If My People…

“If my people who are called by my name humble themselves, and pray and seek my face and turn from their wicked ways, then I will hear from heaven and will forgive their sin and heal their land.”

2 Chronicles 7:14

Heavenly Father, my heart is breaking for this country. Our nation has become a people who have embraced the rewards of wealth over the rewards of righteousness. We have elevated choice above truth and have found an infinite number of creative and clever ways to repeat the sin of pride so that we might justify our pleasures and redefine evil as good and good as evil.

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#Purpose

“The Lord will fulfill his purpose for me; your steadfast love, O Lord, endures forever.”

Psalm 138:8

“The Lord will fulfill His purpose for me.”
Say it with me.

“The Lord will fulfill His purpose for me.”

Don’t read it silently. Speak it aloud. Confidently.

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The Emergent Change

 My soul longs for your salvation;
    I hope in your word.
My eyes long for your promise;
    I ask, “When will you comfort me?”
For I have become like a wineskin in the smoke,
    yet I have not forgotten your statutes.
How long must your servant endure?[a]
    When will you judge those who persecute me?
The insolent have dug pitfalls for me;
    they do not live according to your law.
All your commandments are sure;
    they persecute me with falsehood; help me!
They have almost made an end of me on earth,
    but I have not forsaken your precepts.
In your steadfast love give me life,
    that I may keep the testimonies of your mouth.

Psalm 119:81-88

When suffering comes it is easy to lose sight of God. His timing often seems slow and His promises (though they are surely coming) seem far off. Meanwhile, our enemies continue to barrage us with blow after blow, making us cry out to God, “How long must your servant endure? When will you judge those who persecute me?”

It is in those darkest times that we forget that God is not only in the business of saving. He is also in the business of sanctifying. He does not just write the ending, changing us from unholy to holy. He also develops us into the heroes and heroines He wants us to be. Most people only focus on the last two or three dominos that fall at the end of a story so that they can understand if the story’s main conflict is decided for or against the protagonist. But God does not want to only create the three final causal changes within us. He desires to create systemic, or emergent, changes within us as well.

In His sovereignty, God orchestrates our life story so that a chain reaction of events, choices, and circumstances push us out of our normal world and into an adventure that contrasts God’s principles, promises, and precepts against the razor edges of life. This creates an emergent change within the whole system of ourselves. It does not change only one part of us. It changes multiple parts simultaneously until we reach a climactic moment where the deepest questions about ourselves are answered within the character of God:

Am I lovable, despite my trauma?

Can I let go of that addiction to porn?

Can I overcome my pride and be selfless?

Can I ignore those temptations at work and be faithful to my spouse? And if not, can I work diligently to restore my marriage?

In other words, it is not enough for God to just open the Red Sea and save us. To become His holy people we must walk through the wilderness too.

So, we keep moving forward.

Not because our willpower is stronger nor because our wisdom is brighter nor even because our therapy is better. Rather, we continue pressing onward because the God-ordained result of all our struggles is that “when he appears we shall be like him.” (1 John 3:2). This is the promise that we have been given and that God will see to the end: That “he who began a good work in you will bring it to completion at the day of Jesus Christ.” (Php. 1:6) This is the emergent result of all of our experiences, all of our choices, and all of God’s sovereign will being exercised throughout our lives. Until then, even in the darkest moments of life, we continue to pray, “In your steadfast love give me life, that I may keep the testimonies of your mouth.”

The Interplay of Two Wills

Put false ways far from me

    and graciously teach me your law!

Psalm 119:29

Here is an interesting interplay between God’s sovereign will and man’s choice.

First, we see that David understands that without God he will always walk in false ways. His heart is desperately sick and deceitful above all things and though his ways may appear right to him, without God’s intervention the end of all his choices is the way of death. (Jer. 17:9; Pr. 14:12). Therefore, he begs God to act against the natural inclination of his will and put false ways “far from him.”

This is not something he could do on his own. He needs a new nature from God (2 Cor. 5:17) and a new law to follow, one that is not bound to sin and death (Rom. 8:2). Thus, he entreats the Lord to “graciously teach me your law!” David wants freedom from his wicked self and knows his only help comes from the Lord, who made heaven and earth (Ps. 121:2).

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An Invitation to Boldness

“The Son of God appeared for this purpose, to destroy the works of the devil.” (1 John 3:8)

“Follow me.” (Luke 5:27)

Earlier this year an acquaintance of mine introduced me to Jon Gordon’s “One Word Challenge.” The idea was simple. Instead of making resolutions every year that you abandon before the second week in January, pick one word that will define how you will live your life that year.

