How Long Will You Hide Your Face from Me?

As I wrote in my last post, our world is more personal than ever but also more impersonal than ever, causing us to often feel like a nameless face among a sea of other nameless faces. And it’s making us lonely.

In fact, loneliness is now an epidemic in America.

A recent study on loneliness in the lives of Americans age 45 and older found that more than one-third of people in this demographic describe themselves as lonely, citing a “perceived lack of social support and a shrinking network of friends” as the primary causes.

The same study showed that lonely adults are twice as likely as those who are not lonely to feel they have deep connections through the Internet. In other words, those who believed they had meaningful connections online were actually lonelier.

Alone Together

Loneliness is more widespread among younger generations, particularly Gen Z, or iGen. Jean M. Twenge has been studying generational differences for 25 years, but she’s never seen anything like what’s happening with iGen: skyrocketing rates of teen depression and suicide that have put Gen Z on the brink of “the worst mental-health crisis in decades.”

What’s behind the meteoric rises in mental health issues and loneliness? “Much of this deterioration can be traced to their phones,” says Twenge. She goes on to say,

The twin rise of the smartphone and social media has caused an earthquake of a magnitude we’ve not seen in a very long time, if ever. There is compelling evidence that the devices we’ve placed in young people’s hands are having profound effects on their lives — and making them seriously unhappy.

Depressed. Unhappy. Lonely.

Perhaps one would expect this sort of dramatic language from a sociologist, but Twenge’s concerns are shared by physicians, including Vivek Murphy, who served as Surgeon General from 2014 to 2017. Murphy writes, “During my years caring for patients, the most common pathology I saw was not heart disease or diabetes; it was loneliness.”

The Cost of Loneliness

OK, we’re lonely. But what’s the big deal? Murphy explains the cost:

Loneliness and weak social connections are associated with a reduction in lifespan similar to that caused by smoking 15 cigarettes a day and even greater than that associated with obesity. Loneliness is also associated with a greater risk of cardiovascular disease, dementia, depression, and anxiety. At work, loneliness reduces task performance, limits creativity, and impairs other aspects of executive function such as reasoning and decision making.

Social isolation is the central challenge facing our era according to New York Times columnist David Brooks, who notes that “social isolation produces rising suicide rates, rising drug addiction, widening inequality, political polarization, depression, and alienation.”

There is a cost to the “personal” world we have created, and that cost is the person.

How Long Will You Hide Your Face from Me?

There is nothing more serious than losing the face of God. In Psalm 13:1 the psalmist moans,

How long, O Lord? Will you forget me forever? How long will you hide your face from me?

Psalm 27:9, 44:24, 51:9, 69:17, 88:14, and 102:2 all record psalmists begging God not to hide his face from them.

Adam and Eve used to enjoy walking with God in the cool of the Garden of Eden, but after succumbing to sin they were cast out, never to see God face to face again.

When Jesus was hanging on the cross, he cried out in agony, “My God, my God, why have you forsaken me?” For the first time in eternity, the Father turned his face from his Son, and it almost killed Jesus.

Nothing is more devastating than losing our Father’s gaze.

The Devastation of Loneliness

Why is the turning of God’s face away from us so devastating? In a remarkable talk, Andy Crouch observes,

The moment we were born, we were looking for a face. Because until we see a face, until another sees us, we do not who we are. And we look for someone who would look at us. … But at some point in every human life, the gaze shifts, the face disappears — no one is looking for us. That’s loneliness.

So many of us feel like no one is looking for us.

It’s as if we don’t exist, a sentiment hauntingly captured in Arcade Fire’s song “We Exist”:

They’re walking around
Head full of sound
Acting like
We don’t exist
They walk in the room
And stare right through you
Talking like
We don’t exist
But we exist …

The great challenge for the church in an impersonal world is to see the people everyone else is staring through.

I’ll talk more about that, along with calling the church to rise to the occasion, in my next post.

Saving Face and the Personal Paradox

“We all are born into the world looking for someone looking for us, and we remain in this mode of searching for the rest of our lives.” —Curt Thompson, The Soul of Shame

You’ve likely experienced the awkward moment when you realize the guy next to you in the grocery store aisle, who greeted you unusually loudly, is not greeting you at all. Instead, he’s talking to a nameless, faceless entity on the other end of his Bluetooth-enabled phone call.

