Some sympathy for atheists?

Is it OK to sympathize with atheists – sometimes?

For those of us brought up in the church, the Gospel of Christ is so, well, so believable. We’re used to it (too used to it). Yes, we have to believe it for ourselves, but it doesn’t shock us or stun us so much (though it should).

But try to put yourself in the shoes of an unbeliever; I’m thinking especially of those who have never heard the Gospel. Have you ever tried to imagine how hard it is for such unbelievers to believe the Gospel message? I mean consider what we’re asking them to believe:

  • God spoke to lots of people in lots of places about lots of subjects using lots of methods over lots of years, resulting in an infallible document called the Bible that we can totally trust.

That’s actually relatively easy compared to the next bit. Hold on tight because in the person of Jesus Christ:

  • God became an embryo in the womb of an unmarried virgin.
  • God was born
  • God grew up – baby to toddler to infant to teenager to young unmarried man
  • God learned and slept and tired and thirsted and hungered and sweated and cried and laughed
  • God lived as a man for 33 years in this world and never committed one sinful act, spoke one sinful word, thought one sinful thought, desired one sinful desire.
  • God lived as a man for 33 years in this world and never omitted one duty to his parents, his siblings, his friends, his community, his boss, his church, or his civil rulers

But that’s still elementary school compared to what comes next: In Jesus Christ:

  • God suffered
  • God suffered the wrath and curse of God
  • God was crucified
  • God died
  • God came alive again
  • God went back to heaven with his human body and soul
  • God runs the universe today in a human body

And if you’re still breathing, brace yourself to graduate to these truths:

  • God offers the perfect earthly life and justice-satisfying death of Jesus to murderers, rapists, adulterers, gamblers, liars, Jihadists, homosexuals, Pharisees, and even to religious and moral people.
  • God will save anyone, yes anyone, and everyone, yes everyone that puts their faith in Jesus alone
  • It does not matter what you have done or not done, if you repent and believe in Jesus you will avoid hell and go to heaven forever when you die
  • Let me put that a fourth way – you do not contribute one atom of effort to your salvation.
  • And a fifth – because it is so “unbelievable” – Salvation is a gift to trusters not a reward to workers.

And if anyone’s managed to believe all that, try this for a finalé:

  • The one life and death of Christ, lived and died 2000 years ago, has saved and is saving millions and millions of people from every country and generation
  • God will come and live in your heart when you believe in Jesus – and He will never leave you – EVER.

I mean, come on, are you not beginning to sympathize with unbelievers a bit?

Well, if you’re starting to soften, let me now turn it around a bit so that we don’t let unbelievers off the hook. First, this Gospel Good News fits the human condition perfectly. Although it’s stunning, it’s not like whiplash jarring. It fits what everyone knows in their conscience about their spiritual need. That’s why Paul says that unbelievers are without excuse. And that’s why when the Gospel is preached to unevangelized people, they often believe it quicker than churchgoers who have been hardened by Gospel unbelief over many years. It answers and meets humanity’s deepest needs so nut-and-bolt perfectly.

And, second, we have the power of the Holy Spirit to rely upon as we preach and witness to the “greatest” unbelievers. What else could have made us believe all that? And what else can make unbelievers believe any of that? Thankfully we need not rely on our own powers of persuasion, but on His.

And that’s what makes the unbelievable so incredibly believable.

Check out

Be fruitful and multiply…or else
“No children, no future. It’s plain to see in the first chapter of the Bible or the accountant’s ledger.”

Old Princeton for New Calvinists: 9 Lessons from the life of Charles Hodge
Nine observations from Hodge’s life that illustrate his continuing relevance for Christians today.

Heaven and hedgehogs
You’ve got to click on that don’t you? Go on, it’ll be worth it.

5 ways the Gospel can improve your Apologetic Preaching
Five reading habits to help develop your apologetics in the pulpit.

The Gospel: What? Why? How?
Looks like a great conference for anyone living in or near Grand Rapids

CK Short: Fiction

This week’s episode of the Connected Kingdom Podcast has Tim responding to my challenge to talk about about reading fiction. You’ve got two options: You can read the transcript below or you can listen in by clicking on the audio player. If you listen in, you’ll be able to hear the two of us interact. Download here.

