Getting Angry

I recently started doctoral classes alongside a couple dozen other pastors. In a discussion we were having on shepherding, I asked a question of the professor about when it honors the Lord to get angry. I felt sort of stupid later as I had to rephrase the question a number of times, and in the end had it mostly passed by. It seemed like a legitimate question to me. I had just received information about good friends and ministry partners who had been devastated by sin. I was angry … righteously angry, I think!

We come to Matthew 21 where Jesus cleanses the Temple and we are uncomfortable with his anger. We find ways to explain it to the glory of God – Zeal for His Father’s house, a passion for holiness, and things like that. Yet it’s almost as if we feel the need to make excuses for Jesus not being the meek and mild guy holding sheep and touching the heads of children. My friends, I think we have t0 get a better grasp on this one. We get angry for all the wrong reasons, and not angry when we should be.

Too Quick to Anger 

The Psalmist repeatedly commends the patient nature of God to us – “The LORD is gracious and merciful, slow to anger and abounding in steadfast love” (Psalms 145:8). James correctly warns us to “be quick to hear, slow to speak, slow to anger” (James 1:19). No doubt the heart of God is full of grace to His own. He is patient with us wayward rascals, and we are to likewise “be tenderhearted, forgiving one another, as God in Christ forgave you” (Ephesians 4:32). We get angry over all the wrong things. That person doesn’t treat us respectfully and our pride lashes out. The situation spins wildly out of control and we look for someone to blame. Or maybe we just feel afraid, and anger makes it feel easier (and safer) to deal with the things we have no control over. Whatever the case may be, we do choose anger far too quickly … yes you choose it!

Too Slow to Anger 

But back to my classroom question. My concern is how rarely we get angry about the ravishing effects of sin on image-bearers. I’ve been doing ministry long enough to see my share of trauma, abuse, abandonment, hypocrisy and lies. It makes me mad. It makes me want to “flip tables over” when I see the damaging effects of sin on people I care about. So does the Bible have much to say about this? I think it does, but we feel really uncomfortable with this emotion. Take for example the section of Psalms called the imprecatory Psalms. “Pour out your indignation upon them, and let your burning anger overtake them” (Psalms 69:24). We see the honest cries of men who saw the injustice and mistreatment of people and called out for God to judge. They fought taking matters into their own hands, but responded with the holy heart of God. They cared about God’s glory, as well as the destructive evil of personal and corporate sin in those around them. Wasn’t this what fueled the righteous anger of Jesus too?

Switch Up Your Anger 

We seem to have it all backwards. Most people get angry and sin, rather than seeing sin and getting angry. Of course this is dangerous territory because we don’t always see so clearly. It is a hazy line sometimes between being impacted by people’s sin and responding in the flesh, or seeing sin’s effects and righteously responding with a Spirit-filled passion. Solomon provides a helpful warning – “Be not quick in your spirit to become angry, for anger lodges in the heart of fools.” (Ecclesiastes 7:9). What starts as a good compassionate response can lodge in bad places that fuel sinful anger. Be careful, but be bothered. As lovers of God, we need to not only have God’s heart of patience and grace, but God’s heart for those we love who are deeply impacted by the wickedness of sin. I encourage you to wrestle with this one a step further in your own life, friendships, and ministry.

The Antidotes to Self-Trust

Nobody has to teach you to be mistrusting of others, it comes fairly naturally to the human heart that has been hurt … and who hasn’t been hurt.  No child has perfect parents (if they know their parents), no individual has a perfect spouse (if they are married), no employee has a perfect boss (if they work), no church-goer has perfect leaders (if they attend church) and no friend has perfect companions (if they have some friends) … period.

Just what is the problem that this creates? There are scores of problems arising from these situations – loneliness, abandonment, fear, worry, on and on that list can go.  But what is the problem? I would argue that the default response of the sinful human heart in these situations is self-trust.  Often times that is a conscience choice to push people away who caused hurt, and other times it’s not so deliberate.  Sometimes it’s done with a sinful rejection of those who don’t measure up to your god-like standard, and other times it is actually wisdom to flee violent or abusive situations.  Whatever the specifics of the case may be, in every case the thoughtful child of God needs to do battle against the leanings of their heart to only call yourself (and yourself alone) safe.

