This week, in perhaps the most violent football game of the NFL season, Monday Night Football featured the Cincinnati Bengals hosting their rivals, the Pittsburgh Steelers. By the time it ended, Hall of Fame quarterback Troy Aikman called it “terrible for the NFL and the game of football overall.”
The injuries were brutal.
Early in the first quarter, Ryan Shazier, a Pro Bowl linebacker for the Steelers, injured his back on a tackle, fell to the ground, and rolled from his side to his back, clearly unable to move his legs, signaling for help from the sideline. He was carted off on a stretcher and hospitalized over several days for a serious spinal injury.
What unfolded next, in the words of one reporter, was “a parade of illegal hits and deliberate head shots between regional rivals” — a melee ending in flags, fines, and a few suspensions from the league.
JuJu Smith-Schuster was flagged, fined, and suspended for a dirty blindside block of Vontaze Burfict. On the broadcast, Jon Gruden called it “bad football” and “bad for the game.”
Cincinnati safety George Iloka capped the violent night with a high, helmet-to-helmet hit on Antonio Brown’s touchdown catch. Iloka was flagged and suspended (which was later reduced to a large fine).
Did the violence go too far Monday night? Or is this the football we all pay to see?
The day after the game, sportswriter and football lover Michael Wilbon said, “While I watched the game in real time — and I watched every snap of it — I sort of recoiled. I felt guilty that I was seeing this violence. I know the game has moved away from this type of violence. But on the other hand, America fell in love with football just because of that kind of violence. . . . I love football for the violence! Most people do. They’ll lie now and say they don’t.”
But perhaps the violence of today’s football is different, as Tony Kornheiser reminded Wilbon a moment later, all because of CTE.CTE
Chronic Traumatic Encephalopathy is a degenerative neurological disease, and it has changed the way football violence is being perceived. New studies and reporting have raised questions about the NFL’s knowledge of CTE in the past, and their efforts toward making the game safer today.
CTE reportedly causes all sorts of problems in the lives of retired players, including memory loss, confusion, depression, mood changes, a rise in anxiety and aggressiveness, and early-onset dementia.
In one study of 111 brains of deceased former NFL players, 110 were neuropathologically diagnosed with CTE (99%). In the same study, among college football players, 48 of 53 had it (91%).
Though it remains rather unclear how widespread CTE really is, in August, longtime NFL quarterback Boomer Esiason (56) said it would not surprise him if he was diagnosed with CTE. Why? “Because I think all football players probably have it.”
So what role do we the spectators play in the long-term price of football violence? It leaves me with a question I cannot ignore:
Assuming the accuracy of major reports on the degenerative brain disease Chronic Traumatic Encephalopathy found often in the brains of former American football players, and assuming concussions remain a common part of the game today, and assuming a Christian is aware of all this, is a Christian who buys a game ticket or team merchandise for an NFL or NCAA football team complicit in funding a system that will likely lead to CTE consequences later in a player’s life? Yes or no? Why or why not?
I asked six friends to respond, not to arrive at one consensus, but for each to share their own perspective as we all consider this controversy from a number of angles.
Ted Kluck is the author of twenty books, including Three-Week Professionals: Inside the 1987 NFL Players’ Strike; screenwriter on the forthcoming feature film Silverdome; and journalism teacher at Union University in Jackson, Tennessee. He says, Yes, we are complicit.
Of course, if we agree that football is violent and chaotic and dangerous (it totally is), and we agree that buying a ticket assures the continued flourishing of that violent, dangerous thing, then of course we’re complicit. Just like we’re complicit in an often morally bankrupt Hollywood system when we buy a movie ticket, complicit in gluttony when we overpay for a lavish meal, and complicit in hypocrisy when we smugly announce to our small group that we’re not letting our son play football — only to pull on our favorite college team’s jersey on Saturday afternoon and flip on our giant HD television to enjoy the carnage from afar.
If we’re that worried about being complicit in bad things, it may be best not to leave the house in the morning.
Yes, I still buy tickets. I still coach football at an HBCU in Jackson, Tennessee (Lane College). At age 41, I still occasionally play in semipro leagues in Mississippi, Tennessee, or wherever they’ll take me. Everything worthwhile I’ve ever really learned about myself or other people I’ve learned on a football field. Football taught me how to be courageous, how to persevere, and how to thrive in a pain-saturated environment. It has given me lifelong friends and amazing times with my dad. And God’s taking football away from me in college, and then giving it back to me later, taught me a lot (in both cases) about God’s abundant goodness.
Alastair J. Roberts is an independent theologian, author, and podcaster. He says, Quite possibly.
There are a number of factors to be considered here. Were the players made aware of the known risks? How high are the risks and to what extent can they be mitigated by safety interventions and good practices? Have the leagues shown adequate concern for the safety of their players and responsibility for players with serious physical injuries or mental conditions as a result of their participation in the sport? The huge incentives in the money and fame that sports fans offer can blind players to the risks that they are taking and to the toll that they and their loved ones might have to bear in the future. On the other hand, we need to be critical of the risks that our society thinks are acceptable, and the risks that it doesn’t.
Beyond this, I believe that we need to interrogate the place that sport and its stars play in modern society. In a number of respects, sport and its stars increasingly function as mass spectacles that displace more immediate and fundamental realities. For instance, sport often provides men with a sort of vicarious masculinity and a focus for male community that take the place once occupied by productive masculinity and male community. By now it may be a clichéd observation, but it is also important to consider the ways in which sport performs roles and assumes meanings formerly assigned to religious practice.
We will always tend to sacrifice for the sake of our idolatries. Rather than focusing narrowly on the question of our responsibility as sports fans for the injuries of the athletes we encourage with our support, I believe it is important to ask the more searching questions about the place of sport in our lives and culture, lest in potentially drawing back from possible sacrifices, we nonetheless leave the idolatry that generates them intact.
Owen Strachan is an author of several books and associate professor of Christian Theology and director of the Center for Public Theology at Midwestern Baptist Theological Seminary. He says, This is a complex question, and the moral and ethical strands within it would take time to unwind.
First, the motive of most sports fans is not to watch games that will cause brain damage. The motive is to enjoy God’s common grace gifts, a motive I appreciate (and share). Second, we do not have a clear prohibition in the Bible that would automatically bar us from watching high-contact sports. That means we are called to exercise wisdom and discernment here. Third, we now know of the deleterious consequences of football violence, consequences that not only stem from the NFL or the NCAA, but also from youth sports, when the relative velocity of collisions between players means that young brains can be damaged (for example, see how Archie Manning handled his boys’ participation).
There is a sense in which we are participating in — and abetting — a brutal system by supporting high-contact sports. It is now clear that our fandom with football is more roughly equivalent to engagement of boxing or MMA than we thought. These sports exact a vicious cost from at least some of their participants. We cannot easily turn away from this knowledge; we cannot close our eyes to truth.
