Why did you write the book?
When it comes to issues of psychiatric diagnoses and medications it is too easy for Christians to go to one extreme or the other. That is, to either grant too much authority to psychiatric classifications and solutions for people’s problems as though Scripture is irrelevant for issues of mental distress. Or to dismiss them altogether as though medical science is irrelevant for issues of mental suffering in Christians. I wrote this book to present a nuanced “third way” between those two extremes that is grounded in Scripture, does justice to human beings as embodied souls, respects the role of scientific inquiry, and suggests compassionate and wise ways to minister to those who are struggling with mental illness in our churches.
How do you think your medical background and ministry training/experience contribute to the shape of this book?
My training and experience in both medicine and gospel ministry means that the book is first and foremost grounded in Scripture while also giving careful consideration to the medical research that contributes to the discussion. The book is marked by both biblical and scientific inquiry.
Who is your target audience?
My primary audience includes helpers and leaders in the church–pastors, vocational counselors working in a church setting, lay counselors, elders, deacons, small group leaders, and others involved in one another ministry. I trust the book will be helpful also for Christian psychiatrists, Christian psychologists, and Christian professional counselors.
What are the takeaways of your book?
For readers who come skewed to one extreme or the other regarding psychiatric classification and psychoactive medications, I hope they leave with a more balanced and nuanced approach. For readers who already have a more balanced approach, I hope they leave more clearly informed and equipped with biblical and scientific perspectives to undergird their ministry. Ultimately I want the perspectives of the book to provide helpers with guidelines for compassionate, wise, gospel-saturated care to those who are struggling with issues of mental health.
What imbalances have you seen in the way Christians think about psychiatric diagnoses and medications?
Regarding psychiatric diagnoses, I have encountered people who embrace a psychiatric label as an all-encompassing explanation for their struggles. Their diagnosis becomes the identity around which their lives orbit. They may seek only medical means of help and believe that biblical and pastoral realities are irrelevant to their problems. On the other hand I have seen people who resist a particular diagnosis when it might provide a helpful way to bring some clarity and order to their experience. These people may over-spiritualize their problems and resist appropriate medical interventions. Since God has made us both body and spirit creatures, it is important to consider both aspects of our personhood as we seek to understand the struggles of others.
What are some limitations and benefits of a psychiatric classification of people’s struggles?
The main limitation of a psychiatric classification is this: it is a description of the person’s experience but it is not an explanation for it. A diagnosis describes the person’s disordered thinking, emotion, and behavior but doesn’t tell you why the person is struggling in this particular way. The Diagnostic and Statistical Manual of Mental Disorders (the DSM) acknowledges this limitation. This means that a diagnosis becomes a starting point (not an endpoint) for careful inquiry, biblical understanding of this person as a body-soul image bearer, and ongoing pastoral ministry. At the same time, certain psychiatric diagnoses (for example, schizophrenia or bipolar disorder) alert us to patterns of severe suffering that may well require additional intervention, including medication.
How does Scripture give us a framework for understanding various forms of mental suffering?
Our starting point is Scripture because we cannot understand ourselves apart from God’s revelation to us. God created us as body-spirit image bearers who perfectly reflected His design for abundant and fruitful life (Gen 1:26-28; Gen 2:7). Body and soul worked seamlessly to honor and glorify God. The fall of Adam and Eve into sin affects us holistically—we are fallen, body and soul. Sin and suffering (physical and mental) become two ever-present realities for us as a result (Gen 3:16-19; Gen 6:3-7; Rom 5:12-21; Rom 8:22-23; 2 Cor 4:7-12).
There is no doubt that our cognition, our affections, and our will to act must and do reference the living God—we are by nature worshippers, according to Paul in Romans 1. The human heart is always active (Gen 6:5; Exod 25:2; Lev 19:17; Deut 6:5; Prov 13:12; Prov 14:13; Ezek 36:26-27; Matt 15:10-20; Luke 6:43-45; Eph 6:6; Heb 4:12). So while mental illness is suffering, it is also demonstrative of an active posture before the Lord—we remain image-bearers, after all! Our thoughts, emotions, and actions reveal an orientation toward or away from him, moment by moment. To ask, as Scripture urges us, “What does the call to love God and others look like in the midst of your suffering?” is a profoundly humanizing question.
