If you feel awkward or unequipped to love people with disabilities, trust God to give you what you need in the moment, and don’t turn away.
Christian’s can’t follow Jesus alone. Unless we have brothers and sisters in our lives who point us to Jesus, our faith won’t survive.
The most powerful weapon against sexual impurity is humility. Patterns of sinful thought and behavior are fruits of a deeper root. If we want to stop bearing bad fruit, we must aim our primary attack against the root. And the root of sexual sin is not our sex drive; it’s pride.
We live in an age dominated by Darwinian explanations of biology and psychology. So we easily absorb certain naturalistic assumptions. One such assumption is that our sexual drives and impulses are remnants of our primordial, bestial ancestors, and therefore we deal with them with cages of external personal and social restraints.
This is a very conflicted perspective. It views us as both victims and monsters. On one hand, we’re victims of our ancient past, and on the other hand, we’re sexual monsters if we express our primal impulses in ways not sanctioned by the prevailing level of social tolerance.
It’s also a wholly inadequate explanation in view of the consuming of our sexual problem. The degrees of human sexual depravity, distortion, and destruction are of such a nature that nearly everyone thinks things and many do things that we have no other word for than evil.Sex Is Not the Problem
It’s shocking how little our inner evil bestial impulses have to do with our primal genetic intent: procreation. No other human instinct has so many deviations in its expressions. Our culture can’t keep up with the expanding sexual definitions. LGBTQ is now just shorthand for LGBTTQQIAAPPK (lesbian, gay, bisexual, transgender, transsexual, queer, questioning, intersex, asexual, ally, pansexual, polygamous, kinkiness). And this is likely obsolete already. It’s getting tragically ridiculous.
But since Darwinism denies any basis for assigning moral value to anything, we can’t term something a “perversion,” because this word has moral connotations. So we’re trying to solve the problem of human sexual perversion by eliminating the concept of sexual perversion. But this can’t scale to embrace all sexual expressions without destroying people and society.
And it won’t work, because the root problem isn’t actually a sexual one.Root of All Sin
What does the Bible diagnose as the root of human sexual perversion — what we often and rightly call sexual brokenness? We can see it clearly in Romans 1:21–26,
For although they knew God, they did not honor him as God or give thanks to him, but they became futile in their thinking, and their foolish hearts were darkened. Claiming to be wise, they became fools, and exchanged the glory of the immortal God for images resembling mortal man and birds and animals and creeping things. Therefore God gave them up in the lusts of their hearts to impurity, to the dishonoring of their bodies among themselves, because they exchanged the truth about God for a lie and worshiped and served the creature rather than the Creator, who is blessed forever! Amen. For this reason God gave them up to dishonorable passions.
“Dishonorable passions,” which refers to sexual sin in all its deviant heterosexual, homosexual, and other expressions, is a manifestation of humanity unhinged from its Creator. The real root of perversion, bearing fruit in expressions of sexual perversions, is human pride.
Pride is a black hole of consuming selfishness at the core of fallen human nature. Pride’s nature is to consume, to bring into the self. It sees other people, all of creation, and God himself as things to use in service to the self’s desires.
We all know this by experience. We know the more we feed any expression of pride, whether through sex or anger or covetousness or whatever, pride’s appetite grows and urges us to consume more and more.
So just as gluttony or anorexia is pride infecting and manipulating the self’s orientation toward food, or greed is pride infecting and manipulating the self’s orientation toward money, sexual immorality and perversions are pride infecting and manipulating the self’s orientation toward sex. Sexual sin is unhinged human pride rejecting the Creator in order to sexually consume others for the benefit of the self.Personal Pride, Corporate Judgment
This does not mean, however, that there’s an exact correlation between the nature of our particular sexual brokenness and our personal rebellion against God. We are all born with natures in rebellion against God. But our individual sexuality is shaped by a host of biological, personal, family, and social/cultural influences. Some factors we’re born with, some may have been abusively forced upon us, and some we sinfully embrace and nourish. The Bible acknowledges all these factors.
But when Paul says God gives up a people “in the lusts of their hearts to impurity,” he’s mainly (though not exclusively) referring to a corporate judgment. The more a people unhinge themselves from God’s ordained limits, the more God removes the restraints on the sexual expressions of pride, resulting in a societal slide into consuming sexual destruction.
So what we must keep in mind that no matter what sexual orientation or dysfunction or distortion we’re dealing with, our biggest personal and corporate problem is not sexual; it’s pride.You Are Not Your Own
Our most powerful weapon in the fight against sexual impurity is not a cage to hem in our depraved impulses, nor is it increased tolerance of sexual deviancy, but a profound humility. And humility is a deep realization and embrace of the truth that we are not our own. This is why Paul gave the Corinthians this counsel regarding sexual sin:
Flee from sexual immorality. Every other sin a person commits is outside the body, but the sexually immoral person sins against his own body. Or do you not know that your body is a temple of the Holy Spirit within you, whom you have from God? You are not your own, for you were bought with a price. So glorify God in your body. (1 Corinthians 6:18–20)
Yes, fleeing from an enticing sexual temptation — taking behavioral action — is necessary. But notice that Paul’s primary emphasis is not behavior modification, nor is it deliverance from demonic oppression, both of which are realities of our complex human experience and so have some place in our fight for sexual purity. Paul sees the primary issue in our sexual struggle as the remaining pride within us.
That’s why the key to our freedom, the great killer of our sexual sin, is in our embracing this reality:
I have been crucified with Christ. It is no longer I who live, but Christ who lives in me. And the life I now live in the flesh I live by faith in the Son of God, who loved me and gave himself for me. (Galatians 2:20)
This is what it means that we are not our own. This is what sin-killing humility looks like. This is the death of pride and all its perverting power over us.
Freedom is not the freedom to express our pride-fueled sexual desires. Freedom is the humble belief that we are not our own, and therefore not enslaved to our all-consuming pride, but free to be what God created us to be.
Depression is not simply black and white. There are many degrees of discouragement, and God is able to provide help in them all.
