It Starts on Sundays: Why Open Discussion on Mental Health in the Church Starts on the Stage on the Lord’s Day

I’m a pretty transparent person, somebody you’d describe as “wearing their heart on their sleeve.”

Anytime I’ve heard that phrase, I feel like it’s always said in this gray area as far as whether or not it’s a good thing. I think that’s how I would describe my transparency: sometimes good, sometimes bad.

Sometimes I get frustrated by that. Obviously, I wouldn’t want everyone to hear all of my thoughts, so “total transparency,” in the truest sense of the phrase, wouldn’t be something I’m clamoring for. But I think there’s positives in being more open about things, talking about more topics, even the hard ones, the taboo subjects.

Sexual assault and domestic violence. Drug use and weapons. Mental health.

I’ve written a lot about mental health over the years because it’s been a constant part of my life, and I really believe that God’s educated me in it to share with others. But when we look at the numbers, it appears that a sizable chunk of the Christian church doesn’t feel likewise.

Feeling Left Out

In 2014, LifeWay Research conducted a survey of Protestant pastors, individuals diagnosed with acute mental illnesses (depression, bipolar disorder, schizophrenia) and family members of those with acute mental illnesses. If you’ve ever been in a normal evangelical church with a mental health disorder, you probably won’t be surprised in the results.

A sample of the results:

  • 56 percent of pastors interviewed “strongly agree(d) that local churches have a responsibility to provide resources and support to individuals with mental illness and their families.”
  • 49 percent of pastors rarely or never spoke to their church in sermons or large group messages about acute mental illnesses. 
  • 28 percent of African-American pastors said they spoke about it once a month or more, while just 4 percent of white pastors said they did.
  • 22 percent of pastors said they’re “reluctant to get involved with those with acute mental illness because previous experiences strained time and resources.”
  • 53 percent of individuals with acute mental illness described their church as “supportive.”
  • 36 percent of evangelical pastors were less likely to select “Medications should be used any time they can ease symptoms” than mainline pastors (50 percent).

The study is a fascinating exploration of perspectives on mental health and the church. It was done five years ago, so there’s no telling how things have changed. The survey happened in 2014, the year I began to understand the complexities of my mental health. So these statistics make sense to me.

The LifeWay Research team also gathered a group of mental health experts for the study. They didn’t participate in the surveys, but gave their thoughts on various topics. 

Among the findings:

  • “People with mental illness or their families deal with a large amount of shame and social stigma around the illnesses.”
  • “Pastors’ reactions to people struggling with mental illness are varied.”
  • “Pastors are most likely to change their view on mental illness once they are personally impacted by it.”
  • “Before sharing their illness with others, it is important for the individual to feel they are in a safe church or group.”

Through this study — which is one example, yes, but from a reputable source — we see that the church isn’t talking that much about mental health, but some are, and the majority of people with mental health disorders are finding their churches supportive. I’m happy to see the positive results, but there’s something missing.

Talking about mental health openly and lovingly in Christian community is vital. I can back this up with my personal experience. When I first felt symptoms of my depression and anxiety, I didn’t know how to speak about it for two reasons: I couldn’t really explain it to myself, and I didn’t know how to explain it to somebody else. Even my best friends in college, those I loved and trusted with a lot of other things, didn’t seem to me to be ready to handle it. I don’t blame them, by the way, and don’t hold any grudges or frustration with them.. 

That left me dealing with it on my own. Anyone who deals with any major illness on their own can tell you it doesn’t go well. Isolation often makes mental illness worse, as being lonely can just breed depression or anxiety, and not treating things like bipolar disorder and schizophrenia can have disastrous, even fatal consequences through suicide and accidents. Search “people with schizophrenia shot” and you’ll see that many individuals have been killed by police who didn’t know what to do — again, not blaming them entirely — with someone having an episode and brandishing a weapon.

That leads to many having the shame that prevents and (most times) the inability to accurately describe what’s happening to well-meaning people who don’t have the time or resources to fully understand what’s going on. It leaves us stuck and hurt, unsure of what to do next, even in the church. I’d add a “just” qualified to the 53 percent of those surveyed with acute mental illnesses said they felt supported in their church. Just 53 percent.

Why isn’t that 100 percent? A couple of reasons, I think. First, some of us struggle to feel supported no matter what happens. Mental health disorders alter the way you think and properly evaluate circumstances, leading to the 33 percent in the survey that said they didn’t know how they felt about it. Secondly, a lack of open conversation, as evidenced by the just 49 percent of pastors that rarely or never spoke about mental health in a large setting, can keep people in the dark.

This has to change.

Starting on Sunday

When I was younger, my family would go to church on Sunday. When we left, usually to go to lunch somewhere, my parents would ask me and my siblings what we learned. I honestly can’t remember if I learned anything from sermons until I was in double-digit ages, but it was a common experience for me and many of my peers.

How often do you see your Facebook friends who are Christians and active members of a church go to their social media feeds and write about how great the sermon was? There’s a church in my hometown that encourages its members to share the “social media moment” of the message each Sunday, often during the service. What’s shared on Sunday morning, or whenever you attend your church’s large gathering, becomes the church’s calling card. What the pastor says on Sunday mornings is vital to a church’s public image and often reveals what he or she, as well as the congregation, values.

Much too often, as the LifeWay study showed, mental health is not one of those things. 

According to the National Alliance on Mental Illness, 1 in 5 U.S. adults experience a mental illness each year, and 1 in 25 experience a serious mental illness that “substantially interferes with or limits one or more major life activities.” That means that out of a church of 200 adults, it’s likely that 40 are dealing with some sort of mental health issue, and for eight of them, it substantially interferes with their life, including church. 

When it comes to the marginalized in society, the ones Jesus showed His love for and commanded His disciples to do the same, the numbers are higher. An estimated 46 percent of homeless adults staying in shelters live with severe mental illness and/or substance use disorders. Approximately 20 percent of state prisoners and 21 percent of local jail prisoners have “a recent history” of a mental health condition. Astonishingly, 70 percent of youth in juvenile justice systems have at least one mental health condition, and at least 20 percent live with a serious mental illness.

Despite these numbers, NAMI says, just 41 percent of adults in the U.S. with a mental health condition received mental health services in the previous year.

It’s my very firm belief, something I’ll likely go to the grave with, that changing this situation, both in the U.S. and in the church, starts by speaking about it on the biggest stage possible. In the church, that’s Sunday morning.

Speaking as someone who has multiple mental health disorders, I can tell you that the pastor who addresses depression, anxiety and more becomes a representation of Christ more strongly to me and to many than the one who preaches verse-by-verse through the Bible. Doing both — which is possible, I’ll show you how later — is even better.

I think it’s a symptom, an unintended consequence, of the evangelical church’s preaching pattern. Seeking to avoid “picking and choosing” Bible verse to support one’s own opinion, pastors will pick a book of the Bible and go verse-by-verse. I think that can be good, especially through epistles like Romans that perfectly explain the basis of Christian theology, or narratives like 1 and 2 Samuel that tell the story of God’s first people, the nation of Israel, and how they did some things right and screwed some other things up. 

But since the Bible is an ancient book, and we get too scared (sometimes rightly) of reading something into the text that isn’t there, we don’t talk about the modern problems to which the principles of Scripture speak. Far too often, at least in my experience, pastors avoid the difficulties of handling social media, properly engaging the popular culture of the day and dissecting how mental health problems can be answered — not fixed, but answered — with the love of God. 

This can be fixed. It’s not hard, really. And it doesn’t even have to be a sermon.

A Panel Solution

A couple weeks after a regular attendee at my old church committed suicide, I was talking to a fellow member and friend of mine who also struggled with mental health issues. We lamented the fact that the church at large seems so under-prepared to handle things like suicidal thoughts and people feel relegated to suffering in silence.

I had an idea. Why not have a Sunday service dedicated to mental health? Make everything revolve around the idea of making mental illnesses meet Jesus. 

A few months later, it was set. I created a video mashing a performance of the song “1-800-273-8255,” named after the National Suicide Prevention Line, with comments on mental health struggles from celebrities and news clips of prominent people who had committed suicide. The argument was this: “The world outside the church is already dealing head-on with mental health disorders, in a very real and in-your-face way. People like Kristen Bell and The Rock are talking openly about this. Why aren’t we?”

My pastor at the time, who had been open about his mental health struggles in the past, opened the service explaining what was going to happen. We had a testimony from a woman in the church who spoke about her experience. After a couple songs, we got to the best part: a panel discussion with several members from the church (including me) about mental health.

