The Three Questions

I have been a Christian long enough to know that none of my own ideas are very good. That is to say, if I know something really important, or if I say something that’s deep, I didn’t come up with it. My growth as a follower of Jesus Christ has been dependent on two things: listening very carefully to what the Holy Spirit says in Scripture, and listening very carefully to what he tells me through other people. In short, everything I have, I’ve received (1 Corinthians 4:7).

One thing I thank God for receiving more than most is a particular set of questions. It’s more of an idea, really. And this is the idea: we expose ourselves to a lot more goodness when we read the Bible with other people. Whatever we lack in understanding (and it’s always a lot) can be shored up by the people around us, especially those who, through their faith in Christ, have the Holy Spirit at work in their hearts to help us. Instead of trusting ourselves to know it all, believe it all, and obey it all on our own, why don’t we humble ourselves enough to let other people help us?

If you can admit that much at least is a good idea, you’ll wonder exactly what that looks like. It certainly happens when faithful and wise Christians teach the Bible to us, whether as part of our worship together on Sundays or otherwise. But knowing that the Holy Spirit is present and working in all who know Christ (Ephesians 1:13-14), and knowing that everyone who believes the gospel has knowledge of the truth (1 John 2:20), doesn’t it make sense that you don’t have to be a capital-T Teacher in order to be a good teacher? Don’t you have some insight, some wisdom, some example in your life that could really help me?

But where do you start? Enter: the Three Questions.

Technically, the Three Questions have a collective name: the Swedish Method. If you’d like to read much more about the Three Questions (including how they acquired such a weird name), this article will tell you all you need to know. (I really do recommend reading it—it’s fascinating.) But suffice it to say that, for a number of reasons, I prefer my own (highly boring and non-creative) phrase of “the Three Questions.”

What are the Three Questions? They’re three simple things to ask yourself and others whenever you read the Bible:

  1. What’s interesting about this?
  2. What’s confusing about this?
  3. What should I do with this?

Of course, you can use the Three Questions to guide your personal Bible reading to make sure that you’re doing more than running your eyes over the page. But I get much more mileage out of them when someone else asks me the questions as part of a normal conversation.

There’s no need to come up with anything impressive-sounding as a response to the question. In fact, I actively discourage people from trying to do so! Be honest. Be simple. Just answer the questions!

Here’s one example of how the Three Questions can spur good conversations that go beyond the words on the page. Today I read Ecclesiastes 1-2 with a friend at a coffee shop. In no particular order, here are some of the ways the two of us answered the first question (“What’s interesting about this?”):

  • The book doesn’t have a named author—just someone named “the Teacher.” That strikes me as interesting, even strange.
  • The first chapter has a lot of poetic, philosophical language. That’s different from the stories of Jesus’ life or the teachings of Paul. I bet it would appeal to people who aren’t naturally into those parts of the Bible.
  • In fact, the first couple chapters really seem to directly challenge what the rest of the Old Testament (especially Genesis) teaches. The Preacher really slams some biblical ideas—that life has a purpose, that God is working out a plan in the world, that wisdom has eternal value, etc.
  • In Ecclesiastes 2:8, the Teacher says that he availed himself to “a harem”—and calls the women “the delights of the heart of man”! That’s interesting, to say the least!

As you can see, the interesting things lead to lots of questions. In this passage, some of the more confusing things we saw led to questions like these:

  • How did this book even make it into the Bible?! Can a biblical book also be un-biblical?
  • Is the rest of the book going to answer that question?
  • Who is the Teacher? Is it Solomon? Could someone else fit the self-description in Ecclesiastes 1:1?
  • What does the Teacher mean by “under the sun” (Ecclesiastes 1:3 and elsewhere)?

Finally, we asked each other the final question: what should we do with these chapters?

  • We definitely need to read the rest of the book to see where the Teacher is going!
  • We need to examine our lives—are they really “meaningless” (Ecclesiastes 1:2)? We need to compare these chapters with the rest of the Bible to figure out what’s going on here.
  • The Teacher writes that chasing after wine, women, and song is a waste of time and totally pointless (Ecclesiastes 2:9-11). Am I chasing after pleasure like he did? Am I setting myself up for the same disappointment?

What answers would you add?

