The Pursuit of Mutual Encouragement: A Mark of Spiritual Maturity

I hadn’t noticed it until recently, but Paul says something unexpected in the first chapter of Romans. The apostle first introduces himself to the church (1:1), then underscores his theological and spiritual credentials (1:2-7), and expresses his genuine love for the believers in Rome (1:8). Paul longs to see these brothers and sisters, and he reports that he has prayed toward that end (1:9-10).

Paul had good reasons why he wanted to see the Christians in Rome; he desired to strengthen them through the impartation of a spiritual gift (1:11) and the preaching of the gospel (1:15). That makes sense. What I find remarkable is what Paul says immediately following verse 11.

For I long to see you, that I may impart some spiritual gift to strengthen you–that is, that we may be mutually encouraged by each other’s faith, both yours and mine (Romans 1:11-12; emphasis added).

What is stunning about this highlighted sentence is that it came from the most eminent and gifted of the apostles. Paul’s commission from the living Christ, his profound theological insight into the Old Testament Scriptures and the gospel, and his vast missionary experience would have put him leagues beyond these lowly Romans. Certainly, they had much to learn from him, but in what ways could he be encouraged by their faith?

But this question itself is probably an expression my own pride and spiritual immaturity. See, I am wired to think of spiritual maturity as a kind of spiritual superiority. Biblically, however–from the Proverbs through the New Testament–spiritual maturity expresses itself in the keen ability to learn from and be encouraged by all Christians, whether those Christians are older or younger in age or in the faith. In other words, the more mature we get, the more humble we become, and this humility will manifest itself in the ability to receive wisdom and instruction from anyone, regardless of age.

I was reminded of this important truth when our college ministry gathered a few weeks ago to honor our graduates. About mid-way through our “Senior Night,” a fellow leader—a local physician and graduate of Stanford University, thirteen years my senior with significant ministry and teaching experience–stood up to say a few words to two graduating members of his small group.

A good portion of his address, however, characterized Paul’s spirit in Romans 1:12. This leader confessed that over the past year he had learned as much from them as they, he was sure, had learned from him.

What? Surely he had misspoken. These young brothers were his disciples, not the other way around. He had faithfully taught them the Scripture every week over the past academic year; they weren’t instructing him during these weekly Bible study sessions.

But he had been instructed. He confessed he had learned much from the example of one young man’s sober-minded approach to his academic work, his labor as a collegiate athlete, and his life as a Christian. He thanked the other brother for his example of gentleness and mentioned his own need to grow in this area.

This wasn’t pseudo-humility; this was spiritual maturity, expressed in this leader’s total indifference about being recognized for his superior knowledge or piety. He was at least thirty years older than either of these young men and had a grasp of the Scripture that surpassed the most diligent disciple in the group. No matter: he desired to be encouraged by their faith just as much–and probably more so–than they did by his.

This is wisdom. This is the mark of spiritual maturity. Spiritual superiority had no place with the apostle Paul, and it should have no place with us. Humility opens vistas of wisdom, learning, and spiritual growth for the disciple of Christ, and we will know we are moving in the right direction when it is easy for us—like it was for Paul and this local doctor—to be encouraged by another Christian’s faith.

Screen Time and the Christian

The dawn of the iPhone ten years ago, in the words of its chief inventor Steve Jobs, was a revolutionary event. It created a whole new category of personal technology that would, by itself, establish an entire industry within the global marketplace. The iPad, introduced two-and-a-half years later, would also prove transformative to the personal technology industry, again creating a new category broadly known as the tablet. Immediately after their respective unveilings, the iPhone and iPad prompted companies worldwide to produce similar products in order to gain a share in this new market. Presently there are approximately 2.6 billion smartphone users and 1 billion tablet users in the world.

For individuals, these products have not only changed the way we communicate and learn and seek entertainment; these touch-screen devices have changed the way we think about each of these areas of life. After a decade, we can say that in a very real way, the smartphone and tablet are not merely changing the things around us; they are changing us.

The Gift of Smartphones and Tablets
Smartphones and tablets are excellent tools. They enable us to communicate quickly and efficiently with our friends, family, and work colleagues through text messages, email, and face-to-face video. They allow us to be more productive by providing organizational resources and a multitude of industry-specific applications that enhance and streamline our work. Smartphones and tablets can be used for educational purposes by supplying books, videos, and programs that enrich, teach, and edify. We can track our exercise and food consumption for the sake of our health. We can catalog our home library, learn Spanish, store and retrieve notes, and maintain a blog. We can take pictures and record videos. We can listen to music and Podcasts and sermons. And we can do each of these things with the ease of simply touching a few buttons on a screen. Amazing.

Christians should be thankful to God for these good gifts. I don’t believe God intends us to use our smartphones and tablets begrudgingly or hesitatingly, as though they were evil but helpful tools that allow us to navigate life in this world. In His good providence, God has enabled men and women to develop technology that can be used to help us grow spiritually, serve others, be productive in good works, and, in many ways, just make life a whole lot easier. For each of these things we can be thankful to our gracious Creator.