At the same time we must recognize the mystery involved in the interface of body (brain) and spirit. Scripture doesn’t slice and dice people into bodies and spirits per se, but approaches God’s people holistically as saints who need confirmation of their identity in Christ, sufferers who need the consolation of God, and sinners who need loving correction of their wayward ways. Ministry to anyone with a psychiatric diagnosis always involves these elements in various measures (1 Cor 1:1-9; 1 Thess 5:14).
How does Scripture guide our thinking about the use or non-use of psychoactive medications?
Clearly, Scripture does not provide explicit instruction about the use or non-use of medication. However it provides a wise and balanced framework for considering such questions. For example, here are several biblical perspectives that offer guidance: (1) Relief of suffering and growth in Christian character in the midst of suffering are both important; (2) Medications are a gift of God’s common grace and medications (like any gift of God) can be used idolatrously; (3) Motives are important—a person can have wrong motives for wanting to take medication and a person can have wrong motives for not wanting to take medication; (4) Attention to the interplay between the spiritual and somatic aspects of the person’s experience is important. In the end, the use or non-use of medications is not a “right or wrong” issue but a “wisdom” issue. We ask, “What seems wisest for this particular person with this particular constellation of struggles and strengths at this particular time?”
If the local church embraced the ideas in your book, what would change?
My hope is that leaders in the church would have increasing confidence to pursue those in their congregations who are struggling with mental health issues. And that they would do so in a balanced way, being attentive to both spiritual and bodily aspects of these struggles. I want them to have a growing conviction that Scripture speaks broadly and deeply to the disordered thoughts, emotions, and behaviors associated with psychiatric diagnostic categories, and that Scripture provides fundamental ways of understanding people that are much more full-orbed than a diagnosis can capture. At the end of the day my goal would be a restoration of the local church as the central locus of care for those who are troubled, while recognizing there are times when we must wisely partner with those in the medical community.
How can leaders in the church become better equipped to minister wisely to those diagnosed with psychiatric disorders?
The most fundamental starting point is to listen deeply to people and to Scripture. Both are critical. Listening to people’s stories without an accompanying biblical perspective will result in truncated, imbalanced ministry. Listening to Scripture without listening to people’s experiences will also result in short-sighted and imbalanced ministry. Always ask, “How does Scripture provide clarity and coherence to this person’s struggle as a body-soul image bearer?” But do so, making sure that you have sought to understand the struggler’s experience as well as possible.
Can you tell a story that illustrates the balanced approach you are advocating in the book?
I knew a man in my former church who struggled with paranoid schizophrenia. Despite the use of multiple medications, he continued to have bouts where accusatory voices filled his head, telling him that he was worthless and that he ought to kill himself. What did he need? Fine-tuning of his medications? Certainly that was something important to pursue, given the complexity of his psychoactive medical treatment. But I think what he also (and perhaps especially) needed at those times was a friend. A friend who would listen with compassion and patience. A friend who would take seriously the impact of those demeaning and frightening voices in his head. A friend to remind him of God’s favor, care, and presence in his experience of isolation, confusion, and loneliness. A friend who would pray for him and read the Psalms with him. A friend who would highlight that, in Jesus, nothing could separate him from the love of the Father (Romans 8:38-39). A friend who expected both personal and corporate benefit from having this man as a part of the body (1 Corinthians 12:21-26). You can be that friend. I can be that friend. And that’s apart from having any particular medical expertise with schizophrenia (which of course he needs as well). There’s the balance: by all means seek psychiatric input/medication when it seems justified but approach the person with biblical categories in mind, confident that God speaks into the experience of suffering.More info here
We recently sat down with CCEF Faculty Member, Julie Lowe, to discuss the upcoming CCEF National Conference.
Q. Would you share one of your conference topics and why you chose it?
Nurturing Family is one of my topics. I chose it because I think we need to consider how we can proactively pursue relationships in our family life. My goal is to talk about what inhibits that pursuit. All of us should be asking “What’s getting in the way of me communicating with my spouse or my kids or my extended family? Why is this not a priority anymore?”
The most obvious inhibitor to family relationships is the lifestyle we live and the culture we are buying into. Whether it’s materialism or success, or …fill in the blank, these things suffocate real loving interaction with people. Perhaps unwittingly, we have dismissed the need for authenticity and relationship, but for what? For things that do not satisfy—like getting ahead, having a big house, nice cars, and getting our kids into the best schools. We spend so much time and effort running after these things, that we end up living in superficial ways with each other. And after a while, it becomes the norm rather than the exception.
