Editors’ note: This article has been adapted from Kathleen Nielson’s introduction to Joyfully Spreading the Word: Sharing the Good News of Jesus (Crossway, 2018).
As women in the church learn and grow together, following Paul’s instruction to Titus that older women should teach the younger ones “what is good” (Titus 2:3), a call to evangelism must be a crucial part of the good things passed on. God’s people have the astounding privilege of passing on the good news of what God has done for us through the death of Christ on our behalf and his resurrection from the grave. Although it is clearly the concern of the whole church—both men and women—the subject of sharing the gospel is one that women will do well to consider deeply together.
Let me suggest three specific reasons why.1. We Need Gospel-Centered Focus
First, believing women need to hear voices calling us to a gospel-centered, outward focus—rather than a self-centered, inward one. Especially in Western contexts where many Christians have lived comfortably for a long time, there is often a lack of passion and clarity about communicating the gospel to those who don’t know Christ. I regularly find a great deal of passion among women for personal issues, amid the challenges of relatively well-to-do lives that can leave us stressed or lazy or worried about physical appearances or tempted by easily available ungodly entertainment. It is easy for many of us to focus on inward-oriented questions that are important but that can consume our thoughts: questions about self-image and identity, emotional health, finding just the right work and finding satisfaction in that work, etc. When we do turn outward toward social issues and actions—and, happily, we increasingly do—the temptation is to turn with passion to the physical and emotional needs that move our hearts.
Why are we not equally moved, or even more moved, to share the good news of Jesus and how he can meet the greatest and eternal needs of every needy human being?2. We Need Role Models
Second, there are great role models who can teach us biblically and well. Men and women together share the call to evangelism, but women can play a distinct and significant part in this family enterprise, in a myriad of ways. One way is through offering role models to the next generation, to help them envision just what a woman with a heart to share the gospel looks like in action—a woman who simply serves in the places where God puts her, showing and sharing the good news of what God has done to save us through his Son.
Women with hearts to share the gospel juggle a variety of contexts, mixing home and work and friendship and hospitality and mercy ministry in that sometimes-chaotic combination that makes up many women’s lives. The multiple involvements balanced fruitfully by women around us can spur us on to see that we can share the gospel in any and every life context—at a kitchen table, or a podium in front of thousands, or an office desk. We can help one another think creatively concerning the possibility of reaching out not just to people across the globe but to neighbors across the street and people across town.
No matter what our involvements, we can spur one another on in learning and sharing the Word which is at the heart of our ongoing witness. As we strive for increasingly careful, consistent study of God’s Word, we can aim not simply to feed ourselves, but also to feed others with the Word of truth. In every context of her life, the thoughts and words of a gospel-hearted woman are naturally full of the Scriptures. Her articulations of clear gospel apologetics grow from the very logic and flow of the Old and New Testaments, with Jesus at the center of the story. As we spur one another on, we come to view our study of the Word not so much as a routine private meal, but more as an ever-larger table where we get to share an amazing feast.3. We Need to Grasp the Urgency of the Good News
Finally, women should be considering deeply together the subject of personal evangelism because we sense the urgency of teaching each other this part of “what is good.” The paragraph immediately following Paul’s instructions to Titus concerning the various groups within the church gives the big reason for all his instructions:
For the grace of God has appeared, bringing salvation for all people, training us to renounce ungodliness and worldly passions, and to live self-controlled, upright, and godly lives in the present age, waiting for our blessed hope, the appearing of the glory of our great God and Savior Jesus Christ. (Titus 2:11–13)
The emphasis in this passage is God’s redemptive work through Jesus Christ that has come for “all people” and that happens in a certain time frame—a time frame that will culminate in the second coming of the Lord Jesus to earth, in all his glory.
What Paul calls the “present age” is the same period also referred to in Scripture as the “last days” (Acts 2:17; Heb. 1:2). These terms describe the time in which we now live—the time between Jesus’s first and second coming. It’s a time of taking salvation to all the nations, as believers spread the good news, until Jesus’s return. According to his clear command before he left the earth, the calling of believers during this time is to “go . . . and make disciples of all nations, baptizing them in the name of the Father and of the Son and of the Holy Spirit, teaching them to observe all that I have commanded you” (Matt. 28:18–20).
That command was given to Jesus’s disciples and is passed on through them to the church, with its preachers and teachers and evangelists who lead the church in making and teaching disciples both near and far. It should encourage women as a part of the church to feel the urgency of this call, just as did the women in the early church. Just think of all those fellow female workers mentioned by Paul: Phoebe, Prisca, Mary, Junia, Tryphaena and Tryphosa, Persis, Rufus’s mother, Julia, Nereus’s sister (see Romans 16).
Among people who enjoy all the economic progress and technological enlightenment of the 21st century, rather than urgency there can be even a slight embarrassment about the simple truth that the Bible lights up the way of salvation through Jesus. That Jesus is the Christ, the Son of God who died for us, bearing our sins and suffering the wrath of God in our place; that he rose from the grave, providing eternal life for all who believe in him—this is indeed the good and relatively simple news the Bible teaches and Christians get to share. We share it today in a time when the church is growing fast all over the globe, even in nations that are politically “closed” but where King Jesus is at work through his people and his Word. It is urgent news indeed, as the hope of Jesus’s coming draws ever nearer.
We all need voices calling us to a gospel-centered outward focus. We need strong Word-filled role models. And we need a sense of the urgency of this message, this message that calls people from death to life through the power of the gospel. This is the bread of life that lasts forever, and we need to share it.
Every Halloween a spate of scary movies hits movie theaters and streaming sites. This year is no different, with films like Halloween and Suspiria, and shows like The Haunting of Hill House (Netflix), creeping out audiences everywhere. But the most horrifying film this fall doesn’t feature ghosts or masked killers. It’s a slasher film about a bogeyman of a different, more disturbing sort—a killer whose crimes went undetected for decades because they occurred under the guise of “health care” and “reproductive rights.”
Gosnell: The Trial of America’s Biggest Serial Killer tells the ghoulish story of Philadelphia abortionist Kermit Gosnell, who in 2013 was convicted of first-degree murder for killing babies in his abortion clinic after they had been born alive, as well as for a patient, Karnamaya Mongar, who died after a botched abortion in Gosnell’s clinic. The movie, which draws largely from court transcripts, is unmistakably a horror film. The villain (played by Earl Billings) operates a “women’s health” clinic that is more like a house of horrors, complete with baby feet in jars, urine- and cat-feces-splattered walls, bloody used instruments, and undisposed medical waste. His weapon of choice is scissors, which he uses to sever the spinal cords of babies after they emerge alive from their mother’s womb. The body count is massive. When investigators (including Dean Cain as a Philadelphia policeman) raid Gosnell’s house, he calmly plays Chopin on his piano, channeling Hannibal Lecter.
[This film] is a horrifying mirror to a society that has normalized and systematized the killing of babies.
Ultimately Gosnell is a horrifying mirror to a society that has normalized and systematized the killing of babies. It is horrifying because it is not just the tale of an isolated psychopath like Jeffrey Dahmer or the Zodiac killer. Gosnell’s heinous, murderous practices put him in prison for life because he “crossed a line” (performing abortions after the legal limit of 24 weeks, killing babies born alive). But are the realities on the other side of that line any less horrifying?Horrifying Apathy
Another horrifying aspect of the Gosnell story is how apathetic so many seem to be toward the story and the larger questions it raises about the abortion industry. The mainstream media was famously absent at Gosnell’s trial—until Kirsten Powers called out the “disgrace” of the press in a USA Today column, insisting the Gosnell story “should be front page news.”
The same is true for the press coverage of the movie. Aside from conservative and pro-life websites, few outlets seem interested in a film that cracked the box office top 10 when it opened on October 12. At the time of writing, only 10 reviews of the film are logged on Rottentomatoes.com, compared with 186 for Bad Times at the El Royale, which released the same day. And despite performing well its opening week—I saw the film in a packed Southern California theater—theaters have reportedly been dropping Gosnell from their screens in its second week, inexplicably. Gosnell’s producers had trouble even paying media to run ads for the film. NPR reportedly rejected an ad for the film unless the term “abortionist Kermit Gosnell” was changed to “doctor Kermit Gosnell.”
Why are the media so afraid of covering this film or telling this story? It’s the same reason so many Pennsylvania doctors, politicians, and bureaucrats looked the other way for decades rather than exposing Gosnell’s practices. To spotlight Gosnell would necessarily spotlight abortion and all it involves: suction, dismembered babies, and so forth. To report on what happens in “crossing the line” cases like Gosnell involves making people aware of the line and what is actually legal. And what is legal is horrifying. Keeping people ignorant of the whole enterprise is the only hope abortion proponents have. “Move along,” they say of something like Gosnell. “There’s nothing to see here.”
To report on what happens in ‘crossing the line’ cases like Gosnell involves making people aware of the line and what is actually legal. And what is legal is horrifying.
A journalist character in the film named Molly Mullaney (inspired in part by Mollie Hemingway) exposes this media bias by tweeting a photo of empty press seats in the courtroom during Gosnell’s trial. Late in the film the character (played by Cyrina Fiallo) says what too few journalists seem to believe anymore: “If the truth doesn’t match what I believe, it’s still the truth.” Indeed. In this era of “fake news” and rampant social media confirmation bias, we desperately need more journalists committed to truth above all, even when it doesn’t match their personal convictions or cause.Imperfect Film
Part of why some journalists have shrugged at Gosnell—though it is by no means the whole story—is that it is a mediocre movie that largely preaches to a pro-life choir.
Which is too bad. The raw materials of the story are compelling and damning in their own right. They need no spin. In the hands of a stridently objective documentary filmmaker (admittedly a rarer-than-ever breed), the story of Kermit Gosnell could have resulted in a more nuanced, artful, widely seen film—one that left-leaning journalists could not have ignored.
As it is, Gosnell is not the sort of film critics, arthouse audiences, or casual blue-state filmgoers are likely to watch. Essentially made-for-TV quality (at times it feels like a cheesy episode of CSI) with flourishes of Dinesh D’Souza partisanship, the movie—released conveniently in time for the U.S. midterm elections—is largely red meat for the already convinced.
Produced by journalists Phelim McAleer and Ann McElhinney (based on their bestselling book) and directed by Nick Searcy, Gosnell was audience-funded in Indiegogo’s most successful crowdfunding campaign ever. This partially explains the film’s populist, partisan energy. Just getting the film made and exhibited feels like a win for the pro-life cause. But shouldn’t efforts like this be designed to win over the unconvinced? Done differently, might Gosnell have been more than a partisan rallying cry?
Shouldn’t efforts like this be designed to win over the unconvinced? Done differently, might Gosnell have been more than a partisan rallying cry?
Gosnell is more political than religious in its anti-abortion stance. Nowhere is there mention of the imago Dei or other theologies of the sanctity of life. But the film does relish opportunities to skewer the political left and point out its hypocrisy. In one scene we see a judge order the protection of Gosnell’s pet turtles, saying, “I take the Endangered Species Act very seriously.” The film wants to point out the cognitive dissonance in those who are passionate about animal welfare but apathetic about fetus welfare. It hammers this home by repeatedly showing Gosnell tenderly feeding and talking to his turtles, when he’s not severing baby necks. But is this really necessary? Does the pro-life cause need to pit itself against the pro-environment cause, further entrenching partisan binaries (either you protect the environment or you protect babies, but not both)?Abortion’s Ugliness
The film also missteps in depicting Gosnell as basically psychotic. By underscoring his bizarre behavior and squalid environments (messy office, flea-ridden home), the film gives ammo to those who would write off the story as that of a lunatic outlier. As I watched the film I thought of Operation Finale and its depiction of Nazi war criminal Adolf Eichmann. That film showed Eichmann to be chillingly rational, sane, and part of a bigger system where evil flourished. By emphasizing Gosnell’s unhinged, unkempt behavior (in contrast to more “professional” abortion doctors), Gosnell creates distance between this particular man’s evil and the bigger evil system that makes him possible.
This is not to say Gosnell totally misses the connection. In one of the film’s shrewdest scenes, we see Gosnell’s defense attorney (played by Searcy) cross-examine another abortion doctor (based on the real courtroom testimony of ob-gyn Karen Feisullin). She is a professional, seemingly nice woman who defends the legal, sanitary, and “safe” abortions she performs (more than 30,000 in her career). But as the lawyer probes and gets this “nice” abortion doctor to describe in gruesome detail the dilation and evacuation abortion method, and what she does in the event an infant is born alive (she provides “comfort care,” essentially letting the baby lay unaided “until it passes”), the ugliness of legal/acceptable abortion is exposed.More and Better Films
Indeed, what is legal and acceptable in our society is the true horror we must confront. Gosnell is an admirable attempt to challenge us to confront abortion’s horror head on, but we need more—and better—films about this subject. We need a sprawling, nuanced documentary, along the lines of Ezra Edelman’s eight-hour O.J.: Made in America, that considers the history, politics, theology, and human realities of abortion. Is there a filmmaker out there—Christian or otherwise—willing to make such a film?
Filmmaker Akira Kurosawa once said, “The role of the artist is to not look away,” and with difficult and controversial topics like abortion we especially need artists to play this role. We need for abortion what Spielberg’s Schindler’s List (25 years old this year) was for the Holocaust—a beautifully made, not-look-away reminder of what we might be tempted to forget.
Akira Kurosawa once said, ‘The role of the artist is to not look away,’ and with difficult and controversial topics like abortion we especially need artists to play this role.
The visceral power of cinema (where cameras zoom in and microphones record reality in uniquely confrontational ways) is well-suited for the task of revealing what might otherwise be hidden or obscured. And abortion is something many people and institutions want to keep hidden and obscured.
The PG-13 Gosnell plays it somewhat safe in terms of revealing the actual realities of abortion (though it cleverly employs the “reaction shot” to communicate the horror of an unseen photograph of “Baby Boy A”), but the horrors of abortion demand to be exposed in more direct, hard-to-watch fashion.
When a prosecutor in the film asks a nurse why she took a picture on her cell phone of “Baby Boy A” (who was briefly alive after being taken from the womb), she says:
He was so big. He looked like he could be somebody’s little brother. I just thought there should be a picture of him. To show the world that he was here for a little while.
Yes, there should be a picture of him—and the millions more like him who were only here “for a little while.” They were fearfully and wonderfully made. They bear the image of God. Each and every one. Heaven help us if we shrug at their destruction.