There is power in story. Christians have long realized this and today, perhaps more than any other time in the history of the church, believers speak of the whole sweep of Christian theology as a story—a story that has its beginning in the Creation of the world and a story that will close with the consummation, with God renewing this world and raising us to join him in it. This is the story that will go on and on forever, the story of all stories. Jesus himself used story in powerful ways, sharing amazing and important truths through parables, short stories designed to both hide and reveal truth—to hide it from those who would not hear and to reveal it to those who longed for it. It is worth noting, of course, that much of the Bible comes in the form of story and that the bestselling Christian book apart from the Bible—The Pilgrim’s Progress—is a story.

I confess that I usually enjoy fiction only in short batches. Every year or two I will pick up a few novels—a few that have been nominated for a Pulitzer prize, perhaps, and I will read them through. They transport me to strange places and, more often than not, make me uncomfortable. But I almost always benefit from them. They give me a glimpse into someone else’s mind, someone else’s world or worldview. And as often as not they also tell me what other people, the people around me, are thinking or feeling, or what they will be thinking or feeling soon enough.

In some ways fiction tends to be just very slightly upstream from culture, which is to say that the kind of fiction that deals with ideas and not just stories or passion or action, puts into words the times, the thoughts and feelings that pervade the culture or will soon pervade the culture. These works of fiction ask the questions so many are asking.

I have heard it said that the purpose of fiction is to ask questions while the purpose of nonfiction is to answer them. That may be an over-simplification, but maybe it is not too far off the mark. At least that has been my experience of fiction. Fiction introduces ideas and evokes feelings and arouses emotion. These feelings demand answers or make us long for them. There are many questions I have been asked in fiction that I’ve had to go to the world of nonfiction to answer.

Cormac McCarthy’s novels ask if there is hope even in a world like this one, a world of darkness and depravity. John Piper has rightly said that Cormac McCarthy is to the American literary canon what the book of Judges is to the biblical canon. McCarthy portrays the darkness of humanity and asks us if there is hope even here. It doesn’t offer answers—just questions, questions brought about by deep feelings of pain or revulsion or sadness. Answers must be found elsewhere.

The recent novel The Snow Child asks, Is it worth loving if we can love for only a short time? Where do we find our hope and our joy? It makes us hope and long and wish and maybe even believe. But it asks questions that it cannot answer.

Olive Kitteredge, a recent Pulitzer Prize winner, asks what value there is in life and what joy can be found in growing old. What do we do about the sins we committed so many years ago? Do they still matter? And how can two souls remain knit together even after so many years and through so much hurt and sin?

Tom Clancy…okay, never mind. His books just tell some action-packed stories.

But how about The Lord of the Rings, a true and lasting classic? Here is a novel that transports us to a world of such clear good and evil. It asks us what we will give to defeat evil and what value there is in the deepest kind of friendship. Born out of Tolkien’s experiences on the front lines of the First World War, this is a novel that seeks to give a very different take on this kind of a world—a world in which good and evil do battle to the death.

We could speak of C.S. Lewis and his Narnia series, which begins with the story of the Bible and then wonders, how would a story like this be told if there was a very different land in which it was always winter but never Christmas and where the Lion of Judah was actually a lion? But like most other fiction, it asks questions more than it answers them. It hints at something more, points to something beyond itself.

I am convinced that to truly enjoy fiction we need to have a knowledge of what is true and fixed and unchanging, which is to say, we need to know the Bible. So many questions are asked in the pages of books that can only be answered in the pages of The Book. The Bible interprets and refines and answers. It gives hope where fiction is hopeless, it gives light where fiction is dark, it gives joy where fiction is depressing. Fiction gives us stories of the world as it is or the world as someone images it; an author takes his experiences and hopes and desires and dreams and wraps them in a story. The Bible takes that story and makes sense of it. It tells us why the world is this way, why this author’s experience of the world has been so painful, why there is still hope even in a world like this.

