Sin, Grief, and Home

I’ve been rereading Marilynne Robinson’s Gilead books to prepare for the latest installment, Jack, which was published in the fall. I recently finished the second volume, Home.

This book is an extended meditation on the parable of the Prodigal Son. Yet there’s a twist in this retelling.

In the parable, the son returns, there is a big party, and the focus shifts to the older son and his bitterness. In Robinson’s Home, Jack (the son) returns, but he cannot stay. There is too much in his past that haunts his old house, town, and family for him to remain.

Unavoidable Grief

Home made me ponder the grief of the sinner in new ways. Jack made so many mistakes in his youth that his reputation hangs like a fog in the town. And he feels it most of all.

Jack’s father has always longed for his son’s return—they haven’t seen each other for twenty years. And now that the father is dying, this homecoming seems like the happy ending so many have wanted. It looks like the parable.

But Jack can’t stay. He cannot face his siblings and their families as they gather to say goodbye. He cannot be present among so many people to whom he is so notorious.

As a reader, I was rooting for Jack. His life had been hard—though this hardness was chiefly due to his choices, the weight and resistance of a difficult life is still worth grieving. I wanted Jack to stay and turn the corner. I wanted good things for him. But he embodied a restlessness born of shame and sadness, and staying would intensify those emotions in a way that was unbearable.

The ideal of home is precious—a place where we are safe, provided for, and loved beyond questioning. And yet in this life, this ideal is too far away for some. We are all prone to wander, and for some this is literal.

Empathy

Robinson’s writing is wonderful and her characters are vivid. If growing in empathy is one worthy reason (among many) to read fiction, Home is a case study. I saw the world from the perspectives of three characters with whom I have little in common.

Home gave me more to ponder than most of the fiction I’ve read in the past year or two.

Disclosure: The Amazon links in this post are affiliate links.

A Christmas Lament

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Almighty God,

You created a good world, but right now it is hard to see.

In so many places, your world is marred, defaced, and ugly. I see hatred, fear, and sin across the globe, throughout this country, and in the mirror. Without your intervention, I have no hope.

How long, O Lord, will men, women, and children be murdered by their own government? The images and stories coming from Aleppo are nightmarish. These people made in your image, trapped and tortured and terrified—they need you. Please bring relief, please bring peace, please bring daily bread, shelter, and aid to those who need it.

How long, O Lord, will the United States be fractured and divided? We are so quick to be suspicious of a skin color or accent or background different from our own. And our problems run deep. Much of the structure of our country favors the already-privileged and leaves the disadvantaged without hope. Our recent election has made reasonable people fearful, angry, and dispirited.

Within your church, the situation seems no better. We ignore or belittle those in our communities who need love and help. We make little effort to speak with or understand those who are different. Instead of being known by our love, we are often known by hate, ignorance, and apathy. O God, help us love our neighbors! Send the gospel of your son and your common grace for peace within our nation.

How long, O Lord, will you leave me to battle my sin? I feel alone so often when facing temptation, and I do not have the strength to resist. Why do these same patterns of rebellion remain after so many years? You are not weak or uncaring—why won’t you change my heart? Please equip me in the fight against sin; remind me of your love, your work, and your presence with me. Despite my repeated failure, do not turn away.

I mourn, O Lord, because your world is not the way it should be. But I do not mourn as one without hope.

You have already intervened in the most dramatic way possible, so I know you can intervene now. Christmas shows that you love your world and that you are unwilling to leave us to ourselves. Your son felt the ragged edges of this earth. He felt the sword of a wicked government; he felt the suspicion and hate of his countrymen and your people; he felt my sin more acutely than I do.

Do not abandon us. We need your grace as much as ever. We need Christmas.

O Come, O Come, Emmanuel!


Photo Credit: Ulrike Mai (2015), public domain

How to Support Sharing in Your Small Group

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One of the biggest barriers to sharing in a small group is, sadly, other people. We’ve all been burned, and we do our best to avoid pain.

