Review – What My Dog Taught Me About God: Reconnecting with God’s love and emerging from a spiritual wilderness by Fran A. Wood

Back-story

Almost a year ago I published a blog post called Same Difference.  As an introduction to this post I commented on the title of the book I review today.  I wrote:

Have you ever come across this book?  What My Dog Taught Me About God by Fran Wood.

I have to be honest; I was very sceptical whenever I first came across this book.  I haven’t even graced it with a cursory read yet – the title alone was more than enough to put me off.  The idea of getting our theology from animals was something that as a Bible College student set me on edge.

It seems that this learning theology from animals has become something of a trend.  I tried a quick Google search around the theme of dogs/animals teaching us about God and there were millions of results, with thousands being blog posts on the theme.

This was simply a passing remark on the preposition held in the title of this book.  Nonetheless, the author, Fran Wood, came across my post and contacted me with a legitimate concern that I had passed comment on something I had, admittedly, not read.  In personal correspondence Fran offered me a free copy and in return I offered to read and review the bo51cu5X9adIL._SX322_BO1,204,203,200_ok.

Content

The book is a series of short chapters which each contain short stories about either Fran’s dog Bandit, her relationship with her husband or the passing of her late parents and step-father.  Throughout these short stories there are snippets of Scripture and theological reflection offered.

With regard to the writing style, it is winsome, lucid and therefore easy to read.

Strengths

I was pleasantly surprised that some of my initial scepticism was eased as I opened the pages of What my dog taught me about God.  There were four elements to this book which I appreciated.

First, the overarching preposition, although not theologically robust, is simply an illustration.  Indeed, the entire book is simply an extended illustration with a very admirable aim.  Speaking about her relationship with Bandit, Wood writes ‘I fancy that my relationship with God is in some way analogous’ (pg. iii).  She proceeds to recount bringing Bandit home for the first time:

I chose the puppy, I brought him unto myself – even though he reeked – and then I cleaned him up.  He was dirty and smelly, and I washed him clean.  My Heavenly Father chose me out of the cage of sin that enslaved me, and I came to Him all dirty from sin and with the odors and cares of this world all over me.  He gently took me, held me close – in spite of the stench – and then carefully washed me clean. (pg. 4-5)

Taking everyday experiences, such as a dog owner’s love for their dog, and showing how that illustrates biblical truth (albeit in a limited fashion) is a good thing.

Secondly, and importantly (as we will see with the book’s weaknesses), Wood offers a number of qualifying statements.  This is good because it acknowledges the limitations of the illustration.  For example, ‘not that human love could ever compare with the sheer enormity of God’s love’ (pg. 26) and ‘No matter how much I love a little dog, it cannot even begin to compare to the vast love that God has for me…my love for Bandit gives me a tiny, infinitesimal glimpse of what God’s love for me must be like’ (pg. 83).

Thirdly, there are flashes of ‘enlightenment’.  Every now and again there is a very tweetable quote which summarises some great theological truths and offers some very wise advice.  Again allow me to quote two examples:

Terrible things entered our sphere with Adam and Eve’s original sin in the Garden of Eden (pg. 180)

Now ask the Lord to show you a church where you can worship and serve and fellowship with other believers.  Get into God’s Word, the Bible, and listen to what He has to say to you through His Word. (pg. 190)

The final strength of this book is undoubtedly the best.  Periodically Wood points her reader very explicitly to God’s Word; praise God for anyone who points people to His Word!  I noted four places in particular in which this takes place (pg. 34-35, 55, 133, 168).  There is a very good paragraph about God’s Word as a guide (pg. 35); an assertion that God’s Word should trump feeling and sight (pg. 55); an acknowledgement that when God’s Word is exposited that the hearer is spiritually fed (pg. 133); and finally a confession that God’s Word did indeed triumph over feeling in the end in the author’s life (pg. 168).

Weaknesses

Unfortunately, many of these strengths are eclipsed by a lengthy list of weaknesses which are prevalent throughout the book.

First, Wood misappropriates God’s chosen revelation.  Even though Wood periodically points her reader to Scripture, this is overshadowed (and hidden from the inattentive reader) by her misappropriation of God’s revelation through a dog.  The claim is that God is teaching her through a dog (pg. iii, 111-112, 156).  It may be possible that she sees illustrated in her relationship with Bandit the things God is teaching her, but as she herself admits elsewhere God speaks/teaches through his Word (pg. 190).

Secondly, I find Wood’s use of Scripture to be weak.  Careful attention has not been paid to the context in which the verses she is quoting are found.  On page one there is a verse from Psalm 22 quoted, it seems, simply because it has the word dog in it.  There is also questionable historical work as Wood seeks to justify the position she has afforded Bandit in her life (pg. 75; more on this below).  Psalm 103 is also taken out of context on page 127 – God does not remove our ‘problems’ from us as far as the east is from the west, he removes our sin.

Thirdly, animals are repeatedly anthropomorphised in the book.  I admit that this is something of a pet peeve, but I would also claim that my pet peeve has groundings in the creation order set out in Genesis 1.  Animals are to be ruled (not cruelly I would add) by humans.  But in this book we read of a garage being a cruel environment for a dog (pg. 4); a dog repenting (pg. 42), which I don’t think is possible; an admission that Bandit is treated like a person (pg. 56); and the likening of the dog to a child (pg. 59, 75). There is an unhealthy humanising of an animal in the pages of this book.

