Why Did Jesus Weep at Lazarus’ Tomb?

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One of the more well-known miracles is the account of Jesus raising his friend Lazarus from the dead (John 11). It is a profound miracle, a dramatic display of Jesus’ power and also rich with theological implications about resurrection, eternal life, and the importance of the call of Christ to life.

Nestled into this account is the shortest verse in the Bible. Verse 35 says concisely, “Jesus wept”. This statement has been used by many to illustrate the incredible empathy that our Lord had for those who were in emotional distress. Both Martha and Mary are distraught at the death of their brother, and though Christ knows that he will raise him from the dead (made plain in vs, 15, 23, and 30), he still hurts at the pain of his friends. Like Christians are commanded to do, he weeps with those who weep.

At least, that is what the majority interpret his actions to be.

I know that I am in the minority, and I do think that it is plausible that Jesus weeps in verse 35 because he is saddened by the grief that Mary and Martha are experiencing. But I tend to think that his tears are of a slightly different sort. Jesus is pained, to be sure, but not because Lazarus has died or because the sisters are grieving, but because all around him there is a serious and disturbing lack of faith.

Read the flow of the account. Jesus intends to let Lazarus die, which is why he does not come immediately when told that his friend is deathly ill. He lets Lazarus die on purpose. His intention was to go later and resurrect him. This is without doubt Jesus’ plan.

When he arrives, the first person to meet him is Martha. She declares, “Lord, if you had been here, my brother would not have died. But even now I know that whatever you ask from God, God will give you” (21-22). Her outlook is mixed. On one hand, she seems bothered that Jesus showed up late. He could have prevented this from happening. But she also has a glimmer of hope that Jesus can still do something about it. Jesus and Martha exchange a few more words, which reveal she believes Lazarus will indeed be raised to life, but not until a future time.

The next person Jesus greets is Mary. More dramatic than her sister, she falls at Jesus’ feet and likewise declares, “Lord, if you had been here, my brother would not have died” (32). Unlike her sister, however, she did not follow up her remarks with any expression of faith. She simply accuses Jesus of dropping the ball.

The next verse indicates how Jesus feels about all of this. John comments, “When Jesus saw her weeping, and the Jews who had come with her also weeping, he was deeply moved in his spirit and greatly troubled.” Jesus looks around and sees despair. This bothers him. But not because he is sad to see his friends sad, but because they should have greater faith than this.

The phrase translated “deeply moved” in his spirit is from the Greek word “embrimaomai”, which means “to be angry, to express indignant displeasure”. To say that Jesus was “deeply moved” is true, but it doesn’t give a clear picture of how he was moved. Jesus wasn’t depressed. He was mad!

Immediately following, Jesus is led to Lazarus’ tomb and weeps. Now at this point, it could still be up for debate if Jesus’ emotional expressions are from sorrow for Lazarus, for his friends’ grief, or from frustration. I suppose the argument at this point would be inconclusive. But what happens next is what makes me lean more towards the the interpretation that Jesus’ tears are not so much from empathy or sorrow as they are from frustration at lack of faith.

When Jesus weeps, the crowd says, “See how he loved him!” They interpret his emotional outburst the way most Christians have. But others in the crowd had different thoughts: “Could not he who opened the eyes of the blind man also have kept this man from dying?” At least some in the crowd, like Mary earlier, imply that Jesus is a bit of a bumbler. They insinuate that Jesus somehow mishandled the whole situation, since supposedly he should have the miracle-working power to prevent this sort of thing from happening.

Again, see what immediately follows. “Then Jesus, deeply moved again, came to the tomb” (38). For effect, I might italicize the word again in that sentence. Jesus has a second bout of being “deeply moved”, embrimaomai, same word as before. In other words, he gets irritated and agitated a second time.

What I would like to point out is that both times Jesus is “deeply moved” (angry, indignant), it happens immediately after he is accused of committing some sort of gaffe. First, Martha implies that Jesus should have done something, but at least gives some effort to demonstrate that she still trusts him. Then, Mary outright says he blew it, to which Jesus is bothered. Then, a good chunk of the crowd imply that he’s made a mistake, to which again he is bothered. What this shows me is that the context of Jesus’ tears are right in the middle of a group of people who simply don’t trust him. Jesus, knowing full-well what he had planned all along, encounters hardly any faith at all from the very people who should have known better.

Put yourself in Jesus’ shoes. You have unlimited supernatural power. You have put this power on display a hundred times before. You have proven repeatedly to be good and kind and loving to others. You have shown yourself to be trustworthy over and over again. You are literally the sinless Son of God, who can do no wrong and has a divine plan and purpose for everything….and yet your closest friends all think you screwed up. Ouch!

For this reason, I tend to believe that the weeping of Jesus is at least partly a profound sorrow from the lack of faith demonstrated by those around him. Yes, perhaps, I think you can argue that Jesus experiences some legitimate sadness over Lazarus’ passing, or more likely at the sorrow experienced by others at his passing. No doubt he had empathy! I don’t doubt that for a second. But Jesus knew exactly what he was going to do. Thus, it makes more sense to me that Jesus’ emotional state is tied, at least more so, to the lack of faith from his followers. The text itself explicitly says he was indignant. What a word to use! Who gets indignant when others cry over genuine loss? I think it is fair to say that God, when accused of wrongdoing in the midst of it, might get upset about that.

A large portion of everyone involved—especially Mary and a chunk of the crowd—full-out declare that Jesus made the wrong move. This hurt Jesus. It made him mad and, I am sure, also made him sad. He was angry at their borderline blasphemy, and he was sad that their lack of faith caused them pain. All along, Jesus had the whole thing safe in his hands. How our lack of faith is like an arrow piercing the heart of God!

Friends, I don’t know what trial you are facing this day. I know that, from our own earthly perspective, it can easily seem like God is incompetent to handle the task. But such is not the case! Our Lord is good, he is powerful, and he is sovereign. He is worthy of our trust, and when we give him our faith, it not only is greatly pleasing in his sight, but gives us the rock-solid assurance that he intendeds us to have.

Let this be a lesson to us all. Even when everything is spinning out of control, and nothing seems like it is adding up, remember that when all was said and done, the dead man emerged from the tomb. Out of death, Christ can bring life. Jesus was vindicated then, and he will be in your life too. Trust him!

