Perfectionism: The cruel burden we place on each other

“Be ye therefore perfect, even as your Father in Heaven is perfect….” (Matthew 5:48)

First, let’s get the theological argument out of the way.

Let’s make this perfectly clear: God knows you are not perfect and will never be this side of Glory.

And even clearer: “God does not expect sinlessness out of you and me. He is under no illusion about us.”  See Psalm 103:14 “He Himself knows our frame; He is mindful that we are but dust.” And Romans 3:10 “There is none righteous, no, not one.”

Got that?  The illusion of sinless perfection is all ours, my friend.

We read Matthew 5:48 and come away with the erroneous conclusion that God ordered us to be perfect, that perfect means sinlessness, and therefore we can be sinless.  But since we cannot achieve perfection–no one you know has ever pulled it off–then He has given us an impossible standard to live by, one that crushes us and frustrates us and forever disappoints Him.

The result would be that we forever live with a disgusted God and in fear of the celestial woodshed, the destiny of children who bring in failing grades.

Yuck. What kind of theology is this?  And yet, you and I know people who believe this and call themselves Bible students, serious disciples of Jesus, and even evangelists (“sharers of the good news”)..

Now, let’s drop the other shoe here… Continue reading

Pastors and discipline: Maybe we need a ‘plebe’ year.

You may know the name Jimmy Doolittle.

Doolittle flew those boxy bi-planes in World War I for the United States, and then barn-stormed throughout the 1920’s, giving thrills by taking risks you would not believe. He led the retaliatory bombing of Tokyo in early 1942, a few months after Japan bombed Pearl Harbor. He played a major role in the Allied victory over the Axis, eventually becoming a General. His autobiography is titled I Could Never Be So Lucky Again.

Doolittle and his wife Joe (that’s how they spelled her name) had two sons, Jim and John, both of whom served in the Second World War.

The general wrote about the younger son:

John was in his plebe year at West Point and the upperclassmen were harassing him no end…. While the value of demeaning first-year cadets is debatable, I was sure “Peanut” could survive whatever they dreamed up. (p. 284)

Later, General Doolittle analyzes his own strengths and weaknesses and makes a fascinating observation:

(I) have finally come to realize what a good thing the plebe year at West Point is. The principle is that a man must learn to accept discipline before he can dish it out. I have never been properly disciplined. Would have gotten along better with my superiors if I had. (p. 339)

“I have never been properly disciplined.” What an admission. It takes a mature person to say that.

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Lord, make me a silken Christian.

“The silk we love for its softness and beauty is also one of the strongest and toughest fibers in the world. It has a strength of around five grams per denier compared with three grams per denier for a drawn wire of soft steel.” (From “The History of Silk,” by Harold Verner, quoted by Liz Trenow in her novel “The Last Telegram.”)

Soft and beautiful; strong and tough. What a combination.

Some in our day call this “a velvet-brick” or “a steel magnolia.” Soft and beautiful on the outside, strong and tough on the inside.

A pretty apt description of our Lord Jesus Christ, isn’t it?  We see His softness and beauty in a hundred things He did: the time He took to receive the little children and bless them, respond to the cries of the leper who had touched him, restore a dead son to his grieving mother, forgive an adulterous woman who had been publicly humiliated by religious bullies, and save a five-times married woman of Samaria.  He invited the dying thief on the cross to spend eternity with Him in Paradise, and prayed for His executioners.

Our Lord said, Take my yoke upon you and learn from me, for I am gentle and lowly in heart, and you will find rest for your souls. For my yoke is easy and my burden is light (Matthew 11:28-30).

No wonder people have been so enamored by this Lord Jesus Christ from day one.

He was a beautiful man.

But the Lord’s strength and toughness are also visible–on full display, even–throughout the Gospels. 

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I’ve been forgiven? How could I have forgotten??

If you had nearly died from a strange illness and the doctors had given up hope, then suddenly you recovered and were able to get on with your life, could you ever ever forget that?

If you had suffered on death’s row at Angola Prison, and the prison chaplain was preparing a final prayer and the chef had laid out your last meal, when suddenly the governor pardoned you and you walked outside a free man, and then got on with your life, could you ever forget it?

Apparently some people can forget the most momentuous events in their lives.

Consider this line: For he who lacks these qualities is blind or short-sighted, having forgotten that he was forgiven from his past sins. (II Peter 1:9)

It appears that some calling themselves Christians no longer remember that they have been forgiven of their sins. How strange is that? And how does it happen?

