Sin and the Imagination

Biblical Counseling, Theology

Sin’s Starting Line

Of course, we are enraptured by fantasy. Beyond appetite—beneath and above iniquitous wanting—are inhibited imaginings. Do we sin because we have salacious indecencies or shortsighted imaginations? Thomas à Kempis helps:

“At first it is a mere thought confronting the mind; then imagination paints it in stronger colours; only after that do we take pleasure in it, and the will makes a false move, and we give our assent.”[1]

Sin’s Sleight of Hand

I push hard against cognitive accounts of emotion and behavior. They are painfully reductionistic—the mind as the source of life-lived? Really? But desire has an object. And that object, before it is desired, is construed (contorted, even) one way or another. We grieve because the world is gray. We delight because of the color. As Kempis notes above, Sin’s trickery is not in the hardness of the desire, but in the hue of the delightful object. And so Bavinck strips sin of its sleight of hand and reveals what heaviness is in its hue:

“The mind entertains the idea of sin, the imagination beautifies and converts it into a fascinating ideal, desire reaches out to it, and the will goes ahead and does it. Thus, in the case of both angels and humans, the imagination was the faculty that made the violation of the commandment appear as the road to equality with God.”[2]

The Gospel’s Slap

Not the slap of abuse or impatience, but of one soldier to another on the battlefield: “Wake up. The enemy is near.” Vanhoozer comes through, as usual:

“Christian doctrine is for grown-ups who have childlike imaginations, trusting stories in general only because one story, the gospel of Jesus Christ, happens to be true (and true because it happened: “He is risen”). Christian doctrine is a dose of reality, a slap in the face that wakes up the bleary-eyed and hungover, all those who cannot open their eyes (or prefer to keep them shut) to the new thing God is doing in Christ through the Spirit.”[3]

I’ll take the slap over docility any day. I’ll take my future self’s retrospective advice over my present self’s delusions. We are imaginers, and we’ve known it all along. But we ignore to indulge. And this is the fount of ours lives-lived, one way or the other.

[1] Thomas á Kempis, The Imitation of Christ, trans. William C. Creasy (Macon, GA: Mercer University Press, 1989), 5.

[2] Herman Bavinck, Sin and Salvation in Christ, Reformed Dogmatics vol. 3 (ed., John Bolt, trans., John Vriend; Grand Rapids, MI: Baker Academic, 2006), 67.

[3] Kevin J. Vanhoozer, Faith Speaking Understanding: Performing the Drama of Doctrine (Louisville, KY: Westminster John Knox, 2014), 230–231.


The Difficulty of Good Christian Writing

Biblical Counseling

Matthew Hosier recently published a collection of keen observations about the phenomenon of contemporary Christian writing on his website Think Theology. In summary, his criticisms are:

  1. Too many Christian books are too long.
  2. Too many Christian books are too dull.
  3. Too many Christian books are written up sermons.
  4. Too many Christian books have too many quotes.
  5. Too many Christian books are more concerned with warning about something bad than encouraging the enjoyment of something good.

The task of the Christian book is difficult—it is not merely topical, and it is not straightforwardly theology or biblical studies per se: it is integration; double exegesis of Scripture and life. If I could add a point to Hosier’s list, it would be this:

  1. Too many Christian books make promises the gospel doesn’t make.

We operate with over-realized eschatologies. We insist on tying things up neatly with strings that shouldn’t be tied in such a fashion, or with such surety. Kevin Vanhoozer helps us to begin understanding this point:

“The truth of Christ is both gift and task. On the one hand, we have the Word written; on the other hand, we must interpret it. While its meaning has been fixed by the past, our grasp of that meaning is partial, and its significance is incomplete. There is an eschatological tension that must not be ignored, a tension that prohibits us from thinking that the truth—the single correct interpretation—is our present possession. It is a mistake, in other words, to confuse the content of tradition with any one moment of tradition. Truth, it has been said, is the daughter of time. It can neither be rushed nor coerced: ‘Nearly all the most discreditable actions of church institutions . . . flow from an improper anticipation of eschatology.’ Yes, it is difficult to wait, but it is worse to bring the quest for truth, for final interpretive solution, to a premature conclusion.”[1]

David Powlison brings into focus Vanhoozer’s point at the level of real life, insisting that interpreter of Scripture not only “exegetes” the text, but also the person. “Wise counseling ministry anchors in both horizons and in a double-exegesis.”[2]