12 Things That Happen the Moment You Are Born-Again

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Being a true Christian is not something you can visibly see. It is an internal, spiritual reality that evidences itself over the course of time. Just because someone says they are a Christian doesn’t mean they are, but for those who truly are born again, they enjoy several immediate (and amazing!) benefits.

  1. Your sins are forgiven. Everything wrong you have ever done is removed from your permanent record. God will no longer count it against you. All debts are completely forgiven. (1 John 1:9)
  2. You are justified before God. To be “justified” is a legal term that means to be declared righteous in God’s sight. Someone might ask, how can God justify letting sinners into heaven? Answer: Because of what Christ has done, our faults are not counted against us, and therefore that decision is justified. We enjoy a right standing with God. (Romans 5:1)
  3. You are adopted into God’s family. God is Father only to those who are brought into his family. Every believer who repents and has saving faith in Christ enjoys this status, being adopted into the family of God as a beloved son or daughter. Your Dad is the King of the universe! (John 1:12)
  4. You pass from darkness to light. There are two kingdoms at war: the kingdom of darkness and the kingdom of light. When we are born again, we pass from the rulership of the devil to the rulership of Christ. We are rescued from the domain of Satan and become partakers in God’s kingdom. (Colossians 1:13)
  5. You are filled with the Holy Spirit. God’s Spirit indwells every believer, granting them faith and the power to live a new life. This is evidenced by the fruit of the Spirit, as God’s work in our lives slowly makes us more Christlike. (Ephesians 1:13)
  6. You inherit eternal life. We usually think of eternal life as something we will experience later on, but the Bible teaches that we receive eternal life at the moment of conversion. Every time eternal life is spoken of for Christians, it is done so in the present tense—meaning it is a current, not future, reality. Though our bodies will die, our spirit is alive forever, and later on will be reunited with our resurrected physical bodies. (John 3:36)
  7. You move out from under God’s wrath. As sinners, all people are under God’s just wrath. He is angry over our sin, and it offends him greatly. But through our faith in Christ, we move out from under God’s wrath to being under his eternal blessing. God becomes forever and always for us, not against us. (John 3:36)
  8. You are given Christ’s righteousness. Not only are our sins forgiven, but we are also given the righteousness of Christ. This means that the perfect, sinless life of Jesus is credited to our account. This has been called by some the great exchange, because we give God our worst and in response are given his best. (2 Corinthians 5:21)
  9. You are granted a place and reward in God’s kingdom. Though we are shut out from God’s kingdom and presence because of our sin and rebellion, through faith in Christ we can be welcomed back into it. We will forever be in God’s presence, participating in kingdom life with all of the redeemed. (Matthew 25:34)
  10. Your eyes are opened to the beauty of God. Sin clouds our vision. Because of this we see sin and think it looks wonderful, and in turn see God and think he looks boring. When we are born-again, however, the eyes of our hearts are opened and we begin to truly see God for who he really is: Creator, Father, Saviour, Treasure. (2 Corinthians 4:3-6)
  11. Your sin nature is defeated. Without God’s intervention, sin rules over us. We are slaves to its desires, unable to walk in holiness or please God at all. But through the new birth, we are new creations in Christ, and the rule of sin in our hearts is broken. Though we will continue to sin until we die and are glorified, the controlling power of sin is defeated, and we can overcome it through the help the Spirit provides. (Romans 6:11)
  12. Your salvation is guaranteed. It would be a worrisome thing indeed if all of this were given to us but was able, through some fault of our own, to slip through our fingers and be lost. But the good news is that not only are all of these blessings bought for us by the blood of Christ, they are also secured for us by the blood of Christ. No one that belongs to Jesus will ever be cast away by him. He will ensure that our faith endures to the end. (Philippians 1:6)

We certainly have much to thank God for. Take some time to meditate on these things, let it fill your heart with joy and peace and hope, and praise the God who loves you!

Moving the Complementarian-Egalitarian Debate Forward

I care about a lot of things, three of them being: (1) people, (2) the Church, and (3) good theology. As such, I think it is important for believers to keep the dialogue going about how to understand gender biblically. This is all the more important as our world gets increasingly confused about how to define gender and how genders are to relate to one another. God’s Word is not silent on this matter, and for us to be silent on an issue that has so many significant implications and that the world is putting forth unhelpful and ungodly notions about is to make a grave mistake.

Christians tend to fall into two camps when it comes to understanding relations between the genders: Complementarian and Egalitarian. Though I’m somewhat over-generalizing, these two theological positions make up the vast majority of Evangelicals. They can be simply defined as follows:

Complementarianism is the idea that men and women are created equal in value but with different God-given roles and duties.

Egalitarianism is the idea that men and women are created equal in value and have interchangeable God-given roles and duties.

Though there is much that could be said about how each position works itself out in practical life, these definitions summarize the basic concepts.

Much has been written within the Church about these two positions. A prominent debate continues to this very day over which view better reflects the biblical position on gender. Though I am by admission a Complementarian, my goal is not to sway anyone’s view in this post. Rather, what I would like to suggest is one principle for us to keep in mind when we discuss these matters with each other in thoughtful and loving ways.

The Straw-Man

I believe that a major reason the debate over Complementarianism and Egalitarianism gets so heated at times is because each side refuses to fairly characterize the other one. It often becomes the infamous “straw-man” argument instead. A straw-man argument is when you paint the opposition’s ideas in such a way that they are easily demolished. It usually involves over-generalizing or mis-characterizing what they actually believe in order to debunk the concept. When two people debating an issue resort to straw-man arguments, they are not really listening to each other and dealing with what the other person actually believes. Instead, they are making up their own version of what the other person believes, which is usually an inaccurate and unflattering version. No wonder it’s easy—after you twist a person’s beliefs into something that they are not—to look at someone and say, “I could never believe what you believe!”

This happens far too much within the Christian community between brothers and sisters in Christ. It is not responsible and it is not loving. It devalues the truth and disrespects those who differ from us. We must avoid painting the beliefs of others in ways that are inaccurate.

Misrepresenting Complementarians and Egalitarians

Beliefs about gender fall along a spectrum. The problem is that many people put Complementarian on one side and Egalitarian on the other, as if they were the most extreme forms of polarization on the subject. But this is not the case! If we assume that at one extreme are Complementarians, and at the other are Egalitarians, then we leave no room left for abuses or mischaracterizations of either position.

