There is a comfort that heals and a comfort that kills. Do you know the difference?
John Piper tells the story of when he and his wife, Noël, were expecting their fourth child, and a woman shared with John a very dire “prophecy”: Noël would die in childbirth, and the baby would be a girl. This prophecy seemed wrong. There was nothing edifying, encouraging, or consoling about it (1 Corinthians 14:3). John wisely said nothing about it to Noël. The child was born a boy, and mother and baby came through just fine.
This article is the fourth in a series of four articles on the gift of prophecy in the New Testament. In the series, Jon Bloom explores both of the major positions, looks at examples in the church today, and answers some frequently asked questions.
This is the kind of scary use of prophecy that can understandably make us cynical towards this gift of the Holy Spirit, and understandably make many pastors want to steer away from its use in their churches. What we need to remember is that damaging false prophecies foolishly delivered without prior evaluation by wise, pastoral counsel have occurred throughout church history. Even in the apostle Paul’s day, he had to exhort churches and their leaders to “not quench the Spirit. Do not despise prophecies, but test everything; hold fast what is good” (1 Thessalonians 5:19–21). The easiest way to avoid the messes this gift can make is to avoid the gift.Worth the Risk
However, we also could list examples of the scary uses of other spiritual gifts, such as teaching or healing, yet we would not say that we should therefore avoid teaching people or praying for their healing. So we must also not let the misuse of prophecy cause us to miss out on the benefits the Spirit wants us to receive through this gift’s proper use. I have benefited from it many times over the years — mostly on the receiving end. If I had the time and space, I’d tell you stories:
- Like the time God answered a very specific prayer through a text John Piper preached on.
- Or the time God gave me a prophetic word from a friend, and gave my soon-to-be wife a prophetic vision, which helped prepare us for a dark, trying season in our lives.
- Or the time a missionary friend in Kazakhstan emailed me a prophetic word he sensed God had for me, which arrived at the precise time I needed it to confirm a difficult decision I was weighing — of which my friend had no knowledge.
- Or the time I received a specific word regarding a personal matter for a stranger sitting next to me on a plane that proved accurate.
- Or the times more recently when a man in Kansas (I didn’t know), a woman in New York (I didn’t know), and a friend in Minneapolis all independently shared with me very similar words they sensed God wanted me to know, which contributed to a constellation of confirmations and helped me discern a difficult directional decision, of which none of them had prior knowledge.
And there are more stories I could share. Yes, I’ve also seen prophecy used poorly, and personally I’ve made some mistakes. But the edifying, encouraging, and consoling benefits I’ve received and seen others receive have been so profound that I can say this gift is worth the messiness it can sometimes cause.
If you’ve recently become convinced that God is still giving this gift to the church, or you’ve been in the “cautious continuationist” camp too long (“caution” effectively inhibiting meaningful pursuit), I’d like to share some practical counsel on how to get started “earnestly desiring” this gift, and answer some frequently asked questions regarding prophecy.Getting Started
What do you do if you’re not sure what to do next? How do we give legs to our “earnest desire”? First, remember that prophecy is a gift of the Holy Spirit. It is given. So we are completely dependent on the Spirit. The Spirit “apportions [his gifts] to each one individually as he wills” (1 Corinthians 12:11), and we are told that not everyone receives this gift (1 Corinthians 12:29).
But the Bible also tells us that unbelief quenches the Spirit (1 Thessalonians 5:19–20), and that the Spirit responds in proportion to our faith, specifically regarding prophecy (Romans 12:6). So the first step in earnestly desiring the gift of prophecy is to seek to increase our faith for it. And we can do this through prayer, preparation, and practice.Prayer
First, ask the Spirit to teach you about prophecy. He’s the great teacher of the saints who Jesus promises will “guide you into all the truth” (John 16:13). Ask him to guide you as you examine this gift and seek it, for the upbuilding of others.
Second, since the Spirit is the giver of the gift of prophecy, ask him for it. But don’t ask tentatively or half-heartedly. Ask boldly. If the gift is available, tell him that in obedience to 1 Corinthians 14:1, you earnestly want it. And ask repeatedly, persistently, even impudently (Luke 11:8). Tell other faithful pray-ers that you want this gift, and ask them to pray with you. If you know folks who exercise prophecy with some effectiveness, ask them to pray for you. Take what Jesus said in Luke 11:9–13 seriously and ask, believing that your Father longs to give you the good gifts of the Holy Spirit.Preparation
Educate yourself on the gift of prophecy. Dig into 1 Corinthians chapters 12–14. Read Paul carefully and seek to understand what he really means. Then read the book of Acts and study every time a prophetic word or vision occurs. Keep your eyes open. You may discover details you hadn’t seen before.
Avail yourself of helpful resources on this gift (and others). Type “prophecy” into Desiring God’s search window, and you’ll find a list of helpful resources. You can also browse our resources on spiritual gifts in general. Specifically, I’d recommend John Piper’s article “Signs and Wonders: Then and Now,” his sermon series Are Signs and Wonders for Today?, and messages from a pastors conference under the title “Spiritual Gifts and the Sovereignty of God.”
I’d also recommend some resources by Sam Storms. His book The Beginner’s Guide to Spiritual Gifts provides a helpful introduction to prophecy and other gifts. Practicing the Power: Welcoming the Gifts of the Holy Spirit in Your Life is a more practical guide to earnestly pursuing these gifts. Sam’s church hosts an ongoing conference to help lovers of God’s word grow in the use of God’s gifts. Past conference sessions are available to watch or listen to, free of charge.
These resources are a good place to begin to press into understanding the nature and use of the gift of prophecy.Practice
Beginning to practice this gift is where the rubber meets the road — and where we encounter our fears. If we ask for prophecy and grow in our understanding of it, it is likely that the Spirit will begin to give us promptings. In fact, you may recognize you’ve already experienced this gift, even if you didn’t know what it was.
I believe that, for most people, it’s best not to learn to use this gift in larger public settings, but rather with individuals or in small groups. A small group of people who are earnestly desiring this gift together is an ideal place to nurture it. Group members can pray for each other. And an atmosphere of trust can be cultivated where it’s safe and encouraged to share what you think might be something from the Spirit — and to make mistakes. A safe place to fail is key to growing in the use of any gift, especially one like this. Like any other gift, we grow in our maturity in the use of prophecy over time (see FAQ #8 below).
Because this new covenant revelatory gift is processed and communicated by us fallibly, we should never use authoritative language like “Thus says the Lord” when sharing what we think may be a prophetic word. Rather, we should say something like, “I think the Lord might be saying . . .” and we allow others to test it for themselves (1 Thessalonians 5:19–21; 1 Corinthians 14:29). Humility is also key in growing in the use of any gift, especially one like this.
But don’t let fear of enduring the growing process stop you from moving forward. Seek to intentionally increase your faith through prayer, preparation, and practice. I have found it is worth the effort. Prophecy uniquely edifies, encourages, and consoles the saints of God, which is why Paul recommended that we especially desire this gift. It is one important way God expresses his love for his children. We neglect his gift to our own and others’ detriment.Frequently Asked Questions 1. Is prophesying the same as preaching?
Not exclusively, but frequently. We know, from Paul’s writings, that prophecy and teaching are not the same (1 Corinthians 12:28; 14:26). Teaching is expositing a biblical text and drawing out a lesson, while prophesying is speaking something that the Spirit spontaneously brings to mind. But what often happens during a preaching moment is an unusually powerful application of a biblical text. Perhaps the clearest New Testament example is Peter prophetically preaching in Acts 2:14–36, applying the texts of Joel 2, Psalm 16, and Psalm 110. That, of course, was an unparalleled sermon, but it demonstrates an instance. Peter preached and thousands were “cut to the heart” (Acts 2:37).
Many of us have sat under preaching that was unusually powerful and personally affecting. We often call this “anointed preaching”; it may land on us like “teaching on steroids.” Often non-Christians are born again because of someone’s preaching — which means they encountered “the spirit of prophecy,” which is “the testimony of Jesus” (Revelation 19:10). Other times Christians are brought to deep conviction of sin or encouragement under someone’s preaching. This is why many of the Puritans, like William Perkins, called preaching “prophesying.” And it is, I believe, the most frequent way most Christians experience the gift of prophesy: Spirit-empowered illumination and application of scriptural truth. In a previous article, I included two extraordinary examples of prophetic preaching. But it occurs more frequently in less specific, but personally profound, ways as well.
