Wednesday, May 28, 2008

"God is the Gospel" by John Piper, 179 pages

This is certainly my favourite Piper book and I highly recommend it. It defines the Gospel in the context of a culture obsessed with self -- a fixation I have not been immune to. Even my Christian theology has been decorated with the fragile ornaments of self, leaving my view of the Gospel often more about me than about Jesus: about MY sins being forgiven, about ME being a new creation, about MY purpose in life, about ME going to heaven. But as I’ve focused on me and mine, it has never left me satisfied for long.

As Piper combats this self-absorption that has greatly affected many people's theology, he focuses the spotlight of the Gospel directly on God Himself. John Piper calls this “biblical God-centeredness” and he describes “the acid test of the biblical God-centeredness” as this: “Do you feel more loved because God makes much of you, or because, at the cost of his Son, he enables you to enjoy making much of him forever?” (p.11)

John Piper begins this book at full throttle and never lets up in his attack against our “man-centered view of love” and our idolatry of heaven. Piper stresses that “The Gospel is not a way to get people to heaven; it is a way to get people to God. It’s a way of overcoming every obstacle to everlasting joy in God. If we don’t want God above all things, we have not been converted by the gospel” (p.47). Wow. It’s a hard-hitting book, but it’s the kind of hurt that feel good, like a massage that pounds the aching knots from our weary souls. Piper’s point in this small but powerful book is that “Propitiation, redemption, forgiveness, imputation, sanctification, liberation, healing, heaven – none of these is good news except for one reason: they bring us to God for our everlasting enjoyment of him” (p.47). All these gifts are wonderful and are not to be minimized, for Christ paid for them with his life, but “not one Gospel blessing will be enjoyed by anyone for whom the gospel’s greatest gift was not the Lord himself” (p.12).

When Piper says that “God is the Gospel", he means “that the highest, best, final, decisive good of the gospel, without which no other gifts would be good, is the glory of God in the face of Christ revealed for our everlasting enjoyment” (p.13).

This book is not an easy devotional read, though it’s highly satisfying for those who are unsatisfied and weary with the shallowness of a self-centered Gospel. Piper digs deep into various passages that revolve around what salvation and grace and suffering and missions and the glory of God really mean in the context of a God-centered Gospel. It’s as though John Piper wants to analyze the gospel from as many angles as possible, each time coming to the same conclusion, each time putting a nail in the reader’s self-centered gospel.

But as deeply theological as this book is, Piper’s writing style is personally engaging and at times, richly poetic. One can’t help but be stirred by the following description:
“But the climax of the glory of his [Jesus’] life on earth was the way it ended. It was as if all the darker colors in the spectrum of glory came together in the most beautiful sunset on Good Friday, with the crucified Christ as the blood-red sun in the crimson sky. And it was as if all the brighter colors in the spectrum of glory came together in the most beautiful sunrise on Easter morning, with the risen Christ as the golden sun shining in full strength. Both the glory of the sunset and the glory of the sunrise shone on the horizon of a lifetime of incomparably beautiful love” (p.65).

John Piper’s goal in writing this book was certainly that his readers would find deep and lasting satisfaction in a life focused on Jesus Christ. But his heart is obviously also for those not ready to pick up such a book as he writes, “The world needs nothing more than to see the worth of Christ in the work ands words of his God-besotted people. This will come to pass when the church awakens to the truth that the saving love of God is the gift of himself, and that God himself is the gospel” (p.17).

Click here to view the text of this entire book online!

© 2008 by Ken Peters

Saturday, May 24, 2008

Giving like we just can’t help it!

I don’t write letters to newspaper editors very often, but the last few times I’ve done so, it’s been in response to articles that highlight our society’s commitment to the high life while so many desperately poor people suffer all around us. I wrote such a letter to the National Post in response to an article in Friday’s paper entitled, “The problem with the right to food.” The article was a reaction to the UN declaring that because having food is "a right," wealthy nations are obligated to help the poor. I felt that the writer's reaction to this declaration was very much a “take care of yourselves” kind of attitude toward the people of the two-thirds world. The letter I wrote to the Post ended up being one of the “Letters of the Day” in Saturday’s paper, though it was somewhat abbreviated. Here is what I wrote in full…

