I’ve been reading a lot about productivity, distractions and work lately. One of my favorite books on this topic is Cal Newport’s Deep Work: Rules for Focused Success in a Distracted World. Newport’s argument is simple: we live in a society that requires “deep work” and yet most of the work we produce is shallow. Why? Because we are distracted by emails, social media, the internet and the constant feeling that we need to be available.
What is worse is that we are often applauded for doing this type of work because it makes us feel “busy.” In fact, we often times feel like we are working more than we ever have. Simply responding to emails or “moving information around” makes us feel accomplished. But as Tim Ferris has said, “Being busy is a form of laziness — lazy thinking and indiscriminate action.” In fact, in 2012 the consulting firm, Mckinsey, discovered that the average worker spent roughly 60% of their time using online communication tools and surfing in the internet. In comparison, only about 30% of their time was spent to reading and answering emails.
In other words, we are doing intensely shallow work. This may not seem like that big of a deal since it seems that pretty much everyone is doing it. However, Newport points out that shallow work consists of… “Tasks that do not create much new value, easy to replicate, often performed while distracted.”
Stated bluntly, this is low value, low impact work.
There are a bunch of solutions to this, of course.
1) You can ritualize deep work by scheduling your routine around the pockets of time you will engage deep work. Intensely focus on a single thing for between 1-5 hours. After that, rest and let your brain recharge. Yes, that means it is totally ok for you to schedule times to be lazy.
2) Schedule times when you are allowed to use the internet and then DON’T DEVIATE from that schedule. Don’t buy into the lie that you just need to “Google something.” You don’t. That is your brain telling you it wants a different form of stimulation. It feels good to Google or check your notifications. But it is like cotton candy for the brain—you know you ate something, but it is gone just as quickly as you ate it. No nourishment. No deep work.
3) Schedule your day out. The problem is that we often live aimless lives. We don’t plan our day wisely. We wake up, go through our routine, and if we happen to stumble upon some free time, we use it unwisely. This was actually one of the things I had to adopt in my own life when I quit being a teacher. When I was a teacher, I had a very set schedule of work. I knew my rhythms and I tried to use my time effectively to achieve all I had to do. When I quit teaching, I found myself with a day that was unstructured. I had to impose order upon it in order to be more successful.
4) Become harder to reach. What this means is that you need to schedule time to take calls and respond to emails. If it isn’t time, then don’t do it. People can wait. They may think that whatever they are doing is an emergency and that you are holding them up. But more likely you are actually helping them out by helping them focus on doing deep work.
Essentially every step on here boils down to this: impose order in your life by creating a schedule for your work. If you don’t do that, your life becomes scheduled for you.
I am not writing this as an expert practitioner but as someone who is on a journey to be more productive.
Allow me to tell you a story…
Throughout my twenties I would typically wake up a few minutes before going off to work. I would scramble around, shower, maybe eat and then hop in my car for the commute to work. I tried going in early to work a few times in order to get more work done but I gave up after a couple days because it felt SOOOOOOOO freaking good to sleep in.
This cycle continued for years. While I managed to accomplish some things, I found that a lot of my time was wasted and wasteful. If something wasn’t scheduled out on my to-do list, it just wouldn’t get done.
I accomplished the most when I set smaller goals and stuck to my deadlines. For instance, when I was working on my D.Min, I had to take some online classes and listen to lecture. I would schedule those times at night and try to get done as much audio lecture as possible. I was typically highly productive at those times.
However, even then I didn’t truly accomplish deep work. I would do these tasks late at night, typically in a room where other things were going on. I felt the constant temptation to have other tabs pulled up on my computer. I always had my phone by me and if anyone texted, I would instantly respond. Nevertheless, I still accomplished my work.
But I am not sure how good my work was or if it truly impacted who I am the way it should have. And I think that is the fundamental issue:
God wants us to do deep work, not because it will make us successful, but because doing deep work transforms us and glorifies Him. The by-product of deep work may be success and the feeling of doing work well. However, it’s ultimate aim is the glory of God and our personal transformation.
And when I think about work along those terms, I realize that much of the work I have done isn’t particularly good.
I would wager that the problem with shallow work also carries over into my spiritual life. Much of what I consider “spiritual” in my life is really just a few moments of shallow engagement with God before heading off and doing other tasks. Worse, much of my engagement with God is distracted—I’ll have my phone on or I will check a Bible commentary on a particular verse instead of just deeply engaging with God in prayer or reading the Bible.
We hear a variety of admonitions against doing this, of course: “Don’t make God into a “to-do” list.” “Don’t put God to the margins.” “Give God your best.”
I would simply say that the root issue here is just being distracted. Maybe we don’t prioritize our time with God because we simply have lost our ability to prioritize at all. We simply flutter from one open screen to the next. We call a few minutes of prayer a “walk with God” when really it is just another open “tab” in our life.
As much as my charismatic, spontaneous side pains me to say this, I think we have to schedule God into our week. And that means carving out intentional time—not simply a few minutes—to go deep in our relationship with him. We need uninterrupted, guilt-free time when we just pray and read scripture.
When my Schedule gets Hijacked
I have a 6-month-old daughter. That means my schedule is constantly in flux. Daily routines, while nice, are often times sidetracked by immediate needs (like a dirty diaper). This can prevent deep work and deep spirituality from getting done.