“With his whole nature in combination and harmony, God acts out his own completely consistent opposition to evil. He opposes it with every fiber of his being. And this opposition is his wrath.” — Mark Dever
Text: Revelation 11:15–19
Preached: September 11, 2018
Location: Ocean City Bible Conference, Ocean City, New Jersey
Without books there would have been no Reformation. Still today, 501 years since Martin Luther posted his 95 Theses, we read and apply the biblical and theological insights of the Reformers. Time marches on, but we do not move on from the Word of God they loved, taught, and defended.
We continue the work of reformation today in the hopes that our ministry practices and personal decisions may conform to the character and command of God. And books still aid in the reform, even as the technology evolves. Once again our friends at Zondervan Academic have launched a sale on works by Reformed thinkers that runs from October 24 to November 1. But for the first time this Reformation sale includes deals on video lectures and online courses, in addition to the usual eBooks. These online courses pull together the video lecture and eBook content into a learning platform that offers additional functionality, such as interactive question-and-answer prompts.
Check out the sale titles below, and find books and courses that will help you teach and life the timeless truth of the Reformed faith.
1. God’s Word Alone by Matthew Barrett
Online Course: coming soon!
2. Romans by Douglas J. Moo
Sale: $89.99 Original: $119.99
(Online course contains the video lecture and eBook content, and more.)
3. Systematic Theology by Wayne Grudem
Sale: $161.24 Original: $214.99
(Online course contains the video lecture and eBook content, and more.)
4. Church History, Volume Two by John Woodbridge and Frank James III
Sale: $89.99 Original: $119.99
(Online course contains the video lecture and eBook content, and more.)
5. Apologetics at the Cross by Joshua Chatraw and Mark Allen
Sale: $89.99 Original: $119.99
(Online course contains the video lecture and eBook content, and more.)
6. Historical Theology by Gregg Allison
Sale: $89.99 Original: $119.99
(Online course contains the video lecture and eBook content, and more.)
7. Evangelism in a Skeptical World by Sam Chan
Sale: $89.99 Original: $119.99
(Online course contains the video lecture and eBook content, and more.)
8. A Theology of Biblical Counseling by Heath Lambert
Sale: $89.99 Original: $119.99
(Online course contains the video lecture and eBook content, and more.)
9. Galatians by Thomas Schreiner
Sale: $89.99 Original: $119.99
(Online course contains the video lecture and eBook content, and more.)
10. Know Why You Believe by K. Scott Oliphint
Sale: $89.99 Original: $119.99
(Online course contains the video lecture and eBook content, and more.)
11. Know How We Got Our Bible by Ryan Reeves and Charles Hill
Online Course: coming soon!
12. Know the Creeds and Councils by Justin Holcomb
Sale: $89.99 Original: $119.99
(Online course contains the video lecture and eBook content, and more.)
13. Rediscovering the Holy Spirit by Michael Horton Sale: $5.99 Original: $12.99
14. Gaining by Losing by J. D. Greear Sale: $2.99 Original: $9.99
15. Scripture and Counseling edited by Bob Kellemen Sale: $6.99 Original: $21.99
16. The Gagging of God by D. A. Carson Sale: $3.99 Original: $20.99
17. Next Story by Tim Challies Sale: $2.99 Original: $6.99
18. Shaped by the Gospel by Timothy Keller Sale: $2.99 Original: $6.99
19. What’s Best Next by Matt Perman Sale: $2.99 Original: $14.99
20. Comfort the Grieving by Paul Tautges Sale: $1.99 Original: $7.49
What just happened?
For the past eight months, Christians around the world have been praying for the release of Leah Sharibu, a 15-year-old schoolgirl from Nigeria.
Last week, a group of Islamic terrorists executed Hauwa Leman, a 24-year-old aid worker with the International Committee of the Red Cross, and vowed to make Sharibu a “slave for life.” Days before the execution, a 35-second audio clip of Sharibu was released in which the girl pleads for her life:
“I am Leah Sharibu, the girl that was abducted in GGSS Dapchi. I am calling on the government and people of goodwill to intervene to get me out of my current situation. I also plead to the members of the public to help my mother, my father, my younger brother, and relatives. Kindly help me out of my predicament. I am begging you to treat me with compassion, I am calling on the government, particularly the president, to pity me and get me out of this serious situation. Thank you.”
Who is Leah Sharibu?
Dressed as Nigerian soldiers and driving machine-gun mounted trucks, Boko Haram terrorists attacked the city of Dapchi on February 19 and abducted 110 girls from the Government Girls Science and Technical School. Sharibu was the only Christian in the group of abducted girls.
A month later, 104 girls were released (five girls were reportedly killed on the first day of the attack). Sharibu reportedly was also offered her freedom on the condition that she convert to Islam. But according to her fellow captives, she refused to renounce her faith.
“We begged her to just recite the Islamic declaration and put the hijab on and get into the vehicle, but she said it was not her faith, so why should she say it was?” Sharibu’s friends told her mother. “If they want to kill her, they can go ahead, but she won’t say she is a Muslim.”
Earlier this year Sharibu and two other girls managed to escape their captors. According to The Guardian, the three hungry and exhausted girls walked for three days before approaching a family of the nomadic Fulani people. They asked for help getting home to Dapchi but were instead taken straight back to their kidnappers.
Hasn’t a similar kidnapping happened before?
Yes. In 2014, 300 Christian girls aged 12 to 15 were sleeping in dormitories at an all-girls school in northeast Nigeria when they were kidnapped by Boko Haram. Some of the kidnapped girls were been forced into “marriage” with their abductors and sold for a nominal bride price of $12. The kidnappings were the focus of the “Bring Back Our Girls” social media campaign that garnered significant attention in 2014.
Why does Boku Haram kidnap children?
Like their Islamic State allies in the Middle East, Boko Haram has a theological justification for rape and sex slavery.
Abubakar Shekau, the leader of Boko Haram, released a video in 2014 explaining why they kidnap schoolgirls.
“I abducted the girls at a Western education school,” Shekau said in the video. “And you are disturbed. I said Western education should end. . . . I abducted your girls. I will sell them in the market, by Allah. There is a market for selling humans. Allah says I should sell; he commands me to sell. I will sell women. I sell women.”
“It is Allah that instructed us,” he added. “Until we soak the ground of Nigeria with Christian blood and so-called Muslims contradicting Islam. After we have killed, killed, killed, and get fatigue and wondering what to do with their corpses—smelling of [Barack] Obama, [George] Bush, and [Nigerian president Goodluck] Jonathan—will open prison and be imprison the rest. Infidels have no value.”
Who is Boko Haram?
Boko Haram is the Hausa language nickname for Jama’atu Ahlis Sunna Lidda’awati wal-Jihad (congregation of the People of Tradition for Proselytism and Jihad). The nickname, which translates to “Western education is sinful,” was given because of the group’s initial focus on opposing Western education in African countries.
Founded in 2002, the terrorist group comprises radical Islamists who oppose both Westerners and also “apostate” Muslims. Based in Nigeria, Cameroon, and Niger, the organization seeks to establish a “pure” Islamic state ruled by Shariah law, putting a stop to what it deems “Westernization.” Its followers are said to be influenced by the Quranic phrase that says:,“Anyone who is not governed by what Allah has revealed is among the transgressors.
Despite the group’s nickname, Boko Haram’s agenda is much broader than just education. The group promotes a version of radical Islam that makes it “haram”, or forbidden, for Muslims to take part in any political or social activity associated with Western society This includes voting in elections, wearing shirts and trousers, or receiving a non-Muslim education.
(For more on this group, see: 9 Things You Should Know About Boko Haram)
What happens now?
In the recently released video showing the execution of Hauwa, Boko Haram say they will “keep [Leah and Alice] as slaves” since they are not allowed to kill “kafir,” or people who are not apostates. (Alice Loksha, a nurse who worked in a center supported by UNICEF, is also being held captive by the militants.)
“This means that they are likely going to keep them permanently,” says Olivia Miller, the coordinator of International Christian Concern. “They are saying that they will no longer accept any ransom or rewards for them, but will likely use them for work, force them to convert to Islam, and probably rape and beat them.”
“Eventually, they will probably sell them to a rich Muslim man, who will force them to marry and own them. These are all things that Boko Haram is well known for doing to young women. My only hope is that they are just using this to try and get more money from the government. This would mean that there is still a chance that they can be saved.”
I guess some people are just born with “it.” They possess a seemingly innate capacity and charisma to communicate a message with precision and passion.
There was a time when I thought I had it. I can vividly recall the feeling when I argued a case before a mock jury as a middle-schooler. From the opening “May it please the court” to “I rest my case,” the room was rapt. People told me I had it when I preached the annual youth-week sermon at my church. You know, that week each year when the pastor gives the rookie a shot at the pulpit after having eight months to prepare to preach 1 Timothy 4:12. You’d better have it when you get that assignment.
Those illusions went with me into pastoral ministry. While I knew there was much to learn, I was certain the pulpit would be a place of comfort and stability. But my naïveté led me to some dark places when the painful truth became clear.
I didn’t have it.I Became a Copycat
So here’s what I did when that began to sink in: I attempted to pattern my pulpit ministry after someone who did have it. I became a caricature of someone whose theology and preaching I deemed effective. I adopted his mannerisms, his cadence, and his themes as my own—parroting them to my hearers under the guise of engaging exposition. But it wasn’t. At least, not to me. No doubt I said many true and helpful things about the Scriptures in those years. I regurgitated theological verbiage that was, and is, transformational. But it wasn’t the Spirit’s voice and the author’s intent through me.
I wonder if Timothy shared in my plight. Perhaps his timidity was linked to proclaiming the Word. We know Paul repeatedly exhorted him to do just that (1 Tim. 4:2). We read this letter and rush to application for modern readers. We, too, should preach the Word. Often lost in the hustle of application is the personal nature of the letter itself. Paul is writing to a young pastor—to an image-bearer whom God appointed to lead the church. “You preach the Word”! Disembodied voices don’t preach. Real people do—people with personalities, stories, fears, and convictions uniquely woven by God into the person who proclaims, “Thus says the Lord.”
I have discovered six ways to foster growth in this season of my ministry—and to help a preacher find his own voice sooner.1. Spend Time around Honest Mentors
We all need those willing to critique our fledgling attempts at speaking God’s Word to God’s people. Ideally this happens in the context of a healthy church where opportunities abound for regular reps. In the early years, it’s worth doing whatever necessary to cut your preaching teeth in a healthy church for this reason.
Not only do you need preaching experience; you also need those willing to meet with you on Monday and point out the strengths and weaknesses of your sermon. These mentors can journey with you over a number of years to track your growth and affirm the unique voice you bring to the pulpit.2. Diversify the Voices You Consume
Too much of one voice makes it hard to avoid the copycat trap. We’d be foolish to deny the effect of our heroes’ writing or preaching ministry. Praise God for the shape they’ve given our lives. But when our sermons come out sounding like a microwaved version of Piper or Lloyd-Jones, we have a problem.
We find depth in preaching by feasting on God’s wisdom mediated through a diverse assembly of voices with a variety of perspectives and styles. As we read and listen more broadly, we’ll begin to notice that God can, and does, speak through the uniqueness of each individual, not just one perfect preaching persona. If we talk to others, we’ll find that God uses certain voices to affect different listeners in different ways. This provides needed encouragement to find our own voice.3. Risk Experimentation
We develop few life patterns without a fair share of failure and frustration. We should expect no less in our preaching. Sadly, we often don’t give ourselves the grace to fail, recover, and change. All creative endeavors require such an unglamorous process for the outcome to resonate as authentic. That’s why we should try various modes of communication in the pulpit, not because we know they work (at least not at first), but because we’re feeling out what sounds right on our lips and what connects best with the hearers.
This might mean humor that falls flat or personal illustrations that seem disingenuous. But we never know until we try, fail, and find our style in the weeks and years ahead.4. Take Strategic Breaks
Sunday is always coming. This doesn’t allow much margin to adapt our style and find our voice. Even those who only preach one sermon a week find it difficult to break the mold when they’re under the gun to have something ready for the Lord’s Day. That’s why it’s wise to take breaks that allow you time to reflect and get ahead. Also, sitting under someone else’s teaching can provide helpful insight into your own preaching style.5. Trust God’s Strategic Placement
At its core, the temptation to copy represents a lack of faith in God’s strategic placement of our lives among a group of people, each with their own unique needs. Sure, we could read them a sermon from a great expository preacher, and they could be helped. But they can do that on their own.
Our people need us to embody God’s message for his people in a real time and place, with the precision of a careful shepherd who knows his sheep well enough to speak truth into the intricacies of their daily lives. The more we grow in trust that God has appointed us—and not a more impressive pulpiteer—within our own strategic context, the more readily we’ll find our unique voice.6. Keep Going
Above all, we must believe that effective preaching requires perseverance. We can easily look with envy at those whom we presume to have the illusive “it,” while minimizing the hundreds or hours they’ve likely spent honing and refining their voice. This shouldn’t suggest that we’ll all be exceptional communicators given enough time. Most, like me, will always hover just above average.
Rather than crushing us, this is a hopeful reality, because God’s résumé is filled with work experience using those of average ability to accomplish the amazing. Our confidence is in him and the power of his Word, not in our performance or ability to copy the gifts of another.
God already has a John Piper, a Conrad Mbewe, an H. B. Charles, a Martyn Lloyd-Jones. For reasons perhaps known only to himself, the Lord has called you to the pulpit to be yourself and forget yourself. Go, find your voice.
