His life was short — 29 years, 5 months, and 19 days. And only eight of those years as a Christian. Only four as a missionary. And yet few lives have sent ripples so far and so wide as David Brainerd’s.
Why has his life made the impact that it has? Why did John Wesley say, “Let every preacher read carefully over the Life of David Brainerd”? Why did William Carey regard Jonathan Edwards’s Life of David Brainerd as precious and holy? Why did Henry Martyn (missionary to India and Persia) write, as a student in Cambridge in 1802, “I long to be like him!” (Life of David Brainerd, 4)?
Why has this life had such a remarkable influence? Or perhaps I should pose a more modest and manageable question: Why does it have such an impact on me? How has it helped me to press on in the ministry and to strive for holiness and divine power and fruitfulness in my life?
The answer is that Brainerd’s life is a vivid, powerful testimony to the truth that God can and does use weak, sick, discouraged, beat-down, lonely, struggling saints who cry to him day and night to accomplish amazing things for his glory. There is great fruit in their afflictions. To illustrate this, we will look first at Brainerd’s struggles, then at how he responded to them, and finally at how God used him with all his weaknesses.Brainerd’s Struggles
Three hundred years ago today, Brainerd was born on April 20, 1718, in Haddam, Connecticut, and was converted at age 21. During his third year at Yale, where he was preparing for pastoral ministry, someone overheard the zealous Brainerd say that one of his tutors had “no more grace than a chair.” The Great Awakening had already created tension between awakened students and the seemingly less spiritual faculty and staff, so Brainerd, despite being at the top of his class, was summarily expelled.
Though he tried again and again over the next several years to make things right, Yale never readmitted him. God had another plan for Brainerd. Instead of a quiet six years in the pastorate or lecture hall, followed by death and little historical impact for Christ’s kingdom, God meant to drive him into the wilderness that he might suffer for his sake and have an incalculable influence on the history of missions.A Broken Body
Brainerd struggled with almost constant sickness.
He had to drop out of college for some weeks because he had begun to cough up blood in 1740. In May 1744, he journaled, “Rode several hours in the rain through the howling wilderness, although I was so disordered in body that little or nothing but blood came from me” (Life of David Brainerd, 247). Now and again he would write something like, “In the afternoon my pain increased exceedingly; and was obliged to betake myself to bed. . . . Was sometimes almost bereaved of the exercise of my reason by the extremity of pain” (253).
In May of 1747, at Jonathan Edwards’s house, the doctors told him that he had incurable consumption and did not have long to live (447). Edwards comments that in the week before Brainerd died, “He told me it was impossible for any to conceive of the distress he felt in his breast. He manifested much concern lest he should dishonor God by impatience under his extreme agony; which was such that he said the thought of enduring it one minute longer was almost insupportable.” The night before he died he said to those around him that “it was another thing to die than people imagined” (475–476).A Despairing Mind
Brainerd struggled with recurring depression. He was tormented again and again with the most desperate discouragements. And the marvel is that he survived and kept going at all.
He often called his depression a kind of death. There are at least 22 places in the diary where he longed for death as a freedom from his misery. For example, Sunday, February 3, 1745, he wrote, “My soul remembered ‘the wormwood and the gall’ (I might almost say hell) of Friday last; and I was greatly afraid I should be obliged again to drink of that ‘cup of trembling,’ which was inconceivably more bitter than death, and made me long for the grave more, unspeakably more, than for hid treasures” (285).
Only in retrospect did he see himself as a “suitable object for the compassion of Jesus Christ.” But in the hours of darkness, he could sometimes feel no sense of hope or love or fear. This is the most fearful side of depression, since the natural restraints on suicide begin to vanish. But unlike William Cowper, Brainerd was spared the suicidal drive. His wishes for death were all restrained within the bounds of the biblical truth “the Lord gave, and the Lord has taken away” (Job 1:21). He wishes for death many times, but only that God would take him (Life of David Brainerd, 172, 183, 187, 215, 249, for example).
It is simply amazing how often Brainerd pressed on with the practical necessities of his work in the face of these waves of discouragement. This has no doubt endeared him to many missionaries who know firsthand the kinds of pain he endured.A Lonely Soul
He tells of having to endure the profane talk of two strangers one night in April of 1743 and says, “Oh, I longed that some dear Christian knew my distress!” (204). A month later he says, “Most of the talk I hear is either Highland Scotch or Indian. I have no fellow Christian to whom I might unbosom myself and lay open my spiritual sorrows, and with whom I might take sweet counsel in conversation about heavenly things, and join in social prayer” (207). This misery made him sometimes shrink back from going off on another venture. He wrote on Tuesday, May 8, 1744, “My heart sometimes was ready to sink with the thoughts of my work, and going alone in the wilderness, I knew not where” (248).
Brainerd was alone in his ministry to the end. During the last nineteen weeks of his life, Jerusha Edwards, Jonathan Edwards’s 17-year-old daughter, was his nurse, and many speculate that there was deep (even romantic) love between them. But in the wilderness and in the ministry, he was alone and could pour out his soul only to God. And God bore him and kept him going.Brainerd’s Response
We could go on to describe Brainerd’s other struggles — his immense external hardships, his bleak outlook on nature, his trouble to love the Indians, his temptations to leave the field — but we turn now to how Brainerd responded to these struggles.
What we are struck with immediately is that he pressed on. One of the main reasons Brainerd’s life has such powerful effects on people is that, in spite of all his struggles, he never gave up his faith or his ministry. He was consumed with a passion to finish his race, and honor his Master, and spread the kingdom, and advance in personal holiness. It was this unswerving allegiance to the cause of Christ that makes the bleakness of his life glow with glory.
Among all the means that Brainerd used for pursuing greater and greater holiness and usefulness, prayer and fasting stand out above all. We read of him spending whole days in prayer. Wednesday, June 30, 1742: “Spent almost the whole day in prayer incessantly” (172). Sometimes he set aside as many as six periods in the day to pray: “Blessed be God, I had much freedom five or six times in the day, in prayer and praise, and felt a weighty concern upon my spirit for the salvation of those precious souls and the enlargement of the Redeemer’s kingdom among them” (280).
And along with prayer, Brainerd pursued holiness and usefulness with fasting. Again and again in his diary, he tells of days spent in fasting. One of the most remarkable, in view of how most of us celebrate our birthdays, is the fast on his 25th birthday:
Wednesday, April 20. Set apart this day for fasting and prayer, to bow my soul before God for the bestowment of divine grace; especially that all my spiritual afflictions and inward distresses might be sanctified to my soul. . . . My soul was pained to think of my barrenness and deadness; that I have lived so little to the glory of the eternal God. I spent the day in the woods alone, and there poured out my complaint to God. Oh, that God would enable me to live to his glory for the future! (205)The Fruit of Brainerd’s Affliction
As a result of the immense impact of Brainerd’s devotion on his life, Jonathan Edwards wrote, in the next two years, The Life of David Brainerd, which has been reprinted more often than any of Edwards’s other books. And through this Life, the impact of Brainerd on the church has been incalculable. Beyond all the famous missionaries who tell us that they have been sustained and inspired by Brainerd’s Life, how many countless other unknown faithful servants must there be who have found from Brainerd’s testimony the encouragement and strength to press on!
