What I Have Learned (and am still learning) working at Barnes and Noble

Part One: How I got the job, and being an unlikely salesperson

Barnes-and-Noble

Barnes and Noble: It is a store many people love, if simply just for the experience of being around books and friends. You are surrounded by knowledge that is contained in bound pages across an entire building. In Spring 2016, it was a store that felt like the perfect fit for me: I am a Christian who thoroughly enjoys access to Christian books, and, in the past two years, Philosophy books as well.

When I was let go from my previous job in solar due to downsizing, I began filling out job applications shortly after. The job search is always agonizing, stressful, and a test of patience. The first place I applied was Lifeway Christian Stores; having applied once before, the option was not in the system to let me apply again. Since a call never came, I aimed in a similar direction and applied for B&N. Having had no prior retail experience, I was not sure anyone would be willing to hire me at the time except for a seasonal position.

The General Call

One week later, the prior store manager gave me a call and asked me to come in for an interview the following week. I really wanted this job and I prayed and asked for prayer that God would open the door to work there. The interview went really well, and I felt confident that I would get a call back. My interview was May 12th. Two weeks passed…nothing. One month passed…nothing. During this period, people from my church  (including a few pastors) were praying for me and my search for a job. The wait in between consisted of more searching, but I really wanted to work here and I remember praying and asking God to give me an opportunity to do well there. With summer nearly half-over, I wasn’t sure what to do next…and then…

The Effectual Call

Lo and behold, they did call back- just before the end of June, and to my utter surprise and excitement. When one of the managers gave me a call to formally accept a position in the music department, I was all in! My start date was July 6th, the same day as my sisters birthday. That week in and of itself had several moments of impact in my life, including the birth of my nephew and a new friendship that started, all for another blog post.

Finally I was able to go to work again, to glorify God in the workplace, and being able to make money again felt great. I am thankful that God had hired me that late into the summer, if not just for the opportunity to go to Hume and Yosemite nearly every weekend since the semester had ended. Spending that quality time with friends was a blessing I very much needed, and reading in nature is always awesome.

Orientation

While I was filling out the paperwork the first day, I remember being so thankful that this store would trust me with a job here, since my prior work experience was not in retail, and outside of work I had been involved more extensively in church ministry (youth and young adult) than in business. I knew more of covenant theology than I did of overhead costs, taxes, and issuing prepay orders. I can say that, having been there nearly nine months, Barnes and Noble is honestly the best retail store to work in- if you are going to work retail, working here is where you find professionalism across the board. The people I met on day one, and who are still there, never changed themselves for me just because I was new. They really are a cohesive unit and I am thankful to be a part of it. Now, there is one element to this story I was not expecting, and that is the area of selling.

Winding Up The Pitch

Let me be clear: I don’t come off like a salesperson to the average person. I’m not charismatic, I’m not forward and direct, I’m shy, and I overthink things easily.

Salespeople are often seen as liars-charismatic charmers who convince you to buy something you can’t use and don’t need, or naive young people who don’t know what they are getting people into when they sign up for something. Thankfully, Barnes and Noble sells things I actually use, and the people there know how it works and are not what I described above- I bought their membership in 2015 and have used it ever since.

That being said, it did not prepare me for the reality that in addition to learning a cash register, working PDT’s, sorting music and DVD’s in the music department, and doing my best to keep it together, I had to learn the art of introducing people to our membership program, and, for a curveball, our new (rebooted) MasterCard program. I’m not a salesperson in the typical sense…it’s still my resolve to never fake a smile, never manipulate a sale, never push someone into anything. I want to have a clear conscience before the Lord in these things. But, selling is a unique thing. And, it’s taken time for me, but I feel like I’m slowly starting to understand how to sell in a way that honors God and does people good. I still will never be perfect and confess I am constantly praying my way through this, and being honest before the Lord when I feel I mess up and need to change my mentality. Sometimes, I post scripture on my register to give me an anchor in truth when I feel like the shift is a struggle.

Once again, these are all things that took months for me to learn.

Now, if you can’t tell already, I’m pretty detail oriented. I want-no- I need, to learn how stuff works. If it doesn’t make sense to me, how can it make sense to a customer? This, however, takes time and learning to build a conversational style and approach that is welcoming and not manipulating. However, it is a little awkward at first getting it started.

My First Days

Starting off, I began working in the music department and shadowed my coworker for about two weeks. In retrospect, I think the prior manager thought I needed more time to work with customers rather than move quickly on the fast-paced main sales floor. Since music is the slowest part of the store, you don’t have to work as quickly and don’t have as many opportunities to sell. During this time, I was only hired on to work in music. It’s the slower part of the store, and you mainly work by yourself. However, there was also a lot to learn about reading inventory and categorizing it in a large space. My second day there was spent going step by step through dozens of pages of paperwork and protocol, and that was just for music!

My third day working at the store, however, they gave me a four hour shift working at cashwrap, which is the main sales floor. Things went from 0-60 very quickly, as this was the day I learned to work the cash register. The first two hours I spent reading the textbook for the registers, which was nearly 200 pages in length. After observing our head cashier for two hours, she had me log on and give it a try. After two hours of on and off ringing, I was ready to go home and process how it all worked. So much information was filling my head. But, it felt so good to make money again, to start fresh, and to know I could glorify God in this workplace by doing the best job I could do and treating people as being made in the image of God.

In Conclusion

There’s more to share for next time, but I want to close this post with six things I resolve to do every time I go to work. This helps me get through stressful days and ecstatic days. Perhaps this will encourage you at your work this week:

1) I should treat every person as being made in the image of God (Gen. 1:27-28), and show them kindness and grace.

2) To not let the sun go down on my anger if I encounter it from stress, and should respond in ways that are reflective of God’s love to me. (Eph. 5)

3) To recognize I still wrestle with a whole variety of sins, and accept that I will sin even if it’s only seen in my heart. That I cannot be perfect at what I do, but aim my attitude and behavior in the direction of love to Christ and others. (Rom. 12:9-13)

4) To recognize that work is temporary and that God is the One I serve ultimately. He’s the One who sees all and I should do it for Him. (Ecclesiastes 12)

5) That I don’t work primarily to grow my finances, feed myself, to buy things, or to improve my appearance. Money flies away, but what I do here has ramifications for eternity. (1 Corinthians 3).

