The Good Kind of Fear

A friend of mine did time in the ’80s. He was awaiting his transfer from a county jail to prison when an older man he admired said to him, “You’re about to go to prison. If you want to survive, you’re going to have to earn respect. Here’s how you earn it: be honest, work hard, and never complain. If you do that, you can earn respect.”

While he was incarcerated, my friend did exactly what the man said. Before long, he was earning respect from others. But he still had insecurities.

In fact, the more my friend worked at being respected, the more he worried about what everyone thought of him. Would he make a mistake that ruined the respect others had for him? Would he become a target? Worrying about these things filled his days with anxiety.

Respect is often based on fear. If you’re a fan of a professional football team that isn’t the Patriots, you respect Tom Brady when your team is down by three, there are only two minutes left, and the Patriots have the ball. Even if you don’t like the Patriots, you respect their ability to dominate on the field.

More seriously, there may be people on your unit that no one messes with, not because they are well-liked, but because they know how to intimidate—or worse.

But is that the only way to do time? Watching your back and earning or showing respect based out of fear?

Respecting God—a Healthy Fear

The Bible tells us there’s a better way. Matthew 10:28 says, “Don’t be afraid of those who want to kill your body; they cannot touch your soul. Fear only God, who can destroy both soul and body in hell.”

So, are you just supposed to cower before God instead, hoping a lightning bolt isn’t headed your way?

No. The Bible talks about different kinds of fear. There’s the kind you usually think of—the fear you experience when a threatening person or situation confronts you. It’s fear that makes you comply with someone’s demands to avoid getting hurt. The Bible says that God’s perfect love, demonstrated through His Son Jesus, casts out that kind of terror.

But there’s another kind of fear—the loving, respectful fear that a child has for a good, loving, and committed parent. A child who loves and respects his parent wants to do everything he can to please him or her. He fears the consequences of disobeying his parent—not because he fears the punishment, but because he doesn’t want to disappoint or hurt the most important person in his world.

When the Bible talks about fearing God, it’s referring to this loving type of fear—fear rooted in respect and love for God the Father.  So, a man with a healthy fear of God is not terrified of Him. He understands that while God can destroy the body and soul, He doesn’t want to. In fact, God “wants everyone to be saved and to understand the truth” (1 Timothy 2:4).

Respect is Earned, Grace is Given

The truth is that God is full of grace. He loves you so much that He sent His Son, Jesus, who willingly sacrificed Himself and died for everything you’ve ever done wrong. All He asks in return is that you put your faith in Him.

In our world, gaining someone’s respect can come at a cost, and often takes effort. But God’s grace does not need to be earned—it’s free and available to all who believe in Jesus.

My friend spent eight years behind bars worried about what others thought of him. And his stress didn’t end with his sentence. After several years struggling to earn the respect of people on the outside, he found himself back in prison for four more years.

But during his second sentence, my friend decided to fear God instead of people. He decided to accept God’s gift of grace, and let that relationship determine his values and actions. He spent those four years at peace with himself and his fellow prisoners.

What if you did the same? What if, instead of fearing other people and their opinion of you, you were unconditionally loved and accepted by an all-powerful God?

Being respected and respecting others is important, but as my friend learned through his anxieties, you will never find peace by focusing only on the respect of others. True peace comes from the Lord.

If you fearfully respect God and accept the never-ending grace He freely offers, you’ll find what you’ve been searching for all along.


This article originally appeared on Prison Fellowship’s blog.

How to Calm and Quiet Your Soul

I careened into the driveway and slammed the engine into park. My breathing was shallow and quick. I was hot and sweaty and felt like the car was closing in on me.

I flung open the door and hung my legs out, hunching over on my knees. What is happening to me? I wondered. I re-traced my day, realizing I had lost myself in a mental spiral about my career. I knew I would soon be looking for another job, though I didn’t know what kind, if I would have to move my family, or what that would even look like.

Fortunately, I was seeing a counselor around that time. I told her what happened, and she asked about my prayer life. “Huh?” I said, confused. “Your prayer life. How is it?” she replied.

Ugh, I thought, knowing it was basically non-existent. “It’s not very good,” I told her.

As we talked, I realized that as my anxiety increased, my prayer decreased. As my inner world became noisier, I filled the prayer space with podcasts, music, and audiobooks—anything to keep me from dealing with my thoughts.

And it was ruining me.

Read the rest of my article at Gospel-Centered Discipleship

It’s Time for the Church to Save Face

The great challenge, I wrote in my last post, for the church today is to see the people everyone else is staring through.

Vivek Murphy, U.S. Surgeon General from 2014 to 2017, says, “For our health and our work, it is imperative that we address the loneliness epidemic quickly.”