Fourthly, feelings triumph over reality and truth.  I do not mean to denigrate feelings; they most definitely need to be taken into consideration.  However, Wood repeatedly makes statements about God, which are simply untrue, because that is how she feels.  For example, ‘God let me down’ (pg. 19; see also pg. 23).  God did not let anyone down, he never has and he never will – but it may have felt like he let you down.  This is a subtle but vital distinction to make.  Wood later goes on to write ‘I didn’t want to be a Bible student today; I wanted to let my mind play with the idea that there just might be all types of [Christmas] decorating going on in heaven at this very moment’ (pg. 143).  This is an unhealthy approach to what we know about God through his appointed revelation, Scripture.

Fifthly, there is one significant section in which Wood entertains dangerous speculation that offers empty hope to people in the midst of deep distress.  I include the quote in full:

Some of you may have a loved one in critical condition or in a coma right now, and you may be struggling to deal with it.  Perhaps it will help to think about the Lord of Heaven and earth whispering words of love into the ear of your ‘sleeping’ beloved.  I have wept bitter tears because my mother died all alone in a nursing home.  I truly believe that the Lord brought Mother to mind today as I review this chapter.  I think He wanted me to know that she most definitely was not alone.  Up until her last few months on earth, my mother had always led a very active life.  She was continually busy with something – work, children, grandchildren, cooking, cleaning, looking after my father, and later on my stepfather.  She was not still for very long.

Perhaps, just perhaps, the Lord had some things He wanted to say to her to prepare her for the journey before He took her home, and perhaps the only way He would keep her attention long enough to do so was if she were asleep.  If you have a loved one in such a state, perhaps the Lord has things to say to him or her as well. (pg.60-61)

This is pure speculation which takes advantage of people in desperate situations offering a false hope.

Sixthly, and finally, Wood betrays a particularly small picture of God at some points in her book.  There is theological weakness here, when for example, she speaks of God winding up the world and sitting back to watch how it unfolds – ‘God can, but does not often, intervene in the natural processes of this fallen world’ (pg. 180).  I understand Scripture to paint the picture of a God who is intimately involved with his world ensuring the natural processes of this world function in the way they should (Col. 1:17).  Moreover, Wood’s small picture of God is exemplified in the following passage:

I lead a busy life and I’m absorbed with lots of stuff that really doesn’t involve Bandit, or maybe as in the case in point, I’m trying to rest or attend to some other need of my own, or Jim’s, or a friend’s, or a son’s, or a grandchild’s or a multitude of others – all vying for my attention.  It’s not that I don’t care about Bandit’s needs, but it just may be that there are other pressing matters ahead of his needs at the moment.

Perhaps we don’t like to think that God is not at our beck and call.  But, after all, He is the Creator of the heavens (everything out there!) and earth.  And He keeps it all running in perfect precision.  So He just might have a few other things to do when start our growling and whimpering.  Romans 8:34 assures us that the Son sits at the right hand of the Father to make intercession for us.  But, hey, there are LOTS of us!  Maybe we need to persist so that our particular concern gets its proper place in the queue. (pg. 76-77)

This is a frighteningly small picture of God.

Conclusion

To conclude this lengthy review I have to admit that there was more I agreed with and appreciated within the covers of this book than I expected.  Nonetheless, sadly I cannot recommend this book.  Its theology is shallow and driven by feelings and emotions.  Its use of Scripture is suspect on many occasions.  Its comfort is more often than not speculative.  I cannot encourage you to read it; as Wood herself confesses, ‘I have absolutely no scriptural basis for this’ (pg. 59) – regrettably I have to agree with her.


Note:  The author Fran Wood has requested that the following be noted with respect to the above review:

Thank you for taking the time to read and review my book.  I appreciate your assessment, and, of course, I particularly appreciate your positive comments.  As I mentioned previously, I didn’t write the book for strong Christians who have a solid foundation in the faith.  And I didn’t write it for theologians.  I wrote it in the hope of reaching the lost—those who might never read a book with “in your face” theology as its forte.

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Precious Remedies Against Satan’s Devices; Part Four: It’s Just A Little One

One sunny afternoon in Springfield, Lisa Simpson embraces vegetarianism. Thus, an iconic episode of The Simpsons begins.

Lisa’s father, Homer, can’t get his head around this decision; after-all, you don’t make friends with salad. So, he invites the entire town of Springfield to a barbeque. In the centre of his back-garden is a huge, spit-roasted, pig. Suddenly: Lisa’s anger bursts. She hops on a ride-on lawnmower, and steals the pig. And as the pig hurtles through hedges, roads, rivers, and eventually the sky, Homer cries out these lines:

“It’s just a little dirty. It’s still good, it’s still good! It’s just a little slimy. It’s still good, it’s still good! It’s just a little airborne. It’s still good, it’s still good!”.

For the sake of the pork, Homer’s prepared to minimise the dirt; the slime; everything.

Despite my butchered retelling, this incident is supposed to be humorous. Even if we’re only slightly less dysfunctional than Homer, we’ll care about the integrity of the food we’re consuming. If someone drops your burger into a flowerpot, then hands it to you, you probably won’t minimise the impact of the soil with “it’s just a little soily. It’s still good, it’s still good!”.

