Liking Has Limits

When we connect with someone we often click or say that we like them. This connection is typically because of a shared interest or value, and because we “connect” we prefer the company of that kind of person. We do the same with food and clothes. We like particular foods more than others, so include them in our weekly diet. We are drawn to particular fashion, so we buy certain clothes that express who we are. We tend to like people who resonate with our self-expression, but biblical community is based on love, not likes.

Community is based on love not likes.

Love pushes us beyond the boundaries of like. Love melts social boundaries. It compels me to spend time with people who are different, to see the world from their viewpoint. Love puts a face on those we don’t agree with and says I care about you. Love does not equal liking, though it may include it.

Love is commitment, service, sacrifice, putting others first, whether we like a person or not. Love is hard, deep, true. And it’s easy to mistake the people we like for the height of love in our lives. But Jesus said love is expressed in our attitude toward our enemies, toward those who have different ideologies, ethnicities, incomes, and personalities. Jesus could have easily said, “Love your neighbor ask you like your friend.”

Because love can be demanding, we often daydream of seasons in our lives when “everyone got me.” College friendships become the standard by which we judge other relationships. Or we compare our community in one church against another, concluding that our present church is deficient and “not meeting our needs.” But this is mistaking loving for liking.

When nostalgia creeps in, what we often want is to wind back the clock to a time before we had to love people who were hard to love, who rubbed us wrong, who required very little effort to love, which is to say we love an idea of them, a fragment of them but not the whole them, not the true them, not all of them. In other words, liking has limits, restrictions, and boundaries. Liking is not love, though it certainly can be part of it. Liking accepts based on preference; love welcomes even difference.

It is possible to like someone so much that you don’t actually love them.

In fact, it is possible to like someone so much that you don’t actually love them. If we mainly like someone, we may not be willing to be honest with them, to tell them the truth about the ugly parts of their character. Why? Because it risks the relational comfort we feel when we are around them. But love risks the loss of being liked for the gain of being true. Love is truthful, not just tolerant. My wife likes me and she loves me. How do I know? She loved me enough to tell me once, “You are great at serving our family, except when it is inconvenient.” Gut punch. When we mainly like someone, we are unwilling to say hard things to them.

St. Paul took it a step further to say, “Love rejoices in the truth.” Sometimes we chicken out from saying what’s true about someone’s character, faulty beliefs, or poor decisions. And we will say to ourselves, I love them too much. It would crush them. I don’t want to hurt them. But often the truth is, we don’t want to be hurt. We don’t want to risk being un-liked. We love ourselves but only like others. Others have become a means to the end of my self-love.

When my wife dediced to tell the truth about my love of convenience and how it was impacting her, she had to push through just liking. She had to confront the very real possibility that her honesty would jeopardize my liking her, a least for a moment. She braced herself for temporary rejection in order to love me sincerely, to tell me the truth.

Love that Never Fails

If we like someone, we will find it much easier to love them, but it will also be harder to increase our ability to love. People who rub us wrong, have opposing personalities, or are entirely different require love. They increase our reliance on an outside source of love. They drive us to find a strength of love that can’t be found elsewhere.

That love, of course, is found in God himself: Lover (Father), Beloved (Son), and Love (Spirit). Apart from immersing ourselves in intimate communion with the Father, Son, and Holy Spirit, we will opt for liking and grow weary and cynical about those he’s called us to love.

Liking has limits, but love is limitless. If flows from the intra-trinitarian fountain of divine love, where different persons of the Godhead love and serve one another continually, spilling out to love the other (you and me) in limitless love. As I depend on that source of love, I keep discovering  people I love become people I like, and those friendships tend to be stronger, deeper, and more sacrificial than people I have merely liked.

10 Books I Really Enjoyed in 2017

About Grace, Anthony Doerr – This author won the Pulitzer for his book, All the Light We Cannot See, which is easily my favorite novel of the past five years. About Grace is Doerr’s first novel and traces the story of a hydrologist who occasionally has visions about negative things before they happen, but explores the much deeper idea of the longing for reconciled relationships.

Silence, Endo – Such a powerful novel rooted in the history of Jesuit missions to Japan. Endo explores the differences between Japanese and Western culture, the line between contextualization and syncretism, the difficulty of faith in suffering, the question of apostasy, and the voice of God.

Liberating Black Theology, Anthony Bradley – With resurgent race discussions, this book is a helpful analysis where earlier African-American Christians went wrong in trying to address the topic of race. Bradley comes to the subject with expertise, experience, and clarity.

Augustine’s Confessions: A Biography, Gary Wills – Confessions has long be a devotional favorite. I have read a lot of Augustine but not enough about his life. Wills brings some fresh insight into often misread passages in Confessions, can turn a phrase, and keep the reader engaged all the way through. It was a delight to read.

The Culture of NarcissmChristopher Lasch – Although this book is several decades old, its critique of modern culture still has incredible relevance. The culture of narcism has not only oversold the appearance of Self, but undersold virtue and the danger of the grandiose, therapeutic Self. Great insight and language for diagnosing our present the late modern identity crisis.

Exit West, Mohair Hamid – This novel gave me fresh empathy for refugees through an interesting plot device, magical doors that allowed the refugees to go to another country to find refuge and hope. The central couple faces their fare share of challenges, not the least the unending search for refuge and satisfaction. Disclaimer: I had to skip through some scenes.

Making Sense of God, Tim Keller – A stunning guide to the undercurrent philosophies that create doubt and skepticism toward God, religion, and faith. In his characteristic style, Keller sympathizes with skeptics, understands where our skepticism comes from, and graciously dismantles the many dichotomies and conflicts underneath secularized predispositions toward Christianity.

