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The Secret to Getting “Scary Close”

My copy of Scary Close by Donald Miller.

My copy of Scary Close by Donald Miller.

Everyone wants to be loved, but no one wants to be vulnerable. So we find ourselves stuck, because love is impossible without vulnerability.

This is what Donald Miler learned after breaking off an unhealthy engagement. After decades of dead-end relationships, he had hit bottom and knew something needed to change. In “Scary Close,” Miller is more honest and transparent than ever before as he explains the long road to his healing.

Written in his trademark reflective essays, the book traces how he learned to “drop the act” and open himself to a life of intimacy. The journey leads him to rediscover himself underneath the barriers he used to keep other people at a distance. Things like being smart, funny, or manipulative. Anything it’d take to hide who he really was.

And he realized he wasn’t alone in pretending.

“Somewhere along the line I think many of us buy into a lie that we only matter if… We only matter if we are strong or smart or attractive or whatever,” Miller writes.

We’re superheroes wearing masks so no one recognizes us for being ordinary, boring, imperfect humans. The downside is people never have the opportunity to love our real selves under the masks. Our act designed to help us connect with others instead becomes the brick wall separating us.

As a teenager, my brick wall was silence. I thought I needed to be intelligent and wise for anyone to like me. With nothing profound to say, I relied on silence to create a façade of thoughtful sagacity. My guiding motto was: “Even fools are thought wise if they keep silent, and discerning if they hold their tongues” (Prov. 17:28). Yet the plan didn’t work like I had hoped. Instead of drawing friends, I felt coldly distant from my peers. Even the ones inviting me to their cafeteria lunch tables and birthday sleepovers. They assumed they knew me, but it was only a caricature.

College gave me the chance to start over. I developed more confidence in speaking, whether or not I sounded wise. It seemed like progress…until I realized the power of wit and sarcasm. I could make people laugh. I could catch their attention. I could cut them using only words. As Proverbs 18:21 warns, “The tongue has the power of life and death, and those who love it will eat its fruit.”

After some time, the witticisms act also unraveled. Speaking impulsively, I wouldn’t think through opinions before claiming them. I’d say shocking or offensive words just for the gratifying attention, and then later regret speaking at all when I realized those were not my actual thoughts. My careless words hurt people who cared for me. I was again misleading others into an unreal impression of me. To let others know me, I’d have to speak up…but only what was true.

“The whole experience makes me wonder if the time we spend trying to become somebody people will love isn’t wasted,” Miller writes, “because the most powerful, most attractive person we can be is who we already are, an ever-changing being that is becoming and will never arrive, but has opinions about what is seen along the journey.”

Miller’s greatest test came when he decided to try again at love. He began dating a woman who refused to put up with his acting. When he practiced vulnerability instead, he experienced a truer intimacy with another person than he had ever felt before.

“I felt a sense of relief,” Miller writes. “If honesty is the key to intimacy, it means we don’t have to be perfect and, moreover, we don’t have to pretend to be perfect.”

Paul directed the Ephesian church with a similar challenge. He wrote, “Therefore each of you must put off falsehood and speak truthfully to your neighbor, for we are all members of one body” (Eph. 4:25). Vulnerability with each other is the key to both giving and receiving love. The truth is when we can finally let others love us just as we are, no hiding or pretending, we gain the ability to love in return. We’re no longer defending ourselves behind brick walls; we’re reaching through an open gate to take each other’s hands.

Miller married the woman who helped him learn how to be vulnerable and therefore intimate. He knew she was good for him in many ways, but he struggled to grasp what he could possibly offer her. So one day after their engagement, he asked her. She laughed at him, surprised he couldn’t tell. She listed some examples of how he had changed her life for the better. After that, Miller began to enjoy more his time spent with other people. He’d looked forward to meeting a friend for coffee because he wouldn’t be the only one to benefit.

“I wonder if we’re not all a lot better for each other than we previously thought,” Miller writes. “I know we’re not perfect, but I wonder how many people are withholding the love they could provide because they secretly believe they have fatal flaws.”

We need to recognize our doubts that tell us, “We only matter if…” and finally take advantage of the enormous good we’re capable of giving others. It’s scary, of course, but well worth the risk. Love is impossible otherwise.

