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I Was Far Too Easily Pleased: My Discovery Fifty Years Ago Today

Thu, 11/15/2018 - 8:02pm

Fifty years ago today was one of the most important days of my life.

Nothing is more important in all the universe than that God be glorified, and Christ be magnified, and the hearts of God’s people be satisfied in him. The implications of this biblical truth are all-encompassing. And a particular day and event began to bring it all together for me.

Since I was 22, Christian Hedonism has been my goal and guide and strength. Now at 72, it is my final preparation for meeting Jesus face to face. There is little reason you should care what I think. But you should care infinitely (I use the word carefully) whether God has revealed that Christian Hedonism is true. I would like to persuade you that he has.

To that end, I will tell you what happened to me fifty years ago today, on November 16, 1968, and why it has made all the difference. Experience is not authority. But it may be a helpful pointer.

An Unresolved Tension

During my four years at Wheaton College in Illinois, from 1964 to 1968, I became conscious of an unresolved tension in my Christian experience. On the one hand, I knew from my father’s instruction and from the New Testament that I should live for the glory of God. “Whether you eat or drink, or whatever you do, do all to the glory of God” (1 Corinthians 10:31). On the other hand, I knew from experience that I was motivated continually by a desire for deep satisfaction.

These felt like competing motives. I could aim to make God look great, or I could aim at my own satisfaction. I did not have a framework of thought where these two motives fit together. They seemed like alternatives.

In fact, as a teenager, that’s how I often heard the call to Christian service. “Will you surrender to God’s will for your life, or will you keep pursuing your own will?” It was a mark of my own immaturity that this felt like a frustrating dilemma: “Either follow God’s will and live with the frustration that your own desires will be forever unsatisfied, or follow your own will and be forever out of step with God.”

The Air I Breathed

But it wasn’t just preachers who fed the fires of my frustration. Jesus himself said, “If anyone would come after me, let him deny himself and take up his cross and follow me” (Mark 8:34). What could be clearer? Following the will of Jesus meant not following my own will, but denying it. Disobey and be ruined, or obey and be frustrated.

It was the air I breathed. Pursue God’s glory, or pursue my own satisfaction. Either-or. Seek God’s will and God’s glory, or seek my will and my happiness. And something seemed defective about pursuing my happiness. You cannot serve God’s glory and your gladness.

I wasn’t the only one who breathed this air. C.S. Lewis said,

If there lurks in most modern minds the notion that to desire our own good and earnestly to hope for the enjoyment of it is a bad thing, I submit that this notion has crept in from Kant and the Stoics. (The Weight of Glory, 27)

Immanuel Kant was a German philosopher whose views of Christian motivation, whether intended or not, had this kind of effect. Indeed, the atheist Ayn Rand rejected Christianity largely because she smelled this “Kantian” air, and thought it undercut true virtue. In a razor-sharp critique, she said,

An action is moral, said Kant, only if one has no desire to perform it, but performs it out of a sense of duty and derives no benefit from it of any sort, neither material nor spiritual. A benefit destroys the moral value of an action. (Thus if one has no desire to be evil, one cannot be good; if one has, one can.) (For the New Intellectual, 32)

The air I breathed was exactly what Rand described: being motivated by a benefit to myself “destroys the moral value of an action.”

Blind to the Reward

Even prominent biblical scholars spread this air. I still remember a comment on Luke 14:13–14 from T.W. Manson’s book The Sayings of Jesus, which was prominent when I was a student. Jesus said, “When you give a feast, invite the poor, the crippled, the lame, the blind, and you will be blessed, because they cannot repay you. For you will be repaid at the resurrection of the just.”

On the face of it, Jesus seems to be motivating us for risk-taking, openhanded hospitality by telling us we will be “repaid at the resurrection.” It sure sounds like we should prioritize our own long-term reward over short-term losses here. But Manson wrote, “The promise of reward for this kind of life is there as a fact. You do not live this way for the sake of reward. If you do you are not living in this way but in the old selfish way.”

In other words, Jesus promised us a reward, but he didn’t expect us to be motivated by it. This sounds off, doesn’t it? Ayn Rand smelled this kind of thinking in the wind and thought it represented true Christianity. So she rejected Christianity. Before she died, I wrote to her after my discovery of Christian Hedonism to try to persuade her otherwise. She never wrote back.

The Problem Gets Worse

When I graduated from college in 1968, I had not yet discovered Christian Hedonism. The air was still thick with the tension between the pursuit of God’s glory on the one side and the pursuit of my happiness on the other. That was soon to change.

I walked into my first class at Fuller Seminary with my professor Daniel Fuller (son of the founder) in the fall of 1968 and heard things I had never heard before about the relationship of divine glory and human happiness. Dr. Fuller pointed me to Jonathan Edwards, Blaise Pascal, C.S. Lewis — and the Bible! Edwards and Pascal made the problem worse before it got better.

Edwards’s Avalanche

Edwards won my trust by exalting the centrality and ultimacy and supremacy and worth of the glory of God beyond all other reality. And he did so in such a thorough, passionate, and biblical way that there was no possibility he was about to smuggle in a man-centered theology.

His book The End for Which God Created the World is perhaps the most thorough and compelling demonstration that the glory of God is the ultimate goal of all things. What was so overpowering about this book was the avalanche of biblical passages used to show God’s passion for his glory.

This was new to me. I knew about my duty to live for the glory of God. But I had never heard that God lives for the glory of God. I had never heard that God’s command that I glorify him was an invitation to join him in his zeal for his own glory. But I was swept up in this avalanche of biblical truth — from eternity to eternity.

  • God predestined his people “to the praise of the glory of his grace” (Ephesians 1:4–6).
  • God created the world and us “for his glory” (Psalm 19:1; Isaiah 43:7).
  • God sent his Son as the incarnation of God so that we say, “We have seen his glory, glory as of the only Son from the Father” (John 1:14).
  • God appointed his Son to die as the propitiation for our sins to the glory of God: “For this purpose I have come to this hour. Father, glorify your name” (John 12:27–28; Romans 3:25–26).
  • God sanctifies us “through Jesus Christ, to the glory and praise of God” (Philippians 1:11).
  • God sends Christ back to earth a second time as the consummation of all things “to be glorified in his saints and to be marveled at” (2 Thessalonians 1:9–10).

So, in the tension I felt between pursuing God’s glory and pursuing my happiness, no solution could be found in weakening my pursuit of God’s glory. The stakes on that side of the dilemma were raised to the highest possible level. No compromise. No diminishing. I say this with great joy, because I was not, and am not, looking for a way to wiggle out of the absolute, undiminished supremacy of the glory of God in all things. This is the great pole star in the heaven of my mind.

Pascal’s Proposal

But what about the other half of the dilemma — the pursuit of happiness? The stakes were raised on this side as well. Blaise Pascal said it more powerfully than I would have dared, though this is what I suspected was true:

All men seek happiness. This is without exception. Whatever different means they employ, they all tend to this end. The cause of some going to war, and of others avoiding it, is the same desire in both, attended with different views. The will never takes the least step but to this object. This is the motive of every action of every man, even of those who hang themselves. (Pensées, 45)

If you don’t agree with Pascal here, don’t stop reading, because Christian Hedonism does not hang on his being right. Christian Hedonism is not about the joy-seeking that is (all people pursue happiness), but the joy-seeking that ought to be (all people ought to pursue happiness).

My point here is simply that Edwards and Pascal made my problem worse before things got better. Now the dilemma was not just a private struggle inside John Piper. It was a titanic tension between God’s highest allegiance (his glory) and man’s inexorable passion (our happiness). At my personal level, the tension was all the more real: God could not cease valuing his glory above all things. And John Piper could not cease pursuing happiness any more than he could cease getting hungry.

Then came the discovery of what I have called Christian Hedonism. It happened in two stages.

Far Too Easily Pleased

In his class syllabus, Dr. Fuller quoted from C.S. Lewis under the heading “We are far too easily pleased.” Really? I thought the problem was that we wanted to be pleased. Now Fuller was saying, No, our problem is not that we want to be pleased, but that our desire to be pleased is too weak. He cited Lewis. I needed to see the quote in context.

