Why does God answer yes to some prayers and no to others? Why does God miraculously heal some people and not others? Why does disaster strike one city and not another?
I’ve been pondering these questions since Hurricane Florence devastated much of Eastern North Carolina last year. I live in the center of the state, and contrary to the foreboding predictions, we were relatively unaffected. In response, a friend said, “I know why we were spared catastrophe and the storm circled our area and went south. I was praying that God would keep us safe and he answered my prayers!”
I had no words.
I know that God answers prayer. And we need to pray. God tells us to ask and it will be given to us (Matthew 7:7). But my friend’s words made me wonder if she thought that no one in Eastern Carolina was praying. I know people whose livelihoods were destroyed in the storm. Everything they owned was gone. They escaped with their lives but nothing material left. Some of them begged God to spare their city.One Died, Another Lived
What are we as believers to infer from these natural disasters? Can we simply draw straight lines between our requests and God’s answers? Years ago, I heard a pastor tell of his cancer that went into remission. When he told his congregation the good news, several commented, “We knew God would heal you. He had to. So many people were praying for you.”
While the pastor was thankful for others’ prayers, he also knew God did not owe him healing. Faithful believers throughout the ages have earnestly prayed and yet not been healed. The apostle Paul was not healed to show God’s power could be made perfect in Paul’s weakness (2 Corinthians 12:9).
And then there was my own son, Paul, who died as an infant. We had prayed, fasted, and asked friends to pray for his healing. Several years after his death, we met a man who said when he learned of our loss, “Don’t take this wrong, but we prayed for all of our children before they were born. And they were all born healthy.” We had no words.Why Did God Save Peter?
In considering the question of when and why God chooses to rescue, I was reminded of Acts 12 which begins: “About that time Herod the king laid violent hands on some who belonged to the church. He killed James the brother of John with the sword, and when he saw that it pleased the Jews, he proceeded to arrest Peter also. . . . So Peter was kept in prison, but earnest prayer for him was made to God by the church” (Acts 12:1–5). Peter was then rescued the very night that Herod was about to bring him out, to presumably kill him as he had killed James.
Why did God let James die and Peter live?
Peter, James, and John were three of Jesus’s closest disciples. These three were often selected to be alone with Jesus. Yet their earthly lives after Christ’s resurrection were markedly different. John was the last of the disciples to die, Peter was rescued from prison in Acts 12, but church history records that he was later martyred by being crucified upside down.
James was the first of the disciples to be martyred. The Bible records that Herod killed James with no elaborating details. We simply know that Peter was spared while James was not. What are we to make of this? Did God love Peter more than James? Was James’s life less important? Did James have less faith? Were people not praying for James?Our Father Knows Best
Looking at the fuller counsel of the Bible, it is clear that God has plans that we do not understand. His ways are not our ways (Isaiah 55:8–9). Because we believe that death is just a passage into eternal life (2 Timothy 1:10), one that all of us will go through, it ultimately doesn’t matter when we pass through it. God numbers our days before they begin, and he alone determines when we will die (Psalm 139:16).
Though we often cannot understand God’s purposes in this life, we can be sure that James’s life as a disciple and his death as a martyr was intentional. Everything God does has purpose (Isaiah 46:10). Because of that, we can be sure that at the time of James’s death, he had accomplished what God had called him to (Philippians 1:6), while Peter’s work on earth was unfinished (Philippians 1:24–25).
Living or dying, being spared or being tortured, being delivered in this life or the next is not an indicator of God’s love for us or the measure of our faith. Nothing can separate us from God’s love, and our future is determined by what he knows is best for us (Romans 8:28, 35–38).
Paul understood this principle well when he said in Philippians 1:21–23, “For me to live is Christ and to die is gain. If I am to live in the flesh, that means fruitful labor for me. Yet which I shall choose I cannot tell. I am hard pressed between the two. My desire is to depart and be with Christ, that is far better.” Departing this world and being with Christ is far better because eternal life is far better than life on earth. No matter what this life holds, we will eventually be deliriously happy in heaven where God has all of eternity to lavish us with his kindness (Ephesians 2:7).Suffering Is Not Punishment
Even though I know these truths, I have often been discouraged that others have been rescued while I was still suffering. Prosperity gospel proponents have told me that if I had prayed in faith, my body would have been healed, my son would have been spared, and my marriage would have been restored. It was all up to me. If I just had the faith, I would have had a better outcome.
Their words have left me bruised and disillusioned, wondering what I was doing wrong.
But that theology is not the gospel. God’s response to our prayers is not dependent upon our worthiness but rather rests upon on his great mercy (Daniel 9:18). Because of Christ, who took our punishment, God is always for us (Romans 8:31). He wants to give us all things. Christ himself is ever interceding for us (Romans 8:31–34).
If you are in Christ, God is completely for you. Your suffering is not a punishment. Your struggles are not because you didn’t pray the right way, or because you didn’t pray enough, or because you have weak faith or insufficient intercessors. It is because God is using your suffering in ways that you may not understand now, but one day you will. One day you will see how God used your affliction to prepare you for incomparable weight of glory (2 Corinthians 4:17). This is the gospel. And it holds for all who love Christ.
Dozens of countries are experiencing a resurgence of biblical Christianity. Pastor John shares several stories from his recent trip to Brazil and Argentina.
I can tell you anything. No one understands me like you do.
I don’t know what I would do without you.
I’m so glad we struggle with the same sins. It makes me know that I’m not alone.
Perhaps some trace of these statements sounds familiar to all of us, but when they characterize the tenor of our relationships, we have a problem. Codependency stems from an epidemic — a crisis that has quietly crept into our churches. Rosaria Butterfield calls it the “crisis of loneliness.”
I interviewed Rosaria Butterfield, author of The Gospel Comes with a House Key, on the topic of codependency. Many have responded to the rise of codependency by encouraging various boundaries in friendships, but Rosaria believes the problem (and solution) is at a deeper level. “Idols serve something; they plug a hole,” says Rosaria. “They are born because people are tragically and dangerously lonely.” This crisis is “not about boundaries.” Boundaries perpetuate our hearts’ petting of idols and enable a “culture of infancy” to flourish in our churches. She tells us, we must “deal with the crisis of loneliness” by filling the hole with more than just each other.Am I in a Codependent Friendship?
According to Rosaria, we form a codependent relationship — “make an idol out of a friend” — when we: “(1) ask that person to be something more than she should, and (2) ask that person to love me more than she should, to see me as a kind of savior.” An idol is born, Rosaria warns, from “not mediating that relationship through Jesus Christ.” When we “desire for a person something that God does not desire for her, or desire for that person to see us in a way that God does not want us to be elevated,” we have crossed the threshold from brotherly affection to worship distortion.
Rosaria directs us beyond changes in the structure of our churches and families to identify and eliminate underlying, distorted views of ourselves and of Christ. We need a mental shift for healthy relationships in the church in four key areas: sin, identity, discipleship, and repentance.Friendships Built Around Sin
Three problems regarding our understanding of sin feed the codependency wildfire: our ignorance of our own sin, our world’s perception of sin, and our “sin in common” mentality.
“Sin is predatory. I don’t think Christians really think about that. They think, ‘I’ve got it under control,’” Rosaria says. But we need to know the way “Adam thumbprinted us,” and if we don’t know what that is, we must rely on our brothers and sisters in Christ to tell us where we need to watch out for temptation. And feelings — the “precursor for our actions” — are not immune to temptation. Feelings can often subtly birth a codependent relationship because we do not check them against the word of God to filter their fleshly origin.
We also need to acknowledge how Satan fans the flame of codependency to potentially become a “homosexual outworking of idolatry.” In a sexually charged world, “homosexuality has now even become iconographic of progressiveness,” rendering tamer forms of codependency acceptable. But if we are mindful of how homosexuality has been normalized in our world, we can remember the Bible’s taboo against it is there not to harm or hinder us, but to protect us — for our good and for God’s glory.
