Editors’ note: This is an adapted excerpt from On Reading Well: Finding the Good Life through Great Books (Brazos, 2018), and is published with permission.
I grew up in the church, but it took an unbelieving, liberal professor at a state university to teach me how reading well could make me a better Christian.
I had been led by the pastors, revivalists, and Sunday school teachers of my youth to believe that if one really loves God, one demonstrates it by one’s willingness to be a pastor (or, in my case, a pastor’s wife) or to travel as a missionary to a faraway land—the more desolate the better.
But I didn’t want to be these things. (I suppose it’s more proper to say I “didn’t feel called,” but it’s more honest simply to say I didn’t want to.) I wanted to be a student, a reader, a writer, and, eventually, a professor.
I didn’t know how to reconcile my love of literature and learning with my love of God. So for a while, I gave up God.Reading Promiscuously
Then I met a professor in my PhD program who—although not a Christian himself—taught me about the rich intellectual and theological legacy of Christian writers. One was John Milton, who wrote not only one of the greatest epic poems in world literature (a Christian epic, no less), but also wrote a profoundly Christian defense of reading “promiscuously.”
Reading need not be merely an interesting pastime or secular scholarly pursuit, but has significant theological implications and practical applications for the Christian.
A loyal Puritan during the English Civil War, Milton linked censorship with the Roman Catholic Church (the political as well as doctrinal enemy of the Puritans) and found in his Reformation heritage a deep interdependence of intellectual, religious, political, and personal liberties—all of which depend, he argued, on virtue. Because the world since the fall contains both good and evil, Milton explained, virtue consists of choosing good over evil. He distinguished between the innocent, who know no evil, and the virtuous, who know what evil is and elect to do good. What better way to learn the difference between evil and good, Milton asked in Areopagitica—his 1644 pamphlet advocating for the freedom of the press—than to gain knowledge of both through reading widely?
Since therefore the knowledge and survey of vice is in this world so necessary to the constituting of human virtue, and the scanning of error to the confirmation of truth, how can we more safely, and with less danger, scout into the regions of sin and falsity than by reading all manner of tractates and hearing all manner of reason? And this is the benefit which may be had of books promiscuously read.
Reading Milton and discussing his ideas with my professor in his office long after class had ended was when I came to understand that reading need not be merely an interesting pastime or secular scholarly pursuit, but has significant theological implications and practical applications for the Christian.Cultivating Virtue
Literary reading doesn’t simply impart information or entertainment into our brains where it’s held as if in a sort of repository. Rather, reading widely and well shapes and forms our character. It cultivates virtue.
The word virtue has many shades of meaning, but it can most simply be understood as excellence. Reading well is, in itself, an act of virtue, or excellence, and it’s a habit that cultivates more virtue in return.
Reading widely and well shapes and forms our character. It cultivates virtue.
Literature embodies virtue, first, by offering images of virtue in action and, second, by offering the reader vicarious practice in exercising virtue, by which habits of mind—ways of thinking and perceiving—accrue. Reading virtuously means, first, reading closely, being faithful to both text and context, interpreting accurately and insightfully. Indeed, there is something in the very form of reading—the shape of the action itself—that tends toward virtue. The attentiveness necessary for deep reading (the kind of reading we practice in reading literary works as opposed to skimming news stories or reading instructions) requires patience. The skills of interpretation and evaluation require prudence. Even the simple decision to set aside time to read in a world rife with so many other choices competing for our attention requires a kind of temperance.
The skills required to read well are no great mystery. Reading well is, well, simple (if not easy). It just takes time and attention.
To read well is not to scour books for lessons on what to think. Rather, to read well is to be formed in how to think. Reading well adds to our life—not in the way a tool from the hardware store adds to our life, for a tool does us no good once lost or broken, but in the way a friendship adds to our life, altering us forever.
Reading for virtue means attending to the form of a work as well as its content. And because literature is by definition an aesthetic experience, not merely an intellectual one, we have to attend to form at least as much as to content, if not more. Form matters.Attending to Form
For example, to grasp what The Adventures of Huckleberry Finn shows us about the virtue of courage requires understanding the irony the text depends upon. The central irony of Huck’s courage in protecting the runaway slave Jim is that it’s based on a malformed conscience and an erroneous belief that he is doing wrong (and risks it anyway). But we know that he is doing right. The story imparts virtue in the readers by requiring from us the intellectual and moral courage to distinguish between what society says is right and wrong and what is truly so. Readers who every now and then ask for Huck Finn to be pulled from school curricula are reading the content of the book but not attending to its form, thereby missing the irony by which the societal values the book depicts are not being upheld but are being corrected.
Reading well is, well, simple (if not easy). It just takes time and attention.
The 18th-century novel The History of Tom Jones, a Foundling also models the way good literature integrates form and content. The central virtue of this story is prudence, or applied wisdom. The narrative relays the hero’s long, adventure-filled journey in pursuit of prudence. But the form of the work—epic in length, filled with a panoply of characters representative of all of society, mostly humorous but at times serious—requires the reader to exercise his own prudence all along the way. As this novel delightfully shows, the act of judging a character in a story builds our own character.
Shusaku Endo’s Silence is intriguing, problematic even, because it centers on a 17th-century priest who apostatizes under exceedingly cruel circumstances of torture. What happens after that causes the reader to question whether or not his act constitutes a true abandonment of his faith. This novel thus provides a perfect opportunity to examine the theological virtue of faith. The hard questions the story raises (based on historical events) about the nature of evangelization, conversion, and true faith can’t be definitely answered about the fictional character and world because of the ambiguities of the story itself, which are further complicated by the form the narrative takes. But the purpose in reading this novel—or any novel—isn’t to find definitive answers about the characters. It’s rather to ask definitive questions about ourselves.
Great books offer perspectives more than lessons. As moral philosopher Martha Nussbaum explains in Love’s Knowledge, literature replicates the world of the concrete, where the “experiential learning” necessary for virtue occurs. Good literature is for the Christian a place to “test all things” (1 Thess. 5:21)—as well as to be tested, refined, and made more excellent.
I was 34 when I used the word “chronic” in front of the word “pain” for the first time. I said it in a small voice, wondering if five years of suffering was long enough to merit the phrase. When this door of suffering opened before me, I didn’t understand that the path to growing in faith could hurt so badly.
In the apostle Peter’s first letter, he encourages believers to persevere through suffering for its faith-refining effect. He points us to the weight of eternal glory to come, making our sufferings smaller than they first appear. He gives us confidence to entrust ourselves to a loving Father.
Peter makes me squirm, though, when I read that there are lessons the Christian must learn in the refining fire of suffering. “You rejoice in this, though now for a short time you have had to struggle in various trials so that the genuineness of your faith—more valuable than gold, which perishes though refined by fire—may result in praise, glory, and honor at the revelation of Jesus Christ” (1 Pet. 1:6–7 HCSB, emphasis added).
When the next step of sanctification puts us squarely in front of suffering’s door—whether it’s labeled “breast cancer” or “Lyme disease,” we can respond in one of two ways. We can either waste the opportunity to grow in godliness by becoming bitter, or we can cross the threshold confident that what we receive from God’s hand is for his glory and our good.
If suffering is the door you must walk through, then take heart in the ways God will use it for good in your life.Increased Faith
We learn the true nature of our faith when it’s braced against pain, sorrow, or persecution. When our hearts are weighed down with sorrow, or when our bodies are ravaged by disease, God can secure our trust. I used to fear my faith in God’s goodness wasn’t strong enough to withstand years of physical pain, but chronic suffering burned off any illusion that salvation depends on me.
I used to fear my faith in God’s goodness wasn’t strong enough to withstand years of physical pain, but chronic suffering burned off any illusion that salvation depends on me.
We persevere, and it’s God who preserves us. In the worst moments of pain, my faith in God’s goodness seemed so flimsy. I couldn’t think about long-term faith, only the next step in front of me.
But God used the breath-by-breath moments of perseverance to teach me that it was safe to trust him for the next step. He may not have removed my suffering when I wanted him to, but he was with me in the midst of it. My suffering revealed that it was God who kept me, protecting my heart for eternity (1 Pet. 1:5–7).Showcasing Christ
Suffering has a way of taking up residence in your life and mind as the only thing that matters. It’s difficult to pull your thoughts away from aching joints that flare up every night or the draining side effects of treatment and medication.
But God can still work in our tunnel vision. He used the persistent pulse of pain to wither my self-sufficiency. When disease had stripped my body of its former confidences and fogged my mind with confusion, I had nothing left to stand on beside the work of Christ within.
The world watches how we Christians handle suffering. It may feel awkward to say to your unbelieving friend that God hasn’t removed your pain though he could, but the opportunity to speak of his faithfulness in your suffering is fertile soil for gospel witness.
I had just such an opportunity when an unbelieving friend pondered my confidence in God’s goodness, though I still dealt with chronic pain. “I wish I could believe in something so solidly,” she told me. This was the door I had long prayed to walk through, and I did so armed with the good news of Christ, grateful for the hinge of pain on which the door swung.Looking to Christ
Peter points us to Christ over and over in his letter as one who suffered unjustly but victoriously. Christ suffered for us—showing us how to suffer well. And Christ suffered because of us—hanging on the cross in our place. He exhausted God’s wrath for our sin so we can enjoy the limitless, eternal, imperishable weight of glory that comes after we’ve suffered a little while. He will certainly keep us until that Day appears (1 Pet. 1:5).
I could finally walk through suffering’s next door with confidence that the road beyond was paved with God’s care.
Because he has given us every spiritual blessing in Christ, we can tread the path of suffering knowing that Christ traveled it first and shows us how to press on (1 Pet. 2:21).
Though my years with chronic pain were the most difficult of my life, God’s faithful work produced the fruit of perseverance that prepared me for the next trial. I could finally walk through suffering’s next door with confidence that the road beyond was paved with God’s care.
If God has ordained a door of suffering for you to walk through, you can trust he’s invested in both your perseverance and also your restoration (1 Pet. 5:10). You can step across the painful threshold knowing that the road beyond is incomparably short in light of the inheritance that has been bought and kept for you.
One foot in front of the other, Christian. You don’t suffer without purpose, and you don’t suffer alone.
One of the most basic ways we love our children is through prayer. But if we’re honest, prayer is one of the hardest things to do consistently and intentionally.
Below we want to share two stories about prayer from the life of our family, and then give a few tips for capturing and leveraging everyday moments to pray with your toddler.God of the Details
Jared and I (Megan) typically drive to church in separate cars on Sunday morning. He heads in early to help set up and to pray with the other pastors. Then I bring—or drag—the girls in for the early service.
One Sunday, I was running late. We were late getting up. We had to wait for a train to pass. And I was worried I wouldn’t find a place to park before the service started. Then, just as I pulled up to the building, another car pulled out of i5w space. Immediately, I blurted out: “That was lucky!” And as soon as I said it, I felt a twinge of conviction. I’d started out that Sunday without even thinking about God and the way he guides my days.
Jared and I had recently read Paul Miller’s book A Praying Life. Miller related how he’d read an “otherwise excellent book on prayer” in which the author implied we shouldn’t pray for trivial things like parking spaces. He went on to tell what his mother, Presbyterian missionary Rose Marie Miller, had to say about it:
We met for breakfast, and when I told her what this author thought about prayers for parking spaces, she looked a little incredulous, cocked her head, started laughing, and said, “How else would you find a parking place?” (103–04)
Rose Marie Miller’s conviction about God’s intimate involvement with our lives made an impression on me. One lie we believe that keeps us from prayer is that God and the real world aren’t connected. I tend to think that the everyday stuff I do as a mom—cleaning house, getting kids ready for school, finding parking spots—don’t matter to God.
