Resources for the New Year

Here are a few resources to help you get the new year off to a great start.

What’s Best Next: How the Gospel Transforms the Way You Get Things DoneOf course I’ll be recommending my book here! The beginning of the year is a good time to refine your mission, vision, roles and goals. What’s Best Next can help you as you think through these higher levels. It can also help at the levels of improving how you organize your projects and actions, as well as dealing with productivity killers such as procrastination and multi-tasking.

Seven Principles for Setting Goals that WorkMy post at Michael Hyatt’s blog from earlier this year. These principles can be helpful in setting new year’s resolutions, which are really just a type of goal.

The Yearly Review. My interview on Moody South Radio’s Fresh Start from yesterday on the benefits of reviewing your year and how to do it. (5-8 minutes or so.)

Setting New Years Resolutions You’ll Actually Stick With. A live Q&A Michael Hyatt is doing on Friday.

New Year’s Resolutions and 1 Thessalonians 1. A great lab by John Piper (as are all of them). Is it biblical to set resolutions? Interestingly, the Bible actually speaks very affirmingly of resolutions. What the Bible especially commends is setting resolutions for good. That is an exciting thing. “He who is noble plans noble things” (Isaiah 32:8).

And my chief tips for New Year’s resolutions today are this:

  1. Read God’s Word. The best resolution you can make is likely to go deeper in daily, focused reading and study in God’s word — and then, of course, to do what it says (James 2:22-25). If most Christians simply made this single resolution, it would have a greater impact than anything else.
  2. Follow God’s Word. In relation to point 1, note again the extreme importance of actually doing what the Bible says. “Be doers of the word, and not hearers only, deceiving yourselves” (James 1:22). This is a point that Jesus made over and over, and which stuck with the disciples as one of the most important take-aways from his entire ministry. It’s not enough just to read and study the Bible and listen to good preaching. You have to do what it says. Obviously you can’t do what it says if you don’t know what it says; interestingly, as you do what it says you will find that you come to understand what it says even more deeply.
  3. Get a Head Start. Start your New Year’s resolutions a week early. Sorry for the late nature of this tip! I’ve found this is one of the best ways to help ensure you stick with your resolution(s), because it enables you to go into the year already having some momentum. You already feel ahead, and thus in the second or third week of January, when most people quit, you might already have the habit in place and make it through.

Christmas: A Time to Turn To God

It doesn’t make much sense to celebrate the coming of Christ into the world without acknowledging the very reason he came.

He came to earth to save us from our sins and give us eternal life. It would be a tragedy to enjoy the presents, food, time with family and friends, and everything else and miss out on the real point of it all.

So if you haven’t already, it makes sense to let Christmas be a time for turning to God.

It is very simple to do so. You just need to recognize that your greatest need in all the world is to know God — forever. Sin has cut us off from that, but we can receive forgiveness simply by looking to Christ.

It takes more than just intellectually knowing that Christ died and rose again. You need to actually trust in his death and resurrection as the payment for your sins and basis of your right standing with God. When you do so, you receive forgiveness and a new life.

Forgiveness is free, but you also need to know that it changes you. It is impossible to turn to Christ and to be content with continuing to live for yourself and for purposes that are at odds with his will. To turn to Christ means taking up your cross and following him. It means ceasing to live your own life and beginning to live for him.

This is the meaning of faith and repentance. It is the way to heaven.

Here is one of the best passages in all of the Bible on how we receive forgiveness of sins and new life in Christ:

If you confess with your mouth that Jesus is Lord, and believe in your heart that God raised him from the dead, you will be saved. For with the heart one believes and is justified, and with the mouth one confesses and is saved. For the Scripture says, “Everyone who believes in him will not be put to shame.” For there is no distinction between Jew and Greek; for the same Lord is Lord of all, bestowing his riches on all who call on him. For “everyone who calls on the name of the Lord will be saved.”

So if you haven’t already, this Christmas — right now — would be a good time to turn to God. He wants you to. Complete forgiveness and new life are available for everyone.

 

Understanding Christian Freedom

It is incredibly important for Christians to understand the doctrine of Christian freedom. John Calvin said that if you don’t understand the doctrine of Christian freedom, it shows that you don’t understand the doctrine of justification either. For the doctrine of justification necessarily leads to the doctrine of Christian freedom.