My friend and I represented having severe anxiety and depression. A full-time therapist who did counseling work with teens, adults and couples spoke from the angle of helping people with mental illness. Another church member talked about grief, and a mother and father of a child with ADHD spoke about their experience. It was surreal to me to be up on that stage with people, all Christians, and talk about how Jesus spoke to them in their struggles, what it meant to join mental health and faith.

It was a highly-attended service, and a week or so later, the mother of the person who killed themselves, wrote a letter to the editor of the town newspaper — where I was working at the time, funny enough — saying she was elated that the church was talking about these issues and providing a space for people to feel safe and comfortable with their struggles.

And it all happened on a Sunday morning.

I fought for the event to happen on a Sunday morning because, as I’ve argued already in this piece, change in churches often starts on Sundays. It starts when the pastor makes a stand or allows someone to speak about an issue that’s bubbling under the surface. Maybe it shouldn’t have to be that way in churches — I think it’s a result of the celebrity complex around pastors in the Christian world, something that’s been in place for centuries — but a full examination of that can be done another time.

A Grand Application

I wish I could say that churches around town heard about what we did and hosted their own panels or special Sundays, reaching everyone with the gospel of Jesus applied to mental illness: that God loves you no matter your mental state, that His mercy and grace is not stopped at the door of your chemically-imbalanced brain. Maybe they did happen and I just never heard about it; despite being a journalist, I’m often late to news, even within my own family. 

It would make my soul soar if churches around the country would have similar Sundays, but not every church is equipped for such a situation. Maybe they don’t have enough members willing to share openly about their struggles, and that’s fine. But, as I said before, I firmly believe that the path to killing stigma and fear around talking about mental health disorders in Christian churches starts on Sundays. So here’s a few options for getting there.

Preach a sermon about mental health. The Bible is chock full of passages where individuals’ mental health is God’s focus and the writer’s attention: Elijah in 1 Kings 19, David at multiple points throughout the Psalms, Job in his eponymous book. So even sticking to preaching the Bible verse-by-verse can be faithfully done while examining mental health and the Christian life.

Or you could take a more holistic approach to the topic. It could be on an educational focus, pointing to the number of people struggling with mental health issues in both the church and the world and point to Jesus’ focus on people’s health as part of his earthly ministry. It could be from a theological perspective, focusing on how God’s love for His children is not conditioned on their mental health or ability to comprehend things like “normal” people. It could be from a counseling perspective, pointing to the resources available to those who struggle with mental health and praising those involved for their follow-through in “loving the least of these,” as Jesus said in Matthew 25. 

Those with mental health issues often feel like “the least of these” in church. Starting on Sunday with a sermon is a great kick-off point.

Host a mental health expert. That LifeWay Research study from earlier provides more interesting insights into the church’s role in caring for those with mental illnesses. According to the responses, just 14 percent of pastors said they had a counselor on staff skilled in mental illness and 13 percent provided training for leaders to identify symptoms of mental illness. Individuals with acute mental illness strongly encouraged both — 53 percent said local churches should provide training for the church to understand mental illness and 42 percent encouraged having a counselor on staff skilled in mental illness.

Since the church is, according to this survey, inadequately addressing mental health with skilled education, it might be good for churches with fewer resources — like not having enough people, time and money — to host a mental health expert for a Sunday morning conversation or message about how church members can spot mental illness symptoms or offer explanations for how specific disorders affect the brain and emotional and mental state. It might cost some money — or there may already be a counselor or psychologist in your congregation — but it would be totally worth it.

Provide resources or a “people-to-call” list. This one is pretty easy. Most churches have a bulletin board or pamphlet rack where important information can be placed for people to peruse or pick up at their convenience. Sliding brochures from the local mental health clinic, business cards of the closest Christian counselor or a list of Bible verses to consider when dealing with a mental health crisis is a simple way to start addressing the issue. Depending on where you are, it might take a little time and research, but again, it would be totally worth it.

Host a Sunday school class with a book study. The LifeWay survey showed that 44 percent of individuals with acute mental illness surveyed said local churches should “offer topical seminars on depression or anxiety,” but just 19 percent of pastors said their churches do this. There are beginning to be more books and offerings for Christians struggling with mental health disorders or people who love them. Hit up Google or search Amazon for a highly-rated book or trusted author who’s explored this topic and let it guide a Sunday school class for a few weeks. That will give people a smaller group atmosphere to dissect the topics and discuss things in a more manageable group. Again, might cost some money, but totally worth it.

It Starts Internally

According to the LifeWay survey, 27 percent of pastors said they church had a plan for supporting families of the mentally ill.

We have plans for helping a new mother get a pasta on Thursdays and a casserole on Fridays. We have plans for helping a family move homes. We have a plan for making sure the church van key is passed around properly. We have a plan for paying the bills on time. The least we can do is make a plan for supporting those struggling with mental health.

But most importantly, you’ve got to talk about it, and it starts from within.

As already stated, the “world” has done an amazing job at breaking down the stigma around mental illness. Celebrities have been open about the times they’ve been hospitalized for extreme stress or suicidal thoughts, and whole songs and films explore the effects of severe mental illness. The least we can do is start talking about it.

Fifty-nine percent of individuals with acute mental illness said local churches should talk about mental health openly so the topic isn’t taboo, according to the LifeWay survey. That is where we should start. I really believe that, just like we talk about the Gospel, about baptism, about abortion, about feeding the poor, we should be talking about mental health.

Of individuals with acute mental illness, how people in their church responded to their mental health affected them — 8 percent stopped attending church altogether, 5 percent couldn’t find a church to attend and 10 percent changed churches. That means 23 percent of those with mental health disorders had their church attendance pattern — and with it their sense of community, commitment to a local body and ability to explore Jesus in a large group — alter, no doubt significantly in some cases.

We’ve got to do better. And it starts by talking.


(For)Getting All the Feels: Rethinking the Way We Follow Jesus

Perhaps the most important thing I’ve ever learned about following Christ is that you can’t base your relationship with Jesus on emotions. Just because it “feels like” it’s not going right doesn’t mean that it’s not. And vice versa.

But after going to church and being around the Christian culture for 23-plus years now, I’m left to ask this question: Why does it so often seem like we try to get people pumped up emotionally?

Let me explain what I mean.

The Emotional Church Experience

Ever been to a megachurch? You know, the ones with the lights and the full band and the backup singers and so on and so forth. I’ve visited a couple, and in that atmosphere, it’s so easy to get caught up in the emotional side of faith.

That one song comes on and you’re swept up in the butterflies of the piano chords, the melodic harmony of voices, the dimmed lights, the rising choruses. Perhaps it’s a song about how good God is, or maybe how His love is so great.

Or maybe the song is about us, that we’re children of God, and how awesome it is. The hands get raised. Tears start streaming down your face.

Then the preacher comes on. He utilizes the most powerful story of death to life, with all the appropriate pauses and voice-raises he can muster. The band comes on as he closes and those guitar strums as he hammers home his point.

Then one more worship song where you surrender your emotions to the Lord, let Him “lead you” while you sing with all your feels.

But during the week, the emotions get lost. Maybe you don’t listen to Christian radio for whatever reason. So by the time you get to Sunday, you’re emotionally-starved again. So it’s back to church, back to the worship, back to the tear-jerking stories.

Repeat. Repeat. Repeat.

Now, two caveats:

  1. I’ve visited a megachurch with the lights and the full band and have had genuine worship with genuine songs that weren’t about making me feel good. The pastor spoke about reality and was honest about himself and his own sin. It wasn’t fluff. It was real worship and real truth.
  2. The worship songs are often all true theologically. Completely accurate. But…

The Loss of the Intellect

I haven’t done a lot of serious research into church culture (I’d really like to someday), but I’ve done a lot of observing. I’ve thought a lot about why churches do what we do, and I’ve come up with a theory. This theory could be disproven by some serious research, but I’ll take a stab.

Humans are emotional creatures. Always have been. Adam and Eve were swayed by the emotional draw of being like God. David’s lustful feelings drove him to pursue Bathsheba. When Stephen’s being stoned to death in Acts 8, Paul “approved” of his execution; there had to be an emotional element to that.

And emotion is not all bad. Sometimes God uses our emotions to help us realize we need Him. Our sadness following a loss of a close friend or family member can lead us to remember that God has them now if they’re a believer, and rejoice in that. My great excitement and happiness on my wedding day pumped me up even more for the beauty of the ceremony and the marriage that I’m now two months into.

