How much do you think about water when you’re not thirsty? If you’re like the average person, not very much. If you’re health conscious, perhaps you think of water regularly as part of your overall wellness regimen — a disciplined hydration.
But how much do you think of water when you’re thirsty? A lot. You can’t help it. It’s near the forefront of your mind. The thirstier you feel, the more water dominates your thoughts. You begin to notice everything that has water connotations: cups, fountains, rain, pictures of water. The greater the thirst, the more earnest the search.
And the thirstier you are, the less you desire other liquids. Soda, for example, is most appealing as a form of liquid entertainment or distraction, and you might crave it if you feel a low-grade thirst. But when you feel parched, you don’t want soda — in fact, you don’t want any other liquid. You want the one thing that will most quench your thirst: water.
Water is really only experienced as satisfying when our real need for it makes us really want it. Likewise, God is only experienced as satisfying when our real need for him makes us really want him.Earnestly I Seek You
Trudging through arid Judean wilderness, fleeing yet another assassination scheme, David pours out his craving before God,
O God, you are my God; earnestly I seek you; my soul thirsts for you; my flesh faints for you, as in a dry and weary land where there is no water. (Psalm 63:1)
Note carefully: what made David so earnest in his search for God? His thirst for God. And what made him so thirsty? No water — his experienced lack of God.
This is crucial to our understanding God’s ways and why he allows us to experience dry, barren, dark, oppressive seasons: our experienced lack of what we really need makes us really desire what we really need. This is the blessedness of the barren places: they teach us both to want most and to seek most what we need most. This is a painful gift of priceless worth, because it drives us like nothing else to the only fountain that will quench our soul-thirst, which is why David went on to say,
So I have looked upon you in the sanctuary, beholding your power and glory. (Psalm 63:2)
David’s soul-thirst drove him to seek his satisfaction in God. And that’s the purpose of your soul-thirst.The Ill of All Ills
But David didn’t always feel this way. When he was at the height of his success, when he was wealthy, sated, and secure in his reign, his soul lost its desperate thirst for God. And what happened? Bathsheba became an enticing and intoxicating soul-beverage. He did something in his prosperity he never would have done while wandering the weary, waterless wilderness: he drank from the broken cistern of sexual immorality.
It is a great and sad irony of the fallen human heart: the very thing that makes the barren places blessed — the rousing of a desperate thirst for God — is too often and too easily doused by the very things we consider the blessings of abundance. When we don’t thirst for God, we suffer from a soul-sickness, and it is a serious disease. The hymnist, Frederick William Faber, described it like this:
For the lack of desire is the ill of all ills;
Many thousands through it the dark pathways have trod,
The balsam, the wine of predestinate wills
Is a jubilant pining and longing for God. (“The Desire of God”)
Is Faber overstating the case? I do not think so, for I believe with all my heart that God is most glorified in us when we are most satisfied in him. And we only seek our satisfaction most in God when God is what we desire most.Better Than Life
A great desire can be — and in most cases should be — pursued through some regimen of discipline. And a regimen of discipline can stoke the fire of a waning desire. But discipline is no substitute for desire.
No act of great faith, no possessing of a great spiritual gift, no great sacrifice of goods, kindred, or this mortal life can take the place of love (1 Corinthians 13:1–3). No outward act of the worship of God can ever replace the inward wanting of God.
When David, pining with a thirst for God, earnestly sought him and looked on his power and glory, he said and wrote the equivalent of a thirsty man’s satisfied ahhh after a long draught of cool water,
Because your steadfast love is better than life, my lips will praise you. So I will bless you as long as I live; in your name I will lift up my hands. (Psalm 63:3–4)
There is no greater earthly experience than to drink of God and taste something that is better than staying alive on earth. Have you tasted that? Too few Christians have, I fear. At least in America it seems we are too easily content to talk about the truth that to live is Christ and to die is gain, without really tasting the truth for ourselves (Philippians 1:21). But once we taste it, we’ll never be content with mere talk.Let Such Life Be Thine
Do not be content till you taste. Do not be content with a mere theological conviction that it is good to desire God. Do not be content with merely desiring to desire God. And for God’s sake (and yours), do not be content with merely having a reputation with others as someone who desires God. Do not be content till you taste and see that the Lord is good — so good that you realize he not only is the best thing in this life, he is better than this life (Psalm 34:8).
We will only taste of his goodness when we really thirst for him. We will not think much of God if we aren’t thirsty for him. But if our souls are parched for God, and we feel like we’ll faint unless we drink of him, we will seek him earnestly. Intense desire cuts through a thousand distractions and focuses us like nothing else.
So plead with God to receive the blessings of the barren places:
Yes, pine for thy God, fainting soul! ever pine;
Oh, languish mid all that life brings thee of mirth;
Famished, thirsty, and restless — let such life be thine —
For what sight is to heaven, desire is to earth. (Faber, “The Desire of God”)
Our hope in heaven infuses our present with a joy that can overcome every trial and every trouble.
Parents will fail hundreds of times as they strive to raise their kids biblically. So how can we find hope in the midst of these many shortcomings?
For years I’ve struggled with a sinking sense of inadequacy.
This usually plays out in a disposition of deference: Why would I speak up when others could? Why should I teach a class when others are more capable? Why would I take that position when others are more worthy of it? Whether speaking, acting, or receiving, I let others go first. The self-designated (six-foot-six) runt among the litter.
I never challenged this because I considered it a blemish of humility. If pride is the preoccupation with oneself: a life of self-insertion and mirror-gazing, then the opposite must be humility. But as I avoided different opportunities due to a sense of inferiority, the debilitating sense of my own smallness only grew.
If, like me, you’ve lived under a dark cloud of inadequacy; if the parasite of self-pity drains your energy to go where God calls; if anxiety over your littleness anchors you from stepping out in faith; I encourage you to join me in repentance.Small in Your Own Eyes
He hid among the baggage.
He never wanted the role. He never campaigned to be king. He was from a humble clan of the least of the tribes of Israel (1 Samuel 9:21). Who was he to be in charge? Thousands of capable men surrounded him, why should he be Israel’s first (human) king? Fear gripped him, the people chose him, Israel sought him — so he fled, hoping never to be found.
A sense of insignificance caused Saul, the tallest man in Israel, to play hide-and-go-seek to escape his calling.
But he lost and the people found his hiding spot and crowned him king. Surrounded by a sea of enemies, Saul soon faces an army he cannot defeat alone. God grants Israel the victory and commands Saul to devote everything — and everyone — to destruction. Instead, the people both kept the best livestock and treasures, and kept Agag, the defeated king, alive. When Samuel confronts Saul as to why he hears sheep bleating, Saul told him what they had done.
Now listen to what Samuel says to Saul,
“Though you are little in your own eyes, are you not the head of the tribes of Israel? The Lord anointed you king over Israel. And the Lord sent you on a mission and said, ‘Go, devote to destruction the sinners, the Amalekites, and fight against them until they are consumed’” (1 Samuel 15:17–19).
Saul disobeyed God because he was too small in his own eyes. The giant of Israel felt as a dwarf compared to the people (1 Samuel 15:24). He feared them more than God and compromised the mission God gave to him because of it.Humble or Afraid?
Smallness in our own eyes is a virus mimicking humility that tempts some of us to do the same as Saul. He knew the command, saw the sheep being taken away — but, who was he to tell them otherwise? He was a nothing, a no one, an ant. He did not consider that the Lord made him king or that the Lord sent him on a mission. He was to rise to the occasion, not because he was grand, but because the King who he served was.
Smallness in his own eyes, a sinking sense of inferiority, fueled his and the people’s transgression. He shirked responsibility because he did not feel equal to it and his cowardice endangered his people and he eventually lost his kingship as a result.
Humility says, “I am small . . . but my God is big, so I will go, speak, and do.” Cowardice, pride, and self-preoccupation say, “I am puny, others are more qualified, I don’t want to screw things up for myself and others by accepting.”
What this often means, of course, is,
God doesn’t really know what he is doing to send me, I won’t waste my time.
He won’t stand with me upon the waves, so I will stay in the boat.