And sin should not bond believers. That role belongs to Christ. Rosaria warns,
Maturity is not having a bunch of people who gather together because of a particular imprint of Adam on them. That is not maturity. That is anti-maturity. Maturity is where we know each other’s sin patterns well enough that part of being our brother’s keeper is that we watch over people in that way. We make sure that there’s a healthy distance. We don’t set people up to fail, and then walk away from them when they do.
When we suggest that sin marks our commonality, we are easily leading ourselves to be “hardened by the deceitfulness of sin” (Hebrews 3:13) — we defer to an “everybody does it” mentality. But we shouldn’t settle for common sin. We rejoice in our common Savior. God calls us to exhort one another in Christ (Hebrews 3:13). We serve the Lord together and have hard conversations. We don’t get comfortable with our sin because our brothers and sisters “do it too.” We exhort another, by the power of the Holy Spirit, and we kill it. Together.Identity in Christ, Not Each Other
Do we place our identity in someone other than Christ, whether self or one another?
“The more we are clear that our primary relationship is to the Lord, we are less likely to ask other people to either see us as their savior or see them as our savior.” Rosaria reminds us, “We’re all to look to Jesus. We have union with Christ.” The Bible teaches we are indeed all sons of God through faith, all one in Christ Jesus (Galatians 3:27–28). Christ lives in us and our lives are an outpouring of that identity and reality (Galatians 2:20). When we substitute the Savior with mini-saviors, we have unknowingly dragged others with us into an identity crisis.
We need to be watchful too, Rosaria warns, that we aren’t using our identities as opportunities to live in false freedom. “One of the most dangerous things is for believers to enter into anything and simply presume that because you’re a believer, you’re being Christ-centered about what you’re doing.” We must be mindful that we are walking in true Christian liberty, which Rosaria describes as “a liberty to not sin.” It is indeed “for freedom Christ has set us free” (Galatians 5:1), to cause us to “live as people who are free” (1 Peter 2:16), walking in our Christian identity.Discipleship as a Family
A skewed concept of discipleship also perpetuates codependency. Rosaria advocates for continued discipleship in the church, but encourages us to understand its true purposes and parameters.
Discipleship serves to fulfill “a specific task” centered on building the church, to “walk in strength and liberty in the Lord, to be free of idols and patterns of sin.” Its purpose is “not to create dependence, drafting off of other people’s spiritual lives, but to help people launch.” So we “proclaim Christ, warning everyone and teaching everyone with all wisdom, that we may present everyone mature in Christ” (Colossians 1:28).
Rosaria challenges us to question, or at a minimum, cautiously enter into, one-on-one discipleship relationships because of their potential to replace the object of our affections and endanger our identity in Christ. She provides a grave warning to explain why. “A discipling relationship can be claustrophobic,” Rosaria says. “It can court a sense that I can tell X anything, but only X. That breeds the problem [of codependency].” She advocates for anchoring discipleship instead in our family devotions. In her mind, we either “use family devotions as a way to mark the family of God, to create intimacy that is safe, to encourage sanctified relationships,” or our church will have to “do a great deal of counseling on the other end of idolatry.”
One-on-one relationships — under elder oversight and for a specific reason — do not necessarily translate into codependent ones, but Rosaria suggests that “discipling comes as a natural outgrowth of how the Christian family functions.” Christian family life is the heartbeat of discipleship:
We need to do something about the culture of discipling. When people ask me, “How many women are you discipling?” you know what the answer is? Zero. I disciple my children. And then there are a number of men and women at our table at night. And there’s a mutual discipling that goes on. And from there, I have occasions when we are going to talk because something is up and someone can help with this.
The Bible is about communal relationships — “I see Titus 2 communally. I see older women and younger women working things out communally, not one on one.” She also references Jesus with his disciples. “There are one-on-one moments, but even they have a kind of group setting to them.”
Have we created a problem in the church by emphasizing one-off discipleship? Perhaps. But as we grow in how we operate as a family of God, our ability to disciple one another will flourish. And as Rosaria aptly notes, we should constantly pray “that all of our friendships would be sanctified.”Is Repentance Necessary?
Rosaria’s counsel formed a number of questions to help us assess the health of our relationships and determine if repentance is necessary:
- Are all of our interactions with our friend one on one?
- Does our friend have community apart from us?
- Does our friend suggest we are the only one who knows X about him or her? Or make comments like, “You are the only one I can talk to or that can understand me”?
- Do others in the church — including church leaders — know about our discipling relationships, especially those that may tend in a codependent direction?
- What are our own sin temptations? Are they similar to our friend’s temptations?
- Is flattery a regular part of what we hear from our friend? If so, how do we respond? Are we easily elevated by words of affirmation or flattery?
- Are we aware of a desire to be seen by our friend in a particular way God does not want us to be seen or elevated?
When we assess a relationship as codependent, Rosaria offers us hope: “Nothing sanctifies a friendship better than repentance.” We “turn to God from idols” (1 Thessalonians 1:9) — we repent. And Rosaria tells us to seek forgiveness from our friends — we confess to them that we have used our friendship to “fuel our pride,” and we “have tried to make ourselves indispensable to them,” disregarding our Savior and his blood. Repentance must be the first step. And then, in the power of the Spirit, we change.The Real Cure
There is someone who understands us like no one else. There is a model we cannot live without. There is someone who never leaves nor forsakes us. There is someone who treasures us beyond our comprehension.
If idols plug holes, as Rosaria explains, let’s fill the holes. Boundaries will not cure codependency. But Christ can. By his power, if we begin to dig in to the hidden illness of misplaced identities and misunderstandings of sin, discipleship, and repentance, codependency will no longer enable the crisis of loneliness to plague our churches.
Faith is the experience of Christ as our surpassing worth and all else as rubbish by comparison.
Recently I married an unusually mature couple. Both groom and bride were in their late thirties. They had waited with admirable patience. Both were established in life and in faith, and they knew where they each stood: together on God’s word. Few couples, if any, that I’ve married have demonstrated such clear, solid, stable footing together on the rock of what God has said in the Bible.
So, it didn’t surprise me that when I asked them to pick a favorite passage or two for the wedding, they shied away from picking and choosing for themselves. They said they love the word of God, every jot and tittle, from cover to cover, and gladly submit their lives to anything and everything God has to say — even on their wedding day, when we’re so carefully picking and choosing everything else. They were genuinely eager to hear and embrace anything God had to say to them in front of their friends and family.
I was moved. That may be the first time any couple has put it back on me to pick the passage. What would you choose for them? Instead of just one verse or passage, I tried to select what I thought (imperfectly, of course) might be the Bible’s seven most important verses on marriage. Here are the seven, each with just a taste of why.1. Genesis 1:27
God created man in his own image, in the image of God he created him; male and female he created them.
From the very beginning, God made men and women with equal dignity as humans, and glorious complementary differences as men and women. God did not make men and women as essentially androgynous humans, with male or female accessories added at the end. Rather, we all are men or women all the way down, to every single cell in our bodies. We are different, marvelously different, in our physiology and our psychology. And these differences do not make men better than women, or women better than men, but they do make men and women better together.
After God formed the man, put him in the garden, and gave him the moral vision for life in the world, God said to him, “It is not good that the man should be alone; I will make him a helper fit for him” (Genesis 2:18). Throughout the creation account, at the end of each day, God declared his work good, good, good, good, good. Then at the end of day six, very good. But a man by himself? Not good. At least for the first man, and for most of us.2. Genesis 2:24
A man shall leave his father and his mother and hold fast to his wife, and they shall become one flesh.
After God made the first woman and entrusted this remarkable gift to the man, God instituted what we call marriage. Two persons becoming one new entity. One man and one woman forming the most fundamental human relationship in God’s created world — a relationship even more fundamental than parent-child. A man will leave his father and his mother and hold fast to his wife. Under God, she is now his most fundamental commitment. So also, the woman leaves behind her father’s house (Psalm 45:10) to establish a new family unit with her husband. Under God, he is now her most fundamental commitment.
Yet, as promising as it begins, sin entered the world. The man failed to protect the garden. He let down his guard and allowed the serpent to have his wife’s ear, and she was deceived. Then the man himself, having heard God’s command firsthand, listened instead to the voice of his wife, and sinned against God. And now in this fallen and cursed world, marriage, the most fundamental relationship, is not without its severe pains and difficulties (Genesis 3:16).3. Matthew 19:6
So they are no longer two but one flesh. What therefore God has joined together, let not man separate.
