Questions in the Wake of Suffering

October 4th, 2017 | Posted in Blog | 1 Comment
Tags: , , , ,

When tragedy strikes, as it did in Las Vegas this week, people begin to ask questions. It is part of human nature: we reason, consider, speculate, and ultimately seek to find answers that will provide meaning or comfort.

 

Why did this happen?

 

Where was God?

 

Couldn’t we have prevented this?

 

These are important questions, but they are not necessarily the questions to which Scripture gives answers. That is, if we look to the Bible for guidance, we will find our questions reframed, and answers to the questions we first ask more elusive than we would prefer.

 

In the face of great suffering—great evil, even—here are five questions we might ask, and five reframed questions that might take us in a different, and ultimately more fruitful, direction.

 

  1. Why did this happen? This is always the first question. We instinctively seek meaning, and when suffering seems meaningless, we despair. We understand why we suffer under a surgeon’s scalpel, because that act has meaning: to cure us from the disease; however, we do not understand why a loved one received the cancer diagnosis in the first place: we can see no meaning, no purpose to their suffering. (As we have become increasingly individualistic in our pursuit of happiness, attaching meaning to suffering has become proportionately more difficult, I should add. But that will take us too far afield today.) Of course, this is precisely the question Job asks of God after he suffers almost unfathomable loss. If God would only explain the why, he would accept it. Interestingly—especially considering we the readers are privy to the explanation—God never answers Job’s question. Instead, in his great theophany at the story’s close, he subtly reframes the question: not Why did this happen? but Do you know who I am? God takes Job through a series of rhetorical questions meant to draw out the answers Job already has (which is what rhetorical questions do). God says, in effect, “Job, you know who I am—you know my wisdom, power, justice, and goodness. You do not need to know why so long as you know the One who does know why.” It is a lesson we all struggle to accept.
  2. How could a good God allow such evil? Surely this is the most prominent objection to faith in the God of the Bible. It almost flows out of the last question: “Yes, yes, we know who you are, God—and that’s precisely the problem! If you’re truly good and truly powerful, why didn’t you stop this?” We will return to that question in a moment, but for now, let’s unpack some of the assumptions in the question. The questioner assumes a good God should have prevented the tragedy because it is wrong. President Trump, for example, referred to the massacre in Las Vegas as “an act of pure evil,” and few of us would disagree. But now a second question emerges, and one with which God’s detractors have to wrestle honestly. If we’re going to ask God How could you allow such evil? we need to ask ourselves Does our worldview allow for the category of evil? In rejecting God because of the evil in this world, many implicitly reject the very standard by which they reject him. They saw off the very branch they are perched on. C.S. Lewis sums it up nicely, “If we reject him, we ought also to reject all his works. But one of his works is this very moral standard by which we reject him. If we accept this standard then we are really implying that he is not a Brute and Blackguard. If we reject it, then we have thrown away the only instrument by which we can condemn him.” When we feel repulsion at evil, we implicitly acknowledge that humans are moral beings created in the image of a moral God. If we reject that notion, however, we can no longer meaningfully speak of evil. The great atheist philosopher Nietzsche embraced this logical consistency in a way that few today are intellectually honest enough to do. When hearing of a tsunami in the Java Sea that left hundreds of thousands dead, he responded, “200,000 wiped out at a stroke—how magnificent!” We rightly recoil at this sentiment—but do we have the intellectual grounds to do so? If we accept a merely naturalistic, “Darwinian” account of humanity, for example, oughtn’t we rejoice at the “thinning of the herd,” at the decreased competition for survival and reproduction? A disgusting thought that surely suggests we reconsider the God question.
  3. Where was God? These first three questions all have a common thread to them, in that they assume we know what God should have been doing. This questions charges, “Had God been paying attention—were he really involved in this world—did he even exist—he surely would have stopped this tragedy from happening.” As we’ve seen already, however, the Bible nowhere affirms that we will understand what God is doing in permitting any tragedy. What the Bible does affirm, though, is that God knows what he is doing. And occasionally he will pull back the curtains and show us, that we might learn to trust him. Joseph, who suffered more than his fair share—attempted fratricide, slavery, unjust incarceration—is able to say to his brothers in spite of his grievances, “You intended to harm me, but God intended it for good to accomplish what is now being done, the saving of many lives” (Genesis 50:20). Had Joseph not suffered as he did, he could not have been used by God to save an entire region from starvation. Do we think God is any less capable of using tragedy today? Or, to take an even more obvious example, we might look to Calvary. Only one truly innocent person has ever suffered in the history of the world–and see what God did through his suffering! The question we should ask then, is not Where was God? but Do we trust God? As Tim Keller tweeted yesterday, “In the end, God will use evil to do the opposite of what was intended.” Do we believe this is the case? Can we trust him to bring good from evil? Has he not proven himself more than capable of this? Joni Eareckson Tada states the principle eloquently: “God ordains what he hates to accomplish what he loves.” This is nowhere more evident than in the death of his Son. And if God is loving enough to embrace suffering himself for our sakes, can we not trust him no matter what we might suffer?
  4. Could we have prevented this? Now, hear me clearly: this is a fair question, one we should ask and seek to answer as honestly as possible. Those who believe in the sanctity of human life should be the first to join the conversation. We do not take a laissez-faire approach to God’s image-bearers. But having said that clearly, let me say this too: sometimes our pursuit of prevention is an idolatrous desire for control, for autonomy. We should like to think, in the words of that famous poem “Invictus,” that we can be the masters of our fates, the captains of our souls—and we think so in defiance of the God who made us, and to whom we belong. Beyond the theological trouble attending this desire is the more practical one: we are manifestly not the masters of our fates, and we have no power to stave off death. “Can any one of you by worrying add a single hour to your life?” (Matthew 6:27). Ann Patchett, in an article entitled “Beltway Sniper” published in The New York Times Magazine during that horrifying tragedy, captures the folly of this desire: “The fact is, staving off our own death is one of our favorite national pastimes. Whether it’s exercise, checking our cholesterol or having a mammogram, we are always hedging against mortality. Find out what the profile is, and identify the ways in which you do not fit it. But a sniper taking a single clean shot. . . reminds us horribly of death itself. Despite our best intentions, it is still, for the most part, random. And it is absolutely coming.” So while we continue to ask if we could have prevented any single tragedy, we must acknowledge that in the end we still cannot prevent death itself from coming. The question the Bible suggests to us here is simply Are you willing to face your mortality? Psalm 90:10 puts it bluntly: “Our days may come to seventy years, or eighty, if our strength endures; yet the best of them are but trouble and sorrow, for they quickly pass, and we fly away.” What is the answer to this bare reality? “Teach us to number our days, that we may gain a heart of wisdom” (v 12). In humble acceptance of our mortality, we embrace an eternal perspective to live rightly.
  5. What did they do to deserve this? I hope no one reading this actually asks this question, but inevitably someone raises the question, especially when tragedy strikes in a place like “Sin City.” This legalistic self-righteousness is not new—for there is nothing new under the sun. Jesus’ own disciples once queried him, “Rabbi, who sinned, this man or his parents, that he was born blind?” (John 9:1). Of course, this line of questioning circles back to the preceding questions; it seeks to provide comfort to the questioner, knowing they don’t fit the profile of “sinner”; it seeks to provide meaning to suffering—they deserved it—and so to offer pat answers to dishonest questions. But in another instance, Jesus himself reframed the question into a far more fitting one: “Now there were some present at that time who told Jesus about the Galileans whose blood Pilate had mixed with their sacrifices. Jesus answered, ‘Do you think that these Galileans were worse sinners than all the other Galileans because they suffered this way? I tell you, no! But unless you repent, you too will all perish. Or those eighteen who died when the tower in Siloam fell on them—do you think they were more guilty than all the others living in Jerusalem? I tell you, no! But unless you repent, you too will all perish’” (Luke 13:1-5). There is the question we should be asking: Do you think those who suffer are worse than you? The Bible answers a resounding No. We are all dead in our transgressions and sins, by nature deserving of wrath (Ephesians 2:1-3). The plain fact of the matter is that no one of us suffers more than we deserve, and in fact we all suffer far less than we deserve because of God’s common grace. We deserve eternal condemnation, but God, in his mercy, offers us grace and eternal approbation. The key, as Jesus reminds us, is repentance. We turn from our sins and trust in his finished work on the cross, where he took the punishment for our sins in our place that we might receive welcome as God’s beloved children.

