Just Smile More

I was greeted in the dining hall line that day at Bible College by a friend who was smiling big. That was notable because she wasn’t really known for her smile. That’s not a criticism. Some people, like my wife, have a beautiful, sparkling smile that they share with everybody. [That’s her in this blog.] Others are more like me—I have to think about smiling. My resting face is a scowl. This friend’s smile was between my wife’s smile and my own. Maybe the reason we were friends is because we shared similar senses of cynicism and sarcasm.

But she was smiling brightly and told me why. “A friend told me that I needed to smile more and be happier and so I am.” I probably said something like, “Oh, sounds good” and we got our food. On the inside I might have been thinking, “good luck with that.”

I’ve thought about that simple exchange over 30 years ago just recently. Some Christians—I am one of them—have the tendency to mistakenly believe we can change ourselves with just the right amount of willpower. Not smiling enough? Just work at smiling more. Spending too much time on social media? Just stop it. You can do it. Struggling with pornography? You don’t need to tell anyone. You can defeat this on your own. And wouldn’t that be better than admitting your sin to a friend and asking for help?

We do need to put effort into our growth. The New Testament is clear on that.

Therefore, my beloved, as you have always obeyed, so now, not only as in my presence but much more in my absence, work out your own salvation with fear and trembling, for it is God who works in you, both to will and to work for his good pleasure. Phil 2:12–13 (ESV)

Work out your salvation means to put effort into your growth; to work hard at change. But it’s always God’s work in you that actually results in your work making you more like Christ.

But by the grace of God I am what I am, and his grace toward me was not in vain. On the contrary, I worked harder than any of them, though it was not I, but the grace of God that is with me. 1 Cor 15:10 (ESV)

Paul gives us a grace sandwich. It was God’s grace—but he worked harder than anyone—but it was the grace of God. The lazy Christian is not a growing Christian. We have to work.

But you have never changed yourself. It is always the Spirit through Scripture that changes you. So if you’re struggling with a besetting sin, it’s better for you to pray more than to work more. Prayer shows dependence upon God. Of course you need to do both: pray and work. But it’s God’s work that makes your work effective. We don’t even want to change (Phil 2:13) unless God changes us. He has to give us even the desire to change (“to will and to work”).

Why is this so important? Why write a blog on a smile from 30 years ago? Because this view of sanctification emphasizes me and my work, not God and his work. It’s a gospel problem because the gospel doesn’t go far enough. It gives me a future, but I don’t really need it right now. I’m able, through my own willpower, to change myself. Not very happy; decide to be happy and presto, I smile more.

You and I need the gospel for our salvation, but also our sanctification. Your salvation should work out in your sanctification. The gospel changes you (2 Cor 5:17) and keeps changing you. Are you stuck? Don’t put on a big smile. Work hard and ask God to make your work effective.

I’ve written on imitations of biblical growth that aren’t real growth here.

Encouraging Metrics of Spiritual Growth

One of the most glorious experiences as a parent is when you see your infant has discovered they have fingers. I saw that with at least one of my children and it’s just a fun, fascinating time. It’s the type of event that I wish I had recorded because it would be something I watch over and over. I recall the story of one parent that became concerned because her child hadn’t discovered his fingers yet, so she tied yarn to his wrists to help him find his hands. She later laughed at herself for this, and I can see why. I’ve never met an 18-year-old that doesn’t know he has fingers. 😉 They all discover that even if it takes some longer than others.

We can get concerned when our children don’t hit the developmental milestones right on time, and in some cases, that’s a cause for concern. But mostly we know that physical growth takes time. It’s not all or nothing. My one-year-old didn’t mow the lawn, and I didn’t expect him to. I just expected him to grow at more or less the normal rate, and I was encouraged with every small step of growth even though he wasn’t very useful around the house for a long time. It’s okay. Growth takes time.

In my ministry I’ve seen Christians that are discouraged at the pace of growth in their lives. They want to be done with their sin once and for all, but they keep struggling. They want to never struggle with sin again, and they look at spiritual growth as all or nothing. So they think If I struggle with this besetting sin at all, I’ve not grown at all. But that’s not really what growth looks like with most sins. Obviously you don’t wean yourself off of adultery, and you can’t excuse any episode of domestic violence. Those are two sins that have to stop completely, and they can. But for most common sins—besetting sins—growth is there, but it’s not complete absence of the sin. Growth is slow and hard—that’s why it’s called progressive sanctification.