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Posted by on September 26, 2015 in Books

 

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Christian Reading: The Greatest Hits

Your next summer read may be in this post. As promised, I have some book recommendations to inspire you. This top 10 list comes from the pastor of my sister and brother-in-law. In no particular order, Pastor Jason recommends these summer reads:

  1. Too Busy Not to Pray by Bill Hybels
  2. The Life You’ve Always Wanted by John Ortberg
  3. If You Want to Walk on Water, You’ve Got to Get Out of the Boat by John Ortberg
  4. Chasing Daylight by Erwin McManus
  5. Crazy Love by Francis Chan
  6. Sun Stand Still by Steven Furtick
  7. Searching for God Knows What by Donald Miller
  8. Mere Christianity by C. S. Lewis
  9. Letters from a Skeptic by Gregory Boyd
  10. Knowing God by J. I. Packer

I have read three of the above books (5, 7 and 8) and can say they place on the list for good reason. It’s a safe bet that the others have equal “top 10” merit. After all, if the entire list is the same quality as Searching for God Knows What, anyone who has been reading this blog knows it would be a life-changing summer if someone read the whole list.

Do you think there are books missing from this list? What other books should a Christian read over the summer? I mean besides the obvious one too great to even compare with others. Seriously, comment with your favorite Christian reads.

And while you’re commenting anyway, maybe you can answer a question that came up with a couple friends this weekend. They were wondering who the contemporary, big-name Christian authors are. Those authors whose books become fodder for church small groups and they get invited to speak at every Christian conference in the nation? Who are those authors who everyone seems to talk about? Let’s start a list.

 
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Posted by on July 30, 2012 in Books

 

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Searching for God Knows What Part 7: The Greatest Love Story

In the thrilling series finale of the hit drama Searching for God Knows What

Donald Miller makes a confession here in the second to last chapter of Searching for God Knows What. He doesn’t claim to be right. He instead admits, “As for me, I’m somebody who repeats what I was taught in Sunday school using fancier language.” Isn’t that shocking? We’ve read almost his whole book and only now does Miller tell us that he stole the main ideas behind everything he writes.

But wait, he qualifies the confession with, “And yet it is amazing how I can take these beautiful things Jesus told me, this skeleton of the human story He explains in narrative and poetry, and turn it around as though I wrote it on the back of a napkin at Denny’s in a moment of inspiration.” And that’s why I still enjoyed reading his book.

Miller has a gift for polishing old ideas until they shine like new, though his writing as other attractions. The above quote is an example of something perhaps even greater than his refreshing perspective. The book carries on every page an honest and humble tone. Miller doesn’t claim he is right in all his ideas, let alone to have everything together. He doesn’t see himself as an experienced theologian who other people should listen to and trust without question. Rather he’s just a guy across the café table, telling you what he thinks about God. If you don’t agree with him, he doesn’t hold that against you. He won’t use it to separate himself as better than you, putting himself on the “right” side, while you’re standing in the “wrong.”

Still, you are never right, according to Miller. Even when you think you are, when you say you might be the slightest bit of right, not even then. He says no one can “be” right, because “right” is only an idea that we label as part of truth. Whether we agree with a “right” idea has nothing to do with our own “rightness.” We can’t claim the credit for an idea that was never ours. Memorizing scripture and winning Bible trivia games don’t make you a better Christian, either, let alone a better shot at a ticket to heaven. Thinking we know all the right answers has a strange effect that fills us up with air until other people become the ants we’ve risen above.

Miller responds that, “Scripture says the nature of sin is deceptive, so deceptive that a person’s mind can be carried away, and he will have no idea he has become something arrogant and proud and offensive until one of his friends slaps him on the back of the head.”

If you’re wondering about the biblical basis there, try Galatians 6:3 and James 1:26 for starters. God tells us our artificial trophy religion and all our hoarded knowledge do nothing for us in the end. Far from being medals of pride and honor, they mean nothing unless we know Jesus Christ and he knows us.

The Church has received some well-deserved criticism in recent decades. Many Christians, if not all of us, are outright hypocrites. Miller recognizes that we desperately try to prove our value, and ultimately Christianity’s, to the world. We want to show we are right and can still be cool.