I was a writer and principal executive in an advertising agency when I decided to leave my profession to stay home and raise my kids. I wanted to be the one that nurtured and trained our children, and my busy job simply didn’t give me enough time to do that well.
On the one hand, when I left the business world, I never looked back. I loved being with my kids, and I began to find creative outlets in and around the home. I deepened my prayer life. There were certainly rewards. But in other ways, leaving my job was very hard. Frankly, I really wrestled over my identity.
I worked in advertising for a couple of years before leaving with two colleagues to start a new agency. I was 25. That same year, I became a born-again Christian. What an exhilarating ride! We worked ten- or twelve-hour days, and experienced some success. New business was flowing to us. The advertising associations were noticing and commending our work. We were suddenly winning clients from other cities. I even had a client in another country.
I was a woman succeeding in a man’s world. I was very much “living the dream.” I loved Jesus and being a Christian, but my primary identity was “successful professional.” My work was the main source of my personal sense of affirmation and accomplishment. I could exercise control, see results on a regular basis, and be rewarded for it, both with recognition and compensation.Less Than My Best
A few years later, I married a wonderful guy (who happened to be one of my business partners!), and before long we had a son. I tried working part-time and was (as I know so many women are) torn and guilty much of the time. I felt like I was giving less than my best both places.
Then another son was born. I didn’t last a week at the part-time job. Even though our income was slashed, and severe budgeting became a reality, I decided to go home for good. On top of losing an income, my husband and I also felt called to begin giving 10% of what we earned to the church. While we remained in a small home with old carpet and sacrificed many “nice things,” by God’s grace, we never missed the money.“I’m Just a Mom”
I loved so much about being at home. I loved being the main nurturer of my babies. I loved witnessing their “firsts.” I loved the bonding happening with my boys. I loved sharing Jesus with our kids, and teaching them to love him. I loved being able to get to know some moms in the neighborhood. I loved the opportunity to do a little sewing and to learn how to cook.
But there were also things I didn’t love. I didn’t like that nothing was ever done. At work, I finished projects. At home, I could work the whole day, and at the end there was absolutely no evidence I had done anything at all. There was always more laundry to do, another mess in the living room, another meal to fix, another diaper to change. At work, I could tell when I was doing a good job. At home, I struggled to have confidence in my abilities. I was pouring into my kids, but the changes were so incremental I couldn’t tell if anything I was teaching them was taking hold. Was the investment of my time and energy really making a difference?
But it was worse than that. At home, it often seemed like nobody noticed or applauded anything I did. At work, I had been a shining young professional helping people be successful and businesses grow. I had a portfolio! I was moving up! I was important! Now I was that poor woman you see at the grocery store who’s obviously not had time to take a shower or fix her hair, dressed in rumpled clothing, looking exhausted as she denies her toddler yet one more sugary treat.
If I went to a professional event with my husband and someone asked me what I did, I cringed and said, “I’m just a mom.”Work That Lasts
Many years later, it embarrasses me to see how much value I placed on man-centered achievement and applause. I was a sincere Christian with a growing relationship with Jesus, I was teaching my children about him with joy, but I had not yet learned to find my value and worth in him. And I had not yet learned which things have eternal value, and which will soon be forgotten.
If I were to trot out any of the “spectacular” work I did in my business days, it would look hopelessly outdated and irrelevant today. On the other hand, when I look at my sons, God shows me priceless evidence and rewards for the sacrifices and investments I made in their growing up years.
Of course, I am not saying it is bad to work in the business world or in any job. Far from it! Jobs of all kinds are the wonderful way God provides for people all over the earth. And God calls many women to work outside the home — even those who have small children.
Proverbs 31 extols a woman who deftly balances business interests outside the home while providing care and nurture to her family. (I would point out, however, that even for her, there doesn’t seem to be much time to sleep!) The work itself is not bad — even though most of it is going to pass away.A Mother’s Worth
The problem for me was when my work became my identity, when my work was the source of my “self-esteem” and made me feel more “important,” when my work seemed more worthy because it was more interesting on a day-to-day basis, when my work was necessary for approval, praise and applause.
God tells me he loved me and chose me to be his daughter before the foundation of the world, whether I work at home or on Wall Street (Ephesians 1:3–4). He says that though I am clearly a sinner rebelling against a holy God (Romans 3:23), by Jesus’s sacrifice, I am forgiven, bought, and paid for — regardless of whether I am a barista or at home changing diapers (Ephesians 1:7–8; Romans 5:8; 1 Corinthians 7:23). As a born-again child of God, I am an heir with Christ of all things, whether I oversee a team of a hundred or a nest of three (Romans 8:14–17; Hebrews 1:2). In light of all of this, I was irrational to look for earthly applause to make me feel valued and of worth.
Do not love the world or the things in the world. If anyone loves the world, the love of the Father is not in him. For all that is in the world — the desires of the flesh and the desires of the eyes and pride of life — is not from the Father but is from the world. And the world is passing away along with its desires, but whoever does the will of God abides forever. (1 John 2:15–17)Better to Stay at Home?
Is it better for moms to stay at home? I don’t pretend to have the definitive answer to that question, or to know God’s will for other women. But I do encourage young moms to consider their reasons for wanting to work outside the home. If your income is needed to put food on the table and clothes on the backs of your family, you may well need to work outside the home.
My heart breaks for moms who would give anything to be able to be home with their kids, but circumstances of all kinds keep them in the workplace. If this is you, know that God knows your heart, that he has called you to the work he is giving you, and that he will bless your family even as you are obedient to him in these hard things. There may be other legitimate reasons God is sincerely and surely calling you to make the sacrifice to work outside the home. The most important thing is to seek him and be obedient to the call he is giving you.
But if you are working outside the home mainly because it makes you feel good about yourself, or because you really enjoy it, or because it seems more interesting, you may need to pray about whether this is really God’s call on your life — or whether selfish interests are guiding your decisions.Stay and Make Disciples
Over the years, I learned that my life at home did not have to be boring. I came to appreciate that the things I was doing were of lasting importance, and that doing them well made a difference. God tackled the immense pride in my heart, and used my time at home with my children to begin cultivating the fruit of the Spirit in me. Best of all, throughout those years, my greatest treasure became Jesus.
