Books 2012

Books Read in 2012
(those in bold are particularly recommended)

Knowing God – J. I. Packer (I actually read this in early 2011, but missed it off last year’s list)
Ministries of Mercy – Tim Keller
The Rage Against God – Peter Hitchens
Crime and Punishment – Fyodor Dostoyevsky
Saved From What? – RC Sproul
Think – John Piper
Religious Affections – Jonathan Edwards
The Good God – Mike Reeves
Bible Doctrine – Wayne Grudem (started in 2011, finished in 2012)
Seeing and Savouring Jesus Christ – John Piper
The Trial – Franz Kafka
The Gagging of God – Don Carson (started in 2011, finished in 2012)
The Passion of Jesus Christ – John Piper
God Is The Gospel – John Piper
How Long, O LORD? – Don Carson
The Cost of Discipleship – Dietrich Bonhoeffer (started in 2011, finished in 2012)
Journal Keeping: Writing For Spiritual Growth – Luann Budd
The Freedom of Self-Forgetfulness – Tim Keller
Redeeming Singleness – Barry Danylak
Erasing Hell – Francis Chan
Smart Faith: Loving God With All Your Mind – J. P. Moreland & Mark Matlock
The Explicit Gospel – Matt Chandler
Broken Down House – Paul David Tripp
How Sermons Work – David Murray
The Life of God in the Soul of Man – Henry Scougal
Loving Well – William Smith
Brave New World – Aldous Huxley
The Idiot – Fyodor Dostoyevsky
Could It Be Dementia? Losing Your Mind Doesn’t Mean Losing Your Soul – Louise Morse & Roger Hitchings
Spiritual Depression: It’s Causes and Cures – D. Martyn Lloyd-Jones
Joshua: No Falling Words – Dale Ralph Davis
Concerning The End For Which God Created The World – Jonathan Edwards
Born of God – D. Martyn Lloyd-Jones (not finished reading 31/12/12)
Grace Abounding to the Chief of Sinners – John Bunyan
What’s So Amazing About Grace? – Philip Yancey
What Does God Want Of Us Anyway? – Mark Dever
Crazy Love – Francis Chan (I also read this in 2011, but missed it off last year’s list)
Don’t Waste Your Life – John Piper
The Meaning of Marriage – Tim (& Kathy) Keller
The Pursuit of God – A. W. Tozer
Reformation: Yesterday, Today and Tomorrow – Carl Trueman
Heaven: A World of Love – Jonathan Edwards
The Hole In Our Holiness – Kevin DeYoung
Preaching, Pure and Simple – Stuart Olyott
The Weight of Glory (Lewis’s most quoted essays) – C. S. Lewis
Fools Rush In Where Monkeys Fear To Tread – Carl Trueman
Finally Alive – John Piper
The Nature of True Virtue – Jonathan Edwards
Loving The Way Jesus Loves – Phil Ryken
Confessions – Augustine (not finished reading at 31/12/12)
Who Is Jesus? – Roger Carswell
The Quest For True Tolerance – Stephen McQuoid
George W. Bushisms – Edited by Jacob Weisberg

Books on my shelf waiting to be read:

The Fruitful Life – Jerry Bridges
Multiply – Francis Chan
Creature of the Word – Matt Chandler
Perspectives on the Sabbath – (edited by) Christopher John Donato
Eyes Wide Open – Steve DeWitt
The Brothers Karamazov – Fyodor Dostoyevsky
Demons – Fyodor Dostoyevsky
Every Good Endeavour – Timothy Keller
What In The World Is God Waiting For? – Ross Paterson
Let The Nations Be Glad – John Piper
Unapologetic – Francis Spufford
The Cross of Christ – John Stott

Some of the books on my wish list:

The Secret Thoughts of an Unlikely Convert – Rosaria Champagne Butterfield
The Communist Manifesto – Karl Marx
The General Theory of Employment, Interest and Money – John Maynard Keynes
The Road to Serfdom – F. A. Hayek
Small Is Beautiful – E. F. Schumacher
Meditations on the Glory of Christ – John Owen
Paradise Lost – John Milton
Out of the Depths – John Newton
When People Are Big and God Is Small – Ed Welch

Let me know if you’ve got any recommendations that I should add to my wish list.

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Brave New World: Economics

Earlier this year I read Aldous Huxley’s novel Brave New World. Written in 1932, it’s turned out to be a disturbingly accurate prediction of where society has been heading since then.

Three inter-related aspects of the Brave New World particularly struck me as insightful views of the way people think 80 years on. Here’s part 1:

Economics

Firstly, there’s the economy that depends on people consuming more than they need.

((Disclaimer: I’ve not formally studied economics, and may well be wrong about some of this. If so I hope someone will educate me, although it seems like a lot of it is still up for debate anyway.))

