This weekend only, download ‘Happily Ever After’ free of charge in three digital formats, and learn how to find grace in the messes of marriage.
“Pray that you may not enter into temptation.”
Jesus kneels in the garden of his agony and directs his men to pray, not just against sin, but against temptation.
On the front-end of the greatest temptation of his life, he charges his disciples — not once but twice (Luke 22:40, 46) — to pray against temptation. Forty long days of fasting in the wilderness must now feel like child’s play compared to the test he’s about to endure. His hour has come.
He faces the single greatest test in the history of the world: Will the sinless God-man suffer torture-to-death for the sins of the rebels he loves? And yet, as his own great temptation begins, bringing such agony that sweat falls from his head like drops of blood (Luke 22:44), he turns to his men twice to say, “Pray that you may not enter into temptation” (Luke 22:40, 46).Emphatic in His Famous Prayer
This is not the first (and second) time he has instructed his disciples to pray against temptation.
When they came to him and asked, “Lord, teach us to pray” (Luke 11:1), he answered with the memorably powerful and brief “Lord’s Prayer,” which in Luke is a mere 36 words in our English! In such a tight, focused prayer, he not only mentions but concludes with the petition “lead us not into temptation” (Luke 11:4).
Praying against temptation is no fleeting aside, as if any words from God himself may be overlooked. Here in the garden, and in the very moment Jesus taught us to pray, he says to pray not only against sin (that’s implied), but explicitly to pray against temptation.
For those of us who heed his words, we find at least three implications of Jesus’s (perhaps surprising) command.Pray Against Temptation
First, God really does keep us from some temptations in response to our prayers. God and his Son do not charge us to play at prayer. Prayer matters. The sovereign God chooses to rule the universe in such a way that prayer plays a role. Under his hand, some events transpire (or not) because his people prayed; others do not transpire (or do) because they did not.
When we pray not only against our sin, but against temptation to sin, we display a maturing humility. We acknowledge our weakness and the power of sin. And we remember our Father’s heart for holiness and for our good. God “himself tempts no one” (James 1:13). The blame for sin falls squarely on the sinner. “Each person is tempted when he is lured and enticed by his own desire” (James 1:14). And yet God, in his grace and mercy, delights to keep us from many temptations — countless times perhaps even when we fail to ask, and how many precious instances in direct response to our asking?
If we take seriously the depths of sin in us, and the depths of mercy in our Father, we will heed the words of Jesus, and the commentary of John Owen: “Let no man pretend to fear sin that does not fear temptation also! These two are too closely united to be separated. He does not truly hate the fruit who delights in the root.” For the sake of truth and good conscience, we distinguish temptation from sin, and for the sake of holiness and joy, we do not separate them. And so we pray not only against our sins, but our temptations.Plan Against Temptation
Secondly, when we pray against temptation, we begin the process of seeking to avoid it and, in doing so, we become a means to God answering our prayer. God not only often keeps us from temptation because of our prayers, but in the very act of praying, we engage more deeply in the fight. We fortify our souls against sin. We become more deeply invested. We resolve, by the Spirit, to hold to the truth and not “be hardened by the deceitfulness of sin” (Hebrews 3:13). We remind our hearts that the pleasures of sin are shallow and fleeting (Hebrews 11:25), while pleasure in God is deep and enduring (Psalm 16:11).
Praying against temptation leads us, then, to plan against temptation in tangible ways. Knowing our patterns and proclivities to particular sins, we avoid unwise contexts. We “flee youthful passions” (2 Timothy 2:22) and “make no provision for the flesh, to gratify its desires” (Romans 13:14). We heed the wisdom of a loving father to his son (Proverbs 5:1) about the “forbidden woman” (Proverbs 5:3): not just to stay out of her bed but to “keep your way far from her, and do not go near the door of her house” (Proverbs 5:8).
It is grace not only to be kept from sin but also from temptation (Revelation 3:10). Our spirit indeed may be willing to say no to sin, but the flesh can be weak (Matthew 26:41). And praying against temptation sets us on the path of planning against it as well.Prepare for Temptation Still
Finally, when we do enter into temptation, if we have prayed against it, then we should be least taken off guard by it, and most ready for battle. God loves a heart that prays against temptation, and he often answers our plea. And yet his ways are higher than ours. He knows, in love, when to allow temptation to come. In fact, Jesus says, temptations are sure to come (Luke 17:1). Pray as we may against them, God has not promised to always answer this prayer the way we want. Not yet.
So as we pray against temptation, we prepare ourselves to not be surprised when they do come (1 Peter 4:12). And when we’ve prayed against temptation, we can feel all the more clearheaded that God has lovingly allowed this test into my life. And he has not left me without his promises for these very moments. “God is faithful, and he will not let you be tempted beyond your ability, but with the temptation he will also provide the way of escape” (1 Corinthians 10:13). Like Joseph, it may mean running (Genesis 39:11–12). Like Jesus, it often will mean rehearsing the very words of God (Matthew 4:1–11) or staying silent before fools (Matthew 26:63; Mark 14:61; Acts 8:32).
“The Lord knows how to rescue the godly from trials” (2 Peter 2:9), not just guard them from trials. And the Christian most prepared to conquer temptation is the one who prays and plans against it.Kept by God in the Test
Pray against your specific besetting sins, and as you do, go a step further and pray against specific temptations as well.
When we pray against temptation, we can expect two outcomes: (1) in real and tangible ways, God will be pleased to keep us from temptations we otherwise would have encountered had we not prayed. And (2) at times God may see fit to have us encounter the very temptation we have prayed (and planned!) against — and when we do, having prayed, we will be better prepared to face it and defeat it in the power of his Spirit.
God will provide a way out (1 Corinthians 10:13). Look for it and take it. And thank him, not only for the many times, unbeknownst to you, that he guarded you from temptation altogether, but also for the times he answered your prayers differently, not just keeping you from temptation but keeping you through temptation.
Jesus has purchased something infinitely better than anything this world has to offer: the glory of God himself. We have every reason to boast in him.
The new birth is not about getting a new religion; it is about getting new life. Too many have found religion, but missed Jesus altogether.
Symmetry can be wonderful. Think of the intricacy of a snowflake, or the geometry of certain iconic buildings like the U.S. Capitol or London’s Buckingham Palace, or the rotational symmetry of a pine cone. If any of these were distorted and the symmetry lost, the aesthetic appeal would immediately go as well.
Several years ago, the corporate sponsorship of the London Eye transferred to a new company, which then painted one of the giant wheel’s capsules in the distinctive red of their branding. There was an outcry: all of a sudden, the wheel had lost its symmetry. It just didn’t look the same.
But there are times when asymmetry is beautiful too. Human faces are not symmetrical, and while that may seem like an imperfection, it is not. If you were able to make one half of your face the mirror image of the other, it would look symmetrical, but it wouldn’t look right. It would look neat, but in a way that shows you faces are not meant to look neat. They are too personal. Symmetry doesn’t work. The asymmetry of your face is one of the things that makes it so wonderfully and distinctively you.God’s Asymmetry
There is a certain asymmetry to God too. And just like ours, there is a distinctive beauty to it.
For many years, I assumed that God’s love and his wrath were equal and parallel outworkings of who he is. After all, God is love (1 John 4:8) and God is light (1 John 1:5), and so I presumed each was the source of either God’s salvation or judgment. I could even draw a chart that lined God’s love and wrath alongside each other, with biblical examples and verses for each. It looked neat and tidy, which is how I instinctively like my theology to be.
But while both God’s love and wrath are undeniable and necessary features of his dealings with us, they are not symmetrical. They do not spring from the same central part of God’s being with equal force. The two are not parallel components of God’s work.
In the book of Lamentations, we are given an exquisite and agonizing reflection on the judgment of God in decimating the Old Testament nation of Israel. The book is deeply raw and yet meticulously structured, taking the form of long acrostics.
At its center, in the middle of the middle chapter, we find words of affirmation and hope. Hope thus becomes the crux of the whole book, though not the final note of it — the final passages return to further expressions of lament. What Lamentations, therefore, gives us is not a progression away from lament and into hope, but instead hope in the (literal) midst of lament — or, as the New Testament puts it, rejoicing in our sufferings (Romans 5:3).Merciful and Gracious
What is this hope? The hope is that this judgment will not have the last word for God’s people:
The Lord will not cast off forever, but, though he cause grief, he will have compassion according to the abundance of his steadfast love. (Lamentations 3:31–32)
What is this hope founded on? The asymmetry of God:
For he does not afflict from his heart, or grieve the children of men. (Lamentations 3:33)
The writer continues to be unflinching in acknowledging the pain of judgment. God is casting off; God is causing grief; God is afflicting. This the writer does not doubt.
