If you could choose a century and a country, not to live in, but to visit in order to listen to preaching, what would it be?
A case could be made for the sixteenth century if you enjoy Geneva, and Calvin is a hero to you. There is certainly something attractive about London in the seventeenth century — imagine hearing John Bunyan, Thomas Watson, John Owen, and dozens of others — some of them preaching within a few minutes’ walk of each other. Or perhaps you would prefer to be there two centuries later to hear C.H. Spurgeon.
For myself, I think I would choose “my ain folk” and visit Scotland in the mid-nineteenth century. To be able to hear Thomas Chalmers, Hugh Martin, William Cunningham, George Smeaton, William Chalmers Burns, Robert Murray M’Cheyne, John Kennedy of Dingwall, John MacDonald of Ferintosh. That would be a treat.
I belong to St Peter’s Free Church in Dundee. Robert Murray M’Cheyne was our first minister. Sometimes I lean against the wall and whimsically ask it, “What was it like in the 1830s and early 1840s?” Sitting here I might, at times, have been able to hear a minister with poetry in his soul — Horatius Bonar.Undivided Service
Horatius Bonar was born into a comfortable middle-class family in Edinburgh in 1808 and died there in 1889. His father was a solicitor (attorney), but the Bonar family line gave many ministers to the Presbyterian Church — including his older brother John James, and the better-known younger brother Andrew.
Horatius Bonar’s life is simply told. Andrew Somerville, one of the close-knit “M’Cheyne Circle” of his student days, said, following his death:
He lived for the long space of eighty years maintaining a Christian and unblemished life in this world of sin, treachery, and unrighteousness. From the day of his conversion at an early season of life, he laid all the resources of his being at the feet of Jesus, consecrating his scholarship, his distinguished abilities, and all the energies of his nature, that he might undividedly serve on earth his heavenly Master.
Horatius (“Horace” to his friends) graduated from the University of Edinburgh, was an assistant minister in Leith (the city’s port), served faithfully from 1837 in the Scottish Borders town of Kelso, and then was called in 1866 to the new charge of Chalmers Memorial Church in Edinburgh (named after his great professor). Here he ministered until his death in 1889.
During his life he edited various Christian magazines, including The Quarterly Journal of Prophecy (he was deeply committed to premillennial eschatology), wrote many outstanding tracts (he had a great heart for pointing others to Christ), and a number of best-selling books (God’s Way of Peace and God’s Way of Holiness being perhaps the best known; they are still in print today). In 1843, at The Disruption, he was one of more than four hundred ministers who sacrificed their livings and manses in the Church of Scotland to form the Free Church of Scotland.
Bonar requested that no biography of him should be written (although he himself wrote two biographies of others), and those who knew him best honored his request. But there is so much that could be written about his faithfulness in ministry, his friendships, and his fruitfulness. He experienced deep wounds during his life in the loss of five children; occasionally he was caught up in sharp controversy — on one occasion over his support for D.L. Moody, on another over the use of hymns (rather than only psalms, and in some instances, paraphrases) in public worship. To tell those stories would require a separate essay. But two features of his ministry tell us much about the man.Let the Children Learn
The first is his work with young people. From the beginning, as a young assistant minister in Leith, he invested his energetic love in pointing young people to faith in Christ and finding ways of nurturing them in God’s grace. He loved them and was loved by them in return. “The children he met would often run up to him in the street, claiming a kind of property in him,” remembered a friend. One of those youngsters said about him,
I sometimes wonder if anyone else ever possessed the faculty that he had of drawing towards him the affection of young people, which, when you were once brought under the charm of his friendship, could never afterwards be lost or lessened. How well I remember his class for us girls! We would not for all the world have missed that hour on Wednesday afternoon.
I think I see the little room underneath the dear old church where we gathered, a bright, happy band of school-girls, sitting around to listen to his earnest, loving, faithful teaching. I see Dr. Bonar seated at the end of the long table with the large Bible spread out before him, the Bible hymn book in his hand, his dear handsome face beaming, and the pleasant smile which lighted it up, as some of us gave a fuller, clearer answer than he expected to the question asked.
And then the last meeting before the holidays; what a solemn hour it was, as he reminded us that never again here below should we all meet together, and spoke of the meeting-place above. All kneeling down, to be each tenderly commended to the loving care of our heavenly Father, bathed in tears, we could hardly tear ourselves away, lingering long after the usual time.
It is a great mark of grace, surely, when a minister of the gospel endears himself to youngsters in this way. For this was also a man who was no shrinking violet and was resolutely opposed to any distortions of the gospel.Poetry in His Soul
It was originally for such youngsters that he began writing hymns. In total, he wrote around six hundred, which, of course, are not all of equal merit. But since his time, most hymnbooks — where they are still in use today — include a number of his compositions.
Bonar’s hymns are usually simple, but not simplistic; poetic and yet clearly theological; and the best of them focus on the person of the Lord Jesus, his atoning work, coming to him in faith, living unreservedly for him, and anticipating future glory.
In these hymns, the heart of the gospel is always found in Jesus Christ, at the cross, in substitutionary atonement. For him — as for Paul — this was a personal work of Christ, accomplished in love for us, on our behalf and in our place (“The Son of God . . . loved me and gave himself for me,” Galatians 2:20). And while he wanted to express all this simply and memorably for young people, he did so in such a way that the oldest and most mature are deeply moved by the profundity of it all.
Here is “The Work That Saves”:
Done is the work that saves,
Once and forever done;
Finished the righteousness
That clothes the unrighteous one.
And this love, expressed at the cross, is an ongoing reality for the Christian:
The love that blesses us below
Is flowing freely to us now.
The sacrifice of Christ and its implications are vividly described with an economy of words that not only give clear articulation to biblical teaching, but also vividly bring the reality of the cross before our eyes, viewed through biblically-crafted lenses. Notice the visual and emotional power of the second and especially the third line of the next verse:
The sacrifice is o’er,
The veil is rent in twain,
The mercy-seat is red
With blood of victim slain;
Bonar makes direct personal application so that we find ourselves as evangelists to one another as we sing:
Why stand ye then without, in fear?
The blood divine invites us near.
Other hymns with a similar focus, creatively reworked, come to mind, such as “The Substitute”:
I lay my sins on Jesus,
The spotless Lamb of God
From all their guilt he frees us
He bears himself the load.
I lay my want on Jesus,
All fulness dwells in him;
He heals all my diseases,
My soul he doth redeem.
I lay my griefs on Jesus,
He takes them all from me;
I cast my cares on Jesus,
My shield and tower is he.
I give myself to Jesus,
This weary soul of mine;
His right hand me embraces,
I on his breast recline.
This is not Milton or Shakespeare. Bonar himself used to say it “might be good gospel, but it was not good poetry.” Yet in terms of gospel communication, it is multum in parvo, much in a little: the purity of Christ our sacrifice, the heart of his work in substitution, the activity of faith, the fullness of Christ to save to the uttermost, to comfort and strengthen, the recognition that the Christian life is not easy (“This weary soul of mine”), the possibility of intimate fellowship with Christ, all punctuated by biblical allusions and in only four simple verses and less than ninety words.Whole-Souled Hymns
Other, and better known, hymns come to mind. They too are characteristically full of biblical allusion and warm Reformed theology. Bonar wrote Colossians 3:16 Hymns which (1) cause the word of Christ to dwell in us richly, (2) are spiritual songs (in the sense that they are certainly in harmony with Spirit-given Scripture!), (3) give us ways of teaching and admonishing one another, and (4) help us to make melody to the Lord in our hearts. The lines may be simple, but they are never banal, and always develop a theme, make personal application, and lift the soul in praise to God.
“Blessing, and honor, and glory, and power,” based on Revelation 5, is a wonderful example of that last characteristic, as it brings us in a whole-souled way to share in the doxology of heaven. Others, such as “Not what I am, O Lord, but what thou art! That, that alone can be my soul’s true rest” illustrate Bonar’s ability to hold together the fundamental objectivity of the gospel with personal appropriation of it. A deeply experiential preacher and writer, he well recognized that to focus exclusively, or even predominantly, on the subjective can quickly leave us spiritually bankrupt, and yet at the same time he draws out the affections in worship.Head, Heart, and Hands
All Horatius Bonar’s hymnody was poetry; but because he was a poetic soul, not all his poetry was hymnody. Indeed, he expressed his deepest feelings about everything in poetry. In “Lucy” (written in August 1858 on the death of a beloved daughter), he writes out his pain in the presence of the Lord:
All night we watched the ebbing life,
As if its flight to stay;
Till, as the dawn was coming up,
Our last hope passed away.
And then this heartrending contrast:
She was the music of our home,
A day that knew no night,
The fragrance of our garden-bower
A thing all smiles and light
Here we get a glimpse of what added pathos to both his writing and his preaching (and what is surely an essential but sometimes absent characteristic of real preaching) — the marriage of logos (powerful biblical reasoning), with ethos (a life integrated with and illustrating the fruit of that biblical reasoning), bound up with pathos (the expression of affections and emotions that match and express the truth that is being proclaimed).Lyrics Without Music
There is an important litmus test for what we sing: Does this hymn or song instruct me biblically and move me affectionately even when there is no musical accompaniment? If without the rhythms and melody of the accompanying music, the words of a song or hymn fail this test, it is likely that the music is moving me more than the gospel.
We do not, and probably should not, sing all of Bonar’s hymns today. But few if any modern hymnwriters surpass him in simplicity and gospel profundity, and it would be a sad loss to any church not to be familiar with at least a short catalog of his hymns. I think here of:
- A few more years shall roll
- All that I was, my sin, my guilt
- Come, mighty Spirit, penetrate, this heart and soul of mine
- Father, our children keep
- For the bread and for the wine
- Glory be to God the Father
- Go, labor on; spend and be spent
- He liveth long who liveth well
- I hear the words of love
- Into the heaven of heavens has he gone
- No, not despairingly come I to thee
- Not what I am O Lord, but what thou art
- O love of God, how strong and true
- These are the crowns that we shall wear
- This is the day of fellowship and love
- Thy way, not mine, O Lord
- Thy works, not mine, O Christ
Who has not felt the tug of gospel truth in perhaps his most frequently sung hymn, “I heard the voice of Jesus say, Come unto me and rest”? Or who, having tasted communion with the Lord Jesus at the Lord’s Table, can doubt that their experience has been wonderfully described, and its meaning marvelously illumined, by his hymn “This do in remembrance of me”? In Scotland it has often been the custom to sing these three stanzas before the Supper is served:
Here, O my Lord, I see thee face to face;
Here would I touch and handle things unseen,
Here grasp with firmer hand th’eternal grace,
And all my weariness upon thee lean.
Here would I feed upon the bread of God,
Here drink with thee the royal wine of heav'n;
Here would I lay aside each earthly load,
Here taste afresh the calm of sin forgiv'n.
This is the hour of banquet and of song;
This is the heav'nly table spread for me:
Here let me feast, and feasting, still prolong
The brief, bright hour of fellowship with thee.
Then these verses following the enjoyment of the Supper:
Too soon we rise; the symbols disappear;
The feast, though not the love, is past and gone;
The bread and wine remove, but thou art here,
Nearer than ever, still my Shield and Sun.
I have no help but thine, nor do I need
Another arm save thine to lean upon:
It is enough, O Lord, enough indeed;
My strength is in thy might, thy might alone.
Mine is the sin, but thine the righteousness;
Mine is the guilt, but thine the cleansing blood;
Here is my robe, my refuge, and my peace:
Thy blood, thy righteousness, O Lord my God.
Feast after feast thus comes and passes by,
Yet, passing points to the glad feast above,
Giving sweet foretaste of the festal joy,
The Lamb’s great bridal feast of bliss and love.
Bonar’s hymns outlasted the fads and fashions of his day and continue to speak to ours. It is testimony to their worth that music-makers wed them to different tunes in order to sing them for the rising generation.
Still today we can rejoice that Horatius Bonar found a way of expressing his theology, poetry, and heart’s doxology in hymnody. And since we are commanded to sing psalms, hymns, and spiritual songs, and make melody to the Lord in our hearts, perhaps we should be praying more than we do that God will raise up others like him today.
We still need pastors with poetry in their soul.
“Ne’er-do-well” was the term for it at the time. Thomas Lyte was lazy and irresponsible. Taken with fishing and hunting, and derelict at home, he sent his son Henry off to boarding school. The headmaster saw young Henry’s giftings, shouldered his fees, and drew him into his own family at holidays, as a kind of adopted son.