That’s ok. I don’t think we need to be held hostage to our daily schedule. But I do think we need to block our time in such a way as that when something comes up that forces us to reorganize, our entire schedule isn’t destroyed. Here is what is working for me currently:
1) Blocking my schedule into half an hour chunks. This way, if one of my chunks gets destroyed or derailed, it doesn’t ruin all of my work. I just put that devoted chunk of time somewhere else in the day (or throw it out if it doesn’t fit anywhere else).
2) Reflecting on my to-do list the night before. This way, when I wake up the in morning, I know exactly what tasks are to be done that day. I am also not wasting time trying to figure out what I should be doing. I already know.
3) Spending extra time thinking about what could go wrong. I actually like to look at my schedule and think up a few contingencies or “worst-case scenarios” for each thing. What would prevent me from accomplishing my task? What happens if I cannot complete this task? If an interruption comes up, where does this task fall on my priority list? Doing this helps me process through the major work I have to do and sets me up for success, even if things don’t go as planned.
4) Saying “No” a lot more. I hate disappointing people and saying “no” to someone is very tough for me. But I also realize that there are just too many projects I have going on for me to take on much more. Therefore, I have to say “No, I appreciate the offer.” I typically ask myself if a particular offer or invitation excites me. If it doesn’t, I typically decline it.
So that is the basic structure of what I have been learning about “deep work” and “deep spirituality.” I could add more and talk about my changes in diet, exercise, vitamin regimen, and sleep schedule, all of which have impacted my productivity levels (both positively and negatively). That is a post for another day.
How about you? What tips have you found to help you engage in deep work and deep spirituality?
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With the birth of my daughter I found a few things very difficult:
I expected as much. It isn’t like it caught me off guard. However, I found that when I was trying to read the Bible, I just struggled to focus. Long gone were the days of looking up Greek words to enrich the meaning of the verse. Now I basically have time to read a few verses before my daughter screams for more food or for a diaper change.
You feel me, right? I’m not alone in this, am I?
What is worse is that when I don’t have time to meditate on God’s Word, it impacts my whole day, let alone my spiritual life. I have trouble dealing with insignificant incidents. I show increased irritation and frustration with those around me.
I’m kinda the worst if I don’t spend time with God.
I recently had two conversations that motivated me to rethink the way I do devotions. The first was with my podcast guest, John Brandon (who writes for INC.--you can listen here). At the end of every podcast I ask guests to list their favorite book recently and John said, without any sort of pretentious attitude behind it: “The Bible.” His book, Lifeblood: Tapping into Jesus as the True Source of Renewal is a relentlessly focused book—Christ alone is our strength. So for John, the Word of God has to be center to our life. His passion motivated.
Second, I had a conversation (which I’ll be releasing later) with Dr. Christopher Hall (who edited the famed Ancient Christian Commentary Series). Dr. Hall basically told me that he has to wake up every morning and just meditate on God’s Word or his day will be rotten. He suggested a few ideas to me and I, in turn, want to share them with you.
So what to do? Here are a few things I have implemented found helpful in my devotional life, lately.
I love my English Standard Version, but lately I’ve switched translations just to freshen up my Bible reading. I forgot how much I enjoy the NIV. It is easy to read and puts things in fresh perspective for me. I actually used to memorize scripture in the NIV so it is like revisiting an old friend.
I also think that Zondervan just makes the best looking and feeling low-to-mid range Bibles. They hit the perfect mark for font, paper quality and just the feel I like. So I bought an NIV journaling Bible that has great margin room for taking notes (more on my notes in a minute). It’s a great feeling and looking Bible, that I would definitely check out.
2. Change the type of notes I take
As someone who was a Bible teacher and who likes to stay on top of academic theology as much as possible, I typically take pretty detailed notes in my Bibles (as much as possible). I typically record exegetical insights, Greek words, cross-references…the whole bit. But lately I’ve been changing what I record in my Bible. Rather than writing out notes, I’ve been recording responses. So for instance in Proverbs 8, it tells about how Wisdom prepares a feast for those seeking her. I wrote, “Wisdom is ready for me. Am I ready for her?” This phrase functions as both a challenge and a prayer for me. “God, don’t make me foolish. Help me not miss out on wisdom.”
The benefit of taking these types of notes is that I am not really worried about the exegetical precision as much as I am where my heart is. It actually means I am interacting with the text on a different level. This is not to say that taking more academic notes is bad. However, after doing it for so long, I realized that I can easily just make Scripture an academic exercise, rather than something I engage in with my whole heart.
3. I downloaded the “Abide” App
I have long shunned using a smartphone or app for any sort of devotional purpose since I felt that it was more a distraction than something that was beneficial to my walk with God. However, I have been reading a lot of books on “happiness” lately and almost all of them extol the virtues of meditation. I think meditation is fundamentally a Christian practice—provided that you are meditating ON Scripture. Meditation is not an emptying of the mind, which you often see in Eastern religions, but a filling of the mind with the thoughts and words of God.
Enter the “Abide” app. “Abide” is a daily devotion that can either last 2, 5, 10 or 15 minutes. You hit the play button a soothing voice reads a Scripture passage and gives a brief thought on the verse before leading you into a time of extended reflection on the passage and how it relates to your life. With the two-minute version, you really don’t get any sort of meditation time. However, with the 15-minute version you are asked a series of questions and the Bible verse is read in a few different versions. I found the questions helpful and my time in quiet meditation, restful.
