Do The People Around You Make You Better?

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From my most recent article at WorldMag.com:

Bad company corrupts good morals. That sounds like something your dear old grandma used to say, and she actually got it straight from Scripture. She said it because it’s been proven true time and again. When we surround ourselves with questionable characters they turn us into the same. But is the inverse also true? Does good company enhance good morals?

Not long ago I watched the Sacramento Kings defeat the Minnesota Timberwolves. The difference in the game was the Kings’ DeMarcus Cousins, a behemoth center with uncanny skills who simply decimated the Wolves’ front line. Cousins came into the NBA with a skill set that destined him to be one of the league’s best big men, but his temperament and immaturity threatened to undermine his potential. He was known more for temper tantrums and confrontations than post moves and piles of rebounds. But in the game I watched I saw none of that. He competed with fire and demolished the Wolves with nary a stare down. In fact, Cousins has been markedly different this year than in previous seasons. What changed? Good company.

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Those who are excellent not only exemplify it but they also encourage it in those surrounding them, making them want to be better. Remember Michael Jordan’s six championships? He brought the best out of role players and those with moderate talent and even set them up to be heroes. Tom Brady and Peyton Manning have certainly thrown to good receivers over the years, but more remarkable is how they have turned marginal players into NFL stalwarts.

It isn’t a great leap to see the implications for our own lives. When we surround ourselves with the highest quality people they make us better.

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Read the full post HERE.

Lead Like Coach Wooden

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From my most recent article at WorldMag.com:

John Wooden is the greatest coach in American history. I don’t mean the greatest basketball coach, I mean the greatest coach of anything. His UCLA Bruins won 10 NCAA men’s basketball championships, ran off an 88-game winning streak, and finished four seasons undefeated. But Coach Wooden, who died in 2010 at age 99, wouldn’t have said winning was his greatest accomplishment. He focused on preparation to succeed while developing young men’s character, academics, and athletics. The wins happened because he was so remarkable at doing those things.

What set Wooden apart as a coach was his methodology. It was remarkable for its complete lack of anything remarkable. He didn’t seek to out-strategize or out-scheme anyone. He simply taught his players to be the best at the basics, even so basic as to how they put on their socks while insisting that they always be punctual. He pushed them in practice to the point that games felt like a deceleration, but he made practices fun, too, a privilege for his players. By emphasizing the fundamentals, Wooden’s teams were better prepared than their opponents, always, because they never had to think about or decide anything—they simply executed.

The glue that held all those fundamentals together was Coach Wooden’s character. He was a man of committed and substantive faith in God. Even as a fiercely competitive man, Wooden exemplified and taught respect.

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Bits of Wooden’s wisdom now hang in the offices of CEOs and coaches across the country: “Be quick, but never hurry,” “Little things make big things happen,” “Discipline yourself and others won’t need to,” “Failure is never fatal; failure to change can and might be,” and so many more. We read these and see that they apply to work, church, family, parenting, and so much more. But so few of us actually resemble the calm, sharp, determined, faithful persona of John Wooden. Somewhere along the way we got sidetracked.

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Read the full post HERE.

Let Your Dim, Sin-Stained Light Shine Before The World

Important Message

?In the same way, let your light shine before others, so that they may see your good works and give glory to your Father who is in heaven.? (Matthew 5:16)

Verses like this one lead to statements like these:

?Your lifestyle is as much a part of evangelism as your words.?

?Let your marriage be a light to the watching world.?

?You?re an ambassador for Christ at your workplace.?

Have you heard similar statements, or made them? They?re true ? a godly life, loving marriage, and honorable conduct in the office really can be examples to non-Christians. And it?s also true that religious hypocrites can do damage to the gospel: pastors who commit adultery, hucksters who defraud with Bible verses, or Sunday afternoon restaurant patrons who stiff their waitress a tip and leave tracts on the table instead.

But for most Christians, trying their best to be faithful but aware of their failings, statements or verses that call us to live our lives as examples to non-Christians can feel like an impossible burden. I know I?m a poor excuse for a Christian parent ? now you?re telling me I?m damaging the cause of the gospel as well as my kids. Thanks!