Meanwhile, Henry’s own father, reticent to claim him, signed his letters as “Uncle” rather than “Father.” And yet for Henry Francis Lyte (1793–1847), the gospel of Christ redeemed what it meant to have a true Father, anticipate his warm smile, call him “Abba,” and long to see him face to face.His Loss Was Gain
Such steadying gladness found in Christ inspired Lyte, a natural-born poet, to pen lyrics we might say were “above his head” — like the lead quatrain from the climactic fourth stanza of his “Jesus, I My Cross Have Taken”:
Go, then, earthly fame and treasure.
Come disaster, scorn, and pain.
In Thy service, pain is pleasure.
With Thy favor, loss is gain.
An aware worshiper today may hesitate over such a plea. Do I really mean these words? Does my soul truly welcome disaster, scorn, and pain? The opening line of Lyte’s second stanza raises similar questions: “Let the world despise and leave me.” Tender consciences may be reticent to sing along, not because the hymn is any more radical than the words of Jesus, but precisely because the lyrics are so steeped in the call of Christ and the bracingly stark realities of the Scriptures.
Indelible Grace, the Nashville group that recovers historic lyrics through new music (and first breathed new life into Lyte’s hymn), describes it as “singing in two minds.” Part of us believes and deeply wants the kind of radical life the lyrics portray, while part of us knows we’re not yet there. As we sing, we plead, “Help my unbelief” (Mark 9:24). Jesus, make me more like this!Sing Above Your Head
To “sing above our heads” is the regular invitation implicit in the Bible’s longest book. Psalm after psalm leads us not only to profess what we have already obtained, but to press on, to strain forward to grasp what lies ahead (Philippians 3:12–13). Lyrics above us help us grow and stretch. They press us and extend us and shape us into what we should be — into what we are not yet but want to be with the help of God’s grace. In worship we express both what we already believe and feel and live, and also what we aspire to, what we pray for. Worship forms us.
In particular, “Jesus, I My Cross Have Taken” models for us how a mature Christian anticipates and appropriates suffering in this age. The hymn takes us on a journey from Jesus’s initial call, to the hard yet joyful road of the Christian life, to a taste of the blissful repose awaiting us just over the horizon. These lines put the sweet ups and painful downs of life in this age in the context of God’s overarching story, precious promises, and ever-present help.Follow Him
The hymn begins with Jesus’s radical call to follow him (Matthew 4:19; 8:22; 9:9). Jesus is not an accessory. He is a treasure worth selling all to gain (Matthew 13:44). Coming to him marks a clearing of the table of our lives and rebuilding all around him.
Jesus, I my cross have taken,
All to leave and follow Thee.
Lyte takes his cues from the two main emphases in the New Testament texts on following Jesus. The first is leaving all to follow Christ, the call his first disciples answered. “They left everything and followed him” (Luke 5:11). “See, we have left everything and followed you” (Matthew 19:27; Mark 10:28; Luke 18:28). This is a call that is costly in the short term but abundantly rewarding in the end (Matthew 19:29; Mark 10:30). It is the call the rich, young man would not answer (Mark 10:21–22).
The second, then, is even more daunting: taking up the cross. “Whoever does not take his cross and follow me is not worthy of me” (Matthew 10:38). “If anyone would come after me, let him deny himself and take up his cross and follow me” (Matthew 16:24). In the throes of rebellion against our Maker, unregenerate hearts hate the real Jesus. They take deadly aim at him, and our following him puts us in their sights. It’s only a matter of time till we’re under fire.
Following Jesus does not guarantee actual crucifixion, but it does require taking up the cross, a readiness to choose him over life without him, come what may. “If they have called the master of the house Beelzebul, how much more will they malign those of his household” (Matthew 10:25). If sinners staked the Son of God to history’s most horrible instrument of torture, what might they do to us if we stay faithful?
Yet again the embrace of near-term loss comes with Jesus’s great promise of gain. “For whoever would save his life will lose it, but whoever loses his life for my sake will find it” (Matthew 16:25). In taking up the cross, and exposing ourselves to new dangers in this life, we are securing “that which is truly life” (1 Timothy 6:19).Abandoned and Deceived
This mingling of loss and gain, of real danger and deeper delight, makes these lyrics so powerful as worship and as formation. I am “destitute, despised, forsaken,” but Christ is “my all,” and God is “my own.” In Christ, our heavenly condition is rich, even as we are struck with successive waves of earthly injury.
In such joy, the second stanza braces us for the inevitable:
Let the world despise and leave me.
They have left my Savior, too.
Human hearts and looks deceive me.
Thou art not, like them, untrue.
We endure the deceptions of human hearts and looks by seeing the smile of Jesus. His pleasure readies us, and steadies us, for opposition from afar and (most painfully) near:
Oh, while Thou dost smile upon me,
God of wisdom, love, and might,
Foes may hate and friends disown me.
Show Thy face, and all is bright.
So also in stanza three, fellow man will “trouble and distress me.” Hear the refrain of Psalm 107 (verses 6, 13, 19, and 28): “they cried to the Lord in their trouble, and he delivered them from their distress.”
As life in this age presses us with trials, we not only endure with the Spirit’s help, but in the process we sweeten the rest to come. Not only will “the sufferings of this present time” not compare to the glory that will be revealed to us (Romans 8:18), but the trials themselves will contribute to making our future all the better. “This light momentary affliction is preparing for us an eternal weight of glory beyond all comparison” (2 Corinthians 4:17). Not only do the obstacles of this age pose no final threat to heaven’s bliss, but the obstacles go to work for our increased joy now. Afflictions, endured in faith, produce for us a greater eternity. God’s designs in the griefs he lovingly filters into our lives are not for our harm but eternal good.Pain as Pleasure, Loss as Gain
Stanza four is the climactic declaration. We have reckoned with inevitable earthly losses. Now we welcome them, with the couplet that is the key line, and very heart, of the whole hymn:
In Thy service, pain is pleasure.
With Thy favor, loss is gain.
This climactic verse then takes its rest, from these most radical declarations yet, into the deepest realities of divine comfort from Romans 8: God’s sovereign and fatherly goodness (Romans 8:15, 28).
I have called Thee Abba Father.
I have stayed my heart on Thee.
Storms may howl, and clouds may gather;
All must work for good to me.
With God as both Father and Sovereign, we enjoy a settled peace, even as our boat continues to be battered. Stanza five speaks of “joy to find in every station,” and the assurance of coming to know our “full salvation,” and “ris[ing] over sin and fear and care.” We have been invited into a life of Trinitarian remembrance.
“Think” (three times) of having the Spirit in us, the Father’s smile on us, and the Son’s death for us. The sufferings of this life, towering as they may feel, cannot hold a candle to the eternal blessedness of the Godhead that is being shared with us, and produced in us, by Christ through his Spirit. What again is our grounds for complaint?
This finally gives way, in the sixth and final stanza, to basking in what lies ahead. Not only do heaven’s eternal ages lie before us, but “God’s own hand shall guide us there.” And it will be “soon” (two times) that our hope is transformed into “glad fruition,” when we see him face to face.Lyte in the Darkness
When we join Lyte and the psalmists, and sing like this above our heads, we reconsecrate our lives for the various assaults of this age. We prepare our souls for the rhythms of pain and pleasure, loss and gain, grief and joy, in the overlap of the ages. We ready ourselves to suffer with Christ, upheld by Christ. We embrace afresh the essence of the Christian life, for now, as “sorrowful, yet always rejoicing” (2 Corinthians 6:10). It’s a pattern the apostle Paul knew well:
We are afflicted in every way, but not crushed; perplexed, but not driven to despair; persecuted, but not forsaken; struck down, but not destroyed. (2 Corinthians 4:8–9)
We share not only in Christ’s sufferings but also in comfort (2 Corinthians 1:5). This hymn is not a disgruntled manifesto of complaint but a declaration of joy, of exquisite delights the unregenerate soul never tastes. Yes, we lose. But how much more we gain. We gain heaven, all things, Christ’s own comfort, and God himself.
I find it encouraging to know that when a man so earnest as Lyte came to die, his final recorded words were “Peace! Joy!”
Even though death is gain for the believer, those who remain experience loss. Don’t be afraid to cry tears — filled with hope — for fallen saints.
We step into this world with a cry. Although none of us remembers the moment, the first sound we uttered after leaving the warm and protected confines of our mother’s womb was a loud protest. We enter, wailing. To cry is human.
However, we aren’t the only part of the created order expressing sorrow. The apostle Paul says that the entire creation groans (Romans 8:22). Along with the fall of Adam, the created world was infected with the broken effects of sin. Death is the ultimate reminder that something is not right with the world. But there are other examples: cancer, addictions, failed marriages, relational conflict, loneliness, and abuse.
We don’t stop crying after birth. It continues because the world is broken. While tears and sorrow are part of our humanity, there is an often-neglected prayer language in the Bible for our travels through a broken world: lament.What Is Lament?
Lament is not the same as crying, however. It’s different. And it’s uniquely Christian.
The Bible is filled with this song of sorrow. Over a third of the Psalms are laments. The book of Lamentations weeps over the destruction of Jerusalem. Jesus lamented in the final hours of his life.
But lament is different than crying because lament is a form of prayer. It is more than just the expression of sorrow or the venting of emotion. Lament talks to God about pain. And it has a unique purpose: trust. It is a divinely-given invitation to pour out our fears, frustrations, and sorrows for the purpose of helping us to renew our confidence in God.Four Elements of Lament
As Psalm 13 illustrates, most laments feature four essential elements:
Turn to God. Often a lament begins by an address to God: “How long, O Lord? Will you forget me forever? How long will you hide your face from me?” (Psalm 13:1). The point is that the person in pain chooses to talk to God about what is happening.
Bring your complaint. Every lament features some kind of complaint: “How long must I take counsel in my soul and have sorrow in my heart all the day? How long shall my enemy be exalted over me?” (Psalm 13:2). More than a sinful rehearsing of our anger, biblical lament humbly and honestly identifies the pain, questions, and frustrations raging in our souls.
Ask boldly for help. Seeking God’s help while in pain is an act of faith: “Consider and answer me, O Lord my God; light up my eyes, lest I sleep the sleep of death, lest my enemy say, ‘I have prevailed over him,’ lest my foes rejoice because I am shaken” (Psalm 13:3–4). Unremitting sorrow can create a deadly silence as we give in to despair (“there’s no hope”) or denial (“everything’s fine”). But lament invites us to dare to hope in God’s promises as we ask for his help.
Choose to trust. This is the destination for our laments. All roads lead here: “But I have trusted in your steadfast love; my heart shall rejoice in your salvation. I will sing to the Lord, because he has dealt bountifully with me” (Psalm 13:5–6). More than the stages of grief, this prayer language moves us to renew our commitment to trust in God as we navigate the brokenness of life.
Lament is the prayer language for God’s people as they live in a world marred by sin. It is how we talk to God about our sorrows as we renew our hope in his sovereign care. To cry is human, but to lament is Christian.Why Is Lament Christian?
The practice of lament is one of the most theologically informed actions a person can take. While crying is fundamental to humanity, Christians lament because they know God is sovereign and good. Christians know his promises in the Scriptures. We believe in God’s power to deliver. We know the tomb is empty, and Jesus is alive.
And yet we still experience pain and sorrow. Lament is the language for living between the poles of a hard life and trusting in God’s sovereignty. It is a prayer form for people who are waiting for the day Jesus will return and make everything right. Christians don’t just mourn; we long for God to end the pain.
Lament prayers take faith. Talking to God instead of getting sinfully angry or embittered requires biblical conviction. Laying out the messy struggles of your soul and then asking — again and again — for God to help you requires a solid theological mooring. Laments turn toward God when sorrow tempts you to run from him.
Laments interpret the world through a biblical lens. Christians lament because we know the long arc of God’s plan: creation, fall, redemption, and restoration. We know the cause of all lament: sin. And we read in Revelation about the ending of all laments:
He will wipe away every tear from their eyes, and death shall be no more, neither shall there be mourning, nor crying, nor pain anymore, for the former things have passed away. (Revelation 21:4)
Therefore, Christians not only mourn the brokenness of the world, but we also long for the day when all weeping will cease. We wonder, “How long, O Lord?” (Psalm 13:1). Anyone can cry. But only Christians can faithfully lament.Learn to Lament
Since life is full of sorrows, and since the Bible is clear about the plan of God, Christians should be competent lamenters. We should regularly talk to God about our sorrows and struggles. Christians should learn to lament.
One way to start would be to more regularly read lament psalms. Start with Psalms 10, 13, 22, and 77. And then move to the other forty-plus laments in the book of Psalms. You’ll find lament psalms for personal grief and corporate suffering. There are laments for moments of repentance and for when you long for justice. As you read these psalms, certain phrases will become your own. You’ll probably be surprised how connected you are to the words you read. Laments tend to become personal quickly.