Previously in this series:
- How Do I Prepare My Heart to Preach? (Kent Hughes)
- What Should I Preach Next? (Julius Kim)
- How Do I Handle an Unbeliever’s Funeral? (Phil Newton)
- How Do I Preach Expository Sermons from Proverbs? (Dan Doriani)
- Should I Learn Hebrew and Greek or Is Bible Software Enough? (Kevin McFadden)
- How Long Should My Sermons Be? (Hershael York)
- What Do I Say at a Funeral for a Person I Didn’t Know? (Phil Newton)
- How Long Should It Take Me to Prepare a Sermon? (Dave Harvey)
- 8 Lessons Calvin Teaches Us About Preaching (Ray Van Neste)
- How Can Expository Sermons Avoid Being Wooden and Uncreative? (Colin Smith)
- How Should I Respond When I Deliver a Dud? (Hershael York)
- What Role Does the Spirit Play in My Preaching? (Dave Harvey)
- Should I Preach the Longer Ending of Mark? (Danny Akin)
- Should I Pause an Expository Series for Palm Sunday and Easter? (Phil Newton)
- Should I Always Call for Repentance and Faith? (Steven J. Lawson)
- How Should I Preach Ecclesiastes? (Zack Eswine)
- How Can I Help My Congregation Listen to Sermons in a Culture of Distraction (Sebastian Kim)
- How Do I Preach Difficult Doctrines without Splitting the Church? (Hershael York)
- How Not to Preach an Easter Sermon (Steve Tillis)
- How Do I Deal with the Genealogies? (Scott Slayton)
Many people find great purpose and satisfaction in their work. Your job may make use of your unique gifts and give you a tangible sense of helping those around you flourish. Or perhaps your work is not enjoyable, but you know it is serving a cause you believe in, and therefore worthwhile. But what if your work is none of these things? Is it wrong to stay in an “unfulfilling” job just because you need the paycheck?
In this roundtable discussion, TGC Council members Ryan Kelly, Julius Kim, and Darryl Williamson discuss the relationship between work and material provision. They talk about ways that mundane work can become infused with purpose and about what sorts of truth we need to preach to ourselves when working in a job we don’t enjoy.
- When Choosing a Career, Don’t Just Follow Your Passion (Bethany Jenkins)
- Should You Look for a Job You Are Passionate About? (Kevin DeYoung)
- Do What You Love or Do What Needs Doing? (Bethany Jenkins)
We recently celebrated seven years as an inner-city church in Montgomery, Alabama. As I reflect on this journey, we’ve faced many foes, but one stands above them all: fear.
As my wife and I contemplated moving into this community to plant a church, we did our best to count the cost (Luke 14:25–33). Could we handle something horrific happening to our property, each other, or our children? Were we really prepared to move into a hard place?
After much prayer and consideration, we concluded that we did indeed want to plant a church in the inner city. So in the summer of 2011, we moved into the Washington Park community of West Montgomery, Alabama.Shaken to the Core
After a pretty uneventful first summer, we began to settle into our new context. We even started wondering what the big deal was about living in the inner city. As far as we could see, things weren’t all that difficult. As the date of our first public church gathering approached, excitement and anticipation grew.
Then, suddenly, everything changed. One night, just as we’d turned out the lights and crawled into bed, a sound I’d never heard before shattered the silence of the night.
It was the sound of semiautomatic weapons. The rapid fire echoed through the housing project just across the street from our backyard. For a moment, I thought we were in a war zone.
How this could even be possible? I wondered. As I ran upstairs to get a better view, I saw the silhouettes of people fleeing the scene. Were they the shooters or were they running for safety? I’m not sure. I didn’t see faces, but that moment is cemented in my mind.
As desperate shrieks filled the night sky over two young men who’d just been brutally murdered, my wife and I wept and trembled.
I was shaken to the core. I wondered just how big of a fool I was for moving my family into this environment.
I was shaken to the core. The next few months were hard. The tragedy of what occurred that night played back in my mind every day for a long time. I jumped when I heard a door shut. I constantly looked over my shoulder when I walked through the community.
I wondered just how big of a fool I was for moving my family into this environment. If my wife had said she wanted to move, I would have strongly considered it. The temptation to retreat was real.Stabilizing Power
But God enabled me to fight fear with the power of his Word and the presence of his people. He used these means to stabilize my rattled heart.
First, he’s given me a steadfast, faithful wife. In the seven years since that dreadful night, not once has she expressed a desire to leave. Nor has she been paralyzed by fear. The calling to see God’s kingdom advance through a church plant in our community has kept her content and bold.
God enabled me to fight fear with the power of his Word and the presence of his people.
Second, one of my mentors, Anthony Gordon—who planted an inner-city church many years ago—shared his experience with me. He told me about the drug dealers who threatened to hurt his own children, because he was rescuing young men from selling drugs and putting them back in school. His faithfulness in the face of danger—and his walking with me in this season—encouraged me to persevere.
Third, God used a Christian hip-hop song called Signed Up to Die, by Thi’sl (sadly, Thi’sl was shot in an attempted robbery last month). The third verse is about an inner-city church planter who finds himself threatened at gunpoint. Asked if he’s scared, he replies: “No, I signed up to die.”
And that’s exactly what Christ did. Our Savior “signed up to die” (Phil. 2:5–11). He looked on our hopeless situation, then left the glories of heaven to dwell in the ghetto of earth.
Following in his footsteps, we are summoned to lose our lives for his sake (Matt 16:24–26). We sign up to die.Sovereign Care
Before we moved to Montgomery, God’s sovereignty was a nice theological idea. Now, it’s the bedrock of our life. If God wasn’t sovereign, I would’ve left Montgomery the moment those gunshots rang out behind our house.
But in his sovereign care, God has kept me. I’ve been so comforted to know that, because of his sovereignty, we’re safe. Yes, physical harm may come. But God’s sovereign goodness guarantees our ultimate, eternal safety (Matt. 10:28–31).
Before we moved to Montgomery, God’s sovereignty was a nice theological idea. Now, it’s the bedrock of my life.
Since he has called us to plant a church in this community, there is no safer place for us. The call to advance the gospel in a sin-stained world is risky business—it always has been. But we serve a King who gives us our very breath (Isa. 42:5). We believe he should also decide how we use it.
Since that harrowing evening a few weeks before our first Sunday gathering, we’ve seen many highs and lows. So far this year, I’ve received death threats for three straight months (thankfully, they’ve stopped now). Our home was robbed and vandalized in July. The home of another pastor in our church, Alonzo Brown Jr., was mistakenly targeted in a shooting. Four bullets flew into his living-room window, forcing he and his wife to dive on the floor for their lives.
Yet, through it all, Jesus is building his church. We’ve seen true conversions, and people desiring to walk with him. We’re renovating an abandoned community center that will bless our neighborhood seven days a week. We also have a ministry called Fishers’ Farm, dedicated to developing men who have experienced homelessness and/or addiction. We’ve come to love this community deeply. Though it can be dangerous at times, you couldn’t pay me to move.
We’re clinging to David’s classic words: “Even though [we] walk through the valley of the shadow of death, [we] will fear no evil, for you are with [us]” (Ps 23:4).
Our confidence lies not in our abilities, but in those of our ever-present Shepherd. May he help us fear no evil as we plant churches around the world.
In the seven years since Terrence Malick’s The Tree of Life was released, the film has only grown in stature. Widely regarded among critics and cinephiles as one of the greatest films ever made (the late Roger Ebert included it on his final list of the 10 best films of all time), Malick’s magnum opus has also become one of the greatest examples of distinctly Christian cinematic art—and it didn’t come out of the Christian entertainment industry.
It would not be a stretch to say The Tree of Life is to cinema what Handel’s Messiah is to music or La Sagrada Familia is to architecture. It’s a Christian masterpiece.
Much has already been written about the film’s theology: how it interacts with Kierkegaard or Augustine or Dostoevsky; how it explores original sin, the relationship between nature and grace, the themes and structure of the Book of Job, and so on. Well-known theologians have written about Life, including Michael Horton and David Bentley Hart, who called it a “deeply Christian film” and “almost alarmingly biblical.” Peter Leithart wrote an entire book about the film’s theology.
I’ve written plenty about Life and its Christian themes (see here and here and here), but the recent Criterion Collection release of a new, extended version of the film (with 50 minutes of new footage) provides a fresh opportunity to revisit it. Indeed, the new version—which mostly expands the “Texas childhood” middle section—only further underscores the film’s deeply Christian nature.
The new extended version of The Tree of Life only further underscores the film’s deeply Christian nature.
Life is an unconventional film, to be sure, but it’s one Christians should embrace and celebrate. The film is both implicitly and explicitly worshipful, structured as liturgy and honest about the struggles of faith. Infused with biblical words and imagery from start to finish, and lovingly rendered by a Christian artist (Malick) who ponders God, sin, and redemption in all of his films, Life is the Citizen Kane of Christian cinema: the best Christian film ever made.A Prayer
Prayer is everywhere in The Tree of Life, noticeable even to secular critics like Roger Ebert, who called the film “a form of prayer.” It’s prayerful on at least three levels.
First, prayer shows up literally, in scenes where the O’Brien family (Brad Pitt, Jessica Chastain, Hunter McCracken, Laramie Eppler, Tye Sheridan) pray before dinner, or when young Jack O’Brien offers a humorously boyish prayer at his bedside: “Help me not to sass my dad. Help me not to get dogs in fights. Help me to be thankful for everything I’ve got. Help me not to tell lies.”
Second, the film is rife with voiceover that often articulates the silent prayers of various characters. The film’s first words are a whispered prayer by adult Jack (Sean Penn): “Brother. Mother. It was they who led me to your door.” We hear young Jack’s prayers constantly in the film’s middle section. “You spoke to me through her,” he prays at one point. “You spoke with me from the sky, the trees. Before I knew I loved you, believed in you.” The prayers are often very fragmentary and hardly audible, almost like brushstrokes in an impressionistic painting (a common motif in Malick’s recent works). Sometimes we don’t know which character’s prayer it is, but that is the point. We can all find ourselves in the prayers, cries, and faith journeys of this one Texas family. Life is a liturgy that invites us all to sing along.
We can all find ourselves in the prayers, cries, and faith journeys of this one Texas family. Life is a liturgy that invites us all to sing along.
And this is the third level of prayer in the film: its very structure. Watching Life feels like attending a cinematic evensong service. Malick’s carefully chosen classical music keys us into this. Sometimes the music communicates the way creation sings of the glory of its Creator (Smetana’s “The Moldau”) or the majestic sanctity of human life (Respighi’s “Siciliana Da Antiche Danze Ed Arie Suite III,” Holst’s “Hymn to Dionysus”). Over the closing credits we hear an instrumental version of the old hymn, “Welcome Happy Morning!” (the triumphant first lines of which declare: “Welcome, happy morning!” Age to age shall say; Hell today is vanquished, heaven is won today!”).
Requiems also figure prominently into the film’s soundtrack, starting with Taverner’s “Funeral Canticle” at the beginning, Preisner’s “Lacrimosa” (from “Requiem for My Friend”) in the middle, and the majestic Agnus Dei from Berlioz’s “Requiem Op. 5 (Grande Messe des Morts)” in the finale. The Latin lyrics of this final song provide a beautiful benediction, as the images on screen evoke resurrection, renewal, and “Amen” hands lifted to the heavens:
Lamb of God, who takest away the sins of the world, grant them everlasting rest. Thou, O God, art praised in Zion and unto Thee shall the vow be performed in Jerusalem. Hear my prayer, unto thee shall all flesh come. Grant the dead eternal rest, O Lord, and may perpetual light shine on them, with thy saints for ever, Lord, because thou art merciful. Amen.A Problem
The musical prominence of requiem in The Tree of Life is fitting, because at its heart, Life is about death. The problem of pain. Evil. Suffering. Sin. Mortality. It’s about feeling the lack and loss of Eden; longing for the restoration of shalom. It’s about the struggle of faith. How do we believe in resurrection in a world of ubiquitous death? How do we believe in a God who is supposedly in control of all this?
Sean Penn’s character (like Ben Affleck’s in To the Wonder or Christian Bale’s in Knight of Cups) is a proxy for Malick himself, and most of Life seems to exist in his mind and memory—a collage of the people, places, images, and ideas that led him to (or back to) Christian faith. The film is bookended by Penn, whose adult Jack begins the film as a wanderer in a spiritual desert. These scenes are full of the sort of empty hedonism and disorientation that have characterized the spiritual quests of Malick’s most recent films, Knight of Cups (2015) and Song to Song (2017).
“How did I lose you? Wandered. Forgotten,” we hear Jack pray, lamenting lost faith as he wanders among women, alcohol, and cocktail parties. Lost in a world of metal, glass, and neon light (James Turrell’s “The Light Inside” makes a cameo), Jack feels disconnected from goodness, truth, and beauty. “Remember,” Jack whispers, as we see a woman on a cell phone in an art museum—a symbol of the inattentive distraction that plagues our technological age. Jack longs for transcendence again. Restored faith. The movie is a reflection on that spiritual recovery.
Jack’s journey back to faith (visualized as a doorway he finally walks through) comes, as his opening prayer suggests, by way of his younger brother R.L. and his mother, Mrs. O’Brien (Jessica Chastain). Reflecting on his brother’s death (when he was only 19) and his mother’s consequent grief, Jack begins his remembrance and a conversation with God that will occupy the brunt of the movie.
The conversation starts from God’s point of view, with an epigraph from Job 38:4–7: “Where were you when I laid the foundations of the earth? . . . When the morning stars sang together, and all the sons of God shouted for joy?”
Mrs. O’Brien turns the question back on God after she loses her son. As the film’s famous creation sequence begins (which envisions those moments when God “laid the foundations” and “the morning stars sang together”), we hear her pray: “Lord, where were you? Did you know? Who are we to you? Answer me.”
Later in the film there is a remarkable scene in a church, where we hear a large chunk of a sermon on Job (delivered by real life Episcopal priest Kelly Koonce):
Misfortune befalls the good as well. We can’t protect ourselves against it. We can’t protect our children. We can’t say to ourselves, even if I’m not happy, I’m going to make sure they are.
We vanish as a cloud. We wither as the autumn grass, and like a tree are rooted up.
Is there some fraud in the scheme of the universe? Is there nothing which is deathless? Nothing which does not pass away?
We cannot stay where we are. We must journey forth. We must find that which is greater than fortune or fate. Nothing can bring us peace but that.
The journey of Life’s characters—chiefly Jack—is a journey forward to the God who is greater than fortune and fate, the eternal one who answers our longing for the deathless, the Tree of Life who restores what has been rooted up by sin.Bible’s Grand Narrative
The Bible begins with a Tree of Life in Eden (Gen. 2:9) and ends with a Tree of Life whose leaves “were for the healing of the nations” (Rev. 22:2, 14, 19). The Tree of Life bookends the Bible, symbolizing the once and future kingdom of God in its perfection: Paradise before it was lost, and Paradise when it is ultimately restored. The arc of the Bible is from Tree of Life to Tree of Life, and the path from one to the other necessarily involves a tree of death (1 Pet. 2:24), the cross of Christ that bridges the breach between us and God.
The arc of the Bible is from Tree of Life to Tree of Life, and the path from one to the other necessarily involves a tree of death.
