Joey Sparks
6Aug/120

Nobody Likes Fractions

Fractions are the evil underbelly of basic math.

They are certainly necessary, but they are rarely anyone's favorite digits with which to add, subtract, multiply, or divide. We love using whole numbers simply because it's easier. It's easier to count dollar bills than coins because they represent a whole instead of a part (and because such, are worth more).

Fraction 1/5 (by Leo Reynolds Flickr CC by nc sa)

The same is true of people.

We build better relationships with people who are "whole" instead of "fractioned." When we realize someone is not who they seemed, we are hurt, disappointed, and confused. Living a "divided" life usually starts in response to the craving to be liked by everyone. Somewhere we wrongly assume that our challenge to be kind and likable means we must make everyone approve of us. Since people around us are different, we mold our personality and choices based on the people we're around at any given moment. Before long, we're juggling different parts of ourselves, none of which are authentic.

The English word "integrity" is built from this same premise. By definition, it's tied to honesty, ethics, and simply doing right things. By etymology, it's tied to "integer" which, in math, refers to a "whole number." Doing the right things--simply because they're right--will certainly rub some people the wrong way. But men and women of integrity acknowledge that there are more important things than others' opinions. They also know that integrity is the only path to success. The false, divided, unethical, dishonest person never accomplishes truly great things nor receives others' approval, which is what he or she so desperately wants.

The Old Testament Wisdom writers leaned heavily on the importance of integrity. Notice a sampling:

Whoever walks in integrity walks securely, but he who makes his ways crooked will be found out. (Proverbs 10:9)

The integrity of the upright guides them, but the crookedness of the treacherous destroys them. (Proverbs 11:3)

The righteous who walks in his integrity—blessed are his children after him! (Proverbs 20:7)

More important than the practical necessity of integrity, a life of a "whole" relationship to God is the only life He accepts. Jesus makes this clear in Matthew 22:37-38, "You shall love the Lord your God with all your heart and with all your soul and with all your mind. This is the great and first commandment."

All your heart.

All your soul.

All your mind.

In the Bible I used as a teenager, I have 10/10 written next to this passage. I remember our Youth Minister saying "ten-tenths" to describe these important words.

Whole person.

Whole devotion.

2Aug/120

Protect Their Hearts

The Internet is simultaneously one of humanities' greatest inventions, amazing blessings, and dangerous threats. We are always one click away from danger no matter our age, gender, profession, naivety, or blamelessness. We must make sure we interact with the same godliness online that God expects in all other ways of life.

We frequently hear of children who are harmed by brutal and sick individuals who gain access to their lives through the Internet. We should do all we can to close up those loopholes.

As parents, you have the right--and responsibility--to know exactly what your children are doing on the Internet...no matter how old they are. You should have the same access to their accounts (with passwords, etc.) they do. You should talk openly and honestly about their online friendships, habits, and overall safety. But when you do, do your best to model the attitudes in yourself you wish to see from them. If you're condescending and not understanding, you shut those doors of communication down.

ABCLRC-Internet Safety (by ABC LRC Flickr CC by nc sa)

But the most urgent arena of concern for your children on the Internet is that of sexual sin, specifically pornography.

The statistical likelihood of your child facing a child predator online is slim. But the chances of your child NOT viewing pornography online in some capacity is about 3% for boys and 9% for girls. That includes those who unintentionally stumble across it. If your child wants to find it, there's a 100% chance he or she will. It's just that easy.

The good news is that God forgives and cleanses no matter the depths of sin (1 Cor. 6:9-11).

More good news is that you don't have to know everything about the Internet and computer technology to protect your child's heart from spiritual threats such as pornography.

The most powerful weapons at your disposal are spiritual and internal; they should be aimed at his or her heart. Pray for them. Model purity, consistency, and propriety before them--online and off. Talk openly and honestly (with common sense) with them about temptations, sexual sin, and God's purpose for sexual intimacy in marriage.