Yet: Thomas Brooks argues that we listen to this logic daily. Every day, to tempt our hearts, Brooks - Precious RedemiesSatan says: “it’s just a little ___. It’s still good, it’s still good”. No doubt, our hearts can fill in the blanks:  “it’s just a little look; just a little treat; just a little lie; just a little boast”. Brooks expects that his readers find pleasure in God. Therefore, he’s highlighting how Satan attempts to misdirect that pleasure by “extenuating and lessening…sin” (38). Satan tells you that you can commit this “little sin”, and there’ll be no consequences. My flesh tells me that this sin is microscopic, so I don’t really need to repent. Our world says that sin is such an out-dated concept, there’s no danger to our souls. Just like Homer, we’ve got a misplaced hunger. We’re prepared to minimise the dirt, the slime, the sinfulness of sin.

That’s Satan’s third device: “it’s just a little sin. It’s still good, it’s still good”.

This clearly follows on from Brooks’ previous assertions: if we’re already seeing sin’s hook and acknowledging sin’s painted virtue, then we can’t “extenuate or lessen sin” (38). Therefore, we need to remember the pleasure we have in our Triune God by considering the great horror of sin.

Remedy #1: seriously consider that the things we call “little sin” face God’s greatest wrath.

It’s just a tiny touch of the Ark. Uzzah just “puts out his hand to the ark of God” and takes “hold of it, for the oxen stumbled” (2 Samuel 6:6). He’s just trying to help, right? But “the anger of the LORD was kindled against Uzzah, and God struck him down there because of his error” (2 Samuel 6:7).

It’s just a tiny bite of the fruit. Eve hands the fruit to Adam, and he eats. But “the LORD God…drove out the man…from the garden of Eden” (Genesis 3:23-24).

It’s just a little “unauthorised fire”. Nadab and Abihu offer some “unauthorised fire” in the Holy Place (Leviticus 10:1). But “fire came out from before the LORD and consumed them”.

It’s just a little lie. Ananias sells his field, claiming to give all the proceeds away, yet “lying to the Holy Spirit” and hiding a little for himself. And: “he fell down and breathed his last”.

The “least sin is contrary to the law of God, the nature of God, the being of God, the glory of God” (38). Uzzah rejects God by localising God to the Ark so that God needs propped up. Nadab and Abihu reject God by adding extra experiential components to God’s law for godly worship. Ananias rejects God by limiting His knowledge to Ananias’ financial advantage. Adam rejects God by trying to usurp God’s kingly authority for himself. And, they all reject God by tiny actions.

Sin is totally contrary to God; “therefore, it is…punished severely by God” (38).

Remedy #2: seriously consider that little sin paves the path to greater sin.

“Sin is never at a stand” (39). Sin constantly spirals downwards. It creeps on the soul by degrees, step by step, till it hath the soul to the very height of sin…corruption in the heart, when it breaks forth, is like a breach in the sin, which begins in a narrow passage, till it eat through and cast down all before it” (39-40). If we listen to the idea that “just a little sin” is “still good”, then we open our hearts to a humanly-unstoppable surge of sin.

Remedy #3: seriously consider that there is great danger in the smallest sin.

I’m not very good at following recipes. Most dangerously, I often mix my “tsp” and my “tbsp” up. My wife can create visually stunning banana breads; but if she hasn’t realised that I’ve put slightly too much baking powder in? It’ll be overpoweringly salty. A little baking powder can ruin the whole batch. And, it ruins it without drawing any attention.

“Greater sins startle the soul, and awaken the soul to repentance…but little sins often slide into the soul…and work secretly and undiscernibly in the soul, till they come to be so strong, as to trample upon the soul” (41-42). We know we need to take notice of sin in our hearts. We know can’t neglect “those heavenly helps” (42) that God’s provided to weaken and destroy sin. But: my heart must see that the creeping little sin must be killed too, or I might “utterly fall before it…and perish in it, unless the power of Christ’s free grace doth act gloriously”. My heart needs to see the great danger, in the smallest sin.

Remedy #4: seriously consider that other saints chose the worst suffering over the least sin.

In the Christian life, we are not alone. The Spirit helps us resist the desires of the flesh (Galatians 5:16). The Church helps build us up (1 Thessalonians 5:11). And the great cloud of witnesses urge us to lay aside every weight, and sin which clings so closely, and run with endurance towards Christ (Hebrews 12:1). Their refusal to engage in the least sin, even if it meant the worst suffering, shows us that resistance is not futile, but is vitally important and achievable. “Their tenderness of the honour and glory of God, and their hatred and indignation against sin…[was so great] that they would rather burn than sin” (43). When we look to those who walk before us, we can be encouraged to suffer the worst torment rather than dishonour God; this is the road they walked, even if it led them through the furnace.

Satan will tempt us with: “it’s just a little sin; it’s still good, it’s still good”. Brooks argues that our resistance to this phrase must incorporate each of these elements. But, our resistance does not begin here. Our resistance begins when we focus on the Cross. There: “the severe dealing of God the Father with His beloved Son” shows “that there is more evil in the least sin than in the greatest affliction” (44). There: the Father let “all the vials of His fiercest wrath upon Him…for the least sin as well as the greatest” (44). There: we clearly see that “the wages of sin is death…whether great or small” (45). But, there: we tremble with fear and joy, because “God the Father would not spare His bosom Son” from “drinking [even] the dregs of His wrath”, decisively dealing with our little sins forever.

Here are the links to the first, second and third posts.

