The Doc File

The online journal of Luke Dockery

Category: Christian Living (page 1 of 20)

Self-Denial in a Self-Discovery World

One of the advantages of being a youth minister is that I have the opportunity to read and hear a lot of good teaching from a variety of different sources. Some of these are basically available to anyone (books, sermons, podcasts), while others I gain access to by traveling to different youth events and hearing gifted and thoughtful speakers.

A while back, I was blessed to listen to my friend Shannon Cooper, who made the point that we live in a society that is obsessed with self-discovery: for many, the central goal of life is to “find out who we are” so we can “be true to ourselves.” Self-help books constitute a lucrative industry. Discussions related to sexual and gender identity become issues of the utmost importance. We seek to define ourselves by our hobbies, or the music we listen to, or our peer groups.

There is a problem with this, though: self-discovery leaves us with no point of reference beyond ourselves. Fundamentally, it is limited, subjective, and, ultimately…selfish.

It is also not Christian. A more Christian way of thinking about identity is not based on self-discovery, but on self-denial and the imitation of Jesus.

And whoever does not take his cross and follow Me is not worthy of Me. Whoever finds his life will lose it, and whoever loses his life for My sake will find it.

(Matthew 10.38-39)

Then Jesus told his disciples, “If anyone would come after Me, let him deny himself and take up his cross and follow Me.”

(Matthew 16.24)

Be imitators of me, as I am of Christ.

(1 Corinthians 11.1)

 I have been crucified with Christ. It is no longer I who live, but Christ who lives in me. And the life I now live in the flesh I live by faith in the Son of God, who loved me and gave himself for me.

(Galatians 2.20)

As Christians, we cannot force our worldview on nonbelievers (nor should we try to), but we should certainly hold ourselves and one another to that worldview. And the way of Christ is not about finding purpose and meaning through discovering “who we really are,” which is another way of saying “doing what we want to do.” Rather, it is about denying the urge to do what we want to do and instead to prioritize what Jesus wants us to do in partnering in His work to reconcile the world to Himself. This is where purpose and meaning is found.

Unsettled (And Why That Is A Good Thing)

It has been just over three weeks ago that my family and I moved to begin a new youth ministry work at a different congregation in a new city. Everyone has been so friendly and welcoming, and we are so excited to be where we are. We were in a great place before, working with a great church, but ultimately, we decided to move because we became convinced that it was God’s will that we do so, and that decision has been affirmed and reaffirmed in so many ways since our move.

Having said all that, it has been challenging as well. One question I keep getting over and over is, “How are you settling in?”, and the best answer is probably that I am still very much unsettled. I knew this before, but I have come to realize just how much I am a product of routine, and virtually all of those routines have been interrupted. The familiar faces have changed, I am not sure which keys unlock which doors, and I have swapped a host of activities and trips that I could plan and lead in my sleep for others I have not experienced before and know little about.

For a person who likes to be in control, it’s all a little unsettling.

I suspect that I am not alone in this—either my desire to be in control, or my feelings of discomfort when I realize that I am not.

But what a valuable reminder this season of life is providing me! God does not ask me to construct a façade of control around myself seeking to find comfort in routine. Rather, He asks that I give up the notion of control itself, and place my trust, and indeed, my life, in His capable hands.

The heart of man plans his way,
but the LORD establishes his steps.
(Proverbs 16.9)
Come now, you who say, “Today or tomorrow we will go into such and such a town and spend a year there and trade and make a profit”—yet you do not know what tomorrow will bring. What is your life? For you are a mist that appears for a little time and then vanishes. Instead you ought to say, “If the Lord wills, we will live and do this or that.”
(James 4.13-15)

It is unsettling…but I think the life that Jesus asks of His followers is supposed to be exactly that.

The Full Tomb

Christianity is, fundamentally, about an empty tomb. Following His crucifixion, Jesus was raised from the dead, and as I have written before, this changes everything. This is the central feature of the Christian faith, and the veracity of any of Christianity’s claims depend upon this, first. Paul says in 1 Corinthians 15 that if Jesus wasn’t raised from the dead, then our faith is worthless.