But while such judgment is undeniable, it is not what lies deepest in God’s purposes for his people. God’s judgment will not be forever (Lamentations 3:31); he will yet have compassion (Lamentations 3:32). And, most fundamentally, it is not what God is about (Lamentations 3:33). It is not “from his heart.” God is doing it. He means to do it. But it is not where his heart ultimately lies.
What is central to God instead is his compassion and faithfulness. His judgment is real, but it is not foundational. His love and anger are not symmetrical, as God’s own words about himself show so clearly, words so foundational they resound and echo throughout the rest of the Old Testament:
The Lord passed before him and proclaimed, “The Lord, the Lord, a God merciful and gracious, slow to anger, and abounding in steadfast love and faithfulness.” (Exodus 34:6)
This is the banner hanging over everything else God shows us about himself. We see it reiterated time and again throughout the whole Old Testament. It is the most repeated verse in all the Bible. Many things are true about God. All of them are glorious. Yet not all of them are fundamental. But this is.God’s Pinned Tweet
God is slow to anger. He is not touchy and explosive. He is not trigger-happy. As Ray Ortlund has put it, God “is not itching to bring down the hammer. We have to drive him to that.” Instead, “His spontaneous heart is to love us.”
God is not slow to love; he’s slow to anger. It is his love that has the engine running — always ready to go at a moment’s notice. In contrast, his anger has to be worked up within him. The two do not occupy the same place in his affections. Love abounds where anger doesn’t. It is love he possesses in boundless measure, not anger.
This is God’s pinned tweet. Everything else needs to be read in the light of this. It forms the context and framework for everything else God will reveal to us about himself. This faithful, steadfast, covenant love is what we find at the deepest core of God’s being. Nothing better expresses the heart of who he is.
God’s anger is real, but it is not central. Love and wrath are not perfectly balanced on some divine fulcrum: God leans heavily and unmistakably on one more than the other. It is his love that comes from the heart, and therein lies wonderful news and great comfort for his people.
Should we focus on fighting against our sin? Or should we focus on fighting for pleasure in God, which will in turn kill our sin?
Don’t be anxious about anything — except for this.
You don’t have to be a Christian long to feel disappointed by Christian community.
Our high expectations are understandable. The church is the body and bride of Christ (Ephesians 1:22–23; 5:25–27), heaven’s earthly outpost (1 Peter 2:9), God’s cosmic stage for showcasing his wisdom (Ephesians 3:10). But when we look at our own community — our local church or small group — the reality can seem to fall so short. We expected the friendships would be deeper. We hoped the people would be more welcoming. We thought the pastor would remember our name.
Sometimes, to be sure, we feel disappointed with our community because something is fundamentally wrong. We attached ourselves to a sick body, and then we caught the virus. Now, it’s time for us to recover somewhere else. But often, my own disappointments with Christian community have sprung from my unrealistic expectations. I walked into a church expecting to find an unblemished bride, and instead I found a wife-in-progress.Jesus’s Bride-to-Be
Some of us take our community’s flaws as a license to flee. We flit from church to church, small group to small group, in search of a bride with fewer blemishes. Others of us may stay with our communities, but we’ve traded warm affection for mere tolerance, like a spouse whose love has cooled.
God has a harder but happier way forward for us when we feel disappointed by our community: we honestly admit our grievances, acknowledge our own deep flaws, and let our dream community die. Then, with a dose of hopeful realism, we labor to love the real community God has given us. We join Jesus as he removes every spot and wrinkle from his bride-to-be (Ephesians 5:27).
In my own small-group life, I have needed consistent reminders to reform my faulty expectations and send me back to my group with fresh resolves for good. And that’s what the apostle Peter gave me recently with these five callings to every member of a flawed community: “All of you, have unity of mind, sympathy, brotherly love, a tender heart, and a humble mind” (1 Peter 3:8).1. Lay Aside Personal Preferences
The first quality Peter lists is unity of mind. As much as possible, Peter says, the members of this patchwork called the church should share the same mind and attitude. Despite all their differences of culture and personality, they should carry the same vision into their gatherings each week.
As we think of the people in our small groups, the call to have unity of mind may sound like telling a field of wildflowers to all be yellow. How does a hipster college student have unity of mind with a middle-aged mechanic? How does an older black woman from south Chicago have unity of mind with a teenage boy from the white suburbs?
We can have unity of mind with one another because we have all been captured by Jesus Christ. Our communities, diverse as they often are, have one identity: sojourners and exiles (1 Peter 2:11). We have one calling: proclaim God’s excellencies (1 Peter 2:9). And we have one grand ambition: to so speak and act that “in everything God may be glorified through Jesus Christ” (1 Peter 4:11). Every small group is a family of exiles who live for heaven’s King.
Often, disappointment settles over us because we have lost sight of this controlling vision and have smuggled in our own. So we begin to evaluate our small group based on how well it meets our perceived needs rather than how well it glorifies Christ, and we inevitably walk away feeling neglected. But as we remind ourselves of God’s vision for our community, we will lay aside a host of personal preferences in order to glorify him with one voice.2. Enter the Emotions of Others
Second, Peter tells the church to show sympathy toward one another. Contrary to some modern definitions, biblical sympathy is not detached or merely cerebral. Sympathy is the ability to enter another’s emotional house, make your way to the living room, and sit with them for a while in their joys or sorrows.
Sympathy is what the Lord Jesus feels toward his people’s weaknesses, and what fellow Christians should feel when they see a brother or sister in prison (Hebrews 4:15; 10:34). In both cases, sympathy stirs up the emotions so powerfully that action follows: Jesus gives his tempted people mercy and grace (Hebrews 4:16), and fellow Christians gladly associate with their imprisoned friends (Hebrews 10:34). Sympathy moves us to weep with those who weep, rejoice with those who rejoice, and then do what we can to soothe the sorrow or swell the joy (Romans 12:15).
Deep, sincere sympathy does not come naturally to most of us. We may listen for a time to someone’s story of sorrow or joy, but seldom do we linger there, put aside the impulse to tell our own tale, and allow their emotions to sink down into our own. Such tender care comes from God himself as he shapes us into Jesus’s image. As he does, we will gather more often with our communities on the lookout for people to listen to, and we will find that it is more blessed to show sympathy than to receive it (Acts 20:35).3. Treat the Church Like Your Family
Next, Peter tells his readers to embrace brotherly love. The first-century world restricted the term brotherly love to blood relatives. But here, Peter takes that family affection and applies it to God’s family — all those who have been “born again to a living hope” and now have the same Father (1 Peter 1:3).
As with our biological families, we don’t get to choose the members of God’s family. God just welcomes us into this wonderful, unusual, and sometimes frustrating collection of mothers and fathers and brothers and sisters and children, and then tells each of us, “Love each other.” Apart from the blood of Jesus that binds us together, many of us have little in common. But these are our family members, and like Jesus, we should not be ashamed to call any one of them brother (Hebrews 2:11).
Brotherly love, like all family love, will hurt. These family members will annoy us, offend us, and even wound us deeply. We will feel tempted at times to find a more normal family, one more like us. But precisely at that point, we have the opportunity to press into the glory of brotherly love — a love that stretches across seemingly insurmountable differences for Jesus’s sake, and finds on the other side a richer affection than any we could have formed in an affinity group. We were born again for this kind of love (1 Peter 1:22).4. Move Toward the Hurting
The fourth quality Peter lists is tenderheartedness. Similar to sympathy, tenderheartedness is sensitive to others’ emotions. The tenderhearted are willing to put their own lives on pause while they enter into another’s emotions and linger there for a while. But more specifically than sympathy, the tenderhearted are particularly touched by pain.
When the tenderhearted meet the pain of suffering, they extend mercy, as when Jesus “had compassion” (the same word for tenderheartedness) on the harassed, the helpless, the hungry, and the sick (Matthew 9:36; 14:14; 15:32; Luke 7:13).