Four Reasons to Study Theology Academically

As I write I am just about to embark on my sixth year of studying theology my-university-library-3-1442034academically. I have completed an undergraduate Bachelors of Divinity and I’m beginning work on my dissertation for a postgraduate Masters of Theology. Over the past five years I have learned a lot about God, His Word and myself – it has been a steep, but enjoyable (mostly), learning curve. As I reflect on those years of study I find four primary benefits that I have experienced, and so I offer them as reasons for studying theology academically.

  1. Studying theology academically opens up a whole new world of authors!

For those who enjoy reading this is an exciting prospect. Of course many readers in our local churches have come across authors like John Piper, Jerry Bridges, Kevin DeYoung, Christopher Wright, and Paul Tripp. However, in the academic world there is a vast array of new authors who have not published any ‘popular’ works. People such as Bruce Waltke, Gard Granerød, Carl Armerding, Gerard Van Groningen, Meredith Kline, Herman Ridderbos, and Millard Erickson.

Now some of the authors you’ll meet in academic circles are not hugely beneficial or edifying to the conservative evangelical Christian. But, many others have pertinent insights, alternative perspectives and unique experience and knowledge in their field of study. Personally, I have found scores of academic scholars not only informative but inspiring and a blessing as they have opened up a passage, an aspect of Christ’s work or an element of God’s character. Moreover, it is more than likely that if I had never studied theology academically I would never have come across many of these names.

Studying theology academically opens up a whole new world of authors!

  1. Studying theology academically aids the development of an ability to be analytical and critical in assessment.

Obviously this is a skill that is developed through academic study of any kind. Nevertheless, I believe it warrants specific mention in relation to theology due to the propensity of (perhaps even often blind) dogmatism in many Christian circles. Each of us is guilty of this to a greater or lesser degree – we pick our theological camp and argue all of their positions to the death!

Something I have learned quickly through my study of theology academically is that no one ‘camp’ has all of the answers. Certain scholars have particularly good insights on one of two areas, while certain schools of thought tend to be particularly strong on a small handful of doctrines, and so on. A healthy, well-rounded theology is one that has developed and grown by appreciating the good, beneficial and profitable aspects of a variety of contributors, while overlooking or challenging the errors.

The reality is that absolutely no-one has got absolutely everything right, and almost no-one has got absolutely everything wrong. It is important that as Christians we develop an ability to analyse and critique arguments to protect ourselves from error. Studying theology academically aids that development.

  1. Studying theology academically reveals theological issues which will hit the church in ten/fifteen/twenty years time.

Something that surprised me time and time again was to read prominent theological writers of the early twentieth century only to find some of the same doctrinal errors that appeared in many popular works in the 80s, 90s and 00s.

The reality is that many issues which are discussed and debated in academic theological circles often trickle down into popular thinking in several of decades. Those ideas or conclusions which are novel (and frequently compellingly argued) are soon embraced by talented authors and speakers who are seeking to set the church or Christianity on a new, brave course that will be more faithful to Jesus and relevant to the world. However, as the author of Ecclesiastes has so famously reminded us, there is nothing new under the sun.

If you have studied, read and dissected these arguments previously you are that little bit more prepared for the battle which lies ahead in the pews. This is surely one of the most beneficial reasons for pastors to have study theology academically, and one of the easiest applications of academic theological study to the life of a church.

  1. Studying theology academically requires time built into your schedule for studying God and His Word.

This is arguably the most profitable aspect of studying theology academically. Having paid a reasonable sum of money; having scheduled classes; having particular texts to read; having a deadline for assignments; all of this leads to time being devoted to studying God and His Word.

It has been a wonderful privilege to spend hours upon hours reading Greek texts and parsing Paul’s letters. It has been both difficult and illuminating to delve into the liberal scholars of the early/mid nineteenth century. It has been hugely exciting to open up the world of Old Testament studies with Wenham, Childs, Longmand and Goldingay. All of which I would never have had the opportunity (nor the inclination possibly) to do so if I was not studying theology academically.

As I finish allow me to be the first to state that this will not make you a better Christian. In fact it is quite possible to be immersed in the world of academic theology and not be a Christian. When Christ returns he will not look for the guys with PhD’s and MTh’s. However, that does not mean that everyone involved in academic study of theology is dry, boring, liberal (in the bad sense) and out of touch with ‘real life’. I would seek to argue quite the opposite. Academic study of theology, when carried out in the correct manner, is invigorating, edifying and to God’s glory.

It is not for everyone, but if some of the points above strike a chord with you perhaps you should consider studying theology academically.

The Enemy Within

False Teachers

What comes to mind the moment you hear the words ‘False Teacher’ role of someone’s lips?

protect-religion-1312319Perhaps you think of some elderly theologian who has predicted (for the third time) the date Jesus will return. Or maybe it is the Jehovah’s Witness, or Mormon knocking on your door in the early evening. Many people will undoubtedly think of a prosperity gospel preacher in a white suit. There may even be a few whose minds drift toward healing ministries. However, I am convinced that almost all of us are thinking of somewhere other than our own churches.

In fact, at first the term false teachers may be drawn to people outside the church. We can all see the enemy general marching on us with his men in formation, so to speak. Churches know who opposes them: There are scientists who deny intelligent design. We have advertisers who encourage pursuing joy in creations rather than the creator. We have TV preachers who deny that suffering is part and parcel of the Christian life. We have family members who deny that some guy Jesus ever lived. We have friends and work colleagues who deny that there is an after-life. We are surrounded by false teachers and we can see them coming.

