Follow your heart. It’s the message of every Christmas Hallmark movie. Stop listening to your head when your heart knows what’s best. Be true to yourself. Go with your gut.
Rosaria Butterfield, Melissa Kruger, and Trillia Newbell sat down to talk about this message that pervades our culture. They look at what the Bible has to say about our hearts, indwelling sin, and the heart of Christ. But they also talk about how to pursue guidance in making decisions and acting on desires that aren’t sinful.
Barry called me every day for 11 years, usually more than once, sometimes up to 20 times a day. When Barry didn’t call, I thought something might be up. When Barry didn’t answer my call, I knew something was. After one particular day of radio silence, I went by Barry’s apartment. It was on the ground floor, which meant I could bang on the windows when he didn’t answer the door.
On this occasion, I glimpsed Barry huddled under a windowsill to stay out of my sight. Barry was 6’3″ and weighed 360 pounds, so he looked like a grizzly bear trying to hide behind a lampshade. I was filled with righteous indignation (at least that’s how I justified it).
“I know you’re using in there, Barry!” I yelled. “You can pretend you’re not in there, but God is—he sees you right now! A holy God is in that apartment while you light up!” Barry responded, “You just don’t understand, man. You don’t know what I’ve been through and how hard it is.”
It stings to admit I acted this way as a 23-year-old seminary student. I felt prophetic at the time, but I was a fool. I thought I was standing in Peter’s line calling “Repent!” when in reality I was far closer to the Pharisee: “Thank God I’m not a sinner like this.”
Only as I arrived to pick up Barry one Sunday morning did I begin to understand the depth of his struggle. I found him sprawled across the table with both arms gashed open, blood everywhere. Life was barely clinging to him. I called 911, and then lifted his arms above his head to slow the blood flow. As I hugged my dying friend, the depth of his pain was excruciatingly evident. Barry wasn’t spending his days marking out dark plans for his next hit. The next hit was a mirage of relief. He was chasing an illusion of freedom—freedom from memories of abuse, from sins of the past, and from harsh realities of the present.Friends on a Mission
Barry and I became friends when his first pastor called me. Barry needed distance from the trials and temptations of the neighborhood. The old bar around the corner and the old friend next door pose a challenging atmosphere to a young believer. Barry moved a couple miles away into my neighborhood—a long way when you ride the bus or walk—in order to create helpful space for new habits and relationships to grow.
Our friendship sprouted from God’s Word. I would drop by and read the Bible with Barry. We’d read, talk, pray and then grab a bite at the deli down the street. Barry would try his most recent rap on me over a coney dog, or we’d throw a fishing line in the Detroit River to see if anything was biting.
Barry and I became partners in the gospel as the Spirit used our different gifts and strengths to help each other. Barry had a heart for the broken, the needy, the downtrodden. He knew their struggle, largely because it mirrored his own. He was always stepping out to help them.
Until the day Barry died—of sepsis in March 2018—he lived on less than $1,000 of income and government assistance per month, yet I saw him give food away nearly every week. I saw him give the good news about Jesus away even more. When I introduced Barry to a man just released from prison, Barry gave him a bed in his apartment within five minutes. The mission fused our friendship. I’d studied farming; Barry could see the harvest. God used us together in ways I never could’ve imagined. But he also used Barry to change me.Friendship as a Mirror
I inhaled one piece of cheese bread after another as I stood by the kitchen sink. My wife told me to grab a plate, sit down, and slow down. I had tunnel vision. A complex counseling situation was crushing me. I was responding the way I’d responded so many times before: with food.
Suddenly, it dawned on me just how similar Barry and I were. Where I grew up, you didn’t deal with stress through drugs or alcohol. Those things weren’t acceptable, but other sin was. I ran to pizza because no one raised me to run to dope. But make no mistake: my kitchen counter was Barry’s corner. His bar was my pizza shop. My sin was more culturally acceptable, but it was no less lethal when I leaned on it rather than God.
My sin was more culturally acceptable, but it was no less lethal when I leaned on it rather than God.
The Spirit began using Barry to expose my sinfulness. At a heart level, he and I were no different. We had different mentors, knew different neighborhoods, and were taught different ways to cope. My life was a mountain of undeserved kindness. I was raised in church; generations of my family knew Jesus; my education was phenomenal; my upbringing was sheltered.
Not so for Barry. His upbringing was different in almost every way. Yet there I was, nursing the same sinful habits with more culturally acceptable nameplates. Replacing God brings judgment, regardless of whether we use carbs or cocaine.
A psychologist might call my misunderstanding of Barry the Fundamental Attribution Error. When other people fail, you point to their flawed character or harmful intentions. Their failure is a problem with who they are or an expression of their hostility toward me. When I fail, however, I point to the circumstances and pressures in my life. You’re late because you’re lazy or don’t care. I’m late because I’m busy and it’s been a crazy week.
My pride told me that Barry was naïve and too soft on people, that his struggles were personal discipline problems. That man Barry housed straight out of prison? He stole Barry’s coat. Those people who needed food? They could somehow afford cigarettes. My clinical analysis saw through them. In fact, I saw only the worst in them.Other Side of the Tracks
Barry would often gently remind me: “You gotta remember, Wavey Gravey (his nickname for me), God gave you loving parents and a safe home and so many blessings. Lots of people are just trying to survive. They’ve almost never felt safe and they’ve never been taught.”
I can’t remember those words without tearing up. He was correct. I grew up on the “right” side of the tracks. I had—and still have—so much to learn. Barry wanted me to treat others in light of the grace God had shown me. The Spirit had created a gentle, merciful heart in that mountain of a man. Without Christ, Barry embraced the harsh facade a drug dealer wears to survive the street. God mercifully stripped Barry of that and replaced it with a Spirit-wrought gentleness toward the least, the last, and the lost. And he used Barry to strip away the pride in me.
God used Barry to strip away the pride in me.
The Spirit used Barry’s understanding of the gospel to transform my perspective of myself. In Christ, we can both see sin clearly and also show mercy gently. Every person is a complex combination of villain and victim. They have done horrible things. Horrible things have been done to them. They need to turn from sin to Jesus Christ.
Every month I helped Barry with his budget. I did this for 11 years. And every month for 11 years I would bust him over spending more than he had on stupid stuff. But as I sat with a young man in seminary this morning, I told him, “You know what, Barry never got that stinkin’ budget in order. Despite all that time I spent harassing him about it, he never got it down. But what does it matter now? Barry is with Jesus! He’s experiencing unending joy in the presence of our King. Jesus didn’t stiff-arm Barry at the door because his budget was out of whack—he embraced him with the love bestowed upon a righteous son. I see it now! The God who began a good work in Barry completed that work (Phil. 1:6) without needing me to get him all spiffed up and squared away.”
God’s truth deserves obedience and demands declaration. But sometimes, people like me need to take a chill pill and walk gently with those who struggle. The Spirit’s the barber, and he’ll get everyone lined up right in the end.
These lessons have transformed how I’ve gone about planting our church. You can’t plant a church without gentleness (okay, you can, but you certainly won’t lead it well). Gentleness is treating others in light of God’s kindness toward you. A gentle man knows that God has produced the good in him—against his best efforts. A gentle man knows he’s more sinful than others perceive. A gentle man understands the magnitude of God’s mercy given him in Christ.
And this was Barry. Was he a messed-up sinner? You bet. But he knew it. And he reveled in the grace of God in Christ. Because of that, he was gentle. He’s gone now, but I’m praying that God would make me more like my late, gentle friend.
“Books are long enough to change you.”
I can’t determine who originally said this (and neither can the internet), but it’s something I firmly believe—and never more so than today.
In her recent book, Reader, Come Home: The Reading Brain in a Digital World (Harper, 2018), Tufts University professor MaryAnne Wolf examines how digital distractions are rewiring our brains, and we’re losing the ability to do deep, sustained reading. While much of her focus is on raising little ones in this new media landscape, she worries that
[W]e, their guides, do not realize the insidious narrowing of our own thinking, the imperceptible shortening of our attention to complex issues, the unsuspected diminishing of our ability to write, read, or think past 140 [now 280] characters. We must all take stock of who we are as readers, writers, and thinkers.
This is no less an issue for the books editor at The Gospel Coalition.
Sometimes the best wisdom I give TGC readers is to stop reading TGC—and all other digital voices demanding our attention now. TGC’s desire for our local and national events, as well as the books, curriculum, articles, podcasts, videos, and reviews we publish, is to resource (but never replace) the local church. Each year we review around 300 titles between our academic journal Themelios and our regular book reviews section, so we’re firmly committed to the written word as a means of supporting church leaders. And at the end of each year we take stock of the most helpful titles across various categories, using the following fourfold criteria:
- offer gospel-centered argument and application;
- include faithful and foundational use of Scripture, both Old Testament and New Testament;
- foster spiritual discernment of contemporary trials and trends; and
- encourage efforts to unite and renew the church.
So here’s my advice this year: Buy one or more of these books (preferably in print); log out of social media; and recapture the joy of immersing yourself in a book.
As our attention spans decrease and we’re sucked into the social-media vortex with its trivialities and Outrage of the Day, one way we can quietly resist is by reading a book. Such a small act, when joined to an abiding walk with Jesus and a life of service in his church, makes a radical difference in our lives and those around us.
Congratulations to the winners of our 2018 TGC Book Awards.Christian Living
Hannah Anderson. All That’s Good: Recovering the Lost Art of Discernment. Chicago, IL: Moody Publishers, 2018. 224 pp. $13.99.
Have we lost the ability to choose well? Polarized by tribalism and paralyzed by false dichotomies, this generation desperately needs to develop discernment. Thankfully, Hannah Anderson helps us to do just that by teaching us to identify and appreciate goodness wherever it can be found. All That’s Good wisely and winsomely shows how discernment enables us to engage the world with the truth of Scripture. For anyone wanting a life filled with truth and beauty (and who doesn’t?), this book is an invaluable resource. [Read Jen Pollock Michel’s review.]
Matthew McCullough. Remember Death: The Surprising Path to Living Hope. Wheaton, IL: Crossway, 2018. 192 pp. $19.99. [Read Phil Letizia’s review.]
Judges: Megan Hill, Jasmine Holmes, Winfree Brisley, Ameen HudsonAcademic Theology
Michael J. McClymond. The Devil’s Redemption: A New History and Interpretation of Christian Universalism. Grand Rapids, MI: Baker Academic, 2018. 1376 pp. $90.
It’s not uncommon to hear some book touted as “definitive” or “magisterial.” Usually the hype is overblown. Every now and then, it’s not. This is one of the exceptions. The Devil’s Redemption truly is, as the back cover states, “the definitive treatment on universalism for years to come.” Nearly 1,400 pages, McClymond goes wide and deep to survey the history of universalist ideas. He shows how universalism necessarily impinges on other doctrines, and he exposes the tragic irony that universalism, far from preserving grace, eclipses it. One judge put it well: “I’m struck by the book’s relevance. Universalism, I’m convinced, is likely to grow in its threat to orthodoxy, particularly in the Western church—and I’m not sure we’re prepared for it. Indeed, many Christians today wish they (or God) could be a universalist. Historical examination, rather than biblical/systematic theological argumentation alone, helps locate this false doctrine in social and intellectual context; it reminds us that, given the right conditions today, its re-emergence is always lurking around the corner.” [See Justin Taylor’s interview with McClymond.]