Obviously, a person cannot just open the dictionary to a random page, point at the first word he sees, and choose that as his word. Such an exercise might cause you to become unscrupulous, deceptive, or irredeemable for the year and that would be terrible! No, choosing such a crucial word must be accompanied with prayer, meditation, and precision. Sometimes the word may just pop into your head. Sometimes it may be the antonym of a characteristic you are trying to avoid. And sometimes it may require continually seeking and understanding what God is telling you in your heart until you have finally articulated the essence of His will for your life this year…in ONE word.

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Rewriting Rote Prayers

Rote prayers. We all have them. Sometimes they are the perfunctory words we use before eating a meal:

“Dear God, thank you for this food we are about to eat, and thank you for all that you have given to us. Help to go through each day knowing and doing your will. In Jesus’ name, Amen.”

Sometimes they are a meaningless combination of words or phrases that provide neither clarity nor intimacy in our communion with God:

“Lord, lead, guide, and direct us.” (if God is leading us, He is guiding us. If He is guiding us, He is directing us. Why do we need all three words, when one will do?)

And sometimes our rote prayers have emptied themselves of both potency and urgency due to years of repetition and an undercurrent of hopelessness.

“Save my friend.”

“Heal my child.”

“Bring us revival in this land.”

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Removing the Barnacles

A writer knows when he has spent too much time away from the keyboard. At first a hard, thin layer of melancholia attaches itself to him, like barnacles on ship. But as the separation between a writer and his creative self grows, his melancholy evolves into a thick loneliness, and left untreated, this loneliness turns into an unspecified grief, which grounds itself in doubt and self-loathing.

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Confess Jesus is Lord

“If you confess with your mouth that Jesus is Lord and believe in your heart that God raised him from the dead, you will be saved. “

Romans 10:9

When the bud of Christianity began to bloom on the vine, the first century pagan world must have seen it as just another addition to the plethora of gods that inhabited their daily lives. Jews were monotheistic in their beliefs but they were the minority. From the Egyptians to the Romans to the Greeks polytheism populated the minds and hearts of most cultures and people groups. This allowed people to explain the apparent capriciousness of how and why the supernatural interacted with mankind as well as permitted room to assimilate any new gods that may arise within the culture.

Therefore, when Christianity arose the apostles made it clear that if one was to become a Christian and to receive the gift of salvation from Jesus, he must distinguish himself from the polytheistic people around him and declare with his mouth that Jesus, and only Jesus, is Lord. And he must believe in his heart that God raised Him from the dead. Such a prerequisite ensured that this new religion and its central figure would not only be protected from being assimilated into the polytheistic religions of the day but would also establish that this Jesus held exclusive claims on his followers that surpassed any allegiances they might have had, both to the supernatural or in the natural realm.

Today, it may seem commonplace to say, “Jesus is Lord.” But in the first century this declaration was so much more than an offhanded comment. When the Apostle Paul wrote this verse, he used the Greek word “kyrios,” which we translate as “Lord.” To say that Jesus is kyrios was to declare that Jesus was master, the sovereign who held sole rights over the person making the statement, as well as supreme in authority over all else. But beyond the personal realm, “Jesus is kyrios” also rejected the existence and authority of all other gods. In Romans 10:13 Paul hearkened back to Joel 2:32, which says “And it shall come to pass that everyone who calls on the name of the LORD (i.e. Yahweh) shall be saved.” (emphasis mine) So, Paul is equating Jesus with YHWH, the name for God in the Old Testament. In this way the confession that “Jesus is Lord” was exclusivist in nature. It meant that a person  believed that Jesus was more than the supreme god among many other gods, such as Zeus. It meant that he believed that Jesus was the only god. 

The question that we must ask ourselves is do we confess Jesus as Lord in our lives?

Today, Jesus may not compete with the ancient Greek and Roman gods in the religious marketplace, but differing worldviews, such as secular humanism and pantheism, offer naturalistic and spiritual explanations that can seep into and distort a Christian’s faith.

If we are to confess “Jesus is Lord,” we must be clear not only what we are saying but also what we are rejecting. For instance, when we step back and look at our lives objectively, what do we find ourselves clinging to?

What is it in our lives that we pursue or rely on to make us whole? What is it that, if we are honest, is more important to us than God?

