Stephen Altrogge


Stephen Altrogge

Stephen Altrogge serves as a pastor at Sovereign Grace Church of Indiana, PA, where his main duties include leading worship, preaching, and working with youth. He also has written a number of worship songs that have been included on Sovereign Grace Music albums. Stephen is the author of the book Game Day For the Glory of God: A Guide For Athletes, Fans, and Wannabes, published by Crossway Books in September 2008, and The Greener Grass Conspiracy: Finding Contentment on Your Side of the Fence, published by Crossway Books in April 2011. When not shining his dad’s shoes, you can find Stephen drinking coffee or playing video games.

Find out more when you visit his blog, The Blazing Center.

The Forgetfulness that Leads to Depression

As I’ve gotten older, I’ve noticed that certain things about me are changing. It’s not as easy to stay healthy as it once was. In my youth, I was able to eat entire sleeves of Oreos without the slightest repercussion. Now, if I even look at an Oreo I immediately gain five pounds. I also feel exponentially more tired than I did when I was younger. I suspect this is because I have children. Those parenting books that tell you what to “expect” when you have kids should list exhaustion first. Nobody told me about the blunt-force exhaustion of having three young children.

Perhaps most the most concerning change I see in myself is that I’m becoming increasingly cynical and jaded as I get older. I was pretty naïve when I was younger. I didn’t realize just how full of suffering and sadness life can be. The older I get, the more I’m aware of how royally life can suck. I’ve seen brain cancer rob a family of a husband and dad. I’ve seen fellow Christians turn on each other and treat one another in the most horrific ways. I’ve seen my sister endure constant, chronic migraines. I’ve personally dealt with a massive amount of physical anxiety.

In the midst of life’s bitterness, it’s so easy to drift toward depression. Now, just to be clear, when I talk about depression here, I’m not talking about clinical depression that is physically based and should be treated in appropriate medical ways. No, I’m talking about depression of the soul. That sick, sour, cynical disposition that leads me to see all things through gray lenses. That constant discouragement that I try to numb with television and Facebook and anything else I can use to distract myself. That feeling that it will always be winter and never Christmas.

What is it that causes this depression of the soul in me? A large part of it is forgetfulness.

I recently read Psalm 42:6

My soul is cast down within me; therefore I remember you.

The Psalmist was cast down and discouraged. He was worn out with life. He didn’t have any gas left. So what his solution? To remember God. 

If there is no God, then I have every reason to be depressed. If there is no God, I have every reason to think that things will continue in a downward spiral. Atheists have cornered the market on despondency.

But there is a God, and he is my God! There is a God, and he is not silent! There is a God, and he is living and active, at work in my life and in the lives of everyone around me. God is at work in me and for me, ordaining all circumstances for my good and his glory (Romans 8:28). He is at work in the world, moving all things toward his ultimate goal of filling the earth with his glory (Habakuk 2:14). He is at work in me, transforming me from one degree of glory to the next (2 Corinthians 3:18), and he is at work in the world, preparing to unite all things in Christ (Ephesians 1:10).

God is not distant. He is very, very busy.

Are you discouraged and depressed? Are you worn out, beaten down, out of gas, frustrated, cynical, or angry? Follow the example of the Psalmist: remember God. Remember who God is and what he has promised to do in your life. When the Psalmist was discouraged, he told his soul to get it together:

Why are you cast down, O my soul, and why are you in turmoil within me? Hope in God; for I shall again praise him, my salvation and my God.

It’s as if the Psalmist is saying to himself, “Why are you so discouraged? You know the living God who works incredible deeds on behalf of his people. You know the God who split the Red Sea and spoke the universe into existence. Put your hope in him and quit being such a panty waist!”

Are you discouraged because you’re still single after all these years? Hope in God! Are your kids sucking the life out of you to the point where you want to send them to boarding school? Hope in God! Are you pastoring a church full of critical people who are never satisfied with you? Hope in God! Is your budget stretched too thin, like bread scraped over too much butter? Hope in God.

This is not a simplistic, reductionist solution. This is not just Christian talk. This is our lifeline in a dark and depressing world.

If there is no God, we have every right to live a depressed and discouraged life. But there is a God, and he is our God.

As Charles Spurgeon said:

I am the subject of depression so fearful that I hope none of you ever get to such extremes of wretchedness as I go to. But I always get back again by this—I know that I trust Christ. I have no reliance but in him, and if he falls, I shall fall with him. But if he does not, I shall not. Because he lives, I shall live also, and I spring to my legs again and fight with my depressions of spirit and get the victory through it. And so may you do, and so you must, for there is no other way of escaping from it.


Stephen Altrogge is a writer, pastor, and knows a lot about Star Wars. Find out more at The Blazing Center.


Do I Want My Wife to be a Proverbs 31 Woman? Sorta

Ahhh, yes. The Proverbs 31 woman. The Holy Grail of biblical femininity. She is the Wonder Woman of Scripture, the unstoppable female juggernaut who conquers life with little or no difficulty. No woman has inspired more books, ministries, blogs, conferences, devotionals, mugs, feelings of guilt, and self-loathing than her.

In the early years of our marriage, Jen felt burdened by Proverbs 31. She felt unable to live up to the pristine example of womanhood on display in that chapter. The shadow of Proverbs 31 hung over all that she did. So we sat down and talked through what it really looked like to be a Proverbs 31 woman.

What did we come up with? Do I want Jen to be a Proverbs 31 woman? Does Jen want to be a Proverbs 31 woman? Yes. Sort of. Kind of. Perhaps I should explain.

Proverbs 31:10–31, as with every other passage in Scripture, needs to be interpreted in light of its context and authorial intent. In other words, we need to read these verses as the author originally intended them to be read. To quote me in junior high school: “No doi.”