Q. You have a large family. Does this topic impact you?
Absolutely! We are a two-parent working family with six kids, and the demands feel endless. It’s easier to deal with the tyranny of the urgent rather than the meaningful and the eternal. To move beyond the day’s activity and the crazy schedule toward that which is long-lasting—fostering relationships with my kids—is hard. It doesn’t always come naturally. It’s easier to focus on the immediate demands that I’m facing rather than on relating to my kids.
So I’m convicted every time I speak about this topic. But when I feel this, it helps me to remember what is most important, and I hope, in some way, to pass that on to other parents.
Q. No one plans to have a disconnected family. Yet we end up there anyway. Where are we tripping up?
It’s so common now to have both parents working outside the home. Combine that with multiple activities and the belief that busier kids are better off, and you have the beginnings of the problem.
I think there is also social pressure for parents to be overly involved, whether it is at your kid’s school or at your church or in your career. We give the impression that we can “do it all.” When you value these things, it reduces the family’s time together. And how much harder would all this be in a single parent home?
Relationships are hard work. I think we want the payoff of a close family without all the little moments of effort to get there. And now, through social media, we have more and more opportunity to have pseudo-relationships in ways that require no work. It’s tempting to replace meaningful family interactions with less costly ones. Checking my Facebook page is certainly easier than engaging with my kids.
Q. How can the church be a support to nurturing relationships?
First of all, the church should be encouraging families to invest in one another before investing in the work of ministry. The irony is that when we are nurturing family relationships, we are inherently doing ministry—we are building the church one relationship at a time.
And I believe it’s also important to stop segregating groups according to their status in the church. There is a great need for singles, families, and the elderly to be involved in each other’s lives. There is so much richness each has to offer the other, but it takes time and work to cross these lines. We need the church to cast a vision that values these relationships.
Q. Is there a place in Scripture you’ve found that is helpful to the goal of working on family relationships?
In his epistles, Paul uses imagery of the body to represent the church, but it also applies to the family. For the different parts of the body to work together, they need to be in unity rather than disconnected— even though they are very different from each other. Additionally, much like every family, every church addressed in Paul’s epistles had different issues that needed to be worked through. They weren’t all called to be formulaic and uniform. They had different struggles. These examples give liberty for individuality, but always at the root is the call for us to live for others, to live beyond ourselves. In an individualistic culture, these words are all the more important to hear, as we can be a people consumed with ourselves rather than living sacrificially for others.
Q. What would you want people to take away from this time?
I hope that we all walk away with a greater conviction to evaluate our lifestyles and priorities, assess what they reveal, and then do the hard work of changing them where change is needed. My hope is each of us will be challenged and committed to the work of relationships no matter how hard it is. With God’s help, we can make changes that really matter.
We recently spoke with CCEF Faculty Member, Alasdair Groves, to discuss the upcoming CCEF National Conference.
Q. Would you share one of your conference topics and why you chose it?
I chose Family Devotions as one of my topics. I chose it for a few reasons. First off, this is an area of personal interest for me. I have three young kids, so I’m thinking through how I want devotions to look for my own family. Secondly, I’d say it’s an area of some weakness for me. I don’t feel like I’m doing it especially well. But even as I say that, I have this sense that my feelings of inadequacy make me just like everybody else. I can’t remember hearing any mom or dad say, “You know, we just have great family devotions.”
As parents, it seems we all struggle in this area. We feel like there’s never enough time and kids’ attention spans are so short. We wonder when we should do it and how to hold kids’ interest. So in answer to your question, I like to pick conference topics that will stretch both me and others, and help us answer questions that have real impact on our lives.
Q. What are some of the challenges people face in family devotions?
I think the most common challenges fall in one of two broad categories. The first is logistical and the second is emotional—a sense of guilt or burden.
The logistical concerns are kind of obvious. Who has lots of time for their personal devotions? Who has additional time for family devotions? Doing family devotions involves having different people all together at once, and so that probably means that you have various scheduling conflicts to deal with. It’s so hard to sustain a pattern when that’s going to get broken by one child’s sports practice or somebody’s work schedule. And so I think there’s just this constant sense of “How do we get it in? When do we do it? How do we make this work on a regular basis?” That sense of busyness is one logistical concern.
I think another logistical struggle is due to technology. Everyone’s wired in 24/7, so we’ve all become more “interruptable,” even at mealtimes. Someone’s phone or other device is always pinging for attention. That just makes it harder than ever to have undistracted time for devotions.