Dear Editor,
In Karen Selick’s case against the “right to food,” she seems more concerned about the right for the wealthy well-fed West to have the right to “rest, leisure and reasonable limitation of working hours” than about the fact that, as you also reported, six million children under the age of five in Ethiopia alone are presently at risk of acute malnutrition. This is the problem with a culture obsessed with affluence – we’re so concerned about what we might have to go without while trying to think as little as possible about those who might need it more. If insisting on the “right to food” is so problematic to Ms. Selick, then why not change the focus to the right to give? We have incredible resources in North America. We consume far more than any other part of the world to sustain our lifestyles, and my salary actually puts me in the top 2% of the world’s wage earners even though my gross salary is less than $50,000. My feeling is that, as a resident of this planet, with great abundance comes great responsibility. Whatever rights to food that the starving masses of the world have or don’t have, I believe that we have a responsibility, and the right, to care about their plight. So let’s not get distracted by any “one-world socialism” conspiracies while literally millions are dying of starvation while we pile our plates high with food everyday.

Ken Peters, Winnipeg, MB

The Bible is clear that everyone has a responsibility to look out for the interests of the poor: Government leaders, spiritual leaders, God’s people, citizens of the world, everyone. Even a godless city like Sodom was judged for having “abundant food and careless ease, but she did not help the poor and needy” (Ezek. 16:49). If God expected that of Sodom, all the more reason that God’s people should be concerned about the poor. And when someone writes something for all of Canada to read, saying that it’s wrong to tell someone that they have to give up some of their food just because someone without food feels they have a right to eat, I want to stand up and shout – Did we do something to deserve to be born in this affluent nation? Is the privilege we enjoy purely a result of our own hard work or is it a gift from God? And what did those starving, dying children in Burma or Ethiopia or Haiti do to deserve their low, impoverished place in this world? If we have abundance, it’s by the grace of God. And if we don't like someone telling us that because they feel someone has a right to something we have in abundance, we have to give some to them, then what do we think of God telling us that? I guess the question for the Christian then is -- Is this something that God tells us that we must do, or is it something He'd just kind of like us to do?

There’s no shortage of Biblical support for being generous toward the poor. My feeling is that it’s simply not optional. God expects it of us. He provides grace and resources to us so that we can obey Him in this. And when God’s people choose to give generously and sacrificially the way God wants us to, we become extremely bright lights amidst the desperate neediness of this world.

© 2008 by Ken Peters

Monday, May 19, 2008

Don’t be Afraid – Only Believe!

Last week we received news that Fiona’s kidneys were getting worse. Levels in her blood are climbing and there’s talk of increasing her dialysis. The day before though, Keith Miners had phoned. He had been praying that morning and had felt God clearly speak to him about Fiona. He explained that he felt God had told him that Fiona was indeed going to be healed, but that there would still be a wait. He didn’t feel that the wait would be something like ten years, but it would still be “a wait.” This was a timely encouragement just the day before we heard from the doctor.

The Bible is full of people waiting for God’s promises to be fulfilled, but my mind has wandered to a story in which two people had to wait – one for years, the other for precious moments. And Jesus’ words to each of them should bring hope to all of us who wait for promises to be fulfilled.

Jairus, a leader in a synagogue, had come to ask Jesus to pray for his 12-year old daughter, who was dying. Luke 8:41 says that Jairus “implored” Jesus to come – pleaded, begged – for he obviously dearly loved his daughter. Jesus agreed to come, but as they were on their way, there was a delay due to another person seeking healing – a woman who had had a hemorrhage for 12 years. You may know the story. She touched Jesus’ cloak and was healed and Jesus stopped to find out who had touched Him. Jesus’ words to her are full of compassion: “Daughter, your faith has made you well. Go in peace” (8:48). It’s faith in Him that Jesus looks for in those who need help, and after 12 years of illness, this woman still found room in her heart for faith in God. May Fiona and I never lose that!
But how heart-breaking it must have been for Jairus to have stood there, helplessly watching Jesus delaying in order to help someone else, and then to have received the news that it was too late. His daughter had died. What a crushing disappointment. How alone he must have felt amidst the crowd on that dusty road. And surely this man had no faith left to bother Jesus any further.