Would you rather them to hear the truth from you and God's Word or error from the world and Satan?

There are other weapons that can assist you from an external perspective, as well.

The best place to start is http://covenanteyes.com. Covenant Eyes specializes in Internet technology that provides a safe surfing atmosphere for the entire family. They feature two softwares: Internet accountability software (browsing is monitored around the clock and reports are sent via e-mail to accountability partners) and Internet filtering software (specific sites are blocked and attempts to access blocked sites are logged and sent via the accountability reports). These softwares simply run in the background, but cannot be disabled without also disabling access to the Internet. This "two-pronged" approach is the best external solution, especially for homes with children. Covenant Eyes charges for using their services. While they are not free, they are more than reasonable. Amanda and I have used the accountability software for years and we pay for an entire year of service for less than what most Internet service providers charge for one month. There are a few free services out there, but research suggests the paid services are much more efficient and effective. If you recognize the legitimacy of this most dangerous threat, is any price too great?

Additionally, the Covenant Eyes website also features a wealth of resources for all kinds of Internet safety and protection. They have numerous (free) e-books, articles, statistics, podcasts, and a well-maintained and regularly-updated blog. No matter your relationship to the dangers on the Internet, whether totally naive or buried in addiction, there's something to educate, challenge, and help you.

Every child born in our part of the world is a "digital native." He or she will never know a time with less technology. He or she will never be less tech-savvy. He or she will one day view smart phones like many of us view rotary phones.

In a matter of a few decades, computers have moved from warehouses to business centers to living rooms to briefcases to front pockets. We as adults and parents will never be on the edge of technological advancement like younger generations. But that's no excuse for letting this powerful tool destroy their souls. May God help us to use the Internet responsibly and ensure our children do the same.

 I have made a covenant with my eyes; Why then should I look upon a young woman? (Job 31:1)

Blessed are the pure in heart, For they shall see God. (Matthew 5:8)

“But whoever causes one of these little ones who believe in Me to stumble, it would be better for him if a millstone were hung around his neck, and he were thrown into the sea." (Mark 9:42)

The righteous man walks in his integrity; His children are blessed after him. (Proverbs 20:7)

23Jul/120

Every Good Gift & Every Perfect Gift (James 1:16-17)

Throughout his treatise on practical, everyday Christianity, James' golden thread is godly wisdom versus worldly wisdom.

Everyone makes decisions everyday. James imperatively stresses that these decisions must be made in light of heavenly wisdom, not earthly.

After outlining the process of temptation, James tells early Christians, "Do not be deceived, my beloved brothers. Every good gift and every perfect gift is from above, coming down from the Father of lights with whom there is no variation or shadow due to change" (James 1:16-17).

Regalito (by MCSimon Flickr CC by nc sa)

What wisdom is found in these two verses? Specifically, he warns Christians about the danger of deception. The power of a lie lies not in its telling, but in its receiving. False statements are hurled toward our hearts and minds daily. Our responsibility rests not so much in not hearing lies as it does in not believing them. James makes it clear that Christians bear the responsibility to not fall prey to deceptive schemes.

In the context of this passage, he's specifically reminding the brethren about the danger of blaming their difficulties on God. He shows temptation and deception are against God's very nature in verse 13; he then outlines the starring role our personal desires play in the temptation drama in verses 14 and 15. Verse 16 serves as a bookend to this section of thought. "God tempts us with evil" is as bold and dangerous a lie that we will ever hear.

We cannot believe it.

But James isn't finished. Not only does God not tempt us with evil, but he is the ultimate source of everything good. The Psalmist said, "You have multiplied, O LORD my God, your wondrous deeds and your thoughts toward us; none can compare with you! I will proclaim and tell of them, yet they are more than can be told" (Ps 40:5).

God is not the villian, and is indeed the ultimate hero.

To cast blame for bad upon God and his grandiose goodness is blasphemous to his nature. Falling prey to the lie that he is responsible for our misfortunes is disastrous to our souls.