In one respect, it’s true – nobody out there is safe.  But the answer is not to push everyone away and opt for selfish isolation, but to stop expecting everyone around you to act like a savior full of endless grace and truth in glorious perfection.  Yet there are ‘safe people’ out there.  People who imperfectly love their Creator and are willing to imperfectly love you.  So, if that’s true how do we do battle against the idols of our heart which are all rooted in self-trust?

Antidote #1: Listen and Remember

The history of the nations of Israel and Judah are cyclical stories of stubbornness and forgetfulness.  God’s power is put on display for they to unmistakably see and yet they choose self, they choose their strategies and tactics for survival and significance.  He brings the firm and loving discipline of a Father who will not let them go, a remnant awakens to his promises and returns to Him.  From the wilderness wanderings, to the conquest of the land, to the period of the judges, to the monarchy, to the divided kingdom, to their captivities and the words of the prophets … it all says the same thing – “Listen to your God you stiff-necked rebels, and remember all that He has done and promised to do … and worship and obey!”  The New Testament writers say the same thing – “Therefore we must pay must closer attention to what we have heard, lest we drift away from it” (Hebrews 2:1).  Do you want to fight the self-trusting nature of your soul? Listen to, and remember, your Creator who says – “This is who I am, and this is what I’ve done … you can trust me!”

Antidote #2: Repent and Pray

My teenage son recently bemoaned the fact that he knows that adults aren’t perfect and that they sin, but that he doesn’t see them express that or own it very often.  Ouch!  Ouch to my own soul.  I want my wife and kids to think I’m perfect, but not expect me to be.  I want them to think I’m humble, but not expect me to repent before them.  Yeah, I know – pretty jacked up.  If I’m listening with a soft heart to my Heavenly Father then I will be the earthly father that repents of his own self-trust.  If I’m remembering the goodness of God to me in forgiveness and grace, then I will be a man who runs to Him for more of it – repentance and prayer.  When you and I aren’t quick to see our own sin and turn from it we are trusting in our own thoughts, words, or merit to deal with where we violated the heart and law of God.  And when we aren’t quick to pray, we are trusting our ability to handle the situation, carry the burden, and manage the fallout better than the Lord.  Do you want to fight the self-trust that comes second-nature to you? Process repentance before the Lord and openly with others, and talk to God about the trustworthy nature of His character to you.

Antidote #3: Doubt and Invite 

For all that can be said of self-trust (and lots can be said), perhaps one of the most foundational realities is that you aren’t trustworthy either.  It’s true.  You think you can trust yourself, your judgement, and your motives … but you can’t.  You are just like the next guy who you don’t trust.  It’s just such a greater draw to trust yourself than the next guy because you are in control.  The burden of success and failure is on you and nobody else … and you’re willing to live with that.  But be certain of one thing – You are made of the same stuff as that person who hurt you last year or last week.  Part of my repentance must be exchanging self-trust for self-doubt.  How’s that for an uplifting self-esteem message?  Actually I find it quite freeing personally.  I’m no savior, no perfect parent or perfect husband, certainly not a perfect preacher or all-wise counselor.  In my doubting of self, I am not doubting God’s work in me, His gifts to me, my identity as valued and loved, or the influence He has entrusted to me.  I am just saying that trusting Him is always the better option than trusting me.  And in that obedient doubting I get to invite the care, wisdom, and resources of Him and others to move me forward.  What a bargain: I’m free of putting all the weight on my shoulders, and I get the “light burden” (Matthew 11:28-30) of trusting Him.

These antidotes aren’t a “one-time” shot given at the travel clinic before boarding your international flight.  Rather they are required in “daily doses” for our spiritual health and vitality.  So take your medicine and enjoy the freedom it brings!

