If my funding dries up, is this God’s sign that I should leave the mission field? Pastor John suggests three ways to interpret a lack of funding.
I remember the morning that my three-year-old son unexpectedly died. I recall words and phrases coming out of my mouth that I never thought would apply to me. I recall making a series of decisions for which I never could have been prepared.
When will his funeral be?
What funeral home will we use?
Where will he be buried?
What? Are we really talking about my child? My life? Are these words really coming out of my mouth?Nothing in the World Prepares You
We live in a culture of competence. We take classes, get degrees, do training, and earn certificates. We make wills and buy insurance. We pride ourselves in our preparation. We pay heed to the mantra, “If you fail to prepare, then prepare to fail.”
However, anyone who has experienced unexpected death or tragedy will tell you that nothing in the world can prepare you for the moments (or seasons) that follow. As a result, helplessness and disorientation fill your consciousness.
For this reason, most of us live in dread of our worst nightmare blindsiding us. What if my child [fill in the blank]? What about my husband? Or my mom? What if my job vanishes? Or what if our government collapses?
In reality, it’s not the lack of competency or skill that creates a feeling of “anticipatory doom.” The dread and anxiety circle the belief that our hearts cannot handle the pain. Before my son died, I believed that tragedy would wreck my heart, torpedo my faith, and ruin my life. Surely I would be sentenced to a lifetime of misery.Grace for the Next Step
Let me tell you from firsthand experience: God’s grace is greater. God’s grace is greater than any pain or sorrow, any tragedy or death that the fallen world can throw at you.
The Bible does not lack examples of people finding themselves in unexpected difficulties. Were the Israelites ready to leave Egypt? Were there months of planning? Was there a Plan B when they reached the sea and felt Pharaoh’s army closing in behind them? Were there fields of ripe crops and streams of fresh water flowing in the desert?
God gave the Israelites the very thing they most needed: the next step. But often only the next step.Expectations in Ruins
Did the disciples foresee Christ’s gruesome death and the scattering of his followers? Did they anticipate their own failures and cowardice when the tables turned on Jesus? Peter certainly didn’t. Did they imagine the persecution, resistance, and violence they would receive when they witnessed to the risen Christ and established his church?
We know from the Gospels that the disciples were naïve to the pain that awaited them. They anticipated liberation from the Romans. They expected to be high-ranking cabinet members in a restored Israelite kingdom. Comfort and prosperity filled their expectations, not suffering and difficulty.
However, we see from the apostolic writings that God filled their hearts with hope, peace, and joy. They were not ruined; they were filled with life.
Peter writes of “a living hope” in Christ (1 Peter 1:3). James counted his trials a “joy” (James 1:2). Paul experienced a peace that “surpasses all understanding” (Philippians 4:7). John proclaimed the “eternal life” that believers have, even in their trials and confusion (1 John 5:11–12). These were people who encountered tragedies that most modern, Western Christians will never know, and God sustained and even prospered their lives and souls.
God gave them the next step.The Grace We Most Need
In that next step, he gave them the most critical grace any person needs in unexpected pain and suffering: God gave them himself.
God presented the risen Christ in the body to his disciples in order to restore their faith and their souls. The appearing of the resurrected Lord was the turning point that transformed their sorrow into joy.
Then God poured down his Holy Spirit on their hearts. The very presence of his person sustained, comforted, and redeemed the disciples and apostles in their worst. God himself was the provision that enabled them to heal and thrive after unexpected pain and tragedy.
The same remains true for all believers. If you find yourself living in dread of the “what ifs,” know that God in the person of Jesus Christ and his Holy Spirit will be with you in the darkness. You will not be ruined.
And if you are presently in the darkness, God has manna for you. This manna transcends all circumstances. It has the power to heal and restore your heart, even while it’s still breaking. Jesus himself, through the Holy Spirit, is the grace for which your pain hungers. God will abundantly supply himself to you.
The happiest people are happy when others are. The most mature love is the love that delights in others’ joy.
When I was first born again, I often lived like a boy stranded between two great blessings. Life with Christ was first about gratitude for what God had done for me at the cross and second about hope for what God would one day do for me in heaven. The in-between was about appreciating the past, anticipating the future, and not sinning in the present.
Following Jesus, however, is not mainly about avoiding sin or escaping hell. If we simplify Christianity down to waiting and obeying until God brings us home, we surrender some of his sweetest graces and reject gifts we wouldn’t trade for anything else. We bury blessings made for us to enjoy long before heaven. Charles Spurgeon says, “He who grows not in the knowledge of Jesus, refuses to be blessed.” To fail to grow is to forfeit grace. To settle for where we are is to surrender more joy, more strength, more peace — more of God.
We don’t simply live between two great blessings in the Christian life. Calvary and eternity do hem us in, behind and before, but between now and forever, we sail on relentless waves of grace and dive in ever deeper seas of love. “Goodness and mercy shall follow me all the days of my life, and I shall dwell in the house of the Lord forever” (Psalms 23:6). The blessings of heaven stream back into each new day, as we lean into Christ and strive to know him more.Curse of Shallow Happiness
To know him is “life eternal,” and to advance in the knowledge of him is to increase in happiness. He who does not long to know more of Christ, knows nothing of him yet. Whoever has sipped this wine will thirst for more, for although Christ does satisfy, yet it is such a satisfaction that the appetite is not choked, but whetted.
That insight about our joy in Christ will rescue us both from unnecessary guilt and shallow happiness. Spurgeon wants to rescue us from shallow happiness by inviting us to know Christ more and more. The temptation will be to not make time, to not make ourselves more vulnerable, to not put in the effort — as if we knew Jesus enough already. But there’s so much more to know, so much more to see, so much more to enjoy. We will never find the bottom of him, even after a hundred thousand years with him in heaven.
None of us is as happy as we could be yet, because we all can know Christ more than we do. When Peter commands us, “Grow in the grace and knowledge of our Lord and Savior Jesus Christ” (2 Peter 3:18), he commands us to be blessed. The growth requires effort and sacrifice and time, and it rewards us a hundredfold in happiness.Even Joy Awakens Guilt
Spurgeon also releases us from unnecessary guilt: “Christ does satisfy, yet it is such a satisfaction that the appetite is not choked, but whetted.” Unsatisfied satisfaction. Once we learn that Christ not only saves sinners, but satisfies, our own lack of joy can hang like a dark cloud over us. The joy of others, instead of inspiring us to pursue Jesus more, quietly condemns our felt sense of deficit. We know we should be happier in him, and so we lose heart over how little joy we feel. Jesus says, “Everyone who drinks of this water will be thirsty again, but whoever drinks of the water that I will give him will never be thirsty again” (John 4:13–14). So why are we so thirsty?
Well, it might be because we’re finally drinking from the right well. Someone has now satisfied us like nothing else before, and we’ve realized just how much we’ve missed. We say with the psalmist, “As a deer pants for flowing streams, so pants my soul for you, O God. My soul thirsts for God, for the living God” (Psalms 42:1–2). That is the longing of joy, not despair — to taste fullness of life, and want as much as we can possibly have. We’re desperate, but not deprived. When C.S. Lewis discovered joy in God, he wrote, “I was sick with desire; that sickness better than health” (Surprised by Joy, 119).
If you satisfy your soul with Jesus, you’ll never thirst again (John 4:13–14) — and you will begin to thirst like never before. If you know him and enjoy him, you don’t need to feel guilty about the joy you don’t have yet. Wherever you were yesterday, focus on drinking a little more of him today.God Gives the Growth
What does “more” even mean? The how can be as paralyzing as guilt or fear. How do we know Christ more? It does begin with God’s word — hearing from him, about him, to increase our joy in him. But knowing Christ is anything but simple, just like knowing our neighbor or co-worker is not simple. The steps may be simple — make time, initiate conversation, listen well, ask questions — but each person is complex, dynamic, and deep. How much more the God-man?