19Jul/120

Conception Control (James 1:14-15)

What we commonly label "birth control" is more correctly "conception control." The goal is to prevent the joining of the male and female sex cells, which always creates life. (Thus, to destroy an already-joined-pairing, whether it's as a fertilized egg, an embryo, or a 24-week-in utero-fetus, is destroying life, and thus, murder.)

Married couples use any number of forms of "conception control" to morally and ethically control the number and timing of children they bear.

Don't Take Away My Birth Control (by afagen Flickr CC by nc sa)

We would do well to look at this common practice when we analyze the temptation process as outlined by James in chapter 1:14-15. There, he says, "But each person is tempted when he is lured and enticed by his own desire. Then desire when it has conceived gives birth to sin, and sin when it is fully grown brings forth death."

In verse 15, he turns toward one of the most natural processes known to man: conception and birth. When the two sex cells join in a mother's womb, barring rare circumstances or man's heinous crimes, it creates an embryo, which is eventually born into the world as a baby human being.

It is a divinely-designed and naturally-occurring process.

James says the same about our desires, which lead to temptations, which lead to sin, which leads to death.

We can, and should constantly try to, improve and replace our sinful desires with good attitudes and the supreme concerns of our Creator. But we will never eradicate all of our fleshly desires. This begs a legitimate, and concerning, question.

If our desires are within us, and the process of sin is as dependable as the child-bearing process, how can we successfully resist sin?

Though we all sin and fall short of God's glory (Rom. 3:23), we don't always have to sin. James himself says in chapter 4, verse 7, "Submit yourselves therefore to God. Resist the devil, and he will flee from you."

The answer to our alarming question lies in the same neighborhood as our modern practice of "birth control." Once an embryo is conceived, a mother gives birth. Once our desires conceive, they give birth to sin. We cannot rest all of our hope upon controlling or changing our desires. But we can keep our desires from conceiving!

If we continually allow our desires and external opportunities to sin meet, we're doomed to lose the battle with sin. But if we intentionally control our environments, in order to limit and eliminate opportunities, then we begin to win.

One of my professors at FHU counseled a Christian gentlemen who was fighting a losing battle with alcoholism. During one session, the man said something to the effect, "Every day when I come home from work, I convince myself I'm not going to stop and pick up some booze. Then I see that Big Dog liquor store and I just can't resist. It happens almost every day."

So my professor, in his direct, matter-of-fact, country-boy ways, said, "Son, sounds like it's about time you find another route home."

Change the environment.

The process of temptation and sin is frightening, but only if we allow our desires to conceive with opportunity, thus leading to sinful action. Because of James' detailed and nature-based illustration, we can highlight the course of victory over sin and temptation.

May we lean upon God as we practice spiritual "conception control."

16Jul/120

2 Keys to Resist Temptation (James 1:14-15)

Humanity shares several "common lots." All human beings require food and water for physical nourishment. Every person desires love, affection, and companionship for emotional health. Everyone suffers pain, disappointment, and heartache.

Spiritually, all mankind faces--and gives in to--temptation.

James says, "But each one is tempted when he is drawn away by his own desires and enticed."

Paul says in Romans 3:23, "For all have sinned and fall short of the glory of God."

We face plenty of uncertainties in life, but we are certain to face temptation and sin.

Temptation's certainty is sobering. And knowing we are drawn away from within our own hearts, much like a fish is lured by its belly toward a dangling worm, can be discouraging as well. But these revelations must not drive us to guilt. Harboring guilt for being human can be dangerous. We can attempt to ease the pain through ungodly, selfish, or fleshly pursuits.

Young Smallmouth Bass (by nklatt Flickr CC by, nc, sa)

Jesus, the Son of God, was tempted while on earth, and yet never sinned (Heb. 4:15). While sin is born from temptation, temptation is not sinful. When Satan tempted Jesus in Matthew 4:1-11, he used the very things Jesus wanted and was sent to earth to accomplish. Satan tempted Jesus to do good things in ways contrary to God's ways.