Jesus told us to make disciples, and raising children is the most concentrated opportunity we have to obey that command. As I look back on my life as a mom at home, I know I never will regret the moments that I spent nurturing, teaching, and playing with my kids. It was a true privilege to have a central role in discipling my children in each phase of their development. I am so grateful God made that possible for me and for our family.
If no one in your life knows you are a Christian, you probably aren’t one. Heaven is only for those who were unashamed of their Savior on earth.
Recently, the elders of our church gathered after the Sunday morning service to pray over a member who had received a difficult medical diagnosis. Complicating her condition was her upcoming travel to Haiti to work as a nurse on a short-term mission. After hearing the heavy word from the doctor, she still felt the desire to go, but now new concerns were in view: she would be in a foreign place, and quality medical help would be difficult to come by if her own unpredictable condition were to become problematic.
We sent word around to the elders to gather with her and her family after the service. As I’d done before, I picked through my wife’s collection of small vials, and grabbed the one essential oil for leadership in the local church: the frankincense we use for anointing.One Passage in James
This was not the first time we’d gathered as elders to pray together for, and anoint, a member in unusual circumstances, and likely it will not be the last.
Such a practice may be strange to many of us who grew up in mainstream evangelical churches. Mark 6:13 mentions Jesus’s disciples anointing “with oil many who were sick,” but James 5:14–15 is the one passage that plainly prescribes this practice in the life of the church:
Is anyone among you sick? Let him call for the elders of the church, and let them pray over him, anointing him with oil in the name of the Lord. And the prayer of faith will save the one who is sick, and the Lord will raise him up. And if he has committed sins, he will be forgiven.
Five important points make this Christian anointing of the sick distinct from every other anointing.1. Who should call?
Verse 15 makes plain that “sick” in verse 14 is not a common cold, stomach flu, or even influenza. We may be quicker today to consider ourselves “sick” than they were in the first century. Elder prayer is for those in some serious circumstance and unusually difficult straits. One commentator surmises that “this sick person is bedridden and potentially helpless even to pray for him- or herself” (242). Another provides five pointers in the text that the situation is serious: the elders are called to the sick person; the elders do all the praying; the person is said to be “worn out” or “exhausted” (the meaning of “sick” in verse 15); the elders’ faith is in view, not the sick person’s; and the elders pray over the (bedridden) person (194). (Note here, contra so-called “prosperity gospel” claims, this prayer of faith is not offered by the sick person, but by the elders.)
Calling for the elders is not the Christian’s first recourse with any form of sickness or discomfort. However, Christians do have a backstop within the local church for escalating and dire physical conditions. Such support is not in lieu of medical help, but an appeal to God in, alongside, and over it.2. Who should come?
James 5:14 specifically mentions the elders of the church. The New Testament consistently and pervasively attributes formal leadership in the local church to a plurality of elders (Acts 14:23; 20:17; 21:18; 1 Timothy 4:14; 5:17; Titus 1:5; 1 Peter 5:1, 5). It’s not elder (singular) — not one-man ministry — but elders (plural), a team of pastor-elders leading the church together.
“Elder” is the same office often called “pastor” today (based on the noun pastor or shepherd in Ephesians 4:11 and its verb forms in Acts 20:28 and 1 Peter 5:2). The same office is also twice called “overseer” in four texts (Acts 20:28; Philippians 1:1; 1 Timothy 3:1–2; Titus 1:7). These are the formal leaders in the local church who don’t have authority or wield power on their own, but serve in a God-appointed, church-affirmed role in which they represent Christ to his church (to the degree they are faithful to Christ’s word), and the church to Christ.
Calling for the elders is the sick person’s way of coming to the church to ask for her collective prayer.3. What should the elders do?
The elders should pray. The emphasis in the passage is on prayer, not anointing. “Let them pray over him, anointing . . .” The grammar of the passage communicates that the central reason the elders have come is to pray. Prayer is primary; anointing is secondary. Anointing, as we’ll see, accompanies prayer. The power is not in the oil, but in the God to whom we pray.
Note here that (unlike the Catholic sacrament of “extreme unction” which alleges its cues from James 5) the prayer, and aim of anointing, is for restoration to life, not consecration for death.4. Why anoint with oil?
Here’s the part that can seem strange to some today. The problem is that we may never have considered the place of oil, and the act of anointing, throughout the Scriptures.
Throughout the Bible, anointing with oil symbolizes consecration to God (as in Exodus 28:41; Luke 4:18; Acts 4:27; 10:38; 2 Corinthians 1:21; Hebrews 1:9). The act of anointing does not, as some claim, automatically confer grace and remit sin. Rather, it is a “means of grace,” which accompanies prayer, for those who believe. Like fasting, anointing is a kind of handmaid of prayer, or an intensifier of prayer — a way to reach beyond our daily patterns in unusual circumstances.
Anointing with oil is an external act of the body that accompanies, and gives expression to, the internal desire and disposition of faith to dedicate someone to God in a special way. It is not here simply medicinal, as some have claimed, with our application today being to apply modern medicine along with prayer. Such a view overlooks the wealth of theology across the Scriptures about the symbolism and significance of anointing.
In fact, anointing is so significant that God’s long-promised King, who we eventually learn is God’s own eternal Son, is called Messiah in Hebrew, Christ in Greek, which means Anointed. Christ himself is the greatest manifestation of consecration to God in his perfect human life, sacrificial human death, and victorious human resurrection from the grave.
So, here in James 5, as Douglas Moo writes, “As the elders pray, they are to anoint the sick person in order to symbolize that that person is being set apart for God’s special attention and care” (242). Anointing is not automatic in producing healing, but serves as a prayerful expression, and intensifier of our plea, asking God, and waiting for him, to heal.
If you ask, then, what kind of oil should we use, my answer would be, in light of the theology of anointing: not cheap oil. The very point of the oil is to symbolize the gravity and urgency of the occasion through lavishness and (appropriate) expense. This is not the place to go on the cheap end. The specialness of the act is tied to the preciousness of the oil.5. How should they pray?
