Thoughts on “Absolute Surrender” by Andrew Murray

Though I’ve been collecting Andrew Murray books from used bookstores for decades, I confess this is my first time to read one of his books all the way through. The archaic language and writing style were obstacles, but once you push through them, it’s worth the effort. Andrew Murray was a minister in the Dutch Reformed Church in South Africa in the late 19th and early 20th centuries. During the latter years of his life and ministry he was very active in the British Keswick revival movement. After being powerfully touched by God at the 1881 Keswick conference, Murray became a very prolific speaker and writer. Absolute Surrender is a collection of sermons Murray delivered on that topic in preparation for a major evangelistic campaign in East London, England, in 1895.

The main theme of this book is the need to rely on the Holy Spirit, rather than on one’s own power or strength, to live every aspect of the Christian life in every moment. Do you feel, asks Murray, that the demands of the Christian life are too great? Yes, they are, he would reply, if you are relying on your own abilities. However, we have all the resources of the omnipotent (all-powerful) God at our disposal in the person and presence of the Holy Spirit. Murray admonishes us to trust in Scripture’s promise that we received the Holy Spirit at salvation, and to ask God to fill us anew with His Spirit, and then to wait on God and trust in Him to accomplish what we cannot.

Over and over, throughout the book, from various angles Murray exhorts us to despair of all self-effort in living the Christian life and to rely completely on the power of the Holy Spirit. Murray emphasizes that the Christian life is a call to absolute surrender to the will of God every moment, but he acknowledges repeatedly that this radical surrender is impossible in our own strength; yet as the scriptures teach, Murray reminds us, “what is impossible with man is possible with God.” We must receive and rely on the power of the indwelling Holy Spirit to achieve anything in the Christian life, including surrendering our lives to God.

Murray reminds us that Christ is the vine, and we are but the branches (John 15). All the work is done by the vine. As branches our job is simply to abide in the vine and receive His life. Jesus said he chose us and appointed us to go and bear lasting fruit. Murray reminds us that the vine alone is responsible for the fruit-bearing. The branch only bears fruit through its connection to the vine. So it is with we who are in Christ.

I confess as I read this book I often felt overwhelmed by its demands. And yet I think that was exactly the response Murray was going for. He wants us to recognize how utterly powerless and incapable we are in the face of God’s high expectations, in order that we might relinquish our pride in, and reliance on, our own efforts and turn instead to rely solely on God’s power to live our lives. Yet I should also add that Murray’s attitude throughout the book is very caring and sympathetic toward the dilemma we feel as Christians in facing God’s requirements, and he is constantly comforting and reassuring his readers as he points us back to the limitless resources God has provided through His Holy Spirit.

Absolute Surrender gave me a lot to chew on. It also provoked me to want to read several more books on my shelf on related topics to further understand this whole idea of trusting solely in God to live the life He calls us to.

Review of “The Rise and Triumph of the Modern Self” by Carl Trueman

I just finished reading The Rise and Triumph of the Modern Self: Cultural Amnesia, Expressive Individualism, and the Road to the Sexual Revolution by Carl Trueman.  This was one of several books I bought with Christmas money last December.  I’ve been reading and digesting it for several weeks.  I made a point of underlining portions that seemed significant, but it was kind of futile because, as you can see in the photo below, there were many places where I underlined entire pages. The book is that good. It’s the most informative, intellectually stimulating book I’ve read in a long time. (This is a book where even many of the footnotes are required reading.) I learned a ton, and feel I have a better handle now on how our society got to this place in which progressive ideas about sex and gender seem to be taking over (incidentally, Trueman made his case without using the term progressive much at all, if any).

This is not an easy read, at least not until you take the time to immerse yourself in the thought worlds and terms Trueman uses. In order to present his thesis Trueman relies on the work of three conservative 20th century philosophers–Philip Rieff, Charles Taylor, and Alasdair MacIntyre—and adopts their terminology to talk about what’s happening in our culture. The author defines his terms in the Introduction and the first two chapters. I wound up reading the Introduction and Chapter 1 twice. That really helped, because by then I felt I had a better handle on the categories and was able to proceed.

Trueman begins by saying his goal is to explain how the statement “I’m a woman trapped in a man’s body,” has become accepted as “coherent and meaningful” in the 21st century. He says if someone had said that to his grandfather, who died in 1994, a mere 30 years ago (and my own grandfather died the same year), his grandfather would’ve laughed and found the statement incomprehensible. So how, Trueman asks, did we get to the place where a statement like this is now understood by everyone and accepted as a credible claim?

Following Rieff and Taylor, Trueman argues that such a statement became believable because our culture has come to emphasize above all else the importance of the self and what Taylor calls expressive individualism. Of chief significance in our culture is the right of individuals to create and define their identity on no one’s terms but their own. Moreover, individuals now expect everyone else to affirm and agree with their chosen self-conception as a way of validating their sense of identity.  This is why mere tolerance of their views is no longer sufficient for advocates of the LGBTQ+ agenda; they now demand that everyone in society approve and agree with their preferred gender and sexual identity. The author also says the self has become psychologized such that victimhood is no longer seen merely in terms of physical harm or deprivation, but much of society now views criticism of one’s chosen identity as itself a form of psychological abuse from which individuals have a right to be protected. 

In the rest of the book Trueman traces the history of this exaltation of the self in Western culture over the last three centuries.  The story is a fascinating tour-de-force.  The author finds the beginnings of the modern focus on the self in the writings of 18th century philosopher Jean Jacques Rousseau. He traces the development of expressive individualism from Rousseau through the writings of 19th century Romantic poets like Percy Bysshe Shelly, the thinking of Karl Marx and Friedrich Engels, the nihilist philosophy of Friedrich Nietzsche, the psychology of Sigmund Freud, and the philosophy of mid-20th century Marxist thinkers like Wilhelm Reich and Herbert Marcuse.  Trueman also notes the influence of the surrealist movement, and the pornography of Hugh Hefner.  Trueman shows with convincing force how many of these thinkers saw sex as the key to authentic self-expression, and how they therefore viewed Christian teaching on sexuality as the chief obstacle preventing individuals and society from fully and freely expressing themselves (so you see where the animosity toward Christianity and the church comes in, and how early it comes in).  Furthermore, Trueman explains how key Supreme Court decisions also helped shape our current situation.

Not being that familiar with the specifics of philosophy or literature, I’m unable to critique Trueman’s thesis to know where he may have missed the mark or what he may have overlooked.  I found his arguments very enlightening and overall convincing.  I think he’s done Christians a tremendous service by acquainting us with developments in the secular world we may not have been aware of, and showing how they linked together to bring about our current cultural situation.  The most helpful aspects of the book for me were the sections on Marxism. I feel I now have a better understanding of just how much Marxism undergirds progressive thinking.

Despite how impressed I was with this book, I do see a few weaknesses in it. I don’t think Trueman succeeds very well in explaining how the thoughts of philosophers and poets whom the average person may not be that familiar with came to exert such influence on society at large.  For example, in one of the later chapters Trueman expounds on how influential he believes the surrealist emphasis on sexual iconoclasm was, and then suddenly jumps to talking about Hugh Hefner and pornography, but doesn’t show any direct connecting link between surrealism and porn.  Also, Trueman only occasionally hints at the impact the media and the entertainment industry had on culture. I think he could’ve explored this aspect a lot more to show how liberals utilized media and entertainment to achieve their ends.

Another weakness of the book is that it doesn’t talk much about the progressive emphasis on racial justice, which is arguably every bit as important as the progressive focus on the politics of gender and sexuality. However, an entire separate book could probably be written tracing the history of progressives and race, which is likely why Trueman didn’t try to tackle it in this book.  Maybe he or someone else will attempt such a work in the future.

At the end of the book Trueman looks at the dynamics within the LGBTQ movement and shows that it’s really not strongly united or cohesive, but instead is a loose and fragile coalition based around the common goal of overturning heteronormativity in our culture.  Trueman makes much of feminist/lesbian critique of both male homosexuality and the transgender movement. However, the sources Trueman relies on to make this case are 25 years old and more, so I don’t know how accurately it reflects feminist and lesbian thinking today. I think he could be vulnerable to a charge from his opponents that he’s commenting on a phenomenon that is no longer a factor.