Another approach would be to study a lament psalm by looking for each of the four elements I mentioned: turning to God, bringing your complaint, asking boldly, and choosing to trust. Once you find examples of each element, consider writing your own lament. See if you can follow the flow of the text as you tell God about your struggle. Remember each psalm was written by a real person with real problems. Writing your own lament beautifully combines rich theology with real emotions.
Until Jesus returns, the world will be marked by tears. Children will continue to be born and their first cry will announce their arrival into a broken world. To cry is human, but to lament is Christian.
Every child is an eternal being, someone who will live forever. So if our children may end up in hell, would we be better off not having kids?
One of the most beneficial spiritual disciplines for me has been memorizing long portions of Scripture.
Now, before you click away because you assume this article isn’t relevant to you, or because you want to avoid another guilt trip that you’re not measuring up to some spiritual Christian standard, would you give me a couple of minutes? I’d like to make a case that memorizing long portions of Scripture is indeed relevant to you and is not about your measuring up, but about your joy.Confessions of a Bad Memorizer
I know that for many, joy is not the word they associate with Bible memory. Boring or can’t do it or undisciplined might be what comes to mind. I know. That was me.
I remember once, as a young adult, deciding I should take Bible memory seriously. In the flush of idealized resolve, I bought a Navigator’s Bible memory system. As is typical of idealized resolve, it dissipated after a couple of feeble tries, and the system then went unused until I eventually threw it away.
Years later, when my church leaders encouraged members to memorize certain verses each week, I was hit-and-miss. It wasn’t a faulty program; it was a faulty me. I had a fairly bad memory to begin with. I would memorize initially, but it seemed I just lost it so fast. I figured I would never do well at memorizing.
Plus, I harbored some skepticism about whether Bible memory really made much of a difference. I figured it was good — like a comprehensive workout at the gym is good — but I wondered if the actual value wasn’t somewhat inflated, considering all that extra work and time. I had some theological education, attended a theologically rigorous church, read theological books, was involved in Christian ministry, and generally read through the Bible every year in my devotions. How much more would memorizing do for me?A Memorable Discovery
It was actually an experience in my devotions that pushed me toward a memorable discovery. In my late thirties, I had just completed the book of Hebrews (again) in my reading plan, and it left me a bit frustrated. Hebrews is so rich, so full of glorious truth. But every time I read through it, it was like I just skipped across its surface. I wanted to dive in.
Then I had this unusual thought: I need to memorize this book. Wouldn’t that get me deeper into it and have it get deeper into me? Then I did math: 13 chapters and 303 verses. Seriously? Could I, a bad memorizer, memorize 303 verses? And retain them?
I knew that John Piper used a memory technique taught by pastor Andrew Davis to memorize larger blocks of Scripture. So I decided to try it.
I found this technique worked! It took me quite a while, but I committed all of Hebrews to memory. And as I did, it was like swimming in the book. Deeper dimensions of the text and its application opened up for me. I followed the author’s flow of thought in ways I hadn’t seen before. I learned the warp and woof of each chapter. But more than all that, there were moments I worshiped Jesus as I saw him through the lens of this book — moments that I had not experienced in my read-throughs.
That experience of more profound worship of Jesus made me hungrier to know even more of him. So after Hebrews, I made the crazy decision to memorize the book of John. It took a long time, but again, it was wonderful. It was a long, deliberate, nourishing walk with Jesus. From there I went to Romans, then to Philippians, then to 1 John, then to 1 Corinthians (which I nearly completed — I need to get back to it), and then to a number of psalms.
The memorable discovery was not that I, with my bad memory, surprisingly could memorize big chunks of Scripture, but that doing so yielded joy. The exercise, the discipline, of reciting and repeating forced me to meditate on Scripture in ways I hadn’t done before. As a result, I saw more, understood more, enjoyed more complex tastes of God’s goodness (Psalm 34:8). Bible memory, specifically longer sections, turned out to be not merely exercising a few more muscle groups in the Bible gym, but rather a means to more profound worship and more fuel for prayer.The Bad Memory Myth
Now, knowing I’ve memorized a few books of the Bible might make you skeptical of my claim that I have a bad memory. If so, that’s only because you don’t know me. My wife and kids will confirm. I regularly blank out on names of people I should remember (I dreaded the reception line at our wedding). I regularly can’t recall specifics of a past conversation or event or book I’ve read that I should remember. Which means I live with a measure of social anxiety that one or both will happen in a public setting (because they do).
I think my brain’s file-retrieval system is below average — less like an orderly file cabinet and more like a messy desk with piles of stuff on it (“Ugh! Where’s that name?” Rummage, rummage. “I know I put it here!”). I do best with a lot of repetition and review. I guess it keeps things near the top of the pile, which is another benefit of memorizing long portions of Scripture.
My experience has taught me not to believe the bad memory myth — that having a bad memory disqualifies us from memorizing much (unless we’re a rare medical/neurological exception). Rather, a bad memory makes memorizing all the more needful and helpful.
Harder doesn’t mean impossible. It just means people like me have to work harder to memorize and retain than people blessed with a good memory. Which is not much different than saying that people like me have to work harder to lose weight and keep weight off than people blessed with naturally faster metabolisms.
God is not egalitarian in his distribution of talents (Matthew 25:15), spiritual gifts (1 Corinthians 12:4–6), roles (1 Corinthians 12:18–20), bodies (John 9:2–3), and faith (Romans 12:3). We all have weaknesses that require us to labor more than others must. And this is really good for our souls. It teaches us perseverance and endurance as well as humble dependence on God and appreciation for others’ strengths.Start Small and Realize a Benefit
I share with you my experience as a bad memorizer for two reasons: (1) if you’ve never attempted memorizing long portions of Scripture, it’s likely well within your reach; and (2) it really is all about joy. If you hear any should implied in what I’ve written, don’t hear it as a legal should that you must do to please God or achieve some elite spiritual rank. Rather, hear it as an invitation to joy — like a friend who says, “You should visit the Grand Canyon”; or a prescription for joy, like a doctor who says, “For the sake of your health, you should really consider getting some exercise.”
If you’d like some specific coaching on how to get started with a particular memorizing technique, I’ve provided that elsewhere. But if you’re new to this, here’s my simple counsel: start small and realize a benefit. Choose a meaningful psalm (like Psalm 27) or a meaningful chapter that’s not too long (like 1 Corinthians 13). Or if you really want to try your hand at a book, I recommend Philippians. Give it a try, stay with it, and taste the joy.
Once you discover you can really do it, and you discover that it yields joy, you will very likely want to keep going. And that’s the beginning of the adventure. Keep venturing! Because there’s a lot of glory to see and savor.
I had not heard the sound before. I had heard something like it, but a world stood between those two sounds. One, the sound of a large toy clogging your vacuum or of soda slurped through a straw. The other, of a child being sucked, piece by piece, through her mother’s womb. It was a sound I will never forget.
That unforgettable sound came disgustingly (and vitally) to my ears when I saw Unplanned. Released in theaters on March 29, this film forces our eyes, ears, and hearts to experience the horrifying realities of abortion. It enters into the pristine, white tables of the abortion clinics — coined by staff as the “pieces of children” room — and behind the veil of respectability to show the evil that lies within. Eyes once shielded were pried open. Ears once covered were confronted with silent screams — cries only God can hear.
This sound, which I heard for the first time, has been heard by God 61 million times (and counting) in the last five decades in the United States alone.The Unplanned Plan
Unplanned portrays the journey of former Planned Parenthood clinic director Abby Johnson — from naïve accomplice to a repentant, pro-life activist.
Abby admits her story is not a “neat” one, tied with a bow. “Small town achiever to college town party girl.” An abortion encouraged by her then boyfriend (who later became her husband, then committed adultery that ended in divorce). Another abortion of a baby conceived with her adulterer husband — “twelve hours of agony.” She discarded the baby in the toilet, then laid on the bathroom floor surrounded by blood.
She started as a volunteer escort for women seeking abortions at the Planned Parenthood clinic before being hired as an abortion counselor, and then a clinic director — making her complicit in 20,000 abortions. All along, she was surrounded by patient and prayerful parents, a husband, and members of the Coalition for Life, who extended compassion at the gates outside the clinic.‘I Think About You Every Day’
More riveting than Abby’s abortion history, though, is her redemption story. The turning point for Abby — and the movie’s tumultuous beginning — was her participation in the ultrasound-guided abortion of a 13-week-old baby. “Beam me up Scotty,” the doctor aired, as the vacuum gripped the twisting and lunging baby as his or her limbs were sucked up one at a time. “The baby was there,” Abby said. “Then the baby was gone.”
After eight years of loyalty to Planned Parenthood, God used Abby’s deepest pain to establish the organization “And Then There Were None.” God turned her efforts to quiet the hesitations of aborting women into loud cries for the unborn. She went from escorting women to Planned Parenthood to pulling 500 people out of the abortion industry.
Abby was once inside the gates. Then she stood outside, gripping the bars, to pray and plead with women. The aborted babies she had once named “undeveloped tissue” or “not much more than a polyp or blood clot” became “my children.” “I’m sorry,” she says, thinking of her own abortions. “I’m sorry I didn’t fight for you. I think about you every day.”Fight the Right War
Abby’s story — the messy and redemptive — illuminates our war. The love two coalition members extended to abortion clinic staff and abortion-seekers formed one of the most poignant parts of the film. They met the hypocrisy — like a baby shower in an abortion clinic — and hostility — like police calls against nonviolent protests — with humility.
As I once heard in a sermon, we are God’s army, storming the gates of hell. We do not wrestle against flesh and blood, but against the rulers over this present darkness (Ephesians 6:12). God claimed us by his love on the cross and he will claim others through demonstrations of love in the midst of the worst evils. So, we are angry at sin (Ephesians 4:26), but by God’s power, we love the blind, even those who lead the charge with forceps and vacuums.How Could God Forgive Me?
“How does it feel?” Abby is asked moments after she resigns as the abortion clinic’s director.
“Like I just got out of prison.” Her departure through the doors, however, was not the end of her enslavement. We find Abby weeping in the middle of the night, bearing the bondage of her complicity in so many abortions. She asks her husband, “How could God possibly forgive me?” He responds, “Because he is God.”
He’s right, and yet so incredibly wrong. We have so much more to say — so much more we need to say.
If you repent of your sin — whatever sin, even 20,000 abortions — and believe the gospel, there is now no condemnation (Romans 8:1). Not just because God is God, but because God came and died to receive your condemnation. Because God took your place in his own courtroom, God can forgive you — he promises to forgive you — if you are in Christ.
The blood that stained your shoes as you tread your abortion agenda, in Christ, is washed white as snow by Jesus Christ, who purchased you with his own blood (Isaiah 1:18). Jesus died the death you deserve, and replaces it with the life you don’t, that you may stand in the presence of a Holy God forever forgiven, loved, alive.
If you, like Abby, have participated in an abortion, and you are asking yourself, “How could God forgive me?” know that he gave his own Son so you could be clean in his sight. If you want to know more about that kind of forgiveness and healing, text “HOPE” to 73075.Prayer of Response
61 million gone — unnamed and unknown. With names, frames, and inward parts given by you (Psalm 139:13), left in garbage cans. O Lord, what are we to do in this darkness?
You command us to weep (Romans 12:15). You wept — even with the full knowledge of your victory that was to come. You were a “man of sorrows” with full knowledge that your sorrow would turn into joy (Isaiah 53:3; Hebrews 12:2). So, we weep with you from your throne in heaven for the little lives lost and in danger.
Stand in the presence of your weeping, praying people as you promise (Matthew 18:20). We ask you, if it is your will, to blot out abortion from the face of the earth now. I saw the golden bowls filled in heaven before you (Revelation 5:8) — of prayers for babies, women, husbands, boyfriends, doctors, nurses, other abortion clinic staff, and politicians. Answer for your great name’s sake.
One day we will stand before the gates. Not the gates surrounding abortion clinics to weep. But the gates of heaven, with all the rescued, praising our Great Rescuer. Weeping may tarry at these gates this long night, but one day we will see all things made right, even this, before you, our risen King. Help us to trust you in the darkness.
Mary Oliver was by my bedside when she died.
Two months earlier — though she hailed from my home state, Ohio — I wouldn’t have even recognized her name. Her short poetry book for beginners, Rules for the Dance, has been ground zero for the late inbreaking of poetry into my life. Mary rebuked me for reading poetry like a theology book — like any good seminarian would — and taught me to slow down and listen more. She started humming the music of poetry for me. She said, “Every poem is music — a determined, persuasive, reliable, enthusiastic, and crafted music.”