Now we skip ahead thousands of years to the words of Jesus. Even though sin has invaded God’s creation, and often husbands and wives tragically find themselves struggling against each other, Jesus reinforces God’s vision of marriage in creation: “What God has joined together, let not man separate.” Sin may challenge, but it does not overturn, God’s original design. Marriage, in fact, is made to endure sin. God means for the two to become one, and not for the one to be torn apart into two.
God calls husbands in particular, as the men, to faithfulness where the first man failed. God calls each man to guard and protect his wife and marriage with a holy zeal — first from his own sin, and then from others. Her failures are no excuse for his. And for wives, his failures are no excuse for hers. Man and woman covenant with each other for “as long as we both shall live.”
Inevitably, they will sin against each other. Perhaps before the wedding day is over. Surely before the honeymoon is over. Sin will challenge the harmony of their relationship in some way. But God designed this covenant of marriage to hold them together in the hard times. Tough times are no surprise to marriage. Marriage was made for the tough times. Covenants are not mainly for easy times, but for the hardest.4. Ephesians 4:32
Be kind to one another, tenderhearted, forgiving one another, as God in Christ forgave you.
This may be the single most important verse for my own marriage of twelve years. And I suspect that kindness is greatly underrated in many other marriages as well.
Because of the wonderful confines and boundaries and commitments of the covenant of marriage, husband and wife may feel the impulse and temptation to be mean to each other, to lash out at that stubborn spouse whose always there and seems to make life harder. In God’s vision for marriage, however, there is no place for meanness or contempt between a husband and wife. Yes, loving correction. Yes, hard conversations. Yes, forgiveness requested and granted regularly, even daily. But never meanness.
Husbands and wives who are in Christ know themselves handled kindly by God at every turn. That doesn’t mean life together won’t be difficult, but all God’s sovereignly appointed difficulties in the lives of his children are kindnesses, strange as they may seem. So also, in Christ, always seek to “be kind to one another.”5. Colossians 3:19
Husbands, love your wives, and do not be harsh with them.
God’s specific call to the husband is to love his wife. Love is not just spontaneous affection. It is affection, and never less, but it is more. It is also covenant allegiance and sacrificial action. In a husband’s worst moments, he will be tempted to be passive or harsh. What his wife needs from him, and what God calls him to as the man, is gentleness, not harshness — and activity, not passivity. Gentle activity. Gentleness is not weakness. Gentleness is strength under control to life-giving ends. Gentleness is admirable strength grown by God’s Spirit into even more admirable maturity.
Marriage is not meant to make our lives easier (and worse), but to make them more challenging (and better). The wife is an heir with her husband of the grace of life, and God calls him to live with her in an understanding way, showing her special honor and care as his wife (1 Peter 3:7).6. Colossians 3:18
Wives, submit to your husbands, as is fitting in the Lord.
God’s call to a wife is to affirm, receive, and nurture her husband’s loving leadership in marriage. Her husband is unique for her. God does not call a wife to submit to all men — no way. Only to her own husband (Ephesians 5:22; Titus 2:5; 1 Peter 3:1, 5). And her submission to him is not absolute. Colossians 3:18 says “as is fitting in the Lord.” Jesus Christ is her ultimate allegiance and authority, just as for her husband. And as the husband is obedient to Christ, and self-sacrificial like Christ, he and she will thrive together in the dance of marriage as she affirms and strengthens him — and makes him a better man than he could ever be without her.
Godly submission is not passive or weak. It is one of the hardest things prideful modern people could ever do. And it is precisely what we all do when we say Jesus is Lord.7. Ephesians 5:32
This mystery is profound, and I am saying that it refers to Christ and the church.
We’ve saved the best for last. When God says that marriage is a mystery, he’s not saying that it’s confusing and enigmatic — that we can’t really figure out the depths of its meaning. He’s saying it was a mystery for thousands of years, but now, with the life and death and resurrection of Jesus of Nazareth, marriage is no longer a mystery. The mystery has been revealed.
The mystery was this: Why one man and one woman, covenanted to each other as long as they both shall live? Why did God do it this way? Why build human society this way? The answer is that thousands of years before he sent his Son, God embedded a pointer to Jesus in the very basics of human life. From the beginning, God knew he would send his Son to save us from our sin, and he designed marriage to anticipate that — to prepare the world for the gospel of Jesus Christ.
The meaning of marriage is that Jesus has given his life for his people, his bride. The call of a husband — to lead by giving, and not taking — shows us Jesus, who did not protect himself and his comfort, but sacrificed himself for us. Jesus is the husband who does not claim special privilege, but shoulders more responsibility to love his bride with affection, allegiance, and action.
Jesus’s love for his church is the ultimate meaning of marriage. This is the message and drama Christians seek to live out and show to the world as we make our vows, and anticipate the coming marriage supper of the Lamb (Revelation 19:9). This is the story of marriage.
Join this panel of pastor-theologians as they work through difficult questions about life and ministry.
Few stains cling so stubbornly to the soul as sexual sin. Memories linger. Distorted desires rise up unbidden. Old temptations find your new address and come knocking.
Even those without a dark sexual past know something of sexual brokenness. Married or single, seasoned saint or new believer, former adulterer or lifelong virgin — none of us is yet what we ought to be. We are not yet rid of the inner swamp that gives rise to sexual sins big and “small”: fantasies, lingering glances, impulsive evaluations of another’s body, vanity, a lust for emotional intimacy, inordinate curiosity. The path to complete sexual purity ends only in heaven.
On this lifelong journey, we can easily lose our way. The path is long, and we grow tired. The path is hard, and we crave comfort. The path is beset with temptations, and we get deceived. In the grind of daily self-denial, we can forget where we’ve come from and where we’re going.
From time to time, we need to lift our eyes above tactics and strategies — essential as those are — and take a look backward and forward: We are not what we once were, and we are not yet what we will be. God has already clothed us in Christ’s purity (Isaiah 61:10), and God will one day make us “like him, because we shall see him as he is” (1 John 3:2). Strength for taking daily steps toward sexual purity comes, in part, from celebrating what God has already done and where God is taking us.
The prophet Hosea gives us a story to grip our imaginations: God’s justifying grace turns a harlot into a virgin, and his sanctifying grace turns the virgin into a faithful bride.The Harlot
She was a stunning bride. Delivered from misery in Egypt, Israel traded her slave’s rags for a wedding dress, her chains for silver and gold (Hosea 2:8). She lived as a queen in the midst of the nations. Until she slowly forgot the husband who saved her, and climbed into the bed of other lovers (Hosea 2:13).
Israel’s descent into adultery is an abiding picture of the madness of sin, including sexual sin. Israel left her God to search for intimacy, forgetting that his arms were open (Hosea 2:5). She spurned him to find pleasure, not realizing that the best pleasures are at his right hand (Hosea 2:8). She gave herself away to other lovers, only to find herself stripped and enslaved (Hosea 2:10; 3:1–2).
Twice, God responds with the terrible consequences — two therefores that display the just wages of Israel’s adultery:
Therefore I will hedge up her way with thorns, and I will build a wall against her, so that she cannot find her paths. (Hosea 2:6)
Therefore I will take back my grain in its time, and my wine in its season, and I will take away my wool and my flax, which were to cover her nakedness. (Hosea 2:9)
No matter how pleasurable in the moment, the paths of sexual sin inevitably lead us here: naked, forsaken, and caught in the thorns of our iniquity.
Unless God intervenes. Hosea goes on to give us a third therefore, but this one entirely unexpected — a coal flung from the fires of heavenly logic, burning with mercy and grace.The Virgin
In the midst of judgment, mercy speaks: “Therefore, behold, I will allure her, and bring her into the wilderness, and speak tenderly to her” (Hosea 2:14). This is deeper logic from before the dawn of time. God finds his unfaithful wife in the very bed of her impurity — and instead of condemning her, he saves her. Irresistible grace rips her from the arms of her enslavers and takes her for himself.