It has some cool features with it: you can play music in the background and they have different themes to meditate on, depending on what you are struggling with or want to learn more about. For instance, it offers a series of meditations on anxiety, the prayers of Paul in Galatians, spiritual growth and more.
They offer you a free-trial for the first few days. After that, you have to pay $30 a year in order to unlock the other topics and the longer meditation times. The free version of the app is REALLY limiting so if you really like the app, it is worth dropping the $30 a year. Think of it this way, for less than .10 cents a day you are increasing your quiet time with God and improving your mental health.
On a personal note, I found myself more restful and laid back—even when things were stressful with doctors’ appointments, little to no sleep, lots of noise and running Ministry Assistant Services. I definitely recommend using the app.
4. I downloaded the “Dwell" app
Ok, don’t get this confused with the above app, because they actually are very different (synonymous names not withstanding). Where Abide is a devotional, Dwell is an app that reads the Bible to you. However, it is different from other recorded Bible apps for a few reasons that make it the best on the market.
Currently, Dwell has all of the New Testament recorded and a handful of the Old Testament recorded (like the Wisdom literature and Psalms).
For me, Dwell is a game changer for a few reasons. First, when I feed the little one, I typically don’t have a free hand to read the Bible and thus maximize the time (and I spend a LOT of time feeding her). I have found that by playing Dwell, I can knock out a shorter book of the Bible at a time. Second, while driving to various appointments, I throw the app on and BOOM! I have a high-quality recording of the Bible and an easy way to meditate on God’s Word.
Sometimes, I will read along in my Bible while listening to the app. I have found that the text becomes more engrained in my mind. I have actually been working through the book of Proverbs this way, and I absolutely love it. In fact, I have been spending MORE time in God’s Word (or at least thinking about God’s Word) than before I had a baby.
So now, while my devotion time does not have the same tone that it used to, it has been more impactful. I find myself thinking about the words I have heard and read throughout the day more frequently. I am not traditionally an auditory guy. Yet listening to the Bible in larger chunks has been truly transformative. I am seeing connections that I missed before. I am forced to slow down and hear—rather than just skimming the pages.
I am learning that sometimes less is more as well. No, I don’t have the time right now to explore EVERY angle of the Bible passage in the original languages. That’s ok though. I now journal and pray through the passage—something that I think is having a greater impact on me.
What’s best is that I feel calmer throughout my day. Things that used to get me angry just don’t seem so big. Things that tempted me aren’t quite as big right now. I am enjoying reading the Bible. In other words, I have found my current devotional habits to be really life affirming for me at this stage of life.
So how about you? What are your devotional practices? Where do they need to improve? Comment below!
Your office is taped off with police tape. A detective walks into the room wearing sunglasses "What happened here," he mutters to no one in particular. "In all my years on the force, I've never seen anything this brutal." There on the floor in front of him is the sickening scene.
It's your joy, and it has been absolutely butchered.
"What a needless tragedy," a rookie cop exclaims, barely able to contain his gag-reflex as he stares at the horror before him.
The clues of what happened are all around. And the rookie cop is right.
It is a needless tragedy.
If you create content (and let's be honest, there are very few in leadership who aren't creating something) you recognize the joys of doing so. You made something. It is yours. You worked hard to fulfill your job as an image-bearer of God by creating something that previously did not exist. How cool is that?
But being a content creator is really hard as well. There are days of frustration when you can't gather your thoughts enough to put together something coherent. Since it is so frustrating, the temptation is to quit. But listen: much of the pain we actually inflict upon ourselves.
How do we do that?
Here are three ways that we murder our joy as content creators.
1) Letting the Perfect being the Enemy of the Good
Ever not create something or abandon a project because you knew it wasn't going to perfect? Ever grow increasingly disgusted by the work you make because you can see its flaws, even though those around you talk about how great it is? You tell yourself, "I have high standards and this work just isn't good enough."
Maybe you do. Or maybe your just finding a good reason to shoot your joy straight in the forehead.
In his great biography of Leonardo Da Vinci, Walter Isaacson points out that Da Vinci held on to many of his best paintings, like the Mona Lisa, till near the end of his career because he knew he could always add another brush stroke. If a painting didn't satisfy Da Vinci, he would abandon it rather than creating a painting that was merely "good enough." Isaacson believes that sometimes this is good for us to do.
What Isaacson neglects to mention is that Da Vinci jotted down many of his ideas, many which were ground breaking, but because he never shared his work his ideas died with him. Many of his medical procedures would have saved lives--but they weren't perfect so Da Vinci abandoned them.
You aren't Da Vinci. You are you. And you have something the world needs.
Your imperfect content could save a life. Art has that power. Words have that power. Someone needs what you are making today. They don't need it perfect. They just need it.
2) Follow your Social Media Responses like a Creepy-Ex
For the love of God, turn off your notifications when you post something. I say this as someone who waits for the "likes" to role in after posting some pithy statement on Twitter, Facebook or Instagram.
But I feel so dirty when I do that. Who am I creating this content for, ultimately?
Others? Or my ego?
Because when you create something and then want immediate feedback, what you are really saying is "Validate what I made so I feel good."
But that is such a sad way to live. Worse, it such a sad way to create.