However, as the New Testament illustrates, prophecy is not limited to preaching as we typically think of it (prepared exegetical sermons delivered in a local church or wider event context). Ananias’s vision (Acts 9:10–16), Agabus’s foretelling (Acts 11:27–30; 21:10–11), Paul’s and Barnabas’s missionary call (Acts 13:2–3), the Ephesian disciples’ spontaneous utterances, Paul’s vision of the Macedonian man (Acts 16:9), the Spirit’s testifying to Paul in every city what awaited him in Jerusalem (Acts 20:22–23), and the personal prophecies Timothy received (1 Timothy 1:18; 4:14) would not fit into the “anointed expository preaching” category. They came outside of a preaching context — though each prophetic vision or word drew its power because it was a personally applied scriptural truth.
So I would say that the most common and most transformative way Christians experience the gift of prophecy is through Spirit-empowered preaching and application of the Scriptures. This may be one reason why, in 1 Corinthians 12:28, Paul lists “prophets” ahead of “teachers” as gifts to the church. And I would say the typical way Christians experience prophecy is through receiving revelatory dreams, visions, and what are often called “prophetic words.” This is why Paul could encourage everyone in a local church to earnestly desire to prophesy (1 Corinthians 14:1).2. Does a prophet make mistakes?
Remember that the way Paul describes the New Testament spiritual gift of prophecy is not canon-level revelation delivered infallibly and authoritatively like the Scriptures. The way he describes it, as I’ve argued elsewhere in more detail, is Holy Spirit-prompted, subordinate revelation that readers of 1 Corinthians 14 and 1 Thessalonians 5:19–21 would expect to be partially or fallibly reported, and therefore intended to be tested against and subject to the infallible, authoritative revelation now contained for us in the sixty-six books of the Holy Bible. Paul expects New Testament prophecy, the kind he refers to in 1 Corinthians 14, to be fallibly — which means sometimes erroneously — delivered by people. Mistakes will happen, which is why prophecy must be evaluated.
Far more detailed exegetical explanations have been made in the resources I’ve listed above, as well as in Wayne Grudem’s extensive book on New Testament prophecy and D.A. Carson’s Showing the Spirit.3. First Corinthians 14 refers to the use of prophecy in corporate worship. Is prophecy ever to be used outside corporate worship?
Paul does refer to the gathered church in 1 Corinthians 14. But here are a few observations to keep in mind. First, most of the churches Paul was writing to were much smaller groups than many of our churches today. Many would have been the size of large “small groups” to us. Second, we can tell from 1 Corinthians 14:26 that the way these churches structured their worship gatherings was different than the programmatic ways many of our churches structure our gatherings today. Third, nowhere in the New Testament is prophecy prohibited outside of corporate worship — Paul was addressing the specific context of the Corinthian church and we shouldn’t read more into the text than is there. And fourth, as I mentioned in the answer to the first question above, numerous New Testament prophetic messages were delivered in contexts outside of what we might call a church worship service.4. Do both men and women prophesy?
Yes. This is clear in Acts 2:17–18, as Peter quotes from Joel 2:28–32:
“In the last days it shall be, God declares, that I will pour out my Spirit on all flesh, and your sons and your daughters shall prophesy, and your young men shall see visions, and your old men shall dream dreams; even on my male servants and female servants in those days I will pour out my Spirit, and they shall prophesy.”
In addition, Acts 21:8–9 records that Philip the evangelist “had four unmarried daughters, who prophesied,” and Paul gives instructions about how married women should publicly prophesy in 1 Corinthians 11:2–16.5. Who tests prophecies today, and how?
According to 1 Corinthians 14:29–33, pastor-elders test prophecies, as well as the gathered church. How this actually functions today depends on how churches are structured. I’ll give one example of how it can be done.
In a precious church I was part of for eighteen years, the pastors made space during the music portion of the corporate worship service for prophetic words to be shared. People who sensed they had a word came up to a pastor designated to evaluate public contributions, shared it with him, and the pastor discerned if it should be shared or not. If so, these people were allowed to address the congregation from a microphone in one of the aisles. It frequently was encouraging and consoling (1 Corinthians 14:3). Also, small group leaders were trained to evaluate prophetic words so that they could be shared in small groups as well. In both cases, a prophecy was evaluated by a leader and by the gathered church present.6. Should my local church pastor-elders oversee my prophetic gift?
Yes. The New Testament does not have a category of loose cannon, unaccountable prophets wandering around delivering messages. Such “prophets” have certainly appeared in church history, but always to the detriment and damage of the church. God calls all Christians, including prophetically gifted ones, to submit to duly appointed local church leaders (Hebrews 13:17; 1 Corinthians 14:37–38). And in the case of prophecies, we also submit to the evaluation of our brothers and sisters in our local church (1 Corinthians 14:29–33).
Now, if you sense God has laid a text on your heart for a friend, your pastors will not object to your encouraging someone else with the Scriptures. But if you think the Spirit may have given you specific revelatory information regarding someone else, you should seek the blessing of your pastor-elders before sharing it. What this looks like depends on the preference of your leaders. The point is this: make sure to test specific information first — and this is all the more true the less experienced you are in using this gift. The more you demonstrate consistent accuracy and upbuilding of others to your pastoral leaders, the more they will trust your judgment. But you should not be regularly exercising what you believe is a prophetic gift without their knowledge and blessing.7. What if my church leaders hold a cessationist view of the revelatory gifts?
Then do not seek to exercise what you understand to be a gift of prophecy while under their pastoral authority. Make sure, though, that you understand clearly what they mean, and don’t mean, by “prophecy.” Many cessationists believe that certain phenomena continuationists call “prophecy” occur, but because they reserve the term “prophecy” for infallible, authoritative Scripture revelation, they call the phenomena by other names, such as “spiritual impressions” or “promptings.” Vern Poythress, a highly respected evangelical theologian, has written a helpful paper to help cessationists and continuationists recognize common ground between us. If your pastor-elders prefer to call this phenomena by a different name due to sincere doctrinal conviction, submit to them by using their terminology.
But if your church leaders prohibit any “prophetic” phenomena, then submit to their authority for as long as God has you under their authority and pray for the Spirit’s wisdom and guidance and seek the counsel of wise, spiritually mature Christians as to what Christ may want you to do with regard to your convictions on this issue.8. Where does the New Testament tell us to “practice” (grow in skill through repetitive use) prophesying?
It doesn’t, explicitly. Neither does it explicitly instruct us to practice teaching or leading or praying for healing or discerning spirits or numerous other things. But after observing Jesus’s school of disciples, Paul’s missionary strategies, and reading Ephesians 4:11–12, which tells that apostles, prophets, evangelists, and pastor-teachers “equip the saints for the work of ministry,” it should be more than clear to us that no one who receives a spiritual gift receives it in its fully mature form. Everyone grows in the grace and knowledge of the Lord Jesus (2 Peter 3:18). We all repetitively practice the gifts we receive from the Spirit in order to grow in our effective use of them. Prophecy is no different in that respect.
In the context of churches that are not used to the prophetic gift operating in a corporate setting, or for some reason are too large or programmatically constrained, small groups can be a place to encourage the use and maturing of this gift.9. What if you practice prophecy and the first 20 times you’re just plain wrong?
Then you haven’t received the gift. Perhaps you haven’t received it yet, or perhaps you won’t receive it. “Earnestly desiring” to prophesy obeys the apostolic imperative and pleases our Lord (1 Corinthians 14:1). But he may not be pleased to give you this gift because he’s pleased to give you another gift that is likewise indispensable to the body (1 Corinthians 12:14–31). I know what this is like. I’ve received this gift for others a handful of times in my life, but it’s been rare. Others I know receive this gift much more frequently.
So, ask for it, but don’t force it. Let the sovereign Spirit distribute the gifts as he will, and be content with what you receive.10. How do you know when to share what you think is a prophetic word and when to wait?
