Living Now with Eternity in Mind #5: Living the Good Life

Dear friends, I urge you as strangers and exiles to abstain from sinful desires that wage war against the soul. Conduct yourselves honorably among the Gentiles, so that when they slander you as evildoers, they will observe your good works and will glorify God on the day he visits.

1 Peter 2:11—12

What it does it mean to live the good life? How might our world define the good life? What would you say? Here’s another question: do you think God wants you to live the good life?If I were to say God wants you to live a good life, what kind of life might I mean?Because it all hinges on what we mean by the word “good,” doesn’t it?

While 1 Peter is all about what we might face by living as followers of Jesus in this world, our passage this morning suggests that living as followers of Jesus also means living the good life. Now, even though the two verses we’re going to look at are also an introduction to the next section of Peter’s letter, they can teach us something about what it means to live the good life and why it’s important that we do.

So first let’s think about what it doesn’t mean to live the good life. For Peter’s readers in Asia Minor the good life was to live however one wanted, to indulge your impulses and desires. This is why Peter tells them: Dear friends, I urge you, as foreigners and exiles, to abstain from sinful desires, which wage war against your soul. From The Ashbury Bible Commentary: “These desires are characteristic of the pagan society from which they have been redeemed and to which they must no longer conform.”

Even in our culture, there are lots of people who think that if it feels good it must be good. So, when Peter tells his readers—including us—to abstain from sinful desires, he’s saying that not all of our desires are good and healthy. His words here also remind us that even once we’ve come to faith in Jesus, we can still very much struggle with sinful desires. He goes as far as to say that these sinful desires wage war against your soul. And this would have been especially true for his first century readers who were living in a pagan culture filled with immorality. It’s can also be true for us.

In his book The Cost of Discipleship, Dietrich Bonhoeffer writes: “When all is said and done, the life of faith is nothing if not an unending struggle of the spirit with every available weapon against the flesh.” 

But living the good life isn’t just about not giving in to sinful desires. It’s also about recognizing why. The other translation we read helps us to see this. There Peter says: So I beg you to keep your lives free from the evil things you want to do, those desires that fight against your true selves. 

The sinful desires, the evil things we find ourselves wanting to do, are sinful and evil precisely because they actually hurt us and go against God’s purpose for our life. To give in to our sinful desires is to cross the boundaries that make the good life possible.

In other words, God defines the good life, not our desires. Put another way: Living the good life means embracing God’s vision for our life. It means living the way he designed and created us to live—the way we were meant to live.

What sinful desires do you sometimes struggle with? Do you sometimes want to do things you know aren’t good for you and that don’t please God? Why do you think God wants us to keep our lives free from the evil things we want to do? Does he want us to be miserable? How do we keep our lives free from such things? What helps us resist sinful desires?

Years ago, in his song “Only the Good Die Young,” Billy Joel sang: “I’d rather laugh with the sinners than cry with the saints/The sinners are much more fun.” What do you think? Is living a sinful life the good life? I imagine that some people do see things this way.

In our passage Peter writes this: Live such good lives among the pagans that, though they accuse you of doing wrong, they may see your good deeds and glorify God on the day he visits us. Now, on the surface when we read this we might conclude Peter is simply talking about our behaviour. Good deeds equal good lives. Are we living morally upright lives? Because this is what the good life is. But is it?

Don’t get me wrong. I’m not saying that morality is unimportant. Peter is talking about that too. But there’s more to it than that. And we can see this when we consider the word he uses for “good.” The word for “good” here is Καλός. Here is what it means: “beautiful, good, worthy, an outward sign of the inward good, noble, honorable character; and seen to be so.” Or it can also mean: attractively goodgood that inspires (motivates) others to embrace what is lovely (beautiful, praiseworthy); i.e. well done so as to be winsome (appealing).

Doesn’t that throw a fresh light on Peter’s words? So when Peter talks about living a good life, he’s talking about living in such a way that our way of life is not only good but attractively good. Here’s the thing: we can obey and behave outwardly in the right ways and still make a bad impression and have a bad witness.

