Who Are You Listening To?
This episode is more than simply asking: who are you listening to? We really dive into the subject of life-long learning. To join me in this task is Executive Editor at DesiringGod, David Mathis. In addition to being a husband, father, pastor, and editor at DesiringGod, David spends a lot of time writing articles on various subjects of life and faith. In our conversation, he helps set us up so we can engage the news and subjects of this world in a way that ultimately glorifies God. In short, David sets us on the trajectory to become life-long learners – or, as I like to say it, perma-students.
David is Executive Editor at DesiringGod (personally, I, Isaac, have received much benefit from reading, watching and listening to resources produced by them).
Also, check out David’s new(ish) book, Habits of Grace: Enjoying Jesus Through the Spiritual Disciplines. Also, watch what John Piper says about it.
Well it’s great to have David Mathis with us on the show today. David is Executive Editor of DesiringGod, a pastor at Cities Church in Minneapolis, adjunct professor at Bethlehem College and Seminary, and also the author of Habits of Grace. I’m not sure if you have any free time! But anyways, thank you for being here with us today David.
The most important thing, other than being a follower of Jesus Christ, is being a husband to Megan and then a father of four. Megan is about 35 weeks pregnant right now as we do this interview, we’re due here coming up. I have twin boys that are six years old, they’ll be seven, God-willing, this summer – Carson and Coleman. And we have a two-year-old daughter named Gloria.
Wow, awesome. So you definitely don’t have any free time I presume!
A little bit here and there, but I do love spending as much of my “free time” as possible with my family. They are a great delight for me.
That’s so good. And I’m learning that too. I’m just over a year married to my best friend. And honestly, I almost feel a little bad to my other friends, because I would love just to be able to hang every single day with my wife. I need to block out some time for my friends as well, because I need that.
Apart from family, do you have any hobbies? What do you enjoy to think about or do?
Yeah good question. I am a sports fan – there’s virtue and vice in that. For my whole life, I longed for the Clempson Tigers to win the college football championship, which they just did a couple months ago. And so, in terms of being a sports fan, which is such a small thing, I can die happy now that the Tigers won the national championship.
I’m a Minnesota Twins MLB fan. I do love baseball, played a lot of baseball growing up. My six-year-old boys love baseball, we just do baseball all the way during spring and the summer. And in Minneapolis we live on the public transit rail, it’s called the Lightrail, we live on a stop, and so we can just jump on the train and it’ll go right to Target Field where the Minnesota Twins play, so we love spending time in the summer going to Twins games – beautiful stadium downtown Minneapolis. When in Rome, I’ve tried to become a Vikings fan as well.
I do love to run. I try to get in at least three runs a week – I really enjoy that. It helps my mind stay clear. I think I sleep better at night when I’m running. I feel like I have significantly more energy during the day when I’m running. And as I’ve gotten older I can feel the effect of the endorphins much more than when I was a young man, and so I really appreciate that God-given boost in happiness, joy, accomplishment, whatever it may be – I do enjoy running.
Are you a podcast or a music listener when you’re running? I know people are on either side.
You know, just about always it’s spoken word. And my default is more towards sermons and audiobooks, though I do enjoy listening to podcasts as well. If anybody out there is listening to this while you’re exercising right now, I salute you, keep going! May God give you the grace of some endorphins and learning the dynamics of perseverance physically and the making of spiritual applications.
There you go. It’s funny you say that, because I tried to get into running because apparently when I was in high school or something like that I went to the doctors and we did some tests, and the doctor, because I had a really slow heart rate, said that it’s a runner’s heart, you know? And that inspired me to go start running. So I tried and I did a 10km race, which is like a fourth of a marathon, which is nothing really, but I found spoken word to be most helpful because music I already heard, and I’d just focus on the pain, but with spoken word I start to think about what whoever is talking is talking about and it allows me to really get my mind off the pain so, it definitely helps.
The bread and butter for me, and this is not irrelevant for our topic here, the bread and butter for me day in and day out, if I’m going to be running for more than half an hour, three times or maybe four times a week, that is time I want to go into hearing the Bible read. So my go-to on my morning jogs is to hear the Scripture texts rea., I use the little YouVersion app – I have the Discipleship Journal in there, and I can que it up and hit play and it will read me the four passages that are assigned to the day. That’s a great way to start off, to hear the Bible read.
I try to keep a cache of audiobooks, so I’ve been listening to an audiobook on Martin Luther’s life called Brand Luther – in particular about Luther’s publishing. It’s about how he managed his brand, so to speak, hopefully in a sanctified way. So having a cache of audiobooks ready is important.