On November 16, 1968, I was standing in Vroman’s Bookstore on Colorado Boulevard in Pasadena. (The store is still there!) Lewis’s little blue paperback The Weight of Glory lay before me, faceup on a table of specials. I opened it and read the first page. Nothing has been the same ever since.

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. . . .

Indeed, if we consider the unblushing promises of reward and the staggering nature of the rewards promised in the Gospels, it would seem that Our Lord finds our desires not too strong, but too weak. We are half-hearted creatures, fooling about with drink and sex and ambition when infinite joy is offered us, like an ignorant child who wants to go on making mud pies in a slum because he cannot imagine what is meant by the offer of a holiday at the sea. We are far too easily pleased. (25–26)

This was a wind from another land. It was the exact opposite of the counsel from T.W. Manson. Manson told me not to live for the sake of Christ’s promised reward. Lewis told me that I wasn’t living for the reward enough! Christ has given us “unblushing promises of reward . . . and finds our desires not too strong, but too weak.” The problem is not the desire for happiness, but that we settle for mud pies when we are promised paradise. The great problem with mankind is that we don’t desire happiness with nearly enough knowledge and passion.

All the biblical instincts in me knew this was right. How many times could I read Jesus’s words “It is more blessed to give than to receive” (Acts 20:35) and try to persuade myself, “Yes, but don’t let the promised blessedness influence your giving”? That battle was over. Jesus made the promise, and he meant it to move us. Thank you, C.S. Lewis, for setting me free from the denial of the obvious.

Of course, what was not yet obvious was how Jesus’s demand to pursue the reward connected with God’s passion for his glory. That was the next stage of the discovery.

Praise: Joy’s Fulfillment

Ironically, Lewis provided the key by making the enigma darker. He pointed out that God’s passion for the praise of his glory had been a huge stumbling block for him in coming to faith. When he read the Psalms, he said, they seemed to picture God craving “for our worship like a vain woman wanting compliments” (Reflections on the Psalms, 109).

Since those days in 1968, I have learned that many others have stumbled over God’s passion for his glory. This passion seems to many like an ego trip — like megalomania. How did Lewis get over this stumbling block? In his book Reflections on the Psalms, he explained how:

The most obvious fact about praise — whether of God or anything — strangely escaped me. I thought of it in terms of compliment, approval, or the giving of honor. I had never noticed that all enjoyment spontaneously overflows into praise unless (sometimes even if) shyness or the fear of boring others is deliberately brought in to check it. . . .

I had not noticed either that just as men spontaneously praise whatever they value, so they spontaneously urge us to join them in praising it: “Isn’t she lovely? Wasn’t it glorious? Don’t you think that magnificent?” The Psalmists in telling everyone to praise God are doing what all men do when they speak of what they care about. My whole, more general, difficulty about the praise of God depended on my absurdly denying to us, as regards the supremely Valuable, what we delight to do, what indeed we can’t help doing, about everything else we value.

I think we delight to praise what we enjoy because the praise not merely expresses but completes the enjoyment; it is its appointed consummation. It is not out of compliment that lovers keep on telling one another how beautiful they are; the delight is incomplete till it is expressed. (109–11, emphases added)

This was the key. Enjoyment overflows into praise. More precisely, praise does not just express enjoyment; it is its appointed consummation. Praise is enjoyment — the expressed enjoyment of what we value.

If praise is the overflow of joy in what we value, and if that joy is not complete until it overflows in praise, then God is aiming at our fullest satisfaction when he demands our praise. He knows that he is the all-satisfying Treasure of the universe. This is a fact, and no false humility can make it untrue. He also knows that we will find fullness of happiness nowhere but in this Treasure — himself. Finally, he knows that praise is the consummation of that happiness.

Therefore, he commands us to enjoy him fully, and calls for that enjoyment to reach its consummation — namely, in the overflow of praise. In other words, God’s passion for his glory and our passion to be happy climax in the same experience of worship. This is not megalomania. This is love.

Happily Wed

And it is also the happy marriage of God’s passion to be glorified and my passion to be satisfied. Praise is obedience to God’s command to be glorified. And praise is the consummation of my desire to be satisfied. These two massive realities in the universe — divine glorification and human longing — are not ultimately at odds. The old conflict — that should have never been — was over. It was a watershed year: 1968. Christian Hedonism was discovered. It has been the goal and guide and strength of my life and ministry for fifty years.

It has borne the test of time — five decades of marriage, four decades of parenting, and three decades of pastoral ministry, all of it woven with threads of sorrow and joy. At every point, Christian Hedonism has been my Bible-saturated goal and guide and strength. It has touched every area of life. And I grieve that it has not penetrated more deeply.

I make no claim to be the best example of Christian Hedonism. I know many others who embody this reality better than I. But I am a witness. And I pray that my witness will not be in vain. In all my life and ministry, I (still) say as a Christian Hedonist, I am not writing to “lord it over your faith, but [I] work with you for your joy” (2 Corinthians 1:24). And if God gives me more years, I pray that, to the end, my aim will be the same as the apostle Paul’s: “that I will remain and continue with you all, for your progress and joy of faith” (Philippians 1:25, my translation).

In this way, we do not make a god out of joy. We show, rather, that whatever we find greatest joy in is our God. And the greater the joy in him, the greater the glory we give. Where our greatest Treasure is, there is our heart’s greatest pleasure. This was the great discovery of 1968: No conflict! God’s glory and our joy rise together. For God is most glorified in us when we are most satisfied in him.

Seven Ways This Podcast Will Kill Your Joy

Thu, 11/15/2018 - 8:00pm

This podcast could bring life and joy, or it could be a deadly weapon in the enemy’s hands. Pastor John explains how not to use Ask Pastor John.

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Your Top Ten Questions About Bible Reading

Thu, 11/15/2018 - 11:01am

When we come to our Bibles, many of us bring questions. Here are ten of your best questions about Bible reading, answered by Pastor John.

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Don’t Grow Weary Doing Good

Wed, 11/14/2018 - 8:02pm

Those who genuinely “do good” will be tempted soon enough to grow weary. Give yourself to doing good for others — on God’s terms, to fulfill his calling — and it’s just a matter of time before you will be tempted to tire.

Even the apostle Paul, with the utter clarity of his calling, testified to “fighting without and fear within” (2 Corinthians 7:5). And becoming spiritually and emotionally drained was enough of a temptation in his day, that he wrote twice in his letters, Do not grow weary in doing good (Galatians 6:9; 2 Thessalonians 3:13).

Weariness can be contagious (Deuteronomy 20:8). But when we fight back, it also can work the other way: to help others persevere. God means for us not only to endure in “doing good” ourselves, but to help others “not grow weary” (1 Thessalonians 5:14).

When doing good gets tough — and it will — Paul does not simply say, “Don’t quit.” He says, “Do not grow weary.”

How Not to Grow Weary

God does not rescue us from sin and death to then do nothing. He means for his people to give our lives, what precious little time we have, to “doing good.” “As we have opportunity, let us do good to everyone, and especially to those who are of the household of faith” (Galatians 6:10). That kind of doing doesn’t simply “overflow” or happen effortlessly. It takes intentionality and practice and planning. “Let our people learn to devote themselves to good works, so as to help cases of urgent need, and not be unfruitful” (Titus 3:14).

“Doing good” is not just for peaceful, convenient times in our life, but just as much for seasons of suffering and conflict. “Let those who suffer according to God’s will entrust their souls to a faithful Creator while doing good” (1 Peter 4:19; see also 1 Peter 2:15). Are we excused from “doing good” when wronged? “See that no one repays anyone evil for evil, but always seek to do good to one another and to everyone” (1 Thessalonians 5:15). How do we fight back against the darkness? “Do not be overcome by evil, but overcome evil with good” (Romans 12:21). Jesus himself champions, “I say to you who hear, Love your enemies, do good to those who hate you” (Luke 6:27).

The vision may be clear enough in Scripture, but how do we not grow weary in doing good when we are challenged from within and without?

1. Humbly test yourself.

First, when tempted to grow weary, ask with open hands, Am I “doing good,” on God’s terms, for others’ good and not just my own? Am I serving others, or self, with my sense of calling? When resistance comes, internally or externally, we do well to ask about the nature of the opposition:

  • Is this resistence a gift from God?
  • Are people who manifestly love me trying to helpfully redirect me?
  • Am I being opposed by those who aren’t defining “good” on God’s terms?
  • In my “doing good,” am I seeking my own glory instead of God’s (John 7:18)?