It is an inspiring thought that one small pebble dropped in the sea of history can produce waves of grace that break on distant shores hundreds of years later and thousands of miles away. Robert Glover ponders this thought with wonder when he writes,
It was Brainerd’s holy life that influenced Henry Martyn to become a missionary and was a prime factor in William Carey’s inspiration. Carey in turn moved Adoniram Judson. And so we trace the spiritual lineage from step to step — Hus, Wycliffe, Francke, Zinzendorf, the Wesleys and Whitefield, Brainerd, Edwards, Carey, Judson, and ever onward in the true apostolic succession of spiritual grace and power and world-wide ministry. (The Progress of World-Wide Missions, 56)
But the most lasting and significant effect of Brainerd’s ministry is the same as the most lasting and significant effect of every pastor’s ministry. There are a few Indians — perhaps several hundred — who, now and for eternity, owe their everlasting life to the direct love and ministry of David Brainerd.
Who can describe the value of one soul transferred from the kingdom of darkness, and from weeping and gnashing of teeth, to the kingdom of God’s dear Son? If we live 29 years, or if we live 99 years, would not any hardships be worth the saving of one person from the eternal torments of hell for the everlasting enjoyment of the glory of God?Onward and Upward
I thank God for the ministry of David Brainerd in my own life — the passion for prayer, the spiritual feast of fasting, the sweetness of the word of God, the unremitting perseverance through hardship, the relentless focus on the glory of God, the utter dependence on grace, the final resting in the righteousness of Christ, the pursuit of perishing sinners, the holiness while suffering, the fixing of the mind on what is eternal, and finishing well without cursing the disease that cut him down at age 29. With all his weaknesses and imbalances and sins, I love David Brainerd.
Oh, that God would grant us a persevering grace to spread a passion for his supremacy in all things, like Brainerd, for the joy of all peoples! Life is too precious to squander on trivial things. Grant us, Lord, the unswerving resolve to pray and live with David Brainerd’s urgency: “Oh, that I might never loiter on my heavenly journey!” (186).
Crude language won’t transform the culture. It won’t convict sinners. It may make us more relatable, but in the end it will backfire.
If you are prone to worry and anxiety, your mind may need a rest. The endless worries and stresses that are churning in you day and night are not helping you to be better at what you do, or to become a better person. They are threatening to replace your relationship with Christ, steal your peace, and inhibit your ability to display the glory of God. I should know. Half a lifetime ago, I was an anxious 30-year-old wife and mother.
Admittedly, “resting” one’s mind can be a great challenge. We can’t just stop the flow of anxious thoughts and worries that bombard our minds virtually every moment of our waking (and often dreaming) hours. No, we can’t completely shut them down, but because God grants the power for us to begin to develop the mind of Christ, who clearly was not consumed with worry or anxiety, there is hope we can train our minds to slow down anxious thoughts and quiet them with truth (Romans 12:2).In Whatever Situation?
When I begin to feel mounting anxiety or worry, I have looked to the apostle Paul. His life in Christ was so unbelievably more challenging and anxiety-producing than mine ever will be, yet he could say with authority, “I have learned in whatever situation I am to be content” (Philippians 4:11). He was familiar with “the peace of God, which surpasses all understanding” (Philippians 4:7). But how does that work? How do we find confidence, peace, and joy in Jesus in the midst of the daily challenges and stresses we face?
Compared to Paul, I am a very slow learner, but when I think back over my Christian life, here are two truths I wish I would have understood better at a younger age.Forgetting Who We Are
First, mindfully live as who you are in Christ. Paul didn’t simply believe in Christ with his mind and heart; he understood that life in Christ completely transforms who we are. Paul had been a passionate, but blind and dead, person chasing all the wrong things and pleasing the wrong people. When Christ broke through his blindness, he literally left behind his worldly Pharisee self. He began to look at himself, others, and his purpose in life in light of the new freedom, assurance, and calling he had received from Christ.
He meant it when he said, “If anyone is in Christ, he is a new creation. The old has passed away; behold, the new has come” (2 Corinthians 5:17). To experience real peace, our minds need to embrace the completely different reality we entered when we were born again.
In my twenties and thirties, though I believed deeply in God, had an overflowing heart of worship and gratitude for Jesus, was growing in my knowledge of God’s word and love for him, and enjoyed a rich prayer life, I still really struggled to be at peace in the circumstances of life.
Real-world circumstances — sleepless nights, endless diapers, and other mindless daily duties related to caring for little ones, the tremendous burden of responsibility training up my children in the way that they should go, understanding how to nurture my marriage amid the demands of being parents, learning to be comfortable with the comparative lowly status of being a stay-at-home mom in an achieving world, wrestling with lust for material things, and so on — all threw gasoline on the brittle tinder of my anxious mind.
My default responses to worry and stress over and feel responsible for these things got in the way of my being able to live in, and benefit from, the new identity I inherited when I surrendered my life to Jesus.Trusting What God Has Said
In other words, though I believed them, peace comes in daily living in the light of the truths Paul understood so well, and I failed to appropriate them enough to rest in them. Promises such as:
The God of the universe has chosen me and loved me, and was willing to sacrifice his own Son that he might call me his daughter (1 Peter 2:9; Ephesians 1:3–10). The Creator God has claimed me! What love matters more than this?
This God has erased all uncertainties about my future by adopting me as his own (Romans 8:14–17; Revelation 3:5). And the future is amazing (Revelation 21:4; Romans 8:18)!
This God is working good for me in all things because I love him and have been called to his purposes (Romans 8:28). He is not waiting to punish me or my loved ones if I get it wrong.
This God holds every minute of every day (Psalm 139:1–6; Romans 11:36; Colossians 1:16–17). If a challenge is before me, he put it there.
This God empowers me to do what he calls me to do (2 Corinthians 12:9; 1 John 4:4).
This God is with me. He promises he will never leave me or forsake me (Hebrews 13:5; Deuteronomy 31:8; Joshua 1:9). I am never alone. Nothing can separate me from the love of this God in Christ Jesus (Romans 8:35–39).
If these things are true, why should I care what a sinful and ultimately doomed world thinks is important? Why should I obsess over what other equally sinful people think of me? Why should I lust after material things that are destined to end up in a trash heap? Why should I worry about earthly “success” when I already have everything? How can I doubt that the all-knowing, all-loving, and all-powerful God will equip me for all he calls me to do? How can I even worry so much about my children when I know he holds them and their future? In all things, God has got this.
I wish I could have appropriated these promises more fully when I was young. Not only would I have been far more content in life’s daily challenges and in my perception of myself; I would have been far more effective in every aspect of my life and a greater blessing to my family and all around me.The World on Our Shoulders
We may think we trust God, but our perpetual insecurity, worry, and anxiety tell the real story. Have you ever felt guilty for feeling at peace? Like somehow if you are not worried about something or someone, you don’t care enough?
Trusting God in the challenges of life not only gives us greater peace; it is a powerful example to others and a glorious display of God’s glory.
Our worry and anxiety do not help the people we love. In fact, our lack of peace probably fuels worry, anxiety, and guilt in them, too. While we have the opportunity to contribute positively, the well-being of our loved ones or the world around us does not rest on our shoulders. Imagine the good we would do our children if what they sensed in us was peace and trust in God in all circumstances?
God is lovingly sovereign over all that happens in our lives and in the lives of those we love. He reminds us in Jeremiah 32:27, “Behold, I am the Lord, the God of all flesh. Is anything too hard for me?” We do well to remember with Job, “I know that you can do all things, and that no purpose of yours can be thwarted” (Job 42:2).Do the Best You Can — and Trust God
We are to do our part, of course. In 1 Chronicles 28:9, we find, with Solomon, that it is wise to “know the God of your father and serve him with a whole heart and with a willing mind, for the Lord searches all hearts and understands every plan and thought. If you seek him, he will be found by you.” And when we have been “found by him,” we can trust him with every part of our lives.