As its title suggests, Malick’s The Tree of Life has this redemptive structure in mind. The film’s nearly three-hour journey can roughly be mapped onto the creation, fall, redemption, restoration structure of the Bible’s Tree-to-Tree arc. The film is not a gospel tract and its theology is perhaps too ambiguous at times, but for those with ears to hear and eyes to see (like Jack O’Brien in the film), Life’s journey can be beautifully faith-building.I. Creation
Life’s creation sequence occupies a little more than 30 minutes of the film. It begins with the now legendary “universe creation” sequence (which famously prompted many walkouts during the film’s 2011 theatrical run), in which the conventional narrative is paused and the audience is invited to imagine what God’s “when I laid the foundations of the earth” actually looked like. Set to the operatic dirge of Preisner’s “Lacrimosa,” the sequence—full of nebulae, forming stars, DNA, nascent cells, early plant life, even dinosaurs—is unmistakably liturgical: an awe-inspiring hymn that echoes the praises of Psalms 8, 19, and 139, among others.
The film’s creation section continues in a more down-to-earth register with the O’Brien family’s own creation in 1950s Waco, Texas: Pitt and Chastain’s romance, followed by the birth of sons Jack (Hunter McCracken), R. L. (Laramie Eppler), and Steve (Tye Sheridan). The scenes of the boys’ early childhood are lovely and Edenic, evoking Paradise before the Fall. To underscore the parallel, gardening looms large, with the boys seen working and keeping the garden (Gen. 2:15) with their dad. But there are also boundaries and rules laid out. Dad points out the property line and tells Jack not to cross it. Mom reads the boys a line from Beatrix Potter: “Don’t go into Mr. McGregor’s Garden.” The forbidden is made clear; the possibility of transgression is foreshadowed.II. Fall
The fall section of Life is the longest, lasting more than an hour in the film’s middle section, as innocence gives way to rebellion in young Jack. Dinner table defiance. Sibling rivalry (“Who do you love the most?” Jack asks his mom). A snake slithering in the front yard right by mom’s heel (a nod to Gen. 3:15). The boys come into an awareness of darkness, evil, suffering, mortality. They see prisoners in handcuffs, men with disabilities, a boy with a burn scar, a friend whose father abuses him, a three-legged dog. Awareness of good and evil. In new material added to the extended version—and another nod to Job—a tornado hits Waco, leaving destruction in its wake (Malick’s camera takes particular note of uprooted trees). The world is not as it was meant to be.
With both his earthly father (Pitt) and God himself (relationships that often feel intertwined), Jack questions the rules and why his father isn’t also bound by them: “He says ‘don’t put your elbows on the table.’ He does.” Jack demands a share in God’s omniscience: “I want to know what you are. I want to see what you see.”
A turning point comes when one of Jack’s friends dies while the boys are swimming together. Significantly, a new scene in the extended version shows these boys in church immediately before the swimming accident, talking about baptism with their pastor. The boy who dies is presumably in this class with Jack, and thus Jack faces the problem of evil early. What kind of God lets a good, church-going, catechism-trained boy die while swimming with friends? Jack questions God’s goodness:
“Where were you?” Jack asks God, mirroring his mom’s same question earlier in the film. “You let a boy die. You let anything happen . . . Why should I be good if you aren’t?”
From there Jack’s descent accelerates. When his dad leaves on a business trip, Jack and his brothers get into mischief with a coterie of neighborhood friends. They chase girls, tie frogs to bottle rockets, destroy property, steal things. They pick “forbidden fruit” from someone’s vegetable garden. “I don’t think that’s ours,” one boy says. “Who cares,” the ringleader responds. “They belong to everyone.”
Jack acts up in school, gets into fights, and his mom meets with teachers and principles. His jealousy of brother and rage against father both increase (at one point he prays for God to kill his dad). He lusts after a neighbor woman and experiences the shame of sexual sin. And like Adam and Eve in Genesis 3:7, his eyes are opened. A brief scene shows him holding a towel around his waist to cover his nakedness as mom looks on from the hallway. He closes the door in embarrassment.
Jack’s fall dominates this sequence, but his father also has his own descent. Prone to anger, control, and roughness with his wife and kids, Mr. O’Brien’s downfall is ultimately his pride. “Make yourself what you are . . . Take control of your own destiny,” he tells his boys. “I can redeem myself,” he insists. The ultimate self-justifying striver, Mr. O’Brien measures himself by achievements and good works. When late in the film he loses his job, he can’t understand why God would inflict such a lot on so deserving a man: “I never missed a day of work. I tithed every Sunday.”
Why, God? Like his son Jack, Mr. O’Brien faces his own Job-like dilemma.III. Redemption
“What have I started? What have I done?”
Jack’s redemption (which occupies most of the film’s third act) begins with awareness of his own depravity. He’s a sinner and knows it.
“I always do stupid things. I want to be little again.” he tells his mom. “How do I get back where they are?” he ponders as we see the brothers swim in the purifying waters of a river and waterfall.
The next scene hints at an answer. Dad returns from the business trip and the boys run out to hug him, relieved to have his order and tough love back in the house. Redemption, this sequence suggests, will come through relationship.
The film’s redemptive turn follows Jack’s lowest moment of sin. He betrays the trust of his brother R. L. and shoots his finger with a BB gun. Immediately guilt-ridden, Jack’s voiceover is essentially a paraphrase of Romans 7:15: “What I want to do I can’t do. I do what I hate.”
What follows is a remarkable scene of repentance, forgiveness, and reconciliation between the two brothers. “You can hit me if you want,” Jack tells R. L., knowing he deserves payback for his sin. But R. L. shows him grace, pretending to hit him with a piece of wood (a nod to the cross?) but smiling at him instead. “I’m sorry,” Jack says, as his brother tenderly touches him on the shoulder and head—gestures of reconciliation we see repeated between various characters the rest of the film.
After this pivotal scene, Jack’s faith seems to solidify. He understands and receives grace. As the camera pulls up along the contours of a large tree, revealing a God-like perspective, Jack prays: “What was it you showed me? I didn’t know how to name you then. But I see it was you. Always you were calling me.”
Having reconciled with his brother, Jack then has a wordless reconciliation scene with his father in—where else?—the family garden. Communion again. Shalom. The music in this sequence is a piano rendition of the Respighi excerpt we hear earlier in the film during Jack’s birth. The subtle musical cue signifies what this garden scene is for both Jack and his father: a rebirth.
The song continues as Mr. O’Brien has his own moment of repentance and redemption, admitting the folly of his self-justifying pride: “I wanted to be loved because I’m great, a big man. I’m nothing. Look: the glory around us, the trees, the birds. I lived in shame. I dishonored it all and didn’t notice the glory. A foolish man.”
For Malick in all of his films, sin is often tied to missing the glory: ingratitude, a shunning of God’s good gifts. Modernity and technology compound it (remember the woman on the cell phone in the museum?), distracting us from the “the glory around us.” If the way of nature leads us to conquer and protect what we think is ours, the way of grace leads us to receive what we don’t deserve—gladly welcoming God’s gifts, chiefly himself. As in Eden, so in our own world: God wants to be with us, but we so often want to go it alone.
If the way of nature leads us to conquer and protect what we think is ours, the way of grace leads us to receive what we don’t deserve—gladly welcoming God’s gifts, chiefly himself.
A blink-and-you’ll-miss-it addition in the Life extended version is a shot of a magazine article featuring Albert Schweitzer: a renaissance man (Bach-loving organist, theologian, physician, Nobel Prize-winning philosopher) who Mr. O’Brien (himself a Bach-loving organist) likely admires. But as successful as Schweitzer was—the article headline calls him “The Greatest Man in the World”—he understood that life is less about what we achieve than what we receive. “Our inner happiness depends not on what we experience,” Schweitzer once said, “but on the degree of our gratitude to God, whatever the experience.”
Whatever the experience. Fortune or misfortune. The three main characters in Life (Mr. and Mrs. O’Brien and Jack) all experience the Job dilemma. How can one love God when he doesn’t seem good? But they all eventually grasp what the preacher in the earlier church scene suggests about loving God whatever the experience:
The very moment everything was taken away from Job, he knew it was the Lord who’d taken it away. He turned from the passing shows of time. He sought that which is eternal.
Does he alone see God’s hand who sees that He gives, or does not also the one see God’s hand who sees that He takes away? Does he alone see God who sees God turn His face towards him? Does not also he see God who sees God turn his back?
Faith is a choice. We choose to love God and receive his love, even when his back seems turned. Even when the gospel does not produce prosperity. Even when you lose your job, your home, your child, or you are sent away to boarding school (as happens to Jack at the end of the film).
“Unless you love, your life with flash by.” We hear Mrs. O’Brien’s voiceover as young Jack stands on the lawn of his Christian boarding school, looking more mature and at peace—a cross looming large on the building behind him.IV. Restoration
The film’s final 10 minutes depict restoration. Having walked through the door of faith, adult Jack (Penn) visualizes the new creation. To the Agnus Dei liturgy of Berlioz, we see resurrection, people literally rising from graves. We see images evoking Revelation 21: a lamp (v. 23), an open gate (v. 25), a bride (vv. 2, 9), the nations walking (v. 24). We see sin defeated, as a jester mask falls into the depths of the sea. No more death or mourning or pain.
But where is Christ in all this? For Jack, his little brother R. L. stands as a symbol of Christ. Why does Malick name this character R. L.? Perhaps it stands for “Resurrection and Life,” the name Christ calls himself in John 11:25–26. Notice how Jack prays in the film scene: “Brother. Keep us. Guide us. To the end of time.” As if to answer this “guide us” petition, R. L. then says “Follow me,” echoing Christ’s words in Matthew 4:19.
Why does Malick name this character R.L.? Perhaps it stands for “Resurrection and Life,” the name Christ calls himself in John 11:25–26.
Hints at an association between R. L. and Christ—and it is merely an association, not a “Christ figure” allegory—are sprinkled elsewhere in the film. In the church scene when the preacher says, “Is there nothing which is deathless?” the camera is on R. L. and then pans to a stained glass depiction of Christ. At various points in the film we see R. L. handle fish. When we hear the word “hope,” R. L.’s face is on the screen. When Jack shoots R. L., R. L. forgives him. We see images of R. L. holding a light in the darkness. And then there is the film’s final line. With her hands lifted in prayerful worship, as the music plays a recurring “Amen,” Mrs. O’Brien says “I give him to you. I give you my son.” Her grief over R. L.’s death has been transformed into freedom and worship.
And while the words make sense in the particular context of the O’Brien family’s story, like everything else in Life they have another meaning too. We leave the film with these words ringing in our ears: “I give you my son.” The words mean one thing to Mrs. O’Brien, but they speak another word directly to us, to all who have ears to hear. In a film about receiving God’s gifts and noticing the glory, the greatest gift is the Son. The resurrection and the life. A shoot from the stump of Jesse (Isa. 11:1), the true vine in which we find life and fruitfulness (John 15:1–8). The ultimate Tree of Life.
I was recently asked to give a few words in honor of a friend who was reaching a milestone anniversary in ministry. The best and most accurate accolade I could think to give was a description that Eugene Peterson had once taken as an insult: that he was a one-sermon preacher. Upon hearing today of the death of Peterson, I could think of nothing else that would better eulogize the preacher, pastor, and writer. He was a one-sermon man.
In his memoir The Pastor, Peterson wrote about his son, home from his university studies in creative writing, telling the older man what he was learning. The son, Leif, said, “Dad, novelists only write one book. They find their voice, their book. And write it over and over. William Faulkner wrote one book. Anne Tyler wrote one book. Ernest Hemingway wrote one book. Willa Cather wrote one book.” That seemed abstract enough until several days later, when the son said to his father, “Remember what I said about novelists writing only one book? You only preach one sermon.”
The older Peterson was wounded. After all, he didn’t repeat himself in the pulpit. He preached through the entirety of the Scriptures, with different means of handling different genres, different modes of application to his people. One Sunday morning, though, after hearing his father preach, Leif said, “Well, Dad, that was your sermon. I’ve been listening to that sermon all of my life, your one sermon, your signature sermon.” That’s why, the son said, it was so hard for him to find a church in his college town. “None of those other pastors had found their sermon,” he said. That’s what the son had meant all along. His comment wasn’t a critique of his father. It was a peek into his genius.
Peterson had a compelling vision, something persistent and coherent at his core that made sense of his preaching and his writing.One Sermon
That “one sermon” of Peterson’s could be defined a number of ways. But I would say it’s a message about the way the Word of God, revealed in the story of Scripture, speaks to and reshapes the human imagination. This doesn’t imply that Peterson repeated himself; quite the opposite.
His works included a popular paraphrase of Scripture, The Message, studies of books of the Bible ranging from Jeremiah (Run with the Horses) to Jonah (Under the Unpredictable Plant) to Revelation (Reversed Thunder), and essays and collections on the pastoral life and calling. None of these books was the same, at all. They included rich reflections on Scripture, with application to the psyche and practice of persons and congregations, usually steeped in a lifetime of reading in fiction and poetry. Peterson’s prose was varied, though, not because of a varied view of his calling, but because of a unified view.
Eugene Peterson had a compelling vision, something persistent and coherent at his core that made sense of his preaching and his writing.
Two of Peterson’s best books (Christ Plays in Ten Thousand Places and When Kingfishers Catch Fire) bear titles evoking a sonnet by Gerald Manley Hopkins. The poem, Peterson reflects, is about a hidden congruence of life, which we only see in momentary glimpses in this life. The coherence is due to the mystery at the heart of the cosmos—namely that, as the apostle Paul taught us about Christ,
We look at his Son and see God’s original purpose in everything created. For everything, absolutely everything, above and below, visible and invisible, rank after rank of angels—everything got started in him and finds its purpose in him. He was there before any of it came into existence and holds it all together right up to this moment. (Col. 1:16–17, The Message)
That one Word of the Father, which holds everything together, is why we see, Peterson concluded, the splendid variety and beauty and joy in the world. This is why God addresses us in so many different genres, why God—as Peterson put it (citing Emily Dickinson)—always tells us the truth but “tells it slant,” circumventing the ways our imaginations try to protect us from facing the truth about ourselves. It’s also why we can suffer without nihilism or cynicism.