If in doubt, wait. Paul tells us to exercise the gift of prophecy in proportion to our faith (Romans 12:6). The weight of this counsel increases with the gravity of the prophetic word you’re discerning. So if you wake up in the middle of the night with a prophetic sense that someone is in trouble and you should pray, then pray! It’s not a huge risk to check in with that person later. But if you have a prophetic impression that someone is struggling with pornography, for example, it is wise to pray first and ask God for confirmation. And, if at all possible, that sort of impression should be passed by a pastor or wise, mature counselor for evaluation before sharing with the individual concerned.
Not all prophetic words or impressions are meant to be shared. Some are meant only for intercession. The more serious the prophetic impression, the more prayer-bathed and informed discernment it requires.
A number of years ago, I had a strong impression that Christ was leading two friends I knew to get married. At the time, they seemed interested in each other but were not yet dating. The impression was unusually strong, yet I (rightly) feared saying anything to either of them. When it persisted, I submitted it to wise pastoral counsel and was confirmed that I should not share it but that I was likely being given this impression for the purpose of prayer. I followed this wise counsel. The two friends soon began courting and ended up marrying.
Again, don’t assume a prophetic word or impression must be shared. And I emphasize: the more serious the impression, the more prayer and counsel and evaluation it requires before sharing it with the people involved.
The Lord’s Prayer isn’t mainly about us getting what we need, but about God getting what he deserves: the honor due his name.
Tonight the Timberwolves play their first home game of the year, one month to the day since Butler met with his coach (and general manager) Tom Thibodeau to demand a trade.
The crowd may boo Tom Thibodeau, the team’s coach and general manager, who has assembled and “led” this group for the last two seasons. Many believe he either caused the dysfunction, or welcomed it with open arms when he traded for Butler (who he coached over five seasons in Chicago).
The crowd may boo Glen Taylor, who has owned the Timberwolves for almost twenty years, including fourteen consecutive years in which they missed the playoffs. A streak that only ended this past season, when they added Jimmy Butler. The team snuck into the last spot on the last day of the season, only to lose their first best-of-seven series in just five games.
The crowd may boo Karl Anthony Towns, the 22-year-old future of the franchise, whom they just signed (less than a month ago) to a $190-million extension that keeps him in Minnesota, barring a trade, for six more years. Why would they boo him? While he has undeniable skill and potential, he seems to lack the passion and drive to lead. Even at seven feet tall, he disappears for big stretches of games.
If they have any voice left, the crowd may boo Kevin Love, their last superstar who spurned our team to join Lebron in Cleveland.
The crowd will probably boo Butler, because who wants to cheer for someone who doesn’t want to be here. Well, a lot of us. Because many of us believe that while Butler’s tactics have been terrible, his assessment of the team very well may be true and his competitive fire is indispensable. So, Butler may be cheered. Which might be even more awkward.
Crowds lined the streets, hoping to catch a glimpse of the olivewood casket as it made its way through the streets of south London. On top was a large pulpit Bible opened at Isaiah 45:22: “Look unto Me, and be ye saved, all the ends of the earth.” It was Thursday, February 11, 1892, and the body of Charles Haddon Spurgeon was being taken for burial. Eighteen years before, Spurgeon had imagined the scene from his pulpit:
When you see my coffin carried to the silent grave, I should like every one of you, whether converted or not, to be constrained to say, “He did earnestly urge us, in plain and simple language, not to put off the consideration of eternal things. He did entreat us to look to Christ.” (C.H. Spurgeon’s Autobiography, 4:375)
“Look unto Me, and be ye saved, all the ends of the earth”: back in January 1850, those were words that had first shown Spurgeon the way of salvation.
I had been waiting to do fifty things, but when I heard that word, “Look!” what a charming word it seemed to me! Oh! I looked until I could almost have looked my eyes away. There and then the cloud was gone, the darkness had rolled away, and that moment I saw the sun; and I could have risen that instant, and sung with the most enthusiastic of them, of the precious blood of Christ, and the simple faith which looks alone to Him. (Autobiography, 1:106)
For 42 years, then, from his conversion to his death, looking to Christ crucified for life remained the touchstone of Spurgeon’s own life and ministry. He dedicated his days to entreating all others: “look to Christ.”Coming to Christ
Spurgeon was born in 1834 in Kelvedon, Essex, in the southeast of England. Sent to live with his grandparents as a young boy, Spurgeon spent his formative childhood years in the village of Stambourne, in the heart of what was once England’s Puritan country. Here, his grandfather, James, himself an Anglican minister and well-regarded preacher, baptized Spurgeon as an infant and raised him in the manse in the Calvinistic and Puritan legacy.
The young Spurgeon would retreat into the dark rooms of the house to rummage through a library of Puritan works: Bunyan, Alleine, and Baxter. Yet he was not at that point a believer. By the time he was 10 years old, he had fallen under a strong sense of guilt for his sin. He devoured those Puritan books for answers and yet for five years felt himself to be like Bunyan’s pilgrim, carrying a heavy and depressing burden. He was trapped in darkness and despair. “What I wanted to know was, ‘How can I get my sins forgiven?’ . . . I panted and longed to understand how I might be saved” (Autobiography, 1:105).
Then, when he was 15, in January 1850, walking to an unnamed place of worship in Colchester, he was caught in a snowstorm. He turned down Artillery Street and walked into a small primitive Methodist chapel. The preacher’s text was Isaiah 45:22, “Look unto me, and be ye saved, all the ends of the earth” (KJV), and after about ten minutes, with only twelve to fifteen people present, the preacher fixed his eyes on Spurgeon and spoke to him directly: “Young man, you look very miserable.” Then, lifting up his hands, he shouted, “Young man, look to Jesus Christ. Look! Look! Look! You have nothin’ to do but to look and live.” At that, Spurgeon later wrote:
I saw at once the way of salvation. I know not what else he said, — I did not take much notice of it, — I was so possessed with that one thought. Like as when the brazen serpent was lifted up, the people only looked and were healed, so it was with me. (Autobiography, 1:106)Preaching Christ
Spurgeon’s life was changed, and within months he had preached his first sermon. The following year, he accepted his first pastorate. In 1854, he became pastor of New Park Street, the largest Baptist church in London at the time. The church outgrew its building twice before the Metropolitan Tabernacle was dedicated on March 18, 1861. In the meantime, in 1856 Spurgeon married Susannah Thompson, and their children, the twins Thomas and Charles, were born on September 20, 1857.
In his opening sermon at the new church, Spurgeon announced, “I would propose that the subject of the ministry of this house, as long as this platform shall stand, and as long as this house shall be frequented by worshippers, shall be the person of Jesus Christ” (Metropolitan Tabernacle Pulpit, 7:401). This was, indeed, the great theme of his preaching and wider ministry.
On top of his preaching and pastoral ministry (he preached up to thirteen times a week), he established and oversaw a host of ministries, including a pastors’ college, the Stockwell Orphanage, seventeen almshouses for poor and elderly women, and a day school for children. He was involved in the planting of 187 churches. Then there was the Evangelists’ Association, established in 1863, to put on services in mission halls, chapels, and the open air. Within fifteen years there were five permanent missions, and hundreds of meetings were being held every year. None of that is yet to have mentioned his books. In print he published some 18 million words, selling over 56 million copies of his sermons in nearly 40 languages in his own lifetime.His Work Was Heavy and Sweet
Such a busy ministry was a burden for him, a mental and emotional load that often weighed very heavily on him, sometimes nearly overwhelming him. Yet, for all that, he confessed,
I would sooner have my work to do than any other under the sun. Preaching Jesus Christ is sweet work, joyful work, Heavenly work. Whitefield used to call his pulpit his throne, and those who know the bliss of forgetting everything beside the glorious, all-absorbing topic of Christ crucified, will bear witness that the term was aptly used. (Autobiography, 2:165)
He was emphatic that keeping Christ central, prominent, and clear was the reason for the fruitfulness of his ministry. “If I had preached any other than the doctrine of Christ crucified, I should years ago have scattered my audience to the winds of heaven. But the old theme is always new, always fresh, always attractive. Preach Jesus Christ” (Metropolitan Tabernacle Pulpit, 29:233–34).Suffering with Christ
It comes as a surprise to some that Spurgeon had a lifelong battle with depression. His reputation as a famed and powerful preacher, his cheery wit, and his cigar-smoking manliness might lead us to imagine there could never be a chink in his Victorian Englishman’s armor. It shouldn’t be a surprise, of course: life in a fallen world must mean distress, and Spurgeon’s life was indeed full of physical and mental pain.