 

Talking To Your Kids About Gender

It really was the case that from the minute Michelle and I got married we had great Godly people around us modeling marriage and family. By the time we were preparing for our first child to enter the world we had watched moms and dads around us closely, taken a couple parenting classes, and drilled our close friends as to the “keys to successful parenting”. But nothing really prepared me for the conversation I had with a few of my kids the other day.

Friday mornings are Dunkin Donut time with our three middle-schoolers. Some mornings we just hang out, other mornings we read theology for kids, or mom takes the girls and I take the boys and we talk “boy talk” or “girl talk”. This past Friday as my son and I sat in one corner, a young man who I had counseled a number of times in previous years came over and said hello to me. It took me about thirty seconds into the conversation before I realized who I was speaking with. This young man was now identifying himself as a transgender woman. I had heard he had made this decision but hadn’t yet bumped into him since this decision had been made. We chatted briefly and shortly thereafter we left to get the kids to school. Once we got in the car I tried to keep conversation going hoping that my kids wouldn’t press in and ask too many questions about my previous encounter. Of course they did … this is 2016 and my kids go to public school, we have a television in our home, and they are generally pretty observant teenagers. I hadn’t rehearsed this “lesson” in my parenting arsenal. Talking to my kids about transgender issues wasn’t in the parenting class Michelle and I took years ago. But here’s what I said:

God Creates Gender

I reminded my kids that way back in the early pages of Genesis it says that God created gender … “male and female he created them” (Genesis 1:27). We don’t get to choose our gender. Whether someone is a male or a female is in the creative power and wisdom of God. Someone may struggle “feeling” male or female, but that doesn’t make him or her a gender different than God created him or her. In the beginning God determined that two different sexes were the perfect expression of the image of God. That in the man and in the woman God’s image is displayed, both as an individual and in the way they relate to each other as same (human), and as distinct (gender). One is not better than the other, nor did God design a way for mankind to switch between the two genders.

We All Struggle With Identity

I really want my kids to be able to navigate the waters of sexual identity well as this is a watershed issue in our day that is by no means going away. I explained how this young man I was speaking to identified more as a female. We talked about how we all struggle to understand who we are and why God made us the way He did. I reassured them that it’s normal to wrestle with these issues of identity, but that gender identity is determined by God and transgender expressions won’t “fix” what’s going on inside. To think that somehow transitioning at any level will sort out the very human struggle of one’s identity is near-sighted and will only further confuse the struggle someone feels.

Finding The Right Answers Is Crucial

Ultimately I wanted my kids to have empathy for this young man. They could see from his demeanor and physical mannerisms that he wasn’t doing very well. In fact he had told me he recently had a mental breakdown and was having some neurological tests performed to determine what was going on. I want them to fight the natural bent of their hearts to judge and snicker with the grace and compassion that arises from feeling the hurt someone else carries. I want them to deeply understand who they are before the Lord … and even if they don’t get that far, that they at least understand who God created them to be. I want them to understand that without the right answers to these questions you can begin down a path that only leads to greater and greater confusion … and heartache. The gospel-less culture around us champions being who you are, but offers only tips and tools that lead you away from being who God created you to be. I want my kids to be themselves. I want them to look different than my wife and I. I want them to have their own adventures and walk their own paths. I just want them to be equipped to find their worth in Jesus so they can help others navigate these tricky roads we all walk.

The Need For Other Voices

Last week in my blog I reflected on those situations we find ourselves in where we don’t know what to say and I offered some thoughts on how to respond wisely. Not only is it essential to often slow your voice down in relationship, but we need other voices in relationships as well.

Here’s what I mean … and I imagine this is an experience common to man.  You have been trying to help someone see something in their life and they just don’t understand or see it.  Then someone else comes along and says exactly the same thing to them and the clouds part and they wonder why nobody has ever told them this life-changing counsel.  Parents, you know what I’m talking about!  Your kid comes home from camp or youth group with awe over a truth that was illumined to them and shared it with you as though you’d never heard of it.  It is perhaps one of the craziest things in pastoral ministry.  People who come to understand a precious truth that you’ve been teaching, preaching, and counseling for years only to state that they’ve never heard it.  In my younger (and more arrogant) years, this would drive me crazy.  I so desperately wanted “credit” for faithfully teaching that or courageously sharing that with a friend.  Now in my slightly older (and slightly less arrogant) years, I am able to thank God for the “other voices” in people’s lives that help them grow.  Of course the spiritual reality behind it all is that not my voice or that of another is the “change agent” … it’s the Spirit that opens eyes, minds, and hearts to receive truth and delight in it!