Then, there are the emotional issues. There’s this huge sense of pressure people feel when it comes to doing family devotions. We beat ourselves up by saying, “I should be doing this. This is what good Christian families do.” We want this good thing for our family and for our kids. We also tend to have over-idealized versions of what it should be. The comments I hear sound like this: “I’m not doing enough… It’s not good enough… I feel like it ought to be more.”
So those are the major challenges to family devotions, not to mention the struggle that’s most basic: it’s just hard to sustain any habit that requires initiative.
Q. Can you share a Scripture that has encouraged you in the practice of family worship?
There are two places in Scripture that I’m thinking of off the top of my head. The first place for me that immediately leaps out is the book of Judges. It’s near and dear to my own heart because of my father’s interest in that book. Judges is about what leadership for God’s people should look like. And it illustrates the problems that come when that leadership isn’t there. From my dad’s perspective, one of the most ominous moments in the entire book—maybe in the whole Bible—is where it says in chapter 2, “And a generation arose who did not know the Lord and had not seen the things he had done.” As you read on in the book, you see one bad thing after another. And there are these cascading events all the way to the final verse of the last chapter, which says, “In those days Israel had no king and everyone did what was right in his own eyes.” That’s such a sobering statement. Yet—the flip side reaction we can have is to recognize just how powerful it is to instill knowledge of God in the next generation is a high priority.
The second place in Scripture, (and this is on the positive side) is Deuteronomy 6 where there’s this call, in one sense probably the call, to practice family devotions. It says: Talk with your family. Talk with your children about the Lord. Do it when you get up and when you lie down and when you go in and when you go out.
One thing I really appreciate about these verses is the flexibility. God is not saying “Here’s exactly what you need to do. Here are the twelve laws of family devotions.” Instead, the fundamental core of the call is simply to disciple your kids as you live life. Raise them up, taking the opportunities that are presented to you to spiritually nourish your children. I really appreciate the “formatlessness” of it. I’m not arguing against structure, it’s just comforting to know that there’s not this perfect way to do it that’s right for all people at all times.
Q. Can you speak to the dynamic of engaging Scripture with children in particular?
I’ve always tried to live by the rule I learned from Julie Lowe (one of our CCEF faculty and a friend) who said that any theology that you can’t explain to a six-year-old is something you don’t understand well enough yourself. That has been a helpful barometer for me—even before I had kids.
So I try to make sure that what I talk about with my kids is really clear to me first. After that, well, this may sound too casual, but I’ve really tried to live by the idea that discipling my kids is sort of like throwing spaghetti at the wall—only some of it is going stick. You need to keep in mind that kids are often absorbing more than it looks like in the moment, even when they seem distracted or they ask some completely unrelated question. Not looking for this immediate “light bulb moment” changes everything. Instead you’re looking for a longer trajectory of spiritual growth. Sometimes you find out that they heard more than you realized, and that it was impacting them in ways you couldn’t see at first. Those are great moments!
Q. What do you hope people come away with from your time together?
Given that guilt and a sense of burden is so present here, I would love for people to walk out feeling relieved and free.
I hope that comes in two ways. First, I want to offer something personalized. I want to offer people not just a “Here’s the best way to do devotions,” but rather “Let me help you think about what the best way is for your family to do devotions.” I want to offer some tools to evaluate “Who are we as a family? Where are we in terms of devotions? What would work well for us?” I hope to give people a real sense of freedom and flexibility based on a Deuteronomy 6 mentality.
Second, I would also love people to come away with a slightly greater sense of “Oh okay, I can do this. This is attainable.” I would love for them to say, “Okay, you know what? We could try this. It’s something that actually sounds both pleasant and possible.”2017 National Conference
What do you think when someone you know is diagnosed with a psychiatric disorder? Or has started to take a psychoactive medication? Do you say to yourself, “Finally, he is getting the help he really needs!” Or do you feel skeptical about either the diagnosis or the solution (or both), and wonder if what the person really needs is simply to trust in Jesus more?
It doesn’t take too many conversations in the church to realize that there are widely divergent views regarding the diagnosis and treatment of mental health issues. Like many, you may find yourself falling into one of two camps. Let me call this the Goldilocks Principle. What do I mean?
