Counter culture study, first night

I going to be participating in a Bible Study called Counter Culture, based on a book by David Platt. Here are my thoughts from the first evening, pretty much just as I had them.

  • I am cranky tonight, ready to argue with everyone. I don’t want to be that way. I want to be open to anything God shows me, and expectant and hopeful that he will show me something.
  • Part of the reason I am cranky is because I’m feeling out of place here. But the people at my table are a pleasant surprise. They seem interesting, intelligent, and willing to accept my brand of thinking-about-Christianity.
  • I am reading Ps 102:1-7 [Most of us at the table were there about 15 minutes early]. There is a lot here about despair and sadness. Someone at the table shakes her head at David’s despair, but I want to defend him. If this is inspired Scripture, it seems to me it is important for us to feel this way sometimes. In fact, “feeling” my way through this passage is granting me relief from my crankiness. Instead of feeling cranky, I now just feel sad, and as though I am bringing my sadness to God, and that seems to have been the problem all along. I wasn’t cranky, I was just sad (for no particular reason that I know of), and in denial about it. Now that I’ve owned it, God seems present in the middle of it, as in this Psalm. Actually, I guess there is much to be sad about – the counter-cultural mess we are in is heartbreaking, both in terms of what the world is doing to itself, and the attacks being made on the church, and the church’s somewhat self-destructive responses.
  • We’ve started. PJ is warning us about how much material there is available. Yay! –it looks like there is a lot of substance here. I hope. We watch a video advertising the series. I think I’ll like it. The members of the class make some thoughtful comments in response to the introductory stuff. Looks like this will be a good study.
  • The video / book, like the blurb, says that we are comfortable confronting poverty as Christians, but don’t know what to do with uncomfortable subjects like abortion. That seems backwards for Harvest Time. In our church, everyone knows what to say about abortion. It’s the subjects like poverty, the ones that seem to be politically liberal, that make people uncomfortable. Except poverty in third-world countries. We’re comfortable helping out with that – probably because it seems different than welfare.
  • PJ mentions the importance of focusing on relationships instead of rights. I am not sure where that should lead. Focusing on the rights of others is important. Proverbs 31:8-9. Of course, our relationship with God is far more important, but that’s not because of the priority of relationships, but because of the priority of God. Yet perhaps the priority of love means relationships trump rights. (What I mean, to be clear, is that focusing in a Biblical way on rights is a relational thing, or should be. It is how we ought to relate to the oppressed in love.)
  • There is an interesting section about the relative unimportance of changing people’s behavior vs. affecting eternity. The point is that the gospel is the most important need people have, far more than our changing how they behave. I agree, but I have a few comments. [This is my most important point.] This has things wrong. First, we focus not on eternity away from the world, but on the return of Jesus to this world. That is what we are supposed to be looking for. So it is here, not there, that will matter for us. Second, we are people who are waiting for him to return. No lasting change can happen without that. So it is very true that changing things now is not the most important thing. Third, we don’t work for cultural change in order to accomplish something that only the return of Jesus can accomplish, anyway. Rather, we do it as a demonstration / sign of the work of God, to point people to the coming King. It functions equivalently to the healing / miracles and compassion that Jesus demonstrated while on earth. There is no point is seeing God heal if you aren’t going to be drawn to salvation by it (Mark 2:9-11). There is no point in having a demon cast out only to have seven more return because you didn’t respond in the meantime to what it signified (Matthew 12:43-45). They are signs pointing people to the return of Jesus. Fourth, we can’t do that inauthentically. We can’t show compassion and change culture with the sole motive of being an advertisement for Jesus. What we have to do is to become the sort of people who automatically function as healers of the culture, regardless of whether it makes strategic sense. We are to be faithful and authentic, and leave the fruitfulness to God. Fifth, we know how this works already in one area – marriage counseling. Are we interested in helping people have better marriages? We should be interested in making the culture better to pretty much the same extent.
  • Colossians 4:5-6. I’ve always misunderstood this verse. I thought (because of the way the NASB translated it) that it meant that we salt our speech with grace. But the salt is the confrontational/truth part, and is there along with the grace.
  • We talked about confronting the world in an unloving manner. PJ makes the very good point that just because we have truth on our side, it doesn’t justify our saying it badly. However, we have to consider the Jesus-cleansing-the-temple example and the Isaiah-mocking-the-idolaters example. I don’t know how to blend those (John 2:13-17, Isaiah 44:9-20). The point is, that sometimes things that look unloving are actually loving. I’m pretty sure I agree about some of the unloving examples being unloving, but I’m not sure I can justify in light of these passages that they actually are. [The same issue arose several times the next day in facebook articles: when is it inappropriate to be harsh? When is it inappropriate to be critical of those who are being harsh?]
  • I suspect the apples-of-gold verse is relevant, and the don’t-speak/do-speak to a fool verse (Proverbs 25:11, 26:4-5).
  • 1 Corinthians 5:9-13. We don’t judge the world. Yet we do tell them they are wrong. What is the difference? In context, it must be whether we levy consequences on people for wrong behavior.
  • How does the question of our role in government and democracy apply? Wilson (,,, for example).
  • Persecution vs. being ignored. First, sometimes we are ignored. That leads us to want to be noticed. That leads us, sometimes, to be obnoxious, or at least shocking. Second, persecution is coming, and, I believe, is already here. Many Christians are annoyed that we call ourselves persecuted. I disagree, because part of persecution is being slandered, and we are. I don’t think we should agree with the slander to avoid being defensive and proud, because that throws our fellow believers under the bus. Yet the Confession chapter of Blue Like Jazz was wonderful. Why do I agree with one and not the other? Maybe it’s the pride inherent in one version and missing from Miller. Third, persecution is sometimes manifested in the attempt to marginalize Christians (Sam Harris for example).
  • Sometimes people react against us because of the conviction of the Holy Spirit, says Aaron. I agree. Then I thought: sometimes they react against us because they fear our hostility toward them. Then it occurred to me – if they are afraid of our hostility, then that will actually obscure the conviction of the Holy Spirit from them, so it’s important not to interpose is as an extra barrier. (It’s a very different thing, I suppose, to speak in a way that brings them face to face with God’s.)
  • As I mentioned in the class, if we are going to be all things to all men (1 Corinthians 9:19-23), we will sometimes not know whether we are going too far. Therefore, one evidence that we are in the right place as a church is that do not all agree on whether we are going too far. Therefore, also, we need those voices in the church that are worried about our going too far – they keep us safe. It’s just that we need to have the discussion, not shut it down. We need to decide it issue by issue. The naysayers should not attempt to forestall ever getting close to the boundary.
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A political quote from Cal Thomas