God has plans, and he accomplishes them. We have a part to play — working hard and well, but mostly in seeking him with our whole heart — but we must never forget that the result is always his.
We honor God and help others far more when we prayerfully focus our minds on doing, in love, the best job we are able — when we believe God is with us every step of the way, and then peacefully trust, rather than worry, that God will use our faithful efforts and his sovereign grace to accomplish his plans. After all, though they may not always be easy, his plans are always good and loving.Greater Peace, Greater Glory
Give your mind a rest. Live in the joy that you are loved with an everlasting love, “and underneath are the everlasting arms” (Deuteronomy 33:27). There will always be challenges and hard things, but there is peace in truly believing, at a foundational level, the reality of who you are in Christ and trusting God in every circumstance.
When we rest in this peace, we are not only more content; we glorify God by displaying Christ in a way that may even cause others to ask about our hope and strength. And if they do, we’ll be able to share Christ with greater confidence and joy.
God appeals to our desire. It’s one of the great awe-inspiring truths of the universe, from the warmth of the sun’s rays to cool, refreshing streams. From the everyday pleasures of sleep, food, drink, and family, to the special joys of holidays and changing seasons. From Genesis to Revelation.
How astounding that the divine himself appeals to human desire. When he could simply say, “I am God; just do what I say,” he seeks to win our obedience from the heart. He captures our inner person on the way to transforming our outer person. He gives reasons and rationale and makes his case, and at bottom appeals to our deepest and most enduring joy, rather than treating us as creatures of mere duty.
He does indeed call us to self-denial, but on what grounds? Few have said it better than C.S. Lewis:
The New Testament has lots to say about self-denial, but not about self-denial as an end in itself. We are told to deny ourselves and to take up our crosses in order that we may follow Christ; and nearly every description of what we shall ultimately find if we do so contains an appeal to desire.
Lewis enjoins us to enjoy this Jesus, not to live from a sense of duty: “Consider the unblushing promises of reward and the staggering nature of the rewards promised in the Gospels.”
Long before Lewis, Jonathan Edwards lent his voice to Jesus’s charming of the human soul, not just commanding of the human body: “Jesus knew that all mankind were in the pursuit of happiness. He has directed them in the true way to it, and he tells them what they must become in order to be blessed and happy.”Lose Your Life to Gain It
Even when Jesus commends self-denial, as Lewis mentions, he does so in a way that appeals to our holy sense of gain.
Perhaps the most surprising divine appeal to desire is Jesus’s seemingly paradoxical statement on gain and loss in Mark 8:36: “What does it profit a man to gain the whole world and forfeit his soul?” The reason this text is so important is that self-denial is plainly in view: “If anyone would come after me, let him deny himself and take up his cross and follow me” (Mark 8:34). But Jesus doesn’t stop at self-denial and cross-bearing. He has more to say. He gives rationale. He doesn’t just command the outer person, but seeks to allure the inner. He appeals to desire:
“For whoever would save his life will lose it, but whoever loses his life for my sake and the gospel’s will save it.” (Mark 8:35)
Do you really want to keep your life? Then let it go. Release your death grip, and lose your life, that you might gain it. If you love your life in such a way that you are willing to lose it, then you will gain it. But if you love your life in such a way that you are not willing to lose it, then you will lose it.Paradox of Gain and Loss
How are we not trapped in this matrix of self-love? Because there is a holy sense of gain. And from where does it come? A new heart. If we love our own lives in this world with a natural heart, we will cling to it and lose it in the end. But if we are led with born-again, new hearts, with supernatural desires — fed and empowered by the Spirit of God himself — then we will live from a holy sense of gain, and gain our lives in the process. Not earn, but gain, like Abraham, through the open, receptive arms of faith (Romans 4:1).
The best picture we have of a Christian living from such a heart of holy gain may be Paul in his letter to the Philippians. Twice he gives us a glimpse into the holy hedonism, or Christian Hedonism, that drives him.Greatest Loss as Greatest Gain
First is Philippians 1:21: “to me to live is Christ, and to die is gain.” He writes from prison, susceptible to the whims of pagan rulers. This could be it for Paul. At any moment, the word could come, “Off with his head.” But he suspects this is not yet the end for him, and anticipates being released (Philippians 1:25), because he senses Christ still has fruitful labor planned for him (Philippians 1:22, 25). But let the record show that his heart is ready, even desirous, to face the final foe in order to then come face-to-face with Gain incarnate: “My desire is to depart and be with Christ, for that is far better” (Philippians 1:23).
Paul has not died to every sense of gain, but is living for pure, righteous, ultimate gain as much as ever.Losing All to Gain Christ
Second, then, is Philippians 3:7–8, just a few paragraphs later. He has just cataloged the many inherited and achieved reasons he would have for self-confidence. However, he says,
Whatever gain I had, I counted as loss for the sake of Christ. Indeed, I count everything as loss because of the surpassing worth of knowing Christ Jesus my Lord. For his sake I have suffered the loss of all things and count them as rubbish, in order that I may gain Christ.
What is the very heart and essence of the eternal, spiritual, supernatural, holy gain Paul seeks? Christ himself. Not mere material gain, but ultimate relational gain. Not the gain of temporal possessions, but the gain of an eternal person. “To be with Christ is far better,” he says. It is “the surpassing worth of knowing Christ” that is the great animating soul and center of his sense of gain, and liberates him from two-bit, short-term, this-worldly gain to pursue and enjoy the deepest and most enduring gain: Jesus himself.Go Hard After Holy Gain
When Jesus bids us, “Follow me,” he doesn’t call us to die to real joy, but to find it. Finally, at long last, the hidden treasure becomes ours (Matthew 13:44). Jesus doesn’t command us to squash true pleasures, but calls us not to be so easily pleased by our trinkets. He appeals to our desire. He made us for himself, heart included, and he seeks to win us from within, and change us from the inside out.
Will we embrace self-denial in this life? Necessarily. Happily. Eagerly. Because we know that in dying to ourselves, we will live more fully. And as we do, we’ll listen carefully as Christ shouts and whispers his shameless appeals to our holy gain. His promises are staggering and unblushing, and when he opens his mouth, whether in promise or command, he does so to encourage us in the pursuit of happiness and direct us in the true way to it.
Christians must be Bible people.
Over the years, I have spent many hours pleading with people to see that sentence as true. Sadly, it strikes many as novel, edgy — or worse, irrelevant.
Maybe it’s because those three words ring of one of the final taboo ideas left in our culture: fundamentalism. Immediately our postmodern minds go to the stodgy, three-piece-suit preachers of our grandparents’ generation, wagging their fingers with the “Good Book” in their hands.
Ours, we say, is an organic faith, not a rigid one filled with to-dos. Our Christianity is not a religion — it’s a relationship. We aren’t anti-Bible per se. There are many things in the Bible that have helped and inspired us over the years. We are against that earnest, rigorous, dirt-under-nails, restless consumption of the Bible. But what remains in a Christianity that doesn’t seriously engage God’s word? Sadly, a fluffy, pithy sentimentalism — a religion who’s entire belief system is more fit for a coffee mug than a catechism.