Finally, we have specific and important clarity about how the elders should pray: “in the name of the Lord.” The power is not in the oil or the elders or even in their prayers, but in God, in the name of Jesus Christ. When God answers with healing, he does so not decisively because of the oil or the elders, but because of the work of his Son, Jesus.
Which means the elders can pray boldly and with confidence. Where two or three elders are gathered for special prayer, there they should be expectant that God will move. The “prayer of faith” in verse 15 is simply the prayer of the elders from verse 14: the prayer offered in faith that can, and often does, heal.
I hesitated mid-sentence, mid-sermon.
He was screaming in the hallway just outside the auditorium doors. Thankfully, two of my fellow elders quickly left their seats to help. I couldn’t see what was happening, but I knew my wife was desperately restraining our eight-year-old son while he screamed, kicked, and bit her. Yes, I could have stopped, but somehow I kept preaching with an anguished heart.
The church I serve has known my son from his birth, from when he was diagnosed with Autism Spectrum Disorder at sixteen months. They love and accept him, and they would have understood if I had abruptly ended my sermon that day.
Undoubtedly, God has used my son in the life of our church family to shape a culture where those with special needs are welcome. And though how to best welcome and serve them remains an ongoing challenge, we have embraced the world of disabilities as a vital part of Jesus’s sovereign purpose to redeem and restore broken people to himself.Partial Justice Warriors
No one showed compassion to outcasts like Jesus — Samaritans, publicans, harlots, lepers, the demonized. The people we are so good at pushing aside or casting beneath us, Jesus lifts up and dignifies. Among Jesus’s people there is no Jew or Greek, barbarian, Scythian, slave or free, male or female, nimble or quadriplegic — we are all one in Christ Jesus (Galatians 3:28).
Many Christians rightly grieve over poverty, injustice, sex trafficking, and racism. It is good for Christians to think deeply and biblically about these things, because these are all things that the Bible addresses. At the same time, these are all “easy” places to show concern and compassion because even the unbelieving world loves to talk about these things, for reasons that have nothing to do with following Jesus.
Truly imitating the love of Christ will look different than simply adding a holy “Amen” to whatever cause the world happens to be applauding. True Christian compassion is not always attractive to the world. For instance, our churches are diverse, multi-ethnic, and missional — but do they include a place for the disabled? It’s good to have parking and access ramps and equipped restrooms, but more importantly, are those with disabilities welcomed and prized as people made in the image of God?
Is it possible, despite our allegiance to justice and compassion, that we have left the disabled on the fringes, that we are guilty of being selective in our compassion? Have we neglected to “invite . . . the crippled, the lame, the blind” to the feast of grace (Luke 14:13)?Reaching for Comprehensive Compassion
Partiality is James’s word for this sort of hypocrisy. He warns Jesus’s people against the duplicity of showing partiality in the gathered assembly (James 2:1–2). How is such partiality demonstrated? By paying attention to the fine person but dismissing the poor and shabby as insignificant (James 2:3). To receive the one and dismiss the other is to make “distinctions among” ourselves and “become judges with evil thoughts” (James 2:4).
God’s law to “love your neighbor as yourself” (James 2:8) removes all dividers of who we’re called to love, as Jesus himself showed (Luke 10:25–37). So, those who claim to follow God’s law and then judge for themselves which neighbors they will honor (James 2:4) show a partiality that rightly earns the title “double-minded” (James 1:8; 4:8).
Sadly, this happens with the disabled in our gatherings. Too often, the disabled are isolated, not welcomed. Of course, this isolation can be created or intensified by parents (or caregivers) who are too ashamed or exhausted to “make it to church,” and too embarrassed to ask for help. It is hard to grasp the weariness that comes with caring for someone who is severely disabled.
But I fear isolation is sometimes caused by a spirit of self-preservation that says, “I don’t know what to say,” or, “We don’t have the resources to help,” or, “I can’t relate.” I fear isolation is caused by equating “missional” with “cool.” In our push to achieve cultural relevance through aesthetic excellence we effectively tell the disabled “stand over there” (James 2:3) because we don’t know how to fit them into our ideas of being missional. You can’t keep a hip image in the mess of serving a nine-year-old who yells profanities, or a thirty-year-old who drools on you. Not anymore than Jesus could keep his hands clean when rubbing spit and mud on the blind man’s eyes (John 9:6).A Vital Welcome
Does your church have people committed to the gospel and loving the broken and lost? Congratulations! God has equipped your church to serve those with special needs. The first step in welcoming the disabled is not a program. It is humility. The self-emptying humility of Christ “who, though he was in the form of God, did not count equality with God a thing to be grasped” (Philippians 2:6).
This mind of Christ will not allow us to hide, but empower us to embrace the most marginalized and frightening minority in our world: the disabled. They are not an optional upgrade to our ministry endeavors. They are vital and precious members of Jesus’s body.
Your hardships and disappointments are never meaningless. In Christ, God uses every one to deepen your relationship with him.
Millions wear ambition to camouflage their insecurities.
Not all ambition is insecure or ungodly (Romans 15:20), but a lot of it is. For instance, the apostle Paul says, “Do nothing from selfish ambition or conceit, but in humility count others more significant than yourselves” (Philippians 2:3). Ambition for the sake of Christ fills the heart and makes a real difference. Ambition for self draws an elegant veil over an empty heart, staying busy in order to look and feel significant.
The American Dream looks like an impressive mountain to climb when it’s really just a tiny cave in which to hide. People look like they are aspiring, striving, and succeeding, but in reality they are cowering. Confident, put together, assertive on the outside, but terrified within. We cover our deepest fears by trying to achieve more, acquire more, and be more.Five Fears Steering Our Hearts
So, what are we so afraid of?
Our fears may wear new styles of clothing, listen to new artists, and refuse to pay for cable, but they are ancient, relentless, and contagious. The same anxieties terrorizing us today were terrorizing the church and the world in New Testament times. The list below is not exhaustive, but represents five fears the Bible addresses that are as alive today as ever.1. We are afraid to have needs.