This manifold joy, by which kingfishers catch fire and by which God’s message rouses us out of our dull slumber of sin, was why Peterson, though no polemicist, found a persistent target in the market-driven North American church.Cultivating a Field
Peterson saw pastors moving from church to church, often in exhaustion, and identified the problem—a sense of pastor as program director for a church that often viewed the gospel as a way to success, or at least avoidance of suffering. His answer was a paradigm shift, but not the kind found in ministry self-help bestsellers.
“The paradigm shift is not accomplished by a change of schedule, attending a ministry workshop, or getting fitted in a new suit of spiritual disciplines—although any or all of these might be useful,” he wrote. “It is the imagination that must shift, the huge interior of our lives that determines the angle and scope of our vocation. A long, prayerful soak in the biblical imaginations of Ezekiel and St. John, those antitheses to flat-earth programmatics, is a place to start.”
Sometimes those who critique the church do so not so much because of their theology but because of their misanthropy. Not so with Peterson.
This call to an interior life was, however, no call to withdrawal. Sometimes those who critique the church do so not so much because of their theology but because of their misanthropy. Not so with Peterson.
He warned against those who see congregations with the impatience of those building a shopping mall rather than with the mindset of those cultivating a field. The end result is disillusionment with the church. What Peterson saw in the church, though, was what he saw in nature and in the Bible: an imagination struck with wonder.
“The congregation is topsoil—seething with energy and organisms that have incredible capacity for assimilating death and participating in resurrection,” he wrote. “The only biblical stance is awe. When we see what is before us, really before us, pastors take off their shoes, before the shekinah of the congregation.To Awe and Wonder
We hear much about the church, and much of it good. We hear what’s wrong with the church. We hear how to mobilize the church. We hear how to teach the church, about doctrine or missions. We hear about the centrality of the church in God’s mission. But rarely do we hear a wise, Christ-following servant speak of the church—a real, little, flawed congregation in Montana—with awe.
And that, I suppose, is right at the core of Peterson’s lifelong sermon to us. He had many things to say to us, and he said them in a wide spectrum of ways. But, really, he was just pointing our imaginations away from ourselves and toward awe and wonder—in the Bible, in the universe, in the local congregation, but all of it really pointed to awe in the presence of the One who holds it all together, a Jesus who loves us and is, in ways we can’t adequately piece together now, calling us homeward.
Christ plays in ten thousand places, so Eugene Peterson tried to preach and write in ten thousand ways.
Christ plays in ten thousand places, so Peterson tried to preach and write in ten thousand ways. He played as he worked, with the joy of a Christ-soaked imagination.
And, through it all, he pointed to the one sermon behind all the books and essays and messages and translations and memoirs: “Here he is! God’s Passover Lamb! He forgives the sins of the world! This is the man I’ve been talking about” (John 1:29, The Message).
The exclamation points weren’t in the original Greek, of course. That was Peterson’s imagination at work and at play. The punctuation was there to point us to what was there in the words of John: awe in the presence of Jesus.
Eugene Peterson can see Jesus now. And he no doubt realizes how temporal and fragmentary his awe was in light of what he experiences now. He leaves behind the people to whom he preached and taught and loved. And he leaves to those of us who never knew him personally the example of a long obedience in the same direction and a pile of books. But with all of that he left us one sermon. How we needed it, and how we need it still.
- Eugene Peterson on the Reading and Writing Life of the Pastor (Owen Strachan)
- Should We Still Read Eugene Peterson? (Russell Moore)
- The Pastor: A Memoir (Brian Croft)
My pastor has been teaching through the book of Ecclesiastes, highlighting its critical message for our lives and our work, and our need for honest reflection on both. The Solomonic “preacher” of Ecclesiastes says that “under the sun”—life without reference or relationship to a transcendent God—is “vanity,” empty of sense, reason, hope, or purpose. If this world is truly “all there is,” then we are indeed in trouble—and Ecclesiastes provides as honest and true a description of this truth as can be found.
There have been countless long days during my aerospace career where I plowed hard to get through all the responsibilities and tasks. And yet sometimes, when I reached the end of the day, all that was left was a deep sigh. Is this all there is to this job?
Let God transform the list of things you dislike about your job into the reasons God has called you there.
In light of Genesis 3, we can understand such frustration; it sets the stage for problems we encounter throughout our lives and, particularly, our work. God has intentionally cursed the world to remind us of our rebellion against him and our need for reconciliation with him, each other, and his world.
Here are six ways God responded to humanity’s rejection of him in Eden.1. An Enemy
God promised that the world will include spiritual enemies seeking our harm (Gen. 3:15). Evil will exist, and we will be prone to hear and believe deceptive lies about ourselves, the world, and the value and role of work in our lives.
False promises of ultimate satisfaction from our work are whispered into our ears from the enemy.2. Alienated Relationships
Trust and mutual support with God and each other have also been lost. Misdirected blame and self-interest entered the scene (Gen. 3:12) and are now commonplace.
Our relationships with each other at work seem naturally vulnerable to problems, misunderstandings, and conflicts. Who hasn’t experienced difficulties with co-workers, bosses, clients, or suppliers?3. Pain
Suffering, whether emotional or physical, is now part of the deal (Gen. 3:16–17). Our labor causes pain and injury.
Even traditionally “safe” office work environments require regular attention to things like adequate ergonomic workstations and protections from abuse and harassment. Carpal tunnel injuries and work-related physical and mental stress typify many office environments.4. A Resistant World
Creation itself, including all the institutions humanity has formed, resists our best efforts to apply ourselves and produce good and useful work (Gen. 3:17–19). As much progress as we’ve made in sophisticated technology, innovation, and industry, we still experience deep difficulties in our daily labor.
Inflated bureaucracies, inefficient processes, outside disruptions, scarcity of resources, insoluble problems, and ineffective leadership—regardless of our skill level and personal efficiency—all remind us that our work sometimes just doesn’t want to cooperate.5. Death
The ultimate disrupter of work is death itself (Gen. 3:19). Decay, sickness, and death (even more so than taxes!) are guaranteed. The longer you work, the more this becomes a regular theme.
I’ve experienced the death of three employees over the years who were under my management; nothing intrudes on the workplace like the trauma and loss when a dear colleague passes away.6. Hiddenness of God
God removed Adam and Eve from the garden out of compassion, so they would know the consequences of life apart from intimate communion and trust with him, and would have the opportunity to be redeemed (Gen. 3:22–24). The angst and longing of Ecclesiastes is a direct consequence of both our rejection of God and also his removal of us from his intimate presence. Our lives and work beg for the meaning and restoration that would be always present if we had direct access to God’s face-to-face presence in a perfect world.
So when you get to the end of a long work day and feel that heavy sigh coming, remember your Maker, who transcends “life under the sun.” He created today with purpose, even in all its challenges, tasks, and “unfinishedness.” Though God seems far away at times, by faith we know he draws close and cares for all who seek him. Take your angst to him and let him bear its weight as only he is able.
And remember that though our work will always bear the marks of a fallen world, it is also a call for us to enter into God’s renewing work. Let God transform the list of things you dislike about your job into the reasons God has called you there. Love your broken world, care for your coworkers’ good, seek the flourishing of your work environment, and let God use your modest efforts to bless—and bring a glimpse of his kingdom into—the place he has called you.
It epitomizes contempt to say to someone, “I hope you fail at everything you do.” But what if I told you I hope you experience some failure at points? I am actually serving you by saying this.
During the 2018 Winter Olympics, an article appeared on former figure skater Scott Hamilton. He was a medalist at the 1984 Games, and a longtime analyst for the event. “I calculated once how many times I fell during my skating career—41,600 times,” he said. “But here’s the funny thing: I got up 41,600 times. That’s the muscle you have to build in your psyche—the one that reminds you to just get up.”Failure Builds Muscle
That psychic muscle is built in failure. Spiritual muscle is built this way, too. To be sure, not all failure is the same. There are catastrophic failures with consequences one may not be able to get up from. It’s one thing for an Olympian to fall thousands of times on his way to a gold medal. Hamilton had to perfect his jumps and signature backflip, yes, but even with all his falls in years of practice and competitions, he was clearly not a failure at skating.
President Lyndon Johnson’s press secretary believed no one should be allowed to work in the West Wing who had not suffered major disappointments in life—either as a result of others’ failures or their own. He believed the responsibility of working in the White House was too great to be entrusted to people who weren’t painfully aware of how badly things can go wrong.
Of all people, pastors should be keenly aware of how wrong things can go. He is a better pastor who painfully shares in the failures of his people. I don’t mean moral failures, which are catastrophic for pastors, nor do I mean chronic failure, where one repeats the same mistake over and over because he’s lazy or disorganized or incompetent in the work. Vocational intelligence is, more or less, the ability to learn from one’s mistakes. But I pass on to aspiring pastors what someone observed eons ago: a pastor must have the mind of a scholar, the heart of a child, and the hide of a rhinoceros.
A pastor must have the mind of a scholar, the heart of a child, and the hide of a rhinoceros.
Why a rhino hide? Because others are going to fail you through their critiques and attacks, but you’re going to fail them, too. And if you want to quit over those failures, you miss your best opportunities for growth. I blush to recall the time I, from the pulpit, mocked the side effects of anxiety medication. I thought I was being cute, but that sent a young mother into the foyer crying. She had seen her ex-husband murder her father, and she was on medication as a result.
I failed her—miserably. She was gracious to forgive me, but I learned something about hurts within a congregation, something I probably wouldn’t have learned any other way except through failure.The Only Way
That’s the hard part: What have I had to learn through failure because I wouldn’t learn it any other way? Someone once said, “Speak when you are angry and you will make the best speech you will ever regret.” I’ve been there and done that too in preaching. I regret it. Wish I could have those Sundays back.
I’m a failed church planter. The church I helped start years ago is doing well today—but not because of me. Though I poured my heart into it, I wasn’t right for the work. I see that now.
Some would say I failed in parenting because of my child’s troubles. Most of the fellow parents Lynn and I have met at drug treatment centers and therapy groups feel like failures. Among the many lessons we parents of addicts must learn is the unhelpful ways we’re prone to try to “rescue” our children from themselves. We convince ourselves it’s to keep them from more failure, but we’re virtually guaranteeing their ongoing failure when we rescue them in all the wrong ways. It’s counterintuitive to every parental impulse, but our son really does have to be on his own. I don’t mean not having a recovery community around him. That’s essential. But Mom and Dad can’t lead it. He has to stand in that community on his own two legs to truly walk the path of recovery. I’d never have known that if I hadn’t walked this broken road in parenting.Climb by Falling
I’m not a determinist when it comes to failure. I’m a “hopetimist.” When I sit with younger pastors or parents and tell them, “I hope you’ll know some failures along the way,” I say this because I believe growing is the most important form of succeeding. And I don’t believe we grow without some failure.
Growth is not automatic from failure, to be sure. But if we are always rescued, we don’t grow.
So let us be grateful to the Lord for failure—not for its causes, nor the pain and confusion it generates—but for the growth in humility and gratitude and perseverance it makes possible.
During my past six years serving as a college pastor, some of my most disturbing conversations have been with unrepentant sexual assault perpetrators and their defensive Christian parents. In their attempts to justify their actions, too often I would hear from the perpetrators (and their parents), “Have you seen her Instagram account? Do you know what she’s like at parties? But she made the first move. Well, she asked for it. She has a history.” And so on.
With more than 20 percent of female undergraduate students experiencing some form of sexual assault or misconduct, these tendencies to blame the victim have led some to demand action or even walk away from the faith. But does Scripture remain silent to the injustice of victim-blaming? Does God remain silent to the cries of victims for redemption from their shame?Defining Victim-Blaming
According to Harvard Law School’s HALT website,
Victim-blaming is the attitude which suggests that the victim rather than the perpetrator bears responsibility for the assault. Victim-blaming occurs when it is assumed that an individual did something to provoke the violence by actions, words, or dress. Many people would rather believe that someone caused their own misfortune because it makes the world seem a safer place, but victim-blaming is a major reason that survivors of sexual and domestic violence do not report their assaults.
Concerns of false reporting by victims should also be tempered by the fact that only 2 percent to 10 percent (the same rate for other crimes) of rape allegations turn out to be untrue. Hence, ministry leaders—especially those serving college students—must be hyper-vigilant in listening to their sheep, reporting suspected abuse, and protecting the vulnerable from perpetrators.
Contrary to those who argue Scripture normalizes violence by including narratives of war, pillaging, and sexual assault, it’s more likely such passages are included to compel God’s people to confront the uncomfortable realities of sin and brokenness in our world.
Few stories are as tragic and heartbreaking as Tamar’s rape by her half-brother Amnon in 2 Samuel 13. Tamar appears to have sincerely cared for her perpetrator’s well-being. And similar to many contemporary instances of victims initially trusting their perpetrators, her willingness to serve Amnon by herself revealed a level of trust cultivated through years of friendship. This is one reason why the harm done to her body, emotional health, and soul was that much more painful and enduring. It would take years, if not the rest of her life, to recover from the betrayal, depression, anxiety, distrust, and PTSD that followed.
Amnon’s sexual assault of Tamar has all the qualities of victim-blaming: (1) She accepted his request to assist him alone in his room (13:7–9); (2) she was physically close to him while he was lying in bed pretending to be sick (13:10–11); (3) she allowed her brother to watch her as she baked (13:8); (4) she hand-fed him bread that she baked herself (13:11); and (5) she was wearing an decorative robe signifying her virginity (13:18).
If skeptics are right and the Bible is merely ancient patriarchal propaganda, one could suggest that these details of Tamar’s rape are mentioned to (partially or fully) justify Amnon’s actions. One might expect Scripture to say, “She shouldn’t have been in the room alone with him. She should’ve worn something less suggestive. It goes both ways.” Yet even as modern societies still tend to blame victims, biblical writers from 3,000 years ago never once blame Tamar; rather, they unequivocally place the guilt on the conspirators.
Even as modern societies still tend to blame victims, biblical writers from 3,000 years ago never once blame Tamar.Hope for Sexual Assault Victims
Instead of condemning Tamar, chapter 13 alludes to how she will be redeemed by a future savior (13:13) and goes on to describe Amnon’s destruction (13:23–33). The former reveals God’s compassionate heart for victims and his promise of redemption; the latter his unwavering desire for justice against sexual assault perpetrators.
When Tamar cries, “Where could I carry my shame?” (13:13), our heavenly Father responds with good news of a future messianic king. God hears Tamar and answers her cry as her rapist brother dismisses it and as her own father, King David, ignores and minimizes it (13:21). But whereas Tamar put ashes on her head, tore her decorative robe, and waited for the true and better king to carry out justice and restore her stolen dignity, we now have access to Jesus Christ, the king for whom Tamar and those like her have longed.