My brother David posted this quote on facebook.

“But followers of Jesus, whose kingdom is not of this world, should not think that having the “right” person in office will somehow restore righteousness to a fallen and sin-infested world. How can a fallen leader repair a fallen society? He (or she) can’t. Only God can do that through changed lives. And lives can be changed only by the transforming power of Jesus Christ. Indeed, it has always bee…n so. As revivals of the past have shown us, the social impact was astounding. So if believers want to see a culture improved (fewer abortions, less drunkenness, fewer divorces, and so on), let their objective be to lead more people to Christ. Those converts will then be “transformed by the renewing of their minds,” and societal transformation will follow. It’s bubble- up, not trickle-down. The problems we face come from our forgetting God and worshipping the golden calf of the Dow Jones Industrial Average. In material things and pleasure we trust, not God. That’s why He gives us over to the consequences of an unrestrained lower nature. Politics can’t redeem us from that.” Cal Thomas (Former VP of Communications for the Moral Majority in the 1980s)

He asked everyone to say what they thought about it. He plans on blogging about his own reaction tomorrow.

Here is my response.

I agree somewhat. But I think:
  • It makes it sound like we have no one converted right now. Sure, we should keep focusing on evangelism, and that should make an impact on society. But I think it’s a mistake to think that, because we are seeing society change for the worse, that therefore we haven’t been evangelizing enough. I’m sure we haven’t been, but I’m not sure this era is much worse than any other.

There are certainly times of revival when a bunch of evangelism happens and a bunch of conversions happen, but I think those are both more a product of the revival rather than a cause of it.

  • Although it is true that “These converts will be ‘transformed by the renewing of their minds’ and societal transformation will follow”, it does not happen very quickly on its own. Transformation at the level that affects society and politics is sometimes very slow.

We (the church) can speed it up by discipling one another more in the area of thinking politically and socially. That’s tricky, because we don’t even always know what we should be thinking about politics and society.

It’s certainly more complicated than giving people a scorecard for the candidates. We can’t think of discipleship in political areas as a means to an end — the end of winning politically — but as simply growing in our understanding of how Christianity affects everything.

