I grew up in a church culture, a catechizing culture, and a family worship culture. Each of these was a tremendous, immeasurable blessing, I am sure. I am convinced that twice-each-Sunday services, and memorizing the catechisms, and worshipping as a family marked me deeply. I doubt I will ever forget that my only comfort in life and death is that I am not my own, but belong in body and soul, both in life and death, to my faithful Savior Jesus Christ, or that the chief end of man is to glorify God and enjoy him forever. I can still sing many of the psalms and hymns of my youth, and I have precious memories of my family bowing our heads around the kitchen table.
What was true of my family was true of many of my friends’ families. They, too, grew up around churches and catechisms and rigid family devotions. In fact, in all the times I visited their homes, I don’t think I ever witnessed a family skip over their devotions. It was the custom, it was the expectation, and it was good. Our church had near 100% attendance on Sunday morning and near 100% attendance on Sunday evening. It was just what we did.
But despite all of the advantages, many of the people I befriended as a child have since left the faith. Some have sprinted away, but many more have simply meandered away, so that an occasionally missed Sunday eventually became a missed month and a missed year. Not all of them, of course. Many are now fine believers, who are serving in their churches and even leading them. But a lot—too many—are gone.
Why? I ask the question from time-to-time. Why are all five of my parents’ kids following the Lord, while so many of our friends and their families are not? Obviously I have no ability to peer into God’s sovereignty and come to any firm conclusions. But as I think back, I can think of one great difference between my home and my friends’ homes—at least the homes of my friends who have since walked away from the Lord and his church. Though it is not universally true, it is generally true. Here’s the difference: I saw my parents living out their faith even when I wasn’t supposed to be watching.
When I tiptoed down the stairs in the morning, I would find my dad in the family room with his Bible open on his lap. Every time I picked up my mom’s old NIV Study Bible it was a little more wrecked than the time before, I would find a little more ink on the pages, and a few more pieces of tape trying desperately to hold together the worn binding. When life was tough, I heard my parents reason from the Bible and I saw them pray together. They weren’t doing these things for us. They weren’t doing them to be seen. They were doing these things because they loved the Lord and loved to spend time with him, and that spoke volumes to me. I had the rock-solid assurance that my parents believed and practiced what they preached. I knew they actually considered God’s Word trustworthy, because they began every day with it. I knew that they believed God was really there and really listening, because they got alone with him each morning to pray for themselves and for their kids. I saw that their faith was not only formal and public, but also intimate and private.
Here is one thing I learned from my parents: Nothing can take the place of simply living as a Christian in view of my children. No amount of formal theological training, church attendance, or family devotions will make up for a general apathy about the things of the Lord. I can catechize my children all day and every day, but if I have no joy and no delight in the Lord, and if I am not living out my faith, my children will see it and know it.
For all the good things my parents did for me, I believe that the most important was simply living as Christians before me. I don’t think
It is tax season again. In just a couple of weeks a lot of us will be writing a check to the government, or, far better, hoping that the government will be writing a check to us. It is this time of year when, more than any other, we are forced to think about taxes, so once again I find myself pondering the first few verses of Romans 13. Paul is writing to the church at Rome and telling them that each one of them is to actively obey the governing authorities in every situation. He makes no exceptions; he simply commands them to obey all the time—”Let every person be subject to the governing authorities.” It’s interesting to think about what Paul was commanding here.
Paul was telling these Roman Christians to give honor, respect and taxes to the very government that paid the wages of the men who crucified Jesus
He was writing to people who lived in Rome, people who were under the authority of a government that worshipped idols, that was systematically out to conquer and subjugate the world, that made death a form of entertainment, that promoted slavery, that was utterly ruthless and actively opposed to God. This was the government that was always on the verge of breaking out in persecution against the church. It was the government that had put Jesus to death. Paul was telling these Roman Christians to give honor, respect and taxes to the very government that paid the wages of the men who crucified Jesus, who mocked him, who spat on him, who rejoiced in his death.
And yet the Christians were to obey these rulers, to give them honor, respect and taxes—whatever was asked of them.
Taxes were obviously an urgent issue to people in those days since both Jesus and Paul had addressed it. These people were paying taxes to a government they did not believe in and paying taxes that would go to the soldiers who took advantage of them. Yet Paul and Jesus agreed: pay your taxes. Render unto Caesar what is Caesar’s. “Pay to all what is owed to them: taxes to whom taxes are owed, revenue to whom revenue is owed, respect to whom respect is owed, honor to whom honor is owed.”
I believe that there are at least two reasons that we are to pay taxes to the authorities. There is practical value in paying taxes and there is also a kind of important symbolic value.
Practically, we pay taxes to support the rulers in their work. Without our taxes, they cannot be set aside to do this work of governing us. If we believe in authority, if we believe that God has raised up governors to rule us, we see the need to pay them so they can do the work of ruling. I suppose this is similar to what we find in the church. If you believe in the value of pastors, you’ll be willing to give money to the church to support the pastor in his vocation.
There is also a kind of symbolic value to paying taxes. By paying taxes we affirm that we understand the intrinsic value of authority. Paying taxes is one very practical way that we prove our obedience to God and prove our understanding of the authority he has given to government. It’s a way in which we put our money where our mouth is.