In his epilogue Trueman makes some sobering predictions about the future which nonetheless  seem pretty accurate. He believes the LGBTQ movement has won the day and he doesn’t expect things to get better any time soon.  He also predicts that attacks on religious freedom will likely continue and may intensify.  There may be a ray of hope, though, at least regarding transgenderism, depending on how the conflict between feminists and transgenders plays out.

In the introduction Trueman notes that Christians are likely to explain our current cultural situation merely in terms of human rebellion against God, but he says his goal in the book is to delineate the specific ways in which these developments happened historically, the pattern of events that brought about this particular outcome in the culture. I do find it helpful, but all the same I think in the end it does come back to humanity’s tendency to avoid God and seek autonomy from Him.

If you’ve read The Rise and Triumph of the Modern Self feel free to share your thoughts in the comments.  Trueman has just published a new book entitled Strange New World: How Thinkers and Activists Redefined Identity and Sparked the Sexual Revolution, which I understand deals with the same material in more accessible form.  Those who are interested may want to try that book instead of this one.  Trueman says it’s also been updated to speak to the situation today.  I may read it for that reason.  Besides, it wouldn’t hurt me to review these ideas a second time.

Thoughts on “War of the Worlds”

When I was a youngster our local public library had an audio visual section where you could check out records and cassette tapes. They had a lot of music but they also had old radio shows from the days before television. My dad used to tell me about those old shows, so I checked a few of them out at his suggestion to see what they were like.

One of the old radio programs they had at the library was a 12 inch Long Playing vinyl record of the 1938 special radio broadcast of H. G. Wells’ War of the Worlds. I learned that this broadcast was legendary. It was created by famed actor and producer Orson Welles, who designed it like a real radio news broadcast of the day. They even played music between the fictional news segments to make it seem more believable. The program sounded so realistic that some listeners actually thought an alien invasion was happening.

Orson Welles’ broadcast of War of the Worlds on vinyl LP, just like the one I checked out of the library.

Intrigued, I took the record home and played it. I was mesmerized by the story, by the sound effects, and the real-sounding news broadcast format. In those days I was discovering an interest in science fiction. I checked the War of the Worlds record out of the library several times and listened to it over and over. I even bought a copy of Wells’ novel and tried to read it, but by that time the book was about 70 years old and the writing style was too old-fashioned to hold the interest of a 1970s pre-teen.

The copy of War of the Worlds I had was very similar to this one.

That was the extent of my interest in H. G. Wells and War of the Worlds for many years, though, as I said, I did develop an interest in science fiction after that (watching Star Trek as a first grader had helped with this).

When the 2005 War of the Worlds movie with Tom Cruise came out I went and watched it with some friends. I thought it was a pretty entertaining, modernized retelling of the story with state-of-the-art special effects.

A few years later when my dad asked me what I wanted for my birthday, I was searching for a 1950s movie of another favorite science fiction novel from my teen years entitled When Worlds Collide, by Kevin Balmer and Phillip Wylie. When I looked on Amazon I found one DVD that was a two-fer: It included When Worlds Collide as well as the 1950s version of War of the Worlds, and the price was just as good or better than if I bought When Worlds Collide by itself. It was too great of a deal to pass up! So with Dad’s blessing I ordered that DVD for my birthday (or was it Christmas?).

This is the DVD my dad got me for a gift.

After I obtained the gift Dad and I watched both movies. That was my first time to see the 1950s version War of the Worlds. I was surprised how creepy it was, despite the cheesy 1950s feel. I liked how the final segment of the film showed the characters gathered together in a church, waiting for the certain doom wrought by the Martians to descend upon them, with all the chilling sound effects. Then suddenly everything went silent, and they went outside to discover that the aliens were dead, killed by a simple human virus the Martians had no immunity against. With the church setting, the ’50s version hinted that the Martians’ demise had been an act of God, and I liked that.

Fast forward to just a few nights ago. I was flipping through the apps on the Roku looking for something interesting to watch, when on the Filmrise channel I came across a British 3-episode mini-series adaptation of War of the Worlds from 2019. I thought I’d check it out just to see how it was. I wasn’t expecting much, but to my surprise it caught my interest.

Of the versions I had seen this English one seemed the most true to what I remembered of the original novel. That’s not entirely surprising since the book was set in England in the early 20th century, just a few years after 1898, the year Wells published the story. Likewise, this 2019 TV adaptation was set in Edwardian England in the early 1900s, in the same locales Wells mentions in the book. The writers took some liberties with the story, taking a chapter from Wells own life in which he left his wife for a mistress, and writing that into the story. This particular version is a bit anti-Christian in some ways, one of which is to flaunt and justify this affair. I guess they were trying to bring in a flavor of Wells himself, but I didn’t like that aspect too much.

Nevertheless, I thought the presentation of the overall story was engaging. One bit of originality they added was to introduce a series of flash-forwards set several years after the main events of the novel, in which they reveal that after the Martians left, life didn’t return to normal, but the earth was forever changed, and was slowly becoming more like Mars. They suggested that one of the aims of the Martian invasion had been to terraform the earth to make it more like Mars (I guess you’d have to call that ares-forming the earth, or something like that. 😉 ). This storyline, though hard to grasp at first, added an intriguing and foreboding element to the film which I found interesting.

Placard for the 2019 British War of the Worlds miniseries.

The colossal fighting machines the Martians used to defeat the humans were presented fairly true to the book, and with today’s special effects the producers were able to make them seem pretty foreboding, especially with the sound effects used, which were downright creepy.

I enjoyed the miniseries pretty well. However, when I went online to read reviews of it I found that it’s generally been panned by viewers. Critics gave it slightly higher ratings. The main complaints were that it moved too slowly and that it didn’t really add anything new to the story. I’ll quibble with that last point, because it actually did add some new aspects to the story; but I guess they weren’t original enough to satisfy many of today’s viewers. For my part, though, I liked the fact that his version was closer to the book, and I felt the slower pacing fit well with the more relaxed pace of life a century ago, and also with the tone of the book, which is pretty slow and descriptive itself.

Watching that miniseries made me curious about the book. I had never finished it as a youth, and I wondered if I might find it easier to read at this stage in my life. The book is now in the public domain, so it was easy to go online and find a webpage containing the complete text.

I guess all the theological reading I’ve had to do over the years made me better prepared to read old books, because this time I found Wells’ novel very engaging.

It’s a very bleak story. Wells was for all intents and purposes an atheist, and the outlook of the book reflects an atheistic outlook on life.  Man is just an accident of evolution. The Martians are also a product of evolution who just happened to evolve sooner than man, so the Martians are vastly superior in science and technology.

Though the main character in the story attributes certain circumstances to God, practically speaking in the story there is no universally created morality which would cause the Martians to value sentient life. Earth is theirs for the taking. It’s survival of the fittest. As such the Martians have no intrinsic reason to care about man and they’re ruthless in their conquest. They’ll feed on what humans they need but the rest are just to be slaughtered without a thought or pang of conscience.  Man believes himself to be the crown of creation, but in fact, says Wells, this is only because man has not yet encountered a superior power capable of showing man his true insignificance. Again, it’s survival of the fittest.

Yet Wells also compares man’s conquest of the animal kingdom, as well as the European conquest of inferior powers, to the ruthlessness of the Martian invasion. In the story the Martians are a vehicle intended to expose man’s own ruthlessness. The Martian conquest is presented as poetic justice for man’s own cruelties, and specifically those of the British Empire.

The book is really a horror story dressed up like a science fiction novel. Even though the description of the Martians is kind of quaint and amusing by today’s standards, the ruthless destruction they wreak is truly chilling, and Wells’ descriptions are harrowing. There is copious murder (by the Martians), violence and gore, with lots of dead bodies everywhere described in a very matter-of-fact fashion. This matter-of-factness makes it all the more alarming. Man’s plight is portrayed as genuinely hopeless, and the sense of despair is palpable. In the end man is saved not by his own ingenuity, but by a stroke of luck or random chance: it so happens the Martians’ bodies are totally unprepared to fight off earthly diseases. This is all explained, of course, in terms of evolution.