  • If we are doing a good job of evangelizing, there will be as many liberal Democrats getting saved and growing as there will conservative Republicans. Therefore, the body of Christ will be frustratingly diverse when it comes to political convictions. In the long run, this will be a strength for us politically, as long as we are willing to work with it.
  • I very much agree that part of thinking Christianly is to realize that we do not belong to this world. We are citizens of another kingdom. Like Paul, we can use our earthly citizenship for the glory of God, but ultimately we do not belong here and our national identities are not our true identities.

Nonetheless, as Christians who anticipate Jesus’ return to earth to restore society, we should be foreshadowing his return by combatting wickedness and promoting goodness wherever we can.

  • Sometimes systems, cultures, and laws are set up so that they promote evil. We need to see that there can be a value in changing them.
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Reasons for belief

Since Kate linked to my blog today, I guess I’d better post something here!

I have big plans for the blog in the future, but I am not ready to launch them yet, so I’ve been dormant this semester. Let me just post something brief about something I’ve been mulling over lately.

When I got saved, one of the most important things about the whole experience was the nearly palpable presence of the Holy Spirit during the process. I didn’t hear any audible voice, but I sure felt as though God were carrying on a conversation with me in my head. I asked questions and seemed to hear answers. I asked for help with the fear that had so often prevented me from coming to Christ, and the Holy Spirit sent waves of spine-tingling, overwhelming peace to combat it. At a key moment, I suddenly switched from thinking of Jesus as “out there somewhere” for me to believe in or not, to thinking of Him as face to face with me, by means of the Holy Spirit. Suddenly I wasn’t listening to myself asking “Do I believe in Jesus?” I was listening to Jesus ask me directly, “Do you believe in Me?”

Without all this supernatural stuff, I probably wouldn’t have believed.

So, in a sense, the foundation of my belief in God is the personal experience I had of his supernatural communication with me at the key moment.

Later, I was taught that if I was going to persuade others to believe, I wasn’t supposed to rely on my subjective experience with God, but on various measurable, objective evidences and arguments for the existence of God. That made sense: I couldn’t really share my own experience with others, but I could point them to the reasons they should believe based on logic or nature.

At the same time, and somewhat in contradiction to the first idea, I was encouraged to use Scripture when I talked to unbelievers, because the Scripture alone would convict them of its truth. In other words, if I used Scripture, I had hope that God would bring to them the same kind of supernatural conviction of the truth of the gospel that I had experienced. That seems pretty Biblical to me. The New Testament, in particular, seems to trace people’s faith back to a foundational experience of hearing the spoken word of the gospel and realizing, by God’s grace, that it must be true. For those who heard the gospel and were moved to believe it, the word was self-authenticating.

Then I went through a 20-year drought in terms of the subjective experience of God. Recently, with that drought apparently over, I have been rediscovering my original sense of the supernatural presence of God, and remembering how much of my early faith was always based on that kind of thing.

But is it right that my faith should be based on my own experience? It seems like that puts me at the center of everything instead of God. Yet putting my faith in measurable evidences isn’t really better. I don’t believe in Christ because I am scientifically or logically convinced: my faith in science and logic just isn’t that strong. Putting objective human knowledge at the center of everything doesn’t seem any more Christ-centered than putting subjective human experience there.

Some apologists argue for a “presuppositional approach”. According to them, we start by simply acknowledging our presuppositions — belief in the Bible, for example, is the typical one. Then, we believe other things on that basis. That makes sense to me, but still leaves the question of how I came to be sure of the presuppositions to start with.

The most recent insight that I’ve had is the value of thinking of my experience of God at salvation as a sign pointing to the God behind it. In fact, I can think of every human experience, everything that I can come to know as a human, as a sign to the God who is bigger than my ability to know.

The point is this: if God reaches me through a subjective experience, and through that experience points me to Himself, then I can transfer my trust from the sign itself to what it points to. There is a difference between what led me to faith, chronologically, and that upon which I rest my faith, ultimately. I came to Christ through certain human experiences, but I chose to interpret those experiences as signs of a God standing behind them. Then I put my faith in that God, not in the signs by which I came to believe in Him. Others have come to Christ by means of objective evidences in nature or logical arguments about a first cause or the fine-tuning of the universe. Hopefully, they too have transferred their trust from these specific evidences to the God to whom the evidences pointed.

