My “Journal Books”: A Reading List

pexels-photo-134602

Some books on my shelf function like journals.  I can remember who recommended it, where I read certain sections of it, and how it changed specific aspects of my life.  The best books I have read are books that read me.  They inform my thoughts, change my feelings, and adjust my actions.  God has used many authors and many books in my life, but these are the ones that have had the “journal-effect” from middle-school onward.  

Middle School

Mere Christianity – C.S. Lewis.  I believe I was in 8th grade when I read this book for the first time, and reread every year I was in high school.  This was the book God used to help me begin to “own” my faith, and grow in my confidence that the Christian faith isn’t just good, but also true – which is what makes it the most beautiful news any person can hear.  This book also is what inspired me to begin writing.  Lewis’ clarity, beauty, and depth are remarkable and inspired me to want to give my life to sharing this faith that Lewis communicated so beautifully.  

High School

Don’t Waste Your Life – John Piper.  This book had an explosive impact on my life my freshman year of high school.  Piper gave me an all-encompassing vision of the Christian life and an all-satisfying vision of Jesus Christ that changed me forever.  Like many, his chapter “Boasting Only In the Cross” wrecked me in the best way – I can still quote sentences from it.

Jesus Among Other Gods – Ravi Zacharias.  I was first introduced to Ravi Zacharias through his preaching ministry, and was deeply struck by his ability to communicate the truth of Christ with conviction and compassion.  He knew when to be sharp, and knew when to be gentle.  This book contained that same flavor that first attracted me to him, and informed the way I did evangelism in my relationships.

The Screwtape Letters – C.S. Lewis.  This is a strange book, which is what made it so memorable and compelling for me.  It opened my eyes to the reality that spiritual warfare is not primarily a reality of hobgoblins and goosebumps, but rather a war for our thoughts, desires, and loyalties that happen when we gossip with friends, indulge in anger, and immerse ourselves in worldliness.  This book will make you vigilant over your soul and sensitive to the serpents schemes.  

College

Future Grace – John Piper.  When I was in college, I almost walked away from the Christian faith as a result of severe depression and doubt.  God used this book to anchor me to his Word, refine me, and give me a deeper trust in his promises.  This book changed and shaped the way I view the process of sanctification in the Christian life, and daily influences the way I fight sin and strive for holiness.  

Total Truth – Nancy Pearcey.  If I am asked what is the best book on apologetics, I say this book instantly.  Pearcey argues for the Christian worldview as a comprehensive one that gives reasonable and compelling answers to all the objections the world brings its way.  She demonstrates a confidence in God’s Word that I want to mark my ministry and life.  

The Things of Earth – Joe Rigney.  Ever since I read Don’t Waste Your Life, I struggled to find the balance of living a radical life for Christ and resisting worldliness, while still enjoying things like ice cream, laughing with friends, and going on vacation.  Joe Rigney calls them “the things of earth”  This book expanded my view of what it means to live faithfully toward God while also enjoying his gifts.  If you read Don’t Waste Your Life, read this book right after it.  

Do More Better – Tim Challies.  I love thinking about and practicing the best productivity methods.  I read Matt Perman’s “What’s Best Next?” and loved it, but found it difficult to recommend to busy Mom’s, men with full-time jobs, and even college students.  Challies’ “Do More Better” explains basic productivity methods from a God-centered lens – and he does it in under 100 pages!  I’d recommend this to any student beginning college or to a man at the beginning of marriage.  

This Summer

The Reason for God – Tim Keller.  I have been hearing about this book for years, and finally picked up an old copy and am reading a few pages before bed every night.  I’m about halfway through and have found this book compelling, creative, and winsome.  Keller is clear and profound and, in my opinion, very convincing.  I would give this book to any skeptic I know to begin conversations about spiritual things.  Keller speaks the language of our culture.

A Pastor’s Sketches – Icabod Spencer.  I’m finding that this book has not been widely read by many pastor’s today, but I’m thoroughly enjoying it.  Icabod Spencer was a pastor in Brooklyn in the 1800s and has recorded two volumes of his conversations with people inquiring about the Christian faith.  Spencer’s sensitivity to people, commitment to the sufficiency of Scripture, and pastoral concern for others is imitable.  