And even when those perceptions are challenged, we may acknowledge there are false teachers inside the church universal. But in our minds that means the church in Africa or Latin America. Or the independent church down the road; and the rather drab established church round the corner.

But none of us entertain the thought that false teachers may be in our church!

Peter and Jude

For those who are attentive when reading the New Testament it will soon become apparent that there are two letters which are very similar. Even a cursory read of the letters 2 Peter and Jude reveals a very similar theme and vocabulary. These two letters are written for two different churches (or groups of churches) and yet the separate churches face the same problem – an enemy within, false teachers! Both Peter and Jude warn their readers that false teachers are within their very own churches…

But false prophets also arose among the people, just as there will be false teachers among you, who will secretly bring in destructive heresies, even denying the Master who bought them, bringing upon themselves swift destruction. And many will follow their sensuality, and because of them the way of truth will be blasphemed. And in their greed they will exploit you with false words. (2 Peter 2:1-3a)

For certain people have crept in unnoticed who long ago were designated for this condemnation, ungodly people, who pervert the grace of our God into sensuality and deny our only Master and Lord, Jesus Christ. (Jude 4)

By extension we are well within our rights to proclaim the warning that there very well may be false teachers in your congregation. Sitting there week by week, singing songs with you, shaking hands with your pastor and perhaps even leading a ministry in your church.

What now?

How do we move forward from that daunting revelation? Is there any way we can protect ourselves against false teachers? Permit me two very brief primers for moving forward.

First, we must watch people’s life and doctrine closely. This was Paul’s charge to Timothy who was the teaching elder in Ephesus: ‘Keep a close watch on yourself and on the teaching’ (1 Tim. 4:16). Paul is telling Timothy to make sure his life and his teaching match the gospel passed onto him. The reality is that false teachers will drift on one of these two points (if not both of them).

Do you want to spot the guy who is going to draw you away from Jesus? Do you desire to defend your church from sensuality, perversion and ungodliness? Watch both life and doctrine. This is what Peter and Jude say, in a way, as they proceed to describe the false teacher’s divergence on doctrine (they are clearly stepping away from the ‘faith’) and the ungodliness of their behaviour.

However, this is not just something we must do to others though. We ourselves are not exempt from this kind of scrutiny. We also must watch our own life and doctrine, because we may be the very people that Peter and Jude are warning their readers of.

Secondly, we can exercise the helpful practice of church membership. While it must be acknowledged the false teachers that Peter describes sound like Christians, they looked and acted like Christians for a time (and so we cannot be fool proof on this), this does not mean we neglect to try. We must make sure that those included in our fellowship have a testimony, display a changed life and understand the gospel. We must protect ourselves in the church.

Concerning membership, it is important that we take it seriously. Mark Dever writes ‘make it more difficult to join, on the one hand, and make it easier to be excluded on the other’. In other words make it hard to get in and easy to get out. In doing so we may protect ourselves against false teachers from within as the process to join membership is rigorous and the route out of membership is swift.

A Final Word

In light of all that has been said above it may seem a daunting, unnerving and insurmountable task to identify false teachers and preserve the purity of the church. However, all is not lost. Both Peter and Jude, in making the congregations they write aware of false teachers, promise that they will not go unpunished. Yes they may seem to prevail here and now, for a time. But eventually God will have the last word and that word will be judgement:

Their condemnation from long ago is not idle, and their destruction is not asleep. For if God did not spare angels when they sinned, but cast them into hell and committed them to chains of gloomy darkness to be kept until the judgement; if he did not spare the ancient world, but preserved Noah, a herald of righteousness, with seven others, when he brought a flood upon the world of the ungodly; if by turning the cities of Sodom and Gomorrah to ashes he condemned them to extinction, making them an example of what is going to happen to the ungodly; and if he rescued righteous Lot, greatly distressed by the sensual conduct of the wicked (for as that righteous man lived among them day after day, he was tormenting his righteous soul over their lawless deeds that he saw and heard); then the Lord knows how to rescue the godly from trials, and to keep the unrighteous under punishment until the day of judgement, and especially those who indulge in the lust of defiling passion and despise authority. (2 Peter 2:4-10)

Now I want to remind you, although you once fully knew it, that Jesus, who saved a people out of the land of Egypt, afterwards destroyed those who did not believe. And the angels who did not stay within their own position of authority, but left their proper dwelling, he has kept in eternal chains under gloomy darkness until the judgement of the great day— just as Sodom and Gomorrah and the surrounding cities, which likewise indulged in sexual immorality and pursued unnatural desire, serve as an example by undergoing a punishment of eternal fire… It was also about these that Enoch, the seventh from Adam, prophesied, saying, “Behold, the Lord comes with ten thousands of his holy ones, to execute judgement on all and to convict all the ungodly of all their deeds of ungodliness that they have committed in such an ungodly way, and of all the harsh things that ungodly sinners have spoken against him.” (Jude 5-7, 14-15)

Precious Remedies Against Satan’s Devices; Part Three: Painted Virtue

There’s something inherently suspicious in the phrase: “sure, all it needs is a lick of paint”. You’re looking at a second (or, perhaps, seventy-second) hand wardrobe. The walls are chipped; the handles are broken; and the doors are most definitely kaput. The salesman optimistically blurts out: “sure, all it needs is a lick of paint”. See? Inherently suspicious.