So, what is the original intent of Proverbs 31?

First, it’s a poem of praise to an excellent wife. Verses 29–31 say, “Many women have done excellently, but you surpass them all. Charm is deceitful, and beauty is vain, but a woman who fears the Lord is to be praised. Give her of the fruit of her hands, and let her works praise her in the gates.”

Proverbs 31 is not a moral checklist for us husbands to use as a grading sheet for our wives. Rather, it is a checklist of ways we can encourage and praise our wives. When Jen does good to me (verse 12), which she constantly does, I can encourage her that God is at work in her life and praise her for how she is responding to God’s work. When she does the hard work of finding good deals on clothes for our kids (verse 21), I can shower encouragement upon her. When she makes a killer meal, I respond with gratefulness.

Husbands, listen up: if you are using Proverbs 31 as a diagnostic godliness checklist for your wife, you are misusing the passage and hurting your wife. These verses are not a cattle prod for a husband to use to goad his wife toward godliness. These verses are a springboard for a husband to shower encouragement on his wife. If you’re using these verses as a checklist, read them again and let them serve as a swift punch to the throat.

So, does that mean the moral qualities espoused in Proverbs 31 don’t matter at all? Of course not. But we need to think carefully about what it means to really apply these verses.

Proverbs 31 are principles to be pursued, NOT practices to be prescribed. 

Take a closer look. Verse 15 says, “She rises while it is yet night and provides food for her household and portions for her maidens.” What is being described here? A woman who is diligent in caring for her entire family. It is not prescribing a time to wake up, a system of recipe planning, a particular diet, or anything else. The takeaway? A godly woman seeks to be diligent in caring for her family. How that plays itself out will look a thousand different ways in a thousand different families. If a family has special needs, the wife may need to be diligently care for the special needs child while the husband cooks dinner. You get the point. If you want to wake up at 6 AM to bake fresh bread, wonderful. Just don’t do it out of a sense of guilt.

Consider verse 16: “She considers a field and buys it; with the fruit of her hands she plants a vineyard.” The principle at work here? Prudence. A godly woman uses prudence as she works within the confines of her family income. This verse has nothing to say about who does the budget, who sets spending limits, or anything like that. Those practices, which flow out of the prudence principle, will look different in every family. In some families, the wife will have a better head for numbers and therefore watch the budget. In other families, the husband will be the one on budget duty. But the principle remains the same: a godly woman uses prudence.

One more. “She opens her hand to the poor and reaches out her hands to the needy” (verse 20). A godly woman is generous toward those in need. That’s the principle. This verse doesn’t mean that a woman needs to knit sweaters for the homeless or serve in soup kitchens, good as those things may be. It just means that a godly woman looks for ways to bless the needy. That’s it.

When we turn Proverbs 31 into a checklist to be rigidly followed, we crush the women in our churches. After all, the woman described in Proverbs 31 never sleeps! She rises early and her light doesn’t go out at night. If a woman tries to literally follow all that is listed in Proverbs 31, she will crash and burn.

I want Jen to be a Proverbs 31 woman in the sense that she is seeking to obey the principles laid out in those verses (and she is—heroically!). But I don’t want Jen to be constantly haunted by the sense that she isn’t measuring up to God’s commands. That isn’t how God wants Proverbs 31 to function in Jen’s life.

And what if you find yourself not even close to the principles described in Proverbs 31? Remember: you’re a great sinner and Jesus is a great Savior. God doesn’t love you because you’re superwoman; he loves you because Jesus obey every principle and practice. You can rest in that.


Stephen Altrogge is a writer, pastor, and knows a lot about Star Wars. Find out more at The Blazing Center.


Stop Blaming Your Lack of Worship on Your Worship Leader

About once a year, someone will write a lengthy, semi-disgusted post about the awful state of modern worship. Like a prosecuting attorney making closing arguments, they will systematically list why they can’t sing at church anymore. These posts inevitably get passed around, and the author receives a bunch of virtual high-fives from other disgruntled worshipers (that’s an oxymoron if I ever heard one).

But is the worship itself really the problem? Unless your worship leader is leading in you hymns and praise-choruses to the goddess Mother Earth, I don’t think the worship is the problem. The complaints against modern worship usually go something like this:

IT’S TOO LOUD

“The band is so loud I can barely hear myself think, let alone sing!” It is true that the primary instrument heard in worship should be our voices. But the reality is, there is a lot of really, really loud worship in the Bible. Revelation 5:11–12 gives us a glimpse into the worship that is currently taking place in heaven:

Then I looked, and I heard around the throne and the living creatures and the elders the voice of many angels, numbering myriads of myriads and thousands of thousands, saying with a loud voice, “Worthy is the Lamb who was slain, to receive power and wealth and wisdom and might and honor and glory and blessing!”

When myriads and myriads join with thousands and thousands, it is loud, raucous, joyful, celebratory worship. The worship in heaven makes the Seattle Seahawks “12th Man” look like a Lutheran worship service (sorry, couldn’t resist).

Our worship services should include soft, reverential music AND loud, celebratory music. God doesn’t oppose loudness when the decibels are directed at him.

IT’S TOO SIMPLE/REPETITIVE

“These modern praise choruses are so boring and repetitive! It’s the same thing over and over and over. Whatever happened to the good old days of five verses and descending antiphonal harmonies?”

It’s true, some modern worship songs could use a little more substance (“I could sing of this song forever…”). But the Bible contains plenty of simple, repetitive worship songs. Psalm 136 contains the refrain, “… for his steadfast love endures forever,” 26 times! Psalm 117 is a grand total of two lines.