 

And that is another question we must all ask and answer—ultimately the one question that matters most: Will you repent and believe in the Lord Jesus Christ?



Marks of Smoking Flax

June 27th, 2017 | Posted in Blog | No Comments
Tags: , , , , ,

The Puritans left behind a great store of wisdom—rigorously theological, warmly devotional, and always centered on Christ and his gospel. Sadly, given the diminishing attention paid to language, grammar, and the humanities, they are less accessible to modern audiences than they deserve. Still, there are a few Puritan works that are short and simple enough that I wouldn’t hesitate to suggest every English-speaking Christian read them. John Bunyan’s The Pilgrim’s Progress would head the list, undoubtedly. But not far behind would be the wonderful little classic The Bruised Reed by Richard Sibbes.

 

Sibbes takes as his text Isaiah 42:1-3,

 

Here is my servant, whom I uphold, my chosen one in whom I delight;

I will put my Spirit on him, and he will bring justice to the nations.

He will not shout or cry out, or raise his voice in the streets.

A bruised reed he will not break, and a smoldering wick he will not snuff out.

In faithfulness he will bring forth justice.

 

and from it shows the tender, loving grace of Christ, the Lord’s servant, towards his people.

 

If we’re honest about the struggle—the war our flesh and the Spirit wage within us, the temptations we face, and (all too often) our falls into sin—we will soon feel discouragement and doubt. Will we ever be sanctified? Will the war ever cease? Can I be sure of my salvation when I struggle so? Hear how Sibbes describes this struggle:

 

Some think they have no faith at all because they have no full assurance, whereas the fairest fire that can be will have some smoke. The best actions will smell of the smoke. The mortar wherein the garlic has been stamped will always smell of it; so all our actions will savour something of the old man. (45)

 

But how may we know that we are truly Christians, and not hypocrites hiding behind a profession of faith? “In a gloomy day there is so much light,” Sibbes writes, “that we may know it to be day and not night; so there is something in a Christian under a cloud whereby he may be discerned a true believer and not a hypocrite” (37-38). A smoldering wick, though it show no flame at the time, nevertheless bears the mark of heavenly ignition. And once lit by heaven, according to the promise given in our text, Jesus will not suffer to see it extinguished, but will fan it into flame once more.

 

With this in mind, Sibbes suggests ten marks of “smoking flax,” that is, of a smoldering wick. When the marks are present, when we see these rules at work in our lives, we can be sure God’s irresistible grace is at work within us to mortify sin and raise us to newness of life. He is actively forming Christ in us.

 