The Bible does not tell us we cannot watch high-contact sports. But out of love for God-made humanity, fellow image-bearers, and out of awareness of the cost of the games we love, we should weigh our involvement accordingly.
Ed Uszynski has a PhD in American Culture Studies and works for Athletes in Action as a writer, lead strategist, and content developer for their website. He says, Yes, we are complicit.
If we pose the question in this manner, of course Christians are complicit along with everyone else in funding this system. But I find it interesting that the Christian community is just now asking about the morality of supporting football in light of CTE, while more obvious, disturbing issues have been around for decades. On the chart of reasons to potentially reject football, CTE strikes me as much farther down the list. For one, at this point it is a stretch to conclude playing football “will likely lead to CTE,” since most older players are not coming forward testifying as such. Some are — the majority are not.
Secondly, those participating in playing football are not being forced to compete like pit bulls in a dog-fighting racket. It’s far more problematic that parents encourage their six-year-olds to play tackle football than it is to watch grown men who chose it for themselves, fully aware of the potential immediate and future consequences it affords.
But football culture at both the NCAA and NFL levels has already been overflowing with morally scandalous concerns for years. Far more egregious reasons to reassess one’s participation have existed long before the CTE scare. Consider this low-hanging fruit: exploitation, cheating, hyper-sexualization, gambling, publicized player/coach debauchery, racism, sexism, hardly penalized criminal offenses, the dominance of Sunday, an idolatrous mix of God and country, excessive financial cost. If you want to walk away from football, consider choosing from this more obvious and long-standing menu of football-culture moral junk food.
K. Erik Thoennes is professor of Biblical and Theological Studies at Biola University and author of “Created to Play: Thoughts on Play, Sport, and the Christian Life.” He says, No, we are not complicit.
Football is dangerous, and may be stupid, but it’s not immoral. The same could be said for climbing a mountain, riding a motorcycle, being a commercial diver, or attending a Hanson concert. I’ve done all of those things (except one), and my life is richer because I did.
In fourteen years of playing football, I only left the field in an ambulance once, and although I lost count of the times I “got my bell rung,” and had several legit concussions, I would certainly do it all again. I loved to hit. And, although I realize this will seem bizarre to many, I loved getting hit, and getting up, and getting back to the huddle. Those hits were preparing me for life in a fallen world — playing football tremendously shaped my character for good, and the unique relational bonds developed on the field were deep and lasting.
The intensity of football is one of the main reasons it is so fun and formative, and the potential danger is why it is so intense. All those collisions do take a physical toll, and I think it is wise to improve the rules and equipment so it cuts down on injuries. But football is a violent game, and although injury is an unavoidable part of it, injury is not the goal (this cannot be said of professional boxing, where causing a brain contusion is the supreme goal). For thousands and thousands of young men like me, football taught us to be better men, and even to be better Christians. Like climbing Mount Everest, I think it’s worth the risk.
David E. Prince is pastor of preaching and vision at Ashland Avenue Baptist Church, assistant professor of Christian Preaching for The Southern Baptist Theological Seminary, and author of In the Arena: The Promise of Sports for Christian Discipleship. He says,
No — if the word “likely” is retained. At this time, the research simply does not support that strong a statement.
Yes — if we replace “likely” with “could” lead to CTE. But no more so than we are complicit in funding a system that leads to the deaths of loggers and fishermen, America’s two deadliest occupations (and at tragically high rates). Commercial logging workers lose their lives on the job at a rate of 127.8 per 100,000 full-time workers and fishing-related professionals lose their lives at a rate of 117 per 100,000 full-time workers (Bureau of Labor Statistics). Thus, every time we enjoy seafood or purchase commercially made furniture, we are complicit in creating demand for occupations that lead to those deaths. Neither occupation is necessary for our personal human sustenance.
Likewise, football is a rough sport and, played at elite levels, it poses some significant health risks. The link between CTE, concussions, and the repeated contact in a collision sport like football should continue to be studied, and the game should, as it has repeatedly done, take measures to improve player safety. Players should be informed of the inherent risks in the same way a doctor must explain the inherent risks of a surgical procedure before he operates. But we must not only listen to the most alarmist voices and assume headlines are fact.
For instance, did you know that NFL football players are less likely to commit suicide than the general population in the United States? Based on the media narrative, probably not. In fact, pastors (like me) have a higher suicide rate than NFL football players. A Christian should make all decisions, including sporting ones, in light of their faith. For me, as of now, I enjoy football with a clear conscience, believing it brings far more cultural good than bad.
When Herod the king heard this, he was troubled, and all Jerusalem with him. (Matthew 2:3)
Jesus is troubling to people who do not want to worship him, and he arouses opposition against those who do. This is probably not a main point in the mind of Matthew, but it is an inescapable implication as the story goes on.
In this story, there are two kinds of people who do not want to worship Jesus.
The first kind is the people who simply do nothing about Jesus. He is a nonentity in their lives. This group is represented at the beginning of Jesus’s life by the chief priests and scribes. Matthew 2:4 says, “Assembling all the chief priests and scribes of the people, [Herod] inquired of them where the Christ was to be born.” So they told him, and that was that: back to business as usual. The sheer silence and inactivity of the leaders is overwhelming in view of the magnitude of what was happening.
And notice, Matthew 2:3 says, “When Herod the king heard this, he was troubled, and all Jerusalem with him.” In other words, the rumor was going around that someone thought the Messiah was born. The inactivity on the part of the chief priests is staggering: why not go with the magi? They are not interested. They are not passionate about finding the Son of God and worshiping him.
The second kind of people who do not want to worship Jesus is the kind who are deeply threatened by him. That’s Herod in this story. He is really afraid. So much so that he schemes and lies and then commits mass murder just to get rid of Jesus.
So today, these two kinds of opposition will come against Christ and his worshipers: indifference and hostility. I surely hope that you are not in one of those groups?
And if you are a Christian, let this Christmas be the time when you ponder what it means — what it costs — to worship and follow this Messiah.
Do you ever wonder how people talk about you behind your back?
Maybe you get the itch when you see people talking quietly close by: Was it something I did? The mind has its mysterious ways of wandering and wondering. Wandering and wondering. Sometimes, the anxiety of imaging yourself the target of gossip can chew a hole through an entire day.
James says, “Let no one say when he is tempted, ‘I am being tempted by God,’ for God cannot be tempted with evil, and he himself tempts no one” (James 1:13). Horizontal gossip is first rooted in vertical gossip. Before wielding his seldom-dull axe against gossip towards church members, James swings it at God-gossip.
The burden of this rebuke falls not on something wrongly performed, but on something wrongly said about God. The command is: “don’t talk about God like that.”What Excuse Do You Make?
