Rookie Mistake.

Those of you who subscribe to the 4thDaveBlog feed may have seen something unusual in your inbox yesterday: a new 4DB post that immediately disappeared from the blog. There’s a reason for that.

Yesterday afternoon, I wrote a post about how Christians react to criticism of religious art, and I got a bit snarky. I meant to save it as a draft but hit publish by mistake; I realized what happened immediately and pulled it back down. Unfortunately, WordPress had already sent out notices of the new post. Ugh. Talk about not-ready-for-primetime.

What’s worse: the post just wasn’t good. I realized this as I reread it. The topic is worth discussing (and I will do so next month in a series of posts about Christians and art), but the way I discussed it was not useful.

I want to be precise here: I am not saying sarcasm or criticism isn’t useful. They can be both edifying and necessary. But what I wrote was really just snark for snark’s sake, which only serves to try to make me sound clever.

My main goal with this blog is to write what is beneficial for the reader, whether that be encouragement or critique. The useful critiques of that post got lost in a swamp of nyah-nyah. So I pulled it, though not quickly enough.

I’m gonna come clean, gang: the spike in readership this week (thanks to some really kind comments and links) both thrilled me and freaked me out. With this boost in traffic comes a reminder that my words have an impact, no matter who I am. They land somewhere. Whether spoken or printed, my speech is the overflow of my heart and a representative to others of my character. Every careless word I speak, blog, or tweet will be judged by God and others. I’ve even been blessed with a ministry involving words, and by the grace of God, the things I say carry a bit of weight, even if only in my church family.

As my beloved wife said to me this week, “Time to step it up.” And so it is. I’ve been given an opportunity here. I want it to count.

For those of you who are new readers, I post on Mondays, Wednesdays, and Fridays, so you should check back then. You can also subscribe as others have, though you shouldn’t expect any more unfinished drafts to be sent out. Lesson learned; I’ll be writing posts in a Word document first, before posting anything onto the Wordpress site.

FYI: I’ll have another #SufficientFire post that will go live this afternoon. Thanks for sticking around.

Advertisements

Sufficent Fire Fallout: Session 2 (Dan Phillips)

UPDATE: Here’s the audio. Enjoy!

=====

This session was entitled, “This Word and No Other–Tell Me Why.” Like Phil Johnson before him, Dan Phillips argued that the sufficiency of Scripture is the central issue of our day. He proceeded to cite 3 really well-known evangelical pastors/authors, who have recently talked about the need for “getting a word from the Lord.”  One of these is the duo of Henry and Richard Blackaby, most well known as the authors of the mega-hit devotional study series, “Experiencing God.” Phillips reported that the Blackaby’s have argued (in his contribution to a book called How Then Should We Choose? **) that hearing the “still small voice” of “God” in your heart, and then testing to make sure that word was from God, is a normal and necessary part of mature Christian life.

Phillips flipped the table on this assumption by making a counter-claim: The whole Bible should tell us if we need anything outside of the Bible, in order to have a normal Christian life. He then began a tour-de-force through the Scriptures, starting from page one, and argued that every time God spoke to and revealed Himself to men, it was verbal and it was unmistakable.

I can’t even begin to hit all the high points here, but it was masterful. Highlights:

  • In regard to the Ten Plagues of Egypt: “The experience of Joe Egyptian [living miles down the Nile from the palace] makes no sense if he didn’t hear the words of God.”
  • Are the miracles the most important part of the Exodus from Egypt? No, because they aren’t reenacted every year. Rather, during the Passover celebration, the faith is transmitted every year through words.
  • Never once does anyone have a relationship with God by impressions, feelings, or misty ideas that need to be tested.
  • The prophets prosecute Israel by holding up the revealed word of God and declaring what the people are doing wrong.
  • Notice the prophets always say, “Thus says the Lord.” [As opposed to, “I think this is what God put on my heart, maybe…”]
  • In Joshua 1:8-9 and Psalm 1:2, the blessing of God is upon the one who meditates on His words
  • Why did the Sermon on the Mount impress the listeners? Because of the authority of the teaching Jesus delivered verbally.
  • The book of Acts can rightly be called the Book of the Spread of God’s Word, because over and over it says that the word of the Gospel of Jesus spread and was received. It wasn’t the miracles that changed people’s lives, but the word of God proclaimed.