You may be someone who is “too cold” toward psychiatric diagnoses. Perhaps you’re highly suspicious of using these labels. You believe that they are secular understandings of the person that compete with biblical categories and solutions. At best you don’t think they’re helpful, and at worst you believe they are harmful and dehumanizing.
Or perhaps you are “too warm” toward psychiatric diagnoses. You may embrace them as nearly all-encompassing explanations of the person’s struggle. You may gravitate toward medical solutions and diminish the relevance of the biblical story for these particular problems. But is there a third way, a balance between these two extreme tendencies?
Similarly, you may be “too cold” toward psychoactive medications. You’re extremely wary of ever using them. If you’re honest, you believe that Christians really wouldn’t have to take psychiatric medication if their faith were robust enough. And what about those side effects—why risk it? Or you may be among those who are “too warm” toward psychoactive medications. If a Christian has no problem using Tylenol for a headache, why shouldn’t she use an antidepressant when she is depressed? And about those side effects—they are invariably worth the benefit. But is there a third way, a balance between these two extreme tendencies?
That is one major goal I had in writing Descriptions and Prescriptions: A Biblical View of Psychiatric Diagnoses and Medications: to help you move from either extreme—too cold or too hot—toward a view of psychiatric diagnoses and medications that is hopefully “just right.” Perhaps you don’t tend toward one of these extremes but you are looking for the biblical and scientific framework that allows you to maintain that third-way position. That’s exactly what I hope this material will do. I want to take seriously what help psychiatric categories and medications provide but also recognize their limitations.
There is no doubt that many people suffer greatly with emotions and patterns of thinking that bring grave hardship to them and to their loved ones. The pressing issue is how best to know and understand their struggles. And then, having understood, how best to provide compassionate and wise help. After all, we are called to “bear one another’s burdens and so fulfill the law of Christ” (Galatians 6:2). Psychiatric diagnostic classification and psychoactive medications provide a way to understand and help those who are burdened in particular ways. This book assesses the limitations and benefits of understanding and helping people using that lens.
I have written this resource primarily for helpers in the church—pastors, counselors, elders, deacons, youth workers, men’s and women’s ministry coordinators, small group leaders, and other wise people who may not have a formal title or ministry job description but are actively engaged as intentional friends in one-another ministry. You are on the front lines of pastoral care and, no doubt, you have cared for and will continue to minister to people who struggle with mental anguish, who are diagnosed with psychiatric disorders, and who may be using or have questions about psychoactive medications.
This resource is in no way meant to be a comprehensive guide to helping those diagnosed with a mental illness, nor will it discuss the multifaceted approaches that exist for helping those who are suffering in this way. I simply want to provide a foundational biblical framework for understanding psychiatric diagnoses and the use of psychoactive medications. Ultimately, I want this book to help you to think wisely and compassionately about these struggles so that you are just a bit more equipped for this important work of burden-bearing and counseling.
(Adapted from Michael R. Emlet, Descriptions and Prescriptions: A Biblical Perspective on Psychiatric Diagnoses and Medications [Greensboro, NC: New Growth Press, 2017],
[Jesus] told them, “This is what is written: The Christ will suffer and rise from the dead on the third day, and repentance and forgiveness of sins will be preached in his name to all nations. (Luke 24:46-47)
No wonder pastors enjoy preaching. The way to God has been opened and it is through Jesus. Repentance and forgiveness are preached in his name. Your task as a pastor is to present this good news in a way that is beautiful, engaging and persuasive.
Preach what has spoken to your own heart. But it gets even better. Not only do you preach truth that is attractive, you preach truth that has come alive to you amid the ups and downs of your everyday struggles. Preaching includes an implicit contract: the text has reached your own heart, and now you offer it to those you love.
With this in mind, preparation might begin with an email to your congregation. “Please pray for me today. I plan to spend some time working on my sermon on Romans 5. I want the Spirit and the Word to come alive for me.”
Preach the truth about God. You are preaching to people with real problems and needs. Guilt is, indeed, a real problem, forgiveness is a real need. Yet competing with these is a popular myth. It suggests that Jesus is nice. But the father—he is persistently peeved. He is just waiting for us to get out of line so he can vent a little of his wrath. To borrow a biological image, his resting state is one in which he is suspicious that we will sin very soon and he is already upset about it. I mention Romans 5 because it can potentially silence this myth by taking us directly into the character of God. Though the practical living sections of Scripture have their allure, it is here—knowing God truly—that sermons have their impact.