She died this January 17, but I can still hear her humming while I read. Mary offered us much more than music. Her poems were filled with the depth and beauty of creation, the preciousness of life, even the bigness of God. In her 1992 poem “When Death Comes,” she wrote,
When it’s over, I want to say all my life
I was a bride married to amazement.
I was the bridegroom, taking the world into my arms.
When it’s over, I don’t want to wonder
if I have made of my life something particular, and real.
I don’t want to find myself sighing and frightened,
or full of argument.
I don’t want to end up simply having visited this world.
Twenty-six years later, the world lost this wife of wonder, but not before she showed us something of God in all that he has made — not before she taught some of us to dance.What Mary Didn’t Know
The heartbreaking moment in meeting Mary is seeing just how much she saw without really seeing (2 Corinthians 4:4). At times, her lyrics have made me wonder whether anyone has perceived more of God’s eternal power and divine nature in the things he had made without receiving his Son (Romans 1:20).
As she watched baby redbirds hatch and chirp for food, she marveled,
And just like that, like a simple
neighborhood event, a miracle is
taking place. (“This Morning”)
She saw the universe through the wide eyes of her dogs:
A dog can never tell you what she knows from the
smells of the world, but you know, watching her, that you know
almost nothing. (“Her Grave”)
She had experienced the inevitable mingling of sorrow and joy:
We shake with joy, we shake with grief.
What a time they have, these two
housed as they are in the same body. (“We Shake with Joy”)
While she sat beside a river named Clarion, she wondered,
Yes, it could be that I am a tiny piece of God, and
each of you too, or at least
of his intention and his hope.
Which is a delight beyond all measure. (“At the River Clarion”)
You can begin to feel just how close and far she was to reality. In another poem, she prays,
Oh, feed me this day, Holy Spirit, with
the fragrance of the fields and the
freshness of the oceans which you have
made, and help me to hear and to hold
in all dearness those exacting and wonderful
words of our Lord Jesus Christ, saying:
Follow me. (“Six Recognitions of the Lord”)
Oh to live in God’s world with more of that Spirit, that awe, that submission.
Those last seven beautiful lines land tragically, however, because Mary seemed to have rejected at least some of the exacting words of Jesus. Apart from the pantheism and anti-exclusivism that peek out of so many of her stanzas, we know she fell in love and lived with a lesbian partner for forty years. Her manifest familiarity with God makes her distance from faithful Christianity a profound tragedy.Why We Prefer Prose
I love Mary, however, for teaching me how to dance. Learning to read and write poetry prepares us to read the Bible better — not just the poetry in the Bible, but all of the Bible. That means for however far Mary was from the truth of the real Jesus, she taught me how to see more of him in the Scriptures.
If I had to summarize my hurdle with poetry for the first three decades of my life, it was that I immediately tried to turn every line or stanza into an immediate rationale payoff: What does this mean? The question is important, but poems often require a longer and less direct path to the answer. Leland Ryken says, “The chief obstacles that keep people from poetry are 1) laziness in learning how to read and understand poetry and 2) determining that poetry is inaccessible without giving it a try.” Guilty on both accounts.
Poetry frustrated me because it was inefficient and ambiguous. Prose could have said this so much faster and clearer. But not necessarily better. “Poetry appeals to the whole person in a way that prose does not,” Tremper Longman writes. “It stimulates our imaginations, arouses our emotions, feeds our intellects, and addresses our wills” (How to Read the Psalms, 91).
But a poem cannot appeal to the whole person if we read it like we skim a newsfeed. We have to slow down — an increasingly impossible feat in our day — and look around. What do I see? What do I hear? What do I smell, and taste, and feel as I read? Poetry is meant to make us feel something that comes less natural to prose. Poetry requires more patience and imagination — and time. It teaches us to read with more than our minds, the kind of heart-awake reading God expects when we come to his word (Psalm 119:10; 19:97; Matthew 15:8).Poems Breathed by God
Enjoying poetry makes us better readers, period. But Christians, of all people, should appreciate poetry even more — because our God writes so much poetry. Roughly a third of your Bible is poetry. John Piper writes,
God can raise the dead by any means he pleases. He can waken dull hearts to the reality of his beauty any way he desires. And one of the ways he pleases to do it is by inspiring his spokesmen to write poetry. (“God Filled your Bible with Poems”)
Hebrew poetry is not marked by meter or rhyme like the English poetry many of us are used to, but it still rewards slower, more imaginative reading.
Longman identifies the two most common characteristics of poetry in Scripture: parallelism and imagery (94). Because neither depends on meter or rhyme, their meaning comes through just as effectively and powerfully in our English translations of the Bible. Parallelism simply means two lines share some kind of intentional repetition. It may be obvious or subtle, but the writer has repeated something to emphasize or elaborate on his point. When we notice a repeated word, or phrase, or sentence construction, we should ask, What did he repeat, and why?
Imagery is the second major characteristic of Hebrew poetry, broken down into two familiar categories: similes and metaphors. Similes are introduced explicitly with “like” or “as.” Metaphors are implicit, and therefore often more potent. Again, Longman says,
Images, particularly metaphors, help to communicate the fact that God is so great and powerful and mighty that he can’t be exhaustively described. Metaphor may be accurate, but is less precise than literal language. Metaphor preserves the mystery of God’s nature and being, while communicating to us about him and his love for us. (121)
Images say things that cannot be said, at least not well. Good poems listen to the images, and good readers know how to listen to good poems. And the only God-breathed Book we have is filled with inspired, living, and active poetry.Your One Wild and Precious Life
In one of her most famous poems, “The Summer Day,” Mary Oliver writes,
Who made the world?
Who made the swan, and the black bear?
Who made the grasshopper?
This grasshopper, I mean —
the one who has flung herself out of the grass,
the one who is eating sugar out of my hand,
who is moving her jaws back and forth instead of up and down —
who is gazing around with her enormous and complicated eyes.
Now she lifts her pale forearms and thoroughly washes her face.
Now she snaps her wings open, and floats away.
I don’t know exactly what a prayer is.
I do know how to pay attention, how to fall down
into the grass, how to kneel down in the grass,
how to be idle and blessed, how to stroll through the fields,
which is what I have been doing all day.
Tell me, what else should I have done?
Doesn’t everything die at last, and too soon?
Tell me, what is it you plan to do
with your one wild and precious life?
Has a grasshopper ever reminded you of the gravity and brevity of your existence? Have you forgotten how to kneel down and pay attention? What is it you plan to do with your one wild and precious life?
Slow down with me, and learn how to dance with God. And let’s pray that what we learn from poetry, from the images, from the birds and fields and oceans, will open our eyes even wider to the one we see in his word.
With so many urgent spiritual needs in the world, is it wise to spend years of life in a seminary classroom? If someone is eager for ministry, why wait?
ABSTRACT: The glory of the new covenant is not only that Christ forgives our sins, but also that he enables us to please him. For the born again, therefore, God’s commands are not burdensome, but are rather invitations wrapped in obligations. This argument rests on three supporting pillars: (1) the distinction between union and communion, (2) the connection between command and communion, and (3) the nature of the new covenant.
We asked Jason Meyer, pastor for preaching at Bethlehem Baptist Church and associate professor of preaching for Bethlehem College & Seminary, to help us understand how a born-again heart receives the commands of Christ in our series of feature articles by scholars for pastors, leaders, and teachers. You can download a PDF of the article, as well as listen to an audio recording.
Do you believe that God should be desired?1 I cannot imagine a Christian who would say God should not be desired. But what if I modified the question slightly? Do you believe that God’s commands should be desired? In my experience, people are hesitant to affirm that statement, owing in part to a stigma about God’s commands. This stigma often springs from a deep-seated suspicion concerning the danger of legalism.
There is reason to be suspicious, because a clear connection exists between law and legalism. God justifies apart from the works of the law (Romans 3:28; Galatians 2:16). Our acceptance with God in Christ is radically free from self-righteous striving. Therefore, the gospel has the power to uproot a sinful addiction to self-righteous reliance upon the law. The gospel-centered movement, in holding up the finished work of Christ, has rightly attacked moralism and legalism.
But what about the opposite end of the spectrum? Some seem to have an allergic reaction to God’s commands. The spectrum of responses ranges from suspicion to outright opposition. But does the Bible support this reaction? Paul rhetorically asked if the law was opposed to the promises of God (Galatians 3:21). He argued that there is no necessary opposition. We need to ask a similar question. Are the commands of God somehow opposed to the gospel of God? This article aims to demonstrate that there is no necessary opposition.Invitations Wrapped in Obligations
The New Testament is chock-full of imperatives. How could New Testament Christians believe that they are free from all forms of obligation? One cannot read the New Testament and draw the conclusion that obligation to God’s commands is a thing of the past, because the old is gone and the new has come. The church urgently needs to think biblically about God’s commands. Christians should not be addicted to law or allergic to law. How do we as Christians avoid the dual ditches of legalism and license?
My thesis is that God’s commands are invitations wrapped in obligations. God’s commands are more than obligations, but not less. It is a both-and, not an either-or. The invitation is the inner core of the command, and the obligation is the outer layer.
Some people never get to the core of God’s commandments because they never get past the outer layer of obligation. The note of demand dominates the initial ethos of the imperative. It gives off a forceful opening impression. A command from the Creator confronts the creature, and so it initially comes across with only the commanding authority of demand. This note of confrontation and authority stirs up rebellion in unregenerate humanity. Romans 8:7–8 documents the response: “For the mind that is set on the flesh is hostile to God, for it does not submit to God’s law; indeed, it cannot. Those who are in the flesh cannot please God.”
Apart from the Spirit, God’s demand for obedience and submission feels like shots fired to sinful humanity. But in this article, I am focusing on born-again believers. The redeemed have an entirely different experience with respect to the commands of God. They feel the initial weight of the authoritative demand, but they look more closely and see the inner core of invitation. They are stirred by the invitation to intimacy with their Savior and King.
Therefore, I am advancing the thesis that God’s commands are invitations wrapped in obligations. In what follows, I aim to support this thesis with three propositions that function like supporting pillars: (1) the distinction between union and communion, (2) the connection between command and communion, and (3) the nature of the new covenant.The Distinction Between Union and Communion
God’s commands are not an invitation to earn salvation; they are an invitation to enjoy communion. This statement seeks to sever the connecting cord between God’s commands and legalism. I have found that John Owen’s categories of union and communion are the most effective two-handled scissors for making this cut.
Owen’s book Communion with God was originally published in 1657. In this book, Owen is doing the important theological work of synthesizing two different textual themes in Scripture: (1) the grace that saves is radically free, and (2) the relationship that God has with his children is real and responsive, not robotic and static. Owen provides two crucial theological categories to explain the breadth and depth of these biblical themes: union with God and communion with God.Union Is Constant, Communion Is Not
Union with God is a unilateral act of God’s sovereign grace. It does not depend on human works, and so it does not fluctuate with our obedience or disobedience. Once we are joined to Christ through the gift of regeneration and faith, our union with God does not go up or down. If you are a Christian, you can never be more or less united to Christ than you are now. Justification by faith alone on the basis of the work of Christ alone is the only reason we are accepted by God. The work of Christ is so finished and so complete that our acceptance is sure and need not be supplemented.
Communion with God is different. It is a responsive relationship; it is not robotic or mechanical. God responds to our obedience or disobedience. Our obedience pleases him, and our disobedience displeases him. We experience the ramifications for our choices at the relational level: we can experience intimacy with God, or we can feel distant from God. The ups and downs of this relationship are not owing to any sin on God’s part of the relationship. He never fails us or forsakes us. Even God’s displeasure takes place in the context of God’s loving acceptance of us in Christ. He disciplines his children in love, not in anger (Revelation 3:19).
Kelly Kapic describes the essential difference in Owen’s thought between union and communion, and unpacks the practical implications of this distinction:
While union with Christ is something that does not ebb and flow, one’s experience of communion with Christ can fluctuate. This is an important theological and experiential distinction, for it protects the biblical truth that we are saved by radical and free divine grace. Furthermore, this distinction also protects the biblical truth that the children of God have a relationship with their Lord, and that there are things they can do that either help or hinder it. When a believer grows comfortable with sin (whether sins of commission or sins of omission) this invariably affects the level of intimacy this person feels with God. It is not that the Father’s love grows and diminishes for his children in accordance with their actions, for his love is unflinching. It is not that God turns from us, but that we run from him. Sin tends to isolate the believer, making him feel distant from God. Then come the accusations — both from Satan and self — which can make the believer worry that he is under God’s wrath. In truth, however, saints stand not under wrath but in the safe shadow of the cross.2
We can now revisit the first supporting proposition: God’s commands are not an invitation to earn salvation; they are an invitation to enjoy communion. In the light of the preceding explanation from Owen, we could update the language to say that God’s commands are not an invitation to earn union with God, but they are an invitation to enjoy communion with God.