For Peter’s readers, they faced being accused of wrongdoing because they wouldn’t participate in the pervasively pagan culture all around them. They didn’t fit in. They had to find a way of being winsome witnesses in a neighbourhood where their faith was strange.

David Kinnaman, in his book unChristian: What a New Generation Really Thinks about Christianity… and Why It Matters, writes: “Being salt and light demands two things: we practice purity in the midst of a fallen world and yet we live in proximity to this fallen world. If you don’t hold up both truths in tension, you invariably become useless and separated from the world God loves.” 

One of the battles we face is this. We live in a culture that in many ways already thinks it knows what the Christian faith and church are all about and has rejected it. Or thinks its no longer relevant. We’re called to show them differently. Which means we have to wrestle with what it means to be a Christian and to be the church here and now.

This means that while we are called not to give in to desires that run contrary to God’s good intentions for us, we are also called to live in the midst of those who do; and in such a way as to show just how good God is.

Living the good life shows God’s beauty. How we live has the potential to reveal God’s character. We’re called to live in such a way that others will want the life we have.Because as we live the good life, our good deeds—our acts of kindness, service, and love—will put God’s goodness and beauty on display.

Here’s the thing: if we want other people to see the Christian life—to see a life of following Jesus—as something appealing, beautiful, and good, then we have to experience it that way first. Our lives have to be an overflow of our experience of God’s love and grace in Jesus. Do we see the Christian life as the good life?  Because what we really want to do is for people to see God as he really is in Jesus—and to come to Jesus and experience this good life.

What is attractive about the Christian life? What’s attractive about your Christian life? How can we be more winsome as we live our faith in our neighbourhood? What about the Christian faith might be attractive to people who don’t share your faith? Why might we think of God as beautiful? And how can we show his beauty through our good deeds?

There are times when seeing the moon at night is kind of amazing. I love it when the moon is so bright that it almost seems bright outside—even though it’s late at night. Of course, we all know the moon doesn’t have its own light. Even though it can look beautiful, it’s beautiful because it reflects the light of the sun. You could say the moon glorifies the sun. In our passage Peter writes: People who don’t believe are living all around you . . . So live such good lives that they will see the good you do, and they will give glory to God on the day he comes. Well, in this scenario we are the moon while God is the sun. We are called to reflect his beauty and goodness into the world. Put this way: Living the good life glorifies God.

Glorifying God means recognizing him for who he is. It means acknowledging him for who he is. It means seeing him as worthy of our worship and praise. And we want to—and ought to—lives our lives in such a way that even those who don’t share our faith right now might one day glorify God also.

However, our passage also says that they will see the good you do, and they will give glory to God on the day he comes. Peter here refers to the coming again of Jesus Christ. On the day he comes . . . They will give glory to God.

Our text here is ambiguous about whether or not those who glorify God because of our good deeds on the day Jesus returns are doing so as believers or simply because once Jesus comes again they are finally acknowledging what is impossible to ignore or avoid. For my part, I want people I know who aren’t Christians to glorify God before Jesus returns. I want people to come to Christ and to know the good life he has waiting for them.

How can we reflect God into our neighbourhoods? What does it mean to glorify God and how can we do this? Are we praying that God will use us to open the eyes and hearts of people around us so they can see him for who he really is? Of course, there is one person ever on this earth to have lived the good life perfectly. That’s Jesus. Hebrews 1:3 says: He is the reflection of God’s glory and the exact imprint of God’s very being. It’s talking about Jesus. Only Jesus perfectly reflects God’s glory. I love what Madeleine L’Engle says about being a Christian: “It means to live in such a way that one’s life would not make sense if God did not exist.” Because of the good life Jesus lived, we can have the good life God wants for us now. We can live the good life, because Jesus lives in us.

Approval

I fear what others think about me. I worry about it. I even project what I worry people might be thinking about me onto said people and then relate to them on the basis of these projections.

So, yeah, I’ve got issues.