I want to give you five good reasons to find your life in the Bible for the rest of your life. Before you get into God’s word, remember that becoming Bible-literate is not about being smarter, or beefing up your spiritual resume, or lording your knowledge over others. It’s about looking through the pages to the Savior on the other side. Jesus says, “You search the Scriptures because you think that in them you have eternal life; and it is they that bear witness about me, yet you refuse to come to me that you may have life” (John 5:39–40). It’s about seeing and savoring Jesus Christ through his word. We don’t worship the font. We worship the Father.1. You cannot love God, and not listen to him.
When asked about the greatest commandment, Jesus answered, “You shall love the Lord your God with all your heart and with all your soul and with all your mind. This is the great and first commandment” (Matthew 22:37–38). You cannot love him with all your heart, soul, and mind without a steady diet of Scripture.
Just as our heart must be engaged in treasuring God supremely, our mind must be equally engaged in thinking of God rightly. Wrong thoughts about God produce wrong love for God. As Jen Wilkin says, “The heart can’t love what the mind doesn’t know.”
The apostle Paul routinely connects our love for God and others with a growing knowledge of him. “It is my prayer that your love may abound more and more, with knowledge and all discernment, so that you may approve what is excellent, and so be pure and blameless for the day of Christ, filled with the fruit of righteousness that comes through Jesus Christ, to the glory and praise of God” (Philippians 1:9–11).
We only come to love God more by knowing more of him. And we learn more about our God — his attributes, his nature, and his promises — by listening to his word.2. Your faith needs promises to survive.
When Paul sought to encourage his sheepish son in the faith, Timothy, as he was pastoring the church in Ephesus, he used the strongest weapon in his arsenal to do so: the gospel.
Do not be ashamed of the testimony about our Lord, nor of me his prisoner, but share in suffering for the gospel by the power of God, who saved us and called us to a holy calling, not because of our works but because of his own purpose and grace, which he gave us in Christ Jesus before the ages began, and which now has been manifested through the appearing of our Savior Christ Jesus, who abolished death and brought life and immortality to light through the gospel. (2 Timothy 1:8–10)
Commenting on this passage, John Piper says, “The cure for wimpy Christians is weighty doctrine.” Paul provides rich truth as the cure for Timothy’s timid faith. And his cure is our cure: sound doctrine revealed to us in the Bible. Watch your trust in him grow as you anchor yourself to a thousand of his promises by hearing his voice daily.3. We become like what we behold.
My 5-year-old daughter looked at me and my wife last week and announced, “When I grow up, I wanna be a singer and a mommy!” Now where on earth did she get such an ambition? Could it be that the two adults she spends most of her time with just happen to be a singer and a mommy? Here lies a truth as old as the Bible itself:
We all, with unveiled face, beholding the glory of the Lord, are being transformed into the same image from one degree of glory to another. For this comes from the Lord who is the Spirit. (2 Corinthians 3:18)
We become like what we behold. Gazing at God in his word, by the power of his Spirit, has a transforming effect on our heart, mind, and life. In time, those of us who do as David does and “set the Lord continually before” ourselves will find our interests become God’s interests (Psalm 16:8 NASB). We’ll find that the sinful things we formerly loved are suddenly less attractive. We’ll find holiness beginning to bloom in our lives. We’ll find that we are starting to look more like Christ. His means for your Christlikeness is his word.4. You will only find the joy you want in words.
Jesus spends a chapter and a half in the Gospel of John instructing and exhorting his disciples. In the middle of his sermon, he says, “These things I have spoken to you, that my joy may be in you, and that your joy may be full” (John 15:11). Jesus tells his disciples that what he’s telling his disciples is for their joy!
Every word of Christ is meant for your eternal happiness. There is nothing that motivates a person more than their happiness, and we find it here in black and white. Your forever happiness is directly tied to what Jesus has to say to you.
We should hang on every word. And he has given us so many words — words of promise for our joy, words of warning for our joy, words of encouragement for our joy. Words, words, and more words, all for our joy in him, forever.5. There is work to be done.
Paul tells us, “All Scripture is breathed out by God and profitable for teaching, for reproof, for correction, and for training in righteousness, that the man of God may be complete, equipped for every good work” (2 Timothy 3:16–17).
So many modern (especially young) Christians have a desire to go and do for God over and above knowing God. With so much injustice and inequality in the world, it’s hard for many of us to justify lingering for an hour over forty words a dead author wrote two thousand years ago. But Paul’s words couldn’t be clearer: If we want to be about the work of God, we must first be about the word of God.
God’s word reveals to us his priorities and values. It shows us what breaks his heart and what makes him sing. It shows us what he is doing in the world — throughout history and right now today.
The Bible teaches us that God loves the forgotten and the misfit. It shows us the value of shepherding our families. It introduces us to the generosity of other Christians (2 Corinthians 8:1–7), and calls us to be openhanded with what God gives us. It heralds the sanctity of every human life and inspires us to fight for the unborn. It declares that race should not be a barrier to Christian unity, but a beautiful occasion for it. We become equipped for every good work in the Bible.
There is gold here for us if we will only press in while we read. There is so much more to be had than the comfort offered in Coffee Mug Christianity. If you want to live for Christ and enjoy him for a lifetime, and then forever in eternity, soak yourself in this Book.
We will never have racial reconciliation without the gospel, and we deny the gospel itself if we reject reconciliation. We can never separate root and fruit.
The most famous parenting verse in the book of Proverbs says, “Train up a child in the way he should go; even when he is old he will not depart from it” (Proverbs 22:6). That’s great to know. But the book of Proverbs has much more to say to parents. Proverbs offers deeper insights that will spare our families pain and will give our families joy. It shows us more clearly “the way a child should go.”
Proverbs 8 takes us back to the happiness God felt when he created the world. The author looks at Genesis 1:31 — “And God saw everything that he had made, and behold, it was very good” — stares at that verse for a while, and then writes Proverbs 8:22–31, with its joyous vision of God the Creator. Here is the choicest part, where Wisdom personified speaks as God’s partner in crafting the world:
“ . . . then I was beside him, like a master workman, and I was daily his delight, rejoicing before him always, rejoicing in his inhabited world and delighting in the children of man.” (Proverbs 8:30–31)
How then does Proverbs 8 help us parents? It whispers to us the open secret revealed throughout creation. God’s cheerful wisdom is displayed in the simple realities of everyday human life, including family life. In our psychology and relationships and sexuality and finances, and so forth, God’s wisdom is how everything we care about actually works, for his glory.
Therefore, one of our primary tasks as parents is to impart to our children this shining awareness and positive expectancy, as we walk together through this good world of God’s making.Home: A Place to Be Happily Human
Christian parents who believe the book of Proverbs make peace with their earthliness. They aren’t embarrassed by how God made them. After all, God isn’t sorry he made us human rather than angelic. He rejoiced when he created us. Yes, we have suffered Adam’s horrible fall. Yes, we are sinful. But sin is not inherent in family life — in playing board games, and taking walks, and doing homework, and taking a nap, and working a job. Even on this side of the fall, “everything created by God is good” (1 Timothy 4:4). Christian parents instructed by the book of Proverbs delight in that truth, and they impart their settled happiness to their children.