Michael Horton. Justification. Grand Rapids, MI: Zondervan, 2018. 672 pp. $74.99.
Judges: Matt Smethurst, Rebecca McLaughlin, Duke Kwon, Thomas SchreinerPopular Theology
Mike Cosper. Faith Among the Faithless: Learning from Esther How to Live in a World Gone Mad. Nashville, TN: Thomas Nelson, 2018. 208 pp. $16.99.
It’s a brave new world in the late-modern West. Not too long ago, being a churchgoing person was an asset on a social résumé; today it’s increasingly a liability. This isn’t entirely bad, of course; nominal Christianity has wreaked untold havoc in the church, and its death is long overdue. Nevertheless, we face serious challenges to gospel faithfulness that demand fresh wisdom and courage. Faith Among the Faithless is medicine for the moment. Writing with trenchant insight in a breezy style, Cosper unfolds the story of Esther with exegetical rigor, cultural analysis, and pointed application. From beginning to end, he sounds the right notes. Here’s one example: “Cultural assimilation is a failure of nerve, and cultural isolation is a failure of heart. The former fails to resist; the latter fails to love” (43). Amen. [Read Jasmine Holmes’s review.]
Alastair J. Roberts and Andrew Wilson. Echoes of Exodus: Tracing Themes of Redemption through Scripture. Wheaton, IL: Crossway, 2018. 176 pp. $17.99. [Read G. Geoffrey Harper’s review.]
Judges: Matt Smethurst, Rebecca McLaughlin, Duke Kwon, Thomas SchreinerMinistry
John Ownuchekwa. Prayer: How Praying Together Shapes the Church. Wheaton, IL: Crossway/9Marks. 144 pp. $14.99.
There has been much to say about prayer, and there is much yet still to say. Onwuchekwa infuses rich cultural motifs with a necessary spiritual discipline to create this small but powerfully helpful book. Moreover, the origin of the book (his own suffering in the loss of his brother) and the size of the book make it the first one pastors may want to give their congregations. Many books rightly focus on the individual nature of prayer, but this little work shows what a powerful tool every congregation possesses in the gift of prayer. [Read 20 quotes from the book.]
John Piper. Expository Exultation: Christian Preaching as Worship. Wheaton, IL: Crossway. 336 pp. $29.99.
Judges: Jeff Robinson, Mike Bullmore, Jason Cook, David SchrockHistory & Biography
Michael J. Kruger. Christianity at the Crossroads: How the Second Century Shaped the Future of the Church. Downer’s Grove, IL: IVP Academic. 256 pp. $30.00.
A masterful account of the church in the second century, this book skillfully describes Christianity’s movement into the wider pagan world and provides insight into the development of doctrine, formation of the canon, and Christian worship and practices. With an excellent summary of contemporary research on the second-century church, Christianity at the Crossroads could also be a manual for the church of the 21st century. [Read David A. Evans’s review.]
Joe Rigney. Lewis on the Christian Life: Becoming Truly Human in the Presence of God. Wheaton, IL: Crossway. 320 pp. $21.99. [Read Gwen Burrow’s review.]
Judges: Jeff Robinson, Nathan Finn, Diana Severance, Eric WashingtonEvangelism & Apologetics
Joshua D. Chatraw and Mark D. Allen. Apologetics at the Cross: An Introduction for Christian Witness. Grand Rapids, MI: Zondervan. 336 pp. $34.99.
This outstanding book offers a reliable map for evangelistically navigating our secular age. It manages the rare feat of being both comprehensive in its scope and accessible in its style. Its warm and humble tone commends it as much as its faithful, perceptive, and hopeful message. It is cruciform not only in what it is saying, but also in how it says it, which makes it a wonderful example for us to follow. This will be an essential resource for all pastors, but also a great help to any Christian wanting to engage constructively in apologetics today. [Read about Chatraw and Allen’s apologetic approach.]
Peter J. Williams. Can We Trust the Gospels? Wheaton, IL: Crossway, 2018. 160 pp. $17.99. [See Peter Williams’s TGC Course on gospel reliability.]
Judges: Sam Allberry, Barry Cooper, Dan DeWitt, Jared WilsonPublic Theology & Current Events
Nancy R. Pearcey. Love Thy Body: Answering Hard Questions about Life and Sexuality. Grand Rapids, MI: Baker Books, 2018. 336 pp. $22.99.
There is much that needs to be said to the evangelical church—both as reminder and as fresh teaching—about developing a biblical theology of the body. This book by Pearcey, professor of apologetics and scholar in residence at Houston Baptist University, provides a useful contribution to that effort. With particular tenderness and thoughtfulness to women, Pearcey addresses abortion, euthanasia, sexual promiscuity, homosexuality, and transgenderism in a way that is philosophically rigorous yet accessible. [Read David Shaw’s review.]
John M. Perkins. One Blood: Parting Words to the Church on Race and Love. Chicago, IL: Moody Publishers, 2018. 208 pp. $15.99. [Read Sarah Eekhoff Zylstra’s profile of Perkins.]
Judges: Joe Carter, Vermon Pierre, Jacqueline Isaacs, Bruce AshfordChildren’s
Dan DeWitt and Catalina Echeverri. The Friend Who Forgives. Purcellville, VA: The Good Book Company, 2018. 32 pp. $14.99.
A fresh look at the story of Peter’s betrayal of Jesus, The Friend Who Forgives presents children with an easy-to-understand, impossible-to-miss lesson on God’s forgiving grace. Children and adults alike will relate to this true tale of sin and restoration. We have all been let down by a friend, but more importantly, we have let God down. Yet we, like Peter, have been welcomed back into his family. Catalina Echeverri’s bright, humorous illustrations make this beautiful story even more compelling.
Nancy Guthrie. What Every Child Should Know about Prayer. Youngstown, OH: 10Publishing, 2018. 144 pp. $19.99.
Judges: Betsy Howard, Sarah Zylstra, Erik Raymond, Quina AragónFirst-Time Author
Jackie Hill Perry. Gay Girl, Good God: The Story of Who I Was, and Who God Has Always Been. Nashville, TN: B&H Books, 2018. 208 pp. $16.99.
In stunningly beautiful prose and poetry, Jackie Hill Perry invites us into her story of redemption, finding God and his grace in the midst of gender confusion and homosexuality. She bravely invites us into her transformation at an important cultural moment, showing us both how to fight our own temptations and also how to think about identity. Courageous yet compassionate, bold without being brash, she has provided the church with the gift of seeing and worshiping the Savior who not only saves but also transforms. [Read Kristen Wetherell’s review.]
Cameron Cole. Therefore I Have Hope: 12 Truths That Comfort, Sustain, and Redeem in Tragedy. Wheaton, IL: Crossway, 2018. 206 pp. $14.99. [Read Kristin Tabb’s review.]
Judges: Collin Hansen, Julius Kim, Christine Hoover, Trillia Newbell
It was time to say something. After months of abrasive communication coupled with borderline abusive negotiation tactics, I needed to have a heart-to-heart with my client. We are all adults here, but there is a point at which you cease being just a demanding client and become an antagonist.
She was a construction manager at a global corporation you’ve heard of. She managed several projects my company was building. I called her up.
Sharon, I need to talk to you about something. We really need to work on the way we communicate with one another. Your constant demands at all hours and yelling at my team are not helping us finish your jobs. It is a distraction. And we really need to get a foundation of respect between us.
She almost fired us on the spot. She told me she didn’t know what to do with what I had told her.
Eventually, Sharon came around. We finished the jobs we were working on in a much more civil manner. She didn’t fire us. And after I’d thought about her perspective a little more, I realized she was simply the product of a cold and inhumane corporate culture. She wasn’t trying to be mean; she was just overwhelmed by the pressure. Her higher-ups didn’t care about her, and thus she didn’t care about us.
To Sharon, it was “just business.” She had stuff to get done, and she got it done. Simple as that.
I wish I could say that I never see my own work like this, and that I don’t see fellow brothers and sisters in Christ operating in this way in the business world—but I do and I do. Our work as believers is of great importance to God; and when we ignore the purpose of work, we miss an opportunity to glorify him.
As believers, we need a biblical worldview that includes work. Our lives do not consist of work, home, and church in separate categories. Our life is just our life, and the gospel speaks to every aspect.No Ordinary People
“It is immortals whom we joke with, work with, marry, snub, and exploit—immortal horrors or everlasting splendors,” C. S. Lewis wrote in The Weight of Glory.
It is a strange thing to consider that people are immortal beings, especially when some appear in our lives for only a moment—for example, the woman serving you coffee or the man sitting behind you on the train.
Contrast that with your boss or colleague. We spend hours with the people we work with, and they will influence us just as we influence them. These immortals have the same hunger for love, acceptance, and redemption as we do. They need God’s saving grace, just like we do. And maybe—just maybe—the Lord will use us to deliver a kind word in a hard time or to share the truth of Christ at an opportune moment.Gospel Advertisements
“We are ambassadors for Christ, God making his appeal through us,” the apostle Paul wrote. “We implore you on behalf of Christ, be reconciled to God” (2 Cor. 5:20).
The light of Christ in us might be the only flicker our coworkers and clients ever see. That’s scary, because we bear his image in distorted ways. But the Spirit intercedes for us and helps us in our weakness (Rom. 8:26).
The light of Christ in us might be the only flicker our coworkers and clients ever see.
Charles Spurgeon called those anointed with the oil of gladness, which comes from receiving salvation, “advertisements for the gospel.” These people, illumined by the truth of what Christ has done, walk around like grace lanterns. They glow with the light of Christ, exuding peace, love, forgiveness, and power.
As ambassadors for Christ, we must understand that our actions at work paint a picture of him. It isn’t about performance; it’s about a changed heart, which comes from abundant worship of God. When we saturate our souls with worship, we will more naturally bring Jesus into every meeting, conference call, job interview, and sales call.Great Purpose
We like to think of life in big moments—weddings, funerals, and birthdays. But more often, life looks like a rainy Tuesday morning. And thus, many of us are bored. We feel we’re waiting for something, when really we’re living a divine adventure this very moment.
“It’s just business,” they say. But it’s not. When we’re dealing with immortal beings made in the image of a beautiful God, it’s never just business. It’s a divinely appointed opportunity to showcase him and share his love. It’s not about perfect performance. It’s about relishing our position as sinners saved by grace and being willing to offer the spiritual salve with which Christ has treated us—himself.
Several weeks ago, I spent some time in London. I marveled at Westminster Abbey, drifted down the River Thames, and toured Buckingham Palace. I also relished the opportunity to visit the historic Metropolitan Tabernacle, where Charles Haddon Spurgeon faithfully proclaimed the gospel for 38 years.
Many of us are familiar with Charles’s biography, preaching abilities, and prodigious writing. But few of us know much about his wife, Susie. In Susie: The Life and Legacy of Susannah Spurgeon, Ray Rhodes Jr. tells Susie’s compelling story by weaving together historical records, older biographies, personal writings, and family member interviews.