Therefore, a right understanding of union and communion will protect Christians from two pernicious errors that pervert Christian obedience. First, if we view God’s commands as an invitation to union with God, then we have confused union with communion and have twisted God’s commands into a legalistic ladder we use to climb for God’s acceptance. Second, if we make obedience to God’s commands a matter of indifference to God, then we have confused union and communion, and have erased the entire biblical witness about pleasing the Lord.The Possibility of Pleasing or Displeasing God
Some may struggle with the concept that God would ever be pleased with our obedience or displeased with our disobedience, but the biblical witness is abundantly clear that Christians can please or grieve God.3 God’s delight in obedience is not simplistic or legalistic. Christians, completely covered by the blood of Christ, completely and eternally accepted as righteous in Christ, can please or grieve God. Some don’t seem to have a category for that. Therefore, we need to let the Bible do some category formation for us.
According to Scripture, pleasing the Lord should be our ambition whether we are on earth or in heaven (2 Corinthians 5:9). Financial giving pleases God (Philippians 4:18). Our whole life is devoted to discerning how to walk in a manner that is “pleasing to the Lord” (Ephesians 5:8–10). Our aim is not to please the Lord partially, but fully (Colossians 1:10). Paul’s apostolic instructions for the churches included how to please God. Paul even calls them to grow “more and more” in pleasing God (1 Thessalonians 4:1–2). More than that, the biblical writers present the Lord’s pleasure as a motivation for Christian obedience (Colossians 3:20; 1 Timothy 5:4; Hebrews 13:16; 1 John 3:22).
At one level, the fact that one can do things to please the Lord shows that the converse is also true: failing to do any of the things mentioned above would displease the Lord. Sometimes the Bible is explicit with the reverse dynamic. For example, Peter says that if husbands do not treat their wives as fellow heirs of the grace of life, their prayers will be hindered (1 Peter 3:7). There are also wide and sweeping commandments not to quench the Spirit (1 Thessalonians 5:19) or “grieve the Holy Spirit of God” (Ephesians 4:30). We could also examine texts that unpack God’s loving discipline toward believers (Hebrews 12:10; Revelation 3:19).
Of course, mere actions do not please the Lord. He is pleased when we obey his commandments by faith. “Without faith it is impossible to please him” (Hebrews 11:6). Whatever is not from faith is sin (Romans 14:23). By faith, all of life becomes an opportunity to please the Lord, so we make it our aim to please him, whether we are on earth or in heaven.
Thus far, we have unpacked the categories of union and communion, and have demonstrated the biblical truth that our relationship with the Lord is real and not robotic, in that Christians can please or displease the Lord. The second pillar will now attempt to connect the commands of Christ to communion with Christ.Connecting Command and Communion
If God’s commands are invitations wrapped in obligation, then we need to show biblically where commands read like an invitation to enjoy communion. The Bible develops the connection between command and communion in both general and specific ways.The General Connection Between Command and Communion
Perhaps the clearest example at the general level is John 15:10–11.
If you keep my commandments, you will abide in my love, just as I have kept my Father’s commandments and abide in his love. These things I have spoken to you, that my joy may be in you, and that your joy may be full.
In this text, Jesus does not refer to the law of Moses, but to his own commandments: “If you keep my commandments” (John 15:10). Notice the invitational structure of thought at work in Jesus’s words: “If you keep, . . . [then] you will abide.” Keeping the commands of Christ will lead to abiding in the love of Christ. The commands are an invitation for intimate communion or abiding in Christ. Jesus also stresses the reciprocal nature of love and obedience. John 15 says keeping the commands will lead to abiding in love, and John 14 says the reverse is also true: loving Christ will lead to keeping the commands of Christ: “If you love me, you will keep my commandments” (John 14:15).
The invitational nature of Christ’s commandments shines even brighter in John 15:11. The commands are an invitation to fullness of joy. Christ spoke these words to the disciples (including his commands) in order that “my joy may be in you, and that your joy may be full.” Obedience to Christ’s commands does not and cannot secure our union with Christ. The commands are an important part of our ongoing communion with Christ, not union. Christ’s commandments are an invitation for the internalization of Christ’s joy (“my joy may be in you”) and the maximalization of our joy (“your joy may be full”).Specific Commands and Specific Kinds of Communion
We need to go further in establishing the connection between the commands of Christ and communion with Christ. Specific commands are an invitation for a specific kind of communion. We will consider three specific commands: (1) loving one another, (2) enduring suffering, and (3) giving sacrificially.LOVING ONE ANOTHER
First, Jesus gives the disciples a specific commandment in John 13:34 to love one another. He labels this love commandment as a new commandment, even though the command to love is not new in the sense that it is unheard of in the Old Testament. It is new, however, in that the standard of reference is new. The love command in the old covenant was explicitly tied to the standard of self-love: “you shall love your neighbor as yourself” (Leviticus 19:18). The love command in the New Testament is explicitly tied to the love of Christ as the new standard: “as I have loved you” (John 13:34).
The comparison at work in the comparative conjunction as is an experiential relationship, not just a logical one. One cannot love as Christ loves without first experiencing the love of Christ. One must receive this love, not just know about it. We also should not think of this dynamic as a singular, once-for-all experience. It is simply not true that we receive one experience of Christ’s love and then recall it and reiterate it many times. We are called to reflect continually what we are continually receiving as we abide in Christ. Receiving the love of Christ becomes a prerequisite for loving like Christ.
John the apostle also places obedience to God’s commandments in a relational context. Children of God keep God’s commandments and do whatever pleases him (1 John 3:22). The following verse further unpacks what John means by his reference to the plural “commandments” (1 John 3:22). Surprisingly, the plural becomes a singular “commandment” in two parts: believe in the gospel and love one another (1 John 3:23). Why does John regard these two actions as a singular commandment? These two actions are so closely related that they are like two sides of the same coin. In fact, John’s earlier discussion brought Christ’s love and our love together in an inseparable way: “By this we know love, that he laid down his life for us, and we ought to lay down our lives for the brothers” (1 John 3:16).
Loving others and laying down our lives for them is an overflow of Christ’s loving us and laying down his life for us. We could see further dimensions of this interplay between the love of Christ and our love for others in the writings of the apostle Paul. One example is the connection between the command for burden bearing and the law of Christ. “Bear one another’s burdens, and so fulfill the law of Christ” (Galatians 6:2). Here Paul draws a direct line between the cross of Christ (Christ carried our sins on the cross) and the law of Christ that calls us to carry one another’s burdens. The emphasis on the love of Christ in the law of Christ gives it a greater gospel shape than the law of Moses because the cross is the new standard of love.ENDURING SUFFERING
The next specific command to explore is the command to endure suffering. Peter says that Christians have been called to endure suffering (1 Peter 2:20–21). The reason Peter gives is “because Christ also suffered for you, leaving you an example, so that you might follow in his steps” (1 Peter 2:21). God graciously ordains suffering for Christians as a way to retrace the steps of our suffering Savior. Once again, this connection is more than logical; it is also relational.
The invitational and relational nature of suffering is perhaps most on display in Philippians 3:10. Suffering is part of the opportunity and invitation to know Christ. Knowing Christ includes the invitation to “share his sufferings, becoming like him in his death.” We do not suffer for the sake of suffering. Paul is talking about suffering like Jesus suffered: for the sake of serving others in obedience to the Father. The passive voice in the Greek verb translated becoming like him probably signals a divine passive, meaning that God is causing us to become like Christ in his death. Sinclair Ferguson once said in a sermon that God makes us like Jesus the same way that Jesus became like Jesus: through suffering (Hebrews 2:10; 5:8).
The suffering of Christ cannot be separated from the resurrection of Christ. Paul’s flow of thought is the same here: sharing in suffering and becoming like Jesus in his death will lead to the resurrection. Paul’s great desire is to “attain the resurrection from the dead” (Philippians 3:11). The phrase by any means possible models a measure of humility rather than false certainty. Paul did leave open the possibility that he could preach to others, but then find himself disqualified (1 Corinthians 9:24–27). The brightness of future resurrection does not breed apathy, but diligent perseverance in pursuing Christ.GIVING SACRIFICIALLY
Third, the command to give sacrificially connects specifically to the sacrifice of Christ. No New Testament text commands believers to give ten percent of their income to the church. The tithe commandment came from a paradigm relating to the twelve tribes of Israel. The Levites did not own land like the rest of the eleven tribes, and thus the tithe was an essential part of ensuring that they could continue to survive and minister. Nehemiah 13:10–12 highlights an example of how much the Levites depended upon the tithe.
The Christian lives under a new paradigm. Paul addresses financial themes frequently, but he never specifies an amount or percentage. He calls each of the Corinthians to set something aside “as he may prosper” (1 Corinthians 16:2). But Paul does not make reference here to a new paradigm. Paul shares the new point of reference for financial giving in the most sustained exposition of stewardship in the New Testament: 2 Corinthians 8–9. Sacrificial giving is grounded in the grace of Christ’s sacrifice, which is spelled out in financial imagery: “For you know the grace of our Lord Jesus Christ, that though he was rich, yet for your sake he became poor, so that you by his poverty might become rich” (2 Corinthians 8:9).
The third and final pillar is the most significant load-bearing pillar. Unless the Lord changes the heart, his commands will be received only as obligation from the outside and will produce rebellion. Without the life-giving work of the Spirit on the heart, God’s commands will land on people merely as demand from the outside, not as desire and delight from the inside. Where can one find such capacity for change? Only in the new covenant.The Nature of the New Covenant
This article has argued that God’s commands are invitations wrapped in obligations. The very nature of the new covenant involves the transformation of the heart and the internalization of the law so God’s commands are received as invitations to intimacy with Christ. God’s commands feel less like have to (obligation/demand) and more like want to (desire/delight).4
The new covenant promise of Ezekiel 36:26 announces that God will give his people a new heart and a new spirit. Ezekiel further clarifies this promised newness by contrasting the old heart with the new one that will replace it: “I will remove the heart of stone from your flesh and give you a heart of flesh” (Ezekiel 36:26). This new covenant work of heart transformation is closely connected with the presence of the Spirit and a transformed attitude toward God’s commands. “And I will put my Spirit within you, and cause you to walk in my statutes and be careful to obey my rules” (Ezekiel 36:27).
The new covenant promise of Jeremiah 31 puts the same stress upon the transformation of God’s people. The prophet contrasts the new covenant with the previous covenantal arrangement as seen in the phrases not like (Jeremiah 31:32) and not anymore (Jeremiah 31:34; cf. 30:8; 31:12, 40). The Lord will create Israel’s obedience by changing Israel’s heart (Jeremiah 31:33). The “everlasting covenant” in Jeremiah 32:38–40 includes a similar description of what God will do. He will give the people one heart and one way. He will not turn away from them to do them good. He will put the fear of himself within them. Jeremiah also comments on what will result from this new covenant work: “I will put the fear of me in their hearts, that they may not turn from me” (Jeremiah 32:40). God will not turn away from them, which will result in their not turning away from him.A New Thing on the Earth
This new work of God corresponds with the new thing God promises to do earlier, in Jeremiah 31:22.
How long will you waver,
O faithless daughter?
For the Lord has created a new thing on the earth:
a woman encircles a man.
This verse is somewhat confusing at first glance because of the word encircle (sbb). Some scholars contend that the term means encircle in the sense of protection. The “new thing” is a radical role reversal in which the weaker party (the woman) will now protect the stronger (the man). This interpretation, however, does not fit the immediate context or the overall context of Jeremiah.
