One of the fascinating abilities we have in this digital world is quantifying our lives in new ways. Today, more than ever, we can assemble an amazing amount of data about ourselves. I have a fascination with data and measurement, so often find myself turning to such tools to learn about my life in the hope that what I learn will allow me to live better. 

I have had to put some thought into the consequences of a quantified life and whether it can help me be a sanctified Christian. I am convicted that if these tools are used well, they can be very helpful. Today I will give you a glimpse of some of these tools and how I use them. Before I do that, though, let me be clear: I do not use all these tools all the time. In most cases I find that committing to the tools for a defined period of time allows me to get valuable snapshots of my life. I will use some of these tools for a few weeks, and then put them aside for a couple of months. But just those brief snapshots give me data that helps me live a deliberate and self-controlled life.

HABITS

Habit ListAs human beings, we are creatures of habits, and every Christian is responsible to develop good habits and patterns. There are many apps that allow you to track your habits, and the one I have found most effective is Habit List. Habit List allows you to input a list of habits you would like to measure. You can input daily tasks (read my Bible), weekly tasks (update the family budget) or even tasks you would like to do three times per week, or only on Wednesday and Friday. At the end of your day you can open the app and check-off those tasks you successfully completed. It is an ideal way to track how often you actually read your Bible and pray, how often you do family devotions, how often you exercise, and so on. Another interesting option is Reporter which asks you defined questions at random times, as well as defined questions at the beginning and end of the day; if you set it up with the right questions, you can learn all kinds of interesting things about yourself (Are you listening to music right now? Are you alone or with people right now? How much energy do you have right now? How would you rate your use of time today?)

FITNESS

If there is any area of life Christians tend to neglect, I think it must be the area of fitness; we care for our souls and minds, but too often neglect our bodies. Wearable fitness trackers represent a new and growing category of devices that mean to measure and motivate physical activity. They primarily track data such as the number of steps you take during the course of a day, though they can also track metrics like how much high-intensity movement you had during your day. Many of them also track your sleep habits, provided you wear it through the night. These devices are ideal for tracking your physical exercise and motivating fitness; it may be that your life is even more static than you thought it was. (Examples: Fitbit,Jawbone UP 24) If you prefer not to use a device, there are many apps that allow you to manually input the details of your exercise and activities (Example: RunKeeper). Also, most up-to-date mobile phones offer many of the basic functions such as tracking your steps.

DIET

UP CoffeeI said that if there is any area of life Christians tend to neglect, it is the area of physical fitness, but diet would have to be a close (and closely-related) second. Speaking personally, I have very little interest in tracking every calorie that I consume, but have found it very valuable to track my eating in bursts—two weeks every few months, perhaps. For a short period of time I’ll try to figure out the basic nutritional information for everything I eat, and input into an app. This gives me a snapshot of my eating habits and allows me to consider whether I am eating too much, too little (Ha!), or the wrong kinds of things. My Fitness Pal is a good option here, though if you use any of the devices or apps I listed under Fitness, they may have this functionality as well. UP Coffee is a great option for tracking your caffeine and ensuring you are de-caffeinated by the time you go to bed. If you have committed to drinking more water (and who hasn’t at one time or another) try Waterlogged.

SLEEP

Many of the fitness trackers listed above offer sleep tracking—based on your movement at night, they will offer a basic measure of the quality of your sleep, as well as the time you went to sleep, the time you woke up, and the number of times you were awake in the night. As an added benefit, many of them offer a vibrating alarm function that will wake you, but not your spouse. There are other sleep-tracking apps such as Sleep Cycle that require you to leave your mobile phone on your mattress (you slide it under the fitted sheet); they offer surprisingly accurate metrics on your sleep. There are even dedicated devices you can wear at night that serve as sleep-trackers and alarms. As someone who struggles to sleep, I have often turned to this kind of information to try to help determine how I can sleep more and better.

TIME

Measuring time well is an important component to using time well. As Christians, we know that the Lord expects us to faithfully steward the time given to us and today there are many excellent apps that can help. Some are entirely manual while others use some degree of automation. The one I use most is Toggl. Every couple of months I will use Toggl for two or three weeks and carefully track my time (sometimes every waking minutes and sometimes only my work-related time). This helps me understand where my time is going and whether I am giving adequate attention to each of my areas of responsibility. Another helpful category is apps that track what you do online and then present a list of the sites you visited and how much time you spent at each; or they present a list of the programs you have used and how much time you used each of them. The truth can hurt. Try RescueTime if you need help here.