Jesus’s grace isn’t really sufficient after all. His power isn’t actually made perfect in my weakness.
The truth is, there are always people more qualified. Someone does know their Bible better. Some are more humble, selfless, and equipped to lead. But when the all-wise Creator, who calls who he wills, beckons us to speak, serve, and act, it is our joyful lot to obey. He gives us position and something to proclaim:
But you are a chosen race, a royal priesthood, a holy nation, a people for his own possession, that you may proclaim the excellencies of him who called you out of darkness into his marvelous light. (1 Peter 2:9)
Whimper no more, though small in your own eyes, the powerful God who calls you to go forth as an ambassador, promises to go with you (Matthew 28:18–20; Hebrews 13:5). The great message we carry vanquishes the stammering life of nonintrusivity.Behold Greatness
You may still feel extremely weak . . . but God not only uses the weak, his power is made perfect in weakness (2 Corinthians 12:9–10). Christians should not be like the world and hide their weakness in the basement. Like Paul, we boast in our weaknesses, for, when we are weak, then we are strong.
Standing upright in my own eyes, I have resolved, with the Spirit’s help, to step out in faith and prove that the righteous are as bold as lions (Proverbs 28:1).
May the subtle pride that keeps us anchored in the fetal position be broken as we mimic the mighty roar of Christ. He alone strengthens timid hearts, emboldens scared disciples, and makes the weak strong as we lift our eyes from our frailty to him.
He must be great in our own eyes.
Our craving for more has plagued us from the very beginning.
Our first parents lusted after more when they trusted a talking snake and took forbidden fruit to satisfy their longing to be like God (Genesis 3:5). When God brought his beloved people through the parted sea, Israel’s triumphant song devolved into grumbling over meat and bread in less than two months (Exodus 16:2–3). The prophet Amos decried the northern kingdom of Israel for their gluttonous appetite, which led them to “trample the head of the poor into the dust of the earth” (Amos 2:6–8).
The Old Testament leaves us with no lack for examples of greed among God’s chosen people.
And should we think we’re immune, we must realize that this diseased desire for greedy gain doesn’t just infiltrate its way from outside us into the recesses of our minds; it bubbles through the cracks of hearts that exchange “the fountain of living waters” for “broken cisterns that can hold no water” (Jeremiah 2:13).
The cup of our lives might sparkle with that just-washed sheen on the outside, but inside, the grime of greed has caked itself on in layers too thick to scrub away with mere elbow grease.Greed Doesn’t Discriminate
Greed’s deceit knows no socioeconomic boundaries. Whether you’re of modest means, have an overflowing portfolio, or find yourself smack-dab in “the disappearing middle,” the song of More! rings sweet in all our ears. Proverbs says as much when the sage inquires of God,
Give me neither poverty nor riches;
feed me with the food that is needful for me,
lest I be full and deny you
and say, “Who is the Lord?”
or lest I be poor and steal
and profane the name of my God.
Indeed, “the love of money is a root of all kinds of evils” — especially idolatry (1 Timothy 6:10). When we start thinking we have enough, we conveniently forget the one who gave to us in the first place. Or when bills seem to devour every last dime, we show our distrust of God’s promise to provide by taking matters (or sometimes, things that don’t rightfully belong to us) into our own hands. Whatever the number of figures in your salary, we all tend to slide right past the midpoint of contentment into havens of greed.In Gold We Trust
In the wealthy, twenty-first-century west, we tend to have more reasons to forget the Giver than to pilfer goods. According to a report from the Bureau of Labor Statistics, the average American man one-hundred years ago made about $687 a year, roughly the equivalent of $16,063 in the present day. That wage just doesn’t quite measure up to the comparatively handsome full-time median income of $50,383 today. On average, we’re nearly three times as better off wage-wise than we were a century ago.
And while not at the very top of the GDP per capita list, the U.S. always ranks high. Compared to most of the world, 71 percent of whom live on less than ten dollars a day (not to mention the 15 percent who live on less than $2 a day), most Americans boast incredible wealth.
You might not think so when you pull up your account balances, but the average man or woman in the land of the free is exceedingly rich. And because of our affluence, we must remain all-the-more vigilant. John Piper explains,
Jesus never said, “It’s hard for a person in Darfur to get into the kingdom of heaven.” Jesus just said, “It’s hard for a rich man to get into the kingdom of heaven,” so the most dangerous place to raise a kid is America.
We may never really believe it, but our seemingly safe streets dotted, with single-family homes, can lurk with more danger than a war-torn, famine-stricken land. There, sin’s destruction reigns apparent in violence and hunger. But here, the wealth that masquerades as God’s undeniable favor can turn, oh so subtly, into a barrier, not a blessing. A craving for more, intensified by our exceptional means, just might lead some of us away from the faith (1 Timothy 6:10).Simply Stewards
Of course, reaping the fruits of a harvest God has graciously provided is no sin — as long as we realize that we’re just stewards at every step. Whatever we have, we’ve received (1 Corinthians 4:7). When we acknowledge that every good gift comes to us from our generous Father (James 1:17), gratitude smothers our desire for more, and grace begins to loosen greed’s icy grip.
When I’m tempted to complain about how the mileage on our family’s minivan is equivalent to taking its fifth trip around the earth, I can give thanks that I have an opportunity to transport the five of us (soon to be six) safely and conveniently whenever I need to.
Instead of griping about the square-footage of our apartment, I can be glad that we not only have shelter that protects us, but a place to call home.
Or if I’m enamored by the latest model gadget with the supersonic turbo processor, I can thank God that I already have countless resources at my disposal that I don’t deserve.
When I whine for more, I align myself with evil (1 Timothy 6:10). But when I give thanks, I lock onto the very will of God (1 Thessalonians 5:18). And in God’s curious kindness, when we praise him for all that he is for us, he gives us the best gift anyone could ask for: more of himself.
So, in the end, more stuff, more money, and even more time can never satisfy. But in Jesus, God gives us more than we could have ever bargained for. When we invest in contenting our souls in him, he pays unimaginable dividends in the currency of eternity.
The sufferings of Christ save us from the sufferings of punishment, not the sufferings of purification.
My knees were bouncing with anticipation as I sat at the restaurant table, waiting for my date to arrive. I was early and had forgotten to eat anything that day (probably from first-date nerves), so I ordered a small appetizer while I waited. As I anxiously nibbled, there was a flurry of emotions: excitement, hunger, longing, and hope.
In those moments while I waited, I recognized in a fresh way why God would call us to eat and drink together in our churches. However often your church observes the Lord’s table, sharing this meal is a profound way for God’s people to worship him together. Each time, we confess these three deep truths: we are hungry, we are a community, and we are waiting.We Are Hungry
Eating and drinking is a parable of dependence. Every time you put food in your mouth, you preach this sermon to yourself: “I am needy and dependent.” If I get caught up with work and forget to eat lunch, I get “hangry” (hungry + angry) by about one o’clock. Without food, you might possibly survive a little over a month, but you probably cannot go without food for even a day before your entire countenance changes. It is humbling to remember just how dependent we truly are.
At the table of the Lord’s Supper, we unashamedly declare our neediness again. Jesus told the crowds who followed him that they needed him like they needed food: “Truly, truly, I say to you, unless you eat the flesh of the Son of Man and drink his blood, you have no life in you” (John 6:53). Jesus knew this declaration would offend and confuse many who heard it, but he wanted to be graphic about their need for faith in him (John 6:60–65).
As often as we eat the bread and drink the cup, we remind ourselves that we need Christ to sustain us and preserve our faith just as much as we need food. Because God knows our constant need, he chooses a meal to memorialize his provision for us and tells us to eat it “often” (1 Corinthians 11:25). We gather to eat and drink because we are hungry.We Are Together
Eating and drinking is a parable of intimacy. Who we choose to eat and drink with reveals our loyalties. This is why dinner is the quintessential date activity; it’s why we pity the student eating alone in the cafeteria.
I am no expert in dining trends, but as a casual observer I notice a pattern with the rise of “tapas” and “family style” dining: as traditional family meals at home become less frequent, we look to the restaurant to provide the “shared plate” dining experience. Eating and drinking feel communal. Many Instagram feeds remind us that solitary meals feel incomplete — so we pull our smartphone and virtually break bread with five hundred of our “closest friends.”
