Studies on offending and being offended

On Jan 26, 2019 our church held a conference on taking the offensive in sharing the gospel. One question raised was how to balance being willing to say things that will offend with trying hard not to offend people. Here are some resources that address that.

The handout from my breakout session   /   The slides from my breakout session

A study of some New Testament verses about offending people, with discussion questions

A list of verses in Proverbs categorized according to what they say about wise speech

A two-part blog post by my wife (part 1) and me (part 2) about not being easily offended

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Yesterday evening our church prayed for the people in Houston and Louisiana in the aftermath of Hurricane Harvey. As we prayed, the following verses came to mind:

 The floods have lifted up, O LORD,

The floods have lifted up their voice,

The floods lift up their pounding waves.


More than the sounds of many waters,

Than the mighty breakers of the sea,

The LORD on high is mighty.          Psalm 93:3-4

Now, I realize that the “flooding” in these verses is a metaphor. The Psalmist isn’t thinking about literal water; he’s thinking about enemies or trials or something. God is mightier than all those things, no matter what they are, in just the same way as he is mightier than the literal ocean.

Yet obviously that presupposes that God is mightier than the ocean waves. If the metaphor of the waves is applicable to persecution or financial troubles or hardships of other kinds, how much more is it applicable to the literal flooding caused by Harvey?

As I prayed, I thought of the incredible destructive power of a hurricane, and then of how God is mightier than all of that. It was encouraging.

* * *

Later in the evening, I was thinking about the ways of God, in that he chooses at times to allow us to be attacked by the spiritual forces of darkness (whether through temptations or trials or outright demonic activity) and other times keeps them from us. Sometimes he puts a hedge of protection around us; other times, as in the case of Job, he lets the enemy have at us. It occurred to me that perhaps sometimes he lets us be not merely attacked but flooded by the enemy, just so he can show us his power in the middle of it. In those moments, if they occur, when the attack washes over us like a wave, knocks us off our feet and leaves us no serious chance of resisting by ourselves, all we can do is to wait and look to God to deliver us. (For another picture of that kind of deliverance, consider Jonah 2.)

I was still thinking about this when we took communion. It occurred to me that whether or not we ourselves are ever exposed to this kind of flooding, Jesus was. On the cross, all the wrath of God and all the hostility of Satan washed over him like a flood, so that we could be spared from it. As a result, as the hymns say, we can be “sinners plunged beneath the flood” of his blood shed for us and we can say “my anchor holds within the veil”. (See also Hebrews 6:19).

* * *

Around midnight, a friend asked me about Ezekiel 47. In that passage, Ezekiel sees a vision  of a river of water flowing from the temple out to the sea, giving life wherever it goes. Later in John 7:37-39, Jesus speaks of the Holy Spirit as a river of living water flowing from our innermost being. He may be deliberately referring to the vision Ezekiel had and telling us that the Holy Spirit is that river.

Anyway, back in Ezekiel, this happened:

When the man went out toward the east with a line in his hand, he measured a thousand cubits, and he led me through the water, water reaching the ankles. Again he measured a thousand and led me through the water, water reaching the knees. Again he measured a thousand and led me through the water, water reaching the loins. Again he measured a thousand; and it was a river that I could not ford, for the water had risen, enough water to swim in, a river that could not be forded. He said to me, “Son of man, have you seen this?” Then he brought me back to the bank of the river. – Ezekiel 47:3-6

The point of the man’s measuring seems to be to say this: Ezekiel, you already see that the river is here. You see that it gives life. You see that it purifies. But I want you to understand how deep it goes. You can get in a certain distance, and may think that’s how deep it is. But it goes deeper. You can go still further … but it goes deeper. You could walk in until it was clear over your head, and it would still go deeper. That’s how deep the life-giving water of God goes. It never runs out, and it always goes deeper than you’ve yet experienced.