For instance, one charge that might be levied against Egalitarianism is that it makes human beings essentially genderless. If men and women have no differences in role or duties, then they are basically indistinguishable from each other! And if that is the case, what prevents a Christian Egalitarian from affirming homosexuality? Or the idea of genderlessness?

Yet this is not true of most, if not all, Egalitarians. Egalitarians still believe there are some distinctions between men and women, though how they define that might be hard to pin down. But to take the position of Egalitarianism and stretch it out to its most extreme form is to do a disservice to the truth.

The same could be said of Complementarianism. One way that position is challenged is to say that Complementarianism puts women in abusive situations (by giving men leadership roles), or that it promotes inequality among the sexes. Yet neither of these are true. Complementarianism teaches that men, like Jesus, are servant-leaders, not abusers. And it teaches that, like God the Father and God the Son, men and women are equal in value but different in function. So to accuse otherwise is also to do a disservice to the truth.

Putting the Truth in its Place

As long as we have these theological differences and refuse to truly engage with one another in a way that is honest and respectful, we will never make much ground in the discussion. We will keep fighting against the mis-characterizations that we have formed about each other, rather than the actual concepts themselves. In my mind’s eye I see reality as something like this:

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[Keep in mind this chart is as simplistic as possible. It is designed to make a basic point. For example, it does not include extreme Feminism, another category altogether, and therefore I ask that you give some leeway for unmentioned nuances.]

Complementarian and Egalitarian are not polar extremes. To say that Egalitarians promote no gender distinction at all is to take their beliefs and stretch them out too far. Likewise, to say that Complementarians essentially promote abusive patriarchy is to take their beliefs and stretch them out too far. There is more breathing room in the middle than we realize. If we refuse to acknowledge that and talk about it with precision and clarity, we will never see much progress toward resolution in this area.

People are the Casualties

The world is changing quickly when it comes to our understanding of gender, and into this discussion the Christian community must raise it’s voice. Yet if we are too busy duking it out with one another—especially with unfair characterizations of each other—the people who will suffer are actual people who need help and guidance. The cost of our mistreatment of each other is the loss of thoughtful dialogue and, by extension, the loss of thoughtful and coherent biblical teaching for an entire generation. So what we could potentially have is a Church that can’t say anything helpful to the teenage boy who thinks he was born in the wrong body, or the 22-year-old newlywed wife who is trying to find her place in marriage, or the grade 8 boy who is trying to figure out what it means to be a man. While the world will have plenty of advice to offer, we can’t speak up because of our inability to even dialogue with each other.

Once again, I value people, the Church, and good theology. I think that a healthy church has good theology that leads to helping people. I aspire to be part of that kind of thing. I know that there are fellow believers with whom I would have some disagreement on how gender plays out from a biblical perspective, yet I hope that I never push aside their beliefs without giving them fair engagement or because I casually misrepresented them. A strong Church needs more than that from it’s people and for the people. Truth matters, and if we are comfortable exchanging it for an invented lie about each other we will hinder our ability to share God’s love with a broken world that so desperately needs it.

Can Christians Smoke Pot?

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With the stigma around marijuana quickly disappearing, and the movement towards legalization of not only medicinal but recreational use of it, Christians should be thoughtfully thinking about how they should respond to these trends. In the past, it was easy for Christians to denounce pot because it was illegal, and Christians are clearly taught in Scripture to obey the laws of the land (Romans 13:1, 1 Peter 2:13). But where marijuana becomes legalized, can and should Christians use it within legal bounds?

The Bible does not directly address if smoking pot is a sin. In such cases, it is helpful to use the instruction from 1 Corinthians 6:12, which gives the believer three important questions to ask themselves about any behaviour that the Bible doesn’t directly condone or prohibit. The passage says:

“All things are lawful for me,” but not all things are helpful. “All things are lawful for me,” but I will not be dominated by anything.

From this we can filter our question through three sets of criteria:

  1. Is it lawful?
  2. Is it helpful?
  3. Is it dominating/enslaving?

Let’s look at these one at a time.

Is it lawful?

Marijuana use is becoming legalized across North America. Depending where you live, you will need to check your own state or provincial laws to see what kind of marijuana consumption is legal in your area. Some still have no access, others have medicinal only, and others include legal recreational use. Even still, parameters are in place for legal consumption of marijuana—where and when and how and under what regulations you can grow or consume it. So to answer the question of “is it lawful?”, you will need to do your research.

Let’s just say that marijuana use is legal in your area. In that sense it is lawful. But is it lawful according to God’s law?

Some people quote Genesis 1:29 to say that the answer is yes. God declares “Behold, I have given you every plant yielding seed that is on the face of all the earth, and every tree with seed in its fruit. You shall have them for food.” So God gives mankind dominion over the vegetation of the whole earth for him to use. As such, some will argue that God gave us marijuana plants for our good. But does this argument hold?

In one sense, the answer is yes. God entrusted mankind with dominion over the earth. Creation is not only ours to steward, but ours to enjoy. So there is some truth to that claim. However, to say that this verse endorses smoking pot is a stretch. That is the case because God concludes by saying the vegetation was “for food”. The main idea then is that God is giving the human race the earth for sustenance. God does not have smoking pot for fun in mind. He has not starving in mind. So to take Genesis 1:29 and apply it to marijuana use is out of context.

Nevertheless, for the sake of argument, let’s say that God does indeed give us marijuana plants for our good. Using the 1 Corinthians 6:12 grid, we still have two more questions to answer.

Is it helpful?

Is marijuana use helpful? A recent report, which looked at 10,000 scientific studies of marijuana effects, concludes that there are only three definitive medical benefits of marijuana.

  • relieves chronic pain in adults
  • lessens chemotherapy-induced nausea and vomiting
  • relieves symptoms of multiple sclerosis

Beyond these, there is only moderate, limited, or no evidence at all that marijuana has benefits in a person’s life. In addition, the report concludes that there are also definitive negative side-effects from marijuana use.

  • Worsens respiratory problems, such as chronic bronchitis episodes
  • Increase in motor-vehicle accidents
  • Low birth weight in babies
  • Schizophrenia or other psychoses

Together, this data suggests that there are only a handful of instances where marijuana really is “helpful” to an individual.

Is it enslaving?