Opposition presents us with the opportunity to humble ourselves and test our labors. The temptation to weariness begins as a chance to check our own hearts. As we release our grip on what we’re doing, we can test to what degree it is “good,” and whether it might be better. Are we truly serving the needs of others, or just actualizing our own selfish desires?

2. Expectantly turn to God.

Peeling the onion of our own hearts will only get us so far. We need solid footing outside ourselves to persevere. When we feel the temptation to weariness, we have somewhere to turn — Someone to turn to — for clarity and direction and strength. We are not left to drum it up from within. We know the one who does not faint or grow weary.

Have you not known? Have you not heard?
     The Lord is the everlasting God,
the Creator of the ends of the earth.
     He does not faint or grow weary;
          his understanding is unsearchable. (Isaiah 40:28)

And not only do we have our divine, heavenly Father, but also his fully human, flesh-and-blood Son who himself “went about doing good” (Acts 10:38). Jesus faced relentless resistance. He knew weariness (John 4:6). He felt opposition — from within in Gethsemane and from without at Golgotha. We look to him “who endured from sinners such hostility against himself, so that you may not grow weary or fainthearted” (Hebrews 12:3) — not just “not quit,” but “not grow weary.”

After humbly testing ourselves, one concrete, powerful avenue we have for not growing weary is to turn our attention to Christ. But how, specifically? When faced with weariness in our good works, how do we “consider Jesus” (Hebrews 3:1; 12:2) and draw strength from our God who “does not faint or grow weary” (Isaiah 40:28)?

3. Confidently lean on his promises.

God has given us his word that we might learn to lean on God himself. Not just generally on true ideas, concepts, and Christian slogans, but specifically on the actual words of God for us, letting all the ways God speaks to us brace us for doing good.

Hear the risen Christ say to you, through his appointed spokesman, “My beloved brothers, be steadfast, immovable, always abounding in the work of the Lord, knowing that in the Lord your labor is not in vain” (1 Corinthians 15:58). Or rehearse the very words of Jesus in this parable:

“The kingdom of God is as if a man should scatter seed on the ground. He sleeps and rises night and day, and the seed sprouts and grows; he knows not how. The earth produces by itself, first the blade, then the ear, then the full grain in the ear. But when the grain is ripe, at once he puts in the sickle, because the harvest has come.” (Mark 4:26–29)

We humble ourselves, turn to God, open his word, and trust what he says — not what we see. We seek to readjust our hearts to his truth, not allowing the world’s appearances to steer us. We aim to lean not on our own understanding, whether self-justifying or self-doubting, but on his specific words and promises to us in the Book.

4. Patiently trust his timing.

Walking by faith in God’s promises is no magic spell to force his hand. Trusting his words doesn’t bend his arm to conform to our timing. Rather, it readies us to adjust our sense of timing to his. That is the great ground on which Paul gives his charge in Galatians 6:9: “Let us not grow weary of doing good, for in due season we will reap, if we do not give up.”

How often does our weariness stem from our own sense of “due season” instead of God’s?

God has impeccable timing. His promise to exalt us, if we humble ourselves under his mighty hand, comes with one of the most important phrases in the New Testament: “at the proper time” (1 Peter 5:6). If you are genuinely “doing good,” on God’s terms — serving others, not self — and you are discouraged by the result, or the opposition, take this promise to heart: you will reap in due season. God will exalt you at the proper time. Keep sowing faithfully. God sees. He knows. In Christ, your labor will not be in vain.

Where Doing Good Happens

Both prominent charges to not grow weary doing good (Galatians 6:9; 2 Thessalonians 3:13) are humble and out-of-the-spotlight contexts. The vast majority of “doing good” happens not in the limelight to be celebrated by thousands, but in the private, unobserved place where God’s kingdom goes forward and eventually turns the world upside down. Doing good is not like the flash and sizzle of fireworks, but the slow, organic growth of crops. Not through remotes and apps that let us feel a sense of control, but through planting and watering and waiting that forces us to trust in God.

When Christ gives us a particular calling to fulfill, he emphatically does not promise that it will come easy. In fact, it is often precisely the opposite. Difficult obstacles emerge to confirm the genuineness of our calling. The breakthrough will come not in retreat, but in enduring under trial with faith in God’s promises. We may even swell in hope as obstacles increase, anticipating that the breakthrough we need may be near at hand.

No Soul Is Too Far Gone

Tue, 11/13/2018 - 8:02pm

My teenage daughter and I burst into tears in worship last weekend. One of our pastors was preaching about the cross. Ellie and I were overcome with emotion as he described Christ absorbing our sin and enduring the wrath of God, all on our behalf.

Why? Why were we weeping with joy and wonder while others felt nothing? Our weeping was a gift from God.

Even if our gospel is veiled, it is veiled to those who are perishing. In their case the god of this world has blinded the minds of the unbelievers, to keep them from seeing the light of the gospel of the glory of Christ, who is the image of God. For what we proclaim is not ourselves, but Jesus Christ as Lord, with ourselves as your servants for Jesus’ sake. For God, who said, “Let light shine out of darkness,” has shone in our hearts to give the light of the knowledge of the glory of God in the face of Jesus Christ. (2 Corinthians 4:3–6)

As we heard the story of Good Friday again that Sunday, we could have felt nothing — blind, dark, unbelieving — but God showed up in our hearts again with light.

Beg God for Them

I remember the first time I climbed deep into a cave. Until that day, I had no idea what “pitch dark” really meant. I could hear the voice of my friend who was right next to me, but I couldn’t see him. No matter how hard I tried, I couldn’t even see my hand in front of my face.

Then my friend turned on his flashlight. Everything changed. Darkness was gone, and the cave was visible and beautiful. This is what the apostle Paul describes in his letter. We all walk in complete spiritual darkness unless God decides to shine his light on us. In some mysterious way, God shines light in a person’s heart so that he instantly sees the beauty of the gospel. No amount of human effort can produce this. Salvation is a miracle of God.

Many of us would say that we believe this theological truth, but our actions betray us, revealing just how much we trust in people, speeches, and events. On more than one occasion, people have begged me to speak to their lost friends, believing that my words would make the difference. Too often, I have granted their wish (rather than correcting their theology), and tried desperately to come up with the perfect words to talk their friends into falling in love with Jesus. Do you see yet how ridiculous this is?

Paul tells us in 2 Corinthians 4:4 that Satan has blinded these people. Apart from God’s working, our begging someone to see the beauty of Christ is as pointless as begging a blind man to enjoy the beauty of a sunset. Do we direct our begging, first and foremost, to God?

My Thirty-Year Prayer

Jesus tells us the parable about a persistent widow to remind us that we “ought always to pray and not lose heart” (Luke 18:1). There is tremendous power in perseverant prayer. God is not like us; he is not bothered by his children asking for the same thing over and over. He is pleased by the faith demonstrated when we pray and pray for someone to be saved.

When I love particular people deeply, it’s natural to persistently pray for them. I think it would actually require more effort to refrain from praying for them. My best friend in college decided that he didn’t want to follow Jesus. It broke my heart. Ken and I went our separate ways, and our lives went in opposite directions. I never stopped praying for him though — I couldn’t. Whenever Ken’s name would pop into my mind, prayer was my natural reflex.

Two years ago, I was speaking in Seattle where Ken lived. I invited him to the event so we could reconnect. We graduated from high school in 1985. After thirty years of prayer, God decided to shine his light on his heart. Suddenly Jesus looked beautiful to him and he couldn’t believe that he didn’t see it all this time. A few weeks later, Ken and his wife flew down to San Francisco, and I baptized them. I can’t express what a gift that was. He is one of the few people I have prayed for consistently for thirty years — a small price to pay to be with him for the next thirty million.

No One Is Too Lost

No soul is too far gone for God to bring back. No heart is too hard for God to soften. No son or daughter is too lost for God to rescue. Keep praying for God to do what only he can.