This is another kind of flooding, both holy and wonderful. The Holy Spirit generally refrains from overwhelming us with His glory, but that doesn’t mean it isn’t there and isn’t mind-blowing.

This is the awe-inspiring God we serve. The Father reigns over even the most terrifyingly powerful floods. The Son endure the flood of God’s wrath in order to become our anchor. The Spirit reveals to us only what we can bear, but behind what we experience is a flood of life and holiness and glory we cannot even imagine.

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Corporate worship and moods

A few years ago I always struggled with almost violently angry or despondent moods during corporate worship. That’s not been true for a while, but sometimes I face a much milder form of the same struggle, and I decided today I should be more deliberate about fighting back against it.

I started asking questions to myself about one of the songs we sang: The Joy of the Lord.

First, a note about worship songs. Many songs talk only about God and his worth (example: Revelation Song, which we also sang this morning). Others talk about our feelings as worshipers. There’s some controversy about which kind of song is better for worship. Some people think it’s inappropriate to sing about our response as worshipers. They feel it focuses on us instead of on God, or on the experience of worship instead of on God, or on feelings instead of on truth.

I’m sympathetic to those concerns, but in fact there are lots of Psalms that emphasize the feelings of the worshiper.  Biblical worship is incredibly varied. I think corporate worship probably should be also. As long as it’s not all we sing about, I think there is an important role for each kind of song.

Another criticism of the feelings-of-the-worshiper type of song is that it makes liars of those worshipers who aren’t feeling the way the song says. That is a difficulty. On a given Sunday, different worshipers will all have different emotional responses, because we will all be in different places in our lives. So when I worship, what am I supposed to do when my mood is out of synch with everyone else?

Maybe it depends on God’s purposes in corporate worship. Is the worship leader, or are the songs, expected to draw us into worship in a way that unites us all in a shared emotional response, no matter where we started? Sometimes I think that can happen, and when it’s Spirit-led it can be powerful and freeing. Other times, though, it just becomes pushy.

Am I expected to align my mood to that of the songs? Sometimes, I think, the answer is yes. But there can also be the danger of worshipers gathering just to chase a certain kind of emotional thrill, worshiping worship, instead of focusing on God. Maybe sometimes if I’m not “feeling it” I should just accept that and not worry about it.

Today I realized that most of the time, I’m in one of four common states when I start a worship service.

  1. Inner and outer world both going well – I’m feeling blessed and full of joy and thanks.
  2. Outer world going badly, but inner world going well – My life is full of problems, but I’m feeling loved by God anyway, and just enjoying spending some time in His presence.
  3. Inner world transitioning from going badly to going well during the worship – I start despondent and make a deliberate choice to focus on praise and worship, and find as I proceed that my mood changes and my spirits lift and God brings me joy again
  4. Inner world is hard, and worship doesn’t change it, but I hang on in faith –I just focus on the truth of God’s goodness without feeling it, and find intellectual comfort in knowing his truth is real

Each mood corresponds to a different kind of worship song especially well. For example, songs like Revelation Song, which is, as I mentioned above, about God without mentioning the worshiper much, are particularly helpful for me in moods 2 and 4.

The Joy of the Lord, interestingly, is clearly a song tailor-made for 3. It tells a story of a transition. It moves from one mood to another.

In the first verse the worshiper commits to praising God even though he’s definitely not feeling it.

Though the tears may fall, my song will rise to you …

While there’s breath in my lungs I will praise you

In the dead of night I’ll lift my eyes to you

While there’s hope in this heart I will praise you Lord.

You can hear the sense of determination. The worshiper is saying, “I don’t care how I’m feeling or how bad things look. I will praise you right now, and that’s settled.”

Then we come to the chorus the first time and sing this:

The joy of the Lord is my strength. In the darkness I’ll dance, in the shadows I’ll sing. The joy of the Lord is my strength.

At this point, the worshiper doesn’t feel the joy of the Lord. So what does he mean?