The early church, upon having their sin exposed, was gossiping against God rather than owning their sin. And no, maybe the very words “I am being tempted by God” have not tumbled from your lips in these exact sounds units, but you might, like me, recognize yourself in these common excuses:
I would not have sinned if God hadn’t put this trial in my life.
I would not sin with laziness if God would give me more responsibility.
I would not sin with anxiety if God would give me less responsibility.
We transform our churches, small groups, and accountability groups into circles of gossip that slander The Most High. This is the foundation from which James leaps into his more familiar condemnations of gossip, like: “If anyone thinks he is religious and does not bridle his tongue . . . this person’s religion is worthless” (James 1:26), and, “And the tongue is a fire, a world of unrighteousness . . . With it we bless our Lord and Father, and with it we curse people who are made in the likeness of God” (James 3:6–9).The Opposite of Gossip
For the apostle Paul, gossip is a type of demonic imputation. In his stunning letter written to the church in Philippi, he encourages the church towards unity with this remarkable command for humility: “In humility count others more significant than yourselves” (Philippians 2:3).
The word “count” in this text has a rich biblical history and an entire universe of meaning tightly-coiled within it: circle, highlight, and underline it. For instance, Paul uses the same root word when he says, “And to the one who does not work but believes in him who justifies the ungodly, his faith is counted as righteousness” (Romans 4:5).
In other words, the imputation of Christ’s righteousness is a type of anti-gossip: it is the counting of righteousness to a person who is unrighteous. When God speaks behind our backs, God the Son talks to God the Father about us in such a way that he sees us as perfectly righteous, not less righteous. That Christ talks on our behalf, behind our backs, is actually the basis of the good news!The Worst Accusations Against You
Gossip, then, is a sort of anti-imputation: it is the counting of unrighteousness against people who have been counted righteous in Christ. You might even say that gossip is a type of amputation: a hacking off not of limbs or body parts, but of esteem and honor. Gossip is the satanic tongue.
To the throne of God, Satan drags with him a cosmic bag brimming full of accusations about your sins, failures, and struggles. Worse yet, his bag is filled with true accusations about you packed with stories about your transgressions. If you are like me and your heart rate increases at the possibility of peer-gossip, how do you handle the thought of Satan — knowing far more than your peers do — gossiping behind your back?
If we want to end destructive gossip in our lives, we need to have our eyes opened to see the true work of grace at work in others, and then to count them more significant than ourselves.Gossip Better
The satanic influence and eternal impact of gossip has become, in painful increments, more clear to me over the last year. Fifteen months ago, I planted a church in Iowa with a small team of people. When you minister in a small new church, unlike in a more established one, it can feel like the balance of your church’s future teeters on the things people say.
James asks the early churches, “Who is wise and understanding among you? By his good conduct let him show his works in the meekness of wisdom” (James 3:13) — over and against the volatility of gossip. That’s our cry as a fragile young church. And by God’s mercy, our church is slowly growing, in part because we are learning to gossip about one another like Christ does.
This is not a passionate plea for Christians to “gossip” less, it’s a passionate plea for Christians to gossip better. If you’re going to gossip in your church, as Paul and James would agree, gossip like Jesus. When you talk about other members behind their backs, speak with a flavor that leaves the listener with a higher-view of that member. When you talk behind the backs of church members, talk about the fruit of their spiritual lives — the progress, the work of Christ, in their lives.
In other words: has Christ imputed righteousness to you? Now, impute esteem to others.
“Where is he who has been born king of the Jews? For we saw his star when it rose and have come to worship him.” (Matthew 2:2)
Over and over the Bible baffles our curiosity about just how certain things happened. How did this “star” get the magi from the east to Jerusalem?
It does not say that it led them or went before them on the way to Jerusalem. It only says they saw a star in the east (Matthew 2:2) and came to Jerusalem. And how did that star go before them in the little five-mile walk from Jerusalem to Bethlehem as Matthew 2:9 says it did? And how did a star “rest over the place where the child was”?
The answer is: We do not know. There are numerous efforts to explain it in terms of conjunctions of planets or comets or supernovas or miraculous lights. We just don’t know. And I want to exhort you not to become preoccupied — not to become fixated — on theories that are only tentative in the end and have very little spiritual significance.
I risk a generalization to warn you: People who are exercised and preoccupied with such things, as how the star worked and how the Red Sea split and how the manna fell and how Jonah survived the fish and how the moon turns to blood, are generally people who have what I call a mentality for the marginal.
You do not see in them a deep cherishing of the great central things of the gospel: the holiness of God, the ugliness of sin, the helplessness of man, the death of Christ, justification by faith alone, the sanctifying work of the Spirit, the glory of Christ’s return, and the final judgment. They always seem to be taking you down a sidetrack with some new article or book that they’re all excited about dealing with something marginal. There is little rejoicing over the great, central realities.
But what is plain concerning this matter of the star is that it is doing something that it cannot do on its own: It is guiding magi to the Son of God to worship him.
There is only one Person in biblical thinking that can be behind that intentionality in the stars: God himself.
So, the lesson is plain: God is guiding foreigners to Christ to worship him. And he is doing it by exerting global — probably even universal — influence and power to get it done.
Luke shows God influencing the entire Roman Empire so that the census comes at the exact time to get an insignificant virgin to Bethlehem to fulfill prophecy with her delivery. Matthew shows God influencing the stars in the sky to get a little handful of foreigners to Bethlehem so that they can worship the Son.
This is God’s design. He did it then. He is still doing it now. His aim is that the nations — all the nations (Matthew 24:14) — worship his Son.
This is God’s will for everybody in your office at work, and in your classroom, and in your neighborhood, and in your home. As John 4:23 says, “The Father is seeking such people to worship him.”
At the beginning of Matthew we still have a “come-see” pattern. But at the end the pattern is “go-tell.” The magi came and saw. We are to go and tell.
But what is not different is the purpose and power of God in the ingathering of the nations to worship his Son. The magnifying of Christ in the white-hot worship of all nations is the reason the world exists.
If we glorify God most when he satisfies us most, then our fight for happiness in him means more than we imagine.
Have you ever stopped to ponder just how strange everything about the birth of Jesus was? Whatever people had imagined the coming of the Messiah would look like, no one imagined it to look like it did.
In all that he reveals to us about that strange first Christmas, God is saying very important things to us about how he wants us to view the perplexing, bewildering, glorious, frustrating, fearful, painful, unexpected, disappointing, and even tragic experiences of our lives. No one really understood all that was going as God the Son entered the world. No one really saw the big picture — no one except God.An Unexpected Messiah
It began with the unexpected revelation of the Son of God. The existence of the Son in the Godhead was not clear to the Jews prior to his surprise appearance in Bethlehem. He was revealed in the Tanakh (Old Testament) in texts like 1 Chronicles 17:13, Psalm 2, Psalm 45:6–7, Psalm 110:1, Isaiah 53, and others, but most didn’t recognize him.