But, according to Thomas Brooks, we fall for that phrase all the time. Satan’s Brooks - Precious Redemiessecond device, in Precious Remedies Against Satan’s Devices, is painting virtue onto sin. Satan is the king shark among salesmen. He knows: if Christians see sin as it truly is, the full horror of soul-crushing rebellion against God, they’d fly miles to avoid it. So, “he presents it unto us, not in its own proper colours, but painted and gilded over with the name and show of virtue, that we may be more easily overcome by it, and take more pleasure in committing of it”. Gossip and slander, he paints with the cause of truth: “I’m not going to lie, but she told me…”. Pride, he covers with neatness and cleanliness: “I’m just ‘OCD’ about my appearance”. Covetousness, well, that’s just being economically sound! Satan takes sin, gives it a lick of virtue-paint, and sells it to us. How can we resist such salesmanship?

Remedy #1: seriously consider that painted sin is more vile and dangerous to your soul.

For some reason, the story of Little Red Riding Hood is etched in terror in my brain. I think it’s down to the particularly peculiar creepiness of the Big Bad Wolf. He breaks into Red Riding Hood’s grandmother’s house to eat this elderly lady, and then disguise himself in her clothes. He’s disguised, but his nature is unchanged. The grandmother’s clothes don’t lend him any maternal qualities. The Big Bad Wolf remains the Big Bad Wolf. And, all this makes him more dangerous than ever before. Because the disguised Wolf has a chance to fatally defeat his nemesis.

Sin remains sin, even when Satan disguises it as virtuous. Lust doesn’t become any less filthy because you believe you’re ‘appreciating the beauty of creation’. Greed isn’t less abominable because you’re ‘having great fellowship at dinner’. “Wantonness” can’t be excused because it’s “a trick of youth”. Painted virtue cannot improve sin any more than a lick of paint can restore a destroyed wardrobe. And, because we don’t notice it, it becomes more dangerous than ever. Until we have stumbled into painted sin, “Satan is a parasite; when we have sinned, he is a tyrant”. Thinking we’re pleasing God, we block-out the “sweet and glorious communion God offers”. Painted sin is still vile, and it’s more deadly.

Remedy #2: seriously consider the future consequences of painted sin.

One of the most neglected aspects of Christian life for the contemporary evangelical is the future. Our culture is largely hidden from death, and our church is embarrassed by the rampant end-times speculation of the Left Behind series and their ilk. But, the future is essential in our present fight against sin. Brooks urges us: look to the future.

When you shall lie upon a dying bed, and stand before the judgement-seat, sin shall be unmasked…then it shall appear more vile, filthy and terrible than hell itself…that which formerly appeared most sweet will appear most bitter, and that which appeared most beautiful will appear most ugly, and that which appeared most delightful will then appear most dreadful to the soul…sin will surely prove evil and bitter to the soul when its robes are taken off.

We might protest that this is hyperbole. How can our sin be worse than hell itself? Firstly, hyperbole is incredibly good at pricking our conscience. It reveals how seriously we really see sin. If we’re protesting that sin’s not as bad as Brooks makes out, then maybe we’ve bought virtue-painted sin. But secondly, Brooks might just be right. Sin, on that future day, will be proven to be evil and bitter to soul. If we’re Christians, we’ve been chosen by the Father in Christ from before the beginning of time. And in this life the Father has incredibly applied that gracious gift of union with Christ to us by the Holy Spirit. So, when our disobedience is fully revealed, can you imagine how deeply it’s going to shame us? When we prefer our painted sin, we’re attempting to overthrow God; we’re rejecting those incredible gifts. So, maybe we’ll share with Paul: “wretched man that I am! Who will deliver me from this body of death? Thanks be to God through Jesus Christ our Lord” (Romans 7:24-25a).

“So therefore, look upon sin now as you must look upon it to all eternity, and as God…will present it to you on that day”.

Remedy #3: seriously consider the cost of painted sin on Christ.

Here, Brooks is at his strongest. Let me quote, at length, this remedy:

That Christ should come from the eternal bosom of His Father to a region of sorrow and death…that He that was clothed with glory should be wrapped with rags of flesh…that the God of the law should be subject to the law, the God of circumcision circumcised…that He that binds Satan in chains should be tempted…that the God of strength should be weary, the Judge of all flesh condemned, the God of life put to death…that that head, before which angels do cast down their crowns, should be crowned with thorns…those hands that freely swayed the sceptre of heaven, nailed to the cross for man’s sins…his soul, comfortless and forsaken; and all this for the very sins that Satan paints and puts fine colours upon! How the consideration of this should stir up the soul…to use all holy means whereby sin may be subdued and destroyed.

Christ died for our sin. So, even our virtue-painted sin “hath slain our Lord Jesus”. Never let the thought of our crucified Christ leave your mind. Instead, let such thoughts be “your sweetness and consolation…your reading and meditation, your life, death and resurrection”, because such thoughts tear through virtue-painted sin. Pray that the risen Christ opens our eyes to the true cost and reality of sin.

Top Five Books From D. A. Carson

Donald Arthur Carson has been a most prolific author, scholar and teacher in modern evangelical circles. He has been a pastor, currently serves as a professor of New Testament at Trinity Evangelical Divinity School and is perhaps most well-known as co-founder of The Gospel Coalition. Thus it is unsurprising to have had a range of material produced by Carson, from the most pastorally insightful books to the most rigorously academically peer-reviewed journal articles. Below are my top five reads from the pen of Carson.