  1. “If there be any fire in us, it is kindled from heaven.” The light kindled in us by the Father of lights, Sibbes reminds, is the same light as in the Word. We must have heavenly light to discern heavenly truth. If we accept the Word as true, receive it, and seek to see its truth lived out in our lives, God’s light has surely “sparked” the interest within us.
  2. “The least divine light has heat with it in some measure.” Sibbes goes on to say, “Light in the understanding produces heat of love in the affections.” As we grasp biblical truth, it affects more than just our intellect; slowly but surely we begin to feel the fundamental structures of our hearts changing, until our affections are in line with the truth we profess. We value supremely what is supremely valuable; we treasure Christ above all. Here Sibbes follows Augustine’s famous dictum: “As a man loves, so is he.” Our affections truly determine our nature.
  3. “Where this heavenly light is kindled, it directs in the right way.” The world clamors for our attention, and many forces seek to direct us: media, politics, culture, friends and family. However, a true Christian will always look to God’s light as revealed in Scripture first and foremost. Sibbes offers a helpful analogy to distinguish between those who had a moment of intrigue when hearing the gospel, and those whose hearts were truly set aflame by God’s grace: “The light which some men have is like lightning which, after a sudden flash, leaves them more in darkness. They can love the light as it shines, but hate it as it discovers and directs.” If we say we like Jesus well enough, but bristle at his teaching (or the teaching of his prophets and apostles), we hate God’s light as it discovers and directs; if, however, we trust his light to guide and direct even when we struggle to understand the why, we prove ourselves to be smoldering wicks at least.
  4. “Where this fire is, it will sever things of diverse natures, and show a difference between such things as gold and dross.” If God’s light is at work within us, and as we trust it to direct us, it will reveal impurities within us. We will allow it to separate flesh from spirit, to help us identify and ultimately mortify what is carnal.
  5. “So far as a man is spiritual, so far is light delightful to him.” When God’s light reveals uncleanness, immorality, and sin within us, we receive the rebuke with joy. “Wounds from a friend can be trusted” (Proverbs 27:6), and what better friend have we than God himself, speaking through his Word? Our affections have been changed, so we delight most in Christ, and delight to be like him in increasing measure. Whatever tends to that end, we welcome with joy. If, however, we feel the sting of rebuke and resist it—draw the shades of our heart to keep the light out—it is likely we remain unregenerate. “There is nothing in the world more uneasy than the heart of a wicked man made to listen to spiritual instruction, until, like a thief, he puts out the candle so that he may sin with less restraint.”
  6. “Fire, where it is present, is in some degree active.” Grace works. Even in the midst of sin, when our flesh seems to be all-conquering, there is a “contrary principle, which breaks the force of sin, so that it is not boundlessly sinful.” The true light will flicker even in our darkest moments.
  7. “Fire makes metals pliable and malleable.” And so grace, where it is active, makes our hearts soft and prepares us to be changed. However, “Obstinate spirits show that they are not so much as smoking flax.”
  8. “Fire, as much as it can, sets everything on fire.” Grace, where it is active, will make everything in us gracious. All will tend in a Godward direction, to the fame of his name. As Paul puts the same principle, whatever we do, we will do to the glory of God (1 Corinthians 10:31).
  9. “Sparks by nature fly upwards.” Our desires and aims will mount upward, toward heaven. A person cannot desire the holy unless grace is at work, “for we cannot desire anything which we do not believe first to be, and the desire of it issues from love.” Sibbes notes these desires must be (1) constant, for this shows their supernatural origin, (2) directed to spiritual things such as faith and love, not because of a pressing need or emergency (in which case the desire is selfishly motivated), but “as a loving heart is carried to thing loved for the sake of some excellency in it,” and (3) accompanied with grief when the desire is hindered—that is, when sin masks Christ’s loveliness.
  10. “Fire, if it has any matter to feed on, enlarges itself and mounts higher and higher, and, the higher it rises, the purer is the flame.” Where grace is truly active, it grows in measure and purity. “Ignis, quo magis lucet, eo minus fumat (As fire gives more light, it gives less smoke).” If we are truly in Christ, we will grow more like him; when we see no growth in grace, we show we are not so much as smoldering wicks. As one contemporary pastor puts it, “It’s okay not to be okay, but it’s not okay to stay that way.”


Lessons from the Garden

May 30th, 2017 | Posted in Blog | 1 Comment
Tags: , , , ,

I love to garden. When I’m outside planting or weeding or pruning, it reminds me that I was made to garden. I feel like I’m back in Eden, worshiping the Creator by stewarding his creation. Occasionally I even feel I’m imitating my Father—like the son who follows behind with his toy lawn mower while Dad actually mows the grass—by using the creativity he’s given each of us to design and develop (I won’t say create) a landscape.

 

But there is another reason I love to garden, and that is because I am reminded of deep spiritual truths every time I’m out there working. The garden is filled with illustrations of our spiritual lives which minister to me as I dig and deadhead, water and weed. Here are ten spiritual lessons from the garden.

 