Eating — or not eating — with someone makes a statement. When Joseph’s brothers came to Egypt, the Egyptians thought it was shameful to eat with the Hebrews (Genesis 43:32). Saul suspected that something was up in his kingdom was when David no longer ate at his table (1 Samuel 20:27). By contrast, in a touching picture of acceptance, David invited the son of his enemy to eat at his table like a family member (2 Samuel 9:7).
We who were once God’s enemies (Romans 5:10) have been reconciled into his family, invited to dine with King Jesus as a reminder of our newfound intimacy with him and each other. As there is one loaf broken for many, we who are many are one body in Christ (1 Corinthians 10:17). This is a gloriously shared meal. We gather to eat and drink together because we are a community.We Are Waiting
Eating and drinking is a parable of anticipation. During Jesus’s last supper, he spoke of his eager expectation to share the cup with his guests again, in his kingdom (Matthew 26:29). So every Lord’s Supper looks backward to the Last Supper, but it also looks forward to the great wedding supper where we will feast with him again in glory (Revelation 19:7).
The morsel of bread and drink we share in our worship services remind us that these elements are only appetizers for the “feast of rich food, full of marrow, of aged wine well refined” which we await (Isaiah 25:6). Every meal satisfies us in Christ, and yet mysteriously awakens a greater hunger for the promised consummation. We gather to eat and drink because we are waiting.
As we pull back the chair to sit at the King’s Table, we confess our hunger and expectation to be satisfied in all of Christ’s righteousness for us again. We look up and down the table to see Jesus’s body — the brothers and sister on our right and left — who share this meal of fellowship with us. And at the table we taste the appetizers and see a glimpse of heaven’s feast. So, brothers and sisters, let us eat and drink and in so doing, “proclaim the Lord’s death until he comes” (1 Corinthians 11:26).
“Lord, please kill me before I cheat on my wife.”
This is a prayer that I prayed many times when I was first married. I’m not saying that it was mature or biblical, but it gives you a glimpse into my mind. I did not ever want to bring shame to the church, and I knew that this potential for evil was in me.
I spent my single years battling for purity and often failing. At times the battle was all-consuming. Days were filled with a paralyzing guilt that kept me from effective ministry and enjoying Jesus. I tried many things to discipline myself. At one point, I even decided that if I gave into lust, I would spend the next day fasting. This forced me to spend days in prayer, asking for more strength and self-control. I’ve found that when you refrain from eating, it makes refraining from sin easier. While it didn’t work perfectly, it was helpful. (And I did lose a few pounds.)
The Bible is clear and simple when it comes to impurity: Run! “Flee youthful passions and pursue righteousness, faith, love, and peace, along with those who call on the Lord from a pure heart” (2 Timothy 2:22). Run away from temptation, and run towards righteousness. How we each pursue this may look different, but here are some pillars that have helped me in my journey.Fear Can Be Good
The Scriptures teach, “The fear of the Lord is the beginning of wisdom” (Psalm 111:10). I am grateful that by his grace, God has gifted me with a deep-seated fear of him.
Many years ago, I remember reading an article about a man who had a fatal heart attack while having sex with a prostitute. I imagined how terrifying it must have been for that man to enter into the presence of a holy God at that moment. If nothing else keeps you from adultery, maybe the fact that Almighty God could take your life amidst the very act would terrify you enough to repent.
It was years later that a friend of mine, a fellow pastor, committed adultery with his assistant. I didn’t see him for months after it happened. When he came into my office, he looked awful. He proceeded to tell me the whole story. He explained how one thing led to another, and before he knew it he had committed the act he preached against for years.
What impacted me most was when he explained his thoughts and feelings after sinning. He told me of how he kept looking at his revolver, tempted to pull the trigger. He reasoned that everyone would be happier if he was dead. The other woman’s husband would be happier. His own wife and kids would be happier. His church would be happier. It was only by the grace of God that he was still alive.
Of course, taking his own life in the aftermath of adultery would only be multiplying the sin. But I was struck by the misery he felt. He seriously thought it would be better to be dead than to have done this and to live with the consequences! His misery was both a wake-up call and a warning to me. Fear can be a great grace.Vigilant Discipline
My pursuit of sexual purity has been a discipline. I have said with the apostle Paul, “I discipline my body and keep it under control, lest after preaching to others I myself should be disqualified” (1 Corinthians 9:27).
Early in our marriage, my wife asked me, “Can you promise that you will never cheat on me?” After thinking about it for a few seconds, I told her that even though I loved her deeply, I could not promise her. I explained that if I promised her, then I would act like I’m invincible, rather than guarding myself daily. I think it would be wiser to live each day knowing that it could happen, so I stay guarded. It wasn’t what she hoped to hear, but she understood my point.
Even to this day, though the struggle has subsided and my love for her has grown immensely, I still have not promised her. Instead, I continue to live each day with severe caution. I see it as a an act of love toward my wife. I rarely counsel women, and never alone. I won’t go anywhere with a woman alone. In 23 years, I have never even been in a car alone with another woman (aside from relatives). It has felt silly at times to inconveniently tell women they had to drive separately even though we are going to the same location, but I believe it’s been worth it. My wife has access to all of my email accounts, phone records, and I don’t have a Facebook profile. There are no secrets between us.
I have alcoholic friends who were supernaturally delivered from any desire for alcohol. I have other friends who pray for deliverance, but are tempted daily. They refuse to have any alcohol in their homes, and stay away from tempting situations. After reading John Piper’s letter to a would-be adulterer, it sounds like his story has been one of supernatural deliverance, while mine has been one of discipline and daily strength. I believe God is glorified by both.Focused Mission
Early on in my Christian journey, I focused only on running away from sin. I believe it was good and right, but not complete. It was later that I discovered the truth of Galatians 5:16, “Walk by the Spirit, and you will not gratify the desires of the flesh.”
God calls us not only to run away from temptation, but to run toward him. He promises that when we are walking by the Spirit, we will not gratify the flesh. As I have followed God’s Spirit into meaningful ministry, it has been amazing to see the craving for sin diminish. The thrill of the Holy Spirit manifesting himself through me to bless others fills me thoroughly, crowding out sinful desires that might otherwise have had room to grow (1 Corinthians 12:7).
It’s like playing in an intense basketball game. I get tunnel vision. Winning is all I think about. My mind does not wander one bit. In the same way, when my wife and I are intensely pursuing God’s cause and kingdom, our minds don’t wander toward sin. Soldiers stay focused when they are in battle. “No soldier gets entangled in civilian pursuits, since his aim is to please the one who enlisted him” (2 Timothy 2:4). It’s when we relax, when we forget we are actually on a mission, that trouble comes.More of Jesus
Just this morning, I read in Psalm 73,
I am continually with you; you hold my right hand. You guide me with your counsel, and afterward you will receive me to glory. Whom have I in heaven but you? And there is nothing on earth that I desire besides you. (Psalm 73:23–25)
I pictured God holding my right hand, guiding me, receiving me into glory. The longer I imagined that, the more I understood why the next verse says, “There is nothing on earth that I desire besides you” (Psalm 73:25). Take time to meditate on these truths. If you’re anything like me, you tend to take God’s commands more seriously than his promises. He wants us to have faith in both, and to find enjoyment in both.
While I am fifty years old, and have been walking with Jesus since high school, it has really been over the past few years that I have grown significantly in my enjoyment of him. A few months ago, I told a friend that I didn’t want to have any sin in my life because I am enjoying such close fellowship with Jesus. That was a new experience for me.
Fear, discipline, and mission are all biblical motivations — and have all helped me in my pursuit of holiness. But now that I have been enjoying deeper connection with Jesus, I feel like I’ve missed out.
I hesitated in writing this letter after reading Piper’s. I have been praying the five prayers he suggests there, and it has been life-changing. It has opened my eyes to the shallowness of my prayers, and it brought a new satisfaction into my life. It makes me wonder if the struggle could have been lesser, and the journey sweeter, if I had read and followed his letter years ago.