Yesterday I enjoyed the great benefit of “another voice” speaking to a subject I love dearly – friendship.  As a pastor one of my greatest desires is to see the people of God in a local church love each other deeply from the heart … to be engaged in intentionally redemptive relationships as a norm for the life of the body.  But it is always of great value to have other like-minded voices teach that same truth … from their perspective, with their personality, and in the power of the very same Spirit to God’s people.  A friend speaking on friendship, how great is that?!  Pastor Jonathan Holmes taught us well from the unlikely friendship of Ruth and Naomi and guided us into extremely practical counsel for growing in spiritual friendship.  Listen to his sermon here, or buy his book here.  Listen to the wise voices God has placed in your life.  Invite other Godly voices to speak into your life.  But most of all know that the voice of God must ring the loudest in your ear … it is the Spirit that brings understanding!

When You Don’t Know What To Say

I’ve always loved reading Mark’s account of the Transfiguration (Mark 9:2-13) and in the midst of one of the most glorious supernatural encounters with the human Jesus to read one of the most silly natural encounters with the human Peter.  There go Peter, James, and John up the mountain with Jesus.  They see this guy they’d shared meals with now become radiantly white and full of glorious beauty right before their eyes.  He is having a conversation with a couple of the great dead guys of the Bible – Elijah and Moses.  And what happens next? Worship, fear, silence? No … Peter opens his mouth.  “Rabbi, it is good that we are here.  Let us make three tents, one for you and one for Moses and one for Elijah” (9:5).  My sense of this? “This is so cool Jesus, thanks for bringing us with you so we could see you like this.  It’s neat to see Moses and Elijah too.  I’ve gotta do something to help here, how about we build you tents to rest in”.  Really? Peter had just witnessed glory face to face and the best he can come up with is tents? Like men of such glory need to rest, like they’d rather retreat to isolation that enjoy the fellowship they were having, like they needed help from Peter if they did want tents to rest in.  What was Peter thinking? Why did Peter say this? Well, Mark tells us – “For he did not know what to say, for they were terrified” (9:6). 

I know by now that one of the marks of proud people who have helping gifts is that they feel the great need to speak more than they should (Yes, I’m referring to me).  We (yes, now I’m including some of you too) think that people need our input, need our direction, need our truth-speaking … and in many cases they do.  But all to often, rather than taking time to pray, reflect, and formulate Godly counsel, we just speak because (1) We genuinely believe it will help, and (2) It genuinely makes us feel like we helped.  So here are a couple items to consider in our well-intentioned and often poorly-executed speaking:

Be Quicker to Listen 

Yes I know, I didn’t come up with that.  “Know this, my beloved brothers: let every person be quick to hear, slow to speak, slow to anger” (James 1:19).  Do everything you can to make sure that when you speak you are speaking to the right thing.  That requires listening, active listening.  But did you know that active listening requires speaking? More to the point, active listening requires asking questions.  When you ask questions you are forced to think about not only what is being said, but what isn’t being said.  You have to consider who this person is, where they are coming from, and what it is that they most are needing.  When you ask good questions you are forcing yourself to resist the urge to make assumptions, think you know what they are saying, and offer a quick remedy.  Asking good questions does more than just get at information, it actually in-and-of-itself says, “I care!”  You don’t see yourself as their savior, fixer, or teacher … you just see yourself as their friend.