The Brave New World’s government wants to sustain perpetual economic growth, which means they need people to continually spend, spend, spend. They persuaded people to consume transport to the country, but they eventually reached a point where the transport market could not grow any more, so to maintain further growth they had to encourage people, once they got to the country, to participate in more and more expensive activities.

In the UK in 2012, politicians use John Maynard Keynes’ ideas to justify similar policies. This article discusses whether Keynes himself would support these “Keynesian” policies, and suggests he would have argued that “the market was made for human beings – not human beings to serve the market.” (Some readers will recognise this line as a play on Jesus’ teaching on the Sabbath.)

I could be wrong, but I reckon many people who talk about the need for government spending to stimulate economic growth don’t really know why they want economic growth, they just take the media’s word for it that a recession is a disaster.

Let’s have a think about what economic growth means.

Constant GDP growth means that the country as a whole always spends more money in a 3 month period than it did in the previous 3 months. Is that sustainable?

If we just take one product as an example: every September, a new iPhone is released, and there’s usually a huge rush of people that go out and buy millions of them in the first three months (Sept-Nov). If the iPhone market is going to sustain perpetual growth, Apple has to sell even more iPhones between December and February than they did when all the enthusiastic early adopters rushed out to get one first. Ok, that may be do-able over Christmas, but then between March and May they have to sell even more than they did over Christmas, and even more again from June to August! And then obviously each year they have to sell more than they did the previous year until eventually everyone in the world has to buy more than one per year to keep the market growing. Does the world need that many iPhones? No.

Obviously other products are available, and we’re a long way from everyone in the world having enough food, let alone an iPhone, but I think this illustrates how unnecessary and unsustainable perpetual economic growth is.

I started writing this post before I knew about Muse’s new song which relates the 2nd Law of thermodynamics to the unsustainability of economic growth, but I think they’re right about this.

The lack of distinction between one person having enough food and another person buying a new iPhone every year is part of the problem with using a single GDP figure to decide whether a country is making good progress. It doesn’t distinguish between necessary spending and luxury spending, or even just plain wasteful spending.

For example, one year, the government could spend £500 trillion upgrading our schools, and GDP would be high in that year. The next year, you would hope we wouldn’t need to spend anywhere near as much on schools again, but then the GDP would be much lower than the year when we spent loads; the economy would recede. Does that mean we’d be worse off? No. Our education system would have vastly improved resources. The fact that we didn’t spend £500 trillion plus on schools again the next year and even more the year after wouldn’t mean our schools got worse. Recession is not necessarily a bad thing.

If you buy a house, you don’t feel poor just because 3 months later you don’t have 2 houses, and another 3 months later you don’t have a 3rd house, and each one more expensive than the last. Similarly, for the country as a whole to go for a period where they don’t spend as much as they did in the previous 3 months is not necessarily as disastrous as people make out.

On the other hand, the government could borrow £500 trillion to build the world’s largest chocolate teapot, and then borrow more to build a bigger one every three months to make sure we hold onto the world record; we’d avoid recession, but the investment would be about as much use as an inflatable dartboard, and the government would be in a huge amount of debt. Economic growth is not necessarily a good thing.

A project to build the world’s largest chocolate teapot would probably create a few jobs. Of course it’s good that people have the opportunity to work to earn a living, but creating jobs just for the sake of handing out salaries to people doesn’t help the economy.  They have to be doing something that people want and are willing to pay for, otherwise no one will pay (either they won’t buy the product, or they’ll find ways to avoid paying taxes). If a company keeps paying people to make a product or provide a service that no one is willing to pay for, they’ll go bankrupt. The same applies to the government.

This video includes the illustration that one way of achieving zero unemployment is to conscript everyone to fight in a war, but since wars are not a productive way to employ people, we may have full employment, but we’d have nothing to eat.

How God’s Grace Makes Us Just

In Matthew 22, a lawyer asked Jesus a question to test him: “Teacher, which is the great commandment in the Law?” And he said to him, “You shall love the Lord your God with all your heart and with all your soul and with all your mind. This is the great and first commandment. And a second is like it: You shall love your neighbour as yourself. On these two commandments depend all the Law and the Prophets.”

Last time I did one of these, some of you may remember, I reviewed John Piper’s Desiring God. I don’t know whether it came across as I intended, but the main point about that book that made me want to recommend it to you was that it made me want to devote my whole life to worshiping God. Looking back on it now, I would summarise by saying it encouraged me to really try to obey that first great commandment.

