.  But I’ve been hard-pressed to find a genuine follower of Jesus Christ who, had you asked his closest friends to describe him in one word, would be labeled as manipulative.  For how can one who is born of the Spirit of God be of a nature that is consistent with the very nature of Satan himself? 

For a while, the picture I had of such people was nebulous at best.  It was only after this past Sunday, after teaching a Sunday School lesson on Genesis 3:1-12 on the Fall of Man, that the picture took a concrete form. 

The following are signs of a manipulative person based off of the profile of Satan himself as revealed in Genesis 3.  Granted, each of us may struggle with a few of these at any given situation.  But it is the presence person who displays the majority of or all of these signs who calls for the red flag to be raised. 

Sign #1: The manipulative person goes out of his way to look harmless

Remember that 1 Peter 5:8 describes Satan as a roaring lion.  Revelation 12 describes him as a dragon.  Satan is a powerful, though fallen, angelic being who leads a legion of other demons against God’s people.  Yet, to the woman in the garden, he appeared as a serpent.  Pre-fall serpents weren’t poisonous fork-tongued slitherers that spook the daylight out of women and children.  They were harmless crawling critters living under man’s dominion.  And it was in the form of this creature that Satan, the prince of the demonic armies, took when he approached Eve to tempt her. 

Manipulative people will go out of their way, both in dressage and in demeanor, to appear harmless.  In my personal experience, the most manipulative people I knew not only worked to look harmless, but also worked to look helpless – often adopting the appearance of being physically sick or ailed – particularly during those times when they’re requests or demands have been met with resistance or when they’re anticipating a confrontation from someone they have wronged.

Sign #2: The manipulative person tends to approach the people closest to the individual he is attempting to control

This deserves all eyes and ears: In the garden, Satan was after Adam.  He knew that it was Adam who had been given the commandment from God not to eat from the fruit of the tree of knowledge.  He knew that it was Adam who represented the human race.  He knew that it was Adam who needed to transgress in order for sin to make its way into humanity and for the curse to enter the world.  And yet, not once in this passage does Satan speak to Adam.  In fact, Adam himself never recounts Satan’s speaking to him when confronted by God later.  Satan, in his craftiness, spoke to Eve and her only.  In doing so, he got to Adam, albeit indirectly.

One of the marks of a manipulative person is the refusal to directly approach or confront the person with whom they desire to deal or address.  There have been several instances in my life where a particular individual wanted to get me to do (or not do) something concerning a particular issue, but I would never be directly approached or confronted.  Instead, I would later find out that the particular individual had approached my wife, my close friends, my pastor, my boss, my siblings, or others who were close to me with regards to the issue.  Manipulative individuals seek to control individuals by influencing the relational network around those individuals, often before dealing with the individuals themselves. 

Sign #3: The manipulative person indirectly questions the credibility of the individual they are attempting to sabotage

Not only was Satan indirect in approaching Eve rather than Adam, but he was indirect in the way he initially attacked the credibility of God before her.  Rather than forthrightly refuting what God said (which for the record, would have been equally wicked), Satan lured Eve with a question: “Indeed, did God say…?”  Satan not only interrogated Eve regarding what God said, but inserted some purposeful exaggeration: “Did God really say that you cannot eat from the fruit of any tree?”  Reality: God commanded Adam to refrain from the fruit of one tree.

Manipulative individuals will often attack people by questioning their credibility to those around them by some well-placed swipes of exaggeration.  A parent trying to manipulate her child’s teacher might approach the school principal and say,

“Is it true that Ms. Smith gave all of the 6th grade students a 60-page reading assignment to be completed the next day??  Isn’t that a little much?” (Asks the parent of a child…to the school principal)

“Is it true that Pastor Brian doesn’t want any children in our Sunday Service?  Isn’t that a bit unfair to young families?”  (Asks a disgruntled church member…to Pastor Dougie)

The answers are “no,”…but the foot is in the door.

Sign #4: The manipulative person makes false threats, consequences, or promises rather than making their desires or requests known

Satan was the originator of the false-promise play.  “You certainly will not die!” he claimed, should she partake of the fruit – a direct contradiction to what God Himself had promised.  What had kept Adam and Eve from eating the fruit was the very real promise that death would result from doing so; and it was the consequence, rather than the command, that Satan directly attacked.