Anger or worry are what I’ve used most to illustrate this encouraging metric, but you can think of covetousness, gossip, sinful sarcasm, discontentment, pornography, and many other sins. Let’s use worry.

So you’re a Christian that gives in to the temptation to worry and you know that’s sin. What does growth look like?

  • Less Severe Episodes of Worry

So you still worry, but it doesn’t keep you up all night. Or it doesn’t make you sick. You still worry too much, but your sin isn’t as debilitating as it once was. That’s growth. That’s improvement.

  • Fewer Episodes of Worry

Worry used to be a constant in your life. There were few waking hours when you weren’t worried about something. Now you can see times of peace and trust in God. You can now count episodes of worry where it used to be an unbroken constant. That’s growth.

  • Longer Distance Between Episodes of Worry

As you grow you, begin to see some daylight between the dark clouds of worry that seemed to dominate your life. Now you can have hours and even days between episodes of worry. You’re still worrying, but this is growth.

  • Shorter Episodes of Worry

Not only is your sinful worry less severe but each episode is shorter. You are applying truth more quickly and righting your soul faster. This is growth.

  • Quicker Confession and Repentance of Worry

Previously maybe you didn’t even confess because you didn’t think it was sin. You thought worry was just something that came over you because of your circumstances. Or you imagined that your personality made you worry. Now, you see it as sin, and while you might be more susceptible to that temptation because of outside influences (e.g., past experiences, family, personality), you don’t excuse it. You realize the truth of Mark 7:20-23 that when you are squeezed, what comes out of you comes from you—your heart. You more quickly get to confession and repentance. This is growth.

  • Increasing Occasions When You Don’t Worry at All

You faced five situations this past week where you would normally worry, but you only worried on four of them. That’s victory! That’s growth! You actually had an occasion when you would have normally worried, but you didn’t have any worry in your heart. This is good. And those occasions increase. You have more and more times when you don’t worry now like you would have before.

This is what God’s grace to change looks like.

And we all, with unveiled face, beholding the glory of the Lord, are being transformed into the same image from one degree of glory to another. For this comes from the Lord who is the Spirit. 2 Cor 3:18 (ESV)

“From one degree of glory to another” means from one degree of growth to another. It’s progressive. It takes time. It does happen slowly and even that slow growth as described above should be encouraging to you.

You can apply this to other besetting sins like anger, covetousness, and with a few adaptations, even viewing pornography.  

Any consumption of porn is sin just like any worry is sin (Phil 4:6). But is the only way to measure growth the complete absence of worry? Or the complete absence of porn? We should never be satisfied until porn is completely eradicated in a counselee’s life, but growth is measured before that. If you have an all-or-nothing perspective on growth, you will be more discouraged than encouraged. Maybe you’re not as defeated as you think you are. Maybe spiritual fruit is actually growing in your life even if it’s not what it should be yet. Notice the fruit and be encouraged. Press on.

We can be dissatisfied with our present growth AND encouraged at the same time. We are always reaching for more, but we simultaneously look back and see evidence of the Spirit’s work too. Any step in the right direction is enabled by the Spirit—and we praise him for it.

For if you live according to the flesh you will die, but if by the Spirit you put to death the deeds of the body, you will live. Romans 8:13 (ESV)

Growth takes time, but there are evidences of growth long before your growth is complete. Rejoice in God’s gracious, slow, but inevitable work in you. Maybe this is exactly what you need today… or what a friend needs.

And I am sure of this, that he who began a good work in you will bring it to completion at the day of Jesus Christ. Phil 1:6 (ESV)

Burn Your Resume

A few years ago I did several workshops and a general session at an educator’s convention, and about a month later I got my evaluation back. This convention does its speakers a service by having all attenders fill out evaluations of each workshop they attended. The first number I saw was the group average evaluation for the entire convention and then I saw that mine was lower than the average. I had a response that might surprise you. I laughed. Not because I thought the evaluation was wrong. These are teachers after all, and I think they know good teaching. But I laughed because after I saw the group average for speakers I just assumed my number would be above average. With all the other speakers there, I knew I would be a cut above. I wasn’t. Oh, and they’ve not asked me back either. 😉

Ed Welch in his book, A Small Book About Why We Hide, has a short chapter titled “Resumes Set Afire”. He’s not talking about our actual resumes, the list of education and employers you’ve accrued over the years. No, it’s the resume that we think defines us, where we think we shine. Those things that we think we do better than others that set us apart.