One possibility is that he means that there is joy in the Lord in some sort of intellectual way. While there is an important sense in which that is true, I don’t think that’s what this song is referring to.

I think this chorus is a chorus of anticipation. The “joy of the Lord” is not something the worshiper feels yet, but it’s something he is working toward. He knows he needs to break through his despondency into the joy of worship. He is singing and dancing as a way of attacking his despondency, forcing himself to focus on God’s goodness. He knows this is worth doing, because he knows he will find strength to face his struggles if he can just fight his way through to faith-filled worship.

The first part of the second verse continues in the same vein,

When I cannot see you with my eyes, let faith arise to you.

When I cannot feel your hand in mine, let faith arise to you.

Perhaps it’s significant that the emphasis has switched from action (singing) to attitude (faith). He keeps singing but he commits himself to keep believing what he’s singing, too.

Then, suddenly, in the second half of the second verse, there is breakthrough.

Oh you shine with glory, Lord of light, I feel alive with you.

In your presence now I come alive, I am alive with you.

Especially notice the “now”. The mood lifts, and the worshiper finds himself enjoying intimacy with God. He notes the moral of this experience:

There is strength when I say “I will praise you Lord”.

The joy of the Lord, which is his strength, came because he decided to praise God, before he was feeling it yet.

Now comes the chorus again, and this time it’s completely different.  “The joy of the Lord is my strength” is now a happy declaration of what has just happened. “I have found the relief I needed in you,” the worshiper is singing. “Truly, you are what I needed. I’ll remember to seek you every time I am hurting.”

Finally, he re-declares what he’s learned, and commits himself to keep pursuing the Lord even more doggedly both now and in future times of discouragement.

When sorrow comes my way, You are the shield around me …

I hear you call my name, Jesus.

I am coming, walking on the waves, reaching for your light.

I started this post with the question: what do we do when our mood does not match the corporate worship? I’m still not completely sure, but for some reason, the analysis above helped me. Now that I see that this song tells a story, I can enjoy the story even if it isn’t currently my story.

Worship varies widely from one Christian tradition to another, both in terms of the forms of worship we use and the theology of worship we hold. My question may not even make sense in the context of your own church life. I’d still be interested in hearing your ideas, though. Feel free to share your own thoughts in the comments.

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Faith first

There’s a quiet little Scriptural principle about faith and love that encourages me. Let me see if I can explain it here in a way that makes sense.

I’ll start with my own experience today. This morning, driving into work, I was thinking about 1 John 4:7-21. It talks about God’s nature being love, and how that love is manifested to us and in us. First and foremost, God’s love is shown in the historical fact of Jesus becoming a man and dying for our sins. Second, it is shown as we let Him love others through us.

I began praying that I would show enough love to my students today that it would be a witness of God’s love for them, but as I thought about it, that seemed to assume that my own personal acts of love were somehow more important than the gospel itself. I decided the focus of my prayers shouldn’t be that people would be impressed by my love, but that they would be impressed by His.

Sure enough, just after my first class, I failed in a small but definite way to demonstrate love to one of my students. I tried to get past my own embarrassment and dismay to remember that it’s far more important that students see the love of God demonstrated in the gospel, than that they be impressed by me.

An hour later, in a time of worship and Bible study, several Christians confirmed this (without knowing it) by reminding me of the importance of simply remembering how much God loves me.

1 John 4:7-8 says,

Beloved, let us love one another, for love is from God; and everyone who loves is born of God and knows God. The one who does not love does not know God, for God is love.

Verses 11-12 say,

Beloved, if God so loved us, we also ought to love one another. No one has seen God at any time; if we love one another, God abides in us, and His love is perfected in us.

Clearly, we are told to love one another, and that doing so displays the nature of God to others.

But right in between those two verses, we have these:

By this the love of God was manifested in us, that God has sent His only begotten Son into the world so that we might live through Him. In this is love, not that we loved God, but that He loved us and sent His Son to be the propitiation for our sins.