But the Bible combats the artificial distinction I make between the sacred and the mundane. Paul tells us to pray without ceasing (1 Thess. 5:17). I think the only way to truly do that is to pray about normal life. The songwriter who gave us Psalm 104 confirms my suspicions. He sees God at work in everything—from the upper chambers of the heavens to the normal meals we eat every day.God Is Accessible
One of the hardest things for me (Jared) as a dad is when our girls won’t stay in bed at night. Selfishly, I just want my kids to go away after 9 p.m. I work hard each day, and I tend to think this is something I deserve. But God knows better.
In fact, he knows just what I need, and he gave me a youngest daughter who is particularly fearful at bedtime. If you’re a parent, you know the drill. You’ve just tucked them in and turned on your TV show when there’s a knock at the bedroom door:
“Dad, will you pray for me? Will you pray that I’ll be able to sleep? Will you pray that I won’t be afraid? Will you pray . . . that the scary clowns won’t come?”
There was a season of parenting when I was considerably angry at whoever decided to run commercials for It during college football games!
Goodness, the fears are real. And of course, we stop everything in those moments. We pray. We cuddle. And we tuck her back in. Sometimes multiple times in a night. Over time, I’m coming to see those moments less as a frustration and more as an opportunity to learn something about prayer.
Jesus encourages us to ask for anything in his name (John 14:13–14). Like children, we have permission to run into our heavenly Father’s chamber. And when we meet him, we can expect that he will be eager to see us and give what is best (Matt. 7:7–12).Learning to Pray
God cares about everything, so we can talk with him about it all. Matt Chandler regularly talks about how parents can capture and leverage moments in the course of everyday life for the purpose of gospel-centered conversations.
Specifically, how can we capture and leverage everyday moments to help our kids—even our youngest kids—learn to pray?
Here are three suggestions.1. When you’re happy, give thanks and adore God.
Our family says thank you to God before we eat. Megan uses this time to help us thank God for blessings we’ve received recently. Then, at the end of the day, our kids will say thank you to God for everyone in their lives—mom, dad, grandparents, pets, and so on.
Saying thanks to God was concrete and simple for our toddlers. For whatever reason, it was less natural for them to practice adoration, that is, to say thank you to God for who he is.
One way we’ve tried to cultivate this is by asking our kids what they learned in our nightly Bible story, and then encouraging them to thank God for that immediately after.2. When you’ve sinned, tell God you’re sorry and ask for his help to repent.
When I (Jared) got in trouble as a kid, my mom made me confess my sins to my dad after he got home from work. It was a way to teach me about my need to confess my sin to my heavenly Father as well. I love the simple connection that practice made between moments of correction and prayer.
Sometimes kids are overwhelmed by getting “in trouble.” I’ve seen some children experience a bit of Romans 7: “I know you told me to wait until the cookies were cool, but I really wanted them!” In those moments especially, I think it’s important to stop, model for our kids what it looks like to confess that sin to God, and then ask the Holy Spirit to change their sinful desires: “God, help me to want to obey like you want me to obey.”
We can have a similar practice when we sin against our kids as well. The next time you lose your temper with your toddler, take time to stop, confess what you’ve done wrong, and ask your son or daughter to pray for you.
One of the best ways to practice continual prayer is to identify the moments when emotions—both yours and your kids’—are the most intense, then stop wherever you are and take that emotion to God. Whether it’s fear about scary clowns or anxiety over parking spots, God cares about it all.
In addition to the moments of intensity, it’s important to cultivate moments of daily dependence through regular requests. We all need help, and we need it all the time. Nightly, we pray a kid-friendly adaptation of Luther’s nightly prayer as a blessing over our kids:
God, thank you for our daughter, and for watching over her today. Help her to grow up to love and trust Jesus. Please help her to have godly friends and a godly husband when she grows up. Please watch over her tonight and protect her from Satan and his schemes. Amen.
The “godly husband” part wasn’t really a part of Luther’s prayer, but Megan’s dad added it when she was growing up, so we kept up the tradition. In those intentional times of daily prayer, you can also ask your child if there’s anything you can pray for them about. Even if there’s nothing on most nights, keep asking. You’re modeling for them from an early age that God and you both care about their entire life.
The Lord cares about everything, so we can talk with him about it all. Teaching our kids about prayer begins with that simple conviction.
“Who is sitting on the throne of your heart? If you’re still sitting there, he’s not hallowed. He’s not holy. He’s not set apart. If the approval of others is sitting on the throne of your heart—if it’s pride, if it’s lust, if there’s anything else sitting on the throne of your heart—he’s not hallowed in it.” — Tyler St. Clair
Text: Matthew 6:9
Preached: January 21, 2018
Location: Cornerstone Church, Detroit, Michigan
You can listen to this episode of TGC Word of the Week here.
- The Most Important Neglected Prayer (Drew Hunter)
- The Lord’s Prayer (Extended Version) (Trevin Wax)
- Father, Deliver Us from Autopilot Prayers (Aaron Armstrong)
It’s possible to accurately teach the message of the cross, but still miss Jesus.
In recent years, we’ve seen a resurgence of gospel-centered books, curriculum, and devotional resources for families. We’ve emphasized right teaching about gender and marriage, catechizing our kids, and grace-driven principles for parenting. Such tools give us more than biblical morality; they focus on big theological truths—God’s character and his redemptive work.
This cross-centered message is essential, but it must be accompanied by a cross-shaped value system. To paraphrase the apostle Paul, a Christian home may fathom all mysteries and knowledge and have a faith that can move mountains, but if it doesn’t have a cross-shaped love, it’s nothing (1 Cor. 13:2). The gospel message must lead our families to the crucified life.
That’s the chief concern of Russell Moore’s new book, The Storm-Tossed Family: How the Cross Reshapes the Home.Our Homes Are Spiritual Firing Lines
Moore—president of the Ethics and Religious Liberty Commission of the Southern Baptist Convention—reminds us that we’re all part of a family. It’s true whether we’re single or married, no matter if we’re longing for children or if each chair around the table is full.
According to Moore, particular temptations face family members at each point in a family’s lifespan. Indeed, family is “a place of spiritual warfare, a warfare that sometimes leaves us groaning in sighs too deep for words” (295).
And in this war, our enemy is telling us lies.
Sometimes the Devil tempts us to exaggerate the importance of family so that we make gifts like sex or having kids the single defining feature of our lives. A young couple, for instance, may think achieving orgasm has transcendent importance. In a similar vein, consider how a mechanistic parenting culture—one that gives certain parenting choices determinative significance for a child’s future—can haunt a church.
“Something has gone terribly wrong,” Moore observes, “when a Christian [mother] feels she must protect herself from the church, for fear that her daughter’s spiritual crisis will be discussed as part of a debate over whether she should have breastfed longer or . . . chosen homeschooling over public school” (16–17).
The gospel message must lead our families to the crucified life.
Satan can also deceive us into truncating the Bible’s vision of the home. The divorce culture, rising cohabitation, and abortion are all ways our society reduces and devalues family. Moore also points out how the children of immigrants are made “invisible by language—often presented culturally or politically as parasites or as ‘anchors’ for their parents to draw welfare benefits from a wealthier country” (196).Families Echo the Gospel
How do we stand against these temptations? The answer is found at the cross. “The cross shaped life,” Moore writes, “frees us to neither idealize nor demonize the family” (295). Instead of glory-loading our homes or reducing life’s significance, we need what Martin Luther called “a theology of the cross,” one that simply names the family for what it is.
The family is a signpost (Eph. 3:15). Our homes are designed to point us away from ourselves to the Father whose glory we see most clearly in the face of our crucified Savior (John 14:9; 2 Cor. 4:6).
How does this work practically?
This is the best part of The Storm-Tossed Family. Whether Moore is talking about sexuality, divorce, or aging, he carefully shows the reader what it means for family life to avoid reduction and exaggeration and instead be cruciform.
In his chapter on gender, for example, Moore writes, “A cross-shaped masculinity walks not with Esau’s swagger but with Jacob’s limp. A cross-shaped femininity comes not with the glamor of Potiphar’s wife but with the Bible-teaching prowess of Eunice and Lois” (82).
I could fill pages with more examples.Safe in Our Nail-Scarred Home
It’s true that sometimes a crucified life is chosen; Paul, for instance, tells us to put to death the deeds of the body (Rom. 8:13). Perhaps more often, though, life’s deaths and disappointments are simply encountered. Storms like infertility, a disability diagnosis, or a cheating spouse may gather on the horizon without any regard for what we choose. Sometimes we’re hung on our own family tree. Moore shares about how his childhood insecurities still drive him (44). He writes about a dark night of the soul triggered by nominal Christians he’d encountered at funerals (267). None of us chooses the home or culture into which we’re born. Moore’s vulnerability about his past drives this point home and then directs us ahead to where a better hope is found.
The only safe harbor for a storm-tossed family is a nail-scarred home.
There is one thing about The Storm-Tossed Family that may be a minor concern for some. Moore is unapologetically a Southern Baptist. If you hail from a denomination that practices infant baptism, then the discussion of child dedication (199) and Moore’s convictional anecdote about baptizing his adolescent son (213–14) may be a stumbling block. But Moore’s sense of rootedness and the openness with which he shares about his denominational upbringing contributes in an important way to the book’s message.
Moore writes, “The only safe harbor for a storm-tossed family is a nail-scarred home” (5). In other words, the only way to find true life is to cling, in faith and love, to the Crucified (Gal. 2:20; Phil. 3:10–11). Safe harbor is found when we make our home with Jesus Christ.
If you belonged to a church in Puritan New England, you probably gathered for worship in a wood-framed building walled with simple white clapboard. You sat on bare wooden pews surrounded by clear glass windows that let in the light and looked out on God’s good world. The space was sparse, unadorned, and free of all images except those created by the words of the preacher. Puritan worship spaces were simple by design.
Contrast that simplicity with what you would’ve seen on your way into this building. You would’ve passed through a churchyard full of gravestones carved with elaborate, sometimes jarring images. These stones survive as one of early America’s most popular and powerful art forms. To modern tastes, the images often border on grotesque. There are skulls flanked by wings, skeletons holding scythes, and perhaps most commonly, hourglasses running out of time. These stones aimed for your imagination. They meant to make death sensible.
On some of the stones you’d probably find two Latin words etched among the images: memento mori. Roughly translated, the phrase means “remember death.” With these stones, as well as in their sermons and a range of practical writings, the Puritans were drawing from an old Christian tradition that sought to bring the perspective of death into everyday life. I don’t mean preparation for one’s own death, though that too was a time-honored tradition. I mean the perspective that death as unshakeable reality brings to life in the meantime.
Death-awareness came easily for these Puritans. Life expectancy then was less than half what it is for Americans now. And where most deaths today occur in medical facilities cordoned off from where we live, they died in their homes, in the same rooms where other family members slept in their beds or ate their meals or read their books.
When the reality of death fades to the background of our consciousness, other joy-stealing problems are quick to rise up and fill the void.
Given the pervasive presence of death, the call to remember death was surely easier for them to embrace than for us. They had visible reminders of death’s grip all around them, whereas many of us can avoid the subject for most of our lives if we choose to. But for that reason, the discipline of death-awareness is perhaps even more crucial in our time, where life expectancy may be twice as long, but the mortality rate holds steady at universal.
Consider just two reasons memento mori still matters today.1. Death Puts Our Other Problems in Perspective
When the reality of death fades to the background of our consciousness, other joy-stealing problems are quick to rise up and fill the void.
French philosopher Blaise Pascal put his finger on this problem 400 years ago. He noticed the way most people seemed indifferent to “the loss of their being” but intensely concerned about everything else:
They fear the most trifling things, foresee and feel them; and the same man who spends so many days and nights in fury and despair at losing some office or at some imaginary affront to his honor is the very one who knows that he is going to lose everything through death but feels neither anxiety nor emotion. It is a monstrous thing to see one and the same heart at once so sensitive to minor things and so strangely insensitive to the greatest.