We also cannot allow our missteps into sin to fuel our temptations. Though we can never be perfect, we must be aware that sin creates new temptations more powerful and destructive than we anticipate. For example, resisting the temptation to drink after 20 years of alcoholism is more difficult than resisting the first drink. If we feed temptations with the flesh, they grow into gigantic beasts.

Reality. Knowing sin's deceptive and deadly power helps us develop healthy fears of temptation. Though we all face it, we must never grow comfortable with it nor welcome it. The price for playing with temptation is steep. James follows verse 14 with this, "Then, when desire has conceived, it gives birth to sin; and sin, when it is full-grown, brings forth death" (1:15).

This harmonizes with Paul's words in Romans 6:23, "For the wages of sin is death, but the gift of God is eternal life in Christ Jesus our Lord." Water, carbon monoxide, and other natural compounds are abundant on earth. But we must always respect their power to destroy humanity. Temptation is no different.

Replacement. Knowing that temptation results from our own desires can be discouraging if we're not careful. We must be intentional to continually replace our wants with God's desires. When the two compete, we must always submit to God's will.

But over time, we can also develop the heart and attitude that above all longs for God's will to be done on earth as it is in heaven. The more we try to be like God from the inside out, the less power we give to our human desires and tendencies.

The Psalmist once said, "With my whole heart I have sought you; Oh, let me not wander from your commandments! Your word I have hidden in my heart, that I might not sin against You" (Ps. 119:10-11).

The truth about temptation may be discouraging at the surface. But a complete appreciation for God's forgiveness (1 Jn. 1:7) and continual providence in the face of temptation (Jas. 4:7) gives us every motivation and all strength to resist.

12Jul/120

2 Reasons “The Blame Game” Doesn’t Work For Sin

Blame is funny.

We're often tempted to blame someone or something else for our shortcomings and mistakes. We hope, that by successfully shifting blame, to avoid punishment and accountability.

Not only is the "blame game" deceptive--because no one or nothing is responsible for our lives except ourselves--but it cripples progress. Once we convince ourselves we've shifted the blame, we've also given up control to fix the problem. Those who rely on blame instead of responsibility create a prison where improvement is impossible.

We can attempt to blame other people at every turn, but we always face the truth that we can't change others. We can try to blame external circumstances, but then we find out we can't change those either.

Courageously accepting responsibility grants the possibility of freedom. Only those grounded in responsibility and accountability make great strides of improvement and growth.

It's sad that many would rather wallow in negative situations than accept responsibility and thus be empowered to improve them. As Christians, we should not allow this attitude to thrive.

And we cannot allow it to exist when it comes to temptation and sin.

You only have yourself to blame (by higgott Flickr CC by nc sa)

James 1:12 says, "Blessed is the man who endures temptation; for when he has been approved, he will receive the crown of life which the Lord has promised to those who love Him." I almost think James anticipated a response to that statement something like this, "Well, it'd sure be a lot easier to endure temptation if that same Lord would stop tempting us to get us to give up!"

So James says in verses 13 and 14, "Let no one say when he is tempted, “I am tempted by God”; for God cannot be tempted by evil, nor does He Himself tempt anyone. But each one is tempted when he is drawn away by his own desires and enticed."

It is impossible to blame God for temptation and sin. Just as it is impossible for God to lie (Heb. 6:18; Titus 1:2), it is impossible for God to be tempted, and thus to tempt us. Not only is it futile to cast blame at God's feet, how dare us do so in light of all he has done and all he promises!

God wants the best for us. We must develop a trusting attitude toward him and his word that dares not blame him for shortcomings, mistakes, and sin.

It is impossible to blame anyone or anything else. Instead of listing everyone or everything we cannot blame, James tells us the source of temptation: our own desires. You and I cannot successfully blame anyone or anything else for sin because it all starts in our own hearts. We are "tempted" to sin because it, in some way, appeals to us individually. Temptation, and thus sin, are controlled and guided by our own selfish desires.