  1. If you neglect the garden, weeds will overrun it. I wish it were otherwise, but it isn’t. If you neglect a flower bed, you won’t walk out one day to see splendid color and brilliant blooms. You’ll find all those nice plants you put in have been choked out by weeds. So it is with our character. If we neglect our spiritual development, we’re unlikely to discover the fruit of the Spirit in full bloom within us; we’re rather more likely to see our hearts overrun with idolatry, and sin choking out the life of the Spirit.
  2. The best way to keep weeds out is to make sure what you’ve planted is healthy and thriving. You can weed a bed over and over again—picked bare every time—only to find the weeds are back in force unless you plant something else there. If you want to keep a bed free from weeds, put in some groundcover. Once more, so it is with our character. The best way to keep our lives free from sin really isn’t relentless weeding (although that has its place, of course), but cultivating virtue. Paul used the analogy of clothing to make the same point: you put off sin, but then have to put on If we spend all our time mortifying sin and no time cultivating Christlikeness, we’ll likely end up weeding and re-weeding endlessly.
  3. If you just pick off the flower, the weed will grow back. I can remember as a child helping my mom “weed” by picking the heads off all the dandelions. When I got a bit older I did better, picking off all the leaves as well. Not surprisingly, the weeds always grew back. If you really want to get rid of the weed, you have to dig out the whole thing, all the way down to the root. In the same way, if we want to mortify sin truly and completely, we need to attack it at its root—the idolatry that feeds and encourages our transgression. Too many of us keep playing an interminable game of Whack-a-Mole because we don’t deal with the root issue; so sin keeps springing up in new places, and we keep whacking it down, picking off the dandelion flower only. Speaking of flowering weeds, though. . . .
  4. When weeds flower, it helps us locate them easily so we can dig them out at the root. The trouble with so many weeds is that they blend in—they’re green like the grass! That’s why I love dandelion season even though I hate dandelions: now I can find them easily so I can put them to death. When we mess up noticeably—when our sin flowers in a particularly flagrant way—it helps us locate and identify the roots that our nourishing it, so we can put the sin to death at its deepest point. Too often we simply repent of the flagrant sin without attacking the roots. Did you blow up at your kids again? Okay. Repent of that, absolutely. But then dig a bit deeper and find out why. Do you have deep control or comfort issues? What is the root idolatry that produces this particular fruit or flower? When our sin flowers, as awful as it is, we can start to discover what’s really going on within us.
  5. The hardest weeds to get out are the ones growing up in the middle of a plant. I’m dealing with this in my backyard right now. I’ve cleared out a bed that was overrun with weeds (because it had been sorely neglected for some time). However, there are still a few prominent weeds shooting up—right in the middle of my boxwoods. I’m not sure how to get to them without hurting the plant. It’s very irritating. Now, I find that the hardest sins to eliminate are the ones growing up right in the middle of my virtue. I finally get into a good rhythm of prayer and study, only to find I’m taking sinful pride in my habits. I devote myself to a genuinely fruitful ministry, only to discover my identity is wrapped up in it rather than my unity with Christ. How do I eliminate the transgression without killing the transformation? Seeing the weeds in the middle of the shrub reminds me to examine even my virtuous habits for iniquity.
  6. If the roots grow strong and deep enough, the plant will flower again, even if it’s been trampled. I had some people working at my house this week, and they trampled some of the perennials I’d just planted. I had to replace them because I knew the plant wasn’t established enough to survive that sort of turmoil; the roots weren’t deep enough yet. But give those same plants a few more years, and I’d expect them to come back even if they got trampled to the ground. Circumstances will inevitably trample us to the ground. A cancer diagnosis will come, the marriage will hit the skids, layoffs will strike. Though those circumstances might seem to destroy our faith for a while, if our roots go deep enough, we will soon see our peace and joy in Christ flower again.
  7. If you want full blooms, you need to prune and deadhead relentlessly. I spend more time than I care to admit deadheading my petunias, but I want them to keep blooming, so I don’t have any choice. If you want various perennials to flower throughout the season, you have to keep trimming them back. Similarly, if we want to keep vital in our union with Christ, we need to keep pruning any dead branch or leaf or flower from our lives. Do I have any wasted time? Is there any habit that is draining life from me? Is there some good that is the dreaded enemy of God’s best for my life? Snip, snip, snip.
  8. What wondrous variety in God’s creation! One of the reasons I love to garden so much is because I’m never bored. There is always a new flower, a new color, a new shape that I haven’t seen before. How does he do it? He is infinitely, endlessly creative, and I worship him for it. It reminds me that every person is both created in his image and yet wondrously unique. How boring it would be if every flower were yellow! And how boring if every person had my personality, or your gifts, or his passions, or her story. We each bear his image uniquely, to his everlasting praise.
  9. I can’t cause anything to grow, but I can help get the conditions right so that growth can happen. Since I don’t sustain all things through my powerful word, I need to leave the growth of my garden in his hands. But that doesn’t mean I sit back and wait for him to do it. I am active: tending the soil, fertilizing, watering, pruning. I want everything I can do to be done well, because I know growth won’t happen apart from it. (He could miraculously sustain my plants, of course, but he chooses not to, and I can’t say I blame him.) So it is with my life in Christ. As Paul reminds us in 1 Corinthians 3:6, he alone can cause the growth. But that doesn’t mean I’m inactive in my life or the lives of those around me. I use the means of grace—prayer, study, meditation, memorization, fellowship, fasting, evangelism—because I want the conditions for my growth to be ideal. Any good that is in me is his work alone, a gracious gift to an undeserving sinner; but I strive to do all I can to put myself in the right position to receive that gift.
  10. Very little seeds and seedlings can grow very large. You put these tiny dots into a giant bed and hardly expect anything to happen. Soon enough, however, you see the seedling grow and expand until it takes up more of your garden than you’d planned. Jesus himself compared the kingdom to a very small seed, which soon grows until it is almost a tree, large enough for birds to nest in it (Matthew 13:31-32). Don’t despise the day of small things. Just as tiny seeds grow into large plants, tiny acts of devotion grow into true Christlikeness, and tiny relational investments—life-on-life evangelism and discipleship—produce harvests of conversion and growth.

 

Perhaps the most wonderful reminder of all comes any time we transplant a flower, shrub, bush, or tree. You go to the nursery, select a plant, and then make it a part of your home. In Psalm 1:3, the psalmist tells us that the blessed person—the one who delights in God’s Word—is “like a tree planted by streams of water, which yields its fruit in season and whose leaf does not wither.” The Hebrew word for “planted” means transplanted. It didn’t spring up by the stream on its own. Someone put it there—took the time to prepare the soil, dig the hole, water and care for it until it grew. All of us who are in Christ are there because God chose us, uprooted us from our selfish, self-determining ways, and planted us in him. Every time we plant we preach the gospel of our salvation; and as we care for what we’ve planted, we remind ourselves of God’s unfailing presence and goodness in our lives. That’s a lesson from the garden I’m delighted to keep learning!

 

What other lessons have you learned while out in your garden?



A Virtual Gospel

March 28th, 2017 | Posted in Blog | No Comments
Tags: , , ,

Yesterday, Ezra Klein of Vox interviewed Yuval Hariri, the Israeli author of Sapiens and his latest, Homo Deus: A Brief History of Tomorrow. In Homo Deus Harari envisions humanity’s future (including its likely end) with specific focus on technology and artificial intelligence. Near the end of the interview, Harari makes this claim about religion generally, and Christianity in particular:

 

You can think about religion simply as a virtual reality game. You invent rules that don’t really exist, but you believe these rules, and for your entire life you try to follow the rules. If you’re Christian, then if you do this, you get points. If you sin, you lose points. If by the time you finish the game when you’re dead, you gained enough points, you get up to the next level. You go to heaven.

 

Now, I’m hardly qualified to comment on AI or other cutting-edge technological developments, but Christianity I know decently well. And this description bears no resemblance to the Christianity I profess, nor the Christianity of Jesus’ followers throughout the past two millennia.

 

The root issue, of course, is the notion of merit. Do Christians do anything whatsoever to merit their own salvation? That is, do Christians really “earn” or “lose” points by our good and bad deeds, respectively, hoping somehow to attain a high enough score to pass through those famed pearly gates? Harari certainly thinks so, but the Bible teaches otherwise.

 

Paul, for example, says quite clearly, “For it is by grace you have been saved, through faith—and this is not from yourselves, it is the gift of God— not by works, so that no one can boast” (Ephesians 2:8-9). Our salvation is by grace (unmerited favor) alone, not by our deeds; no works involved, so no boasting allowed. Now, if you’ve ever played video games, you know much boasting succeeds a new high score, so Harari’s view of Christianity and Paul’s seem to be at odds.

 

So, as I read the interview, I was deeply troubled as I considered my own culture, and what misperceptions those around me might have about Christianity. I have had conversations with many people throughout the years that have echoed Harari’s sentiments about religion. Most do not understand grace, which means they do not understand the gospel, and can have no good understanding of why Jesus came to live among us before dying in place of us and rising again. In other words, we are surrounded by people who have rejected (or are at the least unpersuaded by) a version of Christianity completely foreign to the teaching of Jesus and his Apostles. They have rejected not the gospel, but their own misperceptions about the gospel.