You feel embarrassed, of course. But more than embarrassment, you feel overlooked, forgotten.

So you try to save face. You blush and explain that you thought he was talking to you, but your efforts are only met with a head-nod and vacant smile before the man turns and is gone.

To him, at that moment, you are not a person to engage in conversation or a neighbor deserving of niceties. You are a person without a face. A non-person.

While that kind of interaction was once novel due to the high price of smartphones and Bluetooth headsets, the mass adoption of smartphones and earbuds (and now, AirPods) has formed a world where we expect facelessness.

Now we desire anonymity, and sometimes demand it; a reality our “personal” devices are more than ready to facilitate. Yet our “personal” devices are also impersonal.

The Personal Paradox

If you’ve paid a convenience store cashier, taken the subway, or hailed an Uber lately, you more than likely enjoyed exercising your power as a citizen of the digital age, while simultaneously sensing the hollowness that comes with being a nameless face in a sea of nameless faces.

This is the paradox of the modern world, that it is more personal than ever but also more impersonal than ever. Stephen Marche, writing in the Atlantic, notes,

We are living in an isolation that would have been unimaginable to our ancestors, and yet we have never been more accessible. Over the past three decades, technology has delivered to us a world in which we need not be out of contact for a fraction of a moment.

… Yet within this world of instant and absolute communication, unbounded by limits of time or space, we suffer from unprecedented alienation. We have never been more detached from one another, or lonelier.

In a world consumed by ever more novel modes of socializing, we have less and less actual society.

Most of us feel that societal void, at least those of us who have some memory of a pre-Internet world. We bemoan parts of what was lost — but only parts. Because, if we’re being honest, it’s kind of nice.

The Dream of Personal Computing

Booking a flight, boarding a plane, and laying your head on a hotel pillow later that same day, all without knowing the name of a single person you encountered, is a modern bliss. There is no friction, no awkward small talk with uncomfortable silence.

As Rod Dreher writes in The Benedict Option, “To go through the screen of your computer or smartphone is to enter a world where you don’t often have to deal with anything not chosen.”

It’s just you and your devices connecting you to the people and content of your choice. The dream of personal computing come true.

Churches often allow for that same level of impersonal anonymity. And many of us like that, too. You can watch services online or, if you go in person, sing along with the worship, enjoy a sermon, and leave without connecting with another person in any meaningful way.

If you do sign a card or give online, you become an entry in a database and receive “personalized” emails that rely on metadata instead of first-hand knowledge. And you can stay in this impersonal state of connection as long as you wish.

The Redefinition of “Personal”

Here we return to the paradox mentioned in the opening line, that our world is more personal than ever but also more impersonal than ever. It’s not entirely accurate to call our devices or our world “personal,” but that’s part of the problem.

We have allowed mass-market consumerism to redefine the word — which used to refer to one’s private life, relationships, and emotions — to mean something like, “you are the center of your own universe.”

The smartphone isn’t a “personal” device in the traditional sense of the word; it’s a device that makes “I” the center of my own universe, which caters to my unspoken desires for constant connection, endless knowledge, and relentless distraction, all perfectly curated according to my preferences.

What happens when everyone is the center of their own universe? We get lonely.

In my next post, I’ll tell you about the loneliness epidemic in America and why it’s ultimately a spiritual problem.

Where Persecution in America Comes From

“Where does persecution in America come from? Because I can’t figure it out.” The man, a lifelong missionary only recently driven home by health concerns, glared at the class, his eyes piercing students’ hearts.

He had just lamented the increasingly weak witness of the American church after recounting stories of persecuted believers — the ones being tortured, dragged from their homes, or thrown in prison — who can’t imagine giving up their witness.

The only answers he got were blank stares. I certainly didn’t have an answer.

Why is our witness so weak when we have easy access to reach our neighbors with the gospel? What stops us from walking across the street or going into the unreached parts of our towns and cities? If our brothers and sisters are risking their necks to do it around the world, why aren’t we doing it here?

These questions haunt me.

But I may have figured out the answer (or at least part of it) to where American persecution comes from.

Where Persecution in America Comes From

Where does persecution in America come from? Nowhere.

Let me explain by looking at the effects on believers of living with and without persecution.

