Monday, October 23, 2017

Book Review: How Does Sanctification Work?

"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." - Philippians 2:12b-13

David Powlison is the executive director of the Christian Counseling & Educational Foundation (CCEF). He has written 6 books and many more mini-books. His priestly and pastoral style is refreshing in a caustic and frantic world.

How Does Sanctification Work? is being highlighted here on The Relentless Fight because of its spot-on topic of sanctification and growth in faith. But the flavor is VERY different. Powlison is an author who is wary of pat answers, systems, and reductionism. He loves nuance. He exalts story. He won't give a formula. All in all, it's a good counterweight to The Relentless Fight, which often focuses on practical concrete steps and the formula motto, "Remember the Gospel, Keep Fighting".

Some key highlights:
  • "Remember the gospel" is insufficient: At first glance it seems Powlison disagrees with what's been written here on TRF, like in this post, "What is the Relentless Fight?" He says there is no pat answer, no one-size-fits-all solution to growth in the Christian life, that there is not one key to sanctification. And this is a helpful nuance! It IS insufficient to MERELY remember the gospel. There also must be fighting for affection for Christ, implementing strategies and wisdom, and help from accountable brothers in Christ. And the diverse ways that God grows Christians cannot be reduced to a mere intellectual "remember the gospel" which instantly results in change. This is a helpful counterweight to the emphasis of The Relentless Fight. 
  • Truth unbalanced and rebalanced: This is the title for chapter 3, and was one of the most helpful points in the book. “Here is a core premise: Ministry “unbalances” truth for the sake of relevance; theology “rebalances” truth for the sake of comprehensiveness." This is profound! In personal ministry, you can't say everything that is true about God. You have limited time, and must carefully select the particular truth that is most useful in that moment. "The task in any ministry moment is to choose, emphasize, and “unbalance” truth for the sake of relevant application to particular persons and situations. You can’t say everything all at once—and you shouldn’t try.” Therefore the wise counselor needs to develop a diverse toolbelt, and the wisdom to select the best truth tool. “In order to actually minister to people, you need wise selectivity, while bearing in mind the fullest possible repertoire of options from which to choose."
  • 5 Factors for Change: Though Powlison resists making formulas, he does identity five factors for change, to help provide structure for sanctification. Those 5 are: God changes you, truth changes you, suffering & struggle change you, wise people change you, and you change. “This is how sanctification works. Your entire Christian life is a series of variations and permutations of this five-dimensional process."
  • Stories: Powlison includes two chapters of his own story, and two examples of a man named Charles and a lady named Charlotte, to put flesh and bones to this nuanced view of how sanctification happens. 

In summary, How Does Sanctification Work? is a helpful nuance to the primary question that this blog is asking: how do I grow? You can buy the book here.

Note: Crossway provided a free ebook copy in exchange for this honest review, as part of their Blog Review Program. Win/win!

Friday, August 4, 2017

Book Review: 12 Ways Your Phone is Changing You

"...but the cares of the world and the deceitfulness of riches and the desires for other things enter in and choke the word, and it proves unfruitful." - Mark 4:19

Tony Reinke is a senior writer for Desiring God, author of several books, and host of the popular Ask Pastor John podcast. His latest book is about how our smartphones are affecting us.

12 Ways Your Phone is Changing You is being highlighted here on The Relentless Fight because almost every single reader of this blog uses a phone. You're probably reading this on your phone right now! This affects all of us. Do you realize how your phone is using you? Do you realize how it's changing you? Do you recognize the impact it's having on your spiritual life, even on your capacity to remember the gospel and keep fighting against sin? Do you realize that some of your sins are fueled and resourced BY your phone? This issue could not be more relevant in our technological age. The fight of faith can be undermined by a hundred swipes and a thousand notifications that dull and distract us from what truly matters.

But the problem is not the phone. The problem is the person using the phone: you and I have a heart full of sin, and an inclination to turn away from the Lord and focus on trivial things. That's why the phone is used for sin, both proactively and passively. The phone merely reveals and exposes the heart of the user. Therefore the solution isn't to ditch the phone, the solution is to redeem the heart of the user. And that requires the power of the gospel. When joy in Christ is at the center of a woman's heart, she will use her phone (and everything else) to fuel that joy. Holiness and love will be the overflow of that joy! Then the tool of the phone will be used for the glory of Christ and the good of others, instead of used as a tool for further sin and self-glory. Only the gospel is the effective solution! Then flowing out of that solution (to the real problem of the human heart) we can begin to craft a wise strategy of methods and boundaries for how we use our smartphones. So we must start with the gospel, then move to application: Remember the gospel, and keep using your smartphone wisely. 