If we want to grow, we put ourselves at his feet to listen and pray, and then we look for him everywhere we go. The apostle Paul asks God for the “strength to comprehend with all the saints what is the breadth and length and height and depth, and to know the love of Christ that surpasses knowledge, that you may be filled with all the fullness of God” (Ephesians 3:18–19). God wants us to know a love that surpasses knowledge — and we do. He wants us to search its unsearchable breadth and length and height and depth — and we can. But knowing begins with asking — in Ephesians 3 and in our own growth. It is God who gives the growth (1 Corinthians 3:6–7). When we want to know him more, we rely on him even more, by his Spirit who lives in us (Romans 8:9). We learn more of God with God.
Did you refuse to be blessed yesterday? If you have tasted the finer wine — “the surpassing worth of knowing Christ Jesus my Lord” (Philippians 3:8) — don’t ignore your thirst for more, and don’t neglect the well today. Yes, Jesus does satisfy, and with “such a satisfaction that the appetite is not choked, but whetted.” To know him more, even a little more, is to take another blessed step toward heaven.
God doesn’t show his love for us by giving us health, wealth, and prosperity. He reveals his love to us by giving us more of himself.
As Australian nurse Bronnie Ware cared for the dying, she heard them express five common regrets again and again. So, what is one of the deepest regrets of the dying? Not prioritizing friendship. On our deathbeds, most of us will wish we connected more often, and more deeply, with friends.
We’re experiencing a friendship famine in our day. As individualism increases, social bonds decrease. And we replace flesh-and-blood relationships with digital illusions of the same. Studies show that Americans have fewer and fewer close friends. Many people don’t feel lonely, but when they stop to think about the depth of their relationships, they often realize that they are more isolated than they thought.
I want to plead with you to live the rest of your days rightly valuing this gift of true friendship. But if we’re going to value friendship as we should, we need to know why it’s so valuable. Why is friendship worth all the effort we can give it?1. You Are Human
Most foundationally, you need friendship because you are inescapably communal. You are made in God’s image, and God is not solitary — he eternally exists as a triune fellowship of love. This is why “it is not good that the man should be alone” (Genesis 2:18). Our triune God made us to reflect him, and one beautiful implication is that we are wired for lives of relational fullness with other people.
God planted the longing for true friendship in our DNA. We won’t be able to live a fully flourishing life without it.2. Friendship Is the ‘Highest Happiness’
Jonathan Edwards reflected deeply and often about true joy. Look at how he connects our happiness and friendship: “The well-being and happiness of society is friendship. ’Tis the highest happiness of all moral agents” (Works, 23:350). Edwards was a deep thinker. He was precise with words. He was a faithful pastor and theologian. When he claims that friendship is our highest happiness, I wonder: Why do we not seem to think or speak about friendship that way?
And Edwards is not alone. See how some of our other Christian heroes thought of this relationship:
- Augustine: “In this world two things are essential: life and friendship. Both should be highly prized and we must not undervalue them” (Sermon 299D).
- John Newton: “I think to a feeling mind there is no temporal pleasure equal to the pleasure of friendship” (Letters, 331).
- C.S. Lewis: “Friendship is the greatest of worldly goods. Certainly to me it is the chief happiness of life” (Collected Letters, 174).
We have lost something of the joyful wonder of this gift — experienced vertically with God and horizontally with one another. Which means we have a great opportunity to recover our forgotten heritage.3. You Won’t Make It Alone
God brings us to faith, and he will cause us to persevere in this faith (Philippians 1:6). And he uses means, and one of his primary instruments is his people.
The author of Hebrews calls us to “exhort one another every day” (Hebrews 3:13) and to “encourage one another” (Hebrews 10:25). You and I need more than weekly meetings. We need relationships filled with discipleship intentionality. True friendship is an affectionate bond forged between people as they persevere in the faith with truth and trust.
Frodo carried the ring to Mordor, but he never would have made it without Sam.4. Friendship Halves Your Sorrows
We need companions who sit with us in days of darkness. We need them to embody and remind us of Christ’s heart for sinners and sufferers. One of the greatest gifts we can give one another in depression is our companionship.
J.C. Ryle wrote, “This world is full of sorrow because it is full of sin. It is a dark place. It is a lonely place. It is a disappointing place. The brightest sunbeam in it is a friend. Friendship halves our sorrows and doubles our joys” (“The Best Friend!”). Many of us carry around great pain and sorrow. True companions cut those sorrows in half, often with just their mere presence and the rightly placed words.5. Friendship Points to the Meaning of the Universe
Friendship points to the ultimate end of our existence. God doesn’t just forgive us through Christ; he befriends us (John 15:13–15). He saves us to glorify him by enjoying fellowship with him forever. We are headed toward an eternal world of fellowship — with God and with all whom he’s befriended through Christ.
Friendship is also the means to this end, because the cross is the most heroic act of friendship history has ever known. Jesus said, “Greater love has no one than this, that someone lay down his life for his friends” (John 15:13). The cross is the greatest expression of love, and Jesus wants us to understand it as a sacrifice for friends. The single greatest moment in history, where we see God’s glory shine most brightly, is a cosmic act of friendship.Forging Friendship
Let’s treasure God above friendship, thank God for friendship, and enjoy God through friendship. Admittedly, true friends can be hard to find, and many of us can recall friendships that disappointed or injured us deeply. But these five reasons show why friendship, despite all the mess and pain, is worth more effort than we often give it.
What next steps might you take to cultivate deeper friendships? Identify a few people and plan time to get together, such as a weekly rhythm of coffee or lunch. Reach out to a friend you’ve lost regular contact with. Plunge your conversations below the shallows and into the deeper waters of life. Oxygenate your friendships with affirmation and encouragement.
God helping us, let’s make it to our deathbeds without relational regret.
When good happens in society — a government is fixed, slavery is abolished, or minorities are given equality — is God secretly at work?
“The Lord is my strength and my song, and he has become my salvation. . . . Who is like you, O Lord, among the gods? Who is like you, majestic in holiness, awesome in glorious deeds, doing wonders?” –Exodus 15:2, 11
If only we could see the seas God held back to deliver us from sin, how much more prone might we be to stop and sing about his majesty?
We can only comprehend a fraction of the power of Satan, the hideousness of our sin, and the fury of hell. Before Christ pulled us from the stormy waves, Satan ruled over every fiber and impulse of our being, leading us on the path of death with his breadcrumb trail of lies. Before God sent his Son to the cross, and broke into our lives by his Spirit, sin filled our souls like water in a sinking ship, drowning our hope with our own filth. Before we received the gift of faith — and through faith forgiveness, joy, and eternal life — hell stood taller than the tallest wave in the worst hurricane, threatening a pain we cannot imagine that gets worse every day forever.
But God parted the seas, calmed the waves, and raised our sinking ship to life. And he has placed us safe on solid ground.Lodged Between Deaths
Moses sings in Exodus 15 because God has done a miracle, rescuing his people from an enemy far bigger and stronger than them, parting the Red Sea for them, and then destroying Egypt’s army precisely where Israel walked safely. Moses celebrates, “When the horses of Pharaoh with his chariots and his horsemen went into the sea, the Lord brought back the waters of the sea upon them, but the people of Israel walked on dry ground in the midst of the sea” (Exodus 15:19).
Has there ever been a more stunning picture of our salvation? Soldiers in chariots press God’s people from behind while the seas rage before them. They are lodged between deaths, suddenly even more aware of their weakness and desperation. Escape is improbable. Captivity is inevitable. Victory is inconceivable.