Jesus knew we would fear need. He preached to his disciples, “Do not be anxious about your life, what you will eat or what you will drink, nor about your body, what you will put on” (Matthew 6:25). Then he repeated himself twice more in the next nine verses (Matthew 6:31, 34). If he was preaching today to Christians in comfortable, affluent America, would he say something different?
No, because anxiety about our external needs is not really about those needs, but about our hearts. We are afraid about our food, and drink, and clothing — and mortgage payments, and appliances that need to be replaced, and tuition bills — because we simply cannot believe what Jesus says: “Fear not, little flock, for it is your Father’s good pleasure to give you the kingdom” (Luke 12:32).2. We are afraid of what others might think.
Sadly, the Pharisees may fit in just fine in many American churches. Who knows just how happy they would have been in today’s social-media popularity contests?
They opposed and even killed Jesus because they loved the attention and praise of man too much (Mark 11:18). At the same time, they restrained their murderous jealousy against Jesus at times to preserve their favor among the people (Mark 14:1–2). They lived and killed for approval, and ran from disapproval like it carried some life-threatening disease.
Why do we care so much about what others think? Because we are born, in our sin, wanting to be God and believing we are worthy of worship. Not the Sunday-morning-in-the-pew kind of worship, but a visible, countable, comparable kind of reverence and recognition. We live for likes, follows, and compliments, and fear rejection — or even worse, being overlooked.3. We are afraid of what others might do.
We dread what others might do even more than what they might think. In America, Christians do not worry about being killed for our faith, or even physically harmed in any way. We’re just afraid we might get maligned, shamed, or excluded.
The apostle Peter preaches into our fears and insecurities, “Even if you should suffer for righteousness’ sake, you will be blessed. Have no fear of them, nor be troubled” (1 Peter 3:14). But what if they never talk to me again? What if they report me to my boss, or spread false rumors about me? What if they fire me, or refuse to do business with me? “Have no fear of them.”
The apostle John goes even further than Peter:
“Do not fear what you are about to suffer. Behold, the devil is about to throw some of you into prison, that you may be tested, and for ten days you will have tribulation. Be faithful unto death, and I will give you the crown of life.” (Revelation 2:10)
Some of you will be thrown into prison. You will be tested. You will die (“unto death”). Do not fear.
If we believe Peter, and John, and Jesus, “we can confidently say, ‘The Lord is my helper; I will not fear; what can man do to me?’” (Hebrews 13:6).4. We are afraid to lose control.
Every story from Jesus’s life and ministry deserves special attention and awe, but one has shocked me as much as any year after year. Jesus comes to a demon-oppressed man — in fact, he’s oppressed by a horde of demons (Mark 5:9). The man walked around naked (Luke 8:27), could not be bound by anyone (Mark 5:3), cried out day and night in agony, and cut himself over and over with stones (Mark 5:5).
Then Jesus healed him. He cast all his demons into a herd of pigs, and finally freed the man from a lifetime of enslaving and self-destructive evil. What happens next is the shocking twist:
Then people went out to see what had happened, and they came to Jesus and found the man from whom the demons had gone, sitting at the feet of Jesus, clothed and in his right mind, and they were afraid. (Luke 8:35)
Jesus sets the demon-oppressed free, leaving a wild and violent criminal “clothed and in his right mind.” And instead of rejoicing, worshiping, and drawing near, the people retreat and reject Jesus instead. “Then all the people of the surrounding country of the Gerasenes asked him to depart from them, for they were seized with great fear” (Luke 8:37).
Why? Maybe because he killed their pigs, and ruined someone’s business. Or might it be because they saw what he was capable of, and they were terrified he might upset, disrupt, and overturn their life, too? They were afraid to lose control.
The demon-oppressed man had lost control a long time ago. When Jesus comes and heals him, he begs to be with Jesus. The crowds had cultivated the illusion of control, and they weren’t ready to surrender that to anyone, not even one with the power and authority and compassion of Christ.
Are we ready?5. We are afraid to die.
Fears of need, rejection, and persecution plague many of us, but death is the nightmare driving the American Dream. The writer to the Hebrews says of Jesus,
Since therefore the children share in flesh and blood, he himself likewise partook of the same things, that through death he might destroy the one who has the power of death, that is, the devil, and deliver all those who through fear of death were subject to lifelong slavery. (Hebrews 2:14–15)
Like King David, each of us is born into this lifelong slavery, from our very first breath to our dreaded last breath, unless God raises us from the dead. “I know my transgressions, and my sin is ever before me. . . . Behold, I was brought forth in iniquity, and in sin did my mother conceive me” (Psalms 51:3, 5).
American or African or Asian, Christian or Muslim or Buddhist, we are all born into sin and under its curse. The whole earth groans under its death sentence (Romans 8:20–21). Death comes to every one of us, and yet we try to ignore it for the vast majority of our lives, naively thinking it might go away. Yet the harder we run away from it, the faster it closes the gap on us.
The promise of success, and the thrill of sinful pleasure, and the high of spending, and the buzz of entertainment all treat the symptoms, but they cannot liberate us from slavery. They mask our fear of death, dulling our senses, and blinding us to reality, tragically leaving us even more hopeless than before.Do Not Fear
Death is the nightmare in the American Dream, but not in the Christian life. “‘Death is swallowed up in victory.’ ‘O death, where is your victory? O death, where is your sting?’ The sting of death is sin, and the power of sin is the law. But thanks be to God, who gives us the victory through our Lord Jesus Christ” (1 Corinthians 15:54–57).
We do not fear need, because we know our Father will give us what we need today (Matthew 6:32–33), and everything else forever when we are finally with him (Romans 8:32).
We do not fear what others think, because God himself sent his Son to show us just how much he loves us (1 John 4:9–10).
We do not fear what others might do, because Jesus satisfied the just wrath of God we deserved (Romans 3:25–26), and no one on this earth or anywhere else can separate us from him (Romans 8:35–37).