He asks several provocative questions in encouraging us to dismantle them. If we toss them out, “Do some hurt more than others?” If that item weren’t true of you, would that hurt? Yes, yes it would. At least that’s my testimony. And then he asks, “What is left when achievements are gone?”

All four of our adult children are pursuing Christ, and Laura and I are very thankful. I know many dads that were more faithful than me where one or more children are an outlier. They are pursuing lifestyles or habitual sins that grieve their parents. I don’t deserve the children I have, and I would struggle if one of them walked away from God. I think godly children are part of my resume that I would find it difficult to part with.

I have a sense of humor that has been a blessing and a curse. I too often want others to think of me as a funny person. I think I outshine others that way. So if that were stripped away, could I be content? Would Christ be enough?

My opening points out that effective preaching and teaching are important to me. If I received no accolades, would Jesus be enough?

My father-in-law died with Alzheimer’s in 2023. He was a hard worker his entire life. He loved physical labor. Towards the end when he didn’t even recognize family, he would almost cry because he didn’t know what to do if he didn’t have a job–if he couldn’t work. Sometimes our resume is stripped from us. You can think you are a good husband and lose your wife to disease. You can believe you are an effective Christian servant and get fired from your ministry. I know some that have. Those things we think help us shine more than others can be taken away by God, and it’s for our good when he does.

It’s better to burn your resume than have it burned. Where are the areas where you think you shine? Is Christ enough if you’re not a good athlete, a master gamer, a serving spouse, an engaging host, an accomplished investor, a good student, a loving baby Mom, a skilled mechanic, a successful fisherman, or a popular teen? Is it enough that you have Christ?

For where your treasure is, there your heart will be also. Matthew 6:21 (ESV)

What King David and Philemon have in Common

A friend of mine started a church in Canada years ago that God blessed with many conversions. It became over 500 hundred attenders that were mostly new believers. Laura and I were able to do two marriage conferences there over the years, and it was so encouraging to see how teachable and hungry the people were. Often what we taught was the first time they had ever heard it, and they just assumed that if the Bible says that, they need to obey it. It was so much fun.

This same pastor friend said that one time they started a small group for men struggling with pornography. Again, lots of new believers who don’t know how church is done. They don’t know they are supposed to pretend they don’t struggle with lust. The church announced it and put a sign up on the church bulletin board and MEN SIGNED UP! I cannot imagine that happening in the churches I’ve known. Most Christians are way too private about their spiritual lives, and especially their spiritual failures. Would men sign up at your church where others could see their names?

I’ve been thinking about two passages in the Bible that seem to have a commonality that I never noticed before. Psalm 51 is a familiar psalm that we recognize as David’s song of repentance after his sin with Bathsheba. I’ve read it many times for my own soul’s benefit, and I’ve pointed others to it to encourage repentance.

But recently I thought about it as an example of David’s transparency about a major failure. The superscription says David wrote it after Nathan came to him after he had gone in to Bathsheba. The superscription is not subtle—it doesn’t say that David wrote this after some general failure in his life, but it specifically tells us and anyone who has read it over the years that it was David’s sin with Bathsheba—his adultery and murder.

That is incredibly transparent. We don’t like to admit our failures in specific, and David does here. Think about this: David intended this to be sung about his sin. He didn’t just admit it to a few trusted friends. He wrote a song about it. Why was King David so honest in his confession? Well he was clearly more concerned with repentance than covering up. It’s one reason we know his repentance was genuine.

The second passage was in Philemon where Paul appeals on behalf of the converted slave, Onesimus. In verse 2 Paul says that this letter was also written to Aphia, who was probably Philemon’s wife, and Archippus. Now who is Archippus? He most likely was a church leader either at Colosse or Laodicea.

See what Paul has done? He knew how Philemon should respond to his runaway slave, Onesimus, now that Onesimus is saved and growing. He wanted Philemon to forgive Onesimus. He even claims that he could have commanded Philemon to do this, but he wanted Philemon to do it on his own, not from compulsion (verses 8-9).

But Paul does apply some good pressure on Philemon to choose forgiveness, and one way he does that is by including Archippus as a recipient of the letter. Archippus would know how Paul appealed to Philemon. So this decision wasn’t just between Paul, Philemon, and even Onesimus (who probably brought the letter), but also included Archippus.

Philemon might have liked to consider this by himself, but Paul doesn’t allow that.

The connection between these two passages is transparency. David chose to be honest and open about his sin—can’t get much more open than writing a song about it. And Philemon was forced to be open and honest about his need to forgive Onesimus.