Or maybe the path to righteousness will look different for each of us, so long as we arrive in a place of deeper enjoyment of Jesus.
What does it mean that “God is our refuge and strength, a very present help in trouble,” so much so that “we will not fear” (Psalm 46:1–2)? More poignantly, what do you believe it means? That’s where the rubber of your faith meets the road of your real life.
Crises of faith occur where the rubber of our faith — what we believe should be our experience if we trust God — meets the road of an experience that contradicts (or appears to contradict) our belief. Often this happens when some evil befalls us, leaving us disoriented and confused, feeling angry and disillusioned with God, who doesn’t appear to be following through on his promises.
After all, didn’t Jesus teach us to pray, “Deliver us from evil” (Matthew 6:13)? And when we do, didn’t David teach us to expect this result: “I sought the Lord, and he answered me and delivered me from all my fears” (Psalm 34:4)? Isn’t God supposed to be “a refuge for us” (Psalm 62:8) from the things we most fear?Disordered Fears
The answers to those questions are yes — and perhaps no. God does promise to ultimately deliver us from all evil and from the most fearful things, the things that pose the most real danger to our souls. But he does not promise that no evil will ever befall us in this age, nor does he promise to deliver us from what personally strikes the most fear into us.
All of us have disordered fears, and they pose more trouble and heartache for us than we can often comprehend. We tend to have too little fear for the things most dangerous to our souls, and too much fear over things far less dangerous.
We are foolishly tempted to fearlessly and eagerly embrace some of the greatest dangers to our souls (1 Timothy 6:10). And lesser dangers so terrify us, we avoid them like the plague, even though they promise to yield us unimaginable joys (Philippians 1:21; Psalm 16:11).What I Dread Befalls Me
This is not to make light of the horror that evil can afflict on us, things we rightly fear and rightly pray to be spared from. The Bible records essentially all of them, and some of the Bible’s greatest saints experienced the greatest possible afflictions.
Think of the horror Job experienced, and remember his cry in the full flare of unspeakable pain: “The thing that I fear comes upon me, and what I dread befalls me” (Job 3:25). Though Job was blameless (Job 1:8), God did not spare him (or his wife or children or servants or animals) horrific satanic attack.
Job may be the poster child of biblical saintly responses to ambiguous providences, but the list is long of those who, like the apostle Paul,
suffered mocking and flogging, and even chains and imprisonment. They were stoned, they were sawn in two, they were killed with the sword. They went about in skins of sheep and goats, destitute, afflicted, mistreated — of whom the world was not worthy — wandering about in deserts and mountains, and in dens and caves of the earth. (Hebrews 11:36–38)
Even this passage lists only a few of the fearful evils that have fallen on great saints with extraordinary kingdom-expansion assignments. It does not include the host of other forms of evil that befall believers: horrible sexual abuse, dignity-disintegrating mental illness or dementia, mysterious and seriously debilitating chronic pain, deep depression, the exquisite parental pain of disabled children, the betrayal of marital infidelity and the devastation of a broken family, beloved and prayed-for children walking away from the faith, succumbing too young to the ravages of a disease, leaving spouses desolate and children reeling in grief. This list could be a lot longer.
The question is: If God does not spare us from these sorts of fearful evils, then what sort of a refuge is he? In what way does he deliver us from evil? And how is it that we can actually mean it when we say, “We will not fear”?Why Are You Afraid?
This is the crux of the issue for us. This is the problem we must come to terms with if we are to endure evil’s onslaught of affliction with our faith intact. For we will not put our faith in a God we do not trust. And we will not trust a God who won’t keep his promises to protect us from the most fearful dangers.
The fundamental question for each of us is not, “God, will you protect me from my worst fears?” but rather Jesus’s question to us, “Why are you afraid?” (Matthew 8:26).
This is the question Jesus asked his disciples in the boat when they were panicking in the storm. It was no mystery why they were afraid. A number of them were experienced boatmen who knew full well this storm could send them to their graves. They were deathly afraid of death. Jesus asked the question to get the disciples to examine where their faith was placed. To drive this home, Luke’s account has Jesus asking them, “Where is your faith?” (Luke 8:25).
Jesus asks all of us this question because he designed fear to be a faith-revealer. Fear is a gauge that tells us what we treasure (what we fear to lose and why), as well as what we believe is dangerous. Fears teach us about our own worldview.
If you’re wondering, given what you see in the Bible and in the lives of saints around you, if God is safe, if he will allow evil to assault you and bring suffering into your life, the question you must answer is, “Why are you afraid?”What Jesus Delivers Us From
The greatest deliverance Jesus accomplishes for us is saving us from our greatest danger: God’s holy and just wrath against our sin (Romans 5:6–9). Has God’s wrath ever made you afraid? For most of us, this is not even close to our greatest felt fear. It’s a fear God must teach us over time. This tells us just how disordered our fears can be, and how important it is that we let the question, “Why are you afraid?” search our hearts. We cannot trust fears that are not informed by reality, which means many of our fears are not trustworthy.
Jesus came to destroy the works of the devil and to deliver us from evil (1 John 3:8; Matthew 6:13). And he came to deliver us from all our fears (Psalm 34:4), meaning all that truly endangers our souls.
But the evil he came to deliver us from is not merely external evil, but internal evil: our indwelling sin. And the fears he came to deliver us from are not just fearful external circumstances, but our own internal disordered fears — fears that have their origin in our misplaced faith (unbelief). Which is why he does not deliver us from everything we are afraid of, even horrible evil, because storms that make us panic also show us where our faith is. They teach us to transfer our faith from our perceptions to the omnipotent word of God (Luke 8:25). And the testing of our faith produces steadfastness (James 1:3).More Than Conquerors
But there is far more going on when we face fearful evil than just our personal sanctification. We all, through the diverse evil we experience, get to participate with God in the grand epic story of evil being overcome with good (Romans 12:21), lies being overcome with truth (John 8:31–32; 44), and hate being overcome with love (1 John 4:4, 8, 19–21). That is why laced through the Bible are statements like,
- Many are the afflictions of the righteous, but the Lord delivers him out of them all. (Psalm 34:19)
- “In the world you will have tribulation. But take heart; I have overcome the world.” (John 16:33)
- “Some of you they will put to death. You will be hated by all for my name’s sake. But not a hair of your head will perish. By your endurance you will gain your lives.” (Luke 21:16–19)
We are being delivered from evil through overcoming evil. The most beautiful way this is expressed in the Bible comes from Paul’s pen,
Who shall separate us from the love of Christ? Shall tribulation, or distress, or persecution, or famine, or nakedness, or danger, or sword? As it is written, “For your sake we are being killed all the day long; we are regarded as sheep to be slaughtered.”
No, in all these things we are more than conquerors through him who loved us. 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. (Romans 8:35–39)
“In all these things we are more than conquerors through him who loved us.”Do Not Fear What’s Frightening
There are a lot of frightening things in the world. How are we to respond to them? Trust God and “do not fear anything that is frightening” (1 Peter 3:6). Because God in Christ is a refuge for us (Psalm 62:8). He will not allow anything to destroy our eternal life or steal our ultimate joy, even if we suffer every kind of evil in this life. He will rescue us from every evil deed and bring us safely into his heavenly kingdom (2 Timothy 4:18).
Trusting God’s promises does not mean that what we fear won’t happen. It means that what we should fear most won’t happen. It means God will deliver us from our greatest real danger. If we feel disillusioned and angry with God because we believe he has not kept his promises, it’s likely that our fears are disordered and misplaced. And it’s possible that deep down we have believed that if we trust and obey God, it will produce some hoped-for outcome we desire, rather than the outcome God desires for us.
But if we follow Jesus’s example and embrace an approach to life that says to God, “not what I will, but what you will” (Mark 14:36), and read God’s promises carefully, and allow his definitions of what is truly fearful and dangerous to guide us, we will find that God is a greater refuge and strength than we ever imagined, and a very present help in the greatest conceivable trouble.
God never designed marriage to be our ultimate treasure. Here are some signs that we have made our marriage into something God never intended it to be.