Having said all of that, I think we are sometimes so quick to emphasize the empty tomb that we fail to truly appreciate that there was a time—even if it was a relatively brief time—when the tomb wasn’t empty. It was occupied. It contained the beaten, battered body of Jesus, and the shattered hopes and dreams of His followers.

We like to rush from the crucifixion to the resurrection, and I guess that makes sense, because the in-between time wasn’t easy. For those who had left all they had to follow Jesus, a Jesus in the tomb meant that they had backed the wrong horse; they had gambled everything and lost. The One who they thought was the long-awaited Messiah was just another in a long line of failures.

We live in an in-between time, too, and it isn’t easy, either.

The resurrection of Jesus is the first-fruits of our own, and points ahead to a time when sin, Satan, and death will be defeated, and every tear will be wiped from our eyes. But in the present, many of us mourn beside tombs that are as full as the tomb of Jesus was prior to His vacating it. Many of us stumble through our days, staggering under the weight of shattered hopes and dreams.

Just as Sunday came for the disciples of Jesus, and Jesus Himself was vindicated as the risen Savior when it did, so, we, too, await the coming of a Someday when our faith will become sight, and all of God’s faithful will rise as Jesus did.

But until then, it is worth reflecting on the fact that there are many full tombs, that evil maintains a foothold in our world, and that we weep with those who weep.

Resurrection is coming, but you have to wade through the in-between time first.

Book Review: “Amazing Grace: William Wilberforce and the Heroic Campaign to End Slavery”

I recently finished reading Amazing GraceEric Metaxas’s biography of William Wilberforce and his work to end the slave trade. A former New York Times bestseller, this was a book that I had looked forward to reading for quite a while because I enjoyed the Amazing Grace film so much when I watched it a decade ago or so. Unfortunately, this joins a very short list of books that I find to be inferior to films based upon them (The Last of the Mohicans is probably the best example of this).

There were a few things about the book that bothered me:

  • I found much of Metaxas’s prose to be cumbersome. He tends to use flowery language and also makes random asides that seemed out of place in a biography, and cluttered up his paragraphs.
  • Amazing Grace read less like a biography, and more like a hagiography, where Metaxas’s obvious admiration for Wilberforce led him to be less than objective in his evaluation of him (and also resulted in some of the flowery language that I complained about above).
  • Metaxas, who is a politically conservative evangelical, has been criticized for idealizing the characters about whom he writes and making them look very much like himself theologically and politically. This criticism was especially strong after his biography about Dietrich Bonhoeffer, but I felt that I could catch glimpses of this in his discussion of Wilberforce’s faith, and especially in Metaxas’s caricatured portrayal of the religious faith of Wilberforce’s day. Though to be fair, having been exposed to this particular criticism of Metaxas’s writing, I was probably looking for it.

Having said that, there are some really good things about this book, and the primary one is that it helps to make accessible the life story of a remarkable man who, driven by his devout faith, worked to bring about profound changes in British society that rippled across the world. Wilberforce is famous for his fight against the slave trade, but was also very involved in the quest to reform British society and to improve British policy in India.

I’ll close by sharing some of my favorite quotations from the book, with brief commentary. In trying to explain that the legacy of Wilberforce is greater than the simple abolition of the slave trade, Metaxas writes:

To fathom the magnitude of what Wilberforce did we have to see that the “disease” he vanquished forever was actually neither the slave trade nor slavery. Slavery still exists in the world today, in such measure as we can hardly fathom. What Wilberforce vanquished was something even worse than slavery, something that was much more fundamental and can hardly be seen from where we stand today: he vanquished the very mind-set that made slavery acceptable and allowed it to survive and thrive for millennia. He destroyed an entire way of seeing the world, one that had held sway from the beginning of history, and he replaced it with another way of seeing the world. Included in the old way of seeing things was the idea that the evil of slavery was good. Wilberforce murdered that old way of seeing things, and so the idea that slavery was good died along with it. Even though slavery continues to exist here and there, the idea that it is good is dead. The idea that it is inextricably intertwined with human civilization, and part of the way things are supposed to be, and economically necessary and morally defensible, is gone. Because the entire mind-set that supported it is gone.