Susie has a full narrative to tell. Rhodes—founding pastor of Grace Community Church in Dawsonville, Georgia, and president of Nourished in the Word Ministries—vibrantly chronicles her life, bringing us into Susie’s heartbreaking yet faith-building world. She loved her God and her family with excellence despite the difficulties of life. And Susie will encourage you as you encounter her persevering faith.Suffering Well and Supporting Others
Sometimes we think encouraging books must have cheerful storylines and fairytale endings. This isn’t one of those.
Susie’s first 35 years were full of adventure. One of her favorite pastimes was walking outdoors for several miles to enjoy God’s creation. She traveled to Paris numerous times to learn the language and culture, and she was educated in music and art. But Susie’s active lifestyle abruptly ended when she suffered a life-changing medical condition—likely endometriosis or a tumor—which left her mostly homebound for the rest of her life. In spite of her suffering, she continued to serve both the Lord and others from the confines of her home. She set up a ministry to mail theological books to needy pastors, and she wrote many books and articles.
Susie wasn’t the only one who suffered. Charles often struggled with depression, anxiety, intense criticism, and horrific devastations as he depended on Susie’s wisdom, prayers, and love. She also read aloud to him from authors like George Herbert. As Rhodes shares, “Often Susie’s reading to Charles brought great conviction to their hearts, and they wept together.” Even when he was away, she wrote him letters of encouragement. Susie trusted the Lord, pressed into her sorrow, and served her family and the wider world.Encouragement for Parents and Spouses
Every believer will find deep encouragement in Susie to live in the Scriptures. Parents will be spurred on as they read about Susie leading her twin sons in reading the Bible, singing, and prayer. One of my favorite stories in the book was told by her son Thomas. Susie would sit at the piano with one boy on either side and teach them hymns. When the trio would sing “There Is a Fountain Filled with Blood,” she’d pause before the chorus and say:
Dear boys of mine, I have no reason to suppose that you are yet trusting Christ: you will, I hope, in answer to our constant prayers, but till you definitely do you must not say or sing “I do believe, that Jesus died for me.” It’s just as wrong to sing a lie as to tell one.
And so she’d sing that line alone. After Thomas became a believer, he couldn’t wait to sing that line with his mother as loudly as possible.
Husbands and wives will find a model in the Spurgeons’ deep love for one another and the ways they pointed each other to Christ. Because Susie was unable to attend Sunday church services, Charles set aside Saturday mornings to minister to her directly. He also invited her to help in his sermon preparation by having her read aloud from commentaries, about which she said:
Never was occupation more delightful, instructive, and spiritually helpful; my heart has often burned within me, as the meaning of some passage of God’s Word has been opened up, and the hidden stores of wisdom and knowledge have been revealed; or when the marrow and fatness of a precious promise or doctrine has been spread like a dainty banquet before my admiring eyes.
As I pondered Susie’s life, I thought about expectations for pastors’ wives. It’s no secret that pastors’ wives face pressure to be visible in the life of the church. I can’t imagine how Susie must’ve felt when people asked why she was absent from church services. Her heart desired to be with her church family, but her illness kept her home Sunday after Sunday, month after month, year after year. Many people probably felt that an invalid makes a poor pastor’s wife. Yet the Lord prepared Susie to be the partner Charles needed. He used Susie’s sufferings to fill her with compassion for her struggling husband.
This was especially important when the Spurgeons faced several calamitous ministry situations. Once, seven people were killed and 28 injured at a preaching event led by Charles. Susie comforted him through the grief for the rest of his life. They also faced a prominent theological split with beloved friends and family as well as continued criticism in the papers.
If you’re a pastor’s wife, this book will likely compel you to lavishly encourage your husband. Susie shows us that we have a unique opportunity to point our pastor-husbands to God’s faithfulness after they preach a less-than-stellar sermon or when they’re harshly critiqued. They need to know we’re at their side in both the joys and also the hardships of ministry.
Rhodes’s book is well-researched and well-written. It’s a page-turner of encouragement. Buy three copies: one for yourself, one for someone going through a difficult time, and one for a ministry wife. You’ll likely read this one more than once.
Let’s be honest. Many of our relationships with our parents are challenging.
In my Chinese American family and community, parenting styles were unidirectional, with the parenting coming from above and little from alongside. This was compounded by our communication and other cultural barriers.
But just because our relationship with our parents was poor when we were children doesn’t mean the relationship can’t change. As grown children, we have the opportunity to walk alongside our parents as we seek to honor and love them as God calls us to. This is an opportunity to make Christ and his ways beautiful to them.1. God wants you to minister to them.
To my (entirely appropriate) shame, I sinfully saw my parents as people who must be endured, especially in what felt like endless lectures with wagging fingers and shaming scowls. Thank God he convicted me. I have since come to find (and create) opportunities to move toward my parents in love.
The Lord has placed us in our parents’ lives that we might minister his grace to them. They too need prayer, godly wisdom, and biblical community as they battle against the world, the flesh, and the Devil. It certainly takes patience, strategy, grace, and determination. But of course it would. Because God wants us to love as he loved—with grace, mercy, and fierce determination.
God has placed us in our parents’ lives that we might minister his grace to them.2. Seek to know them.
On the one hand this is a risky venture. You might ask your mom, “Tell me again, Mom, about how you didn’t have the chance to go to school,” and she might lecture and shame you in the reply: “It’s because we didn’t have the same opportunity we have given you. So you better not mess up.”
But through patience, gentleness, and genuine curiosity, your parents might be convinced you are trying to know them and love them.
I like asking my parents about specific events in their past. They’ve shared about upbringing, family history, and work history. I learned about how they set out from Malaysia to settle in London and then the United States, living in Yonkers, Dallas, and now Southern California. Hearing their stories and seeing them laugh as they reminisce about hard times and joys made it all the more enjoyable when, on one family vacation, we went to visit my parents’ old apartment in Yonkers.
The more you get to know your parents, the more accurately you’ll be able to love them in word and deed.
The more you get to know your parents, the more accurately you’ll be able to love them in word and deed.3. Try to find and bond over interests.
My relationship with my dad took a turn for the better when he started teaching me how to follow the stock market and make trades. Though it was almost 20 years ago, I still remember him teaching me like it was yesterday.
Even though I haven’t traded on my own for more than a decade, the conversations with my dad about the market have continued. I’ll get to hear not only his financial analysis but also how he is doing with the market’s ups and downs.
Our conversations about finances have paid big dividends in our relationship as father and son. In these conversations, there are opportunities to encourage with biblical truth—to steward the money God has given us while not “[setting] our hopes on the uncertainty of riches, but on God, who richly provides us with everything to enjoy” (1 Tim. 6:17). It has also led our conversations in other directions in which we’ve continued to encourage each other.
Find and bond over your parents’ interests and yours. As you do things together (whether trying new restaurants, going hiking, or watching movies), focus on the relationship. Hear your parents out, make conversational efforts, and build memories.4. Genuinely seek wisdom.
Seeking your parents’ wisdom shows that you honor their experiences and opinions. I remember the first time I asked my parents for guidance. I was already 23 years old! What a fool I’d been for refusing to solicit their thoughts for so long.
Now, hearing their wisdom doesn’t always mean you need to heed it. If you’re living apart from your parents, one hopes they already understand that point. But they will appreciate it even more if you are living independently but still seeking their input.
There are so many things to ask them about, like what they would’ve done differently about marriage, parenting, their jobs, and so on. If they are Christians, ask them about how following Christ has affected their lives in relation to those categories. You might get great wisdom. You might not. But that’s okay. Just seeking your parents’ wisdom strengthens their confidence in you and demonstrates appreciation and respect, which honors them.5. Talk about Christ.
As a Christian, your ministry to your parents should be distinctly Christian—done in the love of Christ, speaking about the gospel of Christ, aiming for the glory of Christ.
If you are seeking to know them, bond over interests, and seek wisdom, you’ll have plenty of opportunities to talk from a Christian worldview about life’s most important things.
As a Christian, your ministry to your parents should be distinctly Christian—done in the love of Christ, speaking about the gospel of Christ, aiming for the glory of Christ.
Whether or not they are Christians, perhaps they might learn from you what it means to live a Christ-centered life in which the gospel transforms all facets of living in God’s world. You have the opportunity to represent your Lord and Savior as his ambassador, showing your parents that life ought to honor and be lived under the kingship of Christ.Honor Them
We know children are to honor their parents (Ex. 20:12; Eph. 6:1). In our younger years, this pretty much means submitting to their authority. But as we enter into adulthood, honoring our parents involves a measure of maturity and ministry.
So let us honor our parents and, in so doing, honor the Lord.
Do we have a two-party political system because we love binaries? Or do we love binaries because we have a two-party system? Maybe the answer is somewhere in between. And that’s just my point.
Our affinity for binaries could result from the influence of social media and the unprecedented platform to weigh in with public comment on every headline around the world at all times. News and trends today demand a response: Are you in or out? Are you for or against? Thumbs up or down? American democracy and capitalism catechize their citizens as arbiters of success. And that instinct extends to religion: Is this view right or wrong? Is this figure good or evil? Should I fight or join this cause?
The problem is that not every answer is clear, and not every choice is binary. It’s possible that both sides have a point. It’s possible that two people with the same theological views might also inhabit different contexts and experiences, and thus derive different emphases. One person has been conditioned to fear encroaching liberalism. Another person has been conditioned to fear complicit conservatism. Is either one wrong? Depends on the circumstances. Depends on the issue.
One person has been conditioned to fear encroaching liberalism. Another has been conditioned to fear complicit conservatism. Is either one wrong? Depends on the circumstances. Depends on the issue.
Right and wrong are absolute. But this side of Christ’s return we only know right and wrong from the explicit teaching of Scripture. And not every trend or news event can be evaluated solely on the basis of a biblical text. Wisdom demands prudence. And courage. And humility to love another with empathy that leads to understanding, even where conviction may lead us in separate directions.
Some entries on my 2018 list of top 10 theology stories are more strictly theological, and more clearly right or wrong, than others. At The Gospel Coalition we aim to show how the gospel of Jesus Christ affects all of life. And you’ll find assumptions and beliefs about God in each of these events and trends. Consider my list an admittedly foolhardy attempt—written from the vantage point of an American who subscribes to The Gospel Coalition’s confessional statement—to discern the most important theology stories of 2018.
You’ll see plenty of occasions to choose sides between right and wrong. But be careful not to demand an either/or where a both/and may be warranted.10. Missionary martyr leaves behind debate over methods, theology of evangelism.
Christians hold lots of controversial views. But we face the most incredulous opposition with our belief that apart from salvation in Jesus Christ, humanity will be judged by God in hell for eternity. And it’s not just hardened skeptics but many former evangelicals who denounced John Allen Chau after he was killed in his mission to evangelize the natives on North Sentinel Island, far off the coast of India. Among those who share Chau’s sense of urgency in fulfilling the Great Commission, debate ensued over what kind of training and assurances of possible success our churches should expect in the missionaries we support and commission.9. Unprecedented year of transition opens door for next generation of evangelical leadership.