Is this saying anything new? Or am I just putting the words in a different order? Just finding a new way to talk about presuppositional apologetics? I think this is new, and important, but I’m not sure. It’s all pretty complicated stuff.

Anyway, I think part of my calling when I talk to other people, both believers and unbelievers, is to help them notice the signs of Himself that God has put in their own lives, and help them interpret them properly, so that they can see to whom the signs are pointing.

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A few more questions

I’m overwhelmed by real life at the moment and it’s getting in the way of blogging. I have about 10 things I’ve started to write, but none of them has quite come together. So instead, here is a list, without much polish, of the things I’ve been wondering about recently.

Failure and success

Every few days all semester something or other I’ve tried to accomplish has gone very wrong for me. Sometimes it was a class, or leading Cru (Campus Crusade) or teaching my Sunday School class. Regardless, I get very discouraged.

I was trained to respond to failure by trying to learn from it and figure out how to succeed next time. These days, the idea that keeps coming into my head instead is that perhaps failure is not always a bad thing. Perhaps God wants me to remember that it doesn’t all depend on me. Perhaps relying on him for success means being willing for things to go badly sometimes, so that I have to rely on him even more. It reminds me of 2 Corinthians 12:9-11. I’ve come to think that it is sometimes God’s will for me to fail.

All this depends on the definition of failure, of course. If I try my best, and things go wrong, maybe I shouldn’t call that failure. I’ve been thinking a lot about whether failure is sometimes the will of God for a Christian walking with Him. Did Jesus ever fail? There are a few verses that sound like God is interested in giving us success when we are doing things His way. (Proverbs 3:5-6 for example.)

Questions: Is it sometimes God’s will for us to fail? Did Jesus ever fail? What should “failure” mean in each case?

The supernatural realm

It’s been a weird semester for me in prayer. I seem to be unusually sensitive (for me) to the possibility of demonic activity around me. At times I’ve been led to pray very specifically against the demonic, and those experiences have led to big spiritual victories for me.

My experience is running a little bit ahead of my theology in this. I’ve been praying for things that I’m sure I don’t really understand. I imagine that things work in certain ways in the supernatural realm, and I have felt led to pray on that basis, while not being sure I completely believe what I am picturing.

Questions: How real is demonic activity, and how important is it that we think in those terms? What is spiritual warfare, really?


Speaking of which, one of the things I am increasingly struck by is the way God communicates to us within the framework of the way we interpret reality. In an important sense, it doesn’t matter whether I see things as they are or not. God doesn’t let my faulty worldview get in the way of His speaking to me.

One Christian sees demons everywhere. Another eschews mysticism and interprets everything in terms of what is objective, measurable, and verifiable. Still another thinks in terms of the pragmatic. What matters is what works. God will speak to all three, on their own terms, as long as they are open to the Holy Spirit’s voice in their lives.

I’m learning to say, “This is how I think reality works” and then expect God to speak to me within that framework. When God does show me something, I can take it seriously without having to commit to my own framework. I can be sure that God showed me what I needed to know given what I was able to accept without thinking I have it entirely correct.

Questions: Does this idea not work for any reason?

Confronting false doctrine

A few weeks ago I befriended someone on facebook who routinely posts provocative and aggressive attacks on false teachers. I expected I would disagree with what he said fairly frequently and with how he said it even more frequently. Surprisingly, I usually enjoy reading his comments. Part of me cheers when he puts a foolish viewpoint in its place.

For years, I’ve known that I don’t do confrontation well. Although I respect some of those who confront false teachers, I know that I am no good at it. I’ve wondered if I would need to learn to refute false doctrine more than I do.

At the same time, I really disagree with certain self-appointed doctrinal guardians. There are some Christian writers who delight in finding fault with everyone whose approach to the faith differs from theirs in the slightest particular. They spend all their time tearing down their brothers and sisters in the faith, and building themselves up in spiritual pride for being one of the few who hold pure doctrine. I believe that in doing so they are violating James 3 and will one day be judged for it.

So I’m fascinated to see my reaction to my facebook friend. His posts make me very tense. They’ve also got me thinking about the way that refuting false doctrine should look when someone does it from the right motives and with the right attitude. I think this is something I’ll have to learn more about.

Questions: What is the heart of a person called to refute false doctrine? What are the wrong ways to do it and the right ways to do it? What does God want me to have in my own life in this regard?


I’m very busy this semester, and I’m getting more and more emotionally, spiritually, and (especially) physically tired. At the same time, I’ve been studying the Sabbath for Sunday school, and trying to learn how to be at rest in the Lord in my daily walk with Him.