What is it that we rely on and fantasize about in the hopes that it will meet all our needs? Is it money? Power? Sex? Identity? Comfort? Is it the escape of sports, social media, or the news? Perhaps it’s approval, the little dopamine bursts we get from our phone, or the desire to feel loved by someone.

Whatever it is, these are the things transform our hearts into a hearse. These are the idols that keeps us from truly following Jesus and giving Him all the glory that He deserves. If we really wanted to make the exclusive claim that Jesus is Lord in our life, we must realize that we cannot “Just say no!” to these idols. We must also continuously say “Yes!” to Jesus.

When we finally say that we find Jesus more appealing and more fulfilling than the images on our screens or the promotion that we’ve been seeking at work; when we finally see Christ as our treasure and not only as our savior, then we can say with confidence that Jesus is not only objectively the only god but can also subjectively claim Him as sovereign in our lives. And this proclamation (both word and deed), combined with the belief that God raised Jesus from the dead on the third day, will continually challenge us to stand firm as the world assaults us and the Devil schemes against us.

To confess “Jesus is Lord” is not an easy life to choose. But it is a fulfilling one.

It may cost you your money, your identity, your pastimes, your approval, or the love of others. But it will never cost you Christ, neither in Heaven (“So everyone who acknowledges me before men, I also will acknowledge before my Father who is in heaven, but whoever denies me before men, I also will deny before my Father who is in heaven.”  — Mt. 10:32-33) nor on earth (“I have said these things to you, that in me you may have peace. In the world you will have tribulation. But take heart; I have overcome the world.” — Jn. 16:33)

The man or woman who lives for Christ, in Christ, and with Christ, the one who daily proclaims that Jesus is Lord over all of their life may suffer, be persecuted, or even die. But in the end he can know that even though our opponents may regard us as sheep to be slaughtered, “we are more than conquerors through him who loved us” and that, through the denial of all other gods in our life we will be able to say along with the Apostle Paul “it is my eager expectation and hope that I will not be at all ashamed, but that with full courage now as always Christ will be honored in my body, whether by life or by death. For to me to live is Christ, and to die is gain!” (Rom. 8:36; Php. 1:20-21)

Can Prayer Help?

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Continue steadfastly in prayer, being watchful in it with thanksgiving. At the same time, pray also for us, that God may open to us a door for the word, to declare the mystery of Christ, on account of which I am in prison— that I may make it clear, which is how I ought to speak.

Walk in wisdom toward outsiders, making the best use of the time. Let your speech always be gracious, seasoned with salt, so that you may know how you ought to answer each person.

Colossians 4:2-6 ESV

The wrapping paper flew off in a rush of anticipation that only childhood can provide and floated to the ground. The colorful box was about the size of my torso and balanced on my tiny lap. Two bright words beckoned me to a world of boyish adventure, implanting visions of secret experiments, startling discoveries, and minor explosions within the bowels of my house. And for weeks these visions fueled my persistent play with the tiny vials in my brand-new chemistry set.

But as the days continued, my enthusiasm waned. Most of the experiments in the manual seemed either too simple or too complicated and none of them taught me how to explode stuff, which, if I am honest, is what my 11-year-old self really wanted.

So, I did what any child would do. I kept the manual for reference but put it to the side and began to gradually mix a combination of the chemicals to see what I could make. Surely it couldn’t be that hard. I had seen science shows on TV and most seemed to easily result in at least some sort of harmless bang. But regardless of what chemicals I combined, I could not even produce a smidge of smoke. All my experiments resulted in either green or yellow solids, stuck stubbornly at the base of a limited supply of test tubes.

“This stuff doesn’t work,” I finally concluded.

Many of my chemicals were gone. No startling discoveries had been made. And all I could produce was ruined test tubes.

In despair I made sure all the vials were in their correctly labeled space, laid the unused manual on top, softly slid the box top over the bottom, and buried my chemistry set on a shelf, never to be touched again.

But failure is a bell that never rings only once. Its echoes hoard disappointment, sadness, and shame. These resounded so often throughout my schooling that a hard, stubborn bias formed at the base of my unguarded soul against science. It was too hard. I was less Louis Pasteur and more Larry, Mo, and Curly. And no matter how hard I tried it was always easier to blame the repeated failures on the science than it was to blame myself (the scientist).

The reality, of course, is that I struggled with science because there was something wrong with my assumptions, methodology, logic, or understanding that prevented me from being successful in this field. It was not the science that was flawed. It was me. To hold any other position would be irrational.