As John Frame says:

This variety [in the Psalms] should make us less critical of hymns that we may think are too simple, too long, too short, and so on. There is room in God’s worship for hymns of many kinds—for many purposes, many different kinds of people, and many learning styles. (Worship In Spirit and Truth, pg. 136)

In 2 Peter 1:13, Peter writes, “I think it right, as long as I am in this body, to stir you up by way of reminder….”

One of the values of repetition and simplicity is that it allows us to grapple with truths in ways we can’t when we are moving quickly through multiple verses of substantial depth. We so easily forget eternal truths, and repetition and reminder drill God’s truth deeply into our hearts.

Our worship services should include songs with words like “bulwark” and “Ebenezer,” but they should also include simple, easily understandable songs.

NOBODY KNOWS THE SONGS

“These young punk worship leaders are always introducing new songs. What’s wrong with the hundreds of songs that have already been written?”

To again quote John Frame (can you tell I’m on a Frame kick?):

When there is another revival, bringing another large group of people into the church, the music of that generation will also be brought in, once again offending older generations. (Worship In Spirit and Truth, pg 116)

In other words, when God moves in powerful, salvific ways on a group of people, those people bring their musical styles into the church. They write new songs that express their gratefulness to God for all he has done for them. The work of God in Christ is so great that no one body of songs can sufficiently express it. There must always be new songs written to express the truth of what God has accomplished in Christ.

God is constantly on the move, saving people, changing people, renewing people. The songs that have come from Passion, Hillsong, Sovereign Grace Music, Sojourn, and many other movements were written in response to God’s work.

We should treasure the old songs that have been written while simultaneously welcoming new songs that express praise to God.

SO WHAT IS THE PROBLEM?

If we have a problem with worship, most likely the problem resides within us. It’s not that complicated. If we’re not responding in worship, something has gone awry in our souls. The simple solution is to repent, receive the free forgiveness of God, and then dive headlong back into worship.


Stephen Altrogge is a writer, pastor, and knows a lot about Star Wars. Find out more at The Blazing Center.


Children’s Bible + Faithful Discipline Does NOT Equal Salvation

I recently had someone ask me to try to answer the question of why so many young people are leaving the church. Yikes. Talk about a large, loaded, deep question. After this, I’ll take on the issue of life on Mars. But I’ll give it my best shot.

While there are others who are certainly more qualified to answer that question, I did grow up in church and have seen many of my friends leave the church, so I may have a bit of insight into the question. I’ve seen friends get hooked on heroin, get entangled in sexual affairs, get slapped with handcuffs, renounce God, and turn their backs on all things Jesus. Why does this happen?

I don’t have any shiny bar graphs or fancy regression analyses. I don’t have a Barna survey of 1,000 angsty, disaffected youth. I don’t have a three-ring binder full of demographic data about today’s youth.

But I’m not sure I need all those things, helpful as they are. I think the answer as to why the church is hemorrhaging young people might be simpler than we think.

It’s all about the affections. 

We no longer have a commonly accepted morality. People don’t go to church just because their parents went to church. “The Bible tells me so” doesn’t mean much any more. We live in a society that increasingly locates ultimate authority within ourselves. My desires and my biology and my dreams are the ultimate authority. As long as what I want doesn’t hurt anyone else, it’s okay. You can’t tell me what to do, and I can’t tell you what to do. Keep your morality out of my bedroom. To quote Sheryl Crow, “If it makes you happy, it can’t be that bad.”

We may be able to keep our kids sheltered from this blunt-force existentialism for a while, but eventually they will come to a crossroads of intellect and desire. They will experience strong desires that run counter to what they have been taught at church and in the home. The idea of “it’s wrong” can only hold out so long against the onslaught of desires. If the mind thinks it’s wrong but the heart isn’t so convinced, the heart will win in the end.

I know a young woman who lived with her boyfriend for many years before she got married. She knew it was wrong. Her dad had faithfully instructed her in the ways of the Lord, but her desires trumped her knowledge. I know a pastor’s kid who got sucked into porn and drugs and bunch of other stuff. His dad had done all the “right things.” Desires won.

So, what is the solution? First and foremost, we depend totally on the Holy Spirit to cause our children to become born again. I can’t cause Charis, Ella, or Gwendolyn to become Christians. Salvation is not some sort of mathematical formula, where good input always equals good output. Jesus Story Book Bible + Faithful Discipline + Shepherding a Child’s Heart = Salvation. Salvation is a work of God. God must save my kids.

If we don’t want our kids to leave the church, the best thing we can do is pray, pray, and pray some more. We must pray that God causes their hearts to become alive with holy affections.

Additionally, we need to dazzle our kids with Jesus. I don’t want to simply import biblical information into my kids, as if I’m installing a computer program. I want them to see that Jesus is better, sweeter, and more precious than anything else in life. I want them to see that their daddy loves Jesus with all his heart. I want them to hear me talk about how grateful I am that Jesus is my righteousness. I want them to understand the preciousness of grace. More than anything else, I want my children’s affections to be stirred up by Jesus.

As James K.A. Smith says in Desiring the Kingdom:

Being a disciple of Jesus is not primarily a matter of getting the right ideas and doctrines and beliefs into your head in order to guarantee proper behavior; rather, it’s a matter of being the kind of person who loves rightly—who loves God and neighbor and is oriented to the world by the primacy of that love.

 Let’s help them to love rightly.

Charles Spurgeon said:

I am afraid that many Sunday school addresses have no gospel in them. I do not see why the same gospel should not be preached to children as to grown-up people. I think it should. To stand up in a Sunday school and say, “Now be good boys and girls and God will love you” is telling lies.

