It isn’t easy being a man today. In fact, it’s probably harder now than it ever has been. Back in the old days, society worked hard to develop its men. We set out a clear vision of manhood and taught our boys how to live up to those ideals. We honored manly role models. When men fell short of the standard—as they often did—society tended to rebuke them. Producing men with a brave and beneficent masculinity was an important cultural goal.
But now we push our men down. Confuse them. Refuse them. Verbally abuse them. And so we’re going to lose them. What is going on?
One of the worst ideas that has emerged in our culture today is “toxic masculinity.” It doesn’t matter where this notion came from. The point is, it’s everywhere. If you haven’t heard the term, you’ve at least heard the concept: that traditional manhood is poisonous. When men exercise any kind of leadership, or use their strength to shape our culture in a powerful way, they are—so say the critics—a toxic fog upon our society.
That isn’t true. Don’t let anybody tell you it is.
The world needs good men. Why? Because there are bad men too. Lots of them. And only good, brave men, can stop the tyrants from spreading their funk all over our society. This is something many great leaders have understood. But no one has brought it out in story form better than J. R. R. Tolkien.Why Tolkien?
John Ronald Reuel Tolkien (1892–1973) is a man I’ve long admired. I remember my first boyhood encounter with his world. My initial exposure to Tolkien wasn’t through his writings. It was more concrete. I had just moved to Oxford with my parents in the summer of 1981. As I wandered down the lane from the house where my family was staying, I noticed a plaque above a neighbor’s door. It was at 76 Sandfield Road. The plaque said, “J. R. R. Tolkien Lived Here 1953–1968.” There was also a picture of a dragon, a compass, and a hill with a hole in it. Quite fascinating to my 11-year-old mind, but I didn’t think much more about it.
It wasn’t until I had come home with a new book from Blackwell’s Bookstore on the Broad Street—the very bookstore that had published Tolkien’s first poem in 1915—that my love for all things Middle-earth was awakened. I read The Hobbit in a day. It was quickly followed by the three volumes of The Lord of the Rings. And I’ve been enamored with the story ever since.
Tolkien himself was the quintessential Oxford don. We picture him with a tweed jacket, a pipe in his hand, and a stack of dusty Anglo-Saxon manuscripts on his desk. Yet this doesn’t mean he wasn’t “manly.” Quite the contrary: it’s very masculine to be wise and scholarly, as we shall soon see.
Yet the young Tolkien embodied other ideals of masculinity as well. According to his online biography from The Tolkien Society, he heeded the patriotic call and joined the Lancashire Fusiliers to fight the Germans in World War I. The new recruit arrived in France just in time for the Somme Offensive, a brutal example of the horrors of trench warfare, and one of the bloodiest battles in human history.
After several months of combat in the trenches, Tolkien contracted a deadly fever and was sent back to Britain, where he recuperated and finished out his wartime service. All but one of his schoolboy friends, with whom he had once formed a literary club, were killed in combat. Now married to his childhood sweetheart, Edith, he began to raise a family. The manly exploits and romantic interests of the young Tolkien have been made into a 2019 motion picture. He was a guy you probably would have liked.
Tolkien’s literary depiction of manhood took many forms. Drawing from his LotR characters, I will now propose six distinct models of masculinity. These aren’t traits that only men can have; women often exemplify them too. But in his stories, Tolkien masterfully describes how these virtues are lived out in a masculine context. All six models depict traits that good men should have. If you are a man, your question is not, “Which one am I?” but “Which one do I need to be right now?”Model 1: Gandalf, the Sage
One of the rarest and most valuable virtues to be achieved by a man is wisdom. A sage is someone whose words provide insights that most people don’t have. They offer a new way of thinking, often through a pithy statement that grabs you, makes you ponder, and improves your moral life. Such wisdom is born from deep familiarity with lore: the books and writings that contain a culture’s history and accumulated experience. Consider these sagacious sayings from Gandalf:
- When Frodo is burdened by the weight of the One Ring and bitterly says, “I wish none of this had happened,” Gandalf replies, “So do all who live to see such times; but that is not for them to decide. All we have to decide is what to do with the time that is given us.”
- When the dear friends of the Fellowship are parting forever, Gandalf remarks, “I will not say: do not weep; for not all tears are an evil.” He understands that grief is a real part of living in a broken world. Even strong men can weep.
- When Frodo longs for the punishment of twisted Gollum, Gandalf rebukes him: “Many that live deserve death. And some that die deserve life. Can you give it to them? Then do not be too eager to deal out death in judgement. For even the very wise cannot see all ends.”
Wisdom, of course, doesn’t only have to be the mark of old men with long, white beards. Young men can be wise too. But they will have to study lore and accumulate knowledge. They also have to observe life and gain experience. Only then can the sage’s words make magic in the world.Model 2: Aragorn, the Warrior
Probably the most popular of Tolkien’s LOTR characters is Aragorn. He is a hero of royal ancestry whose restoration to the throne is chronicled in The Return of the King. Aragorn is proficient with a bow and a blade; he makes fires; he hunts game; he leads men and elves and dwarves into battle. After many great sacrifices, Strider the Ranger (his incognito identity) assumes his rightful place as Aragorn, son of Arathorn, the king of Gondor. Tolkien writes, “On the throne sat a mail-clad man, a great sword was laid across his knees, but he wore no helm. As [Frodo and Sam] drew near he rose. And then they knew him, changed as he was, so high and glad of face, kingly, lord of Men, dark-haired with eyes of grey.” Truly Aragorn was a warrior-king, a man worthy of the days of yore.