Inspired by Lamentation 3:22–23, Thomas Chisolm wrote the lyrics to “Great Is Thy Faithfulness.” We recorded Jimmy Needham singing the beloved hymn.
People say that God has a wonderful plan for their lives, often meaning that God will help them achieve their dreams. But God’s plans are far superior to our own.
Parenting young kids means running regularly on emotional fumes. My wife and I had our fourth in April. We haven’t yet found that elusive “new normal” that feels sufficiently manageable, and I’m beginning to suspect we won’t for some time. But it seems this is right where God wants us: desperate, exhausted, dependent.
God does not call me as a daddy to have enough strength now for next year, next month, next week, or even tomorrow. Just for today. Be faithful today. Don’t check out today. Ask God to provide the energy needed to finish this day well as the head of this home. Sufficient for each day is trouble of its own (Matthew 6:34). His mercies will be new tomorrow (Lamentations 3:22–23).
God gave dads broad shoulders, not just physically, but emotionally — and for a reason. He meant for us to carry a lot, and he meant for us to regularly come to the end of ourselves, so that we would lean consciously on him by faith.Show Me Your Glory
Specifically, I’ve been drawing fresh energy and fatherly vision from an unexpected passage in the Old Testament: Exodus 33–34. Not long after God delivered his people from Egypt with his great display of power over Pharaoh, we find Moses realizing how dreadful it would be if God were simply a disciplinarian. His people clearly did not deserve his favor. Even more, they deserved his punishment after making a golden calf to worship in his place.
Before Moses could lead such a stiff-necked people up from Sinai to the Promised Land, he needed to know what kind of God he was dealing with. Would the holiness of this God soon consume such a wicked and rebellious people, or was there more to his glory than mere justice and the raw display of power? Was it only a matter of time before his righteous wrath would fall on his disobedient children?Goodness on Display
In one of the most important passages in all the Bible, Moses asks God, “Please show me your glory” (Exodus 33:18). God answers,
“I will make all my goodness pass before you and will proclaim before you my name ‘The Lord.’ And I will be gracious to whom I will be gracious, and will show mercy on whom I will show mercy.” (Exodus 33:19)
When asked to demonstrate his glory, God puts on display his goodness in grace and mercy, and his utter freedom in showing grace and mercy to whomever he so chooses. Israel may not be all that more righteous than Pharaoh and the Egyptians, but God’s mercy on his people is not founded on their efforts and earning. Rather, God, as God, is utterly free to extend his mercy to whom he will — and he has chosen to be merciful to Israel.
Just a few verses later, God passes by Moses and proclaims,
“The Lord, the Lord, a God merciful and gracious, slow to anger, and abounding in steadfast love and faithfulness, keeping steadfast love for thousands, forgiving iniquity and transgression and sin, but who will by no means clear the guilty, visiting the iniquity of the fathers on the children and the children’s children, to the third and the fourth generation.” (Exodus 34:6–7)
Make no mistake, this God is uncompromisingly just; by no means will he clear the guilty. He does not sweep sin under the rug. But his leading revelation is his mercy and grace. The first attributes he ties to his very name are “merciful and gracious,” which shine as the apex of his glory.
He is “slow to anger” — which concedes that he does indeed get angry, and justly so. It would be unloving to his own children if he did not get angry when they were threatened and assaulted. And yet even in such justice, God is slow to anger. Wrath is his righteous response to evil, but it is not his heart. Justice is the stem; mercy is the flower.Glory in Fatherly Grace
Our kids also need to know that their dad isn’t just an administer of justice — that he’s more than merely a disciplinarian. They long to regularly hear and see the revelation that they have a father gracious and merciful, slow to anger, and abounding in steadfast love. They may not articulate Moses’s specific request, but every day their young hearts ask, “Daddy, please show me your glory.”
What our kids need to see of our glory as fathers, as we put our goodness on display for them, is not only our unwillingness to compromise justice, but even more, our willingness to make personal sacrifices to show them mercy and grace.
This is not a call for dads to anything less than justice and discipline, but to more. It’s not a call to fatherly laxity. Don’t confuse laxity with grace, in theology or in parenting. Real grace is not lax, but costly. Genuinely costly. It cost the Son of God his earthly life, and it costs dads significant time and energy just when we feel like we have no more to give. Real grace doesn’t sweep sin under the rug, but takes sin with utter seriousness, and makes personal sacrifices to address it head-on, and at times even bear its consequences on our children’s behalf. Grace doesn’t concede, “Okay, you don’t have to clean your room.” Grace sacrifices its own time and energy, and gets down on all fours to clean the room and train the child.Show Them What God Is Like
God is indeed a God of discipline, but what does he want to be known for? Would he have us to remember him mainly as a disciplinarian? He disciplines us, no doubt. “The Lord reproves him whom he loves, as a father the son in whom he delights” (Proverbs 3:12; Hebrews 12:6). And when he does, he does so as an act of love. “God is treating you as sons. For what son is there whom his father does not discipline?” (Hebrews 12:7). But what his children know him for is not his severity, but the goodness of his mercy and grace.
We fathers have a special role to play in cutting a path for our children to God as their Father, gracious and merciful. We have the great honor of being the first to show our children what our heavenly Father is like. We have the unspeakable privilege, and weighty responsibility, in showing them the goodness of God himself as we show them our goodness in laughing together and playing together, in singing together and praying together.Give Mercy, Receive Mercy
Perhaps you feel the gravity of this with me. Dads, this is beyond us. Imaging our Father in our fathering is more than we can live up to. But it’s not more than we should aspire to. And only by God’s own mercy toward us will we increasingly be this to our children. Fatherhood is one way, among many, that God keeps bringing us back to our knees to ask for his mercy.
These days, my wife and I are realizing that finding our “new normal” doesn’t mean getting back to a place where we can parent in our own strength, but learning in the ups and downs, with abundant energy and without, to lean on our Father’s grace and mercy, as we seek to show our kids the glory of his goodness in ours toward them.
Whatever comes your way in this life, you can trust that the best is yet to come. The hardships we experience now can’t even compare to being with Jesus.
One of the hardest things about failing is simultaneously watching others succeed. At some point, we all feel the bitter taste of loss, but nothing feels quite as painful as seeing someone get what you wanted.
For example, as a student, I found myself watching classmates who were more gifted than me get more A’s, recognition, and opportunity. As I watched others receive exactly what I wanted, I burned with anger, resentment, and hatred for their gifting.
It’s all too easy to get angry when we see God bestow blessings on others — a high-paying raise, a dependable husband, a beautiful wife, obedient children, a smart mind, that spiritual gift you always wanted, or the ability to serve the church better than you ever thought you could. It’s also too easy to rejoice at others’s loss because it opens up an avenue for our “success” — whatever that may be.
So what is this bitterness? What is this anger? It’s that killer called envy.Envy
Envy reverses the biblical ordering — “rejoice with those who rejoice and weep with those who weep” (Romans 12:15), to, “weep at those who rejoice and rejoice over those who weep” (Joe Rigney, Envy and Rivalry in Christian Ministry). Ultimately, envy desires to have what others have. It causes us to be unhappy until we possess what others have, or further, until we have more than them.
At its core, envy is the restless sin of anger and unhappiness at the God-given gifts enjoyed by another.