But what happens, unfortunately, is that we often shove aside the intellectual part of it and cling to the emotional side when it comes to being a Christian. That’s what happened to me.

When I was younger in the faith – late high school, early college – I really began to dive into the emotional side of following Christ. I would raise my hands during worship, close my eyes and sing, and sometimes I might shed a tear or two.

But when I wasn’t in worship mode, I was wondering where God was. I didn’t feel Him, so was He really there? I didn’t feel saved, so was I really God’s child? I saw my sin and felt like crap. I felt bad, so obviously God wasn’t with me and wasn’t happy with me.

Things started to take a turn during my senior year of college. I’ve written about this before, but I’ll write it again – a guy named Curtis Allen spoke at a college ministry conference I was attending and said the most important thing I’ve ever heard about following Jesus:

The secret to Christianity is not changing how you feel, the secret to Christianity and obedience is changing how you think.


I started to (slowly) recognize that I had been living my life with Christ based on how I felt I was doing and that was not at all what it meant to follow Jesus. Following Jesus is first and foremost an exercise of the mind, an exercise of faith in the truth. And faith is not emotional. Faith is something you think, something you believe with your mind.

The Reality

It’s not sexy to present faith in Christ as a mind exercise. It’s not something that, on the surface, will draw in thousands of people to a worship service.

We want to feel good. We want to feel that emotional high.

But like any other kind of high, it won’t last. So we have to go back. And churches love when people return again and again and again.

Church leaders and bloggers and authors wonder why my generation, the college-aged, is leaving the church. I’d wager one of the reasons is this – there’s no substance to their faith. It’s built on that emotional high that they got at camp one time or maybe that one night they had a serious conversation with their youth pastor. Perhaps we were genuine in that moment, but without any serious intellectual foundation or building upon that moment with truth, we lose the drive, the desire.

It’s in the moments when we lose the emotional side of following Jesus that our faith is really tested. And often it’s in those moments where we lose our faith.

If we’re going to follow Christ, it has to be first and foremost about what we think. Belief isn’t about emotions; it’s about truth. To my knowledge, the Bible never speaks about trying to “feel” a certain way, but to think a certain way. A few examples:

Finally, brothers, whatever is true, whatever is honorable, whatever is just, whatever is pure, whatever is lovely, whatever is commendable, if there is any excellence, if there is anything worthy of praise, think about these things. – Philippians 4:8

Let each of you look not only to his own interests, but also to the interests of others. Have this mind among yourselves, which is yours in Christ Jesus… – Philippians 2:4-5

For those who live according to the flesh set their minds on the things of the flesh, but those who live according to the Spirit set their minds on the things of the Spirit. For to set the mind on the flesh is death, but to set the mind on the Spirit is life and peace. For the mind that is set on the flesh is hostile to God, for it does not submit to God’s law; indeed, it cannot. Those who are in the flesh cannot please God. – Romans 8:5-8

So What Should We Do Instead?

I’m not an expert. Let’s just go ahead and get that out of the way. But I can’t help but think there need to be changes in how we present church and worship and truth.

I’m not saying we need to get rid of megachurches and that all are bad. As I said before, I’ve been to one where there was genuine worship, genuine preaching that wasn’t just intellectually true but stimulated a real approach to faith. I do believe there are some that are not helpful. And I think that you can go to churches that aren’t mega and find worship and preaching and teaching that stimulates an emotional response.

I also understand there’s another challenge: You can do everything you possibly can to make faith an intellectual thing in your church, but people will still respond primarily with their emotions.

I’m also sure there are plenty of preachers and churches that have the best intentions in the world that are doing this. They’re not trying to lead people into making their faith emotional, but for whatever reason that’s how it’s turned out.

We can’t change how people respond to what we do in church. But we can change what we do.

I wish there was a fix-all, but here’s a couple thoughts:

I wish that we’d be more careful in how we choose our worship songs. Maybe break out the old favorites every once in a while for some emotional worship time, but not lean on them.

Before we sing, explain to us what the lyrics mean. What truth are they presenting? What should we believe? What are we affirming when we sing?

I wish we’d rethink the way we preach, presenting more of the Bible and more of truth rather than concocting the best emotional plea. Prosperity gospel preachers somewhat make their living off of this idea. And some non-prosperity gospel preachers do too. Tell us how we should think, not what we should feel, and base it on the Bible.

That’s just a couple thoughts.

I really hope you don’t walk away from this emotionally-charged.

Sometimes I Hate the Church. And That’s Never Good.

We are a people of extremes. It’s very rare we find ourselves in the middle of something.

I think of the presidential candidates who try to work both sides of the aisle in Congress as one of the more startling examples of trying to be in the middle. It’s not going to work. At the end of the day, for the most part, we are opinionated people who love taking sides. And that’s not a bad thing necessarily.

As I’ve reflected on what I’ve written over the last couple months, I’ve noticed a pattern. I’m very critical of the Church. I’m very critical of people in the Church. I examined my heart.

Sometimes I hate the Church.

Sometimes I hate Christians.

And that’s never good.

As much as I write about giving grace and love to people on this blog, I very seldom do it to the Christians. Not just on this blog, but in my heart. And I’m sorry.

I won’t apologize for thinking critically about the Church or even being critical of the Church. There aren’t enough Christians who are willing to take a step back and look at ourselves, our people, and point out what we’re missing, how we’re failing at keeping the commands of Christ. I’ll keep doing that.

Initially, the reason for me doing that was wanting to see the Church change, was wanting to see us become a people who give the grace and love of Jesus not only to the world but to each other. I wanted to see us become more like Christ. And I think there’s part of me that still wants that.

But if I can be honest with you, there’s also part of me now that doesn’t want it to change. If it changes for the better, I would have less to write about and I don’t have as much of a platform to stand on anymore. Not that there’s a platform I stand on anyways – I have, on average, about maybe 15-20 visitors to this blog a day. That’s not much.

But this is a very vital part of my life. I pour out my heart on this blog. I’m sharing things I’m thinking through. What I write is very closely entwined with what I’m thinking. And I’m afraid that I’ve showed my hand on my strong dislike, sometimes hatred, for the body of Christ.

What is it that Jesus said to His disciples? “By this all people will know that you are my disciples, if you have love for one another” (John 13:35). If someone looked at my blog, would they be able to tell I am a Christian? I don’t know. I hope so. But I can’t say for sure. They might look at it and simply be like, “Well, that Zach guy, he sure is critical.”

Perhaps in my attempt to stop being so judgmental about the world I’ve become super judgmental of Christians. And that’s not honoring to God. That’s not honoring to Jesus. That’s not giving the grace that I would want for myself and that I know God desires for the world to receive, even though most reject it and miss out on eternity with Him because of that rejection.

So here’s to a change, hopefully. I’ll still be critical of the Church if I feel the need to. But hopefully I’ll grow in giving grace to my brothers and sisters in Christ. God gives grace to me. I hope I can reflect Him.

3 Reasons It’s Bad That Christians Idolize Virginity

I’ve come pretty close to having sex.

It’s not the easiest thing for me to type that. Instantly, my mind starts to freak out and worry and wonder, “What will these people reading me think? Is my credibility shot? Will people ever trust anything I say?”

To be honest, I kinda don’t care, but at the same time I do deeply care. See, there’s a respect in the church for people who haven’t sinned in “certain ways,” like they have this Christianity thing figured out, so we can listen to them. But if they’ve done certain things, we can’t listen to them, we can’t trust them.

One certain sin that might “disqualify” someone is having sex before marriage, or losing your virginity to someone other than your spouse. It’s like this threshold that, if you cross it, you’re made to feel like you’ve lost something so precious and so holy that you’re nearly beyond repair. Phrases like “you’re still a virgin in God’s eyes because He wiped away your sin” emphasize this kind of thought in a subtle, more gentler way.

But I think virginity is a terrible idol. A dreadful one. Virginity becomes the thing that Christian dating couples want to pursue more than anything else. And as long as you don’t have sex, you can deal with anything else.

I think we should look at it a little differently. Because while virginity might be the “ideal,” we take it from “ideal” to “idol” real quick. Three reasons why that’s bad:

1. Sexual sin is sexual sin, no matter how far you go.

Let’s compare two dating couples where both parties in each relationship are Christians. In Relationship A, the guy and the girl do just about everything but have sex. It’s maybe a once-a-week thing, sometimes more, sometimes less. In Relationship B, the guy and the girl have sex one time but are pretty clean the rest of the relationship.