Yet, for all her mistakes and blunders, Miller rejects the argument that the Church has to go. Religion has its failings and has caused severe harm in some cases, but then it is also beautiful when used to connect with Christ and spread his love to all people.

Shakespeare’s classic tale relates allegorically the greatest love story, that of Christians and Christ.

To show the relationship between the Church and Christ, Miller applies the example of Romeo and Juliet. Sounds strange, doesn’t it? The connection has surprising foundations in the famous balcony scene when Romeo comes to see Juliet at her home and later when the lovers are finally reunited only after dying. Miller goes so far as to say the poetic lines can match directly to the Calvinist theology of Shakespeare’s time.

“In this beautiful way William Shakespeare weaves the intricate complexities of the love relationship between God and the church into the context of narrative,” Miller says.

He argues that the best way to explain the gospel is not through formulas and lists, but through a series of stories that communicate the greatest love story. This is just what the Bible does, and which Shakespeare uses in Romeo and Juliet. We can’t simplify our relationship with Jesus to a cold list of things to believe and do. His love frees us from the lifeboat’s ropes. We can forget about accumulating wealth, beauty and status to give ourselves worth. Christ alone redeems us to Himself, our true love, and we will reunite when this life passes away.

So what’s my final review? Searching for God Knows What does not disappoint and is a worthy book to follow Miller’s previous bestseller, Blue Like Jazz. Other Christian writers should use Miller as an example if they want to inspire ordinary, lukewarm people to talk about the Bible and get to know Jesus.

I’m grateful my sister had the wise inspiration to give me this book for us to discuss together. It certainly can give anyone fortunate to read it much to discuss with anyone they choose, Christians and non-Christians alike. If you’re looking for all the answers to God and life, you’re looking in the wrong place. But if you want something engaging and thought-provoking, prepare yourself to probe deep into what you believe about the greatest love story the world has experienced.

 
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Posted by on July 20, 2012 in Books

 

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Searching for God Knows What Part 6: Stop Performing

Jean-Louis Forain [Public domain], via Wikimedia Commons

Living in the lifeboat means we have to prove our worth to other people. If we don’t , we worry we’ll be thrown into the sea. Miller introduces a new metaphor in the next section of Searching for God Knows What. He compares life instead to working in a circus. Every circus performer wants the audience to clap for their act and therefore say they have worth in the circus. If they entertain the audience, they keep their jobs. Like performers, we want others to redeem us. We think others can save us if they say we have value.

Jesus’ words comfort us because he said we don’t have to perform to be loved. We don’t have to please an audience. We don’t need to act like circus monkeys. Jesus gives us freedom.

“This is what we have always wanted, isn’t it?” Miller asks. “And it isn’t the American dream at all, it is the human dream, the deepest desire of our hearts.”

But even then, we often don’t accept freedom for free. We continue to force ourselves to perform for God and other people. Maybe if we just act good enough, we think, then we can earn redemption and freedom. If we’re good enough, can we give ourselves value by performing to God and others? No, morality cannot redeem us, but we all know some sort of morality must exist. We want it to exist. As much as we idolize rebellion, we actually want rules and guidance. Without them, everything is chaos.

Morality can’t free us on its own, but we should follow it all the same. It means imitating God, choosing right over wrong. If you’re a Christian, though, morality is more a relational connection than a list of rules. That’s important to remember. If you do something immoral, you don’t just break a rule. You break your commitment to God, much like cheating on your spouse. It does not just violate the law, but love. This morality is personal and should not be belittled by claiming God’s grace when you disregard it.

Loving God and following his morality also means loving the other people he created. Miller brings up the hot button issue in churches of homosexuals and the Moral Right. Having morality does not mean condemning “immoral” people, setting yourself up higher than them. It doesn’t mean a “culture war” between Christians and the rest of America. No, if we’re going to follow Jesus, we have to love God and others above all. Our “war” is against Satan and his power, not the people he has captured and blinded.

“Morality, in the context of a relationship with Jesus, becomes the voice of love to a confused community, the voice of reason and calm in a loud argument, the voice of life in a world of walking dead, the voice of Christ in a sea of self-hatred,” Miller says.