I used to think loving God with all your heart, soul, mind and strength was only for the really super-spiritual Christians, it was unrealistic for just an ordinary person like me; but God used John Piper to change my view of His law, to see loving and obeying God as a joyful thing to do, and to see that my joy in God glorifies Him, and this gave me a new motivation for taking the first great commandment seriously and aiming for a righteousness that exceeds that of the scribes and Pharisees. Obviously I still fall far short of His glory, and I’m continuously becoming more and more aware that I’m justified solely by His grace, but my greater awareness of how unworthy I am just reveals more of how amazing God’s grace really is. So now, instead of attempting the impossible, thinking I should try to repay God for the favour he’s done for me by forgiving my sin, I’ve been inspired to really try to love God with all my heart, soul, mind and strength, just for the pleasure of glorifying Him.

Now the book I’m recommending today is, I think, a logical progression from Desiring God, because this book did a similar thing for me with the second great commandment: to love my neighbour as myself. It’s by Tim Keller, and it’s called Generous Justice, which has the subtitle How God’s Grace Makes Us Just.

So to start with, a little bit about the author:

Tim Keller was born in Pennsylvania, in the United States, in 1950. He studied at Westminster Seminary, and was pastor of a church in Virginia for 9 years before he moved to Manhattan in New York with his wife and children, and there he founded Redeemer Presbyterian Church. Now obviously, we don’t judge a church by the number of attendees, but hopefully it’s encouraging and exciting to hear about places where God is at work, bringing people into His church. So, in early 1989 (while Ed Collier was writing to Aunty Rachel), there were 15 people meeting weekly to pray about planting a new church in Manhattan. They held their first worship service on the evening of the 9th of April that year; by Christmas, the regular attendance at their morning and evening services was about 250. By early 1993, they were holding 4 services every Sunday, but they had still outgrown the building they had been using, which seated nearly 400. In 2007, they added a 5th (!) service, and the average weekly attendance is now about 4,500. Plus they’ve planted a number of other churches, so Redeemer has sister churches, daughter churches, and granddaughter churches on several continents.

The first time I came across Tim Keller was through Sarah, who comes to our church while she’s in Bath to study at the university. She was reading his popular apologetics book The Reason for God on a Sunday afternoon. However, the first of his books that I read that really got my attention is called The Prodigal God, which I bought mainly just because I was intrigued by the title (it turns out the word ‘prodigal’ doesn’t actually mean what I thought it meant). I strongly recommend that book too. It’s a very short book on Recovering the Heart of the Christian Faith.

At this point I’ll just give a very quick mention to another book I read before Generous Justice, which also played a significant role in making me want to love others as Jesus loved me: Francis Chan’s Crazy Love made me want to give everything I have to display God’s love to the world. It made me think about how I spend my time and money. I mean, what do I want money for? There are so many people who need it so much more than I do, and it’s not like I’m going to need it in heaven! And what am I doing with my time? There are so many people in the world that need help in some way, and I only have a few years on this planet to try and serve them in whatever way I can.

I’ll also mention another book by Tim Keller, which is quite similar to Generous Justice: Ministries of Mercy, gets more into suggested practical steps for carrying out justice, and includes an introduction with a lot of statistics, which are interesting, but things have changed a bit since the book was published in 1989, plus the statistics are from the U.S., so they’re not all relevant to us in the UK. Generous Justice focuses more on the universal timeless principles.

So, Generous Justice. I think it’ll be useful to start in the introduction, where Keller explains why he wrote the book: He says:

“Most people know that Jesus came to bring forgiveness and grace. Less well known is the Biblical teaching that a true experience of the grace of Jesus Christ inevitably motivates a man or woman to seek justice in the world.”

And apparently while he was writing this book, lots of people asked him “who are you writing this book for?”

So Keller explains that he had four groups of people in mind when he wrote this book:

1. Firstly, people who are Christians, and have a concern for social justice, but don’t necessarily see a connection between the two.

2. Secondly, (and this is the group I was in,) it’s for Christians who approach the idea of “doing justice” with suspicion, because, he says:

In the twentieth century the American church divided between the liberal mainline that stressed social justice and the fundamentalist churches that emphasized personal salvation.

Because the liberals’ emphasis on social justice was often accompanied by a shift in theology, including rejection of the traditional doctrines of Scripture and atonement,

In the minds of many orthodox Christians… “doing justice” is inextricably linked with the loss of sound doctrine…

3. And the third group Keller wrote this book for is those people in the liberal camp who do emphasise justice at the expense of sound Biblical doctrine, and he argues that you don’t have to change classic Biblical evangelical teaching to do ministry to the poor. On the contrary, such ministry flows directly out of that teaching. He says:

When the Spirit enables us to understand what Christ has done for us, the result is a life poured out in deeds of justice and compassion for the poor.

4. And fourthly, the book is for people who think religion poisons everything, that all religion does is divide people into tribes and start wars. And obviously Keller hopes to show that that’s not the case.