Which one gets a worse rap in the church? I’d wager it would be Relationship B. And that’s screwed up.

If we look at it biblically, they’re on level playing fields. Jesus set us the standard in Matthew 5:27-28,

“You have heard that it was said, ‘You shall not commit adultery.’ But I say to you that everyone who looks at a woman with lustful intent has already committed adultery with her in his heart.”

A man who lusts after a woman once is a sinner just like the man who has sex with his girlfriend every night. There’s no levels to sexual sin. Yes, there is much more impact on a person and on a relationship when premarital sex is had, but at the end of the day, we’re failing God and His people by treating one with much more intensity than the other.

Actual loss of virginity outside of marriage is sinful, but so is looking too long and thinking about it. It comes back to the idea that sin starts in the heart. When David sinned with Bathsheba, his response in Psalm 51 wasn’t asking God to not let him have sex outside of marriage anymore. It was to cleanse his heart, to change his thinking. That’s the key.

2. Nowhere in Scripture is virginity the sign of a good Christian.

To my knowledge, there’s no verse that says, “To be a Christian you must stay a virgin until marriage.” But it sure seems like that sometimes, doesn’t it?

I’m not bashing ministries, books, pastors, etc., who promote that virginity is ideal. It is. There are even many non-biblical benefits to waiting for marriage to have sex. It’s also the biblical command. Hebrews 13:4 says, “Let marriage be held in honor among all, and let the marriage bed be undefiled, for God will judge the sexually immoral and adulterous.”

But nowhere does it say that you must be or have been a virgin before marriage to pray, to read your Bible, to lead small groups, to speak, to get married. We end up making things like this some unwritten qualification for being honoring to God when it’s not. It’s putting something “in the Bible” that’s not actually there. And that’s never healthy.

3. You losing your virginity doesn’t diminish the Gospel being applied to you.

No sin can outweigh the greatness and the depth of the grace of the Gospel, “the abundance of grace and the free gift of righteousness” as Romans 5:17 says. Being a virgin might be “ideal” but it doesn’t disallow you being forgiven and loved by the Creator of the Universe.

I think we in the church make far too much of sin and far too less of grace and the Gospel. Have we forgotten who we are, and who God is? Have we forgotten that we have sinned, sin and will continue to sin? Have we forgotten that God is powerful enough and loving enough to forgive us of every sin, past, present and future?

If you’re a Christian and lose your virginity before marriage, your identity is not in that you are no longer “pure.” It’s as it was before: forgiven, loved, child of God. You’re not stained in a way that Jesus can’t clean up.

Will it affect your life? Sure. I’ve already been negatively affected by the physical interactions with the opposite sex I’ve had even if it didn’t include sex. It’s left me with some terrible memories and overwhelming anxiety. But God still calls me His. He doesn’t condone what I do, but He loves me still.

No sin changes that about me. If you’re a Christian, it doesn’t change that about you either.

The Christian Culture of Condescending Criticism

Perhaps the most public not-so-subtle criticism of a pastor from someone within the Christian sphere came in February 2011, when evangelical stalwart John Piper tweeted, “Farewell, Rob Bell,” with a link to Justin Taylor’s quick reflection on a promotional video for Bell’s then-forthcoming book Love Wins.

At the time, I thought that was the holiest of burns. The most God-glorifying calling-out of a public figure on social media that will ever exist. And from my research, no one has ever questioned Piper on it. An interview in Christianity Today briefly scratched the tweet, instead choosing to focus on the possibility of “theological reconciliation” in light of the Rob Bell controversy. Piper said this:

Francis Schaeffer said our differences in the church are a golden opportunity to show love, and instead of throwing hate bombs over the walls that we’ve got between ourselves, we throw love bombs over. In other words, differences can be an occasion for courtesy, kindness, gentleness, listening, and respect—all of which, the world would then look at and say, “They don’t have theological unity, but they do talk to each other in a certain way.” Now, Paul was pretty hard on certain theological differences and Jesus was really hard on certain differences. And so, there’s a point for “Thus far, no further, farewell.” There are other points where we ought to be cultivating all those courtesies.

For a long time, I thought Piper was awesome for saying this. I thought he was bold, brash, faithful, to the point. But as I’ve gotten older, I’ve thought less and less this way and been more concerned with the approach he took, mostly because I see it as an epidemic in the evangelical community.

Christians are quickly becoming known as people who say “no” and people who hate and people who are against things. This YouTube video is very telling:

We can write these people off as biased and having a particular view and that they’ve missed the point. But one of the key points that was brought up time and time again in that video was the idea that Christians are judgmental and they’re anti-this and anti-that. And I agree! And in no place does it come out more than our tendency as Christians to be condescendingly critical.

Before I explain myself further, I want to explain what I mean so we don’t get caught up in semantics. defines “condescending” as “showing or implying a usually patronizing descent from dignity or superiority” and “criticism” as “the act of passing judgement as to the merits of anything.” When I refer to condescending criticism, I mean “passing judgement on something from a patronizing attitude, usually from some kind of dignity or superiority.” Basically just melding those two definitions together.

It’s my view that we as a body of Christ do this on a regular basis and that it is not helpful, that it is anti-God, anti-Jesus, anti-everything we say we stand for and everything we say we believe. We get upset when famous atheists like Richard Dawkins make derogatory and condescending statements about Jesus, but then turn right around and make them about each other, about political figures like President Barack Obama, about religious figures like Rob Bell, etc.

Why Do We Do This?

There are lots of things to criticize. There are lots of things that are wrong with the world. That’s to be expected in a, to use an evangelical term, “post-Genesis 3 world.” When each person living on the earth has at least one thing drastically wrong with them, there are going to be people saying things we disagree with, people saying things that are not in line with Scripture. Therefore, we criticize.

There are also many avenues for criticism, avenues that are easy to use. Just look at social media. Facebook, Twitter, YouTube, Instagram, the list goes on and on about avenues we can use to criticize people. And it’s very easy to use it without facing any real backlash or in-your-face response. It’s much easier to say something critical about somebody without having to look them in the eye when you say it.

As sinful people, we’re self-righteous. We think we’ve got it all figured out, therefore we have a basis from which to say the things we want to say. We’ve read the Bible enough, we figure, so we’ve got a foundation from which to speak.

And like I said before, there’s little accountability for things like this. If someone like John Piper or Tim Keller says it, their platform is so high that it’s hard to bring a legitimate case against them because those in the evangelical community will generally agree with whatever they say. Of course you’ll have the rare few who disagree, but for the most part there’s a blind acceptance. I’ve definitely carried that attitude before and to a degree still do.

But here’s the problem I have with this: It’s not bad that we criticize, it’s the tone and frequency with which we criticize and the lack of humility that goes along with that criticism.

Tone Is Everything

An oft-reported, but oft-contradicted, statistic is that 93 percent of communication is non-verbal; basically, the majority of what you say is not the words you use. In the 70s, researcher Albert Mehrabian purported that 55 percent of communication is body language and 38 percent is tone of voice, making up the 93 percent. The other seven percent is the actual words.

Many researchers question the validity of this statistic, but my guess is that you’ve run across this practically before. How many arguments have been started because you’ve missed the tone of what was said? I think The Office explored this very perfectly:

You can’t communicate what you really mean very well through any text-based medium. That’s one of the difficulties of writing a blog; you have to be very clear in what you mean so your readers don’t get the wrong tone from what you’re writing. Social media such as Twitter and Facebook are very similar. So when tone isn’t clear from what was said, readers have to guess, they have to make a judgment based on what they know about the person, the words used, any capitalizations, italics or bolds, or even emojis.

Often trying to make a point, Christians like myself will post things on social media about a pastor like Rob Bell or a political party or a public figure in a very strongly-worded way. And most of the time, the tone comes across very condescending. We honestly may not intend for it to be that way, but we’re trying to make a point, so we’ll say whatever it takes to make our point.

And most times, it can come from a place of pride and a place of “Look at me, I know better!” There’s the condescending part, where we think we’ve got it all figured out and this person doesn’t, so we criticize in an open forum for people to see, people to “Like,” people to “Comment,” people to “Retweet,” people to “Favorite,” etc. Because it comes from that place, it’s condescending, and it’s not glorifying to God.

A Pharisee’s Lack of Humility

Humility goes out the window when we have this attitude. It’s like we don’t even think about how we’re portraying ourselves and where our hearts are when we post and say these things.