When we understand the consequences of rejecting Christ, and we are filled with love for another human being, persistent prayer should be the natural response. To this day, I still have questions about how the decreed will of God meshes with the effectiveness of my persistent prayers. For now, I’m more than content to obey and pray. Though I’m still uncertain how it works, I have seen it work. Meditate with me on Luke 18, trust the words of Christ, and then pray with sincerity and expectation.

If you can see the riches you have in Christ, take time to thank God with all of your being. He has given us the greatest treasure we could receive. He has “shone in our hearts to give the light of the knowledge of the glory of God in the face of Jesus Christ.”

What Comes First: My Obedience to Jesus or My Joy in Jesus?

Tue, 11/13/2018 - 8:00pm

Does our obedience or our joy come first? Pastor John explains that joy-driven obedience is the only obedience worth pursuing.

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When the Future You Planned for Never Comes

Tue, 11/13/2018 - 10:02am

Before we turned 32, my wife and I said goodbye to our golden years — and to the second half we had hoped for. The one where our kids, deeply committed to the Lord, finally grow up and leave college, giving us long-awaited margin and freedom to serve the church more deeply, relocate, and travel together.

Our precious son Matthew has autism. His diagnosis changed our family’s future forever. Matthew will not go off to school, get married, or do all the other things we typically hope for our children. At a time where we were hoping to launch him into the world for Christ, we need to have him declared legally “incompetent” so we can make decisions on his behalf. But the hardest losses are unseen, and we still grieve not truly knowing, and being known by, the person we thought he’d be.

While we know this is God’s best for us, it’s still very hard and can bring us to tears on any given day, often without warning. The next season of our lives is going to be messy, unpredictable, and far more restrictive than we imagined on the day he was born.

We know we are not alone. Many of you are facing your own challenges as you look ahead. A failed, or cold, marriage. Physical limitations that make life painful and slow. Children who aren’t walking with Jesus. Aging parents who now need you to parent them. Work that pays the bills but offers little else. Yet even if the journey ahead looks bleak, God invites us to find deep joy in him, often through stories like Job’s.

What to Do When All Goes Wrong

We can’t be sure how old Job was when calamity found him, but he was old enough to have ten children, and be known as “the greatest of all the people of the east” (Job 1:3). He was on top of the world until disasters struck, and he wasn’t. In a matter of minutes, he lost his property and wealth (Job 1:15–17), children (Job 1:19), health (Job 2:7), and his wife’s support (Job 2:9). All that remained were his life, and God. His second half wasn’t going to be anything like his first.

But Job’s life offers us massive hope when our own futures seem to veer off course. Here are three lessons to increase our joy in God, even when storm clouds loom on our horizon.

1. Don’t look back and obsess about why you’re suffering.

When our future looks grim, it’s easy to look back and become consumed with why we’re suffering. To question whether better choices might have led to a different, happier path forward.

After Matthew’s painful diagnosis, I wondered if stubborn defects in my character had played a part in his condition. At the time, I had just finished seminary and still had a fairly academic faith. Did I need a serious dose of reality — in the form of Matthew’s autism — to prepare me for the pastorate? Day and night, new possibilities pressed in on my conscience and made a dark future feel even darker.

Job, “blameless and upright,” certainly did not cause his suffering (Job 1:1). But he and his friends didn’t know that, and they tortured themselves trying to determine what went wrong as they faced his new reality. When suffering derails our future, we should repent of any known sin and consider that God may be disciplining us. Usually, though, we simply don’t know why we’re suffering. We’re not supposed to, which frees us to rest in God’s sovereign care.

2. Remember that God doesn’t owe us the future we wanted.

Like I did, many of us quietly assume our second halves will glide toward a predictable, carefree retirement. When God rewrites our story, we can get angry and demand a rationale. God has never fully explained Matthew’s autism to us, and he never fully explained Job’s suffering to him. He probably won’t fully explain yours — at least this side of glory — either. He doesn’t owe us that.

After the initial shock of our son’s diagnosis passed, the implications for our future began to sink in. We felt despondent as we realized Matthew would never get married, have children, or possess the ability to share his heart with us. Overwhelmed with these realities, my wife took a weekend away and read through the entire book of Job. As she reached the part where God shows up, her perspective began to change.

“Where were you when I laid the foundation of the earth? Tell me, if you have understanding.” (Job 38:4)

God reminded my wife she was a creature who simply couldn’t comprehend God’s purposes for Matthew, or why our future wouldn’t follow the usual script. While God didn’t change the forecast, he transformed my wife’s perspective on it by reorienting her toward his majesty and loving care. When we truly learn that God is both sovereign and good, we can open our hands, without resentment, to the future of his choosing rather than our own.

3. Bring your confusing, frustrating future before the King.

As we truly come to terms with the limitations God places on our future, it’s natural for our thoughts and emotions to bounce all over the place. I remember the day we discovered Matthew’s yearly therapy costs would approach half of my salary. And then, learning our insurance company wouldn’t cover them. In one moment, I would experience deep anger and resentment toward God, then in the next a desperate hunger for forgiveness and faith.

In his distress, Job accused God of wronging him and withholding justice (Job 19:6). But in the next breath, he erupts with this beautiful confession:

“I know that my Redeemer lives,
     and at the last he will stand upon the earth.
And after my skin has been thus destroyed,
     yet in my flesh I shall see God.” (Job 19:25–26)

When we’re struggling with the rocky path God has placed before us, we don’t need to pretend we don’t struggle. God invites us to bring our sorrows and confusion to our Father. As Paul Miller puts it, “The only way to come to God is by taking off any spiritual mask. The real you has to meet the real God.”

The Coming of the Lord

You may be thinking, Job’s suffering was worse than mine, but his story had a happy ending. God gave him back everything he lost. That’s never going to happen for me. You may be right. Often, God orchestrates deep losses that are never restored in our lifetime. That’s where we need to look beyond Job’s story — and frankly, our own stories — to Jesus.

Jesus endured unparalleled suffering and shame by keeping his focus squarely on “the joy that was set before him” (Hebrews 12:2). His unhappy ending wasn’t really the end. And your second half, no matter how unhappy, won’t be the final word for you, either.

While we persevere in suffering like Job (James 5:11), we’re waiting with him for “the coming of the Lord” (James 5:7–9), when God will transform the future we’re dreading and everything that caused it. One day soon, I’m going to have a long, heartfelt talk with Matthew, and the sorrows still ahead will fade away. In the twinkling of an eye, your bleak future will be transformed, too. Can you picture it?

At that time, as C.S. Lewis puts it, we’ll begin “Chapter One of the Great Story which no one on earth has read: which goes on forever: in which every chapter is better than the one before.”

Battling Unbelief, Part 7: Freedom from Misplaced Shame

Tue, 11/13/2018 - 8:01am

Not all shame is created equal. Some shame should be heeded and some shame should be defeated. Here’s how to fight misplaced shame.

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Let the Dead Date the Dead: The Matches Satan Loves to Make

Mon, 11/12/2018 - 8:02pm

My dear Globdrop,

I am pleasantly surprised to see that you have recovered so quickly from your former negligence, and made up precious time you had lost. Just this afternoon, I was about to report your blunders when your letter happened upon my desk. Brilliant, nephew, just brilliant. I would say that I knew you had it in you, but as you know, we do our best not to lie to one another. Fortunate for you, I have decided to hold my report to see how you manage this recent progress.

You write that your man has lately become friends with a girl who, on the face of it, is “tenderhearted, funny,” and of course, “not bad on the eyes.” His voice gives way in her presence. His palms cry. She makes him “smile until it hurts” and “challenges his intellect” like no female he has ever met. This is good.

You report that he has even come so far as to think — independent of your suggestions — that she really is just about perfect for him (minus that other small matter, of course). He doesn’t admit it, but he finds her exciting, refreshing, authentic. Against his better judgment, surrounded by hundreds of the Enemy’s young women, he has started to like one of ours. Our hunters have bagged many fawns like this before (they far outnumber the men), but you, Globdrop, have lured a buck. My mouth waters.

Flirt into the Dirt

Globdrop, get him to “fall for her” and they shall both fall to us. Unlike their delightful romance movies, his kiss cannot rouse her from her sleep. In real life, kissing corpses causes Prince Charming to become one. The Enemy told them to leave the dead to date the dead. He told them not to be bonded with one of ours. We are less intolerant. Let them hold hands together, fall in love, and stare deeply into each other’s eyes as we slowly lower the coffin.