And then God pulls back the waves like linen curtains. He had brought them to the precipice of despair in order to show them just how small the soldiers and the seas were next to him. “At the blast of your nostrils,” Moses sings, “the waters piled up; the floods stood up in a heap; the deeps congealed in the heart of the sea” (Exodus 15:8). Waves don’t pile up. Floods don’t hold back. Seas don’t stand still. Unless God blows his nose. He drove back miles of raging water with a breath from his nose. The Lord was their salvation.He Is My Salvation
Before Jesus became our Lord, Savior, and greatest Treasure, we were in greater danger against a greater enemy with even more at stake. Pressing in behind us were a horde of demons, tempting, accusing, deceiving. Before us, the sea of our sin and all its consequences — an eternity of torment apart from God. We had no weapons with which to fight, and we had no idea how to swim. We were lodged between deaths.
Until God dove in and drowned for us. Isaiah paints that picture for us: “Surely he has borne our griefs and carried our sorrows. . . . He was pierced for our transgressions; he was crushed for our iniquities. . . . All we like sheep have gone astray; we have turned — every one — to his own way; and the Lord has laid on him the iniquity of us all” (Isaiah 53:4–6). He died to give you dry ground.
There is a more stunning picture of our salvation: a man lodged between two beams of death, carrying the hideousness of our sin and facing the fury of hell. When God drove back the seas for us, he drove the nails into Jesus’s hands and his feet. He was not weak like us, but he became weak for us. He had not sinned like us, but he became sin for us. He was not condemned like us, but he took our wretched seat on the cross. Even the Red Sea looks small and insignificant compared to Calvary.More Than My Salvation
But God is more than our salvation. In fact, if he is not also our song, he is not our salvation. Again Moses sings, “The Lord is my strength and my song, and he has become my salvation; this is my God, and I will praise him, my father’s God, and I will exalt him” (Exodus 15:2). When we stand before the cross, with dry and safe ground under our feet, it would be outrageous to remain silent.
When God led his people out of Egypt, he meant for them to parade like a choir. He wanted the joy dripping from their songs to announce his strength, his mercy, his wisdom, his justice to anyone listening. So, they sang, “Who is like you, O Lord, among the gods? Who is like you, majestic in holiness, awesome in glorious deeds, doing wonders?” (Exodus 15:11).
They were rescued from Pharaoh; we were rescued from hellfire. They were given Canaan; we’ve been given heaven. They were entrusted with a promise; we have met the Messiah. So, what will we sing?
Glory be to God the Father.
Glory be to God the Son.
Glory be to God the Spirit.
The Lord is our salvation.
Desiring God partnered with The Worship Initiative to write short meditations for more than one hundred popular worship songs and hymns. “The Lord Is My Salvation” appears on the album Hymns, Vol. 1. You can download the new recording of this hymn free of charge.
If God has placed others-oriented men and women in your life, he has done so expecting that, by his grace, you might imitate them.
I was awake for only a few forgetful seconds before disappointment crashed in through the door.
The past months had turned into a painful season of relational heartache, and the routine had become familiar. Each night, yesterday’s disappointment would leave for a few sleeping hours, only to return moments after my waking. The day’s hopes, fragile but sincere, were trampled morning after morning.
Each sunrise reminded me of hopes deferred. I often walked into my days with little relish or expectation. The world may have been moving all around me, but I felt stranded on life’s train platform — stuck, stalled, motionless, waiting. Life could begin again if only this wait would end.
In moments like those, I needed a different perspective on my waiting, one that lifted my eyes from all my disappointed hopes, freed me from merely watching the present pass by, and handed me a different agenda for my days. In Psalm 37, David gives four sets of commands to transform how we wait: Don’t fret. Commit your way to the Lord. Do good. Delight yourself in the Lord.Don’t Fret
Fret not yourself because of evildoers; be not envious of wrongdoers! (Psalm 37:1)
Before David tells us what we ought to do while we wait, he warns us about what not to do. “Fret not yourself,” he says. In other words, don’t worry about other people — especially other people who are enjoying the gifts we are waiting for.
In the psalm, David is thinking particularly of “evildoers” and “wrongdoers,” people who get ahead in life by casting God’s commands behind their back. But we can apply David’s repeated command to “fret not” (Psalm 37:1, 7–8) to our friends as well as our enemies. God knows where our minds are tempted to run while we wait. We not only daydream about what we wish life were like; we also remember — often with a stab of longing — what life really is like for so many. Waiting eats away at us not only because our lives feel so empty, but also because others’ seem so full.
When we allow our minds to churn away with thoughts about others, we open our hearts to a bitter temptation: envy. Envy’s words sound so justified. “Why did God give her a husband? She hasn’t waited as long as I have.” “Why do they have a child? They haven’t wanted one as much as we have.” “Why did God heal him? He hasn’t prayed as much as I have.”
Envy may gratify us for the moment, but it will soon rot our bones away (Proverbs 14:30). God has better ways for us to spend our waiting.Commit Your Way to the Lord
Trust in the Lord. . . . Commit your way to the Lord; trust in him, and he will act. (Psalm 37:3, 5)
If we refuse to fix our eyes on others, where will we fix them? On God, who walks alongside us in our waiting.
David’s word for commit comes from the image of rolling something away. Moses uses the same word when he writes, “Jacob came near and rolled the stone from the well’s mouth” (Genesis 29:10). And Isaiah tells us that the skies will “roll up like a scroll” (Isaiah 34:4).
When we commit our way to God, we lift all the burdens of our waiting from our frail shoulders and roll them onto our Father. We wake up each morning, feel the dull weight of disappointment settle over us, and then go to our Father in prayer. We set each hope, anxiety, and sorrow before him. We name them specifically. And then, by faith, we roll them upon God: “Father, will you please carry these for me? I know you can. I believe you will. Please help my unbelief.”
And we walk away with this great assurance: “He will act” (Psalm 37:5). He may not give the gift we’re waiting for. But he will shelter us with his presence (Psalm 37:28). He will uphold our fainting souls (Psalm 37:17, 24). And he will give us the grace to be content with what we have, however little (Psalm 37:16).
In the end, we will see that he has withheld no good thing (Psalm 84:11). Our futures are never safer than when we roll them into God’s hands.Do Good
Trust in the Lord, and do good; dwell in the land and befriend faithfulness. (Psalm 37:3)
When we make it our daily business to roll every burden onto God, we will find ourselves envying others less, and dreaming more about how to do them good. We will not let our waiting keep us from usefulness, but will instead take whatever comfort we are receiving from God, and begin searching for others who need it.
Gladys Aylward, a twentieth-century English missionary to China, knew how to do good while she waited. Early in her career as a single missionary, she began to desire a husband. Elisabeth Elliot writes, “Being a woman of prayer she prayed — a straightforward request that God would call a man from England, send him straight out to China, and have him propose” (“Virginity”). And then she waited.
Well, the man never came. But in the meantime, Aylward did not sit on the shores of China, waiting for his boat to arrive. She instead gave herself to China’s orphans — teaching, adopting, protecting, and leading many to Jesus. While she waited to become a wife, she became a mother to hundreds of Chinese children.
Regardless of our situation, God has work for us to do in our waiting. We have lonely people to befriend, refugees to welcome, Sunday school classes to teach, and younger believers to disciple. We may still carry the ache of unfulfilled longing with us wherever we go. But with our own futures secure in God’s hands, we can give ourselves to doing good.Delight Yourself in the Lord
Delight yourself in the Lord, and he will give you the desires of your heart. (Psalm 37:4)
Finally, David gives a command that seems to stretch the limits of possibility. When you walk through a season of painful waiting, don’t merely roll your burdens into God’s hands, and don’t merely do good to others. Also brim with delight in God.