Pascal’s insight is perhaps even more important today: when death is pushed out of our thinking, it isn’t replaced by warmth and peace and happiness. It’s replaced by death’s many other faces. We fixate instead on the comparatively trivial symptoms of our deeper problem. We’re still anxious, still defensive, still insecure, still angry, still despairing. We may detach ourselves from death so we can spend our time and energy chasing happiness. But that detachment won’t change the fact of our mortality, and it won’t ultimately make us happier.2. Death Brings the Power of Jesus into Focus
All that said, you’d be forgiven for assuming that, whatever wisdom comes from seeing death all over life, there are major downsides too. You might be tempted to imagine these New England Puritans as morose and joyless souls, fighting their way through brutish and short lives—as if thinking often of death meant living under a dark and depressing cloud, distracted from the goodness and beauty of the world around them. But that was far from true of them, and need not be true of you either.
The Puritans worked to capture the imagination with death to prepare the imagination for Jesus.
Recognizing the relevance of death every day is how we recognize the relevance of Jesus every day, too.
Think of death-awareness as a kind of telescope. To the naked eye the promises of Jesus can seem small, beyond my frame of view, remote and disconnected from what I see around me. They belong to some other world than the one I’m living in. But when I learn to see the painful truth about death, that begins to change. When I use the reality of death as a telescope, looking through it to grab hold of his image, Jesus comes forward and into focus, blown up to size so that he dominates my entire frame.
Recognizing that death is a bigger problem than we’ve realized is just the first step, not an end in itself. As we experience its sting everywhere, we’re also experiencing the relevance of Jesus’s promise of victory. In other words, recognizing the relevance of death every day is how we recognize the relevance of Jesus every day, too.
Fifty years ago, Canada was 88 percent Christian. But the trends were worrisome.
“Organized religion in Canada has declined sharply in the past generation and will continue to do so, according to the first large-scale study of religion and religious attitudes ever conducted in this country,” the Toronto Star reported in 1976.
The study’s director, sociologist Reginald Bibby, watched religion wane for another 17 years before publishing Unknown Gods: the Ongoing Story of Religion in Canada (1993). He predicted churches would continue their slide straight into old age and death.
“Even with the Toronto Maple Leafs, there is hope for a better next year,” he told Canadian news magazine Maclean’s. “Whereas with religion, it looked pretty much over.”
But when Bibby checked in on his predictions in 2015, religion wasn’t over. It was less popular—only 30 percent of Canadians embraced religion. But only a quarter rejected it outright (26 percent).Angus Reid Institute
And those churches that had been declining—32 percent in 2000, compared to 23 percent in 2015—were stabilizing (42 percent) or even growing (36 percent).
“What I screwed up on—it sounds so naive looking back—[is] I didn’t allow for the immigration variable,” Bibby told Maclean’s in 2015.
Immigrants to Canada topped 300,000 for the first time in 2016; the country is aiming as high as 340,000 in 2020. Between 2001 and 2011, Canada welcomed 478,000 new Catholics, 162,000 Christians, 23,000 Anglicans, and 17,000 Presbyterians. (Immigrants self-identify their religion, so it’s up to them whether they categorize themselves as Christian or as something more specific like Catholic or Anglican or Presbyterian.)
In 2017, the BBC concluded that Toronto was the most diverse city in the world.
“There are 45 different languages spoken at our church,” said Robbie Symons, lead pastor of Oakville Harvest Bible Chapel, 40 minutes south of Toronto. (Symons’s church is part of the Great Commission Collective, a church-planting organization established after the Harvest Bible Fellowship was disbanded in 2017.) “We literally have the nations here worshiping. We love that.”
Most immigrants come with a basis of faith, and are more likely than those born in Canada to attend church or embrace religion.
But the immigrant infusion hasn’t been the only thing growing Harvest Oakville from a Bible study of 18 in 2003 to a consistent weekly attendance of 4,000 today.
“What we’ve seen happen here is a contemporary expression of conservative theology that is refreshing for churched people but is also uniquely engaging for unchurched people,” said Ted Duncan, who led Harvest Oakville’s first church plant. Over the past 14 years, Harvest Oakville has baptized more than 1,000 people.
“The news in Canada is discouraging on a lot of levels,” Symons said. In the past six months, the Supreme Court rejected the country’s only Christian law school, and the government required organizations looking for summer-job funding to sign off on an attestation affirming LGBTQ and abortion rights.
“But the gospel is advancing,” Symons said. “Lives are being transformed, people are being baptized, and churches are being planted. . . . God is alive and well in Canada.”Saved by the Light
Symons grew up in an Anglican home but wasn’t saved until he was 22. Freshly graduated from university and already weary of the meaninglessness of life, Symons hit “random” on his CD player and heard DC Talk’s “In the Light.”
I keep trying to find a life on my own apart from You. I’m the king of excuses, I’ve got one for every selfish thing I do. What’s going on inside of me? I despise my own behavior. This only serves to confirm my suspicions that I’m still a man in need of a Savior!
“I was instantly captured by Jesus,” Symons said. “I felt so chosen, so enlightened. I knew life would never be the same again.”Robbie Symons / Courtesy of Harvest Oakville
Symons resisted the ministry at first—he’d watched his grandfather pastor a small-town Anglican church, and “ministry seemed so small to me.” However, “God’s claim became stronger and stronger, and I gave in to the notion of seminary and then pastoral ministry bit by bit.”
After seminary, he landed a job as an associate pastor but longed to see God do more. “I was in churches where leadership was based on good stuff like compassion,” he said, “but it wasn’t theologically substantive.”
Then, in the early 2000s, Symons was exposed to a simple and biblical vision for the local church at Harvest Bible Chapel in Chicago. “That’s when I got introduced to Wayne Grudem’s Systematic Theology,” he said.
Symons read John Piper and Al Mohler and Don Carson, then George Whitefield and Charles Spurgeon and Martyn Lloyd-Jones. “I fell in love with the truth in a new way,” he said.
From there, it was an easy jump to dream about planting a gospel-centered church with Reformed theology in Toronto.Planting in Ontario
In the summer of 2003, Symons held a Bible study. Eighteen people came.
It wasn’t an auspicious time to start a conservative church. Days before, Canada’s first same-sex couple was legally wed. They would be chosen as Time magazine’s Canadian newsmakers for 2003.
“The two men have come to symbolize something much bigger: the unprecedented acceleration of social liberalism in Canada in 2003,” Canadian bureau chief Steven Frank wrote. “From gay marriage to moves to decriminalize marijuana and provide supervised injection booths for drug addicts in Vancouver, 2003 will go down in history as the year that Canada rethought what was taboo.”
Canada’s largest Protestant denomination—the mainline United Church of Canada—was keeping pace with society, voting to endorse same-sex marriage in August. Around the same time, Canadian religious attendance began to drop more rapidly across the board.
So it was surprising, then, when Symons’s little group increased to 24, then 30, then 45. They outgrew an office building, then a church basement.
“People were coming in with such an appetite for the preaching of the Word,” Symons said. “It seems so basic, but God was moving. . . . There was an apparent hunger in the people he drew to us.”
The expansion and excitement caught the attention of a nearby Baptist church. Which is why, just five months in, Harvest Oakville’s 70 attendees moved into a $7 million building.Room to Grow
The Baptist congregation was “severely struggling, and on the verge of closing their doors,” Symons said. There were only about 100 people left in the building that sat 400.
“They gave us their building, but more importantly, they gave us their people,” he said. In a single day, the church population more than doubled as “they became us.”
Harvest Oakville held its first official service in the new building on Easter 2004. By fall, they needed two services. A few years later, even with four services, there were too many cars for the parking lot.Harvest Oakville moved into a new building in 2012. / Courtesy of Harvest Oakville
At first, the growth came largely from dissatisfied believers in other churches. (“We aren’t trying to steal sheep, but we’re not going to apologize for growing green grass,” Symons said.)
But over time, those joining were new converts. “We hear amazing stories,” Symons said. “So many people are lost and miserable and hopeless. Time and again we hear people say, ‘I went through life and I bottomed out before meeting Christ’—the classic gospel conversion story.”
In 2012, Harvest Oakville moved into a larger building. Within a month, they’d grown from 2,000 to 3,000 regular attenders. A few years later, the number rose past 4,000.
But Symons’s ambitions were never to build a megachurch.
“I’ve been up close to all that stuff, and it’s overrated,” he said. “I’m not against it. I think God is using it to do great stuff. But that’s not what we set out to be.”
So they started to plant.Plants Pose Challenges
In 2009, Harvest Oakville planted its first church, 30 minutes closer to Toronto. The core group was 50 adults. Today, about 1,000 attend.
“Where we are, so many people are brand-new to the country,” Duncan said. “That’s really exciting but also poses a lot of challenges.”
One is the lack of default culture. “We’re having to learn and grow in our ability to understand the paradigms and perspectives people bring with them from their culture of origin,” Duncan said. “How do Caribbean people think about motherhood? How does a person from East Asia deal with honor and shame? How do those raised in Africa approach work, family, and leisure? These are all things Westerners don’t even think about. I’m continually having to apologize and correct myself because I so often wrongfully assume that everyone thinks the way I do.”Ted Duncan planted Harvest Bible Chapel Brampton. / Courtesy of Ted Duncan
But the religious foundation that most immigrants share—generally, they aren’t as secular or atheistic as those born in Canada—is helpful, he said.
“Everybody is religious in some way, shape, or form,” he said. “Where we live there are all kinds of Muslims, Sikhs, and Hindus. So when I take an Uber to work and I’m talking to a Hindu or Sikh driver, there is already a context of faith and religion and common ground in that they believe something about something. . . . I’m able to build on that.”
Jason Matta pastors Harvest Oakville’s third church plant, which is even closer to Toronto’s city center. Added to the ethnic diversity—half of Toronto is a visible minority—he sees socioeconomic differences that transcend ethnicity or race.
“We have found it to be messy for sure,” he said. “The more we’ve reached into the community, the more we’re dealing with complex issues. It’s not clean-cut, like, ‘Oh, God, you have us in a diverse church and now we’re all happy.’ . . . It’s more like, ‘Okay, now I don’t know what to do.’ Now we have to figure out how to do life together and how to meet certain needs.”
Our evangelism strategy is you. You’re sitting next to people at work and school. Share the gospel with them.
Matta’s team leans a lot on Tim Keller’s Ministries of Mercy. And his evangelism strategy, like Oakville’s, is the people themselves. “Our people are very missional,” Matta said. “Every week people are introducing me to people they bring from work or school or family members. The body is inviting them in.”
That didn’t just happen. Like Symons, Matta tells his congregation, “Our evangelism strategy is you. You’re sitting next to people at work and school. Share the gospel with them.”Milk and Meat
High numbers of recent immigrants compounds one of the biggest challenges that pastors face: the unevenness of spiritual maturity in the congregation
“We don’t feel the need to tailor the service to the unbeliever,” Matta said. After all, he’s also teaching to seminary professors. “But we do work very hard to communicate God’s Word in a way that is simple and clear.”
Duncan likens it to preparing “meat rather than milk” for every service, but “cutting it into small pieces.”
“What has captivated people is we sing contemporary worship songs and speak in everyday language, but we don’t try to simplify things—we teach the whole counsel of God,” he said. For example, they nixed formal language such as “partake” but kept “theologically rich” terms such as “substitutionary atonement” and “reconciliation.”
Duncan has watched Symons put words such as “justification” on the screen and then break it down for the audience. “He doesn’t water down the theology or get rid of it,” said Duncan, who follows Symons’s example. “That’s the thing that changes people’s lives. If you teach people, they’ll be hungry and leaning in.”
Or they’ll lean all the way out.
“Every weekend I have people stand up and walk out of my sermons,” Symons said. “As much as we have people who are hungry and fired up, we also have people who are walking away in a hurry.”
That doesn’t bother Symons. Even those who stay should feel “uncomfortable,” he said. “We challenge them not to stay here unless they’re serious about what the Lord is doing. . . . We’re trying to prune so the growth is healthy, and to make it difficult for people who are here for the wrong reasons.”
