Psalms, Hymns, and Songs from the Spirit

May 2nd, 2017 | Posted in Blog | No Comments
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As I mentioned in my last post, I’d like to offer a series of short reflections on worship, spurred in part by two interesting posts by Tim Challies (1 2). I don’t intend this to be a polemical series, but do want to offer some thoughts on the ongoing “worship wars.” Thankfully these have stilled for the most part, but I’m not always sure why the ceasefire. In many cases, I don’t think it has come from a sustained theological reflection, but rather simple exhaustion and a (wholly appropriate) desire for unity. But theological reflection is a good thing, so that’s some of what I’m aiming for today, as I zero in on one of the benefits Challies sees in switching from a hymnal to projected lyrics: variety.


Now, I love hymns, and believe strongly that we should be singing them regularly. I even argued in my last post that these are the songs I am absolutely sure I want my children to learn by heart, whereas my current favorite Crowder tune will only make it into the car CD player for a few weeks or so. However, there is a danger with our beloved hymns, that we will mistake style for value. What makes the great hymns great is their robust theology, deep pathos, and (in most cases, but not all) enchanting melody. Those are essential qualities. But if we’re not careful, we might begin to assume that some incidental qualities—instrumentation, presence of rhyme, song structure—belong in the essential category as well. We can see this tendency in our phrase “modern hymnody,” which seems to be applied to songs that employ rhyming and follow a set structure (no bridge being the key piece here, as far as I can tell). I’m not sure why this sets apart a song as a hymn, when other songs (that don’t rhyme, have bridges, etc.) have equally robust theology, deep pathos, and enchanting melody.


And here’s where variety comes in. When we make the incidental essential, we limit the acceptable variety among our songs. Only those that bear the incidental marks pass through the gates. Paul encourages us to speak to one another in “psalms, hymns, and songs from the Spirit” (Ephesians 5:19). Much scholarly ink has been spilled over the precise meaning of each term (though “psalms” seems pretty obvious). Whatever the difference between “hymns” (which in Greek simply means “song of praise”) and “songs” (assuming, as many scholars do, that “from the Spirit” modifies all three terms), what is clear is the presence of variety. There is something different about the three, whatever it may be. When we begin to limit variety, especially for incidental reasons, we neglect Paul’s instruction here. Our God is a God of endless creativity—as his wondrous creation proves—and we honor him when we put that same creative spirit on display in our worship.


Of course, it is just possible that “variety” should encompass songs of varied theological depth. (Gasp! Heresy!) Give me just one moment before you hurl the stones. I’m taking my cue here from the presence of that tiny word “psalms” in Ephesians 5:19. I know of no one who would seriously argue that we shouldn’t use Psalms in our worship, and many would argue (rightly, I think) that we should use Psalms as our blueprint for worship. If you’ve read Psalms, you know how wondrously diverse they are. Some are richly theological, and others are, well, a bit sentimental. Some trace redemptive history carefully (foreshadowing the cross time and again), and others focus on a single moment or issue. Is it possible that our worship today should do likewise? Isn’t there time for repetition (as in Psalm 136)—so that we can really meditate on a single profound idea, like God’s steadfast love—just as surely as there is time for rapid theological reflection (as in Psalm 107)? Isn’t there time for raw emotion (as in Psalm 126), just as surely as there is time for heady instruction (as in Psalm 78)? And, of course, the Psalms invite us not just to praise and thank, but also to confess and lament, which in itself will add much-needed variety to our Sunday mornings.


As we “sing and make music from [our] heart to the Lord” (Ephesians 5:20), let’s do so with a body of songs as richly diverse as the human experience and as wondrously creative as the Being they exalt, to the glory of our triune God, who is worthy of all praise. Soli Deo gloria.

Evil Unmasked

February 14th, 2017 | Posted in Blog | No Comments
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In the short essay “After Ten Years,” which serves as prologue now to Letters and Papers from Prison, Dietrich Bonhoeffer makes an astute observation:


It is one of the most surprising experiences, but at the same time one of the most incontrovertible, that evil—often in a surprisingly short time—proves its own folly and defeats its own object. That does not mean that punishment follows hard on the heels of every action; but it does mean that deliberate transgression of the divine law in the supposed interests of worldly self-preservation has exactly the opposite effect. (10)


When we choose to disobey God, to transgress the moral law written on our hearts, it invariably goes poorly for us—and, as Bonhoeffer points out, often in a short time. Evil unmasks itself as folly. That is, sin is not only wrong, but positively foolish, for it never obtains the object it seeks. In fact, often it obtains precisely the opposite of what it seeks.