Thinking Carefully About This Kind of Technology
Yet, because of our own sin and our residence in a fallen world where man’s bent is to misuse and abuse God’s good gifts, we must give careful thought to these clever devices. First, we must think rigorously over our use of this kind of technology because of its great potential for good and for evil. I’ve already mentioned many of the positive uses we can find for our smartphones and tablets, but there are a host of negative uses for these devices as well. These devices can distract us from our responsibilities, open doors to pornography, and drown us in frivolous entertainment.

Second, we need to pay attention to how we use our smartphones and tablets because this technology has become utterly pervasive in our lives. It is likely that nearly every person reading this article is in possession of a smartphone or a tablet, or both. It is no longer possible to avoid thinking about how we, as Christians, should use this kind of technology because it is now firmly embedded in our lives, and it’s here to stay.     

Beyond “Screen Time”
There is much debate about the effects that personal technology like smartphones and tablets have on children and adults. Much of this debate has been framed around the issue of “screen time” and how much of it should be allowed for people based on their age. What is becoming clear, however, is that the category of “screen time” is no longer helpful in determining how we should think about and use our personal technology. In fact, “screen time” may never have been a useful category because limiting our discussion to a formula (e.g., a three-year-old can handle one hour of screen time, a seven-year-old can handle more) tends to circumvent the discernment process. The issue is not so much with how much time we are on the screen but what we are doing with it.

Using the Screen for Good
For example, much of our work requires that we spend a significant time each day looking at a computer screen. In my case, editing and writing articles and books, working on teaching and preaching material, writing and responding to emails, maintaining and updating our church’s online presence, conducting research, and recording notes from personal study for later retrieval all require screen time. In each area, however, I am using the screen for productive and creative purposes that will immediately or eventually benefit others. I can also use my laptop or my iPad for edificatory and educational purposes. Because I am a pastor, these enrichment uses often intersect with the productive purposes.   

Similarly, a child can use an iPad to learn how to read, how to solve fractions, how whales use sonar, or how Paul escaped the angry Jewish leaders in Acts 9:22-25. But the tablet can also be used for creative purposes like drawing and writing, and, for older children, music development and video editing.   

Personal technology also provides us with opportunity for wholesome entertainment. We can watch an NBA basketball game, an interesting documentary, a wholesome television program, or a BBC mini-series. We can play fun games like Angry Birds. We can even watch that funny YouTube video about Charlie biting his brother’s finger and laugh with delight.

Our devices also allow us to interact with our friends and family. We can text, send emails, or talk to each other over video. We can engage each other on Facebook, Twitter, and Instagram.    

In each of these areas, it is not enough to simply restrict or expand the quantity of our screen time. We must ask if we are using our personal technology for the glory of God (1 Cor 10:31). Using our iPhones and iPads for wholesome educational and enrichment purposes is good. We are consuming media rather than producing something, but if the content is spiritually and intellectually nutritious, then our minds and hearts will benefit. But we can also use these devices to reflect our Creator by crafting poems, drawings, short stories, videos, and music. And in moderation, we can enjoy some wholesome entertainment.      

Beware of Avoidance
It is possible, however, to yield to our technology in a way that does not bring glory to God or serve our neighbor (Matt 22:37-39). One way we do this is by using technology to avoid our responsibilities. When faced with a difficult chore or project or conversation, we all know how easy it is to turn to our smartphone or tablet to carry us away from our tasks and troubles. But this is a form of unhealthy escapism, and it only harms our souls and keeps us from loving our neighbor. It is also a sign of spiritual sloth (see Prov 22:13). We must be aware of our tendency to use technology to avoid what God has given us to do.

Beware of Addiction
Similarly, we can become addicted to our technology. This addiction usually expresses itself in our inability to go more than a few minutes before we check our phone—whether we are looking at email, social media, or the latest basketball score—and it often coincides with our desire to escape from a particular situation or emotion (see above).

By constantly yielding to the urge to look at our phones, we have trained our minds and hearts to “need” these digital “fixes” in order to feel as though we can function properly (whether we are aware of this need or not). What’s most devastating about these habits is that they are ultimately an expression of idolatry. We are looking to our phones to provide the mental comfort and strength that only Christ can provide (see Jer 2:12-13). If you are unable to keep yourself from looking at your phone every few minutes, or if you find yourself checking your phone first thing every morning, you are probably in the throes of smartphone addiction. Over time, this addiction will fragment your mind, numb your heart, and render you insensitive to spiritual realities because you have replaced God with an idol (see Is 44:17-20).

Beware of Abdication
Finally, it is possible for parents to use their personal technology in order to evade their responsibility to love, teach, and disciple their children. In this case, the tablet or smartphone can distract the parent from their parenting tasks, or these devices can be given to a child so that the parent can have some undistracted time to focus on other things. In this latter case, it is all too easy to allow our kids to be merely entertained by the screen rather than learning from or producing something with it.