So even if marijuana use is legal and helpful, the question remains, is it enslaving? Some research suggests that it is. While there are some people who use recreational marijuana without feeling addicted, others struggle to stop if they attempt to do so. And even those who claim to not be addicted may not fully appreciate the level of dependence they have on pot.

Though it is not definitive, there is some evidence that suggests marijuana use can lead to other, more severe, forms of drug and alcohol abuse. At the very least, those who end up using hard substances almost always began with something softer, like smoking cigarettes and weed.

The science suggests that marijuana at best could be an enslaving substance. Therefore, it’s pretty hard to say that it’s consumption passes the “enslaving” criteria of Scripture.

One Other Thing to Consider

So unless you are an adult in terrible chronic pain, a chemotherapy patient, or have MS, there is very little reason for you to be using marijuana. But again, for argument’s sake, let’s just say that you somehow managed to convince yourself that smoking pot for fun passes the Scriptural grid of 1 Corinthians 6:12, let me ask you this:

What makes you feel the need to do it?

What about your life makes you feel like you need to get a high in order to feel better? What problem does smoking weed solve? Is there really no other solution that leads to a healthier outcome, and a more mature and stable you?

Here’s the truth: it just ain’t worth it. Even if you can justify in your own mind the use of marijuana, you have better things to do with your time, money, and body. Twenty years from now, the chances of you looking back and saying to yourself boy, I sure am glad I started smoking pot are pretty slim. You’re far more likely to say, I sure am glad I never got started or I sure am glad that I quit. 

Perhaps there are things going on in your life that make you want to get high. If so, I can understand the temptation to smoke those problems away. But here’s the thing: as soon as the high wears off, you’re right back where you started. Your problems are sitting there waiting for you again. So let me encourage you to deal with them another way. Get a counsellor, a mentor, a teacher, a parent, a pastor, a friend, or a coach who can help you develop yourself in a healthier fashion.

Be sober-minded; be watchful. Your adversary the devil prowls around like a roaring lion, seeking someone to devour. (1 Peter 5:8)

The gift of a sober mind is a wonderful thing. With it you can see clearly, make better decisions, and create a better life for yourself. Don’t take that gift and throw it away for a temporary fix. It just ain’t worth it.

Will We Recognize Each Other in Heaven?

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Art has done a lot to ruin the biblical image of heaven. Most images of heaven depict fat baby-people floating around in the clouds while playing harps. While this concept of heaven is common, it is anything but true. The Bible says nothing about heaven functioning as a place anything remotely like that…and thank the good Lord for that!

But because heaven is seen by many as this sort of ethereal, intangible existence, it has seriously messed up our picture of the place Jesus calls paradise. Though all Christians who die before the second coming of Christ are parted from their earthly bodies, that does not mean they continue on in some kind of completely non-physical or non-visual existence. Scripture says the opposite. Though deceased believers must wait until our bodies are resurrected to enjoy our fully redeemed and restored condition, those who are currently in heaven are still able to see and know each other, despite being separated from their earthly bodies.

A few examples from Scripture:

  • Abraham, Lazarus, and the rich man were all recognizable to each other after death (Luke 16:19-31). They all maintain their same identities, and are able to remember their past lives.
  • When Moses and Elijah appeared on the mount of transfiguration, they were recognizable to Jesus, Peter, James, and John (Matthew 17:3-4). In fact, this may indicate that we will somehow be able to immediately recognize people we have never even met before, since the disciples lived hundreds of years after these two men had walked the earth.
  • A post-death appearance of Samuel the prophet was recognizable to king Saul (1 Samuel 28:8-17).
  • Christians who have been martyred were seen by John the apostle during his heavenly vision in Revelation 6:9-11. These “souls” were “crying out”, meaning they could express themselves. They asked God when he would “avenge their blood”, meaning they could remember that they had been killed on earth, and were aware that God had not yet brought judgment on the earth. They were “each given a white robe”, which means they have some sort of out-of-their-earthly-body existence that still makes them visible and able to wear clothing. They were “told to wait a little longer”, which means even in heaven there is some concept of time.
  • 1 Corinthians 13:12 says “For now we see in a mirror dimly, but then face to face. Now I know in part; then I shall know fully, even as I have been fully known.” When we get to heaven and see Jesus face to face, our knowledge will increase, not decrease. Our awareness of God, ourselves, and each other will be clear, not muddled like it currently is.

All of these and more seem to make it clear that heaven is a place where people keep their earthly identities and memories. We do not transform into different people or become reincarnated. Rather, we are there who we are now, but separated from our earthly bodies (until they are resurrected at Jesus’ second coming, 1 Thessalonians 4:13-18), and away from the curse of sin on the earth. We will know each other and be known by each other, and will only grow in that knowledge for the rest of eternity.

Two Leadership Pitfalls to Avoid

Like many things in life, leadership styles tend to default toward extremes. Just as a person needs to balance things like hard work and rest, seriousness and levity, intellect and emotion, so leaders need to guard their leadership from falling into equal but opposite dangers.

The Timid Leader

Some leaders are simply too timid. Part of the calling of leadership is courage, assertiveness, and the ability to get it done. Leadership is inherently results-driven. The whole point of leadership is to move others toward a common goal, and if leaders are too timid, they will inevitably fail at what they are called to do.

A lack of leadership always creates a vacuum. If the appointed leader is too timid in carrying out their charges, someone else will step up and exert their own influence, even if they are never actually identified as the new “leader”. This happens in organizations and in churches all the time.

Some leaders are far too passive and lack the passion, zeal, and grit to carry out their responsibilities. Leadership is hard work, lonely, and emotionally draining. As such, many leaders are tempted to coast and settle for second-best. Over time, if not checked, this habit will strip a leader of their ability to influence others, and rather than driving the mission forward, they become a manager of the status quo.

Leaders with passive personalities, fear-of-man issues, and overly-sensitive egos are particularly prone to become too timid. It is important for every leader to know their own weaknesses and face them accordingly. Do you prefer to let others take the reigns simply because you are lazy? Do you take the path of least resistance? Are you afraid of making tough choices because of how others might respond to them? Do you get all worked up at conflict or criticism?

If so, that’s okay—we all have weaknesses—but you can’t let it control you. Leaders must be aware of their vulnerable spots and work on them. They must do the hard work of getting outside of their comfort zone on a regular basis and doing that which scares them.