We put ourselves on a moral high ground on which we have no place being. The Gospel gives us no right to place ourselves any higher than the ground on which we currently stand with every other human being. We’re like the Pharisee in Luke 18:9-14 –

(Jesus) also told this parable to some who trusted in themselves that they were righteous, and treated others with contempt: “Two men went up into the temple to pray, one a Pharisee and the other a tax collector. The Pharisee, standing by himself, prayed thus: ‘God, I thank you that I am not like other men, extortioners, unjust, adulterers, or even like this tax collector. I fast twice a week; I give tithes of all that I get.’ But the tax collector, standing far off, would not even lift up his eyes to heaven, but beat his breast, saying, ‘God, be merciful to me, a sinner!’ I tell you, this man went down to his house justified, rather than the other. For everyone who exalts himself will be humbled, but the one who humbles himself will be exalted.”

We come to God, and then come to man, so thankful that we have it all figured out and we forget to examine our own sinfulness and our own misdeeds and share that as well. We’re so scared that someone will find out something that will disqualify us from being heard and believed, so we don’t share our mistakes, we don’t share the times we purposefully ignored God and did our own thing.

This is the basis of condescending criticism. This is the basis for every time we see something or someone we view as lower than ourselves and our own “proper” view, our own “right” perspective and we take time out of our busy lives to say or post something super critical and condescending about that person or their thoughts. And it’s highly anti-Jesus. It goes against everything Jesus stood for.

Jesus knew who He was and that informed how He approached the world and what He said. Jesus is the only one who can rightly condescendingly criticize because He is the only one on the high horse. He is the only one who is able to say about Himself that “He is the image of the invisible God, the firstborn of all creation. For by him all things were created, in heaven and on earth, visible and invisible, whether thrones or dominions or rulers or authorities – all things were created through him and for him” (Colossians 1:15-16).

We have no place from which blatantly condescendingly criticize fellow humans. Jesus does. If we read through the Gospels, we see that Jesus was critical of those whose life goal it was to be critical.

The Right Way to Criticize

So if criticism in and of itself isn’t sinful, what is the right way to be critical? What is the right way to say something about someone or something that’s not correct? I think it has to have two characteristics.

First, it has to come from a place of humility. We can’t be self-congratulatory about our ability to spot falsehoods from a mile away when we talk about these things. We have no right to congratulate ourselves. And while that may not come across in our posting or our words, it can very well be an attitude of the heart. This is particularly difficult in the social media realm. On page 153 of his book The Social Church: A Theology of Digital Communication, Justin Wise aptly writes, “Social media catalyzes the ‘me first’ nature of sin. It accentuates our selfishness and destructive need for ego inflation.”

Criticism can never be about making ourselves look better. That was one part of the downfall of the Pharisee in the parable of the Pharisee and tax collector. His attitude before God was that of “I’m better, he’s not, thank goodness.” We can’t ride that high horse in our attitudes when we criticize.

Second, it must be biblically-based criticism, not founded in Christian cultural or societal norms. Often those two can be one and the same, but how often is it not? How often do we make something a norm in the Christian culture that’s not lined up with Scripture? Look at Mark Driscoll. We criticized his methods when they didn’t line up with “how we do things normally.” That’s the criticism that more prevalently comes from the older generation towards the younger generation, but it’s common. That’s not a biblically-based criticism.

Criticism can never be based on our personal opinions. That was another part of the downfall of the Pharisee in the Luke 18 parable. From his perspective, his vantage point, he saw the way he did things and saw things as correct, and others were wrong. That high horse attitude can’t be had in the church.

I’ll Be Honest With You

This post was initially inspired by other people, but I can look at myself and my past and even my present and point to how I’ve been that person I’m writing about. I was intentional about using the word “we” when describing the people I’m talking about because I’m definitely part of that group.

In fact, I struggled a bit with whether or not I wanted to write this because I know that this post could come across as the very thing I’m criticizing. It could easily come across like I’m condescending. And, if I honestly examine my heart, I admit there’s some of that in my thoughts. There’s some of that thought that I have an insight you guys don’t and I need to share it or else the world will miss it.

I’ve been prideful about my “spiritual insight” and “biblical knowledge” for a long time, and it’s something I need to continue to remind myself that I have no place on that high horse. The Gospel gives me no right because the Gospel applied to me means that I have everything I have because of what Jesus did, not because of what I am or what I’ve learned or what I’ve said.

A couple examples from my Facebook feed:

Screen Shot 2015-08-11 at 10.17.31 AM Screen Shot 2015-08-11 at 10.17.40 AM

So you can tell me that I’m a hypocrite and I’ll gladly nod along. I don’t even know for sure if what I’m saying in this post is proper criticism by my own definition.

All I can say is this: I’ve got to learn to live like Jesus. That will be a battle I fight for the rest of my life, a war I’ll face until I reach the grave. And I can’t help but look at myself and see my condescending attitude and think that has no place in my life, no place in the heart of a Christian.

But I can rejoice knowing that one day I’ll be healed from this attitude, healed from the condescending pride I hold in my heart.

10 Reasons Why We Need to Talk About the Hard Stuff in Church

Note: This is the second part in a three-part series about talking about the hard stuff. Find the first part, “10 Reasons Why We Don’t Talk About the Hard Stuff in Church,” by clicking on the title. The third part will be the 10 most important “hard stuff” that needs to be discussed in church. Expect that soon.

One of the more interesting parts of being in a dating relationship as a young evangelical Christian is determining when to have the DTR talk. DTR stands for “Define the Relationship.” Someone brings it up and then you have to examine how you feel and where you are in the relationship. It happens in every dating relationship, but it’s a big deal in Christianity.

There’s a lot of different ideas as to when to have it, how much to say, where to have it. It’s become a pretty serious thing that there’s a lot of conversation about. It can be a really hard conversation to have because it requires us to be open and talk about feelings, thoughts, personal desires, and often it’s tough to have those conversations. But it’s entirely necessary.

These tough conversations are entirely necessary to have in the church, whether it’s about a little-mentioned social issue or the sin in an individual’s life. And here’s 10 reasons why.

1) Scripture commands it and displays it.

The first part of James 5:16 says, “Confess your sins to one another and pray for one another, that you may be healed.” The command is clear. In the imperative, Paul says confess sins. Confessing sins is probably the hardest part of being a Christian because it goes against our very nature, to look good before others. But if Scripture commands it, it’s a good thing that we must do. Scripture also is excellent at talking about the hard things. Jesus gives us the perfect model, and the Bible itself discusses serious things right out. We would do well to follow its example, as it is God speaking to us directly.

2) If we don’t talk about the hard things, we may not know to pray for them. 

The second part of James 5:16 says, “The prayer of a righteous person has great power as it is working.” Following the command to confess sins and pray for those people who deal with those sins is the truth that prayer has great power. We in the church have an opportunity to accomplish great things through praying for others and for different situations in the world. But if we don’t talk about them, we won’t know what’s happening and therefore we won’t know what to pray for.

3) The world is already telling us (wrongly, in most cases) how to think about things, and they’re having conversations about it. 

Society already has hundreds of narratives on many subjects the church won’t touch, not even with a 10-foot pole. It’s really easy to fall into the trap of accepting what the world feeds you if you’re not discussing things with brothers and sisters in Christ who will remind you of the truths of Scripture.

4) We don’t have to pretend.

If we’re real and honest with what we think about the hard topics or the sin in our lives, we don’t have to pretend. One of the most exhausting things human beings do is pretend that we have it all together or that we know what we’re talking about when those things really aren’t true. If we begin to have those conversations, we don’t have to hide!

5) People are suffering with loneliness and depression because they feel like they can’t talk about certain things.

I’ve been in this place. I’ve wanted to talk about things in my life – sins that I’ve struggled with, thoughts and feelings I’ve had – but I’ve felt like church wasn’t the place to do it. So I was lonely and depressed because, well, I felt alone and depressed. There are many like me. If we don’t talk about these things, more people will suffer through these feelings.

6) The church should be the best place to have these conversations.

If we, the body of Christ, claim to be the keepers of truth and righteousness because of the Word we claim as our guide, why wouldn’t the church be the best place? If we’re a people who claim to love as Jesus loved, why wouldn’t the church be the best place? If we’re a people who claim to care so much about the world and the people around us, why wouldn’t the church be the best place?

7) The Gospel applies to Christians. So we are free to talk about what we do wrong.