Waiting, agonizing as it often feels, can remind us where true delight comes from. In Deuteronomy 8, as Moses looks back on the Israelites’ forty-year wait to enter the Promised Land, he says,
“He humbled you and let you hunger and fed you with manna, which you did not know, nor did your fathers know, that he might make you know that man does not live by bread alone, but man lives by every word that comes from the mouth of the Lord.” (Deuteronomy 8:3)
God withheld normal bread from the Israelites so that they might know that life does not come from bread. Life comes from God, our only source of lasting delight. Similarly with us, God often sends us into the wilderness of waiting to show us again where our life comes from. Life does not come from marriage. Life does not come from health. Life does not come from a good job. Life comes from Christ.
Waiting forces us to answer the question, “Where is your chief delight?” If our chief delight is in whatever we see at the end of our wait, then this wilderness will begin to feel like a death trap. But if our chief delight is in God himself, then we will find that he knows how to make rivers flow in the desert. And we will learn how to wait well.
Our deepest need is to know Jesus better. But we won’t see him more clearly unless we ask God to change our hearts.
Charles Spurgeon (1834–1892) once described a remarkable experience he had while preaching:
He suddenly broke off from his [sermon] subject, and pointing in a certain direction, said, “Young man, those gloves you are wearing have not been paid for: you have stolen them from your employer.” At the close of the service, a young man, looking very pale and greatly agitated, came to the room which was used as a vestry, and begged for a private interview with Spurgeon. On being admitted, he placed a pair of gloves upon the table, and tearfully said, “It’s the first time I have robbed my master, and I will never do it again. You won’t expose me, sir, will you? It would kill my mother if she heard that I had become a thief.” (Spurgeon, 60)
What do you call Spurgeon’s experience? Is there anything we can compare it with in the New Testament? How about this: “If all prophesy, and an unbeliever or outsider enters, he is convicted by all, he is called to account by all, the secrets of his heart are disclosed, and so, falling on his face, he will worship God and declare that God is really among you” (1 Corinthians 14:24–25)?
According to the apostle Paul’s description, I would argue that what Spurgeon experienced is a good example of the New Testament spiritual gift of prophecy. And it wasn’t an isolated experience for the Prince of Preachers.
I could tell as many as a dozen similar cases in which I pointed at somebody in the hall without having the slightest knowledge of the person, or any idea that what I said was right, except that I believed I was moved by the Spirit to say it; and so striking has been my description, that the persons have gone away, and said to their friends, “Come, see a man that told me all things that ever I did; beyond a doubt, he must have been sent of God to my soul, or else he could not have described me so exactly.” (Grudem, 357)Prophecy by Any Other Name
Now, Spurgeon didn’t call these revelatory experiences “prophecies,” because as a cessationist, he reserved that term for Holy Spirit-inspired, authoritative, infallible, Scripture-equivalent revelation — the kind of revelation all evangelicals agree ceased at the close of the apostolic age. Spurgeon called his experiences “impressions of the Holy Spirit”:
There are occasionally impressions of the Holy Spirit which guide men where no other guidance could have answered the end. . . . I have been the subject of such impressions myself and have seen very singular results therefrom. (Spurgeon, “A Well-Ordered Life,” 368)
I daresay he did. But, though I blush to offer him correction, I believe Charles Spurgeon indeed prophesied in these instances. I believe this because of how Paul speaks of the spiritual gift of prophecy, particularly in 1 Corinthians 14 — the chapter in the New Testament that provides the clearest apostolic instructions on the use and evaluation of prophecy.Authoritative or Not?
Cessationists assert that in the New Testament, “the gift of prophecy consisted of the authoritative and infallible reporting of revealed messages from God,” and that continuationists simply “use New Testament terminology to describe . . . spiritual experiences [that] do not match what was actually happening in the first-century church.”
However, New Testament exegesis, particularly in 1 Corinthians 14, doesn’t support that assertion. Don Carson argues that,
When Paul presupposes in 1 Corinthians 14:30 that the gift of prophecy depends on revelation, we are not limited to a form of authoritative revelation that threatens the finality of the canon. To argue in such a way is to confuse the terminology of Protestant systematic theology with the terminology of the Scripture writers. The prophecy Paul has in mind is revelatory and Spirit-prompted [but] . . . none of this means it is necessarily authoritative, infallible, or canon-threatening. (Showing the Spirit, Kindle Locations 2726–2731, italics added)
Rather, when we look carefully at the phenomena Paul describes, and his instructions on their application and evaluation, what we find aligns more accurately with an understanding of prophecy as Holy Spirit-prompted, subordinate revelation that readers would expect to be partially or fallibly reported, and therefore intended to be tested against and subject to apostolic and prophetic authoritative revelation, which is now contained for us in the sixty-six books of the Holy Bible.
In other words, much of the prophecy that took place in the first-century church would have looked very similar to Spurgeon’s “impressions of the Holy Spirit.”How Did Paul Think About Prophecy?
Exegetically, the key chapter that helps us understand how Paul viewed the gift of prophecy is 1 Corinthians 14. Consider the following observations that indicate Paul had something different in mind than Old Testament prophecy.
First, Paul begins the chapter with the remarkable command, “Earnestly desire the spiritual gifts, especially that you may prophesy” (1 Corinthians 14:1). Notice the unqualified way Paul, the former Pharisee, exhorts all Christians to “earnestly desire” this gift, without including any serious warning to those who would presumptuously and falsely speak what others would receive as God’s authoritative, infallible word — especially in light of the Old Testament warnings to false prophets (Deuteronomy 13:5; 18:20). In contrast, consider the apostle James’s caution that not many should be teachers and subject themselves to stricter judgment (James 3:1). Does it not seem odd that none are warned against the dangers of exercising the authoritative, infallible, Scripture-level gift of prophecy, but all are warned against the dangers of exercising the fallible gift of teaching?
Second, Paul emphasizes the role prophecy plays in upbuilding, encouraging, and consoling members of specific local churches (1 Corinthians 14:3). Granted, this isn’t an exhaustive description. But if Paul had in mind authoritative, infallible, verbal revelation, it’s odd that he doesn’t explicitly emphasize doctrinal instruction or other important aspects of canon-level revelation.
Third, the one hypothetical prophecy example Paul includes in 1 Corinthians 14:24–25 gives us an idea of the kind of revelation Paul had in mind: the specific secrets of an individual’s heart being disclosed, demonstrating the reality of God and his intimate knowledge of individuals, and pointing to the validity of the Christian gospel. Paul had in mind the kind of revelation Spurgeon received for that young man.
Fourth, Paul’s instructions for how prophecy in local churches should be exercised and evaluated in an ongoing way seem odd if what he has in mind are Old Testament-like prophets delivering authoritative, canon-level revelation (1 Corinthians 14:29–33). This oddness only increases when we consider that Paul forbids women from publicly evaluating prophecy (1 Corinthians 14:34) but had previously acknowledged that women are welcome to publicly deliver prophesy (1 Corinthians 11:5). If Paul has canon-level revelation in mind, which of the two is more authoritative, the prophetic content or the evaluation?
Fifth, it’s important to note that Paul asserted his apostolic authority over, not submission to, prophecies in local churches (1 Corinthians 14:37–38). This indicates he didn’t consider such prophecies as authoritative and infallible — meaning, he didn’t put them in the same category as the authoritative revelations he himself received from the Lord.