Should we parents also warn our kids about the land mines the devil has buried here in God’s world? Of course. The book of Proverbs includes plenty of warnings. For example:
Can a man carry fire next to his chest and his clothes not be burned? Or can one walk on hot coals and his feet not be scorched? So is he who goes in to his neighbor’s wife; none who touches her will go unpunished. (Proverbs 6:27–29)
But that is not a warning against God’s gift of human sexuality; it is a warning against the foolish violation of God’s gift. Some parents seem so afraid their children might sin, they smother their home with excessive caution. They give their kids the impression that our created reality is somehow beneath God’s approval. These über-conscientious parents sincerely love their kids, but they harm their kids with a narrow-minded denial of God’s life-affirming goodness. And they inadvertently position their kids for hypocrisy later in life. John Buchan, the Scottish author, wrote, “If you tell a man that honest pleasure is a sin in God’s sight, he finds a way to get the pleasure and yet keep the name for godliness. And, mind you, the pleasures he enjoys with a doubtful conscience will not long remain honest.”
How different is the outlook of Proverbs 8:22–31! The happiness of God freeing our consciences creates glorious moments like this one in the life of Charles Spurgeon, during a visit from the American pastor Theodore Cuyler:
After a hard day of work and serious discussion, these two mighty men of God went out into the country together for a holiday. They roamed the fields in high spirits like boys let loose from school, chatting and laughing and free from care. Dr. Cuyler had just told a story at which Mr. Spurgeon laughed uproariously. Then suddenly he turned to Dr. Cuyler and exclaimed, “Theodore, let’s kneel down and thank God for laughter!” And there, on the green carpet of grass, under the trees, two of the world’s greatest men knelt and thanked the dear Lord for the bright and joyous gift of laughter.
Have your children ever heard you thank the dear Lord for his bright and joyous gift of laughter? If not, why not? Where is the wisdom of God in a gloomy home? Have you, by faith in Christ, accepted how he created you — a human being, a social being, an eating and working and playing and parenting being? If not, you can do so right now, in reverent submission to the word of God. You can start today to bring the joy of God into your home.Home: A Place to Experience God’s Goodness
God blessed me with a boyhood home defined by his wisdom. For example, when my dad walked into the house around dinner time, he always did the same thing. First, he went over to my mom and kissed her — and not a peck on the cheek. He gave her a serious, Christian kiss on the lips! Then he turned to me and said, “Come on, Skip! Let’s wrestle!” And we’d go to the living room and get down on the floor and wrestle and tickle and laugh and play. My dad saw life with the wholesome outlook of Proverbs 8. And I couldn’t resist the beauty of it.
When my wife and I began our own journey as young parents, one of the questions we asked was this: What is ultimate reality? And as we thought it through, we remembered how Moses prayed, “Please show me your glory,” and how God answered, “I will make all my goodness pass before you” (Exodus 33:18–19). So we thought, Okay then, ultimate reality is the glorious goodness of God!
We therefore set out to make our little home — 424 Bush Street, Mountain View, California — a miniature experience of the glorious goodness of God for our children. We wanted our home to make it easy for our kids to love God. We organized our home, as best we knew how, as a positive, humane, God-indwelt experience, with gentleness, sincerity, prayer, Bible stories, fun, a healthy diet, good books, and so forth — the obvious basics that make a home a place where a child can sense the goodness of God.Home: A Place to Pursue Our Highest Joy
Is there such a thing as foolishly permissive parenting? Yes. Some of us need more backbone for those moments when we must say to our kids, “No!” And when they answer back, “But all the other families at church are okay with it,” we then say, “But we aren’t all the other families. We are the Ortlunds, and we aren’t doing that.”
But there is also such a thing as foolishly restrictive parenting. And those among us who are in earnest with the Lord, who are serious-minded and conscientious — our tendency can be an unbiblical narrowness.
The crazy thing is, it creates the very opposite of what we desire for our children. When they get old enough to think for themselves, and they begin experiencing more of God’s creation, they start thinking, Wait a minute. Dad and Mom steered me away from that. But it isn’t wrong. I wonder how else Dad and Mom misled me?
Wise parents rejoice in God’s glorious goodness, revealed throughout his creation, while also adding in warnings along the way. But it’s the difference between the banner headline and the second paragraph down in the story. Don’t reverse that order and that emphasis. It’s not only your kids who deserve a wholesome introduction to life in God’s world; it is God who deserves to be glorified and enjoyed by your children as the great Giver of countless good things here and hereafter.
Your children need something more than to be fortified against sin. They need to be inspired toward God. Tell them, with all the confidence that Proverbs 8 warrants, of his joyous wisdom across the whole of life. Prove to them, by the very ethos of your home, that the Lord is good. Let them see that faith in you, and the glory of the Lord will be hard for them to resist.
The first manuscripts of the Bible no longer exist, but that doesn’t need to shake Christians’ faith. Pastor John gives three reasons why.
Her father-in-law played professional ice hockey for the Canadian National Team. Her three sons are all accomplished athletes, two in hockey and one in volleyball. One of her sons, Matt, is a former NHL hockey player. Mary’s husband, Brent, is a bi-vocational pastor and serves as an Athletes in Action chaplain for pro football and soccer teams in Canada. He also works as director of a physical therapy sports medicine rehab center. With so many sports connections, Mary says, “We have professional athletes through our home all the time.”
With decades of experience, Mary is conversant with the amateur athletic world (as well as the professional), so I value her wisdom in helping parents navigate the high-pressure, specialized world of youth sports. In anticipation of the upcoming spring and summer seasons, I asked Mary Kassian questions about the costs of team sports, the value of travel teams, and the tensions that come along with sports and church attendance.Kid-Driven?
The first area of caution she offers is a check on parental drive. Are the athletic aspirations driven by the child? Or are they driven by mom and dad? She’s concerned about kids who carry the vicarious ambitions of parents who take amateur sports too far, too fast.
“I fear we push our children to be far too busy, and to specialize far too early, and to commit far too much time. And it can be parent-driven, rather than driven by a parent discerning a child’s natural bent and inclination and abilities.”
Before long, kids grow weary of the over-specialized sport.
“I’ve seen 13- and 14-year-old boys burned out by a sport, and sick of it. Or they feel that they need to excel at it in order to please their parents, and their parents have communicated that their worth and value are wrapped up in how well they do at a particular sport. They get to high school and they’ve already had so much of it, they don’t enjoy it anymore.”
But obviously a lot of sports are driven by the aspiration of the child, which raises questions about the cost of the sport on the family.Weighing the Costs
As sports specialize and demand year-round practices or training, the costs add up quickly. The price tag is a huge consideration, an expense some families attempt to justify because of potential college scholarships. “Given all these team costs — training, registration, travel, hotels, equipment — the amount of money that you pour into sports to get to the level where you’re going to get a scholarship, you could have probably paid for a lot of college tuition by the time your child turns sixteen,” she says honestly. And that’s no exaggeration, especially compared to the small sliver of high school athletes who land major-college scholarships.
But the cost is not only a drain on the budget; it’s also a glut to the schedule. Serious amateur athletics come with intense practice schedules, training, and weekend competitions at distant places of various range. Travel sports is not just a question about Sundays (more on Sundays below); it also may cost a family its summer vacation time together and needed downtime. Summer-sports travel is hardly relaxing, especially when you add in the adrenaline — the wins and thrills, the losses and disappointments. A full schedule of sports tournaments can be a taxing abuse of the summer months.
Parents must weigh whether a summer without all these demands on their kids is better for everyone. “Whenever you say ‘yes’ to sports, you must say ‘no’ to other options,” she says. Sports commitments always come with a price. “Often that means saying ‘no’ to giving your child the time and space to simply run around in a field till their feet turn green, or time to kick back and enjoy a childhood that’s not regimented and scheduled.”Team Travel on Mission
But good reasons remain to take up spring and summer athletics. Travel teams provide missional opportunities for us to enter the lives of other families and athletes in ways often not otherwise possible. Sitting in the stands with the same families offers new opportunities. “Everything we do is missional, or ought to be,” Mary says. “So when we’re sitting in the stands with parents, or doing team fundraisers, and the weekend travel — in all of this, you invest a concentrated amount of time with people in a way that you will not spend time with people again in your life.”