In summary, Phillips said that the entirety of Scripture divides specific “revelation” into two categories: God’s Word, and Not-God’s-Word. God’s Word is powerful, inerrant, and carries the full authority of God, demanding our belief and obedience.  The canon of Scripture, he says, is either open or it’s closed. If it’s open, then God’s still giving inerrant, universally binding words; if closed, He is no longer giving them. The very idea of an “errant, non-binding word from the Lord” is a completely foreign concept to Scripture (and can be rightly called anti-Scriptural). The tenuous, subjective impressions that many Christians try to assign as “the leading of the Spirit” have no authority in Scripture and are never described in Scripture as being legitimate.

The New Testament, Phillips concluded, is manifestly final. Scripture is fully sufficient for us to have a relationship with God. And when people elevate their subjective feelings and experiences, and canonize them with “God told me,” they elevate the meaningless while cheapening the true revelation of God.

=====

Both Phillips’ and Johnson’s sessions really gave me a lot to think about. Though I haven’t done so lately, I know there have definitely been times in the past where I’ve assigned divine origin to my thoughts/feelings/impressions, or times when I’ve looked for “signs” to get God’s stamp of approval before making decisions. But I find Phillips’ exhaustive survey of God’s revelation in Scripture to be compelling. There is no record of God mumbling his revelation in which the human receiver of this “impression” needed to decipher it. It’s just not there.

So. Two sessions in, and I was feeling mentally exhausted already. There was so much to consider from just those two talks. So I wasn’t prepared for the punch to the chest in Session #3…

Your Turn: What do you think about Phillips’ argument that the Bible gives no credibility to anything outside of God’s clear revealed Word? What counter-arguments would you mount to this assertion? Is there something you think he’s missing? Let’s talk about it in the comments.

**Correction: This post noted previously that Phillips was referring to an argument the Blackaby’s made in “Experiencing God.” This was a misunderstanding on my part that has been corrected above. Thanks.

Sufficient Fire Fallout: Session #1 (Phil Johnson)

In the next several posts, I’m going to “recap” the general sessions from the Sufficient Fire conference. I’m not going to completely reprint my notes or try to give you everything that was shared, point by point. For one thing, I’m sure I didn’t catch everything; more importantly, I want to give you just enough to make you interested in listening to the full conference audio yourself, when it’s available. So what follows over the next several posts are a mix of summary and reaction. My hope is that this will encourage you and pique your interest in studying these things further. Thanks.

UPDATE: Here’s the audio/video. Enjoy!

=====

I took six pages of notes during Session #1. Six pages. So suffice it to say, Phil Johnson’s talk was full of pithy statements and interesting arguments.

His main text was II Timothy 3:16-17:

All Scripture is breathed out by God and profitable for teaching, for reproof, for correction, and for training in righteousness, that the man of God may be complete, equipped for every good work. (2 Timothy 3:16-17 ESV)

Johnson argued that every doctrinal problem in evangelicalism stems ultimately from a departure from the doctrine of the sufficiency of Scripture: the concept that Scripture furnishes us with everything we need for salvation and godliness. This issue, Johnson said, was the formal issue of the Reformation, and is still a battleground issue today.

The doctrine of Scriptural sufficiency does not mean that Scripture is exhaustive in addressing every subject, or that all knowledge from all areas and disciplines of study can be found within its pages. Rather, when it comes to the issues the Bible speaks to, it speaks with complete and absolute authority. It gives us what we need.

Johnson offered 4 key principles of discussing the sufficiency of Scripture:

1) The Doctrine of the Canon:  “All Scripture”–Johnson described how the canon of Scripture came to be, and clarified some of the misconceptions about how and when it was first acknowledged by the church. He declared that “the Church was the discoverer, not the assembler, of the canon”; that the early church in the first three centuries already saw that the writings of the apostles were divinely-inspired Scriptures, well before any church council confirmed them as such. The Old Testament canon was already complete and in common use, pretty much as we have it today (with a few differences in the ordering of the books), and was affirmed as Scripture by Jesus and the apostles. He closed this section by stating that we can have confidence that we have the full canon because God promised to protect and sustain His word.