Part of this involves what some have referred to as the “boomerang” nature of sin. Sinful actions against other people frequently return, like a boomerang, to cause harm against the evildoer. The psalmists recognize this “incontrovertible” truth, and frequently cling to it when being assailed by wicked people. Take, for example, Psalm 7:14-16:


Whoever is pregnant with evil conceives trouble and gives birth to disillusionment;

Whoever digs a hole and scoops it out falls into the pit they have made.

The trouble they cause recoils on them; their violence comes down on their own heads.


Or Psalm 9:15-16:


The nations have fallen into the pit they have dug; their feet are caught in the net they have hidden.

The LORD is known by his acts of justice; the wicked are ensnared by the work of their hands.


I especially like that last couplet, because it combines the notion of God’s justice with the boomerang nature of sin. In God’s justice, you reap what you sow.


It isn’t difficult to see how this works today. When we foolishly choose to sin against others, we experience the consequences of our folly. We maliciously slander our competition in order to make ourselves look better, only to discover that people now think worse of us because we’ve been exposed as petty, self-serving, untrustworthy. We erupt in anger, take justice into our own vengeful hands, and, rather than turn the metaphorical cheek, strike him on his literal cheek. Now we discover we have justice coming our way in the form of an assault charge. Our “deliberate transgression” has produced “exactly the opposite effect” from what we intended and desired. Evil unmasks itself as folly.


But this isn’t only true with these “boomerang” scenarios, where harm we envisioned for another comes back on us. No, it proves equally true with any deliberate transgression of the divine law in service of self. When we seek satisfaction apart from and in rebellion against God, we will find ultimate disappointment. But, as Bonhoeffer points out, this isn’t true in an ultimate (i.e., eternal) sense only; it often proves true in a “surprisingly short time.”


Take the pursuit of false intimacy through illicit sexual relationships. Many pursue intimacy (seek true love) by hopping into bed before a covenantal commitment is in place. Statistics (never mind a brief perusal of social media) consistently demonstrate how foolish this is. Not only does this lead to less sexual satisfaction, it hardens the heart to true intimacy should the opportunity ever arise. Because we settle for the cheap imitation, we can no longer enjoy the genuine article. Cohabitation, an ever-growing trend, seems like a stepping stone to marriage. Let’s try this out for a bit, see if we’re compatible, and then make an informed decision. One would expect this might lead to a decrease in divorce rates, but the opposite is markedly true. Couples who cohabit before marriage are far more likely to divorce (undoubtedly because they bring a consumerist/contractual, not a covenantal, mentality to the marriage). Evil unmasks itself as folly.


We could multiply examples. Harboring bitterness and unforgiveness will eat away at you like a cancer, frequently affecting other relationships too, while leaving the object of your bitterness untouched. Arrogance makes people less likely to listen to your opinion, and makes them rejoice all the more when you are wrong (which you will be). Complaining steals joy, breeds discontent, whereas gratitude increases joy and contentment even in the midst of adversity.


The conclusion seems easy enough to draw. When is sin ever a good idea? Never mind the offense it gives a holy God (reason enough to pause and reconsider!)—it simply won’t accomplish what you want. It will produce the opposite effect.


So the next time you’re tempted to sin, consider that the evil desire is not only wrong, but downright foolish!

The Cost of Prayer

April 8th, 2015 | Posted in Blog | No Comments
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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.

The Accountable Heart

April 9th, 2014 | Posted in Blog | No Comments
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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!

I Am My Own War Horse

April 4th, 2014 | Posted in Blog | No Comments
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Israel had trust issues.


Despite God’s unfailing love, unrelenting faithfulness, they so rarely managed to trust him for salvation. Had he rescued them from captivity in Egypt? Of course—dramatically. Had he delivered them into the Promised Land despite the size and strength of the inhabitants? Yup. Had he saved them from foreign yokes? Time and time again, whether Moabite, Edomite, Philistine.