The salvation is so thorough that, through the mouth of another prophet, God could call his people, “O virgin Israel!” (Jeremiah 31:4). Not “O adulteress Israel,” “O shame-faced Israel,” or even “O should-have-known-better Israel,” but “O virgin Israel” — O spotless, undefiled, virgin Israel! Not content to merely pardon her sin, God makes her (and us!) new. The adulteress has become a virgin.
Only in the New Testament do we find the fountain of such redeeming love. The adulteress can become a virgin only because the Husband spread himself upon a cross — naked, forsaken, and wearing the thorns of her iniquity. Only at the cross can we hear the news of a fresh beginning: “You were washed, you were sanctified, you were justified in the name of the Lord Jesus Christ and by the Spirit of our God” (1 Corinthians 6:11). Every dark, distorted, and damning stain disappears beneath this river of justifying grace.
The power for sexual purity begins with Christ crucified, and from Christ crucified renews its strength. Here, repentant strugglers remember that Jesus is their righteousness (2 Corinthians 5:21). They feel the love of God poured into their hearts (Romans 5:5–6). They listen again to that glorious, heavenly therefore, and breathe in the grace of God.The Bride
The glory of what God has done, however, is just the first verse in Hosea’s song of redemption. He goes on to take out the tambourine and the lyre, the flute and the harp, and to sing of what God will do:
I will betroth you to me forever. I will betroth you to me in righteousness and in justice, in steadfast love and in mercy. I will betroth you to me in faithfulness. And you shall know the Lord. (Hosea 2:19–20)
Righteousness, justice, steadfast love, mercy, and faithfulness. These are not only the qualities God brings to the marriage, but also the qualities he creates in us — progressively now, completely later (Hosea 2:16). Now, we fight and ache for perfect purity, and feel the thrill of God’s sanctifying grace going to war with our sexual madness. Later, we will no longer fight and ache to be pure as he is pure, because we will be (1 John 3:2).
The result will be peace. Peace within ourselves, peace with the world around us, and peace with our God (Hosea 2:18, 21–23). Our sexuality will no longer be a swamp of impurities and distortions, but will become like the very garden of the Lord. Every desire, thought, and impulse will say, “You are my God” (Hosea 2:23). The virgin will become, once and for all, a faithful bride.
The power for sexual purity comes not only from looking backward to Christ crucified, but also from looking forward to Christ glorified in a new heaven and new earth. When the beauty of that country rises in our hearts, we will feel renewed strength to turn from today’s dark pleasures (1 John 3:3). We will tremble at the thought of giving up the journey and making a home among the thorns (Hebrews 4:1). We will treasure up God’s promise of a sure arrival (1 Thessalonians 5:23–24). And we will find that one day, we’ve stepped into a new country, where our Groom reigns in glory.
What is right in the marriage bed is right in the mind, but husbands should strive to serve their wives, not use them, in both.
The apostle Paul did not let his suffering for Christ turn him against Christ or away from his mission.
Paul suffered greatly and in many ways, but consider, for now, just these three: “Five times I received at the hands of the Jews the forty lashes less one. Three times I was beaten with rods. Once I was stoned” (2 Corinthians 11:24–25). Think with me about how your own mind might work in the midst of such recurrent sufferings.
Paul has devoted himself utterly to obeying Jesus Christ. The result of this faithfulness to the risen, all-powerful Christ is that Paul is wounded over and over again in the path of obedience. How would you respond? I have known professing Christians who become so embittered at the hardships in their lives that they turn away from the Christian faith.Who Is the Decisive Cause?
Some of you might think: What such people need is to be taught that God did not bring these miseries, and so they should not turn away from him as though he did. Paul did not agree with that. He was too steeped in the Old Testament. He knew how things actually went, for example, with Job.
To be sure Satan was a great mover in the miseries of Job. He is the one who went before God and unleashed the deaths of Job’s children and the miseries of Job’s boils (Job 1:6–19; 2:7). But when Job expressed his own understanding of what happened in these calamities, he ascribed the decisive cause to God. “The Lord gave, and the Lord has taken away; blessed be the name of the Lord” (Job 1:21). “Shall we receive good from God, and shall we not receive evil?” (Job 2:10). And in both cases — the loss of his children and the horrible boils — the writer of the book said, “Job did not sin with his lips” (Job 1:22; 2:10).
And when all was said and done, in the last chapter of the book of Job, the inspired writer says that Job’s family “showed him sympathy and comforted him for all the evil that the Lord had brought upon him” (Job 42:11). So, we may put aside any idea that Paul thought his sufferings were random, or that they were only demonic or decisively from the hands of man. He knew they were from the Lord Jesus himself, who had told him they were coming (Acts 9:16).When Trouble Arises
Now, back to my suggestion above that we put ourselves in Paul’s place and try to imagine what we might feel under his relentless sufferings, and how your mind might work.
I can hear some people in Paul’s place respond by saying, “Look, Jesus, I have pledged my life to you. I have heard you say that your yoke is easy, and your burden is light (Matthew 11:30). You have promised me peace and contentment (Philippians 4:7, 11–13). But almost every time I try to bear witness to you, what do I get? Pain. This is not the kind of reward I expect from a strong and kind Leader. This is not the way I thought you would treat your faithful followers. So, unless you use your power to make my life easier rather than harder, I’m finished with this Christianity.”
Jesus predicted that there would be such seeming converts who would respond like this. He said, “They have no root in themselves, but endure for a while; then, when tribulation or persecution arises on account of the word, immediately they fall away” (Mark 4:17).
Jesus had warned his followers to expect abuse: “You will be delivered up even by parents and brothers and relatives and friends, and some of you they will put to death” (Luke 21:16) “I will send them prophets and apostles, some of whom they will kill and persecute” (Luke 11:49). And when Jesus turned Paul’s life around on the Damascus road and gave him his life mission, he was explicit: “I will show him how much he must suffer for the sake of my name” (Acts 9:16).
So, when Paul suffered in the path of faithful obedience to Jesus, he did not accuse Jesus of bait and switch. He did not criticize his ways or murmur against his sovereign wisdom. He did ask for deliverance. Sometimes it came (Acts 22:25–29); sometimes it didn’t.Passion for Christ in Suffering
One time in particular, when deliverance from suffering did not come, was especially difficult for Paul. He called it a “thorn . . . in the flesh” (2 Corinthians 12:7) and tells about it:.
Three times I pleaded with the Lord about this, that it should leave me. But he said to me, “My grace is sufficient for you, for my power is made perfect in weakness.” (2 Corinthians 12:8–9)
How does this land on you? It is an astonishing response from Jesus. How would you have reacted to Jesus’s words? Would you say, “Your power! Your power is made perfect in my weakness! Jesus, for goodness’ sake, it’s my body that’s in pain! And your power gets the glory? How about some grace for deliverance!”
It is frightening how many Christians in the affluent West respond like this to suffering in their lives. They get angry at God. And if they were told that God’s design is to magnify the glory of his grace in their suffering, they would be furious at God and the one who suggested such a thing.Content with Calamity
That kind of fury throws in the sharpest relief the way Paul responded to Jesus’s words when he was told his thorn would not be removed. Paul said,
Therefore I will boast all the more gladly of my weaknesses, so that the power of Christ may rest upon me. For the sake of Christ, then, I am content with weaknesses, insults, hardships, persecutions, and calamities. For when I am weak, then I am strong. (2 Corinthians 12:9–10)
Can we even imagine such an emotion? Gladly! After crying out three times for relief, and being told no, to say “I will boast all the more gladly” in the weakness brought by this thorn.
This is how much Paul loved Jesus Christ. This is how much he lived for the glory of Christ. If Christ says that his glory will shine more brightly through Paul’s suffering, then Paul, amazingly, rejoices in suffering. That is how his heart works. His supreme value is magnifying the glory of Christ. So, I will be content with persecutions and calamities.
This is the kind of person I admire most, the kind of person I want to be — the kind of person I love.
When we gain Christ, we get a right standing before God that depends upon Christ and not ourselves.