Which is why you feel empty after a short amount of time and feel the need to post again.
It's addictive. But it's also a joy killer.
And kinda creepy.
If you are the person who as you are talking with someone checks your notifications to see what people are saying about your work and totally forget what you are saying to the person in front of you...YOU ARE STRAIGHT MURDERING YOUR JOY.
Consider doing the following: make your post, turn off the notifications, and then take the rest of the day to work on something else. Don't check how your post is doing. Just enjoy the fact that you made it, it is out there and then rest.
3) Hit the "Easy Way Out" Button Repeatedly like a Rat Trippin' on Drugs
I read a study one time where some scientists hooked rats up to an I.V. The Rat could either hit a button for food or hit a button and be injected with cocaine or heroin.
They frantically hit the button for drugs.
Here is the deal: I do that same thing when it comes to taking the "easy way out" and if I had to guess, you are too.
This is a broad statement because the "easy way out" looks different for each person, right? For some of you, the easy way out is binge watching Netflix instead of making something. For others, it is making art without meaning, or writing without passion. For others, it is day-dreaming of completing that big project without ever doing it.
We all have our "easy way out" buttons.
By the way: the rats died.
In the same way, if you keep hitting that easy button, you will become addicted to easy. And it will kill the joy you have in creating.
Creating will feel like a chore. It will feel like a death sentence. It will feel like dream that will never come true.
So you hit the easy button again.
Look, some days you just have to do something. Sometimes it is hard. It hurts. But content creating does hurt, because you are sharing part of your soul.
I started writing this post a month and a half ago. I stopped because I felt like it wasn't good enough. I said I would revisit it later.
I waited. I waited.
And I finally realized that I was going to wait for eternity unless I just hit the "post" button. Maybe people like it. Maybe people will hate it. Maybe some person is on the verge of quitting and they will stumble upon this post. Maybe it will save someone's joy eventually.
But I know this: the easiest thing for me to do is nothing.
So I'll hit the "post" button, turn off my notifications and enjoy the rest of my evening.
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"“This is the thing we do to women in a world of biased idolatry. Women’s stories get treated as one of Wallace’s trademark footnotes might be: decorative, dexterous, whimsical, trivial. Pretty afterthoughts. Optional.”
Reading these words hit me hard. Megan Garber, in her article The World Still Spins Around Male Genius, demonstrates that women are often viewed as mere anecdotes in the lives of males who are considered of exceptional talent. An example of this, according to Garber, is now deceased author David Foster Wallace’s troubled relationship with Mary Karr. Karr reported that Wallace often subjected her to horrendous abuse. Nevertheless, when people talk about Wallace, they often times view his relationship as something that caused problems for him. Karr’s abuse (and her own talent as a writer) is overshadowed by him at every point. Garber writes,
“This is the bias at work. Here, once again, is the male genius centered while the female genius is relegated to the margins. Karr is there, as a slight character, in Max’s biography of Wallace; she’s there, too, as a kind of human predicate, in interviews about him, in assessments of his literary contributions, in effusions about his genius. And often, too—the world can be so myopic that it can fail to see the genius sitting right in front of it—she is directly asked about him: what he was like. What it was like. How it was to have had, for a brief time, the privilege to spin around such an axis.”
It is no secret that many of the most famous leadership books and works of theology are male dominant. When I am asked to list my favorite theologians and who we can learn the most from, I quickly come up with lists such as Calvin, Luther, Augustine, Aquinas and more. These men produced works of staggering genius. In fact, I recently did a podcast with Dr. Ed Smither from Columbia International University, on what leaders can learn from Augustine (you can listen to that podcast here).
What is much more difficult is drawing to mind female theologians who I have allowed to impact me. I say this to my shame—my leadership is impoverished because I have not drank deeply enough from the well of female leaders and theologians. I often relegate the women in the Bible and in history to mere "footnotes" to the male genius. This is nothing short of a tragedy.
Living in Monica’s World
Take for example the story of Augustine. Whenever I read a biography of him it is clear how brilliant he was. Augustine’s legacy on western civilization cannot and should not be ignored. When you read the Confessions, you realize that Augustine’s memory of his life revolves around three main planets—God, his friends and his mother, Monica. Augustine mentions how his pious, though flawed, mother prayed for him and doggedly followed him, exhorting him to become a Christian. In his recollection, he gives tremendous credit to the role Monica played in his life.
Nevertheless, when reading any biography of Augustine, one gets the impression that Monica must revolve around Augustine and not the other way around. She functions as a sort of footnote next to Augustine’s genius—she pushed him toward conversion and now look at what he did! Isn’t Monica so lucky to have a son like Augustine? For example, in what is otherwise a fair treatment of Augustine’s life, Justo L. Gonzalez writes in The Mestizo Augustine,
“While Augustine was still a young child, Monica was aware of the extraordinary gifts of her son, and she devoted the rest of her life to turning him into a devout Christian with a successful career. This is why one may see in Monica signs of a social mestizaje that was taking place--a mestizaje in which some among the “Africans” sought to climb within the social Roman ladder, very much as immigrants today, who while insisting in the value of their ancestral cultures, insist also in having their children learn the language of their adopted country and leave aside their own culture, so that they may have a greater chance at social and economic success. Augustine always refers to his mother with great respect and devotion, but in his writings we also see the profile of a domineering mother--perhaps of a woman who, being deprived of any authority in her own home as well as any possibility of determining and shaping her own life, lived vicariously in this son whom she practically persecuted until, shortly before her death, she was able to see converted and baptized.” (pg. 31-32)
I find it fascinating that Augustine himself doesn’t buy into that notion. At times within the Confession, he seems to be well aware that he would be nowhere if it were not for the persistence of God and his mother. I don’t deny he had a tumultuous relationship with his mother. However, Augustine understood it in terms of his spoiled attitude rebelling against his mother’s instruction. I understand that we have far more sources and writings about Augustine than Monica and so there is more that we can study and write about. However, how we tell the story indicates a lot about how we view women in leadership.