The Last Lion: Winston Spencer Churchill, 1874-1965.  I’m almost finished listening to the second volume of William Manchester’s magisterial portrait of Churchill.  All the leaders I respect have been influenced in some way by Churchill.  Obviously, Churchill is a very flawed man, but his influence in WWII and his vision, foresight, and courage in the face of evil is remarkable and inspiring.


Spencer Harmon is the Senior Pastor at Vine Street Baptist Church and the co-author of Letters to a Romantic: On Dating and Letters to a Romantic: On Engagement (P&R, 2017).

The Cloud of Summer Reading

There are a thousand wonderful ways to spend summer. Parks, pools, parties, picnics, and people we love. The days just seem better in June and July.

This truth felt even more palpable when I was younger and in school. The only cloud that could possibly loom over my head was my summer reading. I was convinced my teachers cackled wildly when assigning me books over the break.

I’ve since learned that the cloud of summer reading is actually a rainbow that leads to a pot of gold. I’m now able to look back at books I’ve read and see how they charted my course. The summer winds of reading have often set my sails in the right direction and taken me places I would never have gone.

The summers I have spent well are the summers I’ve read. Reading doesn’t suck the fun out of things. It enhances everything. You can dive into a book in between dips at the pool. You can bring your kindle on a trip with the people you love. You can have the best of both worlds without skimping on either one.

In honor of summer, Spencer and I are going to blog about some of the books that have impacted us at different stages of life. This list isn’t comprehensive of what I would recommend and is more biographical of what has shaped me in life. Perhaps you will find one or two on this list that you want to explore these next couple of months. Here is my list:

Middle School: 

A Call to Die is a 40 day crash course on how to read the Bible. I’m not even sure if it is in print anymore, but it changed my life. My youth pastor recommended this book to me and I’m confident it is still bearing fruit in my life.

This was the first theological book I remember reading. I still remember staying up in bed reading and underlining sentences from the chapter on baptism. This book gave me a starting place to begin thinking about key doctrines of the Christian faith.

The book has been billed as “The Best-Selling International Adventure of All Time” and it captivated me. I loved the conviction and boldness of the young preacher. He was willing to share the gospel with gangs and risk everything. Even as a middle schooler I thought the speaking in tongues and the second blessing of the Spirit was wrong (and still do), but the story of courage shaped me.

High School: 

I needed this book. It was refreshment to my bones and a balm for my soul. I was drowning in temptation. I wanted something different that what I was seeing all around me. This book gave me conviction and clarity about how to live in “the world” in a way that honored Christ. I can’t recommend it enough.

I read this book in High School with a group of students and sections of it have stuck with me to this day. It isn’t a gripping novel to be consumed in a night, but it is a steady diet of meat and potatoes that strengthens essential skills.

When I read this book, it was actually 5 Who Changed the World and it was published by Southeastern Seminary. I’m thrilled it was picked up by B&H and expanded. The stories in here are truly compelling and life changing.

College: 

This is my favorite book outside of the Bible. It changed how I think about God and how I think about life. My only complaint is that this new edition removed the incredibly helpful appendix “Are There Two Wills in God?” Thankfully, you can now buy that appendix separately in a new book.

A wiser mentor gave me this book and it set me free. The short little book isn’t perfect, but it is liberating. If you struggle with knowing God’s will for your life, this book is for you.

This was required reading for my first class in college. I wish I had read it sooner or at least someone had taught me the content beforehand. It put my hermeneutical feet in concrete.

Current Summer Reading: 

I’m half way through and love it. The chapters are short and easy to summarize. We truly need God’s help to understand the Bible.

This book has helped me think deeply about the flawlessness of the Bible. If you have ever wondered about the accuracy of certain passages in Scripture, you will find this book thought provoking and helpful. The chapters are no more than four pages. I’ve been nibbling on it for a while now.

I’ve always been interested in politics and this scratches that itch. I’m reading this book on my kindle and it has actually been a problem because I can’t put it down at night. I’m enjoying evaluating the different White House Chiefs of Staff and whether or not they are good leaders. The author seems to have a liberal political perspective and there is some language in the book as he recounts history.