Even without mentioning the potential of Christian athletic coaches, simply being the parent of a child on a travel team can push us into the lives of people we otherwise would not know. Travel sports can “take our families out of the Christian bubble, into the real world, and into people’s lives, and into the broken places of what those people’s lives are really like,” she says. “You need to take that into account when you’re making your decisions, because it definitely is an amazing, concentrated season for sharing the gospel, for displaying your faith, and for just being present and ministering to people where they’re at in terms of their needs. I still have friends from those sports years — hockey-mom friends and volleyball-mom friends. We spent so much time together in the stands, that we’ve remained friends over the years.”Christian Life on Display
Sports can be a place to share life together with others. To be real. With the pressures of travel sports, sports tournaments compress life and raise the stakes for kids — and for parents.
“All the emotions in your own heart come out when you’re watching your own son or daughter treated unfairly. These pressures really bring out what’s on the inside of the heart. I’ve seen Christian parents — and I’ve been the Christian parent that’s fumbled the opportunity at times — getting so caught up in the game, and wanting your child to excel, and to do well, that you lose sight of greater, bigger, more important things.”
“You don’t have to be a ‘perfect Christian,’” Mary reiterates in these moments. “These are great opportunities to show what you do when you mess up. It provides opportunities to confess to the other parents and to say: ‘You know, it was wrong for me to lose it like that at the ref, and I’m really sorry. And I ask your forgiveness, because I’m sure it was offensive to you as well.’ These are gospel opportunities to be a real Christian who admits their sins and to be transparent in a way that many families would never otherwise see.”Five Ways to Navigate Sundays
With the potential of amateur sports, we come back to the question of weekend games and travel sports. How do you balance the demands of travel sports with the priority of the weekly gathering of the local church?
For the Kassians, the question was amplified with Brent serving as a pastor every Sunday. They had to get creative and think about youth athletics in ways that could balance the unresolvable tensions.1. Consider a rec league with fewer demands.
Mary says that parents can step back and consider whether playing recreational league sports is better than higher level sports, which require more travel. “Our son Matt got to the NHL in a way that was really unusual. Because Brent was pastoring at the time, it wasn’t until our oldest son started driving that we could consider higher-level leagues that required significant travel. Our son never attended summer hockey camps. He never went to the developmental programs. Yet he had a lot of natural athletic ability that he developed by playing lots of different sports — baseball, basketball, and football.” All locally.2. Weigh the specific costs with each team.
Parents should go into any sport or team with an up-front knowledge of the cost in terms of practice time and travel. Mary stresses this point. “Even when you’re in grade school, some of the commitment levels that are required are astronomical. Never commit to a team blindly. Ask, Is this team commitment going to cost us five Sundays at church? Eight Sundays? Twelve Sundays?” Be realistic up front.3. Embrace the consequences of missing practices or games.
Consider absorbing the consequences of missing sports on Sunday. Even the recreational league featured Sunday practices, and this posed a problem. “Because it was a rec level, we felt free to tell the coach that we were going to miss some Sundays,” Mary says. “There were times when we went to church and missed hockey practice, and that meant that our son was sitting out the next game.” The consequences were worth it.4. Find creative ways to prioritize church attendance.
You may have some flexibility with church. For those who are not pastors, “If you have a Sunday morning game, see if you can attend church on Saturday night. And maybe you go to church on Saturday night in another city as you travel. Or, if a game is at noon, there may be time to go to church first.”5. Draw your child into the conversation.
Maybe most importantly, before you make any decision about Sunday morning sports, and before missing church because of travel, bring your child into the tensions.
“Your child will sense what is most important to you. So I think it’s really valuable for a child to watch his or her parents wrestle with keeping Jesus at the forefront, making the planets of our lives revolve around the sun of Christ at the center. Let them know that whatever we decide in the end, they should see a parent wrestle with the tension, asking, ‘You know what, this team is a really great opportunity, but missing church is hard, and we must pray about the costs and the opportunities.’”
There’s a teaching moment here for our kids, educating them on the family’s greatest priority. “The bottom line about these hard church questions,” Mary says, “is that we don’t have pat answers or easy formulas. I think you can have a professional athlete, who must play on Sundays, who upholds Christ as supreme. It can be done.” Yes, and when appropriate, we can work that logic back into youth athletics, too.Athletic Idols
In this conversation, there’s no doubt that amateur athletics have claimed a central place in the pantheon of our culture’s false gods, and youth athletics is a further subset of the idolization of children. A Sunday morning drive past any youth sports fields will show just how far-reaching these idols have become in our culture.
“Athletics is such a competing god,” Mary says soberly. “I think that it’s so critical that the parents are always checking their own hearts. I needed to check my heart through our process. Where are you drawing your identity? Where are you drawing your sense of meaning? What is in your heart? If this were to end tomorrow, what would be left in terms of your sense of wholeness, and well-being, and who you are? Are you drawing that from the Lord? Is hockey a bigger delight for me than God is? I asked my son to wrestle with that question on an ongoing basis, too.”
For Christian parents, the questions over teams and leagues and travel opportunities require a lot of humble wisdom and prayer — exposing our motives, evaluating the missional potential, and reaffirming the family’s love for the local church. Given our culture’s love of amateur athletics, and the increasing specialization of these sports, these questions will only become more complex for us and for our kids, requiring greater wisdom — which is what our Father is eager to give us when we come to him in faith (James 1:5–6).
All who follow Jesus must find their ultimate identity in him. But Jesus never asks his followers to drop their ethnic distinctions, culture, or language.
It’s been fifteen years since I wrote When I Don’t Desire God: How to Fight for Joy. I wrote it because hundreds of people who hear the message of Christian Hedonism with hope drift into discouragement because they don’t have the joy in God that they know they should. Christian Hedonism says that God is most glorified in us when we are most satisfied in him. Which makes matters worse if that satisfaction is missing. That’s why I wrote the book.
I have been asked, What would I say now, with the accumulated wisdom of 72 years, to those still struggling to “delight yourself in the Lord” (Psalm 37:4)? This is not theoretical for me. Not only do I share the struggle, but I have conversations with real people struggling like this. I followed up one such conversation recently with an email. I’m going to share that with you below. But first a caution.Wisdom for the Darkness
Whether we can help someone struggling with joylessness in the Christian life depends not primarily on the quantity of wisdom we have accumulated over the years, but on how we apply the truth we have, and whether the Spirit of God turns that truth into life and freedom and joy.
I am not minimizing the value of accumulated wisdom. The Old Testament sage commands, “Get wisdom” (Proverbs 4:7). Jesus “increased in wisdom” (Luke 2:52). Paul prays that we would be “filled with spiritual wisdom” (Colossians 1:9). We know that in Christ “are hidden all the treasures of wisdom” (Colossians 2:3). Paul calls us to admonish each other “in all wisdom” (Colossians 3:16). James tells us that if we “lack wisdom,” we should ask for it from God (James 1:5). For there is a “wisdom that comes down from above” (James 3:17). We can never get too much wisdom.