So though Scripture does speak of God’s wrath against sin, it is not the main emphasis. Scripture’s emphasis is that the triune God is inclined, by his very nature, to forgive. That is his resting state. His plan has always been to turn his wrath away from us and onto another, and he does this as an expression of his character rather than a response to our contrition.
God shows his love for us in that while we were still sinners, Christ died for us. Since, therefore, we have now been justified by his blood, much more shall we be saved by him from the wrath of God. For if while we were enemies we were reconciled to God by the death of his Son, much more, now that we are reconciled, shall we be saved by his life. More than that, we also rejoice in God through our Lord Jesus Christ, through whom we have now received reconciliation. (Romans 5:8-11)
Love comes to sinners. Wrath has been turned away because God—Father, Son and Spirit—want it that way. Sin separates us from God no longer. He has attached himself to us. We cannot argue with the blood of Christ shed for us.
How can we discern whether or not this reality is pressing in and reshaping us? Life under a persnickety god is joyless. Life under the God who has revealed himself most fully in Jesus feels like hope rising and joy is our calling. Perhaps a simple “thank you” will keep us headed in the right direction.
Preaching starts with our own everyday struggles and the Spirit’s lively work in our hearts. Preaching then moves toward other people and their everyday struggles. From there, it always aims to surprise us with the character of God displayed ultimately in Jesus. Here we find that the triune God delights in communion with his people, and he has made the way for that through forgiveness in Jesus.
We recently sat down with CCEF Executive Director, David Powlison, to discuss the upcoming CCEF National Conference.
Q. What was the reason behind CCEF choosing family as the topic for the conference this year?
For previous conferences we have usually picked an individual issue, something people struggle with on their own – for example, anger, shame, emotions, suffering, or addictions. But family is a bigger topic, and that intrigued us. Family makeup is one of God’s core purposes–and his family embodies all the same blessings and brokenness as other families. For example, we were all born into some version of family–whether good or bad or a mix, whether whole or broken. Family affects each of us as we come into adulthood and come to terms with the family in which we grew up.
New families grow even while we still relate to the one we started in. And families shrink through empty nest, divorce, and bereavement.
The topic is so much bigger than just marriage and kids and parenting, and we want our conference to reflect that.
Family includes concerns such as how to care for aging parents. My mother passed away a year-and-a-half ago at the age of 94. The last three years of her life were very challenging for my brother and sister and me. Why is it that we were so involved in her care? Because she is our mom.
Of course, we will talk about parenting, as well as many other family concerns such as adoption and how one even thinks about what a family is in a culture that has radically redefined family just in the last 20 years. So family is always a key topic. It seems timely for us to address it.
Q. What you’re describing is the expansion of what we might be assuming that a family conference is?
Right. Look at my situation for example. Nan and I are in our 60s. Our youngest child turned 30 last summer. Does that mean we no longer have family issues? As parents, you never stop caring about your children, even when they are adults. We are parents of independent, adult children. How do we relate to them, to their spouses, and to our grandchildren? How do you relate to a grown child who is experiencing singleness or is disabled or is struggling with a drug problem? All these issues are basically ageless when it comes to family.
In Scripture, leaving and cleaving did not mean creating isolated nuclear family units. Leaving and cleaving simply meant there was a new sexually-engaged couple, but it was within the extended family. Family always has these abiding, enduring aspects relationally, financially, and so forth.
Here’s something else that makes this topic so fascinating. The 1950s picture of a mom, dad, and kids with a white picket fence—a “Leave it to Beaver” image of life—is foreign to Scripture. Instead, family is a context of mutual defense, of mutual support economically, of hope for the future, of conflicts, of betrayal, and even of violence. There are no ideal families depicted in the Bible.
Family is so significant in Scripture and so intimate to how God conceives of who we are as people. It always has troubles that need to be addressed; and it can bring blessings like no other social institution.
Another aspect of family is how it can create a vision for the larger family of God. As our three children grew up, we were almost never alone as a family in our house. Our kids grew up with students, missionaries and other visitors living with us most of the time. Space was tight, but one of the results of having a lot of unrelated people living together was a really deep sense that the body of Christ is a family, and that other Christians truly are brothers and sisters and mothers and fathers. The kind of closeness and connection that happens with brothers and sisters in Christ can be profound. So when you talk about this larger view of family, it touches on how the church is the family of God.