6) That a job is a job, and people won’t remember me years from now. I can leave. I can go home. I can love my family. I can repent, I can trust Christ, and I can move forward.

Therefore, since we are surrounded by so great a cloud of witnesses, let us also lay aside every weight, and sin which clings so closely, and let us run with endurance the race that is set before us, looking to Jesus, the founder and perfecter of our faith, who for the joy that was set before him endured the cross, despising the shame, and is seated at the right hand of the throne of God. (Heb. 12:1-2, ESV)

Authentic Christianity

Confusing-Authenticity-with-Perfection

What does it mean to be an “authentic” Christian? 

So many people have ideas as to what authenticity means for the Christian life. Some see an authentic Christian as someone who embraces that they are imperfect and prone to sin, and want to be recognized as a struggling sinner. The sins they struggle with could be of any order: “recovering” alcoholism, drug abuse, sexual sin, pornography, homosexuality, cussing, anger, you name it. These sins, once named, become synonymous with the persons themselves. They become identified by their struggles as much as their salvation.

The first step in this approach is to admit that you’re free to struggle, free to mess up- free to go to your small group and admit that once again, you’ve failed. Free to go to the same places you used to and not do what you did the last time when it got you into sin. It becomes the norm and easy to admit when you’ve gone wrong once again with your ex, clicked on that ilicit website another time, and cussed out your mom as you always do when she makes you angry. After all, you’ve been given a “second chance,” you can try again.

The second step in this process is embracing a lifestyle that continuously straddles the line with sin. Though we wouldn’t clothe it in such language, this is what happens. We recognize that sin is ever present, so we look at each temptation as another opportunity to succeed at defeating it. However, since there is no measuring rod for repentance in these areas, there is no external change to how we do things. We just avoid specific situations or choices, but for the most part, things remain the same. You do things “just short of sin” in all areas of your life: You drink just shy of drunkenness. You stop just short of sexual sin with someone. You abbreviate curse words so they’re barely shy of saying the real thing.

Since we are sinners still, and name the name of Christ, we have to “embrace” both realities: the bad news that we still sin, and point to the good news that Jesus died for all of it. Jesus gets the credit when we mess up, because it makes His grace look good. In order to move forward, I have to recognize the past is still with me to some extent, and I can’t rid myself of these vices overnight. That feeling is true and at some point we have all felt the burden of trying and not succeeding. So, what’s the issue here? Both are true: I sin and I am redeemed. What’s wrong?

Perhaps addressing another angle of authenticity might be helpful. I will call it the “fake it until you make it” approach.

Fake It Till’ You Make It

You are nice to everyone, but really, on the inside, you feel something entirely different. You gossip about the very person you spoke to who interpreted your kindness as genuine care and concern. You have an internal world where you measure everything according to how you feel about it, how you think about it, and few (if any) people know what you really think about things. You are not easy to read and people may get the sense that you’re happy when you’re not. You have read the Bible enough to know what it means and how to live it out in a practical sense, but emotionally and intellectually, you see or feel no need to build upon your own understanding of it. You have a very practical understanding of theology and can articulate the faith to anyone on the spot. You went on all the mission trips you could be a part of, you’re in the pictures on your church’s website, and have a reputation of being nice, carefree, and a faithful servant. But, inside, you’re dying. You don’t know how to articulate the sense of dullness and dryness you feel spiritually. You don’t quite know anymore if God hears your prayers or even listens to you; you feel nothing when you pray.

The struggles you face on the inside are kept so deep and so secret that everyone only sees one layer of your true personality. You know you are a Christian, as far as believing goes, but life seems to just keep progressing outward while you feel frozen, conflicted, and unsure inwardly. This is the reality you’ve come to embrace. For you, this is authentic Christianity. Authenticity can just mean being real about yourself and recognizing the truth of the matter. But, what are we really supposed to recognize about ourselves? How can we reconcile the tensions we feel on the inside with the world we are called to live in on the outside?

We live in a culture that wants acceptance: We want to be accepted as people who “fall short,” because consistently we do experience set backs by the sins we turn to and embrace often. There is a sense of relief in accepting these definitions, because in a sense we can finally, at this point, be “real” with ourselves and each other and not set such a high bar for our behaviors. There is no Christian standard so difficult as the one we set for ourselves. By freeing ourselves from the pressures of perfectionism we can take a realistic approach to life. The problem is, these ideas have created a legalistic approach to legalism. By accepting things as they are, we are not accepting the truths that encompass all the things we deal with: there is a holiness to be pursued, not romanticized or idealized, becoming an idea of who we want to become.

To help bring this towards a solution, I would like to list five ways in which you can know whether your Christianity is authentic, fake, or out of alignment.

1. An authentic Christian is someone who is not double-minded, appearing one way and feeling or thinking another. They are not divided in how they express themselves, or how they think of God.

If any of you lacks wisdom, let him ask God, who gives generously to all without reproach, and it will be given him. But let him ask in faith, with no doubting, for the one who doubts is like a wave of the sea that is driven and tossed by the wind. For that person must not suppose that he will receive anything from the Lord; he is a double-minded man, unstable in all his ways. (James 1:5-8, ESV)

2. An authentic Christian is someone who does not look back at what was in order to make a judgement about their commitment to Christ in the present.

As they were going along the road, someone said to him, “I will follow you wherever you go.” And Jesus said to him, “Foxes have holes, and birds of the air have nests, but the Son of Man has nowhere to lay his head.”  To another he said, “Follow me.” But he said, “Lord, let me first go and bury my father.” And Jesus said to him, “Leave the dead to bury their own dead. But as for you, go and proclaim the kingdom of God.”  Yet another said, “I will follow you, Lord, but let me first say farewell to those at my home.” Jesus said to him, No one who puts his hand to the plow and looks back is fit for the kingdom of God.”(Luke 9:57-62, ESV) Italics added.

3. An authentic Christian counts the cost and calculates the meaning of their faith and what their repentance actually is: turning everything away from where it was and submitting yourself to Christ. Killing the old you.

Whoever does not bear his own cross and come after me cannot be my disciple.  For which of you, desiring to build a tower, does not first sit down and count the cost, whether he has enough to complete it?  Otherwise, when he has laid a foundation and is not able to finish, all who see it begin to mock him,  saying, ‘This man began to build and was not able to finish.’  Or what king, going out to encounter another king in war, will not sit down first and deliberate whether he is able with ten thousand to meet him who comes against him with twenty thousand?  And if not, while the other is yet a great way off, he sends a delegation and asks for terms of peace.  So therefore, any one of you who does not renounce all that he has cannot be my disciple.