Over the years, I’ve learned to discern the brand of counsel forked from snakes:

“You’re free to become a Christian or whatever religion you want; just know that your mother will be extremely hurt,”

“You’re free to leave this ministry, but if you do so the entire young adults group may die.”

“You don’t have to put your kids into our program; just know that the program will die if you don’t.” 

“You’re free to go to whatever church you want; just know that if you go down that route, I’m afraid that you won’t be able to pursue the ministry position that you’re really built for.” 

“You don’t have to visit us for Christmas if you don’t want to.  Just be prepared for your father to not to take it well, especially because of how sick he is.”

Manipulative characters often dress in the halloween costume of open-mindedness, but carefully present false consequences that sound oh so veritable, so as to bend a person to believe that there only one viable option.  It’s craft at its best, and it’s straight from the serpent.

Sign #5: A manipulative person uses your identity to make false connections and implications

“You will be like God,” Satan promised the woman.  It was more than tempting her with an ego-booster, but rather purposefully linking his course of action to her identity and design.  It was the perfect launching pad to disobedience.  Man was, indeed, made according to God’s image and likeness (Genesis 1:26-27).  When Eve heard Satan’s false promise, she was reminded of something that was inherently true about her identity as a human being.  The paraphrased translation: “Because you were made to be like God, you need to eat this fruit- it’s part of you who are!”

Manipulative individuals often pitch their tents on the soil of your identity – or at least something that’s very important to it.  Salesmen do it to me all the time, although I give them grace as they’re often forced to by their training and their bosses. But I’ve known individuals who would often employ the “If you want to succeed in pastoral ministry, you have to do such and such” liners – only for me to realize later that what it is that I was being asked to do was not only unnecessary, but categorically inconsistent with faithful pastoral ministry and Christian living!  I’ve had others who used more pathos than ethos: “if you really loved your mother, you wouldn’t be in communication with your father or his side of the family” (my parents are divorced). 

Sign #6: The manipulative person will claim to know a hidden truth about a person they are trying to undermine.

The serpent was audacious as well as crafty: “God knows that…”. He deceived Eve into believing that God withheld a crucial truth from her that would have been otherwise good for her to know.  And what he claimed God knew was contrary to what God said.  Eve was duped into believing that the crawling serpent knew something about God that was purposefully but unfairly withheld from her and her husband.  No wonder the fruit looked so delectable afterwards.   

Manipulative characters carry around crystal balls and get you believe that they work:

“I know a lot of people say positive things about you about you, but really this is what they’re thinking.  I’m trying to help you because this is what I know people are thinking about you.” 

I once heard a preaching professor tell one of his students, “This is what I know the people in your congregation are really thinking about you, even though they might say that they are encouraged by you.” 

Manipulative characters claim to be mind-readers.  Nothing makes me want to tune someone out than the words, “A lot of people are saying…” or “I think this is what they’re thinking…”

Our Lord calls us to be shrewd as serpents while being innocent as doves.  As Christians, we are not called to show partiality or discrimination in terms of whom we love, but we are called to exhibit discernment regarding those with whom we choose associate.  That includes knowing when the snake is in your backyard.