Offer Observations not Answers

If Peter had taken in what was happening a bit longer, and even talked out loud about what he saw rather than offer a “to-do”, it might have helped him better understand the scenario he was in.  Perhaps rather than providing an answer he would have observed that falling on his face was a better response that looking for tent pegs.  We all process information differently.  Some of us are auditory processors and we think through situations as we talk them out.  Others of us need to write things out to see on paper pros and cons, possible solutions or fixes.  And others of us just need time to soak it in, the processing comes slowly over a period of time.  Whichever the case may be, processing the situation is needed prior to applying our “fix it skills” to those we are looking to be a help to.  As we make observations, we are forced to reckon with our own presuppositions, our own experiences and story.  It makes us reflect a little more on the silly things people have said to us that weren’t helpful in our need, and hopefully prevent us from repeating that mistake.

Think Long-Term over Quick-Fix

If we enter into conversations with the goal being that we want to actually walk with this person and not just quickly move them on their way, we will not feel as urgent about the right information getting passed on.  We will be quicker to identify with the suffering they are facing.  We will be more sympathetic to the complexity of the circumstances they are involved in.  We will be prayerful about the help coming from the Spirit of God.  Rarely does solid, Biblical, helpful counsel come out in a one-time, thirty-minute conversation.  Truth can be spoken and obedience commended, but they, like us, are people in process … and process takes time.  So think about how to ask questions and make observations today so that you get to do it with them again tomorrow.

Religion’s Appeal to the Flesh

I’ve heard it said since I was a kind – “Christianity isn’t a religion it’s a relationship.”  And yet in my personal and pastoral experience for many years now I’ve found that most people actually choose religion over relationship.  Why?  For the very same reason the apostle Paul put his confidence in the flesh for so many years before his conversion – It makes me feel in control and brings me to a place where I can boast about what I’ve accomplished (Philippians 3:4ff).  Relationship with the Triune God is hard work … heck relationship with anyone is hard work.  It requires patience, a persevering pursuit, and years of doing the same thing (the Bible calls that faithfulness).  In contrast to religion which can flare up in glorious displays of passion, mighty acts of sacrifice, and no real need to deal with what’s going on inside one’s soul.  Who dare question such spiritual power.  The sad and unfortunate thing is that in my own life and as I watch, counsel, and shepherd the lives of others – those spiritual displays more often than not fade, or worse are found out to be false and man-centered.  The “form of godliness” that Paul speaks of can actually come in the “picture of power” that denies the real power of God (2 Timothy 3:5).

The Characteristics of Religion

The appeal to the flesh in religion is strong … and yet often very subtle (deceptive).  Religion says – “there is more that you can do.”  And that more can take the form of rigid moralism that does all it can to clean the outside of the cup, reducing the Gospel to a set of rules to be followed void of any considerations of the heart.  Or it can take the form of spiritual fervor that does all it can to demonstrate passion, power, and love for God, reducing the Gospel to a spiritual power pill that claims intimacy with God based on the obvious external behaviors.  The problem?  Both are driven by the flesh, preoccupied by activity, and closed to evaluation by others.  Religion produces performers – some look “nice and attractive” and some look “mean and uninviting”, but both feed the flesh making one’s confidence in something other than what Christ has one for all done for needy undeserving sinners.

The Characteristics of Relationship

Relationship says – “I have nothing to offer you, and demand nothing of you, I just want You!”  This is the reason marriage is so hard … if you don’t do what I need and I don’t do what you need there is every reason to retreat in fear.  We all want to be in relationships where the expectation is of two flawed individuals who can embrace each other warts and all (SIN and all).  How does this play out in our relationship with the Lord? Who wants to be a fervent prayer warrior in the closet day after day when Sunday affords me the opportunity to show how spiritual I am?  Who wants to evaluate your own heart with Psalm 139 “Search me Spirit of God” prayers when you can feel good about the things you’ve accomplished and the influence you have?  There is little appeal to the flesh in faithful enduring commitment to relationship.