Sean Perron is the Chief of Staff at the Association of Certified Biblical Counselors and is the co-author of On Dating and On Engagement

Pig Out on Animal Farm

 

I finally got around to reading Animal Farm by George Orwell. The book is a political parable using pigs, humans, and other farm creatures. Perhaps you hated the book because a high school teacher forced you to read it (hopefully they didn’t look like a pig). Or perhaps you have never heard of the book until now. Either way, the book is worth reading (or re-reading) and I have been challenged by it.

5 Takeaways from Animal Farm:

  1. Knowledge, intellect, and critical reasoning skills are essential for a healthy society.
  2. It is imperative to hold politicians to the original guiding documents of a society and to beware any reinterpretation.  
  3. People who stay silent when evil unfolds are responsible in the end.
  4. Anyone who believes that human nature (or animal nature) is naturally good is deceived.
  5. Tyranny and abuse of power does not happen overnight and is often slowly unveiled in public overtime.

I won’t go into all of these themes in this post, but I want to briefly address #1 and #3.

Common Animals

The “common person” often has untapped potential. Knowledge, intellect, and critical reasoning skills are essential for a society to have a healthy democracy. Many of the animals start allowing the pigs to overreach their authority because they either cannot read or cannot articulate their concerns properly. When they do articulate their concerns, they are unable to counter any reasonable explanation given to them. They are also unable to discern when the pigs make illogical conclusions.

On several occasions, convincing the common farm animals was all too easy. The pigs would remind them of a legitimate threat they all felt. No one wanted Mr. Jones (the human) to come back to the farm. Therefore, the pigs were able to use this real threat as a means to justify a lot of questionable activity that was, in reality, unrelated to the return of Mr. Jones.  For instance, the pigs worked hard planning the farm schedule and “therefore” needed milk and apples. No one else got those treats even though “All animals were equal.” When asked why the pigs got special food, the Mr. Jones card was played. “You wouldn’t want Mr. Jones to return now then would you? Mr. Jones is going to return if X-Y-or-Z doesn’t occur.” The pigs took a genuine threat – Mr. Jones returning – and used it to persuade the animals of their slowly unfolding unjustifiable actions.

The pigs were always able to persuade the animals on the farm to their side. The person with the most persuasive argument in the moment won the day. Whenever something smelled foul, all it took was a reasonable explanation to satisfy. The pigs could easily flip-flop on their ideas for the farm as long as a reasonable explanation – asserted in a sincere and authentic way – was presented after the fact. A “reasonable explanation” was always able to convince those who raised questions and cover up the inconsistencies of the pigs.

It seems the only one who could reason critically against the pigs was Ben the donkey.

The Dumb Donkey

Ben the donkey could read and was intelligent. Yet he was silent. He wasn’t dumb but he was dumb. Always kept to himself and didn’t want to interfere. This all came crashing down when his friend was taken to be slaughtered.

Those who are quiet will not escape and they will reap the consequences of their non-actions. The silent only pave the way for the wicked to rule and spread. The silent knowledgeable ones are not innocent. In the book, the one who kept his mouth closed, actually played into the hands of those who want all mouths to be closed. A closed mouth is an open hand to oppression.

These are just a few of the thought provoking elements of the book. I found Animal Farm to be an invigorating read with a challenge to sharpen my reasoning skills and to speak up for the oppressed (Proverbs 31:8). You have my permission to pig out on it.

– Sean

Two New Books: Letters to a Romantic

Dear Readers,

We have some exciting news.

We have been working on a project together over the past two years. We have been writing two books that are expanded versions of our Letters to a Young Engaged Man blog series. These books are being published by P&R and will release simultaneously in the Fall of this year.  

The books are called Letters to a Romantic: On Dating and Letters to a Romantic: On Engagement.

The book On Dating begins with topics related to singleness and then covers a wide range of topics such as breaking up, physical affection, early marriage, and discussing sexual history. Some chapter titles include:

  • Marriage vs. Singleness
  • First Date
  • Should We Be in a Relationship?
  • Do We Have a Bad Relationship?  
  • What if I am not a Virgin?
  • Should I Guard My Heart?

The book On Engagement walks couples from the time right before a proposal all the way to their wedding night. Some chapter titles include:

  • The Length of Engagement
  • Till Death Do Us Part
  • Loving Your New Parents
  • Should We Elope?
  • Handling Conflict
  • On Birth Control

The chapters are designed to be short and can be read individually or together as a couple. Even though we don’t know the specifics of your situation, we have made a concerted effort to make each chapter as practical as possible. It is our prayer that this content feels immediately helpful and comes from a refreshing peer-like voice.  Our wives have also contributed to many of the letters and provided their own warm touches throughout the books.