 

Many who profess to be Christians reviewed the Vox interview, or gave it brief treatment on Twitter and elsewhere. In general, the tenor of the response was, “We can’t believe how dumb you are to misunderstand Christianity so badly.” I have to confess, I found this response wanting. I’d much rather our response had been, “How badly we have failed our culture, if we haven’t made clear what the gospel really teaches!” (I’d have liked to have seen some Christians engage Vox and Harari with what the gospel really says, to see if the seed might not just fall on good soil.)

 

This is the challenge I see for the church going forward: to communicate the gospel clearly and persuasively to a culture that doesn’t want to hear what they don’t understand. I believe that will take a few critical steps (repeated ad infinitum until glory):

 

  1. We need to present the bad news of humanity’s plight before the good news of the gospel will make sense. People today believe they are pretty good, and therefore probably could “score enough points” to earn their way into heaven. This is in marked contrast to Paul’s description of humanity apart from Christ (cf. Romans 3:10-18).
  2. We need to bear the name of Christ with much more humility and expressed repentance than we normally do. My question here is have we given the impression that we earned our salvation? Listening to Christians speak—especially when it comes to social or political issues—one might very well draw that conclusion. The church has been notoriously guilty of adopting a holier-than-thou mentality, leading to the same self-righteousness and hypocritical judgment that Jesus stridently condemned in the Pharisees of his day.
  3. We need to make very clear the distinction between Christianity and the other world religions. We live in a tolerant, pluralistic society. One will often hear that all religions are basically the same, in that they all teach the same basic moral requirements. Now, if Christianity is just one more set of rules to follow so that you can earn enough points to get to heaven, then truly it is the same as the other religions. I’d be hard pressed to argue that Jesus is the only way. But if, as the Bible teaches, Christianity is not a set of rules to be followed, but rather a grand story of God’s unfolding plan of redemption accomplished through the sacrificial death of his Son, then Jesus is, as he himself said, “the way, the truth, and the life”—and no one can come to God apart from him (John 14:6).
  4. We need to do a better job explaining why Jesus came and why Jesus died. In many ways, this is just restating the last point in different words. What is the heart of Christianity? Not that sinners try to claw their way back into God’s good graces by dint of their effort, but rather this: “While we were still sinners [trying to claw or not], Christ died for us” (Romans 5:8). Jesus came to live the perfect life we were called to live but unable to live because of our sin nature. Then he took our place—bore our punishment in his body, absorbed the full force of God’s fierce anger at our sin on the cross—that we might take his place, welcomed as beloved, righteous children of God by faith: “God made him who had no sin to be sin for us so that in him we might become the righteousness of God” (2 Corinthians 5:21). I am loved by God because of Jesus, not because of anything I have done.

 

I was reminded as I read the interview, that this is not a video game, and certainly is not an alternative reality. In a video game, when you die, you start over and try again. There are no consequences for making the wrong decision other than wasting even more of your life in front of a flickering screen. But this is no game. Eternity is at stake. Will the church answer the call and proclaim the good news of the gospel clearly and persuasively, or will we whine about how misunderstood we are while the world around us perishes?



The Cost of Prayer

April 8th, 2015 | Posted in Blog | No Comments
Tags: , , ,

When trouble hits, as it inevitably does, the human heart instinctively cries out in prayer. (To the best of my knowledge, no other species exhibits this praying-hands-blackwhitetendency.) A majority of people the world over pray regularly, even daily; remarkably, this number includes a large percentage of those who profess not to believe in God. Theologians would attribute this to our sensus divinitatis : our innate sense of the divine (cf. Romans 1:20), or our “incurable God-sickness,” as Karl Barth put it memorably. We all know God exists, even if we work diligently to suppress that truth, and so we cry out in prayer to him when we need him.

 

But there is often a drawing back, a slinking away, once we have made our request. The psalmist writes, “I pour out before him my complaint; before him I tell my trouble” (Psalm 142:2). Complain to God—can it be so? The impertinence of troubling him thus! How dare we? Will he hear us? Will he answer, even if he does hear? Surely not, we reason. The fresh bloom of faith withers in the frost. We slip back into self-reliance. God helps those who help themselves.

 

In prayer we find ourselves trapped between the holiness and love of God, his transcendence and his immanence. Do we address an awesome Majesty or a tender Father? The Psalms—our God-given instructors in prayer—help us proceed, not by navigating a narrow path between two extremes, but by teaching us to embrace and address the fullness of God simpliciter.

 

David offers us a neat theology of prayer in Psalm 5, showing us our access to God—and what that access cost.

 

It begins, as prayers often do, by invoking God’s presence:

 

Listen to my words, LORD,

consider my lament.

Hear my cry for help,

my King and my God,

for to you I pray. (vv 1-2)

 

Tellingly, he brings his issue to God because he feels assured that God will hear and answer him. He waits expectantly for God to respond:

 

In the morning, LORD, you hear my voice;

in the morning I lay my requests before you

and wait expectantly. (v 3)

 

Even if expressed more poetically and assuredly than our prayers, so far this feels like spiritual boilerplate. Then the prayer takes an odd turn:

 

For you are not a God who is pleased with wickedness;

with you, evil people are not welcome.

The arrogant cannot stand

in your presence.

You hate all who do wrong;

you destroy those who tell lies.

The bloodthirsty and deceitful you, LORD, detest. (vv 4-6)

 

While waiting expectantly for God to answer his prayer, David apparently feels free to launch into a diatribe against sinners. In fact, these are some of the strongest words against sinners in all of Scripture, because they teach that God hates sinners—not just the sin. What are we to do with this? This is the self-righteous bigotry Jesus condemns (cf. Luke 18:9-14). It is this sort of “us-and-them” mentality that leads to dangerous, destructive Pharisaism. We want nothing to do with it. David isn’t done yet, but we’re growing skeptical about how much we have to learn from him:

 

But I, by your great love,

can come into your house;

in reverence I bow down

toward your holy temple. (v 7)

 

At first glance, this makes it worse. God hates sinners but not David—David can waltz right into God’s house (reverently, of course). Why, precisely? Not because David isn’t a sinner; no, we all remember Bathsheba, never mind the census.