We do not fear losing control, because we know the one who governs and decides all things is working absolutely everything, large and small, for our good (Romans 8:28).
We certainly do not fear death, because, as John Piper says, “Death has become a doorway to paradise.” Not only can death not touch what we treasure most, because of Christ, but it is forced to deliver our greatest treasure to us.
If we fear God, we need not fear persecution, poverty, punishment, or death. The American Dream loses its appeal because it offers less life, liberty, and happiness than we find in Jesus. Having died to fear, we are raised to freedom.
Good commentaries should ask and answer questions that enable people to see things for themselves, and probe into reality, not just verbal relations.
As Christians, one of the most important questions we can ask is, “Where can I hear God’s voice today?”
Satan loves to remind us of all that we are missing out on if we follow Christ — except for hell.
How does someone who is blind to the glory of God come to see him for who he really is?
To be sure, the natural eyes and ears and brains are part of the process. Without them we cannot even see or hear or construe the natural things that reveal God’s glory: creation, incarnation, gospel, Scripture. But this natural seeing is not decisive in seeing the glory of God. “Seeing they do not see,” Jesus said (Matthew 13:13). Something more than the use of the natural eyes and ears and brains must happen.
The way the apostle Paul puts it is that you must have “the eyes of your hearts enlightened, that you may know” (Ephesians 1:18). This too is strange — the heart has eyes! But perhaps not beyond comprehension.
Most people are at home speaking of “the heart” as something more than the blood-pumping organ in our chest. Such language is not foreign to us. This “heart” is the real us. Intuitively we know that there is more to us than flesh and bones. We know we are not mere chemicals in a sack of skin. We would not talk the way we do about things like justice and love if we didn’t believe that.Eyes of the Heart
Is it so strange, then, to add to this immaterial personhood the idea of immaterial eyes — “the eyes of the heart”? This inner person, who is the real us, sees and knows things that are not identical with what the eyes of the body can see. Pascal said, “The heart has its reasons, which reason does not know. We feel it in a thousand things” (Pensées). There is a spiritual seeing through and beyond natural seeing. There is a spiritual hearing through and beyond natural hearing. There is spiritual discerning through and beyond natural reasoning.
How, then, may we conceive of what happens when the heart sees the glory of God? I found a clue in the way Paul speaks of our knowledge of the glory of God in nature. On the one hand, Paul says that we all “know God.”
“Although they knew God, they did not honor him as God or give thanks to him” (Romans 1:21). That is astonishing. Everyone knows God! But in other places, Paul emphatically says that by nature people do not know God. For example, “In the wisdom of God, the world did not know God through wisdom” (1 Corinthians 1:21). The “Gentiles do not know God” (1 Thessalonians 4:5). Formerly “you did not know God” (Galatians 4:8; see 2 Thessalonians 1:8; 1 John 4:8).Who Knows God?
So, what does Paul mean in Romans 1:21 when he says that all human beings “know God”? To answer this, we might simply quote Romans 1:19–20, “What can be known about God is plain to them, because God has shown it to them. For his invisible attributes, namely, his eternal power and divine nature, have been clearly perceived, ever since the creation of the world, in the things that have been made.”
But is that all Paul means when he says, “They knew God”? I think there is more. In Romans 2:14–15, Paul says that people who have never heard of the law of God sometimes do what the law requires. Their consciences witness to God’s will. He puts it like this: “They show that the work of the law is written on their hearts.”
So, here is my suggestion: “Knowing God” in Romans 1:21 includes this deeper heart experience of Romans 2:15. The analogy that I find helpful is to conceive of the innate knowledge of God and his will as a kind of template or mold in the human heart. This template is designed by God in every human heart with a shape, or a form, that corresponds to the glory of God. In other words, if the glory of God were seen with the eyes of the heart, it would fit the template so perfectly that we would know the glory is real. We would know we were made for this.
When Paul says that all humans “know God,” or that all humans have the work of the law “written on their hearts,” he means that there is a glory-shaped template in every heart waiting to receive the glory of God. We all “know God” in the sense that we have this witness in our hearts that we were made for this glory. There is a latent expectancy and longing, and the shape of it is buried deep in our souls.Hearts Packed Hard
The reason we do not see the glory of God is not that the template is faulty or that God’s glory is not shining. The reason is “hardness of heart” (Ephesians 4:18). This hardness is a deep aversion to God, and a corresponding love for self-exaltation. Paul said that the mind-set of the flesh is hostile to God (Romans 8:7). And Jesus said that “light has come into the world, and people loved the darkness rather than the light” (John 3:19).
Our problem is not that we lack the light, but that we love the dark. This is the hardness of our hearts.
So, in my analogy of the template, this means that the hollowed-out shapes of the mold, which are perfectly shaped for the all-satisfying glory of God, are instead packed hard with the love of other things. So, when the glory of God shines into the heart — from creation or incarnation or Jesus or the gospel — it finds no place. It is not felt or perceived as fitting.
To the natural mind — the mind whose glory-shaped mold is packed hard with idols — the glory of God is foolishness (1 Corinthians 2:14). It doesn’t fit. As Jesus said to those whose hardness pushed them to the point of murder, “You seek to kill me because my word finds no place in you” (John 8:37). Of course, they could construe his words, and remember his words. But they could not see them as glorious or compellingly beautiful.
They heard the words, but they did not love them. They loved the darkness that filled the template that was designed for the brightness of the glory of God.Supernatural Excavation
If we are on the right track, the only hope for seeing the glory of God in Scripture is that God might cut away the diamond-hard, idolatrous substitutes for the glory of God that are packed into the template of our heart.
The Bible speaks of this supernatural act in many ways. For example, it describes this supernatural in-breaking as a shining into our hearts of divine glory (2 Corinthians 4:6), and as a granting of truth and repentance (2 Timothy 2:25), and as the giving of faith (Philippians 1:29), and as raising us from the dead (Ephesians 2:5), and as new birth by the word (1 Peter 1:23; James 1:18), and as the special revelation of the Father (Matthew 16:17) and the Son (Matthew 11:27), and as the enlightening of the eyes of the heart (Ephesians 1:18), and as being given the secret of the kingdom of God (Luke 8:10).
