Christian Gift Recommendations

Many people are shopping for gifts this season. Why not give something of substance? Something eternally significant and potentially life-changing? Here are some pastoral gift recommendations. (I have provided some links, but feel free to search online for the best price or style)

The ESV Study Bible. This is a truly amazing resource! Each book of the Bible has an introduction to let you know the author, the cultural context, how it fits into the larger storyline of the Bible, etc. And thousands of study notes help explain what is going on in the text. At the back, there are helpful articles about the Christian life and theology. There are many styles for this Bible, so search for the one you need (large print, a smaller ‘personal’ size, cheaper hardcover, genuine leather, etc). (Another good study Bible is the Reformation Study Bible, or, if you simply must use the NIV, this one edited by D.A. Carson has amazing study notes).

Wayne Grudem’s Systematic Theology. Grudem has done a great job teaching the Christian faith topic by topic. On each subject he presents the various views held by believers, shows the relevant biblical teaching, and explains the doctrine in understandable language. He is fair towards the views with which he disagrees. I highly recommend believers working through this book.

The Glory of Christ, by John Owen. This is one of the most helpful and edifying books I’ve ever read. Puritan John Owen accomplishes two things: teaching deep theology about Jesus Christ, and drawing the reader into worship!

Don’t Waste Your Life, by John Piper. This affordable book could change your life.
God is the Gospel, by John Piper. God himself is the goal, not what he can give. Highly recommend!

Valley of Vision. This is a collection of prayers from the Puritans, good for devotional reading. Deep truths and warm hearts towards the Lord! (there is a cheaper paperback version available for this one, or a more expensive leather bound version)

Devotional: For the Love of God, by D.A. Carson. There are two volumes to this book. Carson is a brilliant, trusted scholar, who honors the Bible and points us to the Lord.

The Holiness of God, by R.C. Sproul. This book is a classic. It interrupts our fast-paced life and low view of God, slapping us in the face with a reminder of God’s holiness. Sproul is fun to read, even as he dives deep into truth. He also walks through difficult passages of the Bible in a memorable way, honoring God and calling us to respond.

For Kids
Smaller kids: The Jesus Storybook Bible, by Sally Lloyd-Jones.
A bit older: Gospel Story Bible, by Marty Machowski. This one is even better! Everyone in the family will learn something, and every story points to the larger story of the Bible in Christ.

The Daily Discipline of Enjoying God

The God of the Bible has not called us to an empty, dead, boring, or wearisome religious life, despite what many believe (or how many people live). Although we are prone to think of the Christian life in terms of a system, formula, or list of rules, we are in fact called into fellowship with a living Person! God himself has given his Son to crush our sin, which separated us from God, in order to enable us to enjoy him, forever! Christianity is a relationship, a daily walk with God, through Jesus. In the busy-ness of life we often forget about this great blessing, and we naturally default back to a “system” mindset, in which our focus is on keeping rules, doing things, avoiding things, knowing information, etc. But Biblical Christianity is a daily discipline of seeking and knowing God, finding joy and satisfaction in him, and enjoying fellowship with the Lord.

The Bible uses several descriptive words and phrases which all point to the idea of enjoying God:

(1) Loving God.

It is truly amazing to understand that God has called us, commanded us, and enabled us in Christ to love him! He doesn’t merely want our obedience or our conformity to rituals; he wants our love! Jesus, quoting Deuteronomy, declared that the greatest and most important of all God’s commands is to “love the Lord your God with all your heart and with all your soul and with all your mind” (Mat 22:37). The idea of loving something or someone removes all negative connotations – we are not bored with something we love; we do not have to be forced to talk with someone we love. It is our joy!

The idea of love naturally carries with it the idea of enjoyment. We enjoy the things we love; we enjoy being with the people we love. Christ said God’s number one requirement of us is that we love him. He described this love as involving our entire person (heart, soul, mind), all of who we are. We are to love him in our inner person, which overflows in our outward actions, giving them meaning. Loving God with our heart, soul, and mind is seen in our affections towards God and our thoughts about him. It is shown in our faith, our worship, our prayer, meditating/thinking deeply on his word, and being aware of his presence. This is the most important part of our lives, and the secret of our spiritual strength and joy. We neglect our walk of love with God to our ruin.

Consider the difference between someone who is trying to adhere to a religion, and someone who is growing in love toward the person of God.

(2) Delighting in God.