Here is a great initial summary of what it means by Paul Helm, in The Callings: The Gospel in the World:

The Christian is not given a rule or regulation to cover every move he makes. Nor is he to want to have such a system of rules.

Rather, the detailed application of the law of Christ in his own life must be worked out in the light of the application of the general principles of the law of God to his detailed circumstance.

The Christian is called upon to exercise mature, and maturing, judgment. In similar circumstances to other Christians he may find himself differing as to what is the right thing for him to do, because, though similar, circumstances may nevertheless make important differences.

The Christian may consult others in forming his conclusions about what to do. He may make use  of accumulated Christian wisdom, or indeed anything else which he finds of help, but in the last resort the decision to follow Christ in this particular way is his, and his alone. This is another aspect of Christian freedom, the freedom to assess and judge situations for oneself.

I believe that the doctrine of Christian freedom is being undermined today in some subtle ways. One reason is that it can seem “dangerous” to think that people are to make their own decisions. What about community? What about accountability?

Of course those things matter. But people are to be held accountable to what the Scriptures actually teach, and the community is to support people in doing what the Scriptures command. In areas where the Scriptures do not require one action or another, the individual is free and responsible to choose his or her own course of action.

If you don’t understand this doctrine you will be unable to fully mature as a Christian, your walk with God will be impoverished, and you will more easily become the victim of spiritual bullies who claim to have more authority than they really do.

I hope to blog more on this in the future so we can all have a very clear understanding of what Christian freedom really means, and stand clear of the subtle ways that it is often undermined today — even when (especially when!) they come cloaked in a guise of spirituality.

How Do You Balance Material Goods with the True Spirit of Christmas?

Anne Bradley has a great post on this at the Institute for Faith, Work, and Economics. Here are three very helpful points she makes (note especially the first one — it’s why I don’t think giving gifts at Christmas necessarily equals consumerism):

What are some ways we can worship God with our whole being and possessions in this Christmas season?

  • Remember that redemption is not just spiritual. Christ experienced the physical nature of our world in a similar way to us, and he called it good. We will eventually be given new bodies, but God will use our current ones for his glory and our good, even during this life.
  • Practice gratitude. We’ve been blessed with amazing prosperity, much of which has been generated through entrepreneurship made possible by free markets and favorable institutions.
  • Give generously and resourcefully. As in everything, let us give with a heart attuned to God’s will for the needs around us. If we have been given much, let us give much. But, as we reach out to others, let us be careful to enable others to arrive at a place of greater prosperity because of broadened skills and resources.

Also make sure to check out Andrew Spencer’s excellent post on whether capitalism necessarily leads to and is based on consumerism. It is very enlightening and ought to be shared far and wide.

A New Model for Helping the Poor

Yesterday I tweeted about how World Vision’s gift catalog promotes donations by giving the impression that you are able to buy farm animals and other items for families in poor countries — but it turns out that they often don’t buy the actual animals that the donor thought they purchased.

Puzzling? Yes. Warren Throckmorton quotes a World Vision representative as saying “As you can imagine, the reality of our programming in the field is much more complex and nuanced than simply giving a family an animal in isolation from other programs and services.”

Now, I can understand that. The problem is: if you give people the impression that they are actually buying a goat or other item for a family, when in fact they are not doing so, that is deceptive. 

There is absolutely no place for that. Marketing needs to match reality.

Further, why in the world would you try to motivate someone by means of half truths? Truly, this makes no sense to me.

Another organization, Oxfam, which follows the same practice, says they have never made it a secret that they might buy other items with the donation. So maybe they do a better job of making that clear. But as Warren Throckmorton points out regarding World Vision, a standard visitor to their site who donates through the gift catalog would never get this impression.

Note that the issue is not that these funds are being abused. It sounds like they are still being used for the sake of the poor. The problem is one of marketing. Donors are given the impression that they are buying specific items for the poor in the developing world, when in fact they are not.

Now, this raises a bigger question as well. And that question is: are there better ways of helping the poor in the medium to long term that go beyond giving things altogether? While giving is important, increasingly organizations are recognizing that the answer is yes.