Yet this powerful king was a self-controlled man. He didn’t rush into unjust wars. Aragorn had no chip on his shoulder, no desire to fight simply for the sake of dominance, ego, or the thrill of battle. So humble was this king that at the moment of his coronation, when everyone was honoring his prowess in battle, he bowed before two lowly hobbits and set them on his throne with the cry, “Praise them with great praise!” At all times, Aragorn’s awesome power was under his command. He unleashed it against evil. But until it was needed, he reined it in and preserved it for the day of battle.
Aragorn the warrior was also a provider. He cared for the weak. When the Hobbits were assailed on Weathertop by the Black Riders, it was Aragorn who defended them against those hideous wraiths with a burning torch. Even so, Frodo was stabbed by a poisoned blade. Aragorn the Warrior knew battlefield medicine and found a healing plant to help his friend. The tender warrior always uses his strength, not for pride or selfish gain, but to defend the weak and innocent.Model 3: Frodo, the Self-Giver
Frodo is often interpreted as the primary Christ-figure in LOTR. He chose to bear a burden that wasn’t his own, one that took a terrible toll and demanded an infinite price. Even so, Frodo walked willingly into the enemy’s lair. He carried on his body an evil curse that he didn’t deserve so he could eliminate it and save the world. This fearsome road Frodo walked to the end, even to the point of death.
When the One Ring was finally cast into the volcanic fires of Mount Doom, the strength of Frodo was spent. He and Sam collapsed side-by-side on an “ashen hill” surrounded by torrents of lava, soon to engulf them. It was from high above, amid the swirling smoke and ash, that Gwaihir the Eagle spotted them. To his sharp eyes, they were only “two small dark figures, forlorn, hand in hand on a little hill, while the world shook under them, and gasped, and rivers of fire drew near. And even as he espied them and came swooping down, he saw them fall, worn out, or choked with fumes and heat, or stricken down by despair at last, hiding their eyes from death.”
In that moment, Frodo had come to “the end of all things.” He had proved his willingness to give himself totally for a cause that required the ultimate sacrifice. He had relinquished everything he held dear, everything he left behind in his beloved Shire. And he did so freely, by the courageous choice of his will. “I will take the Ring,” he had declared to the Council of Elrond in his small voice, “though I do not know the way.” And then he gave his all. Just like a man should do.Model 4: Legolas, the Beauty-Maker
Legolas the Elf was one of the strangest of his race. He made a lifelong friendship with Gimli, a dwarf whose people were deeply repugnant to elves. This reflects Legolas’s ability to see beyond superficial categories or stereotypes. He pursued peace, even when finding it was difficult, knowing that peace between enemies is a beautiful thing.
Legolas was a poet and singer. When the Fellowship came to the mystical forest of Lothlórien, it was Legolas who told them forgotten tales “of sunlight and starlight upon the meadows by the Great River before the world was grey.” And then, while everyone rested by the river after much travail, Legolas sang to his friends. Accompanied by the “music of the waterfall running sweetly in the shadows,” the noble elf began to sing “in a soft voice hardly to be heard amid the rustle of the leaves above them”:
An Elven-maid there was of old, A shining star by day: Her mantle white was hemmed with gold, Her shoes of silver-grey.
This ancient hymn soothed the Fellowship, bringing peace to their weary hearts.
The attentive eye of Legolas often saw beauty when others missed it, especially in the realm of nature. Legolas was a great lover of the natural world, and he introduced his friends to its charms. When he first saw Fangorn Forest, he rejoiced; when he gazed at the stars, he marveled at their grace; when he contemplated the Sea, he sang of its distant shores. Legolas was not one to stay closed inside a cottage. His intrepid masculinity made him entirely at home in the rugged and refreshing outdoors.
Legolas also appreciated the beauty of good craftsmanship. His gear was well made, and his clothing was attractive and sharp. He paid attention to his appearance, not because he was proud, but because he respected himself. He also honed his skills as an archer so he could carry out his duties with proficiency. His diligent practice with his bow paid dividends when one of the wicked Nazgûl attacked the Fellowship. Legolas’s well-aimed shot turned the Fell Beast away. “Shrill went the arrow from the elven-string . . . The sky was clean again.” Wherever he went, Legolas created beauty and spread goodness. Everyone around him benefited from his art.Model 5: Gimli, the Energizer
The dwarven race in Tolkien’s world was known for its busy activity. They were constantly digging and building and creating. Tolkien himself had a complex relationship with the world of industry, especially as turn-of-the century England became more industrialized. Felled trees and smoky chimneys are depicted as nefarious emblems in the hands of Saruman at Isengard, or later in his “Sharkey” persona during the Scouring of the Shire. Sometimes, Tolkien literarily rebukes the dwarves for “delving too deeply” and awakening demons, as happened with Durin’s Bane, the fiery Balrog whom Gandalf battled to the death.