Because it’s clear there is a time of “sifting” bearing quickly down on them, Symons said.
“We’re one of the few Reformed conservative evangelical churches in our area, certainly for our size,” Symons said. “People are dumbfounded, because ‘How do you possibly grow when you believe [things like complementarianism and traditional marriage]?’ For the outsider, it doesn’t make sense.”Jason Matta planted Harvest Bible Chapel Toronto West. / Courtesy of Jason Matta
The social pressure has only increased over the past 15 years. “We’re in a very critical time, because many churches are on the verge of being tempted to capitulate to culture,” Symons said. “The pressure has never been greater, with the sexual revolution leading the way.”
The sifting isn’t all bad news—“you should have a strengthened church” at the end, Symons said. He can see it already: Harvest Oakville’s men’s conference sold out 1,400 tickets in 18 hours last year. The women’s conference with Jen Wilkin and Nancy Guthrie sold out in three.
Attendees came from about 150 area churches. One was Grace Fellowship Church, planted in 2000 by TGC Canada Council member Paul Martin. Another was Grace Toronto Church, which was replanted in 2004 with 10 people and has since grown to hundreds.
A third was St. George’s, which left the Anglican Church of Canada (ACC)—and with it, their building—so pastor Ray David Glenn could keep preaching the gospel. He wasn’t the only one—after the ACC began blessing same-sex in 2002, dozens of clergy left to start the Anglican Network in Canada. Glenn and the others have “been a tremendous encouragement standing for truth,” said Ryan Robertson, a former Harvest staffer now working at Reaching and Teaching International.
“It’s the church, not our church,” Symons said. “We’re blown away by what is happening out there.”Sharing the Joy
“At the end of the day, there’s no formula that’s going to create growth,” Symons said. “It’s God’s grace. We never want to come across as saying, ‘Hey, we’ve got it figured out.’”
In fact, at one point the Harvest Oakville elders bought T-shirts with “We don’t know what we’re doing” on the front and 2 Chronicles 20:12 on the back.
“Church planting can seem like cool music, an amazing well-dressed pastor, and thousands of millennials filling a church,” Matta said. “But when you read through the book of Acts, it’s more of a steady perseverance and endurance.”
And a deep, contagious joy.
“We aren’t just talking about evangelism as, ‘You gotta get out there and do it,’ motivated by guilt,” Duncan said. “We’re looking for gospel motivation: ‘Don’t we have the greatest message ever? Everyone should know about this!’”
Every October people across the U.S. and Latin America set aside time for an annual observance—the debate about Columbus Day.
Since the observance first began to be celebrated in the nineteenth century it has been opposed by a diverse rage of groups, from the Ku Klux Klan to the American Indian Movement to the National Council of Churches. In recent decades, though, the Italian navigator has sparked strong reactions throughout the Western Hemisphere, ushering in a new tradition in which we argue about whether he was a bold and brave explorer or a cruel and genocidal colonist (or, as in my view, a mix of both).
This is why, every year, we talk about the myths of Columbus (no, he didn’t think the world was flat) or about what a horrible human being he was (he took slaves on his first day in the New World). While those are worthy topics, we rarely consider the religious angle, specifically how the eschatological views of Columbus have changed our planet.Columbus Thinks He’s the New John the Baptist
Most people know that Columbus set out on his four voyages across the Atlantic in search of a western route to the Orient. What is less known is the motivation for his journeys: Columbus wanted to raise money to finance a new Crusade to retake the Holy Lands.
The last crusade had ended in 1192—three hundred years before Columbus landed in the New World. He thought it was time to begin them anew. Columbus wrote in his diary that he hoped to find gold and spices “in such quantity that the sovereigns. . . will undertake and prepare to go conquer the Holy Sepulchre; for thus I urged Your Highnesses to spend all the profits of this my enterprise on the conquest of Jerusalem.”
The sailor wasn’t just looking to start a war, though. He believed he had a providential role to play in ushering in the “end of days.” As Reginald Stackhouse explains,
Like others, Columbus believed the world would come to its terminus 7,000 years after the creation. The world was thought to be 5,343 years, 318 days old when Jesus was born. Since then, another 1501 years had gone by, leaving only 155. By that reckoning, the end would be the year 1656. Clearly there was no time for the believers to waste. Jesus had promised that all prophecies would be fulfilled before the end, and his followers should dedicate themselves to accomplishing their part in that fulfillment.
Columbus believed the conversion of all peoples to Christianity and the re-conquest of Jerusalem were necessary preconditions for the Second Coming of Jesus. He also believed he was playing a starring role in the eschatological drama. As he once wrote in his diary, “God made me the messenger of the New Heaven and the New Earth.”The Great(?) Exchange
While it’s tempting to mock his delusions of millenialist grandeur, he may not have been completely wrong. Perhaps God was using him directly, for Columbus played a pivotal role in an event that has forever changed the course of creation: the Columbian Exchange.
The term “Columbian exchange” was coined in 1972 when historian Alfred W. Crosby published his book, The Columbian Exchange. The exchange refers to the cultural and ecological ramifications Columbus’s landing in 1492 had on both the Eastern and Western hemispheres of the globe.
Columbus may not have been a “messenger of the New Heaven and the New Earth” but he was the uniter of the “Old World and New World.” As Crosby says in his book,
The two worlds, which God had cast asunder, were reunited, and the two worlds, which were so very different, began on that day to become alike. That trend toward biological homogeneity is one of the most important aspects of the history of life on the planet since the retreat of the continental glaciers.
Because we live on this side of the historical divide, it’s difficult for modern people to imagine the world (or worlds) that existed before the Columbian exchange. But the widespread transfer of animals, culture, ideas, plants, populations, and technology between the areas has forever changed the planet. It even had a profound influence on theology. As Crosby notes,
The uniqueness of the New World called into question the whole Christian cosmogony. If God had created all of the life forms in one week in one place and they had then spread out from there over the whole world, then why are the life forms in the eastern and western hemispheres so different? And if all land animals and men had drowned except for those on the ark, and all that now exist are descended from those chosen few, then why the different kinds of animals and men on either side of the Atlantic? Why are there no tree sloths in the African and Asian tropics, and why do the Peruvian heathens worship Viracocha instead of Baal’ or some other demon familiar to the ancient Jews? The effort to maintain the Hebraic version of the origin of life and man was to “put many learned Christians upon the rack to make it out.”
The problem tempted a few Europeans to toy with the concept of multiple creations, but the mass of the people clung to monogeneticism. They had to; it was basic to Christianity.Potatoes and Maize and Infectious Disease
The theological controversy unleashed by Columbus was a mere ripple, however, compared to the tsunami effect of the interchange of flora and fauna. Consider, for example, just two of the hundreds of plants that were involved in the exchange: potatoes and maize.
The potato didn’t arrive in Europe until 1570. But wherever the potato was introduced—particularly in Europe, the U.S. and the British Empire—the population grew rapidly. As Jeff Chapman notes, before the widespread adoption of the potato, France managed to produce just enough grain to feed itself each year. The adoption of the potato made it possible for countries in Europe to increase their food security. The Irish population, for instance, doubled to eight million between 1780 and 1841, by which time almost one-half of the Ireland had become entirely dependent upon the crop. One study found that the potato “had a significant positive impact on population growth, explaining 12 percent of the increase in average population after the adoption of the potato.”
Maize also had a similar impact on Europe, Africa, and Asia, leading to rapid population growth. “If suddenly American Indian crops would not grow in all of the world, it would be an ecological tragedy,” says Crosby. “It would be the slaughter of a very large portion of the human race.”
While the New World was providing plants that would increase populations, the Old World was sending over infectious diseases that would devastate entire peoples. Some of the diseases that were introduced included bubonic plague, chickenpox, cholera, diphtheria, influenza, leprosy, malaria, measles, scarlet fever, smallpox, typhoid fever, typhus, and yellow fever.
The Columbian exchange may have led to a population explosion in the Old World, but for many indigenous peoples in the New World, the arrival of Columbus truly did usher in the “end of days.”If You’re Reading This, It’s Because God Used Columbus
The profound effects of the Columbian exchange, both positive and negative, are nearly incalculable, and necessarily complicate our reaction to Columbus’s influence. We can and should, for example, both lament the extraordinary loss of life that resulted from the exchange and be grateful for the lives it helped to create (including, most likely, both yours and mine). How then do we judge the influence of the world’s most controversial sailor?
Perhaps the best we can do is marvel at the profound and mysterious actions of providence, and let Columbus’s example serve as a reminder that, “Many are the plans in the mind of a man, but it is the purpose of the Lord that will stand” (Pr. 19:21).
I’m an unlikely church planter. My résumé better positions me for prison than for the pastorate.
When I was 21, if someone told me that one day I wouldn’t only pastor but actually plant a church, I would’ve insisted they had the wrong guy, then excused myself with a chuckle.
From my experience growing up in the church, pastors were stiff, weak, and naive to the ways of the real world. As I saw things, I didn’t have time for that nonsense. I had a life to live.Pride, Then Fall
By age 21, I’d already dropped out of high school and college. I was a lucrative drug dealer, distributing large quantities of marijuana across state lines, traveling the Northwest of the United States in my ’69 pop-top van, chasing whatever promised to bring me pleasure.
As far as I could see, this was the good life. My world revolved around me, and I liked it that way.
But pride has a peculiar way of bringing you low (Prov. 16:18). I’d been doing my own thing for a decade, made surprising sums of illegal money, avoided getting arrested, and had a group of longtime friends.
I had everything I wanted, and it wasn’t enough.
But in spite of all this, I felt incredibly alone. I had everything I wanted, and it wasn’t enough. Four years later, at 25, I found myself on my bedroom floor, transferred from darkness to light by a sovereign God who isn’t stiff, weak, or naive to the ways of his world.Brokenness to Freedom
A few weeks earlier, I’d bumped into an old youth group friend from the church I grew up in. We hadn’t seen each in other in close to 10 years, and he’d just become a youth pastor at a church plant in town.
He needed another male chaperone for an upcoming youth winter retreat, so he took a gamble by inviting me to help out (while encouraging me to leave my party lifestyle behind for the weekend). For some reason, I obliged.
I left on Saturday morning my normal self, but returned on Monday night in a wrestling match with God.
What happened that weekend still baffles me. I left on Saturday morning my normal self, but returned on Monday night in a wrestling match with God. The speaker wasn’t only speaking to the students; God was using his message to speak to me. I began to understand the depths of my sin, which was dreadful in light of God’s holiness and purity. And yet here God was, calling me to himself.
I woke up on Tuesday morning to find a copy of The Purpose Driven Life by my bedside. My mom had given it to me a few weeks earlier, but I had yet to open it. By God’s grace, I opened it that morning. The first sentence broke me: “It’s not about you.” Up to that point, my life had only, always, ever been about me.
With those words shouting from the page, my knees gave way, and I was down on my bedroom floor, as a mix of snot and tears and words of repentance spilled out of me. As I lay there, I recalled the gospel I’d heard for 15 years as a kid in church and now again over the weekend, and it wrecked me.
But at the same time, it freed me. All my life I’d known in my head that I was a desperate sinner and that God’s grace was more than enough, but now this belief had penetrated my heart and was starting to change my life. For the first time in a decade I experienced true freedom—Christ-exalting, life-giving, soul-consuming, joy-inducing freedom.Local Church
The next Sunday, I started going to church. Over the course of the next 10 years, God grew my love for his bride through consistent Bible teaching, serving opportunities, and faithful brothers and sisters in my church.
I was also listening to the early episodes of the Acts 29 podcast. They were great as an additional Bible-teaching resource in my life. But I also found that I could also translate the general church-planting principles to the business I was developing at the time.
Eventually, God led me to shut down my business and dive headlong into church planting. But in his purposes, my business venture wasn’t useless. These experiences helped me in the early days of church planting. Even some of the “business” principles I’d learned as a drug dealer would be redeemed by Jesus. I’d proven I could get a legal business off the ground and pay my growing family’s bills. Now Jesus was calling me to organize people around his gospel, where he would pay their debts.