Like all sins, envy will surely bring eternal death. So, in order that we aren’t killed by envy, we must be killing it. But to kill it, we need to know that envy never hunts our hearts alone.A Wolf with Sibling Sins
Envy is like a ferocious wolf, ready to devour your happiness. And like a wolf, it’s never alone — it hunts and lives with siblings. Envy travels in a bloodthirsty group of sins that desires to drain the joy in your heart until it’s bone dry. It leads the killer hunt, and its older siblings lay hidden in the grass, encouraging and fueling envy to rage against others who receive “better” from God. The names of these sibling sins are Idolatry, Ingratitude, and Pride. To feed their younger brother, Envy, they tell horrific lies. So, to kill envy, we must understand the lies it feeds on.Idolatry’s Lie
One of envy’s siblings, idolatry, turns your eyes away from God and looks, instead, at other people’s success, happiness, and gifts and says, “Behold your god.” From this, envy feeds and burns with wicked worship that elevates the gift above the Giver. We’ve all been fooled by this: we see the precious gifts of others and desire them as if they’re divine. And so, by telling us that these gifts are to be desired more than we desire God, idolatry makes a heart ready to envy.Ingratitude’s Lie
Then, that grumpy sin called ingratitude adds more fuel to the fire. Ingratitude listens to its twin, Idolatry, and says, “Those gifts are far better. Why does God give you simple gifts?” But it ultimately says, “God isn’t enough. He won’t satisfy you, but those gifts will.” From this, we see that ingratitude feeds our envy because it blinds us to our God-given blessings, and puts the focus on others’s bounty, comparing what riches God has given you with what he gave them.Pride’s Lie
Then, the pompous sibling, that ancient sin called pride, uses the same old lie from the Garden, “You are worthy to have these gifts. Surely God withholds them from you because he knows that if you have them, ‘You will become like God.’” And we listen. We see the blessings of others and tell ourselves that we deserve them because we are far better. At the core, we want others’s gifts because we ultimately want to be praised as one who is gifted.
Envy isn’t a solo assassin. It prowls around in a group of vicious wolves. It’s a horrific sin that rejects God’s gifts and God himself. It’s idolatrous, ungrateful, and proud. It elevates gift above the Giver and ultimately rejects God as the soul’s supreme satisfaction.Fight Wolves with the Lion
What man could stand against such a fierce wolf, let alone a group of vicious wolves? Surely this is an insurmountable task that only leads to being ripped apart. However, there is real hope. We have on our side the almighty Lion of the tribe of Judah, Jesus Christ.
He has conquered not only all sin, but also death itself (1 Corinthians 15:54–57). And because we have his very own Spirit dwelling within us (Romans 8:11), we have not just a chance against envy, but a sure outcome that God will perfect us and bring his work in us to completion (Philippians 1:6). So, we really can be successful in fighting envy. But how do we actually fight it?
Destroying envy means pouring living water on the fiery lies of idolatry, ingratitude, and pride.
Jesus stood up and cried out, “If anyone thirsts, let him come to me and drink. Whoever believes in me, as the Scripture has said, ‘Out of his heart will flow rivers of living water.’” (John 7:37–38)
Our best weapon, then, is believing what Jesus said in the Scriptures. And in the Bible, Jesus says, “I am the bread of life; whoever comes to me shall not hunger, and whoever believes in me shall never thirst” (John 6:35). Again the Scripture says,
Jesus said to her, “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. The water that I will give him will become in him a spring of water welling up to eternal life.” (John 4:13–14)
Only when we live for Christ can we truly be satisfied (Matthew 5:6), and defeat our impulses to envy. Only when we forsake dry cisterns and come to the fount of living water, will we see the foolishness of desiring lesser gifts and be thankful for who God is to us. And when we trust Jesus’s promises that only he is our supreme satisfaction, we will know that, in him, we already have more than we could ever desire.
I am not a politician, or a political activist. I am a pastor emeritus who spends much of his time trying to answer hard questions about what the Bible means and how to apply it to our lives. So after the deadly conflict in Charlottesville, Virginia, on August 11–12, 2017, I posed myself a lot of questions.
Sometimes the Bible gives direct answers to our questions. Like the question “How should we talk to each other?” Answer: “Let no corrupting talk come out of your mouths, but only such as is good for building up, as fits the occasion, that it may give grace to those who hear” (Ephesians 4:29).
But that’s not mainly what the Bible does. Mainly it put us on a path of transformation. It points us to Jesus Christ and the good news that he came into the world to save sinners (1 Timothy 1:15). He died on the cross to bear the sins of all who believe in him (1 Peter 2:24). He absorbed the righteous anger of God (Romans 3:24-25). And now anyone — from any race, tribe, people, class, or nation — who believes in him has forgiveness of sins (Acts 10:43), and eternal life (John 3:16), and the gift of the Holy Spirit who enables us to fight our own sins, like pride and selfishness and fear and greed and lust and racism (Romans 8:13).
So the message of the Bible is not mainly a social program of personal or national improvement. It is mainly a message for how to be reconciled to God, and how to become a kind of exile and sojourner in this world till Jesus comes to make all things new (1 Peter 2:11; Philippians 3:20; Romans 8:21).Why Would an Exile Care?
The catch is that the Bible tells us pastor-exile types to do good to this messed up world in the meantime. “As we have opportunity, let us do good to everyone, and especially to those who are of the household of faith” (Galatians 6:10). “See that no one repays anyone evil for evil, but always seek to do good to one another and to everyone” (1 Thessalonians 5:15).
So I ask myself, How do you “do good” to a world like this? My own conviction is that if we only fix broken social structures and don’t help people toward eternal life, our love is thin. So my little crusade is to incite Christians to care about all suffering, especially eternal suffering. To work for peace on earth, but not peace with God, is myopic. Jesus came to reconcile us to God, and in that way to each other (Ephesians 2:16).
So here I am, a Christian exile in America pondering the implications of Charlottesville. You will see below why my mind has gone in the direction of Confederate memorials. How should I think and act about that point of conflict? What are we to do as a nation? The questions multiplied. Here is my best effort so far to find some answers.“You Will Not Replace Us!”
Memorials recall sadness for the sake of joy. Someone — or thousands, or millions — have died. This is the sad part. But the memory is preserved — memorialized — for a reason. Not to make people sad, but to make them glad in some good resolve — a resolve formed by the sheer preciousness, or the personal virtue, or the righteous cause of those who died.
The recent demonstration by white supremacists in Charlottesville became a flashpoint for the issue of Confederate memorials. The stated goal of the “Unite the Right” rally was to oppose the removal of a statue of Confederate General Robert E. Lee.
One of the reasons this conflict captured the attention of the nation as viscerally as it did was the partial overlap between white-supremacist slogans and broad American fears. When the demonstrators chanted, “You will not replace us!” they linked the removal of the Confederate statue with the wider fear that an entire way of life is being “replaced.”
French philosopher Renaud Camus argues that “European civilization and identity are at risk of being subsumed by mass migration, especially from Muslim countries.” He calls this idea the “Great Replacement.” This is one of the roots of the chant “You will not replace us!”
In America we have several subspecies of this idea. One of them has center stage for the moment, namely, the Southern-cultural identity interwoven with thousands of Confederate symbols throughout the Southern states. Millions of Southerners hate the attitudes of white supremacists but hear in the words “You will not replace us!” something paradoxically attractive.“Where Does It Stop?”
I grew up in the South. I know what this feels like. I have spoken with Southerners in recent weeks, and have felt their reflexive anger at the notion of changing the name of every street, park, town, bridge, lake, dam, school, library, holiday, and military base that bears the name of a Confederate “hero.” Even my putting quotation marks around that word feels to them like a threat.
This unexpected, partial overlap between white-supremacist slogans and the latent indignation of American Southerners about perceived disregard for Southern culture (replacement) is one of the main reasons this event in Charlottesville took on the magnitude that it did.
Of course, the President’s words (both in spirit and content) fanned the flames of conflict among those whose passion was white supremacy, those aiming at counter-demonstration, and the wider population concerned about Southern-cultural heritage. Mr. Trump especially touched the nerve of the concerned Southerners when he lamented the removal of Lee’s statue by drawing attention to memorials for George Washington and Thomas Jefferson, saying, “You really do have to ask yourself, ‘Where does it stop?’”
My interpretation of that last question from the President is this: If you don’t know where to stop, don’t start. Which means this: the President is opposed to the removal of Confederate memorials. He did not say this in so many words, but that was the implication as I heard it. For the President to offer in passing a facile judgment about such a weighty and far-reaching issue for our nation was deplorable. His job is to help point the way to conflict resolution, not to cynically sweep the issue aside as foolish.Civil-War Passions Are Not Gone
Perhaps the President doesn’t see that the issue of Confederate memorials is an echo of the unfinished conflict of the Civil War. For example, in Greenville, South Carolina, where I grew up, there is a 28-foot-tall Confederate memorial in Springwood Cemetery with an unnamed soldier atop the pedestal. It was first erected in 1892. One of its plaques leaves little question what is being memorialized:
All lost, but by the graves
Where martyred heroes rest;
He wins the most who honor saves:
Success is not the test.