Persecution causes would-be believers to count the cost before following Jesus. The knowledge that you’ll likely lose your home, family, and job because you were baptized into the Christian faith makes you think more than twice about pledging allegiance to the cross.

But when there don’t appear to be any real costs to following Jesus, as is the case in America, what’s the big deal in saying you believe? This is changing in America, to some extent, but the odds of a professing believer losing their job or family because of their belief are very slim compared to other parts of the world. Without counting the cost, the odds of being choked out by the cares and riches of the world (Matthew 13:22) are much, much greater. This is one big reason why American Christianity is filled with so-called Christians who no longer practice the faith.

Persecution results in suffering that can catalyze sanctification. This is why the church is called to rejoice in its suffering, because “suffering produces endurance, and endurance produces character, and character produces hope, and hope does not put us to shame, because God’s love has been poured into our hearts through the Holy Spirit who has been given to us” (Romans 5:3-5). Christians are called to count it a joy when they meet trials of various kinds, because the testing of our faith produces steadfastness. And when steadfastness reaches its full effect, we will be perfect and complete, lacking in nothing (James 1:2-4).

But without persecution, the drive for sanctification has to come from inside believers. Sanctification requires self-control, or self-discipline. Without self-control, there will be little sanctification. There has never been a freer society than modern America. Yet for all our freedom, I doubt anyone would say Americans are among the most self-controlled people to have lived. In fact, we might say the opposite.

Persecution forces Christians to focus on what’s important and to band together to thrive. You’re not too concerned about your brother or sister’s views of the end times when you know you’ll be dragged off to prison if the wrong person stops by your house church. This leads to a great deal of unity, which was chief among Christ’s concerns for his church (see John 17).

Without persecution, the church is at peace. Every solider knows that in-fighting happens during times of peace, not times of war. Divisions can grow like wildfire when there is no common interest or sustaining cause. Christians in the U.S. are as divided as any group of believers has ever been.

America looks more like a country without persecution. We can incorrectly identify the pressures on American believers as persecution if we assume society is always persecuting Christians. But persecution is not the real problem in America. Assimilation is.

When Persecution Gives Way to Assimilation

Babylon, the great and terrible symbol of corrupt society in Scripture, didn’t burn Christians and throw them to the lions like Rome. Babylonians noticed that persecution of religious or ethnic minorities led to unrest and political instability, so they decided to try something new. Babylonian kings told those they conquered that they were welcome to keep their gods and customs — so long as they conformed to the Babylonian way of life. As long as they kept their culture and religion to themselves, they would be fine.

When persecution gives way to assimilation, the witness of the church dulls. It doesn’t have to, but it almost always does. Cultural assimilation, the particular brand of assimilation most effective at rendering the church impotent, allows worldly beliefs to seep into the heart, mind, and soul of the believer, slowly taking over until they don’t even know they’ve been overtaken.

J.D. Greear often says, “Distraction has sent more people to hell than doubt and disbelief ever have.” Assimilation is cooridnated cultural distraction. It is the coordinated, ongoing effort to so blend the beliefs of its subjects that they can no longer taste the individual ingredients.

How to Survive Assimilation

The Bible tells of four men who successfully resisted assimilation into the great Babylonian empire: Daniel, Hananiah, Mishael, and Azariah. The latter three you’ll recognize by their Babylonian names, Shadrach, Meshach, and Abednego. Their pagan names were the first step in Babylon’s attempted assimilation of these men and their fellow Jews.

But time and time again, Daniel and his companions withstood the mounting pressure to be absorbed into the fray. How did they do it? I’ve written previously about three postures Daniel assumed to faithfully engage his culture so I won’t recount those here. Instead, it’s crucial to point out what quality these four Hebrews had in common that bolstered their spirits against assimilation: self-control.

Read through the first six chapters of Daniel and you’ll see the four men resist the Babylonian diet that would be unclean according to Jewish law (ch. 1); Daniel remain steadfast under threat of death (ch. 2); Shadrach, Meshach, and Abednego resisting to bow down and worship a false God (ch. 3); and Daniel sticking to his regular practice of praying three times a day with his windows open towards Jerusalem (ch. 6).