Soar with the Eagles, Don’t Cluck with the Chickens

Expounding an parabolic illustration from a Sunday School lesson I taught last April on Christ’s call to love our enemies.
Eagles soar.  They’re effortless and effervescent.  We pay money to watch them.  Chickens, on the other hand, cluck.  They’re flightless and frivolous.  We pay money to eat them.
I’d rather be an eagle than a chicken.  But at times, we’re tempted to cluck like chickens when we’re surrounded by them.  It’s what we feel instinctively in the presence of unwarranted persecution.
At some point in our lives, you’re bound to encounter a chicken.  It may be because of animosity arisen toward your racial makeup, jealousy directed toward your achievements, or hatred aimed at your gospel faith.  But every man who desires to live a godly life ought to anticipate the encountering of the unwarranted adversity from an adversary.   Unless you opt to deprive yourself of your much-needed vitamin-D, you will run into them.  Should you pursue righteousness, they will be few and far between.  But they will come.  And when they do, they’ll be particularly persistent with the pecking.  I’ve realized that unrelenting persecution many times stems from unjustified hatred or disdain.  These persecutors – they’re the chickens.  They cluck.  They hurl quick-witted insults.  They poke their heads into your business for the sake of criticism.  Like chickens, they spend the majority of their time stomping around in the dust of gossip, slander, and engagement in petty conflicts and controversies.  Assuredly, they’re not righteous in their clucking.  Spiritual chickens cluck because they’re attempting to cover up their major deficiency: they can’t fly, and they know it.
Tell me, then, how tempting it is to cluck back at them…especially when all of the other chickens they bring with them surround you and won’t quit clucking.
Believers are eagles.  Perhaps, pre-salvation, they were flightless like their enemies.  But upon undeserved regeneration, they were born again as aerials – designed to fly, suited to soar, adapted to navigate and ponder the higher heavens uninhabited by the chickens.  Christ’s followers were set apart not for the dust but for the skies, the greater ministry of the gospel and the character fitting to it.  You, fellow Christian, were set apart to maneuver the empyrean with other eagles, not to roll around the earth with fat flightless fowls.
Eagles must always consider the words of Romans 12:17-21: 17 Never pay back evil for evil to anyone. Respect what is right in the sight of all men. 18 If possible, so far as it depends on you, be at peace with all men. 19 Never take your own revenge, beloved, but leave room for the wrath of God, for it is written, “Vengeance is Mine, I will repay,” says the Lord. 20 “But if your enemy is hungry, feed him, and if he is thirsty, give him a drink; for in so doing you will heap burning coals on his head.” 21 Do not be overcome by evil, but overcome evil with good.
Unwarranted adversaries are given leverage by the victim’s reactive retaliation.  But if you, though never compromising integrity,  refuse to retaliate but respond with a blessing instead, it is equivalent to respond to the clucking chicken by soaring with your wings.  When you do this, you heap the shaming coals upon his head.  Through your righteous grace, you cause your enemy to realize his own shame.  It is then that he realizes that he clucks but can’t soar.  It is then, when he sees the believer he persecuted in full flight in the firmament, that he is confronted with the fact of his flightlessness.  And, as the passage above says, he feels shame.  For the rest of the beasts of the field, as they observing your soaring and his clucking, will recognize that you are an eagle and he is a chicken.

A Letter to Recent High School Graduates


To each and every student I had the privilege of serving as a youth pastor, high school teacher, tutor, or physical trainer

I remember the evening of my high school graduation with photographic clarity. From the blue button-down dress shirt I wore to the ceremony to the blue skater shoes I wore to the grad party; from singing that duet with my sister (cheesy, I know, but we made several moms cry) to receiving my diploma while my SAT scores were announced to the audience (I know, seriously!); from the picture I took with my 6’7-tall friend before the ceremony to the flurry of ones I took with family, friends, and teachers afterwards; from the book I received from my uncle to our family’s celebratory dinner at Asia Buffett…I remember almost all of it. Even the congratulatory phone call I received from my younger cousin who couldn’t be there is etched in my memory (mainly because I remember thinking, “Whoa, his voice finally cracked!”).

I remember exhibiting a dual sentiment of relief and excitement. Relief, that high school was over. Excitement, that college was ahead. I was forward-thinking, rather idealistically focused on the horizon: I would go to college, work hard, get good grades, earn a biology degree, and jump right into my career field of choice – research zoology – with no close-t0-no viscosity. While doing so, I would engage in sports (possibly join the tennis team), become part of a life-long social circle, go to parties, learn to surf and play the guitar, have beach days and bonfires, and find a cute girlfriend. Living for the glory of God wasn’t at the forefront of my mind. To be honest, it wasn’t in the attic of my mind, either. I was consumed with my ambitions and dreams, and no one would get in my way. At least, that’s what I thought.  

I was 19 then. I’m 32 now. As a type, my two kids are watching “Sprout” on the other end of the living room, while my wonderful wife of almost seven years is fixing up a spaghetti dinner in the kitchen adjacent. We’re currently on a one-week vacation about two hours away from Silicon Valley, where we currently reside. My high school diploma sits on display in my mom’s home office…right next to my college diploma. For the record, not everything has changed since my high school graduation. I somehow maintained the same basic physique, and still sport the classic sunglasses/flip-flops combo (though I did get rid of the earring and backwards baseball cap). I still own the cross-court forehand that I did back when I played on my high school tennis team. If anything, I’m a better athlete now than I was then, especially after picking up distance running during my last year of college. So no, the stage of the being a gray-haired sage hasn’t arrived just yet.  