Our prayer is that your plans for dating and engagement would begin aligning with God’s plans to glorify his Son in the world.  We pray that these letters will tune your ears to hear God’s voice in his Word and that these letters will provoke many conversations between you, your partner, and godly mentors in your life.  

We are not relational gurus.  Quite the opposite.  We would be the first to admit to you that when we follow our own wisdom… we get lost.  We are sinners who are desperately in need of God’s illuminating Word in every facet of our lives.  We have simply tasted the goodness of God’s shepherding voice in our romances, and we want you to taste it too. We pray that you fall in love with hearing his voice in the Bible so that it guides you in singleness, dating, and engagement – and every other season after that.

In the meantime you can check out the recent Truth in Love podcast with Dr. Heath Lambert and Sean on the topic of Physical Boundaries Before Marriage that discusses a controversial portion of the dating book.

As we continue to write to you, we always want to hear your letters. Don’t hesitate to send us your feedback and share your story with us.

 

Until then,

Sean and Spencer

 

That’s Not Funny: Dirty Jokes and Jesus

by Spencer Harmon
by Spencer Harmon

What you laugh about says a lot about you.

Most of the world is laughing at things they should be crying about .  They are inviting you to join them.  The Bible teaches that marriage should be honored, and that people shouldn’t defile the marriage bed (Hebrews 13:4), yet the marriage bed is scorned on the silver screen during countless scenes of fornication that are seen as humorous.  Adultery is inane, blasphemy is a gag, and sin is joke, and they want you to start laughing.

To compound the problem, many of us find ourselves confused about the types of things we should be joking about.  You know the situation, right?  You’re with a group of friends, and someone tells that border line joke, and everyone nervously chuckles and shifts their eyes towards everyone else to make sure it’s OK to laugh.  Your conscience is pricked, and you (and everyone else in the group, for that matter) know you shouldn’t be laughing.  How should we think about this?

Jesus wants to be Lord over your laughing, and he inspired Ephesians 5 to show us the way. Here are a few things to keep in mind about crude humor, filthy talk, and sexual immorality as you engage in conversations and entertainment:

It’s improper.  You were not made to indulge in any type of sexual immorality.  Paul tells these people that sexual immorality and impurity, “should not even be named among you, as is proper among saints”.  Like wearing your shoes on the wrong feet all day long, indulging in impurity throughout the day doesn’t fit with believers that are indwelt by the Spirit.  Why would we let these things have a name among us when these are the very things that Jesus bled for?  It’s improper among Jesus’ cleansed bride.

It closes up the kingdom.  If you indulge in sexual immorality for the rest of your days, you won’t go to heaven.  Paul tells us that you can be sure of it.  The raunchy joke on your favorite show may be drained of its humor if you see it as something that is a roadblock to heaven.  Yes, Jesus died for all of your sins and every stumbling into impurity, but Jesus also died so that you would be set free from the power of sin (Romans 6), and that you would be delivered from this present evil age (Galatians 1:4).  Paul is warning Christians that if they are sexually immoral they will not inherit the kingdom of God.

It is damned.  When we laugh at sexual immorality, we are laughing about things that people are being punished for in hell.  Paul tells the Christians that because of sexual immorality and impurity the wrath of God is coming.  The picture painted for us by the world around us is opposite.  Explicit sexual immorality is not that big of a deal, and it’s easy to be numbed and carried by the current of laxity in regards to this type of humor and joking.  This is why we need the truth of Scripture to wake us up to the reality of sin and kick us in the pants to start swimming against the tide.  Paul tells us not to be “deceived”.  How easy it is so consume the view of the world around us without exposing it for what it is.

You were made for so much more.  Finally, crude joking just isn’t that funny.  When viewed through the lens of Scripture and brought under Jesus kingship, we begin to see these types of jokes as simply out of place.  Filthy talk and crude joking is nothing but a counterfeit joy that will give you the temporary buzz of laughter.  What Jesus calls Christians to is something much more durable and long lasting: thanksgiving.  You were not made to laugh at sex-scenes in movies and make line-bending jokes; you were made to experience the heart-bursting, pure thrill of thanksgiving.  The next time you are tempted to talk filthy or crudely joke, replace those thoughts and words with thankfulness.  Your joy will be compounded, your community enriched, and soul refreshed.  You were made for so much more.