I think we know.


The Apostle Peter saw professing Christians around him living as though they had no past, as though they had dropped full-grown into the Christian life out of heaven.

It was a bizarre thought to him, as it is to us.

Peter identifies qualities which make for fruitfulness and usefulness in a believer’s life: Applying all diligence, add to your faith moral excellence, and to your moral excellence knowledge, and to your knowledge, self-control….perseverance….godliness….brotherly kindness….love. (II Peter 1:5-7)

Believers exhibiting such godly traits have great influence for the Lord in this world. However, some who call themselves believers show no evidence of moral excellence (virtue), have no knowledge, little or no self-control, a complete lack of perseverance, and so forth (vs. 8). That is, they are living in sin, are ignorant of God’s word, indulge every passion, cannot stay with anything they start, show no signs of Christlikeness or simple kindness or a love for other believers. And yet they call themselves Christians. How could this be?

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10 ways to know you rule your own spirit

“He who is slow to anger is better than the mighty, and he who rules his spirit than he who takes a city” (Proverbs 16:32).  And on the other hand, “Whoever has no rule over his own spirit is like a city broken down, without walls” (Proverbs 25:28). 

Self-control is a mighty good thing to have.  And as rare as Spanish doubloons in the Sunday offering plate.

“The fruit of the Spirit is love, joy, peace, longsuffering, gentleness, goodness, faithfulness, humility, and self-control” (Galatians 5:22-23).  So, the much-desired quality of self-control is found among the nine traits making up the “fruit of the Spirit,” which is also a pretty solid description of Christlikeness.

The ability to master one’s own spirit is not as recognizable as its opposite, the failure or inability to control one’s inner self.  That trait–a spirit out of control–is quickly on full display whenever its owner is offended, attacked, questioned, called to account for something he/she has done, or otherwise challenged. The uncontrolled spirit has no defenses against temptation, no muscles for hard tasks, and no patience with difficult people.  “Love one’s enemies”? (Luke 6:27) The uncontrolled spirit has difficulty loving its own friends and thus nothing in reserve for its opponents.

The angry motorist determined to set another driver straight cannot control his own spirit.  The disgruntled employee who returns with a gun to settle accounts cannot control his own spirit.  The gossip who simply cannot resist the urge to pass along the juicy morsel about someone cannot control their spirit.

The list is endless.  And so depressing.

So, let’s take the positive approach! Here, straight out of the wonderful book of Proverbs, are ten traits of the person in control of his/her own spirit.

One.  You can take chastening from the Lord and appreciate discipline when you have it coming.

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What those in the flesh resent

“For the mind set on the flesh is hostile to God, for it does not subject itself to the things of God, for it is not even able to do so” (Romans 8:7).

It’s not just that believers and unbelievers think in different ways.  Rather, it’s that spiritually-minded Christians and carnally-minded church members (let’s assume they are believers, but it’s hard to know) also act and value in opposite ways.

Let the church take notice.

In an article on sacrificial giving, I made a statement that attracted drew a lot of attention: Those who are in the flesh resent being told they are in the flesh.

More than one reader reacted to that in anger.  (Thus proving the point, some might conclude.)

God’s shepherds (i.e., pastors of all varieties) can appreciate the strong division Scripture makes between being spiritually minded and carnally minded.  The Lord’s Word does not allow a blurring of that line, but draws a stark contrast between the two.  “The mind set on the flesh is death, but the mind set on the Spirit is life and peace” (Romans 8:6).

The reality of the dichotomy, the reasons for it, and the results that follow are vastly different. (No, that is not a sermon outline, although it might work. One hopes, however, that every preacher knows “alliteration doth not a sermon make.”)

Two passages of Scripture deal with this division, the opposing operations of “the mind set on the spirit” and “the mind set on the flesh.”  Romans 8 (here) and also First Corinthians chapters 2 and 3.

Now, we know the spiritually-minded are redeemed Christ-followers. They are saved. But are the carnally-minded saved?  Answer: They may be either. Unsaved people are, of course, “in the flesh” since they have not been “born of the Spirit.”  However, immature believers may look and act, walk and think, “in the flesh” also, thus confusing the issue.  This is one reason we preachers must be careful in assuming everyone who does not act like Christ is lost and needs to “get saved.” They could simply be immature, untaught, and in need of a friend in Christ.

Our primary concern here is with church members who are carnal.  They may look just like lost people, but based on First Corinthians 3:1-4, we conclude they are immature believers who are not walking or thinking “in the Spirit.”

