Seeing Beauty And Saying Beautifully

Some authors firehose you with so many multiple ideas that you eventually say, “Enough!”

Others take just one thought and turn it around and around and around with such skill that they leave you crying, “Encore!”

John Piper does the latter in his short new book, Seeing Beauty and Saying Beautifully, which looks at the sometimes perplexing question of if and how we should use eloquence to advance the Gospel.

It’s a question that’s long exercised me because, as Piper points out, the Apostle Paul seems to put oratorical gifts in the “worldly” category (e.g. 1 Cor. 1:17; 2:1). Yet, as Piper also proves, all the Apostles, the Prophets, and even Jesus himself, used various verbal and literary techniques in their Gospel communication.

I suppose I’m extra suspicious because some years ago I was greatly blessed through an incredibly eloquent and popular preacher who I later found out had been living a double, even triple, life. Ergo, any effort to be fancy or clever with words must be wrong.

So, how do we reconcile this seeming contradiciton?

Sovereign Grace
Piper does a superb job of explaining that the Bible does not warn against all eloquence or oratory, but only certain kinds, the kind that uses eloquence as an end rather than a means, and the kind that uses eloquence to promote the speaker rather than the Gospel. He then goes on to argue from the Bible and from three talented Christian wordsmiths – George Herbert, George Whitefield, and C.S. Lewis – that we should pour huge effort into developing our word skills for the sake of the Gospel.

Part of Piper’s argument is that only by working hard to describe the beauty of the Gospel will we actually see it. It’s a kind of virtuous circle; the more we strive for beauty in proclaiming the beauty of Christ the more beauty we and others will see in Him. Saying beautifully will help us savor and see beauty.

Don’t for a moment think that Piper is advocating mere acting, or depending upon human talent for sinners to be saved. No, throughout, Piper is at pains to underline the Calvinist doctrine of sovereign and monergistic grace. God is the decisive cause, and yet He uses our poetic effort.

Poetic effort? You mean, I’ve got to write poems?

Do not fear, fellow word-schleppers. When Piper talks about poetic effort, he’s calling us to be more poetic in our proclamation – to learn how to use words better for the glory of God and the good of sinners. We must exert ourselves, with God’s help, “to find striking, penetrating, imaginative, and awakening ways of expressing the excellencies” of Christ.

And this isn’t just for preachers, it’s for anyone who’s interested in improving their witness through words – spoken or written.

I’ve always been a bit uncertain about this whole question. I work really hard to be clear, simple, and passionate in my preaching. I strive for appropriate illustrations, quotes, and anecdotes to support my points. I pour a lot of time into memorable sermon points and themes.

But then I wonder: “Am I trying to do God’s work for Him? Am I depending on myself rather than Him?” Maybe I should follow the example of a preacher friend of mine in Scotland who tried to be as boring as possible so that when people believed, everyone would know it wasn’t him but God!

It does seem though that God especially uses men who have great natural gifts in speaking and others who have worked really hard to develop their gifts. It appears that God does bless literary and speaking gifts for the advance of His grace.

Clouds Clearing
Piper has totally cleared away my hesitation on this, mainly thought the superb introductory chapter examining the Corinthian passages that seem to condemn “wisdom of words.” I’m now totally convinced that if I do it for the right ends and in the right way, I can safely and helpfully work on becoming a more skillful verbal artist and expect God to bless that effort for His glory, the good of sinners, and the edification of my own soul.

The most common comment I get after sermons is, “That was very clear.” Which is fine; that’s one of my main aims.” But having read this book, I hope to hear more of, “That was very beautiful.” No, I hope to hear, “HE is very beautiful!”

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“One day while lecturing on Gregory the Great’s treatise On Pastoral Care, Professor Davis suddenly stopped, put down his chalk, looked over the class for a few moments and said, “You do realize most of you will labor in small churches and at the end of your ministry you may be hard pressed to think of more than a dozen people you have directly influenced.” He then picked up the chalk and returned to the lecture. Like the rest of the class I was nonplussed. Looking back now I see what was going on”

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My Dirty Little Secret For Happy Knowledge Work

Sometimes I get envious of painters, plumbers, landscapers, carpenters and others who get to work with their hands and have something to show for it at the end of every day, or at least every week.

What do I and other “knowledge workers” have to show for it every seven days?

Virtually nothing.

Or most of it is “virtual” – words that are hidden inside our computers and servers: in files, documents, reports, spreadsheets, and so on. But there’s not a lot of physicality to this.

Some of these words may get posted on the Internet – but effectively disappear off the bottom of the page every few days

Some of the words become sermons which also largely evaporate into the air as they are spoken.

For knowledge workers in general, and for pastors in particular, there often just isn’t anything to show for weeks and weeks, months and months, years and years of mental sweat, blood, and tears.

One answer to this frustrating sense of futility is more faith, to believe that God will bless His Word written and spoken. We sow the seed, another waters, but God gives the increase. Yes, we believe all that – most of the time.

But we’re still human, we still have a basic human need to see some fruit, some result, something to show for all the hours and hours in the study and on our knees.

Another answer is to mow the lawn (or, in Michigan, to shovel the snow in the winter).

I admit it, cutting the grass has become one of the most satisfying things I do all week. It meets that basic human need to have something physical, something visible, something to point to, something beautiful to see and admire.