So the message of the novel is that the human race and the earth, far from being the beneficiaries of divine providence and grace, are at the mercy of fickle fate, random chance, and natural selection.  Those like Wells who don’t believe in God (or in the Christian God, at any rate) convey the sense that the world and the universe are at the mercy of cruel chance, that we must be prepared for something terrible to happen at some point like the earth being flooded and fried by climate change, or the world’s population being decimated by a deadly zoonotic virus, or the world being invaded by hostile alien conquerors.

Reading War of the Worlds made me thankful there is a God, and that He is loving and beneficent; that He watches over this world with providential care, and that nothing can happen unless He allows it. It’s comforting to know that God “works out everything in conformity with the purpose of his will” (Ephesians 1:11) and that “in all things God works for the good of those who love him, who have been called according to his purpose” (Romans 8:28).

I read War of the Worlds mostly out of nostalgia and curiosity. I don’t think I want to read anymore of Well’s novels, though. I don’t find his pessimistic, atheistic perspective edifying.

Review of “J. Gresham Machen: A Biographical Memoir” by Ned B. Stonehouse

Stonehouse, Ned B.  J. Gresham Machen: A Biographical Memoir. Carlisle, PA: Banner of Truth Trust, 1987.

Machen bio book cover

I first learned about J. Gresham Machen in church history class during my initial year as a student at Princeton Theological Seminary in the 1980s.  This fact is wrapped in irony: Machen had been part of the “old guard” at Princeton who were forced out or resigned when the seminary was reorganized by the Presbyterian Church in the United States of America General Assembly in the late 1920s.  Princeton had been the last bastion of theological orthodoxy in that historic Presbyterian denomination, and several scholars there were engaged in a valiant fight against the rising tide of liberal theology, or “modernism.”  Machen was at the center of this controversy.  The Princeton Seminary I attended in the late ’80s was, of course, the post-reorganization Princeton, where we studied Machen as an artifact of history.  His seminal work, “Christianity and Liberalism,” was required reading as an example of the “fundamentalist” viewpoint of the early 20th century (and no doubt as an example of “old Princeton,” too). Yet for me the book became a lifeline to help sort through the theological morass I found myself in at modern-day Princeton.

Ned Stonehouse had studied under Machen at Princeton in the ’20s and then became one of the founding members of the faculty at Westminster Seminary, the school Machen and several colleagues started in 1929 after leaving Princeton.  Stonehouse was also one of the constituting members of the Presbyterian Church of America (later known as the Orthodox Presbyterian Church) founded by Machen and others in 1936 after being suspended from ministry in the Presbyterian Church in the U.S.A. for having started an Independent Board of Presbyterian Foreign Missions.  Therefore the author of this biography knew Machen personally as a mentor and friend during the last 10 years of Machen’s life, and the tone of the book is indeed that of an admiring protege.

Stonehouse’s narrative of Machen’s life is extremely thorough.  The book is 516 pages of small print with narrow margins.  The author provides a detailed account of every portion of his subject’s life, including his family background.  The most interesting part of Machen’s journey has to do with his involvement in the battle against theological liberalism in the 1920s and ’30s.  The first 300 pages of the book tell of his life prior to that time.  Sometimes the story of these early years is detailed to the point of tedium.  However, Machen’s fans will no doubt appreciate the care the author has taken in telling his life story.

Stonehouse relies heavily on Machen’s correspondence, which was quite voluminous.  At one point Stonehouse speaks of “thirty drawers of filing cabinets” that housed Machen’s letters, papers, and memoranda!  Gresham was very close to his mother and, according to Stonehouse, during his lifetime Machen exchanged over 1000 letters with her.   Machen’s correspondence with his mother, father, and other friends provide a unique and personal window into his private thoughts.  With these plus information drawn from contemporary magazine and newspaper articles and reviews; Machen’s books, articles, sermons, and pamphlets; as well as seminary and denominational records; the author constructs the portrait of Machen’s life.

Because the author relies so heavily on Machen’s own writings, the book concentrates chiefly on his inner life.  Machen’s outer accomplishments were many and impressive, but Stonehouse doesn’t focus on these; rather, they are alluded to more as incidental aspects of the larger story.  The weakness of this approach is that at times the greatness of the man is obscured by the stresses, anxieties, and struggles recorded in his private thoughts.  However, the other side of the coin is that an important figure is made more accessible through this revelation of his humanity.

Machen’s father was a lawyer, and though he struggled financially early in his career, by the end of his life he had done very well for himself.  In adulthood Machen inherited some modest funds from ancestors on both sides of his family.  Because of this and some other sources of income he wasn’t dependent solely on his meager salary as a professor.  Machen never married and during his 23 years on the Princeton faculty he lived in the dorm.  This frugal choice no doubt also reduced his expenses as well.  Machen was generous with his resources, using them to help others in times of difficulty, including a derelict he took under his wing during his Princeton years.  In the theological crises Machen’s financial situation likely made it easier for him to follow his conscience than perhaps some of his colleagues when time came to decide whether to leave or stay at Princeton after the reorganization in 1929.  Machen also invested a great deal of his own money in the fledgling Westminster Seminary.

Gresham received a classical education.  He attended Johns Hopkins University, where he merited an academic scholarship.  He excelled in his studies.  After college he spent a summer in Europe, then enrolled in Princeton Seminary in the fall.  The faculty there saw in Machen a promising student, and after graduation they asked him to consider staying on as an instructor in New Testament.

At this point Machen had not yet fully resolved his own faith convictions.  He was raised in the Presbyterian Church, U.S. (the “southern church”), but toward the end of seminary he spent a year studying in Europe, where he encountered theological liberalism for the first time.  This shook his nascent faith, a fact he was honest about in his letters to his parents.  For a time Machen wrestled with liberalism but eventually repudiated it.  This shows that Machen’s eventual embrace of Christian orthodoxy was not untested but had been proved in the fires of the European theological schools.

At the end of his time in Europe Machen accepted the teaching position at Princeton and returned there in 1906.  His initial commitment of one year eventually turned into 23 years.  Needless to say, he found his work with students in the New Testament department, as well as his scholarly pursuits, rewarding and enjoyable.

In the early years of his teaching career Gresham was still sorting out his personal faith, trying to discern his life’s calling.  Initially he balked at the idea of becoming an ordained minister.  It’s ironic to think that originally Machen merely accepted the job at Princeton because he didn’t know what else to do.  He really sort of backed into his career as a New Testament scholar; but he definitely had the gifts for it, and he was loved by his students.

Doing a little more research into Machen’s life, I came across this website at which a one-time student of Machen’s at Princeton and Westminster described his former teacher:   The article’s author describes Machen as a fun-loving, extroverted cut-up who lived in the dorm and who enjoyed fraternizing with the students on weekends.  We don’t see much of this Machen in Stonehouse’s biography.  Rather, the picture we get in Stonehouse is of an earnest, studious, sometimes-perplexed individual–so much so, that I mistakenly took Machen for an introvert when, based on the description offered by Coray above, it sounds like he was anything but.

Machen seems to have finally resolved the question of his life’s direction by 1913, at which time he sought ordination in the Presbyterian Church.  He was ordained in 1915.  From this point on Machen provided much fruitful labor for and in the church.  In addition to his seminary work he began writing Sunday School lessons for the denomination.  Over time he became a sought-after speaker in churches throughout the northeast; in his later years this extended to the entire country, and even the world.  Professor Machen became a tireless advocate for orthodox theology in his denomination, and for the fundamentalist movement in general.  (At this point I should explain that back in those days, the word “fundamentalist” wasn’t the pejorative term it is today; in Machen’s day a “fundamentalist” was simply someone who stood for the core or “fundamental” doctrines of Christianity, such as the infallibility of Scripture, the virgin birth of Christ, Christ’s substitutionary atonement, his bodily resurrection, the truthfulness of biblical miracles, and the future bodily return of Christ.)  At one point Machen also filled the pulpit at the First Presbyterian Church of Princeton, until certain prominent members began complaining about his bold defense of biblical orthodoxy from the pulpit.