But my point is that if you are 30 instead of 70, you should not be intimidated or paralyzed by the fact that you still have 40 years of wisdom accumulation in front of you. As you read your Bible tomorrow morning, praying for supernatural insight, God may grant you a glimpse of some precious truth that later in the day will be exactly the truth that your struggling friend needs.Am I Beyond Hope?
After the conversation that I had recently with my friend, he followed up with an email. He was still in distress. What do you say when you feel you have said all you know to say — in the book and in conversation?
One answer is this: Don’t think that you need the tailor-made answer to the presenting problem. Instead, realize that any precious biblical truth that has ministered deeply to you, though it may seem irrelevant to your friend’s situation, may be more helpful than you realize. Just go ahead and overflow from your morning devotions. They will know the truth (which may seem random to us), and the truth may set them free.
You also can give the sober counsel that struggling has hope of success, but forsaking the struggle does not. I think it is a mistake to give unqualified assurance to a struggler when you do not know if they are born again. You hope they are. They hope they are. But you are not God. And they are in a season of darkness. What you do know beyond doubt is: if they finally abandon Christ and hope, there is no hope.
So I thought it might be helpful to share with you how I responded to my friend’s email. Keep in mind that his struggle has to do with patterns of repeated sin which make him feel hopeless about ever getting victory. These failures leave him feeling distant from God and, at times, wondering if he is a Christian, or perhaps whether he may even be an Esau who has spurned grace so often that true repentance is no longer possible (Hebrews 12:16–17).
This is a terrifying position to be in. I don’t think my friend is unusual. I think thousands of Christians, if they will pause to be painfully honest, will admit to the same struggles. It is hard to admit this, because it is so scary.
Parts of the following letter are exact quotes. Other parts are altered enough so as not to betray any confidences.Letter to a Distressed Friend
I totally empathize with the frustration and fears of possibly being an Esau because of sinning so deeply against God’s mercy and light and patience. There is no comfortable answer to how one conquers such fears and escapes such a condition. From my own experience, what I would say is this: If you have the grace to hold on to God’s mercy and not throw it away in apostasy, there is hope.
This is not a comfortable answer. It doesn’t speak in terms of simple certainties — namely, that you will definitely prove not to be an Esau. But it is the only way forward into light and hope and relief. I can’t promise that you are a child of God, but I can promise that if you throw away hope, you will prove not to be a child of God.
God’s word speaks often about “waiting” for the Lord, as in Psalm 40:
I waited patiently for the Lord;
he inclined to me and heard my cry.
He drew me up from the pit of destruction,
out of the miry bog,
and set my feet upon a rock,
making my steps secure. (Psalm 40:1–2)
How long was David in the miry bog? It doesn’t say. But what is clear from all the psalms is that the psalmists never forsake God when they feel like he has forsaken them. Something holds them.
Not only does the Bible speak of waiting for God in the miry bog, but it also speaks of true believers walking in a kind of darkness. Perhaps you have considered this word from Isaiah:
Who among you fears the Lord
and obeys the voice of his servant?
Let him who walks in darkness
and has no light
trust in the name of the Lord
and rely on his God.
Behold, all you who kindle a fire,
who equip yourselves with burning torches!
Walk by the light of your fire,
and by the torches that you have kindled!
This you have from my hand:
you shall lie down in torment. (Isaiah 50:10–11)
We may not be able to describe adequately what it means both to walk in darkness and to trust the Lord. They seem contradictory. And yet there it is. I’m suggesting that it would mean this: When the darkness of uncertainty and fear hangs over you, inasmuch as by grace it remains in you, don’t let go of the One you knew in the light. Keep holding on, if only, it may seem, by your fingernails. Know this: his hands are on his children’s fingernails — day and night. Pray for dawn and deliverance. From where I stand at age 72, I believe I can encourage you that it will come.
Paul speaks in a way that captures some of the mystery of the ongoing battle with sin:
Wretched man that I am! Who will deliver me from this body of death? Thanks be to God through Jesus Christ our Lord! So then, I myself serve the law of God with my mind, but with my flesh I serve the law of sin. (Romans 7:24–25)
Paul is ashamed of his inconsistency in these times of defeat. But he does not despair. He looks away from himself, confesses his divided self, and presses on in the battle.
But he also tells us that the way he fights as an imperfect saint is by the hope that Christ has a firmer grip on him than he does on Christ. He may feel like only his fingernails grip the cliff. But he believes that Christ grips his fingernails:
Not that I have already obtained this or am already perfect, but I press on to make it my own, because Christ Jesus has made me his own. (Philippians 3:12)
Or, to paraphrase, “I grasp for the hope for future perfection, because Christ has already grasped me and will not let me go.” Sometimes we feel his grasp more sweetly than at other times. It is a fearful thing when we are going through a season where we don’t feel it at all.
I’m not going to give you a list of ways to fight for your joy. Those are all in the book that you already read. What I am doing in this letter is simply reminding you (1) that God is present in the darkness, (2) that he is holding on to his people when they feel barely able to hold on to him, and (3) that though you may feel unsure of your salvation in this struggle, you may be totally sure you will not have salvation if you give up the struggle and walk away.
May I recommend a song about God’s precious keeping power? In the last several years, the song “He Will Hold Me Fast” has gone deep with me and become very sweet. I love the robust congregational affirmation of this recording of Capitol Hill Baptist Church singing it.
I could never keep my hold
Through life’s fearful path.
For my love is often cold,
He must hold me fast.
May God give you the grace to sing it anew.
The aim of wartime simplicity is not to be as poor as possible, but to use all of our resources for the advancement of the gospel.
When we look at oceans or mountains, whales or bears, God wants us to see his beauty, power, and wisdom in creation and think, “What must God be like!”
The Lord says, “No evil shall be allowed to befall you, no plague come near your tent” (Psalm 91:10). But what if evil has befallen me? What if disaster has come into my tent? Does that mean God’s promises don’t apply to me?
Psalm 91 has been close to my heart for over a decade. I memorized it and recited it to my youngest daughter as she fell asleep every night. I assured her that God would protect us, especially after her dad left and our world disintegrated. But even as I said those verses aloud, I wondered how they related to us. Evil had befallen us. Angels hadn’t borne us up. We felt like one of the ten thousand fallen.
I wanted to ask, though I dared not say it to her, “Where was God in this mess?” I wanted to read the Bible and ransack it for promises, but so many of those promises felt distant from me. How was I to interpret the verses promising protection, deliverance, and provision when I was experiencing the opposite?In the Shadow
Several weeks ago — years after I had first recited the psalm to my daughter — I was reading Psalm 91 again. Encouraged by the opening verses, I just wanted to abide in the shadow of the Almighty. But reading the promises for protection brought up old disappointments.
I was concerned because my physical struggles were escalating, and my right hand was declining rapidly. New weaknesses had surfaced, and I wanted reassurance from God. I wanted to rest on God’s promises, but this passage made me wonder how.
I felt a familiar grumbling bubbling up inside of me. Did I not make God my dwelling place? Why was evil allowed to befall me? Why hadn’t God guarded and delivered me?
I wrote my concerns in my journal. I wanted to know how to understand this psalm. How was I supposed to read it? Should I even pray it? In the quietness, two different thoughts came to me.Safe in the Kingdom
First, I needed to rethink my definition of evil and even of rescue and deliverance. Evil may indeed befall us, as “the whole world lies in the power of the evil one” (1 John 5:19). Job hoped for good, but evil came (Job 30:26). Yet the evil that can befall us is temporary; its effects are limited to this life. The worst evil, which is eternal separation from God, will never come near us. And even in this life, what man means for evil, God intends for our good (Genesis 50:20).