Now, to avoid making another dreadful mistake, follow my instructions to the letter.

The first thing to do in this matter is to lure him in with her lostness. Few things rouse the evangelistic zeal in the youthful vermin like romantic interest. Do not despise this outright. Here — and only here — allow your man to care about her soul. “Flirt to convert” they call it. It works out brilliantly. He justifies enmeshing his heart to hers and crossing the Enemy’s boundaries because he means to save her. Allow this Noah to jump from his ark to rescue the girl. Most who go overboard never return.

As the relationship ripens and our game gets fat, you will have a new task: Convince him that she is nearly a believer. By not sleeping around, cussing, or getting drunk on the weekends, we can pass her off as practically the Enemy’s. Always just a few more inches to go.

To keep up this lie, you will need to embalm her. Color her cheeks with kindness. Groom her with worldly goodness. Animate her with familial affection. Make her look so close to living that she seems but one church attendance, one Bible study, one more deep, heart-entangling conversation away from finally stumbling into the Enemy’s arms. Make her “so close he can feel it.” We have but to hide the toe-tag.

Their Love Can Overcome

By this time, he will be more ready to listen to reason. Tell him that godliness is important — just not essential.

I know, I know, I border on blasphemy with this point. Tell him godliness is important? Yes, dear nephew, yes. It is a vile thing to tell him. But, remember, we must concede worms to catch fish. If we began with the real truth of the matter, he would never bite. Tell him godliness in a spouse is important. Tell him — all things considered — it is even to be desired. But while you gnaw your tongue while whispering such abominations, never let him conclude (with the Enemy) that it is a nonnegotiable. That is the point.

Hide the countless examples of us ruining their forefathers through spouses who worshiped foreign gods. Hide the plain instruction that he must only “marry in the Lord.” Obscure their General’s reasoning: What does dark have to do with light? Our Father with theirs? The Enemy’s son or daughter with one of ours?

Tell him, should he happen upon it, that such black-and-white thinking is outdated — it is the twenty-first century, after all. No one believes the world is flat and no one should believe that religious difference should determine whom someone loves. They can coexist.

Besides, she isn’t against his faith — she said so herself. She admitted that the Christian religion has some good teachings — see, she is open-minded. She even agreed to go to church on occasion. She isn’t dangerous to his faith. Besides, their love can overcome anything. As you tell him these things, nephew, beware not to give yourself away with laughter.

Final Touches

The older your man gets, the more susceptible he becomes. He is lonely. He has given more best-man speeches than Churchill during wartime. It’s his turn. He has held up his part of the bargain: He has not been sleeping around, partying too hard, or indulging in much pornography. But remind him what it has gotten him: lonely Friday nights. What has the Enemy to say for himself? He is finally discovering what our Father did so long ago: the Enemy over-promises and under-delivers.

He is drawing so near, nephew, I begin to smell him. At this crucial time, you must not let others interfere. Isolation, nephew, isolation. Leave him no one to defend him from himself. Whisper that others just won’t understand. They don’t know her like he does. Oh, and discredit the advice of most of the men in his life who discourage the relationship, because (easy for them to say) they are married.

When alone, even their strongest can fall — Samson and David defeated armies, but not eyelashes. Your trap shall catch this pigeon just as it did those eagles.

Your hungry and expectant uncle,
Wormwood

In The Globdrop Letters, a senior demon (Wormwood) corresponds with a junior demon to advise him in the evil art of subtle deception. The series follows in the large footsteps of C.S. Lewis in his classic work, The Screwtape Letters.

Sorrowful Love Springs from Serious Joy

Mon, 11/12/2018 - 11:01am

Every act of Christian love springs from serious joy in Jesus. When your hope is secure in him, you can give whatever it takes to serve others.

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My Suffering Has Not Defined Me

Sun, 11/11/2018 - 8:02pm

A strange thing happened when word first spread that I had stage III breast cancer: I began receiving all things pink. Pink quilts, teddy bears, and t-shirts covered with breast-cancer symbols. Even letters written with pink ink on rosy paper. Each gift welcomed me into a special club. The sisterhood of cancer warriors.

Long after my surgery and treatment, whenever I encountered other Christians in the sisterhood, they immediately connected with me as their fellow cancer survivor. If other women were among us, I sensed they had to stand outside our intimate circle of shared suffering. I congratulated these survivors for being cancer-free, but I’d glance at their breast-cancer pins and think, Are you ever going to move on? Is there no better topic of discussion than, “Have you had your annual breast exam?”

Hear me: my intention is not to disparage anyone who has survived the tough rigors of breast cancer. But I wonder if some of these Christian women are longing for security and significance that’s more touchable than a faith whose substance is merely hoped for and frustratingly unseen — longing to be a part of something that actualizes one’s identity. Although they would never discount their Savior, they want something more tangible than their name written in an invisible book of life: Who am I? My backdrop is a Christian, but I’m a warrior, a cancer survivor. Know and respect me by that.

In Christ Alone

In a way, I understand the struggle. My quadriplegia constantly clamors for my undivided attention: empty leg bag, deal with pain, arrange for help, adjust corset, charge wheelchair, look for access, and grab that handicap parking spot before someone else does. It’s my world. Then again, it is definitively not.

My world, my breath and very being — my identity — is in Christ and Christ alone. I am not my own; I was bought with the price of God’s blood (1 Corinthians 6:19–20). Satan hates that. He will do everything he can — use my wheelchair, my notoriety, ministry, whatever — to focus me away from Christ.

So, I heed the warning of Deuteronomy 11:16: “Take care lest your heart be deceived, and you turn aside and serve other gods and worship them.” Am I saying that my ministry to people with disabilities or your precious Shih Tzu with her tiny bow is an idol? If they compete for our singular devotion to Christ, then yes.

Putting Things in Their Proper Place

It takes the fight and fire of God’s Spirit to not be enticed away by these things. The apostle Peter says to make no provision for the flesh, for these things “wage war against your soul” (1 Peter 2:11). To find your identity, worth, and value in anything other than Jesus Christ is to believe that your distinguished career, your prized pet, your parenting skills, your valiant victory over cancer and quadriplegia, or your sin itself makes life more meaningful, rich, or fulfilling. But Christian, your identity must never be in things that compete for space in your heart. Don’t diminish the price paid for you or minimize God’s adoption of you.

Only in Christ do we find breathlessly fulfilling joy, peace, and meaning. When we live like we died in Christ, our career finds its balance, our pet finds its place, our children benefit unbelievably, and our victories over trials become reasons to make God famous and happily laud him before others.

Since Christ is the source of peace, joy, strength, and rest, and in him we live and move and have our very being, we can be secure and feel significant when we see ourselves “in Christ.” Jesus is ecstasy beyond compare. Why would we supplant him with anything lesser?

Who Are You?

Do you want to know who you are? “Your life is hidden with Christ in God” (Colossians 3:3). It’s like those hand-painted Russian dolls that twist open to reveal — surprise! — another doll inside. Take out that one, open it, and there’s another. This is fun, you discover. Every time you reach in and pull out a new one, you are sure it’ll be the last. But not by a long shot — the joy continues as you relish one delight after another over all that’s hidden inside.

It’s a vivid picture of unfolding and delighting in your identity. Who are you? You are in Jesus and he is in the Father. So, start opening up Christ and — voilà — there you will find yourself. As you reach inside the layers of Jesus, you see more of yourself, transformed by the very discipline of knowing him better. “The Bible does tell us who we are and what we should do, but it does so through the lens of who God is. The knowledge of God and the knowledge of self always go hand in hand,” says Jen Wilkin.

Follow the mandate of Colossians 3:2–3, “Set your minds on things that are above, not on things that are on earth. For you have died, and your life is hidden with Christ in God.” Every day get actively engaged with the Holy Spirit in knowing Christ better, in discovering “what’s inside.” The more you look, the more you will be enthralled by his beauty, captivated by his love, and overcome by the excellencies of his mercy and grace.