And when the tenderhearted meet the pain of sin, they extend forgiveness. Keenly aware of their own failings, these people are “kind to one another, tenderhearted, forgiving one another, as God in Christ forgave you” (Ephesians 4:32). You don’t have to take a battering ram to reach the compassion of the tenderhearted; a slight touch of another’s pain will prick them.
Many of our small groups include people who carry two tons of sorrow on their shoulders. Bent down beneath their own pain, they can appear cold, aloof, and anti-social. We can wonder why they aren’t more friendly and welcoming, not realizing that they lack the strength to move toward us. As our hearts grow more tender, we will feel less disappointed with these bruised reeds, and more prone to move toward them, praying that God would use us to bind them up.5. Go Low to Lift Others Up
Finally, Peter tells the church to adopt a humble mind. Humility was a despised quality in the Greco-Roman world, the lot of slaves rather than self-respecting citizens. But Jesus Christ — the King who carried a cross — shows us a new way to be human. We go low to lift others up.
When Christians walk into our communities, we should want humility to be as characteristic as the clothes we wear (1 Peter 5:5). We believe the best about each other. We are slow to speak and quick to listen. We are more ready to cover over a sin than to expose it. We dream of how we might do our brothers and sisters good. We hold our rights loosely. And we never think anyone is too low for us to love, serve, and honor.
The people we go low for may be no one special in the world’s eyes; they may be weak, awkward, and poor — perhaps just like us. But if we will go low for them, God can give us glimpses of who they really are: Jesus’s beloved sheep, God’s own possession, heirs of the grace of life (1 Peter 2:9, 25; 3:7). One day soon, God himself will lift them up to become something new, something resplendent, something beautiful beyond imagination (1 Peter 5:6, 10).
These are the people in our community. They may disappoint us at times now, but they are destined for glory. And we have the privilege of helping them get there.
The mark of a true Christian isn’t perfection, but the resilience to keep pressing our foot to sin’s neck by the power of the Spirit.
What does the New Testament gift of prophecy look like when it’s being exercised today? This is the sincere question of many evangelicals. Some are exploring the possibility that this gift continues in the church, and others have become convinced exegetically that it does, but would be helped by some examples.
But others have different questions. Why do we even need the gift of prophecy now that we have the Bible, the closed canon of the Old and New Testament Scriptures? Why would we “earnestly desire” fallibly-delivered “prophetic words” when we have the infallible word of God at our fingertips? Aren’t the Scriptures enough for us? These are sincere questions for many evangelicals who either believe prophecy has ceased or that the Bible just reduces its importance.
These are all important questions and deserve answers. So what I’m going to do is provide three examples of well-known preacher-teachers exercising the gift of prophecy, and then use them to explain why this spiritual gift plays an important ongoing role in the life of the church — a role that doesn’t replace Scripture but fulfills it.On the 34th Floor
When John Piper is about to preach, he says he frequently prays something like, “Lord, bring to my mind truths about yourself and about this text and about this people that I will be able to say in such a way that they will pierce with unusual — I might say prophetic — power into their lives.”
One Sunday, while preaching, he was encouraging the people of Bethlehem Baptist to be involved in small groups and start evangelistic Bible studies. At one point, he looked to his left and said, “You might be working on the 34th floor of the IDS Tower, and maybe you should call your people together to have a small group meeting.” After the service a woman, who had been sitting in the area where he looked, came up to him and said, “Why did you say that? I work on the 34th floor of the IDS Tower, and I’ve been praying about whether to start a small group.”
What was that? It was the New Testament gift of prophecy. When that thought came into John’s mind, he wasn’t consciously aware that the Spirit was revealing specific information to him regarding a specific individual, but the Spirit was. And the Spirit wanted to encourage this woman to move forward by answering her prayer in a way that would strengthen her faith. That’s one of the Scripture-defined purposes of prophecy (1 Corinthians 14:3).His Soul for Fourpence
Here’s a similar example that gets even more specific. Charles Spurgeon (1834–1892) once shared this remarkable story:
While preaching in the hall, on one occasion, I deliberately pointed to a man in the midst of the crowd, and said, “There is a man sitting there, who is a shoemaker; he keeps his shop open on Sundays, it was open last Sabbath morning, he took ninepence, and there was fourpence profit out of it; his soul is sold to Satan for fourpence!”
A city missionary, when going his rounds, met with this man, and seeing that he was reading one of my sermons, he asked the question, “Do you know Mr. Spurgeon?” “Yes,” replied the man, “I have every reason to know him, I have been to hear him; and, under his preaching, by God’s grace I have become a new creature in Christ Jesus. Shall I tell you how it happened? I went to the Music Hall, and took my seat in the middle of the place; Mr. Spurgeon looked at me as if he knew me, and in his sermon he pointed to me, and told the congregation that I was a shoemaker, and that I kept my shop open on Sundays; and I did, sir. I should not have minded that; but he also said that I took ninepence the Sunday before, and that there was fourpence profit out of it. I did take ninepence that day, and fourpence was just the profit; but how he should know that, I could not tell. Then it struck me that it was God who had spoken to my soul through him, so I shut up my shop the next Sunday. At first, I was afraid to go again to hear him, lest he should tell the people more about me; but afterwards I went, and the Lord met with me, and saved my soul.” (Grudem, 357)
In this case, the Spirit revealed very specific details to Spurgeon in order to disclose the secrets of a man’s heart and, in kindness, lead him to repentance (Romans 2:4). How do we know this is prophecy? Because the Scripture calls this precise phenomenon “prophecy” (1 Corinthians 14:24–25).Secrets of the Heart
Here’s one more example of this “secret-disclosing” sort of prophecy, but in a more personal context. John Wimber (1934–1997), one of the formative leaders of the Vineyard church planting movement, once described an experience he had while on a flight from Chicago to New York. Shortly after takeoff, he casually glanced across the aisle and was startled by seeing the word “adultery” in clear letters across the face of the middle-aged businessman seated across from him.
The man saw John looking at him oddly and snapped, “What do you want?” As the man spoke, a woman’s name came clearly to John’s mind. So John cautiously said, “Does the name [blank] mean anything to you?” The man went pale (his wife was sitting next to him). The man responded, “We need to talk.”
They moved to the plane’s lounge where the man confessed to having an affair with a woman whose name had come to John’s mind. John ended up leading the man to Christ, and then the man returned to his seat, confessed to his wife, and led her to Christ (Power Evangelism, 74–76).
Again, this is an illustration of 1 Corinthians 14:24–25 prophecy in action. But here, Wimber was conscious that the Spirit was revealing information to him, and he shared the information with the man. And there’s little doubt the whole experience resulted in the man and his wife being built up and encouraged and consoled (1 Corinthians 14:3).Not Replacing Scripture
These three examples illustrate that the new covenant spiritual gift of prophecy isn’t a replacement of Scripture. That’s not its role. As I’ve explained elsewhere, from its inception, this spiritual gift was never intended to overrule the authoritative, infallible testimony of God’s chosen contributors to Scripture.
It’s important we understand that prophecy is not offering something more than Scripture offers, as if it’s some kind of improvement on Scripture. Rather, Scripture says prophecy is one of the means of grace God has given to the church. In other words, prophecy is not Scripture’s competitor, but its prescription.
Like the three stories demonstrate, prophecy provides both the recipient and the giver an experience of God’s real presence among us (1 Corinthians 14:24–25). It helps us experience personally the Scripture-revealed reality that God does indeed know when we “sit down” and when we “rise up,” that he is “acquainted with all [our] ways,” that “even before a word is on [our] tongue, behold, [he knows] it altogether” (Psalm 139:2–4).
It’s not that the experience of prophecy is more true, or more wonderful, than the inspired word of God. It’s one of the gifts the true, wonderful, inspired word tells us is available to us. God’s authoritative and sufficient word, delivered through his Old Testament prophets and Christ’s New Testament apostles, is final and decisive for his church. But we must remember that it’s this final, decisive word that introduces us to a category of New Testament “prophecy” — something Christ wants his church to “earnestly desire” (1 Corinthians 14:1). Jesus wants us to experience a reality testified to in his living and active word (Hebrews 4:12). Our Father wants to give us glimpses of just how fully we are known (1 Corinthians 13:12).Exceptional Gift
I have found this gift to be a great mercy to me and many others. As frail and broken as we are, as prone to unbelief, and as confused and disoriented as we can become in this devil-ruled world (1 John 5:19), God loves to give his children very personal upbuilding, encouragement, and consolation (1 Corinthians 14:3). God has given the church the gift of prophecy, because he loves us. It’s one way he expresses his joy in loving us.