(Luke 14:27-33, ESV)

4. An authentic Christian is not two-faced, what they are towards others is who they are at every moment. They recognize they are not their own.

Let love be genuine. Abhor what is evil; hold fast to what is good. 10Love one another with brotherly affection. Outdo one another in showing honor. 11Do not be slothful in zeal, be fervent in spirit, serve the Lord. 12Rejoice in hope, be patient in tribulation, be constant in prayer. 13Contribute to the needs of the saints and seek to show hospitality.(Romans 12:9-13, ESV)

5. An authentic Christians does not look at who they were to determine their lifestyle, but at who they are in Christ and what they are as new creations in Him.

From now on, therefore, we regard no one according to the flesh. Even though we once regarded Christ according to the flesh, we regard him thus no longer. 17Therefore, if anyone is in Christ, he is a new creation. The old has passed away; behold, the new has come. 18All this is from God, who through Christ reconciled us to himself and gave us the ministry of reconciliation; 19that is, in Christ God was reconciling the world to himself, not counting their trespasses against them, and entrusting to us the message of reconciliation. 20Therefore, we are ambassadors for Christ, God making his appeal through us. We implore you on behalf of Christ, be reconciled to God. 21For our sake he made him to be sin who knew no sin, so that in him we might become the righteousness of God.(2 Corinthians 5:16-21, ESV)

My desire in showing these passages is to help you recognize who you were, who you are, and what you are called to be in Christ. You cannot live out what you don’t know, and you must learn about the person God has made you to be. You cannot truly be yourself until you recognize who you truly are in Christ.

The Christian life is not about faking Christlikeness: you are Christ’s and you are His likeness to others. It’s not about embracing your struggles- Christ died and defeated sin and it’s power over you. You no longer idenitify with your sin, but your Savior. You don’t identify with the ungodly, but the righteous who have been made new people in God. You don’t look, sound, or appear like the world, you are a light that shines without needing to prove you are a light.

If you’re “free to be weak,” then there is no drive to grow in character and the “measure of the stature of the fullness of Christ.” You are weak, but in your weakness God is not leaving you there- He is strengthening  you (2 Cor. 12:9-10). Like a tree you will grow (Psalm 1)- you are connected to the Author of life and the Savior of your body, heart, and soul. You are not who you were, and are not identified by your past or your struggles. You are free to be holy. You are free to love as God has loved you. You are free to repent and choose obedience over fleeting pleasure. You are free in Christ, so live out that freedom (Gal. 5:1ff).

Living out your Christian belief in the most authentic way to interact with the world.

Austin

Stop Trying To Be A Christian

Update (2017)
Here is a drafted blogpost I wrote two years ago that has finally been published today. My thoughts (and writing style) have changed somewhat in the past two years, but the central convictions are the same. Later, I will follow up with something else I’ve been thinking about: What does it mean to be an “authentic” Christian? For now, here are some thoughts to consider…
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The grace of God in bestowing this gift is most free. It was what God was under no obligation to bestow. He might have rejected fallen man, as he did the fallen angels. It was what we never did anything to merit; it was given while we were yet enemies, and before we had so much as repented. It was from the love of God who saw no excellency in us two attract; and it was without expectation of ever being requited for it. And it is from your grace of the benefits of Christ or applied to such and such and such particular persons. – Jonathan Edwards
We are not sinners who struggle with being Christians, but Christians who struggle with sin. The victory is in Jesus! (See Rom. 7:24).

What would you do if a friend who was not a Christian asked you to define what a Christian is?

1) You might point out that you are a Christian, but he or she wouldn’t accept your answer at first. They may have known you before you became a Christian, and therefore have difficulty accepting this change.

2) You could point to your denomination (such as Baptist) or church, but that wouldn’t work. It excludes other Christians from different churches or denominations.

3) You could mention Christian organizations (I.e. World Vision, Samaritans Purse), evangelists (Billy Graham, Paul Washer), or your Pastor(s). The problem is that they don’t know these people personally, only from a distance. They might see morally-upright people who have an optimistic spirit (i.e. a “good” human being).

4) Another option is explaining that not everyone who claims to be a Christian is a Christian, but that would mean you and your friend first knew what a Christian was. This means that pointing out a Christian isn’t as important as explaining what makes a Christian- in order to look for a Christian, you need criteria. So, what is it?

The dilemma here is this: We have become too comfortable with claiming to be Christians based on what we do (specific actions) like feed the homeless or volunteer at school, the name of our denomination (“Baptist” “Presbyterian” “Pentecostal”), associating with other people who go by the same title (well-known Pastors, musicians, friends, family), or treat it like a nickname. Therefore, we often miss the mark ourselves in understanding who we are as Christians. If we use the word in so many different ways, which one is correct?

Let me ask you another question:

How often do you find yourself questioning whether you are a Christian? It’s that thought that sometimes won’t go away, in fact, it gets worse the more you sin. Sometimes, you get so lost in the struggle with sin, that you find yourself feeling guilty, “falling short” and not “being a Christian.” If your friends struggle with seeing you as a Christian (other than a nickname), then how can you know for sure if you are one?

1) Do you hate sin, and love righteousness? (Matthew 5:6; Proverbs 21:21)

2) Have you repented of all known sin?

3) Do you know the gospel? (Romans 10:9ff)

4) Do you love God’s people? (1 John 3)

Here is something to consider: You are a Christian. You are not becoming one if you’ve already trusted in Christ, you are one! It’s not something you have to achieve, it’s who you are. So, why do I not always feel like it?

Too often we Christians think of ourselves more as unsaved sinners than as saints who are being sanctified and renewed; we see ourselves as “flawed” humans rather than children of God; as beggars (in need) and wretches (who are helpless), but not blessed in Christ (Eph. 1:3) and helped by the power of the Holy Spirit (Rom. 8:26). This plays out in our actions; we end up thinking of ourselves as bad because God’s word says we’re sinners, but have no positive sense of what the gospel means for us because of our sinfulness. We don’t see the hope and life that we have that frees us from the hopelessness and death of sin.. To validate our sense of the “good” we feel is inside of us, we turn to idols: to be desired by another person, the “wisdom” of popular experts, cheesy sayings we find on Facebook, etc. That way, we know we’re sinners, but so-and-so says that’s a part of being human: you mess up, feel free to make mistakes and learn from them.