I’ve interviewed Paul Larsen on this question, a pioneer in developing commerce-based approaches to helping lift the poor out of poverty.

Paul is director of the 128 Foundation, where he speaks and provides resources that help Christians think more holistically about human flourishing and poverty relief. He is also vice president of Cheetah Development, where he works with donors, investors, and strategic partners to incubate, lunch, and expand businesses in the for-profit value chain that link the poorest of the poor profitably to the marketplace.

1. What are the main problems with the current approach to helping the poor in the developing world?

I would say the key problems include dehumanizing dependency, perverted incentives and conflicting agendas.

The first “Great Commission” in Scripture is the Creation Mandate. Genesis 1:28 tells us that God’s first word to man was the mandate to get to work. It has been well said that the command to create culture is the command to organize the raw material of creation in ways that allow human beings to flourish as images of God. We are designed to create and produce value. Man flourishes when he creates more than he consumes. And to the extent that poverty programs hinder human flourishing, they dehumanize the poor.

What is unfortunate about even well-intentioned aid is that when short term relief turns into long term aid it not only subsidizes chronic problems that lead to poverty (see When Helping Hurts by Fikkert and Corbett), but also creates a subsequent dependency that hinders and handcuffs the ability of the poor to be obedient to the first command given to mankind.

NGOs and aid organizations play a very important role in emergency relief, in organizing people into groups (for training, etc.) and collecting data. But turning raw materials into food and other goods requires the development of ‘value chains,’ which require the incentives under which businesses operate to create real, rational markets. Aid organizations are set up to spend donor funds and profits would undermine the model.

After pumping some $2 trillion into Africa in the last 40 years, the poverty needle has not moved. Sometimes we chuckle when socialists are asked why socialism has never worked, and they reply that it’s just because the right people have not been in charge. The tragedy in this is that Africa, which has enough land and water to feed 5 times their population, are importing 80% of their food — up from 15% in the 1970’s.

Packing boxes of grain, loading containers full of used clothing (destroying a once robust textile industry in Kenya), asking groups to go overseas to paint schoolrooms, donating money for sheep, goats, chickens or cows and writing checks feels real good because we like to be benefactors. But benefactors need beneficiaries and we must ask if a permanent needy underclass perpetuates that desire.

While it’s easy to develop a heart for the poor, the challenge is to develop a mind for the poor.

2. What is the relationship that you see between business and helping the poor?

The first suggestion is to do the math. If you were to redistribute all the resources in the world available to charity among 7 billion people you would use it up in 30 days or less. So the goal must be to create wealth and value — and that is what business does better than anything else that humans can do.

Regarding resources, using Africa as an example, we see that it contains roughly 30% of every natural resource we can measure, yet only has 15% of the world’s population — but only generates 2% of the world’s GDP. The problem is that Africa has always been considered the place where you extract cheap resources, only to bring them home and make something valuable out of it. The wealth isn’t in the resources, it’s in the engineering, business systems and technical operations that make those resources useful.

In the 1770’s Adam Smith wrote the first book that really made economics something many could finally get their arms around. At that time, both North and South America were being developed and there was a real question about which continent would prevail. South America had some 10 times the natural resources and a much better climate, but Smith predicted that North America would prevail given its particular religious roots and belief in the creativity of individuals which led to, among other things, some of the first patent laws — the ability to own and profit from your ideas.

Over the last 500 years we see that there are no economically flourishing cultures that developed through foreign aid and volunteers. North America, with relatively few natural resources and a difficult climate showed that it’s human innovation and trade, fueled by capital.

3. How does 128 Foundation and its partners seek to help families in the developing world thrive, without giving them anything?

Over 60% of the poor are subsistence farmers, which means some 600 million families are farming to barely starve. In Africa it averages over 70% of the population. Our work focuses on incubating the financial models and value chain businesses that profitably connect the poorest-of –the-poor to the marketplace. Our typical family experiences a 10-fold increase in income and even savings in the first 12-14 months.

We are happy to report that some major aid-based NGO’s are looking for ways to advance our model, so we need to scale up — and we have opportunities for donors, investors and strategic partners.