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Don’t give us your testimony; show us Jesus.

“For this purpose I wrote to you, that I might know the proof of you, whether you be obedient in all things” (2 Corinthians 2:9).

“I will show you my faith by my works” (James 2:18).

On this website, I chronicled the doings of a few church members who were angry over nothing, raging all the time, finding fault where none existed, then pinning blame when confronted.  I suggested the primary reason for this behavior: They are lost.  Unsaved.  “The natural man does not accept the things of the Spirit of God,” says I Corinthians 2:14, “for they are foolishness to him. Neither can he understand them for they are spiritually discerned.”

That says it as well as anything.

Then, a few days after posting that, the Lord explained something to me.

He called to my mind His statement in John 15:21. These things they will do because they do not know the One who sent Me.  The persecutions of the faithful– all “without cause,” He emphasizes–have a solid reason.  These people do not know God.  They are lost, unsaved, unredeemed, unforgiven.

That explained it to the satisfaction of our Lord.

And I thought of something.

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Joe’s interview about spiritual maturity

Let him who thinks he stands take heed, lest he fall. (I Corinthians 10:12)

When a friend texted to ask if he could interview me for some seminary assignment, I agreed. I laughed when he said the subject was spiritual maturity.

I said, “That is a lot like humility.  About the time you think you’ve achieved it, it’s a dead giveaway that you haven’t.”

Nevertheless, I agreed.  We met online yesterday for 45 minutes.  And this morning, for reasons that elude me, I decided to post a reasonable recap of the interview.

QUESTION:  ARE THERE UNIQUE CHALLENGES IN A MINISTER’S SPIRITUAL LIFE? 

How about that we speak for God?  Is that an assignment or what?  (See I Thessalonians 2:13.) The minister rises to speak and all eyes are on him.  For some, it’s a heady experience.  The expectations are enormous.  Some of which are self-imposed.

This “speaking for God” can be abused by the unscrupulous.  And it has been, unfortunately.

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Half right, totally wrong: Shallow things religious people believe

But as for you, speak the things which are proper for sound doctrine.  –Titus 2:1 

We hear them all the time.  Something about these oft-repeated claims just does not seem right, we think.  Here are a few that have occurred to me. You’ll know others….

One. “Christianity is not a religion;  it’s a relationship.”

Sounds right, but it’s wrong.  Ask yourself one question:  As a follower of Jesus–by which I mean in a relationship with Him–would it be all right if I joined a religion and became a Buddhist or Taoist or a Jew or a Muslim? After all, as a Christian I’m not in a religion as such (according to this thinking) and there would be no reason not to.   Of course, those religions are incompatible with the way of Jesus Christ and that’s why we counsel believers to avoid them.

“The way of Jesus Christ”?  We call that The Christian Religion.

Friend, if it looks like a duck and walks like a duck, well….

A religion may be defined as a systemized practice of worship involving a God, a place or places of worship, a system of beliefs, and in most cases exclusivity (that is, it claims to hold The Truth).

Sure sounds like the Christian faith to me.

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No place for sarcasm in the Lord’s work

“Let your speech always be with grace, seasoned as it were, with salt, so that you may know how you should respond to each person” (Colossians 4:6). “Let no unwholesome word proceed from your mouth, but only such a word as is good for edification, according to the need of the moment, that it may give grace to those who hear” (Ephesians 4:29).

Mary Todd Lincoln was gifted in the dark art of sarcasm. Her sister Elizabeth said of her, “She was also impulsive and made no attempt to conceal her feelings; indeed, it would have been an impossibility had she desired to do so, for her face was an index to every passing emotion.  Without desiring to wound, she occasionally indulged in sarcastic, witty remarks, that cut like a Damascus blade, but there was no malice behind them.”  Lincoln’s biographer notes, “A young woman who could wound by words without intending to was presumably even more dangerous when angry or aroused.”  (Honor’s Voice: The Transformation of Abraham Lincoln by Douglas L. Wilson).

Woe to the person bound in marriage to one gifted in sarcasm.  Lincoln bore many a scar from the blade his wife wielded.

Pity the church member sitting under the teachings of a sarcastic pastor week after week.  Such ministry will bear bitter fruit.

These days, Christian leaders are finding themselves apologizing for public pronouncements–in the media, on cyberspace, in print, on radio or TV–in which they were sarcastic toward someone who criticized them or opposed them or questioned them.

We even have websites given to satire and sarcasm. And some claim to be Christian.

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