When this miracle happens to us, the glory of God cuts and burns and melts and removes from the template the suicidal cement of alien loves and takes its rightful place. We were made for this. And the witness of this glory to the authenticity of the Scriptures is overwhelming. Where we saw only foolishness before, we now see the all-satisfying beauty of God. God has done this — supernaturally.
No one merely decides to experience the Christian Scriptures as the all-compelling, all-satisfying truth of one’s life. Seeing is a gift. And so, the free embrace of God’s word is a gift. God’s Spirit opens the eyes of our heart, and what was once boring, or absurd, or foolish, or mythical is now self-evidently real.
God’s grace is not his response to our initiative. When God gives saving grace, he sovereignly calls dead souls out of the grave.
It can be really hard to love the church. Every Christian, who’s been one for very long, knows this.
The earthly church has always been a motley crew. It’s never been ideal. The New Testament exists because churches, to differing degrees, have always been a mess — a glorious mess of saints still polluted by remaining sin, affected by defective genes, brains, and bodies, and influenced by life-shaping pasts.
This mess rarely looks glorious to us up close. It looks like a lot of sin and a lot of blood, sweat, and tears invested into a lot of futility. It often looks like something we’d rather escape than join.
But this is the way it’s supposed to be. Because the mess is what draws out the one thing that advances the church’s mission more than anything else. And this one thing is why we must not, for selfish reasons, leave the church.The Church We Didn’t Choose
Jesus’s very first disciples didn’t get to choose each other. Jesus chose them (John 15:16). They just found themselves thrown together.
The very next generation of early Christians didn’t get to choose each other either. They too were thrown together with others they likely wouldn’t have chosen: Palestinian and Hellenistic Jews, Jews and Gentiles, educated and uneducated, slaves and slave owners, impoverished and aristocrats, former zealots and former tax collectors, former prostitutes and former Pharisees.
And Jesus gave these early disciples, and all disciples afterward, an impossible command: love one another (John 15:17). It had to be impossible to obey in mere human power because this love was meant to bear witness of Jesus in the world (John 13:35), and to give visible evidence of the invisible God (1 John 4:12). It had to demonstrate that “what is impossible with man is possible with God” (Luke 18:27).
And Jesus gave his disciples an impossible context in which to carry out this impossible command: the church (Matthew 16:18) — a community of diverse, sin-polluted, defective individuals from all sorts of life-shaping pasts living life together in an impossible love.
Then Jesus gave his church an impossible mission: preach the gospel throughout the whole, God-rejecting, Christ-hating world (Luke 21:17; John 15:18), and plant impossible communities among every people where diverse, sin-polluted, defective individuals from all sorts of life-shaping pasts would live out Jesus’s impossible command to love one another (Matthew 28:19–20).
Impossible love, impossible community, and impossible mission: this is a plan doomed to fail. There’s no way this works, unless a God exists who makes possible the humanly impossible.
And here we are, two thousand years later. The impossible mission has produced impossible communities carrying out this impossible command throughout much of the world. For all the church’s problems, and they are legion, something miraculous is at work here.Miraculous, Struggling Community
But the church rarely looks miraculous at any given moment. “The church,” as we most directly experience it, looks like the less-than-ideal local church we belong to, made up of ordinary people struggling to get along, struggling to figure out how to “do church” in a world of constant change, and struggling to do its part to fulfill the Great Commission.
Struggling doesn’t look or feel miraculous. It’s fatiguing, frustrating, and at times exasperating. Struggling can make us want to give up.
But we must not give up on the church. Because it’s the messy things — those extraordinarily difficult and painful things that can drive us crazy — that provide the very opportunities for the humanly impossible love of Christ to be exercised, giving visibility to the existence of the invisible God.
According to the New Testament, a church’s success is not measured by the number of its attenders, the size of its budget, the excellence of its event production, or the scope of its public influence. Its success is measured by the quality of its love. A church that most effectively witnesses Jesus in the world pursues love through:
- Honoring each other (Romans 12:10),
- Contributing to meet each other’s needs (Romans 12:13),
- Showing hospitality to one another (Romans 12:13),
- Rejoicing over each other’s joys (Romans 12:15),
- Weeping over each other’s griefs (Romans 12:15),
- Pursuing harmony with each other in spite of differences (Romans 12:16),
- Not excluding the lowliest members (Romans 12:16),
- Submitting to each other (Ephesians 5:21),
- Persistently striving for agreement over thorny issues (2 Corinthians 13:11),
- Using individual freedom in Christ to serve each other (Galatians 5:13),
- Bearing with each other’s weaknesses, foibles, and immaturity (Ephesians 4:2),
- Covering each other’s multitudinous sins with forgiveness (1 Peter 4:8; Colossians 3:13),
- Stirring up each other to press on in the mission of love (Hebrews 10:24),
- And not neglecting to meet regularly together (Hebrews 10:25).
And what calls such love out? Read each line again and ask what situations prompt such opportunities to love. The short answer is: lots of various kinds of struggling. It’s the messy struggles that call out love.
Churches are designed to be communities of impossible love that only work if God is real, and Christ’s sacrifice is real, and heaven is real. In void of love, the community falls apart or degrades into consumer event products, empty formalism, formless “spirituality,” social advocacy groups, or essentially civic gatherings — all dying or dead remains of a past vitality.Graciously Disappointing Community
Jesus did not design the church to be a place where our dreams come true. Actually, it’s where many of our dreams are disappointed and die. And this is more of a grace to us than we likely realize, because our dreams are often much more selfish than we discern.
Our personal expectations easily become tyrants to everyone else, because everyone else fails to meet them. When we are more focused on how others’ failings and foibles obstruct the ideal community we want to pursue than we are on serving those others and pursuing their good and joy, our expectations can kill love, which impedes the real mission.