Miller speaks from one step back, taking in the American chaos of squabbling voices and telling it as he sees it all. He addresses the major issues American churches like to debate, but instead of blaming liberals or homosexuals as some Christians are so fond of doing, he puts up a mirror and asks how we look when we argue about moral rules and judge people not like us. Is this the image of Jesus in the Church?

“The person who believes the sum of his morality involves gay marriage and abortion alone, and neglects health care and world trade and the environment and loving his neighbor and feeding the poor is, by definition, a theological liberal, because he takes what he wants from Scripture and ignores the rest,” Miller says.

Miller makes the case that God isn’t worried about fighting for power in one nation or about which party is in office (an especially good reminder this year). God wants to rescue the unloved and give them his Son. Those who have already gained life in Jesus are no better in their natures than when they were prodigals. Morality does not bestow superiority. We need to stop visualizing ourselves in a lifeboat or circus trying to fight to the “top.”

I would like to add that God-centered morality substitutes misplaced pride with proper humility. If we remembered we are nothing outside of Jesus, then perhaps our hypocritical tendencies wouldn’t get in the way of God’s children meeting their Father. Everything we do should point back to God and his unfathomable love. It should all direct our fellow humans to the One who can rescue them from this crumbling world.

 
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Posted by on July 6, 2012 in Books

 

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Searching for God Knows What Part 5: Controversial Jesus

In Searching for God Knows What, Donald Miller transitions from considering humanity’s “lifeboat” culture to how Jesus fit into this picture while on Earth. The lifeboat theory dictates that the most attractive, most popular, most powerful people win. They reach the top of the social ladder. But Jesus didn’t choose a good-looking body or rich parents with lots of friends in high places. He was born next to livestock and was raised by a father who did manual labor. Miller reflects on how Jesus contradicted our lifeboat ideas and wasn’t who the Jews expected to save them.

Miller summarizes a few important traits of Jesus in a list:

  1. He believed all people were equal.
  2. He was ugly.
  3. He liked to be with people.
  4. He had no fear of intimacy.
  5. He was patient.
  6. He was kind.
  7. He was God.
  8. He is I AM.

Each of these traits go against comparing and ranking people in value. Jesus showed everyone has value. Many of the traits Miller points out are often connected to Jesus, except for one. The one that stood out to me, as shallow as it sounds, is that Jesus was ugly. Think about any image you’ve ever seen of Jesus. He’s ruggedly handsome and dressed in a flowing white robe. If you read Isaiah 53:2-3, it describes Jesus as having “nothing in his appearance that we should desire him.” He didn’t gather crowds just with his attractive face, unlike our modern celebrities who don’t need talent for us to love them as long as they have good looks. In one of my recent theology classes, another student made the argument that Jesus was short. Miller considers whether we would pay attention to him if Jesus came to us today like he appeared to Israel back then. Probably not.

Today, we have trouble facing the real Jesus. We instead prefer to imagine our own make-believe Jesus, one we wouldn’t mind watching on television or inviting to dinner with our friends. We want an attractive Jesus who doesn’t cause controversy, but that kind of Jesus wouldn’t have been crucified. And then where would we be? With a Savior we like to show off but who otherwise leaves us in our hopeless state just as before.

If we can’t accept Jesus as-is, it only follows that we couldn’t accept his gospel either. Miller moves onto our current treatment of the gospel and connects it back to where he started the book with our love for formulas, step-by-step bullet points of information to give us what we want. Christian tracts and pamphlets used for ministry often condense the Bible’s message into five or six short points, or a small paragraph at the most. But as one friend pointed out to Miller, the Bible doesn’t include these concise ideas as the tracts represent them. They are found throughout the book and hardly summed up in a few words. Miller recognizes the important use tracts like these have in missions around the world, but he still puts forward the question of whether they really can give justice to the beauty and mystery of the gospel. “Perhaps our reduction of these ideas has caused us to miss something,” Miller says. In fact, it often does.

At this point in the book, Miller addresses a topic of many contemporary Christian sources struggling to break through the foundations of tradition to reveal what creation and all history up to Jesus’ resurrection–what the whole Bible–is really about. And even that we like to sum up in one word: relationship. I’ve noticed this trend, if I can call it that, of Christians addressing other Christians about developing a relationship with Jesus, and with God.