In other words: Love others, and expect that to help them see God. But the most important thing isn’t what you do; it’s what God has done for you.

That brings me to the quiet little principle I promised at the beginning.

Scripture refers to faith and love as all-important elements of the Christian life, but they are important in different ways. Faith is where we must always start. Love is where we must always end up.

  • 2 Peter 1:5-8 describes Christian growth as a process which begins with faith and leads step by step to love.
  • 1 Timothy 1:5 says the goal of Christian teaching is love which springs from a sincere faith.
  • Galatians 5:6 says that the Christian life is characterized by faith working through love. In context, the point is that it must start from faith rather than self-effort. Faith sets to work and keeps working until it has worked its way all the way to love.

1 John makes the same point, but it describes faith specifically as faith in God’s love. In receiving the gospel,

… we have come to know and have believed the love which God has for us. (1 John 4:16.)

This is where all our love starts:

We love, because He first loved us. (1 John 4:19.)

Ephesians 3:14-19 is similar:

For this reason I bow my knees before the Father, … that He would grant you, according to the riches of His glory, to be strengthened with power through His Spirit in the inner man, so that Christ may dwell in your hearts through faith; and that you, being rooted and grounded in love, may be able to comprehend with all the saints what is the breadth and length and height and depth, and to know the love of Christ which surpasses knowledge, that you may be filled up to all the fullness of God.

Paul prays for believers to have the faith to see God’s love for them.

So the quiet little principle is this: Faith first, then love. Receive first, then give. Trust first, then obey. My first response to God, even before I give anything to him in ministry, is to receive what He gives me in the gospel. That way I’ll have all I need to give to others, and the focus will be on God’s grace, rather than on my obedience.

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The Psalms and hating people (Psalm 139:19-24)

The Question

Psalm 139 starts with 18 wonderful verses about God’s intimate love for us. Then it suddenly breaks out into this:

O that You would slay the wicked, O God;
Depart from me, therefore, men of bloodshed.

For they speak against You wickedly,
And Your enemies take Your name in vain.

Do I not hate those who hate You, O LORD?
And do I not loathe those who rise up against You?

I hate them with the utmost hatred;
They have become my enemies.


How should we respond to verses like these?

  • Endorse them?
  • Spiritualize them first and then endorse them?
  • Endorse the honesty of the Psalm but reject the attitudes expressed in it?
  • Treat the Psalm as an example of what not to think or say?

Here’s my take on this particular Psalm.

“Search me”

Psalm 139 is a little different from most other imprecatory Psalms (the “imprecatory Psalms” are those in which the Psalmist calls down curses upon his enemies). First, the first 18 verses have a gentle tone that is in sharp contradiction to the hatred that follows. Second, just after saying he hates God’s enemies, David continues by saying:

Search me, O God, and know my heart;
Try me and know my anxious thoughts;

And see if there be any hurtful way in me,
And lead me in the everlasting way.

It’s as if he himself is doubting whether his hatred is really such a wonderful thing after all.

Sorting out our emotions in God’s presence

I don’t think verse 19,

O that You would slay the wicked, O God;
Depart from me, therefore, men of bloodshed,

should be read as some sort of doctrinal claim or as the logical conclusion of what came before. Rather, it’s a sudden outburst of emotion.

In fact, I think the whole section from 19-24 is about the emotion of hatred, not about a commitment to hate. What if the emotion of hatred is not always a sin? After all, feeling sadness or anger or fear is not by itself always a sin – what matters is what we do with those emotions. I suggest that the same thing is true here.

Suppose we read the Psalm this way: when David begins the Psalm, he comes to God distressed by feelings of hatred and anger. He needs to bring these emotions to God and process them him in His presence. What we see in Psalm 139 is how being in God’s presence transforms David’s emotional state into something that is pleasing to God.