Now I usually find it helpful, when I start reading a book, to look through the contents to get a rough idea of where we’re going, so the chapter headings of Generous Justice are: 1: ‘What Is Doing Justice?’, 2: ‘Justice and The Old Testament’, 3: ‘What did Jesus Say About Justice?‘, 4: ‘Justice and Your Neighbour’, 5: ‘Why Should We Do Justice?’, 6: ‘How Should We Do Justice?’, 7: ‘Doing Justice In The Public Square’, and 8: ‘Peace, Beauty and Justice’.

So in Chapter 1 Keller explains what he means by “justice”, using texts like Psalm 146 verses 7 to 9:

He executes justice for the oppressed and gives food to the hungry. The LORD sets prisoners free, the LORD gives sight to the blind, he lifts up those who are bowed down, the LORD loves those who live justly. The LORD watches over the immigrant and sustains the fatherless and the widow, but he frustrates the ways of the wicked.

Then Chapter 2, on Justice in the Old Testament, starts with a couple of verses from everyone at my church’s new favourite book of the Bible, Deuteronomy, chapter 15 verses 4 & 5:

There should be no poor among you, for in the land the LORD your God is giving you to possess as your inheritance, he will richly bless you, if only you fully obey the LORD your God and are careful to follow all these commands I am giving you today.

And this Chapter includes some thoughts on what the Bible says are the causes of poverty, and I should probably be careful mentioning the ‘p’ word, but I will say that my political views have shifted a bit as a result of this and other books I’ve read in the last year. Keller says:

One of the main reasons we cannot fit the Bible’s approach into a liberal or conservative economic model is the Scripture’s highly nuanced understanding of the causes of poverty. Liberal theorists believe that the “root causes” of poverty are always social forces beyond the control of the poor, such as racial prejudice, economic deprivation, joblessness, and other inequities. Conservative theorists put the blame on the breakdown of the family, the loss of character qualities such as self-control and discipline, and other habits and practices of the poor themselves. By contrast, the causes of poverty as put forth in the Bible are remarkably balanced.

Next we hear what Jesus had to say about justice, including Luke 14 verses 12 & 13:

When you give a luncheon or dinner, do not invite your friends, your brothers or relatives, or your rich neighbours; if you do, they may invite you back and so you will be repaid. But when you give a banquet, invite the poor, the crippled, the lame and the blind…

Then Jesus’ parable of the Good Samaritan gets its own chapter. I started off this review with Matthew 22 and the first and second great commandments. In Luke 10 there’s something very similar, as Jesus is asked

“What shall I do to inherit eternal life?” [Jesus] said to him, “What is written in the law? What is your reading of it?” So he answered and said, “’You shall love the LORD your God with all your heart, with all your soul, with all your strength, and with all your mind,’ and ‘your neighbour as yourself’” And [Jesus] said to him, “You have answered rightly; do this and you will live.” But he, wanting to justify himself, said to Jesus, “And who is my neighbour?”

And most of my readers are probably pretty familiar with Jesus’ answer to that question (if not, you can read the parable of the Good Samaritan here), but Keller makes a very convicting point:

The lawyer wanted to justify himself. He was hoping Jesus would interpret the law in a way that would allow him to feel like he was obeying the law well enough that God would be pleased with him. He hoped that, as long as he kept to a certain standard of loving people which was higher than most people could manage, God would let him off loving that one really annoying person. Because we all know there are some people who are really difficult to love, and God understands; don’t worry, as long as you love the people who love you back, that will be good enough. But obviously that’s not what Jesus says. He doesn’t let us get away with that. He seriously means for us to love even the filthy Samaritans as much as we love ourselves.

He also borrows from a Jonathan Edwards’ sermon called “The Duty of Charity to the Poor” to answer some objections that people raise against the idea of doing social justice. Two of the objections he deals with are that a) the poor person is not grateful for the help I’ve given them, and b) it’s his own fault that he’s in that state. I’m sure we’ve all thought of both of these reasons not to help someone at some point. Well, Edwards defeats these objections by pointing out that:

Christ loved us, and was kind to us, and was willing to relieve us, though we were very hateful persons, of an evil disposition, not deserving of any good… so we should be willing to be kind to those who are… very undeserving.

The rules of the gospel direct us to forgive them… [for] Christ hath loved us, pitied us, and greatly laid out himself to relieve us from that want and misery which we brought on ourselves by our own folly and wickedness.

Then, in case you haven’t heard enough reasons yet, we reach the chapter that asks “Why should we do justice?

I particularly liked his quote from a sermon by Robert Murray M’Cheyne, who said:

Some of you pray night and day to be branches of the true vine; you pray to be made all over in the image of Christ… Oh, my dear Christians! If you would be like Christ, give much, give often, give freely, to the vile and poor, the thankless and the undeserving. Christ is glorious and happy and so will you be. It is not your money I want, but your happiness. Remember his own word, “It is more blessed to give than to receive.”

And I think I could sum up the effect of this book on me by saying that God’s used it to make me really believe that that’s true; that it really is better to give than to receive.