  1. Memoirs of an Ordinary Pastor: The Life and Reflections of Tom Carson, (2008).

It is somewhat ironic that one of the most recognisable faces in modern evangelicalism has written a book about one of the least recognisable faces in Memoirsmodern evangelicalism. This is the reason that this book tops my list. In Memoirs of an Ordinary Pastor Carson holds up the beauty of quiet faithfulness in the home and in the church.

In an age where young reformed men who seek to be pastors look up to Driscoll, Chandler, Piper, Keller, Carson, Dever, Harris, Mahaney, Duncan, Truman, Tripp, Ryken, and DeYoung (to name but a few), it is increasingly (mis)understood that success in ministry is a church numbering thousands, with multiple sites/campuses and a huge online following. Carson’s book offers a timely corrective through the loving memory of a godly father by an adoring son.

This book convinced me once again that faithfulness to a congregation of 15 people is as glorious in the sight of God as faithfulness to a congregation of 1500.

  1. How Long, O Lord? Reflections on Suffering and Evil, (1990, 2006).

Suffering and evil are persistent challenges to Christians in their own personal lives and also in evangelism and mission. Therefore, any comprehensive, biblical and empathetic treatment of the topic will be invaluable to the church. This is exactly what we find inside the covers of How Long, O Lord?

As Carson himself acknowledges, this is not a book to hand to someone in the midst of suffering, but it is a book we must read before and after suffering (and again and again). Throughout the book Carson helpful explains the Bible’s teaching on these themes and offers much practical help for moving forward in light of Scripture. Additionally, Carson writes from personal experience which is imperative for speaking authoritatively on this topic.

  1. A Call to Spiritual Reformation: Priorities from Paul and his Prayers, (1992).

Hands down this is the best book on prayer that I have ever read (although this may change as Tim Keller’s Prayer is next on my reading list). There are three reasons that this book is the best I have read on prayer: (i) First, there is a clear focus on the Bible’s teaching on and example in prayer. Many other books rely on mystical practices, meditation and feelings/emotions. (ii) Secondly, there is a fair attempt at practical pointers in how to pray. This is particularly clear on the actual things Paul prays for in his prayers. (iii) Thirdly, Carson tackles head on issues such as sovereignty and prayer throughout the book. These are perennial issues for the practice of prayer and Carson’s answers point us in the right direction for resolving these issues.

  1. The Gagging of God: Christianity Confronts Pluralism, (1996).

This is arguably Carson’s Magnum Opus but must come further down the list as it will be outdated at some point in the near future (if not already in some contexts). However, for contexts such as Northern Ireland this book is certainly relevant as it presents the challenges that Christianity faced in the States twenty years ago. We must read things like this and learn as we are now facing the difficulties/challenges discussed in this book. Additionally, Carson has covered a phenomenal amount of ground in the areas of culture, religion, pluralism and society that the majority of us will never be able to do. Despite its length (569 pages) it is very readable too.

  1. The Cross and Christian Ministry: Leadership Lessons from 1 Corinthians, (1993, 2004).

This is a short but deep book. So many Christian book shops have shelves lined with leadership books which ‘Christianise’ business models and apply them to the church. While there is certainly much wisdom to be gleaned from the business world, it cannot and must not be our starting point. Rather, the cross, the gospel, the Bible must be our first port of call. Here Carson offers us a primer on Christian leadership based (primarily) on the opening chapters of 1 Corinthians. This is a must read for all pastors and elders!

As mentioned above Carson has certainly been prolific in his writing career, and so there are a few more books that I would suggest adding to your library: both his commentaries (on Matthew and John) are well worth purchasing; personally I benefited much from his Collected Writings on Scripture which opened a whole new world of debate on the nature of Scripture for me; I would also encourage you to read The Pastor as Scholar and the Scholar as Pastor co-authored with John Piper. Buy one of these books and read it!

Seven Ways Warring Parents Hurt Children

Unavoidable

There is no way to avoid it; every married couple at some point will have a disagreement, suffer from stress and undergo hardship. It is impossible for two (sinful) people to live in such close proximity and not irritate one another. While some people may make it months before getting on one another’s nerves, other couples don’t even make it to the end of the wedding day before disagreeing.

These disagreements, divisions and fights are difficult enough whenever there are only two of you. The impacts are only magnified once children are introduced to the picture. There is much pain and damage caused to children from homes in sad-boy-1564119which the parents consistently fight. Even in homes where the fighting is sporadic, unless it is dealt with appropriately, there are consequences for the children.

Below I briefly outline seven ways in which warring parents can hurt children. This list is applicable to children of all ages. However, there will have to be some wisdom exercised in applying it to children of different ages. An eleven year old will be able to cope with more information and reasoning than a four year old – nonetheless, they both equally need to be cared for in the face of marriage conflict.

1. Secrecy

One prominent way to hurt a child during marriage conflict is to try and hide it from them. Children can sometimes be oblivious to what is going on around them, but if there is sustained conflict in the home this will not bypass a child’s attention. You may believe that you are being discreet but they will be able to pick up tension between fighting parents.

Given that they are aware of this, it is hugely upsetting and unsettling for them not to be included to a degree. To know that parents are fighting, but not to know what about or when it will end or how serious it is will deeply distress a child.