It’s easy for our parenting and our Sunday school teaching to become nothing more than moral instruction. Be good. Do this. Don’t do this. When we teach this way, we reduce God to nothing more than a rule giver and we suck all the sweetness out of the gospel.

Let’s go the other way. Let’s dazzle our kids with Jesus.


Stephen Altrogge is a writer, pastor, and knows a lot about Star Wars. Find out more at The Blazing Center.


We’re Asking the Wrong Question When We Go to Church

It’s a phrase I’ve said or thought many times. Church is over, I’m sitting at home eating lunch, and I think to myself, I didn’t really get much out of church this morning. The worship leader was wearing a loud, distracting plaid shirt, that looked like an Amish quilt and a neon sign had been thrown into a blender and then reassembled at American Eagle. We also sang that one song that I really don’t like—the one that repeats the chorus over and over and over, like some sort of druid chant. And the sermon… well, it definitely could’ve been better. I mean, it was Bible and Jesus and something about holiness, but the pastor definitely can’t preach like Matt Chandler.

What did I get out of church?

Have you ever asked that question? I suspect you have.

After all, in our, “Do you have a personal relationship with Jesus Christ?” culture, it’s hard to not be self-centered in our spiritual lives. We want to make sure that we’re being fed, built-up, and connected when we come to church. And we live in a world that is filled with reviews and evaluations. I loved the shrimp and grits at John’s Seafood Shack and gave the place five stars on Yelp! I had an awful customer service experience, and I told all my friends on Facebook (I actually did this recently, but don’t ask me about it because I get angry every time I tell the story). It’s easy to treat church like any other consumer experience.

It’s interesting though, that when we look at Scripture, we find very few details regarding the things we should get from church. Rather, we find lots of details about what we should bring to church.

In 1 Corinthians 14:26, Paul describes what a gathering should look like: “What then, brothers? When you come together, each one has a hymn, a lesson, a revelation, a tongue, or an interpretation. Let all things be done for building up.”

Paul describes church as a bunch of people coming together and giving themselves away. He expected that every one of the Corinthians would come prepared to give something, whether that be a hymn, lesson, revelation, tongue, or interpretation. For Paul, church was not a spectator sport. It was an all-hands-on-deck kind of thing. No slackers allowed. For Paul, the most important question wasn’t, “What can I get out of this gathering?” Rather, the most important question was, “What can I do that will build others up?”

In Ephesians 4:11–12, Paul says, “And he gave the apostles, the prophets, the evangelists, the shepherds and teachers, to equip the saints for the work of ministry, for building up the body of Christ….”

It can be tempting to think that ministry is the stuff done by pastors, worship leaders, and small group leaders. We let them do the work while we sit back and watch. But the passage from Ephesians makes it clear that ministry is done by every Christian. Pastors and teachers are called to arm the saints for ministry, and then the saints are to go into the battlefields. The most important question isn’t, “What am I getting out of this ministry?” The most important question is, “What ministry am I doing?”

John Frame puts it this way:

Worshipers should not take a passive attitude toward worship, such as we usually take toward entertainment. As we have seen, worship is a priestly service. It is latreia, “labor, service.” Therefore, we should go to church to do something: to bring praise to God and to minister to one another. This perspective should make us less concerned about what we “get out of” worship and more concerned about what we contribute to God and to our brothers and sisters. (Worship In Spirit and Truth, pg. 80)

Obviously, it’s important that we attend a church which allows us to experience biblical preaching, fellowship, the sacraments, and all the other important parts of church. But if our main question after every service is, “What did I get out of it?” we’re asking the wrong question.

It’s time to be all in.


Stephen Altrogge is a writer, pastor, and knows a lot about Star Wars. Find out more at The Blazing Center.


A New Convert’s Guide to Understanding Christian Code Words

Congratulations on getting saved! Now that you’re a Christian, there are a few things you really should know. First, you must listen to the songs “Secret Ambition” and “Jesus Freak.” These two songs will come up a lot in conversations, and have the potential to make you a lot of friends. Familiarize yourself with them. Be ready to lip sync to them on demand.

Second, get used to drinking awful coffee. Since the very first meetings in Jerusalem, Christians have insisted on drinking coffee that tastes like scalding hot paint thinner. It is one of the trials and tribulations we must endure.

Finally, learn the Christian code words. What you may not have realized is we have our own special code language. If you’re going to communicate with other Christians, you need to memorize our code words and their definitions. What exactly are these code words? I’m glad you asked. What follows is a guide to understanding Christian-speak. Think of this as the Rosetta of the Christian world.

TERMS AND DEFINITIONS

Story – Most people think of a story as something contained within a book. Oh, how wrong they are! All of us have a story, and each of our stories is important. Your story (also called “Journey” or “Road”) includes: all your life experiences, the most recent book you’ve read, your friends (even though they have their own stories, they’re also part of your story), your Moleskine journal (in which you record thoughts about your story), that one mission trip which was a defining moment in your story, and the existential crisis you had in college (the dark part of your story). Get used to referring to every experience as being a part of your “story.”

Traveling Mercies  – Contrary to popular opinion, “Traveling Mercies” is not the name of a Rich Mullins cover band. Rather, traveling mercies refers to divine mercies which, oddly enough, can only be found on highways and in airplanes. No matter how much you ask, you simply cannot get traveling mercies for a trip to the grocery store. “Regular mercies” covers that. However, if you fail to ask for traveling mercies prior to a long trip (not to be confused with “Journey”), there is a 95% chance your car engine will catch on fire.

Echo – You’re in a prayer meeting, it’s your turn to pray, and your mind goes blank! What do you do? Don’t panic. You simply “echo” what the person before you prayed. To echo another person’s prayer, simply take their exact words, add the word “just” to the beginning, and add the words “really asking this” to the end. This simple tactic will rescue you out of every prayer jam (not to be confused with a Prayer Jam, which is praying to hip-hop music).