Even if you’re convinced that sharing is a good thing and you have a sense of how to do it, hesitation is natural. How will your friends react? What will they say?

Our constant theme should be love—we must do what is actually good for others. We should labor to help our friends love and obey God, pointing them to Jesus all along the way.

A Matter of the Heart

Sin originates in the heart. This biblical truth is foundational for real change.

This implies there is a root in the heart behind every sinful behavior, hesitation, and motivation. Our anxiety about a presentation at work may reveal an obsession with pleasing others. Impatience with our children may point to a stubborn resistance to God’s sovereign control.

Out of the heart the mouth speaks (Matt 15:18). These are among Jesus’s most profound and devastating words.

As with all truth, we must take care in our application. We must not become obsessive hunters, eager to “get to the heart” at all costs, poking and prodding and, eventually, crushing our friends.

We should, however, keep the importance of the heart in the foreground, gently walking with our friends toward deeper waters when they’re reluctant to wade in. Remind them: We have a perfect Lifeguard.

Do’s and Don’t’s

Let’s make this practical. To encourage your friends to share in small group, consider these suggestions.

Don’t violate trust. Keep the confessions and struggles you hear within your group. Your friends won’t share if they fear they will be the subject of gossip.

Do listen carefully. Maintain eye contact; don’t turn away when someone shares something difficult. Use your facial expressions and body language to offer support.

Don’t be afraid of conversation. A well-timed question or comment might be just what your friend needs to continue his story. Try to gently draw one another out, prompting with heart-related inquiries.

Don’t try to fix people. Part of bearing a friend’s burdens is understanding his battles. We minimize a person’s struggles by suggesting a simple remedy.

Don’t make it about you. We all suffer from me-too disease, and we think we can help when we’ve been through something similar. Your suggestion may be helpful, but take care to listen and understand first.

Do speak the gospel. Remind your friend of God’s love, Jesus’s work, and the Spirit’s presence. Don’t offer flimsy, Hallmark hope—we have a better, brighter, sure hope. Don’t let a Christian despair over their sin.

Do offer practical help. The help and power we need to defeat sin comes from God. But sometimes he supplies help for the fight through his people. You might suggest a book, a Bible passage, a quotation, or a phone call. Specific options (while leaving room for the person to decline your offer) are often more helpful than a general offer of aid.

Do pray. Pray during the group meeting. Pray later. Pray frequently. I try to jot down notes during my small group meeting so I can pray through the week.

Do follow up. It means the world to know others are praying. The simple act of sending a text or making a phone call can be a burst of encouragement. Consider asking for an update at the next group meeting so others can be reminded to pray or be encouraged at the way God has worked.