Aged 22, while preaching to thousands in the Surrey Gardens Music Hall, pranksters yelled “Fire!” starting a panic to exit the building which killed 7 and left 28 severely injured. His mind was never the same again. Susannah wrote, “My beloved’s anguish was so deep and violent, that reason seemed to totter in her throne, and we sometimes feared that he would never preach again” (Susannah Spurgeon: Free Grace and Dying Love, 166). Severe illness, fierce opposition, and bereavement all made their mark on the great preacher’s life, so much so that today he would almost certainly be diagnosed as clinically depressed and treated with medication and therapy.
In all this, Spurgeon believed that God had a good purpose in all his suffering, and because of it felt he had become a better prepared and more compassionate pastor. Spurgeon believed that our heavenly Father ordains suffering for believers, and indeed the suffering the Lord granted to Spurgeon tenderized him and allowed him to be a doctor of souls in a unique way.Doctor of Souls
He shared with his congregation that, in seasons of great pain, “the sympathy of Jesus is the next most precious thing to his sacrifice” (Metropolitan Tabernacle Pulpit, 19:124). Again and again he returned to the theme of Christ’s compassion for his suffering people. In an 1890 sermon, he spoke, while feeling his own weakness, about Christ as the High Priest who feels for us in our infirmities. “This morning,” he said,
being myself more than usually compassed with infirmities, I desire to speak, as a weak and suffering preacher, of that High Priest who is full of compassion; and my longing is that any who are low in spirit, faint, despondent, or even at the point of total despair, may take heart to approach the Lord Jesus. . . .
Jesus is touched, not with a feeling of your strength, but of your infirmity! Down here, poor, feeble nothings affect the heart of their great High Priest on high who is crowned with glory and honor! As the mother feels the weakness of her babe, so does Jesus feel with the poorest, saddest, and weakest of His chosen! (Metropolitan Tabernacle Pulpit, 36:315, 320)Choicest of Princes
Spurgeon’s last words from the pulpit, dated June 7, 1891, are a fitting summary of his relentlessly Christ-centered vision.
Depend upon it, you will either serve Satan or Christ, either self or the Savior. You will find sin, self, Satan, and the world to be hard masters, but if you wear the livery of Christ, you will find Him so meek and lowly of heart that you will find rest unto your souls. He is the most magnanimous of captains. There never was His like among the choicest of princes. He is always to be found in the thickest part of the battle. When the wind blows cold He always takes the bleak side of the hill. The heaviest end of the cross lies ever on His shoulders. If He bids us carry a burden, He carries it also. If there is anything that is gracious, generous, kind, and tender, yes lavish and super abundant in love, you always find it in Him.
These forty years and more have I served Him, blessed be His name! And I have had nothing but love from Him. I would be glad to continue yet another forty years in the same dear service here below if it so pleased Him. His service is life, peace, joy. Oh, that you would enter on it at once! God help you to enlist under the banner of Jesus even this day! Amen. (Metropolitan Tabernacle Pulpit, 37:323–24)
A premarital pregnancy means a couple has chosen sin over God. But it doesn’t mean they need to continue to make that choice.
Leading others for the glory of Christ is a privilege — whether as a pastor, father, teacher, elder, whatever. But I have sometimes thought, “This sacred privilege might kill me!” Both the grace of leadership and the price of leadership are real.
So, how can we who lead find joy and renewal and energy along the way? We don’t want to be so crushed by our duties that we somehow convey to people that living for the Lord is a horrible fate to be avoided. Where does fresh strength come from? God has faithfully strengthened my weak arms for pastoral ministry in at least three ways.1. Any ministry is a great privilege.
Pastoral ministry, as challenging and crushing as it can be at times, is still an immense privilege. Not many should (and not many get to) preach the Bible (James 3:1) — to serve God’s people, for God’s glory, in the unusually precious and harrowing ministry of the word of God. The hardships of this service can blind us to its blessing.
The sobering truth is that if we moan and complain, God might hear us and take our ministries away. Is that really what we want? After despondent Elijah prayed that he might die (1 Kings 19:4), the Lord sent him to anoint Elisha “to be prophet in your place” (1 Kings 19:16). Elijah should have prayed for the strength to keep going in faithfulness. Surely, the Lord would have been glad to speak of him as he did of Asher, “As your days, so shall your strength be” (Deuteronomy 33:25).
For a time, I did not have a church to pastor. During that hard season, I saw with new clarity what a joy and privilege ministry really is. So now, if things get hard, I keep thinking how great it is just to be involved at all. Christ has come, and he is coming back soon. It’s the fourth quarter. The divine Coach has us on the field, not on the bench. It doesn’t matter what play the Coach calls. All that matters is that he is keeping us on the field.2. We often overlook the miracles around us.
Second, the Lord is with us in our ministries more than we sometimes perceive. Even when we feel alone, he is still present. Jacob exclaimed, “Surely the Lord is in this place, and I did not know it” (Genesis 28:16). God is not in the entertainment business. He is not showy. But given his great heart of love for this world, he is greatly present — on his own terms, in his own way, especially among his people. Our part as pastors is to open our eyes by faith and see the miracles surrounding us.
For me, it happens every Sunday morning, starting about ten minutes before our 10:30 service at Immanuel. I see the volunteers cheerfully helping new people, and I think, Where did they come from? How did they get so good at that? I see people walking into the sanctuary, and I think, People are actually showing up again? This won’t flop? How is this happening? I see the band rehearsing, with their God-given musical gifts, and I think, How did we strike it rich with these musicians who are both talented and sincere toward the Lord? I see the sound team, the elders, the children, the attractive lighting, the cool graphics, and so forth, and I think, It’s all the Lord’s doing, grace upon grace. He has been kind, not just in a big vague sense, but in all the details and all the people who help support this ministry. Amazing!
As we pastors faithfully lift up Jesus according to the gospel, the Holy Spirit moves in our ministries. Let’s look for evidences of his presence around us each week. Every good gift we notice is “from above, coming down from the Father of lights” (James 1:17).3. God loves to renew the weak and stressed.
Finally, the Lord is able to renew our hearts with fresh confidence as we need it. In his classic, True Spirituality, Francis Schaeffer wisely wrote,
The Christian life, true spirituality, can never have a mechanical solution. The real solution is being cast up into moment-by-moment communion, personal communion, with God himself, and letting Christ’s truth flow through me through the agency of the Holy Spirit.
Real Christianity, for pastor and layman, cannot be mechanical, it cannot be a technique, it must be personal, because God is a person and we are persons. That is why we engage personally with God, and it is how we find ongoing personal renewal in pastoral ministry.
That is not easy or automatic. Isaiah wrote, “They who wait for the Lord shall renew their strength” (Isaiah 40:31). One Hebrew scholar defines that verb wait as a kind of stretching or elongating which can be stressful. When we are stretched to the limit, as we wait on the Lord, that ongoing distress is a highly creative spiritual environment, where we go deeper with him than we’ve ever gone before, deeper than we’ve dreamed of going, where manna falls fresh day by day.Discovery Will Dispel the Darkness
Jonathan Edwards guided us with these words:
One new discovery of the glory of Christ’s face and the fountain of his sweet grace and love will do more towards scattering clouds of darkness and doubting in one minute than examining old experiences, by the best mark that can be given, a whole year.
Looking back with a longing for past blessing will leave us stale, because a backward mentality is already stale. But looking forward with expectancy keeps us open to newness of life from above. As King David writes, “Those who look to him are radiant, and their faces shall never be ashamed” (Psalm 34:5).
My dear brother pastor, if I were with you right now, I would look deeply into your eyes and say, “Jesus too was tempted with feelings of futility (Isaiah 49:4). He understands what you’re going through. Trust him, and take the next step. He will give you fresh strength.”