Boast in your identity in Jesus, and lead someone else to Calvary, like he would. Lay your life down for others as he did. Cherish God’s word as he does. Carry your cross daily in the manner he would. Pray the way he does. Worship the Father like he does. Most of all, ask the Spirit to expose your sins that killed him. He lost his life so that you might find yours, so begin each day asking God to show you the “you” he designed you to be. For you are a treasure, hidden in him.

How Do I Pray for Healing and Honor God’s ‘No’?

Sun, 11/11/2018 - 8:00pm

Our greatest hope in prayer is not getting what we asked for, but rather in the goodness of our Father, who always gives what is best for his children.

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Imperfections Make Sundays More Beautiful

Sat, 11/10/2018 - 8:03pm

Why are church meetings often so clumsy?

A Scripture reader turns to the wrong page and stumbles over a long list of Hebrew names he hadn’t prepared to pronounce. The PowerPoint slide gets stuck — again. An unusually enthusiastic congregant with an unusually loud voice holds out the last note of each song longer than everyone else, a brief solo that makes some folks giggle nervously. Others cringe. The bassist starts a hymn in the wrong key, and everyone knows it because the song leader turns to give him “The Look.”

I’ll admit it: these human quirks and errors sometimes exasperate me. I’m here to focus on the Lord! Your awkwardness is distracting me from worship! So mutters my self-righteous heart. Perhaps the real problem isn’t with the clumsiness of others, but with our expectations for corporate worship.

Deprogramming Consumer Intuitions

We live in an age of production. We’ve learned to value and expect polished professionalism from the various interactions that make up our daily lives, from the television shows we watch to our “customer experience” at the local Starbucks.

I call these expectations “consumer intuitions.” They’re not necessarily bad or wrong. But we must beware lest we let these intuitions dictate how we approach church gatherings. We attend church not primarily as consumers to experience a product, but as worshipers to exalt God and edify his people.

The church at Corinth was at risk of overvaluing polished production. Their culture applauded speakers marked by rhetorical flourish and artful presentation. Paul adopted a different approach: “not with words of eloquent wisdom, lest the cross of Christ be emptied of its power” (1 Corinthians 1:17). No “lofty speech or wisdom” here (1 Corinthians 2:1). Paul rejected the man-centered “wisdom of this age” with its superficial focus on outward presentation, and instead heralded the “secret and hidden wisdom of God”: Christ crucified (1 Corinthians 2:6–7).

In other words, Paul understood that our hearts are easily drawn astray by outward appearances. What we need is not a distraction-free “experience” that wows us, but an encounter with the truth that transforms us. Slickness in presentation calls our attention to the human messenger. A more modest approach — one that is okay with a little human awkwardness — allows the spotlight to shine on the supernatural message of the gospel.

Christians Are Delightfully Imperfect

Paul also reminds the Corinthians who they are:

Consider your calling, brothers: not many of you were wise according to worldly standards, not many were powerful, not many were of noble birth. But God chose what is foolish in the world to shame the wise; God chose what is weak in the world to shame the strong. (1 Corinthians 1:26–27)

In worldly terms, these believers had nothing in which to boast. They weren’t “professionals” — and neither are we.

This means that we can expect church services to be a bit unpolished according to the standards of modern media. After all, Paul goes on later in the letter to instruct this young congregation about what they should prioritize in their Lord’s Day gathering:

What then, brothers? When you come together, each one has a hymn, a lesson, a revelation, a tongue, or an interpretation. Let all things be done for building up. (1 Corinthians 14:26)

Their meeting wasn’t a production, but a sacred opportunity to glorify God through mutual edification. Churches who can afford to do so should pay their preachers (1 Timothy 5:17; Galatians 6:6). But laypeople will facilitate many, if not most, of the activities in your average Protestant service — singing, praying, reading, serving the Supper. Why would we be surprised if volunteers sometimes make an amateur mistake?

In fact, Paul instructs us to show special honor to those members of the body who lack worldly credentials and strength (1 Corinthians 12:22–23). We need one another — including, and even especially, “awkward” believers. (The “awkward” is in quotes, of course, because awkwardness is often in the eye of the beholder anyway.) Rather than feeling exasperated that someone tripped up while leading a prayer or a song, we should rejoice that the church is for imperfect people. This isn’t a show. It’s a family.

What About Excellence?

Of course, I’m not saying that we should aim for mediocrity in our church services, or that pastors should encourage members to serve in areas in which they’re obviously not gifted. My point is not for us to pursue clumsiness, but merely to embrace it when it occurs.

And I’m not against “excellence” per se. It simply depends on what we mean by excellence. Yes, it honors God to serve him with our whole heart. Doing all things for his glory (1 Corinthians 10:31) means stewarding our God-given gifts as well as we can. It means resisting sloppiness. Church musicians would do well to emulate the Levitical singers who were renowned for being “skillful” (1 Chronicles 25:7).

Pursuing excellence in serving, facilitating, and accompanying the worship of God’s people is one thing. But if by “excellence” we mean professional-level production quality, I fear it reveals that our consumer intuitions have snuck into our churches.

Embracing Awkwardness

God knows what we really need — not a slick service, free of distraction, led by seemingly perfect people. We need to gather with his family, a community of weak and error-prone people, to be reminded that we are all imperfect. We need to learn to love those who make mistakes and value them because they are in Christ, not because of how well they “perform.”

The only perfect worship service is the one envisioned in Revelation, where God’s redeemed people praise him in the new creation. Until then, God in his wisdom grants clumsy mistakes and awkward moments to occur in our gatherings — precisely because it’s for our good.

Battling Unbelief, Part 6: What You Need to Kill Pride

Sat, 11/10/2018 - 11:02am

Most of us have spent our lives fighting the bulletproof tanks of pride with a pea shooter. Here is what you actually need to kill it.

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Do You Work When You Should Rest?

Fri, 11/09/2018 - 8:02pm

Jesus often calls us to rest in the areas of life where our flesh wants to work, and to work in the areas of life where our flesh wants to rest.

The gospel is an ingenious work of salvific engineering. The Engineer knew what he was doing. The gospel turns out to be good news to us in precisely the ways we need most. If we trust it, the gospel simultaneously frees us from the despair of trying to save ourselves through our own effort, while also working to free us from the despair of slavery to our remaining sin.

However, the best news for our souls often doesn’t feel like good news to our flesh.

Rest Through Repentance

We hear Jesus’s call to rest in Matthew 11:28–30:

“Come to me, all who labor and are heavy laden, and I will give you rest. Take my yoke upon you, and learn from me, for I am gentle and lowly in heart, and you will find rest for your souls. For my yoke is easy, and my burden is light.”

Few words are more beautiful and wonderful and comforting and inviting. But if we want to truly understand them, we need to read them in the context.

In Matthew 11:7–18, we hear Jesus challenge his listening crowd with how many of them were rejecting both the more ascetic John the Baptist as a demoniac (Matthew 11:18) and the more indulgent Jesus as a degenerate (Matthew 11:19). He said they were like fickle, discontented children, because “we played the flute for you, and you did not dance; we sang a dirge, and you did not mourn” (Matthew 11:17). Both John and Jesus were inviting people to receive the gift of eternal life through repentance and faith in Jesus (John 3:16, 36), but they were refusing to come to Jesus that they may have life (John 5:40).

Come and Rest

Then we hear Jesus deliver scathing rebukes of Chorazin, Bethsaida, and Capernaum, cities in which he had preached and performed “mighty works,” because they wouldn’t repent (Matthew 11:20–24). They too refused to come to Jesus that they may have life.

It’s at this point we hear Jesus utter his great invitation: “Come to me, all who labor and are heavy laden, and I will give you rest.” But he also tells us that only “little children” — the humble and helpless — accept it, while the “wise and understanding” reject it (Matthew 11:25).

Why? Because to receive the gospel rest Jesus offers requires us to trust him fully and hand him back the fruit from the tree of the knowledge of good and evil — ceasing the evil work of trying to be like God (Genesis 2:17; 3:5). We must cease trying to atone for our own sins. We must cease trying to qualify for heaven or God’s approval on our own merits. We must cease putting God on trial. And we must cease considering ourselves our own (1 Corinthians 6:19–20).

To come to Jesus to find the rest we so desperately need requires the surrender of our autonomy and self-perceived rights to anything. To be God’s means to no longer be gods. And this is something our sinful flesh hates.