During the 1920s, Machen’s public stand for biblical, supernatural Christianity and against liberalism brought him into increasing conflict with certain high profile leaders in the Presbyterian Church, some of whom were among his colleagues in the faculty and administration at Princeton.  The majority of the faculty were on Machen’s side; however, the president of the seminary and a few professors who had served as moderators of the General Assembly did not see eye to eye with Machen and his allies.  The seminary Board of Directors also sided with the conservatives but the Board of Trustees was dominated by a faction who were loyal to the seminary president.  A power struggle ensued in which the liberal sympathizers sought to eliminate the Board of Directors and consolidate their authority under the more sympathetic Trustees.

Until the mid-1920s orthodox Christianity still had the upper hand in the Presbyterian denomination, but through the ’20s Machen saw modernism gaining ground with each subsequent meeting of the General Assembly.  While the Assembly of 1923 had re-affirmed the fundamentals of the Christian faith (outlined above), in 1924, 1300 Presbyterian ministers signed the Auburn Affirmation, which claimed that requiring ministers to subscribe to specific fundamental points of doctrine went against the Presbyterian denominational constitution.  This development, along with the failure of subsequent General Assemblies to discipline the signers of the Affirmation, was seen by Machen as a watershed moment in which the modernists had prevailed.

Machen continued to fight against liberalism but with each passing year it seemed more and more like a losing battle.  Finally in 1929 the president and Board of Trustees at Princeton succeeded in maneuvering the General Assembly to reorganize Princeton Seminary to include liberal professors on the faculty.

Machen believed that to remain at Princeton any longer would be a capitulation to, and tacit approval of, modernism–something his conscience wouldn’t let him do.  He submitted his resignation and began working toward the establishment of a new seminary that would carry on the old Princeton tradition of solid Calvinistic orthodox Christianity.

Machen was saddened to learn that several of his stalwart conservative allies at Princeton did not share his conviction that the liberal reorganization of the seminary required them to resign.  Machen had already been disappointed by his denomination, and by the liberal element at Princeton.  Now he was let down by some of his closest friends who had fought modernism in the trenches with him.  Fortunately there were others, including many supportive laymen, who came to his aid in starting the new Westminster seminary.  He also found allies among some in the conservative Christian Reformed denomination, most notably Cornelius Van Til, who had been a colleague at Princeton, and whom Machen was eventually able to persuade to join the faculty at Westminster.

Machen’s disappointments weren’t over, though, and neither were his battles in the Presbyterian Church.  In the early ’30s it became increasingly apparent that the Presbyterian Board of Foreign Missions had embraced modernism.  A new book entitled “Rethinking Missions” questioned the evangelistic purpose of missionary work and instead called for a dialogue with other religions in which adherents of Christianity and other religions would work together to seek truth.  It became apparent that this kind of thinking was being promoted by some on the Presbyterian Mission Board.  Machen brought an overture before his presbytery calling for the Mission Board to repudiate liberalism and reaffirm its evangelistic purpose.  The overture was defeated.  Though it was eventually passed by some other presbyteries, it was rejected by the General Assembly.

When Machen saw that the Assembly wasn’t going to take any action against the Board of Foreign Missions, he worked with others in the denomination to start a new Independent Board of Presbyterian Foreign Missions.  The General Assembly and its judicial commission eventually responded that the Independent Mission Board violated the Presbyterian constitution and demanded that Machen and his cohorts dissolve the new board and pledge their loyalty to the official Mission Board.  When Machen and others refused, their ordination was suspended.

Machen decided it was time to leave the Presbyterian Church in the USA and form a new Presbyterian body founded on an orthodox interpretation of Scripture and a strict reading of the Westminster Confession.  This decision was also accompanied by disappointment as some of his dearest colleagues and friends chose not to leave the PCUSA with him.  The new denomination was originally called the Presbyterian Church of America, but the Presbyterian Church in the United States of America sued them to change their name and won, so the new denomination was renamed the Orthodox Presbyterian Church.  (Ironically, in 1973, when a group of conservative churches and ministers decided to break away from the Presbyterian Church in the United States, they chose as the name for their new denomination the “Presbyterian Church in America” (PCA)–very similar to the original name of Machen’s conservative denomination.  In a note of further irony, the PCA and the Orthodox Presbyterian Church are so similar doctrinally that the two denominations considered union for some years, but ultimately decided against it. )  The Orthodox Presbyterian church was formed in 1936; J. Gresham Machen died the following year, in 1937.

This biography has a sad ending.  The final years of Machen’s life were full of struggle, difficulty, and disappointment.  From about 1924 on, Machen experienced setback after setback in his fight against modernism in both the seminary and his denomination.  The triumph of liberalism in both the PCUSA and Princeton Seminary was a bitter disappointment which was compounded by the seeming defections from the cause by some of his closest friends and allies.  While the formation of the new seminary brought a welcome relief from the constant battles Machen had known at Princeton, the new school also struggled to acquire the faculty and financial resources needed to become a respected theological institution–a struggle which Machen himself bore the brunt of.  The increasingly bitter and more strident battles in the Presbyterian Church no doubt also took their toll on his frame of mind.

Though I’m sure Machen found joy in starting Westminster despite the stresses involved, the formation of the new denomination was a concession.  I imagine he would have much preferred his beloved PCUSA to have remained faithful to orthodox belief, and the suspension of his ordination was no doubt a major disappointment.  The founding of the new denomination must have been bittersweet for him.

Little medical explanation is given for the deterioration of Machen’s health in his final years.  He was only 56 when he died, which is young by today’s standards (it’s my present age), though the life expectancy wasn’t as long back in those days.  Medicine being what it was back then, they may not have known what caused his physical deterioration and death.  However, as I read about Machen’s last few years, I couldn’t help thinking that the strain of all the disappointments he experienced, plus the pressures of his ever-increasing responsibilities with the new seminary and denomination, may have been what did him in.

The ending of the book is sad because Machen had just begun two important new endeavors which he had in some sense worked toward all his life, and he didn’t live to see them through.  However, both Westminster Seminary and the denomination he helped found have continued to this day, 85 years later, as part of his important legacy.  His writings also live on, and while most of them have fallen into obscurity, Christianity and Liberalism still instructs Christians today.

In reading this biography I realized that what distinguished Machen from a lot of his contemporaries at Princeton and in the Presbyterian denomination was his firm unwillingness to compromise in any fashion with modernist Christianity or its supporters.  Perhaps more perceptively than his colleagues, Machen saw that liberal Christianity was not merely a different form of Christianity; it was in fact not Christianity at all, but an entirely different religion.  Machen saw modernist Christianity as a counterfeit unworthy of the name “Christian.”

This conviction informed all Machen’s actions.  Because theological liberalism was not Christianity but a fake, Machen strongly believed there could be no compromise with it on any level. 2 Corinthians 6:14-7:1 comes to mind:

14 Do not be bound together with unbelievers; for what partnership have righteousness and lawlessness, or what fellowship has light with darkness? 15 Or what harmony has Christ with Belial, or what has a believer in common with an unbeliever? 16 Or what agreement has the temple of God with idols? For we are the temple of the living God; just as God said,

“I will dwell in them and walk among them;
And I will be their God, and they shall be My people.
17 “Therefore, come out from their midst and be separate,” says the Lord.
“And do not touch what is unclean;
And I will welcome you.
18 “And I will be a father to you,
And you shall be sons and daughters to Me,”
Says the Lord Almighty.

7 Therefore, having these promises, beloved, let us cleanse ourselves from all defilement of flesh and spirit, perfecting holiness in the fear of God.

To put it in biblical terms, Machen felt that a compromise between orthodox Christianity and theological liberalism was an unequal yoking, a mixture of light and darkness, trying to bind together two incompatible religions.  Such a compromise would dilute Christian doctrine until it ceased to be Christian at all.  This was something Machen felt should not be allowed in any measure.  Therefore he felt it was impossible to compromise with those in the Presbyterian Church who failed to subscribe clearly to fundamental Christianity.