For the better part of my life I have been or have thought of myself as insecure. Ever since I was a kid I have lacked self-confidence. Particularly during adolescence this insecurity was sometimes paralyzing. I could feel trapped in my own little world. Looking at the kids I wished I was, it was like gazing through a window, except instead of a pane of glass the divide was a huge chasm. Crossing it was altogether impossible. I would never be like them or liked by them. Or so I thought at the time.

Things change, and so do we, and by the grace of God I grew in confidence throughout university. Thanks to my growing faith, I began to be able to do things I never could have done when I was in Junior High School. That’s not to say I was a supremely confident young man while in university; rather, God had begun to work in me.

But even now I can still feel insecure. Like I said at the start, I’m afraid of what other people think of me. Not always. I never said I was consistent. Yet I have moments when I feel like that same kid in Junior High. It’s like 25 years or more haven’t even gone by. Despite all the growth, all the so-called progress, in an instant my confidence can disappear.

As far as I can see, then, such struggles are a fundamental part of who I am as a human being. I will never be fully rid of this particular weakness. No matter how far I have come, there are things you can’t leave behind. Indeed, the fact that I struggle with being so concerned about what others think of me is proof that my teenage insecurity is alive and well.

Another thing is that there’s a part of me that seeks and even longs for the approval of others. I want approval to alleviate feelings of insecurity. If I don’t get it or even perceive that I don’t, I will feel very insecure. And perception is a strange thing. I spoke about projections. I also find myself studying peoples faces, tones of voice, and whatever else in order to determine whether in that moment I have their approval. Granted, this isn’t always conscious. But it’s there, especially in those moments where I am acutely self-conscious.

If all of this sounds rather sad, I suppose it is to a point. Though I have overcome these tendencies to a significant degree, thanks, in large part, to my faith in Christ. It’s all a part of that growing process that constitutes the Christian life.

In my last post I talked about having a secure sense of identity, and that this is only possible when we receive our identity from Jesus. Dealing with insecurity and having a desire for approval involves the same territory.

I grew up as the only child of a single Mom. By the time I became interested in who my father was I was already in junior high. Eventually my Mom arranged for he and I to meet. Years later, while chatting with my Mom about this, I happened to mention how I had decided in the end not to go through with meeting him. And my Mom, with a sort of quiet surprise in her voice, said, “That’s not how it happened.” She said, “You did go to meet him but he never showed up.”

Hearing her say this was a real “Whoa!” moment. Imagine how psychologically important it was for me to believe that I had made the decision not to meet him. Consider the need for approval that was all tangled up with my desire to meet my biological father and my mind’s act of protecting me from what really happened. Rather than approval, I experienced rejection. And my sub-conscious erected defensive walls to keep the painful truth at bay. I have no doubt that a connection exists between that adolescent experience and my present day need for approval.

At the outset of his ministry, Jesus heard his Father’s voice say, “This is my Son, my Beloved; with him I am well pleased.” It was acknowledgment of the unity of the Father and Son, and it was also affirmation that Jesus was indeed acting according to his Father’s will and that he had the Father’s approval.

When we come to faith in Christ, we become adopted sons and daughters of God the Father. By extension, the words of affirmation and confirmation Jesus heard from his Father are also words that the Father says to us. That is, through Jesus we have the approval of the Father. “You are my sons and daughters; with you I am well pleased.”

The great thing is that our approval does not depend on us. Though, yes, we can please God, we can’t earn his pleasure. We can never deserve his approval. The foundation of the pleasure he takes in us, of the approval he offers, is the pleasure he takes in his Son Jesus. That’s the sort of approval that we all long for and the only kind, ultimately, we truly need.

“Dirty Dishes, Laundry, and Being a Radical Follower of Jesus”

In the Evangelical world there is a group of young pastors, leaders, and writers who advocate a radical commitment to Jesus, one that challenges the perceived complacency of those who are, as the Bible puts it, “at ease in Zion.” Among these new radicals are David Platt and Francis Chan. Their books rise to the top of the best-seller lists, ensuring that their call to a deeper, more biblical form (in their estimation) of discipleship is widely circulated throughout the slumbering congregations of North America.