Interestingly, the experience I had with science often parallels the experience others have had with prayer.

The gift that God has given us to boldly “draw near to the throne of grace, that we may receive mercy and find grace to help in time of need” (Heb. 4:16) and the promise of “Ask, and it will be given to you; seek, and you will find; knock, and it will be opened to you.” (Matt. 7:7) fill our uninitiated souls with visions of victories, blessings, and pain-free lives.

But then we are told, or we experience, that God is not our personal genie. We look at His manual, the Bible, for guidance and instruction in this incredible gift. Some of it seems relatively easy and straightforward. Other parts are hard and complicated. And if we are truly honest, what we want the most is an immediate alleviation or extinction of our pain, not a lesson in theology.

So, we put the manual aside and begin to experiment as best we can with the gift He has given. We include elements of other faiths or worldviews to help us understand how to use prayer effectively. We embrace concepts that are not taught in scripture, but because they sound like truth and are used by millions of people across the world, we mix them in our test tubes of prayers and hope to a harmless bang in our answers. Instead, all we receive is a hardened green or yellow rock as the result of our experiment. Nothing has changed. Anxieties and stressors and suffering seem to come and go of their own accord until one day we survey the landscape of our prayerful experiments and exclaim “This stuff doesn’t work!”

So, when Paul writes in Colossians 4:2 “Continue steadfastly in prayer, being watchful in it with thanksgiving” people who believe that prayer does not work dismiss the comment outright.

But is this being fair? Is it truly a problem with God or prayer? Or does the problem reside in the assumptions, methodology, logic, or understanding of the one who is praying?

The only rational position is that prayer works, but it is impeded in several ways. It does not work when we try to fulfill our selfish motives (James 4:3). And it is hindered through our preponderance of doubt (James 1:6-7) and pride (Job 35:12-13). Our unwillingness to obey God’s law (Pr. 28:9), to disenfranchise the poor (Pr. 21:13), to cover our hands with blood (Isa. 1:15), to fill the land with violence and to provoke God repeatedly (Eze. 8:17-18), to refuse to listen to God’s call and to ignore His hand of discipline (Pr. 1:24-25), to turn a stubborn shoulder and stop our ears from hearing; to make our hearts like flint so that we cannot hear His law or His words (Zech. 7:11-13)…these are the things that hinder our prayers.

It is not prayer that is flawed. It is us.

As a man whom Jesus healed from blindness once said:

 “We know that God does not hear sinners; but if anyone is God-fearing and does His will, He hears him.”

John 9:31

Therefore, it is only right that our leaders and pastors call for and encourage prayer during a national crisis where stores are being looted and burned due to generations of unchecked racial injustice, and a pandemic has forced us to consider and protect our mortality.

God promises terrible things to His people if they will not obey Him, and we may be witnessing the bud of God’s justice beginning to open.

But God is not a god of judgment only. He is also a god of redemption and peace. A god of healing, not hatred. And ultimately a god of love, salvation and eternal life.

Therefore, God has promised that when He sends pestilence on the land or allows it to be devoured that “if my people who are called by my name humble themselves, and pray and seek my face and turn from their wicked ways, then I will hear from heaven and will forgive their sin and heal their land.” (2 Chron. 7:14)

We must understand.

This is not a call to prayer only.

This is a call to repentance.

Isaiah 1:16-19 says:

Wash yourselves; make yourselves clean; remove the evil of your deeds from before my eyes; cease to do evil, learn to do good; seek justice, correct oppression; bring justice to the fatherless, plead the widow’s cause.

Come now, let us reason together, says the Lord: though your sins are like scarlet, they shall be as white as snow; though they are red like crimson, they shall become like wool. If you are willing and obedient, you shall eat the good of the land; but if you refuse and rebel, you shall be eaten by the sword; for the mouth of the Lord has spoken.”

The first step in this repentance is humility. God wants His people to humble themselves. “The sacrifices of God are a broken spirit; a broken and contrite heart, O God, you will not despise.” (Ps. 51:17) We Christians must bow down, weep and intercede before our Lord on behalf of our country. We must boldly admit any implicit or explicit culpability we hold as individuals or as the corporate body of Christ for God’s judgment upon this nation and turn from our wicked ways. It is not enough to be outraged at injustice or depravity. We must be bold witnesses who engage the culture with the transforming power that the Gospel and discipleship in Jesus Christ can bring. Therefore, humble yourself.