Another helpful biblical phrase that describes our daily discipline of enjoying God is the concept of delighting in him. Psalm 37:4 instructs God’s people to “delight yourself in the LORD.” In the context of the psalm, delighting oneself in the Lord is in contrast to fretting over the wicked. Instead of worry, anxiety, and stress because of outward problems and people, the psalm calls the worshiper to trust God and keep serving him, with a joyful focus. Trust him to fight our battles. Delight in him as the one who takes care of us.

Verse 7 calls us to be still before the Lord and wait patiently for him. It gives the picture of a heart that is at peace in the presence of God, even while storms are raging all around. There is a delight in the person of God himself that sustains his people through difficulties. Related to delighting in the person of God is delighting in his word, the Scriptures. God’s word is how we know God, for he has revealed himself to us in the Bible. Jeremiah can speak of eating up God’s words, which became to him “a joy and the delight of my heart” (Jer 15:16). David could also describe the righteous worshiper of God: “his delight is in the law of the LORD, and on his law he meditates day and night” (Psalm 1:2). This is the enjoyment of God!

What would you say is the delight of your heart?

(3) Knowing God.

Scripture frequently speaks of the blessing of knowing God personally. Knowing God does involve knowing true information about him. God has revealed himself to us through creation (Psalm 19:1), and in a greater way in his word, showing us his attributes: his wisdom, his mighty power, his righteous justice and wrath, and his tender mercy and love! In Christ, we have the greatest revelation of God (Heb 1:1-3). Yet, knowing God involves more than knowing information. To know God is to enjoy friendship with him, to have inward fellowship with him (2 Cor 13:14); it is to enjoy intimacy with the infinite one. God says instead of boasting in riches or wisdom or strength, let the one who boasts do so because he knows God, and understands his character (Jer 9:23-24). Scripture says, “The friendship of the LORD is for those who fear him, and he makes known to them his covenant” (Psalm 25:14). Through Christ’s sacrifice, believers have been made alive to God, and have been granted access into his presence!

Are you growing in your experience of knowing God through his word?

(4) Rejoicing in God.

The kingdom of heaven is described by Jesus as being like a man who discovered a buried treasure, and then went and sold all that he owned to buy the field where the treasure was buried (Mat 13:44). Jesus said he did this “in his joy.” Christianity is not making yourself do things you really don’t want to do, or trying really hard to be good. It is experiencing a new birth through the power of the gospel, and receiving from God a new heart! It is being regenerated – made alive by God – so that you see the wonder and the awe and the majesty, beauty, and glory of God and his kingdom! You suddenly have joy in him; joy that is happy to lose everything else, because he is enough.

Because of this, the Scripture repeatedly calls believers to rejoice in God, or to set him as the object of our joy, rather than other things or people (Phil 4:4). “Let the hearts of those who seek the LORD rejoice! Seek the LORD and his strength; seek his presence continually!” (1 Chron 16:10-11). Even when we are sad, hurting, confused, angry, or overwhelmed, we can still experience a deep and lasting joy in the person of God. We can enjoy him. [See Psalm 40:16; Isa 61:10; Hab 3:18]

Has God given you a heart that is happy in him? 

(5) Satisfaction in God.

Another way the Bible describes our enjoyment of God is through the lens of being satisfied in him. Other things promise to satisfy us, but can never truly and lastingly meet the needs that God alone can fill. Sin begins when we fail to believe that God can satisfy us, and so we look for satisfaction elsewhere. This is the essence of idolatry. It is why we sin. Greed and lust and selfishness have room to grow in our hearts when we aren’t satisfying our souls in God. When we are not practicing the daily discipline of enjoying God, feasting our souls on him, we are setting ourselves up to fall for temptation and sin.

The prophet Jeremiah describes God’s people, who have experienced his salvation, as singing loudly to him, “radiant” and “satisfied” with his goodness (Jer 31:11-14). To them he gives the promise, “I will satisfy the weary soul” (Jer 31:25). Whoever fears the Lord “rests satisfied” (Prov 19:23). Because of this, believer are taught to pray in the psalms, “Satisfy us in the morning with your steadfast love, that we may rejoice and be glad all our days (Ps 90:14). This is a prayer to be satisfied in God! Psalm 63 expresses in passionate, descriptive language the worshiper who is enjoying God. He is seeking God, thirsty for his presence. To him, God’s love is “better than life,” and so he knows that, in God, “My soul will be satisfied as with fat and rich food” (v5). (See also Ps 65:4)

Are you practicing the discipline of satisfying your soul in God? Is he truly enough?