Yet in Gimli the Dwarf, we discover Tolkien’s appreciation for industrious work. The dwarves were diggers who created great underground kingdoms and forged many beautiful implements of metal and gems. They also created architectural marvels in stone and masonry. Gimli represents the positive side of productive labor, and the wise use of natural resources. Masculine strength is a powerful force for shaping the world.
The manly trait of endurance is exemplified by Gimli. When tasks become difficult, he perseveres nonetheless. He has a kind of stubborn willingness to keep going even when the workload is too much for others. When the Fellowship—including the frail and short-legged hobbits—have to leave their easy river travel for an overland slog, Boromir shows his apprehension by saying, “That would not be easy, even if we were all Men.” To this, Gimli replies, “The legs of Men will lag on a rough road, while a Dwarf goes on, be the burden twice his own weight, Master Boromir!” Gimli is always ready for the task ahead, and he calls his friends forward with his contagious brand of fortitude and mettle.
Yet Gimli doesn’t just endure his work with a grim determination; he attacks each challenge with zest and enthusiasm. Even his slaying of orcs becomes a warrior’s game with Legolas. And after the work is done, Gimli energizes the times of celebration. Admittedly, the Peter Jackson LotR films depicted Gimli as much more of a partyer than Tolkien did. Who can forget Gimli’s beer-chugging drinking game with Legolas in the movie version of Return of the King? Or his anticipation of Moria’s “Roaring fires! Malt beer! Red meat off the bone!”?
In the actual books, however, Gimli was more sober. Even so, the dwarves were certainly creatures of mirth. The opening sequence of The Hobbit, when Thorin Oakenshield’s party arrives at Bilbo’s house and empties his over-stocked larder, is one of the greatest feasting scenes in all literature. Real men know how to tackle their jobs with all they’ve got; and when the labor is done, they know how to celebrate with gusto, too.Model 6: Sam, the Friend
In Samwise Gamgee, we discover one of the highest of masculine traits: loyalty to one’s comrades in the journey of life. Real men form profound and lasting friendships. They can love other men deeply, without any strange sexual overtones. One of the classic instances of such love comes from a story that Tolkien, a devout Catholic, would have been familiar with. King David is said to have loved his friend Jonathan so much that when Jonathan died, David exclaimed that their brotherly affection was more wonderful than the love of a woman (2 Sam. 1:26).
Sam commits himself to Frodo like a true friend should do. When the Fellowship breaks up and is scattered, only Sam follows the Ring-Bearer as he tries to sail away. Undaunted, he casts his lot forever with his master. This powerful scene could be interpreted as a symbol of baptism:
“Coming, Mr. Frodo! Coming!” called Sam, and flung himself from the bank, clutching at the departing boat. He missed it by a yard. With a cry and a splash he fell face downward into deep swift water. Gurgling he went under, and the River closed over his curly head.
It’s only when Frodo reaches down and retrieves Sam that he comes up from the deep, “bubbling and struggling,” yet forever changed. Safely in the boat, Sam pledges eternal allegiance to Frodo, his master and friend. The two of them will walk together into the shadows and fires of Mordor.
Sam’s loyalty to Frodo is put to the ultimate test when they finally reach that terrible land. Betrayed by the treacherous Gollum, they’re led into the lair of the fearsome spider, Shelob the Great. Although she stings Frodo and wraps him in her webs, Sam comes to his master’s aid. Snatching up the sword called Sting, he stabs the bloated spider and drives her away. “You’ve hurt my master, you brute, and you’ll pay for it,” he declares as he holds the slime-drenched blade. “Come on, and taste it again!” Sam’s loyalty to Frodo empowers his courageous deed.
Yet Sam’s deepest act of loyalty comes when Frodo can no longer carry the weight of the Ring up the flanks of Mount Doom. Frodo falls to his knees and tries to crawl, but cannot. His strength his gone. Tolkien writes the scene with great vividness and emotion:
Sam looked at him and wept in his heart, but no tears came to his dry and stinging eyes. “I said I’d carry him, if it broke my back,” he muttered, “and I will!”
“Come, Mr. Frodo!” he cried. “I can’t carry it for you, but I can carry you and it as well. So up you get! Come on, Mr. Frodo dear! Sam will give you a ride. Just tell him where to go, and he’ll go.”
And then, hoisting his spent comrade upon his shoulders, Samwise Gamgee begins the final trudge into the fires of doom. The scene is a metaphor for life. Who has not faced terrible trials alone and afraid? And who has not felt the strengthening aid of a companion at his side? When a man comes alongside another in friendship, even life’s greatest burdens become bearable.Call to Men
Through these time-honored characters, we get a rich picture of true manhood. Tolkien depicted excellent models of masculinity in his books. A true man is mature and skillful in at least these six ways: intellectually, physically, emotionally, artistically, occupationally, and relationally. Again, the question that lies before us is, “Which of these do I need to be right now?”