Powlison warns us: “‘Trust that God is sovereign’ serves as omnirelevant counsel. . . . But Scripture itself is full of micronarratives of people’s lives and diverse microrevelations of God speaking and acting into particular situations.”[3] We should avoid this practical-theological “habit”: “Habits of treating ‘Truth’ in an over-verticalized and a-relational way sever crucial linkages even in how far-horizon redemptive ministry is perceived. ‘Speaking truth in love’ (Eph. 4:15) is more comprehensive, more personally/situationally relevant, and more relational than the phrase is usually understood.”[4]

Let’s not have an over-realized eschatology of our personal situations. Let’s not assume there’s more to say than there is. Let’s take the responsibility not to speak more than we should as part and parcel of our call to be faithful witnesses of Scripture. Are our words tethered to the realities of life—are our gospel realities discernible when not spoken in terms of life-lived—or are they perfectly at home untethered, free-floating, irrelevant from the millions of concrete, dark, cold, isolated, hopeless life-realities crying out for redemption?

[1] Kevin J. Vanhoozer, Is There a Meaning in This Text?: The Bible, The Reader, and the Morality of Literary Knowledge (Grand Rapids, MI: Zondervan, 1998), 429.

[2] David Powlison, “Counseling through the Lens of Scripture: Updating the Conversation,” Delivered at the 2009 meeting of the Northeastern Regional Evangelical Theological Society, 2.

[3] Ibid., 3.

[4] Ibid.


Self-Patience on Desiring God

Biblical Counseling

I have a new little piece on Desiring God, called “Autocorrect and Indwelling Sin.” It’s experimental in a couple of ways.

(1) It’s kind of clickbait. I don’t like Christian blogging clickbait. I’m sick of it. This blog was hilarious.  And so, I don’t like bringing two concepts together in a blog just for the sake of click-worthy novelty. But I saw a genuine common theme between the unfiltered and passionate animosity we pour out against our phones when things go wrong and the self-hatred that goes, not only unchecked, but sometimes encouraged by popular conservative Christian theology.

(2) It’s not a popular perspective, but it is a needed one. Self-hatred truly has become the implicit secret password into pop Christian writing. The problem is that, gone unqualified, it gives preachers (or bloggers) carte blanche in bashing hearers (or readers) over the head with condemnation, and it gives Satan limitless resources to cut through the gospel with accusation and attack. Yes, we do have sin in us worth hating. And we should mortify it. But there is a genuine Christian concept of self-patience and self-love that doesn’t have to be jettisoned with secular conceptions of self or self-help literature. God loves you, so you can love yourself. That’s not wrong. In fact, it’s presupposed in the command to love others (Matt 22:39).

(3) It’s different from how I normally write. It’s not very organized or systematic, but I feel that it does represent a flow of thought that can guide the casual reader from intense self-hatred to the door of self-patience. In my cynicism or dating pieces, I try to almost present a lay “systematic practical theology” of these topics that is more categorically and logically organized, but the autocorrect piece is less like organizing our theological room, and more like taking a scenic walk to escape some common anxieties.

I’m extremely grateful to DG for running the piece. The people over there are insanely amazing. It’s easy to be cynical about Christians and Christian blogging, but the staff at DG really are a city on a hill in an often discouraging online environment. I’m always moved by the grace and love of the people I interact with there, and I am encouraged that they really do care about ministering to sinners – and not merely in principle. They want to get the gospel to real, struggling, sojourning, discouraged sinners like me, and maybe like you. I hope you benefit from the piece. Again, read it here.

Cynicism on Desiring God

Biblical Counseling

Desiring God has graciously posted a piece of mine on their blog called “Putting Off Cynicism.”

The piece is really a synthesis of observations about my own heart over the past few years. Every metaphor, description, counteragent, and prescription is something that has been (and continues to be) relevant to my own heart and perspective each day. I am a cynic, and I need Jesus very badly. I hope that my fellow cynics who love Jesus find helpful tools here as they seek to wrestle with difficult pasts, besetting fears, and the currently intangible but most excellent hope that Jesus Christ can offer: himself.

Again, you can read it here: “Putting Off Cynicism

Multitasking, Anxiety, and Jesus

Biblical Counseling

We’re always multitasking. As I write this, I’ve got seven things on my mental backburner. Just read an e-mail. Just checked my phone for a text (it didn’t come, and my phone would have buzzed if it had). There’s something scary about focus. It’s easy to stack seven or eight tasks, one on top of the other, as a stopgap between us and a besetting anxiety. I think that that this anxiety is a fear of an encounter with ourselves – a meeting of me with myself.