To add one further observation, from outside of 1 Corinthians 14, Paul exhorted Christians to not despise prophecies — meaning there were (and still are) real temptations to do so. Rather, they were to “weigh” or “test” them and only “hold fast what is good” (1 Thessalonians 5:19–21; cf. 1 Corinthians 14:29). Here again, Paul instructs readers to respond to these kinds of prophecies differently than he and Peter instruct them to respond to scriptural revelation (2 Timothy 3:16; 2 Peter 1:20), which even at that time included authoritative apostolic writings (2 Peter 3:15–16).
These, among other reasons, lead continuationists to believe that the New Testament gift of prophecy is Spirit-prompted, yet partially and fallibly reported revelation that must always be subordinate to apostolic, doctrinal authority — which for us today is the Bible.You Should Desire to Prophesy
And since continuationists understand prophecy in this way — that this spiritual gift poses no necessary threat to the canon of Scripture or challenges its sufficiency — there is every reason to believe that the Holy Spirit still “apportions [this gift] to each one individually as he wills” (1 Corinthians 12:11). And there’s no reason to believe the gift of prophecy will cease until “the perfect comes”: when Jesus returns (1 Corinthians 13:8–12).
And if the spiritual gift of prophecy continues in our day, what are we to do? Paul tells us exactly what to do: “Pursue love, and earnestly desire the spiritual gifts, especially that you may prophesy” (1 Corinthians 14:1).
It is not an option; it is an instruction. It is not a suggestion; it is an imperative. And whenever God gives us a straightforward command in the Bible, the default response he expects from us is to trust and obey. John Piper gives us this challenge:
I wonder how many of us have said for years that we are open to God’s moving in spiritual gifts, but have been disobedient to this command to earnestly desire them, especially prophecy? I would ask all of us: are we so sure of our hermeneutical procedure for diminishing the gifts that we would risk walking in disobedience to a plain command of Scripture?Prophesy for Your Joy
We should all want to obey God. But guilt over our failures to obediently pursue this gift is not the primary, deepest motivation God wants to use to help us begin or begin again. Prophecy, like all the spiritual gifts, is a gift! And God loves to give good gifts to his children (Luke 11:13). He wants us to hear his command that we earnestly desire to prophesy as an invitation to pursue our own (and others’) joy in him!
Like the young man experienced in Spurgeon’s church that remarkable morning, God wants at times to reveal his intimate knowledge of us as individuals and our unique circumstances that we might experience his personal love for us, a love he infallibly revealed to all his children in Scripture. He wants our churches to exercise this gift so we and our brothers and sisters will be upbuilt, encouraged, challenged, and consoled as we experience together the friendship of God through his Spirit. He wants us to prophesy because he loves us.
Therefore, since the God of Scripture has revealed all this to us in Scripture, let us continue to earnestly desire that we may prophesy — until the Lord returns.
Whether we attend the wedding of a couple living together or decide to stay home, we are saying something. So what exactly should we say?
Last month I gave birth to my third child. It was the painful peeling back of twenty-first century comforts that labor always is. Agonizing, and undignified: my life suddenly interrupted by invasive procedures, my mind rolling from the shock of natural processes — writhing and shivering — to the mental disconnect of medicalized interventions.
Labor in the West today is an odd coupling. Our most ancient, primal processes stitched awkwardly together with state-of-the-art technology. I was not having a “natural birth,” and yet much of what happened was unavoidably natural.
As I lay on the hospital bed, waiting to meet my son, two windows opened in my mind.The Suffering of Life’s Beginning
The first was a window onto birth: real birth, as experienced by billions of women before me. Delivering a child was hard for me, despite every help and convenience, every nurse and doctor who attended me, every soothing drug that seeped into my veins to numb the pain. My body was ravaged. But I had help in every form and a faithful husband by my side — that day and for the many days to come. What would it be like without all this?
My mind flipped through scenes of other women giving birth — scenes I have only accessed through words on a page or images on a screen. Women who give birth alone. Women who have no medical help and confront the harshness of birth without relief. Women who know their child may die — or that they themselves may die — in the process. We in the West have stretched ourselves away from these realities, but lying in a labor and delivery ward, the specter of what birth has meant to billions hovered around me and I could not shake it.
Then came the questions: how could God allow this much pain to this many? The stark suffering written into the script of human beginnings. The lonely lament of women who give birth on the margins, hiding in shadows or exposed by circumstance. And yet God is — as the slave-girl mother Hagar named him — the God who sees (Genesis 16:13).
He is the God who tenderly witnesses this suffering, who meets us in it if we turn to him. And he is the God who alone can truly help, whether we lie on a dirt floor or a hospital bed. Indeed, he is the God who relates to us like a woman giving birth. He is the Rock who bore us, the God who gave us birth (Deuteronomy 32:18). Though a mother may forget the baby at her breast, he will not forget us (Isaiah 49:15). There are no tidy answers from this God. But there is the broken body of his Son, naked and humiliated, dying so that we might live.The Suffering of Life’s Ending
And then my mind wandered forward. I will never endure the harshness of an unhelped birth. But one day, I will face the harshness of death. One day, my visit to a hospital will not end with a new life in my arms, but with my cold dead body covered by a hot-pressed sheet. The doctors will attempt to help. They will bring their machines and interventions. But they will be running for a train that is gaining speed. In the end, my hands will slip through their fingers. It may be an undignified farewell. Time of death called. The best I can hope for is that my children will be there. My husband, if we follow statistical norms, will have already paved the way. What then will be my hope, as lights flicker and monitors blink?
The story of Lazarus raised from the dead has hung around my mind for many years. Not because of the narrative denouement, when Jesus shouts, “Lazarus, come out!” and the man who was dead comes out (John 11:43–44) — though the scene is marvelous. But because of the quiet conversation Jesus has with Martha first. Jesus forced this crisis.
Martha called for him when her brother was sick, and Jesus did not come. He deliberately let Lazarus die, waiting until he had been dead four days. And then he came. “I am the resurrection and the life,” he told this woman through her tears. “Whoever believes in me, though he die, yet shall he live, and everyone who lives and believes in me shall never die. Do you believe this?” (John 11:25–26).
When I come to that final hospital bed, I must believe not just in a man who is my ticket to eternity, but in the man who is eternity itself. Jesus does not just give us resurrection. He is the resurrection and the life. Without him, there is only death. With him, there is a life no lonely death can take away. Giving birth was, for me, a trial run — a window onto the vista of death. The modern-day blinds were drawn back for a moment. He is the resurrection and the life. Do I believe this?
Among all the miracles and surprises surrounding God himself becoming man, Luke 2:51 may sound the most unexpected note of all: Jesus “went down [from Jerusalem] with [Joseph and Mary] and came to Nazareth and was submissive to them.”
God submitted to man. The God-child obeyed his mere human parents. And in doing so, he dignified the most basic, and enduring, of everyday relational dynamics. In our modern age, taught to despise the ideas of submission and obedience, the Son of God himself, worthy of limitless worship and praise, shatters our shallow conceptions of value and worth. Jesus’s obedience to his parents challenges the insecurities in us that often make us averse to submit and obey.
God himself in human flesh subjected himself to two average, ordinary, inexperienced parents in an obscure, backwater town called Nazareth.
Jesus obeyed his parents.Who’s Afraid to Submit?
By the end of Luke 2, we’re no longer dealing with baby Jesus. He is 12 years old (Luke 2:42), on the cusp of adulthood in the ancient world. Joseph and Mary are the proper recipients of Jesus’s submission, even when he was old enough to stand on his own two feet, because of God’s calling on them as parents, not because of their competencies.