If exhortations to ?be an example? have ever fallen on your shoulders with the weight of the world, take heart. There?s a way out from under the burden. Here?s the solution: our message is not about achieving perfection, but about receiving redemption. Do you realize what that means? You don?t have to be perfect!

When the call to let your light shine comes as a burden, we have a basic confusion about our message. Instead of the good news that Jesus came to save and transform sinners, we are believing some other ?good news? (that really isn?t so good after all!). The false message might take different forms: if you use biblical parenting techniques, your kids will always obey and never try to strip naked and run screaming through the grocery store. If you put God first in your marriage, you?ll never have a conflict or ever see things differently than your spouse. If you love God more than money, you?ll always be the perfect employee. I?m exaggerating, of course, but do you see the common thread in all these message? ?If you?? But the message we witness to as Christians begins with God. ?But God, being rich in mercy, because of the great love with which he loved us?? (Eph. 2:4).

The gospel is not simply the best self-help news out there, nor the hottest parenting or marriage techniques to transform your kids and your communication. It is the message that God, through the sacrificial death and resurrection of Christ, has made a way for sinners to be forgiven and transformed. We have been and?being redeemed, day by day, situation by situation. Even our failures and ongoing battles with sin testify to this message. Asking forgiveness, admitting failure, honestly facing our weaknesses and temptations ? these do not deny our message. Instead, they can testify to its truth. Jesus saved, is saving, and will save us ? sinners though we remain!

Don?t confuse the message. You?re not living a life of perfection so others can learn from you the secrets of self-mastery. You?re living a life of redemption, so that others can meet the Redeemer who is at work in you. And that message is truly good news.

Photo by Patrick Denker

The Problem With Not Caring What Other People Think

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Everyone wishes we could be that one person who really doesn?t care what anybody else thinks. ?I don?t care what anybody thinks? is a sentiment that is lauded. The care free, do-whatever-I-want mentality strikes jealousy in our hearts. It exudes freedom and a certain ?above it all? quality we long for because expectations and pleasing others is so burdensome and self-defining.

Nobody doesn?t care about what other people think. That?s a farce. ?I don?t care what people think? is just another impression people try to give so that they look carefree. What they really mean is ?I hope I look to other people like I really don?t care what they think . . . because I really care what they think.?

If someone manages to not care what others think they?re usually pretty much a jerk. If you don?t care what other people think you likely care far too much about what you think of yourself. Your own proclamations and opinions become far too impressive in your own mind. If you only care what you think you only seek to impress you, everyone else be damned.

There is a fine line between caring too much and too little what people think. If we care too much we become wishy washy shills and tools in the hands of fads, trends, and influencers. If we care too little we become irrelevant, unkind insulters. If we care too much we are at the mercy of others and their whims. If we care too little we are the mercy of our own blind spots and propensities for failure.

Common wisdom says ?don?t let what others think of you dictate how you make decisions.? That?s largely true, but we must let what others think of us influence how we make decisions. We cannot determine how people think of us, but we can guess how they might. This guess allows us to communicate effectively. It helps us come across lovingly and winsomely. It allows us to avoid being insensitive and hurtful. We don?t get to decide how people receive what we say, but caring what they think pushes us to try to connect as effectively and carefully as possible.

Like so many areas of life, this is not a black and white thing. We must care what people think enough to respect them, teach them, and influence them. But we cannot care so much that they determine what we think, what we do, or who we are.

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Being On the Internet Doesn’t Give You Permission To Be A Jerk

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I’ve noticed a strange, somewhat disturbing phenomenon in recent years. I honestly don’t quite understand it. What is that phenomenon?

Christians treating other people in the most hateful, angry, unloving ways.

Recently, due to circumstances I still can’t quite figure out, my name ended up on a particular blog. That, in and of itself, is not particularly surprising. I’ve got a blog. I do the whole Twitter and Facebook thing. Some people are going to disagree with the things I say. I’ve got no problem with that.

What did surprise me was the things other Christians said about me in the comments section. These people, who don’t know me, don’t know my family, and will probably never meet me, resorted very quickly to straight out name calling. I’m not talking, “I disagree with Stephen,” type stuff. I’m talking, “Stephen is a complete and total idiot,” kind of stuff. I was also called a brainwashed kid, which, if you know anything about me, is pretty hilarious. I digress.

