As I talk to Christians around the country and from time to time visit them, the thing that often comes to mind is that I don’t think we know what is possible. Far too many Christians settle for far too little. And I say “we” on purpose because I will use some of the things I have been blessed to learn and enjoy as examples, but I don’t mean them by any stretch of imagination as *the* standards or highwater marks of Christian culture. I merely mean them as examples – examples to follow, examples to imitate.
Good Compared to What?
What do I mean? I mean that Christians – all of us – have been sitting in a cultural stew pot with the heat slowly turning up and many have simply gotten used to it. Christians get used to bickering in families and between spouses. Christians get used to tacky worship music and preaching void of substance and authority. Christians get used to low standards in dress and speech and education. Christians get used to injustice, tyranny, and the nanny state. We see the cesspool of pagan culture around us and imagine that since we’re against all that (whatever all that is exactly), we must be holding the line. We don’t send our kids to government schools, so our families must be better than they would be. We’re still married, and despite all the squabbling, this must be a Christian marriage. We eat dinner together regularly, so this must be a Christian family. We go to a church that says it’s conservative and Bible-believing and well, it must be pretty good – the pastor does mention that abortion is wrong every once in a while. And speaking of which, we vote for pro-life and conservative politicians (but for some reason nothing ever really changes).
But this is defining “good” only compared to evil. But “good” should really be compared to thriving. What does a thriving Christian family look like? What does a thriving Christian school look like? What does a thriving Christian church and community look like? Please note that I did not say “perfect.” Although, to be quite honest I could have said “perfect,” since that’s what Jesus says we are to strive for. He says that we are to be “perfect” as our Father in heaven is “perfect” (Mt. 5:48). And in the Greek, it means “perfect.” Jesus has high standards for His disciples. Therefore, we should have high standards for ourselves and our families. We will always have sins to confess and repent of until our dying day, but there are paths of faithfulness that really do make progress in sanctification, and there are other paths that wander in circles or down into the dark.
Real Thriving Fruit
On the one hand, there are some who are quick to leap at visions of utopia. And that’s not what I’m talking about at all. Every Christian family, church, and community will still be full of sinners, and sinners will always be sinning in some ways. But there really is a difference between good fruit and poor fruit. And Jesus says that it is faithful to notice (Mt. 7:17-19). Wisdom is justified by her children (Lk. 7:35). And wisdom notices the fruit of obedient and joyful children, obedient and joyful worship, obedient and joyful marriages and communities. Elders and their marriages and kids should be shining examples to the community. But if you’re constantly making excuses for them – they’re just human like the rest of us – that ain’t it.
In other words, it is easy to settle for low standards when you’re struggling just to keep your head above the cesspool waves. But why not get out of that toxic pool entirely? What is that pool? It’s the pool of worldly expectations, worldly standards, worldly coolness, worldly success. Get out. You’re a Christian. Your standard is the Bible and nothing else. Now start small. Confess your own sins first, to God, to your spouse, your children, and your parents. Which sins? All the sins you know about, the sins you commit every day, the fussing, the bickering, the lying, the spinning, the biting, the disrespect, as well as all the sins that eat at you from the past, the sins from your childhood and college days, the ones you’ve tried to stuff down into your gut. Get clean. Get completely clean. Get back into fellowship. Get back into joy. Make that the norm. And this really is the rock bottom, foundational point about what is possible. This really is possible. It is possible to be completely clean, forgiven, full of joy, and in fellowship with God and your neighbor.
This isn’t just a momentary thing either. It’s possible to maintain that joy and fellowship. Every time you sin, quickly confess it and get back into joyful fellowship. If joy is a struggle, especially if joy is a struggle, confess your sins and forgive those who have sinned against you. Confess your sins to God directly and anyone you sinned against. John wrote what he did so that our joy might be full and that we might have fellowship with the Father and the Son and one another (1 John 1).
Next, strive to make your standards according to God’s Word and as much as possible, nothing else. What does God require of husbands and wives? Who cares what your extended family thinks. Submit to God’s word cheerfully. What does the Bible require of parents and children? Who cares what your playdate friends think. Submit to that gladly. What does the Bible say a church is supposed to be like? Elders? Deacons? Worship? Preaching? Pursue that. And of course all of that means that you need to be reading your Bible voraciously. Over and over. More than anything else. And not just reading it, eyes glazed over; reading it hungry, reading it praying that God would show you light for your life. And then apply it.