Bummer? Maybe, if we're lazy. But not if we truly want to change things.

Jesus' power has defeated the strangling power of sin and death (1 Cor. 15:56-57). And he gives us the opportunity to obey him instead of our own desires. If we destroy, suppress, and manage our earthly desires, we can successfully navigate the labyrinth of temptation in this life. It will never be easy. But it will always be possible; provided we accept responsibility and cut out the blame.

30Aug/110

3 Excuses for Delaying Obedience

Excuses for sin are as universal and as old as sin itself. When Adam and Eve sinned in the garden, they blamed one another and subtly blamed God. Thousands of years later, we spend immeasurable time, money, and energy to defend, justify, and deflect attention our spiritual and moral shortcomings. Even if we don’t intentionally think we’re creating excuses, we can easily fall into the trap of justifying our decisions quicker than we realize. In addition to sin itself, we can use excuses to keep us from gaining forgiveness of our sins through obedience to God’s will. There are three common excuses we use to keep us from being obedient to the Lord:

Sometime. James says in James 4:13-16, “Come now, you who say, ‘Today or tomorrow we will go into such and such a town and spend a year there and trade and make a profit’—yet you do not know what tomorrow will bring. What is your life? For you are a mist that appears for a little time and then vanishes. Instead you ought to say, ‘If the Lord wills, we will live and do this or that.’ As it is, you boast in your arrogance. All such boasting is evil.” One of Satan’s most successful weapons is “later” or “tomorrow.” But we’re not guaranteed either. Multitudes of people have stepped into eternity thinking they had a little more time in which repent of sin. Let’s stop living in sin immediately. Let’s come to the Lord in obedience today.  “Sometime else” never comes.

Someone. In chapter one, James emphasizes that temptations to sin arise from within, not around us. “But each person is tempted when he is lured and enticed by his own desire. Then desire when it has conceived gives birth to sin, and sin when it is fully grown brings forth death” (1:14-15). The seeds of sin come from within our own hearts. When we choose our selfish desires over the will of God, we sin. When discussing our conflicts in 4:1-4, James uses a form of the word “you” 14 times. Though James makes it clear we are the source of our own sin, we do our best to turn the focus on how others. We argue that others cause us to sin; we say others hurt us in such a way to cause us to respond with sinful behavior; we expect others to fix themselves before we correct our sinfulness. Let’s stop minimizing our personal responsibility to our own sin. Let’s not use others as a crutch keeping us from living faithfully to the Lord.

Somewhat. One of James’ major themes in his letter on “practical faith” is “complete obedience.” At least seven passages emphasize the principle of obeying the Lord in every way. One such passage is 2:14-17, “What good is it, my brothers, if someone says he has faith but does not have works? Can that faith save him? If a brother or sister is poorly clothed and lacking in daily food, and one of you says to them, ‘Go in peace, be warmed and filled’; without giving them the things needed for the body, what good is that? So also faith by itself, if it does not have works, is dead.” Faith is obviously a good thing; yet James is emphatic that faith alone isn’t enough to please God. There’s no room for somewhat believing, somewhat obeying, somewhat loving. Let’s stop thinking partial obedience is enough. Let’s obey the Lord totally.

Let’s commit to the Lord and His will. And to avoid using these and other excuses for sin.

9Jun/090

Principle of the Path (Andy Stanley)

principleofthepathcover

Andy Stanley can do a lot of things REALLY well (lead groups of people, preach, write, etc.). One thing he cannot do is navigate a vehicle with a keen sense of direction. He uses his directional disorientation--and several entertaining examples of it--to demonstrate the power of The Principle of the Path, which is defined as: "Direction--not intention--determines destination." As a principle, it is true for every person in every place in every time. Stanley acknowledges that he is merely verbalizing and illustrating the principle's power.