How does Jesus fit into all of this?

We more often run to our experiences and our past record of obedience and failure to validate our faith instead of running to God’s promises in the Bible. Our experiences will teach us ultimately that we need a Savior- that you can’t be your own Master. You’re a slave and need to be set free. However, the gap hasn’t been bridged in our understanding to help us realize that once we are saved, we become new people. We are slaves to sin no longer, we are bought with a price and owned by the triune God for eternity. We are new people. So, everything you associate with your life, is turned upside down. You start from scratch with how you think, feel, and live your life.

The Christian life is not something we have to achieve, but a status given to us by God. Believing in Jesus and obeying the Bible are a part of being a Christian, but few of us ever get to the heart of what it means to be a Christian.

You can’t be a bad Christian- sure, you sin, every day. You may lie, get angry, cut off people in traffic, cuss at your spouse, see an inappropriate movie, and top it off with one drink too many. That doesn’t make you a bad Christian, but it does mean you’ve sinned; sin is not something we can live in without it being evidence of unbelief and being unsaved (Romans 6).  So, is sin horrible? Absolutely. You shouldn’t do those things, but none of them causes you to lose God’s favor. Why?  God’s favor is not based on the condition of who you are, but on the condition of God’s faithfulness and Christ’s righteousness to seal it (Hebrews 6; 2 Cor. 5:17-21). If  you are a genuine believer, conviction sets in. You repent. You recognize that you committed an act against God and people made in God’s image. You reconcile with others. You change because God has sealed your salvation with His Holy Spirit to help you as you seek to let go of who you were and grasp onto who you are in Christ (1 Cor. 1).You are being transformed (Rom. 8:29-38).

Being a bad Christian is impossible, but being a false believer is not.

Therefore, the Bible says your identity can never be altered based on your performance- instead, it’s based on Christ’s performance for you.What He did for you drives what you do to live for Him.

Faith is a gift of God, only He can strengthen it (Eph. 2:8-10, Mark 8). Need faith? Go to Him (Rom. 11:32-33). There’s only one kind of Christian: that is, a person who been forgiven of their sins (1 Jn. 1:9-10), trusted in Jesus Christ for salvation (Acts 4:12), been given a new heart that hungers for obedience (Ezekiel 36:26), and the Holy Spirit Who completes that work (1 Jn. 2, Jn. 14-15). You have a new identity and it’s about time you discovered it (2 Cor. 5:17). All the “special features” (i.e. the obedience of faith) that comes with being a Christian begins with a right relationship with God- and, if you’re saved, that relationship will never change. God will never change His mind about you (Heb. 6).

We are not sinners who struggle with being Christians, but Christians who struggle with sin. The victory is in Jesus! (See Rom. 7:24). The Judge of all the earth has cast His verdict and has declared you innocent and righteous (Rom. 3:21-27), therefore live as you are declared to be.

Self-Improvement and Holiness 

Often I have found myself wanting self-improvement more than holiness…

These words I wrote in my journal months ago. As I began to ponder the statement, I began to realize just how different the two really are.

self-im·prove·ment

noun

1. the improvement of one’s knowledge, status, or character by one’s own efforts. (Dictionary.com)

Holiness (starting with God)

“The holiness of God is not to be conceived of as one attribute among others. It is rather a general term representing the conception of God’s consummate perfection and total glory. It is His infinite moral perfection crowning His infinite intelligence and power.” – Charles Hodge 

I cannot recall ever meeting someone who had not longed for self-improvement. 

Whether it is wanting to take on a new hobby, change the oil, buy a new house, find a new job, finish school, or get married, I’ve met all sorts of people with different things they have wanted to change, improve, or accomplish. Each person has some goal they are trying to accomplish, some task they want to finish- something beyond the horizon they are aspiring towards. It is a part of our human nature to want to extend the reach of our skills, attain new talents, and become what we feel is a better version of ourselves.

Bearing fruit and multiplying is part of the human agenda: staying in one place and fixing in on a lifelong routine is not part of our wiring. Extending ourselves is something we desire because we have a desire to explore and not just isolate ourselves. This desire to improve ourselves has spawned many motivational speakers, self-help books, relationship gurus and all sorts of cultural tid-bits that can be found with a basic internet search. We want to improve, we just may not know what that means, or even how to do it. We want to spread our wings, take a chance, make a change, and breakaway, to borrow from Kelly Clarkson. Somehow we think we will know when we get there- we operate by the feeling of improvement but with no clear certainty of what that will be in the end.

In the Bible, we find many situations of people who sought after their own ideas of growth and improvement. We read of David extending the influence of ancient Israel through a trade system, defending the nation against opposing nations and overcoming them, thereby incorporating their economy into his own. There is Abraham, who was called to build a nation out of he and his wife who were not in their prime- out of this nation would come the Messiah. There are countless kings of Israel and Judah who prided themselves in the work of their hands and forgot the God of Scripture. You see Simon the Magician in Acts wanting to extend his trickery and trying to sell the Holy Spirit to people in a dangerous act of heresy. Even all the way back in Genesis, we find Adam and Eve wanting to attain the knowledge of good and evil and thereby be “like God, knowing good and evil.” Whether for good or bad, we want to modify ourselves- we want to improve ourselves. This is part of the human condition. Improvement is not a bad thing, but what it is guided by is the key to determining whether it really is good or not. 

But, why do we want to improve ourselves? Is it because we are discontent with present conditions? Do we not feel as satisfied as we want to be? Perhaps it has to do with us wanting to change ourselves. Perhaps we view ourselves as basically good people who just need a push in the “right” direction. Your reasons could be any, but I would like to narrow in on two major motivations: secular self-improvement and Biblical holiness. 

Secular Self-Improvement

What is secular self-improvement? Well, take a look around. We live in a culture that does not have an anchor for where to find objective, concrete, ultimate truth. We aspire for truth by looking inside, in the world of the emotions and the intellect. We are searching for that feeling- of completion, of comfort, of peace, of accomplishment. Our feelings have become the radar for what is good for us and what is bad for us. We search within our reason- what seems logical, what seems to make sense, what can be verified by scientific research that is based on an agnostic framework. But, we do not have a starting point outside ourselves- the starting point is inside of us. This is what I will call the secular: the religion of self instead of the religion of truth. 