Q. What are some of your own hopes for us as we engage this topic with those who come to the conference?
In all our conferences, as in our teaching and writing, we hope to disabuse people of the iconic images of what they think something is or ought to be whether that image is of the Christian life, or marriage, or family, or church. We aim to be faithful to Scripture’s portrayal of life. The Bible is very gritty and realistic. Life is never idyllic. There are always problems to face – and at the same time spectacular ways in how Christ personally addresses our troubles.
The grace and glory of God appears in the midst of troubles. It’s never an Edenic state of bliss, there’s always something much more interesting and dynamic happening in individual lives and in families. God’s at work in all things. We want to align our hearts, our actions, our purposes, and our words with his purposes.
My hope is that this conference will simply equip people to live better, to love better, to trust God, and to move toward problems more constructively, with more true hope.2017 National Conference
Sex is like fire. When it blazes in the fireplace, a good fire warms and brightens the room, enhancing joy and companionship. But when fires ignite in the wrong places, the house burns down. Is your sexuality igniting in the wrong places? Are you treating sexual sin casually? How do you know when this has happened? Let me offer a few tests that can rouse your conscience.
If you are being nonchalant about your sexual sin, I hope that my list arouses a proper sense of unease. Fires are burning outside the fireplace. Is something not right with your sexual behavior? You are a child of light—don’t walk in darkness! God’s point of view is good, right, and true. He beckons you. Walk as a child of light—for the fruit of light is found in all that is good, right, and true. The God who invites us into what is good also warns us off what is bad. You may be sure of this: everyone who is sexually immoral has no inheritance in the kingdom of Christ and God. Don’t let anyone deceive you with empty words. Because of these things, the wrath of God comes on the disobedient. That’s the gist of Ephesians 5:5–9:
For you may be sure of this, that everyone who is sexually immoral or impure, or who is covetous (that is, an idolater), has no inheritance in the kingdom of Christ and God. Let no one deceive you with empty words, for because of these things the wrath of God comes upon the sons of disobedience. Therefore do not become partners with them; for at one time you were darkness, but now you are light in the Lord. Walk as children of light (for the fruit of light is found in all that is good and right and true).
Take it to heart. Don’t let peer pressure or the culture deceive you. By the mercy of Christ, you will live a brighter, more loving, and more fruitful life.
How do you change? There are many facets of that big question, but I will point to four. First, the starting point for change is to say, “What I am doing is wrong.” That acknowledgement gets you pointed in the right direction.
But God doesn’t just tell you to shape up. The second step is to realize “I need mercies from my Father. I need him to love me and forgive me. I need his strength and forgiveness.” Recognizing wrong leads to awareness that you need something that only God can give you—something he freely gives. He gives himself in Jesus Christ.
The third step in changing is to act on this. The Lord calls you to seek him, to find him, and from him to receive what you most need. Psalm 25:11 brings this to life:
For your name’s sake, O LORD,
pardon my guilt, for it is great.
Cast yourself on the care of your Father. Find grace and help from outside yourself. Seek, and you will find the mercy you need.
The fourth step is not really a step, it’s a lifestyle. It’s learning to walk out what those “good, right, and true” things look like. This has many different aspects that work out in our lives at different times. Choose to spend time with different companions. Put filtering software on your screens. Set up real accountability with someone you trust. Make the kind of lifestyle changes that get you out of the path of where you’ve gotten yourself into trouble. Jesus uses a vivid picture of how to deal with our own evil. If your hand causes you to sin, cut it off; if your eye causes you to sin, gouge it out. He shocks us into a radical amputation of evil. And, of course, none of these battles are one-and-done. God intends to work in you a committed resolve to take seriously what’s wrong, to need him, to pursue what’s right. It’s an ongoing fight.
Here is one of the most helpful things I heard early in my Christian life. Think of your soul as a room. When you’re in sin, that room is full of dark forces, dark people, and darkness. There are two ways you get rid of darkness in your soul. One way is to cast it out, fight it, resist and reject it. The other way is to fill the room with light. As your life fills with better people, better things to do, and more reasons to live in the light, then there’s less room for the darkness.
Jesus Christ gives a beautiful call. He invites you to live a radical life. He challenges people who think that it’s okay to do wrong. He challenges people who think they have moved past outmoded cultural values. He challenges people who think that current cultural assumptions are good, right, and true. Don’t go along with the crowd. Don’t drift with the culture. Do what Flannery O’Connor said we should do: “Push back against the age as hard as it pushes against you.” Live out in the daylight, not in the shadows and darkness.