Second, we must pray. But how?

  1. Center your prayer not around your will or your wants or your selfish desires. Center your prayer around God’s will both for us and for this nation. “And this is the confidence that we have toward him, that if we ask anything according to his will he hears us.” (1 Jn. 5:14).
  2. Do not trust in your power or man’s ability or any earthly strength. But ask God to exercise His strength and to exhibit His power for the glorification of His name.
    • “Seek the Lord and his strength; seek his presence continually!” (1 Chron. 16:11)
    • “Some trust in chariots and some in horses, but we trust in the name of the Lord our God.” (Ps. 20:7)
    • “Not by might, nor by power, but by my Spirit, says the Lord of hosts.” (Zech. 4:6)
  3. Pray in the Spirit, not in yourself. And make prayer a continuous practice, regardless of the occasion. You do not have to wait for a crisis to pray. But be alert. God’s people need continuous prayer. We can fall into sin just as easily as anyone else.
    • “Pray without ceasing” (1 Thess. 5:17)
    • “And pray in the Spirit on all occasions with all kinds of prayers and requests. With this in mind, be alert and always keep on praying for all the Lord’s people.” (Eph. 6:18 NIV)
    • “I do not ask that you take them out of the world, but that you keep them from the evil one.” (Jn. 17:15)
    • “Watch and pray that you may not enter into temptation. The spirit indeed is willing, but the flesh is weak.” (Mt. 26:41)
  4. Renew your mind every day with scripture. Let this be the filter through which you engage the world and discern God’s will, so that God is glorified among the unrighteous. The world looks at life through a competitive lens of “us vs. them,” which invariably leads to increased aggression, pain, and suffering. Do not fall into this trap.
    • “Do not be conformed to this world, but be transformed by the renewal of your mind, that by testing you may discern what is the will of God, what is good and acceptable and perfect.” (Rom. 12:2)
    • “Only let your manner of life be worthy of the gospel of Christ, so that whether I come and see you or am absent, I may hear of you that you are standing firm in one spirit, with one mind striving side by side for the faith of the gospel.” (Php. 1:27)
    •  In the same way, let your light shine before others, so that they may see your good works and give glory to your Father who is in heaven.” (Mt. 5:16)
  5. Don’t give up. Don’t lose heart.
    • “And will not God give justice to his elect, who cry to him day and night? Will he delay long over them? I tell you, he will give justice to them speedily. Nevertheless, when the Son of Man comes, will he find faith on earth?” (Luke 18:7-8)
    • “The Lord is not slow to fulfill his promise as some count slowness, but is patient toward you, not wishing that any should perish, but that all should reach repentance.” (2 Peter 3:9)

Third, “seek God’s face.” This is where one’s Christian life becomes less of a intermittent activity and more of a continual pursuit of His presence.

  • “Seek His face continually!” (Ps. 105:4)
  • “Come close to God, and God will come close to you. Wash your hands, you sinners; purify your hearts, for your loyalty is divided between God and the world” (James 4:8 NLT)

The fourth and final step in repentance is to turn from your wicked ways. Godly, humble, contrite, repentant prayer is not only a passive action one does on his knees; it is also an active public expression of faith he takes among his people.

  • In the same way, let your light shine before others, so that they may see your good works and give glory to your Father who is in heaven. (Matt. 5:16)
  • Peter said, “I have no silver and gold, but what I do have I give to you. In the name of Jesus Christ of Nazareth, rise up and walk!” (Acts 3:6)
  • For godly grief produces a repentance that leads to salvation without regret, whereas worldly grief produces death. (2 Cor. 7:10)
  • Whoever conceals his transgressions will not prosper, but he who confesses and forsakes them will obtain mercy. (Pr. 28:13)
  • Finally, all of you, have unity of mind, sympathy, brotherly love, a tender heart, and a humble mind. Do not repay evil for evil or reviling for reviling, but on the contrary, bless, for to this you were called, that you may obtain a blessing. 10 For “Whoever desires to love life and see good days, let him keep his tongue from evil and his lips from speaking deceit;11 let him turn away from evil and do good; let him seek peace and pursue it. 12 For the eyes of the Lord are on the righteous, and his ears are open to their prayer. But the face of the Lord is against those who do evil.” 13 Now who is there to harm you if you are zealous for what is good? 14 But even if you should suffer for righteousness’ sake, you will be blessed. Have no fear of them, nor be troubled, 15 but in your hearts honor Christ the Lord as holy, always being prepared to make a defense to anyone who asks you for a reason for the hope that is in you; yet do it with gentleness and respect, 16 having a good conscience, so that, when you are slandered, those who revile your good behavior in Christ may be put to shame. 17 For it is better to suffer for doing good, if that should be God’s will, than for doing evil. (1 Pet. 3:8-17)