Since we begin with ourselves, it only makes sense that we want to know how to make ourselves better. Even though we live in a sinful world, we still have consciences and are a shadow of who we were before sin entered the world. There is something inside of us that knows that not everything is as it should be. We know that eating too much is a bad idea, and that exercise makes you feel good. We know that love is a beautiful thing and that harmony in relationships is good. We know that working is good because it gives you the freedom to do things you otherwise could not. Since we may not have the time to focus on all the things that we feel need improving, we rely on other people to help us help ourselves. But, what is the problem with this motivation?

For one, you start with yourself and end with yourself. There is no greater purpose than doing these things yourself. There are good consequences for others that can come out of it, but those are secondary to how it makes us feel about ourselves. Our egos need to be eased, comforted, and applauded and that is why the hard work seems so worth it. 

Secondly, it does not focus on moral character or the soul of the person seeking the improvement. It ignores the reality of sin and the actuality of God really existing and having really come to die for that sin. Self-improvement manifests itself more in the external world than in the heart. It does not look for an honest view of yourself so much as a more positive way of looking at yourself. It is part of a humanist psychology that believes that the reason you are in a bad spot is because you have not thought highly enough about yourself and need to align your behavior with your worth. But, it does not state what your worth is or where it comes from. It is about making you feel good.

Thirdly, it forgets the reality God who is really there and has really spoken. The actions done for yourself have no tie to the character of God, what His will is, and what He desires out of your life. It ignores that God is the one who should be thought most highly of, and deserves our whole-hearted obedience. Since God is not the reference point to help us anchor ourselves in this world, we live off balance in every area of life.

Fourth, it does not focus on a love for your neighbor and to think of others more highly than yourself. There is no true humility in this because there is no reference to Christ as our example, our love for God which affects our nature and desires, and a love for our neighbor which can often come at the cost of our own comfort and self-confidence. We get so focused on ourselves that we forget others, instead of having what Tim Keller calls the freedom of self-forgetfulness. 
Self-improvement fails because we cannot improve ourselves and are not qualified to be our own rescuers and redeemers. We need help from the outside, a power that changes our hearts, the right teaching to correct our thoughts, and a motivation that is about more than a temporal satisfaction. We are not seeking the highest satisfaction possible; we are aiming too low.

Biblical Holiness

Holiness can all too easily be painted as a stoic, moralistic, dry and cold state of being. The term “holier-than-thou” exudes some of this mindset: it is used as away to describe a perfectionist who thinks he or she is better than everyone else. But, is that what Biblical holiness looks like? If God is truly the only One who is holy, then what does this tell us of the way we see God in His perfection?

Firstly, Biblical holiness is a mandate but also a natural course for the life of the Christian. It says in Scripture that God alone is truly holy (Isaiah 6) and that we are called to be holy as He is (1 Peter 2). God’s holiness is the summation of all that He is: He is not us. He is not a sinner. He is not a creation, He is eternal, sovereign and the Great Other. He is everything we are not. Since we belong to Him, we are supposed to resemble Him, but through sin we deny Him and rebel against Him. But, in Christ we are brought back to Him. This is tied to the reality of our union with Christ: by faith Christ’s death counts as our own, and His resurrection is our resurrection (Rom. 6). We are not the old person (Col. 3), we are the new person remade in Christ, which means we think on things in an entirely new way with a brand new priority (Col. 3:1-4). We are on the trajectory of holiness (Heb. 13), and it’s only natural for us to be on this track. It is lively, it is real, it is greater than anything we can conjure up inside our heads.

Secondly, holiness is focused on God and not on self, and thus you gain a more accurate view of oneself. Ephesians 5 reminds us believers that we are called to be imitators of God- although there are unique qualities in each one of us which can serve the Church (Rom. 12; 1 Cor. 12), we are not the creators of our identity and purpose. Our meaning comes from outside of us. Our purpose is beyond ourselves. Christ came to serve and so likewise we are called to serve by thinking outside ourselves and looking at our Savior and our neighbors in need. As Robert M’Cheyne says, “For every look at self, take ten looks at Christ.” In this process of sanctification we are making progress without even realizing it at times, it’s quite automatic as God shapes us by helping us look at Him (2 Cor. 3:18). This does not mean we should not strive with effort to grow and that this growth is not painful (1 Cor. 9), but what it does mean is that at every moment God is strengthening you to do His work, even in weakness and hardship (2 Cor. 12:8-10). 

Thirdly, holiness sees God’s attributes more clearly and is able to act on exemplifying them to others in love. It’s been said that God’s holiness is the crown of His attributes, and so for us to see God as He really is in Scripture, through the understanding of the Spirit (1 Cor. 2), we glimpse who God is and who we are. Having diagnosed the illness and discovered the cure for ourselves, we can discern more carefully how to love others and show others the same love God has shown us. We are fulfilling the greatest commandment (Deut. 6:1-6), and this commandment sums up the whole Law (Rom. 13:8-10).

Fourth, it squanders pride and encourages true spiritual growth that goes deeper than external self-improvement. Isaiah was humbled before God in the presence of His holiness (Isaiah 6), and Joshua the High Priest was clothed with God’s righteousness in the presence of Satan even though Satan was accusing him often before God (Zech. 3). The gospel puts us flat on our faces as though dead (Rev. 1:19-20), and helps us realize that we were dead and made alive to live a new life for a new reason with a new trajectory and purpose. God goes straight to the heart and changes our very motivations and the way we see ourselves (Ezekiel 36:26). We are capable of obedience and true change through Christ. Although this can manifest in a more well-rounded life like some magazines talk about, and even though they may offer helpful and practical advice at times, we can do them as a means to glorify God instead of changing ourselves. True change happens in the inside by God. 

In the end, I am not against practical wisdom that can be found out on the internet or in magazines. But, do not let the worldview behind them sneak into your motivations. Aspire to holiness, to a further setting apart of your heart to Christ (1 Pet. 3:15), and grow spiritually even more than focusing on your health physically (1 Tim. 4:8). 