The world shall yet decide,
In truth’s clear far off light,
That the soldiers
Who wore the gray and died
With Lee, were right.
This statue is a memorialized prophecy. “In truth’s clear, far off light” — that would be 2017 — “the world will yet decide” that the cause of the Confederacy was “right.” What we saw in Charlottesville was evidence of the fact that, at the level of conviction and emotion, the war is not over. The passions that enflamed the will to secede from the Union, and the passions that drove the force to prevent it, are alive in our land.Slavery and State’s Rights
At one level, the conflict was about the right to secede. That was the “political question of the hour.” But “slavery . . . everyone knew was the economic, social, and moral issue on which the political question turned” (Mark Noll, The Civil War as a Theological Crisis, 1). The Constitution of the Confederate States, which Robert E. Lee was fighting to uphold, provided explicitly that “No . . . law denying or impairing the right of property of negro slaves shall be passed” (Article I, Section 9, 4). “The Confederate States may acquire new territory. . . . In all such territory, the institution of negro slavery as it now exists in the Confederate States, shall be recognized and protected by Congress” (Article IV, Section 3, 3).
Alexander Stephens, who would become vice president of the Confederacy, gave a speech on March 21, 1861, ten days after the adoption of the Confederate Constitution, explaining why it is superior to the U.S. Constitution and why Confederate secession was underway. Among the reasons was the securing of slavery as the rightful place of the Negro in “our form of civilization.”
The new constitution has put at rest, forever, all the agitating questions relating to our peculiar institution, African slavery as it exists amongst, us the proper status of the negro in our form of civilization. This was the immediate cause of the late rupture and present revolution [seven states had seceded by the time of this speech]. [Thomas] Jefferson in his forecast, had anticipated this, as the “rock upon which the old Union would split.” He was right. . . . The prevailing ideas entertained by him and most of the leading statesmen at the time of the formation of the old constitution, were that the enslavement of the African was in violation of the laws of nature; that it was wrong in principle, socially, morally, and politically. . . . Those ideas, however, were fundamentally wrong. They rested upon the assumption of the equality of races. This was an error. It was a sandy foundation, and the government built upon it fell when the “storm came and the wind blew.”
Our new government is founded upon exactly the opposite idea; its foundations are laid, its corner-stone rests, upon the great truth that the negro is not equal to the white man; that slavery subordination to the superior race is his natural and normal condition. This, our new government, is the first, in the history of the world, based upon this great physical, philosophical, and moral truth. . . . They were attempting to make things equal which the Creator had made unequal.
In other words, the Civil War was fought in defense of a new government as part of “our form of civilization.” Embedded in that form of government was the right to own slaves, the South’s “peculiar institution.” This institutionalized enslavement of the Black race was built on the prevailing assumption that the Black race was inferior, and ordained by God for a servile role and a segregated place.
The visceral commitment to segregation for a hundred years after the Civil War was a clear and powerful witness to the abiding conviction of many whites that this perceived inferiority, if not the God-ordained servility, had never changed. Emboldened by the spirit of the White House, this ineradicable white supremacy has taken the hoods off. We are in a new day of race-related conflict. And the need is great for thoughtful recommendations rather than dismissive soundbites.Recommendation #1: Recognize the richness of Southern culture apart from slavery and civil war.
For many, one obstacle standing in the way of seriously considering the pros and cons of removing Confederate memorials is the sense that the Confederacy is essential to authentic Southern identity. I think this is a mistake. So my first recommendation is that we — Southerners especially — make the effort to articulate the richness of Southern-cultural heritage aside from slavery and the Civil War. I think this effort might go a long way toward dispelling the hasty and inaccurate judgment that, if some or all Confederate symbols go, there won’t be anything left of Southern culture.
I think the opposite is true: if the brick of the Confederacy is removed from the castle of Southern culture, the building will not collapse. I am no historian, nor a cultural expert. But just a small effort to see Southern culture reveals something more vast and varied than the legacy of slavery and Civil War. For starters:
Writers: Mark Twain. William Faulkner. Robert Penn Warren. Flannery O’Connor. Erskine Caldwell. Edgar Allan Poe. Sidney Lanier. Cleanth Brooks. Ralph Ellison. Thomas Wolfe. William Styron. Truman Capote. Walker Percy. Cormac McCarthy. Anne Rice. Shelby Foote. John Grisham. Wendell Berry. Zora Neale Hurston. Eudora Welty.
Music. Black Gospel. Spirituals. Bluegrass. Cajun. Delta Blues. Dixieland Jazz. Ragtime. Rockabilly. Shape Notes. Soul. Grand Ole Opry. Nashville. Stephen Foster. Buddy Holly. Little Richard. Fats Domino. Ray Charles. James Brown. Jerry Lee Lewis. Hank Williams. Eddy Arnold. Louis Jordan. Scot Joplin. Nat “King” Cole. Elvis Presley. Johnny Cash. The Carter Family.
Food. “If it ain’t fried, it ain’t cooked.” Black-eyed peas. Brunswick stew. Cornbread. Grits. Catfish and hushpuppies. Sweet tea. Barbecue. Co-cola. Greens. Gumbo. Biscuits and gravy. Southern fried chicken. Jambalaya.
Land and place and critters. Love of place. Red dirt. Blue Ridge Mountains. Appalachia. Bayou. Mississippi Delta. Outer Banks. Piney woods. Kudzu. Cotton. Magnolias. Black Bears. Ticks. Dogs (to be kept outside). Southern architecture (white columns). Churches. Churches. Churches. Especially Baptist churches.
Sports. Kentucky basketball. SEC football. High school football. Blue Devils and Tar Heels. Auburn and Alabama. Stock-car racing. Richard Petty and Dale Earnhardt.
The point of this random, incomplete list of aspects of Southern culture is not that these are somehow pure over against slavery and the cause of the Confederacy. There are no completely pure aspects of human culture. The point is, first, that Southern culture is vastly greater than slavery and the Civil War. And, second, that therefore the removal of some or all of the Confederate symbols would not cause the castle of Southern culture to collapse.
Of course, that does not answer the question whether any given memorial should be removed. But it might help us weigh the pros and cons with less heat and more light.Recommendation #2: Consider carefully the criteria for which public memorials to create or keep.
My second recommendation is that we think through what criteria should be used in deciding if a memorial should be built or removed. It seems to me that at least three questions are involved in deciding if a public memorial is good for a community or a nation: (1) What reality is being memorialized? (2) Is this reality worthy of public admiration and emulation? (3) Is the person who is symbolically embodying this reality so compromised with evil that regardless of the reality being memorialized, the person is too tarnished even to be used to memorialize something worthy? None of these questions is as easy to answer as it might appear at first.1. What reality is being memorialized?
Not only may this be ambiguous historically, but it may also be different according to the interpretation of the onlooker. For example, the Civil War Unknowns Monument in Arlington, Virginia, erected in 1866, contains the remains of 2,111 soldiers from both Confederate and Union armies gathered after the war near Bull Run. The inscription says that “grateful citizens honor them as of their noble army of martyrs. May they rest in peace.”
What is being memorialized here? It is ambiguous because the soldiers of both armies are called “noble martyrs.” Not only that, but the phrase “noble army of martyrs” is a direct quote from a Christian hymn, the Te Deum, where the reference is explicitly to Christian martyrs. Even if we said that what is being memorialized is each soldier’s “last full measure of devotion” (to use Lincoln’s words from the Gettysburg Address), we cannot escape the painful fact that most died devoted to a cause that the other side considered evil. And many who look on today have sympathies with the one or the other.
The Confederate memorial at Springwood Cemetery in Greenville, South Carolina, referred to earlier, is clearer about what is being memorialized: “That the soldiers / Who wore the gray and died / With Lee, were right.” Even here there are ambiguities. Some would put all the focus on state’s rights, not slavery, and say, that is what is being memorialized. Others would point out that the decisive reason the South insisted on the state’s right to secede was to preserve the reality of slavery, and therefore, that is what is being memorialized.