Photo Credit: Thomas Szynkiewicz (2012), Creative Commons License

Me-Too Disease

Doctor greating patient

Patient: Thanks for seeing me on such short notice.
Doctor: I didn’t really have a choice. You barged in without an appointment.
Patient: It was an emergency.
Doctor: Everyone says that. You know what, it doesn’t matter. What’s bothering you?
Patient: I’m having relationship trouble.
Doctor: You know I’m a physician, right? Couldn’t we talk about this at church on Sunday?
Patient: Sure, but you said to get in touch if I needed anything.
Doctor: It’s really just an expression. *Sigh* Go ahead.
Patient: Like I said, it’s my relationships. Lately, people have been ending conversations with me before we’re done. Abruptly. Maybe I stink.
Doctor: Excuse me?
Patient: I’m wondering if I smell bad. You know, body odor, bad breath, something like that. That seems health-related, right?
Doctor: Are these conversation problems only happening in person?
Patient: No. On the phone, too. In fact, my mom bailed on our weekly talk after just five minutes last night.
Doctor: Well, I think I know your problem, but I need to do a test. Let’s do some role-play conversations.
Patient: Sure, anything.
Doctor: OK, let’s pretend we’re catching up after the weekend. I’ll start. Good morning!
Patient: Hello! How was the weekend?
Doctor: It was good. Nice to be away from work for a bit, you know? My son had his last soccer game on Saturday morning, and—
Patient: Oh yeah? My son played soccer too. He never really liked it. No matter where they put him on the field, he wasn’t interested.
Doctor: Hmm. We’re getting somewhere. Let’s try one more conversation. We’ll talk about our childhood. I’ll begin.
Patient: OK.
Doctor: I grew up in Michigan, outside of Detroit. I’m the youngest of three brothers. My father—
Patient: Oh! I’m the youngest in my family too! I wasn’t even 8 when my siblings started leaving the house. I don’t know my oldest sister well at all.
Doctor: OK, I know your problem.
Patient: Really?
Doctor: Yep. You’ve got Me-Too Disease.
Patient: What?
Doctor: Me-Too Disease. You’ve got an acute version.
Patient: I’ve never heard of it.
Doctor: Most people haven’t. But it’s everywhere.
Patient: How did I get it?
Doctor: It’s genetic.
Patient: Wow. My parents never mentioned it.
Doctor: If you want to know the truth, everyone has it. Some are better at hiding it than others. You—you’re not good at this.
Patient: …
Doctor: Me-Too Disease is a condition of the heart. Your focus on yourself is so dominant that you relate everything you hear, see, or learn to your own situation. This is what you do in conversations. You listen only long enough to find a springboard for a story about yourself. Then you interrupt.
Patient: Wow. I guess I can see that. Is there treatment?
Doctor: Yes. You—
Patient: Let me guess: eat well and exercise, right? That’s what you doctors always say.
Doctor: No, not this time. Although you really should—
Patient: Everybody’s eating kale now. I don’t have to eat kale, do I?
Doctor: No way. No one should eat kale.
Patient: Well, what’s the treatment?
Doctor: Love.
Patient: Excuse me?
Doctor: I know this doesn’t sound very doctor-y, but the treatment is love.
Patient: I don’t understand.
Doctor: Your focus on yourself—it’s deadly. Maybe not for your body, but for your soul. And you’re seeing it in your relationships.
Patient: Oh boy. You’re about to Jesus-juke me aren’t you?
Doctor: You want your doctor to tell you the truth, right?
Patient: You’re right. Go ahead.
Doctor: Your obsession is natural, but it’s all wrong. God made us to worship him, not ourselves. So you’ve got everything backwards. And, to be honest, God hates it.
Patient: Yikes.
Doctor: When I said earlier that the treatment for Me-Too Disease is love, that starts with God. We should love other people and care for them. But that’s impossible without God’s love for us. Jesus’s life, death, and resurrection bring us to God, but they also make it possible to love others. His love transforms us to love him and others.
Patient: I’ve heard this a lot at church.
Doctor: There’s more to say, but our time here is up. Especially since, you know, you didn’t make an appointment.
Patient: Got it.
Doctor: Let’s get together for coffee sometime and we can talk more about it, ok?
Patient: Sounds great.
Doctor: Oh, one more thing.
Patient: Yes?
Doctor: I was serious about the kale.


Photo Credit: Vic (2011), Creative Commons License

How to Share in Your Small Group

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As Christians share with each other in a small group, they obey the one another commands in the Bible. Though such sharing is difficult, God honors it by strengthening Christians to fight their sin.

But what does such sharing look like?

The Importance of Prayer

You cannot talk about your struggles against sin without knowing what they are.

Listen to King David.

Search me, O God, and know my heart!
Try me and know my thoughts!
And see if there be any grievous way in me,
and lead me in the way everlasting! (Psalm 139:23–24)

Praying this way is one of the most important steps we can take to grow as Christians. God loves to answer this prayer.

But we need to pray as Christians. We don’t wallow in our sin; we seek it out to defeat it, knowing its power has been crushed by Jesus at the cross. Robert Murray M’Cheyne’s advice is wise: “For every look at yourself, take ten looks at Christ.”

If seeing our sin puts the enemy in our sights, then meditation on the gospel pulls the trigger. Remembering the love of the Father and the work of the Son—this is the way God changes our hearts, giving us proper affections and motivations for obedience.