Then we get on to how we should do justice.

And in this chapter Keller makes it absolutely clear that doing social justice should not replace evangelism, but he claims that doing justice works together with preaching the gospel to show Christ to be attractive. He says:

If we confuse evangelism and social justice we lose what is the single most unique service that Christians can offer the world. Others, alongside believers, can feed the hungry. But Christians have the gospel of Jesus by which men and women can be born again into the certain hope of eternal life. No one else can make such an invitation. However, many Christians who care intensely about evangelism see the work of doing justice as a distraction for Christians that detracts from the mission of evangelism. That is also a grave error.

When a city perceives a church as existing strictly and only for itself and its own members, the preaching of that church will not resonate with outsiders. But if neighbours see church members loving their city through astonishing, sacrificial deeds of compassion, they will be much more open to the church’s message. Deeds of mercy and justice should be done out of love, not simply as a means to the end of evangelism. And yet there is no better way for Christians to lay a foundation for evangelism than by doing justice.

Then the Chapter on Justice in the Public Square discusses how we should interact with the world as we seek to bring about justice.

And we finish with Peace, Beauty & Justice.

And we return to Jonathan Edwards, who argued in his book ‘The Nature of True Virtue’ that:

human beings will only be drawn out of themselves into unselfish acts of service to others when they see God as supremely beautiful. Here’s an example to illustrate what he means. If you listen to Bach because you want people to think you are cultured (or because you want to think it of yourself), then the music is only a means to achieve some other end, namely the enhancement of your reputation. But if you play Bach because you find it not just useful but beautiful, then you are listening to it as satisfying in and of itself.

Edwards taught that if, through an experience of God’s grace, you come to find him beautiful, then you do not serve the poor because you want to think well of yourself, or in order to get a good reputation… You do it because serving the poor honours and pleases God, and honouring and pleasing God is a delight to you in and of itself.

So, whether you read any of these books I’ve recommended or not, I hope I’m doing a little bit to make the thought of loving God, and loving other people, and acting that love out in practice, sound like a delightful thing for you to do.

Now, it’s likely that the better you know me, the more you’re thinking “what a hypocrite!” I mean, I’m saying these books I’ve read have made me want to use every penny in my bank account and every second of every day to glorify God by serving those in need, and implying that you should do the same, but really, you can’t see that it’s made any visible difference to my life at all… and to be honest, I kind of have to agree. The more I think about this task, the more I’m aware of my failure to carry it out. As I was preparing this book review, I was thinking that, to prove how good this book is, I should go out and do something really big that I could point to and say “look how much I’ve done for the poor since I read this book”, and I do think my lack of action has meant I’m failing to recommend this book in the way it deserves, but at the same time, I don’t want you to look to me as an example of how to live; I want you to look to Jesus for your example. If I waited to talk about this until I felt that I was living it out well enough that I’d be a good example for you to follow, well, we’d be waiting a long time, let’s put it that way. So instead, I hope you’ll read this book and we can encourage each other to live it out in practice, and follow Jesus’ example more closely.

Books 2011

I never used to be much of a reader (except on holiday), but about a year ago, God used John Piper to induce in me a hunger to learn more about Him, and as a result I’ve consumed probably more books this past year than the previous 5 years put together (plus a couple of secular books).

Books I’ve read this year (most were very good, but the ones that particularly stood out are highlighted in bold):

Living For God’s Glory – Joel Beeke
The Heart of Christianity – Marcus Borg (not recommended)
The Discipline of Grace – Jerry Bridges
The Pursuit of Holiness – Jerry Bridges
The Pilgirm’s Progress – John Bunyan
Uncovered: True Stories of Changed Lives – Jonathan Carswell
Things God Wants Us To Know – Roger Carswell
Reasonable Faith – William Lane Craig (very good, but hard work)
Judges – Dale Ralph Davis
The God Delusion – Richard Dawkins (weirdly this helped reassure me of God’s existence at a time when I was having doubts)
Sinners In The Hands Of An Angry God – Jonathan Edwards
The Air I Breathe – Louie Giglio
The Grace Outpouring – Roy Godwin (interesting, I’d like to go and see it for myself)
Stop Dating The Church – Josh Harris
10 Second Sermons – Milton Jones (yes, the guy off of Mock The Week)
Counterfeit Gods – Tim Keller
Generous Justice – Tim Keller
King’s Cross – Tim Keller
The Prodigal God – Tim Keller
Freakonomics – Steven D. Levitt & Stephen J. Dubner
Servant Leadership For Slow Learners – David Lundy
Christ Our Mediator – C.J. Mahaney
The Cross Centred Life – C.J. Mahaney
Humility: True Greatness – C.J. Mahaney
The Hidden Life of Prayer – David McIntyre
The Mortification of Sin – John Owen
Battling Unbelief – John Piper
The Dangerous Duty of Delight – John Piper (if the thickness of Desiring God is too daunting, try this mini-version)
Desiring God – John Piper (see my review here)
Don’t Waste Your Life – John Piper
God Is The Gospel – John Piper (I started this one in 2010)
When I Don’t Desire God – John Piper
Real Success and How To Achieve It – David Short
The Holiness of God – R.C. Sproul
Discovering The Power of The Cross of Christ – C.H. Spurgeon
The Case For Christ – Lee Strobel
Republocrat – Carl Trueman
Walking Away From Faith – Ruth Tucker (helped me out of my summer of Cartesian doubt)
The Bourne Legacy – Eric Van Lustbader
The Bourne Deception – Eric Van Lustbader
The Dark Side of Christian Cousnselling – Dr E.S. Williams