It would be easy at this point to nuance all of my words with qualifications and exceptions and warnings about being legalistic towards others.  There are people who have over-corrected and think that God loves them based on their humor. However, I believe that what I need more than anything is Paul’s straight talk about my mouth rather than definitions about where the line is when it comes to my humor.  As we seek to bring even our laughter and humor under Jesus’ rule, let each of us live as those who will give an account for every word – and joke – we speak.   There are better things to laugh at, and better gifts to be enjoyed.

Of Sins and Cinemas

Image
by Spencer Harmon

Iron Man 3.  The Great Gatsby.  Star Trek.  Man of Steel.  The Wolverine.  300.

Within the next three months, you are most likely going to be invited to see one of these movies.  And not only these, a vast array of other highly anticipated summer films.  Your favorite stars, your favorite stories, during your favorite season.  From the ultra-conservative who only watches movies recommended by their pastor, to the movie connoisseur who finds “gospel” even in the most explicit films, the cinema often creates blurry lines for Christians who live in between two worlds. Here are a few categories and cautions to be thinking about as you consider going to the theater for the hottest summer flicks.

Research.  You should never feel victimized by sin at the movie theater.  In our day, there are several resources available to you to aid in making a decision about going to see a movie at the theater.  First, a simple glance at the rating of a movie can save you a lot of heartache.  If the movie is rated R for sexual content and nudity, don’t go.  Is this legalism?  No.  It’s fleeing sexual immorality (1 Corinthians 6:18), and it will help you see God (Matthew 5:8).  Yet, some movies demand more careful thought.  At this point, I always find it helpful to check a movie review site.  You can find sites that offer a Christian perspective, or just the facts.  Either way, you should never walk out of the theater feeling taken advantage of – the resources are available.  Take and use!

Bail.  Sometimes, whether because of neglect or some other outlying circumstance, you will find yourself in the theater when the movie goes downhill.  If the movie is causing you to sin, you should leave.  Walking out of the theater does several things.  First, it tells the truth.  When you leave the theater during a sex scene, you are telling the truth about marriage, sex, covenant love, and purity.  When you leave the theater during uncalled for, excessive, cruel, and unnecessary gore and violence, you are telling the truth about courage, honor, dignity, and human worth.  Second, it provokes conversation.  Why did you leave the theater?  Why do you care so much about what you watch that it would cause you to walk out?  Third, and most importantly, it protects your soul.  We can grieve the Holy Spirit by the things that we do and say (Ephesians 4:30), and we should be striving to keep ourselves in the love of God (Jude 21).  Sometimes, obedience means saying excuse me, sidestepping out of the aisle, and waiting in the lobby of the theater.

Engage.  No matter what you are watching, you should watch movies like a Christian.  There are glorious amounts of truth to be gleaned at the cinema, but horrendous amounts of deceit to be rejected as well.  Ask yourself good questions while watching the film:  What are the makers of this film trying to say to me?  How do the relationships, circumstances, and actions of the characters relate to how the Bible presents life?  Hebrews 5:14 says that mature Christians are those who, “…have their powers of discernment trained by constant practice to distinguish good from evil” Movies present wonderful opportunities to exercise moral discernment.  Don’t watch passively.

Engage Together.  Let movies that you see with friends lead to good discussion.  It is good at times to take a few moments to gawk at incredible special effects in the movies, but if that is all you ever talk about you are missing out on a world of fellowship.  Ask questions in the car on the way not just about things you liked and disliked, but things you agreed with and disagreed with.  Let the movie spur you on to depth.  Movies can lead to conversations about war, marriage, love, hate, relationships, divorce, death, eternity, God, politics, and a million other important life issues.  Engage in these discussions during the summer – let these talks take you late into the night.