The Tyrant Leader

On the other hand, some leaders use their power to become tyrants. They never feel timid or shy about exercising their authority. Instead, they over-use it to the point of crushing people. Tyrant leaders tend to have dominant personalities, and they don’t back down from a challenge. Unfortunately, this aggression can get the better of them. And while they are no doubt effective and moving things forward, they run over people in the process.

Christian leadership is unique from other forms of leadership in that the main “product” is people. We are not striving for bottom-lines or technological advancements, but spiritual life and growth in human beings. Therefore, if a leader runs over people in pursuit of a goal, they are pursuing the wrong goal.

Christian leaders who lean toward being more tyrant than timid need to be aware of their own weaknesses too. Tyrant leaders are often combative, unnecessarily harsh, and unable to discern when a tender word might be more effective than a harsh rebuke. After all, Jesus used both in his encounters with people.

Though it may not seem like it, tyrant leaders struggle with the same thing timid leaders do: fear. While fear causes the timid leader to shut down, it causes the tyrant leader to put up his dukes. As they say: fight or flight! Tyrant leaders fear failure, or sometimes they deal with insecurities that cause them to get their back up at perceived threats. Like timid leaders, they need to be aware of their own weaknesses and combat them directly.

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Leadership in Balance

Healthy leaders are those that are neither timid nor tyrants. They aren’t overly soft, and they aren’t overly hard. They find the proper balance in the middle, where they are able to be firm but understanding, confident but humble, assertive but caring. They put people in places where they can flourish and contribute. Sometimes a leader needs to stick to their guns and not cave to what others think; other times they need to be more open-minded to the ideas of people around them. Discernment, humility, and wisdom are key to good leadership. These skills take time to hone, but a good leader is pressing after them.

While no leader will ever strike the perfect balance, we all need to keep away from the extremes we naturally gravitate towards. If leaders will allow God to guide them and speak to them, he will use imperfect people like us to advance the most important task on the planet, for the salvation of souls and the praise of his glory, not our own.

Reflection Questions

  1. Which do you naturally gravitate towards being: timid or tyrant?
  2. What tendencies make you come to that conclusion?
  3. Think of one or two examples when being too extreme caused a negative effect in your leadership. How could things have gone differently if you kept a better balance?
  4. What fears drive your leadership decisions?
  5. What is one practical thing you can do to avoid going overboard in your leadership style?

Canadian Teens: “I’m not the same person on Instagram that I am in real life”

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It’s a changing world out there.

The National Post came out with a new study focusing on the online lives of teen guys in Canada. The study set out to discover what the digital world is like for today’s young men. When I read the article (which is composed 90% of quotes from teenagers), I was not shocked as much as I was saddened. As a youth pastor, I have seen the dark side of the digital revolution in the lives of young people close-up. It’s an ugly thing to behold. But when you listen to teenagers talk so frankly about the strange world that they are growing up in, and all of the ways they interact with it and how it affects them, it really does make your stomach turn.

The following are a few of my reflections on the article. However I would strongly encourage you to read it first—you can do so by clicking HERE.

  1. Online experiences are not all the same. Some of the teens quoted talk about how bullying or sexting dominate their digital lives. Others say they have never experienced either of these phenomenons. The internet seems to open up different worlds to different people. What causes this is not really known. Is it what the individual teens are willing to engage in? Is it the peer group to which they belong? Does their age, race, social status etc. have anything to do with it? It probably is a combination of factors. But one thing is clear: it would be a mistake to assume that one person’s online experience is everyone’s online experience.
  2. Many young people live dual lives. A common thread revealed in the study is that teens live in two worlds: the real one (home, school, sports, work) and the online one. For many, this is more than a different life experience. It is two different lives altogether. A lot of teens admit they are different people in person than they are online. This is concerning on many levels. But adults should be aware that just because a young person exhibits a particular character in person does not necessarily mean that is reflected in their online engagements.
  3. Sex is everywhere. No surprise here: sex dominates the internet. But it’s not just pornography that is out there; much of the sex that teens interact with online comes from people they know. Sending nude pictures (or at least sexually suggestive ones) is shockingly commonplace. One teen quoted in the study talks about getting many different nude pics from girls he knows and almost yawns at it. There’s so much out there that it seems boring. Whether or not teens are intentionally seeking out sexual content or simply stumbling across it, there’s no doubt that the internet and social media are overly-sexualized places.
  4. There’s so much pressure. Teen after teen talk about the pressure that comes in the digital world. Girls are pressured to be sexy. Guys are pressured to be macho. Everyone is pressured to be popular. In short, the social media experience for many teens is not a particularly enjoyable one. It’s actually more like a chore. The need to have a perfected online presence is dominant and leads young people to compromise on their values and stress out to get it.
  5. Fame is where it’s at. Speaking of popularity….social media is built on idea that everyone deserves to have themselves put out there, and the false premise that the world out there actually cares. The craving for likes and retweets becomes possessive for some. And this is starting at a younger and younger age. The Washington Post recently ran an article about the rise of kid bloggers and vloggers that I could barely get through without cringing to death. It’s so sad, but far too many young people build their lives on the approval of people they’ll never even meet.
  6. Teens are aware of the dangers, but often don’t heed them. One teen in the study tells how he started sharing nude pics with someone online who said they were a 16 year-old girl. Yet when he asked for some in return, she found reason after reason to decline. He says that he started to suspect that this person could be a 40 year-old man for all he knows….yet he still sends nude pictures to people online. This is just one head-scratching example of how young people are aware of the dangers of the internet, yet still use it in unsafe ways.
  7. Parents need to know what’s up. If there is any takeaway from this piece for those of us with young people in our care, it’s that we need to know what is going on in the digital lives of the teens that we care for. Not that we need to be a part of every single detail—to do so is virtually impossible—but we need to create ways to keep healthy dialogue open and aim to set good boundaries. This is easier said than done, but it is simply too important for us to ignore.

The world is an ugly place. Many teens are encountering it at a life-stage where they simply lack the maturity, wisdom, and self-confidence to make good decisions. The internet and social media has caused the veil to be lifted on the more perverse and debased sides of humanity, and literally millions of young people are being invited into this world and swept up in it. There’s probably not a lot we can do on a global scale to stop this, but there are little things we can do on a smaller scale. We can love teens. We can give them attention. We can affirm their admirable qualities. We can help them develop as human beings. We can provide healthy outlets for creativity and invention. We can make their real lives so fulfilling that their online one doesn’t dominate them. If we each do our part, we may not be able to change the world for everyone, but perhaps we can change the world for someone. And that is worth fighting for.