(Amazing Grace, xv)

Wilberforce grew up religious but basically fell away in his late teens and early twenties before experiencing a significant revival and deepening of his faith. When that took place, he was tempted to back away from politics (he was already a member of Parliament at the time), because he thought it to be an improper place for a person of strong religious conviction. His good friend William Pitt, the Prime Minister, did not want to see his friend check out of politics, and suggested that his newfound faith could find much to do in the world of politics:

Surely the principles as well as the practice of Christianity are simple, and lead not to meditation only but to action.

(Amazing Grace, 58)

Ultimately, this advice would prove influential for Wilberforce, who remained in politics and used his platform and influence to do kingdom work and bring about a profound change in the lives of millions.

Part of Wilberforce’s work in his opposition to slavery was educating the British population of the horrors that slaves faced, about which many were genuinely and totally ignorant (slave traders commonly argued that slaves were happy or at least better off in captivity, and many people naively believed it). Wilberforce investigated the living conditions of slaves and knew better, and widely disseminated the information. In a parliamentary debate, Wilberforce explained his motivation for seeking abolition:

…When we think of eternity, and of the future consequences of all human conduct, what is here in this life which should make any man contradict the principles of his own conscience, the principles of justice, the laws of religion, and of God?

Sir, the nature and all the circumstances of this Trade are now laid open to us. We can no longer plead ignorance, we cannot evade it, it is now an object placed before us, we cannot pass it. We may spurn it, we may kick it out of our way, but we cannot turn aside so as to avoid seeing it.

(Amazing Grace, 136)

Metaxas portrays the Britain of Wilberforce’s early years as one which claimed to a form of Christian civil religion, but that it was a watered-down faith that brought little to no leavening influence on the nation as a whole. Wilberforce, who spent a long career as a respected and powerful MP who was famous for his faith and his political stances based upon his faith, was instrumental in changing the religious environment of his day:

When Wilberforce entered Paliament, there were only three MPs who would have identified themselves as seriously Christian, but half a century later there were closer to two hundred. Politics had come to be thought of as a noble calling. There would always be self-seekers—and few individuals could be entirely free of selfish motivation—but the idea that politicians should be free of that motivation and work for the good of society was something new, and Wilberforce’s influence in introducing it is hard to avoid.

(Amazing Grace, 234)

If you are a believer, William Wilberforce—a man of devout faith whose faith and love of neighbor prompted him to act in unpopular ways for the good of others—is a man you need to know well. Amazing Grace is a book with some flaws, but it does a great job of helping the reader to do that—getting to know a man who spent his life working to make God’s kingdom come and His will to be done on earth as it is in heaven.

Long Gratitude

It frequently works out that I get to preach right around Thanksgiving, which is something that I enjoy. Thanksgiving is one of my favorite holidays of the year, and I like getting to call attention to our collective need to stop, reflect, and give thanks for what we have. Furthermore, I especially like to preach about Thanksgiving using unusual texts that may not be the first that come to mind when we think of thankfulness and gratitude. The following is an edited version of my Thanksgiving sermon for this year.

As I have written before, I believe that the Bible is a literary masterpiece and that we read it better and more faithfully when we pay close attention to the ways that certain stories are told and the techniques that are used. In keeping with that idea, I want to look at three seemingly random stories from the Old Testament, see how they connect with one another, and then see what we can glean about the idea of gratitude.

Judges 19-21

The first story comes from the Book of Judges, and is the narrative surrounding a civil war that happens during this lawless period of time in Israel’s history. For the sake of length, I’m not going to include all of this text, but it is a very graphic story, and to me, this may be the darkest, worst chapters in all of Scripture. 

To quickly summarize, there has been a civil war between the tribe of Benjamin and rest of the tribes of Israel. A city in the land of Benjamin had acted very wickedly, their Benjamite cousins refused to punish them, and as a result, the rest of Israel engages in a bloody civil war with them.

The tribe of Benjamin is greatly outnumbered, and they are almost wiped out, down to only 600 men by the end. At this point, the rest of the tribes of Israel, though they have been very angry with Benjamin, suddenly realize that one of the tribes is on the verge of extinction, and this isn’t acceptable to them. 