Now, call me crazy, but I thought one of the distinguishing marks of Christians is the way we treat one another. In John 13:35, Jesus said:

By this all people will know that you are my disciples, if you have love for one another.

You don’t need to be a biblical scholar to understand this passage. The world will know we are Christians if we have love for one another. One of the primary things that sets Christians apart from the rest of the world is the way we treat one another. When the world sees the love we have for one another, they’ll know that something is different about us. When the world see the words we speak to one another, and the way we serve one another, and the way we care for one another, they will know that something is dramatically different about us.

If an unbeliever hopped onto various Christian websites, and started scrolling through the comments section, would he notice a distinct difference from any other website? Other than an absence of profanity, I don’t think he would. And that is really, really jacked up.

If we’re going to call ourselves Christians, it’s time to start acting like Christians. It’s fine to disagree with another Christian. It’s fine to point out erroneous teaching. But every action, online and offline, must be ruled by love. The command to treat others as we want to be treated, applies just as much to our online interactions as it does to our real-world interactions.

Before we post something online, we would be wise to ask:

  • Would I want someone to say the same thing about me?
  • If I were having coffee with this person tomorrow, would I say these words about them today?
  • Do these words pass the Ephesians 4:29 test? (No corrupting talk, gives grace to those who hear).
  • Am I using the phrase, “Speaking the truth in love,” as simply an excuse to gossip and slander?
  • Am I, under the guise of “protecting the sheep”, simply being mean or angry?

The Internet is already loaded to the gills with meanness. As Christians, let’s not add to the noise.

Don’t Get Drunk on Power

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Power is intoxicating. This is just a fancy way of saying it makes us lose our heads. We gain power and we get stupid. It gets into our blood stream and affects our thinking and our actions.

Likely you don?t think you have power. Think again. If you are parent you are a concentrated force of power. Teachers, coaches, and managers all wield significant power. Anyone in a position of authority does, but so too does anyone who is respected or looked up to. The salesman who can talk a negotiation into his favor and the pretty lady who can get her way with a bat of the eye lashes are both powerful. If you are richer, smarter, or more disciplined than others you have power. Really, only infants and the desperately poor lack any sort of notable power.

As Ben Parker once said, ?With great power comes great responsibility.? He was right, but he missed something significant: with any power comes great temptation. As sinful people we constantly look to gain the approval of some at the expense of others. We look to climb over those we can to gain higher heights just to make ourselves feel better. We abuse the power we have.

We threaten our kids and yell at our kids to get them to obey. We intimidate and coerce those in our influence. We manipulate those we see as weaker. We treat people weaker than us in ways we would never dream of treating our equals. Basically we do things we wouldn?t ever do if we were in our right minds. Kind of like a drunk person.

We need to know our limits. How much power can we handle without getting tipsy? When over-do it, what kind of dumb choices are we prone to? It won?t be streaking, a regrettable tattoo, or bowing to the porcelain god with a wicked hangover. More likely it will mean someone is hurt badly. Power intoxication doesn?t leave cars wrapped around phone poles, but it will leave relationships in burning ruins.

We can?t always help what power we have, but we can handle it responsibly. We must know ourselves enough to know when to walk away or back down. Intoxication comes from abuse, from over-doing it. Know your limits. Be willing to say no thanks, even (especially) if it is just to yourself. The damage of power-drunkness is incalculable.

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Come On, Be Reasonable And Do It My Way!

?Let your reasonableness be known to all.? That command is in the Bible, though you wouldn?t know it if you were surveying the American church today. We have forgotten it completely, and I don?t mean ?forgotten? as in ?rationalized away.? I mean legitimately wiped from church memory.

If you were to choose labels for what you see in Christianity today ?reasonableness? would be nowhere near the top of the list. Outrage, bombast, extremism, polarity, partisan, sectarian, reactive, over-reactive, accusatory, judgmental, defensive, insulting, ignorant, fearful, hypocritical and others would likely come to mind first. If you wanted to find a more positive description you might go with well-intentioned, determined, or industrious. Of course no one of those terms, negative or positive, accurately sums up the church, but they would be higher on the list than ?reasonable.?