A more satisfying solution is to recognize the metaphorical signals that Jeremiah provides the reader in the context. The woman clearly stands for “virgin Israel” (Jeremiah 31:21), who wanders as a faithless daughter (Jeremiah 31:22) and now must return (Jeremiah 31:21). The man is a reference to Yahweh. The call for Israel to return to Yahweh is a consistent theme throughout Jeremiah. For example, Jeremiah 3 calls upon unfaithful Israel to return to her husband Yahweh (Jeremiah 3:6, 8, 11, 12). Israel’s unfaithfulness and harlotry is a consistent theme. The Lord promises to heal the faithlessness of Israel (Jeremiah 3:22). This same note sounds in Jeremiah 31:18, where Ephraim asks that the Lord would “bring me back that I may be restored.” The Hebrew expression is a play on words using the verb turn (šwb). J. Gordon McConville rightly captures the sense of the expression: “Cause me to turn that I might turn.” His comments also bring out the theological connections with the new covenant. “In its brilliant succinctness, the Hebrew phrase expresses an antinomy which the theology of new covenant will endeavor to develop and complete.”5
When Jeremiah 31:18 and 31:22 are read together, we learn that the new thing the Lord will create is reciprocity in the relationship between the covenantal partners. Yahweh’s faithfulness is nothing new, but Israel’s covenantal fidelity is a new thing indeed. The unfaithful woman, Israel, will encircle (i.e., embrace) the man, Yahweh.6 God will act to create Israel’s obedience to him. Thus the metaphorical wordplay switches from Israel as the woman who wanders in infidelity (šôbeb) to the woman who will come back and encircle or embrace (sbb) the Lord when he creates the new thing, her fidelity.
This same note sounds again in the description of the new covenant in Jeremiah 31:31–34. The new thing in Jeremiah 31:22 and 31:31 is that God will ensure the fidelity of his covenant partner. Jeremiah 31:18 and 32:38–40 fill in further features of this transformation.With Fear and Trembling
Paul’s contrast between the old and new covenants in 2 Corinthians 3 presents the same picture. This passage is fairly familiar to most readers, and so I would like to showcase a similar picture through another passage in Paul: Philippians 2:12–13.7
Therefore, my beloved, as you have always obeyed, so now, not only as in my presence but much more in my absence, work out your own salvation with fear and trembling, for it is God who works in you, both to will and to work for his good pleasure.
Notice that this passage has a command and a rationale. The command is “work out your own salvation with fear and trembling” (Philippians 2:12). The underlying rationale is “for it is God who works in you, both to will and to work for his good pleasure” (Philippians 2:13).
It can be somewhat difficult to see on the surface, but Paul sets up a contrast between the old covenant and the new. Unlike the old-covenant people of God, who disobeyed even more in Moses’s absence than in his presence (Deuteronomy 31:27), the Philippians are the new covenant people of God who will obey even more in Paul’s absence than in his presence (Philippians 2:12).
This call for obedience is a summons to “work out your own salvation.” The way the Philippians work out this salvation is important. In the original language, Paul moves the phrase with fear and trembling to the front of the sentence for emphasis. Believers cannot have a cavalier attitude toward obedience. Their final salvation has a present outworking among the believing community in Philippi. Fear and trembling (phobos kai tromos) accompanied salvation (sōtēria, Exodus 14:13; 15:2) at the exodus, but there is one key difference. The fear and trembling at the exodus was external to Israel; it gripped the peoples surrounding them (Exodus 15:16). God’s new covenant salvation is greater because God works fear and trembling within his people (“in you,” Philippians 2:13) because of their salvation (sōtēria) in Christ.To Will and to Work
The ground in Philippians 2:13 is crucial for understanding the underlying reason we can work out our salvation: God is at work in us. The conjunction for (gar) shows that God’s work is decisively prior to our work. The call to “work out” (Philippians 2:12) must be informed by the fact that God “works in” (Philippians 2:13). Therefore, Christians work out that which God already worked in us. The conjunction for helps make the logic between the two verses crystal clear. It is true that we work and that God works, but we work (Philippians 2:12) because (gar) God works (Philippians 2:13).
This understanding of the decisive part God plays helps make further sense of the phrase fear and trembling in the previous verse. Paul’s preaching among the Corinthians was in “fear and much trembling” (1 Corinthians 2:3), not because he had stage fright, but because he knew that his work of preaching was totally dependent upon God’s power as the decisive factor. In the same way, Christian obedience is a dependent work that is carried out with fear and trembling because God’s work is the decisive factor in our obedience. Our work is derivative of and dependent upon his decisive work.
Specifically, God’s work accomplishes our willing and working (“both to will and to work,” Philippians 2:13). God provides the desire (i.e., the will) for obedience and the power (i.e., the work) of obedience. Paul also wants the readers to know that God takes great delight in the work he does in the lives of his children. God is at work “for his good pleasure” (Philippians 2:13).
The new covenant promises are present as the implicit backdrop for this whole discussion. The closest parallel is Jeremiah 32:40–41.
I will make with them an everlasting covenant, that I will not turn away from doing good to them. And I will put the fear of me in their hearts, that they may not turn from me. I will rejoice in doing them good, and I will plant them in this land in faithfulness, with all my heart and all my soul.
The similarities are important: (1) the text has the same term for fear (phobos) that is found in Philippians 2:12, and (2) the text has the same stress on God’s pleasure or joy (“I will rejoice”) in doing this internal work in the lives of his new covenant people.The Meaning of Must
Do we experience God’s commands only as obligation? Or do we look deeper and see the summons for intimacy with God as an invitation to delight in God? The relational nature of communion with God needs to factor in to the way we think about God’s commands and the meaning of the word must. People familiar with John Piper’s ministry may remember that Edward John Carnell wrote something that gave Piper the inspiration for his famous illustration in Desiring God about dutifully giving his wife roses. Here is the paragraph from Carnell.
Suppose a husband asks his wife if he must kiss her good night. Her answer is, “You must, but not that kind of a must.” What she means is this: “Unless a spontaneous affection for my person motivates you, your overtures are stripped of all moral value.”8
In the same way, one could ask God, “Must I obey you?” God’s answer is “You must, but not that kind of a must.” In this sentence, there are two types of obligations: one of mere duty and one filled with delight. God’s commands are not an expression of mere duty or obligation. They also come to us with the aroma of invitation to delight ourselves in the Lord.Listen to the Audio
Notice here the distinction between saying “God should be desired” and “I desire God.” Our desire for God is not constant, and thus John Piper wrote books like When I Don’t Desire God: How to Fight for Joy (Wheaton: Crossway, 2004). But the truth that God should be desired is constant. It is always true. ↩
I find Wayne Grudem’s work very helpful on this point. See his essay “Pleasing God by Our Obedience: A Neglected New Testament Teaching” in For the Fame of God’s Name: Essays in Honor of John Piper (Wheaton: Crossway, 2010), 272–92. ↩
Some of this material on the new covenant is based on my earlier work. See Jason C. Meyer, The End of the Law: Mosaic Covenant in Pauline Theology (Nashville: B&H Academic, 2009). ↩
J. Gordon McConville, Judgment and Promise: An Interpretation of the Book of Jeremiah (Winona Lake, IN: Eisenbrauns, 1993), 97. ↩
So also Elmer Martens, Jeremiah, Believers Bible Commentary (Scottsdale, PA: Herald Press, 1986), 194; Gerald L. Keown, Pamela J. Scalise, and Thomas G. Smothers, Jeremiah 26–52, Word Biblical Commentary 27 (Dallas: Word, 1995), 123. ↩
Prosperity preachers not only twist and mangle the Bible’s message. They twist and mangle their hearers.
“I wonder what they are going to name her,” my wife said.
“I have no idea, but if we were expecting a daughter, I would first consider Elizabeth, Jael, or Abigail.”
Elizabeth, because of my mother. A godly daughter of her own mother, she is an embodiment of the Proverbs 31 wife and mother whose son has grown up to praise her (Proverbs 31:28). She labored for years as a single mother, sacrificed more than can be told, and is, in my eyes, one of whom the world is not worthy. When I sat down to pen a poem to her for Mother’s Day, I entitled it after Timothy’s mother, Eunice, who passed her sincere faith to him (2 Timothy 1:5).
Jael, in the time of Judges, welcomed the wicked King Sisera into her home after he fled from Barak. She beckoned the fugitive ruler inside, gave him drink, covered him, grabbed her hammer and a tent peg, and nailed it through his temple (Judges 4:17–21). Although not a soldier, she fearlessly did what needed to be done, as was foretold of her (Judges 4:9).
And Abigail, after my beloved wife. While pursuing her for marriage, I often described her to my brothers as “one who breathes gospel fire.” She is as strong and industrious as any woman I know and utterly fierce in the things of the Lord. Her boldness and love for the church continue to challenge me. The Bible says of her that she is “discerning and beautiful” (1 Samuel 25:3) — just another proof of its inerrancy.
Add to this list my sister, Hannah — intelligent, funny, fragrant with the aroma of Christ — and you have the women I love most deeply.The Days of Snow White
It saddened me, therefore, to hear of a misunderstanding that took place over a recent article — a misunderstanding that, if true, would insult and exclude the women noted above. I listened as a few Christian women whom I greatly respect shared their confusion.
The anti-feminism, anti-women-in-combat main point of the article did not bother them — they too shared a distaste for the interchangeability propagated to our daughters in the name of equality. What they wanted to understand was what I thought about biblical femininity. Did I believe that women in Christ were like trophies resting upon banisters, only to be defended while collecting dust? Was the ideal of biblical women to be found in 1950s classic Disney movies?
My response to these dear saints: Unequivocally no.Lineage of Godly Women
No one who knows Proverbs 31 could imagine that a biblical woman is inactive. “Give her of the fruit of her hands, and let her works praise her in the gates” (Proverbs 31:31).
No one could demean women as being less valuable than men, for “God created man in his own image, in the image of God he created him; male and female he created them” (Genesis 1:27).
No one could say that the ideal of womanhood is weakness. “She dresses herself with strength and makes her arms strong. . . . Strength and dignity are her clothing, and she laughs at the time to come” (Proverbs 31:17, 25).
No one can say that she is not industrious and productive. “She considers a field and buys it; with the fruit of her hands she plants a vineyard” (Proverbs 31:16).
No one can say that she is any less an heir of grace. “Husbands, live with your wives in an understanding way, showing honor to the woman as the weaker vessel, since they are heirs with you of the grace of life” (1 Peter 3:7).
No one can say that men do not need women. “It is not good that the man should be alone” (Genesis 2:18). “In the Lord woman is not independent of man nor man of woman” (1 Corinthians 11:11).
No one who has read of Esther, Rahab, Deborah, or Mary could deny women have played the heroine in chapters of God’s story. And no one could deny that women play a key part in significant turns in redemptive history (Matthew 1:1–16).
We ought to celebrate women of courage and godly conviction like Sarah, who had the kind of spirit God calls “imperishable beauty” (1 Peter 3:4); Shiphrah and Puah, midwives who defied a king and saved Israelite children; Hannah, who dedicated her beloved child Samuel to the service of the Lord; Deborah, who served as a judge in Israel and gave inspiration to Barak and his soldiers; Esther, who risked her life to save God’s people; Priscilla, who, along with her husband, helped the likes of Paul and Apollos; Ruth, great-grandmother of King David, who stuck by Naomi and trusted her God; Mary Magdalene, a notable follower of the Savior; and Mary, the humble, obedient mother of God.
And we ought to celebrate the God-fearing women in our history and the God-fearing women in our own homes and churches. More sons and husbands ought to rise up and call them blessed.Irreplaceable Image
Womanhood, according to God’s purpose and plan, ought to be championed, especially when it is so frequently under attack.
Many men of the world pressure women to look like a Barbie doll, show more skin, and cross more boundaries. Some women of the world tempt our daughters to see the cultivation of the home as a career failure, motherhood as a backup plan, and submission to a husband as unquestionably intolerable. The spirit of the age tempts them to trade gentleness for roughness, refinement for crudeness, diversity for homogeny. Even their awesome ability to give life to new humans has been despised as a burden, rather than prized as the unsurpassed glory it is. In serpentine fashion, God’s design is questioned into unbelief and tragic rebellion.
But the beauty of godly femininity must not be abandoned. It is founded upon union with Christ, empowered by the Spirit of God, and runs its race looking unto Jesus (Hebrews 12:1–2). Woman too beholds the face of her Savior and searches his word to learn about who God made her to be. And her image, her person, is irreplaceable in displaying God in the world.
Bearing our similarities and differences is about God (Genesis 1:27), and the re-sharing of the gospel through different relationships like marriage and the church (Ephesians 5:22–33). We do not just happen to have different roles based on arbitrary cultural preferences. God made us fearfully and wonderfully different. Equal before our Lord (Galatians 3:28), complementary in representing him in the world. God could have made us the same in all respects, but astonishingly, he didn’t. We ought to praise his wisdom, agree with his wisdom, put his wisdom on display.Inheriting a Name
Should Christian women, by the power of the Spirit, be industrious, fearless, courageous? Unquestionably. The godly woman is no pacifist concerning her soul — she too must dress in the armor of the Lord and make war against her flesh, the world, and the devil (Ephesians 6:10–20). She too will win souls and disciple them. She too has a divine call to fulfill. She too risks for the cause of Christ.