Come, let us not be children, playing with prayer as if it some chemistry set. But may we get ourselves right with God. Then we can work together to lift our nation, our cities, our leaders and our enemies up to the Lord with prayers that conform to His will and cannot be hindered. Then we will see healing come to our land.

“Therefore confess your sins to each other and pray for each other so that you may be healed. The prayer of a righteous person is powerful and effective. (James 5:16 NIV)

Maranatha! Come, Lord Jesus!

…tell me a story

woman reading book to toddler

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Sometimes, when I don’t know what to write, or when it has been an eternity since I have attempted to put any semblance of a story together, I have to reenter the deep forest of stories and inhale the fresh pine scent of the poetic beginnings I love.

Such as:

“My wound is geography. It is also my anchorage, my port of call.

I grew up slowly beside the tides and marshes of Colleton; my arms were tawny and strong from working long days on the shrimp boat in the blazing South Carolina heat. Because I was a Wingo, I worked as soon as I could walk; I could pick a blue crab clean when I was five. I had killed my first deer by the age of seven, and at nine was regularly putting meat on the family’s table. I was born and raised on a Carolina sea island and I carried the sunshine of the low-country, inked in dark gold, on my back and shoulders.”

— Pat Conroy, Prologue, The Prince of Tides

Or

“I am doomed to remember a boy with a wrecked voice — not because of his voice, or because he was the smallest person I ever knew, or even because he was the instrument of my mother’s death, but because he is the reason I believe in God; I am a Christian because of Owen Meany. I make no claims to have a life in Christ, or with Christ — and certainly not for Christ, which I’ve heard some zealots claim. I’m not very sophisticated in my knowledge of the Old Testament, and I’ve not read the New Testament since my Sunday school days, except for those passages that I hear read aloud to me when I go to church. I’m somewhat more familiar with the passages from the Bible that appear in The Book of Common Prayer; I read my prayer book often, and my Bible only on holy days — the prayer book is so much more orderly.”

— John Irving, A Prayer for Owen Meany

Or:

“When Augustus came out on the porch the blue pigs were eating a rattlesnake — not a very big one. It had probably just been crawling around looking for shade when it ran into the pigs. They were having a fine tug-of-war with it, and its rattling days were over. The sow had it by the neck, and the shoat had the tail.

— Larry McMurtry, Lonesome Dove

These rhythms of language remind me of the musical nature of words, how each one has its own unique key and tone and pitch. And how, when they are placed together in the right order, they create a symphony of setting, character, situation, and movement that paints the canvas of the mind.

Stories evoke fear, love, suspense, hope, and even grief. They are mysterious organisms moving us purposefully towards unexpected conclusions. But blogging, wrapped in the sepia tones of its journalistic origins, often strips away the joy of story by exchanging mystery for facts and narrative for bullet points.

Social psychologist Jonathan Haidt once said, “The human mind is a story processor, not a logic processor.” And I have to agree with him. Story emerges universally in all children. It is the language that teaches us at a young age how we ought to understand the world, its social conventions, and our values. And it is the meta-cognition of adults, the primary way, other than experience, that teaches us about the complexity and purpose of suffering and the various ways we can respond to it, whether that is through grief, friendship, love, revenge, hope, or sacrifice.

Story helps us make sense of life. It interprets other’s intentions towards us. It creates new narratives for ourselves. It describes our shared history. It brings cohesion to religion. And it engages the mystery of our own journey to discover our place within life’s unpredictable themes and throughlines.

Story is a powerful tool. Yet few of us bloggers, including myself, leverage the power of story and the way it is structured to convey our messages. Instead, we believe that the best way to communicate with our information-saturated audience is through the expedient path of numerical and/or bulleted lists. This style may work well if you are limited to a word count or if you are delivering a PowerPoint. But if we writers want to explore the intricacies of a singular idea, we must eliminate the bullets from our writing as much as possible.