Paul Larsen is Founder and Director of 128 Foundation and Vice President of Strategic and Faith-Based Partnerships at Cheetah Development. He lives in Minneapolis, Minnesota, and loves engaging with those who seek human flourishing for God’s glory. You can contact him at: plarsen[at]128foundation.org.

Come to the Gospel at Work Conference in Atlanta, January 23 – 24

I’ll be speaking at the Gospel at Work conference in Atlanta, January 23 – 24.

The conference starts that Friday night at 7:30 and goes to Saturday at 12:30. Other speakers include Greg Gilbert, Sebastian Traeger (both co-authors of the excellent book The Gospel at Work), Bob Doll, and many more.

I love the vision of this conference and am really looking forward to it. There is a growing movement of Christians who are eager to understand how their faith relates to their work. This conference is one of the best places to go to be inspired and equipped with the amazing biblical teaching on faith and work.

Here’s a brief description of the conference:

Most people spend at least 80,000 hours of their lives working. Wouldn’t you like to know how to worship God with that time?

The Gospel at Work conference will help you think biblically about your work. Speakers will provide practical wisdom on how to approach the challenges you face in the workplace and offer insight into God’s concern for your work.

You’ll also meet godly men and women from a variety of industries for a series of very practical discussions on topics like career planning as Christians, leading in the workplace and business as a mission field.

If you wrestle with questions about your work, or if you care about someone who does, this conference is for you.

You can learn more about it, and register, at the website.

(And if you aren’t able to make it to Atlanta, they are doing another Gospel at Work conference in Washington, DC, the following weekend.)

It would be great to see you there!

A Better Understanding of Why We Procrastinate

This is an excellent article, showing that the common stereotype of why we procrastinate is often wrong.

“Conventional wisdom has long suggested that procrastination is all about poor time management and willpower. But it may have more to do with how our brains and emotions work.”

Hence, the solution to procrastination is different than people often think as well.

Instead of kicking yourself (or others) for alleged poor time management, it’s two things. First, don’t beat yourself up over procrastination — that will actually make you more likely to procrastinate next time, because it creates a doom cycle of guilt.

Second, don’t “just do it,” but do “just get started.” The whole task may seem too overwhelming. But if you identify a smaller piece you can at least get started on, often that will build momentum that will keep you going.

The Vision of the Institute for Faith, Work, and Economics

Yesterday I blogged on the vision of The Gospel Coalition because I had just received a newsletter from them that communicated it so well.

Turns out I also recently received a newsletter from The Institute for Faith, Work, and Economics (IFWE) which similarly lays out their vision extremely well. IFWE is also an excellent organization that is worth knowing about and following.

Here’s how Hugh Whelchel, executive director of IFWE, starts the newsletter:

“What does IFWE do?” is almost always the first question I am asked about our work at the Institute for Faith, Work & Economics.

Whether you read our articles every day or every week, you know that we provide perspective and practical insight on the integration of faith and work through our blog.

But did you know that IFWE also has campus programs, curriculum, and more books coming this year? To highlight some of the other resources we have developed for you, we have put together this Impact Report to share our story and the stories of those men and women who have been changed by our work.

He then links to their Impact Report, which is super helpful and worth taking a look at.

One thing worth highlighting from the report is the way they lay out their aim and distinctives in the early pages. It is very simple, and here it is:

Mission

IFWE’s mission is to inspire and educate Christians to live out a biblical theology that integrates faith, work, and economics.

Vision

IFWE’s vision is a free society characterized by greater creativity and increased human flourishing.

Core Values

  • Freedom inspires creativity and enterprise. Freedom empowers us to thrive in our work and serve others. Freedom affirms our dignity and the dignity of others.
  • Fulfillment comes when we use our God-given talents to pursue excellence in our work. Fulfillment is the mark of a life spent glorifying God, enriching others, and finding satisfaction in using our gifts as God intended.
  • Flourishing is fullness of life, wholeness, and abundance. Flourishing is the natural outflow of freedom and fulfillment. When we flourish, we contribute to the fruitfulness of our communities, the thriving of our cities, and the peace and justice of our nations.

What We Do

IFWE conducts high level theological and economic research and translates it into practical resources to help Christians integrate their faith in the workplace and empower them to become better stewards of all their God-given talents and resources.