Categories

When someone wants to pray for your growth as a Christian, categories can be helpful.

  • Works of the flesh and fruit of the Spirit — Use passages like Gal 5:19–21 and Gal 5:22–24 to talk about the sin you hope to kill and the character you want to develop. There are many other such lists in the Bible—read them and learn the biblical vocabulary.
  • Longings in the Psalms — Read the Psalms and note the love the writers expressed for God. I’m humbled to compare my tepid affection with the hearts of these long-ago saints. (Psalm 63 is a great place to start.)
  • Idols — An idol is anything that takes the place of God for us. These can be vices or addictions, but more often idols are blessings to which we ascribe outsized significance. Family, job, money, success, friendship—these can all be idols. The solution is usually not to ditch the idol, but to return it to its proper place and worship God alone. To help you start thinking in these terms, check out this list of idol-revealing prompts by Tim Keller.
  • Spiritual disciplines — The habits we develop to aid Christian growth are called “spiritual disciplines.” In this category you’ll find Bible reading, prayer, fasting, memorizing Scripture, fellowship, weekly worship, etc. While no activity or discipline saves us, a lack of attention to the spiritual disciplines often reveals a heart that is cooling toward God. Take note both of ignoring these practices and adhering to them with a distracted or divided heart.

A Personal Example

How does one share in a small group setting? The basic elements are knowing your sin and asking others to pray and help you fight against it. Lest that sound vague, here is a personal example.

Please pray for me in my fight against gluttony. I eat when I’m not hungry, eat foods that aren’t good for me, and eat too much. Sometimes I eat because I’m bored. Other times I eat for comfort. Ultimately, I want to find my comfort in Christ, not in food. Pray that I would love God more than food and that I would care for the body God has given me.

Sharing doesn’t have to be lengthy and you need not have everything figured out. Don’t worry about sounding spiritual. You only need to know some of your sin and want to put it to death.

Remember, this is good for you. In addition to being a matter of obedience (James 5:16), your friends can help you. God is ready to give you tangible help as your friends pray.

How to Listen

There’s one last piece to this puzzle. How do you handle someone sharing personal prayer requests in your small group? We’ll tackle that next week.


Photo Credit: anonymous (2016), public domain

You Should Share in Your Small Group

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Many Christian small group meetings include sharing and prayer, and most of the responses are predictable. Health, jobs, and family members—these concerns dominate our lists.

There’s nothing wrong with this. We should pray for the physical needs of our friends. These top-level requests consume our thinking throughout the day, and God wants us to “cast our anxieties on him” (1 Peter 5:7).

But a small group prayer list that contains only such requests is incomplete. To build close friendships, you must share the concerns closest to your heart. And that means opening up.

Why We Don’t Share

Sharing from the heart is just plain hard. It’s unnatural, and I suspect we avoid sharing for two main reasons.

Sometimes we are not in touch with our battles against sin. Peter tells us that our lusts “wage war against the soul” (1 Peter 2:11). When we don’t fight, the conflict is one-sided, and our enemies are relentless.

Other times, we know our sin but don’t want to talk about it. For assorted reasons, we’re unwilling to let our friends see our areas of greatest need.

As we walk the path toward greater honesty, we need to acknowledge the steep climb. Let’s be patient with each other—we all have room to grow.

Why We Should Share

Most small group ministries are built on the “one another” commands in the Bible. (Here’s a great list.) God’s demands border on impossible without an intimate, commited community.

Consider how refreshing it would be to belong to a small group devoted to obeying God in these ways.

  • Therefore, confess your sins to one another and pray for one another, that you may be healed. (James 5:16)
  • Love one another with brotherly affection. Outdo one another in showing honor. (Rom 12:10)
  • Bear one another’s burdens, and so fulfill the law of Christ. (Gal 6:2)
  • Therefore encourage one another and build one another up, just as you are doing. (1 Thess 5:11)
  • Therefore, having put away falsehood, let each one of you speak the truth with his neighbor, for we are members one of another. (Eph 4:25)
  • Show hospitality to one another without grumbling. (1 Pet 4:9)

Each of these commands requires vulnerability. How can I bear my friend’s burdens if he doesn’t tell me what they are? How can we confess our sins to each other if we keep our hearts locked up tight? How will I know how to encourage my friend if I don’t know any of his deep struggles?