Finding Truth in a Post-Truth World

oxford

Oxford Dictionaries recently announced that their word of the year for 2016 is “post-truth”. The term is defined as “relating to or denoting circumstances in which objective facts are less influential in shaping public opinion than appeals to emotion and personal belief”. In other words, it means that people are more likely to form their beliefs not based on objective truth but on their own subjective feelings.

In my estimation, post-truth is a fitting choice for word of the year, because it captures a lot of how we see modern-day society functioning. While science is often championed as the conqueror over religion, you would think that would lead to a society that values objective truth over such flighty things as feelings. Yet that is not the case at all. We have a culture that is simultaneously jettisoning religion under the banner of science and reason while at the same time discovering and structuring values based on anything but science and reason.

In a sermon I preached on this subject recently, I used the example of Harambe. In case you missed it, in May of 2016 a three-year-old child managed to climb into the gorilla exhibit at the Cincinnati Zoo and was the subject of one curious gorilla named Harambe. The child was in the enclosure for about 10 minutes, during which time the animal, on a few different occasions, grabbed the child by the leg and dragged him through the moat, coming perilously close to whacking the child’s head against rocks in the process. And while the gorilla seemed to have no particular interest in harming the child, it is also obvious that the child’s safety was in danger, and as a result the zoo staff shot and killed Harambe to save the boy’s life.

harambe

Given the outcry from much of the public over the killing, you would think that a living legend had been unjustly shot down in the streets by bloodthirsty gang members. Harambe became an overnight celebrity, dominating internet conversation and social media outlets, having statues erected in his memory, and launching a variety of Harambe-themed memorabilia for purchase. In addition, both the parents and the zoo came under severe criticism. A petition was started to have the “negligent” parents charged for the gorilla’s murder. Likewise, the zoo staff were subject to critique by those who felt that other measures could have been taken in order to spare the gorilla’s life.

However, this response seems to be out-of-step with the reality of the situation. What we know about the facts of the incident help us get a better picture of what was really going on here.

  • Fact: The gorilla enclosure met zoo safety regulation standards and was inspected at least twice a year.
  • Fact: The enclosure had never been breached in the 38 years of existence at the Cincinnati Zoo.
  • Fact: Silverback gorillas possess the strength of six men and can literally crush a coconut with one hand.
  • Fact: A three-year-old child being dragged by such an animal in a terrain of water, rocks, and trees is in significant danger of being harmed or killed.
  • Fact: The zoo staff rang the gong that the gorilla’s are trained to respond to by going into the inner part of the enclosure. Two of the gorillas obeyed; Harambe uncharacteristically did not.
  • Fact: Tranquilizing an animal of that size takes about 10 minutes to take effect. It also (not surprisingly) agitates the animal and can make them aggressive.
  • Fact: No one knew the behaviour of Harambe better than his keepers, who are on record as saying he was confused and acting erratically.
  • Fact: Most of the people who criticized the zoo know nothing about gorillas and had never seen Harambe in person.
  • Fact: No one wanted to shoot the gorilla less than the zoo staff who have dedicated their lives to his survival and care.

All of this is to say that, using this story as an exemplary scenario, we can see how the world that we live in is increasingly post-truth. Facts don’t shape public opinion. Feelings do.

grinch

And an entire generation that grew up watching Tarzan be raised by animated gorillas is evidently not prepared to recognize the obvious: that a child’s life was in serious danger, and shooting the animal was an unfortunate but necessary course of action.

The situation we find ourselves in is of our own creation. We have done this to ourselves. When we set up our highest educational institutions to teach young people that truth doesn’t exist and is only relative, we can only look into the cultural mirror to find the culprit of fostering such insanity. The same professor who lectures at length about how there is no such thing as objective truth goes home and grounds his 12 year-old for not obeying his order to clean his room. How badly I want that child to turn to his hypocritical father and declare, “clean is relative”. While there are obviously situations where truth is relative (saying “Tommy is tall” only is true in relation to what you are comparing him to), it is also true that as a society we live with basic agreed upon standards of measurement that help us function in everyday life. Sure, it is technically true that “clean is relative”, but the father can retort with “you know what I meant” and still enforce a fair punishment, knowing full-well that his son knows full-well what he meant by the command “clean your room”.

Truth is real. There is such a thing as objective reality. And if we dispense with such a notion, we do so at our own peril. We do so with great hypocrisy, since every person on the planet functions in everyday life as if truth were a knowable reality.

While it is bothersome that the wider culture is willing to embrace such nonsense, it is truly unconscionable that this has crept into the Christian church. The church is supposed to be a pillar and buttress of truth (1 Timothy 3:15), and yet has capitulated to the sway of society on such essential grounds as the existence of truth. While many Christians will not come out with the boldness of Pontius Pilate and snidely retort “What is truth?” in the face of Jesus, our actions and words still send a similar message. Far too much of the Christian church has done away with or minimized the importance and knowability of truth. Scripture warns that such a thing would occur:

For the time is coming when people will not endure sound teaching, but having itching ears they will accumulate for themselves teachers to suit their own passions, and will turn away from listening to the truth and wander off into myths. (2 Timothy 4:3-4)

An increasing number of people within the church will grow tired of the truth, and will seek out teachers and preachers who will instead affirm what their sinful hearts already want to hear. So now we have Christian leaders who will bless homosexuality, embrace the equality of all religions, and deny the existence of hell. Why? Not because such things are true (they aren’t), but because that’s what will scratch people where they itch. Ungodly church leadership has cowered under the pressure of society’s expectations and morphed the message of the gospel into something that it isn’t.

We are post-truth because the truth confronts us. It forces us to humble ourselves and change, but we are simply unwilling to do so. As a result, we conveniently discard the truth and replace it with our own subjective feelings. We take as real whatever goes along with our momentary whims. But we are injuring ourselves as a result. Human beings were not meant to flourish under the cloud of deception. They were meant to flourish in the light of truth. We do ourselves a disservice when we put our own feelings above the truth. It can lead to nothing but self-destruction on both an individual and cultural level.