It was over a year ago when Fiona and I got the news that Fiona’s kidneys had failed. It was too late. Jesus hadn’t come soon enough. I was surprised at how hard it was in 2007 to process that disappointment. It was a struggle even to reach out as if to touch Jesus’ cloak. And now we’ve just found out that they’ve gotten even worse! But I expect Jesus’ words to us might be very similar to what He said to Jairus: “Do not be afraid any longer; only believe, and she will be made well” (8:50). The news of that little girl’s death didn’t rattle Jesus, leaving Him sorry He hadn’t hurried or that Jairus hadn’t come to Him sooner. And Jesus didn’t dismiss this man, whose faith was now deflated, and who had nothing left to come to Jesus with. Jesus’ response to the bad news was, “Don’t fear – only believe.” His counsel to Fiona and I: Don’t fear – only believe. Jesus wants us to know that whatever happens, whatever God’s timing, whatever His will, we need not fear, and we can trust Him. Don’t try to rush the Lord, don’t run away, don’t despair. Only believe. That doesn’t leave me too many options to confuse me. Simple instructions for tough circumstances: Do not fear – only believe. And then let God be God as He unfolds His plan in each situation.

I thank God for what Keith heard God say at such a crucial time. God is on His way. Do not fear – only believe.

© 2008 by Ken Peters

Sunday, May 18, 2008

Destined for Troubles – Destined for Love! (church bulletin cover)

Love Winnipeg is fast approaching, a time in which churches across Winnipeg are more intentional about loving people of the city God has placed us in. This is an exciting time as we take part in good deeds that Ephesians 2:10 tells us are "good works which God prepared in advance for us to do"!

But as I was reading 1 Thessalonians 3 this week, I noticed something else God prepares in advance for us. 1 Thessalonians 3:3 tells us that God actually “destines” trials and afflictions for us to go through. What’s up with that? Somehow I don’t feel quite so excited about that. But as strange as it may sound, how we face such trials is just as much a part of our witness as the “good works” God prepares for us to do. Paul’s concern for the Thessalonians was how they were weathering the sufferings at the hands of others (2:13-16; 3:5). And Paul was overjoyed to hear from Timothy that the Thessalonians were standing firm in faith and love (3:6-8). Paul then prayed that they would continue “to increase and abound in love for one another and for all people” (3:12).

In other words, could it be that the right response to the afflictions God has destined for us is the loving deeds God has prepared for us to do? Elsewhere, God says, “overcome evil with good” (Romans 12:21). So why not respond to afflictions with affection? This is easier to do if we see where the afflictions are coming from. We need to see that the harassment we face as Christians in this world is actually measured out by God so that the world will be able to see a people who respond with love. This should give us greater grace to respond to the troubles in this world with faith in God and love for the people around us.

Life on this earth is not meant to be our satisfaction; our life in Jesus is. When the world around us sees that we can practice good deeds despite whatever is thrown at us, they will see that we’re living for Someone far greater than any comforts this world offers. That is how they will be able to see the treasure that Jesus is to us, and hopefully desire to know Him too!

© 2008 by Ken Peters

Friday, May 16, 2008

Ernest gives up Camping

It’s the May long weekend and camping season is upon us, but we don’t plan to camp this year. Sure, we still could if we really wanted to put Fiona to the test, but I’m not so cruel. We never really camped for the love of it. I just thought that, rather than paying $100 for a cozy, quiet hotel room, I’d rather pay a mere $25 for a sloped patch of grass and tree roots that happens to have party-animal neighbours just eight feet from our heads.

Once as we lay awake in the night on one of those serene plots of earth, a tornado ripped roofs off buildings a few miles from us, and the storm turned a small dome tent next to us completely upside down. It was no great consolation during the height of the storm to have a friend of ours who is an undertaker come to ask if we were alright. I’m not making this up. For over a year after that, our preschool-aged son would get all skittish whenever he saw a slightly off-white cloud. He would tug on our sleeves and beg to go inside, wide-eyed and anxiously saying, "Tundatome, tundatome!" But hey - we saved money, didn't we? I just wondered how much the counseling fees would be.

Another time, we were camping in Golden, BC and Fiona and I suddenly awoke at about two in the morning, wondering why we were beginning to feel the earth through our brand new deluxe queen-size air mattress. It was losing air. Wanting to be a hero, I started our van amongst the previously sleeping campers all around us and drove off to the 24-hour Husky to buy a small dusty old roll of duct tape for $249.99. It was worth it if it would help my lovely bride to have a better sleep. Once back, we found that duct tape wouldn’t stop the leak. But it did slow the leak. So to decrease the pressure on the mattress, I nobly chose to sleep in our upholstered van, leaving Fiona to sleep on the hard earth she would soon feel beneath the exhaling mattress.