And yet, whenever trouble threatened, they couldn’t seem to remember how faithful he had been. Rather than trust him, they put their trust in the flesh—treaties with Egypt or Assyria, size of the standing army, diplomatic bribes.


The unnamed author of Psalm 33 points out the folly of this approach:


The king is not saved by his great army;

                                a warrior is not delivered by his great strength.

                  The war horse is a false hope for salvation,

                                and by its great might it cannot rescue. (33:16-17, ESV)


Now I’m not much for trusting in standing armies or looking to foreign powers for deliverance, but I still see this Israelite tendency in my own heart.


You see, I am my own war horse.


I trust in myself. I trust that I can handle what comes my way in the strength of my flesh. I trust I can carry out my God-given responsibilities—husbanding my wife, parenting my children, shepherding my church—on my own. I trust in the earthen vessel, not the treasure within.


I can prepare an adequate sermon because of my theological training. I can structure a discipleship ministry through my past experience. I can instruct and discipline my children based on any number of books I have read.


I am my own war horse. God help me! What hope do I have if I depend on myself?


If I trusted in God and not myself, I would pray more. I would dwell in his Word more. I would humble myself more. I would seek his face before I sought an answer or action step or vision or strategy.


The battle is the Lord’s, the victory is his, and the fame will rightly be his too.


“But the eyes of the LORD are on those who fear him, on those whose hope is in his unfailing love” (Psalm 33:18, NIV).

On Rising Early

December 19th, 2011 | Posted in Blog | No Comments
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Dawn breaks, light trickles through tiny fissures in our carefully arranged curtains, and most of us hide our faces lest the day overtake us. Because of our hectic schedules, being overworked and overtired, our sinful pace of life and idolatry of achievement, we fear the morning.


How different the approach of the psalmists, who longed for the coming of the new day—that they might meet anew with God. To him they offered the first thought and the first word: a subtle adjustment in time management, but symptomatic of a radical reorientation in priorities.


Listen to the testimony of scattered saints throughout Israel’s history:


“I rise before dawn and cry for help; I have put my hope in your word.” (Psalm 119:147, anonymous)


“But I cry to you for help, LORD; in the morning my prayer comes before you.” (Psalm 88:13, Heman the Ezrahite)


“In the morning, LORD, you hear my voice; in the morning I lay my requests before you and wait expectantly.” (Psalm 5:3, David)


And perhaps more evocatively, David elsewhere describes himself as waking the dawn—having risen so early to offer God prayer and praise:


“Awake, my soul! Awake, harp and lyre! I will awaken the dawn.” (Psalm 57:8)


The psalmists are not alone in their auroral devotion. Even Jesus the Christ rose early to meet with his Father for strength and guidance:


“Very early in the morning, while it was still dark, Jesus got up, left the house and went off to a solitary place, where he prayed.” (Mark 1:35)


It would be hubris indeed to think ourselves less in need of daily grace than our Master, in whose footsteps we but follow.

Remember, his mercies never fail: “They are new every morning” (Lamentations 3:23).

Our God Strong and Loving

November 14th, 2011 | Posted in Blog | No Comments
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In hauntingly beautiful words, the psalmist declares,


“One thing God has spoken, two things have I heard:

that you, O God, are strong, and that you, O Lord, are loving.” (Psalm 62:11-12a, NIV)


There is much to meditate on in these short verses. What does it mean if God is strong and loving? What rest can we find in the sweet promise of these words?


If God is strong and loving, we have no cause to fear. Our worry subsides in a wave of confident repose.


God’s strength assures us that nothing happens outside his sovereign sway. Even when we suffer, even when evil befalls us, we know that his purpose is being accomplished, his plans are being perfected.


God’s love assures us that these plans and purposes are for our sake, for the glory of his beloved people. Even when we cannot grasp his inscrutable will, when we would be tempted to doubt his goodness, we know his grace and tender mercy are at work, his unfailing love undergirds his every action.


If God is strong and loving, fear, worry, anxiety fade like the evening sun. The peace of God, which surpasses understanding, guards our hearts and minds in Christ Jesus. He is good, and he is able. What then shall we fear?