Books I’m currently part way through:

The Cost of Discipleship – Dietrich Bonhoeffer
The Gagging of God – Don Carson (very good, but hard work)
Bible Doctrine – Wayne Grudem

Books on my shelf, waiting to be read:

Journal Keeping: Writing For Spiritual Growth – Luann Budd
How Long, O Lord? – Don Carson
Joshua – Dale Ralph Davis
Crime and Punishment – Fyodor Dostoyevsky
The Brothers Karamazov – Fyodor Dostoevsky
The Idiot – Fyodor Dostoyevsky
The Nature of True Virtue – Jonathan Edwards
Religious Affections – Jonathan Edwards
The Rage Against God – Peter Hitchens
Ministries of Mercy – Tim Keller
Smart Faith: Loving God With All Your Mind – J.P. Moreland
Think – John Piper

Have you read any particularly good books this year that I should add to my wishlist?

Discovering Real Joy

Last Sunday morning (17th April), I reviewed a book for my church’s Bible Study session. Here’s what I said about it:

I’m going to be reviewing Desiring God, by John Piper. This book, along with others that I’ve read recently, has made a big difference to my understanding of my relationship to God. It’s possible that all of you will think what I’ve learned is really obvious, but to me it’s new and exciting. I hope, even if it’s not new to you, it is still exciting. And in some ways I hope it’s not new, because I hope it’s biblical.

If I were to say I hope you’ll read this book and be inspired to take a more God-centred view of life, I reckon you’d probably all approve. If I said instead that I hope you’ll read it and be inspired to more eagerly seek your own pleasure, I expect there’d be a few raised eyebrows. Well, I’m actually going for both at the same time. Hopefully that will make more sense by the time I’ve finished.

John Piper is pastor of Bethlehem Baptist Church in Minneapolis. He’s written loads of books, but I first came across him in a YouTube video, addressing Barack Obama’s views on abortion. Then I started watching his Desiring God videos where he answers questions from viewers on a wide range of subjects, such as ‘Can I enjoy art produced by unbelievers and glorify God?’, ‘How should you boast only in Christ when job hunting?’, ‘Is it sin to dislike the doctrine of election…?

Then, before Blair went back to America, he gave me Piper’s book God Is The Gospel. Just the introduction to that book blew me away. I’ve sometimes described its effect on me as a kind of re-conversion. Before, I saw the whole point of Christianity as being salvation from hell, but God Is The Gospel showed me that salvation is just the means to an end, the end being for us to spend eternity glorifying God and enjoying getting to know Him. Forgiveness of sins is of course an essential prerequisite for us to have a relationship with God, but it’s just the beginning, and that book gave me a new hunger to know God more and more… which led me onto Desiring God and a heap of other books. I wasn’t a big reader before, so if you’re thinking “these book reviews are all well and good for people who like reading, but that’s just not for me”, think again; thanks to God Is The Gospel, I’ve probably read more books so far in 2011 than the previous couple of years put together.

But I’m reviewing Desiring God. Piper says about this book that:

“This is a serious book about being happy in God. It’s about happiness because that is what our creator commands: “Delight yourself in the Lord” (Psalm 34:7). And it is a serious book because, as Jeremy Taylor said, “God threatens terrible things if we will not be happy.””

The subtitle of the book is ‘Meditations of a Christian Hedonist’. (Apologies if I pronounce it wrong at any point. It looks like it should be pronounced ‘heddonism’ to me, but apparently ‘heedonism’ is the correct pronunciation.)

I think I should probably explain what he means by Christian Hedonism, because the whole book is based on that foundation, so I can’t really say anything else about the book unless you understand that bit. I don’t want to say too much, because I’m trying to persuade you to read the book for yourselves, but if I don’t say enough, you probably won’t have a clue what I’m on about.

Firstly, do people know what hedonism is?
A dictionary definition of it is “devotion to pleasure as a way of life.”
Now you might say Christianity is devotion to God as a way of life, so how can you be a Christian and a Hedonist? Aren’t the two contradictory?