But I’m no longer in my youth. Those crucial, formative years have passed. My time as a UC San Diego college student was over in a mere three years. The freshman year roommate I was paired with by the Revelle dorm administration – he’s got a wife and two kids of his own, and he and I are still good friends. In fact, there are a handful of folks who I met during my first two years of college with whom I remain in touch. But as for my main social circles during those years – frankly, I’m not a part of anymore. In fact, I haven’t had any contact with ninety-five percent of those old friends in years, aside from the occasional birthday greeting (thank you, Facebook!). I’m presently integrated into new relational network, which is how life works sometimes. As for my career? I do indeed work in Silicon Valley, but not at a university or research institute like many of my old friends and teachers expected. I work at a local church – Grace Bible Fellowship, to be exact. Yes, I’m in pastoral ministry, and have been so for the last decade. It’s as satisfying as it is strenuous; I’m currently pursuing a doctorate for further training. A bit of a far cry from research zoology, I’d say.

What I’m saying is: you don’t know what the days of your youth will be like. And they’ll be over before you know it.  

Those eleven years between the year of my high school graduation and my 30th birthday were as fleeting as they were formative. And I say this with no regrets, for life as I know it is good – better than I ever thought it would be. Without question, I’ve made my share of mistakes. I could talk for hours and hours about all of the stupid things that I did, all of the unwise decisions I made, and all of the character flaws characteristic of me during those years. But regrets? None. I’d be full of them, had God Himself not intervened. But He took a hold of my heart before that first day of college and never let go – He saved me, I repented of my sinful walk, and devoted my life to my Savior, including all the days of my young manhood. I can with integrity that I gave the years of my youth to Him and to Him alone. Thus, the present life to which my youth catapulted me – and all that it consists of – is the life that the Creator Himself constructed. I thank Him everyday for it.

I hope the same for will be true for you. I’ve had the unique and undeserved privilege of investing my labor in many of your lives – as a youth pastor, high school teacher, tutor, physical trainer, or all of the above. I’ve watched some of you become the sharpest of scholars – scoring 5’s on your AP’s and rightly receiving scholarships from big-name universities. I’ve watched others of you become exceptional athletes – now recruited by colleges because of how fast you run, how well you tackle, and how squarely you hit a baseball. I’ve watched yet others of you become exemplary individuals – mature beyond your years and true servants to those around you. I’m proud of what you’ve all accomplished, and excited about where you seem to be headed. At the same time, there’s a sense of sobriety that I have, knowing that where you’ll be ten years from now has already been appointed, and you aren’t in control of how it will all turn out (though you are responsible for your own choices). So it’s my desire to entrust you with a charge from the wisdom of the Bible – an two-fold exhortation from Ecclesiastes 11:9-12:8, preached from a sage to the youth of his day.  

First, rejoice in the days of your youth (Ecclesiastes 11:9). Believe it or not, your enjoyment of life is up to you. Whether you smile or stomp over your college major, your future job (or jobs), the food you’ll eat, the car you’ll drive, the clothes you’ll wear, the roommates you’ll live with, and the social circle you’ll be a part of, is a choice that God has given you. Work with all your might, but don’t give into the pressure of achievement. Aim high, but don’t give into the philosophy of entitlement. Most of all, remember that complaining life is wholly unproductive. The truth is, the Creator didn’t make a mistake with you, your existence, or your circumstances. So laugh a lot, smile a lot, stretch out your arms when you wake up in the morning. There’s no better time to do so. Rejoice, young man, in the days of your youth.  

Second, remember your Creator in your youth (Ecclesiastes 12:1). Life life to the fullest, but do so in full acknowledgement and respect of the One who gave it to you and can also take it away from you. As much as you may have achieved, forget not that you’re still creation. What becomes of you is, well, not ultimately up to you. There is indeed a sovereign one above the sun who orchestrates everything that happens under the sun. The lie of the world is that dedicating your youth to the Lord will come at the price of true enjoyment of it. Remember that there’s going to come a time when your body won’t be as strong, your mind won’t be as sharp or as flexible. Living vigorously for the Lord won’t be as easy as it used to be. So while you’re strong, sharp, and flexible, live entirely for the Creator – the God to whom you will answer for all that you’ve done, and who will bring every act of yours into judgment. Practical atheism is utter foolishness, for it seeks to ignore a truth embedded into every human soul. God is there – watching you, guiding you, evaluating you wherever you go and whatever you do. And He calls you into a true, genuine, living relationship with Him through Jesus Christ – who lived the perfect life that you couldn’t live, died the horrific death that you should have died, and offers eternal life that you don’t deserve to everyone who believes in Him. Give your life not to the indulgence of creation, but to an intimate relationship with the Creator. Only then will you truly live your life without regrets.