Come and Die

We hear Jesus’s call to work in Matthew 16:24–26:

“If anyone would come after me, let him deny himself and take up his cross and follow me. For whoever would save his life will lose it, but whoever loses his life for my sake will find it. For what will it profit a man if he gains the whole world and forfeits his soul? Or what shall a man give in return for his soul?”

Jesus’s call here is to a life of redemptive, self-sacrificial labor. However, it is not atoning work, but the “the obedience of faith” (Romans 16:26). It is the kind of work that can be performed only by those who have received rest for their souls from Jesus. Because they trust him and believe that they will receive all they need (Matthew 6:33), they take up their cross daily and follow him in living lives of loving labor (Luke 9:23).

This is a Philippians 2 way of living, having the “same mind” as Jesus (Philippians 2:2, 5): humble, servant-hearted, not grasping at status and power and privilege and admiration — things humans love so dearly. And this too is something our flesh hates. Because it is fiercely proud, loves to be served by others, counts itself more significant than others, and grasps so tightly to all those things Jesus refused to grasp, for the love of his Father and the love of rebels he’d redeem.

Just as coming to Jesus for gospel rest requires surrender of what our sinful flesh loves, following Jesus into gospel work requires surrender of what our sinful flesh loves.

The Way That Leads to Life

Both the rest Jesus offers and the work he assigns require us to live by faith and die to sin. And though we often experience it as a war waging in our members between the Spirit and the flesh (Romans 7:23), it is “the good fight of the faith” (1 Timothy 6:12) in which we learn to deny our sinful flesh — and thus deny the way of death — and choose the Spirit, the way of life and peace (Romans 8:6).

The Christian life is significantly counterintuitive. It is not easy. Jesus didn’t promise it would be. In fact, he said,

“Enter by the narrow gate. For the gate is wide and the way is easy that leads to destruction, and those who enter by it are many. For the gate is narrow and the way is hard that leads to life, and those who find it are few.” (Matthew 7:13–14)

The way is hard. But it leads to life. It leads to joy. It leads to freedom. For to surrender our desire to be gods so that we can become God’s, and to surrender our desire to be ruled by our pride so that we can humbly serve the purposes of God and the good of others, is to begin living now in “the freedom of the glory of the children of God” (Romans 8:21).

This is an ingenious design, calling us to rest and work precisely in the ways our souls most need, and yet our sinful flesh least wants. And it is pure gospel. For its purpose is for our freedom. And “if the Son [sets us] free, [we] will be free indeed” (John 8:36). We will find rest for our souls and have spiritually fruitful lives.

The Bible Never Ignores Our Feelings

Fri, 11/09/2018 - 8:00am

The Bible commands us to rejoice in every circumstance, but it never ignores the grief, turmoil, or pain that each of us faces in a fallen world.

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Why Is Friendship Hard for Men? Five Ways to Build Stronger Relationships

Thu, 11/08/2018 - 8:02pm

“That used to be nice.”

That was the first response when I recently asked a group of men what comes to mind when they think about friendship. Once they entered their upper twenties and thirties, many of them no longer had close friendships. We mostly laughed when joking about Jesus’s “miracle” of having twelve close friends in his thirties.

Many factors combine to make friendship difficult for men. Personally, time for friends seems unrealistic in light of work or family responsibilities. Culturally, we don’t have a shared understanding of what friendships among men should look like. We also find ourselves connecting more digitally than deeply. We’ve lost a vision for strong, warm, face-to-face and side-by-side male friendship.

But God made us for more. He made us in his own image, the image of a triune God who exists in communal love. Therefore, friendship is not a luxury; it’s a relational necessity. We glorify God by enjoying him and reflecting his relational love with one another. If you are a man who has struggled to go deeper with other men, here are five concrete steps to cultivate deeper friendships.

1. Establish rhythms for your relationships.

Without rhythms in our lives, the important priorities don’t get done. If we value communing with God through his word and prayer, we form a habit. If we want to exercise consistently, we create a pattern.

Here’s a proposal for cultivating friendship: Build it into your schedule. Establish a regular rhythm for coffee together. Devote a meal each week — say, Monday breakfasts or Wednesday dinners — to share with others. Plan to meet up to take walks together. Reserve an extended weekend each year to get away and enjoy God’s creation together.

2. Drop each conversation one notch deeper.

Conversations about sports and daily activities are worthwhile. But if that’s all we talk about, it’s like snorkeling on the surface while missing the deeper wonders of the ocean.

But how do we take our conversations deeper?

First, ask thoughtful questions. When you’re driving to meet your friend, think about what you want to learn about him. Think about the main aspects of his life right now — his relationship with the Lord, his family, his work — and ask him about how things are going. When he shares about a challenge, ask how his internal life (his heart, his disposition toward God) is doing in the midst of this. From there, stay curious and ask more questions.

Second, talk about what you’re each reading. Ask how God’s word has convicted or encouraged him recently. Ask what book he’s recently read that helped him know God or live more faithfully as a disciple. Consider reading through Scripture or a Scripture-saturated book together and meeting to talk about it.

3. Overcome our cultural aversion to expressing affection.

“Love one another with brotherly affection” (Romans 12:10). We don’t usually put those last two words next to one another — brotherly feels masculine; affection feels feminine. But there they are together, inviting us to cultivate genuine, non-weird, affectionate brotherhood.

We see this affectionate bond with Jonathan and David: “The soul of Jonathan was knit to the soul of David, and Jonathan loved him as his own soul” (1 Samuel 18:1). We see it with Paul and the Ephesian elders: “And there was much weeping on the part of all; they embraced Paul and kissed him” (Acts 20:37).

Expressing affection feels uncomfortable to men today because our culture has slowly shifted its understanding of masculinity. Rather than combining strength and tenderness, we view manhood as muscular and aggressive. Our culture has also sexualized love, interpreting affection between men as something other than friendship. But we can build a better way.

4. Oxygenate your friendships with affirmation.

What happens without oxygen? We become sluggish and lethargic. This is what relationships feel like without affirmation. This may be why some of your relationships feel withered, thin, or tired. Affirmation is relational oxygen. One of the most powerful tools for cultivating true friendship is Romans 12:10: “Outdo one another in showing honor.”

Men find it hard to give and receive honor and affirmation. It feels uncomfortable at first to tell someone why you thank God for him or why you respect him. But only at first. I’ve seen many men work through their initial hesitations and start cultivating a culture of sincere encouragement around them. And I’ve seen the other men flourish because of it.

5. Invite friends into what you’re already doing.

Our schedules are full and we rush from one thing to the next. We don’t see how we can find time for friends. But what if you don’t need to open up your schedule? What if you can include friends into the activities you already do? Here are a few suggestions I’ve seen work:

  • When you plan to watch a sports game or weekly show, find out who else would want to watch it and invite them to join you.
  • If you exercise a few times each week, do it with a friend.
  • Invite friends or family members to join you for dinner or dessert. If you have young kids, let your guests participate in the bedtime routine and then stay around afterward.
  • If you have young kids, invite someone to join your family at the park.
  • Put a few friends on speed dial and call them on your daily commute home.
  • If you have a home project to complete, invite someone to help you and offer to help him with his.
Hope and Help for Forging Friendship

Jesus is our greatest model of male friendship. He initiated relationships and he invited men to be with him (Mark 3:14). He continually asked thought-provoking questions. He loved his disciples with brotherly affection (John 13:1). He calls us his friends (John 15:13–15). He also gives us the great privilege of reflecting and enjoying this kind of true friendship to other men.

Maybe as you consider taking these steps, you look ahead with both hope and hesitancy. Maybe you think back to when you experienced deeper community and think you won’t find that again. Or maybe you still feel pain from failed attempts at connecting with others. You wonder if forging friendship is harder, even impossible, for you.

Before you give up, remember two truths: First, Jesus isn’t just the model for true friendship; he is himself our truest friend. He initiates friendship with us, and we receive it on terms of grace. Now “no one need ever say I have no ‘friend’ to turn to, so long as Christ is in heaven” (J.C. Ryle, Expository Thoughts, 3:114). And second, he delights for us to ask for true community in his name. God alone is able to create, renew, and strengthen the deepest human relationships. So, pray. Ask God to make your efforts at friendship fruitful. Then trust him, stay patient, and keep taking steps toward others in the strength he provides.