2) The Inspiration of Scripture–Here, Johnson addressed the issue of how Scripture was “God-breathed.” He described the process of the writing of Scripture as the “perfect blend of divine sovereignty and human responsibility”–that each author wrote exactly the words God wanted, but using his own voice, vocabulary, personality, and temperament. The Holy Spirit did not make the writers of the Scriptures comatose or robotic; but on the other hand, you cannot deny that God is absolutely sovereign in superintending this process. Johnson quoted II Peter 1:21, in which the apostle Peter describes the writers of Scripture as being “carried along” by the Holy Spirit.  In Matthew 5:18, Jesus claimed that even the tiny meticulous pen strokes of the Law of God were inspired and authoritative.

3) The Authority of Scripture–Here, Johnson argued that, per II Timothy 3, Scripture is not merely helpful or interesting but rather authoritative and binding on mankind. Scripture teaches and corrects, with the authority of God Himself. From cover to cover, Johnson argues, Scripture demands that we obey its commands.

4) The Sufficiency of Scripture–Finally, Johnson spoke of the sufficiency of Scripture. Verse 17 in the Timothy passage makes it plain: the Word of God is all we need to be prepared for every good work. We don’t need additional revelations, fresh words of prophecy, or any such thing. If Scripture is sufficient in and of itself, you don’t need any man to “unlock its secrets” for you by adding their own traditions.  The Word of God is good, perfect, righteous altogether.

This is the big issue that Johnson argued during this first session: Christians will formally affirm the doctrine that Scripture is sufficient for Christian life, but in a practical sense they (we) deny this truth when we seek extra revelations, in the form of “nudges,” “impressions,” “signs,” “fleeces,” or new “experiences.”  We don’t experience God by waiting for a murky mumble in our head that we then have to test thoroughly to make sure it’s actually from God. Either the Scriptures are enough for us, or they aren’t.  (But more on that in the next session.)

=====

This first session kicked off Sufficient Fire with a clarion call to all professing Christians: either you believe that the Scripture is enough, or you don’t. It’s time to start being honest about which side you’re on. If you believe Scripture is all you need to live a complete and God-honoring Christian life, then it’s time we got about the business of doing just that.

There was a lot more from Phil’s talk that I haven’t included. You’ll need to hear the rest yourself!

Next up: Dan Phillips, in Session #2….

Your Turn: Have you thought about how the doctrine of the sufficiency of Scripture impacts your perspective on it? Do your words sometimes reveal, either explicitly or implicitly, that you may not believe Scripture is enough? Let’s talk about that in the comments!

Sufficient Fire Fallout: Initial Thoughts/Reactions

I attended the Sufficient Fire conference on Friday and Saturday of last week, and truth be told, I’m still reeling a bit. So much information. So much good teaching. I didn’t attend all of it (just the 6 general sessions), but I took about 30 pages of notes and my mind and heart were sufficiently overwhelmed by the end of it.

I’ll post some choice quotes/paraphrases from the sessions this week, but I wanted to start with a bit of an overview and some feedback.

The conference consisted of sessions taught by Phil Johnson, Dan Phillips, and Frank Turk, who blog(ged) collectively at Pyromaniacs. (Phil has retired from blogging, but his posts are often reposted for the benefit of current readers.) This blog has been an incalculable benefit to my growth as a Christian, and as a Christian thinker.  Dan is a pastor here in town, so by God’s providence, they decided to host their very first conference here, for free, about 30 minutes from where I live.

The subject of the conference was the sufficiency of Scripture: how the canon of Scripture is complete and fully sufficient for Christian life, and how extrabiblical “revelations” or “prophecies” or “experiences” are not only unnecessary but downright dangerous and even damning. Throughout the six general sessions, the speakers demonstrated what the Bible consistently teaches that God interacts with mankind through His Word(s), and that these communications require the proper response. The truthfulness and trustworthiness of Scripture has ramifications and repercussions on the conduct of our lives and the content of our message.

So what did I get out of Sufficient Fire? First and foremost, it gave me a renewed and refreshed love for God’s word. Hearing the Word read publicly and preached so passionately filled my heart with joy. Secondly, the conference challenged me to love people more, especially in the Church and double-especially those who I’ve been given the responsibility to serve. Most importantly, I think this conference served to remind me of what’s really important, how the message of the Gospel of Jesus is more important than any other endeavor I could pursue with my life.

I’m still working out the implications of this, but: for the last few months, I’d been starting to doubt my desire and commitment for the ministry. I’ve been reading and listening to the work of several types of creatives, writers and entrepreneurs and artists. The draw of a writing career grew more and more attractive. Meanwhile, I found myself growing weary of the idea of lifelong church-work.