Though Billy Graham had not recently been active in ministry, his death exposed the need for a rising generation of evangelical leadership, Graham’s own Southern Baptist Convention searched for new top executives at Southwestern Baptist Theological Seminary, the SBC Executive Committee, LifeWay Christian Resources, the International Mission Board, and New Orleans Baptist Theological Seminary. J. D. Greear won a convincing presidential election in the SBC as a vanguard for the rising generation. The path had been paved for him by an older generation of leaders such as Albert Mohler, who celebrated 25 years as president of The Southern Baptist Theological Seminary. The broader evangelical community likewise saw unprecedented leadership transition as vacancies opened for top positions at Moody Bible Institute, Beeson Divinity School, Willow Creek Community Church, Park Street Church, and Christianity Today International. Many of these jobs remain open as we look to 2019.8. Book publishing catches up with shift in apologetic concerns.
How can you answer objections to the Christian faith when an unbeliever wouldn’t even know enough to raise those objections? Apathy is a greater threat to our mission today than antagonism. That means we’ll need ordinary Christians equipped to listen well and ask their neighbors good questions that will help provoke deeper thoughts about the meaning and purpose of life. Thankfully publishers tapped experts from around the world to take up this challenge of evangelism in a skeptical age. Our distracted neighbors need a disruptive witness.7. Gay Christianity forces everyone to choose sides.
The clamor for clearer lines in the debate over so-called gay Christianity dates back at least to the Nashville Statement of 2017. Those demands grew much louder when a PCA church hosted the Revoice conference to encourage chaste gay and lesbian Christians. To some, the conference looked like a misguided and even dangerous attempt to address the idolatry of family at a time when public opinion in much of the world has swung against God’s created order. You haven’t seen the last of the clashes about whether the term “gay Christian” cedes the identity battle in a way that erodes biblical belief and practice.6. Tribalism wants to claim every square inch of American culture.
If a lone senator cries out in the wilderness against the tribalism that threatens to overtake our lives, does anyone hear him? The retirement of U.S. Supreme Court Justice Anthony Kennedy, advocate of the “sweet mystery of life” and principal defender of gay marriage and abortion on demand, led to the emotionally draining and enraging confirmation hearings for Justice Brett Kavanaugh. The church was no refuge from this year’s antagonism, with the polarizing appearance of Vice President Mike Pence at the annual meeting of the Southern Baptist Convention. Good news for principled pluralism came in the Supreme Court’s Masterpiece Cakeshop decision. But the year was characterized by the ever-creeping politicization and division of family, sports, entertainment, and church. With so much energy and money invested in dividing us, and in mobilizing Christians as partisans, we’ll need many more voices calling the church to prioritize the gospel above a worldly political agenda.5. Catholic abuse scandal worsens as conservative critique of Pope Francis intensifies.
Just when you think the Catholic abuse scandal can’t get worse, we see 1,356 pages showing how nearly every diocese in Pennsylvania covered up abuse over the last 70 years. And even Pope Francis was accused of covering up for a theological ally, Cardinal Theodore McCarrick, widely known to have abused young seminarians under his care. Even if Pope Francis had a record of reform in the abuse scandal, he’d still be under suspicion for trying to change church doctrine, particularly in sexual ethics. This year conservative critiques of Pope Francis raised the public specter of a Catholic civil war.4. Tough talk in the self-help genre attracts big crowds.
Call it the anti-Oprah, politically incorrect effect. But the most popular books of 2018 gave us rules and orders. Jordan Peterson offered 12 Rules for Life as an antidote to chaos and became according to at least one observer the “most influential public intellectual in the Western world right now.” Maybe even more popular among Christian readers is Rachel Hollis, whose Girl, Wash Your Face became probably the most widely discussed book in your church. Both books advocate elements of “moralistic therapeutic deism” and remind us that what passes among some today as Christian spirituality is neither Christian nor spiritual.3. Social justice strikes some as necessary implication and others as dangerous perversion of the gospel.
If we “just preach the gospel,” will society change? That’s the hope for many who denounce “social justice warriors” as abandoning proper focus on the gospel of salvation. If that’s true, does that mean evangelical churches weren’t preaching the gospel in Memphis 50 years ago when Martin Luther King Jr. was assassinated while protesting unjust wages and unsafe conditions for sanitation workers? There’s more agreement on the priority of evangelism than you might think in the debates over racial reconciliation on Twitter. The main disagreements come over the application or implications of the gospel, especially as it relates to social justice. Both sides see the gospel at stake with the wrong emphasis. And both sides are working to end injustice on earth. The real difference is how they prioritize issues such as abortion, religious freedom, mass incarceration, and officer-involved shootings.2. Popular pastor wants Christians to unhitch from the Old Testament.
The most generous interpretation of Andy Stanley, perhaps the most influential American pastor today, says he wants to work backward from an apologetic emphasis on Jesus and the resurrection before getting to the authority of Scripture and the witness of the Old Testament. More skeptically, he’s falling into a familiar trap of dichotomizing the God of the Old Testament from the God of the New Testament. Even his supporters should admit that the pastor famous for being a communication savant has contributed great confusion about the New Testament and orthodox approach to the old covenant, which has been fulfilled in Jesus Christ. If some have abused or tripped over the old covenant, we should labor in teaching to show them the better way modeled by so many of the church’s great exegetes.1. #MeToo claims major Christian leaders and elevates theologically rigorous advocate.
The fierce denials of Bill Hybels only temporarily deluded other Willow Creek leaders and ultimately worsened the epic decline of his famous church. The moral compromise of Hybels, so long an advocate of women in ministry even as he seduced some of them, led many to say it’s time to reckon with celebrity power. The willingness of the most popular and powerful female voices in the SBC forced a reckoning in America’s largest Protestant denomination that disgraced one of its longtime conservative leaders. From this wreckage emerged one of the most rigorous theological voices on a national stage in recent memory, as Rachel Denhollander brought a biblical account of justice to bear on maybe the biggest scandal in the history of amateur American athletics.
In a previous article, I have sketched the Old Testament background for John’s use of “sign” (σημεῖον) in his Gospel as essentially twofold: (1) the “signs and wonders” performed by Moses at the exodus; and (2) prophetic signs predicting Yahweh’s future judgment on the people of Israel (see, e.g., Isa. 20:3). Importantly, while the former manifestations were miraculous, the latter were not. The Synoptic Gospels present Jesus’s mighty works as “miracles” (δυνάμεις); John discourages faith in “signs and wonders” (John 4:48) and replaces “miracle” with “signs” terminology. Transparently, this is done to recast the function of Jesus’s works beyond their miraculous nature to point to Jesus’s messianic identity.
While in the Synoptics Jesus’s works, as miracles, attest him as the divine Son of God who has authority over nature, sickness, death, and the evil supernatural, in John Jesus’s works, as signs, have a deeper significance as signposts to Jesus’s messianic identity. This is predicated upon the belief that it was possible, even common, for Jesus’s contemporaries to witness his miracles and yet to miss the signs (i.e., the miracle’s deeper, messianic significance). The crowds ate the loaves and the fishes and had their stomachs filled but their hearts remained empty. The Jewish leaders, tragically, pressed for another sign, failing to observe the significance of the feat they had just witnessed (6:30; cf. 2:18; 12:36b–37).
In my previous article, I argued that John’s “signs” theology was thus broader than that of “miracle” and included not only miraculous works but at least one manifestation that is non-miraculous as well—the clearing of the Jerusalem temple by Jesus (2:13–22). Yet, while non-miraculous, this act serves as a Johannine sign nonetheless in that it conveys prophetically, in Isaianic style, God’s future judgment on the people of Israel, in the present case the destruction of the central national sanctuary in the Jewish capital.
Last month Leland Ryken recommended “3 Classic Poems Every Christian Should Read” and Karen Swallow Prior proposed “8 Works of Fiction Every Christian Should Read.” To these suggestions I’d add the “One Short Story Every Christian Should Read.” I’d also like to walk you through a close reading of the story.
Both Ryken and Prior are esteemed professors of English, while I am not. They have developed their ability to analyze literature in ways that I have not. They are, in other words, qualified for the task in a manner that, again, I am not.
However, there’s often value in learning from a peer whose skill is closer to one’s own. This is particularly true when it comes to engaging in works of literary art. When we see it done by someone like us, the task seems less daunting. We also see how to avoid the two common temptations when engaging with cultural works: interpretative relativism (i.e., no individual’s interpretation is better than any others) or an over-reliance of expertise (e.g., that interpreting literature is best left to the professors).How to Read Closely
The approach I want to recommend is close reading, a method that, as Alan Jacobs (yet another lauded professor of English) says, is the one essential practice of all study of literature and writing: disciplined attentiveness.
Close reading is a necessary—I would even say the necessary—skill in literary study (and in the reading component of composition classes) for one overwhelming reason: it teaches people that easy judgments made on the basis of superficial acquaintance with a text are worthless. What you (or I!) have to say about a text isn’t worth hearing unless it is demonstrably based on thorough, attentive, careful reading—close reading.
The method is simple: read the story with a disciplined attentiveness, think about what you read, and then consider your response. To develop our skill in close reading, I want to practice on what I consider the best short story in the English language, Flannery O’Connor’s “Parker’s Back.” (The story is included in the short story collection Everything That Rises Must Converge, and a PDF copy can be found online here.) What makes this story ideal for this exercise is that it’s loaded with allusions, symbols, and meaning. It can bear the weight of close scrutiny.
Before you continue to my assessment, please first read the story. It’s only 16 pages, so even slow readers like me can read it two to three times within an hour. My explanation of the test is not meant to replace your own, but rather to serve as an example of what a close reading can reveal—even for those of us with no special skill in literary interpretation. Also, be warned the story contains an instance of profanity and use of racist language.Parker Marries Legalism
The story opens with two words—“Parker’s wife”—that throughout the story will serve as a contrast to the “Parker’s back” of the title. His wife, Sarah Ruth, is the embodiment of legalistic religion. Like legalism, she is drab and dour, judgmental and disapproving. And like legalism, she needs hate to provide herself with meaning.
To fulfill his own need for religion, O. E. Parker committed to this woman—and therefore to legalism—because he felt he had not other choice. Now he stays for the same reason. He feels bound to her and the religion she represents, which leads him to feel shame and self-loathing.
He first meets his wife when his truck breaks down on the side of the road. For no apparent reason than that sin is provoked by law, he unleashes a string of profanity, and in response is slapped and chastised for his blasphemy. He initially thinks the sudden violence is an encounter with a heavenly being (a “giant hawk-eyed angel wielding a hoary weapon”), but it is only Sarah Ruth.Encounter with the Sublime
At the age of 14, Parker has an encounter similar to what Edmund Burke called the sublime. (See this two-minute video for a helpful explanation of the difference between the beautiful and the sublime.) Seeing the tattooed man awakens his own sense of existence and changes the direction of his life in a way that he couldn’t predict. Parker starts tattooing his own body, because he wants to recapture the encounter with the sublime, a yearning for God that he doesn’t yet recognize. Like many unredeemed people, he’s desperately searching to fill the spiritual hole in his soul that can only be filled by God. In Parker’s case, he is filling the space in his soul by filling the physical space on his body.Hot Breath of the Burning Tree
Parker—whose initials we later learn stand for Obadiah Elihue—is alternately drawn to and repulsed by his wife, because her legalistic religiosity provides him a representation of the encounter with the God he seeks. In marrying Sarah Ruth he joins his life to her “religion” (in reality, to her legalism), and finds it to be just unsatisfying as most people who join legalistic churches and find a dead faith inside.