We should share because God commands it. But God doesn’t issue commands on a whim. Sharing our struggles is good for us.

The Blessing of Sharing

As you open up to your friends, you might be surprised at the help you receive.

Because prayer is effective, God actually gives me strength in my fight against particular sins as my group prays for me. My friends can ask me questions and provide tangible support. They can preach the gospel to me on a regular basis.

As you share, you encourage others in your group to follow suit. And as others open up, you build a deeper sense of community within the group. Everyone is in a common fight. Your struggles aren’t exactly the same, but everyone has a battle and no one is strong enough to fight on their own.

Jesus Makes It Possible

Sharing like this is scary and counterintuitive. It might feel just the opposite of safe. But the gospel of Jesus changes everything.

Your sin is not a surprise to God. He knows it better than you. And, if you’re a Christian, his commitment to you is so deep and steadfast that no sin of yours can drive him away.

The sin you want to stuff down and hide is the same sin Jesus bore on the cross. He was made sin so that we might be made righteous (2 Cor 5:21).

We can share our sin because it no longer defines us. Our struggles against the flesh are real, but because of Jesus’s work we have real hope, real help, and real possibility of change. We don’t need to fear abandonment or exile—Jesus suffered that in our place and God is just.

What Does This Look Like?

If you’ve never been part of a small group that talked or prayed on this level, you might wonder how this looks in practice. How exactly do you share or confess your sins to your friends?

Check back next week. I’ll try to explain.


Photo Credit: Sydney Missionary Bible College (2005), Creative Commons License

Taking a Biblical Worldview to My Back Yard

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Our theology affects everything, not just the parts of life we call “religious.” We live every second before God, so we should think theologically about every detail, from the majestic to the mundane.

A Familiar Structure

I have an intense, irrational hatred for yard work. I don’t understand or like this about myself, but I’d trade yard work for washing dishes, cleaning the bathroom, or doing laundry any day of the week.

And yet, instead of grumbling about this task, I should think about it biblically. Here’s my attempt to frame this work in the familiar categories of creation, fall, redemption, and consummation.

Creation

A healthy lawn and blooming flowers are beautiful. When God sends the rain and the sun and the yard explodes with color, it can be breathtaking.

We have a great lesson in the plant world: God brings life from the dirt. As Adam was created from the dust (Gen 2:7), so the trees, grass, and other plants grow by God’s good pleasure.

And, in his wisdom, God has called me to tend this space. I’m to work and keep what he’s entrusted to me (Gen 2:15), exercising dominion care in this small area. God asks me to labor and work so the land around me proclaims his glory.

Fall

In my flesh, I hate my yard. I am in the midst of a war, and I am losing.

I don’t enjoy cutting my grass, but that’s easy. It’s the weeding, pruning, planting, and tending I dislike. This is often difficult, unpleasant work.

This shouldn’t surprise me. The ground itself is cursed (Gen 3:17–19), and the weeds and thorns appear because of sin. The consequences of our rebellion spring from the ground, causing me pain (Gen 3:17). I sweat and ache as I beat back the thistles.

Redemption

Yes, the ground is cursed. But there’s more to the story. The weeds and thorns have only so much power.

Jesus walked on this ground, and that changed everything. The wind whipped dust against his face and he got mud between his toes. Though he had power over all the land, he died and was buried in the earth. But the ground could not hold him.

The entire creation is damaged and cursed. Jesus came to shatter the curse, to bring restoration and reconciliation and renewal far as the curse is found.

This begins with the people of God, the pinnacle of creation. But Jesus’ resurrection affects everything. The defeated enemy retreats, and the spoils of Christ’s victory will roll downhill and flood all of creation with new life.