When was the last time a trial came so swiftly and forcefully that you did not know what to do?
My wife has lived in chronic pain for eight years. Recently, however, she woke up one morning with new health concerns that brought another hard, confusing, and frightening reality — a heavy one laid on top of the one we’re already living with day to day. We had just moved to a new home, and were going to a new church. I was the new pastor of that church. Our newborn was only six weeks old.
We felt like the armies of our circumstances were closing in around us with nowhere to go. As a husband and father, I felt completely off-balance. No one could encourage me. I felt helpless to help my wife, overwhelmed by the weight of her suffering. Why, God? Even after years of her chronic pain — and seeing the good God does through it — I felt like I was back to square one of faith, just clinging by a thread. I was supposed to be pastoring others, but I felt like I could speak but one word to God: “Help.”Pretending Self-Sufficiency
Around that time, I found a story of a king who felt helpless to protect and care for the people he was responsible for. A king also overwhelmed with fear. King Jehoshaphat finds out that there is a “great multitude” coming soon to attack his people (2 Chronicles 20:1–2) — an army they know they cannot compete with on their own.
Most of us will never feel what he felt; we will never literally be under the attack of a great army marching up to our door. But we can all relate to overwhelming circumstances in our life that make us feel trapped, helpless, and certain we won’t make it much longer. The Bible is honest about how King Jehoshaphat felt when he got the news about the army of certain doom heading his way — he was afraid (2 Chronicles 20:3). His response to that fear is remarkable. He calls a fast in all of Judah and gathers the people to seek the Lord and his help (2 Chronicles 20:4).
This is not a natural human response. If someone asks us how we are doing at church, the answer almost automatically spills out, “I’m good.” Our profiles put our best, most carefully portrayed images of strength and sufficiency forward. We don’t readily admit that we’re often afraid, broken, lonely, despairing, failing in sin, and struggling to see or trust God.
Jehoshaphat could have pretended he wasn’t afraid. He could have acted like he had it all together. He could have gathered the generals and made the best plan possible. Instead, he gathered the people, admitted his weakness, and sought the help of the Lord together — instead, he prayed. He prays, “We are powerless against this great horde that is coming against us. We do not know what to do, but our eyes are on you” (2 Chronicles 20:12). He not only runs to God in prayer himself, but he also calls others to pray with him.Did You Not, Our God?
While Jehoshaphat is admittedly afraid and without a good plan himself, he is not despairing. In fact, his prayer rings with boldness and steady hope in the God of his people. Where does his courage come from?
Did you not, our God, drive out the inhabitants of this land before your people Israel, and give it forever to the descendants of Abraham your friend? And they have lived in it and have built for you in it a sanctuary for your name, saying, “If disaster comes upon us, the sword, judgment, or pestilence, or famine, we will stand before this house and before you — for your name is in this house — and cry out to you in our affliction, and you will hear and save.” (2 Chronicles 20:7–9)
Jehoshaphat’s hope is built on the promises and presence of God. It is God’s name that dwells in Judah, and therefore his glory is at stake in this great horde marching against them. Jehoshaphat knows that God is passionate about his glory and faithful to keep all his promises, so he appeals to him with great confidence and directness knowing he’ll find well-timed help because of the covenant love of God (Hebrews 4:14–16).
In the same way, even when we feel overwhelmed by our circumstances, steady hope lives and endures in the promises of God to us in Christ. Jesus is the Good Shepherd who will lead us even in the valley of the shadow of death, pursuing us with his goodness and mercy all the days of our lives (Psalm 23:4, 6). Jesus will not break a bruised reed or put out a smoldering wick (Isaiah 42:3). Jesus will pour out his all-sufficient grace as we boast in our weaknesses (2 Corinthians 12:7–10). Nothing will separate us from the love of God in Christ Jesus our Lord as he works all things for our good (Romans 8:28–39).
When we are afraid, we pray with confidence because of these sure and steady promises — promises that are ours because Jesus bled and died to make us sons and daughters of God.God Spoke Through Whom?
As Jehoshaphat draws the people together to pray, God sends strength and encouragement in an unexpected way. The Spirit of God fills, not Jehoshaphat, but a man named Jahaziel (2 Chronicles 20:14). Jahaziel rises and declares, “Thus says the Lord to you, ‘Do not be afraid and do not be dismayed at this great horde, for the battle is not yours but God’s’” (2 Chronicles 20:15). Do not fear; God will fight for us. And despite everything we can see, we will win (2 Chronicles 20:17).
The particular word of hope that needs to be spoken does not always come to the king — or, in our day, to the pastor or small-group leader. As we suffer, share our burdens with one another, and seek the Lord together through prayer, God very often will speak through someone else.
Our individualized society, at least in the West, has often invaded our churches. We gather together once a week to sing, pray, take the Lord’s Table, and hear God’s word preached (still a beautiful thing!), but often don’t actually live like a blood-bought family — at least not like the one we see in the New Testament (Acts 2:42–47; 20:28).
Members of the early church were so close, and the self-giving love of Christ was so prevalent among them, that none of them counted any of their possessions as their own. They gladly met the needs of one another. The apostle Paul calls Christians to join him in prayer, so that as many pray and God answers, God gets more glory (2 Corinthians 1:11). It feels simpler and easier and more comfortable to keep our struggles to ourselves and search for our own answers. But God has placed believers in a body — in a family where he manifests his love through mutual care and prayer.
In other words, if we don’t let other people into our trials and crises, we miss out on the blessing we might have received from God.What Is Our Victory?
The people of Judah received Jahaziel’s word with joy. The next morning, Jehoshaphat calls them to believe the word of the Lord, and they march out to face the army. Oh, that we would pause when the circumstances are hard and ask ourselves if we believe the word of the Lord, receiving the Spirit’s witness of the Father’s care for us in our hearts (Romans 8:15–16).
Again, they do a surprising thing. They send the band out first (2 Chronicles 20:21–22). This is not sound practice for winning a battle. It is sound practice for worship, when you trust the God who has given you a promise. As they begin to sing, the Lord routes the greater, stronger army. Israel praises his name for the great victory.
You might be thinking, How can I worship when it seems like the Lord is not winning the battle that way for me? How can we worship as we march into what seems like overwhelming odds, without a specific word from God about our situation?
The answer is that our victory in Christ is as sure as the victory promised to Judah, if we believe what God has said in Christ. The Bible promises us that, whatever we may face or suffer or lose in this life, those whom God predestined are called, those called are justified, and those justified are glorified. It is certain. Our future is secure. For us “to live is Christ, and to die is gain” (Philippians 1:21).Welcome God (and Others)
We can lay down our self-sufficiency, invite others into our fears, and then pray and worship expectantly, knowing that one way or another, our victory is sure. As sure as Judah’s victory over the Moabites and Ammonites.
As my bride and I have walked through our current trial, we’ve felt God lead us to let people into the war with us. And we have been overwhelmed by the prayers and encouragement we have received. Under God, they have sustained us and held up our eyes to Jesus in the midst of what feels, at times, like overwhelming pain and fear.
God will work in and among his people to save and sustain us as we boldly approach him together. He has designed his universe to work this way, so that we are weaned off of self-sufficiency, into fuller dependence on him for everything we need, so that, over and over again, he gets the glory.
How can we distinguish between doing Christian things like worship and actually being a Christian who worships? How can we tell if we are faking it?
The gears of God’s justice sometimes grind slowly — so slowly that we may not even notice them turning during our brief sojourn on earth. We even begin to wonder if they’re really turning at all.
Asaph writes, “Truly God is good to Israel, to those who are pure in heart. But . . .” (Psalm 73:1–2). But what? But Asaph had really struggled to believe that. His biblical theology and history told him God is good and God is just, but as he looked on the way things evidently operated in the “real” world around him, Asaph read a different narrative.
He watched unashamedly wicked people prosper, seeming to avoid the hardships most of humanity is subject to (Psalm 73:3–5). He watched them violently oppress others without God seeming to lift a finger to stop them or protect the oppressed (Psalm 73:6–8). He watched them in their luxuriant ease blaspheme God with apparent impunity (Psalm 73:9–12). Like many suffering Christians today, he watched while the godless flourished.Hard on Those He Loves?