To be honest, I don’t remember a time in my faith when I didn’t hear that Christianity was about living with Jesus like you would a parent or spouse, not at all about whether you are a good person. Trying to be a “good person” was hopeless anyway, I heard, because Christians are bad just like everyone else. We are all fallen, broken, diseased. But God knows us, loves us even as we are, and wants us to love him back. He doesn’t want good deeds unless they come along with our hearts. He wants a relationship, not servitude.

Like the other Christians I’ve heard on this topic, Miller feels concerned that our formulas for the gospel cut out the relational aspect. The bullet points sanitize the gospel into objective facts to understand and accept. There’s no allowance for meeting God and falling in love with him. This doesn’t reflect the message Jesus taught. Miller says:

“It seems, rather, that Christ’s parables, Christ’s words about eating His flesh and drinking His blood, were designed to bypass the memorization of ideas and cause us to wrestle with a certain need to cling to Him. In other words, a poetic presentation of the gospel of Jesus is more accurate than a set of steps.”

We’ve instead turned the gospel into a sort of formula to get into heaven/have a happy life/look spiritual. We’ve bought into the world’s ideas of what deserves our attention and effort to attain. Isn’t life about getting what we want, what will make us happy? And those things are money, success, and sex, right? That’s not what Jesus tells us. We are not meant to live for the bottom line or to reach the top. The gospel isn’t some step of the ladder to happiness. The gospel is Jesus, who came here to reunite us with God, and being with God is all that matters. Forget everything you’ve absorbed about seeking to earn wealth, power, and medals. Forget about winning the most friends or having the hottest man or woman. It’s not even about getting your college degree, buying a house, and raising a family. That way of life is meaningless compared to the only one who is The Way.

 
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Posted by on June 21, 2012 in Books

 

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Searching for God Knows What Part 3: A Filled Cup, A New Name

Okay, I promise I haven’t abandoned this blog. It’s been almost a week since my last post, and that will probably be usual for the next few months. College life, you know.

For now, I will continue my review of Searching for God Knows What. These will not be as detailed or dense with quotes as the first couple not only because I have less time and feel lazy, but because I want to avoid copyright infringement. I greatly respect Don Miller and his work, and therefore do not want him suing me. I will instead continue pulling interesting ideas he presents and then commenting on them. If you are interested in following along with my reading, I encourage you to buy the book. It’s worth the full read.

Miller’s books live apart from other memoirs or theology books because he uses a humorous yet realistic tone. He brings up ideas in situations readers can relate with that, once read, you wonder why you hadn’t noticed the same things before. As you read, it feels as if you are discovering these new ideas along with him. Miller doesn’t put up any pretensions as he leads you through his story. He steps off the pages as a fellow human, someone with faults and without everything figured out. Refreshing.

Last time, I left off by saying how Miller’s childhood “god” deflated like his belief in Santa. Chapter three picks up with why Miller believed in God again. He found a person rather than the system of ideas he used to call “god.” The person he found, God himself and not a made-up image of him, turned out to be bigger and more powerful than he had ever thought of before. He said if you know God as he truly is, then you should fear him because of his overwhelming greatness.

If you read the Bible, you will see a fearsome deity who seeks justice and with the ability to destroy whole nations out of his righteous anger. God is not a pet. He is a wild lion with your head inside his jaws. His omnipotence should be enough to terrify, but God also wields all knowledge and exists in every place in every moment. Thank God his description doesn’t end there (not that he can be fully described, anyway). We can be relieved that he is perfect love. People seem to focus on this trait most and hold it above all else. And yes, it’s important, because it’s the only reason this world still turns. It’s the only reason we have any hope for the future.

But I want to discuss more in-depth another point Miller comes across. Reading the Bible, he saw God’s true greatness alongside our desperate need. The Bible began explaining humanity and our current condition better than any personality theory he had studied in psychology. Specifically, he noticed for the first time his searching need for something or someone to give him an identity. Every teenager experiences this. We call it “finding oneself.”

“I could see it in the people on television, I could see it in the people in the movies, I could see it in my friends and family, too,” Miller wrote. “It seemed that every human being had this need for something outside himself to tell him who he was, and that whatever it was that did this was gone, and this, to me, served as a kind of personality theory.”