Consummation

Under the curse, creation groans (Rom 8:22). It groans not just for redemption but for newness.

I groan. In Christ, I have new life. I have hope and the promise of God himself. But in the body I groan.

I age and ache and slump, but my body only tells part of the story. I grieve at my remaining sin. I see injustice and pain and grief and oppression and hate, not only in myself but in my community and throughout the world. I too long for newness.

And so we have a circle of sorts. I’m driven into my yard by newness—new growth to trim and new weeds to pull. But, if I’m thinking well, I spend more time dwelling on Jesus’ death and resurrection. He’s remaking me from the inside out, and he will fulfill the groan-filled longing of the creation as well.


Photo Credit: Rudy and Peter Skitterians (2014), public domain

How to Resist Sins of Conformity

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We’ve all been there. You’re cruising on the interstate and you take a casual glance at your speedometer. Whoa—you were NOT prepared for that!

How did this happen?

You were in the flow of traffic, going along with the crowd. Your speeding probably won’t lead to a ticket, but any police officer who stopped you would be justified. You were flat-out guilty.

What is a Sin of Conformity?

Many sins in our lives follow this pattern. We get swept along in the tide and can’t believe what we’ve done. We’re always responsible for our actions, but sometimes social pressure tempts us in powerful ways.

Sins of conformity happen when, because of the pressure to fit in, you adopt the sinful action or inaction of a group. Active sins in this category include gossip, coarse language, and spending above your means. (This is just a sample.) Sins of omission show up too—prayerlessness, failing to care for the poor, and failing to evangelize can be epidemic in churches.

An Incremental Slide

With good intentions, how can we end up with such rotten behavior?

The answer, as always, is our hearts. Though a Christian’s heart is being transformed by God, the old man lurks. He tempts us with empty promises and false treasures.

Most people crave the approval and acceptance of their peers. To secure this love, we adopt the practices, preferences, and values of our social group.

This happens by increments. Few people wake up one morning determined to gossip about a coworker. But after weeks of indulging office chatter, we slide from tolerating to agreeing with to participating in the sin.

Waking Up

In his mercy, God alerts us to sins of conformity in one of three ways.

Sometimes, God convicts us supernaturally. The Holy Spirit opens our eyes to the damage we’re doing to ourselves and others.

Other times we see a righteous example. A “slow” car in our lane obeys the speed limit, or an officemate speaks up for the slandered.

Finally, we might be confronted with our sin. A godly friend rebukes us for inappropriate joking or an audit uncovers dishonest use of money at work. Though it might seem severe, God can use the consequences of our sin to bring us to repentance.

Gospel Power

Even when you’re convicted about a sin of conformity, it can be hard to stop. Refusing the sin means resisting the social pressure that makes the temptation powerful. How will you handle upsetting the group?

The gospel of Jesus Christ is the key. We all want to be liked and included, and if you’re a Christian, you are! You are a child of God, eternally a member of his family. Because Jesus was excluded for a time on the cross, you are loved and welcomed in the best way imaginable. Though your repentance may displease your friends, be confident that God is pleased with you. All the favor and approval you want from other people, you have in your sovereign, loving, heavenly father.

Avoiding These Sins

Though we think of peer pressure mostly for adolescents, sins of conformity are present in all social groups. Repenting of these sins is one matter, but how can we avoid them?

    1. Pray. Pray that God will sharpen your conscience and make you aware of your weaknesses, your temptations, and the group pressures you face. Pray for the Spirit’s help to stand firm in the gospel.
    2. Read the Bible. The Scriptures replace the loud, urgent messages of our peers with the eternal truths of God’s law and his love.
    3. Nurture close friendships. You need at least one person in your life who can—and will—ask you anything. He knows your struggles and tendencies, and you can talk honestly with him about your wider social circles. Sin is deceptive, so we must have devoted friends with whom we speak regularly and deeply about the most important things in life.

Thanks for reading! If you’re interested, you can follow me on Twitter or follow my blog’s RSS feed here.


Photo Credit: Brigitte Werner (2007), public domain