She too feasts on the word, prays for the world, overcomes obstacles, and becomes more like Christ as she beholds him (2 Corinthians 3:18). And when she wears the silver crown, she teaches the younger women what is good, “that the word of God may not be reviled” (Titus 2:3–5). Mature manhood and womanhood overlap in our common humanity and Christian virtue while remaining distinct in our callings. We do not apologize for the differences. We glory in them.
Should God ever bless my wife and me with a baby girl, I pray she will grow up to be a woman of God, fearless, faithful, and feminine according to God’s word, like the woman whose name she would bear.
God is concerned with our purity of faith, not race. He never forbids marriage between ethnicities, but between believer and unbeliever.
If Jesus is God, why does the Bible say that he “became” superior to angels? Hasn’t he always been superior to angels?
For many of us, the most dangerous sins are not the ones that will get us excommunicated or bring public shame on our families. They are the sort that we can carry right into church without anyone noticing.
Friends are unconcerned. Our small group sees no problem. Even we assure ourselves that we have kept our feet from every forbidden tree in God’s garden. All the while, we have forgotten that often, the serpent’s subtlest temptations are not to pluck the fruit God has forbidden, but to crave the fruit he has given. We have closed our grip around the good gifts of God, and slowly, even imperceptibly, have become unable to let go.
We should not be surprised if we trick even ourselves. Like all sin, this idolatry is deceitful (Ephesians 4:22) — especially because it so easily wears the mask of virtue. We numb ourselves with entertainment in the name of rest. We grow too dependent on a friend in the name of fellowship. We control our children in the name of responsibility.
The result is a domesticated disobedience, a nearly invisible idolatry, a respectable rebellion — a spell that can be broken only by heeding Jesus’s blunt command to “be on your guard” (Luke 12:15).Be On Your Guard
Jesus and the apostles never assume that any of us, even the born again, could live in the midst of God’s gifts without being on guard. Jesus gives his command in the context of money and possessions — good gifts that can become devouring idols (Luke 12:13–21). And, according to Paul, what’s true of wealth is true of all good things. When the Corinthians told him, “All things are lawful for me,” he replied, “But I will not be dominated by anything” (1 Corinthians 6:12). Given the chance, our flesh is ready to enslave us to any good thing: money, reputation, marriage, comfort, success, control, beauty, food, children, sleep, career, free time, friends.
Sometimes, God delivers us from such subtle idolatry by sending us into the wilderness: he removes his good gifts for a time to remind us that his “steadfast love is better than life” (Psalm 63:3). But what if he doesn’t? How do we remain on our guard in the land of plenty?
Scripture gives us dozens of ways to be on our guard. Before we look at four of them, it bears mentioning that the goal is never to permanently distance ourselves from God’s gifts, as if holiness keeps creation at arm’s length. Our goal, rather, is to raise up some fences around God’s gifts so that we might, as G.K. Chesterton puts it, “give room for good things to run wild” (Orthodoxy, 9).1. Come awake to the danger.
The battle against idolatrous desires begins with coming awake to the danger. Many of us have already fled into our fortresses and bolted the door against bad things: sexual immorality, lying, angry outbursts, gossip. But we have not realized — or we need to remember — that sin has already infiltrated the fortress, hidden under the cover of good things.
Perhaps some of us feel like saying, “But what’s so bad about having a good marriage? Or my kids’ safety? Or enough money? Or some downtime?” The answer is nothing. Used rightly, each of these gifts is an ally to our joy in God, not an enemy. They are part of the very good God spoke over Eden, wonders sprung from the joy of the triune God, designed for our delight (Genesis 1:31).
Where, then, does the danger come from? Not from God’s gifts, but from our flesh, that defeated foe who still finds a way to whisper in our ear. The day is coming when the angels of God “will gather out of his kingdom all causes of sin . . . and throw them into the fiery furnace” (Matthew 13:41–42). Until then, the devilish suggestion to grasp for God’s gifts remains with us. The enemy is always inside the gates, because it is always inside our chests. So, Jesus tells us, “Be on your guard.”2. Pay attention to your emotions.
We would be wrong, however, to interpret “Be on your guard” to mean, “Lock yourself away in the cellars of your soul, and don’t come back out till you’ve found every idol.” Some of us are tempted to become little Hezekiahs, hunting our hearts for every high place and pillar (2 Kings 18:4). The search often goes awry, and we end up inverting the famous counsel of Robert Murray McCheyne: “For every look at Christ,” we say, “take ten looks at yourself.”
David Powlison writes, “Our renegade desires are not so ‘inward’ as to call for intense introspection” (“Revisiting Idols of the Heart and Vanity Fair,” 41). Although these desires often hide in the cellar, they can’t help but show their faces from time to time — often in distorted emotions.
Our emotions are never just givens; they are ambassadors of the heart, sent to tell us what’s happening there. Negative emotions like worry, anger, and sorrow tell us that something we care about is under attack. Sometimes, of course, we feel negative emotions for the right reasons: we are angry because injustice is happening; we are sorrowful because a close relationship has ended.
But much of the time, our negative emotions reveal that one of our idols is under fire: we are angry because someone has crossed our desires for control; we are sorrowful because we have lost someone who had given our lives meaning. When I drove to work a few days ago in a little palace of self-pity, the emotion was uncovering an enemy: my desire for comfort had gone rogue. No longer a gift to be received with thanks, it had become a right to be expected.
Positive emotions, too, can raise warning flags. The world is filled with happy idolaters, people like the rich fool who kept his joy in bigger barns (Luke 12:16–20). Sometimes, our deepest problem is not that we are anxious, sorrowful, or fearful, but that we are incredibly happy for all the wrong reasons.
From time to time, we need to query our emotions before giving them a room in our hearts — especially emotions that visit quite often. We need to ask ourselves, “Why am I irritable right now? Why am I worried? Why am I so happy?” Often, such questions will lead us to an idol that has been pulling the levers of our heart for too long.3. Gauge your spiritual desires.
When we enjoy God’s gifts as he created us to, they will not compete with Christ for our affections; they will take us in hand and, like a godly friend, say, “Let us go to the house of the Lord” (Psalm 122:1). God made us to wrap our arms around a spouse, or fill our stomachs with food, or feel a thunderstorm shake the ground, and say, “These are but the outskirts of his ways, and how small a whisper do we hear of him!” (Job 26:14).
But when an idol eclipses the light of God’s face, spiritual desires limp. Bible reading becomes a formal affair. Spontaneous prayer dries up. Fellowship feels less urgent. We would do well to heed the advice of McCheyne, who was more jealous to guard his spiritual desires than most: “Brethren, if you are ever so much taken up with any enjoyment that it takes away your love for prayer or your Bible, . . . then you are abusing this world” (“Time Is Short”).
Left unchecked, innocent enjoyments become thorns, ready to choke out our spiritual desires (Mark 4:18–19). If we find that a hobby, friendship, or form of entertainment is keeping us from God’s word, or from our knees, something radical needs to change.4. Occasionally ask, ‘What if God takes it away?’
Perhaps no test helps us discern hidden idolatry more than occasionally looking at our most precious earthly gifts, and asking ourselves, “What if God takes it away?”
We should not expect to consider this question with an unruffled heart. The thought of losing a spouse, a child, a dear friend, or a lifelong dream should stir up waves within us. Mature godliness does not create stoic detachment from this world; it creates real lament arising from real anguish directed to the real God. He who “heals the brokenhearted and binds up their wounds” (Psalm 147:3) will not reproach us when sorrow’s deep waters rise up to our necks.
The test is this: Will we, as far as we know ourselves, resolve to bless the Lord rather than curse him, even if the worst comes (Job 1:21)? Will we believe that God’s mercies will be new with the sunrise, no matter how dark the midnight (Lamentations 3:22–23)? Will we still say, though tears be our food, “To me to live is Christ, and to die is gain” (Philippians 1:21)?
“What if God takes it away?” is not a question to ask every day. Most days, we should hold God’s gifts in hand, thank him from the depths of us, and keep what ifs outside the door. Only every now and then should we subject ourselves to such introspection, and always with the aim of recalibrating our hearts so that we might throw ourselves back into the enjoyment of his gifts.Keep Christ In
The four strategies above are all defensive — ways of climbing up into the watchtower to keep guard over our soul. Such battle plans, though necessary, are never sufficient. Unless we fill our souls with light, we will sweep the floors only to welcome more darkness (Matthew 12:43–45).
A.W. Tozer reminds us, “The best way to keep the enemy out is to keep Christ in” (Tozer on the Holy Spirit, 27). Our struggles with wayward desires arise chiefly because we have kept Christ outside the door. But when Christ is the host, all the guests take their places and get along famously. The best way to protect our souls, then, is not merely to keep idolatry out, but to keep Christ in.
For the sake of our souls, we must seek him. No matter how long ago we heard his “Follow me,” there is more of Christ to be had. More of his beauty to be seen. More of his wisdom to be admired. More of his power to be feared. More of his friendship to be enjoyed. More of his grace to be treasured. More of his comfort to be felt. More of his authority to be hailed. More of his worth to be confessed.
When Christ is in, the gifts of God will not compete with him. Every one of them will bow its knee before his throne, and bid us to go further up, and further in, to him.
You will not fear the terror of the night, nor the arrow that flies by day. (Psalm 91:5)
You can see it in our locks, our gates, our motion sensors, our alarm systems. It’s evident from the endless passwords, the extra digits on the back of a credit card, and the x-ray machines and full-body scans at the airport.
We have our seat belts and airbags, our helmets, pads, and face masks. We have insurance policies, retirement plans, and social security. Some carry pepper spray, or mace, or a whistle on a keychain. It affects what we eat, where we go, how much we exercise, who we talk to, what we say, how we live.
We are desperate for an enduring sense of safety and security.We Are Vulnerable
Whatever rugged, seemingly fearless veneer we may be able to muster on the outside, deep down inside we know we are vulnerable. To be human is to be vulnerable — ever exposed to attack, natural disaster, miscalculation, sabotage, disease, heart failure, and more. We long to feel safe, but life in this world is fraught with risks and dangers — even when we refuse to leave the house.
We have our modern ways and technological means for seeking safety, but the ache for security is no recent development. In the ancient world, cities built walls, kings dug moats, and soldiers wore armor and carried shields.
And yet as deep as the drive is for safety in the human heart, we have no guarantees of it in this life. As much as we’d like to think that God will protect those who love him from any trouble whatsoever befalling us, we know this is clearly not true from experience or from the Bible. God does not promise earthly safety to his children in this life. Though he did wire our hearts to long for security — not to find it in this world, but in him.Not Alone, Abandoned, or Destroyed
Better than mere temporal security, which would leave us resting safely for a mere seventy or eighty years, the promise God makes to his people in Psalm 91, and all over the Bible, is our ultimate security — that no matter what befalls us in this world, God has us in his hand. He knows. He cares. He is working life’s greatest dangers and harshest pains for your ultimate good.
Psalm 91 doesn’t promise that the worst this world has to offer won’t come upon God’s people, but that when it does, we are not alone, abandoned, or destroyed. His grace is too dynamic and powerful to simply keep us out of harm’s way; he sustains us in hardship and brings us through to ultimate safety. The safety we receive from God doesn’t mean there won’t be great pain — physically, emotionally, and spiritually. Being raised up on eagles’ wings doesn’t mean that the baby bird never left the nest, but that when he was flailing and falling from the sky, unable to fly on his own and save himself, his mother swept in to the rescue.
Jesus experienced great pain physically, and even greater turmoil emotionally as he bore our sin and felt forsaken by his Father. But the promises of Psalm 91 gave him the spiritual wherewithal to move toward the pain of Calvary, not run from it. He knew God would be with him in the greatest trouble, and that his Father would raise him up to the glory of his right hand. “When he calls to me, I will answer him; I will be with him in trouble; I will rescue him and honor him” (Psalm 91:15).He Will Raise You Up
Psalm 91 finds its fullest fulfillment in Jesus, and we abide in the shadow of the Almighty by abiding in Jesus. We dwell in the shelter of the Most High by taking shelter, by faith, in God’s Son (Psalm 91:1). We say to Jesus, “My refuge and my fortress, my God, in whom I trust” (Psalm 91:2). Our desperation for an enduring sense of safety and security was not meant to find its home in this world. But we were meant to truly find a refuge and fortress — in God himself, through his Son, who resisted the tempter’s quotation of Psalm 91 against him.