Congratulations to you all on your graduation!

Be Real with Me

  

Learning to value spiritual authenticity in the Christian life.

“What is the quality that you look for most in a young man?”

I’ve been asked derivatives of this question countless of times, and have given equally countless answers. For the record, there is no “most important” virtue. Christian living is multi-faceted in its expression and character, in the same way that being a good athlete requires a multitude of assets. But having now formally discipled, mentored, and counseled over forty men on an individual level – men ranging from 5th grade to 50-plus, from a diversity of cultural upbringings, educational backgrounds, personalities, occupations, and giftedness – I’ve started to discern a common thread in those men who managed to work out their salvation successfully. There’s a particular quality that has been present in just about every one of them – that same quality that I’ve observed to be missing in just about every man who I’ve personally ministered to who has failed to fully realize his potential in Christ. It’s a quality that positions a man to become a quality man – one that, when it is present, sets up a man to experience the power of the resurrected Christ in his life in the face of sin, Satan, temptation, and affliction. And it happens to be a quality that a good majority of men I know too afraid to exhibit. It’s the quality that Pastor James Macdonald likes to refer to as spiritual authenticity.

In other words, you know that a guy is spiritual the real deal when he is, well, real.  

I added the word “spiritual” to “authenticity” for clarity’s sake. Authenticity apart from genuine conversion is of no use. There is no value in being authentic if you’re authentically evil, rebellious, and unrepentant. I guess the better question is, “What quality do you most look for in a Christian man who wants to be discipled?”  

Spiritual authenticity is genuineness in one’s desire to grow combined with honesty about one’s shortcomings, weaknesses, and struggles. An authentic man is a man who isn’t interested in pretending to be stronger, braver, or further along than he actually is. He is a man who doesn’t claim to have a level of spirituality that he doesn’t have. The truth is that all men are inherently weak (John 15:5). Some men, however, are man enough to admit so and ask for help. These men are the spiritually authentic men.    

I have learned, then, to communicate the following to any man who approaches me for formal discipleship or counseling: “The only thing I’m requiring of you, if you want my time and effort into helping you grow, is that you be honest with me in terms of who you are, where you are, what you struggle with, and what you want. If you can do that, I can work with you.”

I can work with men who struggle with pride, laziness, complaining attitudes, lust, drugs, alcohol, pornography, jealousy, the love of money, or manic depression. None of those sins intimidate me, to be honest, so long as the guy is real with me. No matter what sins he brings to the table, men who exhibit this kind of honesty and transparency are a joy and encouragement to work with. But I cannot, and will not, make any long-term investment in a guy who refuses to be authentic.  

It’s not that other qualities – teachability, discipline, diligence, sobriety, humility, purity, perseverance to name a few – are less important. It’s that all of these are impossible to exhibit apart from the power of Christ. And the power of Christ is present only in the man who is spiritually authentic before both God and men.  

Perhaps my sensitivity comes from the fact that I grew up in a culture that valued plasticity, pretense, and political correctness more than truthfulness. But, to be candid, I’m tired of meeting with guys who refuse to be real with me. It’s tiring listening to all of the Christianese lingo that I know is only used to impress and mask. I just can’t work with young men approaching me for discipleship and counseling who won’t be honest regarding what it is that they really want and how it is that they’re really doing. I’m exhausted from, time and time again, having to meet with dudes who simply want to prove that they’re holier and spiritually further along than their peers, so that I might endorse them for some leadership position.  I don’t say this out of spite, but out of a genuine desire to see authenticity pervade the characters of the men in the church. It’s counter-cultural, sure, but absolutely essential for any man desiring to truly live as Christ designed. Listen to 2 Corinthians 12:9-10:

“And He has said to me, “My grace is sufficient for you, for power is perfected in weakness.” Most gladly, therefore, I will rather boast about my weaknesses, so that the power of Christ may dwell in me. Therefore I am well content with weaknesses, with insults, with distresses, with persecutions, with difficulties, for Christ’s sake; for when I am weak, then I am strong.”