Read this way, the Psalm falls into four sections. In verses 1-18, David first spends time getting his heart right before God. In verse 19 David finally bursts out with the pain that’s been in his heart, that’s been driving the entire Psalm. In verses 20-22 he reframes and reinterprets the emotion he feels in a more God-centered way. If he is going to hate, he wants to at least hate God’s enemies, not his own enemies. Finally, in verses 23-24 he surrenders his anger altogether, allowing God to change whatever needs to be changed in him.

There are three essential aspects in this process: admit the emotion, reframe it, and surrender it.

1. Admit the emotion

I just watched Inside Out over the weekend. In the movie (spoiler alert!), an 11 year-old girl named Riley moves across the country and finds herself miserable. Unfortunately, she feels like she has an obligation to be happy. Things get worse and worse. In anger and grief she can’t admit, she withdraws from her friends, her family, and, in a way, from herself. Eventually she shuts down her emotions completely.

At the cathartic moment of the film, she helplessly starts to cry. Her parents respond with understanding and sympathy. The message of the whole movie is that if we are to be emotionally healthy we have to accept sadness, and all our natural emotions, as essential parts of who we are. Repressing them is only bad for us in the long run.

In a similar way, I think part of the lesson of Psalm 139 is that we need to honestly express our emotions to God, even the negative ones.

Feeling our way through the Psalms

I’ve mused a lot about how to interpret the Psalms. I’ve come to think that they aren’t written so much to teach us what to believe as to shape our emotions. If that’s the case, then I should expect that there will be times when I feel the same as David did in Psalm 139, and this Psalm is supposed to mold my emotional responses much as it did David’s.

It’s not that I am obligated to feel anger or hatred, but that I inevitably will. When I do, I need to take those emotions to God. This Psalm is written to help me do that.

I said earlier that one response to imprecatory Psalms was to endorse the honesty of the Psalm but reject the attitudes expressed in it. My own view is that we should indeed endorse the honesty of the Psalm and follow David’s example when we feel the same emotions.

2. Reframe the emotion

Emotional expression can be unhealthy for us. Self-pity is a trap.  Exploding in anger is usually destructive to us and those around us. Resentful feelings very quickly turn into resentful attitudes. We want to process negative emotions, not necessarily vent them or wallow in them.

David didn’t just self-indulgently express his hatred; he sought to understand it in light of the truth of God. This involved a before and an after phase.

Preparing beforehand

Before David ever said anything about his anger, he spent 18 verses focusing on the goodness of God. After he had spent time meditating on God’s presence, protection, and intimate love, David was finally at the place where he could bring up his anger from a God-centered perspective.

When David bursts out:

O that You would slay the wicked, O God;
Depart from me, therefore, men of bloodshed,

we can see why the previous verses were important. He was surrounded by and threatened by violent men. He was probably afraid, perhaps unappreciated, definitely in emotional turmoil. But he was able to respond to the situation in a somewhat balanced way because he had spent time remembering that God was there with him, and had lovingly designed his future.

Reorienting our emotions afterwards

After David told God how he was feeling, he went on to say this:

For they speak against You wickedly,
And Your enemies take Your name in vain.

Do I not hate those who hate You, O LORD?
And do I not loathe those who rise up against You?

I hate them with the utmost hatred;
They have become my enemies.

I think what we are seeing here is David attempting to understand his anger in terms of God’s glory and agenda. It is as though he says, “Well, God, if I’m going to be angry about this, let me at least be angry on your behalf, not on my own. Let me hate your enemies rather than mine.”

I believe that every negative emotion can be either self-centered or God-centered. Reorienting something so that it is God-centered makes all the difference. Selfish fear paralyzes me, but fear of God frees me to act boldly. Selfish sorrow fills me with self-pity, but godly sorrow nurtures a richer sympathy for others. Selfish anger blinds me and leads me to attack people. Godly anger rouses me to courageously fight spiritual battles.