Jesus knew that God’s promise of angels guarding him (Psalm 91:11–12) wouldn’t keep him from the cross, but that his Father would raise him up. Jesus would strike against the stone at Calvary, but in doing so, he would “tread on the lion” and “trample [the serpent] underfoot” (Psalm 91:13). In Christ, we need not fear the terror of the night, the arrow that flies by day, or any pestilence or destruction (Psalm 91:5–6) — not because we’re immune to hardship in this world, but because we will be brought safely through them into ultimate security.
God doesn’t pledge to keep us from all worldly suffering and trouble, but he does promise to be with us, rescue us in his perfect timing, and graciously honor us for walking the path of pain with a heart of faith.
Desiring God partnered with Shane & Shane’s The Worship Initiative to write short meditations for more than one hundred popular worship songs and hymns.
We need the word of God to correct our passions, rebuke our passions, and shape our passions.
Less than a century before the Internet made even petty stories viral, a man with a bombastic kind of bravery led a team into impossible territory to do the impossible. As international conflict erupted into World War I, Irishman Sir Ernest Shackleton led a strategically chosen team of 26 men (plus one ill-fortuned stowaway) from the British Isles to what is still the least-traversed, seen, or occupied continent in all the world.
Back then, Antarctica would have been all the less forgiving when its topography was still entirely unknown to mankind. Yet 28 men sailed straight for her, obsessed with the mystery and allure of the frontier. They had to go where no one had gone before and attempt what no one else had ever done. Shackleton had lost the race to reach Antarctica some years earlier and instead resolved to secure his legacy by being the first to lead an expedition across her unforgiving terrain by foot.Fortitudine Vincimus
Such a task demanded a kind of fortitude from these men that they would need to forge along the way. As with any frontier expedition, it is impossible to plan and difficult to prepare for it. The frontier confronts its foreigners with what they didn’t know they didn’t know once they get there and try to work their way through it. Shackleton’s men and mission learned this quickly.
Due to unseasonable and unexpected cold, the waters around the South Pole began to freeze early. Shackleton’s ship — aptly named Endurance, after his family motto, Fortitudine vincimus (“by endurance we conquer”) — became trapped before they reached their point of anchor. Months passed on this floating grave before the frozen trap would release the vessel.
The men would stand on their prized continent only long enough to figure out how to leave her. Their expedition immediately became a struggle for survival. Shackleton’s legacy would be etched into the walls of history not for exploratory bravado, but because he fought every devil in the South Pole to get every one of his men back home alive.
And he did.
The miracle of their incredible survival attests to us three distinct and beautiful priorities disciples of Jesus are meant to have: go to the frontier, endure whatever you find when you get there, and get as many as you can out alive.Go to the Frontier
Our lifelong process of discipleship is more like Shackleton’s story than we realize. We will not find ourselves on ice-locked ships counting down the days until the crushing blow; we will not find ourselves stuck on the other side of the world, at the mercy of stars and dingy rowboats to find our way back home.
But in this “present evil age” (Galatians 1:4), we will find ourselves, for a myriad of other reasons, in “need of endurance” (Hebrews 10:36) until our Bridegroom comes (Matthew 25:1–13; Revelation 19:7) — and we are commanded and commissioned to get feet on ground they’ve never been before to declare a name no one there has ever heard before and make disciples of the man to whom all knees will bow (Matthew 28:19–20; Acts 1:6–8; Romans 15:20; Philippians 2:9–11).
So we too must go to the frontier, endure whatever we find when we arrive, and do everything we can to get as many people as we can out alive.You Have Need of Endurance
When Jesus gave what we refer to as the “Great Commission” (Matthew 28:19–20), he delivered it to the same group of young leaders he’d been discipling the several years prior — minus one. Not everyone went the proverbial distance, and Judas’s betrayal and subsequent suicide left a tangible break in the line of the twelve. Perhaps the writer of Hebrews remembered his horrible sin-soaked story when he cautioned his audience years later, “You have need of endurance, so that when you have done the will of God you may receive what is promised” (Hebrews 10:36).
Often translated something like “patience,” the Greek word hypomone connotes this commitment to perseverance, this endurance we so desperately need. By patience we will possess our souls (Luke 21:19). The testing of our faith produces patience (Romans 5:3; James 1:3). We inherit the promises through faith and patience (Hebrews 6:12). We must endure hardship as good soldiers of King Jesus (2 Timothy 2:3). Let us run with endurance the race set before us (Hebrews 12:1). We are to endure afflictions to fulfill our ministry (2 Timothy 4:5). He “who endures to the end will be saved” (Matthew 24:13). “Love bears all things, believes all things, hopes all things, endures all things” (1 Corinthians 13:7).
Our last orders from our resurrected King are to “make disciples of all nations.” That is his commission to his church. If we are to “walk in a manner worthy of the calling to which [we] have been called” (Ephesians 4:1), we need to obey the command to go into all nations and teach them to obey what he commanded us to do. For this task, many in the church will need the kind of incredible endurance forged against all the obstacles on the frontier. It is not for the faint of heart.Get Everyone Out Alive
If we believe what we say we believe about the severity of sin and treason; if we believe what we say we believe about the sin-shattering blood spilling from Immanuel’s veins; if we believe the Son of David is preeminent in everything (Colossians 1:18); if we believe he is going to make good on his commitment to restore all things (Acts 3:21) — then we cannot withhold this gloriously good news of the kingdom. We cannot sit in our polished pews and, as Hudson Taylor once put it, “rejoice in our own security.”
We must share what we didn’t earn, and don’t deserve, with the rest of our human family. We must obey the King we confess. We must go into all nations and teach them to obey all he commanded us to do. If we are not going or prayerfully, generously, and intentionally sending, we have not heard the clear call of Christ on every disciple. Obedient disciples obey their Master and are thus his disciples. Disobedient disciples do not obey and thus live in opposition to him. Some might call it “rebellion.”Greater Mission
Right now, more than three billion people are living and dying in ignorance of the matchless name of Jesus. We know who they are. We know where they are. Missiologists have tirelessly cataloged their tribes and languages. We are without excuse. We know what and where the frontier is.
We, as the body and bride of Jesus, have a better vision and endgame for our frontier than Ernest Shackleton did for his, and a more glorious legacy to fight for. We have the better name to exalt on the frontier. Let not an adventurous Irishman outdo the church of Jesus in his commitment to go where no one has gone, do what no one has done, and get everyone out alive.
Our beloved apostle Paul discovered something beautiful about Jesus that motivated him to live out of suitcases for most of his days so he could lay gospel foundations where none existed (Romans 15:20). What did he know about Jesus? What mobilized him? What galvanized him? What distilled his priorities? What put him on the frontier and kept him there?
We are not browbeaten slaves forced to grit our teeth and do the impossible because “by endurance we conquer.” No, the apostle who served the early missions movement reminds us, like a father and a captain, that Jesus chose us. He bought us. He washed us. He will see us through to our sanctification. And if he is for us, nothing can oppose us. Nothing can sink us. We can enter impossible territories to do impossible things because, through him who loved and loves us, we are “more than conquerors” (Romans 8:37). We can do what we have been commanded and commissioned to do.
Christians can learn many important facts from non-Christian teachers. But they cannot learn the most important facts — or how to love them.
Do you ever shout in church as an expression of exultant, exuberant worship? If not, why?
Is this even a relevant question? Or is it just a foray into the “worship wars” that devolves into debates over style and tone preferences?
I think it is relevant, regardless of our style and tone preferences, because we find clear examples and exhortations regarding shouting in the Bible, particularly in the Psalms. And so, we need to ask ourselves whether or not it matters to God if we actually do what these psalms commend or command us to do. Here are a few samples:
- Psalm 27:6, “I will offer in his tent sacrifices with shouts of joy; I will sing and make melody to the Lord.”
- Psalm 32:11, “Be glad in the Lord, and rejoice, O righteous, and shout for joy, all you upright in heart!”
- Psalm 33:3, “Sing to him a new song; play skillfully on the strings, with loud shouts.”
- Psalm 47:1, “Clap your hands, all peoples! Shout to God with loud songs of joy!”
- Psalm 66:1–2, “Shout for joy to God, all the earth; sing the glory of his name; give to him glorious praise!”
- Psalm 71:23, “My lips will shout for joy, when I sing praises to you; my soul also, which you have redeemed.”
What do we do with these statements? God doesn’t waste his breath in Scripture (2 Timothy 3:16). He has included everything intentionally. So, he clearly wants us to do something regarding these references to shouting. I wonder if biblical shouting is not only an expression of joyful worship but also a way of experiencing dimensions of joyful worship that we don’t experience otherwise.Why and When We Shout
Now, all of us shout. If we have voices, we’ve all shouted many times, and for numerous reasons. We’ve shouted in the overflow of great joy. We’ve shouted in the exultation of victory. We’ve shouted in the tension of competition. We’ve shouted in the chaos of battle. We’ve shouted in the tumult of controversy and argument. We’ve shouted in moments of great danger. We’ve shouted in the explosion of hot anger. Certain strong emotions prompt us, any of us, to shout.
But we rarely shout alone. Similar to laughing, and to some extent singing, shouting seems to be designed primarily as a corporate expression of strong emotion, something we find most enjoyable or helpful or needful when we do it with other people.
For example, I’m a shouter when I watch the Minnesota Vikings play football. This is true whether I watch them live at a stadium or, perhaps even better, in a room with family and friends. But if I watch a game alone, the dynamic is different.
Case in point: On January 14, 2018, Vikings quarterback Case Keenum threw the “Minneapolis Miracle” pass to wide receiver Stefon Diggs in the last seconds of a divisional playoff game to defeat the New Orleans Saints. When that happened, our living room full of Vikings fans erupted in deafening shouts for joy that went on for minutes. If I had watched by myself, I might have shouted, but it would have lacked the depth of joy and celebration (and volume).
Why is this? There’s something profound and mysterious about a group of people sharing a common excitement and joy. Often, joy is heightened when we experience it together with others — and certain joys are only properly expressed in shouting. To not shout together as Stefon Diggs ran into the end zone would have emotionally muted the whole experience.What About Church?
The Bible doesn’t explicitly explain why this phenomenon occurs, but it certainly acknowledges that it does. Most of the scriptural instructions to shout are addressed to the gathered saints — the Psalms were mainly meant to be sung (and sometimes shouted) together with others. There’s a unique and powerful dynamic when we “give thanks to the Lord with [our] whole heart, in the company of the upright, in the congregation” (Psalm 111:1).
So, all of us shout. But assuming we’re in a familiar culture, we also all know when we’re not supposed to shout. Appropriate and inappropriate times and places to shout are culturally or sub-culturally reinforced. It’s okay to shout at a football game; it’s not okay to shout in a funeral home.
What about when our church gathers together to worship (and it’s not a funeral)? What does our church culture encourage? Are there occasionally moments of exuberance in song where all the saints “shout for joy to God” (Psalm 66:1)? Or does that always feel out of place, or only done by one or two courageous (and odd) people?Spiritual Discipline of Shouting?
An even more penetrating question than cultural decorum is this: Do we ever feel the realities of the mercies of God, our redemption, the spiritual conflict we’re engaged in, the promise of our resurrection, and Christ’s ultimate triumph strongly enough to inspire a shout?
I ask this question for a couple of reasons. One, it might reveal a personal affectional deficit in our souls that we need to address with our Lord — that we’re not connecting deeply enough with the realities of what’s happened, and been promised, to us. And, of course, that’s all of us to greater or lesser degrees. What we may need is to repent of giving excessive attention to lesser things, and spend more extended time meditating on “the surpassing worth of knowing Christ Jesus” (Philippians 3:8) in order to stoke the embers of our passion for him.
But a second reason is that, to some degree, an affectional deficit might be due to the fact that we don’t shout together. I experienced the reality of the “Minneapolis Miracle” more deeply and intensely because I shared and shouted over it with others. I often feel certain great truths of God, or at least dimensions of them, more deeply and intensely when I share and shout over them with others. I can’t replicate in my private devotional times what I experience together with the saints on Easter morning.What We All Want
Shouting is commended and commanded in the Bible, like singing, because there are dimensions of joy in God that are only experienced when we express ourselves in this way — particularly when we express ourselves this way together.
Like anything else, shouting can be superficial, but that shouldn’t prevent us from shouting. Because of the clear biblical exhortations to shout, I commend these thoughts to you for your prayerful consideration — especially pastors and leaders who craft worship times for gathered saints. What we all want is for the saints to experience as much blessing of delighting in God as possible. And the Scriptures tell us, “Blessed are the people who know the festal shout, who walk, O Lord, in the light of your face” (Psalm 89:15).