In his last recorded writing, Paul says in 2 Timothy 4:18, “The Lord will rescue me from every evil deed and bring me safely into his heavenly kingdom.” Paul was not rescued from death. On the contrary, according to tradition, soon after this letter was written, Paul was beheaded by Nero, an undeniably evil man. But Paul was rescued in the fullest sense as God brought him safely into his heavenly kingdom.
I have been rescued from the consequences of my sin. From eternal damnation. From ever being separated from God. True rescue is this: he has rescued me from the dominion of darkness and brought me into the kingdom of the Son he loves (Colossians 1:13). So as I reconsider the terms evil and rescue, I see that God always protects me from evil and always rescues me.Prayers and Promises
Second, Psalm 91 is a great passage to pray. It is good and right to cry out to God for provision and protection. He is my heavenly Father, and he cares about every detail of my life. He holds my tears in a bottle and redeems my life from the pit (Psalm 56:8; 103:4). Even the hairs on my head are numbered (Matthew 10:30).
He tells me to bring all my concerns to him, which the Psalms model beautifully. They have given me strength to go on and revived me when I was weak. Indeed, the Psalms are the prayer book of the church. But the prayers and promises in Scripture cannot all be interpreted in the way we want. Many of the Psalms are wonderful prayers for this life, but promises only for eternity.Our Present Help
As I read the remainder of Psalm 91, I am captivated by the end: “When he calls to me, I will answer him; I will be with him in trouble; I will rescue him and honor him” (Psalm 91:15). I sensed the Lord asking, Haven’t I always been with you in trouble? Have I ever left you? Don’t I speak to you? Do you see how I’ve rescued you?
God has gloriously rescued me. He has spoken to me through Scripture. He has been abundantly faithful to his word, and he has never left me.
My discouragement came because I wanted him to deliver me out of trouble on my timetable and to answer all my requests with an immediate “yes.” But as I pondered verse 15, I realized that God’s presence in trouble has been far better than the absence of trouble without him.Until Earthly Danger Ends
As I read over Psalm 91 now, I see it with a different perspective. God has given me everything I need. I can abide in the shadow of the Almighty forever. True evil will never befall me. Because of Jesus, I will never experience the recompense of the wicked.
When I’m in earthly danger, I can ask that his angels guard me in all my ways. I can count on him as my refuge and my fortress. I can be assured he will be with me in trouble. I can cry out to him for protection. And when I cry out to him, this is my rock-solid comfort: for all the days ordained for me, the Lord will unfailingly give me what is best, until he brings me safely home.
Many do not blossom with the beauty of Christlikeness because they are not rooted in the word of God.
It is sometimes good, and often dangerous, to be praised by other people.
We know praise from others is sometimes good because the writer of Proverbs says, “a woman who fears the Lord is to be praised” (Proverbs 31:30). The apostle Paul encourages those who serve as deacons to “gain a good standing for themselves” (1 Timothy 3:13). The Bible is full of praise for people — for their physical beauty (Genesis 24:16; 1 Samuel 16:12), humility (Numbers 12:3), wisdom and understanding (Daniel 1:17), godliness (Luke 1:6), faithfulness in ministry (Colossians 4:7, 9), and more.
But praise from other people always arrives with potential dangers. Therefore, if we’re wise, we will reflect biblically on the perils of praise.1. Praise from others may mislead us.
On September 30, 1938, British Prime Minister Neville Chamberlain signed the Munich Agreement, granting Adolf Hitler control of Czechoslovakia so long as Hitler agreed not to go any farther. That same day, Chamberlain and Hitler agreed on a peace treaty between Germany and the United Kingdom.
Chamberlain returned home to exuberant English crowds, declaring “peace for our time.” He was showered with praise. One member of Parliament spoke of his “courage, sincerity and skillful leadership.” Another said, “Our leader will go down to history as the greatest European statesman of this or any other time.” This all must have felt very good to hear. But most historians today regard the Munich Agreement as part of a disastrously failed policy of appeasement led by Chamberlain. Applause and adulation was not what he needed.
Praise for our mistaken or sinful thoughts and behavior can entrench us in error and rebellion. “Those who forsake the law praise the wicked, but those who keep the law strive against them” (Proverbs 28:4). Effusive praise may in fact be much less helpful than painful correction. “Faithful are the wounds of a friend; profuse are the kisses of an enemy” (Proverbs 27:6).
We should not ignore or spurn all praise. But we should be constantly alert to the dangers of being misled by it.2. Praise from others may distract us.
Jesus criticized the religious leaders of his day for living to be praised by other people (Matthew 6:2). The problem is that human praise can become an idol that distracts us from a greater, higher praise we’re made to enjoy and meant to pursue. Astoundingly, the New Testament teaches that God’s people will one day receive praise from God himself (Romans 2:29; 1 Peter 1:7). We’re meant to live for God’s pleasure-filled praise, for his “well done.” But it’s almost impossible to do that when we’re living instead for the good opinion of those around us.
The Gospel of John says the religious authorities “loved the glory that comes from man more than the glory that comes from God” (John 12:43). They were distracted by a lesser glory. We’re meant to live for a greater one.
In his essay “The World’s Last Night,” C.S. Lewis reflected on “the irresistible light” of God’s future judgment. It will be, he said, the only absolutely infallible and final verdict on every person who has ever lived. “We shall not only believe, we shall know, beyond doubt in every fiber of our appalled or delighted being, that as the Judge has said, so we are: neither more, nor less, nor other.” At that final day, the good or bad opinions of others will matter not at all. We’re made and meant to live undistractedly for God’s praise.3. Praise from others may destroy us.
Whenever we’re praised, we’re probed. Commentators debate the exact meaning of Proverbs 27:21, but one common understanding is that the praise we receive reveals our hearts. “The crucible is for silver, and the furnace is for gold, and a man is tested by his praise.”
Will we keep the praise for ourselves, or give credit to God? Will we become puffed up, feeling superior to others, confident in ourselves? Charles Bridges wrote, “Praise is a sharper trial of the strength of principle than reproach.” It’s not an exaggeration to say that praise, in fact, may be a catastrophically bad thing for us. The Puritan minister John Flavel issued a clear warning: “Christian! Thou knowest thou carriest gunpowder about thee. Desire those that carry fire to keep at a distance. It is a dangerous crisis, when a proud heart meets with flattering lips.”The Safest Praise
Very much like fire, praise from (and of) other people is both a gift and a danger, meant to be carefully stewarded. We ought to be wise, thoughtful, and measured in receiving it — and in giving it.
In stark contrast, we need not hold back or restrain ourselves in our praise of God. Instead, we may be extravagant and exuberant. That’s because God doesn’t face the same dangers in giving and receiving praise. He is never misled, distracted, or destroyed by it. In fact, he made us (Isaiah 43:21) and saved us (Ephesians 1:6, 12, 14) so that we would praise him.
We’re exhorted again and again, throughout the Bible, to cut loose in our praise of God — to praise him “more and more.” We’re urged to praise God continually (Psalm 34:1; 71:8; 145:2), corporately (Psalm 35:18), creatively (Psalm 98:1), skillfully (Psalm 33:3), loudly (1 Chronicles 15:16), universally (Psalm 48:10; 66:8), enduringly (Psalm 30:12), increasingly (Psalm 71:14), and supremely (Psalm 96:4).
It is sometimes good, and often dangerous, to be praised by other people. It is always good and never dangerous to sing God’s praise for his strength, wisdom, beauty, and worth.