Apart from that weekly satisfaction infusion, I also try to do one major physical project every year. One year, I laid a patio. This year I built a deck in our yard. It’s something tangible I can point to and say, “I did that!” (with God’s help, of course).

I hope this isn’t too unspiritual, but when I feel I’ve got little or nothing to show for a semester’s work – how do you measure whether Hebrew exegesis lectures really worked? – I cut the grass, paint a room, or go and work on my new deck. I get my muscles sore and hands dirty, basically.

Another pastor I know spends his regular day off doing carpentry. Maybe, some days, the Apostle Paul got a greater sense of accomplishment gluing and stitching tents together than gluing and stitching ripped churches together.

Yes, I also pray for more faith that God will bless my lectures, even though I’m unlikely to see or hear of the results in my students’ future ministries. I pray for fruit from my sermons and pastoral visits in my congregation.

But like many knowledge workers there’s still a little bit of me – maybe it’s a really weak and carnal bit – that I feel just needs the regular wee encouragement of something that I can see and touch. Grass, paving stone, and wood have worked for me. The dirtier and harder the work, the better.

But, strangely, that physical yard work has also motivated, inspired, and energized me to do more spiritual Word work too.

Hope that’s OK.

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Top 10 Leadership Books

As I’m often asked for book recommendations on various subjects, I decided to put together an online list of my top ten books in various categories. Basically, if I was only allowed 10 books in my library on that subject, these are the ten I would choose. Other posts include:

Today I’m listing the Top 10 Books on Leadership. Although not specifically Christian books, when read through the spectacles of the Bible you can read these books with great profit for every leadership role, including pastoral ministry. I’ll follow up with a separate list of books on Christian leadership.

These are the books I encourage my teenage sons to read to set them up for maximum usefulness in their homes, workplaces, and the church.

You may also want to see the leadership resources here:

After this Top 10 list you’ll find a poll where you can cast three votes for your favorite books and help others choose the best books on the subject. Click on “View Results” to see what books are most popular.

You can also add any book not on the list by writing the title in “Other” or in the Comments  I’ll add these to the end of the post under “Reader Suggestions.”

1. Getting Things Done: The Art of Stress-Free Productivity by Dave Allen.

Still the go-to book for organizing to-do lists and maximizing time-management. You’ll probably not implement all the details of Allen’s system, but you’ll learn principles and practices that you can apply to whatever role you are in – from homemaker to pastor to house-builder to CEO.

2. The 7 Habits of Highly Effective People: Powerful Lessons in Personal Change by Steven Covey.

I re-read this book quite regularly and always learn something new from it. Covey starts with personal management before moving on to personnel management, character before conduct and contact – a vital order.

3. The Effective Executive by Peter Drucker.

Some overlap with Getting Things Done, but simpler and more focused on decision-making.

4. Necessary Endings: The Employees, Businesses, and Relationships That All of Us Have to Give Up in Order to Move Forward by Henry Cloud.

Deals with the unpleasant but vital area of letting people (and plans) go when they are not working out. Some outstanding advice on how to decide who and what is working out or not. Takes a persuasive positive approach by arguing the benefits to everyone of “necessary endings.” I previously summarized chapter 7 in this book in Wise or Foolish? One Simple Test. See also Cloud’s Boundaries: When To Say Yes, How to Say No

5. Digital Leader: 5 Simple Keys to Success and Influence by Erik Qualman

So important for anyone with any leadership role to understand the powerful influence of using digital technology well. Heres A Digital Dictionary For Leaders and 10 Digital Commandments I gleaned from this book.

6. The Happiness Advantage: The Seven Principles of Positive Psychology That Fuel Success and Performance at Work by Shawn Achor.

Might seem like an odd choice for a list of books on leadership, but Shawn Achor makes a compelling (and entertaining) scientific and statistical case for the productivity of happiness.

7. Emotional Intelligence by Daniel Goleman.

So important when interacting with and managing other people. Way more important than IQ, and most encouragingly can be developed and grown. See also Goleman’s Focus: The Hidden Driver of Excellence.

8. Making Ideas Happen: Overcoming the Obstacles Between Vision and Reality by Scott Belsky.

So many churches could do with a good dose of this book. We usually have plenty of visionaries and dreamers, but how to get there….? This book is about execution, execution, execution.

9. Organizing from the Inside Out: The Foolproof System For Organizing Your Home, Your Office and Your Life by Julie Morgenstern.

This book is about managing your space, your desk, your office, your files, etc. Time Management from the Inside Out (also by Morgenstern), applies the same principles to managing and organizing time. And her Never Check Email In The Morning takes a closer look at managing email.

10. View From the Top: An Inside Look at How People in Power See and Shape the World by D. Michael Lindsay.

This book is the result of a remarkable 10-year study of 550 top American leaders from all walks of life. It provides a wealth of fascinating statistics, a treasure trove of personal anecdotes, and some priceless quotations from well-known leaders. I was astounded by the access granted to Lindsay and by what he was able to draw out of his normally hyper-cautious interviewees. If you want to know how the most influential people in our culture got there, and how they think and operate, you will love and and profit from this book.
Now you decide, what are your favorites? You can cast three votes and write a book in “Other” if it’s not on the list and I’ll add it to Reader Suggestions below.

Reader Suggestions

What would you add to the list and why?

Leadership and Self-Deception: Getting out of the Box