Again, the problem is not with screen time per se, but with the kind of screen time and the motives behind setting the screen in front of our children. If we find ourselves regularly looking at our phones while in the presence of our children or in order to provide temporary relief from the pressures of parenting, we are in danger of neglecting our children. The same holds true if we are constantly placing the tablet in front of our kids so that we can escape to some form of entertainment (on another device). Satan is prowling around looking to devour our children, so we must be watchful (1 Pet 5:8). And it is impossible to be watching for Satan when we are watching replays of last night’s game or scrolling through Facebook for an hour.

Smartphones and tablets are a gift from the Lord to be used for His glory and our good. But using these devices for God’s glory and our benefit requires that we think carefully, constantly, and biblically about how and why we are using them. This is hard work, but it will pay off. We will grow spiritually, produce good works, and guard our children against the wiles of our great enemy.

Is That in the Bible? | “Bloom Where You’re Planted”

It wasn’t until I was in high school that I began to notice my mom would often repeat a proverbial phrase in response to my anxious musings about the future. “Bloom where you’re planted,” she would quip as I worried openly about what I should do with my life. I wasn’t a Christian at the time, and I was right in the thick of my teenage years, so these sayings—she had a host of others—would, to borrow another idiom, “float in one ear and out the other.” What hath horticulture to do with a young man’s concern over the future?

When I trusted Christ during my sophomore year of college, my passion for the Scripture turned insatiable. I desired to know the truth and talk about it with others. My parents were already Christians, so it was natural that our conversations would often turn to the Bible. It was sometime after my conversion that I was talking with my parents, probably pondering over concerns about the future, when my mom again unearthed her agricultural wisdom: “Bloom where you’re planted.” But this time she added, “Where is that in the Bible?”

Continue reading “Is That in the Bible? | “Bloom Where You’re Planted””

Can I Date an Unbeliever?

Ever since my first ministry post as a middle school ministry director in 2003, I’ve dealt regularly with Christian folks who want to know if it is acceptable for them to date an unbeliever. Often (but not always), those who are pondering this question readily acknowledge that the Bible says a Christian cannot marry a non-Christian. Nevertheless, they believe they can move down this path because (1) the Bible does not forbid dating an unbeliever; or (2) their romantic relationship can serve as a means of evangelism to the unbelieving boyfriend or girlfriend; or (3) their situation is unique; (4) a combination of some or all of the above. Continue reading “Can I Date an Unbeliever?”

Age, Humility, and Discipleship

Discipleship, in the words of Mark Dever, is helping another person follow Jesus. Said another way (by Dever): Discipleship is doing deliberate spiritual good to another Christian.

Jesus commands Christians to make disciples (Matt 28:18-20), and Christians should count it a privilege to come alongside others to aid them in their walk with the Savior. We should also receive discipleship from others with gratefulness and a desire to learn. In light of Christ’s command in Matt 28:18-20 and, for that matter, the entire structure of the New Testament where believing relationships are an indispensable means of spiritual growth (e.g., Rom 15:14; Heb 3:12-15), discipleship should be central to our individual Christian lives and our corporate church life. Continue reading “Age, Humility, and Discipleship”

Reacquaint Yourself with the Trinity

How familiar are you with the Trinity? I’m not asking whether you believe that God is Triune. I’m asking how often you ponder and delight in the reality that your Creator and Savior is One God in three Persons. For many of us, the doctrine of the Trinity appears too lofty and complex for us to engage. We believe it, but we’ve never sought to think carefully through the theological nuances and practical implications of this biblical teaching. In this brief article, I want to reintroduce you to the Trinity and help you see how glorious and practical this doctrine is. Let’s start in the Old Testament. Continue reading “Reacquaint Yourself with the Trinity”

Which Paul Is It? An Argument for Paul’s Christian Experience in Romans 7:14-25

Romans 7:14-25 is one of the most debated passages in the Bible. There are three major positions that have vied for interpretational prominence over the years. One view sees Paul’s description of his struggle with sin as his pre-conversion experience. The other sees Paul’s description as his post-conversion experience. A third—articulated by Martyn Lloyd-Jones—argues that we ask the wrong question if we inquire about Paul’s spiritual status in Romans 7:14-25. Rather, as the Doctor asserts, Paul is explaining what happens when someone pursues sanctification according to the law rather than by the Spirit. Each of these positions has been articulated and defended by skilled and sound exegetes, a fact which makes me recognize, again, how demanding the task biblical interpretation really is.

I do not want to enter into the intricacies of the debate in this post. Rather, I only want to offer my defense of a post-conversion reading.  That is, I believe Paul is describing his Christian experience in Romans 7:14-25. Here’s why. Continue reading “Which Paul Is It? An Argument for Paul’s Christian Experience in Romans 7:14-25”