Until next time,
Austin

Choose This Day Whom You Will Serve

Donald Trump Hosts Nevada Caucus Night Watch Party In Las VegasThe day we agonized over has come and gone: Election Day 2016. 

Now therefore, O kings, be wise;

be warned, O rulers of the earth.

Serve the Lord with fear,

and rejoice with trembling.

Kiss the Son,

lest he be angry, and you perish in the way,

for his wrath is quickly kindled.

Blessed are all who take refuge in him. (Psalm 2:10-12)

For my fellow Christians, my message to you this past Election Day is this: We are at a fault with how much we’ve let the election get to us, but there is an opportunity for us to see the gospel in a new light with how it shapes our identity in this country.

This was a day that came about through tremendous controversy and conflict (to say the least). There has been so much national dialogue about this election that it is impossible to bring to mind every accusation made against either candidate. The vote seems to be split, not just among American citizens, but especially among us who call ourselves Christians.

Do Not Be Anxious…Unless You’re Talking Elections

The anxiety and stress over this election is about more than the outcome. The anxiety that is experienced is the kind that dwells underneath the skin and invades the conscience, shaping the outlook of those it infects. We are seeing the world through the rose colored glasses of political regimes, fiscal policy, racial tension, and social issues. We are stressed about new policies, our taxes, how the election impacts our finances, our jobs, our families, and it ties back to the character of our candidates. It’s about so much more than social issues: being a social issue voter myself, I have felt conflicted over this election more than any other. I cannot vote specifically for social issues because in one sense my vote is my endorsement of the person not just the policy. The tension I feel is between the policy and the person behind it.

This is not the only area of tension: take a look at the chasm between this generation and their parents. One emphasizes the power of the vote and the political system in affecting change, the other points out the corruption of the current political system and the need for social activism, not just the ballot box. Both generations feel anxiety and frustration over the degradation of society, but both also express them in different ways. As Christians, we have let these issues divide us not only generationally, but also spiritually. While Jesus told us not to worry about food or clothing (in Matthew 5-7) we not only worry about food and clothing, but also worry about how much both are taxed and in what country they were made. We as Christians are so much more than the country we were born into- our value comes from the one who gives us the means to eat food that perishes and buy clothing that wastes away. Our value comes from an eternal source of provision, protection, and salvation. Anxiety to this degree is sinful (Phil. 4:5-8), and is a sign of not trusting God’s sovereignty even in the little things He provides, things that we often don’t notice.

The election shouldn’t matter to us as much as it does, it should not be the primary concern of our eternal lives- it is minimal but not unimportant. It is when we focus in on the present troubles so much that we let it get to us this deeply, and fall into the trap of eternalizing the temporal and minimizing the value of the eternal.

Social Justice vs Political Activism 

The divide between the generations has become much more apparent than ever before. One generation’s message seems to vouch for an emphasis in healing the present state of racism, being socially active in speaking up about injustices such as sex trafficking, closing in on fixing corruption within the police, speaking out against the corruption in government, and thinking outside the box for a third party candidate, since neither major party candidate represents their deeply felt values.  The other generation has a more traditional view of government: Your vote is your voice. Your vote is a symbol of your freedom, and if you want to keep your freedom, you must vote for the candidate you want. Action is not enough if you allow the policies to affect what beliefs you’re allowed to act on.

There are truths to both systems of thought, but they are incomplete truths with no explicitly stated ethical framework. Scripture must be not just the backbone of our thoughts but also the tendons, blood, organs, and entire body of our beliefs. The Bible is alive and breathing (2 Tim. 3:16-17), it demands priority because God is supreme. The Bible is not just a coaster for our drinks as we write our blog posts.

So much confusion exists about what exactly guides our ethics as believers when it comes to issues Scripture is silent on.  What Biblical ethics are strong enough to influence our votes on propositions and for candidates that Scripture nowhere mentions? The Bible was not written during the institution of a Democratic Republic, and so some take it to mean that Scripture gives us only principles for voting, but it seems implied that the freedom is up to us with how we use this privilege.

Divided We Stand, United We Fall

The division among Christian voices is obvious as well. As an example of this, there seem to be six major positions taken by evangelical Christians in respect to voting this election:

  1. A vote not cast is a vote given to Hillary: “Not to vote is to vote. God will not hold us guiltless.” – Eric Metaxes
  2. We have the freedom not to vote and don’t have a moral obligation to do so. ( John Piper )
  3. We are not voting for Trump, we are voting for a worldview. “I’m voting for an ideology that is closer to Scripture…” – John MacArthur
  4. Voting for Trump is voting for principles that help us fulfill the command in Scripture to love our neighbor (Wayne Grudem, after reversing his initial stance on Donald Trump).
  5. Hillary is more predictable than Trump, and that is a reason to vote for Hillary (Thabiti Anyabwile)
  6. If we don’t vote for Trump, then the next fifty years of the country is in the hands of Hillary Clinton, and the downfall of America will be a serious reality (analysis my own).

These positions all have truths and incomplete truths to them. They also inspire anxiety and tension over what exactly we are responsible for. If Metaxes is right, then if I had not voted at all, that would have been a vote for Hillary. If I didn’t vote then somehow that counts as an implicit endorsement. Talk about being stuck between a rock and a hard place. Yet, I do have the opportunity and it seems to be given by God, so should I use it? This is one example of following a train of thought into uncertainty. What is a believer to do in this situation? Are our consciences completely free from the American right to vote?

You can see why entering the ballot box is no longer about just about casting a vote. We as Christians have turned it into a freedom that has the power to change a nation and even the world itself. We’ve ascribed a level of Biblical proportion to the ballot box. We use the ballot box to symbolize our moral power as the majority we strongly believe has been ours since the nation began. Yet, a nation with Christian morality without an explicitly stated Christian theology…how is that possible? It’s not; it’s legalism. In other words, we have fallen into the trap of the Social Gospel once again and have turned a privilege into a superpower. What is the Social Gospel? Find out tomorrow.

To summarize part one: There’s a reason why so many take sides on this election: it’s because the power to vote appeals to our human nature and our intention as Christians to be salt and light. American values overlap with Christianity but also deviate from it in serious ways. We began as a nation through the faith of Reformed Christians stated in the Mayflower Compact, but also have become a nation that bases its view of the Constitution on an entirely different worldview. As D.A. Carson has said, we are only three generations away from losing the gospel. If we don’t state the gospel clearly and only practice its morality, we are in danger of losing it as well.