Do Life – Christians don’t simply live life. No sir, we do life! And don’t you DARE confuse the two. Living life is boring and shallow, while doing life involves thrilling, exciting, awesome things, like Wednesday night Bible studies.

In This Place – This is a phrase included in many of our prayers as a way of making sure God knows exactly where we are located. We want God to bless us, in this place. We don’t want him to accidentally fire his blessings into the church down the street, so we alert him to our precise location. Think of this as the GPS of Christianity.

Authenticity – Ahh yes, authenticity, the Bigfoot of Christianity. Everyone talks about it and searches for it, but no one has ever actually seen it. I suspect this is what Bono (our favorite maybe-Christian) was referencing when he discussed not being able to find what he was looking for. It is essential that you always be looking for new ways to be authentic, regardless of whether you actually know what authenticity is. There is a theory that authenticity can be achieved by drinking coffee out of a Mason jar, but that theory has not been definitively proved yet.

Hedge of Protection – What is the strongest thing in the world? Titanium? Diamond? Kevlar? Nope, hedges. That’s why we pray for a hedge of protection to surround us. The “Hedge Prayer” (as theologians commonly call it) is usually prayed in conjunction with the “Traveling Mercies” prayer. We want to be surrounded by a hedge while simultaneously being granted traveling mercies. To be safe, always pray the two prayers together. There is anecdotal evidence that praying for a hedge of protection without also praying for traveling mercies can cause spontaneous combustion. Be cautious.

Love On – When someone is going through a tough time, we don’t simply love them. We love ON them. Granted, to the average observer, this term sounds vaguely creepy and stalker-like, but it most certainly is not creepy. Loving a person involves sending them a condolence card. Loving ON a person involves gallons of sweet tea, a five-pound green bean casserole, a book written by Beth Moore, and a coffee mug with the “Footprints” prayer on it. We take care of our own. Kind of like the mob, except without killing people or putting horse heads in people’s beds.

Altar Call – An altar call is something that happens at the end of emotionally charged church services. It is an opportunity for you to rededicate your life to the Lord for the 42nd time. Never miss out on the chance to go forward for an altar call, especially if the band is playing “Just As I Am.”

On Mission – This is kind of like the Red Bull consuming cousin of “Do Life.” We don’t simply invite people to church, share the gospel, and seek to bless our neighbors. We are on MISSION! It’s like Mission Impossible, minus the cool gadgets and crazy terrorists and Tom Cruise sprinting for forty-five minutes straight. If you really want to impress your friends, you will inform them that you are both missional and on mission. This is like being able to play both offense and defense in football. No one can stop you.

Hopefully this gives you a glimpse into the world of Christian code words. You are at the beginning of a journey, and your story is just beginning. If you stay focused on authenticity and being missional, you will most certainly get blessed in this place.


Stephen Altrogge is a writer, pastor, and knows a lot about Star Wars. Find out more at The Blazing Center.


You are Not Your Labels

We tend to find our identity in labels. For example, the label “nerd” applies quite nicely to me. I like video games, obscure Star Wars quotes (“He’s no good to me dead!” – name the reference), and all the latest tech gadgets. The label “creative” also fits me pretty well. I love bringing new ideas to fruition and coming up with new ways to approach old problems. I’m also book junkie, a sports lover, and a coffee snob. I’ve got no problem with these labels. They represent part of who I am. And you probably have a number of labels plastered on your forehead as well. Gearhead, gamer, jock, outdoorsman, redneck, political junkie, etc. For the most part these labels are neutral.

But all of us have also adopted labels which are not so good. “My grandpa was an angry man, my dad was an angry man, and I’m an angry man.” Or, “I’ve always struggled with body image issues. It’s just who I am.” Or, “I’ve always wrestled with same sex attraction. It’s just a part of me.” Or, “My mom treated me like trash. My husband has treated me like trash. Therefore, I must be trash.” Or, “I’ve just always been a worrier. I can’t help who I am.”

We assume that what has been always will be. We willingly adopt the labels that come with the struggles: angry, anorexic, loser, trash, failure, addict.

When we believe the labels we more quickly give in to temptation. “I’ve always been a slave to porn. It’s just who I am. I might as well keep giving in to it.” Or, “I’ve always been impatient. I can’t help it. I’m always going to be this way so I might as well learn to live with it.”

But the solid, firm, Biblical reality is that we are not our labels. 

In Galatians 2:20 Paul said:

I have been crucified with Christ. It is no longer I who live, but Christ who lives in me.

When Paul said he had been crucified with Christ he meant that his old, sinfully enslaved, wickedness-loving self had been killed. It was crucified with Christ and it died. When Paul’s old self died, all the labels that went along with his old self also died. Paul was a violent man, but the “violent” label was nailed to the cross. Paul was a self-righteous fool, but the “self-righteous” label was pinned to the cross as well.

For Paul there was only one label that mattered: Christ lives in me. That reality defined who he was. The old, “labeled” Paul had been crucified with Christ. The new Paul had only one label: “Christ In Me”.

The same is true for us. Our old self was crucified with Christ and now Christ himself lives in us. We are not ultimately defined by our struggles we are defined by our union with Jesus Christ. Our old self, with all its labels is dead and buried. Those old labels don’t apply to us anymore. We may still struggle with the same temptations, but those temptations no longer define our identity.

We are in Christ and Christ is in us. Period. That is our identity. All the old labels can go to Hell (I mean that literally).

There will be times when it feels like we will never change. Like we will always be angry, have an eating disorder, give in to lust, worry, or be greedy. But God’s reality must always trump our perceived reality. We will not always be the same. Why? Because Christ lives in us. When Christ lives in us the old labels no longer apply.