Those who perceived a messianic prophecy in Isaiah 7:14, “Behold, the virgin shall conceive and bear a son, and shall call his name Immanuel” didn’t take it to mean a virgin would miraculously become pregnant with God. They assumed a chaste young bride would conceive the Messiah in the, you know, standard manner. And no one believed “Immanuel” literally meant God would become flesh and dwell among them. God’s ways were much wilder than even his people had imagined.From the Wrong Side of Town
Nor did anyone expect God choose the backwater town of Nazareth as the place for the Messiah to be conceived and raised to adulthood. First off, no prophet ever arose from Galilee (John 7:52). And second, everyone knew that Nazareth produced nothing good (John 1:46). Besides, didn’t the prophet say the Messiah would come from Bethlehem (Micah 5:2)?
Indeed, he would emerge from Bethlehem. But who could have possibly anticipated that the Almighty would prompt Caesar Augustus to decree an imperial census in order to force the young peasant woman great with divine child and her bewildered new husband to travel from Nazareth to Bethlehem just barely in time to fulfill that prophecy (Luke 2:1–5)?
And who in their wildest dreams would have imagined that once they arrived in Bethlehem, there would be no place for her to give birth to the long-expected Messiah, except some dingy cave used to house animals?Welcomed by Peasants and Pagans
When he was born, great angelic fanfare was made . . . to shepherds. Profane, unclean purveyors of all things sheep, if you know what I mean. This would have been viewed with great suspicion and confusion by pious Jews. In terms of social standing, if Jesus had been born in 21st Century America, it might be like God choosing to bypass everyone else and sending an angel choir to a group of illegal migrant workers. Why shepherds, of all people?
Actually, it gets worse. God took things to a whole different level by summoning only one other group of people to welcome his divine Son into the world: the “magoi” (Matthew 2:1–2). Some English translators transliterate this Greek word into English as “magi.” Others use the term “wise men,” but it doesn’t capture the surreal nature of these strange visitors. Of all the unlikely characters and events in this story, these may be the unlikeliest.
The magi were pagan Persian priests and/or astrologers. They were experts in sorcery, divination, and other mysterious magical arts and literature. They were “wise” in the things God strictly forbade the Jews from participating in (Deuteronomy 18:9–14). And God summoned them through astrological divination by using some sort of “star.”
Today, it might be like God choosing to bypass everyone else and summoning a group of Wiccans to worship the baby Jesus through tarot cards or crystals. Does that make you squirm? That’s how you should feel at the arrival of the magi in the story — until you make the missional connection with the purpose of Christmas. Then you worship alongside these pagan welcomers of the Savior of the world.Into Unspeakable Horror
But the magi’s role in the story wasn’t merely marvelous. They unwittingly blazed a trail leading to tragedy. For their arrival awakened a wicked man possessing the power of the sword. And a dark horror entered the glorious story. The ancient dragon sought to devour the divine Child (Revelation 12:1–6) by manipulating Herod the Great’s paranoid, demonically selfish, evil rage. A military guard was ordered to raid the unsuspecting residents of Bethlehem and massacre every male child under two years of age, leaving the daughters of Rachel inconsolable (Matthew 2:13–18). The Child was delivered, but not the rest of the children.
Like nearly every other tragedy, no divine purpose is explained. We are left to trust through tears. But trust we can. For the spared Child of Bethlehem was given life that he might die a far more brutal, horrific death — one that would purchase the eternal redemption of Bethlehem’s lost boys and bring eternal consolation to any bereaved parent willing to receive it.Inscrutable Hope for All
Do you see the pattern? The Christmas story has the same elements of strangeness as the whole biblical narrative, beginning to end. It is a story we would not have written. It carries a wisdom alien to sinful men:
[For] God chose what is foolish in the world to shame the wise; God chose what is weak in the world to shame the strong; God chose what is low and despised in the world, even things that are not, to bring to nothing things that are, so that no human being might boast in the presence of God. (1 Corinthians 1:26–29)
Nothing about the Christmas story was expected. As things were unfolding, no one really understood all that was going on or why. God chose ways and means to bring his Son into the world that appeared more or less foolish to all observing. There were ample things to perplex, bewilder, awe, enthrall, terrify, frustrate, disappoint, and grieve those who experienced the first Advent. The pieces were put together in retrospect.Great Joy in Strange Days
You and I live in the present moment, not yet in retrospect. And we may be in a very strange moment. Things may not seem to make sense. There may be a convergence of odd elements and unexpected turns of events. Some things may just seem bizarre. Other things may be grievous or fearful. We may feel psychologically and emotionally destabilized and disoriented.
If so, Christmas comes to us as a wonderful gift. For the God of the unexpected — who wielded an emperor to fulfill prophecy, who chose a peasant teenager to bear the Messiah, a disreputable hometown, an animal trough cradle, and profane and pagan attendants, and who allowed an unspeakable horror to accompany the Messiah’s birth for redemptive reasons not yet revealed — that God is with us, Immanuel. And if God is with us, who can be against us (Romans 8:31)?
God sees the big picture, and in his wisdom — which often initially doesn’t look like wisdom — he will bring all to right in the ways and at the times that will result in our experiencing the greatest joy possible (Luke 2:10).
In many cultures, married couples live with the husband’s family. But does “leaving and cleaving” mean they should move out and get their own place?
When a Christian reads the Bible, a supernatural event takes place. Our regenerate souls meet the inspired word in a divine encounter.
It is not until a Christian is convinced that death is truly gain that he truly begins to live.
Now after Jesus was born in Bethlehem of Judea in the days of Herod the king, behold, wise men from the east came to Jerusalem, saying, “Where is he who has been born king of the Jews?” (Matthew 2:1–2)
Unlike Luke, Matthew does not tell us about the shepherds coming to visit Jesus in the stable. His focus is immediately on foreigners — Gentiles, non-Jews — coming from the east to worship Jesus.
So, Matthew portrays Jesus at the beginning and ending of his Gospel as a universal Messiah for all the nations, not just for Jews.
Here the first worshipers are court magicians, or astrologers, or wise men not from Israel but from the East — perhaps from Babylon. They were Gentiles. Unclean, according to the Old Testament ceremonial laws.
And at the end of Matthew, the last words of Jesus are, “All authority in heaven and on earth has been given to me. Go therefore and make disciples of all nations” (Matthew 28:18–19).
This not only opened the door for us Gentiles to rejoice in the Messiah; it added proof that he was the Messiah. Because one of the repeated prophecies was that the nations and kings would, in fact, come to him as the ruler of the world. For example, Isaiah 60:3, “Nations shall come to your light, and kings to the brightness of your rising.”
So, Matthew adds proof to the messiahship of Jesus and shows that he is Messiah — a King, and Promise-Fulfiller — for all the nations, not just Israel.