Still committed to camping, we continued to gradually build up our supplies. I remember the summer we bought a Coleman stove thinking we could finally have hot meals out in the open air! So there we were that August, in a KOA outside Calgary, with an icy gale blowing so hard that it kept blowing our stove's flame out. We finally gave up and ate cold food. During the night, it snowed. Breakfast was a tad morose as we huddled around a damp and frosty picnic table eating the scraps of food that didn't require a flame.

Our final purchase was a tent called the "Behemoth." It's 18'x10'. At the time we bought it, it was two feet longer than our entire living room. It's over 7' high inside the tent and weighs about 100,000 lbs when in its carrying case (which has in-line wheels for ease of use). It can be subdivided into four rooms if desired, and can easily sleep the five of us, plus leave room for all our suitcases, our cooler and our minivan. But thinking that we had bought a tent in which we could fit both our couches, our TV, a coffee table, an end table and a seven-foot long corner bookcase and still have plenty of room to spare kinda shocked us. We just figured that if it makes camping less stressful, get it. Little did we realize that the reason small is beautiful when camping is that in the chill of the night, it’s good to have a tent small enough so that your body heat can keep your tent from freezing inside. Sure we had space for luggage, but camping in the mountains left us needing arctic sleeping bags.

So after all that we spent, did we use it enough to make up for what we saved on hotel bills? I don’t know, but Fiona’s certainly not too disappointed that we’re no longer trying!

© 2008 by Ken Peters

Tuesday, May 13, 2008

Justice, Kindness and Humility

I don’t know about you, but I feel kind of overwhelmed by the news these days. A cyclone in Myanmar, an earthquake in China, tens of thousands of people killed – probably over 100,000 before all is said and done. And these are just the most devastating disasters being reported. On, the article on China’s earthquake contains a video link that says, “Watch workers dig out the body of small child at the site of a collapsed school in China.” My reaction is, “No, I’m sorry, but I don’t I don’t want to watch that. I will not watch it.” And like so many others, I want to shield myself from the pain.

But God calls us to something nobler than that. We as God’s people should not be shielding our eyes from the needs of the nations. Certainly we must pray – pray for help to come quickly and for lives to be saved. That’s good, but if we stop there, we fall short. When people are suffering, God calls His people to action. “He has told you, O man, what is good; And what does the L
ORD require of you but to do justice, to love kindness and to walk humbly with your God?”” (Micah 6:8). Justice, kindness, humility. This requirement was not aimed at some specialized band of aid workers in the Israel of Micah’s day. It was spoken to God’s people in general. And Jesus didn’t hesitate to reinforce it. In Matthew 25:31-46, Jesus describes the difference between those who go to heaven and those who go to hell as being how they responded to the poor. In other words, helping the needy is still required of God’s people.

Fast-forward to today, and it’s easy to see that North American Christians have been blessed with enormous resources. Personally, this sobers me. And it leaves me periodically asking myself: As one of the richest people on the planet (my family income level places me in the top 1%), what am I doing with the abundant wealth God has given me? Am I sharing it when I hear that the destitute are experiencing such catastrophes? My assumption in this is that the abundance God has given me is for others beside me and my own. It’s for more than my CDs and DVDs, my Starbucks and my stereos, my internet shopping and my impulse purchases. If I need to change my lifestyle so that I’ve got resources to share, I’d better figure that out, for God expects obedience in this. And as we can become conduits of the blessings God has given us, then the world will surely see “justice roll down like waters and righteousness like an ever-flowing stream” from the people of God (Amos 5:24).

I do understand that nobody can afford to make a meaningful donation to help with every catastrophe that happens in this world. But if we decide in our hearts to be generous, and listen for God’s Spirit to prompt us, we will provide justice and kindness where it is needed and God will bless us for our obedience (Isaiah 58:10-12).

© 2008 by Ken Peters

Thursday, May 8, 2008

The Good Part

Does life ever feel crazy-busy to you? There are days when I find that life’s frenzied pace feels like the equivalent of lying on a car, desperately clinging to it as it recklessly speeds through my schedule! And then in the blur of my busyness, I vaguely recall the simple words, “Mary has chosen the good part” (Luke 10:42). How many times have I felt the challenge of those words?