Eventually, Parker’s dissatisfaction with this false religion (embodied in his wife) grows so great that he thinks he can only fill the void with yet another tattoo. That’s when he has a true religious experience, a holy encounter similar to Moses’s burning bush.
He could feel the hot breath of the burning tree on his face. He scrambled backwards, still sitting, his eyes cavernous, and if he had known how to cross himself he would have done it. [emphasis added]Parker Searches for God in a Tattoo Parlor
Rather than returning home to seek solace from his wife, he drives to a tattoo parlor. He thinks he needs a tattoo about God, but what he’s really seeking is God himself:
“Who are you interested in?” he said, “saints, angels, Christs or what?”
“God,” Parker said.
“Father, Son or Spirit?”
“Just God,” Parker said impatiently. “Christ. I don’t care. Just so it’s God.”
In seeking God, he rejects the happy-clappy versions of God, which he has already encountered through his encounter with religious people:
Some of them he recognized—The Good Shepherd, Forbid Them Not, The Smiling Jesus, Jesus the Physician’s Friend, but he kept turning rapidly backwards and the pictures became less and less reassuring. [emphasis added]
Parker isn’t looking for God to reassure him with some “I’m okay, you’re okay” prosperity gospel nonsense. He knows God commands obedience—“The eyes that were now forever on his back were eyes to be obeyed.” The voice of God not only tells him which tattoo to choose but also gives him a command (“GO BACK”—this is the one [or The One] to go on his back).
Unlike an encounter with the kitschy “friendly Jesus,” this is an encounter with the truly sublime, an experience that evokes terror and trembling. Through the encounter he experiences death and resurrection with Christ. This is his conversion experience.Haunted by the Face of God
However, Parker is hesitant to accept his new reality. He initially refuses to look at the tattoo, and even denies he is “saved.” He doesn’t want to admit he’s a new man: “It was as if he were himself but a stranger to himself, driving into a new country though everything he saw was familiar to him, even at night.”
He tries to go back to his old religion (his wife), thinking that she’ll be pleased and that she’ll help him make sense of the encounter. But Sarah Ruth—or more accurately, God himself—won’t let Parker go back to his old life. He can’t even go inside until he admits he’s a new man. He has to confess his full name—and his new role: Obadiah (servant of God) Elihue (My God is He).
Parker begs his wife to look upon the “face of God,” but in her pharisaical fanaticism, she’s doesn’t recognize God at all. Instead, she beats him until “large welts had formed on the face of the tattooed Christ.”
The story ends with this meaning-packed sentence: “There he was—who called himself Obadiah Elihue–leaning against the tree, crying like a baby.” The one who called himself the servant of God was leaning against the tree (relying on the cross) and weeping like a baby (crying like a being who has been “born again”).
The title of the story, “Parker’s Back”, has a dual meaning, referring back to Parker’s physical back, on which the image of Christ is tattooed, and that “Parker is back”—he was a lost sheep, but now O. E. Parker is back in the fold of God.
By some estimates, between one-quarter to one-third of the Bible takes the form of poetry. Books like the Psalms, Song of Solomon, and Job devote themselves entirely to the genre and many of Jesus’s teachings appear in poetic form. Nonetheless, many people today struggle to embrace the medium, finding it either simplistic and clichéd or obscured beyond meaning.
Not only has poetry played an important role in the presentation of Scripture, it has also taken on prominence throughout the history of Christianity. Believers have used poetry to produce everything from hymns to epic narratives in order to communicate truths about God and faith through the beauty of literature. It’s a style that requires patience and attention, which may explain why so many struggle with it today. But it stirs readers emotionally in ways that little else can.
The Soul in Paraphrase: A Treasury of Classic Devotional Poems, compiled by Leland Ryken, is a helpful companion to those well-versed in poetry as well as those with little experience who hope to better understand the genre. Drawing on decades of expertise, Ryken has gathered the best devotional poems in the English language into one convenient book, accompanied by his keen insights and commentary. He answered a few questions from me about this new publication.What is the practical significance of devotional poetry in the life of a believer?
Many answers are possible, but I will limit myself to three.
First, devotional poets are our representatives, giving expression to our own spiritual experiences and feelings. The unexpressed life is an incomplete life, and poets are our allies in making sure this doesn’t happen.
Second, John Milton correctly claimed that devotional poetry has the ability to set the affections—our feelings and mental attitudes—”in right tune.” Another English poet, William Wordsworth, expressed the same general idea when he said that a good poet rectifies people’s feelings. The effect of a devotional poem is to calibrate some aspect of our spiritual life.
The unexpressed life is an incomplete life, and poets are our allies in making sure this doesn’t happen.
Third, if we read enough devotional poetry, that reading will take us to corners of the spiritual life that might otherwise remain unvisited. For example, in compiling my anthology I was surprised by how many poems contemplate what our impending death will be like or what the actual moment of dying will be like.You have enjoyed a long career as a professor of literature and a literary critic. What role has poetry played in your life? In particular, how has it shaped you spiritually?
My inner literary compass led me from the beginning of my travels in the realms of gold (John Keats’s magical metaphor for reading literature) to prefer poetry to narrative. That being the case, poetry has been the baseline of my literary career.
Since I naturally relished devotional poetry most of all (though certainly not to the neglect of other poetry), I can see what a major influence devotional poetry has been in my spiritual life. That input has often come unsought in the sense that I was just doing my job as a teacher of literature.
The formula that comes to my mind is the statement from Isaiah 28:10 about “line upon line, here a little, there a little,” with the accumulated effect of devotional poetry being a major part of the spiritual atmosphere in which I have lived and moved and had my being.In your introduction to The Soul in Paraphrase, you lament what you term “versified prose,” which you have found common in existing anthologies of Christian poetry. What is “versified prose”? And how does it fail to enrich a reader the way great devotional poetry does?
To analyze this in detail would take more space than I have at my disposal. The quick answer is to taste and see, that is, read a devotional passage of expository prose and then a devotional poem by George Herbert or John Milton. The prose passage appeals to our minds only, and it’s likely to tell us what we already know.
Devotional poetry by the masters speaks to us at multiple levels—emotional, intellectual, and imaginative. It activates us to ponder and interpret the images and figures of speech. It awakens our emotions. It adds a layer of verbal beauty that often makes it unforgettable and therefore a permanent possession. A devotional piece that lacks these qualities strikes us as thin and quickly forgotten.
What about versified prose? I use this to designate a piece of writing that is expressed in verse form with lines and rhyme, but that lacks the imagery and figurative language and verbal beauty and meditative richness that poetry possesses.Many people today, including Christians, find poetry difficult to understand and often inaccessible. What do you consider the obstacles that discourage modern readers from embracing poetry? What can people do to overcome these obstacles?
The first thing I want to do with these questions is excise the word modern from the equation. There is absolutely nothing that makes poetry more difficult for moderns than for people of past eras. In fact, our modern preference for brief modes of discourse has equipped us well to handle poetry.
On the day on which I introduce poetry in my literature courses, I ask my students how they know that God intends them to understand and enjoy poetry. The answer is that approximately a third of the Bible comes to us in poetic form (including the discourses of Jesus, which rely heavily on imagery, metaphor, and symbol).
There is absolutely nothing that makes poetry more difficult for moderns than for people of past eras.
The chief obstacles that keep people from poetry are (1) laziness in learning how to read and understand poetry and (2) determining that poetry is inaccessible without giving it a try.
Here are three ways to overcome the obstacles:
(1) take seriously the implications of God’s giving us a Bible that is heavily poetic;
(2) get a “primer” on the nature of poetry so you know what to look for in a poem; and
(3) realize that poetry requires a “slow read”—living with the text instead of seeing how quickly you can move on to something else.
Mastering a devotional poem by a famous English or American poet requires nothing beyond what mastering a psalm requires. Stated the other way, if you can possess Psalm 23, you can possess Milton’s sonnet on his blindness.What are the particular qualities of poetry that make it stand out from other genres?
It is my practice when introducing any genre of literature to stress that all the genres belong to a master genre, namely, literature itself. A poem shares certain literary qualities with stories and plays and reflective essays. Within that parameter, poetry has the following distinctive qualities.
(1) It is more compressed than other genres, packing in more content and artistry per line. I am fond of the formula of C. S. Lewis that poetry possesses line-by-line deliciousness.
I am fond of the formula of C. S. Lewis that poetry possesses line-by-line deliciousness.
(2) All literature presents human experience concretely rather than abstractly, but poetry does this even more than other genres. Poets think in images and figures of speech, so readers need to do the same when reading poetry.
(3) Poets aim even more than storytellers to pack elements of artistry and beauty into their compositions. Devotional poet Gerard Manley Hopkins claimed that this element of beauty in a poem is even more important than the content of a poem (surely an overstatement). American poet Robert Frost called a poem “a performance in words,” analogous to a musical or athletic performance.
(4) In a day when (according to surveys) most Americans feel rushed most or all of the time, a poem offers the possibility of slowing down and letting the quality of experience exceed the quantity of experience. A poem keeps unfolding meanings and nuances and beauties the longer we contemplate it. Compared to this richness and multiplicity, other genres tend to carry their meaning on the surface and offer less total substance.
“The main things are the plain things. When I’m teaching in a church context where they actually don’t know much about the Trinity for some reason, I try really hard to make sure I’m not a visiting Trinity salesman who alone has the word of truth. I don’t want them to think, We weren’t even Christians until that guy showed up and talked about the Trinity for an hour.”— Fred Sanders
Date: October 17, 2018
Event: TGC 2018 West Coast Conference
You can listen to this episode of The Gospel Coalition podcast here.
- Two Reasons the Trinity Matters (Justin Dillehay)
- How the Trinity Should Shape Evangelism (Erik Raymond)
- How Is the Trinity Central to the Gospel? (Ligon Duncan, Gavin Ortlund, Scott Swain)
Find more audio and video from the 2018 West Coast Conference on the conference media page.
One of the great surprises of a difficult and surprising book comes in its final chapter, when YHWH states that Job spoke rightly about him, unlike Eliphaz, Bildad, and Zophar (42:7). This is, of course, the exact opposite of how one might expect the Lord to evaluate the debate between Job and three friends. Job’s friends have repeatedly defended God’s perfect justice and given Job counsel which, at least some of the time, appears to be supported elsewhere in Scripture (compare Job 5:17 with Prov. 3:11–12). Much in contrast, Job accuses God of attacking him with terrifying violence (16:9–14) for no reason (9:17). Extrapolating outward from his tragedy as narrated in chs. 1–2, Job names God an amoral tyrant who destroys everyone regardless of moral character (9:22), who laughs at good people when they suffer disaster (v. 23), and deliberately frustrates the execution of justice in the world (v. 24; see further 12:13–25). In Job’s horrifying new vision of the universe, God is a moral monster, and his creation a kind of inner city ghetto, filled with the unanswered screams of the innocent (21:7–34).