And surely this is a good thing. Surely, their challenge is one many churches need. Particularly in the North American church there are greater levels of complacency. Where the cost of following Jesus seems only to amount to spare change, faith and it’s privileges get easily taken for granted.

More importantly, Jesus himself was radical in his call, was he not? Think of it. There are calls for his followers to forsake the most intimate of relationships if they rival allegiance to him. Not only that, his call is fundamentally for us to die to ourselves, to take up our cross each day and walk the rugged, ragged path he trod. This is a call that tells us to expect persecution, suffering, and even death. Put Christ first is the command; all competition must go.

Yet I think there is a difference between Jesus and these young radicals.

Or at least I hope there is.

Let me explain why.

When I’ve listened to speakers like Francis Chan powerfully challenge their audience to more, to greater, to the more radical, I’ve often done so via a podcast or a You Tube video while my hands are soaking in soapy, grimy dishwater. I’m finally getting around to doing dishes that have accumulated over 2 or 3 days. Such podcasts make mundane tasks that much more tolerable.

However, there have been times when I’ve been doing this and found myself questioning my own life and whether or not I am living radically for Jesus. Someone like Chan is speaking about fully giving yourself to Christ, about living as a passionate follower of Jesus and here I am organizing another pile of laundry, wondering how on earth we could get so many clothes so dirty so fast. I experience dissonance. It makes me wonder whether I can be a radical follower of Jesus when the better part of my life consists in an endless succession of household chores.

The truth is life in a family is largely routine. Most days are filled with errands, laundry, making sure your kids are clean, dressed, and fed (though 2 out of 3 sometimes has to do). Most days are not spectacular. Most days end with me feeling drained, with barely enough energy to stay awake through a favourite TV show.

So what to make of what seems like such a disparity?

One of the first things I would say is that we have to be discerning when we interpret what Jesus is saying. For instance, when he tells the rich, young ruler to go and sell all he had and then come follow, Jesus was addressing the man’s heart. He was not saying that anyone who wants to follow him has to sell all they own and give away all the proceeds. Even in the early church, radical generosity was spontaneous and voluntary, not required and regulated.

The question, rather, is whether or not our possessions possess us. Does our stuff, our desire to get it, get in the way of our following Jesus? Are our possessions idols? In fact, it’s perfectly possible for a poor person to treat money as an idol more than a rich person.

The question is always: are we willing to relinquish what gets between us and Jesus? In other words, if the circumstances were such that you had to choose between financial security and Jesus, which would you choose?

The call of the cross is, likewise, about our willingness to follow Jesus even in the face of persecution, of rejection, of suffering, and even death. Unlike Ignatius of Antioch, however, it’s not about relishing the prospect of impending martyrdom but of being so committed to Jesus and having been so radically changed by the power of his resurrection that we willingly and gladly share in the fellowship of his sufferings .

Part of what underlies the motivation of these new radicals is the fact that it’s hard to hear a gospel of grace in a land of plenty. We don’t want what we don’t think we need. Even in some churches what Jesus has done is taken for granted. We underestimate our sinfulness, and our need, therefore, for the mercy and forgiveness of our holy, Creator God. There are times when there needs to be voices crying in the wilderness — including the wilderness of North American Christianity. These young radicals are among these voices.

But when it comes to the (dare I say) average follower of Jesus, being a radical follower has to mean something that applies to life in the ordinary world of day-planners, school plays, and shovelling your driveway out yet again. And I think it does.

You see, simply having Jesus as the centre of your life is radical in this neighbourhood. It’s not about freeing yourself from the mundane in order to do what Jesus really wants you to do. Instead, it’s about living radically right where you are. It’s about learning to see all of life in relation to God so that, as Reformers like Martin Luther insisted, even housework can be done to the glory of God. It’s about seeing the value in the most tedious of activities when they are done with an attitude of sacrificial love. The every day routine to which most of us subscribe is not an escape from the radical call of Jesus; it’s instead a means of entering such a call more humbly, more fully and, yes, even more radically.