Every day we must live in light of who we truly are. When we are tempted to be angry we must remember, Anger belongs to the old me. When we are tempted to lust we must remember that lust belongs to our old self. When we are tempted to worry we must remember that our old, worrying self was crucified with Christ.

We are not our labels. We are Christ’s.


Stephen Altrogge serves as a pastor at Sovereign Grace Church. Find out more at The Blazing Center.


3 Words Which Absolutely Destroy Worry

Worry is the act of imagining a future without God.

When you strip it down to its bones that’s what it really is. I worry when I imagine a future devoid of God. I worry when I project my current feelings and discouragements and struggles into the future. I worry when I take God’s love and faithfulness out of the equation. When I imagine a stark and bleak future, a screaming void in which my faithful and loving Father does not exist or act on my behalf. Underneath all the anxiety and fear and confusing emotions worry is actually a form of atheism. It’s acting as if God does not exist.

Psalm 18:46 provides three words which destroy worry and fuel faith: “The Lord lives…”

Don’t pass over those words too quickly. The. Lord. Lives.

My budget is flatlining and we are financially tanking and I don’t see hope for the future! But the Lord lives. The same Lord who owns everything and provides for ravens and sustains galaxies and calls us his children is real and alive and active in your life. You can’t provide for yourself but your budget is not too tight for God. The Lord lives.

Worry is the act of imagining a future without God.

My child is not doing well spiritually and I’ve tried everything and I don’t have any hope that anything will change! The Lord lives. The same Lord who has saved murderers and prostitutes and Pharisees and drug addicts and money addicts and pastors' kids is real and alive and active in your life. You can’t save your child, but your kid is not too hard for God. The Lord lives.

My marriage is on the rocks and we’ve tried counseling and we’ve read all the books and I don’t see things getting any better! The Lord lives. The same Lord who created a bride for himself out of rebellious, wicked, God-hating sinners is real and alive and active in your life. You can’t rescue your marriage, but your marriage is not too hard for God. The Lord lives.

My spiritual life is dry, and I’ve tried a thousand different things to get it kickstarted, but nothing seems to work, and honestly, I don’t think things are going to get any better. The Lord lives. The same Lord who caused you to become spiritually alive is real and alive and active in your life. You can’t breathe fresh life into your heart, but your heart is not too dry for God.

Your circumstances may be bleak. You may not see a light at the end of the tunnel. You may not see any silver lining. But circumstances and tunnels and silver linings are not the basis of our hope, God is.

Don’t be a functional atheist today. The Lord lives. Let’s live in light of that reality.


Stephen Altrogge serves as a pastor at Sovereign Grace Church. Find out more at The Blazing Center.


Making the Church a Safe Place for Mental Illness

Church can be a tough place for people who struggle with depression, anxiety, bipolar, or any other mental disorder. Not because church members don’t care about those who struggle with mental illness, but because most church members don’t really know how to care for those struggle. Those who struggle can feel lonely, hopeless, and ashamed.

I don’t say this in a critical way. Trust me, I get it: mental stuff is really hard to understand. Depression doesn’t make sense if you’ve never experienced it. Chronic physical anxiety almost sounds like worry, even though the two are drastically different. Bipolar doesn’t fit into any sort of neat category. It’s really hard to know how to effectively care for a brother or sister who is mired in the darkness. It’s not as simple as dealing with a headache or the flu, where there is a clear cause and a clear cure.

We’re called to bear one another’s burdens, even if we don’t totally understand those burdens. We’re called to lift one another up, to strengthen one another, and to shower the love of Christ on each other. Church should be the safest place for those who struggle with mental illness. It should be a place of refuge amidst the constant misery. Don’t you agree?

So how can we make the church a safe place for those who struggle with mental illness? Here are a few suggestions.

ACKNOWLEDGE THAT MENTAL ILLNESS IS A REAL THING

In some churches, there’s this weird taboo surrounding mental illness. Nobody ever talks about it or acknowledges that it’s real. If a guy is sunk into depression, we say he’s, “Going through a rough patch,” or, “Having a tough time,” or we don’t say anything at all. If someone has cancer, we pray that God will heal her. If someone has back surgery, we make meals for him. But when it comes to mental illness, we don’t know what to say or do. Everyone knows something is wrong, but nobody actually talks about it.

If we’re going to really serve those who struggle, we need to readily acknowledge that mental disorders are real, and that they can really mess a person up. We need to come to terms with the reality that our outer selves, including our brains, are “wasting away” (2 Corinthians 4:16). We need to affirm that all of creation, including our bodies and brains, have been “subjected to futility” (Romans 8:20). Mental illness is a result of the fall. We are totally depraved, which means that the totality of our being, including our minds, have been broken.

When we acknowledge that mental illness is a real category of suffering, it allows those who are suffering to open up to others. It also allows other Christians to pray for and serve those who are suffering. The Bible has so many words of encouragement for those who are suffering, but we won’t be able to encourage others unless we first recognize that they really are suffering. As one who has dealt with chronic physical anxiety for years, I can assure you, mental illness is real suffering.

TALK ABOUT BOTH THE PHYSICAL AND SPIRITUAL SIDES OF MENTAL ILLNESS

Here’s where things get a bit complex. As humans, we are body and soul together. The body and soul are intertwined, always interacting with, affecting, and even compromising one another. When talking about mental illness, we need to talk about the physical aspects just as much as the spiritual aspects. This shouldn’t come as a surprise. After all, this is how we talk about every other form of sickness. When a woman has cancer, she will be incredibly tempted to worry, and we, in turn, should come alongside her in comfort, prayer, and counsel. But we don’t stop there. We also tell her to get the appropriate treatment for the cancer. We don’t simply say, “You need to pray more!” That would be ludicrous.