But it’s not just health and work that are affected. Loneliness shrivels the soul. When no one is looking for us, we don’t know who we are. When no one is looking for us, we don’t know we are loved.

It’s Time for the Church to Save Face

But there is Someone looking for us. There is Someone who loves us. The church knows who that Someone is — Christ — and has been commissioned to tell the world who he is while displaying the kind of love he showed that declares we are not alone.

If the church wants to obey the Great Commission to reach the world for Christ and the Great Commandments to love God and neighbor, it is imperative that we address the loneliness epidemic quickly.

To combat loneliness, we must recover personhood. We must save face, which is to say we must restore the face, the personhood, of individuals. We must bring a personal gospel — a gospel which sees and affirms the dignity of each human while calling them to repent and turn to Christ — to an impersonal world.

All our talk about restoring culture does nothing if we don’t first restore the people in it. “We have lots of ways of talking about renewing and restoring culture; [but] it comes down to something very simple: in this world, and in the world that’s coming, the restoration of culture is the recognition of persons,” says Andy Crouch.

Impersonal churches cannot recognize persons, though. Impersonal churches cannot reach an impersonal world because impersonal churches have nothing to offer the world it doesn’t already have.

We don’t need another place to find weak social connections, fun activities, or online content; these can be found in abundance elsewhere. We don’t need another place to be a nameless, faceless entity.

We need a place where someone is looking for us. A place where we can first hear about the God who is looking for us and then discover a family that’s looking for us — a family that sees us.

And the good news is, the church can be just that. It already has been.

The Dignity Revolution in the Early Church

In the most technologically advanced society in the history of the world to that point, early Christianity flourished. In the impersonal, imperial Roman empire, Christianity revolutionized the concept of personhood by showing people the true meaning of personhood — of being seen, known, and loved by a personal God by recognizing persons of every possible status.

The revolutionary act of the early church, says Crouch, was “to see them all and know them all by name, and name them all as brothers and sisters. Is it any wonder that the early church grew?”

This high view of personhood was not mere sentiment. One particularly moving example of how this played out in and around the church comes to us from Dionysius, who was an overseer of the church in Alexandria when it was being devastated by a plague. He records how the church responded to the persons being ravaged by the disease:

The most … of our brethren in their exceeding love and affection for the brotherhood were unsparing of themselves and clave to one another, visiting the sick without a thought as to the danger, assiduously ministering to them, tending to them in Christ, and so most gladly departed this life along with them; being infected with the disease from others, drawing upon themselves the sickness from their neighbors, and willingly taking over their pains …

In this manner the best at any rate of our brethren departed this life, certain presbyters and deacons and some of the laity. … So, too, the bodies of the saints they would take up in their open hands to their bosom, closing their eyes and shutting their mouths, carrying them on their shoulders and laying them out; they would cling to them, embrace them, bathe and adorn them with their burial clothes, and after a little while receive the same services themselves, for those that were left behind were ever following those that went before.

But the conduct of [those outside the church] was the exact opposite. Even those who were in the first stages of the disease they thrust away, and fled from their dearest. They would even cast them in the roads half-dead, and treat the unburied corpses as vile refuse.

In a world marked that treated sick people as garbage to be discarded, the church saw each person as a person worthy of dignity, respect, and decency.

When their community was overrun by a mass of infected, faceless people, the Christians rushed in while everyone else rushed out.

This church was not content to refer people to a third-party nonprofit or a para-church ministry — they did the ministry themselves.

And how could they not? When Christians see each person as a person, how can they not have the same kind of compassion for them that they first saw in their Master?

The best response to such love is one offered by the church father Tertullian: “See how they love one another and how ready they are to die for each other!”

Seeing People for Who They Are

If the church of the 21st century wants to be faithful to Christ’s call to reach and love the world, she has to save face, to recover personhood.

She has to learn to recognize persons of every possible status.

She has to learn to see them all and know them all by name, and name them all as brothers and sisters.

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.

How to Study Culture

You can’t engage what you don’t understand.

That might seem obvious, but if we’re honest, many Christians don’t really understand the world around them. It’s easy to disappear into a Christian subculture with our own music, radio stations, books, and websites, to the point that we’re not really existing in the larger culture.

But we can’t leverage our culture’s stories to explain the gospel without knowing both the gospel and the stories. We’ll circle back to knowing the gospel shortly, but for now, let’s talk about knowing culture’s stories.

Get to Know Culture’s Stories

How do you get to know culture’s stories? You learn what’s out there and seek to understand it.

Does that mean you should watch all the movies and shows everyone’s talking about at work, or spend your money on all the same things? No.

You don’t have to watch Game of Thrones to know about it. You don’t have to listen to music that’s degrading to women to hear what they’re saying. Instead, you can learn about these things through cultural commentators whose job it is to know what’s going on in the world.

