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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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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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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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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Evaluation of counter culture week 2

I liked this week. I’m finding right now that I don’t want to be critical at all, but since I’m supposed to be evaluating honestly, I suppose I’d better at least mention the concerns I had. Afterwards I’ll move on to what I learned from the week.


In the first week, I thought that the author was mostly accurate, but the basic message was disappointingly business-as-usual for me. In the second week, it was the opposite. He has a strong message here that I loved hearing, but he seems to be one-sided in presenting it. He is accurate when it comes to expositing individual Scripture passages, but I’m not sure he’s worked out how they are to be balanced with other Scriptures that point in the opposite direction.

That’s OK; I can balance things myself. What I need is to hear someone make a strong case for things I may not have sufficiently considered. That’s what this week did.

The other thing I disagreed with this week was that the study guide was pushy about how to apply the Biblical principles involved. It kept giving very specific steps we might take to show our love for the poor and then asking us to commit to doing it, right here!, right now! I found myself answering No a lot. No, I don’t think that’s wrong. No, I don’t think that’s important. No, I’m not going to be doing that. We all need to obey the Scriptures, but the Holy Spirit may lead us to do so in very different ways.

By the way, as a young Christian I heard a similar message from Think of your Future by William MacDonald, and I seem to recall that it also suffered from being a little too pushy and a little out of balance. Nonetheless it’s something I’m glad I read and took to heart as a young college student. I recommend it if you want to read another strong call to abandon possessions and live for the kingdom alone.

What I learned

The primary message of the week was to encourage us to be aware of the danger of the desire for material possessions, and to be willing to live more simply and give more generously to the poor. It encouraged me to do a lot of thinking about poverty and wealth in Scripture, and it’s been fruitful. Additionally, our pastor preached a moving couple of sermons on Sunday about truly feeling compassion for people around us. The Holy Spirit’s been using both of those things together to give me slightly clearer direction on how I should focus my life and ministry this year. I’m still letting it simmer for now, though, so I don’t think I can get any more specific than that.

Anyway, one of the last questions in the study guide for this week said this: “How does the gospel shape what you believe about wealth and poverty? Write a simple statement of your views on material possessions.”

I suspect that by “simple” they meant a sentence or two, but I took the prompt as an opportunity to systematize everything I’ve been thinking about from this week, inspired and guided by Platt’s teachings among other things. I’m putting it in a separate post so I can link to it by itself later if I want to. Here it is.

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Wealth, poverty, and the gospel

[The Counter Culture Bible study I was in prompted me to work out my position on the relationship between wealth, poverty, and the gospel. Here it is.]

In a perfect world, God would provide everything anyone needed. Some of that would come through hard work on their part which would, however, be a joy for them. Some would also come through people giving to each other, which would also be done joyfully (no one would have to worry that they were being taken advantage of).

In a fallen world, people suffer a lack of provision due to factors that fall into roughly three different categories. First, we sometimes suffer because of the direct consequences of our own sin. Either the sin has natural and direct consequences financially (e.g., being lazy or spendthrift), or God uses financial deprivation to get our attention so that we will repent of some more general sin. Second, other people’s sin: The world around us is filled with people who compete for resources, cheat people out of things, coerce them based on their need, corrupt justice for the sake of the rich while marginalizing the poor, and refuse to give people what they need. Third, circumstances brought on by nature itself (e.g., drought) or as an indirect consequence of sin (e.g., wars) keep people poor and downtrodden.

When Israel began, God did two things to alleviate poverty. First, he gave them a system of laws that were a good guide to implementing a financially just society. Second, he promised to bless them with material prosperity as a nation if they obeyed. In the early OT Scriptures, then, poverty was painted as a judgment of God and wealth as a sign of his favor.  This was corporate, though; individual godly men and women still suffered from national judgments.

Later, as Israel’s dreams fell apart – as she fell into spiritual decline, and found herself militarily weak or even conquered – the focus of the Scriptures shifted to living in a hostile world. In the “literature of poverty” we get a picture of godly people who are nonetheless poor, while the wicked are rich. This image of being sufferers among powerful and ruthless oppressors became one of the primary ways to think about living a godly life.

At the same time, there were lots of prophecies about the coming kingdom when everything would be different. In that day, God’s blessings would be restored, and the poor and downtrodden would finally experience the prosperity and freedom that they currently lacked.

In the early part of Jesus’ ministry, he proclaimed the coming of the kingdom as good news for the poor and downtrodden — the time was just about here when they would finally be rewarded for their patient, long-suffering faith. However, as the gospels progressed, the emphasis shifted to the spiritual poverty we all have, and our desperate need for forgiveness, which Jesus offers.