What many of us have found over many years is that what is possible is far beyond what you imagined and all of it is grace. We pray and read the Bible and confess our sins and worship and pursue excellence, and the fruit that emerges doesn’t add up at all. It’s way more than we thought. And that’s how we know it’s all God’s blessing. But what we’ve found is that God still loves us pursuing His blessing. Understanding that it’s all grace and all blessing doesn’t make the blessing a random happenstance, as if God is up in heaven flinging blessings around haphazardly. And understanding that it’s all grace and all blessing doesn’t make us apathetic or lower our standards either. We raise our standards, we wrestle with God, we plead with God, we work out our salvation with fear and trembling, but over and over and over, we find that it is God who is at work within us, willing and doing according to His good pleasure – and it turns out that is far beyond what we imagined was possible.
So what do I mean practically? I mean that people routinely underestimate the kind of joy a family can be. I don’t mean that you occasionally have fun family times and the rest of the time you’re just trudging along between tiffs and barking. I mean that the norm can be one great day after another, like best friends all day every day, getting along, enjoying one another. Sure, there’s the occasional slip or mistake, but just like a spill, it’s quickly wiped up and joy is restored. Marriage can be like that; parenting can be like that. I have two and half teenagers (really seems like three), and my wife and I are having a blast. They are thoughtful, creative, funny, and an absolute blast to be around.
Practically, I also mean that education and schooling can be far beyond what you might imagine. Kids used to go to Oxford and Harvard at 16, and while I’m not advocating that (at all), I’m just saying kids are far more capable than we give them credit for. They can learn Latin and advanced mathematics and logic and courtesy and courage and rhetoric and poetry and music. And this can be accomplished for normal kids, normal Christian families on a normal budget. Of course this means that an entire community must band together. A community must have a shared vision of a classical and Christian education, built on basic Christian principles, and leadership committed to hating all prep school pretension, among other things. So read a few books on classical Christian education. Read about a vision that was articulated 40 years ago that has been successfully implemented over two generations. And for my money, I’d suggest starting here and here. The spiritual, evangelistic, economic, and political impact of this kind of education is still blowing up.
Practically, and speaking of music, I also mean worship that is reverent and joyful, historic and lively, biblical and simple. I mean singing metrical hymns and psalms, designed for congregations and families, easy enough to sing in your home around a dinner table and majestic enough to lift up to the Triune God on the Lord’s Day. These historic hymns (and modern hymns written like them) are not sappy and effeminate, they are militant and stately, but they are written for common people, normal people who with some practice can learn the parts as well. I live in a community that has been working at this for 25-30 years and together with robust music education programs for children, have a growing repertoire of hymns and psalms that are biblically and musically robust.
It is simply a false dilemma to say that you must choose between tradition and life. The common assumption is that if you sing a traditional hymn it’s just an artifact and maybe a nice thing to do for the older folks, but if you really want to “worship” for the modern man you must use a modern chorus and have guitars and drums. Heh. I used to think that, but I was wrong. So wrong. Imagine 500 saints belting out a psalm set to a fuguing tune, voices weaving in and out in harmony. Well, maybe that’s hard to imagine, but let me tell you it’s glorious, and noble as an army full of banners streaming in the wind.
Imagine simple, biblical worship, full of scripture: a call to worship, a confession of sin, readings of Scripture, a straightforward message explaining what the Bible means and how it applies to every area of life, a celebration of the Lord’s Supper with bread and real wine (because that’s what Jesus said to do), and a final doxology and a benediction for the week.
It looks like a number of people are seriously considering moving – leaving California, Washington, maybe New York or Chicago, and there can be many good reasons for leaving. Let me also encourage you to look for communities where people are not merely coping, not merely trying to keep their heads above water, not merely settling for not-as-bad-as-the-pagans. Look for churches full of families that are actually thriving. And in order to know that you really have to ask about or meet the grandchildren. Do they love the Lord? Are they full of fruitfulness in Christ? Do they still love what their parents and grandparents love? Are they standing on the shoulders of their fathers – improving what they were given with deep gratitude? Then settle down there with them. And of course you’re most welcome to visit us out in Idaho. God has been good to us, and there’s plenty more blessing where all of this came from.