FINANCES

Mint AppIf we are responsible to steward our bodies, minds and time, the same is true of our money. There are hundreds of great apps that can help you track where your money comes from and where it goes. The most popular is Mint, a free and beautifully-put-together service from Intuit. That said, You Need a Budget is still, in my estimation, the best and most complete option, especially if you want to carefully budget your money.

And we are only just getting started—the era of quantification is really only beginning. I am convinced that many of these tools, when used wisely, can benefit us and motivate obedience to God.

Let me say just a word about the dangers of these apps. I think the primary danger is that, unless we guard ourselves, we may eventually use data legalistically. We may eventually begin to think that our standing before God is based on the right measurements; we may take refuge in our habits instead of in our Savior. This is one of the reasons that I tend to use these apps sporadically rather than consistently. I do not want to be conformed to the image of an app, but to the image of Jesus Christ. I value the tools only so far as they are driving me to the cross.

Do you ever use apps or devices like these ones? How do they help or hinder your Christian life?

Measurement image credit: Shutterstock

Thank God for a Messy Church

"It is God’s grace to you if your church is messy." I heard those words come out of my mouth yesterday as I was guest-preaching at a church close to home. I said them, and I believe them. At least, I believe them most of the time.

I love my church. I love the people I gather with week-by-week. They are fun and safe and easy to be with. But who said church should be safe and easy?

Yesterday, when I was at that church, I preached on the parable of The Lost Sheep, which is actually a parable about a kind and loving shepherd (see Luke 15). Like so many of Jesus’ parables, this one was told in the presence of two groups of people—people who were convinced of their own badness and people who were convinced of their own goodness. And in this case Jesus was speaking primarily to those good and religious people.

The parable is simple: A sheep has wandered off and the shepherd will not rest until he has found it and restored it to himself. And I thought about that sheep, wandering lost and alone in the wilderness, and that shepherd who went looking for it. There are so many different ways that shepherd could have reacted when he finally found it.

  • He finds his sheep and rebukes it: “You stupid, ignorant sheep. How dare you wander off from me?” No. He doesn’t rebuke it.
  • He finds his sheep and punishes it: “You dumb, disobedient sheep. I’ll teach you to wander off!” No, he doesn’t punish it.
  • He finds his sheep and is disgusted by it: “You are filthy and smelly! What on earth did you get into? You go clean yourself up right now and I’ll come back later.” No, he doesn’t make it clean itself up.
  • He finds his sheep and sells it: “I can’t have a sheep like you polluting my flock. Do you know how you made me look in front of everyone else?” No, he doesn’t get rid of it.

The text says, “And when he has found it, he lays it on his shoulders, rejoicing.” When that shepherd finds his sheep, he cares for it. He hoists that big, heavy, dirty sheep onto his shoulders and carries it home, rejoicing all the way. He carries it home and calls his friends and throws a party to celebrate.

The point of the parable is that God loves to save the lost. He loves to savesinners. He doesn’t save those who are righteous and whose lives are all put together, he saves those who are just plain bad.

If God is in the business of saving sinners, we need to expect that church will be full of sinners—those who are still wandering and those who have only just been found. If our churches reflect God’s heart for the lost, they will be full of people with problems, full of people showing the consequences of a lifetime of wandering. And this means that church may not be a safe and easy place. It may not be a place full of people who have it all together. It may be messy. It should be messy. Thank God if it is messy.

I love to find and share practical methods or techniques for living the Christian life—ways other Christians live out their Christian faith day-by-day. As I speak with people, as I read books, as I listen to sermons, I am always looking for these tips which I call “faith hacks.” I am going to share another one with you today. It comes from Jerry Bridges and deals with the important disciplines of preaching the gospel to yourself.

Bridges has written in several of his books about the importance of the daily practice of preaching the gospel to yourself. In The Discipline of Grace he writes, “When you set yourself to seriously pursue holiness, you will begin to realize what an awful sinner you are. And if you are not firmly rooted in the gospel and have not learned to preach it to yourself every day, you will soon become discouraged and will slack off in your pursuit of holiness.” He also gives an overview of the practice: “To preach the gospel to yourself, then, means that you continually face up to your own sinfulness and then flee to Jesus through faith in His shed blood and righteous life. It means that you appropriate, again by faith, the fact that Jesus fully satisfied the law of God, that He is your propitiation, and that God’s holy wrath is no longer directed toward you.”