Only this king compassionately carried all our shame to a cross and died so we could be cleansed of our perpetrators’ sins against us and forgiven of the many sins we’ve committed against others. And only this king rose from the dead to replace our tattered robes by clothing us with his garment of praise, replacing our ashes by covering us with his beauty (Isa. 61:3). In Jesus, our shame, doubts, and false accusations are redeemed and vindicated.Church’s Response
As under-shepherds of the true and greater Shepherd, our responsibility to care for the victimized in our flocks requires us to take seriously any claim of sexual assault, show victims respect, and put their safety as our top priority. To dismiss a woman’s account of sexual assault without any evidence because of her “reputation” is to deny our own “reputation” of sinful rebellion prior to coming to Christ.
As under-shepherds of the true and greater Shepherd, pastors have the responsibility to care for the victimized in their flocks.
Certainly we should pursue truth and justice for both victims and the accused, while upholding the judicial principle of innocent until proven guilty. Christ-like compassion and redemptive justice should extend to the accused as well as the accuser. But the tragic story of Tamar should compel us to avoid rushing to justify the sins of perpetrators in order to save face or to reassure ourselves that things aren’t as bad as they seem. Our Savior’s ministry to women, the powerless, and the marginalized should lead us to be wary of joining in the pervasive and toxic social phenomenon of victim blaming.
Few would disagree that we’re now living in an effectively post-Christian world. Secularism is on the rise, church attendance is in decline, and hostility to Christian values is ever-increasing. In light of this foreboding landscape, it’s appropriate to ask whether the church is on the right track. Have we missed something? Are we doing something incorrectly that we need to change?
Andy Stanley’s latest volume, Irresistible: Reclaiming the New that Jesus Unleashed for the World, answers that question with a resounding “yes.” We have been on the wrong track, and we need to change if we’re going to reach the next generation with the gospel. What is this wrong track? It’s that modern Christianity relies too much on the Old Testament. The problem with the modern church is “our incessant habit of reaching back into the old covenant concepts, teachings, sayings, and narratives” (91).
As a result, Christianity has lost its mojo. These vestiges of the old covenant have led, Stanley says, to a variety of vices in the church: “prosperity gospel, the crusades, anti-Semitism, legalism, exclusivism, judgmentalism,” and more (158). Thus, Stanley offers a clear call to church leaders: “Would you consider unhitching your teaching of what it means to follow Jesus from all things old covenant?” (315). This is necessary because “when it comes to stumbling blocks to faith, the Old Testament is right up there at the top of the list” (280).
Put simply, when people struggle to believe, “the Old Testament is usually the culprit” (278).Bold Thesis
Needless to say, Irresistible certainly doesn’t lack in boldness. Indeed, the claims laid out above are genuinely breathtaking. In essence, Stanley has pinned virtually all the major problems of the church—from the Crusades to legalism—to our continued use of the Old Testament.
And his solution is no less bold. If the Old Testament is the problem, just cut it off.
Andy Stanley’s thesis is so far-reaching that his arguments become equally far-reaching—moving far beyond what the Bible (or church history) can support.
Of course, such a forceful, wide-ranging thesis would need to be backed up by an equally forceful and wide-ranging argument. But that’s where this volume runs into serious challenges. As I will argue below, Stanley’s arguments can’t bear the weight of his thesis. Indeed, his thesis is so far-reaching that his arguments become equally far-reaching—moving far beyond what the Bible (or church history) can support.What Stays and What Goes?
In a limited review such as this one, I can only offer a few specifics. I begin with Stanley’s view of what it means for the old covenant to be “obsolete” (Heb. 8:13). Stanley is certainly correct that many aspects of the Mosaic economy are abrogated under the new covenant. Indeed, I commend his entire first section (17–65), which is quite a helpful discussion of how old covenant worship—with temple, animal sacrifices, and earthly priests—is now fulfilled in Christ.
But Stanley assumes that the abrogation of old covenant cultic laws means all kinds of laws present under the old covenant are also abrogated. He treats “law” under the Mosaic economy as a singular, undifferentiated lump. If part goes, it all goes. But this isn’t how the New Testament treats these laws. Nor is it how theologians have historically treated these laws. It has been widely recognized that there are “moral” laws under the old covenant order—in particular, the Ten Commandments—that have abiding relevance. After all, the foundation for moral laws (God’s own character) doesn’t change.
Because Stanley misses this distinction, he is willing even to reject the Ten Commandments: “The Ten Commandments have no authority over you. None. To be clear: Though shalt not obey the Ten Commandments” (136, emphasis mine). He goes even further: “Paul never leverages the old covenant as a basis for Christian behavior” (209).
Aside from the rhetorical shock of such statements, they’re flatly contradicted many places in the New Testament. Just one example is Ephesians 6:1, where Paul calls Christian children to obey their parents. Surely, he must ground this exhortation in the new covenant teaching of Jesus, right? No, Paul actually cites one of the Ten Commandments: “Honor your father and mother . . . that it may go well with you and that you may live long in the land” (Ex. 20:12).
Stunningly, Stanley does mention Exodus 20:12 but only as an example of what New Testament writers supposedly never do! “We new covenant types don’t honor our father and mothers so we can ‘live long in the land’” (236). Apparently, he missed Ephesians 6:1; he never mentions it.Divide and Conquer
In order to keep Christians away from the Old Testament, Stanley adopts a number of strategies. One of those strategies is to insist on as much discontinuity as possible between the covenants. They are, in Stanley’s mind, fundamentally opposed to each other (146).
For him, the old covenant is about hating enemies, the new is about loving them (107). The old covenant is filled with “misogyny” (290) where women are “commodities” (214), but under the new they are “partners” (215). In the old covenant God is “holy,” but in the new covenant God is “love” (223). The old covenant God is “angry,” but the new covenant God is “brokenhearted” (257). In the old covenant people relied on the Bible, but in the new covenant they just love people (234).
In essence, Stanley’s book stokes a radical discontinuity between the covenants in a manner reflective of the hermeneutics of classical dispensationalism. That may motivate people to “unhitch” from the old covenant, but whether it faithfully represents that covenant is another matter.
Take, for instance, the idea that the old covenant was about hating one’s enemies. Stanley appeals to the Sermon on the Mount where Jesus said, “You have heard that it was said, ‘You shall love your neighbor and hate your enemy.’ But I say to you, Love your enemies” (Matt. 5:43–44). Stanley mistakenly assumes Jesus is arguing against the old covenant itself. Nowhere does the Old Testament say “hate your enemy”—it’s not there. Theologians, therefore, have rightly recognized that Jesus is arguing against Pharisaical distortions and abuses of the old covenant. After all, even the Old Testament says, “If your enemy is hungry, give him bread to eat, and if he is thirsty give him water to drink” (Prov. 25:21).
This is a common problem throughout Stanley’s volume: He often confuses distortions of the old covenant with the old covenant itself.
This is a common problem throughout Stanley’s volume: He often confuses distortions of the old covenant with the old covenant itself.
Another example is when Stanley talks about racism in ancient Judaism. He tells a story about a modern white couple who opposed their daughter’s marriage to a black man because they believed Moses was judged by God because he married a dark-skinned Midianite (148). But this story is perplexing for the reader. Clearly these parents have profoundly misunderstood (and misused) this Old Testament story to support their racist views. But what does that have to do with the nature of the old covenant itself? Is Stanley implying that the old covenant is racist or leads to racism? Surely not. But then why tell the story at all?
This strategy ends up caricaturing the old covenant as a harsh, cold, legalistic arrangement that we should all be happy to be rid of. Nowhere are we reminded that old covenant believers, though they were under a provisional arrangement filled with types and shadows, were still saved by grace through faith in the coming Savior (Heb. 11:22–40). Nor are we told that Paul indicates that circumcision was a sign of justification by faith for Old Testament saints (Rom. 4:11).
In other words, the discontinuity between the covenants isn’t nearly as radical as Stanley supposes.Lesson from Church History?
If we want to know how (or whether) Christians should use the Old Testament, we might ask what the earliest Christians did. Would the church fathers of the second and third centuries have agreed with Stanley’s view? No; they not only read, studied, and used the Old Testament in worship (e.g., see Justin Martyr, 1 Apol. 67), but they insisted that Christ was their main subject. The Old Testament was valuable because Christ was there.
If we want to know how (or whether) Christians should use the Old Testament, we might ask what the earliest Christians did. . . . [T]hey insisted that Christ was their main subject. The Old Testament was valuable because Christ was there.
Incredibly, Stanley isn’t deterred by this fact. Instead, he doubles down and insists that the church fathers were simply wrong too! They just “ignored [Paul’s] warning against mixing and matching” (155). Indeed, he goes even further, insisting that attempts to find Christ in the Old Testament are simply instances of the Jewish Scriptures being “hijacked” by Christians who are “ignoring original context” (156). Even more, he argues this Christ-in-the-Old-Testament approach has led Christians toward anti-Semitism.
Many readers will be stunned by such statements. According to Stanley, virtually everyone in the history of the church has been wrong about the role of the Old Testament—until now. It’s truly a jaw-dropping claim.
But there is a figure from church history who held a view similar to Stanley’s—the second-century figure Marcion. I only say similar because there are notable differences (Marcion rejected the Old Testament as the product of a false god). Nevertheless, they both share a deep conviction that the Old Testament is fundamentally at odds with Paul’s pure gospel. In fact, Marcion would’ve viewed himself as someone trying to help Christianity. He was trying to protect the gospel. Christianity had to be saved—even if it meant saving Christianity from itself.
According to Stanley, virtually everyone in the history of the church has been wrong about the role of the Old Testament—until now. It’s truly a jaw-dropping claim.
However, Marcion’s view didn’t win the day. His approach was roundly and widely rejected by early Christians. Indeed, his story stood as a sober reminder for many generations thereafter that the church was fundamentally committed to the abiding value and relevance of the Old Testament.End Game
What is the pay-off of Stanley’s proposed paradigm-shift? He thinks it will help reach unbelievers more effectively. In essence, the final chapters of Irresistible offer a new (it’s not really new) approach to apologetics: take the focus off the Bible (especially the Old Testament) and put it on the resurrection.
People don’t need to believe the Bible to be Christians, Stanley reminds us. So, why debate its truth? That’s just a distraction. He states, “The good news is even if none of those [Old Testament] things actually happened it does nothing to undermine the credibility of our new covenant faith” (306).
Stanley is partly right. People don’t have to believe the Bible to be saved (at least not all of it). Indeed, they don’t even need to know a Bible exists to be saved (imagine a missionary preaching to a tribe in the remote jungle). But Stanley leaves out (or doesn’t himself realize) a key distinction: While a person doesn’t have to believe the Bible is true to be saved, the Bible has to be true for them to be saved.
Why? Because Jesus said the Bible is true. And if it’s not true, then he was wrong. And that raises issues for our salvation. But it’s even bigger than this point. If Jesus is the divine Lord of the universe, then he is also the author of the Old Testament. He (through inspired human authors) wrote it. So, yes, it does matter if it’s true.
Thus, Stanley’s view of the Old Testament stands in direct contrast to Jesus’s view of the Old Testament. Sure, Stanley claims to follow Jesus’s view (69), but there is an unresolved (or perhaps unresolvable) tension in his position. He does not recognize that the authority of Jesus is linked to the truth of the Old Testament. They stand or fall together.Road Block
Let me say that I appreciate the heart behind Irresistible. We all want to reach more people for Christ, and any road block that can be removed ought to be removed. We all can learn a profound lesson from Stanley’s passion for the lost. I wish more churches (and pastors) labored over how to reach non-Christians like he does.
Stanley stands against the entire history of the church as well as the theological heritage of the Protestant Reformation. . . . He’s even out of sync with Bible itself.
But not every road block can be removed. Some doctrines are too central to the truth of Christianity and the health of the church to be taken away. When it comes to presenting the gospel, Stanley has become convinced the Bible, especially the Old Testament, simply gets in the way. I disagree. But it’s not just me. Stanley stands against the entire history of the church as well as the theological heritage of the Protestant Reformation. Moreover, as I have argued, he’s even out of sync with Bible itself.
There can be a sad irony in defending the faith. We can be so eager to oppose any and all obstacles, that we end up, unwittingly, opposing Christianity itself. If we’re not careful, we might end up losing the very thing we’re trying to save.
With a population close to 10 million, the Chicago metropolitan area is America’s largest Midwestern city and third largest overall. Known for its architecture, deep dish pizza, avid sports fans, and sprawling suburbs, the Windy City also boasts a sizable Christian population.
While only about half of the residents in Seattle (52 percent) and San Francisco (48 percent) identify as Christians, 71 percent of Chicagoans call themselves Christians (a large portion of these are Catholic; Chicago has one of the largest Catholic populations in the United States).
The Chicago area is also a global center of evangelical influence. It is home to many top evangelical colleges and seminaries (Wheaton, Moody Bible Institute, Trinity, North Park, to name a few) and publications (Crossway, Tyndale, InterVarsity Press, Moody, Christianity Today).
But even with its evangelical pedigree, Chicago needs more gospel-centered, Word-rooted churches where Christians see clearly how Scripture should guide and anchor their lives. That’s why The Gospel Coalition Chicago is hosting the Leading with the Word conference on October 26 to 27, 2018—a gathering to encourage and equip believers to take the highest view of the Bible and its application in the church, in preaching, teaching, and in their own spiritual lives.
I asked the conference organizer, pastor and TGC Council member Colin Smith of The Orchard, as well as David Choi of Chicago’s Church of the Beloved, to reflect on the challenges and opportunities of gospel-centered ministry in Chicagoland today.Is ministry in the Chicago context different from ministry in similarly sized cities in other parts of the world?
Smith: Having come here from the UK I have been asked many times about what’s different from the context of ministry in London. But I have been much more struck by the similarities than by the differences. The first great need of all human beings in every time and place is to know God. When we come to know him we become aware of our need of a Savior. Another great need is for the strength to pursue the life to which God has called us, and that power becomes ours through the Holy Spirit as we look in living faith to Christ our Savior and our Lord. These are universal needs. They never change. And in all the conversation about cultural context, I think it is important to remember the relevance of the gospel in every time and place.Briefly describe your churches.