There is a great scene in The Two Towers when the hobbits Merry and Pippin are given an Ent-draught by Treebeard. The Ent-draught is a drink of magical river water with a taste like earthy roots and a cool night breeze. Just a few sips of this drink adds three inches of height to the friends’ small stature, turning them into the tallest Hobbits who have ever lived.
Real manhood is like this. It isn’t toxic, but intoxicating: a refreshing drink that exhilarates everyone who encounters it. Masculinity is no poison, but a potent elixir that makes itty-bitty Hobbits grow tall and mighty. Don’t you want a drink like that?
September 15: Psalm 86:15; Psalm 103:13–14; Isaiah 51:12; Isaiah 66:13; John 14:16–17; Romans 8:26; 2 Corinthians 1:3–4; 1 Peter 5:7; Revelation 21:4; Matthew 5:16; John 17:13; Romans 8:17; 1 Corinthians 1:9; 2 Corinthians 1:5; Ephesians 5:1; Hebrews 1...
“I, I am he who comforts you.”
Blessed be the God and Father of our Lord Jesus Christ, the Father of mercies and God of all comfort, who comforts us in all our affliction, so that we may be able to comfort those who are in any affliction, with the comfort with which we ourselves are comforted by God.—As a father shows compassion to his children, so the Lord shows compassion to those who fear him. For he knows our frame; he remembers that we are dust.—“As one whom his mother comforts, so I will comfort you.”—Casting all your anxieties on him, because he cares for you.
You, O Lord, are a God merciful and gracious, slow to anger and abounding in steadfast love and faithfulness.—“Another Helper,… even the Spirit of truth.”—The Spirit helps us in our weakness.
“He will wipe away every tear from their eyes, and death shall be no more, neither shall there be mourning nor crying nor pain anymore, for the former things have passed away.”Psalm 86:15 (Listen)
(ESV)Psalm 103:13–14 (Listen)
13 As a father shows compassion to his children,
so the LORD shows compassion to those who fear him.
14 For he knows our frame;1
he remembers that we are dust.
 103:14 Or knows how we are formed
(ESV)Isaiah 51:12 (Listen)
(ESV)Isaiah 66:13 (Listen)
(ESV)John 14:16–17 (Listen)
16 And I will ask the Father, and he will give you another Helper,1 to be with you forever, 17 even the Spirit of truth, whom the world cannot receive, because it neither sees him nor knows him. You know him, for he dwells with you and will be2 in you.Footnotes
(ESV)Romans 8:26 (Listen)
(ESV)2 Corinthians 1:3–4 (Listen) God of All Comfort
3 Blessed be the God and Father of our Lord Jesus Christ, the Father of mercies and God of all comfort, 4 who comforts us in all our affliction, so that we may be able to comfort those who are in any affliction, with the comfort with which we ourselves are comforted by God.
(ESV)1 Peter 5:7 (Listen)
(ESV)Revelation 21:4 (Listen)
(ESV)Evening: Matthew 5:16; John 17:13; Romans 8:17; 1 Corinthians 1:9; 2 Corinthians 1:5; Ephesians 5:1; Hebrews 1:3; Hebrews 12:2; 2 Peter 1:17; 1 John 3:1
You were called into the fellowship of his Son.
He received honor and glory from God the Father, and the voice was borne to him by the Majestic Glory, “This is my beloved Son, with whom I am well pleased.”—See what kind of love the Father has given to us, that we should be called children of God.
Therefore be imitators of God, as beloved children.—If children, then heirs—heirs of God and fellow heirs with Christ.
He is the radiance of the glory of God and the exact imprint of his nature.—“Let your light shine before others, so that they may see your good works and give glory to your Father who is in heaven.”
Jesus, the founder and perfecter of our faith, who for the joy that was set before him endured the cross, despising the shame.—“These things I speak in the world, that they may have my joy fulfilled in themselves.”—As we share abundantly in Christ's sufferings, so through Christ we share abundantly in comfort too.Matthew 5:16 (Listen)
16 In the same way, let your light shine before others, so that1 they may see your good works and give glory to your Father who is in heaven.Footnotes
 5:16 Or house. 16Let your light so shine before others that
(ESV)John 17:13 (Listen)
(ESV)Romans 8:17 (Listen)
(ESV)1 Corinthians 1:9 (Listen)
(ESV)2 Corinthians 1:5 (Listen)
5 For as we share abundantly in Christ's sufferings, so through Christ we share abundantly in comfort too.1Footnotes
 1:5 Or For as the sufferings of Christ abound for us, so also our comfort abounds through Christ
(ESV)Ephesians 5:1 (Listen) Walk in Love
(ESV)Hebrews 1:3 (Listen)
3 He is the radiance of the glory of God and the exact imprint of his nature, and he upholds the universe by the word of his power. After making purification for sins, he sat down at the right hand of the Majesty on high,
(ESV)Hebrews 12:2 (Listen)
(ESV)2 Peter 1:17 (Listen)
17 For when he received honor and glory from God the Father, and the voice was borne to him by the Majestic Glory, “This is my beloved Son,1 with whom I am well pleased,”Footnotes
 1:17 Or my Son, my (or the) Beloved
(ESV)1 John 3:1 (Listen)
Of all the wonders in the world — the steepest mountains, the grandest canyons, the widest oceans — none compares with the Son sent from heaven. If we think we have seen the full extent of who he is, we are deceived. We cannot fathom just how breathtaking he is. Have we forgotten? When was the last time you were mesmerized by Jesus?