So they talk, and they realize that when it came time for everyone to gather together to fight against the Benjamites, one town from the tribe of Gad—Jabesh-Gilead—didn’t join in the fight. As a result, they decide to punish Jabesh-Gilead: they attack the town, destroy it, and kill all of the inhabitants except for 400 of the young women, and they forcibly give these women to the remaining Benjamites so they can repopulate the tribe (Remember, I told you that these are awful chapters, and this is a very lawless time).

The author of Judges doesn’t try to argue that this is a good thing or that it is what God intended (just the opposite); he just reports what happens. 

But here is the key idea: the town of Jabesh-Gilead becomes the means of saving the tribe of Benjamin.

1 Samuel 11

We have to fast forward in time a good bit to get to our next story, which is in 1 Samuel 11. The Book of Judges is not strictly chronological, so it is hard to place Judges 19-21 exactly on a timeline, but based on a few clues in the text, I think we are safe in saying that there are at least a couple hundred years between the events of Judges 19-21 and 1 Samuel 11.

In 1 Samuel 11, we are now out of the period of the Judges, and at the beginning of the united kingdom. Saul was anointed and proclaimed king in 1 Samuel 10, and now in 1 Samuel 11, he faces an early test of his leadership.

Let’s take a look at this text:

[1] Then Nahash the Ammonite went up and besieged Jabesh-gilead, and all the men of Jabesh said to Nahash, “Make a treaty with us, and we will serve you.” [2] But Nahash the Ammonite said to them, “On this condition I will make a treaty with you, that I gouge out all your right eyes, and thus bring disgrace on all Israel.” [3] The elders of Jabesh said to him, “Give us seven days’ respite that we may send messengers through all the territory of Israel. Then, if there is no one to save us, we will give ourselves up to you.” [4] When the messengers came to Gibeah of Saul, they reported the matter in the ears of the people, and all the people wept aloud.

So the villain in this story is Nahash the Ammonite, who comes to lay siege to the town of Jabesh-Gilead. Now, remember, it has been a few hundred years, but this is the Jabesh-Gilead that was significantly involved in the salvation of the tribe of Benjamin.

Nahash is too powerful for Jabesh-Gilead, and so they basically sue for peace: “let’s make a treaty together, and we will be your servants.” But Nahash, who kind of seems like a jerk, basically says, “Sure, we can have a treaty, here are my terms: I’m going to gouge out your right eyes and bring shame to the whole country.”

This doesn’t seem like a great offer to the men of Jabesh-Gilead, so they ask for a little time to consider and send urgent requests for help throughout Israel. Some of these messengers come to Saul, the King of Israel, who, by the way, is from the tribe of Benjamin: 

[5] Now, behold, Saul was coming from the field behind the oxen. And Saul said, “What is wrong with the people, that they are weeping?” So they told him the news of the men of Jabesh. [6] And the Spirit of God rushed upon Saul when he heard these words, and his anger was greatly kindled. [7] He took a yoke of oxen and cut them in pieces and sent them throughout all the territory of Israel by the hand of the messengers, saying, “Whoever does not come out after Saul and Samuel, so shall it be done to his oxen!” Then the dread of the LORD fell upon the people, and they came out as one man. [8] When he mustered them at Bezek, the people of Israel were three hundred thousand, and the men of Judah thirty thousand. [9] And they said to the messengers who had come, “Thus shall you say to the men of Jabesh-gilead: ‘Tomorrow, by the time the sun is hot, you shall have salvation.’” When the messengers came and told the men of Jabesh, they were glad. [10] Therefore the men of Jabesh said, “Tomorrow we will give ourselves up to you, and you may do to us whatever seems good to you.” [11] And the next day Saul put the people in three companies. And they came into the midst of the camp in the morning watch and struck down the Ammonites until the heat of the day. And those who survived were scattered, so that no two of them were left together.

When Saul hears the news, he becomes very angry and promises to deliver the town. He raises an army and goes and defeats the Ammonites. Saul’s rescuing of the town of Jabesh-Gilead serves to cement himself as the King of Israel, and also provides a clue that there is something special about the relationship between the people of Jabesh-Gilead and the tribe of Benjamin.

So, here is the situation:

  • Earlier, the town of Jabesh-Gilead was the means of saving the tribe of Benjamin;
  • Now, hundreds of years later, Saul, a Benjamite, saves the town of Jabesh-Gilead.