Choi: Our church, Church of the Beloved, was a parachute plant launched in 2012 in the near west neighborhood of Chicago. Since then, God has multiplied our plant to six locations in the city of Chicago, and two outside of Chicago. One of the most encouraging aspects early on in our ministry was how God began to lead nations to our church, in particular people who had never heard the gospel. Our first international student who came to Jesus had no previous knowledge of Jesus. She put her faith in Christ and was baptized several days before she moved back to her country. Another girl from an unreached country came to our Christmas Eve service. That night, she had a dream where she was running away from Jesus. When she woke up, she felt compelled to learn more about this Jesus she was running from. Several months later, after studying the Bible with one of our church members and hearing the gospel proclaimed, she trusted in Jesus and continues to be an important part of our church family.
Smith: The Orchard began in 1953. For the first 55 years it was known as The Arlington Heights Evangelical Free Church. It was planted through the leadership of Will Norton, who was the professor of missions at Trinity Evangelical Divinity School in the 1950s. The first pastor of the church was Gordon Addington, a student from the seminary. The name of the church changed to The Orchard in 2008 when we launched a second campus in Barrington. In the years that followed, the remaining members of two churches facing closure asked if we would receive them and continue the work of their church as a campus of The Orchard. Then in 2016 we launched a fifth campus in Northfield and are looking forward, God willing, to the opening of our sixth campus in the city of Chicago in 2019.
Many in our community have been helped by our community care program, in which volunteers offer material and spiritual help to people in need. The Celebrate Recovery program has been another means of help to many, and the children’s ministry is highly valued by many families in the communities we serve. But I think the greatest ministry to the community is through innumerable acts of care and kindness that flow from God’s people wherever he has set them down.What are the biggest discipleship challenges you face with Christians in your particular context?
Smith: Despite the rapid secularization of our culture, many in the communities we serve have some form of faith. They would consider themselves Christians, even without a personal faith in Christ or the experience of the presence and power of the Holy Spirit in their lives. Others have rejected a cultural Christianity without ever having tasted the joy of a living relationship with God, and that’s a challenge. Either way, it’s hard for people to hear what Christ offers when they think they have experienced it already.
It’s hard for people to hear what Christ offers when they think they have experienced it already.
Another challenge is that many have an understanding of discipleship that revolves around individual mentoring and is often disconnected from the local church. Our model of ministry revolves around roots, life, and fruit. We believe Christians grow and mature where they put down deep roots in the Word of God, share in the life Christ gives us through fellowship with others, and bear fruit wherever God has set us down to serve him in the world. That’s different from what many people are familiar with, and so it can take some getting used to.
Choi: Transience. Every year about one-third of our congregation moves, usually to another major city. Not only is it challenging to sustain growth, but it is also difficult replenishing new leaders. We recently started a leadership pipeline to try and address this concern, and I have found that one of the most important things we need to focus on as a city center church is developing new planters and leaders who have a vision to stay in the city longer than the average stay of two to three years. Another challenge is the emotional drain of saying goodbye to so many church members and leaders you have come to love and care for. Many urban planters can empathize with the pain and subsequent feelings of loneliness that comes with having key leaders feel “called” to move away from their city. I have found it important to meet with other planters and pastors outside of my church who remind me that these emotions are a common problem among city center churches. It has also forced us to think through preaching calendars and discipleship, knowing that the average member may only be in our congregation for a few years. One of the unique struggles is how to balance casting vision to stay in the city for the long haul with the reality of embracing urban mobility, and learning to equip and send people out to be a blessing to the cities and churches they will be heading to.Are there contexts or demographics where the soil seems fertile for gospel advancement in the Chicago area? Where do you see the most life and fruitfulness?
Choi: God has grown our church through reaching urban millennials, including internationals who are studying here or working here. On a given Sunday, we have about 30 or so nations represented, and more than half our congregation grew up speaking a language other than English. When people cite surveys that millennials are leaving the church, I ask them: Which millennials? Our church’s average age in Chicago is about 25 years old, and yet it has grown in what is often deemed the most difficult demographic to reach. We find that many internationals have no religious baggage to deconstruct, so they tend to be more open to hearing about Christ. One sister from a closed country was given a Bible from one of our leaders. Two weeks later, I asked her if she had read it. She hung her head in shame as she confessed to having only read Genesis and John. Seventy-one chapters in two weeks! It is extremely challenging for us as believers when we see non-believers being more eager to learn about Jesus and study his Word than many churched people.
When people cite surveys that millennials are leaving the church, I ask them: Which millennials? Our church’s average age in Chicago is about 25 years old.
Smith: I have been struck by the growth of multicultural ministry in our church. Historically our congregation was largely made up of Swedes and Norwegians. Multicultural ministry started with a lady who had a vision for translating sermons into Polish. Then a Japanese intern who served in our church had the vision for expanding this work. Now, we have ministry along people from multiple language groups, including Spanish, Indian, Polish, Korean, Filipino, Chinese, Japanese, Indonesian, Bulgarian, Romanian, Russian, Arabic, Swahili, and Ukranian.What areas of sin and injustice are most troublesome in the Chicago area, and what can churches be doing to address them?
Smith: Racial division is a burden to the heart of any thinking Christian in this area, as is the tragic loss of human life through abortion, and through murder in the city. The greatest opportunities we have for influence in areas of sin and injustice come, in my opinion, not so much through activity organized by the church, but through the influence of individual members of the body of Christ sent out into the world. Our people shine like lights as they act with righteousness, justice, and compassion wherever the Lord has placed them. Motivating and inspiring believers who gather for worship to see the purpose of God in their calling is, to my mind, one of the great privileges of ministry.
Choi: Chicago is widely considered one of the most segregated cities in the United States. Systemic racism, corruption, and injustice have plagued our city in both visible and also subtle ways. Shootings and homicides happen daily and often in neighborhoods that would normally be considered safe. I have had conversations with Chicago pastors who minister in diverse contexts both racially and economically. There seems to be a growing awareness among churches and leaders who recognize the need for coordinated citywide prayer initiatives as well as a united voice to speak prophetically against corporate sins, both inside and outside the church.How can TGC readers be praying for your particular church and the broader movement of the gospel in the Chicago area?
Smith: Pray for the launch of The Orchard Chicago campus that will meet at The Lakewood beginning January 6, 2019. Pray that ministry leaders may walk humbly and faithfully with Christ and that God’s Spirit will use his Word to bring lasting change in many lives.
Choi: For Church of the Beloved, please pray for us to continue to be humble before the Lord. Please pray for a sweet spirit of unity and cooperation among churches throughout Chicago in seeing gospel impact permeate every sphere of society. Pray that existing pastors and new planters would stay rooted in the gospel and that we would spend much time with God. Pray that there would be an increase of personal and corporate prayer among all the churches in our city.
Also in this series:
The problem of evil has long been a challenge to Christians. How could an all-loving, all-powerful God allow pain and suffering in his good creation? The question never remains theoretical, of course. In one way or another, the problem will confront each us of directly. The question is, will we be ready when we get the inevitable phone call that brings us to our knees? What can we do today to ready ourselves for the heartache and pain of tomorrow?
It may be counterintuitive, but part of my answer is: Go to an art gallery.
The arts have always been a key means of spiritual formation and renewal in the church. Art beckons us to look higher, to look deeper—to recognize the transcendent in items as ordinary as canvas and clay. This transcendent experience poses its own dilemma that is a sort of counterpoint to the dilemma of evil.
Just as evil causes us to ask, “How could this exist if there’s a God?” the goodness and order we see in art causes us to ask, “How could this exist if there isn’t a God?” Indeed, we’ll only be able to make sense of the world’s ugliness in moments of crisis if we first try to make sense of the world’s beauty in moments of transcendent joy. Dealing with the problem of pleasure will prepare us for the problem of pain.
We’ll only be able to make sense of the world’s ugliness in moments of crisis if we first try to make sense of the world’s beauty in moments of transcendent joy.Seeing Beyond
The great conductor and composer Leonard Bernstein put it beautifully:
Beethoven turned out pieces of breathtaking rightness. Rightness—that’s the word! . . . Our boy has the real goods, the stuff from heaven, the power to make you feel at the finish: something is right in the world. There is something that checks throughout, that follows its own law consistently: something we can trust, that will never let us down.
In the Christian account of the world, creation is sacramental: it points beyond itself. But if we haven’t trained our eyes to look for order and meaning in the symphony, we won’t be likely to see with eyes of faith in the midst of tragedy. So, be it a piece of music, a painting, a sculpture—all art should lead our eyes beyond the immediate and to the infinite, beyond the creation itself to the Creator himself.
This is a point C. S. Lewis makes in The Weight of Glory:
The books or the music in which we thought the beauty was located will betray us if we trust to them; it was not in them, it only came through them, and what came through them was longing. These things—the beauty, the memory of our own past—are good images of what we really desire; but if they are mistaken for the thing itself they turn into dumb idols, breaking the hearts of their worshipers. For they are not the thing itself; they are only the scent of a flower we have not found, the echo of a tune we have not heard, news from a country we have never yet visited.
In the secular, de-mythologized West, our eyes are taught to look at and in, but never through, and certainly not up. Whatever you call this cultural phenomenon—objectivism, scientism, utilitarianism—its effects are palpable: we’re habituated to see creation as mere nature, an end in itself, an object for dissection but certainly not delight.
In such a culture, appreciating art takes more discipline and effort than ever before. At first, the clay appears to be just that: a lump of dirt. Yet if you make it your practice to stop by the same sculpture each time you visit the museum, over the months and years you will find the clay transforms into something different. It takes on new meaning and significance. But of course it is not the object itself that changes—it’s how we see it. The seeing is changed not by the seen but by the see-er.
To see more than a lump of dirt in a sculpture takes a patience that is rarer and rarer in our fast-paced age.
The thing is, seeing well takes intentionality, especially in our distracted age. To see more than a lump of dirt in a sculpture takes a patience that is rarer and rarer in our fast-paced age. But if we as Christ’s followers want to honor God’s beautiful creation (including the creations of his image-bearers), we need to cultivate this patient mode of seeing.Problems of Pain and Pleasure
The conditions that make art appreciation difficult are the same conditions that make reckoning with the problem of evil difficult. The same eyes that see only a lump of clay in a sculpture will only see discoloration and scars when looking in the mirror after a major surgery. Conversely, eyes trained to see meaning and beauty while sitting on the museum bench will be able to recognize the handiwork of God while lying in the hospital bed, even as they yet see through a glass, dimly.
This is not to say we will always discover meaning just by looking at something hard enough. Meaning in art, as in suffering, is sometimes elusive or even inaccessible. The death of a loved one or relentless hardship can often feel senseless, absurd, devoid of meaning. Some overly artsy music or films can feel the same way. But the extremes do not detract from the broader principle. The more we cultivate intentional, observant viewing of art, the more we’ll be able to make meaning of all of reality.
The arts are crucial in recovering the skills necessary to regain a right disposition toward reality. They can help us see order and cohesion in the true, the good, and the beautiful. Not only can a deep familiarity with the beautiful give us the standard by which we recognize and name the ugly, but once we’ve become accustomed to looking for meaning in moments of joy, perhaps we can also see with eyes of faith in moments of despair.
We might say it this way: The problem of pain becomes more manageable if we’ve already reckoned with the problem of pleasure.
- Why We Need Great Art (Terry Glaspey)
- What’s the Point of Art? (Jackie Hill Perry)
- The Disruptive Witness of Art (Alan Noble)
- In Christian Theology, Beauty Demands to Be Noticed ( Matt Capps)
“I want to introduce you to a generation shortly after the Puritan era. Let me tell you something about these folks. Their ethics and their epistemology matched. God always leaves a witness to his Word.” — K. A. Ellis
Date: June 15, 2018
Event: The Gospel Coalition 2018 Women’s Conference
You can listen to this episode of The Gospel Coalition podcast here.
- What Has Geneva to Do with Ferguson (Mika Edmondson)
- Meet Presbyterian America’s First Licensed Black Preacher (Darryl Williamson)
- The Pro-Life Movement Needs More Wilberforces (Gracy Olmstead)
Find more audio and video from the 2018 Women’s Conference on the conference media page.
As I engage in pastoral conversations, I am often greeted with a sincere question: “Pastor Tom, I certainly understand that loving our neighbors well requires resources, but didn’t Jesus caution us about wealth?”
Throughout the history of the church, there have been two prominent and diverging views of wealth. One view insists that material wealth and wealth creation are intrinsically corrupting, and therefore must be avoided at all cost.
The other view contends that material wealth and wealth creation are essentially good, and are part of our creation design and cultural mandate. Taken too far, this can lead to the belief that God blesses his true followers with health and wealth.
We can learn from both.Poverty Gospel
Underlying many manifestations of the poverty gospel is a contemporary form of Gnosticism, which devalues the true goodness of the material world. The poverty gospel often fuels a blinding, pietistic spiritual pride that asserts the greater the material poverty, the more spiritual the person. Inherent in this distorted biblical teaching is that material poverty brings spiritual riches, and material abundance inevitably brings spiritual poverty.
Proponents of the poverty gospel are right to remind us of many biblical texts that speak to the sizable dangers that accompany increasing material wealth. They also rightly call an increasingly affluent Western church to greater material generosity and deeper sacrificial living (see Matt. 6:24; 19:16–30; 1 Tim. 6:7–8; Heb. 13:5).
Material impoverishment is no more intrinsically spiritual than material abundance.
Yet those who embrace the poverty gospel in its many explicit and implicit forms make a theological error by too closely wedding evil with material prosperity. According to Dallas Willard, “The idealization of poverty is one of the most dangerous illusions of Christians in the contemporary world. Stewardship which requires possessions and includes giving is the true spiritual discipline in relation to wealth.”
Material impoverishment is no more intrinsically spiritual than material abundance. In all economic circumstances, whether they are bleak or bright, faithful and fruitful stewardship of all God entrusts in required.Prosperity Gospel
A second dangerous distortion regarding material wealth is the prosperity gospel. Proponents believe the creation of wealth is an authenticating sign or a direct causal apologetic for God’s blessing. Prosperity-gospel adherents assert that God wants everyone to be materially prosperous. Embedded in the prosperity gospel is a good and admirable attention to what is often a neglected robust theology of the goodness of human flourishing.
Tragically, like most other theological distortions, important truth is ignored, minimized, or outright denied. In many cases, prosperity-gospel proponents have a paltry view of human suffering, tend to ignore Scripture’s call to a sacrificial lifestyle fueled by neighborly love, and blatantly disregard the sovereign will of God for some of Jesus’s followers to experience material poverty.