How were they able to hold strong against all these pressures, most of which were life-threatening? Self-control, or perhaps more appropriately, self-discipline. They were disciplined not to lose their Jewishness despite their exile. They did not cede that which made them strong in the faith. Without formative practices like adhering to the food laws and practicing regular prayer, they would not have kept the faith.

When we lack the discipline to exercise our faith in the world and aren’t willing to endure suffering, we will never be all that God has in store for us. Persecution provides the means for sanctification and the impetus for mission. If there is no (real) persecution, you need disciplined, determined believers who understand that complacency isn’t an option.

Training for Godliness

Paul understood that complacency in the face of assimilation was a death sentence for a believer and for the gospel. That’s why he told young Timothy, who was facing cultural pressure to conform to Ephesian ways,

Have nothing to do with irreverent, silly myths. Rather train yourself for godliness; for while bodily training is of some value, godliness is of value in every way, as it holds promise for the present life and also for the life to come. —1 Timothy 4:7-8

It takes self-discipline to train one’s self. Without self-discipline, an athlete won’t achieve their desired prize. Without self-discipline, a believer won’t achieve their desired crown.

What does it mean to “train yourself for godliness”? It means to institute the use of spiritual disciplines in your life. For thousands of years, the church has identified and employed the use of certain practices which, when pursued with pure motives, are ideal for forming heart, mind, and soul into the image of Christ. These “spiritual” disciplines include fasting, reading Scripture, prayer, silence, solitude, and celebration, among other practices.

In his comments on fasting that can be applied to each of the disciplines or the disciplines taken together, C.S. Lewis wrote,

Fasting asserts the will against the appetite — the reward being self-mastery and the danger pride. … But the redemptive effect of suffering lies chiefly in its tendency to reduce the rebel will. Ascetic practices [or spiritual disciplines], which in themselves strengthen the will, are only useful in so far as they enable the will to put its own house (the passions) in order, as a preparation for offering the whole man to God.

The disciplines are necessary if a believer is going to assert his will against his desires, thereby reducing the power of his desires over time. This he is to do in preparation for offering himself up to God as a living sacrifice, holy and acceptable to God (Romans 12:1).

The persecution in America comes from nowhere. Rather, persecution has given way to assimilation, a more formidable foe. The only way believers in America will be able to withstand assimilation is by dedicating themselves to the ancient spiritual disciplines that saw Daniel and his friends through the pressure to assimilate.

Will we in the American church train ourselves for godliness?

How to Avoid Overthinking and Find Peace of Mind

“I honestly think you’re overthinking it,” my wife said.

“Yeah, you’re probably right,” I replied, already wondering whether I was truly overthinking whatever thing I was worried about that time.

This is life in my head. Forever getting lost in some downward thought-spiral about what to do or say or think or feel.

Thought Spirals

It starts rationally, with a level-headed question about what’s best in a given situation. I’ll just weigh the pros and cons, I tell myself. But with each positive and negative I spiral down a little further. Eventually, I wear myself out mentally and either leave the decision for another day or make a decision I try not to regret (which almost never happens).

Am I terrible at making decisions? No, I don’t think so. But I am often terrible at making them at the right time.

I’m an overthinker, over-analyzer, over-processer, or whatever over- name you might assign to people who can’t seem to get out of their head long enough to enjoy the world around them. (After writing this sentence, I got stuck on whether I should change the word “overthinker” to be hyphenated so it could match the other words with the prefix “over-” in the same sentence. Alas!)

Does any of this sound familiar? If so, keep reading, because there is a way to think about your overthinking that’s helpful and, if not life-saving, at least mind-saving.

Avoid the Meat Grinder

I subscribe to the Ask Pastor John podcast, though I almost never listen to it. I do so because every now and then Pastor John (Piper) will address something unusually interesting. Such was the case one day when I saw the topic was “How do we avoid overthinking or under-thinking the Christian life?

Piper’s analysis is helpful in thinking through (yes, I know …) if you’re overthinking something. Piper starts by recalling a C.S. Lewis lecture in which he discusses what’s lost when we analyze the world around us. Lewis’ point is that we have to step outside of a thing in order to analyze it, thereby rendering ourselves unable to truly gauge the experience or decision. Or, as Piper puts it, “We become blind in the very act of analysis.”