For instance, at one point Monica finds herself on a ship at sea. The voyage turned rough and many of the sailors thought they would perish. However, Monica was convinced that God had told her that she would live to see her son converted. Armed with this confidence, she in turn took the leadership role of a captain and comforted the crew (Conf. 6.1.1).
Augustine was quite proud of his mother for this bold act that subverted Roman tradition. This story also points us to another truth: Monica cannot be relegated to a footnote in Augustine’s story. She was a woman that lived her own story, full of courage and boldness and faith.
Monica is portrayed in the Confessions as a woman who is devout, though flawed mother. Augustine indicates that she was verbally abused by her husband Patrick, who had a hot temper. She longs for success for Augustine while at the same time desiring for him to follow God. Though not formally educated, she could hold her own in a philosophy debate and could see through the sophistry that often accompanies academic conversation (On Order 2.1.1). She had the ability to make the complicated very simple. She was an intellectual force in her own right.
Augustine, who was prone to live in the ivory tower of academia (what was called Christian leisure) was challenged by Monica to live in a deeper community. Gonzalez writes, “Augustine knew, because Monica had always taught this to him, that participation in the community of faith is essential for Christian life, and that an individual believer joins that community by means of baptism. It was not enough to inquire about God and the soul. In order to accept Monica’s faith, it was also necessary to accept her church, and to do this through a public confession of faith…” (pg. 54)
Further, Augustine gives Monica the last word in his book De beata vita (On the Happy Life) where, after an extended dialogue of what constitutes living a happy life, Monica states, “This is without any doubt the happy life, for it is the perfect life,…to which we may be guided in the wings of a firm faith, a joyful hope, and a burning love.” (4.35) I believe God rewarded this pursuit of the happy life by granting her a final moment with her son before death where they were given a vision. He writes,
“Forgetting what lay in the past, and stretching out to what was ahead, we inquired between ourselves in the light of present truth, the Truth which is yourself, what the eternal life of the saints would be like. Eye has not seen nor ear heard nor human heart conceived it, yet with the mouth of our hearts wide open we panted thirstily for the celestial streams of your fountain, the fount of life, which is with you, that bedewed from it according to our present capacity we might in our little measure think upon a thing so great." (Conf. 9.10)
In other words, Monica is not a mere one dimension character who plays background to Augustine. She is an ever present force within his life—a mentor, intercessor, mother, wife, encourager, learner and pilgrim growing in her faith. She was a leader—flawed, passionate, and wise. She was the kind of leader we need to hear more of today.
In light of Beth Moore’s recent letter, male leaders need to do a better job of narrating the story of Christianity. We often times tell the story as a series of vignettes of strong males leading the church fearlessly. However, by doing this we can give the impression that women have largely played a secondary role in shaping and forming Christianity. What if we told the story of Monica and others as a standalone story? What if we saw the reason for Augustine’s legacy in light of Monica’s faithfulness?
Thankfully, while there is still much work to be done in this area, there are some reasons to be hopeful. More and more authors are drawing attention to the role women have played shaping Christianity. I am thinking of the recently released Christian Women in the Patristic World, Eric Mataxes’ 7 Women: And the Secret of Their Greatness, and 8 Women of Faith by Michael Haykin. Works like these remind us that Monica isn't a footnote in Augustine's life. Women aren't afterthoughts in the history of redemption. These works provide a good foundation for helping leaders think about the way women have impacted the faith we hold so dear.
Full disclosure: I had never read any sermons by Robert Murray McCheyne before Christian Focus Publications was kind enough to send me a copy of seven sermons by McCheyne called The Believer’s Joy (Get it here or get it for Kindle here). McCheyne was a pastor in Scotland in the 1830’s and 40’s. He passed away at the age of 29. By almost all accounts, however, he displayed a maturity and had a ministry that far exceeded his age. In short, McCheyne was a leader. Even better, he was a theologically minded leader, which means at Theologian of the Boss, we want to learn more about him and be mentored by him. The Believer’s Joy gives us just such an opportunity.
Reading Robert Murray McCheyne’s sermons is a lot like having a multi-course meal. Robert starts with an initial text, makes some opening comments and then proceeds to set up some observations. You could call that the appetizer. Then McCheyne proceeds to break the practical importance of the text in the life of a believer. You could call that the main course. Finally, McCheyne closes with some exhortations to both believers and nonbelievers—a sort of dessert, if you will.
Now for anyone reading, what I just described might be considered rather uninspired. Most sermons follow a similar setup as the above: an introduction, the body, and the conclusion. However, it is the not the structure of this spiritual feast that stands out—it are the subtle nuances found in each sermon that make them a “meal” to remember.