I believe that one of the biggest weaknesses in the church today is a fear of believing the Gospel too much. We hide because we don’t recognize the forgiveness and the freedom from fear we have in Christ because of the Gospel. We don’t have to be afraid of condemnation from God, therefore we have no real reason to be afraid of the condemnation of people. People’s condemnation is nothing. Much easier said than believed, I know. I’ve been there, and I still am there. But as I’ve grown more and more in my understanding of the Gospel, I’ve grown more and more accepting of my sinfulness and more and more willing to share.

8) In church, we’re surrounded by people who are doing the same things we are. 

No one in the church does something that no one else does, at least at the heart level. Each sin comes back to a selfish attitude and sinful desire for pleasure in things that God has not designed for our ultimate joy and pleasure. Even if I’m the only person in my church that struggles with lying to my boss, I can relate to others on a heart level. It’s like being at a comic book convention with a bunch of other Batman fans. If you’re all passionate about the same thing, or in the case of sin, struggling with the same thing, why not talk about it?

9) We need it mentally and psychologically.

How often have you used the phrase, “I just needed to get that off my chest”? Secrets or difficult thoughts weigh on us mentally and psychologically. By talking about it with others, that weight gets lifted. We need to talk about these difficult things before we get overwhelmed by them.

10) We can be obedient to God’s calling on our lives.

Galatians 6:2 says, “Bear one another’s burdens, and in doing so fulfill the law of God.” This relates specifically to sins. If a brother shares a sin struggle with me, I have the opportunity not only to help him, but to “fulfill the law of God” by doing so.

In the Great Commission in Matthew 28, Jesus tells us our mission is to make disciples. I believe this is a multi-level calling. It’s not just “go make converts,” it’s a life of investing in each and every step of discipleship. I can be part of the discipleship process of someone who is younger in the faith than me, at the same “age” in the faith as me and older in the faith than me. By talking about hard things, God can use me as part of that refining, sanctifying process of being a disciple of Christ.

I really do believe in the second part of No. 10. I’m big on that.

I can’t stress the importance of this enough. This is important not only for me, but for the body of Christ, and for the world. If the church is known as the place that doesn’t talk about the hard or important things, we’re missing out on our calling.

In Part 3 of this series, I’ll examine the 10 things we need to be talking about but aren’t, or at least as much as we should, or are talking about (what I believe) in the wrong way.

Comparisons Are Moot and Unnecessary in Light of the Gospel

I’m a big football fan. And by football, I mean European/South American/Latin American/African/everywhere-else-in-the-world football. For Americans’ sake, let’s just call it soccer.

Every summer and every January, professional soccer clubs around the world scour the available market for new players. Fans and the media make comparisons on which players to acquire, which players to spend millions of dollars/pounds/Euros/other-monetary-units on to improve their teams.

Or, they compare possible prospects with teams’ current options in the same position. Example: Arsenal, my favorite team, recently signed Chelsea goalkeeper Petr Cech (from the Czech Republic, pronounced Pet-er Check). For weeks, media outlets made comparisons between Cech and Arsenal’s current ‘keeper options David Ospina (from Columbia, pronouned Dah-vid Osh-pee-na) and Wojciech Szczesny (from Poland, pronounced Wvoy-check Sh-shez-knee). Yeah, that last pronunciation is rough. Here’s a visual of one of those comparisons:


Journalists analyze stats and intangibles and just about everything under the sun to try to figure out who’s better.

Often we run into this kind of comparison in Christian culture when we look at church growth. Which churches are the “fastest-growing in America”? How many people are coming? How many are making decisions? How much money is being raised for missions? What percentage of your budget is giving to overseas missions? How many kids show up weekly to your youth group?

Sometimes there’s a numbers fetish in the church. It’s not always bad. I love what Perry Noble says about numbers. His church does a lot of things with numbers, particularly with people. He says something to the effect of, “Every number has a name, and every name has a story, and every story matters to Jesus.” I love that. I think he’s spot-on.

The difficulty – and I know I’m being a little persnickety here – is when the numbers become a primary identity of the church. That often leads to comparisons, and lists like the fastest-growing churches in America. Sometimes an unintended consequence of this is a “my church is better than yours.” I’ve even seen this in my own heart when it comes to comparing the church I go to at home to the church I went to during college.

The comparisons don’t have to be numbers. It can also be the intangibles. Which theology more lines up with mine? Which pastor is funnier/more eloquent/more hipster/theologically deeper/better dressed? Which kids’ program is more fun? Whose coffee tastes more like Starbucks? Whose coffee is Starbucks?

Basically, we make comparisons all the time in the Christian world. And that’s not necessarily a bad thing. It’s something everyone does. The danger comes when it reaches our hearts and we begin to compare ourselves to the Christians around us.

I did this a lot in college. I had a friend named Jimmy. Real name. Loved the guy. Still love the guy. Super outgoing, super passionate. Funny as I’ll get out. Everybody, and I mean EVERYBODY, loved him. He had a real heart for people and a real heart for the Gospel. He lived, and still does live, as if the Gospel was daily changing him and daily working on his heart. He was friends with everyone and was always having spiritual conversations with people, always reaching out to non-believers, befriending them. But it wasn’t in a “I’ve-got-to-do-this-because-I-need-to-save-souls” kind of way. His attitude was, “I love these people, and I love them so much I want them to know Jesus the way I do.”

He would have stories about guys he was sharing the Gospel with, people to pray for, opportunities to hang out. He was an Energizer Bunny kind of guy, always on the go, always full of energy. And I would look at him and feel super inadequate and super non-Christian. It wasn’t his fault. He didn’t lord it over me or anyone. He was just being himself. And I felt super ineffective because I barely shared the Gospel with anybody, didn’t like making new friends and just didn’t have the same drive or passion.

I learned two things while thinking about how I compared myself to Jimmy. And they’re two things that are key to dealing with the comparison culture we live in.

We’re not all “Jimmys.”

I’m not an evangelist-type who goes around and has Gospel-sharing on his mind all the time. I’m just trying to survive the day most of the time. For a while, I thought that I was a defective Christian because of that. I thought I wasn’t the Christian I should have been. I was burdened for people, in a sense, but not like Jimmy was. It wasn’t his fault.

Not everybody has the same spiritual gifts and callings and talents. If we only had evangelists, who would support the believers when they’re not out sharing the Gospel? If we only had encouragers, who would share the Gospel with unbelievers? If we only had teachers, who would be learning? If we only had doers and executers, who would be doing the administrating and background work?

If you, who like me are not particularly gifted in evangelism and not drawn to that kind of work, spend your time comparing your spiritual usefulness to people like Jimmy, of course you’re going to be discouraged. On the other side, if you’re like Jimmy and spend all your time genuinely loving people and sharing the Gospel, you might be tempted to look at people like me and feel proud of yourself because you’re doing a lot of work for the Kingdom.

Comparison lends itself to discouragement or pride. It’s rare you find the middle ground.

Romans 12:4-5 shares this: “For as in one body we have many members, and the members do not all have the same function, so we, though many, are one body in Christ, and individually members one of another.” We’re not all called to the same exact function within the body of Christ.

In a more general sense, the Gospel renders comparisons moot and unnecessary.

The only comparison that really matters is how we compare to Christ. And everyone compares unfavorably. Everyone who matches themselves up with Jesus, if they’re being honest, must say, “I don’t look good here.”

That’s where the grace of the Gospel steps in and says that we don’t need to make comparisons. Jesus overlooks how we compare to Him and says He’ll die for us anyways. While we were still sinners, Romans 5 says, Christ died for the ungodly. While we were rejecting God, while we were disobedient and rebellious, Christ gave His life for us. There’s no need for comparison to find worth. The worth is found at the foot of the cross, where Jesus gave His life. What 2 Corinthians 5:21 – For our sake he made him to be sin who knew no sin, so that in him we might become the righteousness of God – means is that Jesus gave us His righteousness at the cross. We’re seen as righteous and holy apart from our works.

Rant warning. I hate when popular Christian leaders prop up some old theologian as this great faith figure that we should read everything they wrote, we should live by their resolutions, we should celebrate what they did. I hate it because it makes me feel like poop that I’m not like that and never will be. What tends to happen is we forget they sinned too. In his book on Martin Luther, John Piper fails to mention that, near the end of his life, Luther hated Jews and wrote scathing criticisms of them that would never fly in today’s society. The Nazis even used it as propaganda against the Jews. And we’re going to sit back and be all, “Oh Martin Luther was so fantastic!”