John Piper originally shared his burden live online on Thursday, November 30, in a 35-minute address. This article is John’s written version of that address, revised and expanded to provide more clarity on the finer points of his burden.
I write not as an authority on race relations, or as one with vast experience across cultures, or as one who considers himself especially successful in realizing my own dreams. Instead I write as a watcher of our sad world, a pursuer of biblical reality, a lover of Jesus Christ, and a hoper for more harmony, more justice, and more beauty in my wider family — the body of Jesus Christ.
From a global perspective, my focus is narrow. But unless I’m mistaken, a few things I say will be relevant beyond my own context. Within the family of human beings, my focus has three narrowings. First, I am focusing on Christians. Then, narrowing further, I am focusing on evangelicals — that group of Christian who try to conform to the authority of Scripture, who gladly embrace the historic creeds of the Christian church, who cherish the fact that Christ died for sinners like us, and who seek to persuade other people about the preciousness of what we have found in Christ.
With the third narrowing, I focus on a group of evangelicals who are labeled in various ways — perhaps most notably by the title of Collin Hansen’s book Young, Restless, and Reformed. My short definition of this group is that (1) they stand in awe of the glory of God as the most important reality in the universe; (2) they gladly embrace the sovereign rule of God over all events — from galaxies to subatomic particles, including our own suffering, in the hope that God can turn the worst of circumstances for the best of outcomes; and (3) they believe that the only reason we have any love for Christ is God raised us from spiritual death and gave us new believing hearts.Marks of a Reformed Movement
As I said, my focus is narrow. This is a small group of people globally speaking. But it has some characteristics that are very striking, and that lead to the issue of racial harmony and racial justice that we are moving toward.
Surprisingly this group cuts across many denominations, creating perplexity for the historical meaning of “Reformed.” Historically, “Reformed” referred to Presbyterian-type churches ascribing to the Westminster Confession. Who would have thought there would be Reformed charismatics or Reformed Baptists or Reformed Bible churches?
It has been marked by a kind of cultural awareness and cultural engagement. Some of its younger representatives are actually cool.
Generally speaking, it has given birth to, and is sustained by, passionate, emotionally expressive corporate worship.
It has been from the outset very missional — evangelistic, engaged in world missions, and pursuing the salvation of the unreached peoples of the world.
It has given rise to a dizzying array of conferences, websites, magazines, campus ministries, writers, publishing houses, seminaries and colleges, churches and denominations and associations, musicians and poets.
It has proved to be a global phenomenon with outcroppings in China, Indonesia, South Africa, Latin America, Italy, France, Britain, and elsewhere.
And here in America, it has become significantly ethnically diverse.
Thousands of people of color have found this vision of God to be biblical, true, compelling, and utterly relevant to their situation — the vision, namely, of (1) the supreme, all-satisfying greatness of the glory of God as the most important reality in the universe; (2) the sovereign power and wisdom and goodness of God over all our suffering so that he is able to work everything for good; and (3) the stunningly good news that God is able to save the worst of sinners not just by offering them a gift, but by actually taking out the heart of stone and putting in a new heart of faith and hope and love and justice.
In this milieu of ethnic diversity and theological unity, some of us have found very sweet friendships.Roots of Strain
In the last three years — and especially the last year — an improbable constellation of sad events has brought us to this really painful moment in our racial relations. Before I mention six of them, we should realize that the strain of these days has roots that go back a long way.
Of course, I could be referring to hundreds of years of injustice toward African Americans in this country. But what I have in mind here is the kind of strain that is inevitable in the emergence of a movement like the young, restless, and Reformed, where one ethnic group of the awakening is dominant.
The inevitable (and not sinful) question arises in the mind of the minority lovers of the theological vision (and should arise in the minds of the majority, but often doesn’t): What does an authentic, minority ethnic-cultural expression of this big-God vision look like?
In other words, the minority lovers of this vision have gradually raised identity questions that come from participation in largely white-led, white-shaped, culturally-white ministries. Those kinds of questions and latent cultural-ethnic tensions have been felt for a long time in this movement.
Just at this point I would caution some readers who may wonder if “an authentic, minority ethnic-cultural expression of this big-God theology” is, in fact, a wise or legitimate goal. You may think that our new identity in Christ implies that such distinct ethnic expressions are divisive or segregationist or dangerously close to unbiblical homogeneity. I sympathize with the reaction.
But my caution is this: Step back and realize that your church and your ministry (and your whole life) are through-and-through culturally shaped. You may not feel it, since fish don’t feel wet. Wet is all they have ever known. Wet is just the way it is. But in our way of doing things, this cultural wetness is all around us. We have a hundred reflexes and preferences that we never think about. And we love being this way. It feels utterly natural. To us. But not to everyone else. If we say that others should not long for and pursue similar at-homeness in culturally different wetness, we are, I think, naïve at best, and hypocrites at worst.
So my point is that in the young, restless, Reformed movement, seeds of strain have existed for a long time, because until recently most of the energizing structures of the movement have been led and shaped mainly by the majority ethnicity.Improbable Constellation of Sorrows
Now comes the incredible constellation of events over the last three years that have brought us to this painful moment in racial and ethnic relations. I’ll mention six of them. Each of these deserves an essay to itself. I am simply pointing to a reality, not describing the depths of its evil or its pain.
Michael Brown and Ferguson. Even the names are now a symbol of the (most recent!) beginning of a long train of questions about justice toward black men in relation to law enforcement. Some of these events, as in the case closest to us here in Minneapolis, have simply left us baffled about how there cannot be more legal consequences for an officer who handles a situation this way.
The emergence of Donald Trump on the political scene and his utterly stunning election to the presidency, bringing to the fore his divisive rhetorical style, and his adolescent pattern of blaming, and his reckless Twitter-form leadership.
The fact that a huge percentage of white evangelicals voted for Trump, in spite of glaring character flaws that were screaming to be taken more seriously.
The Charlottesville debacle, which felt to many of us like the official “coming out of the closet” of white supremacy.
The foregrounding for a season (which remains an unresolved issue) of thousands of Confederate memorials, that seem to many of us as though they belong in a museum for education rather than on a pedestal for celebration.
Finally, the intensely controversial NFL-game-day kneeling during the national anthem to protest racial injustice, accompanied by President Trump’s vulgar name-calling.
These recent sorrows, on top of the growing strain over identity questions of Reformed minorities, against the backdrop of centuries of blatant and subtle, individual and structural injustices in our history have left many of our minority brothers and sisters feeling perplexed or disillusioned.Loosening Ties with “White Evangelicalism”
As one African-American brother put it, “We thought we knew you. But now we are unsure.” Such unsureness marks a lot of fellowships just now.
I talked to a pastor of a remarkably ethnically diverse church of several thousand and asked him if the present situation had made things harder, and he said, “Oh, yes. We’ve not had so much uncertainty and perplexity and suspicion ever before.”