Here's a few highlights and ideas from the book:
  • God is not anti-technology: God set up the trajectory of man to use tech so that “the untilled garden would become a glorious city" from Genesis 2 to Revelation 22. The question is how we USE technology. It's a tool, and can be used for good or evil. It can drive us to greater knowledge and worship of God, or it can distract us and blind us spiritually. The technology of paper and printing can be used to publish the Word of God, or to publish pornography. A knife can be used to cut up onions or to kill a man. How are you using your phone? What are its fruits in your life? 
  • Distraction: The smartphone is the pinnacle of distraction! Watch out. Consider in Mark 4 in the parable of the soils, the 3rd one is the “distracted soil”. This type of heart has so many distractions. God is squeezed in there next to a hundred other things vying for attention and time. Jesus spoke that parable 2000 years ago, and do we have more or less distractions today? Oh man...  The phone presents unlimited distraction: games, texts, articles, videos, snaps, and perhaps even phone calls. “God has given us the power of concentration in order for us to see and avoid what is false, fake, and transient—so that we may gaze directly at what is true, stable, and eternal. It is part of our creatureliness that we are easily distracted; it is part of our sinfulness that we are easily lured by what is vain and trivial.” We must gaze at Christ and remember the gospel. We must be often in prayer. But how can we do this with so much distraction? We must discipline ourselves to avoid distractions.
  • Behold Christ: Jesus is better! We become what we worship. If we behold Christ, we will become like Christ. If we behold the endless stream of what’s trending on Twitter, that will be what we become, that will begin to capture and inform our perspective, THAT will be what we think about. So what do we do? The first step is we have to behold Christ. Do you spend time beholding Christ? Or do you spend much more time beholding whatever banal or discouraging things are trending online? Wars and celebrity gossip and political gear-grinding and whatever hashtag campaign is SUPER INTENSE IMPORTANT RIGHT NOW but then gone tomorrow? Colossians 3:1-4, let us set our mind on things above, on CHRIST who is seated in heaven, and you can use your phone as a TOOL to help you behold Christ. Beholding Christ will make us delight in him, which will lead us to declare him. The alternative is to behold what’s trending, being forced to delight in banal and dark things, and inevitably declaring them in our retweets, comments, and shares. 
  • Reading the Word: One of the most powerful ways to behold Christ is to see Him presented in the Bible. Our attention and literacy is at stake when smartphones eat up all our time and focus. We just don't have the depth of mind or the attention span to be able to feast on the Word of God. Proverbs 27:7 says "One who is full loathes honey, but to one who is hungry everything bitter is sweet." We're too busy nibbling on the sickly-sweet candy of social media. So when we open up the Bible, we're just bloated and full of junk in our souls, so there's no hunger for the Bread of Life. We can't hear from God because our ears are deaf from the nonstop shouting of our timelines, texts, trends, and tweets.
  • Secret Sins: “Smartphones make it possible for users to help themselves to fresh forbidden fruit at any moment of any day, and thereby destroy themselves in secret.” Our phones open up new doors to dark worlds, especially porn. Our phones become the gateway, supplier, and "drug dealer" for a whole host of our addictions: pornography, approval from people, our pride in always being in the know, control over our lives, comparison & jealousy, relationship idolatry, and in general the god of entertainment. How is your phone making provision for the flesh? But maybe even worse, phones also offer a promised anonymity to shield our secret sins and keep them hidden. Richard Baxter spoke to the danger of this in the 17th century, "Concealment is Satan's great advantage." Open up to some brothers in arms, and pull those secret sins out into the light. 
  • Remember the Gospel: “All spiritual growth is rooted in remembering what Christ has done in me.” This is a key concept! And it is the foundation of The Relentless Fight. In order to be motivated and empowered to fight, we need the power of the gospel. We must REMEMBER by faith. Reinke writes, “To remember God is to satisfy the soul and to recalibrate our always-shifting perception of reality. But to forget God is to forsake God. This spiritual plague of forgetfulness is not physical forgetfulness or mental dementia. Spiritual forgetting is sin, a sin that plagues youth and infests every demographic.” And he concludes, “Remembering is one of the key spiritual disciplines we must guard with vigilance amid the mind-fragmenting and past-forgetting temptations of the digital age.”