So …

Recognize that each and every “spiritual activity” can be counterfeited by the deceitfulness of the human heart.  Don’t believe me? Read Jonathan Edward’s Religious Affections.  Ask the harder questions of yourself than merely – “What am I doing for God?” or “why don’t I feel passionate?” Ask – “Where has my sin hurt others?” or “Why don’t I repent more?” or “Who have I invited to point out my blind-spots lately?”  King Saul learned this the hard way when he cared more about his influence and spiritual displays of sacrifice than obeying God (1 Samuel 15). God calls you and I to do the hard work of relationship – pursuing when we feel like retreating, calling out for help when we feel like complaining, and faithfully obeying when our flesh longs for something more gratifying.  Indeed following Christ is about relationship and not religion … He despises your religiousity but is near the humble.

Narnia, Rivendell, and The Kingdom of God

I have competing forces in me, and it’s taken me along time to understand how they fit together. I’m not talking about the flesh and the Spirit, or even good and evil. But the boyish love for stories and the man-like love for logic, reason, and evidence. On one hand I’m the classic sap who loves a good story, cries watching sentimental movies, and can’t wait to see Frodo and Sam make it through the Black Gates. And on the other hand, I love precision, measure twice cut once, and carefully researched exegetical papers on theology. My Tolkien side has felt insulted by my Calvin side for being shallow and too easily entertained, while my Calvin side is being attacked by my Tolkien side for being too heady and academic. What to do!?! Here is how the Spirit of God has made these enemies into friends …

Understanding God’s Story

The Bible is a story! And not just any story, it is God’s story. And at the climactic center from the beginning to end is Jesus the Warrior King. God moved men in various times and in different places to reveal the grand narrative of heaven to earth. God is the great story-teller, and He has made Himself known to men. He didn’t drop a theology book from heaven, send a college professor, or host a pastors conference … He sent a King. So it appears that Tolkien’s Aragorn and Lewis’ Peter are actually quite helpful and beautiful in helping us understand the Father’s King Jesus. And so, the story of earth tragically corrupted by the dragon, intensely waiting for a deliverer, striving to fix itself, and the loyal following holding out hope, aren’t so “fairy-tale” after all. Hush up, academic side … God is the great story-teller, Tolkien and Lewis are just following their author.

Shading in the Details

Every good writer does his research, and the richness of the story is shaped by the textures and shades of the thoughtful details woven into the tale. So it is with these epic stories, they need the theology, care, and study of the great theologians. Truth be told, Tolkien and Lewis are some of the finest theologians around. Why? Because they had that academic, professor, Calvin-side. They wrestled with sovereignty, substitutionary atonement, depravity, and redemption. They were exegetes and not just playing make-believe. We miss the joy and beauty of the grand narrative without the depth and clarity of Biblical theology.

Jesus Told Stories and Preached Sermons

Survey the life and ministry of Christ and you’ll find both carefully constructed theological arguments and beautifully poetic literature. People sat on the edge of their seat as he crafted parables to bring home a heavenly truth. And they nestled into the hillside as he outlined practical theology in his sermonizing. Truth can be communicated many ways, the main thing is that truth is communicated. When I read a theology book, I slow down, think deeply, reference Scripture, and evaluate where my framework needs tweaking. When I get lost in a story, my heart is much quicker to recognize the dark shadows I face, admit my Hobbit-like need, and long for the return of the King.

The End of Theology is Joy

Calvin-ish people need Tolkien, and those lost in Narnia need The Institutes. If you’re feeling angry (or people feel your anger) and sorta crusty … Maybe you’ve been trying to play the starring role in your own movie, rather than recognizing the story isn’t about you. Pick up Lewis and be reminded that this epic tale is about the glory of God, not life done your way. You can’t fix it all! If you’re fearful and anxious … Maybe you’ve been drinking the Kool-Aid of a superficial Christianity and anti-intellectual approach to the Word. Go deep in Edwards and Calvin, you need to be reminded of the Almighty Father, The rescue work of the Son, and the Spirit who ever lives to make intercession for you.

I’m not sure I’ll ever completely rid myself of this internal battle I feel, but the more I study theology AND the more I enjoy the beauty of His Story, the more my soul delights in the Gospel. And delighting in God and the Gospel (His Story) is the chief end of man … So that can’t be all that bad. Go on an adventure with Aslan, have a cup of coffee with Luther … But most importantly worship the Creator.

In His Story,
Pastor Mark