Just those few words, “the good part” (NASB) or “what is better” (NIV) should bring me to a screeching halt, leaving behind that burnt-tire stench of self-initiative. Let’s think about this. Here’s Jesus, the Son of God, doing us the kindness of telling us what He considers “better” or “the good part” of life, and I appear too busy to notice. But let’s get some perspective here. Jesus’ life was extremely demanding. There were times He wasn’t even able to eat due to the pressing crowds (Mark 3:20). And there were times when crowds of thousands sought Him out and found Him even though He was trying to find a quiet place to be alone (Matthew 14:13). But He still somehow found time for what He saw as “the good part” as He made sure to carve out adequate time with His Father (Matthew 14:22-23). So why on earth would I, who am so much needier than Jesus, not take extra special care to make sure that every one of my days includes what Jesus considers “the good part”?

Jesus is calling me to come close, to be near Him, to intimacy, to know His thoughts, to enjoy His company, to hear from Him and dwell on His Words. I ought to consider such a call to be a rescuing hand reaching through my whirlwind of activity, pulling me to the soul-satisfying sanctuary of God’s presence. But as Jesus extends His hand, I still need to choose to grab it in the same way that Mary “chose” to sit and listen to Jesus in Luke 10:42. To discover the encouragement of “the good part”, I must make a choice: my way or His? It’s clear enough to me that Jesus’ way is not some kind of life where we just sit passively at His feet, listening, ever listening, never doing, never busy. But what I see in the story of Mary and Martha is that the only service Jesus desires is an activity that is born out of a life with Him – out of devotion that provides direction from heaven! It’s the branch-that-can-do-nothing-apart-from-the-vine principle. It’s being responsive rather than taking initiative.

It’s choosing the good part.

© 2008 by Ken Peters

Friday, May 2, 2008

He wants to Catch our Eye

Today is my wife, Fiona’s birthday. And it’s been just over a year since she had surgery to prepare her for dialysis. What began as an enormous shock to us as we reeled from the news that Fiona’s kidneys had failed and that she would need to go on dialysis has now become something we’re quite used to. And I wonder, is that okay? Sure, we naturally expect to get over the shock of bad news, but it sounds strange to describe that process as getting used to what we had prayed against for so long. I realize that I need to accept what God has allowed to happen, but I don’t want the idea of feeling used to this to cause me to no longer seek God for the miraculous. That’s the tension we live in. Accept it – but pray for change. How many situations in life fit that description? 

Matthew 19 is part of my Bible reading for today, and there Jesus speaks to his disciples about an impossible situation of a different kind: A rich man not being able to enter God’s kingdom. And as I read this familiar story, a small detail caught my attention. Verse 26 says, “And looking at them Jesus said to them, ‘With people this is impossible, but with God all things are possible.’” 

There are no other stories of when Jesus was teaching His disciples when the Gospel writers went out of their way to say Jesus looked at them as He spoke to them. Perhaps this means nothing in the grand scheme of things, but I couldn’t help but wonder today if this detail was inserted because Jesus was particularly eager for His disciples to understand something. If the Son of God was looking straight at you and said, “With people this is impossible, but not with God – all things are possible with God”, would you believe Him?

After 18 years of prayer, Fiona’s kidneys failed. I do believe God could have healed her anytime – and still could – but for some reason He hasn’t. And because He’s given me no reasons for why He hasn’t healed her and has just let it get worse and worse, I’m left struggling with the temptation to defeatedly think that He won’t ever heal her (on earth, that is). And that may be true, like it or not. The distance between believing He won’t do something and believing that something is impossible does not seem very far. But when Jesus’ disciples were told about something that was true, like it or not, and which left them feeling rather hopeless regarding somebody’s plight (the rich), Jesus made a point of looking at them as He said, “With people this is impossible, but with God all things are possible.” Jesus didn’t just say this as He walked away or walked along or even as He looked up to heaven. It says in both Matthew and Mark that He looked right at His disciples as he intently assured them that all things are possible in the hands of God. 

There’s comfort in that little detail. So as Fiona and I continue to face a situation that is impossible with people, Jesus is looking at us – and wants to catch our eye as He says, “This is not impossible for God! With God, all things are possible! With God, there’s hope in your situation.” I want the courage to look right back at Him as He shares this hope with us and as we continue to pray for a miracle.

© 2008 by Ken Peters