Putting This Into Practice

Enjoying God is a daily discipline of the Christian faith because God commands us to enjoy him, to love him, to rejoice in him! John Piper writes that “Enjoying God is our first and greatest duty.” Indeed, when we are not happy in God, we are by necessity putting that happiness in other things, and are guilty of idolatry and sin. Learning to daily set God as our great treasure and joy is the happy habit of a maturing Christian.

Hypocrisy is religious action without joy in God or love for God. This is the only kind of religion that many people know! When we are going through the motions, but have no love for God, or fail to find him delightful, we are in sin. We are in need of his gracious inward work. Jesus said this kind of “worship” is empty and totally unacceptable to God (Mat 15:7-9). We can’t please God with a moral or religious life, while our hearts are not loving and enjoying God.

Enjoying God is also a daily discipline, because it requires a constant tending of our heart. When we neglect the daily walk with God, weeds grow up, and the garden of our heart needs weeding and cultivating. Every relationship requires time, effort, and communication in order to grow and be healthy and fruitful. We must grow in our relationship with God, in our enjoyment of him. We must “seek his presence continually” (1 Chron 16:11). If you have neglected this daily discipline, start by repentance and confession of this sin to the Lord. Ask him for help. Reach out to a mature believer who enjoys God, and ask them to help you.

Enjoying God is helpful in our fight against sin. John Piper has said that our greatest weapon against lust is our joy in God. This is also true for other temptations and sins. The more we are enjoying the Lord and resting satisfied in him, the less we will run after other things. When we are full of God, we are not hungry for lesser meals.

Perhaps nothing is more essential to a daily practice of enjoying God as prayer and God’s word. Learn to go through the day in an attitude of constant prayer, which is informed, guided, and structured by the Scriptures. Think deeply on the truths of the Bible; fill your mind with the attributes of God, his glory, his awesome works. Meditate on the truths of the Person and work of Christ. Practice enjoying God in your private life, but share it with others! Learn to enjoy God together with your spouse and family. Speak of it to others in your church family. Let this be something believers talk about openly, and pray for one another about regularly. We enjoy God in our private walk, and then we come together in the gatherings of the church to enjoy him together!

Finally, never forget that our enjoyment of God is only possible because of the work of Jesus Christ for us on the cross. He suffered for our sins “that he might bring us to God “(1 Pet 3:18). He has removed everything that hinders our enjoyment of God, forever!

A Heart of Thanksgiving

Thanksgiving is not just an autumn holiday in America. It’s an attitude of the heart, that is a pretty big deal in the eyes of God. Thanksgiving is simply a response of gratitude and appreciation directed towards the Lord. It is closely linked in the Bible with the concept of praise (Psalm 86:12; 92:1). When we offer thanksgiving to God, we are expressing a heart of faith and worship.

It may be surprising to learn that thanksgiving is actually commanded by God in Scripture. He calls us to give thanks to him in “all circumstances” – this is his will for us in Christ (1 Thess 5:18; see also Col 3:15). God even named some of the animal sacrifices in the Old Covenant after the idea of thanksgiving (Lev 7:12; 22:29). Israelites approached God through the blood of the sacrifice to give appreciation and thanks to the Lord, from their heart (Ps 50:14, 23).

Songs of praise are also closely associated with thanksgiving (1 Chron 16:7-10; Ps 69:30; 147:7). Israel was commanded to give thanks to the Lord, because he is good, and his steadfast love endures forever (Ps 107:1)! These songs of thanksgiving and praise were to be the first part of the worshiper’s approach to God; before coming to ask God for something, the worshiper must enter his gates with thanksgiving, and his courts with praise (Ps 95:2; 100:4). Praise and thankfulness to the Lord should mark how we begin our prayer to him. It may take patience to wait in God’s presence, praising him before we ask for his help with what we are worried about. But many times, after we spend time praising and thanking God for who he is and for what he has done in our lives, we are no longer worried about our problem! Thanksgiving glorifies God, and it helps us have peace!

The Bible teaches that thanksgiving is a mark of a mature Christian (Col 2:6-7). It is also what is “fitting,” and appropriate for God’s people. Paul instructs the church at Ephesus to banish dirty jokes and foul language from their mouths, as inappropriate for God’s saints, and to replace that rotten language with thanksgiving.