Meanwhile, when Asaph looked at his own experience, he couldn’t help wondering why in the world he was fighting so hard to keep his heart clean and his hands innocent, only to find himself “stricken and rebuked [by God] every morning” (Psalm 73:13–14). What’s with that?
Hard on those who love him, and seemingly easy on those who hate him — that looks a lot like turning justice on its head. Asaph’s “feet . . . almost stumbled” over whether God truly is good to Israel (Psalm 73:2). He could have said, as Teresa of Ávila allegedly did, “If this is how You treat Your friends, no wonder why You have so few of them!”
Thus, Asaph is endeared to us — an ancient friend who understands. He understands the hard experience of living in what can look and feel like a world of inverted justice.Where Bitterness Takes Root
We know deep down God can’t approve of this inversion. The fact that humanity shares such a massive consensus regarding what’s just and unjust bears witness to what God considers just and unjust. Philosophers call this the “moral law.” Theologians call it God’s law written on the heart (Romans 2:15–16). Even the unjust bear witness to this reality by what they desperately try to conceal (or rationalize if their power is removed and they are held to account for their actions).
But when they aren’t held to account, when they do as they unjustly and wickedly please and God doesn’t intervene, we try to understand. And, like Asaph, we can find it “a wearisome task” (Psalm 73:16). We can become “pricked in heart” and embittered in soul (Psalm 73:21).
Here’s the real danger: the indignance we feel toward injustice — the way we’re supposed to feel toward injustice — can metastasize into bitterness in our soul toward God and his apparent lack of concern and willingness to take action against injustice. This can turn us “brutish and ignorant” (Psalm 73:22), leading us to fall away from God (Hebrews 3:12) or to distort his word into saying what it does not say, because in our lack of faith, we cannot bear it. Few things drive us to twist the Scriptures like the problem we have with evil and the pain it can cause us or those we love. This is a “root bearing poisonous and bitter fruit” (Deuteronomy 29:18) that defiles many, as Hebrews warns us (Hebrews 12:15).Counsel for the Embittered Soul
So, what do we do when, like Asaph, our heart is pricked and we feel that bitterness in our soul that makes us question if God really sees, if he cares, if he’s really in control, if he really exists? The remedy God provides us against the brutish ignorance of unbelief is simple, but it is profound, and it is pervasive:
Trust in the Lord with all your heart, and do not lean on your own understanding. In all your ways acknowledge him, and he will make straight your paths. Be not wise in your own eyes; fear the Lord, and turn away from evil. It will be healing to your flesh and refreshment to your bones. (Proverbs 3:5–8)
This can sound so trite, so cliché, when what we want from God are answers — and, more immediately, action! This is not cliché. This is the Bible — all of it. The Bible is God’s book of justice. The whole thing is about God’s justice — about his ultimately making every wrong right and exhaustively settling every account of every moral agent, visible and invisible to us, that has ever perpetrated even the smallest injustice. Nothing will be missed, for God “will by no means clear the guilty” (Numbers 14:18) without fully satisfying his holy, righteous law — the one to which all our consciences bear witness.
God is working with a timetable toward this end that is long — and our lives are short. We may not see the justice needle move much during our time under the sun. That doesn’t at all mean God is not relentlessly and fearfully moving toward the terrible, unfathomable destruction of evil.
We must trust him with all our hearts and not lean on our own very limited perspective and understanding of the “real” world. If the catastrophe of Eden teaches us anything, it teaches us that we are ill-equipped to manage the knowledge of good and evil. The bitterness of soul that Asaph describes is a warning that it is time to hand God back the fruit before it bears something poisonous and bitter in us.How God Treats His Friends
If the eucatastrophe of the cross of Jesus teaches us anything, it teaches us that God does not take injustice lightly — that he is, in fact, willing to go to extremes we would never imagine in order to fully settle accounts. At the cross, God’s righteous unwillingness to clear the unjust kisses his righteous desire to pardon the repentant unjust and be at peace with them (Psalm 85:10). It is the miraculous moment when the righteous Judge takes upon himself our unrighteousness, paying for it in full that we might become his righteousness (2 Corinthians 5:21). It is the place where God becomes both just and the justifier of the unjust ones who put their faith fully in Jesus (Romans 3:26).
This is how God treats his friends: he gives his only Son for them in order to give them eternal life (John 3:16).
It is this God, and the remembrance of his mercy foreshadowed in the old covenant, that Asaph beheld when he “went into the sanctuary of God” (Psalm 73:17). Then his perspective on justice changed. He saw the long-term end of the short-lived unrepentant wicked. God was not inattentive or inactive as they brazenly oppressed and blasphemed.
Truly you set them in slippery places; you make them fall to ruin. How they are destroyed in a moment, swept away utterly by terrors! Like a dream when one awakes, O Lord, when you rouse yourself, you despise them as phantoms. (Psalm 73:18–20)
He saw the mercy in his being “stricken and rebuked,” for it was this very discipline that kept him from going astray (Proverbs 3:11–12; Psalm 119:67). And he saw an approaching judgment upon those who were not being led to repentance by the kindness of God (Romans 2:4). He remembered the long-term end of his short-lived afflictions: “You guide me with your counsel, and afterward you will receive me to glory” (Psalm 73:24), the same hope the apostle Paul expressed (2 Corinthians 4:17).How Bitterness Leaves
And when Asaph gave up his wearisome task of trying to understand how God can let injustice and evil persist, and instead trusted God with all his heart, the bitterness left him. And out of the healing and refreshment he experienced, he sang,
Whom have I in heaven but you? And there is nothing on earth that I desire besides you. My flesh and my heart may fail, but God is the strength of my heart and my portion forever. (Psalm 73:25–26)
Thus, if we have ears to hear, God is endeared to us — our far more ancient and future Friend who understands how hard it can be for us to endure evil while he “works all things according to the counsel of his will” (Ephesians 1:11). For it was his compassion that moved him to inspire these words in our friend, Asaph, and make sure his song of the rescued cynic was preserved in the canon to help rescue us from our bitterness of soul.
Organic? Free-range? Many of us are learning to consider the long-term effects of what we’re eating. What consequences will the hormones pumped into the chickens and cows produce for me and my family over time? How harmless is it to consume a “genetically modified organism”?
Such questions, of course, can be overdone, but for many, these are sober-minded, diligent concerns. Especially when we’re not just choosing our own food, but sustenance for others, even our children. And if such bodily concerns can be of some value (1 Timothy 4:8), should we be any less careful about our spiritual diet?
Week after week, Christians sit under the preaching of God’s word in worship. How do we know if the food we’re receiving is spiritually healthy? What will be its long-term effects on our soul-health? If I keep feeding on this teaching, will my spirit be better off for it, or will I look back someday and wish I’d made wiser choices?Determining Factor
More to the point, how will we know whether the full sweep of Christian content we’re regularly feeding on is healthy — not just weekly sermons, but daily devotionals, Christian books and podcasts, social feeds, and even real-life spiritual conversations? Aside from generally knowing the Scriptures better from cover to cover, which is a lifelong pursuit, how can we tell along the way that the places from which we’re feeding are nourishing?
Put another way, might there be any key indicator or determining factor for discerning whether Christian teaching or doctrine is healthy or not? Is there any litmus test, or organizing principle, or heart, or core, or touchstone, of what makes teaching “sound” or unsound? Healthy or unhealthy? Paul doesn’t provide a comprehensive plan, but he does give us something tangible to lean on in 1 Timothy 1:10–11.Dividing Line
The phrase “sound doctrine” (literally “healthy teaching”) at the end of verse 10 is one of the most important concepts in 1 Timothy, as well as 2 Timothy and Titus (“the Pastoral Epistles”). Paul paints a stark contrast between good teaching and bad. Between healthy teaching and unhealthy. Between the kind of teaching that produces healthy spiritual lives (“godliness”) and the kind that does not. False teaching will produce spiritual sickness (1 Timothy 1:3; 6:3–4). True teaching will produce long-term spiritual health (2 Timothy 4:3–4; Titus 1:9; 2:1).