A Theology in Outline, Robert Jensen – A fresh look at classic, systematic theology with the insight of the late Robert Jensen. Short, pithy and inspiring. Take for instance his suggestion that to be made in God’s image is to be a praying animal, dependent not upon food and water but the will of God.

The Purity of Heart to Will One Thing, Kierkegaard – The title along will send yo thinking. Kierkegaard has become a favorite companion over the last five years. He challenges aberrations of grace and “gospel-centered” with the call to a lived doctrine. We cannot truly understand a doctrine until we’ve lived it. This book challenges us to cultivate the patience of willing something eternal, something we all need more of in a fast and big data age.

Secondhand Time, Svetlana Alexievich – The soul and struggle of Russia revealed. Alexievich won the Nobel for Literature and it shows. The book cobbles together interviews from hundreds of Russians on their experience of Stalin era and post-Stalin life, but does so with literary flair. The stories are riveting and heart-breaking, checking our Western consumer comfort at the door.

When Mission Gets in the Way of Counseling

Should we spend time counseling when we could be out evangelizing, building community, strategizing for mission or preaching? Isn’t counseling something missional leaders “refer,” not something we do?

Well, it depends on how we define the word counsel. If we mean specialized sessions devoted to psychological issues that can not be addressed by the gospel, then perhaps we shouldn’t counsel. However, if we mean discipling others with gospel wisdom in the full range of human thinking, feeling, and behaving, then perhaps we should reconsider our default practice of referring.

Overlooking Counseling

Mission-minded people tend to overlook or look down on counseling. We may see it as an obstacle to mission. Too often I’ve heard things like, “God called me to preach not to pastor.” “I’ll save ‘em, somebody else disciple ‘em.” Or “Counseling isn’t my gift.” But this simply doesn’t square with the Bible. Counseling might not be your gift but it is your responsibility.

Even the greatest church planter, the Apostle Paul, had time for counseling. His letters are charged with gospel-centered counsel that springs from an intimate knowledge of people’s everyday lives. Very often, his counsel is to counsel (Rom 15:14; Eph 5:25; Col 3:12-17; 3:12-13; 10:23). Peter, James, and the writer of Hebrews also counseled their churches and counseled them to counsel. If we’re biblically faithful, counseling is something that is required of all God’s people, even church planters!

Professionalizing Church Planting

Church planting has already become an industry. Just Google “church planting”(897,000 hits). A multitude of conferences and businesses have sprung up around church planting. Best practices and best venues dominate planting conversations. Church planters borrow business language and practice in order to “plant” churches. Consider this string of questions:

  • What are you running? What are your numbers like?
  • Are your groups multiplying?
  • When are you going to plant next?
  • How are you reproducing leaders?

We’re quick to talk numbers and slow to talk transformation. If we’re not careful, church planter will become another religious profession in an increasingly professionalized Church. Planters will share more in common with entrepreneurs than they do with apostles, elders, and pastors. Church planters will become disobedient to God and irrelevant to his Church. They will build buildings and launch services, not pastor people and cultivate community.

Pastoring while Planting

Missional people often reach unreached, unbelieving, and very broken people. As a result, pastoral wisdom and gospel-centered counseling quickly become important skills. For church planters, the biblical office we hold is not church planter but elder-pastor. How are you cultivating pastoral wisdom? How are you growing in your capacity to shepherd your flock with wisdom, truth, and grace?

In order to plant healthy missional churches, we must grow in gospel breadth and depth. It’s imperative we train others to think the gospel down into issues of the heart and back into the struggles of their past. This will enrich our sermons with pastoral application that grows from spending time with struggling sheep. The best application is mined not from homiletical brainstorming but from pastoral counseling.

Counseling on mission is critical. If we do not counsel while we are on mission, we will fail in planting missional churches, while succeeding in starting organizations and events. Gospel-centered counseling should be the overflow of gospel-centered church planting.

My Top 5 Movies of 2017

It was a great year for film. Narrowing down to a top five was difficult, and I still haven’t seen Phantom Thread, Mudbound, The Shape of Water. I’m including a variety of genres. I am not saying these will all win Oscars, but what I am saying is I liked them a lot, and why.

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Wind River – This film immerses the viewer in an unfamiliar landscape, the frozen tundra of an Indian Reservation in Wyoming, a bleak context for an awful crime. The wintry elements almost act like another character, as sexual assault, the power of male friendship in grief, acute pain of loss, and the zeal for justice fuse for a powerful viewing experience, especially if you have daughters. I cried three times.

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Colossal – One of the most creative films I’ve seen in a while, Colossal explores deep human longing through Hathaway’s unknowing ability to control a monster ravaging Seoul, with her motions. It imitates her! Is this a projection of her dark side, a sign there is a power behind our every action, or something else? It’s funny too.

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3 Billboards Outside Ebbing, Missouri – When I saw the trailer, I thought, “There’s no way I’m seeing that movie.” I went out of deference to my brother on his birthday, and I ended up getting a gift! Wow, I know this film is taking some critical heat, but I thought it was incredible. The story-telling is Cohenesque and the humor hard-hitting. Knockout performances by Frances McDormand and Sam Rockwell. The abrupt shift from tragedy to humor, makes you question your laugh, but think about the point. The film exposes something narrow and deeply selfish about what we often perceive to be personal injustice.

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Bladerunner – Granted, I am a sci-fi fan and loved the first Bladerunner. The film explores what it means to be human from three main vantage points, while giving the viewer stunning landscapes, surreal futuristic urban activity, and intriguing plot line. But it is slow.

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The Florida Project – Heartbreaking depiction of post-urban poor mother living in a motel with her daughter. Bria Vinaite best actress? This film will flatten you emotionally, by putting you in touch with heartache and sorrow of a desperate mother.