Somewhere along the line ? you can blame the Enlightenment if you?d like ? we decided reasons equaled reasonableness. If we could defend an idea or an action then it was reasonable (even if the reasons were poor). Our hope, and much of our identity, rests in argumentation. And ironically this is often at the expense of being reasonable. Our arguments are loud, long, and aggressive. We ?win? them with shows of force and pointed slogans. And we do make them known to everyone.

Real reasonableness is a blend of conviction and patience blended with some empathy and a willingness to engage multiple perspectives. ?Engaging? doesn?t mean fighting; it means interacting with graciously. To be reasonable one must be able to stand firm and be gentle at the same time, to know what you believe but communicate it without any of the ad hominem or straw man foolishness so prevalent today. A reasonable person observes much, listens much, then processes and responds. He doesn?t react.

Underpinning all true reasonableness is a constant acknowledgment that God is God. Nobody who is trying to play God in any part of life can be reasonable. Instead we ought to have a confidence in God, in his sovereignty. Sometimes this looks like gritted teeth and a bitten tongue and other times it?s as smooth as butter and as sweet as honey. But no matter what, only by remembering that God is God can we love the unlovable, even our enemies (another forgotten command). If we rest in the reality that God is sovereign we are able to set aside our reasons and actually become reasonable.

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Stop Thinking Big. Think Small. Very Small.

In 1952, New Testament scholar J.B. Philips wrote a book called Your God is Too Small. I?ve never read the book, but I love the title. So many problems in our lives come from cramped, confined notions about God. We construct a mental image of a God who is mostly like us, only with higher scores in the ?Strength? or ?Wisdom? or ?Love? categories. We fall victim to the same error God rebukes in Psalm 50:21: ?You thought I was altogether like you.? In our views and thoughts of God, bigger is better. But there?s one area of the Christian life where bigger is not better, where a large and grandiose vision will not serve us but instead hinder us: our sanctification. Let me explain.

If I were to ask you how you need to change to be more like Jesus, you would probably have a ready answer ? or several! I need to be more loving. I need to become less impatient with my kids. I need to grow in purity on the internet. We pray for those things: God, make me more loving. Make me more patient. But then when we struggle with impatience or lack of love or impurity, we become discouraged. It?s not working. I guess I?m not praying hard enough?or maybe I?m never going to get over this sin. At that point we either become discouraged at our lack of growth, or we gradually begin to tolerate the sin. Neither of those results will actually help us grow more like Jesus. So what?s the problem?

The problem is we?re thinking too big. Our mental picture of sanctification is something like a series of switches that are either ?On? or ?Off.? When God makes us more holy, he turns the ?Impatience? switch off and turns the ?Patience? switch on. But it doesn?t work that way. Instead, the battle for holiness is won or lost in the mundane. As author David Powlison says, holiness is bite-sized. Here?s how it works.

I struggle with pride. Always have. For a long time, I thought the battle with pride would go something like this: January 1: Dear Diary. Struggled with pride today. I am such a sinner! February 1: Dear Diary. I beat it! I?m no longer proud! I can?t believe how humble I am now!

Okay, I?m exaggerating. But not completely. I prayed that God would make me humble, and I expected that would mean one day there?d be a change and I?d feel no desire for praise after a sermon, no jealousy if someone did better than me, no defensiveness when criticized. (It hasn?t happened yet.) I?m slowly learning to think smaller. Growth in humility means instead of praying God, help me not to be proud today, I ask in the moment God, I feel defensive at that criticism. Help me to respond humbly right now. Putting to death sin and putting on the fruit of the Spirit takes place one very small moment at a time. We need to think small.

So here?s my suggestion to you. Take that area of growth in your life and break it down into very small pieces. If you don?t listen well to your wife, don?t just pray, God, help me to be a better listener. Instead pray, God, when I ask my wife how her day went this afternoon, help me to listen through her entire response without thinking about what I want to say when she finishes. It?s those mundane moments where sanctification takes place. So think small. Very small. And watch as God transforms you into the image of Christ one degree at a time.