IFWE’s message is both theologically profound and extremely practical. A robust biblical view of work and economics is intensely relevant to Christians today.

Specifically, the resources IFWE produces to equip Christians include their blog, research papers on their website, videos, e-books, events, and student programs.

A few words on IFWE’s vision. First, teaching on how to integrate our faith and work as Christians is incredibly needed right now. I am so thankful that they are doing this, and doing it so well. We spend far more time at work than at church and, usually, in any other single activity. So it is crucial that we understand how this huge segment of life relates to our faith.

Second, it is absolutely essential to think of our work in connection to economics as well. This is because our work is always carried out in a larger ecosystem — the economic environment of our nation. Good economic policies contribute to the flourishing of work; bad economic policies hinder work and its ability to improve society. IFWE makes this connection and gets it, recognizing that freedom is at the heart of all good economic policy.

Third, I’m so glad that they are not afraid to use words like “fulfillment” and “flourishing.” Perhaps because of our fear of the prosperity gospel, theologically-minded evangelicals can sometimes shrink from affirming the importance of fulfillment and flourishing. We can almost be hesitant to talk about making things go well.

IFWE is careful to understand “fulfillment” and “flourishing” in holistic terms. Hence, central to their understanding of true fulfillment and flourishing is a relationship with God. True fulfillment, in other words, has God as its center. Further, when God so calls, this can co-exist with suffering and difficulty when that is the path of obedience to him.

Yet, our ultimate aim for others is not to let suffering be, but to enable people to be fulfilled and to flourish in a truly holistic sense — socially and economically as well as spiritually. This comes through a biblical understanding of work and economics, with our aim in all things being the good of others and glory of God.

Fourth, IFWE bases all that it does on sound research and evidence. They aren’t just espousing their own ideas. They are thoroughly grounded in the Scriptures and what the evidence shows to be a proper (and biblical) understanding of economics. This is what gives ideas their power — showing that they arise from sound evidence, rather than wishful thinking.

It is worth checking out their website to learn more about IFWE, and following their blog every day.

The Vision of the Gospel Coalition

I received the December issue of The Gospel Coalition newsletter in my inbox the other day, and I thought they did such a good job stating their vision for the organization that I wanted to share it here.

Here’s how they (Don Carson and Tim Keller) put it:

We helped to found The Gospel Coalition in 2005 with three goals in mind: first, to articulate the gospel in a theologically rich way to demonstrate its relevance to all biblical revelation and to all peoples; second, to deepen thinking and living to “act in line with the truth of the gospel” (Gal. 2:14); and third, to spread this vision of ministry to churches around the globe.

Most of you are familiar with TGC and its vision. Yet, in another sense, I think there is a lot here that is always worth a good refresher.

For example, note the first goal. Their point is that the gospel is at the heart of the Bible. In one sense that seems obvious, but that’s only because people like Carson and Keller have been making that point so well!

Many people still think of the Scriptures as a book of moral principles or disconnected stories. While it does teach us moral principles, and does have stories, the heart of everything — the center and that which connects everything together — is Christ himself, who died and rose again for us. All Scripture points to him ultimately, and is to be understood in that way.

If Christ and the gospel are at the heart of the Scriptures, then that means that mercy is at the heart of the Scriptures. For the gospel is at root a revelation of God’s mercy. And this leads to the second point: the gospel is to affect how we live every area of our lives.

It is, first of all, significant to realize that, just as the gospel is relevant to every facet of biblical revelation, so also the gospel is relevant to every area of our life. We are to think of every area of life in relation to the gospel. But what does this mean? Since the gospel is about God’s mercy, it means that we are to have a merciful angle in how we do and think about everything.

For example, with your business practices letting the gospel be the center doesn’t mean you don’t care about profit. But it does mean that you pursue profit in a people-affirming way — in a way that doesn’t use your employees or treat customers simply as a means to making money. Instead, you see your customers (and employees) as people who are valuable in themselves and whom you exist to bring real benefit to.

It also means that you don’t justify being inhuman or overly strict to people in the name of saying “this is just business.” Letting mercy govern how you do things means you act like a real human being, with emotion and compassion, in every area of life, including business.