Sometimes I’ll listen to sermons, that’s the time I’m probably most going to get sermons – while I’m running. Occasionally I’ll run 5ks with other people, so I’m trying to push myself, and when I do a 5k I’ll have a little playlist of 5-6 songs because at that point I’m trying to push myself hard for 3.1 miles. And that’s maybe 3-4 times a year, so that’s very different than every day. Every day I want to hear that spoken word that’s informing me, being one of the voices speaking into my life, I want that to be something biblical and constructive and helpful as my default.
Yeah, and who’s your go-to preacher right now when you’re going for runs?
Well I’m always listening to John Piper here and there, just because of my job. He’ll give a message that’s on the road, and he’s one of my favourite preachers. Very few have shaped me anywhere close to the amount that John has. And even as much as I have heard him, I’ve heard him more than any other preacher, and I still get significant spiritual effect and help from listening to him. And sometimes it doesn’t have to be a new message, there’s nothing fresh. To go back and hear one of the old classics, there is so much fire and depth there.
Hey, David, another personal question, what does it look like to balance pastoring and also working as Executive Editor at DesiringGod on a weekly basis? So parachurch and local church, I think that’s kind of interesting.
Yes. I am fulltime at DesiringGod, that is my vocational calling in terms of employment and putting bread on the table and housing and feeding my family. And so, that is where the majority of my vocational energy, free thoughts, meditation related to work goes throughout the week. That is my first calling in life.
And then I am part of a pastor team, so let me make a huge plug for plurality in leadership. We founded this church under God two years ago as a plant form Bethlehem Baptist, and we didn’t just have a core team, we had four elders to start with. So we planted with four pastors. And initially none of us were “vocational,” nobody was taking a paycheque from the church. It was just four of us. And in some ways that was the product of the embarrassment of riches at Bethlehem Baptist after 30 years of investment from John Piper.
We had a guy who had just graduated from seminary, who was working fulltime at DesiringGod named Jonathan Parnell who felt the call from God to be a lead planter, he was willing to lead us, be the buck stopper. He would eventually transition from his job at DesiringGod to do church-planting fulltime. And then Joe Rigney, who is a professor at Bethlehem College and Seminary – and Joe Rigney is one of the people I love to listen to as well while I jog – he’s in my top five list of people to listen to. He’s also my dear brother and good friend. Just do a search on Joe Rigney and find something he’s taught, and listen to it.
Michael Steele is another long time dear brother, almost like a brother biologically. We’ve known each other for so long now and have been through so much together. He and I (Michael and I) were elders together at Bethlehem, and Joe was a professor, Jonathan was a recent grad of seminary, so the four of us teamed up as a founding group of pastors.
And so my involvement at the church; there’s occasionally stuff throughout the day that will come up, but it’s often focused on evenings and weekends. And I am not the buck stopper there, so, you know, worse comes to worst, Jonathan’s fulltime. Also, we have seven elder-pastors now, there were four of us initially, and we brought three more on in the last two years, so there’s a team of seven. And Jonathan and then Nick, he’s also fulltime, so we got two fulltime guys who are go-to, kind of a backstop for the rest of us.
Well that’s so good. Thank you for sharing that too, and plugging in that idea of not just having the one-man team, it’s like, you’re going together.
Oh man, it’s so rich, I would give you more than a dozen reasons why the New Testament only talks in terms of plurality of leadership in a local context.
That’s so true, that’s right. Well let’s jump into this topic here.
We live in a time, David, where there’s been an incredible advance of technology from the past, I don’t know, 50 years or so, allowing us at the point now where we can have anything and everything at our fingertips. With that in mind, with the idea of all these worldviews, all these different issues of life and faith, everyone can access it at all times, what is the importance of Christians today in the 21stCentury to be well-rounded in their knowledge on those multiple issues of life and faith? What’s the importance there?
Well, I think the first thing I’d want to say related to that, is maybe an instinct on the direction in terms of, there has perhaps never been a more important time for us to be people who bore into what God has made clear in the Scriptures and to linger over how God is communicating to us about Himself, about His Son, about the Gospel, about His Spirit, about us, about our world,
because, as more and more information has become available, people are accessing much more information, but at a very surface level. There’s this constant competition for our awareness, for our consciousness, for our focus. And when you’re just scrolling quickly through a Facebook timeline or through a Twitter stream, you’re picking up lots of little bits of information, they’re very much at the surface level, but where is the time when you pivot and go deep in something?
And if there’s anything you need to go deep in, it would be God’s words.
So my first encouragement before trying to orient on other sources and trying to triage what those other sources are, is to have that time, whatever that season is, to build into your life. For me, it’s first thing in the morning. That’s where I want to go right away. I want to go into the Bible, and I want to have space there to do some lingering. If it’s a day where I’ve only got 5-15 minutes because I’m trying to act in love to trying and help somebody out, or if it’s a time when I’ve got 45-60 minutes, I want to be able to slow the pace down, try and block out distractions, come to God’s word, and be able to drink deeply there. And move into a time of meditation.