 

At second glance, it all starts to make sense. David says he can come into the house by God’s great love. That is the key to the whole text—the gospel in miniature. David is most certainly not deceived about himself. He knows he is a sinner, the worst of all, I feel certain he would argue (cf. Psalm 51). He can boldly approach the throne of God only because it is a throne of grace (Hebrews 4:16). Even though God, being a perfectly holy God, cannot abide our sin; even though we by nature are objects of justly deserved wrath; nevertheless, God welcomes us with unfathomably open arms, invites us to call on him in prayer, even teaches us to address him as Father. What wondrous depths of mercy, grace, and love!

 

No, David is not describing other sinners in verses 4-6. He is describing himself. This is not an us-and-them moment. It is an us-and-Thee moment. We are all of us in this boat together, hopeless apart from the Hope of nations—Christ, our salvation. God is at once transcendently holy and immanently loving, both Majesty and Father, through Christ.

 

Who may call on God as Father? Who may boldly approach the throne of grace to find mercy in times of need? The one who has faith in the finished work of Christ. Even though it was faith in the promise, not the completed work, still David commends this sort of faith:

 

But let all who take refuge in you be glad;

let them ever sing for joy.

Spread your protection over them,

that those who love your name may rejoice in you. (v 11)

 

Those who take refuge in God—a metaphorical depiction of faith—it is they who possess the singing joy, the resolute gladness of those who know God will hear and answer them. For through Christ we all have “access to the Father by one Spirit” (Ephesians 2:18).

 

We would do well to remember the cost of this access. Ironically, it was another psalm of David, Psalm 22, taken onto Jesus’ lips that best expresses the cost. Tim Keller explains,

 

The only time in all the gospels that Jesus Christ prays to God and doesn’t call him Father is on the cross, when he says, “My God, my God, why have you forgotten me? Why have you forsaken me?” [Psalm 22:1; Matthew 27:46] Jesus lost his relationship with God the Father so that we could have a relationship with God as father. Jesus was forgotten so that we could be remembered forever—from everlasting to everlasting. Jesus Christ bore all the eternal punishment that our sins deserve. That is the cost of prayer. Jesus paid the price so God could be our father.[1]

 

When we pray, as David did, “But I, by your great love, can come into your house,” we do so with a piercing recognition that his love was not only great, but costly. It cost him his Son, his only Son, whom he loved. That is the price of adoption; that is the cost of prayer.

 

[1] Prayer: Experiencing Awe and Intimacy with God (New York: Dutton, 2014): 79-80.



Addition by Subtraction

December 2nd, 2014 | Posted in Blog | No Comments
Tags: , ,

The holiday season exposes the deep greed within us (or at least within our kids) as few other times can. If we are not careful—examining ourselves relentlessly, allowing clip_holding giftsothers to correct and admonish us as needed—we can unwittingly believe the lie and buy the hype. If I had this or that, my life would truly be richer, and I, I would finally be content.

 

That last bit is an especially treacherous deceit. We are fools indeed if we believe we will experience contentment when our circumstances change, for contentment is an inward disposition. The one who is not content with the spiritual blessings given him or her in Christ Jesus will not be content with any baubles collected in addition to the boundless riches of grace. Infinite blessing is already ours, and as any child caught in a game of one-upmanship knows, there is no such thing as infinity plus one.

 

Consider how this worked in the life of Paul, the apostle who had learned the secret of contentment (Philippians 4:11). In recounting the hardships he endured to the Corinthian church—the church enraptured by a theology of easy glory—he described himself as “poor, yet making many rich; having nothing, and yet possessing everything” (2 Corinthians 6:10). Jeremiah Burroughs, that prince of Puritan preachers known especially for his book The Rare Jewel of Christian Contentment, comments on this verse: Paul “does not say: ‘As possessing all things,’ but ‘possessing all things.’ I have very little in the world, he says, but yet possessing all things.”[1] Paul has infinite treasure in Christ, so the state of his bank account concerns him but little.

 

Burroughs then proceeds to argue that true Christian contentment comes not by addition, but by subtraction. Adding mere trinkets never brings contentment, but learning satisfaction in Christ alone surely will. He writes,

 

A Christian comes to contentment, not so much by way of addition, as by way of subtraction. That is his way of contentment, and it is a way that the world has no skill in. I open it thus: not so much by adding to what he would have, or to what he has, not by adding more to his condition; but rather by subtracting from his desires, so as to make his desires and his circumstances even and equal. A carnal heart knows no way to be contented but this: I have such and such possessions, and if I had this added to them, and the other comfort added that I have not now, then I should be contented…. But contentment does not come in that way, it does not come, I say, by adding to what you want, but by subtracting from your desires. It is all one to a Christian, whether I get up to what I would have, or get my desires down to what I have, either to attain what I do desire, or to bring down my desires to what I have already attained. My wealth is the same.[2]

 

His wealth is the same because he still possesses Christ, and in possessing Christ he possesses infinite treasure. In other words, by subtracting grumbling desires from his heart, he adds the grace of contentment to his spirit. It is addition by subtraction.

 

I should add that this lesson—a hard one to learn indeed!—pertains to more than just possessions. We must not think that our contentment will or should depend on our circumstances. For example, I am currently unemployed. I would be a fool to think that if I am not now content in Christ, that I will be once I have gainful employment again or a fruitful ministry in which to serve. If I am not content in my reconciliation to God through Christ, I will not be content in any circumstances until God, in his grace, should change my stony heart.

 

As Burroughs forcefully puts it,

 

I am discontented for want of what a dog may have, what a devil may have, what a reprobate may have; shall I be discontented for not having that, when God has given me what makes angels glorious? ‘Blessed be God,’ says the Apostle in Ephesians I. 3, ‘who hath blessed us with all spiritual blessings in heavenly places.’ It may be you have not such great blessings in earthly places as some others have, but if the Lord has blessed you in heavenly places, that should content you. There are blessings in heaven, in a heavenly place. The consideration of the greatness of the mercies that we have, and the littleness of the things that God has denied us, is a very powerful consideration to work this grace of contentment.[3]

 

This Christmas season, let us consider the richness of our blessing in Christ, and let God’s grace work in us to produce a heart well and truly satisfied in him.