The two days I spent listening to and interacting with faithful ministers and churchmen reminded me why the work of a pastor is so vital, and why the message of the Gospel is worth spending my life and energy to proclaim. This is not to say that writing won’t be a part of that; God made me a writer, and words are my gift and my tools for doing what He has made me to do. But if my words only serve to build my platform and advance my name and reputation, they would be worth nothing and would benefit no one. If my hope is to write blogs and books that change lives, my words must be in service of a greater message than the fancies of my imagination. There is only one message that will change the heart, the life, the world: Jesus died to save sinners.

My hope is that I’ll never grow tired of proclaiming it.

=====

I’ll post notes from the individual sessions this week. As soon as the audio/video from the conference has been posted, I’ll link it here.

Don’t Tweet Your Heroes.

There’s a public figure in the church, someone whose work I have admired greatly, although some of his recent decisions and statements have started to concern me. I have been blessed by his written words and spoken addresses, and his impact influenced some of my decisions regarding my seminary education.

He made the decision to take part in a few ecumenical gatherings focusing on cultural issues. This just didn’t sit right with me. Rather than going into such a meeting to preach Christ or elevate the distinctiveness of Christian faith from the other religions being represented, he chose the path of hand-holding, as a “co-belligerent” in the culture war. This seemed to me to miss the point.

He talked about this meeting on Twitter. I responded critically to him, questioning why he was there at all.  (This was my first mistake.)

I’m no one, okay? I know that. I’m a cipher. I’m just a tick-mark on a roll among the millions of people in my church denomination, so it’s not as though I expected to enter into a dialogue with this high-profile figure.  Yet something about his comments rubbed me the wrong way, so I responded, a bit rashly but I don’t think unfairly.

He replied sarcastically about my “knowing the hearts of” everyone in the meeting.  On the one hand, he was right; I was guilty of overstatement in my comments. On the other hand, he was at a meeting with Catholics, Mormons, Muslims, Hindus, and representatives of other faiths. My contention that his co-attendees believed a different Gospel than he did was, on the whole, valid. I still believe that.

I responded to his retort, apologized for any unfairness, and restated my concern in a fairer way.  He never responded.

Others responded to me, or “favorited” his comment to me. Though I tried to “make it right” and affirm that I wasn’t simply taking a cheap shot, he never replied. And that bothered me for a while afterward. I was disappointed that he was willing to snark but not willing to engage.

Here’s my point: Social media is a double-edged sword–it gives you up-close access to the good and the bad of the people you admire. It’s a thrill to get a comment back from authors or pastors or thinkers that you appreciate. It’s fun to actually engage in brief dialogue with creatives and celebrities, 140 characters at a time.

But just as I am tempted to overreact or be flippant with others on social media, so are these people I look up to–shocking, I know, but true. As it turns out, all of these people are human beings, sinners in their own right who are capable of being just as frustrated, petty, and irritable as we are.

I’ve learned two things from this experience: First, I’ve been reminded that I need to be more careful about how I respond to criticism online. There may come a day when I’m the person someone else looks up to, so I should start learning now how to respond to critics in a mature way.

Second, I’ve learned to think twice before tweeting my heroes, unless I’m ready to see that they’re sinners like me. And when I get a snarky response or a dismissive jab, I should be ready to show grace and compassion to them, just as I need grace to cover my own failings.

=====

Your Turn: Have you had a run-in (whether in-person or online) with someone you look up to, only to find that they’re a sinner like you? What did that experience teach you?  Comment below!

Selling malarkey. (Updated)

“When you go to the Christian bookstore, or even our church library, make sure to use your discernment. There’s a lot of garbage in there.”

It hurts every time I say it, but I have a responsibility to the people I teach every Sunday at church, to warn them about theological wolves and to prepare them for spiritual battle. Sadly, the battle these days often has to be fought on our side of the theological lines.

The news broke in the last week that Alex Malarkey, a young man who is the subject of a popular book called “The Boy Who Came Back from Heaven,” has recanted his story. He says now that he made it up as a child and that his father wrote the book and has been profiting from it for years. Malarkey and his mother have made attempts for the last few years to get the book pulled by the publisher and removed from Christian bookstores. Their efforts had been fruitless until this week, when the story broke nationally and hit the major mainstream media outlets. This finally earned a response from the publisher and Christian retailer Lifeway, who have pulled the books and related products.

I’m not going to rehash all the details of this situation, because others (like Pulpit and Pen) have done it more thoroughly. Instead, I want to talk about Lifeway.