By reading this collection of seven sermons, I learned several things about Robert Murray McCheyne.
1.McCheyne preached in a way that was both academic and accessible.
It is clear that McCheyne, though young, was intimately familiar with the Scriptures. He often breaks down the historical background of the text, the context of a passage or alludes to other parts of the Scripture. Nevertheless, his style is not complicated. It is not overly laden with imagery or stodgy language. His sermons are approachable and easy to read and comprehend. Sinclair Ferguson encourages us in the forward to read the sermons out loud. I would highly recommend that because you will note cadences of poetic form in McCheyne’s sermon. It flows easily.
2. McCheyne preached in a way that merged exposition with systematic theology.
In the sermon that the book is entitled after, The Believer’s Joy, he begins by breaking down the text of Romans 5:11. However, McCheyne then pivots to talking about all the ways that the believer joys in God and it amounts into an exploration of God’s divine attributes: His omniscience, might, justice and the past, present and future dimensions of God’s love. What is beautiful is that McCheyne saw that Romans 5 introduces the beauty of God’s attributes and then he in turn breaks each attribute down systematically. There are few preachers who can do this well, yet McCheyne is an expert in doing so.
3.McCheyne preached in a way that dissected the human soul, laying it bare.
Whenever I read Robert Murray McCheyne’s sermons I am exposed. He can simultaneous cause me to rejoice in so great a Savior and mourn at my lack of zeal for him—all in the same sentence! McCheyne often reminds the listener to not let their head knowledge about God replace a genuine love for God. Being able to quote the catechism and to be able to understand the mysteries of election and human responsibility is all well and good, but do you love God? Ouch! But McCheyne is unrelenting in pushing us to question ourselves because he knows that only when we see the truth will we repent. However, the forgiveness and grace of God is sufficient to cover over our sin. He reminds us constantly of the death of Jesus and how it has provided peace with God. He calls us, in light of this truth, to surrender ourselves fully to God.
These are just a few of the things I learned while working through each sermon of in this great little volume. It is not that I agree with every exegetical decision McCheyne makes (I disagree with how he understood Revelation 3 and the historical background of Laodicea). But every sermon I found practical and convicting. I found myself pausing and asking God to make me stronger in my faith, to trust Him more. I found myself spontaneously thanking God for what He has done for me in the death and resurrection of Christ. And I found myself rejoicing that McCheyne’s life, though short, pointed to the joy that is found in God alone.
*Though I was sent a review copy of this book, I was not forced to give this book a positive review, and my opinions in this article are my own. This post contains affiliate links.*
Last week I posted that the three characteristics the disciples possessed were "patience, courage, and love" according to John Chrysostom. I have already talked briefly about patience. I now want to talk about the one I personally struggle with the most: courage.
My Fear List
I have found in my own life that there are several things that frighten me. Maybe this is weird, but I have found it helpful to write down a list of things that terrify me. Here is my list and see if this any of these resonate with you at all:
Fear of people not liking me.
Fear of conflict.
Fear of the rejection of my work.
Fear of looking stupid.
Fear of not knowing the future.
Fear of not being able to get the outcome I want.
Fear of my loved ones being hurt.
Fear of messing up so badly I won't be able to recover.
Fear of failure.
For me, my greatest fears are mostly interpersonal. I don't want people to think poorly of me and I don't want to disappoint those around me. I want to succeed and look competent in what I do. I don't want to look like a failure.
Lessons I've Learned about Courage
I would not consider myself a courageous person at all. When I look at the apostles and what they faced and then I turn and look at my own set of problems, I feel kind of cowardly. Nevertheless, I've grown to accept that though I want to be more courageous, I am still where I am at right now. And knowing that I am scared and what I am scared of is half the battle. So here are some lessons I'm learning about courage:
How about you? What is your fear list? What lessons about courage are you learning? Post below!
Patience is one of those things that everyone wishes they had more of, right? No one wants to be known as a hothead. Probably one of the first pieces of advice you were ever given as a kid is "Don't be impatient." Yeah, we all want to be more patient.
But can we have some real talk for a minute?
Being patient kinda sucks.
If I were to be honest, in the moments where I burst out in anger or rush to get my way, it feels really, really good. It doesn't feel good to wait. The often cited marshmallow test confirms this: it is more pleasurable for me to be impatient than patient. I want the silver bullet to fix my problems. It is easier for me to rush in and try to accomplish my vision than it is to step back and look at every angle.
Also, since I am being honest here, patience often feels like weakness to me. Aren't the best leaders the ones who can take charge? Aren't they the ones accomplishing things quickly? Patience is for pushovers.
In other words, it isn't very sexy to be patient.
But here is something I know to be absolutely certain: your ability to find success in what matters is directly correlated to your ability to be patient. If you aren't patient, you won't find success. If you are patient, you will likely find a great deal of success. It's that simple.
But wait a minute? What about all those guys who rush in and take charge and find a great deal of wealth.
Listen, you will always find that one guy who rushed in and found tremendous success the first time he tried something. Elon Musk seems to be an example of impatience working well: everything he touches turns to gold. He is the exception. You are not the exception. I'm not either. Most people aren't. For every Elon Musk, there are 10 million of us.
But right now, Musk is embroiled in a fight to save the life of Tesla. He alienates people and forces his vision on others. It may have gotten him this far--but eventually that attitude, that lack of patience, will destroy what is most important.