In what possible sense could Job have spoken rightly about God? In considering this question, it should be admitted from the outset that the Lord’s vindication of Job’s speech over against that of the friends cannot imply total approval of everything Job has said—after all, although God never accuses Job of any sin, he does begin both of his speeches by issuing a clear challenge to Job (38:2–3, 40:7–8). Job responds in kind by admitting he spoke about wonders too great for him (42:3) and repenting in dust and ashes (42:6). Surely it is no accident that God vindicates Job before his three accusers only after Job makes this confession: as Rick Moore says, “Job says, ‘I have been wrong,’ whereupon God says, ‘You have been right.’” But since Job speaks more about himself than God in 42:1–6, God’s approval of Job’s speech cannot be referring only to Job’s final response in 42:1–6. The comparison with the friends implies that the Lord is referring to the debate in chapters 3–31—which only exacerbates the problem of his seeming approval of Job’s speech.
Is it time for a change? This is the central question of Francis Chan’s latest book, Letters to the Church. “From the very beginning, the church has always needed pruning. We’ve always needed reformers and reformations . . . to call us back to what we were meant to be” (189). From Chan’s perspective, it’s time to “kill the consumer mindset in the church” (190).
His essential argument is that the American church needs to return to the biblical basics we observe in the New Testament. Instead, church leaders are following a formula for growth: you need great music (preferably by someone wearing skinny jeans), moving lights, compelling preachers, incredible childcare, and, most importantly, hot coffee (44). But is this all you need? Or better yet, is this what you need? Has the church, by having these things, compromised the biblical model?Form vs. Substance
Letters rightly pushes us to leave behind the unnecessary tips, tricks, routines, and traditions we’ve elevated above God in an effort to reach people. Chan argues that much of the Western church has sought “to experience biblical awe without biblical devotion” (56). We attempt to create amazing productions that we call worship services, but leave behind ministry to orphans and widows, service to the poor, equipping for personal evangelism, and more.
But Letters conflates form and substance in much of its critique of American church culture. Chan relates this story:
There is a simple exercise I walk through with church leaders. First, I have them list all the things that people expect from their church. They usually list obvious things like a really good service, strong age-specific ministries, a certain style/volume/length of singing, a well-communicated sermon, conveniences such as parking, a clean church building, coffee, childcare, etc. Then I have them list the commands God gave the church in Scripture. . . . .
Far too often we are more concerned with how well the sermon was communicated, whether the youth group is relevant enough, or how to make the music better. Honestly, what is it that gets people in your church stirred up for change? Is it disobedience toward commands from God? Or is it falling short of expectations that we have made up? The answer to these questions might just show us whether our church exists to please God or please people. (46–47, emphasis mine)
Many of the concerns Chan lists (sermons, music, programs) fall into the form category, about which the Bible says remarkably little. Surprisingly, it’s this lack of instruction that has helped Christianity to endure thousands of years and cross countless cultures. In fact, much of the book of Acts is about the church recognizing the cultural elasticity of their religious practices (think Acts 15:1–32).
Can your church be unapologetically attractional in form and robustly biblical in substance?
At the same time, Chan puts forward the biblical example of the early church in Acts 2, and their devotion to the Scriptures/teaching, fellowship, communion, and prayer (along with missions), as practices that should be the primary pillars of churches (54–62, 176–80). Such pillars are what I’d call the substance of the church.
I wholeheartedly agree that our churches should be putting these pillars front and center in our body and worship life. Like Chan, I also think many churches don’t do this. We mustn’t lose the substance of what it means to be a church. But are substance and form mutually exclusive in every case? Can your church be attractive in form yet still robustly biblical in substance?Removing Offenses
We Reformed types often pit faithfulness against fruitfulness, so that it appears almost as if we celebrate small churches for being small. We think faithfulness means preaching God’s truth, paying no attention to what the culture thinks, because only God converts. That sounds nice on the face of it; the only problem is it’s not biblical.
The apostle Paul was both God-centered and people-sensitive. Galatians 1 shows a man radically zealous for the purity of the gospel and the glory of God, while 1 Corinthians 9 shows the same man radically zealous for the evangelization of the lost. And both truly are radical.
In the first case, the gospel is deeply offensive and will turn many away. In the second, Paul is changing his eating habits, worship practices, language, and clothes so that “by all means [he] might save some” (1 Cor. 9:22). Paul understands that the gospel carries its own offense; our role is to remove any unnecessary offenses or distractions from the gospel.
We Reformed types often pit faithfulness against fruitfulness, so that it appears almost as if we celebrate small churches for being small.
The questions are, then, does having a certain kind of music or atmosphere help remove unnecessary offenses and distractions, or create them? Have these efforts to remove distractions actually replaced the substance of our mission, or enhanced its clarity and effectiveness?
We should seek to be both faithful and fruitful, and lament when any church leaves behind one for the other.Descriptive vs. Prescriptive
When reading the Bible, narrative may be the most difficult genre to interpret accurately and with precision. We have to figure out which parts are descriptive and which are prescriptive for our present moment. Chan seems to approach the narratives of the early church in Acts as primarily prescriptive for the church today, which allows him to conflate form and substance. He writes, “Our parameters for church expression must revert back to what is biblical rather than sticking to what is normal at this cultural moment” (181).
Chan isn’t the first to make this move (Platt, Hirsch, Cole). But what’s the controlling hermeneutical principle behind it? If you look outside of Acts, do you see direct (or even indirect) imperatives in the New Testament about how large church gatherings should be, or about the use of things like stages, sound systems, lights, or gifted musicians?
If the rest of the New Testament is relatively silent on these things, this should chasten our readiness to elevate every aspect of how the early church formed, met, and grew as normative for us today (John Piper reasons along the same lines here).
The underlying critique in this review can be boiled down to the need to consider context. I actually agree with almost everything Chan writes about the substance of what our churches should be. I even agree that many contemporary churches have lost sight of what it truly means to be a worshiping community. But none of these realities about substance dictates a specific strategy or form.
Pastors should adapt their strategies to their context. If we take modern Western church-growth methodologies and apply them in large Western cities, closed countries, or the first century, then the church’s effectiveness will likely be limited (181–92). But this reality is less about this model’s relative biblical fidelity and more about its cultural suitability. Conversely, if we take the exact model we observe from the descriptive account of Acts, and apply it in certain Western cities and cultures, there may be a similar level of ineffectiveness.
Overall, there may be many church leaders in America today who need to hear Chan’s impassioned plea to biblical fidelity, and I suspect that’s why he felt the need to write the book. But I fear what Letters offers as a potential solution is more reaction than reformation.
Movies have always found drama in thievery. From early silent films like The Great Train Robbery (1903), 1960s classics like The Italian Job (1969) and Bonnie and Clyde (1967), to last year’s Logan Lucky and Baby Driver, the heist has been a reliably crowd-pleasing genre. Audiences clearly find pleasure in watching colorful bands of criminals elaborately break the Bible’s eighth commandment: “You shall not steal” (Ex. 20:15). But why?
Is it because we thrill at watching renegade outlaws triumph over “the man” (whether represented by a bank or greedy politician or corrupt casino owner) in a sort of twisted expression of justice? Perhaps the thrill of watching brazen acts of thievery distracts us from the ways we are all subtly breaking the eighth commandment—if not as outright thieves than as greedy hoarders and ungenerous stooges. After all, as Kevin DeYoung writes in his new book on The Ten Commandments, the eighth commandment “enjoins us not only to refrain from taking things but to have a spirit of generosity, so that we love to give things and help those in need.”
Audiences clearly find pleasure in watching colorful bands of criminals elaborately break the Bible’s eighth commandment: ‘You shall not steal.’ But why?
Whatever the reasons, Hollywood keeps churning out films that mine drama from the transgression of “you shall not steal.” Four of the most acclaimed 2018 films, for example, take thievery as inspiration: American Animals, The Old Man and the Gun, Widows, and Shoplifters. Each approaches the topic from a different angle; each evaluates the morality of its thief characters in a distinct way. By briefly considering these four films in light of the eighth commandment, we observe interesting dynamics not only about the nature of theft, but also the nature of our society.American Animals
American Animals is the only one that unequivocally disapproves of the actions of its thief protagonists (which is not to say it doesn’t try to understand them). The film, directed by British documentary filmmaker Bart Layton (The Imposter), is part documentary, part live-action drama. It tells the wild true story of four college-aged men in Kentucky who, in 2004, attempted to execute an outlandish heist from a rare-books library at Transylvania University. The film goes back and forth between actors (Evan Peters, Barry Keoghan, Jared Abrahamson, and Blake Jenner) dramatizing the heist, and the real perpetrators reflecting to the camera about how they did it, and why.
And why is a fascinating question. These were suburban, middle-class boys with no need for what they were attempting to steal. The value of what they sought to steal was beside the point. By the end of the film it becomes clear their motives were largely driven by boredom, wanting to transcend the humdrum of their lives by doing something—something Oceans 11-esque!—that would make their lives noteworthy.
Life imitating art is a real dynamic for these boys, as it is for the film itself (which opts for actors and thrilling heist tropes rather than a straightforward documentary). The “heist cool” of movie mythology drives these boys, as does—the film suggests in its title—a more primal masculine need for danger and risk. For the boys of American Animals, the safe domesticity of suburban life is stifling. Even if their movie-like heist resulted in prison (as it did), it would be worth it, they assumed. They did something. They’re famous. Hollywood actors are playing them in an acclaimed movie. Like the affluent thieves of Sofia Coppola’s The Bling Ring (2013), the privileged boys of American Animals are greedy not for possessions so much as celebrity and thrill. This type of privileged greed makes these boys an easier target than other, more utilitarian types of thieves (see Shoplifters and Widows below), but it’s a type of greed we can see in ourselves. In this world of spotlight-grabbing, platform-building, “like my photo!” online busking, the siren song of celebrity can be a potent motivator for all manner of transgression.The Old Man and the Gun
Like American Animals, David Lowery’s The Old Man and the Gun is based on a true story. Robert Redford (in what’s touted as his final film performance) plays Forrest Tucker, a career criminal who robbed countless banks—and escaped prison countless times—over seven decades. Also like American Animals, Lowery’s film offers a meta reflection on the glamorization of thievery in pop culture. The casting of Redford, whose screen career includes several iconic thief/outlaw performances (e.g., Butch Cassidy and the Sundance Kid, The Sting), underscores this point. Fittingly for Redford, his final starring role is that of a genteel, ever-so-cool thief whose hat tip and smiley wink warms the hearts of audiences as much as it does the bank managers he holds up at gunpoint.