Questions: How do we find a rich and deep restfulness in Christ?

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The Sabbath

In Sunday School we’re starting a study of the Sabbath.

There are a lot of different views on the Sabbath. For example, there are people who believe that:

  • Christians are supposed to follow the Sabbath laws, and that Saturday is the Sabbath.
  • Christians are supposed to follow the Sabbath laws, but that the Christian Sabbath is on Sunday.
  • Christians are not under the Sabbath laws, but the Lord’s Day (Sunday) is the Christian parallel to the Sabbath, and we are supposed to honor the Lord’s Day.
  • Christians are not under the Sabbath laws, but we can learn from them that it is a useful practice to set aside one day a week for rest
  • Christians are not under the Sabbath laws, but Jesus is our Sabbath, in the sense that we rest from our works when we get saved.

Of course, many Christians believe some combination of these.

I believe that Jesus is our Sabbath rest, but I think that is true in a past, present, and future sense.

  • In the past: Jesus’ finished work on the cross is all we need to be saved. We enter His rest when we trust in Him alone for salvation.
  • In the future: The Sabbath points to the age to come, when Jesus returns to straighten out history and the universe. We look forward to that final rest.

What about in the present? That’s one of the things I hope to figure out during this study. How do we enter into the experience of Jesus as our Sabbath rest as we walk with God day by day? Is it by being unworried? By trusting in His strength? By abiding in Him? Yes, yes, and yes, probably. But I think there is more to be said. I’m hoping that as we look at these verses over the next few weeks, our class will learn to go deeper into what it means to find our rest in God.

(Check out my wife’s blog this week on this topic, too.)

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Book review: Spiritual Warfare

(I’m writing reviews of each of the 30 or so books I finish reading this semester.)

Review of: Spiritual Warfare, by Karl Payne

Finished in mid-August, 2013

Disclaimer: I believe in demons and demon-possession and all that stuff. If you don’t, then this review will make me sound like a loon to you. 🙂

Karl Payne is a non-charismatic Baptist who was led to what charismatics call a “deliverance ministry”, i.e., to praying over people to cast out demons.

In this book he has three aims: to present a balanced view of demonization, to admonish Christian leaders to be willing to take demonization seriously, and to teach what he does in a way that will be easily transferable to other Christian leaders.

He seems to me to be one of those people who doesn’t get every detail right but who communicates the total package clearly and accurately. I found it most helpful when he was explaining his transferable method of praying against demonization.

To get a balanced perspective, he focuses on there being three different sources of temptation – the world, the flesh, and the devil – and on the importance of our discerning which one we are dealing with, in order to respond to it appropriately. His point is that we should respond differently to the flesh than to the devil, for instance. When he counsels people, he assumes to start with that they are struggling with the world or the flesh, and only looks at demonic stuff when the first two approaches don’t work.

I agree with the general point, but I think he misunderstands the world and the flesh a little, mainly because he doesn’t recognize the degree to which all three are interwoven. For example, he interprets 1 John 2:15-17 as being about the world only, whereas I think it shows how the world can involve the flesh and the devil as well.

He argues that between demonic oppression, which most people take to mean regular day-to-day demonic activity that can happen to believers and unbelievers alike, and demonic possession, which most people take to mean control by evil spirits and cannot happen to believers, we need a third category, demonization, which can happen to believers but which involves demonic attack at a level far beyond the norm. He uses the analogy of a house with rooms. God owns the house, and we are landlords, but we can let demons become tenants. They never own us (“possess” us), but they “inhabit” us in a meaningful way.

I agree.

One of the most important points I found was his encouragement to us to pray Ps 35:1-10 and Ps 83 as “offensive prayers”, specifically with demons in mind. This turns out to be surprisingly helpful in my own life. (Actually he says Ps 35:1-8, I added the last two verses.)

When he describes what demonization looks like in our day, in our country, he gives a moving picture of people who hear a constant barrage of voices in their heads, accusing and condemning them, in the second person (page 102).

I loved the part of the book where he describes what he does when he prays over someone for their deliverance from demonization. He has step-by-step instructions that helped me understand exactly what the experience is like. One of the most interesting points was that he starts by establishing ground rules that forbid demons to make a scene, or to control the counselee’s tongue, mind, or body. He “talks to the demons” only by asking the counselee what thoughts are coming to mind.