It’s a verse that’s both over-used and under-applied. Paul – speaking to a Greco-Roman Corinthian church that formerly associated admission of weakness with sissiness – had learned the value of the unashamed admission of his own weakness. It’s not that Christians have to go around publicizing all of their sins and struggles (we preach Christ, after all, and not ourselves and our problems). But neither are we supposed to be afraid to be honest about them, as Paul showed in this verse. The reason is because, contrary to popular notion, admitting your weaknesses doesn’t make you weak. That’s why Paul says, “when I am weak, then I am strong.” It’s a paradox, and not a contradiction, because the power of Christ is perfected in the weakness of man. The power of the resurrected Savior is most unhindered and most completely at work in the life of the man who has come to the end of himself, admits it, and looks to the Savior for help.  

Let’s face it: a good majority of Christian men are too cowardly to admit that they don’t have it all together and are in need of help. They’re afraid to admit that they’re insecure and at times overwhelmed. They’re afraid to admit that they struggle with loneliness and depression when they do. They’re afraid to be honest about their wounds from the past, or the financial struggles that their families find themselves in. They’re afraid to admit the sinful habits that have taken over their lives, or the jealousy that they exhibit towards others. Men want to appear to have it all together, because they’re afraid that the world may find out who they really are. As a result, many of them don’t experience what it’s like to have the conquering power of Christ residing and energetically working in them. The irony of it all is that men who want to appear strong will never know what it’s truly like to be strong.  

And so I’ve learned to look for, value, and emphasize this quality of spiritual authenticity in the men who ask for my investment of time and energy, because those who have it are those who place themselves in the best possible position to labor for the kingdom of God through the power of God for the glory of God. These are the men who will be the real recipients of the blessings of the gospel of Jesus Christ. These are the men who truly are the real deal, because they are indeed real.

The Skill of Nutritious Speech

  

“The lips of the righteous feed many…” 

~Proverbs 10:21

I’m a father of two young children, both of whom are constantly asking questions about every particle of matter that passes by their vicinity. I serve as a pastoral minister, thus teaching half the time while counseling and mentoring during the other half. I also tutor students, during which I’m explaining concepts.  

In other words, I talk a lot. Or, more precisely, I have to talk a lot. I’m still a classic introvert by nature, so I’m exhausted by the end of each day from all the conversations that take place. But my function within my home, my church, and my community requires verbal communication. It requires quite a bit of it, and regarding an extremely broad range of topics. On any given 24-hour period, I may find myself explaining the eschatological view of dispensationalism to a curious church member, the biblical solution to depression to a struggling brother, the relationship between second derivatives and concavity to a Calculus student, and the proper way to clean his teeth to my son. On any given week, I’ll find myself communicating with people ranging from ages three to seventy-three. Again, it’s part of the job. You can’t be a husband, father, pastor, and teacher and insist on being a shy mute.  

But I wasn’t commissioned by God to talk simply and share my thoughts for the sake of sharing them. My words were meant to make an impact. They’re supposed to effect a specific type of change in the people to whom I speak. If they aren’t, then I ought to look for another job. Thus, over the years, I’ve become quite a bit more sensitive to how people are impacted by their conversations with me. And I’m speaking of the long-term impact. In the process, I’ve also become far more cautious with the words I say, to whom I say them, how I say them, when I say them, why I say them, and how often I say them. The increasing sensitivity to what comes forth from my tongue stems from the fact that God designed a man’s words not to merely reveal information, but to change lives for the better. Words have a powerful effect. Depending on how they’re used, they can both nourish or poison those who hear.  

This is the truth that Proverbs 10:21 unearths. “The words of the righteous feed many,” it says. Righteous men speak in such a way that produces a specific kind of impact on those around them. Their words feed; the original Hebrew here literally says that the lips of the righteous “pasture”. How’s that for an illustration. The words of the righteous nourish the people around them with good nutrition the same way shepherds feed their sheep. Righteous men let forth the right words at the right time in the right amount with the right motives in such a way that builds up the strength and health of the people who hear their words. Their speech is never vain, never wasted, never destructive.    