Does that mean we shouldn’t think about things at all? Of course not. But it’s a warning not to get lost in our heads and miss the world around us. Here, Piper contrasts logicians (people who study logic) with poets:

Logicians go crazy because they try to get the heavens into their head. But poets are mentally healthy because they try to get their heads into the heavens.

Trying to “get the heavens into our heads” is what the overthinker does. It’s like shoving our brains into a “meat grinder,” to use one of Piper’s terms.

What the Bible Says About Thinking

Next, Piper goes to the Bible to see what counsel it offers us regarding thinking. He says it “celebrates thinking,” which I would agree with, and cites these texts:

  • Think over what I say, for the Lord will give you understanding in everything” (2 Timothy 2:7).
  • “Brothers, do not be children in your thinking. Be infants in evil, but in your thinking be mature” (1 Corinthians 14:20).
  • “Do not be conformed to this world, but be transformed by the renewal of your mind” (Romans 12:2).

Piper summarizes these texts as saying, “Be a grown up. Think clearly.”

OK, great. But that leaves us pretty much where we started. Well, thankfully there’s more.

“The second thing the Bible does is show us that thinking is not an end in itself,” says Piper. This he explains by giving us three quick expositional phrases:

  • Thinking exists to serve love (1 Timothy 1:5).
  • Thinking exists to serve joy (1 Peter 1:8).
  • Thinking exists to serve peace of heart and mind that surpasses thinking (Philippians 4:8).

The End of Thinking

Drawing on these points, he says,

I think that the Bible never makes thinking the final goal of life. The head, where the thinking is, must do its supporting work so that the heart can do its main work and not be deceived. … The Bible helps us not fall off the cliff of over-thinking or under-thinking.

So the head, or thinking, is never meant to be an end but a means to an end. That end is to set our minds on things above.

Set your thinking not only on what is true, but on what is above. Colossians 3:2–4 says it this way: “Set your minds on things that are above, not on things that are on earth. For you have died, and your life is hidden with Christ in God. When Christ who is your life appears, then you also will appear with him in glory.” So be about the business of taking your minds and all your thinking and make heaven and all the realities of God in Christ the focus of your thinking.

If we want to avoid overthinking or under-thinking, we are to set our minds on Christ and what is true, as revealed in Scripture. That doesn’t mean we only think about Bible texts but that we think about everything through the Bible.

Three Suggestions for Avoiding the Meat Grinder

Piper summarizes his thoughts on thinking with three suggestions:

  1. The Bible commends thinking as part of being mature.
  2. The Bible keeps thinking in its place and a servant of joy, peace, and love. The touchstone of whether it’s doing its work is its fruit. If it’s not producing joy, peace, and love, it’s not doing its work — we’re thinking badly.
  3. The Bible points us away from excessive introspection and subjectivism and says, “Send your thinking again and again to truth and to Christ.”

How I’m Finding Peace of Mind

As I said, I’ve found Piper’s analysis helpful in controlling my thought patterns. Here’s how.

When I find my thoughts spiraling away from me, I ask myself, Are my thoughts resulting in love, joy, or peace of heart and mind? If not, then I know my thinking is off or has gone too far. God doesn’t want me getting lost in my mind to the neglect of his glory and my neighbors. Thinking like that is unfruitful and unhelpful. If my thinking isn’t producing fruit (love, joy, peace of mind and heart), it isn’t productive.

When I fail to do that mental exercise and wind up weary from a thought-spiral, I let that weariness remind me to set my mind on things above. To set my mind on what is true and good and beautiful. To set my mind on Christ.

The best way to do that is by memorizing Philippians 4:8-9:

Finally, brothers, whatever is true, whatever is honorable, whatever is just, whatever is pure, whatever is lovely, whatever is commendable, if there is any excellence, if there is anything worthy of praise, think about these things. What you have learned and received and heard and seen in me — practice these things, and the God of peace will be with you.

Sometimes I’m able to control my thinking and submit it to Christ in a way that honors him and brings peace. Not always, but it’s happening more often.

Instead of getting lost in a downward spiral of mental exhaustion, I’m setting my mind on what is excellent and worthy of praise. When I do that, I find my mind on an upward spiral towards Christ. I hope this helps you find the same peace of mind.