Jesus is likely already more competent in the faith than his parents. After all, he is not only “filled with wisdom” (Luke 2:40) but also “without sin” (Hebrews 4:15). He not only sits with the nation’s teachers and formulates appropriate questions, but “all who heard him were amazed at his understanding and his answers” (Luke 2:47). That he eclipsed his parents in spiritual and theological competency didn’t put him in charge, however. Not yet. How impressive would his emerging understanding have been if he had overlooked one of Moses’s ten clearest words, “Honor your father and your mother” (Exodus 20:12)?
Here Jesus, at age 12, teaches us an essential lesson for any age: godly submission, in whatever context, does not stem from lack of competency. We are never too smart, too skilled, too experienced, or too spiritual for God-given submission.
None of this means Jesus’s human obedience was automatic. How else would he learn it than from godly parents who taught it and required it? Godly submission doesn’t happen without effort (from parents and from child). It is learned. Just as Jesus “learned obedience [to his heavenly Father] through what he suffered” (Hebrews 5:8), so he also learned it by Joseph’s patience and care.Limits of Earthly Submission
His submission to his parents did have limits. His Father in heaven was the sole recipient of his absolute allegiance, even as his father and mother on earth received his real and substantial respect. We come within earshot of the tension. When Mary finally finds her 12-year-old after three days, she says, exasperated, “Son, why have you treated us so? Behold, your father and I have been searching for you in great distress” (Luke 2:48). Jesus responds, “Why were you looking for me? Did you not know that I must be in my Father’s house?” (Luke 2:49). His parents don’t understand at the time (Luke 2:50), but “the saying” shouldn’t be lost on us now.
His highest and final submission was in heaven. Submission on earth, however proper, would not keep him from obeying his Father, dwelling in his Father’s house, or even parting from his parents for three days. His ultimate submission was to God; his second submission, to Joseph and Mary. Because his Father said, “Honor your father and your mother.”Glimpses of God and Man
Yet the place in the story where we most glimpse the 12-year-old Christ’s “admirable conjunction of diverse excellencies,” as Jonathan Edwards put it, may be in Luke 2:46–47:
After three days they found him in the temple, sitting among the teachers, listening to them and asking them questions. And all who heard him were amazed at his understanding and his answers.
This is no small tribute to both his parents’ diligence and the Spirit’s power. We see his true humanness as he listens and asks questions. He has questions because he is human. He’s growing. He’s learning. He’s humble enough to listen, and to admit what he doesn’t know by asking questions. And in it all, he is stunningly submissive.
But he doesn’t only have questions. He has enough backbone to speak. And when he does, “all who heard him were amazed at his understanding and his answers.” He spoke up because his Father has spoken. God has revealed many precious truths about himself, and even preserved them in writing. “Long ago, at many times and in many ways, God spoke to our fathers by the prophets” (Hebrews 1:1). The Father has not been silent, and so the Son (and we ourselves, if we’ve listened) is not without understanding and answers.Not So Among You
A day was coming when all things would be subjected to him (1 Corinthians 15:28), but first his Father would have him learn what it meant to be subject himself. First, he would learn “from the bottom” the beauty and joy of God-designed submission. Then he would know, and display, “from the top” the true heart of leading like his Father: not lording it over those in his charge (Mark 10:42; 2 Corinthians 1:24), not being served but serving (Mark 10:44–45), not squashing his subjects but working with them for their joy (2 Corinthians 1:24; Hebrews 13:17).
The God-man will lead as one who knows what it’s like to follow. He will wield all authority in heaven and on earth as one who knows what it means to submit, on earth, to his fellow man. He learns first to obey his parents before others will be called to obey him. So also his people — Christians, little christs — he will call, under his lordship, to be “submissive to rulers and authorities” (Titus 3:1; Romans 13:1, 5; 1 Peter 2:13), and in church life, to “be subject to the elders” (1 Peter 5:5). As Jesus’s submission prepares him to shepherd, so also his flock. Angels, and the world to come, will be subject to his sheep (1 Corinthians 6:3; Hebrews 2:5).One Step at a Time
At age 12, Jesus is not yet carrying his own crossbeam to Golgotha, but as he obeys his parents, he walks the path that will eventually lead him up the hill. His own self-humbling — which began in coming as an infant and now extends in submitting to his parents — will culminate “by becoming obedient to the point of death, even death on a cross” (Philippians 2:8).
Mary says she has been searching for him “in great distress” (Luke 2:48). Twelve years prior, in that same city, Simeon had prophesied to her that “a sword will pierce through your own soul also” (Luke 2:35). Also. She would not be the only one pierced. Indeed he would be more than pierced. And as her son goes down with her from Jerusalem, and comes to Nazareth, and is submissive to her and Joseph, he walks the terrifying and glorious path that lies before him, one act of obedience at a time.Where Obedience Leads
Jesus’s obedience to his parents is the crowning jewel of a threefold humbling in Luke 2:51: down from the big city, to the small town, under his parents’ authority. Another threefold descension will come on the night before he dies: he will rise from supper, strap on a towel, and wash his disciples’ feet (John 13:3–5). This, and more, will fulfill the great threefold humbling of his incarnation: he empties himself, becomes a servant, and is obedient to death (Philippians 2:6–8).
But under his Father’s strong hand, the descension never ends at stage three. The Father will not leave his Son stuck at 12, or with a towel around his waist, or dead in the grave. He will highly exalt him (Philippians 2:9). This is where godly obedience always leads, in God’s good timing. In obeying his earthly parents, Jesus humbles himself under the mighty hand of his heavenly Father, and at the proper time, God will raise him up (1 Peter 5:6; James 4:10).
Jesus’s obedience will not spell the end of his happiness. Rather, it will be the death of everything that would have kept him from full and lasting joy.
When I have lost passion or devotion in my time alone with God, I have simply lost sight of him. I’m still reading and praying, but I’m not seeing him, not as clearly. A fog has blown in slowly over days or weeks, covering his beauty from the eyes of my heart, numbing me to my need for him, and depriving me of a deeper and stronger happiness in him.
Maybe you’ve known the fog. King David did. And he longed for what he would see, and feel, when the clouds finally parted:
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)
David teaches us to cut through the fog with meditation. And not just meditation on words, but on God himself — “I remember you upon my bed . . . and meditate on you.” Meditation means to linger longer over God in Scripture for the sake of our hearts.
When we steep our souls in the exodus, the Levitical laws, the Psalms, the Minor Prophets, the Gospels, the early church, and Paul’s letters, we are meditating not merely on words on a page but on God. He reveals himself through words. We are seeing him in radiant glory, hearing from him in infinite wisdom, tasting him in his unique ability to satisfy the human soul.
We do not wake up early simply to study God or to exercise discipline. We wake up early to meet God. “On the glorious splendor of your majesty, and on your wondrous works, I will meditate” (Psalm 145:5). When we sit down to meditate — early in the morning, in the middle of the afternoon, during the watches of the night — we can expect glory, splendor, and majesty. We can expect God.More Important Than Sleep
The watches of the night were stretches when a guard or lookout was posted to watch for enemies. Safety was more important than sleep, so someone went without to keep the rest of the city safe.
Many Christians, especially in the West, are not left wondering if someone will break in to kill us overnight, but something is still more important than sleep. The psalmist says,
I rise before dawn and cry for help;
I hope in your words.
My eyes are awake before the watches of the night,
that I may meditate on your promise. (Psalm 119:147–148)
As precious as rest is, he knew that meditation was even more satisfying. He would gladly forgo sleep to get a little more of God.
If we consistently skip time with God in his word and prayer because we love sleep, our hearts have fallen out of sync. Sleep is important (Psalm 127:2). But it is not most important. Food is important (1 Timothy 4:4; 6:8). But it is not most important. Marriage and family are important (Proverbs 18:22; Psalm 127:3). But they are not most important. Communion with God — knowing and enjoying him in actual unhurried moments meditating on and praying to him — is more important than anything else we do, no matter how urgent everything else feels.