In this case, David shows us what God-centered hatred should look like – it focuses on whatever stands in the way of the honor and glory of God. That’s very different from verse 19 – it’s very different from hating those that attack my honor or threaten my safety. Compare John 2:13-17 and Psalm 69:9.

When I feel strong negative emotions, I want to learn to do what David did: prepare my heart first by meditating on God and his character, and then reinterpret the feelings in order to put God at the center of them.

3. Surrender the emotion

Just saying, “I am angry on God’s behalf” doesn’t mean my anger is godly. Some of the worst atrocities in history were committed by people who were acting on God’s behalf. It’s not enough for me to change my theory about my feelings to a God-centered one. I need to surrender my heart.

Once I’ve recast my negative emotions in terms of God’s agenda, if I am listening to the Holy Spirit, I’ll usually become aware of anything in me that isn’t quite right. I’ll become uneasy about the degree to which the flesh is involved. My rationalizations won’t be as convincing as they were. Whether or not I have qualms about my feelings, I need to move on to do what David did. I need to ask:

Search me, O God, and know my heart;
Try me and know my anxious thoughts;

And see if there be any hurtful way in me,
And lead me in the everlasting way.

In fact, the Psalm started with a similar prayer:

O LORD, You have searched me and known me.

You know when I sit down and when I rise up;
You understand my thought from afar.

You scrutinize my path and my lying down,
And are intimately acquainted with all my ways.

David knew from the beginning of the Psalm where this was headed – he wanted God to sort out his feelings and show him what to repent of.

Surrendering the emotion doesn’t mean that we stop feeling it. (The emotion might even be one God is inviting us to feel.) What it does mean, though, is that we surrender to God the right to feel it. We ask God to change our hearts. Anger, hatred, and similar emotions are tremendously self-justifying. Surrendering them to God means letting him strip us of our illusions about what we are feeling.


Some of what I wrote above was first suggested to me by our church’s worship pastor. Thanks, Aaron! I appreciate your insight!

Do any of the rest of you have thoughts you want to pass on? Please comment below. I look forward to seeing what people have to say.

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Lust and adultery in one’s heart (Matthew 5:28)

I am dismayed to see that NASB has changed their translation of Matthew 5:28. I’m pretty sure it used to say that everyone who looks at a woman to lust for her has already committed adultery with her in his heart. It now says “everyone who looks at a woman with lust for her”. That’s very different. The second makes it sound as though if we look at a woman and lust spontaneously arises, that is adultery in the heart. The first implies that it is looking at a woman in order to lust – for the purpose of lust – that is adulterous. That is the real meaning, in my opinion. I like ESV’s translation: “everyone who looks at a woman with lustful intent has already committed adultery with her in his heart”.

I have three reasons for thinking the intent-based meaning is the correct one. First, the Greek preposition is closer to “to” than to “with” (I think?). Second, the phrase “has already committed adultery in his heart” points to the sin having happened before he looked. Third, this interpretation makes sense of the distinction between temptation and sin, without surrendering the important idea that attitudes and intentions can be sinful even without our acting on them.

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Counter culture week 3

In Counter Culture week 1, I liked the details in David Platt’s teaching, but felt that the overall tone and direction was off. In Counter Culture week 2, I liked the overall tone and direction of his teaching, but felt some of the details were wrong. In week 3, I agreed with almost everything. The overall subject of the week was the value of human life. The two subtopics were abortion and sexual exploitation. In covering the topic of sexual exploitation he spent the most time talking about sex slavery, but then segued briefly to pornography, urging us to consider the two as connected and to repent of any involvement with pornography in our own lives. In the study guide, the final day focused on the complete forgiveness we have in Christ.

He asked us to put together a statement of how we see the gospel as being connected to abortion and to sexual exploitation. My answers are here: the gospel and abortion, the gospel and sexual exploitation.

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