For this reason, Machen repeatedly called upon Princeton Seminary and the Presbyterian Church to repudiate modernism and to fully embrace the fundamental tenets of the Christian faith.  The hope was that ministers and seminary professors who professed liberal views would either leave the denomination of their own accord or, failing to do so, would be properly discipline by the church.  However, after 1923 every effort Machen and the other fundamentalists made to this effect failed.  The liberals had gained the upper hand.

Eventually Machen was faced with a dilemma: Do I stay at Princeton and in the Presbyterian Church even though they no longer require assent to the fundamentals of the faith, or do I leave and start a new group which will adhere to orthodox Christianity?  Machen felt constrained to choose the latter, while a number of his friends chose to continue their ministry in the now-ambiguous Presbyterian Church in the USA.  Machen’s unwillingness to compromise on the essentials of the faith is what set him apart.

As I read about Machen’s life, I felt I could identify with him in some small ways.  I can relate to his turn of mind pertaining to the Bible and theology.  I attended Princeton Seminary, and as I read about his life there it brought back my own memories of Princeton, though in a very different time.

And like Machen, I’ve also never married.  Gresham was incredibly close to his mother through his entire life.  The kindness and admiration they expressed for one another in their letters is remarkable.  They expressed their affection in flowery language which seems quaint today; and yet is also touching.  I’ve wondered if the reason Machen never married is because of his extreme closeness to his mother.

Something else that struck me about the book was the writing style, both of the book itself, and of the letters therein.  Machen, his friends, and his family expressed themselves with a politeness and courtesy which seems formal today.  They didn’t write in the casual language we use.  And yet there’s also a warmth and mutual respect in their letters.  Even though Stonehouse wrote his biography a little less than 70 years ago, his writing conveys something of the same felicity found in the writings of his subjects.

One slight criticism I have is that this biography suffers from the same problem true of many older biographies of Christian figures: It’s prone to hagiography; that is, a tendency to idealize the person and minimize or not acknowledge their shortcomings or faults.  Stonehouse was no doubt an admirer of Machen’s and that comes through in his writing.

Though the author knew Machen personally, he doesn’t include many of his own recollections.  Perhaps he wanted to make sure he didn’t intrude into the story.  Nevertheless, I think a chapter in which the author shared his own reminiscences of Machen would’ve made a nice conclusion to the book.

That said, Stonehouse has performed a wonderful service by providing such a thorough and well-researched account of Machen’s life.  I highly recommend it to those who are interested in learning more about this important man.

A Brief Review of “Safe People” by Cloud and Townsend

I just finished reading the book “Safe People” by Henry Cloud and John Townsend (the same authors who wrote “Boundaries”) and thought I would share a brief review.

Safe People Book Cover

I confess the title led me to believe it was going to be about how to get rid of all the unsafe people in your life. And I think the authors titled it that way intentionally; even the tag line of the book gives that impression.

As I read the book, though, and the descriptions of unsafe people at the beginning, I realized that a few of those traits even describe me. 😳 I think that’s the authors’ point: the line between “safe” and “unsafe” people isn’t so black and white. Because we’re all sinners, any of us might be “unsafe” or fall into “unsafe” behavior patterns from time to time. You can fall into them without even realizing it.

After describing the characteristics of unsafe people in part 1, the authors go on to examine the reasons we may be drawn to unsafe people in part 2. I found this section very revealing as well, for I saw a number of the tendencies they described in that section in myself. The last chapter of part 2 asks why we isolate ourselves, which is one of the tendencies that makes us more vulnerable to unsafe relationships. That chapter hit me right between the eyes. I do tend to isolate myself. They said some people isolate because they’ve lost the ability to feel their hunger for relationships. Ouch. That describes me more than I wanted to admit.

The final section of the book, part 3, describes the characteristics of safe people, and why we need them in our lives. They bring home the point that if we tend to isolate ourselves this really isn’t what we need; it’s a self-protection mechanism (my words) but it keeps us from getting what we really need, which is relationships with safe people. The book then goes on to look at how we can find safe people, and how we can become safe people ourselves.

In the last chapter of the book the authors ask the question: So what about the unsafe relationships in your life? Do you need to get them completely out of your life, or should you instead try to repair and rebuild those relationships? I started the book just wanting to get the unsafe people out of my life, but the authors make a strong case that this is never the ideal. They talk about how God is so much about relationships and how God goes out of His way to pursue relationships with broken, hurtful people, and the authors admonish us to follow God’s example.

The authors recommend ways to try to repair unsafe relationships. The main thing they advocate is: instead of simply abandoning the unsafe person, we should take a stand for our needs and values in the relationship. They say that often the person who’s being mistreated in a relationship can bring change to the way the other person treats them by standing up for themselves. So the authors recommend that ending a relationship is a last resort and should only be chosen as the solution when every effort has been made to stand up for oneself and hold the other person accountable, and still there is no change. They also recommend trying this for some amount of time rather than giving up at the first sign that it’s not working. They talk about how longsuffering God is toward us and say that we should be longsuffering toward one another as well.

In conclusion, “Safe People” is not an easy read. If you read it prayerfully with an open mind and heart, it will prod you to look more at yourself than at the people in your life who are causing you problems. It has definitely given me a lot of food for thought and prayer.

“Paul, Apostle of Christ” is a good movie that could’ve been better

Yesterday I finally got to see the new movie about the apostle Paul, entitled “Paul, Apostle of Christ.” My response to it is a mixed bag.

James Faulkner in Paul, Apostle of Christ (2018)

SPOILER ALERT: This review includes some spoilers. Proceed at your own risk.

From a cinematic standpoint it was pretty well done. Jim Caviezel puts in a good performance as Luke the physician, Paul’s traveling companion and author of the Gospel of Luke and the Acts of the Apostles in the Bible. The storyline is compelling, and the production is good. Visually the scenery is interesting and true to the historical background. In all these ways it’s better than your typical Christian film.

I didn’t know much about the movie going in. I had only scanned a single review of it, so I didn’t really know what to expect. What I did expect to see was a movie about the life of Paul based on the biblical book of Acts and Paul’s writings. I assumed it would tell the broad outlines of Paul’s story from his conversion to his death, hitting some major events along the way.

Instead, the movie focuses on the last few days or weeks of Paul’s life. The Bible doesn’t tell us exactly when Paul died, nor does it tell us how he died. Based on the little bit of evidence we do have from Scripture, found in Paul’s 2nd letter to his protege Timothy, it’s believed Paul was executed in Rome in the late 60s AD. Because Paul was a Roman citizen he most likely would have been spared a more grizzly death like crucifixion, as Roman citizens were not allowed to be crucified. For this reason it’s believed Paul was beheaded.

Many scholars believe 2 Timothy was written while Paul was awaiting execution in Rome, and this background provides the setting for the movie. The time is during emperor Nero’s reign of terror. Nero had burned the city and then blamed it on Christians. In supposed retribution Nero begins burning Christians alive at night to give light to the city. The movie portrays this and in doing so gives a realistic and chilling depiction of what the persecution of Christians was like under Nero.

In 2 Timothy 4:11 Paul says that Luke is with him, meaning most likely that Luke had come to visit him in prison. The story for the movie is built around this brief mention of Luke’s visit to Paul at Rome. Beyond that the story is more of a historical re-creation than actual history.

In the film Luke comes to visit Paul in prison. It appears Paul may soon be executed so Luke realizes he doesn’t have much time left. In addition to wanting to encourage Paul, his main reason for coming is to interview Paul about his life in order to put his story down in writing. Of course, the document Luke creates by the end of the movie is supposed to be what we now know as the book of Acts.

One would expect that the stories Paul tells about his life would be the focus of the movie, but actually that’s not the case. Jim Caviezel as Luke is really the movie’s star, and as such he gets a bit more screen time than Paul. Also, one of the movie’s subplots examines the Christian community in Rome headed by Aquila and Priscilla, a couple whose names appear six times in the New Testament. Luke stays with this community when he’s not with Paul and tries to help them decide how to respond to the persecution by the empire.

The movie takes some liberties there historically. While we do know from Acts 18:2 that Priscilla and Aquila were originally from Rome, they were forced to flea when emperor Claudius expelled the Jews from Rome, and we don’t know whether they ever returned there. In 2 Timothy 4:19, Paul asks Timothy to greet Priscilla and Aquila, implying they were with Timothy in another location (Ephesus?), rather than in Rome near Paul. Nevertheless, the depiction of the early Christian community in Rome at the time of Paul is both interesting and appealing, and probably pretty accurate historically overall.