My plea is that we would become lovers of the truth. That we would allow the truth to confront our false beliefs and distorted feelings and rather than resist it, embrace it. In doing so we will experience what Jesus himself promised, that we would know the truth, and have the truth set us free.

4 Kinds of Churches

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Churches come in all shapes, styles, and sizes, and we should not judge churches based on such trivial matters as these. But that is not to say that all churches are equal. Quite the contrary, not all churches are equal, as can be seen by reading Jesus’ scathing reviews of seven churches in Revelation 2 and 3. The reality is that some churches are better than others, but the question is, how can we evaluate that?

Here I propose one model of evaluation. It is not the model, but hopefully it is a helpful model in terms of simplicity and usefulness. I am suggesting that we judge churches based on three different categories of Christian life, and how those three categories relate to each other. These categories first came to me from Mark Yarhouse, though I am not sure if they are his idea or taken from elsewhere. Nevertheless, it has helped me think through what makes churches stack up so differently from one another.

Category #1 – Believe

True Christianity is comprised in part of true doctrine. To be a believer, one must necessarily believe certain things. This is one category of Christian living.

Category #2 – Behave

True Christianity also contains a set of moral standards for our behaviour. It is not enough to just believe the right things, because our actions must line up with our knowledge. This is another category of Christian living.

Category #3 – Belong

Churches are by definition communities. They are partly social entities where relationships can and should be fostered. Having a church family is a necessary component of the Christian life.


Using these three categories and how they relate to one another, we can determine four basic kinds of churches and better understand how they function.

The Fundamentalist Church

behave –> belong

I use the word fundamentalist here in a negative sense. A fundamentalist church’s top priority is morality. They place a premium on Christian ethical standards and demand people live up to them—even if those people are not Christians. These are the churches that try to impose their moral views on the culture around them, and once people shape up, then they are permitted to be a part of the church. You belong only once you behave the way we demand. In many fundamentalist churches, whether or not someone actually believes the gospel is not that important. In fact, these churches don’t really seem to understand what the gospel is anyways. They are likened to the Pharisees of the New Testament, focused on external obedience and not inward renewal.

The Liberal Church

belong

Liberal churches are really not that interested in doctrine. They usually follow the sway of culture when it comes to their beliefs and moral standards. All they really want is to create a place where anyone can belong. They are driven by relationships at the expense of truth and holiness. Their goal is not to make people feel welcome in order to share the gospel with them, as much as to make people feel comfortable for the sake of personal peace and happiness. The language of Christianity—Jesus, love, grace—is mainly a veneer to make it seem like biblical Christianity, when in reality it is not.

The Safe Church

behave –> believe –> belong

The safe church is truly interested in evangelism. They want people to receive the gospel and so be saved. The problem is that they are only willing to tolerate non-Christians who are already relatively moral people. If you are basically an upstanding citizen, then you are welcome within our walls. Once there, we aim for your conversion, at which point you really become one of us. But if you are someone who is inconvenient to love and don’t present an aura of respectability when you first show up, then you will find these churches a lot more reluctant to take on a messy challenge like the one you present.

The Missional Church

belong –> believe –> behave

The missional church, like the safe church, desires true conversion. But they are willing to bring among them people who are far from God right away, without any moral standards being imposed on them first. Missional churches are full of people you might never expect to be in church, because they are willing to accept you as you are in order to be one of them. But they also have no intention of letting you stay where you are; they want to see you repent of sin and come to faith in Christ, and then out of that genuine faith grow in a life of holiness. In other words, missional churches open their doors to anyone, trusting that God will, in his own timing, bring about true faith and a life of change.


I suppose that this 3-category model could help define several other types of churches. I also suppose that this model force-fits certain churches into overly-simplified characterizations that lack nuance. Any time to you try to simplify things, it will have limitations. Yet I have found that how churches relate the categories of belief, behaviour, and belonging is important and clarifying.

In my own estimation, the missional church is the closest model to biblical Christianity. Christ himself was often chastised for hanging out with social outcasts, the tax collectors and Pharisees of his day. He did this before they repented of sin, and before they believed on him for salvation. This means that we must give people a place to belong and forge relationships just as they are.

But Jesus wasn’t just into relationships for the sake of relationships. He had an end goal in mind. He desired their repentance and faith. He wanted people to be born-again and then walk in the new life that the Spirit had wrought in their hearts. And as best as I can tell, that means Jesus exemplified the model of belong –> believe –> behave. If I am accurate in my assessment, then I hope to be a part of a church that follows Christ’s lead. The term “missional” is disposable; it’s the concept that matters. But if missional is a word that captures the essence of the ministry of Jesus, then I hope to imitate it as best as I can and facilitate a church that does the same.

 

The Self-Centred Gospel of Glennon Doyle Melton

Image from oprah.com

Image from oprah.com

The book of Jude is one of the most interesting in the New Testament. This short epistle opens up by Jude explaining that he is going to address an ugly, controversial issue (false teachers in the church) because he feels like he has to, though he would much rather write about the great gift of salvation in Christ.

Beloved, although I was very eager to write to you about our common salvation, I found it necessary to write appealing to you to contend for the faith that was once for all delivered to the saints. (Jude 1:3)

I feel the exact same way whenever I write something like this. I don’t like to criticize people. I don’t like to do the ugly, controversial work of saying negative things about other people. But sometimes it can be necessary for the greater good. I hope that this is the case here.

Glennon Doyle Melton became famous in Christian circles first for her “mommy blog”, where she writes mainly for women on all sorts of subjects, from housework to body image to family to addictions. Her audience grew quickly, and it is estimated that her blog reaches roughly 7 million readers per week. Since then she’s written 3 books, her most recent of which has become a New York Times best-seller and is part of the Oprah Book Club. She also is a frequent guest speaker, particularly at women’s conferences. Simply put, her voice is out there and has influence on a lot of people.

There’s a lot to like about Glennon. She’s an extremely gifted writer; articulate, winsome, and witty. When reading her, there’s absolutely no doubt that she is a caring person and genuinely wants to help people. Her writing is shockingly vulnerable, brutally honest almost to a fault. But that is part of the attraction—as she opens up about all the ups and downs of her personal life, it resonates with others who face similar obstacles. No topic is off limits with her, as she talks openly about her struggles with alcoholism, binge-eating, mental illness, thoughts of suicide, and significant marital strife.