Payne mentions a few other authors as being good sources for more information: Merrill Unger, Mark Bubeck, C. Fred Dickason, Ed Murphy, Neil T. Anderson, Charles Swindoll.

My brother David and I had an interesting conversation about whether this is real, and, since we are both willing to accept that it may well be, whether it is useful or important. David’s opinion based on his experience as a pastor and counselor is, not so much. I think there is a little more to this than that. About a week after reading the book I set aside an afternoon to pray through the question of demonization in my own life, and I believe the results in my life have been positive. More on the subject later, perhaps.

I give this book a pretty high rating — about 7. Useful and balanced. Not brilliant.

Would I re-read it? Probably not the whole thing, but I’ll keep it around as a reference and re-read the important chapters from time to time.

Would I recommend it? Sure, to people to whom it is relevant.

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How I Solved David’s Puzzle With No Money Down

My brother David held a giveaway for his 100th blog post. One was for the first person who could solve a puzzle he composed. I won! Afterwards he asked me to write the story of how I solved it.

Here’s the puzzle:

To win prize package number three you must send me the best set up for a punch line I provide. Ah but it’s trickier still. Not only do you have to come up with a set up which actually makes sense with the punch line, but you have to discover the punchline by solving the riddle/poem below. Then you have to send me your set up and the punchline …

Here’s your riddle/poem:
If this is five, and the word is tan
Find the first four and then
Find each word and find the first
Put them together and do your worst.

You have to use information from his blog to solve it.

Here’s my description of how I solved it.

Here’s a review of David’s book, The Hidden Life, which I recommend.

Here’s information about David’s Hidden Life conference. I’m hoping it will be held here sometime this fall.

Still to come: I’m trying to finish up some of the 30 or so books I’m in the middle of. I’ll probably post some mini-reviews of them as I finish them.

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Love is a noun

Well, it took my wife having me guest post on her blog to get me back to blogging. My post on the meaning of 1 John 4:7-21 can be found over there. My daughter, brother, and sister-in-law will also be guest posting there this week. Check it out!

In the meantime, I think this has inspired me to start writing again …

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Beauty in art

In my philosophy blog I just wrote a short post about my view of realism in literature.

Here is a lengthy excerpt:


[Another faculty member is] studying the way that Flaubert’s novel Madame Bovary changed everyone’s idea of what good literature should be.

As I understand it, before Flaubert, novels were expected to point to truths that were bigger than ordinary life. If characters in the story were good or bad people, the story was supposed to highlight that goodness or badness and celebrate or condemn it. It was supposed to present a noble picture of the great moral truths, to lift the reader above the humdrum view of things.

Madame Bovary had “bad people” in it but deliberately refrained from evaluating them in any way. It took a just-the-facts approach. Behind this realism is the idea that beauty in literature comes from truth. The story that needs to be told is the story of how things really are. Adding an artificial layer of moralizing to make it more beautiful only gets in the way of its real beauty.

… I think there is beauty in truth, but I think that storytelling differs from life in that there is a story-teller. Trying to pretend that we can tell a story that shows how things really are without a slant imposed by the author, is not possible, and is not itself really “truth”. I think truth means recognizing that the story is not only about how things are but about a particular way of interpreting them. “Moralizing” can be a good thing — a beautiful and even an especially truthful thing — if it faithfully reflects the author’s vision of how to interpret the events in the story. It goes wrong when it’s done badly or when the moral isn’t true to the author’s own vision of things. I think realism can be done very beautifully, slanting the story in its own special way. So it works well as a technique to tell a story, but not very well as a rule about what all artists should do.


I love to think about this stuff, but I don’t really know what I’m talking about! I’d love further discussion. In my math/computer programming neck of the woods we don’t talk about this stuff much 🙂

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Philippians 4:6-7

I’ve misunderstood these verses for years:

Be anxious for nothing, but in everything by prayer and supplication with thanksgiving let your requests be made known to God. And the peace of God, which surpasses all comprehension, will guard your hearts and your minds in Christ Jesus. — Philippians 4:6-7, NASB.

I used to parse this passage as a twofold condition followed by a promise. The condition has a negative part (be anxious for nothing) and a positive part (pray about everything), sort of like those “put off … put on” passages elsewhere in Scripture. Put off worry and put on a good prayer life. The promise is that the peace of God will guard our hearts and minds.