Yet despite these side stories the filmmakers do use Luke’s interviews of Paul as a way of telling a couple key stories from Paul’s life through flashbacks, the most central being the story of his conversion. The film’s creators also choose a few key passages from Paul’s letters to put in his mouth as part of the dialogue. I was disappointed, though, that there wasn’t more emphasis on Paul’s life, ministry, and teaching.

Entirely absent, in fact, is any mention of Paul’s doctrine of justification by grace through faith, which is all the more surprising since it was to the church at Rome that Paul addressed his most thorough explication of that topic. The producer, director, and primary screenwriter for the movie is a Catholic, though, which may help explain this rather glaring omission.

In a video interview I found on youtube, the producers state that their intended audience is Catholics. They said Paul’s letters are read in the Catholic church most Sundays, but not read or studied much by individual Catholics, and so the filmmakers wanted to create a movie that would help Catholics learn more about Paul. They also said they wanted to create a movie that was less “vanilla” than most other Christian films they had seen, and more cinematically interesting to a younger audience. Overall I think they did achieve this goal.

The filmmakers referenced Mel Gibson’s “The Passion of the Christ” as a Christian-themed movie they liked (note that Gibson is also a Catholic). “Paul, Apostle of Christ” focuses on Paul’s last days just as “The Passion” focuses on Jesus’ final days. Perhaps the makers of the movie wanted this film to be for Paul what “The Passion of the Christ” was for Jesus.

The film’s portrayal of Paul misses the mark in some other ways, too. One small way is in the language Paul uses to talk about Jesus. In the film Paul always and only refers to him as “Christ.” Yet in Paul’s letters he almost always calls the Son of God “Christ Jesus,” “Jesus Christ,” or simply “the Lord.” Rarely does Paul call Jesus merely “Christ” in his letters. This is a small detail that could’ve added more authenticity to the movie.

Another instance in which the movie misses the mark in its portrayal of Paul comes in a scene toward the end. After the prison warden’s daughter is healed by Luke (see below), the warden is softened toward Paul and his message. As he and Paul are talking, he asks Paul “What if I still choose not to accept your Christ?” To this Paul replies “I’m not trying to persuade you to become a Christian” or words to that effect; I can’t remember the exact phrasing at this moment.

I felt this response was totally out of character for Paul. Paul’s entire life was devoted to persuading people of the truth of the gospel and actively trying to convince people to accept Christ as God’s messiah. In this pursuit he was a bulldog. He shared the gospel with everyone and he didn’t care who he offended, so important to him was this message and his belief that faith in Christ was the only way to escape the wrath of God. Moreover, in the book of Acts every time Paul has the opportunity to speak with a secular official he takes the opportunity to share the gospel with them (for instance see Acts 24 and also Acts 25:13 – 26:32). In 2 Corinthians 5:10-11 Paul writes these words: “For we must all appear before the judgment seat of Christ, that each one may receive what is due him for the things done while in the body, whether good or bad. Since, then, we know what it is to fear the Lord, we try to persuade men.” Paul was all about persuading people to accept Christ, so for him to say in the movie that he wasn’t trying to persuade the warden to become a Christian just didn’t ring true.

I felt the movie was lacking from a spiritual standpoint in a couple other ways, too. Just about the only time the characters are shown praying they all recite the Lord’s Prayer together. No prayers of a more extemporaneous or personal kind are expressed, except by Paul in some of his more desperate moments in his prison cell.

Likewise, one of the prominent story lines in the movie is about a daughter of the prison warden who is dying, and the best remedy Paul has to offer the warden is not prayers or gifts of healing, but merely to have Luke the physician come pay a house-call to the daughter. When Luke is finally able to visit her, no prayers are said. Instead the girl’s recovery is credited to Luke’s ingenuity as a doctor rather than to the power of God. In fact, the entire supernatural element in Paul’s ministry and early Christianity is very much downplayed, and the few times it is mentioned, it’s treated more like legend than reality. I felt this was a definite weakness of the film.

Despite the filmmakers’ expressed desire to appeal to a younger audience, the movie relies more on dialogue than action to tell its story. The flashback sequences are more artistic than action-oriented. For this reason, some viewers may find the movie to be a slow starter. But once the overall plot kicks in it becomes a pretty gripping tale.

To conclude, I thought “Paul, Apostle of Christ” was a good movie cinematically and artistically. Because the film is not heavy-handed spiritually and because it doesn’t offer platitudes or sentimentality I think it could offer a winsome portrayal of Christianity for non-believers. The film’s portrayal of the persecution experienced by the early church provides an important teaching moment for those who may not be aware of this aspect of Christian history. Yet I think the movie would’ve been better and more powerful if it had included more of the most interesting stories from Paul’s life and ministry; likewise I think it would’ve been more accurate if it had shared Paul’s central message about salvation by grace through faith in Christ. The movie would’ve been more compelling if it had shown us more of the supernatural power of Christ and the Holy Spirit which was expressed throughout the life and ministry of Paul, Luke, and others in the early church. Lastly, I think the movie would’ve been more meaningful if it had included heartfelt prayer as an integral part of the story.

What did you think of the movie?

“Where Was God??” The Perennial Problem of Evil and Suffering

One of the age old questions about religion and faith is: If God is all-powerful and truly good, then why is there evil and suffering in the world?  When people experience deep pain or tragedy in their lives or in the life of someone they love, often the question is asked: “Where was God??  Why did He let this happen??”

Do you remember the story of Eve and the serpent in the Garden of Eden from Genesis chapter 3?  In the previous chapter God had given Adam and Eve only one command:
“You must not eat from the tree of the knowledge of good and evil, for when you eat of it you will surely die” (Genesis 2:17).  The serpent succeeds in tricking both Eve and her husband into violating God’s command and eating from the forbidden tree, bringing untold misery on themselves and generations to come as a result of their disobedience.

The world and the garden God created for Adam and Eve were perfect.  They contained no evil.  There was no death, no disease, no sin, no misery, no suffering, no tragedy, no unfortunate accidents, no natural disasters.  It truly was a paradise.

Adam and Eve’s disobedience changed all that.  By obeying the serpent, Adam and Eve became enslaved to him.  Scripture tells us the serpent was really Satan, the enemy of God, in disguise (Revelation 20:2).  Satan’s goal was to thwart God’s plans by interfering in His new creation, and subjugate mankind to himself.  Sadly, it worked.

When Adam and Eve disobeyed God’s command, the entire nature of creation changed.  Everything was thrown out of kilter.  Paradise became a prison.  Through sin, evil, death, disease, suffering, and tragedy entered the world.  We have to understand that none of these things were in God’s original plan and purpose for the earth, and we have to understand that it was man’s disobedience to his Creator that brought them into existence.  Evil and tragedy entered creation because of us.  We brought it upon ourselves.  Or at least our first ancestors brought it upon us.  And we, as their descendants, inherited it all.

But not only did we inherit death, disease, and tragedy, we also inherited their sinfulness, and their guilt.  Once sin entered the world, it became natural for Adam and Eve to sin, and we inherited that trait.  Sin became natural for us as well.  Along with their tendency to sin, we inherited their guilt, too.

Genesis 3 tells us that Adam and Eve’s sin brought with it a curse, and that curse was passed on to all mankind.  That’s another reason bad things happen, because the unredeemed human race is under a curse (see Genesis 3:14-19).

Now the Bible tells us that God sent Jesus Christ into the world to redeem us from the curse.  Gal 3:13-14 says “Christ redeemed us from the curse of the law by becoming a curse for us, for it is written: ‘Cursed is everyone who is hung on a tree.’ 14 He redeemed us in order that the blessing given to Abraham might come to the Gentiles through Christ Jesus, so that by faith we might receive the promise of the Spirit.”  But we only receive freedom from the curse if we accept Christ’s remedy for it, his death and resurrection.  And by faith we must walk in the new freedom He gives us in order to experience it fully.