There are times or circumstances in this world in which God would, on balance, prefer someone to be poor.
While affirming some of the good aspects of prosperity-gospel teaching, John Schneider persuasively challenges its erroneous belief that God desires all to be materially prosperous: “It is that there are not times or circumstances in this world in which God would, on balance, prefer someone to be poor. And Scripture makes very clear that such times and circumstances often do exist.”
The prosperity gospel is not only inconsistent with Scripture, it also flies in the face of many devoted followers of Jesus in the present day and throughout church history who face and have faced great material deprivation in their apprenticeship with Jesus.Fixed Pie
Seeing that wealth is neither to be avoided nor praised but rather stewarded wisely and generously, how should we think about material-wealth creation?
Sometimes we assume there is a “fixed pie” of wealth or fruitfulness in the world. The common fixed-pie fallacy suggests that one person’s growth in wealth results in another person’s diminishing wealth. We see the effects of this fallacy in the contemporary pulpit. Both explicitly and implicitly, many pastors herald the notion that the wealthy create the poor in a causal kind of relationship.
A robust theology of creation, however, helps us see the error of the fixed-pie view. God designed the natural created order so the wealth pie might be expanded through human work.
This means the work of cultivating the Garden of Eden was a call to steward the raw materials of God’s creation and to create something that wasn’t there before, multiplying it many times over for the flourishing of all (Gen. 2:15).
God designed the natural created order so the wealth pie might be expanded through human work.
So we see wealth creation as a good thing, because through it, we reflect our created nature and have an increased capacity to love our neighbor. We were created to flourish, to be fruitful, to add value to others in the world. Paul writes, “If I am to live in the flesh, that means fruitful labor for me” (Phil. 1:22).
Whatever work God has called us to, we must ask: Are we becoming more fruitful workers? Are we increasingly doing our job better and gaining greater skill? If we are in a paid work context, what kind of job reviews are we getting? If we are pursuing more formal education, are we taking our learning seriously? If we do not earn a regular paycheck, how are we continuing to grow in our contribution to others? If we are a stay-at-home spouse, how are we becoming a more fruitful parent?
Our seamless gospel faith tells us that every nook and cranny of our lives matters. The fruitful lives we are called to have profound economic implications for our world. As apprentices of Jesus, the mandate to bear much fruit in every dimension of our lives is at the heart of faithful Christian discipleship.
A sweet friend said she enjoyed watching my wife and me smile and wave and delight on the Sundays when our 5-year-old daughter sings in the children’s choir. Indeed, there is a deep joy—a gleeful celebration—in watching our little angel sing praises to the Lord, complete with hand motions.
But there is both beauty and sorrow behind our elation.
You see, my wife and I didn’t expect our children to live past three years and 55 days. As I recount in my recently released book, Therefore I Have Hope: 12 Truths That Comfort, Sustain, and Redeem in Tragedy, our first child, Cameron, died unexpectedly at this point in his life. In our grief-stricken minds, we feared our second and third child were nearing the end of their lives when they approached this age, despite the fact that our son’s death wasn’t congenital. When they crossed the 3-year-and-55-day threshold, we viewed the remainder of their lives as an unexpected bonus.
None of these thoughts exists at the rational level, of course; they are the sad, post-traumatic remnants of losing a child. The tremors of grief in your heart continue to have a powerful presence, even years later.Two Wrong Ways to View Kids
There are many ways we can view our kids.
At times we see them as a project. We believe (largely because the culture tells us so) that we’re called to manage our kids as a lifelong project. We need to develop them into producers in the market economy. Start building that resume by hiring cheerleading trainers and batting coaches at age 6. Book the tutor before the school year, when we don’t even know if our child will struggle in a class. Skip family Thanksgiving to get to the showcase soccer tournament. God has given us this child to cultivate into a winner, by darn, and we’ll over-program this little human to ensure success.
We should see our children as a gift, not to be taken for granted.
At other times, we see our children as a burden. We long for the day when they’ll go to kindergarten or get their license or go to college. We wish for the days when we’ll get more sleep, have more free time, encounter fewer arguments, or have a richer checking account. Let’s be honest: Kids rock your world. They exhaust us, frustrate us, challenge us, and gobble up our free time, money, and hobbies. I still view my children this way far too often.
How does our view of parenthood change, though, when we view our children neither as projects nor burdens, but as gifts?Children as a Gift
Losing a child has given this perspective to my wife and me. We don’t take our children for granted as much as we did before Cameron died. We approach our kids with this attitude: “We’re just so grateful you’re here. We’re grateful you’re alive.” For us these sentiments are hard-won, but they represent a biblical perspective we all should espouse.
Thankfully, you don’t have to lose a child to view your children as a gift. The Word of God portrays children this way:
Behold, children are a heritage from the LORD,
the fruit of the womb a reward.
Like arrows in the hand of a warrior
are the children of one’s youth.
Blessed is the man
who fills his quiver with them! (Ps. 127:3–5)
The psalmist paints children as a grace from God that generates happiness and well-being.
When we see our children as a gift, our need to control and micromanage subsides. Certainly, we take responsibility for the gift, but nobody clutches and chokes a present to make it perfect. We hold it loosely with gratitude.
Further, when we receive something as a gift, we understand it’s for our pleasure and enjoyment. Many people, when they know (or at least think) they’ve had their final baby, say they’re making a point to enjoy this baby. They savor the final stroller rides, infant clothes, and bedtime readings of Good Night Moon.
When we view our children as a gift, we give ourselves permission to enjoy them more. We don’t constantly have to be coaching, correcting, and managing. While we’ll always train our kids, we’re free to take pleasure in who God made them to be and in the limited time we have together.Hard Gift
It’s worth noting that God often gives us hard gifts. We look back at a challenge or disappointment from the past as a gift not because it was easy, but because it shaped our character. Sometimes kids are like that. God brings us to our knees as we parent a child who routinely pushes our buttons or breaks our hearts. He teaches us to pray more, to practice compassion, to repent from idols.
We all know we’ll never perfectly maintain this view of our kids. However, in those times when we are frustrated, tired, pressured, or afraid in our parenting, it may be worthwhile to look at our child and privately remember, “You are a gift from God. A hard gift, yes, but a precious one nonetheless.”
In the political confusion of recent years, many Christian leaders have invoked Old Testament stories to make sense of contemporary issues. Some have heralded Nebuchadnezzar and Cyrus as examples of God using secular rulers for his ends. Others note David’s affair with Bathsheba, concluding that a leader’s moral failings aren’t necessarily disqualifying. Still others appeal to the story of Nehemiah as evidence that God supports building walls.
Almost invariably, such references are used to validate existing political loyalties. With his new book, The Prodigal Prophet: Jonah and the Mystery of God’s Mercy, pastor, author, and TGC vice president Timothy Keller turns this trope on its head, appealing to an Old Testament story to draw us up short and confront both our personal and corporate sins. It explores the biblical narrative of Jonah, uncovering insights that even those most familiar with the story have likely missed.Learning from Jonah
Keller acknowledges that the story of Jonah presents difficulty for modern readers. After all, who would actually believe that Jonah was swallowed by a great fish and propelled to land three days later? Surely this is a metaphor. Although Keller doesn’t take time to argue why a literal reading is best, he notes that Christians believe in an even greater miracle (the resurrection of Christ), and therefore, “there is nothing particularly difficult about reading Jonah literally” (4).
Instead of being distracted by the fish, he asks readers to focus attention on the message: “God’s love for societies and people beyond the community of believers [and] his opposition to toxic nationalism” (5)—all set under the overarching theme of God’s mercy and compassion for anyone who seeks him. No doubt for some readers, accepting this message will prove more challenging than accepting a maritime miracle.
Keller begins by presenting Jonah as “intensely patriotic, a highly partisan nationalist” (12) and suggests that his prodigal behavior was rooted in a wrongly ordered sense of identity. Keller writes, “Jonah’s relationship with God was not as basic to his significance as his race. That is why, when loyalty to his people and loyalty to the Word of God seemed to be in conflict, he chose to support his nation over taking God’s love and message to a new society” (51).
With this frame, Keller moves through the narrative, deriving insights about common grace and common good, our human tendency to idolatry, and the relationship between evangelism and social justice.Keller’s Legacy
Those familiar with Keller’s work will recognize The Prodigal Prophet as quintessential Keller, resounding with themes of justice, mission, grace, and an unapologetic love for the work God does in and through cities. This makes sense given how the book came to be. Keller preached on Jonah in 1981, then in 1991, and again in 2001, each time refining and amplifying the ideas. The result is a volume that itself spans the length of Keller’s ministry, offering readers the opportunity to see the themes that have marked it in conversation with each other.
But beyond being a compendium of sorts, The Prodigal Prophet illustrates why Keller is and will continue to be a beloved author with a place beside those he so frequently quotes—authors like John Stott, A. W. Tozer, C. S. Lewis, and Martyn Lloyd-Jones. Since The Reason for God released in 2008, critics and readers have been taken with Keller’s intellectual gifts. But after a decade of published works, we’re in a position to appreciate his lasting contributions to Christian literature, specifically his ability to write timeless religious books that are accessible to the public. And this I believe will be Keller’s legacy.
When a writer attempts a book, he must often choose between writing a book that hits a contemporary issue, one that the public might deem relevant and buy because of its placement in the moment; or writing a book that industry insiders call “evergreen”—one that is not time-sensitive and maintains its appeal over decades. Somehow Keller manages to do both. He has found the ability to speak to contemporary issues without locking his books into a contemporary setting. By resisting the temptation to be too timely, his work becomes timeless.
One way Keller accomplishes this is by identifying the human problem behind our cultural sins and, in so doing, provides enough distance for the reader to make personal and cultural application himself. You will not find Keller writing about specific movements, political parties, churches, or religious leaders. Instead he writes about human behavior and our universal tendencies. He writes about sin, grace, insecurity, justice, and God’s love.
Like a good novelist who leaves room for the reader’s imagination, Keller doesn’t give us every detail of application. A good non-fiction book ignites the reader’s own process of thinking, sparking reflection and personal growth. The challenge is to write specifically enough to guide the reader but not so specifically so as to remove responsibility from her. Give too many illustrations or points of application and you’ll inhibit this process. Give too few and the process never starts.
From my perspective, Keller has mastered this balance, writing in a way that leaves sufficient space for both the reader and also the Holy Spirit.
Keller has also mastered the art of writing about spiritual realities without a hint of conspicuousness. He doesn’t give any indication that he believes he’s doing something special with his writing. He doesn’t shy away from religious language or apologize for citing theological concepts. Lesser Christian writers, on the other hand, are far too self-aware in their roles as “Christian” writers. Buying into the notion of a sacred/secular divide, they quickly succumb to either insider “Christanese” or make such profuse apologies for using religious language as to make you wonder whether they believe themselves.
But Keller writes with a religious straightforwardness that undercuts our professed secularism. He knows that humans are religious beings and speaks to his readers in ways that are natural to them, even if they haven’t yet learned their native tongue. He respects them enough to address them with theological language when they’re reading a theological work. And so he unflinchingly and convincingly parses ideas like substitutionary atonement, divine judgment, and God’s grace as if they were well within his readers’ capacity. Which, of course, they are.Understanding Abuse
Despite my profound appreciation for Keller and The Prodigal Prophet, I do have one point of concern. In discussing how God’s self-sacrificial love calls us to self-sacrificial love, Keller attempts to answer the objection that this teaching might enable abusive or exploitative relationships. He argues that this misunderstands the nature of self-giving love, countering that
[A]llowing someone to exploit you or sin against you is not loving them at all. . . . Some people do indeed allow themselves to be browbeaten and used, for many psychologically toxic reasons under the guise of being “self-giving.” In reality it is selfish, a way to feel superior or needed. To say that self-giving love must lead to abuse and oppression is to misunderstand it entirely. (149–50)
Keller is correct that we often misunderstand the nature of self-giving love and fail to see how it calls those we love to repentance. But just as often we misunderstand the nature and dynamics of abuse, including how abusers lure and trap their victims. And this is where Keller’s greatest strength—his ability to leave space for the reader’s own thought process—becomes a weakness when handling sensitive contemporary questions like abuse.
By relying on readers to “fill in the gaps,” Keller’s explanation is only as good as the individual reader’s knowledge of abuse dynamics. And given our general ignorance, readers are unlikely to distinguish between abusive relationships and codependent ones. It’s entirely possible they’ll read this paragraph as suggesting that those who suffer abuse somehow enable it out of a desire to “feel superior or needed.”
But Keller would never argue that those suffering under systemic racism or an unjust marketplace are at fault for “allowing” their oppressors to exploit or sin against them. Instead, he consistently argues that we must pursue justice, fight oppression, and free those captive to it. Within this book itself, Keller challenges those who attempt to transcend conversations about injustice and “simply preach the gospel.” Those who sit on the sidelines, he says, end up enabling injustice.
So if Keller generally understands the dynamics of oppression, why even bring this up?
It’s essential that Christians understand the nature of abuse, especially those who are charged with caring for the souls and lives of other. Pastors and counselors reading The Prodigal Prophet shouldn’t read this section as a diagnostic and attempt to apply it the next time a woman or man in an abusive relationship comes to them for help. Those subjected to abuse shouldn’t be seen as selfish for being unable to escape it. The guilt of exploitation rests squarely and unequivocally on the abuser.Growing in Grace
One of the dominant themes in The Prodigal Prophet is God’s patience with us as we grow in our understanding of both grace and justice. Keller writes,
We learn from Jonah that understanding God’s grace—and being changed by it—always requires a long journey with successive stages. It cannot happen in a single cathartic or catastrophic experience (like being swallowed by a fish!). (109)
Keller rightly argues that just as God had compassion on Jonah and the Ninevites, he has compassion on us as we travel our own journey to understanding grace. And this is perhaps the most countercultural message of the book of Jonah. Unlike human beings who demand immediate justice (as they define it), God patiently guides our halting steps as we move toward mercy, justice, and truth. He is patient with Jonah. He is patient with the Ninevites. He is patient with us. His mercy is so kind and so good that he extends it to human beings even when we don’t extend it to each other, and in so doing, makes us kind and good as well.
The mercy of God is greater than our prodigal ways. After all, Keller reminds us with his last words, “If [God’s mercy] can change Jonah, it can change anyone. It can change you.”