Guess what? All those people sinned. Calvin, Luther, Wesley, Edwards, Owen – you name them, they sinned. And to compare ourselves to them is a fool’s errand because it’s not even the right comparison. And to prop them up as heroes is also destructive to the church. The only hero that’s ever existed in the history of history is Jesus. He was the only one who was perfect. He was the only one who ever did good every single word He spoke, every single thought He thought, every single action He took.

Can we be inspired by those people? Can we take comfort and confidence that mere men did the things they did? Sure. But how dare we place them on the level of Christ. Maybe I’m over-reacting or over-reaching or reading too much into it. If I am, I’m sorry. But my point remains the same: Scripture demands we make one comparison alone, and we fall short every time. That’s why we need Jesus.

So if you make comparisons to other people and feel discouraged: Jesus loves you despite of how poorly you may compare to other people by worldly standards, even if those worldly standards are wrapped around spiritual things. What’s required of you? The parable of the Pharisee and the tax collector in Luke 18:9-14 speaks quite beautifully to this:

He also told this parable to some who trusted in themselves that they were righteous, and treated others with contempt: “Two men went up into the temple to pray, one a Pharisee and the other a tax collector. The Pharisee, standing by himself, prayed thus: ‘God, I thank you that I am not like other men, extortioners, unjust, adulterers, or even like this tax collector. I fast twice a week; I give tithes of all that I get.’ But the tax collector, standing far off, would not even lift up his eyes to heaven, but beat his breast, saying, ‘God, be merciful to me, a sinner!’ I tell you, this man went down to his house justified, rather than the other. For everyone who exalts himself will be humbled, but the one who humbles himself will be exalted.”

Agree to Disagree: When Christians Argue

I hate disagreements. I’m pretty sure I’m not alone in this. But it sucks.

I feel like a phrase I’ve been uttering a lot recently is “agree to disagree.” It’s a good way to diffuse or end a tough argument. In Christianity though, this is super hard. Christians often disagree over things they very strongly believe.

For instance, I had a disagreement with a friend recently over the legitimacy of some feelings I was having. I almost yelled at this friend. It was difficult because I wanted to avoid an awkward situation, but it was something I had to do, something I had to say.

I think it’s partly human nature, but there’s an aversion most of the time to peaceful disagreements within the body of Christ. We want to stick to our guns and how we feel and think, but we can’t seem to be friendly about it. There’s always frustration, and even bitterness sometimes.

I was thinking about this and wondered how the early church handled disagreements. 1 Corinthians covers this in a few places. Paul writes, “I appeal to you, brothers, by the name of our Lord Jesus Christ, that all of you agree, and that there be no divisions among you, but that you be united in the same mind and judgement” (1:10). He was referring to the Corinthian church’s tendency to disagree on who they followed – Paul, Apollos, Peter or Jesus. In this matter, Paul insists that there be agreement, and I’m pretty sure the agreement is over following Christ.

Shouldn’t we be the best at disagreement? Not in an intellectual sense necessarily, but in a loving sense. God loves us in spite of our many daily disagreements with Him. And because He loves us, we love others (1 John 4:19).

I think of myself and how little I love people I disagree with. Even in the moments of disagreement, my love of people turns into contempt or, at worst, disgust. For example, I don’t always agree with everything my pastor says. I can get frustrated when he handles a piece of Scripture differently than I would. How petty is that?

When you talk about anything religious, it’s difficult to agree to disagree because it’s usually a very strongly held belief. Sometimes those convictions are well-founded and sometimes they’re not. If it’s something that the Bible is explicit about, I won’t back down. But if it’s up in the air, there’s not need for me to be so stringent.

Or is there? For instance, I’m on board 100 percent with Christians being honest and transparent in ministry settings. My main reason: why not? When we’re transparent, Christ is made much of and the grace of the Gospel is more practically understood. I struggle in a lot of areas. I feel like being real and authentic about it will be much more beneficial.

But not everybody agrees with that approach. And I suppose that it’s OK to feel that was since the Bible doesn’t explicitly say to be transparent in all ministry settings. We shouldn’t put up a front, but there’s nothing that says it’s OK to sugarcoat things, which happens far too often when it really shouldn’t be happening at all.

See? I get thinking about a deeply held conviction I have and I disregard everything else anyone thinks. We are hesitant to even admit that we could possibly be wrong. I could be wrong. I don’t think I am, but I could be. It takes humility to admit you could be wrong, and I am very often in short supply when it comes to humility. We don’t need to cave and always assume we’re wrong, but we need to be willing to be wrong.

So what’s the solution? The solution is that I need to be transferring more of God’s grace to me towards others and not be so mean and arrogant. There’s a difference between stubbornness and arrogance. Stubbornness is believing what you believe and sticking to it, while arrogance is believing no one else has even a small chance of being right.

We need to agree to disagree, but not in an avoiding or begrudging way. In a loving and gracious way, the same way God treats us when we disagree with him. Like in our relationship with God, we should share our honest thoughts, opinions and feelings on situations. We’re free in Christ to do that.

But let’s be nice about it.

The Church Culture of Hero Worship

People love superheroes. So much so that they spend millions of dollars to go to a movie theater and watch them take out the bad guys. Here are some worldwide box office numbers for recent superhero movies:

  • The Avengers (2012) – $1.518 billion
  • Iron Man 3 (2013) – $1.2 billion
  • The Dark Knight Rises (2012) – $1.084 billion
  • The Dark Knight (2008) – $1.004 billion
  • Spider Man 3 (2007) – $890.8 million

All those films are in the top 50 of all-time in worldwide gross box office. The money speaks for itself: there’s somewhat of an obsession with the superheroes on the big screen.

Why? That’s a really good question. A couple reasons come to mind for me. First, they’re fun to watch. No matter the depth of the plot or character development, these movies usually have numerous explosions and fight scenes and a fair number of one-liners that screenwriters hope you’ll quote for years to come. Second, they allow us to see good triumph over evil, something most of us inherently long for (whether we realize or not) and we love seeing on the big screen. Virtue and justice beats evil and injustice. It’s a refreshing thing to see. We just want the good guys to win!

Superheroes usually appear as characters with little to no moral flaws. There will be guys like Tony Stark who may have questionable facets or morals, but they usually redeem themselves in some way by overcoming the very thing that is their weakness. They’re straightforward and honest about their weaknesses and do good in spite of them.

I find that, in Christian culture, we have a similar approach to our theological heroes, particularly in my generation, depending on how nerdy you get. Guys like John Piper, David Platt, R.C. Sproul, Wayne Grudem, Matt Chandler, rappers like Lecrae and Trip Lee, they all get mad props from tons of Christians because they’re heroes of the faith nowadays, modern day Charles Spurgeons, Adoniram Judsons, C.S. Lewises and Billy Grahams.

But am I alone in thinking that this is possibly a bad thing? Should we really be praising these men the amount we do?

This thought process was kicked off in my head yesterday. The Facebook page for Desiring God, Piper’s ministry, posted this status with a quote from Piper:

“The closer I get to death and meeting Jesus face to face and giving an account for my life, the more sure I am of my resolve never intentionally to look at a television show or a movie or a website or a magazine where I know I will see nudity. Never. That is my resolve. And the closer I get to death, the more committed I become. And frankly I want to invite all Christians to join me in this pursuit of greater purity of heart and mind. In our day when entertainment media is virtually the lingua franca of the world, this is an invitation to be an alien.”

I applaud his resolve and his drive to fight against lust in his life. It’s a resolve that I desire to have.

But here’s where I struggle. And perhaps I’m alone in this. But I read things like this and I feel like I’m failing at following Jesus. If this great “hero of the faith” is so committed this way and I’m admittedly not as much as I should be, what does that say about me? I want to be as committed as he, but I admit that I am not. I’m sinful. I struggle. I fall.

Perhaps this is me failing to see the grace of God in my life. Perhaps this is me not being “resolved enough.” Perhaps I’m just not as holy as John Piper is. But I read things like this and, when I find I don’t measure up (which is about 95% of the time, maybe even 100%), I feel guilty. I feel condemned. I feel like I’m not being “the way I should be.” I understand the point about being an example and leading people by showing them what it looks like to follow Jesus. But shouldn’t there be a sense where we should lead people by showing them what it looks like when we fail at following Jesus and how we respond to it?

John-Piper-8-706838Some of the greatest impacts people have had on my life is when they share ways they’ve fallen and failed and how they responded. A friend of mine had a child outside of marriage, and was open about it on social media and in public. I’ve taken great encouragement and challenge from his openness with his sin, and then been super encouraged and challenged by how he’s raised his daughter and how much he seeks to serve Jesus through it.