Does My Sexual Past Make Me Unsavable?

Thu, 11/08/2018 - 8:00pm

Our past sexual sin is not beyond the reach of God’s forgiveness — unless we don’t give it up. It’s not too late to turn and receive God’s mercy.

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How to Grow in Love for God

Thu, 11/08/2018 - 11:02am

Left to our own, none of us can love God. But he has not only made it possible, he has given us means to awaken love for God when we don’t feel it.

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The Sweetest Words for the Deepest Wounds

Wed, 11/07/2018 - 8:02pm

When conflict arises in our lives, the Bible often comes alive with fresh meaning and power.

The Bible was born in conflict: from slavery in Egypt to wandering (and grumbling) in the wilderness; from living under wicked and oppressive kings to the worse horrors of invasion and exile; from the apostles being persecuted, imprisoned, and martyred to the Son of God himself being brutally crucified. We shouldn’t be surprised when Scripture feels more familiar when our circumstances feel more difficult.

God doesn’t only give us his word to carry us through our trials; he also gives us trials to open our eyes to his word. When opposition comes, or plans fall apart, or relationships fracture, or peace collapses, his words swell with unusual strength and sweetness. As the psalmist says, “When the cares of my heart are many, your consolations cheer my soul” (Psalms 94:19).

When our wounds are deep, God’s healing goes deeper. When our troubles are broad, his help runs broader. When our cares are many, his consolations are more.

The Most Painful Wounds

Psalm 94 was written by and for a suffering community. God’s people were assaulted by the wicked, and then watching their assailants seem to get away with it.

O Lord, how long shall the wicked,
     how long shall the wicked exult?
They pour out their arrogant words;
     all the evildoers boast.
They crush your people, O Lord,
     and afflict your heritage.
They kill the widow and the sojourner,
     and murder the fatherless. (Psalm 94:3–6)

These people are evil beyond anticipation, plundering widows and murdering orphans, but the next verse may be the most haunting: “They say, ‘The Lord does not see” — using the covenant name God gave to Israel — “‘the God of Jacob does not perceive’” (Psalm 94:7). The proud, the evildoers, the murderers, the wicked — they were among God’s own people. These are not the jealous and godless enemies of Israel. They’re part of the family.

We expect wickedness from the world. The most painful attacks are often those that come from the places we least expect them: in our case, from within the household of faith. Instead of warm sympathy, we receive harsh scrutiny. Instead of rallying to support us in our time of need, they heap heavier burdens on our shoulders. Instead of help, abandonment. Instead of forgiveness, bitterness. Instead of purity and self-control, indulgence. Instead of peace, strife and conflict. Instead of patience, anger and irritability. Instead of kindness and gentleness, abuse. Instead of honesty, duplicity. Instead of love, hostility.

Where do we stand when we are wearied and wounded from within the camp? We stand on promises, like these four below, that were strong enough to hold, protect, and sustain God’s people long before our trials began.

1. God knows more than we do.

When life is especially hard, we sometimes suspect that we see more than God does. That all would be made right if only we could give him our full report, or pronounce the judgment ourselves.

Sadly, self-pity often makes us into fools:

Understand, O dullest of the people!
     Fools, when will you be wise?
He who planted the ear, does he not hear?
     He who formed the eye, does he not see?
He who disciplines the nations, does he not rebuke?
     He who teaches man knowledge —
the Lord — knows the thoughts of man,
     that they are but a breath. (Psalm 94:8–11)

How could we see more than God when he formed our retinas, designed our corneas, and placed our irises? How would we hear more than God when he tuned the songs of the birds, caused our vocal cords to vibrate with meaning, and planted the wonder of hearing through small holes in our heads? Whatever we see, he sees more. Whatever we have heard, he has heard more. He knows more about this situation — far more — than we do.

2. Even our worst trials are filled with his love.

The wickedness of the wicked not only serves to demonstrate God’s justice, wrath, and power, but in his unsearchable wisdom, it also serves to grow, mature, and even secure us. Even as God’s chosen people attacked their own, the psalm boldly declares, “Blessed” — happy! — “is the man whom you discipline, O Lord, and whom you teach out of your law, to give him rest from days of trouble” (Psalm 94:12–13). Blessed is the godly man who is mistreated, because this suffering will train him in righteousness and prepare him for a far deeper rest.

We often want to think of ourselves as victims and survivors in these situations, simply waiting for God to fall on our enemies. But God often defeats and humiliates our perpetrators in a more profound way. He makes even their worst and most wicked efforts serve his love for us. He not only gives us the victory, but he makes us “more than conquerors” (Romans 8:37).

When God deals finally with the wicked, he will wipe them out forever (Psalm 94:23), but when he comes to us, “He does not deal with us according to our sins, nor repay us according to our iniquities” (Psalm 103:10). If we are his, hidden in his Son, not one ounce of our pain is punishment. Proverbs says,

My son, do not despise the Lord’s discipline,
     or be weary of his reproof,
for the Lord reproves him whom he loves,
     as a father the son in whom he delights. (Proverbs 3:11–12)

If we are his children, any pain we are feeling is ultimately our Father’s loving kindness meant to lead us into righteousness, peace, and joy. Even in our worst trials, when someone we love wants to do us harm, God relentlessly wields every moment, every conversation, every injustice in love for us — and not against us.

3. God will judge every offense — and right every wrong.

No matter how good and loving and sovereign God is, wrongs are still wrong. His love doesn’t make the wrong any more right. But he will eventually right every wrong. One day soon enough, “he will bring back on them their iniquity and wipe them out for their wickedness; the Lord our God will wipe them out” (Psalm 94:23). We won’t be left to deliver the judgment and execute the sentence. Instead of seeking retribution for ourselves, we run into the arms of a far better judge: “O Lord, God of vengeance, O God of vengeance, shine forth! Rise up, O judge of the earth; repay to the proud what they deserve!” (Psalm 94:1–2).

The apostle Paul also knew the temptation to harbor bitterness, nurture anger, and seek revenge. “Beloved, never avenge yourselves, but leave it to the wrath of God, for it is written, ‘Vengeance is mine, I will repay, says the Lord’” (Romans 12:19). God will repay in full every offense committed against you. If he does not hurl your perpetrators into hell, he will have sent his Son to the cross for them. He will have been willing to die to repay any harm against you. If we doubt God’s justice when we’ve been wronged, we say that either hell itself or the cross of Christ are less than sufficient.

Therefore, as those for whom Christ died, we will not curse (Romans 12:14). We will not be proud (Romans 12:16). We will strive for peace (Romans 12:18). We will even care for those who harm us (Romans 12:20). We will overcome evil with good (Romans 12:21). We will trust God to right everything done wrong against us.

4. Even when we want to give up, God will not.

When we’re under attack, especially from others who claim the name of Christ, we may want to give up and walk away. It will always be easier to opt out of conflict, out of painstaking reconciliation, out of dying for the sake of others (especially others who have hurt us). We all grow weary in relationships. But God never grows weary in loving us, and he never considers walking away.

The psalmist says, “The Lord will not forsake his people; he will not abandon his heritage; for justice will return to the righteous, and all the upright in heart will follow it” (Psalm 94:14–15). He will not forsake you. He will not abandon you. Justice is coming. Trust him, and follow him into the flames before you. He will not give up loving you, and he will not let you be burned.

The Lord of the universe, who planted the ear and formed the eye, who gives to all mankind life and breath and everything, who can do all things and whose purpose can never be thwarted, that God says to you,

“When you pass through the waters, I will be with you; and through the rivers, they shall not overwhelm you; when you walk through fire you shall not be burned, and the flame shall not consume you. For I am the Lord your God, the Holy One of Israel, your Savior.” (Isaiah 43:2–3)

You may feel weak, fragile, and unstable for now, but God will be strong for you. You will be able to say, “When I thought, ‘My foot slips,’ your steadfast love, O Lord, held me up” (Psalm 94:18). When conflict comes, and your soul weighs heavy, and the heartache stands tall, don’t let your Bible lie closed. Expect the words of God to hold you up like nothing else can.

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