Simple enough. But here’s a way I have to apply this: When I pay my taxes, do I pay them joyfully? It seems inconceivable that I’d be commanded to do something and then be allowed to do it hesitantly and with complaining. And I sure complain a lot about taxes.
If there is a respectable sin in the Christian world, surely it is complaining about government.
I love to complain about taxes, and always feel justified doing so. I love to mumble about it, to grumble about it, to resent it. If there is a respectable sin in the Christian world, surely it is complaining about government. I hate that the government demands a hefty share of the money I earn. Yet with all the authority of God behind him, Paul tells me to pay my taxes and to do so with honor and respect. I have no right to grumble, no right to gripe or complain. Yet too often I react like a toddler who has been told to put away his toys—I do it, but my whole demeanor, my whole heart attitude, screams that I hate doing it, that I’m doing it only because I fear the consequences of not doing it. So I pay my taxes, all the while harboring a deep resentment.
I am convicted by God that if I am to give what is owed to those who govern me, those who have been given authority by God, I must learn to give them the money they ask, but also give them the honor and respect they deserve.
Pay to all what is owed to them: taxes to whom taxes are owed, revenue to whom revenue is owed, respect to whom respect is owed, honor to whom honor is owed.
The “I love you" moment.
You know the words, and you know the weight they carry. Recently Aileen and I were remembering back to the first time we said those words to one another. Each of us already knew how the other felt, but that did nothing to temper the thrill of actually voicing it and the joy of actually hearing it.
“I love you” marks a milestone in a relationship, and not only a romantic one. Friendships also thrive and deepen with the admission and declaration of love. “I love you” says that this is no mere acquaintance, but a true, deep, and meaningful friendship. I hate that our society threatens the love of friendship by the suspicion of homosexuality, and I want us to push back and to declare that we can love one another in the best and purest way.
But as I considered the importance of the “I love you” I found myself pondering three other words that also cause a relationship to grow and to thrive. A friend recently said something or did something he should not have, and later approached me and so-humbly and so-kindly said, “Please forgive me.” I forgave him, of course. Who am I, a man who has been forgiven so much, that I should withhold forgiveness from anyone else, and especially from someone I love? And I know that in that moment our relationship deepened. It grew in the exchange, in the transaction, of repentance and forgiveness. I felt it, and I knew it.
So I thought about those words and I thought about my friendships. And I believe a relationship grows just as much through “Please forgive me” as through “I love you.” One friend speaking to another and saying, “I love you”—this is where love is declared. But one friend approaching another to express remorse and seek forgiveness—this is where love is displayed and preserved.
The pushback against the radical Christian life is in full swing. It was inevitable, I think, and healthy. Books like Radical and Don’t Waste Your Life were meant to battle Christian complacency, but in some ways they over-corrected, giving less than a holistic and realistic view of the Christian life. And now authors like Michael Wittmer are attempting to recover some balance.
In his new book Becoming Worldly Saints, Wittmer means to answer this question: Can you serve Jesus and still enjoy your life? Is it possible for you to be fully committed to the Lord and still find time to enjoy life’s pleasures? Or, as some seem to feel, do we need to live lives of utter frugality, sending all our money to the mission field? Are we responsible to share the gospel with absolutely every person we encounter? Should we really feel that constant low-grade guilt that accuses us that we are not doing enough for the Lord? In short, how do we resolve the tension between the pleasures of earth and the purpose of heaven?
Wittmer’s answers are as compelling as any I’ve read. His concern is that in all the good things we do for the Lord, we forget the importance of being human and enjoying God’s good creation. “Our lives will shrivel if we allow our passion for redemption to smother the pleasures of creation. Being a Christian must not become an obstacle to being human. But the problem is even worse in reverse: When we eliminate our earthly pleasures, we inevitably limit the reach of our heavenly purpose. If we want to attract people to Jesus, our lives must be attractive.” We, of all people, ought to enjoy this world and display our love of life.
Our temptation is to make a harsh distinction between loving the Lord and loving the world he has made. However, “Our love for Jesus and his world is not a zero sum game. Attention given to creation is not stolen from its Creator. The more we enjoy God’s gifts for their own sake, the more we can appreciate him. And thank him for, and love with him. … Thank God for the privilege of being human and of being here. Then go have some fun.” God and have some fun and trust that God enjoys your fun as much as you do.
Wittmer structures the book around the story of Scripture—the great work God is doing in this world, which proceeds under the familar headings of Creation, Fall, and Redemption. He shows that God created this world so we could enjoy it and that he still expects that we will find enjoyment in it. He corrects those people who live only for tomorrow, as if the pleasures of this world are meaningless. He shows that our responsibility in this world is to love God, serve our neighbor, cultivate the earth, and rest, and that we need to maintain a balance between these. He shows that the tension we feel is an inevitable result of man’s fall into sin, and he attempts to bring peace between the urgency of the gospel and the demands of being human. In every case he succeeds well.
Can you serve Jesus and still enjoy life? “It starts with your call and ends with it too. Do whatever God is calling you to do, no more and no less. Do it with all your might; then go to bed. Your life will count for eternity, and you’ll probably even like it.”
Becoming Worldly Saints was a joy and a relief to read. Grounded firmly in Scripture and in the best of Christian tradition, it offers a powerful and compelling vision of the Christian life that is equally exciting and attainable.
This isn’t settling for a lesser vision of the Christian life—this is living out what the Bible says.
Becoming Worldly Saints is available at Amazon.