I talked to a 71-year-old African-American brother who said he was watching the Charlottesville events unfold with his daughter and grandchildren, and he began to weep. He couldn’t help but wonder whether what he thought were wonderful gains in his lifetime were going to collapse.
And as many of you have heard, numerous young minority leaders are saying they really do need to loosen their identity with “white evangelicalism” — and that includes the white expressions of the young, restless, and Reformed movement.
It appears to many minorities, and it appears to me, that large numbers of Christians and churches and ministries are much more influenced by culture and political ideology and American nationalism than by the radical demands of what it means to be Christian sojourners and exiles on the earth, with our citizenship in heaven.A Word to My White Friends
So let me say three things to my white friends, who are perhaps also watchers and pursuers and lovers and hopers for more justice and harmony and beauty in the body of Christ.Indigenous Pilgrims
First, Andrew Walls, former professor of missions at the University of Edinburgh, has helped me think about the implications of missiology for the cultural realities of life in every church. He points out that wherever the gospel of Jesus spreads into new cultures and ethnicities — peoples, tribes, and nations (Revelation 5:9) — two principles are always at work: the indigenous principle and the pilgrim principle. (See his Missionary Movement in Christian History, pages 7–8, and my sermonic summary in “Do Not Be Conformed to This World.”)
The indigenous principle says there are aspects of every culture that are not necessarily in conflict with the message and the life of Jesus. These aspects of a culture can remain and become beautiful expressions through which the life of Jesus can be known.
Then there is the pilgrim principle, which means that the budding church in every culture will discover aspects of its new life in Christ that go against cultural tradition. And the Christian, to some degree, will have to be a pilgrim, or a sojourner, or an exile, or a refugee to the degree that such cultural aspects do not change.
The beauty and miracle of the Christian faith is that it has found authentic incarnation in thousands of different cultural forms, without being lost in syncretism.
But it is a constant tension. And my exhortation, especially to dominant-culture churches in America, is that we recognize that all of us have a culture interwoven with our ethnicity, and the more dominant the culture is, the more invisible it seems to us.
And it would be helpful if brothers and sisters of color could see that we are owning the tension that exists between our majority-white culture and the radical call of Jesus. Because I think it’s true that there is more cultural captivity in our churches and our lives than we realize. And it goes almost without saying that American culture is shot through with countless aspects that are incompatible with obedience to Jesus.Give Benefit of Doubt
The second thing I would say to white brothers and sisters is: let’s not jump to any pejorative, derogatory, hopeless conclusions about the meaning of this loosening of minority ties with a group of evangelicals who seem to be culturally naïve — or worse, compromised. Let’s pray. Let’s keep the channels of communication open. And let’s do what we can to see this present, painful situation in a larger, hopeful, and ultimately unifying light.Justice for All
Third, let’s own the blood-bought, biblical commitment not just to diversity and harmony, but also to justice for all. That is, let’s join God in Psalm 103:6:
The Lord works righteousness
and justice for all who are oppressed.
Finally, I offer some hopes, especially for our little tribe of Christians who love the supreme majesty of God’s glory, and the sovereign wisdom of God in suffering, and the sovereign grace of God in saving sinners.
Could it be that this loosening of ties with white evangelicalism might, through a season of painful growth, bring us all into a new day, chastened, humbled, and awake?
And could it be that this new day of loosening would include the decreasing politicization and cultural captivity of majority ethnic-cultural ministries, as well as the increasing indigenization of big-God theology in minority ethnic-cultural ministries?
And might it not turn out that these more fully indigenous minority ethnic-cultural ministries would be led mainly by minority-culture leaders, and these depoliticized, liberated majority ethnic-cultural ministries would be led mainly by majority-culture leaders?
And might not these particular proportions of diverse leadership result not only in different cultural expressions of the big-God vision, but also in a remarkable diversity of people in all these ministries, because ethnically diverse people often love similar forms of faith?
And could it be that these ministries — internally diverse, and yet predominantly one culture or another — would then relate to each other from equal biblical faithfulness, equal integrity, equal strength, and equal cultural authenticity?
And so might we all be spared the feeling of cultural compromise and paternalism, as we share in each other’s lives and ministries?
Perhaps this painful moment in our history is leading there. If that’s not your dream, I pray that God would give you a more beautiful one, not just for the age to come, but for the here and now. I am speaking to you as “heirs of God and fellow heirs with Christ,” with all the hope and joy that this implies.
We did not receive the spirit of slavery to fall back into fear, but we have received the Spirit of adoption as sons, by whom we cry, “Abba! Father!” The Spirit himself bears witness with our spirit that we are children of God, and if children, then heirs — heirs of God and fellow heirs with Christ, provided we suffer with him in order that we may also be glorified with him. (Romans 8:15–17)
This short book from John Piper is an invitation to think and feel along with the Psalms, and in the process to feel God powerfully shape your heart.
“And this will be a sign for you: you will find a baby wrapped in swaddling cloths and lying in a manger.” And suddenly there was with the angel a multitude of the heavenly host praising God and saying, “Glory to God in the highest, and on earth peace among those with whom he is pleased!” (Luke 2:12–14)
Peace for whom? There is a somber note sounded in the angels’ praise. Peace among those on whom his favor rests. Peace among those with whom he is pleased. But without faith it is impossible to please God (Hebrews 11:6). So Christmas does not bring peace to all.
“This is the judgment,” Jesus said, “the light has come into the world, and people loved the darkness rather than the light because their works were evil” (John 3:19). Or as the aged Simeon said when he saw the child Jesus, “Behold, this child is appointed for the fall and rising of many in Israel, and for a sign that is opposed . . . so that thoughts from many hearts may be revealed” (Luke 2:34–35). Oh, how many there are who look out on a bleak and chilly Christmas day and see no more than that — a sign to be opposed.
“He came to his own, and his own people did not receive him. But to all who did receive him, who believed in his name, he gave the right to become children of God” (John 1:11–12). It was only to his disciples that Jesus said, “Peace I leave with you; my peace I give to you. Not as the world gives do I give to you. Let not your hearts be troubled, neither let them be afraid” (John 14:27).
The people who enjoy the peace of God that surpasses all understanding are those who in everything by prayer and supplication let their requests be made known to God (Philippians 4:6–7).
The key that unlocks the treasure chest of God’s peace is faith in the promises of God. So Paul prays, “May the God of hope fill you with all joy and peace in believing” (Romans 15:13). And when we do trust the promises of God and have joy and peace and love, then God is glorified.
Glory to God in the highest, and on earth peace among those with whom he is pleased! Everyone — from every people, tongue, tribe, and nation — who would believe.
When you understand the love of God as he intended, everything changes.
Is God calling me into pastoral ministry?