I wouldn’t be surprised if this kind of honest doesn’t really occur because these leaders are afraid of what will happen when their sins are discovered. Look what happened to Mark Driscoll. His sin was exposed and he lost his job and much of his ministry. But if you go back and listen to his sermons, he was straightforward with the fact that he struggled with pride. I love that about his preaching in that he wasn’t ashamed to talk about ways he struggled and how the grace of God worked powerfully through that. Other preachers and authors I’ve listened to and read such as Perry Noble, Tullian Tchividjian and Brennan Manning take a similar approach in being honest with their sin.

But things like Mark Driscoll’s “fall” happen because we place these heroes on a pedestal, lift them up as “what it looks like to follow Jesus,” and then get disappointed and upset and angry when they fall. When did they become more important to follow than Jesus? Jesus is the only one to whom we should listen to every word that comes out of his mouth. His perfection is the only perfection that has ever existed on the earth apart from the early days in Eden. Yet the church often looks to leaders like Piper and Lewis as bastions of faith so much so that if we find out something bad about them our very lives are shaken.

I found this out during my senior year of college. I was in a class called Jewish-Christian Dialogue and we began a section on the Holocaust examining the persecution of Jews and how it was egged on by Christians in Germany. I was appalled to find that writings of Martin Luther were used as propaganda against Jews. The end of a particular writing of his, titled “On the Jews and Their Lies,” reads this way:

My essay, I hope, will furnish a Christian (who in any case has no desire to become a Jew) with enough material not only to defend himself against the blind, venomous Jews, but also to become the foe of the Jews’ malice, lying, and cursing, and to understand not only that their belief is false but that they are surely possessed by all devils.

He also encouraged burning of synagogues, razing of houses and confiscation of religious texts from the Jews. These writings were used as a tool by the Nazis to help push anti-Semitic thought in Germany. This is the guy who we in the church hold up as this great man of faith. Piper wrote a short book on Luther and not once mentioned this anti-Semitism. The most dangerous symptom of hero worship is the ignorance, either intentional or accidental, of a man’s flaws and weaknesses and the power of Jesus to work grace through them.

This perfection can work one of the three ways. It can be perpetrated by the hero himself, by those that follow the hero or by both the hero and those who follow him. All of them are crippling to the church because it exalts a man above the perfect work and life of Jesus Christ. It’s my belief that Christ is made much of not in our obedience but in our sinfulness. Jesus told Paul that in 2 Corinthians 12:9-10:

But he said to me, “My grace is sufficient for you, for my power is made perfect in weakness.” Therefore I will boast all the more gladly of my weaknesses, so that the power of Christ may rest upon me.

When we can be honest about the fact that we fail and we fall and we don’t do things the way we ought, Jesus and His perfection and His life and His grace are much more glorified and much more honored and much more important than any attempts at righteousness we have.

So here’s my takeaway: I need to stop looking to earthly people as the people I should model my life after and see Jesus as the ultimate example. I can take facets of men that I admire, like my friend’s honesty, my father’s diligence, my mother’s love for others, and seek to emulate those. But never should I look at a man as the perfect example for what I should be and be discouraged when I don’t measure up. I should look at Jesus, see I don’t measure up, and praise Him for that very fact because it’s what allows me to be forgiven!

The Need for Transparency within Christianity.

Hey guys! Hope you’ve been enjoying the stuff I’ve been writing. There’s a book I’ve been working on that is tentatively titled Transparent: Be Vulnerable. Especially When It Hurts. This is the rough draft of the introduction. I’d love your feedback on it. Check it out below:

I don’t know if you, reader, have ever listened to the Backstreet Boys, but there’s a song they put out called “Shape of My Heart.” It might be my favorite one. I even sang it as part of a five-piece group at a church talent show during my sophomore year of college. I sang one-time-CCM-singer Brian Littrell’s opening verse. My performance was just OK, I think it’s on YouTube somewhere. I haven’t looked too hard to find it.

The chorus goes: “Lookin’ back on the things I’ve done, I was trying to be someone. I played my part, kept you in the dark. Now let me show you the shape of my heart.”

First, what does that even mean? Even in the context of the song, it’s a bit confusing. It makes no sense. But a lot of the Backstreet Boys’ lyrics don’t really make much sense. However, that doesn’t prevent me from thinking some of their songs – including “Shape of My Heart” – are awesome.

Anyways, back to that chorus. The singer talks about how he was trying to be someone before, he played his part and kept his lady in the dark. He prevented his lady, apparently, from seeing the true shape of his heart. But now he’s done with that, he’s realized he was hiding, and he wants to show her the true shape of his heart.

As a general rule, and the reason why I’m writing this: sometimes in the church, we don’t like being ourselves. We don’t like exposing the true shapes of our hearts. We don’t want people to see the “real” us.

Now, before you come at me and say, “No, I know PLENTY of people who are ‘themselves.’ Sometimes I’m even myself before others!” Maybe you are. Maybe you aren’t. But I’m going to make a statement that might surprise you. As a body of Christ, we would be much more reflective of what God wants of us if we were honest about everything in our lives.

Honest about everything? Everything? Every little detail?


Jesus was honest about everything. Paul was honest about everything. Yet we want to be the people that hide our flaws and hide our thoughts about others, ourselves, the world, etc., and therefore we misrepresent ourselves. We put on masks. We put on disguises. We go to church and act like everything is OK, but we go home and look at pornography because we’re longing for satisfaction. We lie to our spouses because we don’t want them to know the truth. We cheat on our taxes because we want to save money for that toy. We force ourselves to puke after meals because we don’t want to be fat. We misrepresent ourselves every day because we’re afraid that people might not like who we actually are.

I could write the umpteenth thousandth book on not being two-faced, but that wouldn’t do us any good. If you’ve been in a church in the last x number of years, you’ve probably heard a pastor or Sunday school teacher or somebody else talk about the importance of being who you say you are, a Christian. And I agree! If we’re Christians, we should pursue obedience and holiness because our actions are a reflection of the status of our faith.

But when they don’t match up, which is going to happen all the time, we hide it.

Some of us are pretty good at being “vulnerable,” being honest about our sins. But even sometimes in our sins we qualify our confession with, “But I’m getting better!” Even if we really aren’t. Sometimes we don’t tell the whole truth.

We’re afraid to be honest because we don’t want people to think we’re weak. That’s a universal thing, I think, but I think it’s even more of a problem in the church.

I write this because you can replace “we” with “I” and “us” with “me” in pretty much every sentence and it describes me to a T. I’ve spent the majority of my life as a Christian thinking that my faith was defined by how good I was at being obedient, how good I was at studying the Bible, at praying, at sharing the gospel, at living in community, at seeking ministry opportunities. I didn’t want other believers to know that I was struggling with hidden, debilitating sin or feeling like I was worthless as a Christian and as a person. Sometimes I would be open and honest with people. And sometimes what I heard back was encouraging.

But I think sometimes my well-meaning brothers in Christ wouldn’t know what to do with that level of honesty and transparency, maybe because we’ve been trained to put on a face and a smile. I think of the penguins in the Madagascar movies. The moment that was the funniest when I first saw the first movie was when they were standing in the zoo being watched by the crowd. The lead penguin instructs the others, “Smile and wave, boys, smile and wave.” Then he turns around and talks to the penguin named Kowalski who was working under a manhole cover covered by fish, planning an escape. That line has always stuck with me and sometimes I’ll insert it in conversation when I’m with people and we’re taking a picture because it’s kind of funny.

But how often do we take that very same attitude to church with us? To conversations with believers outside of church? We smile and wave, putting on a front that everything is OK, that nothing is wrong or nothing is fishy behind the scenes. We hide what’s actually going on in our lives.

Sometimes, nothing is good. Nothing is OK. Everything is terrible. Everything is awful. Everything is going wrong. We feel terrible about ourselves and our sin, the way we look, the way we speak, our grades, our work performance, our friendships, how we handle situations x, y and z. So we hide.

It’s a perfectly natural human reaction, foreshadowed by our forefather Adam in the garden. What was the first thing he and his wife Eve did when they discovered their sinfulness? They hid. They were naked and ashamed. Thing is, God still saw them. He saw their insufficiencies and their failures. He saw their shame.

However, God gave them the opportunity to have their shame covered. It’s a foreshadowing of the shame-covering we get from the blood of Christ. And it’s the same thing we can take into opening our relationships with other people.