I think that I am altogether terrified to look in the mirror without offering proof that I am worth something. And so, I multitask. Of course I’m worth something. Look at all of these people depending on me, and all of these projects that I have. I am clawing and scraping and scratching to be needed. How could I be nothing when I’m needed? And in this state of mind, my relationships, work, school, duties, and every external detail of my life becomes a counterpoint to the existential void that declares over and to each person – over and to me – “Worthless.” “Pathetic.” “Insufficient.”

It is tremendous, in rebellion against the voice of the void, how singular and slow Jesus is in his own focus in ministry. Of course, he is constantly racing here and there, but what is unique is that where he is, he is. He is there, not elsewhere. He listens to people so that he may speak fitting words to them – to the wealthy, to the poor, to the sinful, to the “righteous.” He listens, and he speaks, and he acts, and he does so purposefully and consciously stripped of distractions. When he prays, he gets alone. When he counsels, he gives instruction for when the conversation is over. When he overturns tables, he does so publically and with pointed and meaningful aggression. When he blesses children, he scorns distraction. Jesus lives life looking himself in the eye, and unflinchingly operates out of the security that he does not need to be distracted from himself. The accuser cannot reach his heart.

Satan himself came to Jesus and told him all the things we tell ourselves – that he was worthless, unwanted, and needed to prove his value, even if only to himself. And the rest of Jesus’ life was lived out of the explicit conviction that the opposite was true – that God was his loving Father, that he had come to give the value of his perfect life to the people he loved, and that attempts to prove one’s value to one’s own self are futile.

As Pascal infamously said, “All of humanity’s problems stem from man’s inability to sit quietly in a room alone.” Indeed, perhaps if we were able to experience a confrontation with the self – with our selves – then we could evaluate our time and tasks aright. In these next five minutes, what do I need to get done? Do we have no time because we feel that any presence of free time is diagnostic of worthlessness? Or can I say, by faith, “I’ve got time” because ultimately, I’m OK. I’m alright, and that liberates me from the tyranny which is the fear that having nothing to do means I’m second-rate. I don’t need to be anyone other than who I am – a sinner, saved by the gracious person of Christ, healing and repenting one day at a time – and so, I’ve got time to do the next thing I’ve got to do, and to give it the focus which being secure in my identity in Christ allows me to have.

(I needed this blog for myself, so there you go. A little autobiographical, but if you’re like me at all, I hope this was helpful.)

Powlison on Discerning God’s Calling

Biblical Counseling

Last night, a friend and I were discussing calling – what is it? Of course, there is obviously the external call of: the encouragement of those around you, opportunities arising, etc. And there is the even more objective external call of the church itself. Conversely, there exists a notion of a subjective call – do I want to do this? No, am I burdened to do this? David Powlison (as always) gives us some helpful points to begin thinking about  calling. First, he notes that the word “calling” has four important meanings as a Christian:

  • God calls, inviting every human being to know Him.
  • God calls, powerfully speaking so the dead come to life.
  • God calls, mapping out a life and walk of thankful obedience.
  • God calls, tailor-making you to serve Him here and now.

We all nod our heads in doctrinal affirmation at the first three: “OK, thanks Powlison. Now tell me how to divine God’s will for my life.” He obliges. He digs deep into the fourth sense. He puts the quest for discerning God’s call for your life in terms of five questions that force you to think about yourself, your God, and the world around you:

1. What are your gifts and talents? For example, I Peter 4:10f simply mentions speaking and serving.  How has God equipped you to serve and/or speak effectively?  And I Peter 4:7-9 mentions things which everybody is supposed to do to some degree:  pray, show merciful love, show hospitality.

2. What have you been given in life experience, learning, and background?  Paul was equipped to be the bridge from the Jews to the nations because he was both an educated Pharisee and a Roman citizen.  Moses & David were equipped to lead by years spent as shepherds.  Older women are equipped to help younger women by life experience (Titus 2:4).

3. Where are your opportunities, responsibilities and challenges?  What are the needs of your time and place:  home? neighborhood? church? nation? world?  The sons of Issachar were “men who understood the times, with knowledge of what Israel should do” (I Chronicles 12:32).  What are your times and what should you do?  Abigail had “good understanding” (I Samuel 25), and figured out what needed to be done in her situation.  Mt 25:31-46 speaks of the human needs which each of us encounters in different ways.  Luke 10:30-37 shows a man sensitive to God’s call within a particular situation.

4. Where have you grown wiser through personal repentance and learning to walk in the light?  How have you been a disciple, a learner, hence equipped to help others?  Counseling wisdom grows as you grow in humility, integrity, realism about yourself and others, confidence in the God of truth who searches hearts, and gratitude to Jesus Christ.  God creates a wise servant by teaching you to know him at your points of need for grace.