I’ve tried to avoid just reading long chunks from the book, but I will use a few quotes to explain this Christian Hedonism idea.

Firstly though, a little bit of audience participation for you:

“What is the chief end of man?”

Answer:

“Man’s chief end is to glorify God, and to enjoy him forever.”

Good. Now I would open up my follow-up question for anyone to answer, but I’m worried someone might throw me a real curveball that I don’t know how to deal with, so I think it’s safer to just tell you what I used to think, and then go on explain to what I think now.

My question is: If my chief end is to glorify God, how do I glorify God?

6 months ago – before I read God Is The Gospel or Desiring God – I would’ve said something like “by living as He intends”, or “by serving Him and keeping His commandments”… Of course, we are told in Romans 12 to “present [our] bodies a living sacrifice, holy, acceptable to God, which is [our] reasonable service.” And Jesus said in John 14 verse 15: “If you love me, you will keep my commandments”, but is our obedience and service really what glorifies God?

I will come back to this in a minute, but for now, notice that man’s chief end (singular) is to glorify God and to enjoy him forever. It doesn’t say “man’s chief ends are…”; it says “man’s chief end is to glorify God and to enjoy him forever.”

Does that mean “sometimes you glorify God and sometimes you enjoy Him? Sometimes He gets the glory, sometimes you get joy?” Piper explains that each part works best when the other is happening at the same time!

So in Piper’s words

“The chief end of man is to glorify God by enjoying Him forever.”

So that’s kind of the basic principle (I hope you’re following so far), but I think it’s worth taking a little bit more from the introductory section called ‘How I became a Christian Hedonist’ to explain a bit further how it works.

Piper says:

“When I was in college, I had a vague pervasive notion that if I did something good because it would make me happy, I would ruin its goodness. I figured that the goodness of my moral action was lessened to the degree that I was motivated by a desire for my own pleasure… to be motivated by a desire for happiness or pleasure when I volunteered for Christian service or went to church – that seemed selfish, utilitarian, mercenary. This was a problem for me because I found in myself… a tremendously powerful impulse to seek pleasure, yet at every point of moral decision I said to myself that this impulse should have no influence.
One of the most frustrating areas was that of worship and praise. My vague notion that the higher the activity, the less there must be of self-interest in it caused me to think of worship almost solely in terms of duty. And that cuts the heart out of it…
Then I came to see that it is unbiblical and arrogant to try to worship God for any other reason than the pleasure to be had in Him. (Don’t miss those last two words: in Him. Not His gifts… Not ourselves, but Him)”

So how did Piper come to this realisation? Among others, he quotes C.S. Lewis from a sermon called The Weight of Glory:

“If you asked twenty good men today what they thought the highest of the virtues, nineteen of them would reply, Unselfishness. But if you asked almost any of the great Christians of old he would have replied, Love. You see what has happened? … The negative ideal of Unselfishness carries with it the suggestion not primarily of securing good things for others, but of going without them ourselves, as if our abstinence and not their happiness was the important point. I do not think this is the Christian virtue of Love. The New Testament has lots to say about self-denial, but not about self-denial as an end in itself. We are told to deny ourselves and to take up our crosses in order that we may follow Christ; and nearly every description of what we shall ultimately find if we do so contains an appeal to desire. If there lurks in most modern minds the notion that to desire our own good and earnestly to hope for the enjoyment of it is a bad thing, I submit that this notion has crept in from Kant and the Stoics and is no part of the Christian faith. Indeed, if we consider the unblushing promises of reward and the staggering nature of the rewards promised in the Gospels, it would seem that Our Lord finds our desires not too strong, but too weak. We are half-hearted creatures, fooling about with drink and sex and ambition when infinite joy is offered us, like an ignorant child who wants to go on making mud pies in a slum because he cannot imagine what is meant by the offer of a holiday at the sea. We are far too easily pleased.”

So basically, he’s saying that the problem is not that we seek pleasure; it’s that we seek our pleasure in the wrong places. The things we find pleasure in might not be inherently bad, but if there’s no reference to God as the source of the pleasure, then we’re not glorifying God as we should; we’re honouring the gifts rather than the giver.

But also, if we claim God is all that satisfies us, why would we want to seek pleasure anywhere else? I’m thinking mainly of myself here, if I watch something on TV, or a film, or sport, or listen to music, and it doesn’t in any way lead me to worship God, why am I doing it?

If I really believed God to be the ultimate source of all real joy, I wouldn’t just want to go to church on a Sunday, prayer meeting during the week, maybe spend a few minutes reading the Bible and praying each day, and then use the rest of my time for secular work and pleasure. I’d want to spend all my time enjoying Him, and like everything else I enjoy I wouldn’t be able to stop myself constantly praising Him. I mean, when we say things like “I love this song!” or “What a great goal!” or “Look at that view!” it’s an involuntary reaction to something glorious, so why should praising God feel like a duty?