1 Samuel 31

For our final story, we fast forward again, now to the end of Saul’s reign, 40 years later. Saul’s kingship, which had begun with so much promise, has completely unraveled. Because of Saul’s disobedience, God has rejected him as Israel’s king. He is currently waging a war against the Philistines, and it is not going well: three of his sons have been killed in battle (including Jonathan, the friend of David), and Saul takes his own life after being badly wounded by an archer. It’s a devastating defeat for the Israelites, and it gets even worse:

[8] The next day, when the Philistines came to strip the slain, they found Saul and his three sons fallen on Mount Gilboa. [9] So they cut off his head and stripped off his armor and sent messengers throughout the land of the Philistines, to carry the good news to the house of their idols and to the people. [10] They put his armor in the temple of Ashtaroth, and they fastened his body to the wall of Beth-shan.

The Philistines treat the bodies of Saul and his sons dishonorably, cutting off his head, taking his armor off, and using his body as a trophy. The put his armor in a pagan temple, and hang his body on the wall of the city of Beth-shan.

It’s at this point, some 40 years after Saul had rescued them from the Ammonites that the men of Jabesh-Gilead make their appearance in 1 Samuel 31.11-13:

[11] But when the inhabitants of Jabesh-gilead heard what the Philistines had done to Saul, [12] all the valiant men arose and went all night and took the body of Saul and the bodies of his sons from the wall of Beth-shan, and they came to Jabesh and burned them there. [13] And they took their bones and buried them under the tamarisk tree in Jabesh and fasted seven days.

When the men of Jabesh-Gilead hear what has happened to Saul, they remember the debt of gratitude they owe him, they walk all night into enemy territory, retrieve his body, and bury it honorably.

To recap the three stories:

  • First, the town of Jabesh-Gilead was the means of saving the tribe of Benjamin;
  • Then, hundreds of years later, Saul, a Benjamite, saves the town of Jabesh-Gilead.
  • Now, Jabesh-Gilead treats Saul and his family with kindness and honor.

Long Gratitude

This connection, between the town of Jabesh-Gilead and the tribe of Benjamin (and Saul in particular), is one that is easy to overlook in Scripture, but once we see it, it’s easy to explain. Arising out of some shady circumstances, Jabesh-Gilead becomes the means of saving the small remnant of the tribe of Benjamin and repopulating it. This is a story that would have been passed on for generations. By the time Saul comes around, even though it had been a couple hundred years, it seems likely that he would have known all about the story of the connection between his tribe and the city of Jabesh-Gilead, and so when the news reaches him that Jabesh-Gilead is in trouble, the debt of gratitude that he owes compels him to act immediately, and he brings deliverance upon the city.

This same connection and the gratitude that is tied up in it explains the actions of the men of Jabesh-Gilead 40 years later. It seems likely that some of the valiant men who made the journey that night to recover Saul’s body weren’t even born yet when Saul had saved their town, but they knew the story, the felt the gratitude, and they were willing to risk their lives to protect Saul’s honor.

In this season of Thanksgiving, as we reflect on these three stories, here is the point that I want to make: gratitude is not a fleeting emotion; it is a practiced habit. It is not a feeling; it is a lifestyle. It is not a sprint; it is a marathon. It is not short; it is long.

Too often, I think we can be guilty of living our lives with a “What have you done for me lately?” attitude toward God, forgetting that God has done everything for us, as the Creator, Sustainer, and Redeemer of all things. We live, move, and have our very being through Him. 

The repeated theme of Scripture is that God, in His grace, has initiated all sorts of good things toward us, and in response, we are to live a lifestyle of gratitude. Not a short, fleeting emotion, but long gratitude: a practiced habit. A way to live. 

A lifestyle of gratitude means that we acknowledge that God first loved us, so in return, we love God and others. God showed grace to us, so we show grace to others. God offers forgiveness to us, so we offer forgiveness to others. God blesses us in so many ways, so we use those blessings to bless others.

Long gratitude is a mindset; it’s not a desperate attempt to pay God back for something that can never be repaid, but it is mindfulness that is constantly aware of what God has done, is doing, and will do in our lives, and a desire to show appreciation for those things by the way we live and treat others.

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