Your spiritual life is not yours alone. The entire church is invested. You should welcome opportunities to be honest about your struggles with sin. That encourages and edifies others and it leads you to humility—always a needed virtue (Jam 4:6). And you should welcome the intrusion of other believers who help you see your sin and plead with you to change. Just-Jesus-and-you Christianity is not biblical Christianity.

I want my church to be full of people that are not hiding their sin. I want them to be so secure in their identity in Christ that they don’t care what others know about them. And I want my church to be full of Christians that are willing, like Paul, to encourage each other to please God. And if I’m going to have a church like that, I need model that in my relationships. A step towards honesty and transparency feels risky, but it is a good step—just look at King David and Philemon.

Embarrassed of My Embarrassment

January 2024 will be five years since my younger brother died. Jeff was two years younger than me and also mentally disabled. When we were growing up in the ‘70s, it was called mental retardation, but that’s not a helpful description anymore, nor does it seem kind. Jeff was disabled enough that he was never going to be able to live on his own. My parents insisted that Jeff live with them; they took parenting him very seriously, and he lived with them until his death in 2019. He was almost 49. Jeff couldn’t understand the question why? If you asked him about his motivations, he would just repeat the question back to you. Physically, he was fine while we were growing up. Later, sometime after I left the house, Jeff started having seizures. When he died in 2019, it was while he was recovering from a seizure.

Jeff with my kids quite a few years ago.

My older brother was always the better brother to Jeff. I never told him at the time, but I marveled that he never seemed embarrassed by Jeff. As a preteen and teenager I was. Jeff didn’t have Down Syndrome; you couldn’t tell he was disabled by his appearance. But as soon as he spoke, it was obvious—at least it was to 13-year-old me. He wasn’t cool, and while I was never going to be cool, I also didn’t want to stand out in any way. Jeff occasionally stood out, and I thought that made me stand out. It’s embarrassing how sinful my thinking was. I’m embarrassed of my embarrassment then. I didn’t love my brother well. That love he got from our older brother, Bill.

Jeff was hardly the only reason for my embarrassment. I struggled with what I now know the Bible calls fear of man. I still see it in my life, but thankfully I’ve seen growth. For the longest time, I didn’t even know what was going on in my heart.

It was Edward Welch’s book, When People Are Big and God Is Small that first alerted me to this biblical theme. I’m sure others have had the same experience, but as I read it, incidents in my past started to make biblical sense.

Of course how I responded to my brother when I was a teenager came to mind. Also, others. For example, I attended a small seminary and was the president of the student body for a semester. One of my responsibilities was to organize the annual Christmas chapel. I did organize the program, but I recruited other students to actually do it. I didn’t want to be up front if it failed. I cared way too much what others thought of me.

The fear of man brings a snare, But he who trusts in the Lord will be exalted. Prov 29:25

Scripture describes this problem as a trap, and I was trapped. I had lived my life to that point in slavery to the opinions of others. No, that’s not accurate. To the slavery of what I thought might be their opinions. I didn’t even know whether they thought that or not. But the fact that they might think poorly of me was an outcome horrible enough to paralyze me. The most obvious symptom was I didn’t tell others about Christ. What might they think?

For am I now seeking the favor of men, or of God? Or am I striving to please men? If I were still trying to please men, I would not be a bond-servant of Christ. Gal 1:10

The Bible also tells me that pleasing God and living for the approval of men are opposites. And that contradiction is why Welch titled his book, When People Are Big and God Is Small. Either God or people are going to be big in your thinking. Whom will it be?

Welch’s book is far more helpful than this short blog could be. He is a fellow sufferer of the fear of man. His vulnerability gives the book authenticity. This one thought—either I fear people or I fear God—has been so helpful to me. It’s invaded my language of confession of sin. It changed how I parented my own kids. We talked about how the fear of man can control us, but we actually want to be controlled by God. Pleasing God must be more important than pleasing others.

But to me it is a very small thing that I may be examined by you, or by any human court; in fact, I do not even examine myself. For I am conscious of nothing against myself, yet I am not by this acquitted; but the one who examines me is the Lord. 1 Cor 4:3–4  

Scripture described my problem, and it gave me a way out. Growing in the fear of God chases out every other fear. The Apostle Paul didn’t live for the opinions or values of the world. He knew that only God’s opinion matters.

So what to do? I know this. Since it’s sin, Scripture has a solution. Realizing what Scripture calls it was the beginning of help for me. Seeing its tentacles in my life made me realize that I need God’s sanctifying grace even more than I thought.

May it help you too.

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