There is nothing my dog won’t do for food. There is no command she won’t obey when we are looking, and no rule she won’t break when we are looking away, if only she can get a bit of food in her belly. I guess it is hard to fault her since, as a Lab, every gene in her body drives her to gorge herself. It’s like Paul was writing about her and her breed when he said, ” Their end is destruction, their god is their belly, and they glory in their shame, with minds set on earthly things” (Philippians 3:19). Food is her idol, her god, the thing that will motivate her to do anything or everything.

I am no dog, but I, too, am hard-wired for something—for validation. Just as a dog will lie down or roll over or beg or bark on command to get a snausage—doesn’t she realize how pathetic she looks?—, there is not much I won’t do to receive validation, to have others affirm my self-worth according to my criteria. I want to feel special about myself, I want to feel big and important. And when I look for what makes me feel good about myself, I inevitably find my idols. The thing that validates me is the thing I worship, the thing that momentarily takes the place of God in my life.

Lately I have been pondering and listing those things—those things that make me feel so special that I will do irrational things and make poor decisions in order to have them or achieve them. It makes for a pretty ugly and embarrassing little note. I think most of them are best kept between myself and the Lord, but I will give you a couple of examples.

Distant travel validates me. I receive invitations to do a fair number of conferences or speaking engagements over the course of a year, and I make it a point to prayerfully consider each one of them, knowing that I can accept only a few. But I have learned that the farther away the destination, the better it makes me feel about myself. I don’t even know why it works this way, but I suppose I like the idea that people far away are interested in hearing me speak. It feeds my ego. This makes me tempted to accept speaking engagements that will come at the expense of my church and family, even if I can really make no unique contribution to the event, and even if it makes very little sense for me to be involved. I am tempted to accept the event for the worst of motives: for how it makes me feel about myself.

Big audiences at big conferences validate me. I hate to own this one, but it is true: A bigger audience makes me feel more important than a smaller audience. A big audience at a big conference makes me feel awfully good about myself while a small audience at a small conference (or, even worse, a small audience at a big conference) is the kind of thing that can cast me into self-doubt or even despair. Again, there is a temptation to accept an invitation on the basis of how many people will be at the event rather than on any better or more noble criteria.

The irony in these two examples is that I am the ultimate homebody—I find it difficult to be away from home for more than very short stints—, and I am intimidated by large crowds—I find it extremely stressful to be in front of people. Somehow the things that validate me are the things I naturally run away from. I love them and hate them all at once.

I should note that neither of these things is wrong. Traveling distances to preach or to encourage others can be good and noble. Turning down a small event to speak at a large event can be good and God-honoring. But it can also be pure idolatry, a way I look for others to receive what only God is meant to give.

I need to be aware of these things—each of those ugly things on my ugly list. And most of all, I need to remember what is mostly deeply true. There is nothing inherently wrong with wanting to have the approval of others, and especially to receive the affirmation of God. But the crucial fact is, I already have it through Christ. I am already accepted by God because of what Christ has done, and this acceptance is all I need. When I am at my best it means everything to me. But when I am at my worst, it means nothing.

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It has nineteen thousand reviews on Amazon, with an average rating of five stars. I try to keep up with what’s new and notable in publishing but even with nineteen thousand reviews I had no intention of reading this novel until both my son and daughter (separately) asked if they could buy it. After all, they said, all their friends are reading it. It’s called The Fault in Our Stars and the movie adaptation has just hit the silver screen, opening as the most popular new movie in North America.

(I am assigning this review a full-out spoiler alert; you have been warned.) The Fault in Our Stars centers around two teenaged characters who are brought together in a common battle against cancer. Hazel, who narrates the book, is sixteen and has lungs so badly damaged by cancer that she must always be connected to a source of oxygen. Though drugs are currently controlling her illness, she knows that she has only years, not decades, to live. One day she attends a church-based cancer support group where she meets Augustus who is seventeen and recovering from osteosarcoma.

Hazel and Augustus immediately hit it off and begin a romance centered around Hazel’s favorite book: An Imperial Affliction by the fictional author Peter Van Houten. This book so closely describes her life and condition that she views it as her Bible, the book that best describes reality as she experiences it. Because Van Houten deliberately left the book unfinished, her dream is to go to Holland to meet him and to find closure by finding out what happened to the characters.

As she and Augustus date, we find out that Augustus has an outstanding Wish (granted by a Make-a-Wish foundation) and he uses his wish to take Hazel to Amsterdam to meet the elusive Van Houten. They do meet him and find that he is an angry, raving alcoholic and that they will get no answers from him. They deal with their disappointment by going to a hotel and taking one another’s virginity.

No sooner do they return to America then Augustus finds that his cancer has returned worse than ever. Hazel stays by his side, their love growing all the while, until he dies.

The story isn’t exactly morbid, but it also doesn’t qualify as feel-good literature. I suppose most people probably cry at the end. But as I read The Fault in Our Stars I found it very difficult to understand why so many young people are raving about it. I read Twilight and immediately understood why young women had responded to it so strongly; I read The Hunger Games and immediately understood why both young men and young women enjoyed it. But The Fault in Our Stars? What sets it apart from the billion-and-one other teenage romance dramas? It is much less clear to me.