The longer I walk with Jesus, the more I see that sufferers often have secret access to happiness.
I used to think Satan loved suffering, that it was his weapon of choice against our faith. But while he certainly (and viciously) tries to make the most of it, I now suspect Satan secretly hates suffering. He’s simply seen it draw too many people closer to Christ. He has watched, for thousands of years, while God has taken all that he meant for terrible evil and worked it for undeniable good (Genesis 50:20).
The apostle Paul, for instance, was imprisoned over and over, beaten with rods, slandered by his enemies, flogged with lashes five times, stoned almost to death, often deprived of food, water, shelter, and sleep — “in danger from rivers, danger from robbers, danger from my own people, danger from Gentiles, danger in the city, danger in the wilderness, danger at sea, danger from false brothers” (2 Corinthians 11:26) — and yet always rejoicing (2 Corinthians 6:10). The chief of prisoners could write from the loneliness, injustice, and distress of his cell, “Rejoice in the Lord always; again I will say, rejoice” (Philippians 4:4).
Paul used to seem abnormal and extraordinary, even spectacular. I thought he was an anomaly. Until I began witnessing more and more men and women like him today, braving inconceivable trials — conflict and cancer, betrayal and abandonment, persecution and loss — with surprising joy in God. They prove what we all experience in one way or another. If we look to him when we’re thrown into the wilderness of suffering, he will lead us to secret sanctuaries of peace, strength, hope, and even joy.My Soul Will Be Satisfied
King David was driven from his home by betrayal and mutiny, running for his life in the desert, and yet he could write,
My soul will be satisfied as with fat and rich food,
and my mouth will praise you with joyful lips,
when I remember you upon my bed,
and meditate on you in the watches of the night. (Psalm 63:5–6)
The psalm doesn’t make clear whether David was running in the wilderness from Saul early in life or from his son Absalom later on. We do know someone wanted him dead: “But those who seek to destroy my life shall go down into the depths of the earth” (Psalm 63:9). Yet, while his life was threatened by an army of unseen enemies, his soul would be satisfied by what the eyes of his heart could still behold: his God. Even while he was hunted outside the city gates, meditation upon his Beloved brought him to a royal banquet.
And David feasted. So much so that we still feast from his table in the wilderness. No author in the Bible speaks more about joy than him. He crafted the majority of the language we use about our happiness in God, and yet, he spent much of his life running from men who wanted to kill him. If we look closely enough at his suffering and hope, his sorrow and joy, we will find comfort for our wilderness — for the days, or weeks, or even years God carries us through pain, weakness, loss, or suffering.Well-Fed in the Wilderness
David feasted upon what he saw. His delight began in the mind and was digested in the heart. This food and drink was available to him in all circumstances. But what did David see?
He hadn’t met the Messiah yet, but he tasted what Jesus has become for us. Sorrowful, yet always rejoicing, he sings from the valleys of suffering, “Because your steadfast love is better than life, my lips will praise you. So I will bless you as long as I live; in your name I will lift up my hands” (Psalm 63:3–4).
David’s song teaches us that true joy in God can be heard in the wilderness from lips that have considered God’s steadfast love. His enemies had cast him out of the holy city. Satan tried to drive him far away from God — and instead Satan delivered him into God’s hands. David was miles and miles from the temple, but God had made him a sanctuary of worship in the wilderness — a sanctuary with higher walls of safety and deeper wells of satisfaction.
David’s once comfortable and secure life was ripped apart, but his joy remained. And deepened. Even in the desert of desertion and deception and insurrection, his soul was well-fed as he beheld his God.Your Sanctuary in the Wilderness
But real joy in God does not always look or feel full. Just a few verses earlier, while David’s heart aches with sadness and anxiety, admitting his dryness through the fires of affliction, he cries out with joy in his anguish,
O God, you are my God; earnestly I seek you; my soul thirsts for you; my flesh faints for you, as in a dry and weary land where there is no water. (Psalms 63:1)
So, is David starving or feasting in Psalm 63? The ambiguity calls with hope for weary and fainthearted followers of Christ. Real joy doesn’t have to be put-together and smiley — not in Paul, not in David, and not in you or me. It is just as often tear-stained and worn out, crawling after God with whatever strength and longing we can muster. Our joy will prove strong and durable, even invincible, because God will keep us, but it will run low and feel fragile along the way.
And God does not look any less satisfying when we are weak, or fragile, or spiritually hungry, if in our weakness we cry out to him, if in our fragility we lean on him, if in our hunger and thirst we know that he alone will satisfy.
God looks just as magnificent in the desert of verse 1 as he does at the banquet table of verse 5 — “My soul will be satisfied as with fat and rich food.” Our desperation for him in the hardest days glorifies him every bit as much, and even more, than our delight in him when all is well. We can expect to see more of him when we have less to hold on to here.The Suffering Satan Hates
Satan may despise our suffering because he knows how often it backfires on him — when we face hunger and need and worse with contentment (Philippians 4:11–12); when we treasure what our sufferings can produce in us (Romans 5:3–4; James 1:2–4), and for us (2 Corinthians 4:17); when we rejoice in the tested genuineness of our faith, refined through fire, more precious than the finest gold (1 Peter 1:6–7). When suffering begins to serve our joy and not undo it.
God can build a blazing and refreshing sanctuary in the wilderness. He turns our deserts into places for us to explore and express greater depths of delight in him. Instead of being a threat to real joy, he often makes our suffering a means to even more.
Anyone can walk into a sanctuary and raise hands in response to music. Anyone can sing lyrics on a screen. But not everyone is truly worshiping God.
My wife and I just returned from an awesome eight-night holiday in one of our favorite spots in the world — the little village of Iseltwald, nestled on the Lake of Brienz, ten kilometers from Interlaken, Switzerland. No place makes me happier and hungrier for the life we’ll enjoy in the new heaven and new earth.
But as wonderful as it was to celebrate my wife’s “39th birthday” in Switzerland (we’ve been married 46 years), there were moments when the brokenness of my attitude contradicted the beauty of the Alps.When Life Gets Very Irritating
My capacity for aggravation and irritability and resentment followed me onto our flight to Zurich and then into different scenarios in the land of yodeling and chocolate. What does a follower of Jesus do when:
- Fellow travelers put their oversized carry-on luggage in the overhead bin directly over your assigned seat?
- Flight attendants seem to enjoy attending to the needs of those all around you, but treat you as invisible passengers?
- Free Wi-Fi on your flight faithfully delivers “feedback” emails including “constructive criticism” about your last sermon and preaching attire, your “redneck” sounding accent, and your lack of late-night accessibility?
- Robust young men on a packed bus don’t offer your back-pained wife a seat?
- By happenstance, you run into an old friend in the high-elevation village of Mürren, who mentions the name of another college friend — a friend who has caused you the yet-to-be-healed pain of betrayal?
- A hotel reservation you made months ago, for your last night in Switzerland, suddenly disappears, though you have four confirmation letters, and you have to scramble to rebook in a region of sold-out hotels?
Indeed, what should a follower of Jesus do in response to everything from normal life-in-a-fallen-world brokenness, to encounters with irritating people and provoking circumstances, to intentional insults and mean-spirited slights?
The good news is that the gospel doesn’t make us less human, but more human. As followers of Jesus, we experience the full range of disappointments and emotions common to all image bearers of God. But, by God’s grace, we can learn to steward them rather than live as slaves to them. We can learn to respond as redemptively as possible, as opposed to reacting selfishly and self-righteously. And we can actually find joy when we “overlook an offense” (Proverbs 19:11).Five Happy Reasons to Overlook an Offense
Joy in overlooking offenses? Yes. Joy from what? Let’s look at five things the Bible says can give us joy if we’re willing to receive them.
But first, let’s be clear: overlooking an offense must not be confused with submitting to abusive people or morally and ethically unacceptable circumstances. Jesus calls us to be foot washers, not doormats.