Now as we ponder that scene in the Garden between the serpent and Eve, we might think to ask, “Where was God?”  Where was God when the snake was telling Eve his subtle lies and she was buying it all hook, line, and sinker?  Why didn’t He show up and warn her “Don’t listen to him!!  He’s just deceiving you!!”?  Why didn’t God stop this awful tragedy from happening?  Especially when He no doubt knew its ramifications?  Surely God knew what would happen to His world and His new creatures if He allowed this to happen.  So why didn’t He intervene??

So you see, the age-old question “Where was God??” goes all the way back to the  Garden of Eden itself.

In fact, we could go so far as to ask, Why did God even put the Tree of Knowledge (and the serpent!) in the Garden in the first place??

The fact that God did these things tells us some important things about Him, and about us.  For one thing, it tells us God trusted us.  He told Adam and Eve what He expected, and then He trusted them to do it.

Genesis 1 says God made human beings in His image.  That’s not talking about a physical image but a spiritual image.  In his book Creation and Fall Dietrich Bonhoeffer says being made in the image of God means God gave us a will like His own will, and then entrusted us to use it.  He gave us choice.  He gave us freedom.  And God respected our freedom so much He didn’t force us to obey him, He left it up to us, and was prepared to deal with the consequences.  Part of the reason for this is that love is only real love if it’s freely chosen.  God wanted us to love Him, but he wanted us to be free to choose to love Him or not.  I imagine it broke His heart when we rebelled, even though He had to know it was going to happen; because He knows everything.

I am God, and there is no other;
I am God, and there is none like me.
I make known the end from the beginning,
from ancient times, what is still to come.
I say: My purpose will stand,
and I will do all that I please. – Isa 46:9-10

The fact that God left Eve and Adam alone in the Garden to choose to obey him or not also shows He’s not a control freak.  He doesn’t force us to make the decisions He’d like us to make.  This comes with respecting us, and respecting our choices, even when they are bad choices, and also allowing us to experience the consequences of those choices.  Let’s be honest, often it’s the bad consequences of our choices that humble us and cause us to realize we were wrong and to turn back to God in repentance.  “You were right, God, and I was wrong.  Your way really is the best way, though I refused to accept that for a long time.”

Another lesson from the story of the serpent and Eve is that God doesn’t always step in and rescue us from making bad or stupid choices, or even tragic choices.  God let Eve and Adam do what they were going to do and, as I said above, was prepared to deal with the consequences.  Thankfully he didn’t abandon us when we sinned but already had a plan prepared to redeem us.  In fact, the Bible says His plan of salvation was set up before the creation of the world.  He knew what was going to happen, and had planned for it in advance.  1 Peter 1:18-21 says

“For you know that it was not with perishable things such as silver or gold that you were redeemed from the empty way of life handed down to you from your forefathers, 19 but with the precious blood of Christ, a lamb without blemish or defect. 20 He was chosen before the creation of the world, but was revealed in these last times for your sake. 21 Through him you believe in God, who raised him from the dead and glorified him, and so your faith and hope are in God” (emphasis added).

Before the creation of the world God had already chosen Christ to be the one who would save us from our sins.

And yet Christ didn’t come immediately after the fall.  Several thousand years passed between the time Adam and Eve sinned and Christ came into the world to rescue us.  This shows that God’s timetable is not the same as ours.  Most likely we would have rushed in to repair things as soon as we saw a problem, but God had other plans and purposes to fulfill.  But then again, 2 Peter 3:8 says “With the Lord a day is like a thousand years, and a thousand years are like a day.” God is not bound by time as we are so from his perspective it may have seemed as though the time between Adam’s fall and Christ’s coming was just a few days.  At any rate, Scripture says God had an appointed time for Christ to come, and He was right on time.

The big picture in all this is that the God we are dealing with is good and just.  We may not understand everything He does, or all He allows, but we can trust that He’s good and will ultimately deal with every person and every situation wisely, justly, and fairly.  Everyone is going to get a fair shake from God.

Also, God is totally and completely sovereign.  That means that, even though He’s not a control freak, He is in complete control.  God and Satan are not equals battling it out for the souls of men.  Satan was created by God and so God is superior to Him in every way. (To explain: Satan was originally the archangel Lucifer, one of the highest angels, created good.  He became prideful and rebelled against God, trying to usurp God’s place in Heaven.  A third of the angels rebelled along with Lucifer.  There was an attempted coup in heaven, but God was more powerful and overthrew Lucifer and kicked him and his cronies out.)

God will have His way, which is a good way.  When Christ died on the cross and then rose from the dead, Satan was defeated once and for all, and provision was made for mankind to be restored to God, through faith in Christ.  When Jesus returns to the earth in bodily form he will defeat the evil that remains on the earth and set up his eternal kingdom.  The Bible says God has given Jesus the name that is above every name, and that every knee will bow and every tongue will confess that Jesus Christ is Lord, to the glory of God the Father (Philippians 2:9-11).

I want to close my reflections on this topic with a story from the Bible about someone who experienced deep suffering.  The book of Ruth tells of Naomi, an Israelite from the tribe of Judah.  During a time of famine, Naomi along with her husband and two sons move to the neighboring country of Moab to find food.  While they’re living in Moab, Naomi’s husband dies.  Some years after that Naomi’s two sons die.  Now, I think having a child die must be one of the worst things a person can go through.  It goes against the natural of order of things.  Every parent expects their children to outlive them, and when this doesn’t happen, it’s just devastating.  People who have lost a child experience a kind of hell I doubt anyone else can understand.

Naomi went through this hell not once, but twice.  When she and her daughter-in-law Ruth (who has also lost her husband, one of Naomi’s two sons) finally return to Israel all her friends are excited to see her and exclaim “Naomi!  Can it really be you?!!”

Naomi replies, “Don’t call me ‘Naomi'” (which means “pleasant”) “…Call me ‘Mara,'” (which means “bitter”) “because the Almighty has made my life very bitter. I went away full, but the Lord has brought me back empty. Why call me Naomi? The Lord has afflicted me; the Almighty has brought misfortune upon me.”  Naomi was very bitter about all she had lost, and she blamed God.  And who can fault her?  She went through probably one of the most painful losses a human being can experience.

Naomi loved her daughter-in-law Ruth, though, and did what she could to help Ruth find happiness again.  She introduced Ruth to her kinsman Boaz.  Ruth and Boaz fell in love and got married, and Ruth conceived a son.  This brought joy to Naomi’s life again, as she got to help raise the child.  Naomi’s story ends on a hopeful note:

“The women said to Naomi: ‘Praise be to the Lord, who this day has not left you without a kinsman-redeemer. May he become famous throughout Israel! 15 He will renew your life and sustain you in your old age. For your daughter-in-law, who loves you and who is better to you than seven sons, has given him birth.’ 16 Then Naomi took the child, laid him in her lap and cared for him. 17 The women living there said, ‘Naomi has a son.'” – Ruth 4:14-15

Naomi never got her husband or her sons back.  But she did learn to find joy and comfort again in the good things God brought her way.  And she did what she could to make the lives of those she loved more meaningful.

Our circumstances may not change.  When suffering comes into our lives, we can choose to become bitter, or we can make the choice to become better, with God’s help.  The path of bitterness only hurts us.  Taking our hurts and our pain, even our anger, to God is really the only way to deal with tragedy, suffering, and pain.  There’s really only two choices: You can deal with your pain by yourself, or you can ask God to help you with it.  Thankfully, we can trust that God is good, kind, loving, and just, and will do what is good and right and fair according to His infinite and unknowable wisdom.

If we know Jesus Christ, then we have the Holy Spirit as a companion in our sufferings.  In the gospel of John the Holy Spirit is called the Paraclete.  This Greek word can be translated several different ways, but one of those ways is “comforter.”

15 If ye love me, keep my commandments. 16 And I will pray the Father, and he shall give you another Comforter, that he may abide with you for ever; 17 Even the Spirit of truth; whom the world cannot receive, because it seeth him not, neither knoweth him: but ye know him; for he dwelleth with you, and shall be in you.