I mean, I could – It’s very easy to approach the Bible just like Facebook or Twitter scrolling and we’re just flying through it as fast as you can, “I wish I could read the whole Bible through in less than 60 hours,” whatever it may be. That’s not the point.
The point is to linger there, to have what God says shape us and go deep. That’s the anchor, that’s the tether from which then to engage all these other information sources around us.
So, okay David let’s say then ideally you have a Christian that hears that and says, “Okay, that’s what I’m going to do.” So, you know, he or she starts to get into the practice where they’re going to the Word, they’re lingering on it, they’re really focusing on it and pondering those things, and it becomes to them a habit in the mornings and throughout their day to be thinking about those things.
So, from that point, the next step now, to now begin to tackle some of those other things, you already talked about this idea of Facebook and Instagram and Twitter – you know, a lot of young adults, and others (not just young adults), they read a few tweets, they read a few Facebook posts, and they kind of feel like they “get it,” let’s say it’s on a political piece of news that happened, or some terrorist attack, or whatever it may be. They feel like they understand it because they’ve read a few tweets.
But what would you sort of consider being the criteria of what it would be to actually get a good grip on something? What does it mean to dig deeper like you said?
Well the amazing thing about how God’s revealed Himself to us in His Word Jesus, in His spoken word the Gospel, in His written word the Scriptures, is,
He has revealed to us enough that would give us foundation for addressing all of those issues.
So I’m always trying to make connections back to Scripture – I want my life to be saturated in what God has revealed. That’s the baseline, because everything else out there as I try to bore in and get under the surface in terms of what I can trust/on who’s authority, the Bible is the rock. Like, it’s the place to keep coming back to; to have that is the baseline pillar of what is true.
And the big thing is, you don’t get that in an initial deposit, like this is true for pastors, this is true for all Christians. Going to seminary for three years doesn’t mean that a pastor got his deposit and now he spends the rest of his ministry unloading everything that was packed into those three years – that’s not at all. That season of training is meant to make you the kind of person to develop habits, that you’d become a life-long learner. I think you used the term, perma-student or something? I think that’s the first time I’ve heard that term.
The Christian life is a life of life-long learning.
I try to make the case for this in a chapter in Habits of Grace– chapter six, about being a life-long learner. At the heart of Christianity is teaching, that’s what God gave pastors and elders to the church for, to teach. And God gave us this deposit of Himself in the Person and work of His Son and in His written word, with the role of the teachers to keep teaching, keep teaching, keep finding ways to say the same old thing but say it fresh. Say it new. Make new applications.
So, when a Christian begins to think that I can get a base set of information, and then now I’m good on that and I turn somewhere else and I’m not constantly revising or revisiting or filling in the gaps, so to speak, in my knowledge you’re going to be in trouble. And so, that’s one thing, to keep coming back – you have your initial, your middle circle, or your initial foundation in the Word of God.
There’s a fundamental difference between what I read in the Bible and what I read everywhere else.
And so to keep coming back to that, and as I access these different sources to working through that matrix, and those different sources are going to be so different for people. I would not want to say like, “Here’s the things to do, here are the kind of sources to go to.” I could just talk about what I currently do in this season of life.
So the ways I’m going to get and access information or that kind of thing, those are often going to come through a few different relatively surfacey kinds of sources, which are going to be notifications on my phone – you can get them with CNN, USA Today, I think I’ve got one I signed up for with the AP. So a nice thing about the smartphone is where I used to have go to sources on a regular basis, and I didn’t just get notifications when stuff happened, the smartphone’s nice with that. If you pick the right news sources, at least you will get an update on something that’s significant that’s happened. And I feel much more able to stay up to date in a basic way on just some basic events of what’s transpiring that might be coming up in conversation. So I think the lightest, the least substantive way would be notifications.
Other things might be, I mean, who do you follow on Twitter or Facebook? I use Twitter in more of kind of a newsy type way, so I follow a lot of news carriers in Twitter. And as I’m scrolling a Twitter stream, I’ll see various news stories. It’s a little more personal on Facebook, just in terms of friends and family, at least for me. People use it differently. I don’t mainly try to engage Facebook as a news source.
And then just in terms of being a pastor and caring about the place where God has put me, like I don’t mainly think of myself as this Christian person without roots in a particular place. But, I’m Minnesotan. I live in Minneapolis. I feel a sense of calling to the Twin Cities. So, my wife and I make a regular practice of doing local news, that’s one thing we’ll do in the night. One thing that’s nice in the Central Time Zone, I grew up in the East, and local news is at 11pm, and in the Central Time Zone it’s at 10pm. I like that, I don’t think I could stay up to do do 11pm news. I like the 10pm news. And we don’t see that every single night if we have other stuff, but that’s kind of a default, we like to check in just to hear what’s going on in our local, because the people we’re interacting with day to day in the church, our neighbours, they’re living in the same environment, so we try and stay up to date on that.