To say that the brain is somehow immune from the effects of sin is both unbiblical and counter to everything we know about brain chemistry. When a woman is depressed, there are real, physical symptoms. She may feel incredibly hopeless. She may feel overwhelmingly sad for no apparent reason. She may not even have the strength to get out of bed. You can’t tell her to have more faith, read her Bible more, pray more, or snap out of it, just like you can’t tell a cancer patient to snap out of it. True, biblical care looks like coming alongside of her and praying for her, encouraging her, AND helping her find the appropriate medical treatment.

This is an area that requires biblical, Proverbs-like wisdom. Obviously not all discouragement is depression, not all worry is obsessive compulsive disorder, and not all strange thoughts are schizophrenia. But mental illness is real, and it has a physical side to it. Telling a mentally ill person to just stop only makes things that much worse for them. Rather, we need to help shoulder their burden as much as possible, even though we don’t totally understand the burden.

GIVE LESS ADVICE AND MORE LOVE

The reality is that if you haven’t experienced mental illness it’s really hard to understand it. I don’t say this in a critical, martyr like way—it’s just the way it is. I don’t get migraines, which means I don’t really understand what it’s like to have regular migraines. The same principle holds true if you haven’t dealt with a mental disorder. This means that unless you’re a trained physician, one of the best ways to serve those who are struggling is to give them less advice and more love. My friend Adam once said to me, “I don’t know what it’s like to have anxiety, but I believe you. When you say you’re having a bad day with anxiety, I just trust that you are.” Those words were really meaningful to me. When I would tell Adam I was having a bad day, he wouldn’t try to fix me somehow. He would pray for me, which is what I needed most.

Those who are struggling with a mental disorder need to be constantly reminded that God loves them and is for them. They need to be reminded that even though they can’t see it or feel it, God is near, he is taking care of them, and he’ll get them through the darkness. They don’t need to be told to try harder, pray harder, believe harder, or work harder. They need to be gently reminded again and again that the Good Shepherd is carrying them, even though they feel totally lost. They need to be encouraged that their awful feelings are not an accurate picture of reality.

CONCLUSION

I want the church to be a safe place for messy people, including those, like me, who struggle with some form of mental illness. Is it easy to serve someone with a mental disorder? Of course not! But Jesus gravitated toward those who didn’t haven’t it all together, and he wants us to follow his lead. Let’s move toward the mess.


Stephen Altrogge is a writer, pastor, and knows a lot about Star Wars. Find out more at The Blazing Center.


Let’s be Crazy Ordinary This Year!

What would it look like to be crazy radical for Jesus in 2013? I’m talking pedal to the metal, all in, no holds barred, “is something wrong with you?” crazy. No more being lukewarm, no more spiritual fits and starts. It’s time to dive in head first. Do you need to take a missions trip to Vietnam? Do you need to adopt a child from a foreign country? Do you need to do a thirty-day fast? Do you need to give away half of your income? Well, maybe. All those things are good, and maybe God has called you to do one of those big things.

But for most of us, being sold out crazy for Jesus will look very…ordinary. At least to the casual observer. Most of the crazy things we do for the Lord will be noticed by exactly no one – except the Lord.

So, you wanna go crazy this year? Here’s what you should do…

Spend time with someone who can’t repay in you in any way, either financially or socially. “When you give a dinner or a banquet, do not invite your friends or your brothers or your relatives or rich neighbors, lest they also invite you in return and you be repaid. But when you give a feast, invite the poor, the crippled, the lame, the blind, and you will be blessed, because they cannot repay you. For you will be repaid at the resurrection of the just.” (Luke 14:12-14)

Look for any and every opportunity to serve, rather than to be served, even if it only means giving someone a glass of cold water. ”But it shall not be so among you. But whoever would be great among you must be your servant, and whoever would be first among you must be slave of all.” (Mark 10:43-44)

Fight against your sin with a crazy, almost disturbing intensity. “If your right eye causes you to sin, tear it out and throw it away. For it is better that you lose one of your members than that your whole body be thrown into hell.” (Matthew 5:29)

Show the world that you are a Christian by consistently loving, serving, and blessing those around you. “A new commandment I give to you, that you love one another: just as I have loved you, you also are to love one another. By this all people will know that you are my disciples, if you have love for one another.” (John 13:34-35)

Commit yourself to regularly gathering with God’s people, giving special attention to how you can encourage them and stir them toward love and good works. “And let us consider how to stir up one another to love and good works, not neglecting to meet together, as is the habit of some, but encouraging one another, and all the more as you see the Day drawing near.” (Hebrews 10:24-25)

Earnestly love your fellow believers, being eager to extend mercy and grace toward them. “Above all, keep loving one another earnestly, since love covers a multitude of sins.” (1 Peter 4:8)

I could go on and on, but you get the point. Most of the time, being crazy for Jesus means doing the hard, right, boring thing, which no one but God will see. It means being patient with your children, giving sacrificially, setting up chairs at your church, making a meal for a new mom, and putting together a spreadsheet for your church finance team. It often means doing what needs to be done rather than what you want to do. These are not glamorous jobs. Nobody wants to read your blog post: “Hey check out all these sweet chairs I set up!”

I fear that in our celebrity pastor, post it to Facebook culture, we think about being sold out for Jesus only in terms of big things that catch people’s attention. The reality is, being a servant and slave of Christ usually means serving in obscurity. Being radical for Jesus means doing hard, yet ordinary things, like confessing sin, changing the channel when something inappropriate appears, serving your butt off in church, and reaching out to the “uncool.” Our spiritual lives are not the result of one or two “big” acts for God. They are the sum of ten thousand small choices – choices to either follow the Lord or follow our sinful desires.