We must worship God because we are commanded to, but to quote Edward John Carnell:

“Suppose a husband asks his wife if he must kiss her good night. Her answer is, “You must, but not that kind of a must.” What she means is this: “Unless a spontaneous affection for my person motivates you, your overtures are stripped of all moral value.””

This new, real heartfelt understanding of God as the ultimate source of joy, rather than just focusing on what He’s done for me in His work of salvation, is what I mean by having a more God-centred, rather than self-centred, view of life. But I’m also more eagerly seeking my own pleasure, in God.

So once Piper has explained what Christian Hedonism is, he goes on to apply it to a range of different areas of life. There’s Worship: The Feast of Christian Hedonism, Love: The Labour of Christian Hedonism, Scripture: Kindling for Christian Hedonism, Prayer: The Power of Christian Hedonism, then chapters on money, marriage, missions, and suffering.

I’ve already briefly mentioned the hedonistic principle of worship, how it should be a joy rather than just a duty. The other chapter that particularly stood out for me was the one on prayer. I think it’s key to understanding how we glorify God by enjoying Him forever.

Piper refers to John 14 verse 13:

“Whatever you ask in my name, this I will do, that the father may be glorified in the Son.”

He then uses an illustration to show how we should glorify God:

Suppose you’re totally paralysed and can do nothing for yourself but talk. And suppose a strong and reliable friend promised to live with you and do whatever you needed done. If someone came to visit you, how would you show them how great your friend is? Would you try to get out of bed and start doing things for them? Surely the best way for your visitor to see your friend’s generosity and strength would instead be for him to see for himself what your friend does for you?

He quotes Spurgeon’s explanation of Psalm 50 verse 15, which says:

“call upon me in the day of trouble; I will deliver you, and you shall glorify me.”

Spurgeon says:

“God and the praying man take shares… first here is your share: “Call upon me in the day of trouble.” Secondly, here is God’s share: “I will deliver thee.” Again, you take a share – for you shall be delivered. And then again it is the Lord’s turn – “Thou shalt glorify me.” Here is… a covenant that God enters into with you who pray to him, and whom he helps. He says, “You shall have the deliverance, but I must have the glory…” Here is a delightful partnership: we obtain that which we so greatly need, and all that God getteth is the glory which is due unto his name.”

So we need to be careful about trying to serve God. Of course, we are called to be God’s servants, but when we serve God, who gets the glory?

Mark 10:45 says: “the Son of Man came not to be served, but to serve.”

And the image of Christ’s return in Luke 12:37 is actually quite shocking:

“Blessed are those servants whom the master finds awake when he comes. Truly, I say to you, he will dress himself for service and have them recline at table, and he will come and serve them.”

Clearly we need to be careful not to start thinking we’re above God, but He glorifies Himself by giving of His infinite riches, not by taking anything from us. So the way for us to glorify Him is not to try to do things for Him, as though he needs anything from us, but to enjoy what He gives us, and make sure to give Him all the credit.

So to sum up, God Is The Gospel gave me a new hunger to know God, and to use John MacArthur’s words off the back cover of Desiring God it’s “a soul-stirring celebration of the pleasures of knowing God… a must-read for every Christian, and a feast for the spiritually hungry.”

Perhaps you already have an intense hunger to know God more, in which case, this is a feast for you. But if you don’t feel you have such a hunger, I think Piper’s desire for God is infectious, so read this book and I’ll be very surprised if you don’t have more of a hunger by the time you finish it.

In case I haven’t conveyed my enthusiasm for this book as well as I hoped, to show how keen I am for you to read this, I’ve bought an extra copy of both Desiring God and God Is The Gospel just to lend out to people, and I’ll be very disappointed if no one asks to borrow them.

And for those of you reading this on my blog, you can download a free pdf of Desiring God for your Kindle or whatever from here, and God Is The Gospel here.

Planet Narnia

From back in the day when the Sun orbited the Earth
From back in the day when the Sun orbited the Earth

I accidentally watched The Narnia Code last night.

It was really interesting, not sure how long you’ll be able to watch it on the BBC website, I could probably make it available to download permanently from somewhere else, but I don’t particularly want to get sued.

Basically there’s more to the Narnia books than you think, a secret 3rd layer that this guy Michael Ward only discovered about 50 years after the books were written.

The first layer is the actual story that’s written on the page.

The second layer is the biblical allegory.

The third layer equates each book to one of the seven medieval planets: The Sun, The Moon, Mercury, Venus, Mars, Jupiter and Saturn.

I think I’m gonna have to read the book at some point, I don’t really know a lot about the significance of each planet but the bits he talked about on the TV show sounded really interesting.