What is your characteristic flesh:  desires, idols, fears, false hopes, and wrong beliefs that show in sinful habits and patterns of behavior, attitude and thinking?  How have you found the way of escape in Christ? (I Corinthians 12:6-14) ·How have you learned to trust God not yourself in hardships you’ve experienced?  (2 Corinthians 1:3-11) What “logs” tend to blind you, making you unhelpful?  How has God opened your eyes?  (Matthew 7:1-6 & Luke 6:38-45) Where do you need the Spirit’s fruit to give you wisdom’s gentleness, perceptiveness, persistence?  (Galatians 5:14-6:10)

What hardships and sufferings do you face in life? The way we process life’s pressures is a crucial part of our counseling usefulness to other people (2 Corinthians 1:4).

5. What do you want to do?  What do you enjoy?  What are you compelled to do?  Where do you work eagerly and thrive?  I Tim 3:1 and I Peter 5:2 speak of willingness and desire for ministry.  Jeremiah 20:9 speaks of a mission that Jeremiah could not duck.  I Corinthians 15:10 speaks of work Paul did energetically, for the Spirit was at work in him for this purpose.

After answering these questions for yourself in a way that searches the wisdom of others, that is self-searching, and that is honest, Powlison gives four steps to help put your answers to these questions to work:

1.  Look around you.

Who are the obvious people in your life whom you could “encourage daily” (or weekly, or monthly)?  Think of people in your home, your neighborhood, your job, your church, your small group, your school.

2.  Where?  Who?  What problems?

  • In what settings do you have time and opportunity to counsel and encourage people? (e.g., lunch time, prayer group, evening phone calls, pastor’s office, after church, etc.)
  • What kinds of people seek you out and let you get to know them?  (e.g., male or female?  elderly, middle-aged, young adult or children?  married or single or divorced?  particular typical struggles?  Christian or non-Christian? rich or poor?  etc.)
  • What kinds of people do you think you work well with?  (Usually these are people whose world we are able to enter in order to bring both God’s love and truth)
  • What kinds of problems do you think you work well with?  (e.g., bereavement, interpersonal conflict, general stress of life, addictions, people who have suffered traumas, physical disabilities, anger, anxiety, criminal behavior, discipling new believers, financial counsel, etc.)
  • What kinds of people do you not work well with?  (Perhaps they intimidate you or confuse you or trigger impatience, or perhaps it is inappropriate for you to counsel such people)
  • What kinds of problems do you not work well with?  (Perhaps you are ignorant or overwhelmed or simply lack wisdom here)

3.  Seek advice of several people who know you well. Consider your pastor, spouse, members of a ministry team, a small group, wise Christian friends. How do they answer the above questions regarding your gifts, opportunities, significant experience, maturity and eagerness?  How do they answer the above questions regarding the sorts of people and problems you might work well with?

4.  Summarize your current understanding of your personal calling.  What have you learned doing this self study?  What are your hunches and instincts about where your life can be most useful to God?  Where are things vague and you need more clarity?

Powlison on Burning Out and Self-Medicating

Biblical Counseling

I wildly vacillate from working like crazy to crashing. I cram, I take a break. And, since the semester is upon me, I face the temptation to fall back into this maddening dialectic of thrashing back-and-forth between expending more energy than I have, and resting more than I can afford. It’s the perfect recipe for burnout and addiction, and I turn into a sad, desperate being when I burn out and seek self-medicating pleasures. David Powlison gives a helpful description and cure (if we are willing to take it) for this kind of life.

Some people are wildly ‘bipolar’ but don’t know it. I’m not referring to mood swings. I’m referring to those extreme swings from obsession about work, to compulsive pleasure-seeking, then back to anxious toil, then back to “you-deserve-a-break-today.” That cycle isn’t measured in months or years. Many people cycle through every single day, even several times a day. One hour they’re preoccupied, harried, driven. The next hour they’ve escaped into the forgetful all-absorption of entertainment.

They don’t stop to take a deep breath, to quietly think, to savor something beautiful, to notice and listen carefully, to participate in both the seriousness and the humor of honest friendship, to choose well. Workaholics never cast their cares on someone who cares, but always carry their world’s burdens. Pleasure-addicts never feel or express gratitude for good things they have been given to enjoy. They clutch pleasures as their divine right. It’s a fair bet that at least 99 percent of humankind operate somewhere between mildly dysfunctional and completely crazed on this issue.

In moving beyond this mad cycle, Powlison turns toward God, the highest work and pleasure:

This highest pleasure involves you intimately with God: “The dwelling place of God is with man. He will dwell with them, and they will be His people” (Rev. 21:3). You live face to face with the person you most love, who most loves you, whose face is your supreme delight. This shared safety and joy—no pain, threat, loss (Rev. 21:4)—is pure pleasure.