That is what I love in fiction; that is why I love fiction that probes the deep questions and asks the tough questions. If I did not have access to the answers through God’s Word I would despair. But the Bible skillfully parries each blow and patiently, carefully answers each question. The fixed and unchangeable Word of God is the interpreter.

So I encourage Christians to read fiction—to read it carefully and discerningly and while listening to conscience and to allow it to asks its questions—but to always read it with the Bible as the source of answers.

If you’d like to give us feedback or join in the discussion, go ahead and look up our Facebook Group or leave a comment right here. You will always be able to find the most recent episode here on the blog. If you would like to subscribe via iTunes, you can do that here or if you want to subscribe with another audio player, you can try this RSS link.

6 Time Management Tips from Entrepreneurs

Fastcompany asked the top entrepreneurial coaches for time management tips:

1. Avoid the email time suck.

  • Email is my worst enemy, so I only check it three times a day
  • Keeping email open all day is the quickest way to kill your productivity
  • First thing in the morning I glance over most emails and address only the critical ones. Midday I check progress on the critical emails I addressed in the morning. And before I go to sleep my main goal is to clear volume and smaller or menial tasks. On especially busy days I only check twice a day, cutting out the midday scrub.
  • Delaying or ignoring emails is a good way to make people not as dependent on you.

2. Choose your most important goal each week.

  • Focus time and energy on it at the cost of other, less important things, and do it until completion

3. Know your productivity limits. 

  • Everyone has a maximum number of productive hours per day, after which output drops off significantly

4. Be like Dorsey: Take breaks to prevent burnout. 

  • We encourage founders to not underestimate the importance of exercise, sleep, and taking breaks to restore energy and creativity.
  • It’s better to average eight solid hours of productivity a day than it is to output 12 hours of mediocre ones.
  • Twitter cofounder Jack Dorsey is running two $1 billion plus companies and he finds time to take Saturdays off to recharge.

5. Skip some meetings. 

  • One meeting can blow an entire day of productivity.
  • Know why you’re meeting, and make sure it’s important–try to keep them to 30 minutes, max.

6. Say “no” when you need to. 

  • A critical skill we all need to learn.

Read the rest.

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Forgiving your spouse after adultery
In 2002, Cindy Beall was a happily married wife to Chris, her husband of nine years. Chris had been on staff with a church in Oklahoma City for only six weeks when he made a confession that would change their lives forever: He had been unfaithful with multiple women over the course of two and a half years, and he was pretty sure one of those women was now pregnant with his child. He also admitted an addiction to pornography.

Facebook’s dark side
Researchers have established a direct link between the number of friends you have on Facebook and the degree to which you are a “socially disruptive” narcissist, confirming the conclusions of many social media skeptics.

In the footsteps of Paul
If you’re looking for an edifying vacation, this tour conducted by one of my favorite Old Testament authors, O Palmer Robertson, might fit the bill.

How to empty your email inbox in 5 easy steps
At last, I’ve got the secret!

Mixed Martial Arts and the Christian Conscience
Owen Strachan: “Christians should encourage the development of physical courage and ability in young men, yes. They should reject pacificism, and they should encourage boys to be adventurous and tough. But I don’t think that we should tie courage to unnecessary violence.”

But in the Greek it says…
Five cautions to think about if you dare venture to use this phrase.

Reading regrets…and resolutions

I’ve been reading two books that I wish I’d read 20 years ago. In my defense, they didn’t exist 20 years ago. However, although my last 20 years have been the poorer for that absence, I do hope that they will powerfully shape my remaining years here below.

The first book is Lit! A Christian Guide to Reading by Tony Reinke. The second book is Practicing Affirmation by Sam Crabtree, which I’ll return to in the next few days.

Knowing Tony’s gifts, expertise, and experience in reading, I’d been very much looking forward to his book. But partly due to the kind of undisciplined reading habits that Tony addresses in his book, it’s taken me a few months to get round to it!

C J Mahaney’s foreword stunned me straight away. I couldn’t believe how like my story was to his (minus the drugs, but not a lot else). Like him, I hated reading as a child and teenager; in fact I hated school. All I was interested in was soccer and planning to make my first million (preferably while playing soccer).