We’re three years into our church plant, and God is growing us as his people. It’s been a slow plod, and I’m thankful for that.
We’re three years into our church plant, and God is growing us as his people. It’s been a slow plod, and I’m thankful for that. Nearly every church planter begins with dreams of grandeur, and I’m no different. But God, in his infinite wisdom, uses the weak and foolish to shame the strong and wise. I thought we’d just teach the Bible on Sundays, gather in community groups, throw up some signs on the road, and the masses would flood in. (It didn’t work like that.)Never Saw It Coming
In the early days of our church, one of my mentors told me: “Sometimes the person Jesus most wants to save in your church plant is you.” He’s onto something.
I’m learning, in new ways, that I’m justified by faith in my Savior, not the size or “success” of my church. I’m learning that the Holy Spirit and not road signs will draw people, and that faithfulness to the Father looks like devoting time—time to understanding, believing, and teaching his Word to hungry people, staying faithful to my family, living a praying life, and laboring for the good of his church, all the while relying on his power (Col. 1:29).
After working the soil for the first two years, we’re starting to see choice fruit in the life of our church family. People are being baptized, not-yet-believers are gathering with us each week and being drawn into our community, and stories of repentance and rejoicing are becoming more common.
The gospel is also transforming the lives of families: husbands are pursuing Christ, which is yielding a culture of sacrificial leadership in their homes; and wives are pursuing Christ, which is forming a culture of love and respect in their homes.
Additionally, several men are discerning and pursuing God’s call to love and serve his church in elder and deacon capacities. And we’re committed to seeing more churches planted across this region in the coming years, for the glory of God.
I’m writing this in the final week of my 39th year. I’ve been at an alpine lake in Montana to seek the Lord and ask him what’s next in my 40s. By God’s grace, we’ll see more unlikely church planters and teams raised up and equipped. I pray they’re filled with men and women who never saw it coming but are so glad it did.
In our families and homes we’re most secure and also most vulnerable. We’re most loved and also despised. We experience our greatest joys and sorrows. In that sense family has something in common with the cross, a place of wondrous love and righteous wrath.
In his new book, The Storm-Tossed Family: How the Cross Reshapes the Home, Russell Moore writes, “These families of ours can be filled with joy, but will always make us vulnerable to pain.” Moore, TGC Council member and president of the Ethics and Religious Liberty Commission, wants us to know that family is important, but not ultimate. In a summary toward the end of the book he writes:
Family is not the gospel. If you think that family is the source of ultimate meaning in your life, then you will expect your family to make you happy, to live up to your expectations. You will then come to perceive that a dysfunctional family background or a spouse who leaves you or a child who walks away to a far country of rebellion has ruined your life. And, when you fail your family, as you inevitably will, you will spend your life trying to atone for your sins, and you will never find the peace you seek.
Moore joins me on The Gospel Coalition Podcast to discuss how we find that peace only in the cross of Christ. We’ll also talk about wedding vows, church family, fatherly approval, and why young men should look for 75-year-old wives.
You can listen to this episode of The Gospel Coalition podcast here.
I’ll never forget the day my wife and I brought our oldest son home after his birth.
It was more than 16 years ago, and he was our first child. To that point in my life, I’m not sure I’d ever held a baby, much less provided daily acute care for one. I had certainly never changed a diaper. My wife didn’t have a long resume with children either. All of a sudden, I needed to be an expert in a subject I had never even studied, not for five seconds. What were we going to do? Would this child survive . . . us?
I remember the ride home from the hospital, him snugly buckled in his backward-facing pumpkin seat, us biting our nails more with each passing mile. I was a father. She was a mother. This child was entirely dependent on the care of two people who had barely ever touched a baby. Surely this wouldn’t turn out well. Part of me wanted to turn around and return to the hospital so this child would again be safe in the arms of professionals.Paranoid Parents
Those early days of parenting often involved paralyzing paranoia. Every time his pacifier hit the ground, we’d boil it for 30 minutes. Every time anyone even looked sick at church, we’d keep him home. The first time he projectile-vomited, I was certain he was dying. There were so many questions: Would he ever get over his deep anxiety at the very sight of bathwater? Was that our fault? Would he ever potty train? Did he suffer from numerous permanent phobias? Would his Christology be orthodox?
If you’ve been a parent for very long, you know of what I speak. There’s a lingering fear, a virtual psychosis, that we will permanently ruin our four children. As a father for 16 years now, I’ve come to realize that a germy pacifier or an irrational fear of thunderstorms are not signs of acute parental failure.
But there are ways you can ruin your children—subtle ways that tend to show up over time. As a parent, I’d grade myself at about a C-minus. (My wife is definitely the valedictorian between the two of us.) So here are six ways—all of which I have been guilty—that you could ruin those who bear your last name, who will someday appear on your auto insurance policy.1. Don’t tell them you’re a sinner.
I am at my worst as a father when I assume the role of sinless savior. That place belongs to Christ alone. When I say things like, “I didn’t act that way when I was your age” (a lie if ever there was one), then I confuse them as to why they need the gospel in the first place. And I become a whitewashed tomb.
My children need to know that my heart was once captive to sin as well and that I remain in the middle of sanctification. They need to know that I still sin, but that I have forgiveness in the sinless Savior. They need to know their sinning is inherited from their federal head Adam, yes, but also from their earthly father.2. Don’t ask them to forgive you for sinning against them.
I once had an older man in our church tell me I should never apologize to our children. To do so would show weakness, he reasoned. I am a five-star general; they are privates.
I have sinned against my family without admitting it to them far too many times to count. But there have been times I have gone to them and said something like, “Daddy has sinned against you (or your mother) and the Lord. I have asked the Lord to forgive me; now I need to ask you to forgive me. Jesus is my Savior, but he is still changing my heart.”
My family needs to see that I am weak, that my strength is in Christ alone.
The older man was actually correct about one thing: confession reveals weakness. But my family needs to see that I am weak, that my strength is in Christ alone (2 Cor. 12:10), and that repentance is a necessary part of both salvation and also sanctification. Such admission of sin shows them that Jesus—not Dad (or Mom)—is the one who kept God’s law to perfection.
I am convinced my children were born with built-in Pharisee detectors (most are). If I talk about the gospel all the time and talk about repentance, and yet seem to sin with impunity, they will unmask my hypocrisy pretty quickly. Or they’ll learn to imitate it. I can tell them that the gospel transforms sinners, but they won’t believe me. They might become atheists. They might become Pharisees.3. Don’t pray with them.
We tend to pray zealously for our children, but do we often pray with them? Praying with our children at least daily in our homes teaches them two things: the invitation to come to God’s throne of grace is always open, and we are entirely dependent on the Lord.
By praying with them you also model for them how to pray biblically—as Jesus did for his followers—and show that when you taught them 1 Thessalonians 5:17 (“pray without ceasing”), you really meant it and they really need it.4. Don’t do ‘nothing’ with them.
The longer I’ve parented, the more clearly I’ve come to see a fallacy in the popular distinction between “quality time” and “quantity time.” Every hour we spend with our children should be quality time—even when it seems like we’re doing nothing of consequence. Yes, we should spend ample time teaching them Bible and theology—that’s part of training them up in the discipline and instruction of the Lord (Eph. 6:4). But we can unwittingly communicate that the Christian life reaches its apex when it most closely resembles the seminary classroom.
The mundane moments are vitally important in building intimate relationships with our kids—because that’s where we spend most of our time with them. My teenage son recently helped me see this more clearly when he told me, “You know, Dad, my favorite time of the day is when you and I sit downstairs before bedtime watching the MLB Network and talking baseball. That’s really fun.” Not very spiritual, I realize, but I hope those conversations about curveballs and fantasy league trades will lead to more natural talks about the resurrection of Christ and the inspiration of Scripture.5. Don’t love their mother (or father) well.
If you have sons, the way you treat your wife gives them a subtle education in how they should treat their future wives. If you have daughters, the way you treat your wife teaches them what kind of man they want to marry—or avoid marrying—someday. Failing to love their mother as Christ loves the church (Eph. 5:25) introduces a distorted picture of the gospel into your home. The same is true for mothers, only in reverse.
If you have sons, the way you treat your wife gives them a subtle education in how they should treat their future wives. If you have daughters, the way you treat your wife teaches them what kind of man they want to marry—or avoid marrying—someday.
Failing to love their mother as Christ loves the church could well undermine the orthodox expression of the gospel you work so hard to teach. Love their mother well, and don’t be afraid to show playful physical affection toward her in front of them.
Mothers can also distort the gospel-picturing function of the home by giving lip service to headship but living out a practical rejection of it. This teaches daughters by example to do the same and can drive sons toward sinful passivity or aggression. Faithfulness to Paul’s words in Ephesians 5 requires deep grace for both parents, particularly in a culture where the idea of gender, much less gender roles, is virulently contested.6. Don’t continue family devotions if there are no immediate results.
It isn’t a mere cliché to say the Christian life is a marathon and not a sprint (Heb. 12:1–2). We plant the seed, but the Spirit of God grows it. In the parable of the growing seed (Mark 4:26–29), Jesus reminded hearers that a farmer sows seed and then goes to bed, only to eventually see it germinate and grow “he knows not how.” So it is with your children. So it is with every genuine Christian.
They will fidget. They will seem more interested in electronic devices or TV or Fortnite (send help please). But keep at it. God did not grow you into a mature Christian in a day, and he may not save and sanctify them at a particularly young age. Let the parable of the persistent widow serve as a refuge, that you may not lose heart (Luke 18:1–8).
And teach them God’s Word faithfully. Pray with them and for them. Write the words “patience” and “persistence” over the door of your heart. I’ve seen gospel seeds planted in a 4-year-old that suddenly bore fruit four decades later.Relax and Trust
Whether you are a brand-new parent or have nearly grown children, you know that parenting is painfully difficult. Like marriage, it is a theater of sanctification. To my shame, I have repeatedly violated all six of these things—and many more. It sure is easier to write about parenting than to actually parent.
But I am grateful to know that I didn’t stunt their physical growth when I gave them coffee at age 5 (yep, I did), and that God gives grace for deeply flawed parents like me, and that he can lead kids to walk straight with him in spite of their parents’ clumsiness.
One of the best, most helpful books on prayer I’ve read. Onwuchekwa’s focus is corporate prayer, but his excellent instruction can’t help but affect individual prayer also. Not one of those books designed to shame you into praying more, but a positive, profitable guide to better prayer that actually leaves you passionate to experience it more. An excellent contribution to 9Marks’s series and a pleasure to read. Buy a case of them to distribute in your church! [Read 20 quotes from this book here.]
Karen Swallow Prior
If you have any affinity for reading “great books,” this is a book you won’t want to miss, and it’ll likely teach you to read better. Prior first shows us how to “read well,” and then through a survey of a dozen classics she helps us learn the virtues they display in the lives of their characters. An engaging read, this new book is sure to do well. [Read TGC’s full-length review and an interview with the author.]
Andrew David Naselli, author
Julie Carter, illustrator
Christian Focus, 2018
Parents of young children won’t want to miss this excellent new book. Naselli employs the story of a young girl who stole to help children understand the nature of conscience . . . and the gospel. A wonderful teaching tool. Highly recommended. [Read a TGC article by Naselli on this topic.]
Sinclair B. Ferguson
The Good Book Company, 2018
Christmas in its first instance was about love—the saving love of God in sending his Son to save. And in 1 Corinthians 13, the apostle Paul tells us about love at some length, describing how love ought to be evident in our own behavior. Sinclair Ferguson brings these concepts together in this marvelous exposition of Paul’s famous “love chapter.” Warm expositions, so typical of Ferguson, are challenging but with an eye to that love most eminently displayed in the Lord Jesus. Excellent. Wonderfully rich yet brief readings for 24 days. Very highly recommended!
Richard P. Belcher Jr.