Lifeway Christian Resources began as the Baptist Sunday School Board, originally publishing Sunday School materials for the Southern Baptist Convention before growing into the national non-profit Christian retailer that it is today. While it receives no funding from the SBC (per the Wiki page), it is still tied inextricably to Baptist life and thought.

Despite this shared history with a conservative evangelical denomination, the company seems to be driven by what’s profitable rather than what’s doctrinally sound. When you walk into a Lifeway store, you see displays and promotions for books like Jesus Calling (a contemplative mystic devotional that purports to be extrabiblical personal “impressions” from Jesus Himself), 4 Blood Moons (John Hagee’s ludicrous and poorly-researched End Times theology), and various books by TD Jakes (Oneness Pentecostal who consistently flirts with modalist heresy), Rob Bell (do I even need to…?), Steven Furtick (consistently interprets the Bible as being more about you than about Jesus), and others.** For the record, there are many others I could name, including some particularly popular books among the members of my own church. All of these are books and materials with questionable-at-best and heretical-at-worst teachings and theology. Still, they are sold because they “sell.”

For the longest time, Lifeway was even giving choice display locations to the “heaven tourism” books, like Todd Burpo’s Heaven is for Real and Malarkey’s book. This was even after the Southern Baptist Convention clearly decried these books as being potentially dangerous and often “antithetical to Scripture.” (I just checked, and it appears that Malarkey’s books and most of Burpo’s books seem to be missing from the Lifeway website. Oddly, you can still order Don (not John) Piper’s book 90 Minutes in Heaven, because… yeah.)

So what does this mean for me personally? I’ve always been wary when I shop at Christian bookstores like Lifeway and Mardel, businesses that are intended to be for the good of the church but that sell books and products that are spiritually questionable or even destructive. It always hurts a little bit to see the “Bestsellers” rack, and count at least a half-dozen that I would consider outright theological garbage.

I expect there will be those who would respond, “What’s the solution, Dave? Censorship? Even if you think that’s a good thing, who decides what stays and goes? Whose filter should we use–yours?”  I can appreciate this response, so I’ll answer the two potential objections in order.

First, what I’m proposing isn’t true censorship. I still think people like Joel Osteen and Rob Bell should be free to publish whatever they want, as should people like Deepak Chopra and Eckhart Tolle. America is a pluralistic society, so I believe every voice should have the opportunity to be raised. What I’m talking about is not a “free speech” issue; it’s a discernment issue. If you’re running a Christian (and especially an Evangelical) business, and you purportedly care about how your products affect the spiritual lives of your customers, then that should dictate what you sell in your business. Furthermore, I think you are, at some level, spiritually responsible for what you promote and put in the hands of your customers.

But who decides? That’s the question. I recognize it’s a thorny issue without an easy solution. I further understand that it would be almost impossible to please everyone. That said, here’s where I’ve landed on the issue: I’ve decided that, as best as I can, I’m going to avoid doing business with these stores. I’m not launching a boycott. I’m not starting a campaign or coining a trendy hashtag. But I think, when possible, I’m going to choose a different retailer for my book purchases, even if it’s a secular retailer like Amazon or Barnes and Noble. There may be times when I need to hold my nose and buy from Lifeway, but until the culture of the company changes, I think this is what I need to do.

I’m not telling you what to decide. If you want to buy from these Christian bookstores, that’s fine, and I will think no less of you. However, I’m starting to see it the way I’m starting to view two-party politics: the only way we impact the direction of the enterprise is if enough people stand up and say “no more.”

=====

I’m interested in what you think about this. Am I going about this the wrong way? Is there something I’m not considering? Please let me know below in the comments.

 

**UPDATE: Eagle-eyed reader Jimmy Sloan noted that Lifeway doesn’t sell Joel Osteen or Joyce Meyer, and “never has.” That is my mistake–I was confusing Lifeway and Mardel (easy enough to do).  I have corrected the paragraph, removed those two authors, and added a replacement (Furtick) who I know is still being sold in Lifeway. Thank you, Jimmy, for caring enough about this issue to help me correct my mistake!

Be careful, little blogs, what you say.

Some days, it’s easy to rattle out 500 words or so on a topic. Book review of a novel I just read and really liked? Sure! Tear down obnoxious Christmas carols? No problem! Talk about myself and my goals for the year? Easy as pie!