The problem with this interpretation is simply that, if the condition  is to stop worrying, then what is the peace of God guarding our hearts and minds from? We’ve already become free from worry by our own will power. As a result, I used to have this complicated scheme for distinguishing between anxiety, which we were responsible to set aside, and fear, against which God’s peace would guard us.

Now I think a more natural way to read it is to assume there is a command/invitation to live free from worry, followed by a two-fold explanation of how to do so. Our part is to bring everything to God in prayer. God’s part is to give us a peace beyond understanding. By our prayers and God’s peace we can live free from anxiety.

I’m pretty sure people have tried to tell me this before, and I just didn’t get it.


I was trying to figure out how I ever got started distinguishing between “be anxious for nothing” and “the peace of God will guard your hearts and minds” in the first place, and I remembered why. It was because, for several years, this verse didn’t really seem to work for me. I would feel anxious, pray through everything that was worrying me, and feel more worried than ever afterwards. Since the peace of God seemed clearly not to be guarding much, I figured I must be misinterpreting the verse, and cast about for another way to look at it.

So what was going on? Why did praying through the things that were worrying me not work?

One answer I considered early on was the two little words “with thanksgiving”. I think if we pray about all our worries but do so with a complaining heart, we can’t expect to be freed from anxiety. The “with thanksgiving” part of the verse is what ensures we are praying in genuine faith.

A second answer I considered was that perhaps I wasn’t being completely open about what I was really worried about. Often we hide our strongest fears from ourselves, and worry about everything else instead. Though we pray about what we say we are afraid of, we don’t honestly deal with the real worry. I think sometimes we don’t feel peace when we pray because we haven’t let God know our requests “in everything”; in particular, not in the thing that was truly weighing us down.

Third, I don’t mean to suggest that we can use these verses like a magic formula. It’s a little funny to speak of a verse “working” for us at all, as though we were just plugging a technique into our lives and expecting an answer to pop out. God is not a vending machine, obliged to dispense peace when we put in the coin of petition + thanksgiving. We can depend on God to keep His promises, but we cannot dictate to Him how and when He will do so. I don’t think it is dishonoring to God, though, to expect that Scriptural promises will find real fulfillment in our lives. I think trying to work out what was going on was a way of my trying to take what God said seriously.


I can’t speak for anyone else, but I think can explain now what was going on for me. The key, actually, is that I was trying too hard to bring my requests to God “in everything”.

Since in praying I was supposed to bring my requests to God, when I was worried I would work out what my requests were. I would ask, “What am I worried about? What could go wrong?” Then whatever I thought of I would pray about. Then I would ask again, “What else could go wrong?” and pray about that. The problem is, I have an almost infinite capacity to think of things that can go wrong, so after a few minutes of praying this way, I had a lot more to worry about than when I began.

No wonder I felt less peace after praying, rather than more! I’d spent all that time working up more and more reasons to be afraid!

It was even worse when my anxiety was not attached to anything specific. Some days I experience a strong sense of foreboding, a kind of generalized worry about everything. Now the question became “What could possibly go wrong today with anything?”, which, obviously, has a lot of potential answers! I would have said I was analyzing my anxiety and discovering its true causes, but probably I was just inventing as many things to worry about as possible.

It added to my anxiety that I held this vague belief that somehow I was responsible to break down for God all the things He would have to remember in answering my need. If I forgot to mention something that could go wrong, somehow I’d left myself open to it, as though God could only answer prayers for the specific things I analyzed.


I’m a lot better these days 🙂

The chief thing I’ve learned is to dig no deeper than I need to. I’ve learned to simply say, “I’m worried about such and such tomorrow. I’m not sure why, or what could go wrong, and I don’t want to even think about it right now but I hand the whole package over to you. Would you just cover for the things I’ve forgotten and walk through it with me? Would you just see what could go wrong and take care of it in advance?” Then I stop worrying about it and leave it in his hands.

At first this was hard. I felt so out of control.

It makes sense, though, out of the phrase in verse 7, “the peace of God which surpasses all comprehension“. When I try to carve out my own peace, it is based on comprehension. I try to analyze the situation enough that I feel I completely understand it, and with that understanding comes a sense of being able to manage it. The anxiety subsides, for a while. The peace of God is different. The point is that I don’t  try to understand all the ins and outs of the situation. I don’t have to understand what could go wrong and what to do about it all. I just leave it in God’s hands.

I still struggle with fear and worry, but Philippians 4:6-7 makes a lot more sense to me now.

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