If he does not captivate us anymore, it is not because he lacks anything. “He is the radiance of the glory of God and the exact imprint of his nature, and he upholds the universe by the word of his power” (Hebrews 1:3). Jesus radiates the beauty and worth of God, embodying infinite wisdom, justice, strength, and love perfectly and forever. He carries every continent, planet, and galaxy with less than a pinky — with just a sound from his mouth.
He orders each wave in the Pacific Ocean to rise and fall as he pleases. He feeds every blue jay and hummingbird every single meal, and decides the height and hue of each blade of grass in every field on earth. Seven billion people will take their next breath because, and only because, he gives it to them (Acts 17:25).
And yet, we often yawn.When You Could Not See
Sometimes we yawn because we forget what it means to see at all. We were born so blind that even the blazing brightness of his glory could not break through (2 Corinthians 4:4). Satan had boarded up every sliver of every window in our hearts. Our retinas saw everything they see now, and yet, nothing. We saw the surface of reality, but missed the source of reality. But then the Author of sight gave us a new prescription and introduced us, for the first time, to true wonder.
“God, who said, ‘Let light shine out of darkness,’ has shone in our hearts to give the light of the knowledge of the glory of God in the face of Jesus Christ” (2 Corinthians 4:6). If light has flooded your heart, God put it there. God ended your aching search for happiness, and mended the shattered pieces of your heart. He pulled back the curtains of sin and shame, held up the brilliance of his Son, and sent his Spirit to open your eyes wider and wider to himself.
When you open the Bible looking for Jesus, remember that not everyone can see him like you can. If we knew what we have been given, we would not take it for granted — we would not yawn. We would tremble, and rejoice, and gaze at him in his word.When Did You See?
We also yawn before Christ because we do not give ourselves time to wonder.
When did you see him for the first time? For every follower of Jesus, there was a time when he went from interesting to stunning, from intriguing to mouth-stopping, from inspiring to everything — from great man to God himself. When we fed on his word those first few weeks, we ate like we had never had a real meal. When we drank the living water from his well, we barely stopped to breathe. Like the man who sold all he had, we had found our pearl of great price, our treasure beyond compare. Wasn’t he marvelous?
We lose that sense of awe when we don’t give ourselves time to gaze. How extravagant could he possibly look if we only ever give him a few minutes here and there? A thousand other things eat away at the precious minutes we used to spend at his feet. If Satan cannot keep us from seeing the light of Christ, he will do everything he can to direct our attention elsewhere — to fix our eyes on anything but Jesus.
If we want to see the wonders in him, if we want him to take our breath away again, we will have to keep Satan (and everyone and everything else) at bay long enough each day to see.Lovely and Relentless
Give your life to gazing at Jesus in his word, and you will not be bored — and you will not see all of him. “He is the image of the invisible God” (Colossians 1:15). If we yawn, shame on us.
There is more power in him than in all the waves in all the oceans. There is more wisdom in him than in all the world’s universities. There is more purity in him than in the finest pearl or diamond. There is more courage in him than in the bravest soldiers in the fiercest wars. There is more gentleness in him than in a mother with her newborn. There is more justice in him than any human court or judge. There is more love in him than we have ever known or felt. And that power, that wisdom, that love — that radiance — came to earth and died for you, “making peace by the blood of his cross” (Colossians 1:20).
He is wonderful and beautiful, righteous and mighty, marvelous and holy. Isn’t he?
Desiring God partnered with Shane & Shane’s The Worship Initiative to write short meditations for more than one hundred popular worship songs and hymns.
God allows us to be tempted with things beyond our willpower so that we might stop relying on our willpower.
September 14: Psalm 63:1–2; Psalm 84:2; Song of Solomon 5:1; Isaiah 55:1; John 4:14; John 6:55; John 7:37; Revelation 22:17; Matthew 5:13; Mark 9:50; Luke 20:36; John 11:25; Romans 1:23; Romans 8:9–11; 1 Corinthians 15:42; Ephesians 4:29; 1 Peter 1:23;...
“If anyone thirsts, let him come to me and drink.”
My soul longs, yes, faints for the courts of the Lord; my heart and flesh sing for joy to the living God.—O God, you are my God; earnestly I seek you; my soul thirsts for you; my flesh faints for you, as in a dry and weary land where there is no water. So I have looked upon you in the sanctuary, beholding your power and glory.
“Come, everyone who thirsts, come to the waters; and he who has no money, come, buy and eat! Come, buy wine and milk without money and without price.”—The Spirit and the Bride say, “Come.” And let the one who hears say, “Come.” And let the one who is thirsty come; let the one who desires take the water of life without price.—“Whoever drinks of the water that I will give him will never be thirsty forever. The water that I will give him will become in him a spring of water welling up to eternal life.”—“My blood is true drink.”