If God keeps us up late at night, or wakes us before the sun comes up, it may be because something is more important than sleep. He knows when we need to rest, and he knows when we need to meditate and pray. He may graciously open our eyes long before the alarm goes off, to give us another glimpse of his majesty to enjoy or to open his ears wide to the burdens we brought to bed.
We might assume we’re awake because of stress, indigestion, or some other imbalance, but it may simply be grace. God may be beckoning us from bed to something more nourishing and satisfying than sleep.With Focused Affection
However, meditation will not feel like grace if we’ve lost the ability to focus. For the most part, the Internet does not encourage extended meditation. Almost every site we visit is ruthlessly wired to keep us clicking, moving, shifting — relentlessly looking for the next thing, and therefore rarely truly focused on whatever is in front of us. Even when God himself is speaking to us.
Again, the psalmist says, “I will meditate on your precepts and fix my eyes on your ways” (Psalm 119:15). When was the last time you gave that kind of attention to anything? When did you fix your eyes on something, and refuse to look away — not for notifications, not for a snack, not for breaking news or sports scores? If all the joy in the Psalms seems unfamiliar or even unattainable in our everyday life, it might be because we have estranged ourselves from meditation — from diligently searching for God. Have we lost our hunger for going hard after him?
Meditation is not just about focused mental attention — reading and thinking without distraction. Passionate desire, not cold compliance, fuels our pursuit of God: “I will lift up my hands toward your commandments, which I love, and I will meditate on your statutes” (Psalm 119:48). Meditation is focused, thoughtful, even tenacious affection. Blessed is the man whose “delight is in the law of the Lord, and on his law he meditates day and night” (Psalm 1:1–2).For Hard and Heavy Mornings
Meditation may seem to require quiet, uninterrupted, predictable mornings — “normal” days — but few of us know what quiet, uninterrupted, predictable mornings feel like. We’re much more acquainted with busy and unpredictable ones. Abnormal is our normal. We make plans, buy journals, set our alarms, and then life happens again. We end up with less time than we thought, or seemingly no time at all. Someone needs us unexpectedly. We begin to understand why David chose the watches of the night, when everyone else was asleep.
Some days, and even seasons of life, will be more conducive than others for ideal meditation, but the Psalms show us that we cannot wait for a conducive time to meditate. In fact, meditation becomes even more valuable when the ideal circumstances for meditation crumble around us. In the midst of trials and opposition, the psalmist says, “Even though princes sit plotting against me, your servant will meditate on your statutes” (Psalm 119:23). David was also driven from his home, surrounded by enemies, and confronted with danger, but he would not surrender meditation. In psalm after psalm, when he was forced to leave everything else behind, he did not forsake thinking and praying with focused affection for God.You Are Not Alone
If you wake up early tomorrow to meditate on God in his word, he wants to meet you there — not just to be understood and admired, but to help you understand and admire him. Paul says to his disciple Timothy, “Think over what I say, for the Lord will give you understanding in everything” (2 Timothy 2:7). True meditation is an exercise in killing self-reliance, because the wisdom of God confounds and offends even the wisest human minds apart from grace.
When you open your Bible, lay down your need to be strong, smart, and independent. Pray with the psalmist, “Make me understand the way of your precepts, and I will meditate on your wondrous works” (Psalm 119:27). We bring focused affection and prayerful dependence, and he gives the understanding — the comfort and healing for a lingering wound, the breakthrough in fighting sin, the insight for difficult relationships or situations, and most of all, the awe of beholding his beauty again.
When God moves in our meditation, we will say with Robert Murray McCheyne, “Rose early to seek God and found Him whom my soul loveth. Who would not rise early to meet such company?” God is sitting next to us when we read, even within us by his Spirit. When we meditate on God with God, the one our souls love meditates for us and through us, showing us glimpses of himself we never would have seen on our own.
Children don’t need to use the label “Christian Hedonism,” but parents can help them grasp what it means to be happy in God.
Can you improve your relationship with God? People are often unsure how to respond. The promises of grace suggest one answer; the experience of life often suggest another. In the confusion, we often do nothing. We stagnate.
But there is a way forward. Can you improve your relationship with God? Yes. Let’s turn for help to the seventeenth-century Puritan John Owen. In his classic book Communion with God, Owen says,
Our communion with God consists in his communication of himself to us, with our return to him of that which he requires and accepts, flowing from that union which in Jesus Christ we have with him. (Works, Vol. 2, 8–9, modernized)
Note how Owen makes a distinction between “union” and “communion.” In the gospel, through faith, we have union with God in Christ. From start to finish this union is God’s gracious work toward us. But this union leads to communion with God — a genuine, two-way relationship of give-and-take in which our involvement matters.
This provides us with a great incentive and a great assurance:
The great incentive is this: If we respond to the circumstances of our lives with faith, if we resist the lies of temptation, if we make use of the means of grace, then we will have greater joy in Christ — our communion with God will improve.
The great assurance is this: Whenever we sin and fail, we can fall back on divine grace. If we have true union with God, it is not affected by the ebbs and flows of our battle with sin. The union forms the great foundation of our lives.You Can’t Improve the Union
This simple distinction between union and communion helps us resolve a common problem. When we want to stress God’s grace to us in Christ, we often say that nothing can make our relationship with God stronger or weaker than it is. We cannot make God love us any more than he does already. After all, God first loved us when we were deep in sin (Romans 5:8). He didn’t love us because of any beauty or goodness within us. Can you improve your relationship with God? In this sense — the union sense — the answer must surely be no. For we are loved in the Son (Ephesians 1:4–6), and we cannot be more loved than the Son. God’s love is not contingent on our actions.
One of the tests we sometimes use to check whether a person has really grasped the grace of God is to pose two scenarios.
Scenario One: One day a person has a great morning devotional time in the word. By midday they have shared their faith with three unbelievers. In the evening they go to the church prayer meeting.
Scenario Two: Another day, the same person gets up late and misses their morning devotions. At work they join in ungodly banter and duck opportunities to share their faith along the way. They feel too tired to attend the evening prayer meeting at church, yet manage to summon up the energy to have a blazing argument with their spouse. At night they turn to God in prayer.
Test question: Is God more likely to hear their prayer in scenario one? Is he less likely to receive them and accept them in scenario two?
The correct answer, of course, is, no. For we do not draw near to God in prayer on the basis of our works. We draw near to the throne of grace through the blood of God’s Son. And the blood of Christ does not require our good works in order to work more effectively for us. The person in scenario two has just as much access to God as the person in scenario one. They can come with as much confidence, if they come in Christ’s name.
Can you improve your union with God through Christ? No.You Can Improve Communion
But we know by experience — and the Bible — that what we do does make a difference in our relationship with God. If I spend devotional time with him in the morning, then I typically find I’m less susceptible to temptation and more aware of God’s presence. It’s not an exact correlation, but there seems to be a cause-and-effect connection. In the same kind of way, I know from experience that when I sin, prayer seems harder, church involvement more of a burden, joy in Christ more remote. The apostle Peter does say that what we do and say can hinder our prayers (1 Peter 3:7). Does what I do affect my relationship with God? The answer seems to be yes.
Owen’s distinction between union and communion makes all the difference. Owen says we do have a genuine two-way relationship with God: He spends much of his book Communion with God explaining ways God relates (or “communicates”) to us and how we respond (or “return”) to him. There is a real giving and receiving. There is loving and being loved. There is delighting and being delighted in. God gives real and specific life, hope, freedom, and forgiveness, and we respond with real faith, love, and worship.