Business is just a small example here. To act in line with the truth of the gospel in every area of life means to see yourself as a servant of others in every area, seeking to do what is right for them rather than first seeking to do what is right for yourself.

Third, this vision of the primacy of the gospel is so significant and crucial that it is not enough simply to live it; we must also spread it. And, of course, this is God’s call to his people. We are to believe the gospel, live in accord with the truth of the gospel, and spread the gospel and the vision for life that is in line with it to the world. The chief way that TGC does this is by spreading a gospel-centered vision to churches and ministries globally.

These three principles are incredibly profound, exciting, and life transforming. They are solid principles not just for a Christian ministry, but for a Christian life.

You can learn more about TGC’s vision in their vision for ministry document, and learn more about the ministry they are doing right now by checking out the full newsletter at their website.

A Highly Misguided Way to Talk About Jesus

A blog comments the other day (different blog) said this regarding Jesus’ compassion:

Yes, Jesus was compassionate when confronted with a need, pausing to help the faithful (and in a few cases we know of, non-believers)…that was to show his authority and glory.

I will be direct about this: this is a highly misguided way to talk about Jesus’ compassion. You could perhaps try to parse it in a way that is technically accurate (maybe), yet it gives the completely wrong impression. Here are two problems.

First, it downplays the depth and nature of Jesus’ compassion. By reading this, you get the impression that compassion was just not a big deal for Jesus — that he only did it “to show his authority and glory.”

But in reality, the gospels often speak of Jesus has being motived by compassion (Matthew 9:36; John 15;12-13; Romans 5:15). It was not something Jesus did just to show his authority (and why would that matter for us, anyway, if his authority didn’t exist to be used for the good of people — that is, for compassionate purposes?). It was something he did because he cared. That’s the meaning of compassion, and it is not to be downplayed in the slightest.

And in relation to Jesus’ glory, his love and compassion are themselves a large part of his glory. In other words, his compassion is itself part of what makes him glorious. We know this because the Scriptures speak of God’s grace as the pinnacle of his glory (Romans 9:23; 1 John 4:8; Ephesians 1:6, “to the praise of his glorious grace“).

Further, the author speaks of Jesus simply “pausing” to help the faithful. This makes it sound like he didn’t give significant attention to it, or that it wasn’t a chief purpose of his mission. It was something he simply “paused” to do, while he was on to other more important things.

Instead, Jesus’ own theme verse for his ministry makes compassion the very center of his ministry (Matthew 9:12-13). Everything Jesus did — to the pinnacle of his ministry of going to the cross for our salvation — was motived by compassion. Compassion is central to Jesus’ heart and way of thinking.

Second, it downplays Jesus’ ministry to non-believers. The author says that there are only a few cases we know of where Jesus helped non-believers. This is a strange thing to say about the one said that he “came not to call the righteous, but sinners” (Matthew 9:13).

This way of thinking contributes to setting up walls against compassion. It makes it seem as though helping non-believers is not very important, because Jesus only did it a few times.

But in fact, Jesus helped unbelievers all the time. In a very real sense, every single person that Jesus helped was an unbeliever. The reason is that, even if they were already a believer when he physically helped them, that simply meant that his Spirit had first worked in them to bring them to faith. 

And today, the gospel is going to all nations at his command, helping millions of unbelievers everywhere by bringing them to faith. 

This issue is very important because it goes to the very heart of who Jesus is. I take issue with this commenter because I am seeing this thinking more and more, and it is a very subtle thing.  Jesus is appealed to in order to almost justify a type of aloofness and separation from people’s real needs, in the name of “responsibility” or “authority.” It’s as though we think God wants boundaries more than he wants love – which is often messy.

Sometimes we even minimize Jesus’ compassion for the apparent sake of his glory. It’s as though we are afraid that acknowledging that Jesus was compassionate and loved people is going to diminish God-centeredness or something. Instead of allowing Jesus to challenge our own lack of empathy, we end up finding justification for it in him by coming to the gospels with our own preconceived notions.

This is not right, and it gives a wrong view of Jesus — which, in turn, stands in the way of people following him. Who could follow a Jesus who is not filled with compassion? We need more than that.

It is a great irony that people can miss this about the most compassionate person in all of history. And yet, it happens all the time.