Sunday, 22 November 2015

Book Review: Just Do Something by Kevin DeYoung


How to make a decision without dreams, visions, fleeces, impressions, open doors, random Bible verses, casting lots, liver shivers, writing in the sky etc.

I read this book not because I was seeking God's guidance about any particular decisions, nor because I felt particularly 'led' to read it, nor because I was recommended it, but rather because my husband was currently reading it, found it sensible and pragmatic, and because I was captured by the subtitle!

The testimonials by pastors and Bible scholars are impressive. The book is heralded as being an essential 'go to' book for young people seeking answers to the big questions such as, 'What does God want me to do with my life?'

I found it cut to the chase. I have known many Christians almost paralysed through fear of 'missing God's will', as though this is some elusive quest where mistakes carry high penalties. I've always felt a uncomfortable with this, as it is contrary to the nature of God. Why would a good and loving God who cares about us with father-like love play such games with us? It doesn't make sense. Alongside this, some Christians who are paralysed into inactivity over-spiritualise decisions. 'I'm waiting for peace about the decision', or 'I'm waiting for a clear calling'.

DeYoung writes in a refreshing manner (some quotes from this, and other books, are here). He makes it quite clear that the God who created heaven and earth is quite capable of using extra-ordinary means to speak to His children. He cites the Biblical examples where dreams, visions, fleeces, writing on the wall, a talking Donkey, visits from angels and other supernatural means were used to communicate direction. However he also makes clear that this is far from the norm, and was far from the norm even in Bible times. Secondly, he does not dismiss praying about decisions, asking God to give us wisdom and help in making the best decisions. He does not dismiss seeking Godly counsel (indeed recommends this, and quotes several passages of scripture to underline this point). But the point he makes is that some decisions can be made simply as decisions.

His style can be shocking at times. He makes bold statements including, 'God does not care where you study or what career you choose'. He then qualifies this by explaining that there is not a single best 'perfect will of God' for your life, and that we need to take care not to treat non-moral decisions in an over-spiritual manner. Sometimes the choices can be made by weighing up the options, considering the pros and cons of them all, and making a logical and rational decision. If the decision does not lead you into sin, it is likely to be an opportunity that can be used by God.

There was an interesting overlap with the book I recently discussed on the error of 'self-esteem' teaching. In our current generation, we are encouraged to look for perfect fulfilment, and it is instilled in us that 'we deserve it'. DeYoung writes, 'my peers and I were among the first ones to experience grande inflation, where we got A's for excavating our feelings and 'doing our best' at calculus. We were among the first to be programmed for self-esteem, as we learned that having a pulse made us wonderfully special. For as long as we can remember, we've been destined for superstardom.... We've been stuffed full of praise for mediocrity and had our foibles diagnosed away with hyphenated jargon and pop psychology.' He points out that this attitude brings a sense of 'entitlement' which is almost certain to be disappointed. By contrast, he describes he grandfathers, both God-fearing men who had lived through some difficult times. In that generation (and indeed as I reflect on this, for my grandparents too, and for many people who live here in East Africa), life was more about providing for the essentials in life. Providing for one's family, with whichever job was available to be able to do so. Being involved in the day-to-day activities of a community. Raising and educating the children. Yes, some people at this time would have followed a vocation or calling, but often people were too busy getting on with life, discharging their responsibilities in a God-honouring way, to spend much time considering whether or not they were 'fulfilled'. I remember something similar when I asked my mother-in-law whether she had had a happy marriage. She looked at me as though I had asked the most peculiar question. You see, to her, marriage was about commitment through thick and thin, about providing for a large family on a meagre income, and about seeking to honour God in all things. Happiness, or lack of, simply did not seem to be a question that made sense.

(I read an insightful blog post that relates to this here. Protecting our children from perceived failure by micromanaging their lives is only set to exacerbate this anxiety in decision making, and perhaps particularly as home educating families we must take great care not to fall into this trap, but rather to prepare our children for life in the 'real world' - which is actually one of the great potential benefits of homeschooling)

DeYoung also tackles marriage. He is pragmatic on this. If you get on well, you are both Christians (and he expands a bit on this, to discuss ideologies which may be incompatible), then maybe you should just get on and get married. Years ago, people had much smaller social circles, and it would be likely you would marry somebody you knew through church or youth group, or somebody you had grown up alongside. Now we have such wide social circles and so much social mobility, that we can become paralysed through fear of missing 'the one'. When I read about Biblical marriage, I do not see descriptions of wild passion (although for sure, Song of Songs comes close!), or seeking a 'soul mate'. The Bible does not say that a marriage partner makes a person 'complete'. There are many errors in thinking in the world around us which have infiltrated the church and make young Christians make too much of decision making.