2 Corinthians 3:18: And we all, with unveiled face, beholding the glory of the Lord, are being transformed into the same image from one degree of glory to another.

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The Secret To Adding Real Punch To Your Words

Let no one despise you for your youth, but set the believers an example in speech, in conduct, in love, in faith, in purity. 1 Timothy 4:12

Paul told Timothy to preach the word. But he had to do something else to add real punch to his words.

Timothy was a young guy ? I’ve heard he may have been as young as 16 when Paul took him under his wing. Folks may have been tempted to despise him because he was young. Who is this young punk trying tell me how to live?

The secret to adding real punch to our words is to back up those words with a godly life. ?It’s not just for an outward show. ?God motivates and encourages us through others’ example as well as words.

Others are observing us. First they listen to our words. Then they check to see if our lives match up. They check to see if we love others. ?If we’re humble. If we trust God in the fiery furnace. They watch how we act outside of church.

Nothing does more damage to the gospel than when our lives don’t match up with our words.?If we tell others ?Jesus changes people, it confuses them if they see no change in us. If we preach we should love one another yet slander and gossip about others, who’s going to follow us?

Paul often urged others to imitate him:

For you yourselves know how you ought to imitate us, because we were not idle when we were with you, 2 Thessalonians 3:7

What you have learned and received and heard and seen in me-practice these things, and the God of peace will be with you. Philippians 4:9

Pastors, lead your churches by example.

Try to be the biggest servant in the church. ?Seek to be the most joyful, thankful, gentle, humble person in your church. Set an example in sharing weaknesses. Show your fellow believers how to face trials with faith, prayer, and perseverance. Show them how to be teachable and approachable.

Parents, lead your children by example.

Husbands, let your children see you love your wife sacrificially. Parents, ask Jesus to help you be joyful and thankful. Show your children how to forgive and speak kindly of those who offend you. ?Let them see your commitment to regular Bible intake and prayer, as well as your devotion to your local church. Demonstrates expressive, wholehearted singing to God and devotion to the preached Word every Sunday.

Young men and women – set an example for older believers and younger believers

Set an example of radical zeal for God, serving and looking to the interests of others. Set an example for others in purity and holiness. Show us how to honor your mother and father. ?Be different than many young people in your humility and teachableness.

No matter what age you are, married or single, you can set an example for others. ?By God’s grace, let’s all seek to give others something to imitate.

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An Unexpected Letter From Jesus

Dear Bill,

I?m glad you?ve been reading the letter I wrote to you. ?I hope you?re seeing more and more what I?m like in the Bible and all I have done for you.

This week I?m sending you another letter to show you what I?m like. ?It?s a living, breathing letter.

It?s your co-worker Chuck.

He’s a letter from me to you.? Check him out. ?Observe him. ?See what he?s like when the boss isn’t around. See if he works hard. See if he?s faithful. Watch him when others are slandering someone or telling a dirty joke. ?See if he joins in. ?See how he responds to criticism. When you see what he?s like, you?ll know what I?m like.

I?ll send you more living, breathing letters. ?Study them. ?Test them out. See how they treat their families. See what they do when people wrong them. ?Watch how they treat those who are weak or slow to change. See how they treat those who tend to irritate other people. ?See what they do when they go through trials and hardship. ?See what they do and say then. ?See if they?re cheerful.

I’m not saying my living letters are flawless.? They have their quirks and faults.? But watch them over time. ?If you have a chance to observe them for years they’ll look more and more like me.? After you’ve read my letters, write me back. ?Tell me you believe in me and want me to rescue you and make you too a living letter of mine.

Watch for my letters….

Love,

Jesus

You yourselves are our letter of recommendation, written on our hearts, to be known and read by all. ?And you show that you are a letter from Christ delivered by us, written not with ink but with the Spirit of the living God, not on tablets of stone but on tablets of human hearts. (2 Corinthians 3:2-3)

“Men judge by what is visible, and so they think of God by his servants…. Men are apt to think of God by his worshipers, and by the people that profess themselves near and dear to him; therefore it concerns us to walk so that our lives may honour him.” — Thomas Manton

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