Church: we are divided, and we are swinging on a political pendulum that is dangerous and lethal to our Great Commission. Let’s not vote to change the country, let’s vote to voice our faith as the foundation of our identity, not just our politics.

See you tomorrow,

Austin

The Finish Line: Why Not to Quit Pursuing Marriage

wedding-wallpaper-14.jpg

Heartache is brutal. We get hurt and hurt each other for a multitude of reasons: regret, resentment, rejection, and many other things that hurt just as much as the others. Sometimes there are moments that cause you to relive the heartache all over again. It’s like the wounds start to heal, but they can easily hurt the same way again with a little pressure. In the 21st Century world of romance, especially in our Christian subculture, the desire to be single is really the outcome of heartache. We are sick of being hurt, and sick of hurting others. We just want to quit this race to the marriage line. In fact, we forget we are on a line that runs much longer than an earthly marriage…but that’s for another post. The point is, it doesn’t feel good anymore to think about marriage, it’s more like something that causes anxiety and a pressure to make yourself spouse-material. The further along the road you get, the more unlikely you seem to be to succeed at finding the person that’s supposed to be your life partner and helper in the ministry of your family. It just seems easier to quit.

The Lonely Logic:

Jesus was single; Paul was single; Elijah was single; those guys seemed to have been able to make it, why can’t I? The thought of prolonged singleness sounds pleasant because it puts distance between you and the pain of your past, but if it is only used as a coping mechanism for unresolved heartache, then at what point are you trusting God with your cares and casting them on Him (1 Pet. 5:5-7)? You can avoid it all you want, but there is still that nagging desire inside of you to find someone to be with, and you can’t just shake it off and hope it goes away. But, you can tame it and teach it…something we don’t consider in our fantasies of retreat.

What many of us who are single don’t realize is that if you spoke to someone who has been married for, say, twenty years, you’d only come to find out that the heartache often increases with time. Spouses can still reject each other, even though they accepted the responsibility of being married for life to one person. The pain can last longer, go deeper, and conflicts will continue. Yet, there is a hope and pleasure in the pain. When handled with forgiveness and grace that only Jesus can provide in the gospel, the balm of healing can be applied to the wounds of sin and the love will grow deeper than it ever could had there never been conflict. If we think this road is going to get easier, it isn’t: but, what happens next is not to keep treading along in the same way or quit the race entirely. Our pace needs to change.

Textual Immorality 

One text that single Christians wrestle over and can easily mishandle is 1 Corinthians 7. This passage is perplexing to some because it almost sounds as if Paul was displeased with married people and wishes they could divorce (if that were possible in God’s eyes). It almost makes you feel guilty for wanting to get married. But, we need to look at the situation Paul was facing:

The church in Corinth was a mess in that a group of believers in the church were clearly disobedient; they needed rebuke and restoration. Inasmuch as the gospel was still present and did affect the hearts of the people (hence, there was a church still), the Christians present alternated between extremities in the areas of excessive drinking and sexual sin (1 Cor. 6), divisions over who they followed (3-4), the gifts of the Spirit (12-14), and between untamed sexual passion and prolonged singleness (7) Here you find a church where people indulged in sexual sin and it was blatant (5), and the response of some was that it was more godly to be single and not married. The classic idea of “less is more” followed, and in their eyes, the more you deny physical and emotional wants, the more sanctified you were. I suppose if you visited a believer back then in that camp, they’d say “I just want to follow God’s will and I can only really do that by being single.” It sounds good because it has a ring of truth to it. Self-control is a fruit of the Spirit (Gal. 5:20ff), and Jesus was single and it didn’t stop Him from fulfilling the Father’s will. But, here’s the thing: we are not Jesus. We are not headed to the cross to die for the sins of all believers. He left us an example (1 Jn. 2:1-5), and we can learn from His singleness, but that doesn’t mean that we should set in stone that singleness is more holy anymore than saying that forty days of fasting is required for a Christian to be authentic. All Christians are called to holiness, not all Christians are called to singleness. Often our reasons to retreat into singleness can be worse than actually not wanting to stay single.

And I say to you: whoever divorces his wife, except for sexual immorality, and marries another, commits adultery.” The disciples said to him, “If such is the case of a man with his wife, it is better not to marry.” But he said to them, “Not everyone can receive this saying, but only those to whom it is given. For there are eunuchs who have been so from birth, and there are eunuchs who have been made eunuchs by men, and there are eunuchs who have made themselves eunuchs for the sake of the kingdom of heaven. Let the one who is able to receive this receive it.” (Matthew 19:9-12)

The early Christians of 1 Corinthians 7 did not desire to end the pursuit of marriage because of heartache (“I want to quit wanting to be married!”),  but to suppress it because for them to withdraw was better than to enjoy sexual expression in marriage. What gave them significance in their singleness was the idea that it was “better” in every way from marriage, when in fact it was better for reasons other than their own. This is not the picture God wants us to see.

You are a born again (Jn. 3:1-10), recreated (2 Cor. 5:17), empowered (Rom. 8:1-4, Eph. 4), authentic (Ezek. 36:26), renewed (Rom. 12:1-2), and adopted child of God (Rom. 8:26). Your identity is new, eternal, and the reality that is always with you. You are more than your singleness, but singleness is a part of where you are now. Use it. Tame it. Love it. Don’t give up on it, but run the race with endurance knowing where it’s all directed towards in the end: God’s eternal glory (Heb. 12:1-4).

Marriage itself is good, self-control is also good, but don’t compromise either: enjoy both self-control and marriage when it comes along. Guard your desires and your heart, but don’t sacrifice it on the altar of “less is more”- for a time, if you are called to marriage, you are called to less, but remember that you can never gain more than what Christ has already promised and given you (Eph. 1:3).

Until next time,

Austin

Romance Is Dead

Christianity is not romantic; it is realistic. – Francis Schaeffer (The God Who Is There)


As I reach further into my mid-20’s, I’m beginning to take all the theories I had about dating and romance earlier in life and start questioning if they really hold up in life right now. It’s a miserable experience at times, as what you expected to be success the first go-round becomes rejection and a dead end. 