The book concludes with 8 short studies which could be undertaken as individuals or groups. I have no doubt that at some point in the future I will work through these with a younger Christian who is seeking to find 'God's will' for their lives.

The book is relatively short and easy to read. The style is challenging (although I do not find it offensive in any way). He does not offer worldly pragmatism, but correctly handles Scripture throughout. Indeed he provides a very helpful summary of the instances where the Bible refers to 'God's will for you', and this is invariably with regard to matters of godly living, rather than specific directional instructions. He points out that if we are living close to God, being obedient in the areas where we have been given specific instructions, then when the time comes for us to make choices, these should more naturally follow.

This is certainly one to keep to hand, to buy several copies of, and to refer to often.

Monday, 16 November 2015

Book Review: The Big Ego Trip by Glynn Harrison

I met Glynn Harrison at a recent Christian Medical Fellowship conference in the UK. He is a psychiatrist with a strong biblical worldview and the ability to speak clearly into some of the more challenging issues facing today's society. Having heard him speak, I was keen to read his book entitled, 'The Big Ego Trip', subtitle, 'Finding true significance in a culture of self-esteem'.

In the first section of the book, he moves quickly through the the philosophical and psychoanalytical work that led to the concept of 'self-esteem', making the key findings of these works accessible to those who would not be inclined to read the full texts. He rapidly touches upon a key limitation in much of this work: Association does not mean the same as causation. Just because something is observed, it does not mean that one caused the other. For example, I may sit at my desk to work. I might only work at my desk, and only sit at my desk when working. The two could be very strongly correlated, but one could not jump from there to suggest that it is my desk that makes me work. It sounds quite obvious when stated like that, but sadly throughout science, it is a common error to make. In the more quantifiable sciences (biochemistry, pharmacology etc), researchers are often keen to point out the limitations and the difficulties in unravelling causation. In epidemiology, we are asked to consider the 'Bradford Hill criteria' for causation. Yet somehow in the 'softer' disciplines of sociology and psychology, it seems a major error has been made here.

However, as Harrison points out, the emerging data on self-esteem meshed perfectly with societo-cultural changes in the 1960s and 70s and became mainstream thought. Acting on somewhat flawed and limited evidence, leaders in education, in the USA and then later in the UK, decided to build 'self-esteem' into the curriculum. Some shrewd critics have pointed out that if there were so little and such limited evidence evidence available for a drug treatment, there is now way it would ever be marketed! However, this 'new thinking' was rolled out and has become entrenched into mainstream society.

Some of the fruit (or fruitlessness) of this is exposed. For example, how can children be widely taught to believe that they are 'special' or 'above average'? Doesn't the very term 'average' imply a middle point? And also, although surveys show that teenagers today have higher belief in themselves and higher expectations of life, they also show a higher sense of disappointment and lower satisfaction with life. Does that not naturally follow, since such boosted expectations are surely only going to lead to disappointment. As a medical educator, I have also been witness to the rising trend amongst students to complain against or appeal against their marks, sometimes in a somewhat aggressive manner, as though a distinction or top grade is somehow their right. Other examples are given in the book.

Throughout the first part is woven the thread of thought: What is life all about? Why I am here? What is it for? What is my place in society? How do I contribute to the greater good? And it is pointed out that there has been a real cultural shift here - again longitudinal data is quoted to clearly show this. But of equal concern is the way this thinking has infiltrated the church. Around the 1970s, there was a real shift in the words of popular Christian songs - the emphasis is increasingly on 'me', on my response, my worship, my adoration, my heart. Songs that speak of sacrifice and humility are less popular. The concept of suffering in this world is also going out of fashion, and there is a rise in prosperity teaching (you can have it all, and you can have it now).

So the second part of the book seeks to bring truth into the situation. The correct Biblical stance is outlined. Yes, we are made in the image of God (what could be greater?) with the hope of heaven (again, an amazing privilege). There is that part of us which is unique, pure, noble and made for higher things than this. But at the same time, as individuals we have fallen, we have sinned, we lack hope and we need redemption. The gospel is clearly and appropriately presented.