IVP Academic, 2018 (New Studies in Biblical Theology)
Don Carson has been editing this series a while now, and this latest contribution demonstrates its continued value. Belcher’s clarification of the nature of Old Testament “wisdom” itself, as well as his treatment of the wisdom of Proverbs, Job, and Ecclesiastes, and (for my money) especially his closing chapter on “Jesus and Wisdom,” all make this a must-read for anyone taking up the subject.
Greek life, intramural sports, and midterms. The daily rhythms of attending (or skipping) classes, sipping a hazelnut latte in the library, dressing up for yet another sorority event. The late-night trips for greasy tacos, the multiple campus-ministry Bible studies, and the Saturdays packed with college football. During the four years of college, life seems to be about you. Do what you want, when you want, with whomever you want.
And if the weekday schedule isn’t spontaneous enough, Sunday mornings can be more self-directed than the cafeteria’s salad bar: Attend any church in the area for any service with any group of friends.
My college church involvement prioritized low commitment with high comfort, and I’m not the only Christian with this experience. This semester, many students will likewise attend various churches (or skip worship altogether).
Sunday mornings can be more self-directed than the cafeteria’s salad bar: Attend any church in the area for any service with any group of friends.
But even though college can feel like it’s all about you, and this attitude can shape our church attendance, Scripture compels college students to be meaningful members of a local church.
Let’s consider a few gospel-drenched exhortations for both college students and churches.College Students, Submit to (and Serve) a Local Church
Seek out a Bible-believing, gospel-proclaiming church and become a committed member. After all, you likely have faithfully pledged yourself to multiple honor societies, intramural teams, and social clubs. So why wouldn’t you faithfully commit as a meaningful member of the local church?
Christians are called to a disciplined life (1 Tim. 4:7–10). Just as you pursue academic disciplines culminating in a scholarship-worthy GPA, you should pursue disciplines that fuel growth in godliness. One such discipline is membership in the local church. The shepherding and teaching of its godly elders will have a greater impact on your wellbeing than anything in your college classroom.
Once you have found a church, don’t just occasionally attend; sacrificially serve. Hold babies, greet visitors, tithe monthly, serve wherever needed.Church, Love (and Serve) College Students
Christians are called to discipleship. Consider what discipleship of college students within your church looks like. Do you have someone on staff thinking about college students? Do you invite college students to join multi-generational small groups? Do you have a college ministry or church outreach?
Or maybe you see a row of sleepy-yet-caffeinated college students in service. If so, introduce yourself, invite them to join you for lunch, and look for their group next Sunday morning.
Many students feel like outsiders, especially when a church doesn’t have a strong college ministry. So intentionally pursue those students in your midst. And while many of them attend one or more campus ministries, don’t leave discipleship up to these ministries. They can’t replace the local church.
Your investment in college students matters. Many students find themselves entangled in sin and engrossed in the world. Seek their good through intentional ministry. And as you serve them, seek opportunities to call these students to serve others.
Maybe a group of students can serve with the youth group or accompany the singing in worship. Perhaps they can help stack chairs after service or assist with the lighting and sound. Invite them to join you as you serve. Remember, you’re an example of and an encouragement to gospel faithfulness for the college students in your midst.All of Us, Pursue Faithfulness
As you confidently don your school colors this Saturday, remember you’re clothed in Christ, called to faithfulness. The gospel compels us to surrender, to lay down preferences and comforts for the sake of the Kingdom. And while the college cafeteria’s salad bar or your social media feed beg for self-focused consumption, the local church instead beckons your faithful commitment. Where the world shouts self, the Word summons self-denial. It is this gospel that calls all believers to meaningful membership in the local church.
Your identity and purpose for the kingdom matter more than any college degree, social club, or work deadline. Our identity wraps itself up in our affections. Our greatest loves and desires shape how we define our identity. So while we might be cheering for a game-day victory, we must remember the greatest banner we carry—the gospel.
And where college allegiances create competition, the gospel compels us to walk in unity: to link arms with our brothers and sisters for kingdom faithfulness. Whether you’re a college freshman or annual alumni donor, the call to submit to and serve the local church remains consistent. The church is simply incomplete when the people of Christ aren’t committed to one another.
Think of the beauty of a flourishing church: a college student passing out bulletins next to a retired firefighter and the timely ministry of a elder’s wife to a group of sorority ladies before service. The local church is a window into the glory of the future church – the pure and committed worship of all believers from every background, ethnicity, and college. May our churches reflect this future kingdom.
Our children are sponges, for better and for worse. It’s no secret what they will soak in from the world. The question is, what are they soaking in from us?
Hip-hop artist Shai Linne wants to help. His two newest projects—a children’s book and a children’s album—are designed to implant big truths in little hearts. God Made Me AND You: Celebrating God’s Design for Ethnic Diversity is an illustrated story, set in a school, that powerfully communicates God’s creative wisdom and heart for diversity. Jesus Kids is a 12-track album that covers the building blocks of the Christian life. (You might even overhear your kids reciting the books of the Bible.)
I asked Shai about his vision for both projects, his conversations about race and diversity with his young son, his favorite song on the record, and more.What burdened you to write a children’s book on this topic?
Actually, the publisher, New Growth Press, approached me about it almost two years ago. My book is the second in a series that helps parents talk with children about difficult subjects in a biblical, gentle, wise way. The first book, Justin and Lindsey Holcomb’s God Made All of Me: A Book to Help Children Protect Their Bodies, is meant to help children be on their guard against sexual predators. I had already been thinking through issues of ethnic diversity for some time. I considered it a worthy challenge to try to communicate something so fraught with controversy (sadly!) in language a child could understand.In the introductory note to parents and caregivers, you write, “Countercultural, biblical views don’t just happen.” Can you elaborate on what you mean? And how does this claim relate to the issue of diversity?
I’m reminded of J. B. Phillips’s take on Romans 12:2, where he paraphrases “Do not be conformed to this world” as “Do not let the world squeeze you into its mold.” Worldly mindsets are constantly pushing and pulling at us. It takes no work to be worldly. If we do nothing we’ll be dragged along by it.
It takes no work to be worldly.
When it comes to ethnicity, we have to fight against two tendencies: idolatry and apathy. Idolatry make ethnicity ultimate; apathy seeks to ignore it altogether. But there’s a third way, which I believe is the biblical way: ethnicity, like everything else in creation, exists for God’s glory. It should be celebrated as a gift and a pointer to God’s creative and redemptive genius. This kind of thinking isn’t inherent; it must be taught.You have young children. What have your conversations with them about race and diversity looked like?
Thankfully, our kids exist in a multi-ethnic environment, where it’s normal for them to see and interact with people of all flavors at church, at school, and at the dinner table. So that’s really all the younger ones know. But I did have an incident with my oldest son, Sage, who is 6 now. When he was 4, he was the only black boy at a basically all-white classical Christian school. While learning about the ancient Egyptians in class, the pictures they saw had people with dark skin, which prompted one of the children to say, “Sage has brown skin!” while pointing and laughing. This was my son’s first introduction to feeling “other.” At one point, he said to my wife and me: “I don’t want to have brown skin. I want to have white skin.”
This isn’t something I was excited to interact with my 4-year-old about! At least, not in those circumstances. So with him, our conversations about race have been about building him up in the truth that he’s made in God’s image and that he’s fearfully and wonderfully made. It’s also meant transferring him to a more ethnically diverse Christian school, which he loves. That experience with Sage was definitely on my mind as I put the book together.What was your goal for the Jesus Kids album? What unique contribution do you hope it makes?
My goal for Jesus Kids is to present biblical truth in a catchy, memorable way in order to help lay a foundation of the basics of the Christian faith. My hope is that parents, teachers, and caregivers would use this album to start (or continue) conversations with the children in their lives about what it means to be a follower of Jesus Christ.Why did you intersperse catechism questions throughout the album? Does catechesis really work in the 21st century?
Our children our being catechized by the culture every day, so yes, it works! Advertisers and children’s television programmers figured this out decades ago. Catechisms are a great way to capitalize on children’s natural capacity for memorization. Our hope is that God would regenerate their little hearts, and connect the dots between the truth they’re memorizing and the Spirit’s saving work in their souls.What was your favorite song on the album to write and produce, and why?
You should know by now not to ask an artist that! You know, what’s your favorite kid and all that? But if I had to answer, the song that affects me the most is called “Our Father in Heaven,” which focuses on prayer. There’s a childlike simplicity about it that reminds me of God’s kind disposition toward his children. It makes me thankful for the access that we have to him through Christ.
One of the hardest things about doubt is admitting it’s there. Our beliefs feel like dominos. If one wobbles, won’t the whole lot come crashing down?
Doubts often start small. Is there any point in praying? Yet one question quickly leads to another. Does God hear? Does God care? And finally, Is God even there?
When such doubts begin to nag, we can envy even our atheist friends. They let their unbelief hang out while we must keep ours hidden. How can you admit to doubt if you’re a Sunday school teacher, a home-group leader, or employed by a Christian organization? How can you speak of unbelief when you’re part of a family of “believers”?
But such doubts are there. And like weeds, they grow when unattended. If we don’t confront them, they’ll soon confront us. So how should we respond? Here are five things to remember.1. Every Unbeliever Has Faith
Don’t look wistfully at your unbelieving friends as though they don’t have to bother with faith. Everyone—even the most hardened atheist—relies on commitments and foundations she can’t see or prove. We all take for granted the regularity of the universe, the reliability of our senses, and the rationality of our minds. We appeal to ultimate values like goodness, truth, beauty, and love. None of these can be proved scientifically; they’re all matters of faith.
But without Christ, they have no true, beautiful, and loving foundation. If you think you’re having a crisis of faith, you can be sure it’s nothing compared to the crisis of faith that is atheism.2. Every Believer Has Doubts
Doubt is a part of being human. At times I doubt my marriage, my friends, my reason, my cooking, my writing, and myself. It would be odd if I didn’t doubt God at times. More than this, doubt is an inevitable part of Christian experience. This is why Jesus was continually chiding his disciples: “O you of little faith!” (e.g., Matt. 8:26).
Sometimes I sin, and sometimes I doubt. Neither is good in themselves, but they’re not surprising or unexpected. A doubt-less Christian is as impossible as a sin-less Christian. Sin, in fact, springs from unbelief (John 16:9).
It’s not much of a stretch to rephrase 1 John 1:9 this way: “If we say we have no doubts we deceive ourselves and the truth is not in us. But if we confess our doubts, God is faithful and just to forgive us our doubts and purify us from all unbelief.”3. Faith Isn’t Feelings
Feelings go up and down with blood sugar. If I let my feelings take the wheel of my life, they’ll crash my job, my marriage, and my faith many times over. Let’s face it: there is such a thing as natural temperament. Some people are Eeyores, and some are Tiggers. That doesn’t make the Tiggers the heroes of faith, it just makes them lucky in the serotonin lottery.
Add to this the important issue of mental health. Clinical depression, for example, will have a huge effect on a person’s expression of faith. But faith itself is something else (as we’ll see under point 5). Therefore I can be depressed and have faith, even though I don’t feel it.4. Faith Isn’t Fantasy
We don’t believe Jesus in spite of the evidence; we believe because we’ve been persuaded. Faith doesn’t mean screwing up our stomach muscles and deciding to step boldly into the dark. Faith is more like opening our eyes to the dazzling light that’s already shining.
How do we do that? Well, “faith comes from hearing the message” Romans 10:17 says. And when you consider the 274 verses of Romans that precede this advice, you realize this is a weighty message! If we lack faith, there’s truth we can look to.
Faith isn’t anti-rational or sub-rational. It’s a response to compelling truth.