There are other days, however, when I hesitate to write–when the truth I want to tell may come back to haunt me or hurt me. For example, I was a little fired up about worship songs that take Bible verses out of context (and I still am), but after I posted that piece, I realized that my pointed analysis could pretty easily get back to the worship pastor of my church, who may see it as an attack instead of a loving critique.

There’s a moment when you realize that the words you fire off like so many arrows may actually hit human targets, and you have to consider if what you’re doing is really worth it. You must make sure that the things you say matter enough to you that you’re willing to stand behind them and, if necessary, pay the price for them.

Of course I’m not talking about any sort of real or lasting risk to myself. My words aren’t raising the ire of religious extremists threatening my life (though they may, one day). My words aren’t putting me at risk with a government that would want to silence me (though this may happen one day as well). My simple little blog, with its negligible page views and dozen or so friendly readers, is a molecule in a drop in a bucket in an ocean of words.

On the other hand, my words reach actual eyes and ears and, hopefully, hearts. If I’m careless, they will wound without cause and will damage my credibility and limit my opportunities to challenge, encourage, and bless my readers.

It’s one thing to speak truth to power, or declare that the emperor has no clothes. It’s another to shoot firebrands into a crowd of digital passersby. 

Do I regret anything I’ve posted in the last few months? No, I do not. But in the coming weeks and months, I suspect I may be stepping into riskier ground at times, so I want to make clear up-front that I mean what I say, that I will be thoughtful about how I say it, and that I will continue to be vigilant about whether or not I’m speaking for the good of those who read, instead of simply filling the internet with another cloud of zeros and ones.

My hope is that my posts are a benefit to you, reader. I trust that if they are not, you’ll either let me know or you will move on. Either way, I’ll get the message.

Book Review: “Take the Stairs” by Rory Vaden

Is taking the hard road better in the long run than taking the easy road? Is swimming against the current really worth it? If there’s a perfectly functional escalator available, why should I take the stairs?

Productivity coach and motivational speaker Rory Vaden explains in his New York Times bestselling book Take the Stairs that truly successful people live by a “take the stairs” mindset–doing what’s difficult in the short-term in order to achieve a long-term payoff.

I found out about Vaden and his work through an interview he gave on Erik Fisher’s “Beyond the To-Do List” podcast. This sounded like exactly the kind of book I should read at the start of the new year–a literary kick in the pants for yours truly.

Well, I read this book in the space of a few days–partly because I was enjoying some of what Vaden had to say (more on this shortly) and partly because, clocking in at under 200 wide-spaced pages, it’s a speedy read.

So was Take the Stairs worth the short hike?  I have to confess–despite some good early content, I can’t recommend the book as a whole.

Solid Work Concepts

There were some really good ideas that I’ve gained from Vaden’s book.  Here are a few that I’m hanging onto, just from the first couple of chapters:

The difference between buffalo and cows: Vaden writes that in his experience in Colorado, he saw buffalo and cows in the same environment, and he noticed that when a storm would roll down off the mountains, the cows would run away from the storm while the buffalo would wait and then run straight into it. The cows wrongly thought they could outrun the storm, and ended up in it for a long time. The buffalo ran straight through it, and minimized their time in the storm. Vaden’s observation is that when we run from hard work or challenges (or procrastinate and hope they go away), we usually end up paying for it with longer consequences. However, if we strategically run toward challenges, we can break through to the other side more quickly and minimize our “suffering” in the process. (pp. 34-36)

Procrastination: Vaden describes procrastination and self-indulgence as creditors that charge terrible interest. The self-destructiveness of procrastination is a recurring theme in Vaden’s book. (p. 10)

Success: Success, according to Vaden, is never achieved or owned; it’s rented–and the rent is due every day. What are you willing to do to “pay the rent” today? (p. 26)

My favorite paragraph, from Vaden’s chapter on commitment (in a section about whether or not to change jobs), deserves a full quote:

So, you must crush it where you’re at. You must dominate whatever it is that you are doing. You must do everything in your power to reach the top of whatever game it is that you are playing. Because if you don’t, then you are not a successful person looking for a new challenge to take on; you’re a person with conditional commitment looking for a new set of circumstances, and most likely starting the same self-defeating pattern all over again. Success isn’t a matter of circumstance; it’s a matter of choice. Finding new circumstances won’t make you successful, but making new choices will.