I know the gift of prophecy, like every gift God gives, has been (and is) abused. I know that some can put too much stock in subjective prophecies, or find them more exciting than Scripture. But in my personal experience and observations of others, I have found it rare that prophecy devalues Scripture for those who experience it. Rather, it has almost always heightened their love of, and trust in, Scripture’s authority and sufficiency. Because the God of Scripture has acted for them in a way they recognize from Scripture, reinforcing the final truth and power of Scripture.
One last thing. As I observe it in the Bible, church history, the lives of others, and in my own life, the gift of prophecy is exceptional — not the normative way God speaks to and leads us. God wants us to live by every revealed, authoritative, infallible word he has spoken (Matthew 4:4). Paul tells us to earnestly desire to prophesy for the benefit of others, but he also tells us that Scripture is God-breathed and “profitable for teaching, for reproof, for correction, and for training in righteousness, that the man of God may be complete, equipped for every good work” (2 Timothy 3:16–17).
So let us do what the Scripture instructs for the purpose Scripture defines: let us “earnestly desire” the spiritual gift of prophecy (1 Corinthians 14:1) for the “upbuilding and encouragement and consolation” of God’s saints (1 Corinthians 14:3). But let us be careful to do so in the ways (and proportions) that Scripture teaches.
Should we lift our hands during musical worship, or keep them in our pockets? Pastor John shares some principles from Scripture and his own experience.
Earlier this year, my arms completely gave out as I was getting ready.
I couldn’t even get dressed by myself. I was exhausted, and it wasn’t even nine in the morning. I suffer from post-polio syndrome, and I’m never sure when some new pain is a daily setback or the new normal. I didn’t want to go on like this. What was this day going to hold?
I cried out to the Lord, telling him that all of this felt colossally unfair. I ended by declaring, “I can’t live like this for the rest of my life. I just can’t do it!” I felt frustrated and angry and overwhelmed all at the same time. I realize that may sound deeply unspiritual, but that’s how I felt. I couldn’t imagine living the rest of my life with those physical struggles.In the Quiet
After my lament, I was quiet. I had said all I wanted to say. And then I waited. I’m not sure if I was expecting a response from God, but I knew I needed to be still and listen.
In the silence, the following words came to my mind: “I’m not asking you to live like this for the rest of your life. I’m just asking you to live like this today.” It felt like God was speaking to me.
Immediately, an unmistakable sense of peace settled over me. My situation was unchanged, but I felt strangely different. Today was a finite period that I could focus on. Today seemed doable. Today was much less frightening than “the rest of my life.” Coping with anything today seemed possible. Possible, that is, with God.
After that flood of relief had washed over me, I thought of those words again: “I’m not asking you to live like this for the rest of your life. I’m just asking you to live like this today.” Could they have been the words of God to me? Were they consistent with God’s character? What does Scripture say about the words that came to me?Daily Bread
I remembered that Jesus taught us to pray, “Give us this day our daily bread” (Matthew 6:11). God will meet our needs today. His grace is available for today. We are not to be anxious about the future, or even tomorrow, for every day has its own trouble (Matthew 6:34).
The future is in God’s hands. Tomorrow morning may bring joy and even a miracle (Psalm 30:5), for his mercies are new every morning and nothing is impossible with God (Lamentations 3:22–23; Luke 1:37).
The widow of Zarephath’s oil and flour were miraculously available as long as she needed them (1 Kings 17:14–16). After Hezekiah prayed, 185,000 Assyrians were killed by the angel of the Lord without Israel even going to battle (2 Kings 19:35). Gideon defeated the vast army of the Midianites with only three hundred men (Judges 7:1–25). Humanly speaking, none of them saw a way out of the situation. And often we don’t either. But with God all things are possible to those who believe (Mark 9:23).
God reassured me that I didn’t need to despair over the future. But he wasn’t assuring me that my circumstances would change if I trusted him. He was calling me to endure today and trust him for tomorrow.Rejoice, Pray, Thank
But today. How will I manage today? I wondered. Today still loomed before me with all its difficulties.
I was reminded that God’s grace is sufficient for me. That his power is made perfect in my weakness (2 Corinthians 12:9–10). That I needed to wait for him, and that he would strengthen me and would supply all my needs (Isaiah 40:30–31; Philippians 4:19). He “is near to the brokenhearted and saves the crushed in spirit” (Psalm 34:18). If I would draw near to him, then he would draw near to me (James 4:8).
And as I went through my day, I needed to rejoice in what God was doing, to pray without ceasing, to give thanks even in difficult circumstances, knowing all of this was God’s will for me (1 Thessalonians 5:16–18).Breath by Breath
Rejoicing in trials is not easy for me. I have to deliberately focus on what God is doing in the midst of them. I must remind myself that although my trials seem heavy and endless, they are light and momentary in relation to eternity. And they are preparing for me a weight of glory that is beyond all comparison (2 Corinthians 4:17).
When my struggles feel relentless, they force me to trust God day by day, moment by moment, breath by breath. Pain, whether physical or emotional or spiritual, has a way of capturing my attention. I can either focus that attention on myself and sink into despair, or I can direct my thoughts to Jesus and ask him for grace.
That moment-by-moment dialogue with God changes me. I see his sufficiency and his glory in ways that I would never have seen otherwise (2 Corinthians 3:18). Suffering has a unique way of putting me in God’s presence, beholding his glory, because I am constantly crying out to him.Afflicted, Not Crushed
How did my day end up? Honestly, it was hard. My husband, Joel, helped me get dressed. I had enough energy to drive my modified minivan to massage therapy, which I desperately needed. The therapist was waiting at the door to walk me in — something she’d never done before. Immediately, I saw how God was providing for me.
Back at home, Joel got me everything I needed. But things did not go the way I would have chosen. I had trouble concentrating. I was in intermittent pain. I felt frustrated at my weakness.
All I could do was cry out to God. And do the next thing. I understood more clearly what it meant to be “afflicted in every way, but not crushed; perplexed, but not driven to despair; . . . struck down, but not destroyed” (2 Corinthians 4:8–9). Although the day was hard, God ensured it would not crush me.Just Today
My pain and strength ebb and flow daily, so I often don’t know what to expect until I get out of bed. This reality has been true of emotional pain as well. But even when the day holds suffering, I am comforted to know that God is not calling me to live with this pain and weakness for the rest of my life. He is just calling me to live with it today. Some days he will do far more abundantly than all I can ask or imagine (Ephesians 3:20). And other days, he will sustain me in the storm.
But every day, he will provide all that I need.
Many search for advanced steps for Bible reading but neglect a basic one: don’t skip over words. Here are three words in the Bible we cannot ignore.
I was working in a hospital and doing a rotation through the psychiatric wing. When I arrived, I was greeted by an affable young man whom I had met at church. I thought he was an aid until he said that he was a patient and this was his fourth admission. Meanwhile, a nurse had seen us talking, and when he and I had finished our conversation, she asked if I knew him.
“Yes, we attend the same church.”
“Oh, we just love him. We think everyone here should go to that church. I don’t know what they do, but at least three of our patients have improved so much after going there.”
The church we attended was relatively small (maybe one hundred attenders), on the youngish side (a number of recently married people), and with no mental-health professionals that I knew of. It seemed ordinary. And yet the help this church gave its psychiatric patients had stood out to the staff.
As I have reflected on that church and others like it, I’ve identified six principles that guided their care for those with complicated troubles — troubles that would be identified as psychiatric. These include depression, bipolar disorder, dissociative identity disorder, anorexia, and other disorders that are commonly treated with medication. I am assuming that the person is already under the care of a psychiatrist.1. Be patient and kind with everyone.
This principle is obvious but not easy (1 Corinthians 13:4). We might do well with those who are like us, but we are slow to be patient with those we don’t understand. Patience and kindness are not scared away by eccentricities, differences, or complicated problems.
If someone is off-putting or disruptive, we don’t overreact; intense reactions are among the worst steps we can take. Instead, we might simply ask, “Is everything okay? It seems like something is on your mind.” The first-time loner gets an invitation to lunch. Kindness includes others and assimilates them in the larger family of the church, where peculiarities abound.2. Don’t let medication scare you away.