Can you improve your communion-based relationship with God? Yes.Saved to Enjoy God
Salvation is not just about having our sins forgiven and escaping God’s judgment. God doesn’t simply save us from sin and death; he saves us for something. Owen says Christ’s “great undertaking in his life, death, resurrection, ascension, being a mediator between God and us . . . [is] to bring us an enjoyment of God” (Works, Vol. 2, 78). Our relationship with God is not simply an objective fact. It is also a subjective experience. Faith in Christ brings us into a real, two-way relationship of joy with the triune God.
What we do makes a real difference in our experience of this relationship. We can enjoy the relationship, or neglect it. We can pursue God, or avoid him. We can find joy in God, or look for joy in the empty treasures of this world. Our actions make a difference.
But as Owen helps us understand, our communion with God flows “from that union which in Jesus Christ we have with him.” Our union with God was initiated by the Father in election, secured by the Son at Calvary, and is applied by the Spirit in regeneration. It is all of grace. We don’t create this relationship, we can’t improve it, and we can’t break it. It rests on God’s electing love and the finished work of Christ. We are secure in him.
If today you feel far from God, do not despair. Like a swimmer in the waves of the sea, reach down by faith and feel the solid ground of your union with God beneath your feet. It will always be there. And then redouble your efforts to pursue the joy of communion with God.
Our love for God enflames when we see his beauty, remember his mercy, and feel his love.
That particularly bitter New York winter whipped harsh promises against the front door of my neighbor’s house — promises that remained elusive and unimaginable.
Behind that door, my neighbors, Ken and Floy Smith, and I were talking.
Ken leaned in, a warm mug of weakly percolated decaf coffee in hand, and asked the question that put our opposing worldviews into perspective: “Do you believe that what is true determines what is ethical? Or do you believe that what is ethical determines what is true?”Before It Was Hate Speech
Decades ago, when this question unsettled my God-rejecting-but-otherwise-moral life (as I would have described it then), I believed the latter. I believed that ethics drove truth, and that truth was a cultural creation, born out of the sheer goodness of humanity and the felt needs of people. When my neighbor asked this question, I immediately rejected it as ill-informed and vulgar — somewhat like the weak decaf in my mug. I shot back with years of schooling in situational ethics: Truth is a social construct. Truth takes its shape in the eyes of the beholder.
We were talking, my neighbor and I, about gay rights. This was a topic both personal and political for me. I identified as a lesbian, and lived happily in a committed relationship with another woman. I loved my girlfriend the way it felt best to me. I cared about my queer community. I co-authored the first domestic partnership policy at my university. I was poised to become a “tenured radical” — a university professor with enough job security and hutzpah to take queer theory from the university to the street.
I was standing, so I believed, on the right side of history. But my neighbor, Ken Smith, then-pastor of the Syracuse Reformed Presbyterian Church, was also my friend. He, his wife, and I shared weekly meals — sometimes at my house, but mostly at theirs — where we talked about deep and weighty matters of life and faith and worldview. Where we listened and disagreed and came back again the next week to do this again: to break bread and talk.Enter Intersectionality
Twenty-two years ago, it was not considered hate speech for Ken to tell me that he accepted me as a lesbian, but did not approve. I rejected Ken’s worldview, and he rejected mine. We were on even ground. We saw clearly our worldview differences, but those divisions, back then, did not come with the accusatory weight of personal attack. In today’s playbook, that wouldn’t fly.
Why? What is standing in our way of becoming friends with our neighbors who think differently than we do?1. Unbiblical Anthropology
My conversations with Ken and Floy came before the idea of “intersectionality” had moved from the academy to the streets. Intersectionality was, in 1997, still just an academic idea. Its premise was this: personhood and identity, who you really are, is best determined by how many social oppressions you have suffered.
Originally, intersectionality dealt with material, structural oppressions — highlighting how race and class and the glass ceiling of sexism weigh heavy in a society made up of sinners. But when feminism shifted allegiance from Marx to Freud, when it turned from numbers to feelings, sexual orientation and gender identity took on new forms.
When ideas like “dignitary harm” (the harm accrued to your dignity by someone’s refusal to approve of your sin) found its place in civil law, intersectionality unleashed a monster. And with that monster came a message: homosexuality is not a sin; it is an aesthetic, an erotic orientation or way of looking at the world and everything in it. Today, the gospel is on a collision course with this message.2. Compromised Churches
Intersectionality informs the divide between Christians and our neighbors who think differently, but God’s people should never be sucker punched by the current fad in worldview — even if some segments of the evangelical church are smitten by it. The real problem is not what the world thinks, but rather that parts of the evangelical church are allowing the world to preach to it about personhood and identity — about who people really and ontologically are, and what they need to flourish.
Many tragedies occur when the world preaches to the church (and the church listens), and one is that false conversions multiply. We live in an evangelical world whose prophets may be convinced of gospel promises, but who are not necessarily converted under gospel truth. And what is the sermon topic that they preach? They preach sermons of questions, relocating what God calls sin into the category of aesthetics — the observation of beauty amidst the pain. They reject God’s truth as “bumper sticker” logic, and answer questions with more questions, with no answers, always favoring a sinner’s point of view over that of the crucified and risen Christ.
Once leaders in the evangelical church locate something that God calls sin into an aesthetic framework, the great gift that the Lord Jesus holds out to his people, the gift of ransom and repentance, is no longer considered necessary. The blame shifts from a person’s sin to the church’s perceived prejudice.
What to do? Make sure that you are a member of a biblically sound church whose practices embrace the marks of faithfulness: handling rightly the word, the sacraments, and the practice of church discipline. If your church fails to meet these standards, or you refuse membership because it ties you down, or you think that making peace with sin will allow you a place at the table to witness Christ to the world, think again. Your church membership is part of your spiritual discipline for engaging with the world. If you hold membership with a church that practices or endorses sin, you have made yourself corporately guilty of this sin.3. Social Media Infatuation
Social media infatuation has removed distinctions between private and public. Ken and Floy Smith and I had private dinner gatherings. Often other people joined us. But our heartfelt differences were not subjected to the harsh glare of Twitter, Facebook, or blogs.
Instead of mocking or attempting to destroy each other on social media, we pondered our differences, and brought a hot dish to the next Thursday night meal. This response helped us to let some offenses slide and focus instead on the big picture. It encouraged us to regard each other as human beings — not blank slates filled by competing ideologies and power relations.Open Doors
Ken and Floy and I became friends before this current cultural moment. We could see that our humanity was intimately connected to, but not completely absorbed by, our differing worldviews and the sets of ideas, vocabulary, books, and values they represented. We could see each other as human beings even across our differences. And because of this perspective, we could come to the table, break bread, and talk.
So, Christian, how can you begin to constructively engage with your neighbors? Know your culture, take membership vows in a biblically faithful church, and return to a practice of privacy. Yes, intersectionality has found its foothold today, not only in the wider culture, but also in some segments of the evangelical church. It’s a worldview that comes with ultimatums (“love me, love my dog”). It’s a worldview that rests on unbiblical notions of ontology (who people are). It rejects that original sin is really sinful, preferring to regard this sin that registers in our hearts before we take our first breath as merely a form of aesthetic difference.
And the best way for God’s people to say “no” to unbiblical reflections of personhood and intersectionality is to say “yes” to biblical hospitality. When you gather around the table with your perceived cultural enemy, not once, but weekly, you show that culture is not king. Jesus is. Ask good questions and listen to people’s answers. Perhaps you could start with this one: Do you believe that what is true determines what is ethical, or do you believe that what is ethical determines what is true?