Become a student of the culture around you, especially those aspects of culture that may be of least interest you but of most interest to those around you.

Studying culture will look different for everyone. To give you an idea of what this is like in my life, here are some of the ways I learn about culture:

Online articles

I read and subscribe to lots of free online publications, both secular and Christian, like The Atlantic (a progressive, secular outlet), The Gospel Coalition (a conservative, Christian outlet), The New York Times (a liberal, secular outlet), Christianity Today (a moderate, Christian outlet), and ERLC (the Ethics & Religious Liberties Commission of the SBC; a conservative, Christian outlet). If I want to know what conservatives are thinking and talking about, I’ll check FOX News. If I want to know what liberals are thinking, I’ll check CNN.

Each of these provides a unique cultural view and help me understand how people who belong to those cultures see the world. But regardless of which outlets you choose to read, try and balance your intake to hear from multiple sides of culture.

Podcasts

This is probably my favorite form of media right now. Podcasts are basically radio-like programs that you download to your phone. There are all kinds of shows, but one of my favorites is The World and Everything In It from World Radio. It’s like NPR from a Christian worldview. It’s definitely conservative, but it helps you approach the day’s new with eyes of faith. Al Mohler’s The Briefing is another great daily overview of the headlines from a Christian perspective. If you want to know what the more liberal, culture makes of the news, there are daily news digests from The New York Times (The Daily), NPR (Up First), and others. Film and TV podcasts like the Slashfilmcast are great for listening to reviews and overviews of some of the most culture-shaping artforms.

Social media

Most major news outlets and reporters are active on social media. Your mileage may vary when it comes to the ease of use or enjoyment of these platforms, like Twitter and Facebook, but if leveraged the right way, they can be helpful sources of cultural study. For instance, I’ve used Twitter for several years as both a way to share information and to keep an eye on what’s going on in the broader American culture. Doing this well requires careful curation of who you follow. 

Books

Obviously, books can be very helpful sources of cultural study. But what may be less known is that book lists and book review outlets can help you get a quick understanding of what books are shaping the cultural conversation. This can be as easy as looking up the New York Times bestseller list or Amazon’s best sellers and reading the descriptions of several of the top sellers, or more involved, like reading the New York Times book reviews or New York Review of Books, the Gospel Coalition’s book reviews, or Kirkus Reviews

I know what you’re thinking: that sounds like a lot of work. And in some ways, it is.

But think about it like this. If you were to go overseas as a missionary in a country you had never visited that spoke a language you didn’t know, you would do lots of homework to learn how to communicate the gospel effectively to the people there.

So why don’t we do the same thing here? We are missionaries sent to a particular place in a particular country with plenty of people who don’t know the gospel. As Christ’s ambassadors, one of our jobs is to understand the culture we live in so we can effectively share the gospel with the people around us.

To that end, the most important way to engage culture and learn how to speak into it is to talk to people in it.

People

We can read all the books and watch all the movies we want, but nothing prepares us to speak into it like speaking into it.

Talk to your neighbors. Talk to your coworkers. Talk to your friends and family. Spend time understanding them so you can reach them for Christ.

Be hospitable. Invite your neighbors over for dinner. Take coworkers out to lunch. Meet people for coffee. Do something to reach out to and love on your neighbors. Hospitality lets people know you care about them, and it creates opportunities for conversations about faith, which ties into asking good questions.

When you’re talking to people, ask good questions that get them to go below the surface.

I don’t know about you, but when I’m around people I don’t know well, or even people I do, it’s easy to stay on the surface. It’s safer there. I don’t have to tell you what I believe or what I think. I don’t have to be vulnerable.

Do the heavy lifting

The thing about us is that we want to go deep, we just don’t want to make the first move.

We don’t want to do the heavy lifting in the conversation, but we want someone to ask us about something that really matters.

Do the heavy lifting. Ask good questions. When someone tells you they had a good weekend, ask them what they did. When they tell you what they did, ask them why they find those things fun.

When someone tells you they had a crazy day at work, ask them what they mean. When they tell you what they mean, ask them how the difficult moments made them feel.

Say things like “Tell me more about that,” or “What do you mean by that?” or “How did that make you feel?”

Proverbs 20:5 says, “Counsel in a person’s heart is deep water; but a person of understanding draws it out.” Draw out the counsel in a person’s heart, bit by bit. Most people have plenty to say if you take the time to listen and ask good questions.

Do Your Cultural Homework

God has you in your family, your neighborhood, your workplace, and your community because he wants you to speak the gospel to the people in those particular cultures.

But you can’t do that well if you don’t know the stories those people are living and breathing. 

So do some cultural homework. Read some stuff, listen to some things, but most importantly, talk to some people — for God’s glory and neighbor’s good.