Eat, friends, drink, and be drunk with love!Psalm 63:1–2 (Listen) My Soul Thirsts for You A Psalm of David, when he was in the wilderness of Judah.
63 O God, you are my God; earnestly I seek you;
my soul thirsts for you;
my flesh faints for you,
as in a dry and weary land where there is no water.
2 So I have looked upon you in the sanctuary,
beholding your power and glory.
(ESV)Psalm 84:2 (Listen)
(ESV)Song of Solomon 5:1 (Listen)
(ESV)Isaiah 55:1 (Listen) The Compassion of the Lord
(ESV)John 4:14 (Listen)
14 but whoever drinks of the water that I will give him will never be thirsty again.1 The water that I will give him will become in him a spring of water welling up to eternal life.”Footnotes
 4:14 Greek forever
(ESV)John 6:55 (Listen)
(ESV)John 7:37 (Listen) Rivers of Living Water
(ESV)Revelation 22:17 (Listen)
(ESV)Evening: Matthew 5:13; Mark 9:50; Luke 20:36; John 11:25; Romans 1:23; Romans 8:9–11; 1 Corinthians 15:42; Ephesians 4:29; 1 Peter 1:23; 1 Peter 3:4
“You are the salt of the earth.”
The imperishable.—You have been born again, not of perishable seed but of imperishable, through the living and abiding word of God.—“Whoever believes in me, though he die, yet shall he live.”—“Sons of God, being sons of the resurrection.”—The immortal God.
Anyone who does not have the Spirit of Christ does not belong to him. But if Christ is in you, although the body is dead because of sin, the Spirit is life because of righteousness. If the Spirit of him who raised Jesus from the dead dwells in you, he who raised Christ Jesus from the dead will also give life to your mortal bodies through his Spirit who dwells in you.—What is sown is perishable; what is raised is imperishable.
“Have salt in yourselves, and be at peace with one another.”—Let no corrupting talk come out of your mouths, but only such as is good for building up, as fits the occasion, that it may give grace to those who hear.Matthew 5:13 (Listen) Salt and Light
(ESV)Mark 9:50 (Listen)
(ESV)Luke 20:36 (Listen)
36 for they cannot die anymore, because they are equal to angels and are sons of God, being sons1 of the resurrection.Footnotes
(ESV)John 11:25 (Listen)
25 Jesus said to her, “I am the resurrection and the life.1 Whoever believes in me, though he die, yet shall he live,Footnotes
 11:25 Some manuscripts omit and the life
(ESV)Romans 1:23 (Listen)
(ESV)Romans 8:9–11 (Listen)
9 You, however, are not in the flesh but in the Spirit, if in fact the Spirit of God dwells in you. Anyone who does not have the Spirit of Christ does not belong to him. 10 But if Christ is in you, although the body is dead because of sin, the Spirit is life because of righteousness. 11 If the Spirit of him who raised Jesus from the dead dwells in you, he who raised Christ Jesus1 from the dead will also give life to your mortal bodies through his Spirit who dwells in you.Footnotes
 8:11 Some manuscripts lack Jesus
(ESV)1 Corinthians 15:42 (Listen)
(ESV)Ephesians 4:29 (Listen)
(ESV)1 Peter 1:23 (Listen)
(ESV)1 Peter 3:4 (Listen)
I have a friend who grew up in a Christian home with amazing Christian parents. They raised him “in the discipline and instruction of the Lord” (Eph. 6:4). At a young age, he put his trust in Christ as Lord and Savior, and faith began flourishing in his life. When he was 18 years old, he went off to an evangelical Christian university, where his faith only continued to grow. But as time went on, feelings and attractions toward the same sex became more and more evident in his mind and heart. These feelings alarmed and confused him, since he knew and believed what the Bible says about homosexuality; as his feelings increased, so did his inner turmoil. He was torn between Scripture’s sexual ethic and his same-sex attractions.
He hid his struggle from others, especially from his parents, during his college years. But feeling ashamed and at times hopeless, he sought help, eventually opening up to close friends and even his parents. Reactions were mixed. His parents were initially distraught, but soon became compassionate and understanding. They hoped he would remain faithful to the Word of God and wanted to be there for him in any way they could. Some of his friends rejected him, while others tried to help him through this difficult and confusing period.
After college, he seemed to be in a good place with the Lord. He felt he had a handle on things and was willing to deny himself to follow Christ. But then he met a guy and fell in love. Although he was torn about this new relationship, knowing it was wrong, he had never felt so good and so free. And his boyfriend assured him over and over that their relationship was not sinful. How could love this deep be sinful? Wasn’t the Bible outdated when it came to these matters? He just needed to be true to himself, and everything would work out fine.
My friend ultimately surrendered to his feelings, and to his boyfriend’s pleas, and made a conscious decision to walk away from the Lord and pursue this relationship. He knew deep down that living a homosexual life is incompatible with the teaching of the Bible, but he was tired of fighting his desires.