Stopping Long Enough To Listen

“Stop!” I frequently say this or something like this to our 4-year old twin boys. And when they do stop, then I can instruct them, inform them, and correct them. But they have to stop first. Listening is impossible if they are running, jumping, or climbing. Once they do stop, I can get them to look me in the eyes and pay attention.

Funny how that works.

True, our twin sons have a lot of energy. There is very little stillness between the time they get up and the time they go to bed. And whatever stillness there might be is largely imposed by parental authority. Busy, busy, busy. Anyone else hear a parable here?

“Busyness is the evangelical badge of courage.” Or so someone once told me. Interesting that this remark has stayed with me as long as it has. Shades of that good ol’ Protestant work ethic at play. I guess it has something to do with wanting to be productive or perhaps to appear important, either to ourselves or others. There’s good and bad here. Obviously, we should avoid sloth. We’re called to be active, to be about the work of the kingdom. But busyness, to paraphrase the apostle John, covers a multitude of sins, and not in the right way.

And I can feel it in my bones. Without solitude, contemplation, reflection, and other means of opening myself up to God, even the best of my efforts risk becoming shallow. Motivations can get skewed. Dependence on God ends up a façade. Instead, it’s about me, about me getting stuff done.

In the midst of all this, God is saying, “Stop!” Be still, and know that I am God.

And I don’t listen often enough.

Even my wife was talking this past week about how our family life is so packed with appointments for the kids, family stuff, and other obligations. For her, this makes life stressful. She’d much prefer to be at her parents’ camp in the woods on the lake. Everything there seems so simple, basic, elemental. It’s a place of retreat, of slowing down, of keeping time with God’s creation, allowing its natural rhythms to infuse the activities of the day.

Opening ourselves to God’s presence is challenging but crucial. An antidote to the pervasive busyness of our lives, practices such as contemplation and journalling make it more possible to be teachable, to experience rest, and to know the presence of God. I admit I don’t engage in these practices deliberately enough. I see the consequences of this too. I am aware of being less attentive and alert to how God might be speaking to me in the various circumstances of life.

I love how Adele Calhoun, in her book Spiritual Disciplines Handbook, speaks of cultivating “a way of living into a deeper awareness of God’s activity in our lives.” Doing this means saying “no” or at least “not yet” to other things. But it is also surprising how much personal and social pressure there is to do otherwise. Do, not be. Things have to get done. And truth be told, as busy as I can be most days, there is still much that remains undone. Guilt, stress, and anxiety quietly accumulate with each unfinished task.

As it happens, only becoming more aware of “God’s activity in our lives” pulls together all of the disparate activities, responsibilities, and commitments, giving them a wholeness, a meaning that is more than simply the sum of their parts. If the various aspects of our lives are pieces of a puzzle, God is the frame that holds them all in place. Without him, we never see the bigger picture.

So, I have to learn slow down, unplug, and get some rest. Lord, please help to me do this.

Or like I tell my kids in order to get them to hear me, “Stop!”

Tempus Fugit

Man, oh man, I cannot believe my vacation—much less the summer—is over. Next week our daughter begins grade 4 and our twin sons start preschool. Just a week ago my wife and I celebrated our 11th anniversary. And if I really want to think of how far life has come and gone, I need only recall that I’ve been out of high school for 23 years. Finished my undergrad 18 years ago. Received my Master’s degree 15 years ago. I mean, c’mon, this year I turn 41. Forgive the cliché, but it’s true (cue impressive Latin phrase!): tempus fugit. Or as we usually say it, “Time flies.” And, believe me, it does so even when you’re not having fun.