I managed to scrape through school without reading one full book – all I remember are a few weird chapters of Orwell’s 1984. I had no interest in College or University, and only applied for dentistry (don’t laugh) because my father was a dentist and the school said that I had to apply for something. Thankfully, I didn’t get the necessary grades, left school one year early and, aged 17, started work with a financial services company en route to my first million (thankfully I failed at that too).

Bookshops were still a foreign world to me, and the only thing I read regularly were the sports and financial pages of The Times. Oh, yes, and anything about Margaret Thatcher!

A new mind
When I was converted to Christ in my early twenties, everything changed (apart from Margaret). The Lord gave me a new heart AND a new mind. I immediately had an insatiable thirst for knowledge. Although I’d been brought up in the church, I doubt I’d ever really listened to more than a handful of sermons. My parents had always instructed me in the Bible, but as a new Christian I felt I knew next to nothing.

After having to leave my job for reasons of conscience, in God’s good providence,  I started working with a Christian friend in his fledgling small business. With few customers initially and lots of time on our hands, he started introducing me to Banner of Truth books. But, although I was eager to learn, reading books did not come easy. I’d never done it before and I didn’t have anyone to teach me how.

I started lots of books, but finished few. The ones I did get through took me forever, and I could hardly remember the beginning by the time I got to the end. Concentration was also a problem, mainly because I was often trying to read in the wrong places or at the wrong times of day (as I now understand from Tony’s book). Often I set apart a whole Saturday for reading a book, and usually lasted an hour or two at most; whereas, if I’d read Tony’s book, I would have learned how much can be accomplished by reading just one hour every day in three 20-minute blocks (70 books a year according to Tony).

From time to time I did try to preserve the fruits of what I was reading, but with no regular method, such as Tony helpfully explains, most of it fell through my fingers like sand.

Worldly” books
I also limited myself to Christian books because I felt that all other books were “worldly.” Later, I gradually allowed myself to read more widely, especially in the areas of biography and leadership – political, military, business, and sports leadership. Again, Tony’s book would have given me the confidence and method to do this more widely, more wisely, more confidently, and more systematically.

When I was called to the ministry and started the long six-year trek through University and Seminary (having not even a Bachelor’s degree to my name), I had so much catch-up to do. I often sat at the Seminary lunch table hearing about the libraries of books everyone else had read and hardly recognized any of them. If Lit! had been written then, I could have smugly said, “Actually Tony Reinke (and John Piper) say it’s better to read a few books well and thoughtfully, rather than chalk them off like fighter pilots.”

Eventually pastoral ministry came along, and although from time to time I did manage to get a reading plan together and stick to it for a while, it was usually a bit ad hoc and almost always too ambitious and unsustainable. One of my problems was that I treated every book alike and felt that I needed to read every word in every book. Tony would have relieved me of such false guilt and helped me to understand the different strategies needed to read different books.

Parenting do-over
When children arrived, homeschooling certainly provided a much more reading-friendly environment than my public school did. I was stunned at the amount of reading my boys were doing (and they certainly aren’t the swotty bookworm type). By the age of seven or eight, they had read way more books than I had by the age of 20! I tried to keep them supplied with books, but I wasn’t really strategic or intentional about it. Lit! had me wishing I could re-do this aspect of my parenting. But hopefully it will help lots of other young parents for many years to come.

You’d think given my current calling that I’d now have lots of time and opportunity to carve out personal reading time; but most of my reading is still focussed on the next course, lecture, conference or sermon. I still struggle to prioritize my reading, to balance my reading, and to archive the best bits of my reading. Tony’s given me lots of new ideas and motivation on this front and I’ve already benefitted (and so has Amazon) from implementing some of them.

Highly recommended
So, thank you for this book, Tony. I highly, highly, highly recommend it to enthusiastic readers, reluctant readers, wannabe readers, and reading coaches (parents, teachers, pastors, etc). I’ve already got my teenage sons reading it (on their Kindles – sorry Tony!), and I’m planning to write some study questions to make sure they really get it. I’m so anxious to make sure that in 20 years time they don’t look back and say, as I do today, “I wish I’d read Tony Reinke’s book then.”