Faith isn’t anti-rational or sub-rational. It’s a response to compelling truth. And Paul tells us to keep hearing this truth. No matter what doubts you may harbor, keep putting yourself in the way of the good news. Surround yourself with the Scriptures and people of the Scriptures, so you keep soaking in what’s true.5. Faith Isn’t the Point
Faith isn’t a thing we muster up and push out; faith is simply resting on Jesus. In John 1:12, “receiving Jesus” and “believing in his name” are parallel. They aren’t two hoops to jump through in order to be saved; they’re two descriptions of the same reality. Just as a woman could be said to both “get married” (in the active) and “be made a wife” (in the passive), so faith and receiving Jesus are two descriptions of the same reality.
Since faith is embracing Jesus, in times of doubt I don’t need more “faith,” I need more Jesus. And when I get more Jesus—through preaching, Scripture, sacraments, prayer, community—then, maybe even in spite of myself, my faith is revived.
When we focus on the him of Jesus rather than the what of “faith,” doubts are reduced, relativized, replaced, and even redeemed. It might just be that the path of doubt was God’s way of bringing you to a deeper, richer knowledge of Jesus himself.
What just happened?
A Christian doctor from the Congo and a human-rights activist from Iraq who was enslaved by Islamic State (ISIS) are co-recipients of the 2018 Nobel Peace Prize. Dr. Denis Mukwege and Nadia Murad were awarded the prize for “their efforts to end the use of sexual violence as a weapon of war and armed conflict.”
According to the Nobel Committee, “Denis Mukwege is the helper who has devoted his life to defending these victims. Nadia Murad is the witness who tells of the abuses perpetrated against herself and others. Each of them in their own way has helped to give greater visibility to war-time sexual violence, so that the perpetrators can be held accountable for their actions.”
What exactly is the Nobel Peace Prize?
The Nobel Peace Prize is an international prize awarded annually since 1901 by the Norwegian Nobel Committee according to guidelines laid down in Alfred Nobel’s will (“. . . to the person who shall have done the most or the best work for fraternity between the nations and the abolition or reduction of standing armies and the formation and spreading of peace congresses.”). The prize includes a medal, a personal diploma, and a large sum of prize money (currently, about $1.1 million).
What did Mukwege do to deserve the award?
Dr. Denis Mukwege, 63, is considered a pioneer in the field of gynecological surgery. As the BBC notes, he is known as “Doctor Miracle” for his ability to repair through reconstructive surgery the horrific damage inflicted on women who have been raped.
Growing up as the son of a Pentecostal minister, Mukwege travelled with his father around Congo to pray for the sick. His exposure to the broken convinced him that God had given him the ability to do more to help the people of his country.
After graduating from medical school at the University of Burundi, he worked at a rural hospital when he encountered women who, because they had no access to obstetric services, developed serious complications after childbirth. This prompted Mukwege to go to France for specialized training in gynecology.
When he returned, he and his colleagues built Panzi Hospital, which is managed by the Pentecostal Churches in Central Africa (CEPAC). Over the past 20 years Panzi has treated more than 85,000 girls and women with complex gynecological injuries, the majority of whom are survivors of sexual violence. Mukwege often spends 18-hour days at the hospital performing 10 surgeries a day.
During a keynote speech last year at the Lutheran World Federation Assembly, Mukwege said that “we cannot fulfill the mission entrusted to us by Christ” if our faith is defined by theory and disconnected from practical realities.
“It is up to us, the heirs of Martin Luther, through God’s Word, to exorcise all the macho demons possessing the world so that women who are victims of male barbarity can experience the reign of God in their lives,” Mukwege said.
The aim, he added, is to think about “the credibility of the gospel in the 21st century, to liberate the grace that we have received by making the church a light that still shines in this world of darkness through our struggles for justice, truth, law, freedom, in short, the dignity of man and woman.”
What did Murad do to deserve the award?
Nadia Murad, 25, is a member of the Yazidi minority in northern Iraq, where she lived with her family in the remote village of Kocho. In August 2014 Murad became one of the thousands of women abducted by the Islamic State (ISIS) and held as sex slaves.
Murad was repeatedly raped, beaten, and tortured by the men of ISIS. She was finally able to escape three months later after one of her captors left his house unlocked. She was transported to a refugee camp and selected for a program that takes refugees to Germany.
In 2015, Murad gave the United Nations Security Council its first-ever briefing on the issue of human trafficking and conflict. A year later she was named the UN’s first goodwill ambassador for the dignity of survivors of human trafficking.
In a statement about receiving the Nobel Prize, Murad said many Yazidis would “look upon this prize and think of family members that were lost, are still unaccounted for, and of the 1,300 women and children, which remain in captivity.”
“For myself, I think of my mother, who was murdered by [ISIS], the children with whom I grew up, and what we must do to honor them,” she added.
Creativity has always been and will always be a tool for building paradise. God made us creative to spread the beauty of Eden to the rest of the world through our creative work. The problem started when sin got in the way. We stopped building God’s paradise and started to build our own. The issue isn’t that we’re using our creativity to create paradise. It’s that we are building the wrong one. We’re using our creativity to build a dead-end road, one that ends in our own selfish gain and ingrown purposes.
God calls us to a better way. He shows us how to use our creativity to build an onramp to the King’s highway, the road to the new Jerusalem.We Need a World That Lasts
When we disconnect our creativity from God’s new creation, it sends shockwaves through every part of our lives. If there is no future hope, our creativity either becomes shortsighted, or it tries to fill the void left by God’s promises on its own. When we reject God’s future, we will manipulate our creativity to make another one that we try to convince ourselves will somehow overshadow his.
As a result, everything about us, including our creative work, becomes locked into this world. In an attempt to be good-natured, many of us will diligently use our creativity to try to change the world and overcome the prejudices and injustices mounting up against us. Yet notice how even this work assumes God. Where do you think your impulse for justice came from, and who do you think will execute perfect and final justice when it counts?
Further, for there to be lasting change, we need a world that lasts. If there is no eternity, then why does justice matter? Let’s just eat and drink, for tomorrow we die (1 Cor. 15:32). Even as we try to sweep God and his righteousness out the front door of our lives, we smuggle in assumptions about him through the back with our attempts to make the world righteous and good through our creativity. This exposes an important truth: the justice so much of our creativity was meant to work toward is eschatological and divinely determined. Justice only matters if our future matters, and our future only matters if God directs the world to his righteous ends, overcoming evil once for all while making all things new.
Justice only matters if our future matters, and our future only matters if God directs the world to his righteous ends, decisively overcoming evil once for all while making all things new.
Not only will we try to make a future with our creativity; we will try to make creativity our future. This happens all the time. When we are so enamored with the beauty of the world, we forget that God has offered us something better. It’s like staring at a campfire you made. Sure, it’s beautiful to watch the flames dance for a time. But don’t let it keep you from looking to the night sky. God has sprinkled it with stars that produce light and flame far superior to your fire.
When the beauty of the world captures us for too long, we cut ourselves off from God’s bigger world and his vision for our creativity. And when this happens, we make our lives about making beautiful things for themselves. This becomes our future. The only things worthy of our time and our lives, then, are our creative acts—things beautiful in the world’s eyes. Without a future, we settle for what’s in front of our eyes and what we produce with our hands. And when all we have are the small trinkets of our own making, we are cut off from the eternal beauty that awaits in the new heavens and new earth.Drawbacks of Futureless Creativity
But our art cannot hold up the weight of our needs, assumptions, desires, and purpose. It was never meant to. When we try to replace God’s future promises with our own creativity, we end up breaking our souls. We no longer know why we create. At best, our creativity becomes self-serving. We may talk a good game in in the public square, but when we’re alone, we can’t help but feel empty and hollow. That’s when we notice that we’re not creating for God anymore. We’re creating just to keep up appearances, to assuage the critic, to fool the masses, and the keep the money or the fame or the machine going. Our creativity has begun to re-create us, and when we’re not on stage, we don’t like being around the person who is always with us in the green room. And yet we continue to climb up on the rickety pedestal. We keep pushing our agenda, all while forgetting the reason we started doing this in the first place. In the silence, we question our art, our motives, our reasons, and our identity. But we can’t stop now. Our followers wouldn’t want us to, and our “creativity” won’t let us.
That’s the drawback of a futureless creativity. It helps us become who we want to be or what the world demands of us, but it sacrifices our God-given identity in the end. We play for the crowds or for our ego, but not for our God.Our Art Is Not the World’s Hope
This is why the new creation is so important. God’s future promises teach us that the hope of the world is not our art. It is God dwelling with humanity in the new heaven and new earth, where tears, death, mourning, crying, and pain shall be no more (Rev. 21:1–4). This stops your compass of purpose, worth, and identity from spinning out of control. It gives a due north that you can point your creativity toward. Your creativity isn’t your future; God is.
Your creativity isn’t your future; God is.
And this is a very good thing. First, it gives us a proper perspective. God alone is worthy. He created the world, created you, created your creativity, re-created you, re-created your creativity, and re-created the world. He gets first chair. Actually the only chair.
And second, it means your creativity doesn’t have to hold up the world. God already does. Rest defines our experience in the new creation. Not just a quick-Sunday-nap type of rest but deep, anxiety-destroying, peace-inducing rest. And this new-creation rest has broken into this world in many ways. There is great peace knowing that your next creative piece does not determine the trajectory of the world. It never could, and you wouldn’t want it to.
The hope of the new creation should fuel your creativity with God’s perspective and rest. It gives your work a proper beginning and a perfect ending. It looks back to what God started, what he re-created, and what he promises is to come.
“Evangelism is a life before it’s a task. It’s a question of being before it becomes an agenda of doing. Don’t allow techniques to take precedence over theology, or human strategy to replace trust in God’s Word, or programs to replace reliance on the power of the Holy Spirit.” — Becky Pippert
Date: June 15, 2018
Event: The Gospel Coalition Women’s Conference 2018, Indianapolis, Indiana
You can listen to this episode of The Gospel Coalition podcast here.
- Is Your Church Ready for the Future? (Becky Pippert)
- Questioning Evangelism (Randy Newman)
- Don’t Overcomplicate Evangelism (Tony Merida)
Find more audio and video from the 2018 Women’s Conference on the conference media page.
The following quotes caught my attention as I read Tim Keller’s newest book, The Prodigal Prophet: Jonah and the Mystery of God’s Mercy (Viking, 2018) [interview | excerpt].