For someone who struggles with motivation and perseverance in the workplace, this hit me squarely in the chest.

Obviously, there are some good things in this book. So why am I having such a hard time recommending it?

Sketchy Worldview

While there was some phrasing in the early going that gave me pause, the big warning flags came in Vaden’s chapter on focus. In this chapter and following chapters, he discussed how he believed in a version of “The Law of Attraction” (made famous in the New Age self-help book The Secret), the power of positive self-affirmations (think Joel Osteen and Stuart Smalley), and the use of visualization to pursue and achieve goals. After some great words on motivation, taking responsibility for your own actions, and hard work, Vaden’s book veered off into the theological and ideological weeds here.

This was compounded when his chapter on integrity was less about keeping your word because it’s morally right and more about keeping your word because when you do, it grants your words “power” to come true.  In a twisty sort of logic, this is almost true. When you walk with integrity, you follow through on your commitments, and that kind of consistency and results is often rewarded with success. The problem with Vaden (and so many New Age and/or pseudo-Evangelical self-help gurus) is that he attributes his success to the power of his positive thinking and affirmations. He even has the gall to misapply John 1:1-3 to make the case that words have power, while completely missing that (in that same chapter) John makes it clear that the Word was a Person, namely Jesus the Christ.

It got worse with his chapter on “faith,” which he assures the reader isn’t specifically in any specific deity. It’s more a faith that if I do my best with what I’ve got, then things will work out for the best in the end. It’s a bizarre kind of secular predestination–if I couldn’t have done anything differently, then things worked out the way they were supposed to.  Or, to put it another way: “All things work together for the good of those who are hard-working, self-motivated, and take advantage of every opportunity to improve themselves and accomplish their goals.”  I have to ask–what IS this? This horribly misguided idea of “faith” is doomed to fail, because true faith is only as strong as its Object. This is why our faith must be in the God we serve instead of our fickle, fallible selves.

What  burns about all this is that contextual clues point to the strong possibility that Vaden is a churchgoer of the self-help-y Evangelical mega-church variety. This kind of theologically wonky thinking would be unchallenged in such an environment. Brothers, this just should not be.

Final Analysis

Ultimately, for me, Vaden’s shaky worldview spoiled an otherwise serviceable motivational book. I’m not saying he has nothing useful to say. As the old saying goes, you chew the meat and spit out the bones. Well, after a few bites of solid beef, I found out that the rest of the steak was bone and gristle. It has the flavor of a high-quality cut of beef, but there’s nothing solid there. Worse yet, the more I chewed, the more I realized the beef was rotting from the center outward.

Even though I think I’ve benefited from some of what Vaden had to say, on the whole, I can’t recommend this book to anyone in good conscience. The theologically slimy ideas of the latter 2/3 of the book are too insidious to recommend, even to the theologically wary.

Take the stairs. Work hard. Do your best. But do these things because they’re good for your growth, because they honor God and make you a more sacrificial and persevering person, and most importantly because you have faith that even if they don’t seem to pay off in the short term, you can trust the One who judges justly will set all things right at the end.

Context Matters–Even in Worship Music.

This has been bugging me:

I go to a pretty typical Southern Baptist megachurch. So on Sunday morning, during the worship music portion of the service, you can typically expect a mix of “updated” hymns, Chris Tomlin songs, and (unfortunately) theologically-sketchy-but-uber-hip new songs by any number of members in the current Christian music rogues’ gallery. (I’m looking at you, Jesus Culture.)

My admittedly-snarky-sounding-but-totally-sincere question is: Do worship pastors and praise teams actually, like, THINK about the songs that are chosen for Sunday worship? 

If corporate singing is the closest Baptist equivalent to creeds or other communal affirmations of belief (and I would argue that it is), then we really need to consider if what we’re singing is a) actually based on Scripture, and b) properly interpreting Scripture.

Case-in-point: “You Said,” by Hillsong United–a favorite tune on “Missions Emphasis” Sundays. The chorus goes like this:

You said, “Ask and I’ll give the nations to you”
Oh, Lord, that’s the cry of my heart
Distant shores and the islands will see
Your light, as it rises on us

Nice enough, right? A song that talks about the glory of God going forth through all the earth, and the people of God being part of the redemptive plan by asking for God to give them the nations. Seems pretty safe, right?