It’s a question many Christians wrestle with at some point in their life of faith. Not just in adolescence or early adulthood, but sometimes midlife, or even in approaching so-called retirement age.
The New Testament doesn’t draw neat and distinct lines between “full-time ministry” and so-called “secular work.” In whatever God, by his providence, leads us into for our day job, he calls us to do our work “not by way of eye-service, as people-pleasers, but with sincerity of heart, fearing the Lord” (Colossians 3:22). Christ’s apostle charges all workers, “Whatever you do, work heartily, as for the Lord and not for men, knowing that from the Lord you will receive the inheritance as your reward. You are serving the Lord Christ” (Colossians 3:23–24; also Ephesians 6:6–8).
The fundamental divide is not between full-time ministry and non-ministry jobs, but this important distinction: church office. Perhaps the better question to ask — or at least where we have some specific texts to give us more clarity — is this: Am I called to the office of elder?
We should note that elders in the New Testament (also called pastors or overseers) are spiritually mature men (1 Timothy 3:2; Titus 1:6). Not any Christian, and not any man, but mature men. “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 called “overseer” in four texts (Acts 20:28; Philippians 1:1; 1 Timothy 3:1–2; Titus 1:7). By focusing on the office, rather than simply vocational (or nonvocational) ministry, several specific texts give us some bearings.1. Do I Aspire?
First off, God wants pastors to want to do the work. He wants elders who happily give of themselves in this emotionally taxing work, “not reluctantly or under compulsion” (2 Corinthians 9:7). God loves a cheerful pastor.
When the apostle Paul addresses the qualifications of pastors-elders-overseers, he first mentions aspiration. “The saying is trustworthy: If anyone aspires to the office of overseer, he desires a noble task” (1 Timothy 3:1). God wants men who want to do the work, not men who do it simply out of a sense of duty. He grabs pastors by the heart; he doesn’t twist them by the arm.
Peter may say it most powerfully. Christ wants elders to shepherd (pastor) his flock “not under compulsion, but willingly, as God would have you” (1 Peter 5:2). How remarkable that pastoring from aspiration and delight, not obligation and duty, would be “as God would have you.” This is the kind of God we have — the desiring (not dutiful) God, who wants pastors who are desiring (not dutiful) pastors. Such a happy God means for the leaders of his church to do their work “with joy and not with groaning, for that would be of no advantage” to the people (Hebrews 13:17).
Practically, then, when we hear men, young and old, express an aspiration to the pastoral office, we should want our first inclination not to be to challenge it, squash it, or see if we can disavow them of it. Rather, we want to give them the benefit of the doubt, that God is at work. Such an aspiration is not a natural desire, but supernatural. Let’s start by encouraging men who would express such an unnatural heart.
Desire for the work has a role to play in the calling to church office that it may not in other work. Your day job may be something you’re able to do, but don’t enjoy, and God can work with that for a season. But a fundamental difference between pastoral ministry and every other kind of work is the necessity of desire.
Such desire is often the beginning of a pastoral calling, but it is never the entirety. Aspiration is a great place to start, but desire in and of itself does not amount to a calling. God then gives us two layers of confirmation: the affirmation of others and the real-life opportunity.2. Am I Gifted?
After sensing a subjective desire for pastoral ministry, we need to ask a more objective question about our gifting. Have I seen evidence, however small, of fruitfulness in serving others through biblical teaching and counsel. And, even more important than my own self-assessment, do others confirm my giftings for pastoral ministry?
Here the desires of the heart meet the brass tacks of the needs of others. Office in the church is not for spiritual self-actualization or merely affirming a man’s spiritual maturity, but it’s for meeting the actual needs of others. The elder qualifications are, in a sense, unremarkable. The elders of the church should not be the sum total of all spiritually qualified men in the church. Rather, from among those who are qualified, the elders are those who are willing to make extra sacrifices (for a season or the long haul) to care for the church and meet her needs. Aspiration has its vital part to play, but the call to pastoral office is not shaped mainly by the internal heart, but by external needs.
This is the opposite of the “follow your heart” perspective and “don’t settle for anything less than your dreams” ideology we so often hear in society. What’s most important in discerning God’s call is not bringing the desires of our heart to bear on the world, but letting the needs of others shape our heart.
Over time, then, a dialogue happens between what we want to do and what we find ourselves good at doing for the benefit of others. Delight in certain kinds of labor grows as real needs are being met and as others affirm our gifts and efforts. Often we’ll even discover a calling and gifting for ministry first through others’ observations and encouragement, and only later through our own aspirations.
Before you go looking for opportunities to shepherd in the future, make sure you are able to meet real spiritual needs in front of you today and seek confirmation from your current local church and Christian community.3. Has God Opened the Door Yet?
Third, and perhaps most often overlooked in Christian discussions of calling, is the actual God-given, real-world open door. You may feel called, and others may affirm your general direction, but you are not yet fully “called” to a specific pastoral ministry until God opens the door.
God in his providence does the decisive work. He started the process by giving you the aspiration; and he affirmed the direction as his Spirit produced fruit through your giftings; now he confirms that sense of calling by swinging open the right door at the right time. It is finally God, not man — and God, not self — who gives the call to pastoral office.
God the Spirit is the one who “made you overseers” (Acts 20:28).
God the Son is the one who “gave the apostles, the prophets, the evangelists, the shepherds and teachers, to equip the saints for the work of ministry” (Ephesians 4:11–12).
The Lord of the harvest is the one to whom we “pray earnestly . . . to send out laborers into his harvest” (Matthew 9:37–38).
God is the one who sends preachers. “How are they to preach unless they are sent?” (Romans 10:15).
God is the master who “will set over his household” faithful and wise managers (Luke 12:42).
The Lord Jesus Christ is the one from whom we receive the ministry we are to fulfill (Colossians 4:17).
In my experience, we often leave out this final reality-check step. We say that a seminary student who aspires to preach and has received affirmation from his home church is “called to ministry.” Well, not yet. He aspires to full-time ministry, thank God, and some people have found his giftings helpful. He is well on his way. But what this aspiring, affirmed brother doesn’t yet have — to confirm his sense of calling — is a real-live opportunity where some ministry or church presents a job description and says, “We are ready to call you to pastor here. Would you accept?”
Until God, through a specific local church, makes a man an overseer (Acts 20:28), gives him to the church (Ephesians 4:11–12), sends him as a laborer (Matthew 9:37–38; Romans 10:14–15), and sets him over his household (Luke 12:42), he is not yet fully called.
And what a marvel and blessing it is when God gives a man a desire for the pastoral office, gifts him to meet real needs in the church with the word of God and wisdom, with affirmation from the real-life body of Christ, and opens a door for him to lead and serve in a specific local church. Then he knows he is called.
George Ladd has done more to shape our view of the end times than almost any other theologian. Pastor John explains the man and his influence.