Finding the mercies of Christ and learning to walk in his light is courageous. It has an impact on people around you. You demonstrate the Lord. That’s bigger than any one of us individually. In a world where the light is going out on sexual rights and wrongs, you have an opportunity to turn on the lights.
This letter originally appeared on the Crossway website.
David’s book, Making All Things New, was released by Crossway in August 2017. Purchase your copy here.
What do you do when you are still struggling? What do you do when repeated failure, guilt, and shame weigh heavily on your conscience?
Let me begin with a story about a friend of mine. He had come to faith in Christ when he was in his late twenties. As they say, “He had history. He came with baggage.” I’ve never forgotten the way he described his life at the point when Jesus reached him. “If you divided my mental day into a thousand moments, nine hundred of those moments were immoral. I simply lived in a world of immoral images and desires and pursuits and behaviors.” His entire life was steeped in polyamorous, bisexual immorality.
Did his newfound faith immediately bring about a complete change? You know the answer: of course not. But his way of describing the process was particularly vivid. “It wasn’t as though I went from nine hundred immoral moments down to zero. But nine hundred went to seven hundred. And seven hundred became five hundred, and five hundred became two hundred, and so on. It was very hard to think that seven hundred out of a thousand meant progress! But it was. It was huge progress, and even though I was still failing, Christ was changing me.”
He grew. Eventually, by the time I knew him, he was significantly changed—but still not perfect. And he lived with a daily awareness that, “I’m still vulnerable in the area of sexual temptations. I can never think I’m home free and will never struggle.” But he had entered into the long walk of discipleship, the patient, persistent obedience in the right direction, walking under the mercy of the Lord.
What sustained him for ups and downs of the long walk? I’ve never forgotten his words. “Early on I learned something that I’ve never forgotten. I had to presume that Christ loved me. Jesus knew the kind of person he had chosen to forgive and save. He who had begun a good work in me was committed to one day bring me to completion. I relied on the fact that his mercies for me truly are new every morning—I lived in that promise of Lamentations 3:22–24.” Christ’s love for him was the given on which his life depended. He could daily seek Christ’s mercies for what he needed that day: forgiveness from the Lamb, strength from the King, protection in the Refuge, guidance under the Shepherd’s hand.
Step by step by step by step he was moving toward the light. His long, hard fight was wrapped up in the mercy of Christ to him. It is the same for all of us, whatever our particular struggle—sexual immorality, anger and bitterness, fears, addictions, self-righteousness. Jesus knows the kinds of people he has chosen to save. We can seek him, and we will find him true and good for the long haul. My friend was honest, no secrets before God. He was honest to confess where and when he struggled. He was honest with friends, who helped him to seek and find the God who promises many mercies. He was honest in asking help from other people: accountability and prayer, counsel and conversation with brothers. He rebuilt a life that had good in it. He learned to treat both men and women as holy brothers and sisters, rather than as sexual objects.
Here’s an old metaphor about how a Christian fights against darkness. Envision your mind as a room. When sin reigns, that room is filled with dark thoughts, dark actions, and deceptive people who mean you no good. So how do you get darkness out of the room? There are two ways that you fight. First, you stand up to the darkness, expelling it from the room, learning to directly say no to evil. And second, you fight the darkness by filling the room with light. There’s no room for the darkness when the room is filled with worthy actions, true thoughts, and constructive people. When Christ enters the room, he is patiently committed to teach us to say no to what is wrong and yes to what is merciful and good. My friend began to care for other people, rather than using them as objects of his lust.
One of the actions that proved most helpful to him was getting involved in discipling teenage boys. (Pedophilia was not one of the sins he had indulged in.) They were entering adolescence and puberty in a hypersexualized world. At the same age that evil had trapped him, he could help to protect them from going down a self-destructive path. Serving others in need also helped him by filling the room with light so there was less room for darkness. In a sense, they were helping him as much as he was helping them.
Christ comes with mercy for people who know their sins. His mercy leads to doing simple things that consistently head in the right direction. Do you feel discouraged and defeated by your struggle? Don’t let anyone kid you that there’s some magic answer and somehow you missed it. There are no magic answers. But a Person full of light is willing to walk with you in the direction of the light. He is willing to walk with you the whole way home.
This letter originally appeared on the Crossway website.
David’s book, Making All Things New, was released by Crossway in August 2017. Purchase your copy here.