Bullets are only acceptable when used to support a point, but are not acceptable as a substitute for a point. Thus, you can have a blog that has a list of 50 things in support of a single idea. But you should not have a list of 50 things as a list of 50 separate ideas. Thus, a blog called “How to Take Charge of Procrastination” could be acceptable if the author uses his list like bass notes to support a budding melody. But the same article would be unacceptable if the list is the focal point of the article. Such a construction is ultimately unhelpful to a reader. It is synonymous with saying, “Here are 100 things you didn’t know about [blank].” Informational? Yes. Instructive? Perhaps. But helpful? Unlikely. Few people can discern what the song is supposed to sound like when all they have is the drumbeat alone. There must be more to the article than a mere list of advice, suggestions, or instructions. There must also be resonance or depth.

Bullets gravitate towards simplicity. Points are thought-out expressions of ideas and concepts. If you want to make a difference in people’s lives, don’t be reductionistic. Be reasoned. Every writer knows the adage: show, don’t tell. The same is true here. Readers seeking help or guidance need to know both the path to hope and healing as well as how to do it. Thus, show them the way to truth. Bullets/lists rarely do this, prioritizing breadth over depth. But what good is it to the reader if the writer can list 100 ways to do something but provides little depth to these ideas? Such an article only flexes the writer’s creativity while encouraging a “kiddie pool” life.

Think about it. In a 1000 – 1500 word article how much real estate is allotted to explaining each of the points in the list? Not much, if you’re honest. A 1500 word article, for example, that has an introduction and a conclusion, plus a body of seven bulleted points will receive about 160 words a paragraph. If you have more to say, say it. But do so in an article dedicated to fleshing out one singular point. If you discover that you don’t have more to say than the small 160-word paragraph you’ve crafted, then chances are that the reader is receiving only a superficial knowledge and a superficial benefit from what you are trying to say. Consider the possibility that you may need to learn more about this point before writing about it. If you are a blogger of non-fiction, as many bloggers are, then you must learn to not only enjoy writing but also researching. This will give your article gravitas and will allow you to curate the best information for your readers. Many bloggers can no longer conceive of how to explain “how to do [blank]” without using a list. Such thinking is a major problem in modern blogging because it has given the illusion that the list somehow gives the article authority and gravitas when, in fact, it may only give it length. To write with research is power. To write without research, however, is to offer your reader a potential pile of poo.

Instead, be a writer who uses “shorter” posts to their advantage. I do not mean shorter as in length or word count. I mean shorter as in the number of ideas explored in a single post. Such writing may lead to posts that have only one point each, but if you create depth around each point you have, you will discover that you: 1) create more posts for your blog,  2) develop credibility with your readership as you explore the fathoms of truth on each topic and 3) reduce what I call “blogging burnout” where, after only a year or so of writing, you feel there is little left in the creativity well and begin wondering if you’re as a big of a fraud as you feel. (To be honest, this is exactly why the number of my posts on this blog have tapered over the years, much to my chagrin).

What does depth look like? They look like explanations, yes. But a cold, hard examination of facts is as bland as yeastless bread if it does not have a person and their struggle attached to it. Articles built around people and their journey through the trials you are exploring pull back the proverbial curtain on whatever you are writing about and demonstrate the what, why, and how of an issue as well as the applicability of the advice you are offering. This, of course, is where a firm knowledge of story structure comes in handy. Where stakes can be raised, a journey can be explored, and a conclusion can be given that resolves the story being told. Sometimes story-structured articles will not highlight a person but will use the structure to explore the heart and struggles of the target audience, always making the reader a potential protagonist.  The most important tool to use in creating depth to a story-structured article, however, is building tension.

Raising tension is not just for fiction. It is required for non-fiction too. Without tension there is no desire to continue reading, to see how it ends. This desire must be in your reader if you want them to finish what you wrote. And a list is a poor answer to a whodunit?

Why?

Because this is the same thing they get everywhere else in life. They want a gift that offers life, not a law (i.e., a list) that offers fear, doubt, self-condemnation and a sea of regret. They want the truth that radicalizes life, not to-do’s that challenge one’s willpower or self-discipline. But before they can have any of this, they must know what is at stake, see how attempts to overcome this may fail, as well as how success may be obtained. Readers may prefer to read a list-oriented article because of its efficiency, but they will remember the story-structured one because they will have emotionally engaged with it.

In short, Holden Caulfield said it best at the end of The Catcher in the Rye:

“It’s funny. Don’t ever tell anybody anything. If you do, you start missing everybody.”