However, there are at least five reasons that joy is found in overlooking an offense.1. Gospel Sensibilities
When we overlook an offense, we can rejoice that we’re growing gospel sensibilities and tasting true glory. The Bible says, “Good sense makes one slow to anger, and it is his glory to overlook an offense” (Proverbs 19:11). The shorter our anger-fuse, the quicker we’ll take offense at anything and anyone. “Good sense” is gospel sense.
The more the truth of the gospel renews our minds and shapes our perspective, the quicker and easier we’ll overlook stuff. We’ll care more about honoring Jesus by our reactions to irritating people and aggravating circumstances and give up on the illusion of having a hassle-free, painless life. There is tremendous joy in caring more about God’s glory than our own reputation, convenience, and rights. God will always be most glorified in us when we are most satisfied, joyful, at peace, and free in him.2. Owning Our Sin
When we overlook an offense, we can rejoice that we’re starting to acknowledge our own sin. We begin to believe that the log in our eye is a bigger issue than the speck in anyone else’s eye (Matthew 5:38–42). The freest, most joyful Christians I know are the quickest repenters. It’s not that they have less to repent of; they’re just faster at owning their sin, humbling themselves, and resting in Jesus.
As the gospel moves us from Satan’s condemnation into the Spirit’s conviction, we become more aware that we need the grace of God as much as anyone who sins against us, and there’s tremendous joy associated with that kind of humility. We take less offense and extend more grace; we are more patient and less petty; we are getting better at waiting than whining. We’re more realistic about life among ordinary sinners who, like us, love poorly — and wiser about what to take seriously, and what to completely ignore.3. God’s Spirit at Work
When we overlook an offense, we can rejoice that God’s grace and Spirit are becoming more operative, transforming powers in our lives. As Christians, we are called to “grow in the grace and knowledge of our Lord and Savior Jesus Christ” (2 Peter 3:18). Growth in grace results in our getting to know Jesus better, who desires that we will have the fullness of his joy in us (John 15:11).
And as we surrender to the work of the Spirit in our lives, he grows a vibrant crop of “love, joy, peace, patience, kindness, goodness, faithfulness, gentleness, [and] self-control” — the very anti-fruit of an easily offended spirit (Galatians 5:22–23). The Holy Spirit also leads us into a greater experience of our sonship (Romans 8:15–17), which gives us even greater joy in seeing our Father at work in all things for our good — even in the most off-putting, irritating, and offensive scenarios (Romans 8:28). God never promised to do all things easy but all things well.4. Freedom from Approval Seeking
When we overlook an offense, we can rejoice that we’re gaining freedom from living as approval seekers. Christians are a people whose joy need not be connected to what others think and say about us, or how they relate and react to us. As Proverbs 29:25 says, “The fear of man lays a snare, but whoever trusts in the Lord is safe.”
To fear people isn’t so much to be afraid of them, but to esteem their approval too much. We look either to God or to people as the fountain and fuel of our joy. People always make poor saviors. We can’t freely or joyfully love anyone whom we’ve given the power to either shame us or exalt us.5. Forgiving as the Forgiven
When we overlook an offense, we can rejoice that we’re getting better at forgiving others as we’ve been forgiven in Christ. There is no greater non sequitur in the entire universe, or the history of mankind, than for those of us who have been forgiven all our sins — every sinful thought, word, and deed — to withhold forgiveness from others (Matthew 18:21–35).
It was our Father’s kindness that led (and still leads) us to repentance (Romans 2:4). So where do we think our rigid, easily offended, keeping-record-of-wrongs attitudes will lead people? As Paul wrote, we are to “be kind to one another, tenderhearted, forgiving one another, as God in Christ forgave you” (Ephesians 4:32). Our joy in forgiving others is directly connected to the unspeakable, glorious joy of God’s forgiveness of us and his great delight in us.
God clearly calls believers to marry only believers. But does a premarital pregnancy introduce an exception?
As Christians, we want to grow in our knowledge of Christ, so that we have a greater view of Christ, in order that we might delight more in Christ. We never are content with mere facts about God. We want to know and enjoy him.
Many of us spend time reading the Scriptures because we love truth. We understand the importance of having a daily quiet time. But as J.C. Ryle once asked, do we wander into the “peril of self-satisfaction in just moving the bookmark on the page?” Is it enough that we read truth, observe it, and can point to it? Do we find contentment in the fact that we can talk about it and tell others the details and minutia of it? May it never be true.
We want to read the Scriptures with a desire to know our Lord more fully and delight in him more readily. We want to be affected by the truth we know. It matters very little what degrees of truth we embrace if our embracing of truth does not lead us to greater degrees of love and affection for him. He is our great pursuit and our heart’s desire.
Therefore, I find that the prayer I pray for myself more than any other is this: “O Lord, increase my delight in you.” For it is a life that is lived in communion with and delight in the Lord that will grow in greater Christlikeness and give greater glory to God.Rescue Bible Study from Box-Checking
How can Christians pursue greater delight in our knowledge of Christ? One of the most helpful disciplines for growing in true knowing is the art of meditating upon the Scriptures. Many sermons, many thoughts, much of our Bible reading produces little because we do not press it home. We do not meditate. It is like having dinner and putting the steak in our mouths, but not digesting it. This proves to be of little benefit to the body. It is no wonder why much of our knowledge accumulation proves to be of little benefit to the soul.
Meditation in the history of the church has often been compared to a cow chewing its cud. It is taking a biblical truth about Christ and pressing it home. The discipline of meditation, like a hammer, pounds it into the heart.
Christian meditation is not like meditation found in Eastern mysticism. In fact, they are so different that it is difficult to refer to them with the same title. Eastern mysticism seeks to empty the mind through meditation. Christian meditation fills the mind with truth, turning that truth over and over in the mind, allowing it to grip the heart and stir the affections.Beating Truth into the Heart
Richard Baxter has taught me more about the art of meditation than anyone else. He was a Puritan who lived during the 17th century. Baxter suffered chronically from kidney stones, headaches, bleeding, toothaches, swollen feet, and a myriad of other chronic ailments. Yet God used him mightily to evangelize almost an entire town, Kidderminster, England. The city consisted of over 2,000 adults, plus children.
Baxter was a prolific writer as well. Some scholars believe that he wrote more theological treatises and books than any other English writer in the history of theology. In his book The Saints’ Everlasting Rest he tells us what provided such endurance and motivation: Baxter committed to meditating upon heaven for at least a half hour every day.
Baxter comments that the ablest scholar is one who can get a passage of Scripture from his ear to his brain the best. But the best Christian is the one who can get that passage of Scripture from his brain to his heart. Great truths are only great truths to us as they affect our hearts. Meditation pounds truth into the heart.Tip the Scales
In The Saints’ Everlasting Rest, Baxter states that, because man is a rational creature, we must reason with ourselves. We are to take a truth and mull it over in our minds. He compares it to a balance that sits before us. There is a natural desire to want to tip it, to add a little more weight, and then a little more, and then a little more, and finally the thing tips. So, it is to be with our hearts. We meditate upon a truth and add reason upon reason in order to believe this truth, to revel in this truth, to delight in this truth, and eventually the scale tips. We bring one reason to bear, and then another, arguing with ourselves, until eventually we are affected.
How I would love to see the Christian discipline of meditation return as a practice in our churches. The impact of our reading and hearing God’s word often remains shallow because few meditate on it deeply.
Would you, like Baxter, consider spending thirty minutes in heaven by meditating upon the person of Christ, his promises, or his benefits? It is quite simple and yet pays eternal dividends. Take a promise of Christ or an aspect concerning Christ and mull it over in your mind and convince your heart. It is worth the effort.
Pray, read, meditate, pray, read, meditate, pray, read, meditate, until your heart is affected and stirred. This is a good daily practice for the Christian seeking not just to know more about Christ, but to know more of Christ and delight in him more deeply. And what impact this would have in our churches, if we all took up this discipline.
Give wisdom to a wise man, and he will grow wiser. Give wisdom to a fool, and he will hurt himself and others.
Joy is dangerous.
Flannery O’Connor understood this. A southern Catholic novelist, O’Connor earned renown as one of the most compelling American storytellers of the 20th century. Her fiction sweats with realism and the striving for meaning and joy. O’Connor, like her contemporaries Dorothy Sayers, Graham Greene, and C.S. Lewis, criticized the militant secularism of the 20th century and spoke life into literary culture’s slough of despond.