And what’s especially important about this first mention of “healthy teaching” in 1 Timothy 1:10 is that, more than anywhere else, it answers for us what is the key to “healthy teaching” or “sound doctrine.”Healthy Teaching
“Sound doctrine,” Paul says, is “in accordance with the gospel.” At first, this might seem too simple to be true. The heart and core and center and organizing principle of Christian theology is the gospel — in the words of verse 15, “Christ Jesus came into the world to save sinners.” That’s the good news. That’s the heart and soul of the Christian message in all its expressions. True doctrine explains and supports and complements the Christian gospel, and false teaching blurs and mutes and obscures it.
God sent his Son into the world, as the pinnacle of all time and history, to save sinners through his death and resurrection, and to ascend to the throne as the King of all kings and the Lord of all lords. This is the gospel, or good news, of the Christian faith: Jesus saves sinners. This is the climax and heart and core of why God made the world, and all that Christians believe and confess relates in some way to this. Not just the truths we think of as exciting and comforting, like God’s love and mercy, but also the dark and difficult and unsettling truths like sin and divine wrath and eternal punishment in hell.
“Sound doctrine,” Paul says, is “in accordance with the gospel.” Christian doctrine, in all its details, gets its bearings from a particular message. Good, healthy teaching (that produces healthy Christian living) has the gospel of Jesus Christ at its center. It explains and upholds and expresses and is relentlessly shaped by Jesus’s person and work as its unifying theme. When there’s no nutrition label on the side, apply the litmus test of the gospel.Not Enough to End with Gospel
But it’s not enough here to end with “the gospel.” Paul says healthy teaching is “in accordance with the gospel” — but he doesn’t stop at “gospel.” He continues: “. . . the gospel of the glory of the blessed God.” I’m so glad he does. Because the words that follow give us an amazing look into what makes the good news so good.
At first glance, this phrase (“gospel of the glory of the blessed God”) may not seem all that extraordinary to us, but these are not throwaway words for the apostle Paul. Here we find, piled on top of each other, three of the most important words in Scripture, three of the most important realities in the universe, and three words Christians can be prone to hear and say so often that we miss the depth of their meaning. Gospel. Glory. Blessed. “The gospel of the glory of the blessed God.”
Gospel, as we’ve seen, is the good news that God himself, in the person of his Son, has made a way to rescue us, by faith, from our sins and the eternal death we justly deserve. The heart of our faith is gospel, not law. Good news, not good advice. Glory is the beauty of God’s diverse perfections, or the visible display of God’s infinite value and worth. “God made us for his glory” means he designed us to show his greatness in the world (and in a special way: “in his own image” as Genesis 1:27 says). And what is God doing in all of history in this visible, tangible world? Showing us his glory — the height of which, Ephesians 1:6 says, is “the glory of his grace.” Jesus and his rescue, called the gospel, is where God’s glory shines out the clearest and brightest.Happiness Himself
Blessed may be the trickiest of all. What does it mean that God is “the blessed God”?
Blessed here doesn’t simply mean he’s worthy of worship, that we should “bless” him in praise. That’s true, but as an adjective for God, it’s deeper than that. He is worthy of our worship, but his being “the blessed God” means, in essence, he is “the happy God,” and in no trite way. He is infinitely, unassailably, unimpeachably happy. “Our God is in the heavens; he does all that he pleases” (Psalm 115:3). He has and is infinite bliss.
At the outset of his recent Kistemacher Lectures at RTS-Orlando on “the blessedness of God,” Fred Sanders begins with this striking phrase in 1 Timothy 1:11 and says this about God’s blessedness:
The good news is about the particular character of this God, the one whose nature it is to shine out in glory and to repose in blessedness. God is not only the God of salvation, the sovereign rescuer of lost humanity. God is not only the King in his splendor bursting forth in unimaginable glory. Above or beyond or behind that, in a secret sanctuary of the depths of divinity, God is something even more astonishingly unimprovable. God is blessed.
And this blessedness, this divine happiness, in all its glory, is the ground of the possibility of our his creatures being truly, deeply, enduringly happy in him, forever. God is not the cosmic killjoy many of us may have feared. He is not frustrated and sad. He is not grumpy and sour. No, he is blessed. He has infinite happiness, and is infinite happiness, and shares infinite happiness.When Daddy Is Happy
This infinitely happy God, in his mind-stretching fullness, has gone public in creation and redemption with his infinite value and worth, called his glory. And the height of his glory is the demonstration of his fullness in the sacrifice of his Son for the eternal happiness of his people, called the gospel. And what good news it is for natural-born law-breakers like us. Not just that God rescues sinners. But that he is glorious. And he is gloriously happy.
And when Daddy is contagiously happy, the whole house is happy, and it’s a safe place to be honest about your disappointments and struggles. As his people, we are God’s household, “the church of the living God” (1 Timothy 3:15) — and what good news it is that the Father of this household is happy. The church is a good place to heal, and be restored to joy, and find joy that is deeper than all your pains.
The pulpit isn’t a place to put on a show, but to rejoice in the riches of revelation as you draw others to encounter God.
Only humans are made in God’s image, and only humans can be redeemed. So do we have any biblical basis for saying our pets will be in heaven?
We all have felt the sting of death. We’ve lost loved ones to cancer. We’ve wrestled with our own weaknesses. We’ve tried to live with our failures. We’ve navigated broken relationships, and battled against the cruel consequences of sin. We know firsthand that the whole world is dying for resurrection.
How has death crept into your life? Where have you felt the sting the most? We have felt the shadows that darken our stories. And we have heard the deafening chorus of false promises in book after book, ad after ad, lifehack after lifehack. They all promise some kind of relief, some kind of deliverance, some kind of life. Resurrection, it turns out, is an easy promise to make — and a near impossible promise to deliver.
Life that comes to us too easily will slowly suffocate us in time. The only road out of the grave for any of us is covered in the blood of the one who suffocated for us. Death, in the end, is the very way we defeat death.What If Jesus Never Rose?
The man who wrote 1 Corinthians had not only tasted the darkness of death, but he himself had killed Christians. He had been willing to murder followers of Jesus to silence them. When he writes about death, he writes with blood on his hands — the blood of our brothers and sisters in Christ. But the risen King met the murderer, and raised him from the dead. If God could breathe life into a story like Paul’s, imagine what he could do in the darkest, deadest parts of yours.
But what if Christ had never risen? That same former murderer says, “If Christ has not been raised, your faith is futile and you are still in your sins. . . . If in Christ we have hope in this life only, we are of all people most to be pitied” (1 Corinthians 15:17, 19). If Christ never took another breath, never left the tomb, never appeared to his disciples, and never ascended into heaven — if he never lived again — then we would never stop dying.
We would carry our sin, our shame, and our pain through the grave into something far worse than death — if Jesus had not risen from his grave. If his final breath on the cross had been his final breath, and if we never stopped dying, fear would rule our short and hopeless lives.
But death could not stifle his breath. “But in fact Christ has been raised from the dead” (1 Corinthians 15:20). Our King borrowed the tomb for two long nights before securing his victory over death forever. And his victory is our victory if we are willing to die with him into everlasting life.Do You Believe This?
Many days, however, our fears feel far more real than his victory. Before Jesus died, he said, “I am the resurrection and the life” (John 11:25). He said that in the moments after Mary and Martha watched their brother Lazarus die. They had called for Jesus, but he hadn’t come right away, so Lazarus died. Martha was distraught, wondering why Jesus didn’t come sooner. Have you ever felt like God was late in your life — like he watched you suffer when he could have done something?
What does Jesus say to Martha? “I am the resurrection and the life. Whoever believes in me, though he die, yet shall he live, and everyone who lives and believes in me shall never die. Do you believe this?” (John 11:25–26). Martha did believe him, and four days after Lazarus had died, Jesus called him out of the tomb. And a matter of days later, Jesus himself walked out of the tomb. And when he did, he called us all out of the tomb. “Whoever believes in me, though he die, yet shall he live.” Do you believe this?