If most of you are like me, then most days you live as though your death is an eternity away. Continuing with the “time” image, we act as though we have “all the time in the world.” Whether the thought of our own death bothers us or not, dwelling on what the final date inscribed on our tombstone will be is likely not a regular routine. Moments occasionally come along when I realize that there is still much of the young boy and college student in me. I think more years  still lie ahead of me than behind. But as my wife likes to remind me, I am now middle-aged! In the U2 song from their album How to Dismantle an Atomic Bomb, “City of Blinding Lights,” Bono sings reflectively, “Time won’t leave me as I am/ Time won’t take the boy out of this man.” It’s funny how both things can be true, isn’t it?

Psalm 90 seems to have been written by someone perhaps reflecting on the realities of age and of mortality. Sounding a great deal like the Teacher of Ecclesiastes, the psalmist writes: “The days of our life are seventy years, or perhaps eighty, if we are strong; even then their span is only toil and trouble; they are soon gone, and we fly away.” There is a definite realism and honesty in the biblical text about the temporal limitations we all face.

But we don’t like to face these limitations in our culture. Surely the big business of cosmetic surgery attests loudly to this. Other signs of our desire to avoid age and our own eventual demise abound. Think of the woman who says, “I turn 35 again this year.” Or the man who dyes his graying temples. Or parents who try to live vicariously through their children. In our society, youth is god-like, a sign of strength and success. And of course our culture is not alone in wanting to prolong life. Think of the legend of the Fountain of Youth, a spring that supposedly restores the youth of anyone who drinks or bathes in its waters. Tales of such a fountain have been recounted across the world for thousands of years. According to an apocryphal combination of New World and Eurasian elements, Juan Ponce de León was searching for the Fountain of Youth when he traveled to what is now Florida in 1513. Imagine the money people would pay if such a fountain were ever found. Walmart would set up shop by the fountain overnight. Apple would design an app to use it.

Obviously, searching for some legendary fountain is not the way of dealing with our finitude. Thankfully, God in his wisdom offers us truth about how to think about this reality. Aware of his own unavoidable death, the writer of Psalm 90 brings this awareness to God in prayer: “So teach us to count our days that we may gain a wise heart.” I see at least two things to note here. First, God needs to give us a better grasp of our own mortality. Teach us, the Psalmist asks. More than that, the psalmist asks because he wants to live wisely. Knowing, therefore, that we only have so much time is understood as a prompt to wiser living.

Think of people who make so-called “bucket-lists.” Often those who make such lists are people who have been diagnosed with a terminal illness or who have in some other way been confronted by their own mortality. Having had the realization that they will really not live forever, such a list-maker thinks, “I better make a list of things that I want to do and should do before I die. This is my last chance.” Becoming more intimately aware that their days on this earth are numbered, such a person decides to use the time he or she has doing things they’ve put off. Being able to number our days rightly potentially rids each of us of the procrastinator within.

One other thing about what the psalmist is saying. He’s saying it all to God. This is prayer. Underlying his desire to have a more honest grasp of the length of his life is what the Bible calls a fear of the Lord. The Bible makes clear elsewhere that “the fear of the Lord is the beginning of wisdom” (Psalm 111:10). While meaning more, having a fear of the Lord at the very least means knowing that one’s life is ultimately in God’s hands. And not just this brief earthly sojourn. What happens to our life after we die is also in God’s hands. Wanting to live wisely, therefore, means wanting to live life—all of life, as much of it as we have—in relation to God. It means finding in God our very reason for living. “Lord,” the psalmist is saying, “help me to live for you in the time that you have given to me.”

Much of our culture tells us to do whatever we can to extend our stay on this blue-green planet in order to have more time to enjoy what we like, to do what we want to do, to live how we want to live. But the current of biblical wisdom runs in a considerably different direction. And Jesus, thankfully, describes it to us: “For whoever would save his life will lose it, but whoever loses his life for my sake will find it” (Matthew 16:25). Being able to count our days wisely in order to live wisely means knowing that we can never save our lives—much less add days or weeks or years to our calendar. Tempus fugit. Since this is so, we should make the prayer of Psalm 90 our own before it’s too late.