Thanksgiving is not just a matter of the heart, although that is where it begins. Scripture calls us to be vocal in our thanksgiving and praise! In Psalm 40, David elaborates on how he has not committed the shameful act of remaining silent about what God had done for him when he went to worship with God’s people. He writes, “I have told the glad news of deliverance in the great congregation; behold, I have not restrained my lipsI have not hidden your deliverance within my heart; I have spoken of your faithfulness and your salvation; I have not concealed your steadfast love and your faithfulness from the great congregation” (Psalm 40:9-10 ESV). God wants us to vocalize our thanks to him in the form of songs of praise, and testimonies in church gatherings that encourage others.

The opposite of thanksgiving is the sin of ingratitude. This sin is described as a very serious sin in Scripture (Rom 1:21; 2 Tim 3:2; Ps 106:7). When Jesus healed ten lepers, and only one returned to him to give thanks, Jesus asked, “Were not ten cleansed? Where are the nine? Was no one found to return and give praise to God except this foreigner?” (Luke 17:15-18 ESV).

It is helpful to contrast the heart of thankfulness with a heart of ingratitude, to help us understand where we fall:

Thanksgiving has a heart of Humility, while ingratitude stems from pride. Thanksgiving comes from someone who is aware of God’s grace in their life; Ingratitude is blind to God’s blessings. Thanksgiving is the overflow of faith; Ingratitude comes from unbelief. Thanksgiving looks away from self to God; Ingratitude is selfish. Someone with a heart of thanksgiving thinks they have received more than they deserve from God; Someone with an ungrateful heart thinks they deserve more than they have received. Thanksgiving overflows in the mouth as praise; Ingratitude overflows in the mouth as complaining. Thanksgiving results in a mouth that vocalizes praise to God in the congregation; Ingratitude remains silent. It has nothing for which to thank God.

When we see that we are sinning in this area, we need to understand the gospel. Jesus died on the cross for our ungratefulness, our lack of praise, our silence, our complaining, our pride, and our blindness to the blessings of God. He paid for these sins with his blood, and rose from the grave to empower us to honor God in thankfulness! Let us repent of our sins, and ask the Lord to give us thankful hearts!

Does It Matter How Christians Talk?

See the source imageSpeech is important. God is a speaking God, and he has made humans in his image. We are creative, moral, emotional, rational, and spiritual beings who communicate with language. When sin came into the world, it affected every part of us, including the way we speak. Many Christians today seem to downplay the importance of our speech, but a quick survey of Scripture shows that this is something God takes very seriously.

Our speech is really a heart issue. When someone becomes a Christian, something truly miraculous and life-changing happens to them. The Bible calls it being “born again.” Through the gospel of Jesus and by the Holy Spirit, we are changed from the inside out (2 Cor 5:17). The Spirit begins a transforming work in us that will ultimately affect all areas of our lives. This transformation will not occur overnight, but there will be progress, day by day, little by little, as we begin to look more and more like Christ. It is impossible to be a Christian and fail to experience this transformation process (Romans 6:1-4).

The change will be seen outwardly as fruit, or evidence, of our transformation. One of the ways this saving work will be seen is in the fruit of our speech. Jesus made this clear in Luke 6:43-45. A good tree (one that has been born again) will always produce good fruit, but the evil tree will continue to produce only bad fruit. Jesus then mentioned our speech: “for out of the abundance of the heart his mouth speaks (v45). What is in the heart will always reveal itself out of our mouth! We can fake it for awhile. Many people go to church and say the right words, sing the songs, talk about Jesus, but their heart is far from God. Eventually the truth will come out. People will know who we are, and what we love, by what we talk about. The heart is seen in the words. So, if we are a Christian, our speech should increasingly reflect the new nature within.

Christ has called his followers to be different from the world. God is holy, and he demands that his people also be holy. “Holy” means to be set apart from the world to God, as his special people. He calls his people “saints,” or “holy ones.” We are his. Jesus instructed us to act as salt and light in this sinful world (Mat 5:13). Being holy, acting as salt and light, does not mean we physically separate from the world. But it does mean that our identification with Christ will be a visible, and even audible thing! Our speech should increasingly be different from the way the world talks (2 Cor 6:7; 1 Tim 4:12; Titus 2:7-8). Part of our walk as disciples of Jesus is the replacement of sinful speech with speech that glorifies God and builds up others (Heb 13:15). Our speech is an important part of our witness and our identification with Jesus.