One Sunday morning, as the music swelled through the dimly-lit sanctuary and the praise team belted out these words, I wondered, “Where exactly did God say this?”  So I did a quick search. The only place I can find anything like this in Scripture (please correct me if I’m wrong) is Psalm 2, verse 8: “Ask of me, and I will make the nations your heritage, and the ends of the earth your possession.”  Huh. Well, there you go. God did say that.

But what are the surrounding verses? What’s the context of this verse? And more importantly, who is God speaking to? Let’s look at verses 7-9:

I will tell of the decree:
The Lord said to me, “You are my Son;
    today I have begotten you.
 Ask of me, and I will make the nations your heritage,
    and the ends of the earth your possession.
 You shall break them with a rod of iron
    and dash them in pieces like a potter’s vessel.”

It’s Jesus. God is speaking to Jesus. He tells the Son to ask, and the Father will make the nations His heritage so that He can rule them as King forever.

You can try to justify it with some tortured logic about being “in Christ,” but from where I’m sitting, this looks like a usurpation and misapplication of Messianic prophecy for the purpose of an emotional lift. And that’s just not good enough, worship pastor.

I love singing in church. But if what we’re singing manipulates or intentionally misapplies Scripture, such singing is wrong-headed at best and spiritually dangerous at worst. We must do better than this.

Call me a critic; call me a hater; call me a perpetually angry Calvinist, even. But I refuse to accept that theologically-ignorant or even theologically-dangerous “worship” music is no big deal during the Sunday meeting. We cannot obey Colossians 3:16 if we’re being theologically lazy in our music choices.

What and Whom we sing about matters too much to sell out truth for emotionalism.

Inbox Zero, Dead Oxen, and Focusing on WIAT.

I’ve been reading and learning a lot lately about productivity in an effort to improve several personal and professional habits. I’ve learned a lot of useful things, including one concept called “inbox zero”– getting to the point where you have no emails in your inbox because everything’s been addressed or filed. For cubicle cowboys like me, this is a daily gauntlet to be thrown down and taken up.

However, as I’ve recently kicked my daily work output up several notches, I’ve discovered that there’s a dangerous temptation in my daily pursuit of “inbox zero”–the dead-oxen dilemma.
Here’s what I mean. In Proverbs 14:4, Solomon writes this:
Where there are no oxen, the manger is clean, but abundant crops come by the strength of the ox.
In other words, it’s easy to keep a clean barn when you have dead oxen–but you won’t get anything done. So if you want to bring in a harvest, you’ll have to shovel some mess.  To translate this into my current work context: the price of productivity is that more emails come in, more projects are given to you, and more people call you. And that’s where the temptation comes in. If I don’t take on new projects or look for ways to innovate or to improve my processes, there’s a chance I won’t get the new slew of emails and requests and assignments that go along with taking initiative. I have a better chance of catching the elusive “inbox zero” if I don’t take on these responsibilities. In the twisted logic of a procrastinator, the endgame isn’t completing more work, it’s avoiding being handed more work in the first place.
For too long, I think my subconscious goal at work was to become invisible, so that people would leave me alone. I would bumble along at my own pace, do enough to get by, and try to avoid extra stress and hassle. And guess what? It didn’t work. Even if I didn’t take on new projects as quickly or frequently as I should have, I still had all the stress and frustration I was working so hard to avoid by not working very hard.

So as my perspective on work has been shifting lately to a more proactive and aggressive (in the proper sense) stance, my goal has shifted. I’ve stopped seeking to be left alone. I’ve even stopped chasing Inbox Zero. Now, my focus at work every day is on WIAT (in my head, it sounds like “Wyatt”).

Every day, I create a draft email with the subject line reading “WIAT” and the date. And in that email, throughout the day, I make a note of everything I’ve gotten done. Projects finished, projects started, emails sent. Anything that’s actual work in my job goes into the email marked “WIAT”: What I Accomplished Today. At the end of the day, I send the email to myself and store it in a folder on my computer. No one else may ever see the emails. But I see them. And like tracking calories or living by a budget, I am now a bit more accountable to myself. I see when my work ethic lags, and it keeps me motivated to stay on task.

My goal at work isn’t to have a clean-but-empty barn. My goal is to work hard and produce a harvest. An empty barn only serves my own interests. But if I’m looking to the interests of others, I’ll volunteer for more, take on new responsibilities, and seek to pour myself and be a blessing to the people around me and those who depend on the service I provide.

Now, if you’ll excuse me, I’ve got to pick up my shovel and get to it.