The questions are short and simple—there’s no rocket science that makes them so powerful. But ask yourself: how could you use them?

  1. What if you and your spouse picked a book of the Bible to read through together? You could meet up once a week—even nightly—to share your answers (and spur each other on to even better, more personal answers).
  2. What if you used the Three Questions to discuss a passage of Scripture with your kids or grandkids? That’s what I’ve been doing this year—using the questions to talk through the Gospel of Mark with my six- and five-year-old sons. Their answers are always surprising, frequently hilarious, and sometimes shocking. It is never boring or a waste of time.
  3. What if you used the Three Questions to invite a curious non-Christian to study the life and teachings of Jesus for herself? This is my favorite form of evangelism—instead of memorizing a script, get out of the way and let Jesus speak for himself!

At the end of the day, only the Spirit himself can help us grow and learn and experience more of the grace of Jesus. The Three Questions assume that, in prayer, you’re entrusting him to do the real work. But he uses tools to do that work, most especially the word of God—and other people.

Why not use a simple tool like the Three Questions to see what he would do for (and through) you?

I Will Never Divorce You

Have you ever been to an awkward wedding?

Recently I heard a story of a man who, despite his deep social anxiety, decided to write and memorize his own wedding vows. Unfortunately, the wedding was held in front of a very large group of people. Things went as expected—horribly! Cringe-worthy doesn’t begin to describe it. But after stumbling and fumbling with his words for what seemed like an eternity, he ditched what he’d memorized and began to speak off the top of his head and from the bottom of his heart. Because he was so nervous, he forced himself to stare deep into the eyes of his new bride,. His stare wasn’t romantic—it was desperate. In short and intense bursts, he professed his love for her. And his vows culminated with one sentence that got right to the point:

I will never divorce you.”

That kind of love is powerful. Do you think God loves you like that?

On the night before his death, Jesus was all too aware of what torment he would undergo at the hands of evil men. More terrifyingly, though, he knew the suffering the Father would lay on him as the Lamb who takes away the sins of the world. So it’s no wonder that he “was troubled in spirit” (John 13:21).

But the terror of the coming day didn’t dissuade the Lord Jesus from his plan. His love for us brought him into the world; his love for us sustained him in the world; and his love for us saw him through to the cross and the grave. As his beloved disciple John put it decades later, Jesus’ last night on earth shows the essence of his true feelings toward us: “Having loved his own who were in the world, he now showed them the full extent of his love” (NIV). Or, as most other translations read, “he loved them to the end.”

Will Jesus stop loving you because of your deep discontentment over your job situation?
Will Jesus stop loving you because you know better than to do what you’re doing anyway?
Will Jesus stop loving you because your physical and mental weakness keep you from being productive (whatever you think that means)?

This brings us to one of the most important things for Christians to remember—and the more people I serve in pastoral ministry, the more people I think need to hear this—is that Jesus will not give up on you. Even if you are sick of yourself, he isn’t sick of you. And you don’t have to lean on wishes and empty hope. The cross, which actually happened whether we feel like it or not, shows that Jesus saw his love for us through to the bitter end. His love for us doesn’t depend on our fears or doubts—it never did.

The cross shows us something else, too. It proves that sin and abandonment and denial couldn’t end Jesus’ love for his people. It shows that love really is stronger than death. The cross reveals to us that there really is a God, and that he really doesn’t divorce those he’s committed to—even if it means he has to die for us. You can—you must—follow this Jesus, who will never leave or forsake you (Matthew 28:20), though he was forsaken for us (Mark 15:34).

This Easter, may you realize that Jesus, the Bridegroom of his church, will see you through to the end.

Disciple Your Wife

Men and women who believe in historic, orthodox Christianity won’t bat an eye when someone mentions the universal importance of Jesus’ “Great Commission”:

Then Jesus came to them and said, “All authority in heaven and on earth has been given to me. Therefore go and make disciples of all nations, baptizing them in the name of the Father and of the Son and of the Holy Spirit, and teaching them to obey everything I have commanded you. And surely I am with you always, to the very end of the age.”