The Scriptures contain clear commands about how God’s people use their speech. Christians are instructed to avoid sinful, hurtful, and filthy speech:

“Let no corrupting talk come out of your mouths, but only such as is good for building up, as fits the occasion, that it may give grace to those who hear. …But sexual immorality and all impurity or covetousness must not even be named among you, as is proper among saints. Let there be no filthiness nor foolish talk nor crude joking, which are out of place, but instead let there be thanksgiving” Ephesians 4:29; 5:3-4 ESV 

These Scriptures are very clear. “Corrupting talk” is speech that is rotten, foul, profane. Twice this passage refers to this kind of speech as not “proper,” “out of place” for God’s saints. There is a kind of speaking that is just not right for the people of God. And God takes it very seriously. In the context of these instructions, Scripture mentions grieving the Spirit of God, and warns of those who will not inherit the kingdom of God (4:30; 5:5).

The power of our speech is strong, to affect people for good or bad. James warns us of the destructive power of the tongue, and how out of place it is for both blessing and cursing to come from the same mouth (James 3:2-12). It is not right to praise God on Sunday, and insult and curse others on Monday, who are made in God’s image! Our speech is not a gray area, or a small thing in the eyes of God. It is part of our break with the old man and our continual transformation into the likeness of Christ (1 Cor 1:5; 2 Cor 8:7).

It is a bit overwhelming how much the Bible says about our speech. Below is a list of specific types of speech the Scripture forbids the people of God to use. The list includes sixteen kinds of forbidden speech, and it’s not even an exhaustive list!

The Negative: Scripture Calls God’s People to Avoid Certain Kinds of Speech

  • Lies/deceit: Col 3:9; Hos 4:2; Prv6:17; 12:22; 1 Pet 3:10
  • Flattery/Smooth, flirty speech that leads to sexual sin: Ps 55:21; Prov 2:16; 5:3; 7:21
  • Crooked/Perverted Speech: Prv 2:12-13; 4:24; 6:12; 8:13;
  • Destructive that Destroys: Prv16:27; Jms 3:5-6
  • Dirty Jokes: Eph 5:3-4
  • Cursing/Profanity: Eph 4:29; Jms 3:9-11; Hos 4:2
  • Sarcasm/Insults (sarcastic daggers linger in the heart of others long after we have spoken them): Eph 4:29; Mat 5:22
  • Tearing Down: Eph 4:29; Prv18:21
  • Slander (speak critically with intent to hurt): Ps 101:5; Mk 7:22; Rom 1:30; Eph 4:31; Col 3:8; 1 Pet 2:1
  • Talking too much: Prv 10:19; 29:11
  • Gossip: Rom 1:29; 2 Cor 12:20; 1 Tim 5:13
  • Arguing: 1 Tim 6:4; 2 Cor 12:20
  • Blasphemy: Ex 20:7; Lev19:12; 22:31-33 (“Profanity” connected to blasphemy in ancient times, to treat the holy as common; defile)
  • Speaking Evil of Someone (insult, mock, ridicule, in general): Titus 3:2; Jms 4:11; 1 Pet 3:10
  • Revile (criticize in an angry manner): 1 Cor 5:11; 6:10
  • Grumbling/Complaining: Phil 2:14; Num 11:1

It should be noted that on occasion, prophets of God used strong language to denounce sin – even sexual language (describing Israel’s idol worship as a kind of spiritual adultery – “whoring” after other gods). But this not the same as laughing with friends while dropping some choice words.

But the Scripture is not just negative on this subject! There are also commands for specific types of speech that God’s people must use! This is part of the idea of replacement as we grow in Christ; replacing the old habits of speech with God-glorifying ones. What is in the heart must come out of the mouth!

The Positive: Scripture Calls God’s People to Adopt Certain Kinds of Speech

  • Building Up Others: Col 4:5-6; Eph 4:29; Prv16:24
  • Honesty: Eph 4:25; Mat 5:37
  • Restraint (not talking too much): Prv 10:19; 29:11
  • Blessing Others: 1 Pet 3:9
  • Singing to God and the Church: Eph 5:19; Col 3:16
  • Teaching Each Other: Col 3:16
  • Prayer: Lk 11:2
  • Exhortation/Encouragement: 1 Thes 5:11; Heb 3:13
  • Preaching: 2 Tim 4:2
  • Witness/Evangelism: Acts 1:8
  • All Speech for the Glory of God: Col 3:17 

The focus here is not on rules, or approaching God in a legalistic, “I’ve got to control my speech to earn his love” way. It is a heart of obedience and thankfulness to the Lord that wants to grow in Christlikeness. If you have failed in this area (and we all have), know that Christ died for these sins, too! Let us repent of sinful speech, receive the Lord’s forgiveness, and lean on the power of the Spirit of God to speak in a way that glorifies God and builds people up!

Article by Cary Cox