Beware of Infiltration.  There is nothing like a steady diet of Hollywood to corrupt your view on beauty, truth, and goodness.  Don’t forget that the Bible says that charm is deceitful and beauty is vain (Proverbs 31:30) when you see nothing but coke-bottle figures, and rough whisked buff tough guys presented as beauty.  Don’t forget that you are called to forgive and show grace (Ephesians 4:32), even though revenge is portrayed as the only way to respond to hurt.  All too easily, Hollywood begins informing your values instead of Scripture.  It rouses your feelings before faith, your passions before principles.

Beware of Saturation.  It seems that during the summer, every Friday holds a new film.  Every film claims to be the film of the year.  And you don’t want to miss out, do you?  Remember that you are called to seek the Lord’s presence (Psalm 105:4), and enjoy his free grace, not gorge on movies.  Sure, enjoy a movie with friends; however, don’t become so saturated with the newest and  latest this summer that the only means of “fellowship” you know is happening in front of movies instead of in real conversation about real life things.

Remember, the aim at the theater is not to please your friends, please yourself, or your pastor.  The aim is to please God and honor him with life.  Holiness happens in the small circumstances. It happens with steps. The thoughtful response, the restrained tongue, and even the intentional watcher of film glorify God.  It’s here that the battles are fought.

What Is Love?

by Sean Perron
by Sean Perron

Love is in the air – or is it?

There has been a lot of talk recently about what love is and who has been hindering it. Politicians are coming out about it and the courts are getting ready to come down on it. A recent tweet from the President reads, “Every American should be able to marry the person they love. #LoveIsLove”

This sounds like a good hashtag. It seems legitimate on one level. Who would dare hinder true love from being complete? Why would anyone stand in opposition to love? Wouldn’t it be hatred to oppose love?

The problem is that love is not up for a vote. Love is not play-doh to be smushed into any shape we want. Love cannot be determined by popular consensus, humanity, or any political party.

The problem with the “Love is love” motto is that it actually distorts love.

The good news is that we can define love. We can answer the question. There is hope in the world because love actually exists and is not up for debate. “Anyone who does not love does not know God, because God is love.” (1 John 4:8)

God is love and he is the one who defines the term. We should also note that it is of paramount importance that we get love right. The one who does not love does not know God.

If God calls something evil, then it is unloving to support it. If God calls something good, then it is hatred to oppose it.

“Woe to those who call evil good and good evil, who put darkness for light and light for darkness, who put bitter for sweet and sweet for bitter!” (Isaiah 5:20)

God has called homosexuality a sin and his definition is not outdated. It is not the unpardonable sin, but it is nonetheless a sin. (Rom 1:24-27; 1 Tim 1:10) God has called marriage good and requires the marriage bed to remain undefiled. (Heb 13:4)  To place sin into the marriage bed is opposing the very author and definer of love Himself – God.

The stunning reality of this whole ordeal is that Love took on human flesh and died a brutal death for sinners. Jesus is the embodiment of love and he bore the wrath of God for anyone who would turn from their sin and believe in His name. Jesus is not afraid of any sin – including homosexuality. He took the terrible wrath of God full on when he died upon the tree. He rose victoriously from the grave to offer forgiveness to anyone who would turn from their sin and believe.

“Or do you not know that the unrighteous will not inherit the kingdom of God? Do not be deceived:neither the sexually immoral, nor idolaters, nor adulterers, nor men who practice homosexuality, nor thieves, nor the greedy, nor drunkards, nor revilers, nor swindlers will inherit the kingdom of God. And such were some of you. But you were washed,you were sanctified,you were justified in the name of the Lord Jesus Christ and by the Spirit of our God.” (1 Corinthians 6:9-11)

What is love? It is God extending mercy to anyone who will call upon his name. It is telling others about what God has done and what he says about the world. It is upholding truth, mercy, and justice in accordance with God’s Word.

What is hatred? It is distorting love and defining it however we feel. It is opposing truth, beauty, goodness, and God’s created order. It is rejecting the good news of Jesus for sinners.

If we become the arbiters of marital love, then we can make it into whatever we desire. We can “love” a man, woman, child, cat, or all of the above. The possibilities are only bound by our options.

But there is more at risk than crumbling our society. If we appoint ourselves as the captain of our own love boat, we will either shipwreck or remain drifting at sea. In the effort to obtain “love”, we will actually miss it. We will seek our own desires but never be satisfied.

The call of the hour is to lay down every sinful desire and run to the loving arms of God.