If you do believe, death has no power over you anymore. Whenever fears begin to creep in again, you can sing with apostles and prophets, “‘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). Fear melts away in the face of something stronger than our fears: in the face of our fear-conquering King. Jesus. His name is our victory — over sin, over shame, over death, and one day over all the awful consequences of our brokenness.Fear Gives Way
Jesus came to save a world enslaved to fear and desperate for resurrection. He partook in our flesh and blood “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). The futility you experience in your relationships, in your ministry, even in your body bears witness to why he came.
Death and all its tentacles are terrifying until something stronger than death dethrones death — until life invades where death once ruled, saving the dying and setting the captives free.
The fear that held us now gives way
To him who is our peace.
His final breath upon the cross
Is now alive in me.
In him, you are not a slave to fear and death anymore. You are being resurrected by the Resurrected One. Now, not even death “will be able to separate [you] from the love of God in Christ Jesus our Lord” (Romans 8:38–39). What used to be our worst fear now brings us home to him forever.
Desiring God partnered with Shane & Shane’s The Worship Initiative to write short meditations for more than one hundred popular worship songs and hymns.
A Christianity that never inconveniences us, never discomforts us, never costs anything, is not Christianity.
Many Christians assume that Christ was able to perform miracles because he was God. It certainly is true that he is God. However, if we argue, for example, that Christ’s divine nature necessarily and always acts through his human nature, thus enabling him to perform miracles, a serious problem emerges concerning the many texts that speak of the Holy Spirit’s role in the life of Christ.
If the divine second person of the Godhead is the sole effective agent working on the human nature, then we need to ask ourselves a serious question: What is the point of the Holy Spirit in the life of Christ? Many Christians (and even some formidable theologians) seem unsure what to do with the Holy Spirit when speaking about the person and work of Christ.Savior by the Spirit
For example, neither Roman Catholic nor Lutheran theologians can adequately account for a meaningful role of the Holy Spirit in the life of Christ if they remain faithful to the basic christology of those traditions. Roman Catholic and Lutheran theologians generally do not know what to do with Christ’s gifts and graces (for example, faith and hope).
However, the Puritan John Owen (as well as others) had an insightful way of explaining the relation of Christ’s two natures. To my knowledge, this had not been as clearly articulated by anyone before him. One of his chief concerns was to protect the integrity of Christ’s two natures (divine and human). In so doing, he made a rather bold contention that the only singular immediate act of the Son of God (the divine second person) on the human nature of Christ was the decision to take it into subsistence with himself in the incarnation.
Every other act upon Christ’s human nature was from the Holy Spirit. Christ performed his miracles through the power of the Holy Spirit, not immediately by his own divine power. In other words, the divine nature acted not immediately by virtue of “the hypostatic union” (the joining of two natures in Christ’s singular person) but mediately by means of the Holy Spirit. The conventional way of understanding Christ’s miracles has typically been to argue that Christ performs miracles by virtue of his own divine nature. But on Owen’s (and others’) model, the Holy Spirit is actually the immediate author of Christ’s graces. This manner of understanding the relation of the Spirit to Christ’s human nature preserves his true humanness and answers a host of biblical questions that arise from a close reading of various texts.He Took a Human Soul
Some Christians seem to imagine that Christ’s divine nature takes the place of his soul. This idea, though well–intentioned, is wrong. Christ was a perfect man with a rational soul as the immediate principle of his moral actions. In other words, Christ had a human self-consciousness. Some might say that the person of the Son is Christ’s self-consciousness, but as Reformed theologians argued, personality is not an act but the mode or identity of a thing. “Who is Jesus?” refers to his personhood. The answer: “He is the God-man” (which refers to his identity).
Importantly, Christ’s humanity, both body and soul, does not get lost in or “gobbled up” by his divinity. Because of this, Christ’s humanity needed the Holy Spirit in order to have communion with God. His prayers to God were never simply the prayers of a man, nor even the prayers of the God-man to the Father; but more specifically they were the prayers of the Son of God to the Father in the power of the Spirit. Never was a prayer uttered before God from the lips of Christ that did not have the Holy Spirit working powerfully upon his human nature to enable him to speak the words the Father had given him to speak. In this way, we aim to pray as our Lord prayed: in the Spirit.
Christ’s inseparable companion during his earthly ministry as a true man was the Holy Spirit. Therefore, at all of the major events in the life of Christ, the Holy Spirit took a prominent role. The Holy Spirit was the immediate, divine, efficient cause of the incarnation (Matthew 1:18, 20; Luke 1:35). This was a fitting “beginning” for Christ since Isaiah spoke of the Messiah as one endowed with the Spirit (Isaiah 42:1; 61:1).
The New Testament confirms Isaiah’s testimony in several places, noting, for example, that Christ received the Spirit without measure (John 3:34). At Jesus’s baptism the Spirit descended upon him (Matthew 3:16); and the Spirit plays a significant role in leading Christ to and sustaining him before, during, and after his temptation (Luke 4:1, 14). In that same chapter Jesus reads from Isaiah 61:1–2 (“the Spirit of the Lord is upon me”) and announces that he is the fulfillment of that prophecy (Luke 4:21). Christ performed miracles in the power of the Holy Spirit (Matthew 12:18; Acts 10:38). Hebrews 9:14 may be taken to mean that Christ offered himself up not by his own spirit but by the enabling of the Holy Spirit. Like his death, Christ’s resurrection is attributed to the Holy Spirit (Romans 8:11), and by it he “was declared to be the Son of God . . . according to the Spirit of holiness” (Romans 1:4; see also 1 Timothy 3:16; 1 Peter 3:18).
Because the Spirit was Christ’s inseparable companion during his earthly ministry, there is little doubt that Christ called out (prayed) to his Father by the enabling of the Spirit, which would put an implicit christological emphasis upon Romans 8:26–27. The preponderance of references to the role of the Holy Spirit in the ministry of Christ finds its best explanation in the Reformed interpretative tradition.He Humbled Himself
Given the basic christology above, Hugh Martin (1821–1885) argued that Jesus inevitably placed himself, therefore, in a position of acknowledged weakness and infirmity — of absolute dependence on God — a dependence to be exercised and expressed in the adorations and supplications of prayer. He was born of a woman, under the law — under the law of prayer, as of other ordinances and duties — the law by which a man can receive nothing except it be given him from heaven, and except the Lord be inquired of for it (Ezekiel 36:37).
Christ exercised, according to his human nature, faith, love, reverence, delight, and all the graces proper to a true human nature in the power of the Holy Spirit. Thus, he naturally would have desired to offer vocal requests and supplications to his Father in heaven. He also would have praised God with the knowledge he had of his Father. Additionally, he would have sought God out with a holy determination, making all other duties subservient to the duty of communion with God. In other words, true and proper humanity is realized only in communion with God.Christ’s Gift to Us
What does this mean for us? Consider three truths, among others. First, the Spirit’s ministry to us comes from Christ (Acts 2:33). Just as Christ ministered to us on the cross, his heavenly exaltation continues his ministry whereby he pours out the Spirit upon us since he is now the exalted Lord of the Spirit. The Spirit, therefore, comes in his name (“the Spirit of Christ”).
Second, the Spirit makes us like Christ. What is the role of the Spirit who has been given to us from the hand of Christ? He takes the copy of Christ’s religious life in the Spirit and works those same affections and desires in us so that we are truly Christlike (Romans 8:29).
Finally, the Spirit glorifies Christ. The Spirit, who worked in and through Christ during his life on earth, now works in and through us. Just as the Spirit enabled Christ to bring glory to his Father, so now the Spirit enables us to glorify both the Son and the Father. In other words, a true understanding of the Holy Spirit’s work in believers begins and ends with the declaration that we are here on earth to glorify the Son and the Father by the power of the Spirit.
Jesus indeed has not left us as orphans (John 14:18). He has poured out on us and in us the very Spirit through whom he lived perfectly, died sacrificially, and rose victoriously.
The pulpit isn’t a just place for a lecture or even mere teaching. Every sermon should sing with worship over the glories of God’s word. John Piper delivered this message during a breakout seminar at the Sing! 2018 Conference in Nashville.