This proverb implies that one of the several indicators of a man’s righteousness is the manner in which people are changed by his speech. In other words, what happens to those to whom you talk is no small matter. Foolish people are only concerned about having opportunities to speak and how they sound when they do speak; they could care less about the actual effect that their words have. Righteous people see the speaking not as a right to be exercised, but as an opportunity to minister for the good of others, and are thus careful and purposeful in the wielding of the tongue. So ask yourself, then: Do people find it fruitful to converse with you? Do you find that people gravitate to conversations with you in the same way that sheep gravitate to green pastures? Are you the type of person who people do enjoy talking to? Do you find that people regularly seek your counsel, even though you don’t always give them what tickles their ears? Are you the type of individual whose words strengthen – not break – the spirits of individuals from different walks of life? After all, that proverb says that the words of the righteous feed many – not family and close friends or people who are of your particular demographic. For the record, I am not saying that a charismatic personality equates to a righteous character; just because people want to hear what you have to say doesn’t mean that you’re saying the right thing. And there are times when right words, chosen at the right time, directed at the right person, spoken in the right manner, will not be received well. But generally speaking, the common man can distinguish nourishing words from empty ones. Those who are truly righteous are able to speak in such way that the many people with whom they interact are blessed, built up, nourished, encouraged, and impacted for the better. Just like sheep with green pastures, people flock to the righteous for the opportunity to be spoken to.  

Every Christian serious about acquiring wisdom should be concerned about how those around them are affected by their words. Words, again, weren’t just designed to be spoken. They were designed to feed. And to feed a delicious, nutritious meal. Not junk food, or dessert, or greasy, fatty food, or rotten and decaying food. But healthy food. A wise Christian ought to be a haven of nutrition for the spiritually and emotionally famished people around him. It’s no surprise then that during those times when our Lord Jesus Christ spoke, people were hanging onto His words (Luke 19:48).    
So what exactly is nutritious speech? Proverbs has a tone to say about it. Righteous speech is, first and foremost, righteous. It is truthful, filled with integrity in both content and motive. Healthy speech that feeds is also gracious and soothing. It is well-pondered and prudent, stemming forth from the mind of the thoughtful. It is both well-informed and timely. It has clarity and forthrightness, without haughtiness. A wise man will be one who seeks to be equipped with the skill of nutritious speech.  
Every Christian is a steward of the words that God has entrusted to him. Some, incidentally, have been given more opportunities to speak than others. But all have been given the ability to make an eternal impact on those around them through speech. Be selective, then, with your words; choose them wisely for the right people at the right time. Consider how to deliver them, and be equally concerned about how they are digested by those who hear. The sheep, if you haven’t noticed, are hungry and waiting.  

The High Road of Active Confrontation and Gentle Restoration

  
(Photo from Wikimedia Commons by MagAloche)

Better is open rebuke than love that is concealed.
~Proverbs 27:5

I invite you to read through the following statements (and their explanations) and attempt to discern a common thread:

1. “I’m not mad” (denying feelings of anger rather than being upfront when questioned about feelings)

2. “Fine, whatever.” (sulking and withdrawing from arguments or disagreements)

3. “I’m coming!” (verbally complying with a request, but purposefully delaying its completion)

4. “I didn’t know you meant now” (purposefully procrastinating in order to frustrate others or be acquitted from certain responsibilities)

5. “You just want everything to be perfect!” (carrying out tasks in an intentionally inefficient or undesirable way)

6. “I thought you knew…” (purposefully omitting important information from the person who is obligated to know, while taking pleasure in the latter’s resulting trouble and anguish)

7. “Sure, I’d be happy to” (pretending to cooperate with someone while purposefully sabotaging or ignoring them behind their back)

8. “You’ve done so well for someone with your education background” (the insult costumed as a complement)

9. “I was only joking!” or “Can’t you take a joke?” (purposeful sarcasm aimed at aggravating another person, while accusing them of oversensitivity)

10. “Why are you getting so upset?” (purposefully setting up others to lose their cool and then questioning their overreacting)
If you caught the thread, good for you. If you didn’t, know that I didn’t come up with these ten statements myself. They’re all from an article from Psychology Today titled “10 Things Passive Aggressive People Say.” Don’t believe me? Read it yourself:

https://www.psychologytoday.com/blog/passive-aggressive-diaries/201011/10-things-passive-aggressive-people-say

Not too long ago, Jerry Bridges penned Respectable Sins, a book in which he so thoroughly dissected a number of sins that tend not to be overlooked by Christians but that remain offensive to God. Going through this book with a men’s discipleship group this past summer has caused me to further ponder this very topic of respectable sins – those untreated actions and attitudes that tend to intoxicate the church body and destroy relationships. Scripture implies in James 2:8-13 that believers have a tendency to overlook certain transgressions that are still, well, transgressions. One of the most overlooked is the sin of passive aggression