It has been pointed out that George Washington owned slaves and that this may compromise the existence of statues in his memory. With regard to Washington memorials, even when there is no explicit inscription, most would agree that what is being memorialized is his achievement on behalf of establishing the existence of the United States — first, as an independent nation and, second, as a republic, not a monarchy. Whether his slave-holding undermines his ability to represent those two values is the third question below.
The point here is only that, when we consider removing a memorial, we should first try to establish what is being memorialized.2. Is this reality worthy of public admiration and emulation?
The second question to consider when weighing the removal of a memorial is whether the reality being memorialized is worthy of admiration and emulation. The effort to disentangle the Confederate cause from the evils of racism and slavery, so that the reality being memorialized by Confederate memorials can be seen as admirable, is not seen as successful by many African Americans, nor by many others, like myself. This effort is made all the more difficult by the fact that, increasingly, white supremacists are using those memorials as evidence that their own belief in the racial inferiority of African Americans is in clear continuity with the Confederate heroes. The continuity of that belief is difficult to deny.
So not only is there likely to be disagreement about the precise reality that is being memorialized with any given memorial, but, in addition, the disagreement will often be even deeper about whether that reality is worthy of admiration and emulation.
To make matters even more urgent, the inclination to remove a Confederate memorial is intensified not only by the judgment that the memorialized reality is seen as unworthy of admiration, but also by the fact that racist beliefs in the present — and the injustices that flow from them — are fortified by the memorials in question. In other words, the memorials may, at the same time, celebrate past wrongs, and support present wrongs. This is why the movement to remove such memorials has grown.3. Is the person who is symbolically embodying the memorialized reality so compromised with evil that, regardless of the reality being memorialized, the person is too tarnished even to be used to memorialize something worthy?
The point here is that there might be agreement on what is being memorialized, and that it is admirable and worthy of emulation; and yet the memorial might be rejected on the ground that the person symbolizing the memorialized reality is too blemished to have public support. For an obvious example, a statue honoring the power of effective speaking would not use Adolf Hitler, though he was an effective speaker. Damnably effective.
On the Charlie Rose Show, after the Charlottesville tragedy, Al Sharpton was asked about memorials to George Washington in view of the fact that he owned slaves. Sharpton said, “The public should not uphold somebody who had that kind of background.” My interpretation of the word “uphold” in that context is that a person who held slaves should not be memorialized with taxpayer money.
Perhaps he misspoke. Or perhaps I have misinterpreted. But you can see the issue. Such a view with regard to the likes of George Washington and Thomas Jefferson is probably not going to get a lot of traction. They are too deeply and thoroughly embedded in the origin and character of this nation as a whole. But the issue must still be faced. Many of us would argue that a memorial for Washington is much more clearly distinguishable from the evils of slavery than is a memorial for Jefferson Davis.Recommendation #3: Reflect seriously on who should decide what memorials to create or keep.
A third recommendation is that we reflect seriously about who should decide what public memorials are created and kept. Beside the three criteria for deciding which public memorials are good for a community, we have the question of who decides. Neighborhoods? School boards (say, in the case of school names)? Park boards? City governments? State legislatures? Federal legislatures? Mobs with ropes?
I do not have a specific answer to this question. By default, in almost every memorial case, some publicly elected or appointed group already exists as the authority to make this decision. That group may or may not be suited for the daunting task. For surely that task includes not only careful thinking about the questions raised above, but also empathetic and discerning listening to those whose lives are significantly affected by the memorial. The aim of public officials should be to restrain evil and support what is good (1 Peter 2:14). This is no easy task. But I would want the decision-making power to be in the hands of those elected officials best suited for the complexities of this task. (See below for the question of what to do with moved memorials.)Recommendation #4: Preserve noteworthy memorials in an appropriate setting.
A fourth recommendation is that artistically noteworthy memorials (like statues and paintings) not be discarded but preserved in a setting where the memorials are viewed as educational artifacts rather than celebratory icons. The aim would be to locate them where the moral, cultural, and historical issues that made them controversial can be clarified. This is my answer to the objection that the removal of memorials is the loss of important history — with both its positive and negative lessons. I take that objection seriously.
My answer is that this is precisely what museums are for. There is a difference between educational history and celebrated legacy. There are no statues to Adolf Eichmann, but there is a Holocaust Museum.Two Good Examples
The Minnesota State Capitol was recently refurbished. All the artwork was restored to its original luster. However, two large paintings in the Governor’s Reception Room were not put back in their prominent positions. One was “Treaty of Traverse des Sioux” which portrays the 1851 signing of a treaty that secured some 22 million acres that would become Minnesota. The problem is that territorial governor Alexander Ramsey had pressured the Indians to sign the treaty quickly, without their knowing its full implications. The other painting, “Father Hennepin at the Falls of St. Anthony,” has been seriously criticized as a naïve distortion of Native American dress and psyche.
Solution: both paintings were moved to the third floor, given their own spacious room, and accompanied by large placards explaining the history and the controversy. This solution followed from extensive discussions with people on both sides of the display issue. Noteworthy art was preserved. Important history was not lost. Education was advanced. Celebration of unworthy misrepresentations was muted.
Another example of moving controversial memorials from a place of celebration to a place of education is the strange George Washington sculpture by Horatio Greenough. Washington is bare-chested, draped like a Greek god, sitting on a throne, and handing his ruling sword, handle first, to the public. It arrived in Washington, D.C. in 1841 and was controversial from day one. First, it was displayed in the Capitol Rotunda. Then it was moved to the east lawn of the Capitol in 1843. Then it went on exhibit in the Patent Office. In 1908 Congress acted to transfer it to the Smithsonian Castle, until in 1964 it found a proper home in the National Museum of American History.
This seems to me a good solution. The sculpture has proved embarrassing. At best, it is ambiguous. Nevertheless, it had been commissioned by Congress. It has some artistic merit. It is, after all, George Washington. And it makes a great discussion piece — for a museum. Probably not the Rotunda.
The point here is that the removal of memorials does not have to mean the loss of art or history or worthy culture. The entire debate surrounding a memorial may be shifted from the place of celebration to the place of education — from the town square to the county museum. In fact, it seems wise to me that any attempt to “remove” a memorial should be preceded by a serious plan to preserve the memorial in a new setting with explanations about why many see it as a problem, and why others see greater merit. Which means we don’t remove memorials. We move them. We reconceive them. We move them from the place of public admiration and emulation to the place of public deliberation and evaluation.My Hope and Prayer
I don’t see any of these four recommendations as the last word on these issues. As a Christian exile, who is thankful to God for his mercy in making America my place of sojourn, I hope these reflections might be helpful as we try to live in peace and overcome the living legacy of racial devaluing, derision, and oppression.
Ultimately, it is the sinful inclinations of every human heart that create legacies of arrogance. At bottom there is only one remedy for this. The Bible calls it a “new covenant” that God makes with his people:
I will give you a new heart, says the Lord, and a new spirit I will put within you. And I will remove the heart of stone from your flesh and give you a heart of flesh. And I will put my Spirit within you, and cause you to walk in my statutes and be careful to obey my rules. (Ezekiel 36:26–27)
In the night before he died, Jesus lifted the cup at the Last Supper and said, “This cup is the new covenant in my blood” (Luke 22:20). In other words, he died to bring that prophetic vision into reality. He died to give us new hearts. If we look to him as the place where all our sins are punished, and everlasting joy is secured, we will be new. And in that newness, “there is not Greek and Jew, circumcised and uncircumcised, barbarian, Scythian, slave, free; but Christ is all, and in all” (Colossians 3:11). That is the end of every legacy of disunity.
God’s love and election work hand and hand. There’s no election that is not loving, and there’s no initiating love that is not electing.
You can’t complain that God isn’t talking to you if you leave your Bible closed in front of you.
Being blameless for the day of Christ doesn't mean that we lived perfectly. It means that we lived a life hating our sin, seeking holiness, and trusting in Christ.
At the heart of mature manhood and womanhood is not the rivalry of competency, but a God-given sense of complementarity.