Jesus designed the church to be a place where love comes true, where we lay our preferences aside out of deference to others. It is meant to be a living laboratory of love, a place where there are so many opportunities, big and small, to lay down our lives for each other that the love of Christ becomes a public spectacle.
That’s why when it comes to church in this age, the picture of community we should have in our minds is not some utopian harmony, but Golgotha. In living life together, we die every day (1 Corinthians 15:31). We lay down our lives for each other (1 John 3:16).Love the One You’re With
Over forty years ago, Stephen Stills sang, “If you can’t be with the one you love, honey, love the one you’re with.” Though he certainly didn’t write this with the church in mind, we can draw a redemptive application.
There are numerous legitimate reasons to leave a church, and departures are one more messy opportunity to extend gracious love. But we must have a healthy suspicion of our motives if disillusionment, restlessness, boredom, discontentment, burnout, relational conflict, and disappointed expectations are fueling our impulse to leave. Often these fruits have roots in selfish soil. We must not love the church we can’t be with — that idealized community of our imagination. We must love the one we’re with.
We don’t get to choose the disciples we live with; Jesus does. We get thrown into a motley group of sin-polluted, defective saints, among whom, in our own ways, we are the polluted, defective foremost (1 Timothy 1:15).
What we get is the incredible privilege of and plethora of opportunities for loving these fellow disciples like Jesus loved us. We get to love them, warts and all. Because it is through the mutually self-dying, forbearing, forgiving love warty disciples have for one another that Jesus is most clearly shown to the world and his mission is most powerfully advanced.
God commands us not merely to flee evil, but to hate evil — not merely to do mercy, but to love mercy.
Never offline, always within reach, we now wield in our hands a magic wand of technological power we have only begun to grasp. But it raises new enigmas, too. Never more connected, we seem to be growing more distant. Never more efficient, we have never been more distracted.
Christians often feel like they are on a tightrope between believing our sin is too small for us to confess or too big for God to overcome. But no matter how often we lose our balance on this tightrope, Christian worship draws us into a radical tension between the two extremes.
In Zechariah 5, God gives his prophet two complementary visions. These strange visions — a giant flying scroll and a woman in a basket — reveal God’s plans to purify the land so his temple can be rebuilt. And these two visions help us navigate the tension between thinking our sin is too small for God’s attention or too big for his cleansing.Our Sins, They Are Many
In the first vision, the Lord God sends a giant flying scroll into the houses of evildoers, and the scroll consumes the house whole, “both timber and stone” (Zechariah 5:4). This appears extreme, especially when the offenses don’t seem especially egregious — stealing and swearing falsely. But these problems created obstacles for the temple reconstruction project by polluting the whole land where God intended to dwell.
If God does not cleanse the people who are building his temple, everything they touch will be as defiled as they are (Haggai 2:13–14). God’s scroll of judgment was fifteen feet wide and thirty feet long. If anyone hearing Zechariah’s vision thought their sin was small, this massive word of judgment from the Lord would inform them otherwise.
Every week we gather as God’s people, and we get the privilege of seeing God’s giant judgment scroll unrolled before us. It might arrive during a corporate reading of Scripture, or the lyric of a song about God’s holiness, or we might get a new glimpse of our sinfulness as the pastor preaches. This is one of the greatest gifts we experience every weekend: the reminder that our sins are many, and worse than we want to believe. The giant flying scroll reminds us that the Lord God intends to consume our sin whole.His Mercy Is More
In the second vision, we see how God is going to cleanse the place where his house is being built. If the previous vision revealed the massiveness of God’s judgment, this vision reveals the smallness of wickedness when compared to God’s power. The angel shows Zechariah a basket, about three to five gallons large, with a miniature woman named Wickedness inside (Zechariah 5:6–8). The angel can toss Wickedness around like a house cat, keeping her in the basket with a lead weight. Then the basket is flown from God’s temple construction site and placed in a containing house far away in Babylon.
God cleanses our sin by removing it from us, “as far as the east is from the west” (Psalm 103:12). Zechariah reminds us that God’s cleansing is not a knock-down, drag-out brawl for him, but something he can do in a single day (Zechariah 3:9). Sin may overwhelm us, but it’s like a frisbee in the hand of the Lord — tossed to the other side of the sea in a single motion.
Every week God’s people gather to hear the good news that God removed all of our sins from us and hurled them into the bottom of the sea (Micah 7:9). We read declarations, sing songs of celebration, and hear gospel truths about our full pardon. The basket with our lady Wickedness was no match for the death and resurrection of King Jesus. And not even Babylon the Great, the scarlet beast, nor all their armies pose any threat to the Lamb (2 Thessalonians 2:8; Revelation 17:14).Building the Holy Temple of God
God gave Zechariah these visions to encourage Israel and their high priest, Joshua, to rebuild his temple. But because they were not fully cleansed, the work of their hands would inevitably be tarnished (Haggai 2:14). Tragically, Joshua’s uncleanness — and that of all the people — was more contagious than holiness. But hundreds of years later, someone greater than Joshua would come and start a new kind of temple building project. Only this time, his cleanness was even more contagious:
And a leper came to [Jesus], imploring him, and kneeling said to him, “If you will, you can make me clean.” Moved with pity, he stretched out his hand and touched him and said to him, “I will; be clean.” And immediately the leprosy left him, and he was made clean. (Mark 1:40–42)
This greater Joshua, Jesus Christ, has completely consumed our sin and removed it from us, he has made us clean and acceptable in his sight. And every time we gather as God’s temple (1 Peter 2:5), we are able to participate in an even greater rebuilding project than the exiles from Babylon.
Every week we gather to hear God’s massive proclamation of judgment over our sins, and to hear how the cross of Christ has consumed that judgment. Our sin is no obstacle for the wickedness-removing power of the Lamb of God. We can be clean in him. As a great new hymn says,
What love could remember no wrongs we have done?
Omniscient, all-knowing, he counts not their sum.
Thrown into a sea without bottom or shore,
Our sins, they are many; his mercy is more!
What love could remember no wrongs we have done?
The Christian life is a fight. But our deadliest enemy doesn’t attack us from the outside, but from within.