—Matthew 28:18-20 (NIV)

Moreover, most of those people wouldn’t object to the the biblical teaching that, within marriage, husbands have a special opportunity and responsibility to care for their wives’ spiritual health:

Husbands, love your wives, just as Christ loved the church and gave himself up for her to make her holy, cleansing her by the washing with water through the word, and to present her to himself as a radiant church, without stain or wrinkle or any other blemish, but holy and blameless.

—Ephesians 5:25-27 (NIV)

But do you know what makes a Bible-believing, church-going man nervous? Ask him how he actually practices these commands in his own home. The reason for the nervousness is that, while we say we believe one thing, our lives show what we actually believe and what’s truly important to us. And when the truth is dumped on the table, it doesn’t make us look good.

How do I know that? It’s not just because I have served churches where the men have failed (sometimes for decades) to “wash” their wives with God’s word. And it’s not just because I’ve seen men—good, honorable, loving men—fail to transform their guilt into change.

How do I know the nervousness that question causes? It’s because I was that man.

I was raised by a single mother in a non-Christian home. I didn’t grow up seeing what it looked like for a husband to make a disciple of his wife. Amazingly, I got to marry a woman who did grow up in a solid Christian home. Did I feel lucky? Absolutely. But you know what else I felt? Intimidated. So whenever I read passages of Scripture that call men to manage and oversee the spiritual lives of their families (see also: Deuteronomy 6, Psalm 78, 1 Timothy 3), or whenever I heard sermons that challenged men to be the gentle and loving leaders of their homes, I developed a fool-proof plan to process them: I ignored them.

Over time, God’s powerful grace overcame my idiocy. I began teaching my children every night from a faithful catechism and leading the whole family in “Bible time” before bed, and I’m amazed with gratitude that God would even change me. As I began working at a church and teaching the Bible for a living, though, a sobering thought came to me: “Am I more interested in the spiritual lives of those outside my home more than the woman who shares my bed?” Spurred on by an excellent and challenging book, I realized that I functionally cared more about the spiritual health of relative strangers more than the wife who shares my bed. In that moment, I was hit with a ton of bricks by the realization that it just shouldn’t be like that. Following Jesus meant that I had to love my wife better than that.

If my story connects with yours, let me encourage you: there is tremendous hope for discouraged husbands. For starters, God is so full of love and power that he is more willing to forgive your sins than you are willing to be forgiven. More specifically, he is more interested in the health of your marriage than you are, since a healthy marriage illustrates the truth of his gospel in hi-def clarity (Ephesians 5:29-33). In the event it helps you, here’s a step-by-step explanation of how I changed and began to disciple my wonderful wife:

  1. I started with confession and repentance. Over dinner one night, I told my wife that I was mourning my lack of love for her and my failure to care for her spiritually. I asked her to forgive me (she did!), and I invited her to offer her own opinions about how I could love her better.
  2. Together we decided that we would set apart time every week to discuss a passage of Scripture that we had been reading on our own. I have trained men and women in several different methods to read the Bible together; we settled on the COMA method (outlined in this excellent booklet), which aims for a deep understanding of the passage’s context and background. It requires a couple hours of study for each passage (the worksheets are made available for free here), but both of us are highly motivated. (Plus, we’re both big nerds who just enjoy the work.)
  3. Several days a week, we make sure to read the passage we’ll be discussing later. My wife prefers to do a little bit of studying each day; I prefer to do it all at once the day before our meeting. What matters is that both of us are reading and praying about the same Scripture (usually a chapter in length) and spending time concentrating on it.
  4. We set a date on our family calendar to share the results of our studying. Sometimes it’s a local coffee shop on a morning when the kids are in school; sometimes it’s our living room after the kids are asleep. One of us opens in prayer, asking for God’s help to transform us as individuals and as a married couple. Then we go straight through the COMA worksheet. It’s not dramatic or flashy in the least. But over the course of a couple hours, we end up sharing our discoveries and (sometimes without planning on it) connecting the passage to our current anxieties, our kids, our world, our work, and any number of other things that, unbeknownst to us, we really needed to talk about. And it all happens around the Bible.

Over the past year, these humdrum conversations over coffee have changed my wife and me. We both understand Jesus, the gospel, and ourselves so much better. I learn from her at least as much as I teach her. And we’re nearly through our long journey through all 66 chapters of Isaiah. Now I wonder how I spent the first five years of our marriage missing the time that is now more precious than any other in my life. I can’t wait to see where we’ll go next.