But I would also suggest that often times the people you look at who have found success are the ones who have labored for hours and hours and hours behind the scenes. They never stop grinding. They were patient, working hard for the chance to find success.
When we read the Bible we tend to just read the highlights of what happened. What we forget is that there are sometimes hundreds of years between chapters . Things don't happen on Israel or the apostle's timetable; they happen on God's.
So how do we become more patient? I'd like to suggest 4 things to always remember when you are struggling with impatience.
1) Remember that God is Sovereign
When I say that God is in control, I almost feel a holy, Christian eye-roll coming. But think about this: when I say God is in control what I am really saying is that the all-knowing, all-powerful, all-wise, all-good, all-loving, all-present King of the universe is in control of your circumstances. I am not talking about an impersonal force. I am not talking about "fate" or "destiny" or "karma" or whatever pseudo-mystical force people try to comfort themselves with. This is the God who entered into our space and time and died on the cross because he loves you.
Reality check: until you realize that God cares about your future more than you do, you will always struggle with impatience.
2) Remember that Patience is not Passivity
Patience feels like inaction. But patience is really action under complete control. If you have done the hard work of research, you have been grinding, you have been hustling, then you are putting yourself in the best position to succeed. Keep working at it. Stay the course.
But...we have to be careful here. Sometimes we think we are being patient when really we are just acting out of fear. We don't move, we don't change course because we are too scared to. That isn't patience.
For instance, I was a Bible teacher for 6 years at a really comfortable job at a private Christian school. These jobs don't open up very often and when they do, tons of people apply. It was a pretty comfortable job. But I left.
Why? Because I knew that to say was the most passive and easy thing for me to do. I wasn't being patient by staying--I was being fearful.
So how do we know when it is time to take a leap? First, we pray. Second, I would ask your friends and most trusted allies to ask you what they think. If you are married, talk to your spouse. Ask, what happens if I change course here? Does it change anything for me? What are the dangers? You can also check out episode 3 of my podcast with pastor Rob Rucci where he and I talk about how to know when risk is right.
3) Remember that the Habits you Form Today Have Got to Get you Through the Problems you Face Tomorrow
It is easy to seek to get your own way. It is easy to give into anger. It is easy to lash out. But listen to me: if you form those terrible habits now, you will not survive the problems that will face you in the future.
Think of it like a loan: you are cashing in on your immediate happiness now, but you will pay dearly with your impatience later. You will pay far more and suffer more pain than the immediate happiness you currently experience. It happens every time.
It has happened to me when I have made an impulse purchase instead of researching what I want. It has happened when I have decided to make an executive decision on something without consulting with my wife and friends. It has happened to me when I yell at a friend and have damaged their trust.
You will face problems tomorrow that demand greater patience than you currently possess. Here is the question: are you forming habits today that will help you get through tomorrow?
4) Remember that the Problems You Face are what Make Life Worth Living
I think a lot of people dream of this time when they finally "make it." They don't have any more problems or stresses. They have enough money to rest and enjoy life as it was meant to be.
You know that is right? A delusion. You're being delusional.
There will never be a time in your life when you are problem free. If you make money, you will have a different set of problems than you have now. But they are still problems. If you think, "One day I'll be the boss and I won't have trouble" then you aren't seeing reality clearly. Greener grass fades quickly.
But here is what I also know--you wouldn't really want a problem free existence. Problems are actually not evil, in themselves. When God created Adam, Adam had a problem. He was surrounded by animals with no names. So God put him to work naming the animals. Work, in order for it to be rewarding and fulfilling, is going to have problems that must be solved. That is a good thing too. It prevents us from getting bored. It prevents us putting in only mediocre work.
God has given you the gift of problems.
How we respond to that gift is a different story though. Will we respond in anger? Frustration? Exasperation? Impatience? All of these responses came after the Fall of mankind. It is what makes our work taxing, unproductive and fruitless. But while we may never be able to fully escape those feelings, we can learn to respond better when we remember that God has granted us problems because it is what requires us to learn, grow and lean in dependence more on Him.
Surprise! There are not magic bullets to become more patient. It requires constantly going to God in prayer and asking him to form patience in you. It requires discipline. It requires dying on the cross. It requires failing, humbling accepting you failed miserably, and then running to God in repentance with a desire to change. It will require work and...ummm...patience.
If you were to come up with a list of the three most important characteristics a leader should possess, what would those three be? A degree? Business experience? Excellent managerial skills?
When looking back at the lives and legacies of the apostles, the fifth-century archbishop of Constantinople, John Chrysostom (who was nicknamed "The Golden Tongue" for his excellent speaking abilities), stated:
"What need could they have of my tongue? Their own struggles surpass our moral nature. The prizes they won go beyond our powers and understanding. They laughed at life lived on earth; they trampled underfoot the punishment of the rack; they scorned death and took wing to heaven; they escaped with them no gold or silver or expensive garments; they carried along no treasure which could be plundered, but the riches of patience, courage, and love."
Did you catch that? The three fundamental leadership attributes that Chrysostom saw when looking back at the apostles were patience, courage and love. These were the three characteristics that the apostles possessed that helped launch a worldwide movement. This isn't to deny or downplay the role of the Holy Spirit. However, it would seem that the years that Jesus spent mentoring his disciples were spent teaching them these three things.
