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Entries in J.I. Packer (17)


How Can Faith Be made Strong?

Another great passage from J.I. Packer's 18 Words:

How can weak faith be made strong, and little faith become great? Not by looking within, to examine your faith; you cannot strengthen faith by introspection any more than you can promote growth in a plant by pulling up to inspect its roots. You strengthen your faith, rather, by looking hard at its objects -- the promises of God in Scripture; the unseen realities of God and your life with Him and your hope of glory; the living Christ Himself, once on the cross, now on the throne. 'Inwardly, we are being renewed day by day . . . we fix our eyes not on what is seen, but on what is unseen. For what is seen is temporary, but what is unseen is eternal' (2 Cor. 4:16, 18 NIV).

At a time when I was struggling (and being overcome) with anxiety, I questioned my faith. Anxiety already left me feeling overwhelmed, but realizing how weak my faith was made things so much worse. I was tempted to over analyze the reasons why, looking back at mistakes. Someone told me to take comfort in "that moment" when I was converted. Surely that was the answer. It wasn't.

It was a slow process, but the answer was by looking to Christ. Some days, I read the word of God mechanically, mostly forgetting what I read. But I kept on. I had to remind myself daily, repeatedly, of God's promises and past faithfulness to me. And it was enough. I don't know as if I would say I have a "great" faith. There are still times when I demonstrate an appalling lack of it. But I do know what whatever faith I do have comes from God, the object of my faith.


It's about the distortion

If you have not read J.I. Packer's 18 Words: The Most Important Words You Will Ever Know, do it. I've said it before, and I'll say it again, Packer is always worth reading. This book was first published in 1981 and it is as current now as it was then.

The chapter which discusses the word "devil" is excellent. As Christians we know about Satan, but as Packer rightly points out, there is often an imbalance. We are either so consumed with Satan that we forget Christ's victory at the cross, or we are so apathetic about Satan that we give him the victory. Packer points out that our wrong ideas about God will affect our ideas about Satan:

. . . if, with many, we should imagine God as every man's heavenly uncle, a person whose job (not always too well done)is to help us achieve our selfish desire for irresponsible fun and carefree comfort, we shall think of Satan as merely a cosmic sour-puss whose sole aim is to thwart our plans and spoil our pleasures. 

"Cosmic sour-puss." I like that. Packer's terms may not be frequently used today, or may seem tame compared to some of the earthier ways we may use to describe things, but I love it.

Further, Packer points out that Satan wants to distort truth. Often, it is better than outright perpetration of lies. Shades of error mixed in with shades of truth is an effective way to distract us.

Satan tries both to trap us into what is formally wrong and also to distort enough of what is formally right in our habits and actions to make it wrong in its effect. Thought without action, love without wisdom, love of truth with unrighteousness, conscientiousness with morbidity and despair, selectiveness in one's concern for what is true and right, are samples of this kind of distortion. If we watch against Satan at one point on the battlements of our living, he will try to break in at another, waiting for a moment when we feel secure and happy, and our defences are likely to be down. So it goes on, all day and every day

Understanding Satan is crucial to our life of faith. If we don't properly understand the threat, we will be complacent. Sometimes, Christians don't want to talk about evil, but what need is there for a Saviour if there is no sin or no Satan?


What is worldliness?

I love the book of I John. There is so much being taught there, and one of those important teachings is found in 2:15: "Do not love the world nor the things in the world. If anyone loves the world, the love of the Father is not in him."

What does it mean to love the world? What is wordliness? We all like to put our own spin on it, satisfying our own personal convictions. Thus, wordliness becomes for some a retreat from things like dancing, movies, or various forms of books and music. The problem is, though, that there are times when we may indeed shun such things but actually love the world very much.

J.I. Packer, in his book 18 Words: The Most Important Words You Will Ever Know, gives some helpful comments about what it means to be worldly:

Wordliness means yielding to the spirit that animates fallen mankind, the spirit of self-seeking and self-indulgence without regard for God. Whether a man is worldly thus depends, not on how much enjoyment he takes from the good and pleasant things of this life, but in the spirit in which he takes it. If he allows these things to enslave him (I Cor. 6:12) and become a god -- that is, an idol, -- in his heart (Col. 3:5) he is worldly. If, on the other hand, he is disciplined in his use of them, not indulging to the detriment of his own or others' edification (I Cor. 10:20-23; 8:8-13) nor losing his heart to them, but receiving them gratefully as God's gift and a means for showing forth His praise, thanking God for all pleasant occupations and all delightful experiences, and not letting the merely good elbow out the best, then he is not worldly, but godly.

Of course there are some things which we don't partake of because they are not inherently good, like pornography, for example. There is no "disciplined" use of such a thing. It is bad to begin with. Listening to rap music which exalts objectification of women or violence against them is not inherently good, but to suggest that the genre itself is worldly is not accurate. Disclaimer: I don't like rap music myself. I'm only using it as an example.