To understand all of [Jonah’s] lessons for our social relationships, we have to see that the book’s main teaching is not sociological but theological. . . . When the real God—not Jonah’s counterfeit—keeps showing up, Jonah is continually thrown into fury or despair. (5)
Jonah concluded that because he could not see any good reasons for God’s command, there couldn’t be any. (15)
Jonah takes turns acting as both the “younger brother” and the “older brother” [cf. Jesus’s parable of the prodigal sons in Luke 15]. In the first two chapters of the book, Jonah disobeys and runs away from the Lord and yet ultimately repents and asks for God’s grace, just as the younger brother leaves home but returns repentant. In the last two chapters, however, Jonah obeys God’s command to go and preach to Nineveh. In both cases, however, he’s trying to get control of the agenda. When God accepts the repentance of the Ninevites, just like the older brother in Luke 15, Jonah bristles with self-righteous anger at God’s graciousness and mercy to sinners. (20)
The Bible does not say that every difficulty is the result of sin—but it does teach that every sin will bring you into difficulty. . . . All sin has a mighty storm attached to it. (24, 25)
Though the question about race comes last in the sailors’ list [“What is your mission? What is your country? Who are your people?”], Jonah answers it first. “I am a Hebrew,” he says before anything else. In a text so sparing with words, it is significant that he reverses the order and puts his race out front as the most significant part of his identity. . . . 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. (50, 51)
A God who substitutes himself for us and suffers so that we may go free is a God you can trust. Jonah mistrusted the goodness of God, but he didn’t know about the cross. What is our excuse? (66)
Salvation belongs to God alone, to no one else. If someone is saved, it is wholly God’s doing. It is not a matter of God saves you partly and you save yourself partly. No. God saves us. We do not and cannot save ourselves. That’s the gospel. (80)
It is hard for us to even imagine today the ministry that happened in Nineveh. Usually those who are most concerned about working for social justice do not also stand up and speak clearly about the God of the Bible’s judgment on those who do not do his will. On the other hand, those who publicly preach repentance most forcefully are not usually known for demanding justice for the oppressed. Nevertheless, this text encourages us to do both. In this instance, God seeks social reform through his prophet, a change in the Ninevites’ exploitative and violent behavior. Yet he also directs that the city should be told about a God of wrath who will punish sin. . . . To work against social justice and to call people to repentance before God interlock theologically. (91–92)
There are many people who have no idea what they should be living for, or the meaning of their lives, nor have they any guide to tell right from wrong. God looks down at people in that kind of spiritual fog, that spiritual stupidity, and he doesn’t say, “You idiots.” When we look at people who have brought trouble into their lives by their own foolishness, we say things like “Serves them right” or we mock them on social media: “What kind of imbecile says something like this?” When we see people of the other political party defeated, we just gloat. This is all a way of detaching ourselves from them. We distance ourselves from them partly out of pride and partly because we don’t want their unhappiness to be ours. God doesn’t do that. Real compassion, the voluntary attachment of our heart to others, means the sadness of their condition makes us sad; it affects us. That is deeply uncomfortable, but it is the character of compassion. (121)
Jonah did not weep over the city, but Jesus, the true prophet, did. . . . Here is a perfect heart—perfect in generous love—not excusing, not harshly condemning. He is the weeping God of Jonah 4 in human form. . . . [And] Jesus did not merely weep for us; he died for us. Jonah went outside the city, hoping to witness its condemnation, but Jesus Christ went outside the city to die on a cross to accomplish its salvation. (122, 123, 124)
God is both too holy and too loving to either destroy Jonah or to allow Jonah to remain as he is, and God is also too holy and too loving to allow us to remain as we are. (132)
If you want to understand your own behavior, you must understand that all sin against God is grounded in a refusal to believe that God is more dedicated to our good, and more aware of what that is, than we are. We distrust God because we assume he is not truly for us, that if we give him complete control we will be miserable. Adam and Eve did not say, “Let’s be evil. Let’s ruin our own live and everyone else’s too!” Rather they thought, “We just want to be happy. But his commands don’t look like they will give us the things that we need to thrive. We will have to take things into our own hands—we can’t trust him.” (137–38)
Sin always begins with the character assassination of God. (138)
The mission God gave Jonah meant possible death and suffering. This is a call that many Christians have heard over the years, going to preach and do good in parts of the world where sudden death is possible every day. Jonah, however, refused to go, thinking only of himself. The mission God gave Jesus, however, meant certain death and infinite suffering, and yet he went, thinking not of himself but of us. (141)
The only storm that can really destroy—the storm of divine justice and judgment on sin and evil—will never come upon you. Jesus bowed his head into that ultimate storm, willingly, for you. He died, receiving the punishment for sin we deserve, so we can be pardoned when we trust in him. When you see him doing that for you, it certainly does not answer all the questions you have about your suffering. But it proves that, despite it all, he still loves you. Because he was thrown into that storm for you, you can be sure that there’s love at the heart of this storm for you. (146)
We must not think it really possible to transcend politics and simply preach the gospel. Those Christians who try to avoid all political discussions and engagement are essentially casting a vote for the social status quo. Since no human society reflects God’s justice and righteousness perfectly, supposedly apolitical Christians are supporting many things that displease God. So to not be political is to be political. Churches in the U.S. in the early nineteenth century that did not speak out about slavery because that would have been “getting political” were actually supporting the slavery status quo by staying silent. (163–64)
Following both the Bible and the early church, Christians will be committed to racial justice and the poor but also to the understanding that sex is only for marriage. One of those views seems liberal and the other looks oppressively conservative. Christians’ positions on social issues, then, do not fit into contemporary political alignments. (167–68)
Jonah went into the depths of the sea in order to save the sailors, but Jesus went into the depths of death and separation from God—hell itself—in order to save Jonah. Jonah is crushed under the weight of the “waves and breakers” (verse 3) of God’s “waters” (verse 5), but Jesus was buried under the waves and billows of God’s wrath. Jonah said he was in Sheol and driven from God’s sight. The Apostles’ Creed says that, for our sake, Jesus “descended into hell.” (210)
If you were a hundred times worse than you are, your sins would be no match for his mercy. (211)
As long as serving God fit into Jonah’s goals for Israel, he was fine with God. As soon as he had to choose between the true God and the god he actually worshiped, he turned on the true God in anger. Jonah’s particular national identity was more foundational to his self-worth than his role as a servant of the God of all nations. The real God had been just a means to an end. He was using the God to serve his real god. (216)
Previously in the “20 Quotes” series:
- Glen Scrivener, Long Story Short (Christian Focus, 2018)
- Brian Seagraves and Hunter Leavine, Gender (The Good Book Company, 2018)
- John Onwuchekwa, Prayer (Crossway, 2018)
- Matthew McCullough, Remember Death (Crossway, 2018)
- Gustav Wingren, Luther on Vocation (Muhlenberg, 1957)
- Francis Grimké, Meditations on Preaching (Log College Press, 2018)
- Sam Alberry, Why Bother with Church? (Good Book, 2016)
- Jen Wilkin, In His Image (Crossway, 2018)
- Trevor Laurence, The Story of the Word (Wipf and Stock, 2017)
- Jonathan Leeman, How the Nations Rage (Thomas Nelson, 2018)
- Andy Johnson, Missions (Crossway, 2017)
- Alan Jacobs, How to Think (Currency, 2017)
- Tony Reinke, 12 Ways Your Phone Is Changing You (Crossway, 2017)
- Erik Raymond, Chasing Contentment (Crossway, 2017)
- Sinclair Ferguson, Devoted to God (Banner of Truth, 2016)
- Tim Keller, Hidden Christmas (Viking, 2016)
- Scott Sauls, Befriend (Tyndale House, 2016)
- Ray Ortlund, Marriage and the Mystery of the Gospel (Crossway, 2016)
- Jen Wilkin, None Like Him (Crossway, 2016)
- Tim Keller, Making Sense of God (Viking, 2016)
- Mark Dever, Understanding the Great Commission (B&H, 2016)
- Sinclair Ferguson, The Whole Christ (Crossway, 2016)
- Albert Mohler, We Cannot Be Silent (Thomas Nelson, 2015)
- Mark Dever and Jamie Dunlop, The Compelling Community (Crossway, 2015)
- Russell Moore, Onward (B&H, 2015)
- Rosaria Butterfield, Openness Unhindered (Crown & Covenant, 2015)
- Tim Keller, Preaching (Viking, 2015)
- Tim Keller, Prayer (Dutton, 2014)
- Kevin DeYoung, Taking God at His Word (Crossway, 2014)
If this past month was a reliable indicator, my family should be shopping for discernment at Costco. Difficult decisions multiplied, and there was no blinking “Thou shalt” or “Thou shalt not” to light the way.
Old family friends, desperate to save their sinking business, asked to borrow a large sum of money. Did we lend it? Our eldest, entering her senior year of high school, talked of pursuing a music degree after graduation. Given the career prospects, did we advise against it? A group of volunteers at church, despite voicing enthusiasm for a certain project, continued to miss important deadlines. Did we indulge their lapses? Someone we’d hired for a house project (and with whom we’ve had multiple opportunities to share our faith) charged double his initial quote. Did we swallow our disagreement and pay?
Ambiguity faced us at every turn.
Not every moment for discernment was so consequential and grave. (We were also weighing the pros and cons of getting a puppy, which we delightfully did. Her name is Via.) Some decisions even represented generous, open-ended gifts of possibility: invitations to participate in interesting work projects, to join worthy volunteer causes, to help our children explore their unique passions, to invest in cherished friendships.
In these cases, it seemed we had more great opportunities than capacity, reminding us of the nature of discernment as Charles Spurgeon once described it: “Discernment is not knowing the difference between right and wrong; it is knowing the difference between right and almost right.”Taste for What’s Good
In her thoughtful new book, All That’s Good: Recovering the Lost Art of Discernment, Hannah Anderson (a writer and frequent TGC contributor who lives in the Blue Ridge Mountains of Virginia) explores the nature of discernment, arguing that it’s a wisdom offered by God beyond listicles, self-help principles, and even alliterated sermon points. “I won’t offer you three easy steps to making good decisions,” Anderson writes, “or rigid boundaries to keep you on the straight and narrow. In fact, I’ll do my best to complicate your decision-making process, to lead you away from our common disposition to fear-based thinking toward a place of hope and abundance.”
Some might entertain such a prospect nervously: Just tell me what to think, what to do! But most of us recognize that while we serve a God generous in giving discernment, he doesn’t apportion it in the form of the frozen dinner, made for mindless eating. Instead, he endows us with his own “taste for what’s good,” with his own “refined sensibility.” Discernment, according to Anderson, is less about the menu—and more about the palate.
Discernment is less about the menu—and more about the palate.
As a younger Christian, though, I was a lot more preoccupied with the menu. What foods were allowed? What foods weren’t? Truthfully, this moral hyper-vigilance wasn’t only the stuff of my adolescent imagining. I was told, after a summer camp conversion at 16, that the only way to preserve my commitment to Christ was to maintain strict adherence to several rules: I must read my Bible every day for 10 minutes; pray every day for five; witness to one person each week; refuse drugs and alcohol; and wait to have sex until marriage.
It was a consoling idea at the time, that the rules could keep me safe. And while I have no doubt that the rules were well-intentioned, even that the rules were beneficial (who can argue with forming the habit of Bible reading at 16?), they didn’t help me understand the larger points Anderson makes in her book. First, that the world isn’t always easily divided into neat halves of right and wrong; second, that God wants to make us into discerning people more than he wants to give us the functional capacity of discernment.
Rules can prescribe the right behavior, but they can’t form the right character. Discernment is a function of the latter.Discernment in Leadership
I suspect there’s a devilish efficiency we’re tempted by in any kind of leadership we exercise, whether in our homes, workplaces, or churches, and it tempts us to ignore the more wise, winding route of discernment. Rules are easy to make, easy to impose. I’ve been in organizations and churches that take this posture. It’s assumed that leaders are meant to make decisions, everyone else meant to (slavishly) follow them. I’m not suggesting, of course, that pastors shouldn’t exercise the right and responsibility for guiding their flocks, only that discernment is formed less by leadership of the “bit and bridle” kind (Psalm 32).
Rules can prescribe the right behavior, but they can’t form the right character. Discernment is a function of the latter.
As Anderson reminds us, God’s own instruction comes to us in the form of “test cases and story problems and examples of what it might look like to apply discernment, helping move from the theoretical to the practical.” Just as there is an art to discernment, there’s something artful about godly leadership as it knows when to instruct and guide, when to encourage and cheer, when to stay silent and pray.
There’s simply no way for our children, colleagues, and congregants to form discernment by proxy. As we’re reminded in the book of Hebrews, the goal of Christian discipleship is to make teachers of us all, capable of nourishing ourselves on “solid food . . . for the mature, for those who have their powers of discernment trained by constant practice to distinguish good from evil” (5:14).
Discernment isn’t meant to be the reserve of the few, but the purview of the many.In Search of Pearls
In kind, Anderson’s book doesn’t hand down imperatives from on high, doesn’t merely seek the avoidance of evil, but rather cultivates a taste for the good. In form, it mirrors the search for the true, the honorable, the just, the pure, the lovely, the commendable. Like the women in Japanese coastal villages who dive deep into the ocean in search of pearls, there’s a lot of treasure below the surface of these pages.
If you read All That’s Good hoping for a quick answer to a complex problem, you aren’t likely to find it. It won’t tell you whether to lend money to your friends, what college degree your child should pursue, or what tack to take with unreliable volunteers and dishonest tradespeople. But if, with knife and basket, you go in search of a pearl, you won’t come up empty-handed.
“Neither man nor woman can resist the loveliness of a pearl.”