Her message is one of unconditional love and acceptance, both of others and of self. This combination of gifted writing, openness on issues many are hush-hush about, and positivity, makes for quite the enjoyable recipe. No wonder her impact has spread so far.

But therein lies the problem. While Doyle Melton sets out to free women from their own self-made cages, she does so in a way that is, in my own estimation, entirely unbiblical. This would be no big deal except that Glennon absolutely professes to be a follower of Christ. It’s one thing to get false messages from unbelievers, but when it comes from within the church, that’s a whole different story.

There are a few reasons why Glennon’s influence worries me. For one, before the release of her latest book—in which she details at length the struggles of her marriage including her husband’s porn addiction and adultery—she announced on her blog that she was leaving her husband. This seems strange, since the book was largely about not giving up on a rocky marriage. She explains on her blog:

But what can happen over time is this: You wake up one day and realize that you have put yourself back together completely differently. That you are whole, finally, and strong – but you are now a different shape, a different size. This sort of change — the change that occurs when you sit inside your own pain — it’s revolutionary. When you let yourself die, there is suddenly one day: new life. You are Different. New. And no matter how hard you try, you simply cannot fit into your old life anymore. You are like a snake trying to fit into old, dead skin, or a butterfly trying to crawl back into the cocoon, or new wine trying to pour itself back into an old wineskin. This new you is equal parts undeniable and terrifying.

Because you just do not fit. And suddenly you know that. And you have become a woman who doesn’t ignore her knowing. Who doesn’t pretend she doesn’t know. Because pretending makes you sick. And because you never promised yourself an easy life, but you did promise yourself a true one. You did promise – back when you were putting yourself back together – that you’d never betray you again.

Now, far be it from me to accuse her of a wrongful divorce. She technically has biblical grounds for a divorce. But what seems strange is that this happens after her and her husband started to heal their relationship. And the explanation she gives quoted above is mainly about herself: how staying in a relationship where she didn’t fit would be a betrayal of the new, true her.

Perhaps you could argue that I’m being too harsh or reading between the lines too much. And you might be justified in saying that, up to this point. But the plot twist that comes next changes the story. Glennon announced earlier this month on her Facebook page that she is in a relationship (only a few months after leaving her husband) with a woman. Actually, not that it necessarily matters, with a famous female soccer player. Then again, maybe it does matter. She explains:

Now we are entering a new time which calls for a different type of leadership. And now it is my job as a leader not to concern myself too deeply about what you think and feel about me- about the way I live my life. That is what I want to model now, because that is what I want for YOU: I want you to grow so comfortable in your own being, your own skin, your own knowing – that you become more interested in your own joy and freedom and integrity than in what others think about you. That you remember that you only live once, that this is not a dress rehearsal and so you must BE who you are. I want you to refuse to betray yourself. Not just for you. For ALL OF US. Because what the world needs — in order to grow, in order to relax, in order to find peace, in order to become brave — is to watch one woman at a time live her truth without asking for permission or offering explanation. The most revolutionary thing a woman can do is not explain herself.

These are startling words coming from a Christian leader. Essentially she says that she gets to do whatever she thinks will bring her the most fulfillment and peace in life, and she doesn’t give a rip about what you think because she doesn’t answer to you. And, on top of that, you don’t answer to anyone either, so don’t feel like you ever need to explain yourself or justify your actions to anyone.

While there is a measure of truth in living by your own convictions, and not letting others around you dictate your life, there is also an extreme in the other direction to be avoided. The reality is that Christians are accountable to one another. We are supposed to hold each other to biblical standards of morality and doctrine. We do answer to God and to each other. God has placed us in communities of accountability for our own good. Yet Doyle Melton seems bent on removing any sense of accountability whatsoever. She’s advocating for a kind of moral code that sees the highest good as pleasing yourself and being true to who you are, despite any objections from others. While this may sound good to the ears, it is most certainly not biblical Christianity.

This pains me because this kind of self-centred gospel of freedom offers no gospel and no freedom at all. Christ did not call us to be true to ourselves, but rather to deny ourselves. In doing so, he promised we would find true life (Mark 8:34-35). This means that what Glennon advocates for is the exact opposite of what Christ calls us to. She offers not the denial of self, but the unmitigated fulfillment of self. And she suggests that in being true to ourselves we will find life, when in fact Jesus promises that in doing so we would lose it. Plainly speaking, she is someone who is inverting the message of Jesus Christ while doing so as a “Christian leader”. Therefore, we have an obligation to say it like it is: Glennon Doyle Melton is a false teacher leading people away from Christ, not towards him.

I hope that does not remain the case. I hope that she repents and discovers that the true life she seeks will come from an unwavering commitment to Christ, and not to self. I hope that she will realize that the glory of God is the goal of every Christian, and that pursuing that goal, even at great cost to oneself, is the most fulfilling life possible.

There are other issues that I’ve seen in her life and teachings. She advocates for a sort of social gospel. She refers to God as “her”. She evidently believes that same-sex relationships are morally acceptable in God’s eyes. But as I see it, these are merely symptoms of a heart that is refusing to adopt the Lordship of Christ in every area of life, and a penchant for self-love at the expense of how it may affect others or rob God of glory. It’s unfortunate, but I hope it’s not the last chapter of her story.

I really don’t like saying these kinds of things. I would much rather talk about Christ, his sacrificial love for sinners like Glennon and you and I, his death on the cross to forgive our sins. I would much rather praise God and tell of his greatness, that he offers eternal life to all those who repent and believe the gospel. But sometimes there are moments when, like Jude says, it is necessary to address a pressing problem. I hope that I have done so in a spirit of fairness and truth and love. I sincerely hope that Glennon finds what she is looking for, though I am sure she is looking for it in the wrong places. As she wrote about her new lesbian relationship:

What I need you to know — and what I know you need to know — is that I am deeply, finally, FINE. Fine through my bones and soul and mind and just every fiber of me.

Sadly, what she fails to see is that her new lover isn’t what will finally make her “fine”. The wholeness that she wrongly believes she has found in her girlfriend is only found in Christ. Not only do I pray that she comes to that realization, I pray that those who are influenced by her would be led by God to discover the truth.

Christ is better than anything this world has to offer. The only way we can have him and experience life to fullest is to get outside of our own self-centred world and value Jesus above all else. May we have eyes to see and ears to hear what God would have to say to us in his Word, and not be led astray by our own selfish desires.