Like Esau in Genesis 25:29–34, he wanted his stew now.Heartbreaking Tradeoff
I’ve seen this phenomenon over and over again, and it breaks my heart. I’ve watched many who profess to be followers of Christ give up their birthright for a single meal, choosing their desire to satiate their appetite now over the amazing promises of Christ. When I talk to young people who struggle with same-sex attraction and are about to throw in the towel and give in to that temptation, I try to help them see what a vapor this life is. Funny as it sounds, I try to make them understand that eternity is a very long time. I try to convince them that selling their birthright is not worth it. I always reference these powerful verses:
This light momentary affliction is preparing for us an eternal weight of glory beyond all comparison, as we look not to the things that are seen but to the things that are unseen. For the things that are seen are transient, but the things that are unseen are eternal. (2 Cor. 4:17–18)
These verses are often a salve to the soul when I struggle with temptation. Sometimes I remember the wedding feast of the Lamb, and everything else evaporates. It’s hard to fathom the eternal weight of glory, but I know it’s infinitely more gratifying than any ephemeral pleasure on this earth. As Matthew Henry observed regarding Esau’s tragic decision, “The gratifying of the sensual appetite is that which ruins thousands of precious souls.”
I’ve watched many who profess to be followers of Christ give up their birthright for a single meal, choosing their desire to satiate their appetite now over the amazing promises of Christ.
In the New Testament, the writer of Hebrews makes a chilling reference to Esau’s fate:
See to it . . . that no one is sexually immoral or unholy like Esau, who sold his birthright for a single meal. For you know that afterward, when he desired to inherit the blessing, he was rejected, for he found no chance to repent, though he sought it with tears. (Heb. 12:15–17)Only True Meal
There will come a day when we will meet Christ face to face. That day will be either the greatest or the most devastating day imaginable, depending on whether or not your name is written in the Book of Life (Rev. 20:15). What do you want to hear on that day? “Well done, good and faithful servant” (Matt. 25:21) or “I never knew you; depart from me” (Matt. 7:23)? The latter are the most terrifying words a human being could ever hear. What would you be willing to give up to avoid that outcome? What would you refuse to do if it meant spending eternity with Christ?
Let us “fight the good fight of the faith” and “take hold of the eternal life to which [we] were called and about which [we] made the good confession in the presence of many witnesses” (1 Tim. 6:12). Let us, “as obedient children, . . . not be conformed to the passions of [our] former ignorance, but as he who called [us] is holy . . . be holy in all [our] conduct, since it is written, ‘You shall be holy, for I am holy’” (1 Pet.1:14–16). Let us “hold fast the confession of our hope without wavering” (Heb. 10: 23).
The only true passion worth living for is passion for Christ. The only true meal is the Bread of Life. The only true drink is the water that will never make us thirsty again—the living water of a loving Savior.
Besides our children’s decision to follow Jesus, the most important decision they will make is whom to marry.
The multigenerational implications are huge. Despite the importance of this decision, however, some parents are more concerned about their children’s grades or athletic performance. They spend more time talking about how to get into the right college than about how to pick a future spouse. But whom your children marry may affect eternal destinies: their own, their spouses, your grandchildren, and your great-grandchildren.Around the Table
As a parent of five grown children, I want to encourage you to discuss this subject with your children. As many mistakes as we made, my wife and I found that the best place to have these discussions was at the dinner table, where we gathered at least four times a week — and preferably six. Effective fathers and mothers (especially fathers) continually teach their children. They don’t teach just by example; they teach with their lips. It is hard to do that if the family does not regularly gather for a meal.
We also found that the best time to teach our children was earlier rather than later. Parents will want to start discussing these matters by the time their children enter puberty, and continue the discussion regularly.
My wife and I regularly discussed about seven marriage principles with our children. There are more, but these are a good starting place.Prefer singleness to an unwise marriage.
Most couples today (if their marriages survive) live together for fifty to seventy years. That is a long time. When a couple builds their union around Christ, that union has the potential to be sweet and wonderful. When one or both build it around something else, however, the prognosis is not so positive.
Therefore, parents can teach their children to do two key precepts. First, unless God gives you the desire to remain single for kingdom-related reasons, pursue marriage. Marriage is the normal, biblical pattern for adults. But second, pursue marriage carefully and with wisdom. It is better to remain single than to enter unwisely into marriage.Marry to go deeper with Christ.
Second, teach them to marry to go deeper with Christ. God instructs his children to marry fellow believers only (Deuteronomy 7:3; 1 Corinthians 7:39; 2 Corinthians 6:14). This rule is an absolute — no exceptions. For a Christian to deliberately and knowingly marry an unbeliever is sin. For me, this principle includes Roman Catholics and liberal Protestants, who are not clear on the gospel or biblical authority.
This principle raises a bigger question: “What is a believer? When asked, many people will profess to be Christians because they “asked Jesus into their heart,” even if they are currently unfruitful or uninterested in spiritual things. This makes discernment difficult.
Here are some helpful questions to ask: Can your prospective spouse articulate the gospel? Does he believe it, and delight in it? Does his life revolve around Christ, or does it revolve around something else? Is Christ enthroned in the center of his life? Would marriage to this person manifestly draw me closer to Christ or subtly away from him?
Marry to go deeper with Christ. We want the effect of our union, whether after fifty years together or five, to be more faith, more obedience, more Christlikeness, and more need for and dependence upon the Holy Spirit. Don’t marry anyone who will not help you go there.Marry a potential best friend.