When others are courageous enough to mention that they take psychiatric medication, church members tend to withdraw. This, we think, is for the professionals, and it would be unwise to get involved. Yet when someone takes psychiatric medication, it means that something hurts and life can feel overwhelming. It means that the person has known suffering, and that is a reason to come close.
There are cautions for us here. Too often, on matters that we know little about, we speak with great confidence. We overinterpret suffering in misguided efforts to find causes and remedies. We can default to demonic interpretations when a person’s problems seem foreign to us. Such thoughtless reactions, of course, never help. Instead, we want to know the person, be moved by their hardships, ask them what would be helpful, consider Scripture together, and then come to the God who invites us to draw near in our neediness (Hebrews 4:16).3. Pray with them.
We pray when we are over our heads and only God can help, and we are comforted when our relationships take us to this place. Any quest for the perfect piece of advice will fail. Instead of advice, prayer is our destination.
This principle too is obvious but not always easy. Prayer connects our needs with God’s promises and plans, but we can be unclear about either one. That confusion leads us to at least two places. First, this is a natural time to ask for help from others. Who can give us a better understanding of the person’s struggles? Who can give us a better understanding of promises that we can pray? Second, as we continue to search Scripture together for passages that are meaningful to the struggling person, we can always pray, “Help us, Father.”4. Rest in what you know.
We will not understand the biological details. We do not give advice on physical remedies — we are thankful that there are physicians who have expertise in medication. But we do know that there are spiritual realities at the heart of all misery. Suffering is an occasion to reconsider the love of God, the sufferings of Jesus, the presence of the Spirit, and so many other attractive truths that bring comfort and hope.
So we will look for a way into Scripture. We will ask questions like, “Are you familiar with Scripture?” Or, “Is there any Scripture that you have found helpful? Any you have found hurtful?” Then we head off together into a relevant text or theme. We aim to do it together. If the other person goes silent after we mention a passage, then we ask what happened. Was the passage unhelpful? Did it provoke something especially difficult?
Talk together about what you know. Remember, beneath the unusual behaviors identified by modern psychiatry are struggles that are common to us all, such as broken bodies, broken relationships, guilt, shame, anger, and fear. These all have close connections to our knowledge of Jesus.5. Aim for a balance.
Though a search for the answer is usually misguided, we always want to know someone better. The challenge, both one-to-one and in groups, is to love others by knowing them and to love them by including them in the community where we hear the word, know other people’s joys and struggles, and participate in worship. In other words, sometimes you talk about a person’s struggle, and other times you don’t.6. Walk in humility and confidence.
We could sum up all these principles this way: we walk in humility before God and others; we are alert to our limitations, needs, and dependence on the wisdom of others; and we walk with increasing confidence in the God who is closer than we once thought. He is our deepest need.
We can be confident that we have everything we need for life and godliness in the knowledge of Jesus (2 Peter 1:3). We are confident that patience and kindness is the appropriate package for ministry to all people. Without this confidence, we would never take the first step toward another person. Yet this confidence is coupled with humility that feels needy and often overwhelmed. It seeks help from the Lord, from his people, from those with experience in the particular problem, and from the one who is struggling.
In this way — in weakness — we aim for the glory of Christ to become more noticeable to the world.
During his ministry, Jesus claimed things about himself that force us to say that he was either crazy or divine.
The year is 1753. We’re in West Hartford, Connecticut, North American colonies. Jonathan Edwards is finishing his course, the free sons of Columbia are waxing warm against the Crown, and slavery and racism cast their shadow over much of American life. This is the strange world into which Lemuel Haynes was born. These influences pressed him into a diamond-tipped iron stylus, poised to be a scribe for God’s glory.
He was a man before his time, and yet woke memes on Facebook have never mentioned him. He refuses to play nice with our neat little modern categories of race, politics, and religion. Red, white, and blue abolitionism coursed through the veins under his brown skin — skin which bled in the American Revolution and poured, over long years, the great sweat of gospel preaching. He was the American black Puritan.Mistaken for Jonathan Edwards
Haynes was the first African-American pastor to be ordained by any North American denomination, and most likely the first African American to pastor an all-white congregation. His distinguished life began from the humblest of beginnings.
His mother, a Scottish indentured servant, abandoned him at birth. His unknown father was African. The mixed child was adopted by a man named David Rose, a congregational deacon, who named him Lemuel (Proverbs 31:1). Taking his status in society from his mother, he was raised as an indentured servant but embraced as a member of the family.
Lemuel Haynes was self-taught from his earliest days, stealing morsels of knowledge by evening firelight. “I make it my rule,” he said as a boy, “to know something more every night than I knew in the morning” (Timothy Mather Cooley, Sketches of the Life and Character of the Rev. Lemuel Haynes, 37). Sometime during his youth, Lemuel was soundly converted to faith in Jesus Christ. Many years later he would reflect, “It was reliance on the merits of the Saviour that supported me. Had I a thousand souls, I would venture them on him” (137).
His call to the ministry became quite legendary. The Rose family was in the custom of hearing a sermon read every Saturday evening. The honors fell to Lemuel. One week he articulated one with extraordinary zeal, so much that Deacon Rose inquired after the author, “Edwards, was it?” No, not Edwards. “Whitefield, surely.” Not Whitefield either. Eventually the young man replied, “It was Lemuel.”
He had penned a sermon on John 3:3 which has since been named the Saturday Evening Sermon. To the ears of the Rose family, accustomed to the preaching of those giants, it was indistinguishable. The young man had discovered the calling placed on his life.Full Churches, Stunned Hearers
He was trained for the ministry by local church pastors, becoming proficient in Greek and blossoming into a master preacher who filled churches with stunned hearers. He was a profoundly gifted wordsmith with lightning wits. His biographer gives a choice sampling for our enjoyment:
It is said that some time after the publication of his sermon on the text, “Thou shalt not surely die,” two reckless young men having agreed together to try his wit, one of them said — “Father Haynes, have you heard the good news?” — “No,” said Mr. Haynes, “what is it?” — “It is great news, indeed,” said the other, “and, if true, your business is done.” — “What is it?” again inquired Mr. Haynes. “Why,” said the first, “the devil is dead.” In a moment the old gentleman replied, lifting up both his hands and placing them on the heads of the young men, and in a tone of solemn concern, “Oh, poor fatherless children! what will become of you?” (123)
But Lemuel Haynes also served as a type of mediator, moving with equal regality in both spheres of the very black and white worlds he inhabited. He labored to bridge them. He took the Federalist Republicanism he was handed in the revolutionary years and the Calvinism he learned from the rich preaching heritage around him, and demonstrated how they were pregnant with armaments to combat the racism he saw all around him. He felt in himself the great contradictions of the society in which he lived and fought and preached and died.
Rather than abandon the new republic for failing to live up to its own ideals, he called young America to account, returning her own principles to her, “We shall find that subsisting in the midst of us, that may with propriety be stiled Opression, nay, much greater oppression, than that which Englishmen seem so much to spurn at. I mean an oppression which they themselves impose upon others” (Richard Newman, Black Preacher to White America, 18–19).
Was it a free country, or a slave country? This double-minded house, divided against itself, could not stand. But the answer was not to abandon it, but to reconcile it to its professed self. Thus, his political convictions became weapons. But he relied on a mightier sword.Abolitionist
Haynes was trained in a tradition of sound doctrine, anchored in the glory of God. He saw himself as a torchbearer of the same truths passed down from the Reformers and Puritans before him. In fact, all early black abolitionists were Calvinists. Haynes took this Reformed heritage and went further up and further in, bringing it to bear against slavery. “Haynes early encountered American Calvinism in the New Divinity theology, becoming one of its staunchest defenders and exploring its antislavery and problack dimensions” (John Saillant, Black Puritan, Black Republican, 83).
He saw the doctrine of God’s glory opposing oppression. To celebrate God’s glory is to acknowledge him in all things. And where is God most profoundly displayed but in creatures who bear his image? “Men,” he says, “were made for more noble ends than to be drove to market, like sheep and oxen” (Newman, 23). God may distinguish men by their natural abilities, “but not as to natural right, as they came out of his hands” (20). These rights belong properly to image-bearers and thus concern the glory of the God whose image they are.