The multitude of questions we ask ourselves about dating and marriage is enough to cripple us, and this is why: we are putting so much stock in what we are looking for, that we don’t quite know what we have right now or what God will do with it. So we dream. We wonder. We ask, “what if?” about a million things that bear no mark on our future and what God has planned for it. 

In my heart I know I shouldn’t worry. Yet, when I pause to think of what I can do as a single person, my heart begins to skip a beat. If I’m choosing to not daydream of who I could be dating, I’m anxious at life and the boxed in feelings of routine and aging alone. 

Cliche as it sounds, and complex as it may be, this often seems to be the case. 

If we are searching for love, we don’t mean eternal life or an expression of Christlikeness. 

We usually define love as…

1. Finding a life partner (or, more accurately, a spouse) with whom there is compatibility and a similar, yet different, view of life.

2. This person is supposed to just “get” us. A deep understanding that only strengthens with time.

3. As the absence of conflict and the presence of ease in a relationship. 

4. Finding our ultimate fulfillment in some human being other than ourselves.

5. In having children or a family which we can pour ourselves into. Finding our purpose in their existence. 

There are many more, but this is somewhere to start.

All of us are looking for love

That’s the phrase we often hear. Dating sites proclaim it, romantic films dream it, the cinema embraces the search and capitalizes on it. The message is not if I can be loved, but when do I find someone to love me? I’m a person of great value and I need to find someone to value me the same way I do myself. I’m destined for love; I deserve to be loved; my heart was only made for one person and I must find out who this person is and, in the words of the Beatles, “gotta get [her\him] into my life.”

But, is it true?

We seem to be glossing over a lot of details here. For one, it assumes I already know what love is and I just need to find it. Secondly, it assumes that I need no wisdom in the area of my feelings and passions for another person. Thirdly, it paints reality around my desires instead of conforming my desires to the way things really are, in a world where Christ really exists.

What are we looking for when we say we are looking for love? 

Perhaps some reevaluation isn’t a bad idea.

The Journey

My mind seems to be consumed with reaching a horizon when it comes to romance; to glimpse some sort of focal point and perspective above this mess of modern dating. To see the beautiful land of love beyond the wilderness of despair. I just want it to make sense, and honestly it hasn’t made a whole lot of sense so far. All sorts of frustrations have risen to the surface. 
One of the major flaws is that dating has become this unspoken dichotomy of either absolute communication and affection if the dates go well, or distance and cold shoulders if they just want to be “friends.” You are either consumed with what this other person does for you, or live in rejection of what this person cannot be for you. Friendship is an unlikely place to start a relationship (it seems), and an unlikely place to end one.

Why do we entertain friendships with the opposite sex in such deep ways that one of the persons in the friendship develops feelings (that are bound to develop) and is ultimately rejected because of them? How is it that I am capable of such a thing and am blind to it happening? 

Why do we flirt with depth in our friendships and yet refuse possibilities with that person (such as, dating) that make us uncomfortable? You see their flaws and they make you uncomfortable, and yet they see your flaws and accept you. But, for some reason you just don’t want to go there. Why do we like attention so much and yet are afraid to consider what that attention means to the other person? What is it that makes us choose the wrong person again and again?

My own behaviors at times haven’t made a whole lot of sense, and I’ve made mistakes with how quickly I’ve let my heart run much farther than my feet should go. There’s this desire in anything I do to go “all in” with my commitment from the get-go, but much of dating falls under the assumed framework of “trial” and error. Courtship might not offer much hope either, as the pressure to get it right the first time (and being ready to pay for diapers on the first date) can suppress those initial desires that can only grow in time. It has the potential to put genuine feelings into a pressure cooker, to force an outcome that can only come with maturity in relating with the other person. 

Let’s face it: modern dating is a mess. It’s a mess because emotions are messy, and the stakes are high: you’re dealing with marriage and sexual experience on the eclipse of a “successful” relationship. This means that these feelings will brew underneath the surface until they are consummated. If they’re not there, you might worry that they’ll never be there. But, how do we evaluate chemistry and passion? This is where we need to rethink all these ideas of romance and feelings and filter them through Biblical wisdom; to reign them in and point them towards where their true fulfillment can be. 

Potential Passion Doesn’t Need to Be Realized To Be Valued

Drink water from your own cistern, flowing water from your own well. Should your springs be scattered abroad, streams of water in the streets? Let them be for yourself alone, and not for strangers with you. Let your fountain be blessed, and rejoice in the wife of your youth, a lovely deer, a graceful doe. Let her breasts fill you at all times with delight; be intoxicated always in her love. Why should you be intoxicated, my son, with a forbidden woman and embrace the bosom of an adulteress? For a man’s ways are before the eyes of the Lord, and he ponders all his paths. ‭‭(Proverbs‬ ‭5:15-21‬ ‭ESV‬‬)

When you freely pour water from the well of your heart into the lives of many lovers, many flirtatious encounters, and others of whom you find interest, you take away not only your joy as a single Christian but also from the joy that can truly be expressed in the “intoxication” of marital love. Your joy is taken because it is given without premeditation, and sacrificing yourself on the idol of love will only crush you along with the idol. 

You’re expressing what is only of limited supply in your own heart- your capability of love is not endless, you only have so much to give. Self-control doesn’t hinder expression, it harnesses it to fully achieve it’s proper power by focusing its gaze with godly precision. Yet, in Christ you have access to perfect love of which there lacks no supply. When you see the truths of Scripture for what they really are, you are beginning to glimpse the glory of Christ (2 Cor. 3:18), and who God is. 

You make known to me the path of life; in your presence there is fullness of joy; at your right hand are pleasures forevermore. (Psalms‬ ‭16:11‬ ‭ESV‬‬)

Going back to the Schaeffer quote, he’s not denying that God has a strong love for us. But, what he is saying is that the kind of romanticism that exists, the kind of fantasy and lore and unhindered human desire, is not the kind that Christianity teaches as truth. True love is not easy and simplistic, or exotic and mystic- it’s raw and sacrificial (1 John 4:8), it acknowledges the ruin of sin, but also the hope of Christ for this fallen world. It is unrelenting and faithful even when the other party is not reciprocating it (Hosea 1-2), and it’s everything that is characteristic of who God is (1 Jn. 4; 1 Cor. 13). 

I wish I could tie this all up in a bow.

But, I do want you to know that I’m reevaluating what romance means, and I hope you will too.

Austin