The Old Man and the Gun is largely ambivalent about the morality of theft, which functions in the film mostly as a fun genre motif. Similar to American Animals, theft is committed mostly for the pleasure and fame (or infamy) it brings. Tonally, the film is lighthearted and fun; more poetic than pulpy. It’s a cops-and-robbers story (Casey Affleck plays the cop) in which the cop and robber have mutual affection; so joyful are they about pursuing and evading each other that neither wants the drama to end. The movie is less a morality tale than an homage to cinema itself. With its grainy film stock and vintage sepia palette, the film’s 1970s aesthetic reinforces its reflexive nostalgia.
As a love letter to Redford and the heist genre, Old Man is certainly delightful. But the film is problematic in how casually it treats the (serious) criminality of its hero. Portrayed mostly as an upstanding business man (whose business happens to be bank robbery), Redford’s character is only critiqued by the film in a brief scene where we meet a daughter (Elisabeth Moss) he never knew. Here the film hints at the tragic collateral damage and relational fallout of individual sin. Theft (like any sin) is never only consequential for the thief. Sin is less like a bullet and more like a bomb. There are victims all around, countless lives affected by it—a reality largely unacknowledged and unseen in this film.
Sin is less like a bullet and more like a bomb. There are victims all around, countless lives affected by it.Widows
The collateral damage of breaking the eighth commandment is powerfully seen in Widows, a visceral and violent (rated R) new film from Steve McQueen (12 Years a Slave). Set in contemporary Chicago, Widows has a twist-heavy plot that follows three women (Viola Davis, Michelle Rodriguez, and Elizabeth Debicki) who are widowed after their thief husbands die in a heist gone bad. Their deaths leave the women shackled with massive debts to deadly mobsters. In a sad perversion of the biblical emphasis on caring for widows in their vulnerable state (e.g. James 1:27), in this film the widows are forced to look out for themselves. In order to come up with the money to pay the debt (and threatened if they go to the police), they decide their only option is to carry out their own heist, based on plans their husbands left behind.
Sin begets sin; thievery begets thievery. That’s one theme of Widows, a film about systemic and cyclical sin. As much about class, race, politics, and privilege as it is about heists, Widows presents a fallen world where thievery is just part of life; everyone is stealing or having something stolen. It’s a dog-eat-dog world, and survival means being the last one with the power or the money. Seething with rage from our #MeToo moment (each of the women is abused or exploited by men at some point in the film), #BlackLivesMatter, and driven by the logic of intersectionality, the film presents the band of widows as heroines—their heist justified by the personal and systemic oppression that has left them vulnerable. The money they steal is dirty money, to be sure, and the person they steal it from had stolen it from others himself. But does that justify the women stealing it too? Doesn’t the money belong to somebody who actually earned it?
Sin begets sin; thievery begets thievery.
Widows presents a depressing world where almost no one keeps the eighth commandment. It’s a dog-eat-dog world where greed and self-interest dominate; where the powerful feel entitled to take whatever they want, whether money or land or sexualized bodies. All the victimized can do—the film suggests in brazenly Marxist terms—is fight fire with fire, stealing back what has been stolen from them.Shoplifters
Perhaps the most critically beloved film of these four, Shoplifters (directed by acclaimed Japanese filmmaker Hirokazu Kore-eda) tells the story of a nontraditional family of six in contemporary Japan. They are nontraditional in various ways revealed as the film progresses, but chiefly because they are all thieves. Throughout the film we see members of the family steal everything from shampoo and fishing poles to Pachinko balls for slot machines. The thievery of the family also extends to people. Early in the film they kidnap a young girl whom they soon enlist in their family’s shoplifting schemes.
Kore-eda is less interested in judging this family for their thievery (among other sins) than he is in examining their humanity and empathizing with their working-class plight. His camera tenderly captures them watching fireworks, playing at the beach, slurping noodles together, delighting in one another amidst difficult circumstances. Their shoplifting ways are presented as just one among many quotidian realities of their existence. Impoverished and living together in cramped, squalid quarters, many in the family have blue-collar jobs, but apparently they don’t pay enough to make ends meet. To be sure, Kore-eda does not excuse their criminal choices. The family’s moral justifications for their theft (“Whatever’s in a store doesn’t belong to anyone yet.” . . . “As long as the store doesn’t go bankrupt.”) are not convincing, and it takes a child in the family—Shota (Jyo Kairi), forced into shoplifting from a young age—to raise conscience concerns. “Don’t these belong to someone?” he asks his dad (Lily Franky) as he is about to break a car window to steal something inside.
By the end of Shoplifters—which won the top prize at the 2018 Cannes Film Festival—the family of thieves do face justice for their sinful actions. But the film remains mostly sympathetic to them, faulting the system that produced them as much as their own individual bad choices. In this way Shoplifters, like the other three films to various degrees, reflects the zeitgeist—where personal culpability for sin is far less discussed than systemic culpability.Thievery’s Opposite
Whatever the situational motivations that give rise to it—boredom, glory, debts, poverty—to steal is ultimately to take what doesn’t belong to you. It’s an individual choice to take a shortcut: to get instantly what might be earned through slower-yet-honest work.
“Let the thief no longer steal, but rather let him labor,” Paul writes in Ephesians 4:28, “doing honest work with his own hands, so that he may have something to share with anyone in need.”
The flipside of thievery is generosity. The former is a self-centered act with little concern for those hurt along the way. The latter is a selfless act, giving away what has been rightfully earned. In contrast to the dark, dog-eat-dog kingdoms of earth illustrated in these four films, the kingdom of God is one of radical generosity, driven by the conviction that “one’s life does not consist in the abundance of his possessions” (Luke 12:15) and that the tangible-but-fragile treasures of this world pale in comparison to treasures in heaven, “where thieves do not break in and steal” (Matt 6:20).
We plant churches because we want to see the gospel transform people from all backgrounds. No pedigree, no amount of money, no special kind of status will make anyone right with God. Only by grace through faith in Christ are sinners saved (Eph. 2:4–10).
Tragically, however, many of the hardest places in the world are overlooked by Christ’s church. This is the case with inner cities across America.
American inner cities are often characterized by poverty, crime, drugs, gangs, and more. They’re often marked by systemic injustice and oppression. And many of the country’s roughest inner cities have seen decades pass with few gospel-centered churches seeking to actively reach them.
Thankfully, this is changing. Churches are slowly waking up to the great gospel need in such communities. Today, I’m excited to welcome Jerome Gay on the podcast to talk about church planting in the inner city.
You can listen to this podcast episode here.
J. P. Moreland
Can we confidently believe anything that can’t be demonstrated in a science lab? What if much that passes for science isn’t really science after all? And what, then, of its criticisms of Christianity? These are the questions Moreland presses, and he presses them wonderfully well with eminent clarity. Very highly recommended. This book was long overdue, it’s easily accessible to all readers, and there’s no real substitute for the subject.
Michael J. McClymond
Baker Academic, 2018
2 volumes; 1,376 pages
It’s not often we see a genuine contribution of this magnitude in theological discussion. An unprecedented display and analysis of the doctrine of universal salvation as it has been variously approached and taught through the centuries. The scope and depth of McClymond’s research is breathtaking. I can’t imagine another book ever coming along that will displace this work as the standard on the subject.
10 Publishing, 2017
This book was released at the end of last year. I hadn’t noticed it until recently, but it’s a unique book that deserves mention. You’re likely at least somewhat familiar with Derek Prime’s writings on various biblical studies, and here he takes a distinctly pastoral tone to counsel those approaching the “senior” years. This book is just superb, rich with insightful application of biblical instruction to older Christians. In truth, it should be read while you’re still young. An excellent, remarkably profitable, and needed book suited to you and everyone you know.
Timothy D. Padgett
Lexham Press, 2018
This is a landmark new book of American evangelical thought about World War II, Korea, Vietnam, and American foreign policy from 1937 to 1979. Padgett surveys and analyzes evangelical spokesmen in their own words and demonstrates that your stereotype is likely too simplistic. For the history of American evangelical thought and for the study of Christian attitudes toward war this book is a must.
Evangelical Press, 2018
John Blanchard’s writings are some of the most popular for serious yet accessible contemporary evangelism. A reliable author who has spent much time learning Scripture and defending the faith, his outreach-related booklets and books are always worth the price of admission. This new little book is no exception—an excellent resource and an enjoyable read for the believer and unbeliever alike.
David B. Capes
Baker Academic, 2018
Just what do we mean—and what should we have in mind—when we confess that Jesus is Lord? And just what is the relation between Jesus and the LORD (all caps, Yahweh)? This book analyzes these questions from the viewpoint of the apostle Paul and his use of “Lord” in his writings. Capes does some important spade work and provides firm exegetical grounding for a “high” Christology rooted in the earliest of Christian (New Testament) confessions.
Honestly, this shouldn’t be so hard.
But for a good majority of “unchurched” or “outsiders” coming through our church doors, we often make it real hard. Their status as “clearly not insiders” is glaring from the moment they’re greeted by either an overly enthusiastic team of awkward cheerleaders inviting them into the happiest place on earth, or a holy huddle of scary-eyed rabbits praying they don’t have to make eye contact with the newbies.
The reason I begin here is because it’s where the journey often begins for the unbeliever coming to your church.
So what can we do to help outsiders feel like welcome, without turning church into a preference-driven smorgasbord of gospel-lite hors d’oeuvres? In other words, how do we make the gospel comprehensible to those who’ve had little or no relationship to it? My suggestion is simply this: We use gospel hospitality to extend an invitation to gospel reality.Gospel Hospitality
Comfort doesn’t have to be a seven-letter curse word in the church. The first thought that likely enters the mind of a person when they enter a church is Am I going to feel comfortable here? It’s a good question. Here are two simple ways we can show gospel hospitality in the church.
Be friendly. Most outsiders are going to have little problem with Christians who are genuinely warm and kind to them. It’s tragic how many churches struggle in this area. I’ve come to realize that friendliness actually needs to be taught.
I’ve come to realize that friendliness actually needs to be taught.
At our church, we have a deaconess of hospitality named Jillian, who teaches our people how to be friendly. Friendliness should never be assumed. Church members need to know that showing Christ’s love begins by taking a genuine, hospitable interest in the people God brings to us.
Be helpful. Walking into a new church can be confusing. Regardless of how big or small your building is, to an outsider it can feel scary and overwhelming. Part of being friendly is answering questions people will have but might be hesitant to ask. If you’re in a gathering space where navigation is not so obvious, make sure people know who you are, where they need to go, and that you’ll be happy to answer any questions you haven’t covered. Basic stuff, I know, but I can’t count the number of churches I know that make newcomers feel like they’re entering an escape room.
When a person has been served well with friendly, helpful, gospel-driven hospitality, they’re given an unspoken invitation to hear the uncomfortable reality of the gospel.
What are some ways to do that? Here are three.1. Acknowledge Outsiders
Walk in wisdom toward outsiders, making the best use of the time. (Col. 4:5)
Whether you do so at the beginning, end, or somewhere in between, respectfully acknowledge those coming in who don’t consider themselves followers of Christ. Far from being exclusive, this communicates that people with a diversity of beliefs, perspectives, and worldviews all have a valued place in your pews. It’s an opportunity to break down some of the stereotypes perpetuated by pastors who “talk down” to the lost. Instead, we can speak favorably of the grace of Christ to those who live in the absence of his favor.2. Avoid Insider Language
Let your speech always be gracious . . . (Col. 4:6)
I don’t mean to avoid using words like propitiation, justification, or sanctification—explain those terms well, because they communicate the grace of Christ. What I mean is avoid using insider language that makes someone feel like they just walked into an exclusive club where secret passwords and exclusive handshakes are the order of the day.