But I do have a theory. As far as I can see, Green has not written teens as they are, but as they’d like to be perceived. I remember that when I was a teenager I wanted to be taken seriously and believed that big words and deep thoughts would give me a kind of legitimacy I otherwise lacked. And this is what Green does: he creates characters that talk like, well, middle-aged men—characters who have the philosophical background, verbal expression, and vocabulary of people much older than them. The way the main characters express themselves sounds suspiciously like the way a middle-aged man would express himself, and especially so if he was trying to impress everyone else with his deep thoughts and extensive lexicon. I love how this reviewer says it: “The problem is that indicating that your characters are intelligent by giving them all the voice of a 30-year-old Yale English Lit major who is trying to impress a date is not great writing. It is (brace yourselves) mediocre writing that tramples and ignores and substitutes any genuine character voices with your own.” Indeed. And therefore we find Hazel saying things like this:

How did scrambled eggs get stuck with breakfast exclusivity? You can put bacon on a sandwich without anyone freaking out. But the moment your sandwich has an egg, boom, it’s a breakfast sandwich. … I want to have scrambled eggs for dinner without this ridiculous construction that a scrambled egg-inclusive meal is breakfast even when it occurs at dinnertime.

Of course she also speaks about weightier subjects than scrambled eggs, but typically in a similar voice and with similar language.

So my theory is that the real attraction is that the characters think big thoughts. They think big thoughts and use big words and big concepts to express them. Green takes his teenaged characters seriously instead of making them hopelessly shallow and obsessed with trite issues. These aren’t characters from an Archie comic who care only about who dates whom and whose car is the nicest. These are characters wrestling with the big issues of life and death and who are capable of waxing eloquent about them. In fact, in this book the teens are complex and the parents are shallow. In that way its subtly rebellious, an upside down world where the kids get it and the parents do not. Green writes as an adult who is down on adults—as an adult who gives young people what they want to hear.

In the end I would hesitate to recommend The Fault in Our Stars to its intended audience of teens and young adults. Green does offer a lot of interesting insights into morality and mortality and there are some pretty good lines mixed in. “Grief does not change you, Hazel. It reveals you.” “Some tourists think Amsterdam is a city of sin, but in truth it is a city of freedom. And in freedom, most people find sin.” He also ably contrasts Hazel, who is content to die unknown and unnoticed, with Augustus who feels that life is only meaningful if he achieves distinction and notoriety.

And yet it’s not all good. There is a considerable amount of profanity and sexual innuendo, and a surprising number of blends of “god” and “damn.” There is a considerable amount of complaining about authority, defying authority and, of greater concern, belittling it. That extends to the Bible’s authority. At one time Green had apparently intended to be a minister and vestiges of a Christian worldview can be found in the book, but only vestiges. Mostly he teaches—well, I don’t know what he teaches. It’s not nihilism, but neither is it Christian hope and optimism. In a novel about illness and death, he makes suffering meaningless and eternity dubious. Of equal concern is the minor plot line that brings the sixteen and seventeen-year-old together in bed. Though it is not particularly alluring or explicit, the moral is that it is far better to find a soulmate and have sex with him or her than die a virgin.

Would I allow my children to read The Fault in Our Stars? I guess it would depend on their age and maturity. I’m certainly not afraid of the book; the message of the gospel is not only far more powerful than what Green presents but also far more hopeful. If they were to read it, I am sure they would quickly spot the contrast between the bleakness of Hazel’s and Augustus’ reality and the hope and joy of the gospel.

(If you have read the novel, and especially if you are a teen who has read the novel, I’d love to hear from you about what you appreciated, and perhaps what you didn’t appreciate, about it.)

 

So how many people go to your church? This is question nearly every pastor faces at just about every conference he attends. I’ve written about the question before but, having spent the week at Together for the Gospel, and having been part of many conversations, it seems like a good time to revisit it. It usually doesn’t take long for a conversation with a pastor to progress to that point. For the pastor this can be a moment of pride or humility, freedom or shame. And somehow it is a question that always seems to come up. And it comes up for those who are not pastors as well; you begin to talk about your church and the other person inevitably asks that same question. So how many people?

I’d like to make the same two-part proposal I made a few years back: Let’s stop asking, “How many people go to your church?” And when someone asks us that question, let’s not feel obliged to give a direct answer.

We all pay lip service to the reality that we cannot necessarily measure the health of a church by its size. We all know that some of the biggest churches in the world are also some of the unhealthiest churches in the world. The history of Christianity has long-since shown that it is not all that difficult to fill a building with unbelievers by just tickling their ears with what they want to hear. We also know that the Lord is sovereign and that he determines how big each church should be and we know that in some areas even a very small church is an absolute triumph of light over darkness. And yet “How big is your church?” is one of the first questions we ask.

Why is this? I don’t know all the reasons but I’d suggest at least two. First, I think our question betrays us and shows that in the back of our minds we equate size and health. Somewhere we make the connection between big and healthy, between big and blessing. We exacerbate the problem when we ask and answer this too-easy question. Second, we just haven’t taken the time and made the effort to form better questions. Instead, we gravitate to the easy one.

I wonder, what would happen if we found better questions to ask and better ways to answer them. Instead of going to the easy question of, “How many people go to your church?” why don’t we ask things like this:

  • How have you seen the Lord working in the lives of the people in your church?
  • What evidences of the Lord’s grace has your church experienced in the last few months?
  • What are you excited about in your church right now?
  • Who are you excited about in your church right now?
  • What has the Lord been teaching you?
  • Who have you been discipling recently? Tell me about some of the future leaders at your church.

When asked, “How many people go to your church?” why don’t we consider answering something like this:

  • As many as the Lord has determined we can care for at this time.
  • Enough that we are actively working toward planting a church.
  • I don’t know, but let me tell you about a few of them…

Now obviously there are times when it is perfectly appropriate to discuss numbers, and especially so when we remember that each number is actual a human being made in God’s image that we have been tasked to care for. My concern isn’t so much that we never ask the numbers question, but that we gravitate away from asking it first.

So tell me what you think. Do you think it would benefit the church to have us migrate away from asking and answering the number question?