Pursuing Biblical Excellence in the Church

Churches rightly talk a lot about carrying out ministry with excellence. God is excellent, after all, so to pursue excellence in ministry is one way to live out his character. 

But what do we mean when say “excellence”? If we’re not careful, we can make excellence all about human effort and mean little more than “technical perfection.”

When excellence is defined only in terms of human input, though, we miss the mark of biblical excellence, along with its blessings. What do I mean by “biblical excellence”?

Excellence in the Bible

The Greek word translated as “excellent” is hyperbole, which is obviously where we get the English word “hyperbole.” Throughout the Bible, the word is used in ways that mean a throwing beyond, or as a metaphor to explain that something is superior, pre-eminent, or beyond measure.

But there is another Greek word, arete, a noun that is translated as “excellence.” Whereas hyperbole is used to describe something, arete denotes something worth striving for. Arete conveys a virtuous course of thought, feeling, and action, such as in Philippians 4:8, where Paul writes,

Finally, brothers, whatever is true, whatever is honorable, whatever is just, whatever is pure, whatever is lovely, whatever is commendable, if there is any excellence (arete), if there is anything worthy of praise, think about these things.

Arete — excellence — starts with virtuous thinking but doesn’t stop there. Excellence moves from virtuous thinking to virtuous feeling, and results in virtuous action. Which is why Paul follows with verse 9:

What you have learned and received and heard and seen in me — practice these things, and the God of peace will be with you.

Biblical Excellence Defined

Biblically speaking, excellence is the awe-inspiring, Christ-exalting jubilation that rushes into the heart and mind of the believer overcome by the gospel and results in faith-fueled action for God’s glory and neighbor’s good.

Excellence is not technical perfection, though it is perfectly technical. It is the renewing course of thought, feeling, and action made possible by the Holy Spirit that exalts the Son and brings glory to the Father.

And the benefits of pursuing biblical excellence?

“The God of peace will be with you” (Philippians 4:9).

Ministry is biblically excellent when its result is peace in the presence of God. This is man’s greatest longing, is it not? To be present with God? Since Adam and Eve’s expulsion from the Garden, we have been longing to be in God’s midst, in his presence. 

What does that look like? Well, this is one of those things you know when you see it. You also know the absence of it when you don’t see it. 

But what about doing ministry to the best of our ability? What about technical perfection? Biblical excellence and technical perfection are not mutually exclusive. A church can pursue biblical excellence while still doing its best with the resources it has. (More on this below.)

How then do we pursue biblical excellence in our churches?

Pursuing Biblical Excellence in the Church

The first step in pursuing biblical excellence is to develop a definition of “excellence,” as seen above. Defining excellence is something best done by a church’s pastors and elders, with appropriate input from other church members along the way.

Once a church agrees on a definition, it can begin to flesh out that meaning across its ministries. Wisdom and discernment are needed here. If excellence is the awe-inspiring, Christ-exalting jubilation that rushes into the heart and mind of the believer overcome by the gospel and results in faith-fueled action for God’s glory and neighbor’s good, then each ministry of the church should be focused on cultivating environments and relationships where this is possible. 

This means ministry leaders should be primarily concerned with clearly presenting and displaying the gospel. Practice and work hard, by all means. But don’t do so with little regard for what’s being communicated. The gospel — not our level of perfection — is the power of salvation.

Practical Questions for Ministry Leaders

Practical questions for ministry leaders to ask themselves are:

  • What is my ministry goal?
  • How does the gospel speak into or shape this ministry need?
  • Are we experiencing Christ-exalting jubilation when we see this truth? Why or why not?
  • What can we do to clearly communicate or demonstrate this facet of the gospel?
  • Do the peripheral aspects of how we are carrying out this act of ministry help or hinder that message?
  • Have we shown people what an application of this gospel truth into their lives might look like?

The third question above is important because it’s almost impossible for people to experience biblical excellence if their ministry leaders are not experiencing it themselves. It’s difficult and dishonest to ask people to be inspired to action by something you’re not excited about. If what you’re communicating doesn’t inspire you, it’s not going to inspire your audience.

Our churches will never experience biblical excellence and its blessings if they’re pursuing the wrong kind of excellence. Excellence in ministry is about ushering people into the presence of God so that he can commission them into action for his glory and our neighbor’s good.