To oppress, then, was to lay direct assault to God’s glory by ignoring God. “To despise blacks, to trade in slaves, or to hold slaves was not to acknowledge God, to not approach his affections, mind, and will. A more forceful challenge to the slave trade, slavery, and racism could hardly have been articulated within the Calvinist tradition” (Saillant, 114). Striking this path, Lemuel Haynes made glory-powered advances from within American Calvinism.
He also discovered that God’s sovereignty was a force for racial equality. Through the horrors of the African diaspora, coupled with British oppression, he believed God was teaching Americans the preciousness of true freedom by birthing ethnically mixed churches and societies out of immense fires of racism and hatred — all to display his most sovereign and glorious grace. Indeed, the gospel of the glory of Christ is the only force powerful enough to bring the oppressed and oppressors into this kind of happy, loving brotherhood. An arrangement that secures God all the glory.They Discovered He Was Black
Haynes preached this mighty gospel through his seventies, even after he was dismissed from his pulpit when the tables had turned doctrinally, politically, and racially. He reflects upon his experience in the third person: “He had lived with the people of Rutland for thirty years, and they were so sagacious that at the end of that time they found out that he was a n[****]r, and so turned him away” (Newman, 14). Now perhaps at last his views had become as unacceptable as his skin.
The powerful weapons Haynes wielded were lost when later abolitionists turned to free-will religion. To them, the black American population was a sad byproduct of a cosmic accident. There was no divine design in it. This left the black presence in America as an unwanted, shadow population. Abandoning the Calvinism of their forebears, their house of abolition was emptied.Learn from His Life
Surely there are many lessons for us here. While the Black Puritan may have occasionally reached the eighthly and ninthly in his sermon applications, we will content ourselves here with a firstly and only. The legacy of Lemuel Haynes is that of Spirit-empowered, Bible-saturated free thinking. He was free of the restraints of groupthink and identity politics; he would not be their mindless subject. He was able to marshal the truths he studied into a singular force in his own mind, sending them to war in his own heart and out into the broad world. Let men pervert their meaning; he would embrace them nonetheless.
His lesson to us is this: become dangerously learned. Be masters of truth; or rather, be mastered by truth until it becomes instinctive. Lemuel kept Scripture at the fingertips of his heart, which enabled him to treat whatever he studied with heavenly wisdom and make powerful use of it in his world. There is great need in our own day for levelheaded, Bible-bleeding thinkers. Let us stand for truth, though all the world stands against us. Let us, like Lemuel, be ahead of our time. For that is what it really means to be citizens of heaven on earth.
What can parents do to protect their children from pornography? Pastor John shares eleven ways to guard our families.
George Müller built five large orphan houses and cared for 10,024 orphans in his lifetime. When he started in 1834, there were accommodations for 3,600 orphans in all of England, and twice that many children under 8 were in prison. One of the great effects of Müller’s ministry was to inspire others so that, according to biographer A.T. Pierson, “fifty years after Mr. Müller began his work, at least one hundred thousand orphans were cared for in England alone” (George Müller of Bristol, 274).
He prayed in millions of dollars (in today’s currency) for the orphans, and never asked anyone directly for money. He never took a salary in the last 68 years of his ministry, but trusted God to put in people’s hearts to send him what he needed. He never took out a loan or went into debt. And neither he nor the orphans were ever hungry.Active till the End
He did all this while he was preaching three times a week from 1830 to 1898, at least ten thousand times. And when he turned 70, he fulfilled a lifelong dream of missionary work for the next seventeen years, until he was 87. He traveled to 42 countries, preaching an average of once a day and addressing some three million people.
From the end of his travels in 1892 (when he was 87) until his death in March 1898, he preached in his church and worked for the Scripture Knowledge Institution. He led a prayer meeting at his church on the evening of Wednesday, March 9, 1898. The next day, a cup of tea was taken to him at seven in the morning, but no answer came to the knock on the door. He was found dead on the floor beside his bed.
The funeral was held the following Monday in Bristol, where he had served for 66 years. “Tens of thousands of people reverently stood along the route of the simple procession; men left their workshops and offices, women left their elegant homes or humble kitchens, all seeking to pay a last token of respect.” A thousand children gathered for a service at the Orphan House No. 3. They had now “for a second time lost a ‘father’” (George Müller of Bristol, 285–86).Mary and Susannah
Müller had been married twice: to Mary Groves when he was 25 and to Susannah Sangar when he was 66. Mary bore him four children. Two were stillborn. One son, Elijah, died when he was a year old. Müller’s daughter Lydia married James Wright, who succeeded him as the head of the Institution. But Lydia died in 1890 at 57 years of age. Five years later, Müller lost his second wife, just three years before he died. And so he outlived his family and was left alone with his Savior, his church, and two thousand children.
When Müller received Mary’s diagnosis of rheumatic fever, his “heart was nigh to be broken on account of the depth of my affection” (A Narrative of Some of the Lord’s Dealings with George Müller, 2:398). The one who had seen God answer ten thousand prayers for the support of the orphan did not get what he asked this time. Or did he?“I Was Satisfied”
Twenty minutes after four on the Lord’s Day, February 6, 1870, Mary died. “I fell on my knees and thanked God for her release, and for having taken her to Himself, and asked the Lord to help and support us” (A Narrative, 2:400). He recalled later how he strengthened himself during these hours with Psalm 84:11: “The Lord God is a sun and shield; the Lord bestows favor and honor. No good thing does he withhold from those who walk uprightly.” And here we see the key to his life:
I am in myself a poor worthless sinner, but I have been saved by the blood of Christ; and I do not live in sin; I walk uprightly before God. Therefore, if it is really good for me, my darling wife will be raised up again, sick as she is. God will restore her again. But if she is not restored again, then it would not be a good thing for me. And so my heart was at rest. I was satisfied with God. And all this springs, as I have often said before, from taking God at his word, believing what he says. (A Narrative, 2:745)
Here is the cluster of unshakable convictions and experiences that are the key to Müller’s remarkable life.
- “I am in myself a poor worthless sinner.”
- “I have been saved by the blood of Christ.”
- “I do not live in sin.”
- “God is sovereign over life and death. If it is good for her and for me, she will be restored again. If it is not, she won’t.”
- “My heart is at rest.”
- “I am satisfied with God.”
All this comes from taking God at his word. There you see the innermost being of George Müller and the key to his life — the word of God, revealing his sin, revealing his Savior, revealing God’s sovereignty, revealing God’s goodness, revealing God’s promise, awakening his faith, satisfying his soul. “I was satisfied with God.”Faith: Gift or Grace?
So, were his prayers for Mary answered? To understand how Müller himself would answer this question, we have to see the way he distinguished between the extraordinary gift of faith and the more ordinary grace of faith. He constantly insisted, when people put him on a pedestal, that he did not have the gift of faith just because he would pray for his own needs and the needs of the orphans, and the money would arrive in remarkable ways.
The reason he is so adamant about this is that his whole life — especially in the way he supported the orphans by faith and prayer without asking anyone but God for money — was consciously planned to encourage Christians that God could really be trusted to meet their needs. We will never understand Müller’s passion for the orphan ministry if we don’t see that the good of the orphans was second to this.
The three chief reasons for establishing an Orphan-House are: 1) That God may be glorified, should He be pleased to furnish me with the means, in its being seen that it is not a vain thing to trust in Him; and that thus the faith of His children may be strengthened. 2) The spiritual welfare of fatherless and motherless children. 3) Their temporal welfare. (A Narrative, 1:103)
That was the chief passion and unifying aim of Müller’s ministry: to live a life and lead a ministry in a way that proves God is real, God is trustworthy, and God answers prayer. He built orphanages the way he did to help Christians trust God. He says it over and over again.Taking God at His Word
Now we see why he was so adamant that his faith was not the gift of faith mentioned in 1 Corinthians 12:9, which only some people have, but was the grace of faith that all Christians should have. If Christians simply say, “Müller is in a class by himself; he has the gift of faith,” then we are all off the hook and he is no longer a prod and proof and inspiration for how we ought to live. Here is what he says:
The difference between the gift and the grace of faith seems to me this. According to the gift of faith I am able to do a thing, or believe that a thing will come to pass, the not doing of which, or the not believing of which would not be sin; according to the grace of faith I am able to do a thing, or believe that a thing will come to pass, respecting which I have the word of God as the ground to rest upon, and, therefore, the not doing it, or the not believing it would be sin.