So over the next few blog posts I want to spend some time unpacking each attribute and seeing how we can grow in these three essential skills. I am utterly convinced that if a leader possesses these traits, they will be well on their way to being truly great leaders.
By the way, you should check out Brian Shelton's great book on the apostles Quest for the Historical Apostles: Tracing Their Lives and Legacy. His book is what got me thinking about the leadership qualities of the apostles. We have a podcast coming out in a few weeks that will further unpack these ideas.
How about you? What leadership traits do you have in your top 3? Comment below!
Some of the best mentors I have are actually pushing up daisies. They are super dead...and have been so for quite awhile. Here at Theologian of the Boss, I try to connect leaders to theologians, both past and present. My hope is that ancient theologians, who have often been focused on exclusively by academics, would function as mentors to a new generation of leaders. In my own life, these theologians often feel as if they are friends--there to critique and encourage me constantly.
So what can we learn from these dead mentors?
1. Dead mentors give us a different perspective on modern issues
C.S. Lewis argued that we must steer clear of what is called "chronological snobbery" which defined, as "the uncritical acceptance of the intellectual climate common to our own age and the assumption that whatever has gone out of date is on that account discredited." We forget that many of the issues that face us faced our predecessors as well. However, we are inundated by our culture and so often think like everyone else in our culture. What ancient mentors do is allow us transcend our culture, even if for a few paragraphs. They can give us "creative" ways of dealing with difficult problems. For this reason, it is essential for us to read ancient sources.
2. Dead mentors function as either warnings or examples
We live in a society that give quick responses to virtually all news stories. No sooner is a decision made then you have five or six different opinions posted all over news sites. What is great about having ancient mentors is that history has weighed in on their decisions--whether for good or ill. Did they make good decisions? Well, we can tell often from the aftermath. Did they fail epically? We can see where they went wrong and learn as well. I have learned just as much from the failures of mentors as from their successes. For instance *Jonathan Edwards example*
3. Dead mentors connect us to the larger story of history
The role of any mentor is to help us grow. One of the best ways dead mentors help us is by connecting us to the larger story of history by showing us our role within history. We have the tendency of thinking of ourselves as unique and the challenges we face as something new. This causes us to have a feeling of isolation. However, when we read dead mentors we recognize that the issues we face are not necessarily unique. They provide us with a sense of solidarity. While our world may look different, the human heart hasn't changed. Thus my dead mentors become close confidants and good friends.
I can help connect you with some of these mentors! Sign up for my monthly newsletter where I will give you book recommendations of some of the best books I have read. Right now, if you sign up, I'll give you my "Reading for Leading" genre reading schedule. It will keep you on track so you can grow as a leader.
In the final two chapters of Reading for Preaching, Cornelius Plantinga deals more concretely with how reading gives us wisdom on different aspects of life and sin and grace. He quotes Joseph Epstein who writes,
“From the study of literature we learn that life is sad, comic, heroic, vicious, dignified, ridiculous, and endlessly amusing sometimes by turns, sometimes all at once, but never more grotesquely amusing than when a supposedly great thinker comes along to insist that he has discovered and nattily formulated the single key to its understanding.”
Literature gives us life in all of its varied beauty. As leaders, we should read good literature so that we can learn how to deal with the complexity of life. Life cannot be understood or “formulated”—we are complex creatures living complicated lives.
I have noticed that this is where many younger leaders struggle—everything seems black and white. What is worse, many of our leadership works suggest that there is simply ONE paradigm to understanding business, life, spirituality etc. We suggest that if you do “these five things” you “too can experience success.”
I would also suggest that sometimes our “Gospel-centered” preaching or teaching can often times become unvaried and not take into account the complexities of life. This is unintentional since the Gospel is broad enough to handle any variedness in life. Our preaching, teaching and leading must take into account that life is difficult and sometimes there are no good or easy answers. The Gospel is alive—but just as God incarnated into our brokenness so also our Gospel preaching, teaching and leading must “take on flesh” within the lives of our hearers.
But this takes a substantial amount of work on our part. It is far easier for us to use low-hanging fruit in our illustrations and application. I do this—it is easier to use personal illustrations or family illustrations in my teaching. That is easier than me mining literature, articles or film for better, more tangible, grittier examples.
And here Plantinga offers us the hack—read literature. This requires discipline of course. If you aren’t a reader or are extremely busy, it may not seem worth it. But I think it is. If nothing else, Plantinga’s book has given us a glimpse of what reading can do. Perhaps the most important thing reading does is help us grow as leaders by forcing us to consider different perspective and develop empathy. Good literature creates a Gospel-awareness that tune our hearts and minds to our culture.
Perhaps you feel overwhelmed about the prospect of developing good reading habits and don’t know where to even begin. I can help. You can take a look on how I read books and how I manage my time to read more. Second, you can sign up for my monthly newsletter. If you sign up now, I’ll send you a free “Reading for Leading” genre schedule. It lists a specific genre to read each month so that you can grow as a reader and as a leader.
Also, consider buying Reading for Preaching because I really just skimmed the surface of what this great book has to offer.
Daniel Pandolph is co-founder of Ministry Assistant Services and founder of Theologian of the Boss. He holds a BA in Christian Studies from North Greenville University and an MA in Religion from Liberty Baptist Theological Seminary.