In a famous letter to her friend Betty Hester, O’Connor defended the moral imperatives of Christianity by arguing that they were not tools of slavery but weapons of joy. She writes,
Always you renounce a lesser good for a greater; the opposite is what sin is. . . . [W]hat you call my struggle to submit [is] not struggle to submit but a struggle to accept and with passion. I mean, possibly, with joy. Picture me with my ground teeth stalking joy — fully armed too as it’s a highly dangerous quest.
Always you renounce a lesser good for a greater. O’Connor might as well have been prophetically paraphrasing Jim Elliot: “He is no fool who gives what he cannot keep to gain what he cannot lose.” More likely her imagination was captivated by the apostle Paul, who counted everything he had gained in a life of privilege and distinction “rubbish” when compared to the “surpassing worth of knowing Christ Jesus my Lord” (Philippians 3:8–9).
What O’Connor, and Paul, and Jim Elliot all meant is that the struggle in our souls is not the struggle to want to be happy. We are born with that desire, and we die with it (even in suicide). The struggle is to see the true worth of everything, and in seeing, to give ourselves headlong to what is supremely worthy and satisfying: God.
But that’s dangerous.Hunting Is Hard Work
O’Connor’s word picture in this paragraph is striking. She imagines that quest for joy in Christ is like the long, hot hunt of a game animal, a creature that may lead its stalker into harsh territory. No buck will leap willingly into the waiting arms of the hunter. The hunter’s desire is for the buck, but that desire won’t be satisfied arbitrarily or accidentally. Thus, he stalks and stalks and stalks: waiting, sitting, crouching, treading through thorn and thistle for the opportunity to close in on his prize. It’s exhausting, dirty, and risky.
Is hunting really an accurate description of pursuing joy in God? I think so. Part of the reason it may not sound accurate is that when modern people hear that God commands us to be happy in him, we interpret that as a command to do what’s easy and passive because we instinctively think of happiness in that way. Alternatively, we fear being unhappy, and by “unhappy” we often mean a life of struggle, danger, or suffering. But these conceptions are wrong. Happiness is not semiconscious inertia.
A few years ago, I saw a government-sponsored advertisement for birth control from England. On one side of the advertisement was a picture of a video game controller, and on the other side was a pacifier. The advertisement asked its readers, “Would you want to give up this [the video game controller] for this [the pacifier]?” It was an effective advertisement, not because it communicated truth (quite the contrary), but because it cut to the chase. “Your happiness is at stake here,” the ad whispers. “The hours of games and freedom and commitment-free sex are the secrets to happiness, and that will end if you have a child.” In other words, you don’t have to stalk joy. Eat, drink, be merry, and joy will come to you.Very Costly Quest
But passivity will not yield delight in God, as the saints in the Bible show us.
Consider Moses, who “[chose] rather to be mistreated with the people of God than to enjoy the fleeting pleasures of sin” because “he considered the reproach of Christ greater wealth than the treasures of Egypt, for he was looking to the reward” (Hebrews 11:25–26).
Consider Jeremiah, who stalked joy even when everything around him reeked of death and desertion: “He has made my teeth grind on gravel, and made me cower in ashes; my soul is bereft of peace; I have forgotten what happiness is. . . . But this I call to mind, and therefore I have hope: The steadfast love of the Lord never ceases; his mercies never come to an end; they are new every morning” (Lamentations 3:16–17, 21–23).
Consider Paul, who lost nearly every earthly privilege and pleasure he had and said in the end that a life of pain and suffering and danger was as nothing compared to the “surpassing worth” of “gain[ing] Christ and be[ing] found in him” (Philippians 3:8–9).
And consider Jesus, “who for the joy that was set before him endured the cross, despising the shame” (Hebrews 12:2).
Jesus, Paul, and Jeremiah were not closing their eyes or watching sitcoms or scrolling through Instagram to help themselves forget the danger and suffering in front of them. Theirs were joy-at-all-costs quests. And their quests were costly and dangerous — and worth it all.Where Righteous Stalking Begins
So, how do we stalk joy? It must begin with believing God’s good news: that although we are sinful, selfish, broken people, Christ has regarded our helpless state and has taken our sin upon himself. Believing in the justifying power of the gospel is essential to stalking joy. Unless we are convinced that God is really for us and not against us, our souls will veer again and again toward the distracting trifles of the world. In many cases, the worst enemy of lasting joy is not sadness but distraction.
Screwtape knew this. In one letter to his nephew and underling, Wormwood, Screwtape exhorts the junior demon to attack his “patient” with “a whole vague cloud of half-conscious guilt.” Unlike true repentance, this “dim uneasiness” will keep him perpetually unwilling to come near anything with the aroma of God, and therefore he will be ruthlessly at the devil’s mercy to distract.
As this condition becomes more fully established, you will be gradually freed from the tiresome business of providing pleasures as temptations. . . . You no longer need a good book, which he really likes, to keep him from his prayers or his work or his sleep; a column of advertisements in yesterday’s paper will do. You can make him waste his time. . . . You can make him do nothing at all for long periods. You can keep him up late at night, not roistering, but staring at a dead fire in a cold room. All the healthy and out-going activities which we want him to avoid can be inhibited and nothing given in return, so that at last he may say, as one of my own patients said on his arrival down here, “I now see that I spent most of my life doing neither what I ought nor what I liked.” (The Screwtape Letters, 58–59)Biggest Threat to Joy
For me and millions of Western Christians, the single biggest threat to stalking joy is neither crushing despair nor ravenous, carnal hedonism, but a middling spirituality that adds Christian jargon to an emotionally comatose existence, tossing hours into mindless social media and Netflix while congratulating itself on avoiding “big” sin.
But stalking joy is radically different. Stalking joy means doing anything necessary to be glad in God and in love for others. It means tired hands opening up the Psalms at midnight after a punishing workday. It means making that phone call you’ve been dreading to a trusted friend to ask for prayer and accountability. It means getting up earlier on Sunday to serve in the nursery. It means having a godly ambition.
To stalk joy is to overcome the hypnotic consumerism of modern life. It’s not safe, and it’s not easy. As Flannery O’Connor reminded us, it is a quest, and a highly dangerous one. It’s also the only one that reverberates with God’s glory into eternity.
The more gladness we have in our Father, the more we bring glory to his name. Our happiness in him shows off his holiness in us.
We don’t keep sinning because we have to, but because we want to. Holiness, in large measure, is a battle of pleasures.
My Dear Globdrop,
I am terribly troubled to have received your last letter. Of course you should begin twisting his thoughts concerning marriage — how have you not already? Do you not realize that even one human living according to the Enemy’s design can cost us souls? Your negligence on this matter is criminal.
Ever since the first wedding in the garden, we suspected that the Enemy was preparing something revolting — but who could have imagined? Even Our Father Below couldn’t guess the true horror of it all. Marriage, we found out only too late, does not ultimately concern the humans’ love for each other. His plan, from the very beginning, was to actually marry the wretched creatures himself — disgraceful!
Throughout time, he has brought two vermin together to display his unnatural love and disturbing sacrifice for his bride. He created husbands to announce — to all who would listen — that he would soon become one. How we once praised him, I still can’t imagine.
Marriage, Globdrop, reflects everything we detest. The male dresses up as the Enemy, while the wife stands in for his beloved. As he made man in his own image, he made marriage to reflect his terrible story. But while the Enemy means for it to narrate one tale, we can make it tell another. Through it, we can preach one of our gospels. Perhaps the most effective way to do so these days is to instruct him in what I like to call homofunctional marriage.Homofunctional Marriage
Although unsuccessful for thousands of years, your great uncle Slubstone’s persistence has paid off remarkably. He actually convinced them that one man can marry another man! But your man, as you report, stands unconvinced. Yet, while he may never audition for homosexual marriage, he may readily participate in our homofunctional rendition. Let me explain.
It is quite simple really: whereas homosexual “marriage” puts two of the same sex together, “homofunctional marriage” consists of two different sexes that function identically. The same still marries the same: they both lead and follow. They both must shoulder the same amount of burden, both must offer the same amount of sacrifice, and both be equally responsible for the other before God.