This does not mean that the child must be given all of the ins and outs of the disagreement. However, if a married couple are open with their children and acknowledge that they are sorting out issues there is some comfort for the child in that the issue is not being hidden from them.

Secrecy creates an atmosphere is mistrust. A child will be aware of strained relationships – acknowledge the strain. Indeed, you may even ask your child to pray for you.

 2. Absenteeism

Closely connected to secrecy is the problem of absenteeism, whether physically absent or emotionally absent from your child/children.

By being physically absent your children are forced to seek the equivalent relationship elsewhere. A physical absence is tantamount to abandoning your child/children. Now this does not mean you must leave work and be at home all day every day, but it does mean that your child/children know when you finish work and find you at home when they expect to. Much pain can be avoided if a child can rely on seeing their parents at home every evening/Saturday/dinner-time.

Many men also cope with marital conflict by refraining from showing emotion in the presence of their wife. This is emotional absenteeism, and causes yet more hurt to a child. Even though you may physically be in the presence of your child/children you mind, attention and focus is not. They are aware of this. Children desire and need affection from both their parents. They must be able to connect with their parents and develop their relationship with them. This is especially important if there is marital conflict. Children must be reassured that even if there is marital conflict, their parents’ feelings toward them have not changed.

 3. Prolonging Conflict

Extended periods of conflict deepen the hurt that is experienced by children. It is paramount that as issues arise in marriage relationships that they are dealt with promptly. To ignore an issue will only exacerbate the problem. Even though all issues cannot be resolved in an hour, a day or a week – they must be dealt with. The longer a marriage conflict continues the greater the consequences in all areas of life. This means that the hurt caused to your child/children will be multiplied.

On the other hand, if a child who is aware of a marital conflict observes their parents dealing with the issue they will be offered hope that it will be resolved. It is important for parents to show their children that even though things may be difficult now, it will not always be so.

 4. Unforgiving Attitude

Often prolonged conflict arises out of an unwillingness to forgive. Children will be distressed if they come to understand that their parent(s) is/are unforgiving. This will place undue pressure on them to perform perfectly as they fear making mistakes that will ‘cost them’. If they observe a parent being unwilling to forgive their other parent, they will naturally conclude that that same parent will be unwilling to forgive them.

To possess an unforgiving attitude will encourage your child to avoid you, fear you and dislike you. Being unforgiving is not a godly characteristic, and so they will not see a godly parent. This will create an atmosphere of fear in the home as it appears that each and every mistake will have permanent consequences for the child, just as it does for the parent.

 5. Over Reliance

It is also possible that instead of putting too much distance between yourself and your child that you do the opposite.

Many people who find themselves in a marriage conflict situation rely too heavily on their children to provide the aspects of relationship that they miss. Parents seek comfort, friendship, connection and love from a child. This is an unjust demand to place on a child. They are unable, and should not be forced to offer the benefits of a marital relationship. Although this may begin simply with someone to talk to, or a friendly face to give you a hug at the end of a tough day, it is possible that it may develop into an abusive relationship (whether emotionally or physically).

This demand on a child will be confusing, painful and burdensome for them. They have not developed full relational skills yet, nor should they be relating to a parent in such a way. To deal with marital conflict in such a way will be very damaging to your child/children.

 6. Unjust Demands

This emotional over reliance on children may of course develop beyond those boundaries to a number of unjust demands.

It is very easy to place extra demands on your child/children out of disappointment with a failing and difficult relationship. Due to the lack of satisfaction with your spouse you are keen to find satisfaction in your child. This is observable in demanding an educational standard beyond their ability, or a sporting standard beyond their ability, or just attempting to live your life through them.  These demands can often be unspoken, but very real.

The damage caused by these demands can be far reaching and persist throughout a child’s life. There will be a consistent sense of failure as the child is unable to attain the unjust demands, a lack of self-worth will develop out of this failure and ultimately this may lead to illness and incapacity.

 7. Punishment

The fall out of placing unjust demands on children is that when these demands are not met children are punished.

It is important to note that there is a distinction to be found between discipline and punishment. Discipline seeks to correct, while punishment seeks retribution. A parent should discipline their child/children, but they should not punish their child. Punishment harms a child as there is no beneficial effect for them. The act of punishment aids a release of anger for the parent concerning the marriage conflict – however, this makes the child little more than a punch bag. This is not appropriate. This is physical abuse, bringing no healing to the relationship you have with your child.

Minimising the Hurt

The Bible clearly speaks about a child’s place in the family. They are to be submissive and obedient to their parents (Eph. 6:1; Col. 3:20). There is rightly a hierarchy to the family.

However, this does not mean that children should be neglected, nor overlooked in family matters. Marital conflict, although primarily between spouses, has implications for the whole family and this must be acknowledged. Therefore, children should be taken into consideration when dealing with marital conflict. This is all the more important when it is appreciated that children are very aware of what is taking place in the home.

Fathers must carry the responsibility here (Eph. 5:22), but they must not act alone. Even in times of disagreement and difficultly the parents must speak to children together. Do not keep secrets (because they most likely aren’t secrets), nor keep children at arm’s length. Rather, acknowledge the conflict and show them you are dealing with it and forgiving each other, as God in Christ forgave you (Col. 3:13). However, this inclusion of children must be limited otherwise there is the danger of over reliance, unjust demands and consequent punishment.

Marriage conflict will hurt children, but we can minimise that hurt.


Note: I write not as a parent, but as a child of a broken home.