18 I will not leave you comfortless: I will come to you. 19 Yet a little while, and the world seeth me no more; but ye see me: because I live, ye shall live also. 20 At that day ye shall know that I am in my Father, and ye in me, and I in you. – John 14:15-20

25 These things have I spoken unto you, being yet present with you. 26 But the Comforter, which is the Holy Ghost, whom the Father will send in my name, he shall teach you all things, and bring all things to your remembrance, whatsoever I have said unto you.

27 Peace I leave with you, my peace I give unto you: not as the world giveth, give I unto you. Let not your heart be troubled, neither let it be afraid. – John 14:25-27

2 Corinthians 2 also tells us that when we go through suffering, God is there to comfort us, and then we have an opportunity to comfort others who are going through something similar:

3 Praise be to the God and Father of our Lord Jesus Christ, the Father of compassion and the God of all comfort, 4 who comforts us in all our troubles, so that we can comfort those in any trouble with the comfort we ourselves have received from God. 5 For just as the sufferings of Christ flow over into our lives, so also through Christ our comfort overflows. – 2 Corinthians 1:3-5

For more on the story of Naomi and reflections on how to face suffering in this life, check out the book Shattered Dreams by Larry Crabb.

For Shirley.

My Reaction to the “Hunger Games” Trilogy

With the release of the last “Hunger Games” movie I thought this post from last year might be of interest to some.

Morgan Trotter

(This is not a review, nor is it a plot summary.  There are plenty of those to be found all over the internet, I’m sure.  This is just my unadulterated response to reading the Hunger Games trilogy [The Hunger Games, Catching Fire, and Mockingjay by Suzanne Collins].  This will probably only make sense if you’ve read the books, or at least seen the movies.  [Warning, if you haven’t read all three books, there will be some spoilers below.])

Hunger GamesAfter seeing Catching Fire, the second Hunger Games movie that just came out, I became interested in the story of Panem and decided to read the books. I just finished the trilogy. Yes, I know.  As usual, I am way late to the party.  As I recently posted on Facebook, I tend to live my life on the trailing edge.  But that’s a topic for another…

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Priscilla Shirer breaks down what it means to put on the FULL armor of God

Here’s a great post from my friend Heather.


If you’ve never had the opportunity to sit under the teaching of Priscilla Shirer you are flat out missing out. This woman is empowered, y’all. Like Yoda said about about Luke, “The force is strong in this one.” And by force I mean Holy Spirit. She’s got an anointing, that’s for sure.

She was in my hometown a few months ago presenting a simulcast that was broadcast live around the world, and I and several thousand others were so fortunate to have attended this day of worship and teaching in person and in my city!

She taught from Ephesians on the armor of God, giving us a battle plan for victory and teaching us how to push the enemy back and take back what he’s stolen.

Stop right there. Take back what he’s stolen. Hmm. He’s a thief. But just what has he stolen from me? I wrote down a few things:…

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Book Summary – “Foundations of Exchanged Life Counseling” by Richard F. Hall

Hall, Richard F. Foundations of Exchanged Life Counseling. Englewood, CO: Exchanged Life Ministries, 1998.

Hall, Richard F. Foundations of Exchanged Life Counseling. Englewood, CO: Exchanged Life Ministries, 1998.

This is the third of three book summaries I had to write for a class on Discipleship Counseling I’m taking through my church.  The first summary can be found here, the second right here.  The third book we had to read has the captivating title Foundations of Exchanged Life Counseling by Richard F. Hall.  It is somewhat of a brief textbook for the type of biblical counseling in which we’re being trained.

Explained briefly, the term “exchanged life” refers to the idea that when we place our trust in Jesus Christ for salvation, he takes our sin, death, and selfishness and in exchange gives us forgiveness, life, and a loving heart.  Hall says the exchanged life involves exchanging our self-centered approach to living for a new approach in which we live for Christ.

Here is my brief summary of the book.  I’ve included a few explanatory comments in [brackets].

  1. Each person is made up of three parts: the spiritual (i.e., spirit), the psychological (i.e., soul) and the physical (i.e., body).  An unsaved person operates out of the psychological part of themselves. For a Christian, the spiritual aspect is the essence of who they are.
  2.  [This “tri-partite” view of the person is based on the following Scriptures: 1 Thessalonians 5:23 ~ “May God himself, the God of peace, sanctify you through and through. May your whole spirit, soul and body be kept blameless at the coming of our Lord Jesus Christ.   And Hebrews 4:12 ~ “For the word of God is living and active. Sharper than any double-edged sword, it penetrates even to dividing soul and spirit, joints and marrow; it judges the thoughts and attitudes of the heart.”]
  3. The primary cause of problems in people’s lives is living life out of their own resources rather than in dependence on God.  [This way of living is known in the Bible as “living by the flesh.”  The apostle Paul uses the term “flesh” in a unique way, not to refer to our physical bodies but rather to speak of that part of us that is drawn to sin and opposes God. Key passages in which Paul uses the term “flesh” this way are Romans 7:14-8:17 and Galatians 5:16-25.]  Sin and the flesh are the source of people’s problems.  Living out of the flesh is a self-centered approach to life and ultimately detrimental.
  4. There are certain qualification a person needs to meet in order to be an exchanged life counselor.  First and foremost, they must have a personal experience of salvation through Jesus Christ.  They also need to be totally surrendered to the Lordship of Christ.  The exchanged life counselor needs a good overall knowledge and understanding of Scripture, as well as training in communication skills.  Finally, he or she should meet the qualifications for Christian leadership outlined in 1 and 2 Timothy and Titus.
  5. As with most counseling methods, exchanged life counseling begins with the client’s presenting problem–their stated reason for seeking counseling. The counselor then takes the client’s personal history.  This helps the counselor get to know the client. It also helps both counselor and client identify unhelpful patterns the client follows to deal with life.
  6. After the client’s problem is presented and a personal history is taken, the first step in the actual counseling process is a presentation of the salvation message if necessary, for this is the foundation of the entire method. The second step is to acquaint the client with their former identity “in Adam”–that is, the way they were as a fallen, sinful, and unredeemed person when they were born into this world. The third step is to help the client understand his or her new identity in Christ.  [The assumption is that we are all born “in Adam” but when we accept Christ we are born again, or “born from above” (see John 1:12-13 and John 3:1-21).  From that moment on we are no longer in Adam, but we are now in Christ.]
  7. The counseling method presented in the book has six steps: A) Assess the problem. B) Learn the client’s social history. C) The connection needs to be drawn between the presenting problem and the client’s past living patterns. D) The client is taught about his/her identification with Christ. E) The client is led to appropriate his or her identity in Christ. F) Further areas need to be dealt with that relate to the issue at hand.
  8. Exchanged life counseling techniques include: A) Preparation – through prayer, reviewing previous counseling sessions, and relaxation. B) Attentive communication skills, listening. C) Observation, concreteness, respect, and empathy. D) Confrontation, self-disclosure, and immediacy. E) Genuineness. F) Use of visual aids such as charts or diagrams which illustrate the truths being taught. G) Appropriate use of Scripture. H) Homework tailored to the client’s needs.
  9. The primary goal of exchanged life counseling is that the client come to understand and experience his or her identity in Christ and apply this understanding to life’s problems. Sub-goals to this primary goal include: A) Helping the client grow in Christ-like-ness. B) Helping the client grow to spiritual maturity. C) Seeing the fruit of the Spirit (Galatians 5:22-23) start to emerge in the client’s life. D) Helping the client experience freedom in Christ’s life.
  10. Exchanged life counseling is founded on certain theological concepts: A) The Bible as the infallible source of authority. B) The doctrine of man and sin. C) The doctrine of salvation. D) The doctrine of sanctification.

In conclusion, Foundations of Exchanged Life Counseling serves as a good summary and explanation of what exchanged life counseling is all about. As such it serves as a good resource to consult over and over again.  My one criticism of the book is that it’s very conceptual and therefore mostly abstract.  The author doesn’t take time to illustrate the concepts.  It would be very helpful if the author would release a later edition in which illustrative material is added to flesh out the concepts.  However, the book does include a number of drawings which could be used in counseling sessions to help explain concepts to the client.  All in all the book is a good beginning resource for exchanged life counseling.