In high school, Miller tried earning his identity from others by being the “smart” guy and memorizing poetry to attract the attention of girls. As you can guess, none of it satisfied. Earthly love, the broken love we gather from people around us, just leaks out of our cups and makes us look for constant filling up.

“Imagine, a Being with a mind as great as God’s, with feet like trees and a voice like rushing wind, telling you that you are His cherished creation,” Miller wrote.

That kind of love, when fully accepted, is enough to fill the cups of the world and never run out. Christians are called to be wholly engulfed in this waterfall. We are invited, not to subscribe to a list of ideas, but to identity and love in Christ.

A couple friends recently shared their struggle with losing themselves within Christ. They are concerned about giving up their identities, how they know themselves, to grow closer to God. I understand how they could feel afraid of this strange call. We Christians can accept many sacrifices: our comfort, our desires, even our lives. But who we are? That seems a bit much. How is it even possible?

We all can relate to searching for an identity. We constantly live in a state of personal redefinition. We change and grow. We find different names for ourselves: boyfriend, mother, leader, Doctor, Sergeant, President. Our lives and decisions form us. God extends us an invitation to a new, final identity. He wants to form us into who we were meant to be, before the Fall, and in relationship with him. We are comfortable with what is familiar. We don’t want to give up the moth-eaten, scratchy coats around us even as the stitching comes apart. God offers us silken royal robes.

Which will you wear?

 
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Posted by on January 31, 2012 in Books

 

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Searching for God Knows What Part 2: Let’s Be Real

Last time on Searching for God Knows What…

Emily finally fulfilled her promise to her sister. Donald dropped the rules and turned rebel. In a dramatic revelation, he discovered his long-lost Father wants to renew a relationship with him. But will Donald believe God’s his real father? DUN-DUN-DUN! *blackout*

Okay, so maybe this book isn’t a serial soap opera. (Though, you have to admit it would make a good soap title.) The second chapter goes on to talk about “God impostors” and how they lead us away from the real thing. If I can stretch my analogy a bit here, real life people represent fake gods just like you can never tell whether a soap character is really the next-door neighbor or the victimized daughter who got kidnapped as an infant and is now carrying her brother’s child.

Miller relates God impostors to department store Santas. The only difference is when he found out the dressed-up Santas are fakes, he figured this out because his mom finally filled him in that Santa doesn’t exist. If Santa isn’t real, how can the men sitting kids on their knees be the real thing?

“That is good and fine when we’re talking about Santa, but when we’re talking about God, the ramifications of an impostor are more upsetting,” Miller wrote. “There are, after all, a lot of people who don’t believe in God because they can’t reconcile their idea of Him with the idea presented on television.”

The media shows us pictures of a god who supports only conservative politics and wants us to blindly argue with our opponents, whose followers sexually abuse children and steal money from charities. These impostors show off their inflatable gods that look good on the plastic surface but are filled with air and no substance.

In high school, a psychology class punctured Miller’s God and left it deflated on the floor.

“I didn’t have a relationship with God; I had a relationship with a system of simple ideas, certain prejudices, and a feeling that I and people who thought as I thought were right,” Miller wrote.

Without the system he grew up believing, Miller had nothing left to separate God from his childhood belief in Santa Claus. You can imagine what happened next or read the book for yourself.

There are two questions I think every Christian could ask themselves at this point.

First of all, do I have a relationship with a God impostor or the real thing? How do you tell? The easiest test here is to go to the source, which for Christians, would be the Bible. There are many reasons I trust the Bible as my primary source of information, but let’s not go into that just now. To keep this short, your personal picture of God probably isn’t right if it doesn’t match up with the one the Bible gives. There is no excuse to skip taking this test. If you have internet connection (which I know you do, since you are reading my blog), you can read the Bible and check for yourself whether what everyone else tells you is true about God or not.

Next, if I know God as the Bible describes him, am I representing this God to others or leading them to know a fake? Don’t be the one reposting on Facebook those “Photoshopped” images of God. Look at your social media profiles and compare them to what you claim to believe. Do they match up? If you’re someone without a metaphorical mirror (or with a warped one), grab a Christian friend/mentor and ask for his or her honest view on the God-image you have taped to your shirt.

To be continued…

 
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Posted by on January 22, 2012 in Books

 

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