As a psychiatrist, Harrison daily deals with broken, suffering people. He does not at any time dismiss the devastating impact of abusive relationships and traumatic situations. However, he provides an approach to begin to deal with these (whilst acknowledging that such change may be a lifetime task). He points out, time and time again, that we are part of something bigger. And that either skill or mistakes in one area of our life does not define the whole of our being. For example, I could be a terrible doctor, and excellent mother and a mediocre friend. So what does that make me? Terrible? Excellent? Mediocre? None of the above?

One quote study that caught my interest was where students were randomised into two groups and given the same task. One group was praised for the output (ie that is a beautiful picture, you must be a gifted artist), and the second was praised for the effort (I really like the way you have given attention to detail here or here). The students were then given a choice for their next task - either something they knew they could accomplish with ease and do 'well', or something which would be more of a challenge. Interestingly, the students who had been praised for output went for the safe option, whereas those who were praised for the process aimed higher and were willing to stretch themselves, not being afraid of failure. This made a lot of sense having considered the data presented, and will influence the way I encourage my boys.

I am glad I read this book. I had been increasingly concerned about some 'modern' approaches, such as the 'positive' parenting which praises good things and ignores the bad. I've been concerned about the boosted (often inappropriately so!) self-belief of young people, and I have also been aware of a drift in our understanding of suffering and sin in this world.

This is a refreshing read - it draws on a wealth of academic work in a fully accessible way, and speaks as a voice of Biblical reason into our current generation.

Monday, 9 November 2015

Celebrating World Adoption Day

Today is World Adoption Day. Here is an article I wrote a couple of years ago comparing our adoption of children to our adoption into God's family.
Quite a few people have asked us why we wanted to adopt a baby. There are many reasons and circumstances which led us to this point.  This response was written on May 30th 2010, four days after our successful adoption hearing in the High Court of the country where we had been working for the previous four years:
In some ways, the answer is incredibly simple. Working as doctors here, we see parents dying every week on the wards, often leaving very young children. The extended family often struggles to cope. We hear of children being abandoned, with desperate relatives seeing no other solution. There are too many children here without families, with a future which seems so uncertain. We longed for a home filled with children, and to be able to give a home and a family to an orphaned child was to be a great privilege.
When we were first married, we became frustrated by those who discussed contraception and childbearing as issues completely within human control. Adoption was often seen as a last resort, something only considered when all other avenues had been exhausted. Sometimes it is easier to form your stance on an issue when it does not affect you directly. Through the Christian Medical Fellowship, we were encouraged to consider biblical truth regarding issues of life and death, including matters surrounding fertility treatments, contraception and abortion.
The Bible makes clear that life begins long before birth. God reminded the prophet Jeremiah: ‘Before I formed you in the womb, I knew you’.[1] A new life does not come about by accident. Scripture makes it abundantly clear that murder is contrary to the will of God;[2] so most Christians would agree that termination of pregnancy is wrong. However, if women requesting termination are counselled to consider alternatives, including putting the child forward for adoption, how should Christians respond? These children need a loving home where they will be nurtured.
We met many families who have adopted; each told a story of blessing and grace. We asked frank questions, and received honest, helpful answers. Each conversation increased our certainty that we should adopt. Nobody has pretended that things are always easy. However, I don’t know any family with biological children who would claim this either!
Our decision to adopt was also shaped by our understanding of the gospel. As Christians, we are adopted into God’s family. We were lost, helpless, without stability or direction and yet we have become heirs with Christ. I feel intensely aware of this. In the church I meet people who are my brothers and sisters, knowing a bond and a closeness which I never knew growing up in my home.
A biological link means something, but true Christian fellowship is far greater. God rescued us from darkness,[3] slavery,[4] pain[5] and death,[6]bringing us into his kingdom of light,[7] freedom,[8] joy,[9] peace[10] and everlasting life.[11] ‘For you did not receive the spirit of bondage again to fear, but you received the Spirit of sonship by whom you cry out, “Abba, Father”. The Spirit himself bears witness with our spirit that we are children of God, and if children, then heirs – heirs of God and joint heirs with Christ’.[12] We are shown grace[13] – the abundant blessing of God which we could never have earned through our own actions.[14] We are given a brand new start.[15] John Piper describes adoption as ‘the heart of the gospel’[16]mirroring many aspects of our salvation in Christ. In adoption, a child is taken from a difficult situation and given a new start. The child is given the same legal rights as a biological child. The orphan who had no family is given a home.