Our phones reflect back to us glimpses of our hearts. What we tap on shows what we love. What we gaze at is what we long for. Our smartphone habits expose our hearts. This can be devastating, as we see the dark depths of soul, but it can also be a springboard to the gospel. It shows our GREAT need for Jesus, because the Cross is for failures! Do your smartphone habits show that you are weak, sinful, prideful, and distracted from what really matters? Then there's good news for you!! Jesus came to help the weak, the sick, the broken. He came to DIE for you, to rescue you, and to bring you back to wholeness and give you new life in Him. Be encouraged. Your failures with your phone are not the last word. Jesus is GREATER, and His gospel gives POWER. You CAN change, because there are way more than 12 ways that JESUS is changing YOU! This is so encouraging!

In summary, 12 Ways Your Phone is Changing You is highly recommended for anyone who uses a phone. If you love Jesus, you are called to use your phone as a tool to stir your affections for Him. Resist the temptations to distraction, to anonymity, and to feasting your eyes on silly things rather than on Christ. If you're convicted as you read this review, and God is showing you that your smartphone habits need repentance, check out Tony Reinke's followup article: 12 Steps to Digital Detox

Note: Crossway provided a free ebook copy in exchange for this honest review, as part of their Blog Review Program. Win/win! 

Tuesday, July 18, 2017

Relentless Prayer

" constant in prayer." - Romans 12:12

Imagine having a special phone that gave you access to call the CEO of Amazon to ask for anything from the website, for free. Or imagine you're a soldier in war, and given a special radio that connects you to the general himself, to ask for intelligence or air support. Finally, imagine your significant other is on speed-dial, ready to pick up and listen when you're lonely, sad, or need encouragement.

Prayer is our gift from God, His invitation to talk with him and ask him for help. That's all prayer is: talking with God. But it's different than talking to yourself, talking to a friend, or talking to a robot. God has character and resources far better than anyone else. He is richer than Amazon, more powerful than a General, and more comforting than your greatest relationship. You get a direct line to ask for His help. What a privilege!

We have examples throughout Scripture of godly people praying: Moses in the wilderness, Hannah in 1 Samuel, David in the Psalms, the early church in Acts 1:14, Paul & Silas in prison in Acts 16:25. We see in Revelation 5:8 that God keeps our prayers before Him as incense in bowls. And perhaps most importantly, we see Jesus praying often (Mark 1:35, Luke 9:18, John 17, Matthew 26:36), and teaching His disciples to pray (Luke 11:1). Prayer is important!

God not only invites us to talk with him as often as we'd like, He actually commands us to engage in relentless prayer! Let's take a look at a few Scriptures:
  • Ephesians 6:18 praying at all times in the Spirit, with all prayer and supplication. To that end, keep alert with all perseverance, making supplication for all the saints
  • 1 Thessalonians 5:17 pray without ceasing
  • Romans 12:12 Rejoice in hope, be patient in tribulation, be constant in prayer.
  • Colossians 4:2 Continue steadfastly in prayer, being watchful in it with thanksgiving.
  • Luke 18:1 And he told them a parable to the effect that they ought always to pray and not lose heart. 