Resist using acronyms and cutesy names for ministries and events that would make it impossible for anyone attending their first Sunday to know what on earth you’re talking about.3. Accept the Folly
For the word of the cross is folly to those who are perishing, but to us who are being saved it is the power of God. (1 Cor. 1:18)
Paul tells us the message of the cross is foolish to those who haven’t been saved by it. If that’s true, it’s a message that doesn’t need to be dolled up. It can’t be. Yes, it needs to be clear and compelling, but it needs to be preached by men who don’t fear the convicting nature of its content. A comfort-driven gospel fails to articulate the alarming discomfort of a suffering Christ. That’s what Paul says needs to be comprehended every time a preacher opens his mouth.
There is no set of tricks or gimmicks to assure outsiders will automatically feel welcome in your church, though many churches go to silly and embarrassing lengths to sell the world a brand that was never intended to be marketed. We do know that when the gospel is hospitably practiced and humbly preached, the Spirit loves to save many who are perishing and bring them into the blood-bought community of the Son.
A loved one drifting through the shadows of dementia clutches your wrist and implores you to find her husband. She no longer recognizes you, or remembers the laughter and tenderness you’ve shared. She can’t comprehend the steady erosion of her memories, the parts of herself that have crumbled away.
And she doesn’t remember that the husband she adores died decades ago.
What should you say? The last time she heard the truth, she howled and cried, reliving her grief as if for the first time. Then, after an hour of sobbing, she forgot the entire conversation and asked for her husband again.
As she searches your face now, should you tell her the truth and watch the agony wash over her? Or should you spare her the pain and fib that he’s gone out to the store?Dignity or Happiness?
Such heartbreaking dilemmas inspired a recent article in The New Yorker by award-winning writer Larissa MacFarquar. In her challenging piece, MacFarquar explores the practice of “therapeutic lying,” a controversial approach in dementia care that favors deception over dragging people discombobulated and frightened into a reality they can’t understand.
MacFarquar guides us through memory care centers that feature 1930s décor, fake bus stops, and artificial simulations of the beach, all intended to mirror the realities of people locked within their distant memories. Proponents of such simulated environments argue that familiar details, even if fabricated, comfort dementia sufferers, and soothe the confusion and agitation that arise when their sharpest memories don’t align with their surroundings. Critics question the impact of systematic deception on the hearts and minds of caregivers and dementia sufferers alike.
Throughout her sensitive investigation, MacFarquar posits a quandary: Should we be blisteringly honest with dementia sufferers in the name of dignity and truth, even if the facts devastate them? Or should we lie and collude with their delusions, diminishing their personhood, but keeping them blissfully unaware? “What is more important,” she asks, “dignity or happiness?”
MacFarquar’s question reflects deep empathy for people with dementia and captures the agitation, fear, and confusion that so often afflict them. But it also presupposes stark dichotomies between dignity and happiness, truth and compassion. The question strands caregivers between two unnerving and opposed choices, neither of which seems to wholly manifest love for our neighbor (Matt. 22:39).
The gospel offers an alternative approach.Loving a Person
Personhood doesn’t decay with our cognitive abilities, but resides in our immutable worth as image bearers of God (Gen. 1:26), a value no disease or calamity can degrade. And the central tenet in care for anyone, stricken with dementia or not, should be love, as God loves us in Christ (Mark 12:30–31; John 3:16; 13:34–35). In Christ, dignity and compassion unfurl as branches of the same vine, each a vital offshoot.
Christian love doesn’t subscribe to blanket policies of harsh fact or rampant falsehood, but rather seeks to build “others up according to their needs” (Eph. 4:29). It views each person as Christ sees him: cherished, unique in the world, worthy of time and sacrifice, with a specific role in God’s story.
Artificial environments with fake bus stops hardly embody this love. Such prescribed, imposed realities ignore the unique stories, memories, and experiences that enrich a life and the varied needs each person harbors in a given moment. Systematic deception discounts the fluctuating course of dementia, when moments of lucidity break through the fog, and when tactics that soothe in one moment can agitate in the next.
According to the U.K.’s Mental Health Foundation, this neglect for individual experience can actually worsen distress and confusion among dementia sufferers. Fabricated environments, the Foundation argues, thrust people into out-of-context scenarios that don’t always align with their own memories and realities.
The resulting disconnect can deepen anxiety among dementia sufferers, and even more concerning, erode crucial relationships. As the foundation reports, “A person living with dementia may start to feel suspicious and lose trust in one or more of their carers if the responses/interactions are inconsistent from one carer to the next, or the body language of the carer suggests something is ‘not quite right.’”
Those with dementia themselves echo these concerns. In one study, people with mild dementia described lying, even if well-intended, as “patronizing” or “demeaning,” and predicted that knowing they were lied to would upset them.
They described their distress as especially profound if the lying occurred within a close, trusting relationship. Such comments warn us that if we routinely lie to those with dementia, even out of compassion, we risk fracturing the fragile bonds tying them to others.Speaking Truth in Love
None of these dangers should surprise us, given the high standard of truth the Bible upholds (Lev. 19:11; Mark 12:14). But when a woman with severe dementia, for whom the last shreds of working memory have vanished, weeps for her lost husband, should we bluntly retort that her beloved has died?
When we force her into a painful reality she can no longer decipher, do we really embrace her as a unique child of God? Are we speaking the truth in love in such moments, and building her up according to her needs? (Eph. 4:15).
As Sinclair Ferguson so eloquently states, “Truth is always set in the context of love because it is never only a matter of speech and words, but of spirit and motive.” Guiding our loved ones according a Christian ethic requires that we look beyond the words, sift past the factual inaccuracies, and discern the emotions and deep needs driving them.
We must empathize with sufferers, enter their perspective, and walk with them—either toward clarity, or toward calm and comfort.
For those with mild dementia, who understand their cognitive decline and whose false realities upset them, gentle reorientation may usher them back to awareness. Such redirection need not unfold in cold, callous terms, but can take the form of coming alongside him or her: holding a hand, referring back to points in time, or reviewing a photo album until the dwindling memories sharpen into focus. In remembering together, the encounter evolves into a partnership, rather than a corrective measure.
In advanced dementia, however, people can no longer comprehend reality, and demanding they do so risks crushing them with anguish. To respond compassionately, and to acknowledge their dignity in Christ, requires us to enter their world, and to see what they see. Their attempts to comprehend and to communicate must be taken seriously, and respected, just as for anyone else.Discerning Needs
“Understanding the world they are experiencing does not mean we have to lie about it,” says Dr. John Dunlop, longtime geriatrician and author of the poignant and informative book Finding Grace in the Face of Dementia. “When a patient is asking for and grieving a dead parent, we need to ask ourselves, ‘What is it they are looking for?’ It may well be love and security. We can respond by hugging them and saying, ‘I love you and will take care of you, and I know you love your mom and dad.’”
Kathy Lind, a nurse practitioner with 25 years of experience in geriatrics, agrees that the chief concern in dementia care is neither fact nor fiction, but viewing each person individually, beloved by God, with unique needs in the moment.
“God is present all the time,” she says. “He is present to the patient with dementia who thinks in the past, and to me who is in the present, both on different timelines. . . . Usually, meeting [people with dementia] where they are and responding to the emotion of their distress, is enough to diffuse the anxiety, and I believe we have really communicated.”
Dunlop lived out this principle when his mother, her mind clouded with dementia, repeatedly mistook him for his father. Rather than reply with, “I’m not Dad,” or pretend to be his father, Dunlop learned to respond with, “Lois, I love you.”
His answer emphasized neither truth, nor fiction, but rather acknowledged his mother’s deepest need in that moment—to receive warmth and affection from someone she loved.
Although the ravages of dementia may chisel away memories, stories of who we are remain. Emotions remain. And these lingering joys can anchor those lost in the past. “Despite their confusion about the present,” geriatric psychologist Benjamin Mast writes, “people can continue to find themselves and reconnect to their faith by rehearsing their story with people who love and care for them. . . . We should try to interact in a way that draws upon their life story, their well-worn behavioral patterns, and those aspects of life that are flavored with emotion.”Dignity and Compassion
We know that when Christ returns, the synapses of the dementia-stricken mind will be repaired. The brain will heal, the present will snap into relief, and the memories will take their proper place. In the interim, those struggling with dementia need us to reflect their personhood as eternal, not dependent on remembering or forgetting, fact or deception.
They need our respect and love, through care that presumes no dichotomies between dignity and compassion, but rather views each individual as worthy of both.
When we embrace others in such love, we point to the greatest truth of all, to the one whose power and mercy far surpass the jumbled workings of our feeble minds. We point to the one who gave his life for us and who makes all things new: the broken bodies, the sinful hearts, but also the forgotten names and distorted memories, the glimmers of the past tangled with the present.
“You might feel you have very little faith. But that doesn’t matter if that faith is in Jesus, because the power comes from Jesus, not the strength of your faith.” — Jonty Rhodes
Text: Matthew 8:5–13
Preached: July 22, 2018
Location: Christ Church Central, Leeds, England
You can listen to this episode of TGC Word of the Week here.
It is hard to account for all the data of Paul’s letter to the Romans, without concluding, along with Wedderburn, that “no one, single reason or cause will adequately explain the writing of Romans.” It is, nevertheless, helpful to distinguish between the single occasion that precipitated the letter, and the several purposes which Paul was seeking to accomplish by the letter, in view of that particular occasion. The former is Paul’s imminent arrival in Rome, en route to the virgin mission field that lay in the western reaches of the Empire, namely Spain (15:22–29). But it is because this impending visit had such far-reaching implications for both Paul and the churches of Rome, that a number of interlocking purposes lie behind the writing of the letter.
My aim in this article is three-fold. First, I want to give to students and pastors a clear and accessible entry point to what has become a highly complex and protracted discussion. Although what follows is my own understanding of the question and is not intended as a survey of the many positions taken, the reader can follow the references to pursue various avenues for further exploration.
Second, I seek to give an account of the relationship between the reasons for Romans, with “reasons” understood as a combination of the letter occasion and the letter’s purposes, as just defined. I will suggest that there are three main purposes that lie behind the writing of Romans, and that these purposes are conceptually related both to one-another and to the letter occasion. The attractiveness of a single-reason hypothesis for Romans is that it offers conceptual clarity, presupposing a unity amidst the diversity of the letter’s contents. The problem with the various single-reason hypotheses is that they fail to account for all the data of Romans. The attractiveness of a multi-reason hypothesis for Romans is that it better accounts for the sheer complexity and scope of the letter. But the problem is that it then becomes hard to see how the various reasons relate to one another or form a conceptual whole. Therefore, I will attempt to show some of the connections between the reasons for Romans.
Third, in probing the relationships between the reasons for Romans, I aim to encourage students and preachers of this great letter to treat it as a unity, and to see the wood for all the theological trees that lie within.