Occasionally I’ll dip in on national news. I’m not the best on staying up to date on all the national stuff, occasionally as we’re preparing dinner or something like that we’ll turn on the national news in the background just to hear what the reports are today.
Now, I have found out that I want to be careful that I don’t give too much time to that, just in terms of letting that set the course of my day and of what I think about as true and the panic and pandemonium of each day and “what’s the newest horrible thing that people are, or the president is saying or Tweeting,” right? So I want to be measured in that, and try to stay up to date with World events.
Yeah, that’s great. And as you say that, David, just to go back a little bit. I think what’s interesting, I think what people would like to hear a little bit, is, do you mind breaking down some of those things that you talk about in your book when it comes to life-long learning, the kind of idea of being a perma-student? I think that would be important for us to hear some of those practical things.
Yeah, so, I got five suggestions. I could kind of mention those briefly and just give you the most rudimentary thought on them.
The first part is establishing where the centre is, where the foundation is. What lens to you want to see everything through?
I think part of being a Christian (and a real Christian) is seeing everything, living everything, feeling everything as a Christian.
And so I always want to keep Jesus’s Person and Work in view as God has revealed in the Scriptures. Christ can handle it! He can handle being connected, seeing everything in life through Him and in light of Him. So, one of those is to think about your different sources in seasons. I would counsel people, “who are you listening to in terms of in your social stream?” On Facebook, are there some people who, let’s be frank, they’re cultivating in you a kind of cynicism about the world, there’s a kind of overt or subtle unbelief that is creeping into your soul because you’re hearing their voice everyday in your Facebook stream, and you may just need to hide them from your stream!
Or what voices are you listening to on Twitter? Are there the John Piper and Tim Keller voices that are speaking in truth? Do you have anybody that’s tweeting Bible into your Twitter streams? Not that it has to be only that by any means, but to monitor the voices that we’re hearing.
What we let in our ears and the words that come into our souls through our eyes, what we’re reading, they affect our souls. So the first thought is, are you hearing God’s voice in His Word? And are there complimentary voices in your stream that are pointing you to God?
And with that there’s a thought of different seasons of life that – what that looks like in my life today is different from a year ago, it’s definitely different than five years ago, I don’t think I was on Facebook five years ago. And even then, I try and be very limited in the Facebook realm in particular.
A second thing is creating space and redeeming spare time. So this is big. I do want to be attentive, say, if I’m in line somewhere I don’t want to cut off the opportunity of being able to engage with a stranger in conversation.
If we default to our phone too quickly, then you may be cut off of those natural interactions that can be really important, so I do try and be aware of that.
And at the same time, there can be opportunities there where you’re just sitting and doing whatever, buying your time in a certain situation, and, I mean, you can just totally veg out on your phone, or it can be a time of being built up. Depending on the sources you go to, what you’re reading, whether you’re engaging your mind with sharpening material or just vegging out, that can make a difference over time. What to do in those mindless moments.
I try and stay open to new media, the media I’m using now I wasn’t using a few years ago. I don’t know what that will be in the future. I haven’t personally figured out a way that Instagram is a super helpful thing for me, but I know of others who really enjoy keeping in touch with friends – DesiringGod has an Instagram account where we post quotes and then we put in the comments, sometimes a pretty long section of text. We’re trying to find ways to build word into something that’s even so image-driven as Instagram.
And another thing too is to just embrace this identity of a life-long learner. Just to think that Christianity, again, is not about learning just some initial things and then trying to live out of that initial deposit, but it’s about a life-long effort of learning.
I think one of the things that the Holy Spirit does in a soul is He gives us a kind of holy curiosity – I want to know more about this God, I want to know more about His gospel, I want to know more about His Son, and how life in the local church is, the kind of person I should be so I can listen well to others, speak into their lives.
So right at that level of conception to just think of ourselves as the kind of people who don’t yet have the kind of knowledge, not just in terms of information, but knowledge. Information is just data, knowledge and wisdom is the knowing what to do, how to use, how to help others with that information and data.
One thing that has been so helpful to me is the modelling John Piper has been for this. He is such an aggressive, relentless life-long learner. Every time he comes to a text, every new message, he wants to find something fresh, have something fresh, that kind of endless curiosity that I think all Christians should cultivate.
Love it. That’s so good. David I wish we could just keep going, because you’re just giving so many good things to think about, but, you know, someone who’s listening might be getting at the end of their run and they probably want to be able to stop soon.
Anyways, that’s the end of our conversation. David thank you so much for just taking a few minutes out of your day to chat with us a little bit, just scratching the surface on what it looks like to be a Christian in the realm of knowing who God is, being a life-long learner of knowing who He is and knowing what’s going on around us and around the church. So, once again, thank you so much David.
Thank you Isaac.