In the epistles, the church continued to be seen as the suffering poor in a hostile world, and it continued to announce with joy the coming of the kingdom on earth. At the same time, there was a new emphasis: that as followers of Christ indwelt by the Holy Spirit, we are already incredibly rich in spiritual blessings. The gospel was an invitation not only to hope in the return of Christ in the future but to participate in the inward wealth of his grace today.

The church sought to follow in Jesus’ footsteps by suffering poverty and persecution in solidarity with Jesus himself, by sacrificing to help each other in loyal brotherly love, by generously giving their time and material possessions as an expression of their great joy in the spiritual riches they’d been given, and by proclaiming all these things as signs of the gospel of Jesus and the kingdom.

As Christians, I believe our view of material possessions should be similar. We should realize that

  • God’s ultimate ideal is prosperity and peace and freedom for all.
  • In our fallen world, that is thwarted by individual sin, by interpersonal sin, and by circumstances. (This applies to capitalism and socialism alike – indeed, to every economic system.)
  • Jesus is coming back soon to right wrongs and restore things to God’s ideal.

As we present the gospel or serve the poor, we should:

  • proclaim with joy the kingdom that is coming
  • sacrifice willingly for our brothers and sisters in Christ
  • give generously and humbly wherever we can because we have been so richly blessed spiritually
  • accept suffering and persecution willingly because it lets us walk with Christ in his sufferings

This will lead to the unique combination of joy, suffering, and generosity that was exemplified by the Macedonian church in 2 Corinthians 8:1-5, of whom it is said that “their abundance of joy and their deep poverty overflowed in the wealth of their liberality.”

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Caring for the poor (Counter Culture week 2)

As more food for thought about caring for the poor, I present these snippets from a book review I wrote for myself about 15 years ago.

The book is Remembering the Poor by Dieter Georgi. Most of it was spent in working out the chronology of the collections for the Jerusalem believers described in passages like Acts 11:27-30 and 2 Corinthians 8-9. From what I can recall, I strongly disagreed with its basic standpoint on the inspiration of Scripture: It discounted the Acts chronology because it assumed that Acts was primarily propaganda written by Luke hide the truth of the division between Paul and the Jerusalem church. The book had some interesting reflections on the poor, though, especially in the afterword. After I had finished reading it, I wrote the following summary.

1. Community

Just as Man and Woman in Christ [a book I definitely do recommend] encourages us to create a space within church life in which we can obey the instructions for men’s and women’s roles, so we need to create a space within the church in which we can model a Christian economic structure. The point is not just that we need to use Christian principles in our financial dealings in the world, but that in the church itself we can model things which would not be prudent in the world. We can live out a sort of utopian system (in a way) which shows how things may one day be when Christ comes back.  We can do things that ordinary capitalism and communism can’t afford to do, because they are based on the assumption of a world of sinners, and the church on the other hand can assume the presence of a great many truly redeemed people.

We need to build a “world within a world”, a system within the world’s economic system.  We need a way to be able to live prudently within the system around us, being wise enough not to be taken advantage of, while still discovering a whole new economic system within the family

2. Poverty before God.

This point is mainly theoretical, but critical nonetheless. We need to become saturated with the truth that we are impoverished before God spiritually, intellectually, and in every way.  We live every day only by the grace of God. All our riches are illusory, in a very real sense.  When we begin to realize this truth fully, it will affect every aspect of our financial value system.  For instance, we will no longer get our security or our identity from riches

3. A voluntary base

We must trust the Spirit to lead people within the church to do as they should with their money, rather than coercing them in any way.  The world’s systems can’t do this – they have to rely on force and law to get people to do right with their wealth.  But we need to replace almost every worldly system with one that is trust-based — taxes with voluntary tithes, welfare from the government (tax-based) with voluntary giving, and so on. Even interest and credit and banks and insurance all look different when they are trust-based.

Both communism and capitalism have as primary principles that you must count on people acting in their own self-interest; this is based on the opposite principle.

4. Valuing giving more than having

We must reverse our value system so that our joy in what we have comes from being able to give.  We need to really believe that it is more blessed to give than to receive – not just to think that it is our duty to give, but to see it as a gift from God.

Let me phrase that more strongly – we need to see that having the opportunity to meet someone else’s needs is a gift from God to us.

Again, this is something we need to work through until our entire value system has been revamped. In the context of a community of givers, we should be able to work this out so that people aren’t foolish or taken advantage of.

5. Honor the poor

We need to value the poor for several reasons.  The minor one is that the poor give us an opportunity to give. Another is that the poor through their gratitude to God (not a condescending thing) bring glory to Him.  Third, the poor are God’s way of reminding us of our imporverishedness before Him.  Fourth, the poor are examples of faith and patience to us. Etc.

The idea is to replace condescension or feeling condescended to with this set of ideas. We need to become convinced that the poor in the church are God’s gift to the rest of the church. We need to help the poor feel the same way about themselves.

This applies to other poverty besides financial poverty – those who are physically disabled, old and retired, etc.

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