Your life will only be lived to the fullest when you’re convinced that dying and going to be with Christ is truly gain.
This short book from John Piper is an invitation to think and feel along with the Psalms, and in the process to feel God powerfully shape your heart.
And while they were there, the time came for her to give birth. And she gave birth to her firstborn son and wrapped him in swaddling cloths and laid him in a manger, because there was no place for them in the inn. (Luke 2:6–7)
You would think that if God so rules the world as to use an empire-wide census to bring Mary and Joseph to Bethlehem, he surely could have seen to it that a room was available in the inn.
Yes, he could have. He absolutely could have! And Jesus could have been born into a wealthy family. He could have turned stone into bread in the wilderness. He could have called 10,000 angels to his aid in Gethsemane. He could have come down from the cross and saved himself. The question is not what God could do, but what he willed to do.
God’s will was that though Christ was rich, yet for your sake he became poor. The “No Vacancy” signs over all the motels in Bethlehem were for your sake. “For your sake he became poor” (2 Corinthians 8:9).
God rules all things — even hotel capacities and available Airbnbs — for the sake of his children. The Calvary road begins with a “No Vacancy” sign in Bethlehem and ends with the spitting and scoffing of the cross in Jerusalem.
And we must not forget that he said, “If anyone would come after me, let him deny himself and take up his cross” (Luke 9:23).
We join him on the Calvary road and hear him say, “Remember the word that I said to you: ‘A servant is not greater than his master.’ If they persecuted me, they will also persecute you” (John 15:20).
To the one who calls out enthusiastically, “I will follow you wherever you go!” Jesus responds, “Foxes have holes, and birds of the air have nests, but the Son of Man has nowhere to lay his head” (Luke 9:57–58).
Yes, God could have seen to it that Jesus have a room at his birth. But that would have been a detour off the Calvary road.
Each of us is designed for deep, experienced, intimate friendship with God. It’s what we all long for most in the core of our being.
We are never more spiritually healthy than when we not just know about, but really know by experience, the profound love and acceptance of our heavenly Father. And when we are unsure of his love and acceptance, or reject it as being either unreal or beyond our reach, we look for substitutes to fill the void of God’s friendship. But these substitutes only do damage to us and others — and still leave us with the aching void.“Where Are You?”
How do we know that we’re designed for intimate friendship with God? We know it because of the way Adam and Eve fractured this friendship.
We get a glimpse of the nature of their relationship with God when they hide themselves from him in the garden over shame for what they have just done. We know something is very wrong, something precious has been defiled, because of God’s question: “Where are you?” (Genesis 3:8–9).
That may be the saddest question in the Bible. It was a relational question, not so different from what a heartbroken spouse asks a wandering, relationally distant spouse, or a heartbroken parent asks a withdrawn prodigal child, or a friend asks a friend who was once very close but now is relationally cool and aloof. Where are you? Why is this distance between us?
Adam and Eve suddenly, uncharacteristically no longer wanted to be with God. They had cheated on him. They had rejected him and all they once shared together. They had ceased to trust him. He was no longer safe. His very presence exposed their shame. They were choosing separation.
Separation was indeed inevitable. Holiness cannot abide with sin, nor vice versa. God would remain faithful (2 Timothy 2:13), but they would not. And their progeny would take faithlessness to then unimaginable levels, growing in their alienation from him, increasingly futile in thinking, dark of heart, and ungrateful (Romans 8:21).In the Absence of Friendship
In the absence of God’s friendship — and the ocean depth of love, purity, peace, and security it provided — evil began to grow and take root in the human soul. As people’s identity became increasingly unhinged from God, they became increasingly and profoundly selfish, insecure, fearful, and indulgent.
This gave rise to all manner of pride-fueled sins to fill the void. People became boastful and posturing and domineering. They became overly self-conscious and deferential out of fear of what others would think. They developed an inconsolable soul-loneliness no earthly relationship could satisfy, though they tried. They developed a chronic sense that no matter what they achieved, it was never enough. They lived with a relentless shame that drove them to maintain an appearance of success in others’ eyes while hiding their dark depravity, no matter what. And when in positions of power, they learned to manipulate and use others for their own sensual pleasure as ways to enhance their self-perception as significant, alluring, and glorious.
In other words,
Since they did not see fit to acknowledge God, God gave them up to a debased mind to do what ought not to be done. They were filled with all manner of unrighteousness, evil, covetousness, malice. They are full of envy, murder, strife, deceit, maliciousness. They are gossips, slanderers, haters of God, insolent, haughty, boastful, inventors of evil, disobedient to parents, foolish, faithless, heartless, ruthless. (Romans 1:28–31)
These are what grow in the human soul — our souls — in the absence of God’s friendship.God and Sinners Reconciled
“But God, being rich in mercy, because of the great love with which he loved us” (Ephesians 2:4), did not just leave us here in our wretchedness, like he could have. He conceived the plan and took the initiative that we not only couldn’t take, but in our condition never would have taken even if we could — to bridge the great divide separating the Holy from the defiled.
Advent is God coming after us — unfaithful, ungrateful, insecure, over-achieving, indulgent, lonely, deceitful, posturing, shy, manipulative, abusive sinners — in order to reconcile us to himself. The Word became flesh to heal the friendship fractured in Eden. Jesus came to make us friends of God once again.
That’s what Advent is all about: God wants you to have deep, experienced, intimate friendship with him.God’s Gift to You
If you’re a Christian, you know this theologically, which is good. But Jesus didn’t come, die, and be raised again merely for your theoretical understanding, nor merely for your ability to teach the truth of a restored friendship with God. Jesus came, died, and was raised that you might experience friendship with God — not just in heaven, but now:
“He who loves me will be loved by my Father, and I will love him and manifest myself to him . . . and my Father will love him, and we will come to him and make our home with him.” (John 14:21–23)
This is what God wants: to manifest himself to us. This is the ministry of the Holy Spirit: that we might have the very presence of the Father and the Son dwelling in and with us.
The filling of the Holy Spirit is not merely power to perform works of ministry, but to experience God’s friendship to the extent that we can’t stop speaking about him to others (Acts 4:20). The gifts of the Holy Spirit are not given to us to enhance our identities, but to mediate God’s gracious friendship to others.
Advent is about your friendship with God. It is God in Christ pursuing you to the furthest end that you may have his friendship forever. He means it to be a real friendship — deep, intimate, and experienced. Advent is God’s offering you the gift you long for most in the core of your being. Believe it, receive it, lean into this friendship this Christmas. Soak in the Scriptures and listen to him speak to you.
For those who trust in Jesus, the cross removes the relational distance. The Father says “come” (Isaiah 55:3), the Son says “come” (Matthew 11:28–30), the Spirit says “come” (Revelation 22:17). Draw near to your greatest Friend and he will draw near to you (James 4:8) and give you the grace you need (Hebrews 4:16).