For instance, the gift of faith would be needed, to believe that a sick person should be restored again though there is no human probability: for there is no promise to that effect; the grace of faith is needed to believe that the Lord will give me the necessaries of life, if I first seek the kingdom of God and His righteousness: for there is a promise to that effect (Matthew 6:33). (A Narrative, 1:65)
Müller did not think he had any biblical ground for being certain that God would spare his wife Mary. He admits that a few times in his life he was given “something like the gift (not grace) of faith so that unconditionally I could ask and look for an answer,” but he did not have that rare gift in Mary’s case (A Narrative, 1:65). And so he prayed for her healing conditionally — namely, if it would be good for them and for God’s glory.
But most deeply he prayed that they would be satisfied in God, whatever God did. And God did answer that prayer by helping Müller believe Psalm 84:11: “No good thing does he withhold.” God withheld no good thing from him, and he was satisfied with God’s sovereign will. All this, he says, “springs . . . from taking God at his word, believing what he says” (A Narrative, 2:745).Oh, How He Loves
The aim of George Müller’s life was to glorify God by helping people take God at his word. To that end, he saturated his soul with the word of God. At one point, he said that he read the Bible five or ten times more than he read any other books. His aim was to see God in Jesus Christ crucified and risen from the dead in order that he might maintain the happiness of his soul in God. By this deep satisfaction in God, Müller was set free from the fears and lusts of the world.
And in this freedom of love, he chose a strategy of ministry and style of life that put the reality and trustworthiness and beauty of God on display. To use his own words, his life became a “visible proof to the unchangeable faithfulness of the Lord” (A Narrative, 1:105).
Müller was sustained in this extraordinary life by his deep convictions that God is sovereign over the human heart and can turn it where he wills in answer to prayer; that God is sovereign over life and death; and that God is good in his sovereignty and withholds no good thing from those who walk uprightly. He strengthened himself continually in his wife’s final illness with the words of a hymn:
Best of blessings He’ll provide us,
Nought but good shall e’er betide us,
Safe to glory He will guide us,
Oh, how He loves! (A Narrative, 2:399)
I will let Müller have the closing word of exhortation and pleading for us to join him in the path of radical, joyful faith:
My dear Christian reader, will you not try this way? Will you not know for yourself . . . the preciousness and the happiness of this way of casting all your cares and burdens and necessities upon God? This way is as open to you as to me. . . . Every one is invited and commanded to trust in the Lord, to trust in Him with all his heart, and to cast his burden upon Him, and to call upon Him in the day of trouble. Will you not do this, my dear brethren in Christ? I long that you may do so. I desire that you may taste the sweetness of that state of heart, in which, while surrounded by difficulties and necessities, you can yet be at peace, because you know that the living God, your Father in heaven, cares for you. (A Narrative, 1:521)
After the Lord rescued her from addiction, she shared the gospel with everyone she met. She knew God had seen her emaciated in the grimed alleyways, trembling as she crouched over a syringe, and yet still loved her. She reflected upon her once harrowing life adrift in the city, and amid the brokenness she discerned his grace.
When she recovered from her addiction, her renewed life unfolded as a canvas for his work. Love for the Lord radiated from her, a lamp to shine upon everyone who crossed her path (Matthew 5:14–16).
Then her body failed her. At first, she responded to every setback with praise, reassuring friends of God’s goodness. Yet as her residence in the hospital became seemingly permanent, and as the simple stuff of life — walking, cleaning herself, conversing without gasping for breath — impossible to complete, the sinews of her faith started to fray. She would open her Bible, only to have her eyes, bleary from illness, wander chaotically across the page. She would pray, but the words were difficult, and as days passed and the pain continued, she wondered if God heard.
One day she sat in the corner of the hospital room, another pile of syringes beneath her, shadows rimming her eyes, and lamented, “I don’t even know if God’s with me anymore.”When We Cannot Read
While all afflictions aggrieve us, we learn throughout life to lean into the Lord during hardship by delving into his word, and praying without ceasing (1 Thessalonians 5:17). We learn to seek him all the more fervently when calamity strikes.
Few trials, however, challenge our faith like severe illness. During my decade in clinical medicine, I repeatedly witnessed how disease cuts us off from the very disciplines we rely upon to work through our faith. Reading Scripture is arduous when unrelenting pain and exhaustion grip us, and downright impossible when medications cloud our thinking. Prayer dissolves to single words amid the fog of illness. Wrenched from the home, people, and activities we cherish, we struggle for meaning amid the alarms and the batteries of tests, continually asking, “Why, Lord?” When answers do not come quickly, our faith dwindles, giving way to despair.
Those of us struggling in the hospital need assurance of God’s goodness and steadfast love more than ever. But a hospital stay, or any ordeal with debilitating illness, doesn’t permit elaborate exegesis. We need verses to which we can cling when the waves of pain seize us and hope shrinks away. We need the power of God’s word to uplift our souls, in doses our disease-crippled minds can retain.Ten Passages for Severe Illness
Here are ten passages exemplifying God’s love for us through Christ, to buoy you through the tempest of severe illness. Guard them in your heart.Psalm 18:2
“The Lord is my rock and my fortress and my deliverer, my God, my rock, in whom I take refuge, my shield, and the horn of my salvation, my stronghold.”Romans 8:38–39
“For I am sure that neither death nor life, nor angels nor rulers, nor things present nor things to come, nor powers, nor height nor depth, nor anything else in all creation, will be able to separate us from the love of God in Christ Jesus our Lord.”Psalm 23:4
“Even though I walk through the valley of the shadow of death, I will fear no evil, for you are with me; your rod and your staff, they comfort me.”John 11:25–26
“I am the resurrection and the life. Whoever believes in me, though he die, yet shall he live, and everyone who lives and believes in me shall never die.”Psalm 46:1–3
“God is our refuge and strength, a very present help in trouble. Therefore we will not fear though the earth gives way, though the mountains be moved into the heart of the sea, though its waters roar and foam, though the mountains tremble at its swelling.”2 Corinthians 4:16–18
“Though our outer self is wasting away, our inner self is being renewed day by day. For this light momentary affliction is preparing for us an eternal weight of glory beyond all comparison, as we look not to the things that are seen but to the things that are unseen. For the things that are seen are transient, but the things that are unseen are eternal.”Psalm 73:26
“My flesh and my heart may fail, but God is the strength of my heart and my portion forever.”1 Peter 1:3–5
“According to his great mercy, he has caused us to be born again to a living hope through the resurrection of Jesus Christ from the dead, to an inheritance that is imperishable, undefiled, and unfading, kept in heaven for you, who by God’s power are being guarded through faith for a salvation ready to be revealed in the last time.”Psalm 121:1–2
“I lift up my eyes to the hills. From where does my help come? My help comes from the Lord, who made heaven and earth.”Revelation 21:4–5
“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.” And he who was seated on the throne said, “Behold, I am making all things new.”
At no place, in all his thirteen letters, does the apostle Paul command Christians to fast. Neither does Peter in his. Or John. Or any other book in the New Testament.
And yet, for two thousand years, Christians have fasted. One expression, among others, of healthy, vibrant Christians and churches has been the practice of fasting. However much it may seem to be a lost art today, fasting has endured, for two millennia, as a means of Christ’s ongoing grace for his church.
Why, then, if Christians, unlike Muslims, are not commanded to fast, do we still fast? First of all, Jesus’s teaching in the Gospels, particularly in Matthew, is plain enough. In addition to his own example (Matthew 4:2), and while not directly commanding his followers to fast, Jesus gave instructions for “when you fast,” not “if” (Matthew 6:16–17). More than that, in speaking about what his followers would do after his departure, he says, “then they will fast” (Matthew 9:15; also Mark 2:20; Luke 5:35). Again not a command, but a powerful promise from our Savior’s lips that we’d be foolish to ignore.Early Christians Fasted
Beyond Jesus’s own words, we find a pattern of fasting as the early church grows and multiplies in the book of Acts. In one of the most pivotal junctures in the story, the leaders in Antioch “were worshiping the Lord and fasting” to seek God’s guidance at a key moment in their church life (Acts 13:2–3). While they were doing so, the Holy Spirit spoke to them, “Set apart for me Barnabas and Saul for the work to which I have called them” (Acts 13:2). Then “after fasting (again) and praying they laid their hands on them and sent them off” (Acts 13:3).