I really liked this comment:

Again, it is not worldly to be praised; but it is worldly to live for men's compliments and applause, and to find one's highest happiness in the thought that one has gratified men, rather than in the knowledge that one has done God's will. Worldliness is the spirit which substitutes some earthly ideal, such as pleasure, or gain, or popularity, for life's true goal, which is in all things to praise and to please God.

I had a Sunday school student once who said "I want to be famous when I get older." He didn't state a particular skill or activity he wanted to engage in that would make him famous. He just wanted to be famous. That kind of thinking is everywhere: the desire to be noticed. That is at the heart of reality television shows where people portray their lives for everyone to see, including the really bad parts. The principle of doing something simply because we love to do it, and do it well, has been lost in the world today. To work simply for the recogntion is a worldly activity.

It always comes back to the first question of the Westminster Shorter Catechism: what is the chief end of man? Man's chief end is to glorify God and enjoy him forever. We are less likely to be worldly if this is our goal. And that means checking our motives. That is something I know I need to do regularly.


Embracing maturity

I finished J.I. Packer's Rediscovering Holiness. I loved Sinclair Ferguson's book Devoted to God, but I loved Packer's more; he is simultaneously wise, profound, witty, and eloquent.

The last chapter, "Hard Gaining: The Discipline of Endurance," focuss much on the place of suffering in the sanctification process. There were a few passages that really made me stop and think:

This is what self-denial really means -- not a mere cutting back on some bit of private self-indulgence, but totally surrendering one's natural wish for acceptance and status and respect. It means preparing to be rejected as worthless and dispensable, and to find oneself robbed of one's rights.

Ouch, ouch. "Preparing to be rejected." Who wants that?

This is a soft age in the West, an age in which ease and comfort are seen by the world as life's supreme values. Affluence and medical resources have brought secular people to the point of feeling they have a right to a long life, and a right to be fre of poverty and pain for the whole of that life. Many even cherish a grudge against God and society if these hopes do not materialize. Nothing, however, as we now see, could be further from the true, tough, hard-gaining holiness that expresses true Christianity.

I would say that the love of comfort and ease is not confined to the secular world, but is alive and well in Christian circles.

Mature . . . ? Oh . . . yes, I see. And I am a silly child who stumbles and fumbles and tumbles every day. Holy Father, Holy Son, Holy Spirit, I need your help. Lord, have mercy; hold me up, and hold me steady -- please, starting now. Amen.

" . . . stumbles and fumbles and tumbles every day." Do you ever feel like that? Just yesterday, at a moment when I was feeling sorry for myself, I wondered if I will ever reach a point where I feel like I'm not doing just that. 

This was a wonderful read, and it left me thinking hard about what my priorities are and what kinds of distractions I allow in my life. Packer is always enjoyable to read, and if you choose to read this, you won't be disappointed.


Hoping for the easy life

There is truth in the saying "No pain, no gain." In childbirth, the pain is evidence that the body is at work. Without the pain of contractions, a child will not be delivered. Even the pain which follows a C-section (and I can testify personally) reminds us that we have delivered a child.

The same is true for holiness. Think about those people you regard as spiritually mature. What is the connection between their character and trials they have endured? I have three friends whom have all lost a child, and one of them has lost a spouse, too. Those women have progressed through an aspect of sanctification I have not. It shows in their character. They are women of spiritual depth and integrity whom I trust. Some day, when I experience a serious loss, I know where I will go for counsel.

Often, we want to defer the pain. I know I do. I want to holiness without the struggle. And even as I may know intellectually that I must suffer with Christ, it is not a pleasant thought. J.I. Packer comments on this matter:

Again and again our Lord leads us into situations that are painful and difficult, and we pray -- as Paul prayed regarding his thorn in the flesh -- that the situation will change. We want a miracle! But instead the Lord chooses to leave things as they are and to strengthen us to cope with them, as He did with Paul, making his strength perfect in continuing human weakness (see 2 Cor. 12:7-10).

Think of it in terms of training of children, and you will see my point at once. If there are never any difficult situations that demand self-denial and discipline, if there are never any sustained pressures to cope with, if there are never any long-term strategies where the child must stick with an education process, or an apprenticeship, or the practice of a skill, for many years in order to advance, there will never be any maturity of character. The children (who, of course, want life to be easy and full of fun, as children always do) will remain spoiled all their lives, because everything has been made too easy for them. The Lord does not allow that to happen in the lives of his children.

Life can be hard. But we are so accustomed innovation and devices which make our lives easier that we mistakenly think it should be so with every aspect of our lives. I can make communication easier by digital tools, but I can't stop the reality of illness or suffering. Surely this reality that life is hard is one of the reasons people walk away from the Lord; they are bitter because life is not easy. Isn't life supposed to be easier for the Christian? Obedience is hard, and I don't want hard. It's easier to walk away. 

While life away from God may seem easier at the time, there are ultimately those times when we come to the end of ourselves, and if we can't turn to God, where will we turn? Where shall we go? He has the words of eternal life.