 

[1] The Rare Jewel of Christian Contentment, first published 1684 (reprint Carlisle, PA: Banner of Truth Trust, 1964): 35.

[2] Ibid., 45 (emphasis added).

[3] Ibid., 208 (emphasis added).



The Accountable Heart

April 9th, 2014 | Posted in Blog | No Comments
Tags: , , , , , ,

There is a lot of buzz about “authentic community” these days, stemming from either a robust reflection on key biblical teachings or millennial chutzpah about how much better at relating they are than previous generations. Regardless, the writers of Scripture place a transparent emphasis on genuine, biblical fellowship. This is a central component of life in the Spirit—and central to authentic community is the notion of accountability.

 

Accountability simply means inviting others to examine your life in the light of Scripture, to call you out when you stray from the right paths, wittingly or not. We act as living mirrors in each other’s lives (James 1:22-24), speaking the truth in love to one another (Ephesians 4:14-15), gently and humbly restoring those caught in sin (Galatians 6:1).

 

The trouble with accountability, though, is that it is only as effective as our hearts are open. So what does an accountable heart look like? David paints a fine picture:

 

                I call to you, LORD, come quickly to me;

                                hear me when I call to you.

                May my prayer be set before you like incense;

                                may the lifting up of my hands be like the evening sacrifice.

 

                Set a guard over my mouth, LORD;

                                keep watch over the door of my lips.

                Do not let my heart be drawn to what is evil

                                so that I take part in wicked deeds

                along with those who are evildoers;

                                do not let me eat their delicacies.

 

                Let a righteous man strike me—that is a kindness;

                                let him rebuke me—that is oil on my head.

                My head will not refuse it,

                                for my prayer will still be against the deeds of evildoers. (Psalm 141:1-5)

 

David begins by pleading for grace. He knows that he cannot have what he seeks apart from the gracious intervention of the sovereign Lord. But what does he seek specifically? He wants to keep himself from evil, from wicked deeds (especially sins of the tongue, it seems, based on his opening two petitions). These are prayers many of us have prayed many times, I would guess. Nothing out of the ordinary here.

 

But what comes next caught me off guard. David expects grace might come in the form of authentic community. In effect, he says, “Should you choose to answer this prayer by sending me someone to rebuke me, I would welcome that, Father.” Because his desire for sanctification is strong—his prayer is still “against the deeds of evildoers”—he is a glad participant in the ministry of accountability. And he is truly glad: it isn’t just that he would accept rebuke when it comes; he will receive it as a kindness, as precious as an anointing with oil.[1]

 

I wish we had a good chronology for the Psalms. Did David write this after his experience with Nathan the prophet (cf. 2 Samuel 12:1-14 and Psalm 51)? Had he already experienced the grace of rebuke? Is that why he celebrates and seeks it here? We will never know—but we know how powerful the ministry of accountability is when the heart is open to receive it.

 

So let us open our hearts to receive it now, pleading with God for this grace . . . just like David.



[1] See Psalm 133:1-2 for a good sense of just how precious oil on the head is to David!



Punctuated Equilibrium

November 20th, 2013 | Posted in Blog | No Comments
Tags: , , ,

Throughout his first epistle, John declares his unwavering expectation that Christians will grow in obedience and love. For example, in one particularly strong passage, he writes, “We know that we have passed from death to life because we love each other. Anyone who does not love remains in death. Anyone who hates a brother or sister is a murderer, and you know that no murderer has eternal life residing in him” (1 John 3:14-15, NIV).

 

While we appreciate John’s uncompromising anticipation of sanctification, an honest examination of our own lives might reveal more muddled pictures. I have not always loved. I have fallen into hatred many times—gossip, bitterness, anger, lust, jealousy, divisiveness—and all hatred is embryonic murder (cf. Matthew 5:21-22; 1 John 3:12).

 

Does eternal life reside within me? I begin to wonder.

 

Of course, John does not expect perfection (cf. 1 John 1:8-10); rather, he expects progress—growing increasingly more like Jesus as the years pass. Those who fall into patterns of habitual, impenitent sin have cause to fear, but not the Christian struggling to follow hard after Jesus even as the battle between flesh and Spirit continues to rage in her life. Not even our ongoing sin can separate us from the love of God which is in Christ Jesus. Thanks be to God!

 

It may be of some comfort to take an analogy from biology—ironically, from evolutionary theory (one’s views of evolution notwithstanding). In the absence of sufficient transitional forms in the fossil record, some biologists developed the theory of punctuated equilibrium. In short, this theory posits that genetic change takes place in the soft tissue over many generations (thus inconveniently leaving no fossil record), until—in a tremendous, almost miraculous leap—the skeletal structure itself reveals massive change.

 

I cannot say I’m a fan of the scientific theory, but I have seen something like this in my own life many times. Looking back across the days and weeks and months, I lament that I have seen no spiritual growth in many areas of struggle. But this is probably because I expect to see steady change each day: I expect that I will struggle with anger 87% one day, then 86% the next, and then—by the grace of God—only 85% the day after. That would be a laughably uncommon experience though.

 

More often, God works in the “soft tissue” of our hearts, producing change that might not have worked itself out in the fossil record of our behavior just yet. And then, all at once, in a tremendous—no, a miraculous—leap, we see that we are experiencing new victory in Christ.

 

We must develop patience. God is faithful: he will sanctify us through and through (1 Thessalonians 5:23-24). One day we will look back and see overwhelming victory in our struggle against anger or jealousy or worry etc. But it might not come all at once.



Eight Reasons I Like to Fast

October 4th, 2013 | Posted in Blog | No Comments
Tags: , , ,

Jesus Christ expected that his people would fast (cf. Matthew 6:16-18), but many of us—myself included—find it hard to live up to expectations. One reason for this, I would suspect, is that we are never quite sure what fasting accomplishes. Is it simply to free up time to pray? Well, for those of us who eat quickly, little would seem to be gained then—and I could give up other much more time-consuming pursuits instead.

 

So what is the reason then? Why fast? This is neither an exhaustive nor a theological list, but here are eight reasons I like to fast (in no particular order). Do with them what you will.