But it is in Respectable Sins that he gives the practical example from his own life. Here is how he preaches the gospel to himself every day:

Since the gospel is only for sinners, I begin each day with the realization that despite my being a saint, I still sin every day in thought, word, deed, and motive. If I am aware of any subtle, or not so subtle, sins in my life, I acknowledge those to God. Even if my conscience is not indicting me for conscious sins, I still acknowledge to God that I have not even come close to loving Him with all my being or loving my neighbor as myself. I repent of those sins, and then I apply specific Scriptures that assure me of God’s forgiveness to those sins I have just confessed.

I then generalize the Scripture’s promises of God’s forgiveness to all my life and say to God words to the effect that my only hope of a right standing with Him that day is Jesus’ blood shed for my sins, and His righteous life lived on my behalf. This reliance on the twofold work of Christ for me is beautifully captured by Edward Mote in his hymn “The Solid Rock” with his words, “My hope is built on nothing less, than Jesus’ blood and righteousness.” Almost every day, I find myself going to those words in addition to reflecting on the promises of forgiveness in the Bible.

What Scriptures do I use to preach the gospel to myself? Here are just a few I choose from each day:

As far as the east is from the west, so far does he remove our transgressions from us. (Psalm 103:12)

“I, I am he who blots out your transgressions for my own sake, and I will not remember your sins.” (Isaiah 43:25)

All we like sheep have gone astray; we have turned everyone one to his own way; and the LORD has laid on him the iniquity of us all. (Isaiah 53:6)

Blessed are those whose lawless deeds are forgiven, and whose sins are covered; blessed is the man against whom the Lord will not count his sin. (Romans 4:7-8)

There is therefore now no condemnation for those who are in Christ Jesus. (Romans 8:1)

There are many others, including Psalm 130:3-4; Isaiah 1:18; Isaiah 38:17; Micah 7:19; Ephesians 1:7; Colossians 2:13-14; Hebrews 8:12; and 10:17-18.

Whatever Scriptures we use to assure us of God’s forgiveness, we must realize that whether the passage explicitly states it or not, the only basis for God’s forgiveness is the blood of Christ shed on the cross for us. As the writer of Hebrews said, “without the shedding of blood there is no forgiveness of sins (9:22), and the context makes it clear that it is Christ’s blood that provides the objective basis on which God forgives our sins.

That has been his daily practice for many years. Why don’t you make it part of your practice, and see the difference it makes to begin each day reminding yourself of who you were, and who you now are in Christ.

Do you make it your practice to preach the gospel to yourself? If so, what have you learned? How do you go about it?

Faith Hacking: Getting Better at Meditation

Today I’d like to do a little “faith hacking”—to find and share one of those practical methods or techniques for living the Christian life. As I read, as I listen to sermons, as I speak to people, I am always looking for insights on how other Christians live out their faith in practical ways, and today I want to tell you about one great suggestion for improving the way you meditate on Scripture.

If you are like me, you find meditation a difficult practice. You like the idea of it, but find the reality difficult to carry out. In my mind, “meditation” seems like an ethereal term, one that contains a good idea but without any clear structure. I struggle with it.

In his book Simplify Your Spiritual Life, Donald Whitney says, “When meditating on a verse of Scripture, it’s usually much easier to answer specific questions about it than to think about the text without any guidance or direction at all.” Which, I think, pretty much explains my frustration. He describes meditating on Philippians 4:8 and realizing that the verse offers helpful directions for the kinds of things he could meditate on for any passage in the whole Bible.

Philippians 4:8, which you’ve probably memorized at one time or another, says, “Finally, brothers, whatever is true, whatever is honorable, whatever is just, whatever is pure, whatever is lovely, whatever is commendable, if there is any excellence, if there is anything worthy of praise, think about these things.” Whitney studied the verse for a time, and came up with a list of questions that can be helpful for meditating on nearly anything in your life, but especially Scripture. Here they are:

  • What is true about this, or what truth does it exemplify?
  • What is honorable about this?
  • What is right about this?
  • What is pure about this, or how does it exemplify purity?
  • What is lovely about this?
  • What is admirable, commendable, or reputation-strengthening about this?
  • What is excellent about this (in other words, excepts others of this kind)?
  • What is praiseworthy about this?

And there you have it—8 questions that can help guide your meditation.

Do you have other questions to guide your meditation? How do you make sure you are not only reading Scripture, but also pondering and applying it?

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