Rethinking Homosexuality

The following is a guest post by Bob Thompson.  It was originally written in June of this year while the Obergefell case was before the Supreme Court and just on the cusp of the United Church of Christ’s General Synod at which Bob was scheduled to speak.  I’ve reposted it here.

 


It’s hard for all of us not to think about homosexuality and same sex marriage this week.

On Monday, Tony Campolo wrote a blog calling for “the full acceptance of Christian gay couples into the church.”  Robert Gagnon posted a strong and critical response on his Facebook page.  Both Campolo and Gagnon have spoken at Corinth in years past, and I have respect for both.  Christianity Today also posted a response to Campolo’s statement this week.

On Tuesday, the Charlotte Observer reported that Franklin Graham’s Facebook page had called for boycotts of companies like Wells Fargo and Tiffany’s that advocate for LGBT concerns.  I also have deep appreciation for the Billy Graham Association and Samaritan’s Purse, both led by Franklin Graham.

Yesterday we received a newsletter from a church where Linda and I served many years ago.  The church is proposing an extensive addition to their constitution and bylaws defining marriage as between a man and a woman, listing all sorts of unacceptable sexual sins, and urging compassion on people no matter who or where they are.

This morning, the Hickory Daily Record ran an Associated Press article that predicts “legal chaos” if the Supreme Court, which will issue some sort of ruling later this month, allows states to decide whether to recognize gay marriage.  Also today, the Charlotte Observer printed an LA Times piece about Miley Cyrus, who has said she is open to any sexual relationship between consenting humans.

Also this morning, I had a voice mail from a church member who said his Sunday School class at our church spent the entire class this past Sunday discussing homosexuality.

For me, the topic is even more unavoidable.  Tonight I will speak at Concordia Lutheran Church in Conover on “Humility and Homosexuality,” a speaking engagement set up months ago.  Next week, I will attend the Southern Conference of the United Church of Christ, a perennially strong voice for gay and lesbian concerns.   (I chose Romans 1 as my text for the preaching festival!)  The final week of June, Linda and I will represent Faithful and Welcoming Churches at the General Synod of the UCC.  I expect that the Supreme Court will announce its decision while we are mingling with some of the most passionate religious advocates of LGBT causes.

Maybe in a rapidly changing culture you can avoid rethinking what you believe about homosexuality and how you speak about it, but I can’t.  Not this month.  Not even today.  As a Reformed (motto: “Always Reforming”) pastor, I am always rethinking everything, but always under the authority of Scripture, alone.  So in my mind I’m reviewing the themes and texts that have become so central to me in conversations across the years about homosexuality.

Creation (Genesis 1). The reason I can’t join Tony Campolo and the large shift in American culture toward affirming same sex marriage and homosexual practice has little to do with the half-dozen oft-discussed biblical texts that explicitly refer to homosexuality.  It has more to do with a cohesive and pervasive biblical ethic that begins in Genesis 1 when God created humans male and female.  I search from one end of the Bible to the other and although I see a variety of sexual behaviors, I find the only consistent affirmation of sexual expression is between a man and woman in marriage.

Self-denial (Mark 8).  Christian proponents of same sex relationships need to find a basis other than explicit biblical texts, and generally join the broader culture in finding that basis in exploring and affirming “who you are.”  In other words, look within yourself, to your desires and impulses in order to find your identity, sexually or otherwise.  The “right to be me” and the “freedom to do as I choose” are thoroughly American values.  This approach to identity and ethics is so pervasive that it also lives among Christians of all ideologies and types on a broad range of topics – not just sex.  “It can’t be wrong if it feels so right” has become a mantra in culture and church.  We forget that Jesus’ message was quite the opposite.  We only find true life through self-denial.  When I look within, the natural impulses are to be mistrusted and resisted.  To follow the desires of self is to invite destruction.