[1] Jeremiah 1:5
[2] Exodus 20:13; Matthew 5:21; Romans 13:9
[3] Colossians 1:13
[4]Romans 8:15
[5] Romans 8:22
[6] 1 John 3:14
[7] Ephesians 5:8
[8] Romans 8:21; 2 Corinthians 3:17; Galatians 5:1
[9] Romans 14:17; Galatians 5:22
[10] John 14:27; Romans 14:17
[11] Romans 5:21
[12] Romans 8:15-17
[13] Romans 5:15-21
[14] Psalm 14:3; Romans 3:12,
[15] John 3:3; Galatians 6:15
[16] Piper J. Adoption: the heart of the gospel.

Thursday, 5 November 2015

Engagement without Entanglement

You therefore must endure hardship as a good soldier of Jesus Christ. No one engaged in warfare entangles himself with the affairs of this life, that he may please him who enlisted him as a soldier. 2 Timothy 2:3-4

Therefore we also, since we are surrounded by so great a cloud of witnesses, let us lay aside every weight, and the sin which so easily entangles us, and let us run with endurance the race that is set before us, looking unto Jesus, the author and finisher of our faith, who for the joy that was set before Him endured the cross, despising the shame, and has sat down at the right hand of the throne of God. Hebrews 12:1-2

How do we engage in warfare without becoming entangled? How do we live our lives in cultures that are often hostile to the gospel without being sucked in?

I think Christians have battled with this throughout the ages. There are two opposite errors. The first would be to withdraw entirely from the world, to live in monastic seclusion and spend days in prayer, fasting and meditation. However, this misses the point for several reasons. Firstly, people who do this are quick to discover the darkness of their own hearts. Secondly, as the Apostle Paul wrote in Romans, how can somebody hear about God if nobody tells them? We have a responsibility, as Paul instructed Timothy, 'Preach the word! Be ready in season and out of season. Convince, rebuke, exhort, with all longsuffering...' (2 Timothy 4:2)

The opposite error is to try so hard to 'be all things to all men', that we forget our purpose, our mission and our holiness. There are times when well-meaning Christians try so hard to walk amongst their unbelieving friends that they are sucked into a vortex of attitudes and behaviours that do not give God glory. Does much effective Christian witness occur in noisy nightclubs? Really?

The other morning as I read Paul's letter to Timothy, I was challenged afresh. We are called to be here, and to seek to serve and honour God with every thought, word and action. As the Westminster Shorter Catechism stages, the 'ultimate end of man is to serve God, and to enjoy Him forever'. But how do we really do that? How do we protect ourselves from the errors of the extremes described above?

I do not think there is a simple catchphrase answer to this! I believe it might be a tightrope that we continue to walk throughout our Christian lives! However, here are some initial thoughts:

1) Do not forget that the Lord said, 'Be holy for I a holy'. Take time to reflect on what holiness means. Do not become blase to the amazing work of Christ. I suggest reading Leviticus followed by Hebrews and reflecting on these things.

2) Pray about everything (Philippians 4:6). Pray without ceasing (1 Thessalonians 5:17). God cares about the small details. Jesus gave us a model prayer, and part of that included the words, 'lead us not into temptation, but deliver us from evil'. We are warned that 'the devil prowls around like a roaring lion seeking who he may devour' (1 Peter 5:8). Paul's letter to Timothy, quoted above, clearly sets the context as that of a battle - we must not forget this.

3) Have accountability. If you are going into a situation which feels very dark, very godless, or where you know you will encounter temptation (such as parties, bars, nightclubs, or other situations which you will be aware of), ask others to pray for you. Ask them to hold you accountable for your conduct. And pray together.

4) Spend regular, quality time alone, reflecting and meditating on the truth of the gospel. Read the Bible. Pray. Sit quietly and listen for the still small voice of God. If you have a true, active, ongoing relationship with God, that will overflow in your speech and your attitudes.

This week, how are you going to engage with the world around you for the purposes of glorifying God, without becoming entangled?