God portrays what is beautiful, delightful, and desirable in order to make clear the contrast. In comparison, that typical bipolar swing looks ugly, tiresome, impoverished, dehumanizing. It profanes the glory of God and profanes the image of God, by perverting both work and pleasure. Your time “on” gets deformed into a rat race of responsibilities. Your time “off” gets deformed into a carnival of amusements. Both are restless. But God gives rest to His beloved.

What does it look like to rest in God in a way that helps us begin to overcome the cycle of work-addictions and pleasure-addictions? Start small.

Pick a little thing that just gets too much of a mastery over you, and so loses its innocence. Take a one week fast from this. View this week as a holy experiment. It is an opportunity to get to know yourself, your God’s mercy, and the intensity of the battle with evil, even in seemingly minute skirmishes that most people never imagine are important. For example, take a one week time-out from one of the following:

  • browsing catalogues
  • checking your e-mail or the weather more than twice a day
  • reading novels
  • playing games or doing puzzles
  • background music or talk radio
  • TV (or even just your favorite show, or the evening news)
  • your hobby
  • chatty phone calls, text-messaging, instant-messaging
  • recreational shopping
  • snacks between meals
  • films
  • or any other thing that becomes an obsessive habit and need!

What happens when you do this?

You struggle. You try not to check your e-mail eighteen times a day. Sounds easy enough. But it’s not as easy as we imagine. The first time you don’t do it, you think, “I want to do it. I need to do it. I can’t give this up.” It turns out that it actually does have a hold on you. Such things don’t let up their grip just because you planned a week-long break. Remnant sin is a power, a living thing, like a snake in your heart. And living things don’t just lie down and give up.

You realize you need Jesus’ mercy and help. Amazing. Something as small as a one week fast from a dinky part of life—e-mail, film, talk radio, drinking a Coke—and you need the Savior of the world. You realize how strong and deceitful your lusts are.

You realize you’ve been medicated and strung along by your little guilty pleasure. In these microbattles for your heart, you actually need strong, radical medicine: “Come to the throne of grace. I will give you mercy and grace to help you in your time of need.” This battle is about ownership of my heart: Who will I love? My time of need is right now. He cares and will help. Your faith awakens from captivity, torpor, and drift. You need Jesus. You love Jesus. You are thankful to your most kind God of all comfort and Father of all mercies.

Work is good, and so is pleasure. But they can be twin idols that expend our hearts’ resources so that we have neither the energy, nor the time for either. I pray that we can heed Powlison’s warning, and that God would give us the humility to look at our iPhones one less time today. And, ultimately, I pray that we will all begin another semester with the healthier, and more grace-centered mindset that Powlison prescribes.

Powlison on Theology and the Christian Life

Biblical Counseling

David Powlison comments on the relationship between the Christian life, systematic theology, biblical theology, and practical theology, in his class The Dynamics of Biblical Change:

“A relevant understanding of Scripture must match a deeply rich and textured understanding of people and the world in which people live. If you only know the Bible, and you only know your faith in its theological, historical, and biblical aspects, there is a sense in which you will only ever be an academic. You will only know theoretical knowledge. On the other hand, if you only know people, you will only know tens of thousands of facts, and you may become a poet or novelist or film-maker, but you will not have a living and life-giving wisdom. It is only when you have both that you will be a wise person, a wise pastor, a wise counselor and friend. Just knowing Scripture, and not knowing people, or just knowing people and not knowing Scripture will fail to make a connection between the “big T” truth of God’s word and the “little t” truth of life-lived.

Systematic theology teaches you to understand your faith. It gives you basic categories. It starts with things like the apostles creed. But they are essential and basic categories. What is the Father like? What is God like? Who is Jesus Christ? What did he do? Who is the Holy Spirit? What is man? What is human nature? What is the fourfold state of human nature – created, fallen, redeemed, finally connected? What are Christian relationships? There is this dense web of interconnected doctrine that is multifaceted in its beauty.

Biblical theology, like systematics, gives you these beautiful narrative categories. It’s the way God works. It’s the way Scripture unfolds. We’re given these very broad categories like the creation of all things. What is redemption, and why does redemption have this structure of promise and fulfillment?

As you grow in categories, theology gets richer and richer. Practical theology is a discipline. Practical theology seeks to teach you how redemption unfolds individually and corporately. In the same way that you have these very orienting categories in systematics, in practical theology, you have these basic categories of how people live and change.”