I am highly impressed by the  message of the book. Though most who read the book will likely agree with Stanley's Christian perspective and his appeal to the Bible, the principle itself applies to those who don't share the same perspective. As one who teaches the Bible to young people on a regular basis, one of the greatest compliments I can give the book is the degree at which I've been incorporating its material into my lessons. From lessons about purity, friendships, and finances, I've been able to effectively apply the truth about the principle.

As a piece of literature, The Principle of the Path may not be as well-written as Communicating for a Change or Visioneering. Though I do recommend both of those titles for church leaders/ministers, I give a higher recommendation to Principle of the Path because of its universal and paradigm-shifting message. Stanley also offers the material in a series of audio sermons (entitled "Destinations") from North Point Community Church outside Atlanta.

Reviewed as part of Thomas Nelson's Book Review Blogger program.

Side Note: I was delighted to see Julie Faires listed as the cover designer for the book; we were members of the same social club in college. Great job, Julie!

1Apr/091

I’m a Fool

I love surfing the internet on April Fool's Day. It's a virtual game of "I Spy" to find the fake blog posts, the new upgrade to Gmail (this year it's Autopilot), and other attempts to get people to bite hook, line, and sinker. I've not been creative enough to devise a good April Fool's joke myself (I briefly considered complementing Lane Kiffin's public relations genius), but I love the hoopla surrounding the day. Based on my posting schedule, you might think me making a post at all is a joke ;).

This year, my mind turned toward the word of God. "The fool says in his heart, 'There is no God.' They are corrupt, they do abominable deeds, there is none who does good" (Ps. 14:1, ESV).

Something heavy and heartbreaking struck me this morning about this verse. I am a fool. I've never uttered the phrase "There is no God." I've never formulated an elaborate argument against the existence of God. But the verse isn't pointing the finger at the staunch, Richard Dawkins-like atheists. "The fool says in his heart...they do abominable deeds...there is none who does good." The "fool" label isn't just reserved for those who articulate a disbelief in God, but also for those who act as if He doesn't exist.

When I presume on God's grace and act in my own selfish interests, I'm a fool (Rom. 6:1-2).

When I talk badly about someone God created with a grand and glorious purpose in His spiritual kingdom, I'm a fool (Eph. 4:29).

When I convince myself this life is about "stuff" and how much of it I can accumulate, I'm a fool (Luke 12:13-21)

When I stretch, bend, or hide the truth--even when I'm doing something I think needs to be done--I'm a fool (Col. 3:9-10).

When I attempt to fulfill a God-given need in an ungodly way, I'm a fool (Matt. 4:2-4).

When I put off encouraging a brother or sister because "there's always tomorrow," I'm a fool (Heb. 3:13).

When I minimize God's standards of purity by surrounding myself with unholy people/watching unholy TV & movies/going to unholy places, I'm a fool (Eph. 5:3-12).

When I think that God won't do what He says He will do when I dishonor the blood of Christ, I'm a fool (Heb. 10:29-31).

"Father, help me to stop living as a fool--as if You don't exist. Thank you for forgiving the foolish (1 Jn. 1:9)."

The Lord looks down from heaven on the children of man, to see if there are any who understand, who seek after God (Psalm 14:2).
28Nov/082

Trey Morgan: Sex, Porn, & Marriage Links

Over the past several months, Trey Morgan has published what has become a good series on men, sex, pornography, and marriage. These issues need to be addressed from a Biblical perspective much more often than they currently are. I figured linking to his articles was the least I could do for the present. Don't miss the two chilling emails from female readers. Powerful stuff. Most recent posts are listed first.

Pornography in Marriage (November 25, 2008)

Pornography and Marriage (October 22, 2008)

Men and Sex (October 15, 2008)

The Porn Myth (August 4, 2007)

Free Porn or Porn Free (January 23, 2007)

Thanks to God for the beauty of a holy marriage and thanks to Trey for these helpful posts...