 

  1. When I fast, I remember the millions suffering chronic hunger the world over. I can deny it to my heart’s content, but the unstoppable truth is that I live a comfortable life; I have never wondered where my next meal will come from, nor have I ever experienced the crushing grief of wondering where my children’s next meal will come from. When my stomach aches with hunger, I remember what I am all too prone to forget.
  2. When I fast, I recognize how complacent I have become spiritually. Others may have more impressive stamina, but it takes me about four hours before the hunger gnaws at my gut. At that point, I can become deliriously hungry. I lust after food. And then it hits me like a Mack truck: my body cries out for food after just a few moments, but I can starve my soul for weeks without noticing. What if my spirit cried out for God—to meet him in prayer and in his Word—as quickly as my body cries out for sustenance?
  3. When I fast, it increases my pleasure eating when I finally break the fast. As the proverb says, “to the hungry even what is bitter tastes sweet” (Proverbs 27:7). During a few extended fasts, I would have a cup of vegetable broth at night to keep me functioning during the days—and I have never tasted food so good. My mouth still salivates at the thought of it. I am never more thankful for the food I consume than after fasting.
  4. When I fast, I practice denying myself. And let’s face it, we all need a lot more work in this area. More often than not, it seems, I am mastered by my desires, rather than disciplining myself to be self-controlled, obedient, self-sacrificial. To deny myself one of my most basic urges trains me to deny myself in all other areas too.
  5. When I fast, it reminds me to be in unceasing prayer. I have not learned Brother Lawrence’s lessons in “Practicing the Presence.” I set aside regular time for prayer, but I can tune out the divine conversation with astonishing alacrity. But the gnawing hunger beckons me to renew the intimacy, to listen to and experience his grace. Unsurprisingly, this produces in me a greater urgency in prayer: I no longer simply pray. I plead. With faith and fervency.
  6. When I fast, I demonstrate to my children that I belong to Jesus. I realize I am supposed to fast in secret (although that’s not quite what Jesus says, but we’ll pass by that for now). Nevertheless, when I sit down to dinner with my family each night, my children are perceptive enough to notice that Daddy isn’t eating anything. Not much I can do about that. But I welcome the opportunity not to puff myself up with the grandeur of my self-denial (read: self-righteousness), but to point them to the God I serve, and for whom I would gladly give up my all.
  7. When I fast, it humbles me. There is something about being hungry that just makes me feel small. And that’s a good thing. Fasting helps me express my humility before God, to express my grief at my sin and mourning at the brokenness in the world. In the face of great suffering, most people will lose their appetites; fasting reminds me that the suffering is always there, even when I forget to see it.
  8. When I fast, I become much more sensitive to his voice. It comes as no surprise to me that Scripture records several instances of people fasting to seek God’s will (cf. Judges 20:26-28). Food seems to dull my spiritual senses, whereas hunger produces spiritual acuity. And when I find myself more sensitive to his presence, I inexorably become more sensitive to those around me; I experience grace more fully, so I am able to give grace more freely.

 

I mention these to encourage others to continue in the good discipline of fasting. May God do with this as he wishes.

 

“So we fasted and petitioned our God about this, and he answered our prayer” (Ezra 8:23).



Love and a Multitude of Sins

November 27th, 2012 | Posted in Blog | No Comments
Tags: , , , , , , ,

I have noticed a curious phenomenon among Christians today: when it comes to sin in the church, we speak when we should remain silent, and remain silent when we should speak.

 

If someone sins against me, causing personal offense—by which we usually mean a wounded ego—I am likely to confront the person, sharing my hurt and frustrations with him. It is almost unforgivable that someone who claims Christ as Lord could treat me in this unholy manner! However, if I see that same brother reckless in a sin that does not injure me—does not wound my pride or comfort—I am likely to keep quiet and not involve myself. After all, what if he becomes angry with me? It just isn’t worth the headache to admonish someone—unless his sin causes me more discomfort than confronting him does.

 

I think we have got this perfectly backwards.

 

Jesus commands us—not a polite request, mind you, but a demand from the Lord Almighty—to deal with sin in the church decisively: “If your brother or sister sins, go and point out their fault, just between the two of you” (Matthew 18:15). This is to be done privately, at least initially, as Jesus goes on to explain (18:16); and it is to be done gently and humbly, mindful of our own propensity to sin and need of grace (Galatians 6:1). Above all, it is to be done lovingly. But that is the point, of course: to refrain from speaking—to leave a brother or sister in their sin without the exhortation and support of the fellowship of believers—is no love at all. It is indifference, perhaps the severest form of hatred for a family member. (And we are family.) James understands this well, writing to his scattered flock, “My brothers and sisters, if one of you should wander from the truth and someone should bring that person back, remember this: Whoever turns a sinner from the error of their way will save them from death and cover over a multitude of sins” (James 5:19-20). To save a sibling from death, to cover over a multitude of sins—is this not love?[1]

 

The trouble comes when we have been personally offended. When this happens, as it will inevitably in the fellowship of sinners, we so rarely respond in love. Instead, we respond in pride and anger—damnable sins, to be sure. I suspect God calls us to forgive without admonition in these cases to keep us from the temptation to pride, to keep us in the humble experience of grace. As he so often does, Bonhoeffer strikes at the heart of the matter: “Brotherly love will find any number of extenuations for the sins of others; only for my sins is there no apology whatsoever.” Our community life usually suggests the reverse. Remember, just a few verses after Jesus commands us to call out a sinful sin, he shares the parable of the unmerciful servant in answer to Peter’s question, “Lord, how many times shall I forgive my brother or sister who sins against me?” (Matthew 18:21; cf. 23-25). The parable’s powerful lesson is apropos: how can we trifle with a sibling who owes us a small debt—spare change, really—when we see the immensity of the debt God has canceled in our own lives? Paul expresses it tersely, “Bear with each other and forgive one another if any of you has a grievance against someone. Forgive as the Lord forgave you” (Colossians 3:13). We remain silent for our own sakes, pray for our siblings, entrust them to the infallible work of the Spirit. We forego pride. We choose love.

 

Love. Love compels us to speak, compels us to call the beloved, but wayward sibling to the abundant life Christ tenders. And love compels us to fall silent, to contemplate the magnitude of God’s love in our own lives, to forgive as we have been forgiven.



[1] The language of covering over a multitude of sins calls to mind 1 Peter 4:8: “Above all, love each other deeply, because love covers over a multitude of sins.” Here Peter makes explicit the connection between love and overcoming sin.