Passive aggression is an important topic because of where it is prevalent. It’s exhibited amongst interrelationships in just about every family, workplace, and social circle. It’s also an important topic because where it is absent. In my experience, I have almost – if not absolutely – never met a seasoned and mature believer who was habitually characterized by passive aggressive behavior (key word is habitually). I’ve seen even the best of them lose their cool, be overly rigid, play favorites, make unnecessary assumptions, botch up an important task, and make selfish decisions. But be passive aggressive? Being able to consistently squelch the exhibition of such behavior seems to be an distinguishing mark of spiritual maturity. I’ll get to the reason for such in a bit.

But first, all terms must be defined. Passive aggression is defined as the deliberate but masked behavior designed to express feelings of contempt toward another person. It aims at getting back at another person without being noticed in doing so. Passive aggression can be motivated by a number of different factors; anger, hatred, distaste, envy, jealousy, hurt, bitterness, resentment, or disappointment are but a few. It can be manifested in a variety of ways such as deliberate procrastination, backhanded compliments, purposeful avoiding and behaving, withholding service, exclusion of people, silent treatments, indirect criticism and complaints, and intentional errors. But its defining characteristics are that it is deliberately indirect (hence, “passive”) and designed to hurt (hence, “aggression”).  

So what, then, is the reason for its apparent absence in mature, exemplary Christians? The answer lies in the nature of its physiology. Passive aggression is, by mechanism, schematic. The one who exhibits it doesn’t simply fall into transgression while striving to do what is right. Instead, he devises transgression while pretending to do nothing wrong. That’s not just wrong; that’s dangerous (Proverbs 6:14, 12:20). Passive aggressive people don’t just hurt others; they intend to hurt others. And they do so in such a way that is unnoticed to avoid confrontation. The Bible calls that person unrepentant. The failure to take responsibility for one’s own short comings, but rather to devise a way to express them, is the exact opposite of spiritual maturity described in Philippians 3:7-15. Maturity, according to this passage is always reaching for perfection, not aiming to get away with imperfection.  

To put it bluntly, passive aggressive behavior is sinful and nothing short of it. The reason is simple: the Bible calls us to refrain from both passivity and aggression. God calls us to actively – not passively – deal with sin or conflict when it arises in relationships. We are called to pursue peace with all men (Hebrews 12:14, the verb is in the active voice), not wait for people to fall down at our feet and beg for peace. And it calls us to do so gently, not aggressively (Galatians 6:1, 2 Timothy 2:25).  

To describe it surgically, passive aggression is the outflow of the heart of a person who holds resentment towards another, refuses to repent from it, refuses to admit it, and desires to feed it. It is the result behavior of a person who desires to hurt another without being caught or confronted. It is the very opposite of loving your neighbor as you love yourself. Such behavior is simply displeasing to God. And in case you need some biblical visuals, read through the gospel accounts and study the Pharisees’ interactions with Jesus. It’s passive aggression at its finest!

I’ll be the first to admit to being guilty of such behavior in the past. Writing this entry was equivalent self-incrimination. In fact, the more I think about it, not only was passive aggression present in my life during my years as a non-Christian and the earlier part of my walk with the Lord; it was quite characteristic of it. Over the course of the last few years, the Lord has searched out my life before me and revealed to me the number of times that I succumbed to passive aggression towards family, friends, and church members. Am I ashamed and saddened by them? Of course! And I’ve since been determined to leave it behind and press onward toward maturity. By His grace and the mentoring of wise, mature men, I’ve learned to implement a different way of dealing with offenders: active confrontation or gentle restoration (as appropriate to the case, of course). It’s definitely more difficult road, but also the more righteous and rewarding one.

Remember the words of Proverbs 27:5: “better is open rebuke than love that is concealed.” The way of wisdom would rather confront sin than withhold love. The implication then is that if there is anything that is preventing you from loving another person, it must be dealt with. Either overlook it with compassion, or bring it up in confrontation. Either give the other person the benefit of the doubt, or humbly expose the offense. The one truly transformed by the gospel will do whatever it takes (as much as it depends on him) to address and remove the obstacles that prevent another from experiencing Christ-like love and service.  

It’s time, then, to put away all passive aggression. And as regenerated and renewed men, it’s time to put on active confrontation and gentle restoration.