Calling (1 Corinthians 7).  What Paul says in the middle part of the chapter directly resists our impulse to seek fulfillment by changing our circumstances.  Certainly there are times to seek change, but the default choice in calling is to assume that God has placed you where you are.  That includes your relationships, your job, your church, everything.  Trust God enough to believe that he knew what he was doing when he made you like you are and put you where you are.  This is about another pervasive biblical value: contentment.  The beautiful irony is that God will often change our circumstances, but only after we have by grace accepted our current situation.  A restless and mobile society is constantly on the run for something elusive that feels like it’s just around the corner.  Paul says my current situation is where God wants to work in me and through me.

Sins (Romans 1).  You might think you know where I’m going when I bring up Romans 1, but I doubt it.  Read carefully verses 18-32 about the wrath of God and the sin list that follows.  Note especially the pronouns.  Romans 1 is about “the sins of them” – sins that cause us to condescend toward others because we aren’t guilty of those acts.  Paul wants you reading Romans 1 thinking about how bad “they” are – no matter who your “they” is.  Then he lowers the boom in Romans 2:1.  As soon as you judge “them,” you judge yourself.  When you clobber someone with Romans 1, you get clobbered by Romans 2. Thinking your sins are less sinful than theirs makes you just as deserving of God’s wrath.  You are often most disturbed when “they” don’t even acknowledge how sinful “they” are.   I will guarantee you “they” think the same about you. One reason I can’t join Franklin Graham in a call for a boycott over affirmation of homosexuality is that every Christian (including me), church, and era tends to have its list of sins it overlooks and its list it condemns.   If I target one area of sin, I contribute to the self-righteousness of those who don’t see themselves guilty of that sin – while excusing so many others.

Compassion (Psalm 103).  All through both testaments are beautiful texts that speak of God’s compassion for us and exhort us to compassion for others.  In Psalm 103, David the psalmist is keenly aware of his sins, but they are forgiven.  He knows what he deserves, but God will not treat him that way.  He’s aware of his human brevity and frailty, but God is aware too.  (If you want to point out that in Psalm 103 God’s love is “with those who fear him…and obey his precepts,” re-read the above paragraph on “Sins”.)  I would be terrified if I believed God forgives only the sins I name, the sins I acknowledge, or the sins I never return to.  God’s compassionate forgiveness in Christ treats me as I never sinned and never will again.  In gratitude for that love I seek to live a life of holiness, including a life of compassion extended to others.  Whether their behavior I find unacceptable is due to willful sin, ignorance, a wounded past, or heredity – or whether it’s my own blindness that makes their action offensive – I’m willing to leave judgment to God and offer the same compassion I hope they will offer to me.  I keep reminding myself that I should be especially compassionate when someone else’s sin is not my sin and more so when their sin is not even my temptation.  Kindness, listening, caring, loving, learning – these are all biblical values I need to apply to every person I meet.

Unity (John 17).  One greatly overlooked biblical text is Jesus’ number one strategy for evangelism: the visible unity of the church.  As more Christians target each other privately and publicly, the world will continue to see our fractures and public flogging of one another as their number reason not to believe.  We’re going to see more churches taking their “stand,” meaning that the message will be that no LGBT person (or their advocates) need show up.  If polls are true that the majority of Americans now affirm same sex relationships, and we make it a critical part of our identity that we don’t, then essentially we’re saying to half or more of the world around us, “If you want to find a relationship with God and Jesus, don’t come here.”  Other churches proclaim their full affirmation of same sex couples, and their message to the world is, “If you don’t identify as LGBT (or side with those who do), don’t come here.”  What will be lost in both cases is Jesus’ prayer for unity and our ability to convince the world that we have any credibility.  The way we often do business is no different than the rest of the culture, where people make up their minds, slam their opponents, and separate into ever-narrowing cliques of the like-minded.

Humility (Philippians 2).  I find it intriguing that Paul may never have written (or quoted, some think) the hymn in Philippians 2:6-11 about Jesus’ humility and exaltation if he had not been trying to make the point about humility in our relationships with one another.  For Paul in Philippians 2, humility is first and mostly about how you think, not so much what you do or say.  We often (mis)judge humility – our own and others’ – by what we can see from the outside.  Paul says where we need the change is with our “attitude.”  I must own my own sins and brokenness, I must admit there’s so much I don’t know, I must confess that I might be wrong because, after all, so many Christians down through the years are now almost universally acknowledged to have read the Bible wrong on a plethora of topics.  Gamaliel was right in Acts 5 – sometimes you have to let God sort it out over time.  Whatever word I have to say will not be the final word on this or any other subject.  I have to learn to think that way.    This is not to say that there is no absolute truth.  There is a remarkable and consistent consensus around the essentials of the Christian faith that stretches from the early church until the present day, all around the world.  That consensus has been often challenged, but given a generation or so, it returns intact even in the midst of swirling blind spots.  Ultimately humility results in patience.