So when should we pray? All the time. Consider each of these specific situations:
  • When tempted, pray: When you are facing temptation, and vulnerable to giving in, call out for God's help! This is what Jesus commands us in Matthew 26:41, "Watch and pray that you may not enter into temptation. The spirit indeed is willing, but the flesh is weak." John Owen wrote a whole book on this one verse, called Of Temptation, found in this 3-part volume. Jesus further instructs us to pray even BEFORE we face temptation, in Matthew 6:13, "And lead us not into temptation, but deliver us from evil."
  • When victorious, pray: Did you make it through the temptation? Did you succeed? You must realize that you did not succeed on your own strength, that victory is from the Lord. Proverbs 21:31 says, "The horse is made ready for the day of battle, but the victory belongs to the Lord." All victory is because of God's grace and provision. Therefore praise God, give thanks to Him. He gets the glory for victory. 
  • When in trouble, pray: Psalm 50:15, "call upon me in the day of trouble; I will deliver you, and you shall glorify me." Are you in trouble? Do you have difficulty? Are you facing obstacles or challenges? Call upon the Lord! Ask Him. Speak with Him. He will deliver you for His glory and your rescue. 
  • When you are glad, pray: Pray with praise! Give thanks to God! That is the proper overflow of our joy and gladness. Consider these COMMANDS to praise God: Psalm 95:1, "Oh come, let us sing to the Lord; let us make a joyful noise to the rock of our salvation!" and Psalm 100:1-2, "Make a joyful noise to the Lord, all the earth! Serve the Lord with gladness! Come into his presence with singing!" and James 5:13b, "Is anyone cheerful? Let him sing praise."
  • When in need, pray: Jesus offers to provide us with whatever we need. John 14:14, "If you ask me anything in my name, I will do it." and John writes in 1 John 5:14, "And this is the confidence that we have toward him, that if we ask anything according to his will he hears us." and Paul writes in Philippians 4:19, "And my God will supply every need of yours according to his riches in glory in Christ Jesus." How can God do this? Because in Him are limitless riches, and He owns "the cattle on a thousand hills" (Psalm 50:10). No need is too great for our great God who has no needs. Wow. 
  • When you've failed, pray: You've sinned. Should you run away from God? No, no! Come to Him. Jesus is the friend of sinners. Draw near to the throne of grace (Hebrews 4:16). Pray to confess your sins. Pray to ask for God's forgiveness. Pray to ask for help in fighting. For more on this, check out Right After the Failure
  • When you're opening up the Bible, pray: If God's Spirit does not assist us in our Bible reading, the Living Word will remain merely black ink on a white page. We desperately need His help. Our hearts need to be inclined to the Lord (Psalm 119:36), our eyes need to be opened to see spiritual truth (Psalm 119:18). John Piper has an amazing prayer acronym called IOUS, and you can learn about it on this Ask Pastor John podcast episode titled: I'm Bored with the Bible
  • When suffering, pray: James 5:13a is crystal clear, "Is anyone among you suffering? Let him pray." And we have this encouraging promise from Psalm 34:18, "The Lord is near to the brokenhearted and saves the crushed in spirit." God has already drawn near! Pour out your heart to Him like water (Lamentations 2:19). The Psalms are filled with songs of lament, crying out to God in suffering. God cares. God knows. Speak to Him in your pain. 
  • When you need to grow, pray: We've already talked here on The Relentless Fight about how we should Pray for Discipline. Ask God to grow you! Ask Him to train you. Ask for the conviction of the Holy Spirit about specific sins in your life. Ask for His help. 
  • When the harvest is plentiful, pray: Jesus knows that there are not enough workers in the mission of disciple-making, the need is greater than the supply. He calls us to ASK the Lord of the Harvest for more workers, "therefore pray earnestly to the Lord of the harvest to send out laborers into his harvest." (Matthew 9:38). Pray for God to raise up more disciple-makers! Pray for reinforcements! 
  • When anxious, pray: Anxiety is like a warning light on the dashboard of your heart. How should you respond? You should pray. Anxiety can therefore be a REMINDER to pray, woah! Philippians 4:6, "do not be anxious about anything, but in everything by prayer and supplication with thanksgiving let your requests be made known to God." and 1 Peter 5:7, "casting all your anxieties on him, because he cares for you." Don't worry, God cares for you. 
  • When others need help, pray: Don't just pray for yourself, pray for others! Are they suffering, tempted, victorious, glad, or anxious? Pray for them too! James 5:16 says, "Therefore, confess your sins to one another and pray for one another, that you may be healed. The prayer of a righteous person has great power as it is working." All throughout Paul's letters we see him praying for his churches. We see in Luke 22:32 Jesus prays that Peter's faith would not fail when he is sifted like wheat by Satan. 
  • When your prayers aren't answered, pray: Sometimes we pray and pray, and we don't get the answer we want, or we seemingly get no answer. Paul had this experience in 2 Corinthians 12:1-10, he asked the Lord three times to remove his thorn in the flesh, but God answered no. We see the Psalmists crying out, "How long, O Lord? Will you forget me forever? How long will you hide your face from me?" (Psalm 13:1). This is certainly painful. But our response to this pain should ironically be... to pray. For more thoughts on this, check out this blog post.
  • When __________, pray: We've only scratched the surface of the situations where we are called to pray. No matter what you're experiencing, prayer is ALWAYS a good response. It's probably the wisest and best thing you can do. Pray. "God can do more in five seconds than we can do in five hours or months or years. This is one reason the habit of prayer is wise. Sometimes we do not get the five-second breakthrough because we do not ask." (John Piper article)

Pray!! All the time, pray. In every situation, pray. Finally, a few more resources on prayer:

Pray. Remember the Gospel. Pray. Keep Fighting. Pray. Prayer should soak all we think, say, and do. Why would we not? 

The Relentless Fight