This year let’s be crazy for Jesus. Crazy ordinary. Who’s with me?


My Love-Hate Relationship With Christmas Carols

Let me say from the beginning, the problem is me, not you. I have a heart that is two times too small. I’m a Scrooge, a Grinch you might say. Every year around Christmas time, I find myself becoming more cynical. A permanent scowl begins to harden on my face. My nostrils tend to flare more frequently. Why? Christmas carols. I don’t like them. And they’re everywhere!

Now, I realize that I am in the serious minority here. When I tell people that I don’t like the song “Mary Did You Know?”, they look at me as if I’ve just said I like to eat kittens. But, before you write me off as a total Christmas-hating Scrooge, hear me out.

As I read through the Bible, it seems that the story of Jesus’ birth has a soundtrack running behind it. It is an epic soundtrack, a thundering soundtrack, a soundtrack of war. Of battle. Of great, intense conflict. When Jesus was born, the demonic powers shuddered with fear. They knew that the king had come, and that their doom was imminent. They did all they could to stop the king. They incited Herod to slaughter baby boys. But they could not stop God’s redemption plan.

Jesus’ birth is the story of light breaking into darkness, of hope bursting into gloom. It is the story of sadness being undone, and the demonic rulers being overrun. It is the story of the King of Kings becoming a lowly, grasping, nursing, crying baby. It is the story of hidden glory.

The Christmas story is the story of a great warrior coming to rescue a helpless people. It’s a story of grit, and blood, and a rugged cross that awaited the newborn babe. The soft flesh of the babe would soon be punctured by nails. The smooth skin of the child would soon be ripped apart by a whip. When I hear Christmas carols, I don’t hear the grit or the struggle or the rescue. I don’t hear the initial cracks and pops of Satan’s skull underneath Jesus’ foot. I hear the story of a little drummer boy, and a silent night that is calm and bright. I hear about a white Christmas, and the Christmas shoes.

Now, is it wrong to like Christmas carols? Of course not! Jen loves them, including (to my chagrin), Amy Grant’s Christmas album. Plus, Christmas carols often cause us to brim over with memories of Christmas past, which is good.

But as we listen to their sweet melodies, let’s not forget about the glorious battle our Savior fought and won. Let’s remember the grit and the glory of what our Savior has accomplished. Let’s remember that the stable hung under the shadow of the cross.

Now, if you’ll excuse me, I’ve got some beef log to eat.


Is Your Phone Drowning out the Voice of God?

It’s no secret that I’m a pretty big tech nerd. I love my iPhone, my iPad Air, and my Macbook Pro. I love the fact that all three of my devices seamlessly integrate, to the point where I can even take a phone call on my Macbook. I love using Twitter and Facebook to connect with people (although I’m starting to despise the “personality” tests that are beginning to dominate FB—no you would not be Luke Skywalker if you were a Star Wars character). I try to stay up on all the latest gadgets and apps and video game systems. I’d like to get a smart watch. I love the little tracking chip I had installed in my neck (just kidding). Needless to say, I spend quite a bit of time in front of a screen.

And while I’m certainly not opposed to spending time in front of a screen, I’m beginning to wonder if I my screen time is causing me to not hear God’s voice. You see, God is speaking to me all the time. He speaks to me a thousand times a day. The question is: Am I listening?

Now before you scream, “Heretic!” and burn me at the stake, let me explain. God is speaking to me all the time, but not audibly, not in the “still small voice” kind of way (“Wear the red socks, Stephen!”), and not by causing the clouds to form a cross, or something weird like that.

God is speaking to me all the time through creation.

Psalm 19:1–2 says, “The heavens declare the glory of God, and the sky above proclaims his handiwork. Day to day pours out speech, and night to night reveals knowledge.”

Every day, the brilliant, blinding, healing, heating sun cries out, “I was created, and my Creator is glorious!” The stars sing a three billion part harmony, of which the main refrain is, “We were made by a creative, brilliant, overwhelming God!”

Matthew 6:26 says, “Look at the birds of the air: they neither sow nor reap nor gather into barns, and yet your heavenly Father feeds them. Are you not of more value than they?”

My house is surrounded by trees, and those trees are full of birds. Every time a bird eats a nut or insect or worm, it is declaring, “Someone is taking care of me, and that same Someone will take care of you! If God takes care of me, don’t you think he’ll take care of you?”

Isaiah 40:8 says, “The grass withers, the flower fades, but the word of our God will stand forever.”

The trees that surround my house are currently changing colors and dropping leaves. As a leaf falls to the ground, its dying cry is, “I perish quickly, but the Word of God lasts forever! Trust it!”

God has filled the world with reminders of his glory, splendor, love, affection, and fatherly care. God really does want to speak to us through the sunshine and the Milky Way and the sparrows and the flowers. Creation is constantly belting out the glory of God, if only we have eyes to see and ears to hear.

Technology is a tremendous blessing. But I’m beginning to wonder if all my texting and Tweeting and Instagramming might be crowding out the song of creation. I’m wondering if the constant beeps and chimes and space sounds (my text message alert) are drowning out the glory of what is happening all around me. Maybe I would worry less if I spent less time on my phone and more time pondering the birds. Maybe I would have more joy if I spent less time “liking” things on Facebook and more time basking in the sunshine. Maybe I would treasure God’s Word more if I spent more time kicking around in the leaves.

Sorry, gotta run. My text messages keep piling up.


Stephen Altrogge is a writer, pastor, and knows a lot about Star Wars. Find out more at The Blazing Center.