Prayer (1 Timothy 2).  On the heels of his own humility as the “chief of sinners” in chapter 1, Paul reminds Timothy to urge everyone to pray for governments and their officers.  But he doesn’t urge us to pray that they would see things our way or order society on Christian principles.  He wants us to pray that government will get out of the way so that we can live “peaceful and quiet lives in all gentleness and holiness” so that we can proclaim the truth of Jesus, the “one mediator between God and mankind.”  I’m not all that worried about whether the state or federal government allows gay marriage, although I oppose that shift.  I’m more concerned that we continue to live in freedom to proclaim and live the gospel.  God has left humanity with a remarkable level of freedom – as individuals and as societies.  He rarely interferes directly, for reasons I do not fully understand.  Maturity in the faith  sees our primary role as one of prayer – because prayer acknowledges that God’s in control and not me.

I’m glad God didn’t leave me in charge.  I couldn’t handle it.  Not this week anyway.

Loving Two Brides

(The reflections below were published in the Hickory Daily Record June 4, 2011 and also at http://corinthpastorbob.com/2011/06/loving-two-brides/ on the same date.)  The entry is used here with permission from Rev. Dr. Bob Thompson of Corinth Reformed Church in Hickory, NC.  Bob has posted on Red Door’s Blog before.  Check out his last entry “When You Give Yourself a B.”


I have loved two brides in my life.  Only one of them is mine.

My wife and I will celebrate our thirty-third anniversary July 1.  We vowed our love, loyalty and faithfulness before our 22nd birthdays.  We have kept those promises through every phase of life from honeymoon to empty nest, during seminary or sickness, facing opposition or enjoying stability.  Linda is still my best friend, my partner in life and ministry.  I protect and defend her, valuing her above anyone else and treasuring the times we can be together.  I would give my life for her if I had the opportunity.

The other love of my life is the bride of Christ.  He loves his bride as I do mine – only infinitely better and deeper.  The Apostle Paul made that analogy in Ephesians 5 when he instructed husbands to love their wives as Christ loved the church.  Giving his life for his bride was more than theoretical for Jesus.

A man and a woman marry, at least in our culture in time, because of a combination of attraction and friendship we call “falling in love.”  Couples whose marriages endure learn that the “enchantment,” as C. S. Lewis called it, is transient – or cyclical at best.  The glue that keeps a marriage together is rather a commitment to mutual sacrifice and submission that includes patience, forgiveness, and a choice to keep loving when the enchantment wanes.  When Linda and I wrote our own wedding vows, we both promised to love the other in full knowledge we would at times be disappointed in each other.  The Greek word for that kind of love is agape.

Agape describes Christ’s self-sacrificing love for his bride.  He loves her as she is, and claims her as his own.  He knows her flaws better than she knows them.  He protects, defends, forgives, and waits for her, even with the realities of her imperfections.

Given Christ’s love for his church, I am sometimes surprised at the disdain and apathy of his followers toward his bride.  I am not surprised at the cynicism and distance of non-believers toward the church.  I find it, in fact, understandable for those who have not experienced grace.

Long before your church or mine ever came into being, Jesus’ Plan A was to gather his people into communities for worship, encouragement, learning, service, and witness.  It does not surprise Jesus that these faith communities would be imperfect.  He was aware from the beginning that within the church we would encounter hypocrisy, gossip, power struggles, anger, immorality, pride, error, greed, racism, envy, and deceit.  The biggest problem with churches has always been that they’re full of sinners.

Is it frustrating to pastor a congregation of the imperfect?  It would be, if I weren’t among those deeply flawed.  As in marriage, disappointment with another’s brokenness should cause me to name my own, and then be merciful.  The church is where sinners gather to name and share the benefits of grace.