When we convince the actors to learn each other’s lines and swap each other’s pants, they’re not left a different version, but a different drama. Romeo and Juliet becomes Juliet and Juliet. Interchangeable, dear nephew, interchangeable. Call it teammates, best friends, enlightened, liberated, progressive, egalitarian — whatever does the job.An Anti-Drama
Now, as you can guess, 50/50 cannot last long. Someone must eventually break the tie. And Adam, as we keep reminding them, has had his turn. Monique and Alex are excellent examples from your man’s small group.
Monique is the modern strong wife. She lives in corporate America, shoulders the responsibility for the family, and is proud not to be living in the “comfortable concentration camp” of stay-at-home motherhood. As a point of principle, she is reluctant to do anything she considers domestic, and quick to share her opinion for hours on end, while her husband sits expressionless beside her. She balks at the thought of being a helpmate, chafes at the idea of submission. Her favorite Bible verse — to undo the ones she despises — is Galatians 3:28. With six words (“there is no male and female”) we have made her an apologist. Pleasantly, she hates the Enemy’s script nearly as much as we do. She has washed her face indeed.
Meanwhile, Alex has few complaints these days. He no longer expects to have much say in family decisions — and according to him, he is better off for it. He has finally realized (as many of our patients eventually do) that when he lets his wife steer, he never gets blamed for ending up in a ditch.
He finds the passenger seat most comfortable. More reclining. Less sacrifice and accountability. More opportunity for naps. He even hears the occasional commendation from others in the group for “laying down his life.” Having passed on our offer of masculinity that domineers, belittles, and abuses, he has taken nicely to that emasculinity which occasions less blood and more praise. He lives to defer. It takes less energy.
And what does everyone watching the two-person play see? Little different from those who have better things to do than attend Bible studies on Wednesday evenings. No one sees a man who loves his wife, initiates towards her constantly, and gives his life sacrificing his own comforts and strength for her eternal good. No one sees a bride who adorns her husband, respects and gladly follows him, all the while blossoming under his love and leadership. They see nothing of the Enemy’s drama.
Delightfully, they see a manly woman standing upon a doormat. Although a number of toxic texts were read at their wedding, they left them all behind when she drove him home from the ceremony.What They Must Never See
Globdrop, begin instruction with your man immediately.
Tell him, if there is blood to be shed, it should be spilled evenly. Let marriage serve what they call “equality” — for no marriage can have two masters. Unmake him. Dignify (or at least excuse) that passivity which opens the back door to those sins that daily slaughter aimless men. Make him passionate about sports, not souls. If a man, then a mannequin.
Let marriage tell any story but the Enemy’s. Earthly marriage must never tell of the dreadful one to come. Muffle the obscenity. Invite him to take part in one of our homofunctional marriages instead. But while you work on him, never let it slip that, although the Enemy will hold him solemnly accountable for how he discharges his duty, he also extends endless help and offers boundless grace whenever he falls short.
Your perplexed yet expectant uncle,
In general, Pastor John avoids talking about politics, breaking news, and hot trends. Why doesn’t he address such cultural issues more often?
One of the most precious promises in Scripture is that God “comforts us in all our affliction” (2 Corinthians 1:4). But for years I wondered, what does that mean? How does God comfort us? How do we actually experience this?
What helped me with these questions, as much as anything, was the story of how God comforted Hudson Taylor (1832–1905). He met Maria Dyer on the mission field in China, and the two were married in 1858. In 1866, after some time back in England, Hudson and Maria returned to their beloved China. But on July 23, 1870, Maria became ill and died.
This was a tragic, heartbreaking loss for Hudson. But God deeply comforted him, as we see from two letters he wrote soon after her passing.Two Letters of Grief and Hope
The first letter was written to William Berger, who was in London raising support and recruiting missionaries:
Many, many thanks for your loving sympathy in my bereavement. . . .
I do from day to day and every day so delight in the love of Jesus, satisfy my thirsty heart when most desolate from his fullness, feed and rest in green pastures in the recognition that his will has been done and is being done, as no words can express.
He only knows what her absence is to me. Twelve and a half years of such unbroken spiritual fellowship, united labor, mutual satisfaction and love, fall to the lot of very few . . . but were the loss less, I should know less of his power and sustaining love. (Hudson Taylor and the China Inland Mission, 197)
The second letter was written to Mary Berger, William’s wife:
No language can express what [Christ] has been and is to me. Never does he leave me; constantly does he cheer me with his love. He who once wept at the grave of Lazarus often now weeps in and with me. . . .
Often I find myself wondering whether it is possible for her, who is taken, to have more joy in his presence than he has given me.
At times he allows me to realize all I had in her, but have no longer. . . . And then he who will soon come and wipe away every tear comes and takes all bitterness from my tears and fills my heart with deep, true, unutterable gladness. (208)How God Comforted Him
Hudson Taylor’s letters show us how God comforts us. First, God comforted him with tastes of his love and joy.
Constantly does he cheer me with his love. . . . Often I find myself wondering whether it is possible for her, who is taken, to have more joy in his presence than He has given me.
The loss of his wife left Hudson Taylor empty and heartbroken. But God gave him such satisfaction in his love and joy that his empty, broken heart was filled and healed. Like Moses prayed, “Satisfy us in the morning” — even in incredible grief — “with your steadfast love” (Psalm 90:14).
Second, God’s comfort does not remove our sorrow but shares with us in our sorrow.
At times he does allow me to realize all that I had in her, but have no longer. . . . He who once wept at the grave of Lazarus often now weeps in and with me.
God allowed Hudson Taylor to have times of great joy in Christ’s love, and also times of deep loss in Maria’s absence. But even in the times of loss, Hudson was comforted by the sense that Jesus was there, weeping in and with him. That’s how Isaiah describes God: “In all their affliction he was afflicted” (Isaiah 63:9).
Third, God’s tenderness washed away his bitterness and filled his heart with gladness.
At times he allows me to realize all that I had in her, but have no longer. . . . And then he who will soon come and wipe away every tear comes and takes all bitterness from my tears and fills my heart with deep, true, unutterable gladness.
Grief over loss can easily become bitterness. But God gave Hudson Taylor such gladness that bitterness was removed from his tears, and joy filled his heart. As David said to God, “In your presence there is fullness of joy” (Psalm 16:11), even when we are overcome with sorrow.
Fourth, God’s comfort is so precious that it is worth every loss.
He only knows what her absence is to me. Twelve and a half years of such unbroken spiritual fellowship, united labor, mutual satisfaction and love, fall to the lot of very few . . . but were the loss less, I should know less of his power and sustaining love.
Hudson Taylor knew heartbreaking loss. But God gave him such an experience of his power and love that it more than made up for the loss and grief. Paul agrees: “I will boast all the more gladly of my weaknesses, so that the power of Christ may rest upon me” (2 Corinthians 12:9).How God Might Comfort You
But all of this did not happen automatically. Notice the part Hudson Taylor played:
I do from day to day and every day so delight in the love of Jesus, satisfy my thirsty heart when most desolate from his fullness, feed and rest in green pastures in the recognition that his will has been done and is being done, as no words can express.
Taylor says his heart was thirsty and desolate. But he did not stay there. Day to day, and every day, he sought to delight in the love of Jesus, and satisfy his heart in Christ’s fullness. This meant he prayed fervently for a deeper experience of Christ’s love, and he meditated earnestly on Scriptures describing Christ’s love.
Taylor also fed on and rested in the truth that God’s will was being done. He knew that ultimately God had taken his wife home, so he trusted and submitted to God’s will. The result was, as we read above, “Often I find myself wondering whether it is possible for her, who is taken, to have more joy in his presence than he has given me.”
Hudson Taylor was heartbroken over the loss of his wife. But God gave him such comfort that he wondered if his wife in heaven could possibly be experiencing as much joy in God as he was. That’s how deeply God comforted Taylor in his grief. And that’s how God can comfort you.
When pride tempts you, look to the cross. When self-pity beckons, look to the cross. When everything seems alright, look to the cross.