Then Acts 14 provides us with a pattern of prayer and fasting “in every church.” As Paul and Barnabas revisited the cities in which they had made new converts on their first missionary journey, they “appointed elders for them in every church” and “with prayer and fasting they committed them to the Lord in whom they had believed” (Acts 14:23).Why God’s People Fast
Overall, the New Testament may have little to say about fasting, but what it does say is important. And in what it doesn’t say, it leans heavily on the Old Testament. The Hebrew Scriptures do not speak the final word on fasting, but they are vital in preparing us to hear the final word from Christ. I count more than 25 mentions of fasting in the Old Testament, but it might be most helpful to look at three groups of passages with one common thread.Inward: To Express Repentance
The first, most common, and perhaps most fundamental type of fast expresses repentance. Think of it as “inward.” God’s people realize their sin — typically not small indiscretions or lapses in judgment, but deep and prolonged rebellion — and come seeking his forgiveness.
For instance, in 1 Samuel 7, God’s people become freshly aware of their past and present idolatries (and God’s hand of discipline). They want to return to the Lord and newly “direct [their] heart to the Lord and serve him only” (1 Samuel 7:3). They assemble, under Samuel’s leadership, fast as a demonstration of their repentance, and confess, “We have sinned against the Lord” (1 Samuel 7:6). Similarly, in 1 Kings 21, even though king Ahab “sold himself to do what was evil in the sight of the Lord” (1 Kings 21:25), he “humbled himself” with fasting when confronted by the prophet Elijah — and God was pleased to delay impending disaster, even for such an evil king (1 Kings 21:29).
In Nehemiah 9, God’s people “assembled with fasting and in sackcloth” to confess their sins and seek God’s forgiveness (Nehemiah 9:1–2). In Daniel 9, the prophet realizes the time for the end of the exile has come. Daniel records, “I turned my face to the Lord God, seeking him by prayer and pleas for mercy with fasting and sackcloth and ashes” (Daniel 9:3). He “prayed to the Lord my God and made confession” (Daniel 9:4) for the sins of God’s people, in hopes of restoration. So also, Joel 1:14 and 2:12 call for fasts of repentance, to return to God from sin — as in Nineveh when the people believe the message Jonah reluctantly delivers. “They called for a fast and put on sackcloth, from the greatest of them to the least of them” (Jonah 3:5).
Old Testament saints often expressed an “inward” heart of repentance to God not only in words but with the exclamation point of fasting. Such fasts did not earn his forgiveness but demonstrated the genuineness of their contrition.Outward: To Grieve Hard Providences
But fasting not only expresses repentance. On many occasions, it gives voice to mourning, grieving, or lamenting difficult providences. The seam that holds together 1 and 2 Samuel is the death of Saul and the nation’s ensuing grief. First Samuel ends with a seven-day fast of mourning for Saul (1 Samuel 31:13; also 1 Chronicles 10:12). As 2 Samuel begins, and news reaches David and his men, “they mourned and wept and fasted until evening for Saul and for Jonathan his son and for the people of the Lord and for the house of Israel, because they had fallen by the sword” (2 Samuel 1:12). It was not an expression of personal sin, but of grief at the death of their king.
When news of Haman’s edict arrives in Esther 4, “there was great mourning among the Jews, with fasting and weeping and lamenting, and many of them lay in sackcloth and ashes” (Esther 4:3). When David prays about his friends’ betrayal of him, he says they rejoice at his misfortune, even though he had “afflicted [him]self with fasting” and mourned when they were sick (Psalm 35:13–14). In Psalm 69, David says he “wept and humbled [his] soul with fasting” (Psalm 69:10), not because of his own sin, but because he was ill-treated. Similarly, Ezra “sat appalled” (Ezra 9:3–4), and fasted (Ezra 9:5), not at his own sin, but having learned “the holy race has mixed itself with the peoples of the lands” (Ezra 9:2).
Fasting gave voice to the pain and sorrow of sudden and severe “outward” circumstances and represented a heart of faith toward God in the midst of great tragedies.Forward: To Seek God’s Favor
Finally, we find a kind of “forward” fast, not in response to sin within or grief without, but more proactive, in a sense, asking for God’s guidance or future favor. The first explicit mention of fasting in the Bible, coming at the sordid end of Judges, has this “forward” component. God’s people not only weep for the civil war unfolding among them but also inquire of the Lord for guidance (like Acts 13:2), whether or not to go out in battle against the tribe of Benjamin (Judges 20:26). We see such a “forward” orientation in 2 Chronicles 20:3: with a great multitude coming against his people, king Jehoshaphat sought the Lord and proclaimed a fast. He pled for God’s direction, “We do not know what to do, but our eyes are on you” (2 Chronicles 20:12).
David also sought God’s rescue on his knees “weak through fasting” (Psalm 109:24) and appealed for healing for his sick newborn with a forward-looking fast (2 Samuel 12:16, 21–23). “Who knows whether the Lord will be gracious to me, that the child may live?” (2 Samuel 12:22).
Fasting “forward” for God’s favor played a crucial role in the preservation and return of God’s people from exile. Before approaching the king to seek his favor, Esther sought God’s favor first, with a fast:
“Go, gather all the Jews to be found in Susa, and hold a fast on my behalf, and do not eat or drink for three days, night or day. I and my young women will also fast as you do. Then I will go to the king, though it is against the law, and if I perish, I perish.” (Esther 4:16)
God answered and, through Esther, saved his people.
Even Darius, king over Israel’s exile in its final stages, sought Daniel’s deliverance from the lions (in an often overlooked part of the story) with fasting (Daniel 6:18). Before setting out from Babylon, Ezra proclaimed a fast “that we might humble ourselves before our God, to seek from him a safe journey for ourselves, our children, and all our goods” (Ezra 8:21, 23). Also for Nehemiah (like 2 Chronicles 20:3), fasting not only expressed grief and mourning (Nehemiah 1:4) but led to seeking God’s favor: “O Lord, let your ear be attentive to the prayer of your servant, and to the prayer of your servants who delight to fear your name, and give success to your servant today” (Nehemiah 1:11). He prayed, and fasted. Then, in faith, he approached the king.
Fasting often served as an intensifier alongside “forward” prayers for God’s guidance, traveling mercies, and special favor.Common Thread: Godward
This is not all the Old Testament has to say about fasting (for instance, see the correctives of Isaiah 58:3–6; Jeremiah 14:12; and Zechariah 7:5; 8:19), but the three general categories hold: fasting expresses (inward) repentance, grieves (outward) tragedies, or seeks God’s (forward) favor. And a common thread holds all true fasting together. Fasting, like prayer, is always Godward.
Faithful fasting, whatever the conditions of its origin, is rooted in human lack and need — for God. We need his help, his favor, his guidance. We need his rescue and comfort in trouble. We need his forgiveness and grace because we have sinned. We need God. He, not human circumstances or activity, is the common denominator of fasting. Fasting expresses to God our pointedly felt need for God. We have daily needs, and unusual ones. We pray for daily bread, and in times of special need, we reach for the prayer-amplifier called fasting.Christian Fasting Is Unique
Christians have one final and essential piece to add: the depth and clarity and surety we now have in Christ. As we express to God our special needs for him — whether in repentance, or in grief, or for his favor — we do so with granite under our feet. When our painful sense of lack tempts us to focus on what we do not have, fasting now reminds us of what we do. Already God has come for us. Already Christ has died and rose. Already we are his by faith. Already we have his Spirit in us, through us, and for us. Already our future is secure. Already we have a true home.
In fasting, we confess we are not home yet, and remember that we are not homeless. In fasting, we cry out to our Groom, and remember that we have his covenant promises. In fasting, we confess our lack, and remember that the one with every resource has pledged his help in his perfect timing.
“Christian fasting is unique among all the fasting in the world,” says John Piper. “It is unique in that it expresses more than longing for Christ or hunger for Christ’s presence. It is a hunger that is rooted in, based on, an already present, experienced reality of Christ in history and in our hearts.”
In Christ, fasting is not just a Godward expression of our need. It is not just an admission that we are not full. Fasting is a statement — in the very midst of our need — that we are not empty.