Third, don’t marry a beautiful face or a young man’s future career success. I am not saying these things don’t matter, but they are very secondary. Marriage means decades together. It is more important to marry someone with whom you enjoy and share common interests, hobbies, and passions. The beautiful body will quickly fade. Career success will mean nothing if at age fifty you don’t share the deepest intimacy around a common commitment to Christ.Focus on the vows.
Fourth, remind your children, especially your daughters, that the wedding is not about the flowers, the music, the wedding dress, the guest list, and the honeymoon. It is about the vows. Weddings are the recitation of vows in the presence of witnesses. Everything else accompanies the vows. And the most important witness is the holy, omniscient, and almighty Judge — a Judge who hates when people break vows because they have become costly.
Before I perform any marriage, I remind the couple of this truth. I encourage them to read their vows together and count the cost. Weddings are not a time for flippancy but for the joy of Psalm 2:11: “Rejoice with trembling.” Weddings are a time to fear God, to share in a sense of sobriety as the couple takes their vows.Prepare to burn your bridges.
Fifth, wedding vows mean marriage is for life — “till death do us part.” When Christians marry, they burn their bridges so that there is no going back. Why?
Christ’s love is covenantal. He has promised to “never leave you nor forsake you” (Hebrews 13:5). He “swears to his own hurt and does not change” (Psalm 15:4). Christians marry to live out God’s covenant love in front of their children and the world.
Therefore, there is no getting out of the relationship because “we don’t love each other anymore,” or “we’ve grown apart,” or “he just doesn’t get me.” I am thankful that both my parents and my wife’s parents impressed this upon us in our youth. We approached our wedding deeply sobered.
I often think of my uncle who married his high school sweetheart. Ten years into marriage, she developed a brain tumor. My only memory was of her in a wheelchair, drooling compulsively, unable to communicate with her husband. My father would remind me that his brother took a vow to be faithful to her “in sickness and in health, in good times and bad times, till death do us part.” My uncle kept that vow faithfully. On my wedding day, I knew there was no guarantee this would not happen to me.Don’t marry someone to change him.
Sixth, my wife’s father raised her with this excellent advice: don’t marry someone to change him. For example, “He doesn’t pick up after himself, but I know he’ll change.” “She talks too much, but I know she will change.” “She wants to devote her life to a career and not have children, but I know I can change her mind.” “He’s not attentive to me, but I know he’ll change after a few years together.”
Why is marrying others to change them a mistake? Because it is very unlikely that they will change, and if they don’t, you are still married for life. Instead, marry with the full knowledge of your future spouse’s weaknesses and failings but determined to love and forgive even if he never changes. If you can’t do that, don’t marry the person.Expect to be sanctified.
Last, remind your children regularly that marriage is about more than love. It is about sanctification. I would estimate that, since marriage, about eighty percent of my sanctification has come through my relationship with my wife. To paraphrase author Gary Thomas, God is more interested in our holiness than our merely earthly happiness, and he will use our marriage to provoke us to that (happy) holiness.
The two people who say “I do” are always sinners, and that means inevitable conflict. There will be seasons of suffering and painful growth. Learning to serve another sinner will put a spotlight on your own faults and sins. I thank God for the struggles we have experienced.Our Children’s Earthly Journey
Whom to marry is the second most important life decision your children will make. The ramifications will go on for decades. Therefore, wise parents regularly talk to their children about how to pick a spouse. They understand that this crucial decision could make or break their children’s earthly journey, and they treat it with a gravity that equals that reality.
After all, who is more qualified to teach them about marriage? You will have lived it for at least a decade. Nourish them through your experience.
September 13: Exodus 15:26; Job 33:24; Psalm 90:8; Psalm 139:1–3; Isaiah 1:18; Isaiah 53:5; Isaiah 57:18; Isaiah 61:1; Mark 5:34; Hebrews 4:13; Psalm 20:1–2; Psalm 20:5; Psalm 20:7–8; Psalm 118:6–7; Isaiah 59:19; Daniel 3:17; Romans 8:31; 1 Corinthians...
“I have seen his ways, but I will heal him.”
“I am the Lord, your healer.”
O Lord, you have searched me and known me! You know when I sit down and when I rise up; you discern my thoughts from afar. You search out my path and my lying down and are acquainted with all my ways.—You have set our iniquities before you, our secret sins in the light of your presence.—All are naked and exposed to the eyes of him to whom we must give account.
“Come now, let us reason together, says the Lord: though your sins are like scarlet, they shall be as white as snow; though they are red like crimson, they shall become like wool.”—“He is merciful to him, and says, ‘Deliver him from going down into the pit; I have found a ransom.’”—But he was wounded for our transgressions; he was crushed for our iniquities; upon him was the chastisement that brought us peace, and with his stripes we are healed.—He has sent me to bind up the brokenhearted.—“Your faith has made you well; go in peace, and be healed of your disease.”Exodus 15:26 (Listen)
26 saying, “If you will diligently listen to the voice of the LORD your God, and do that which is right in his eyes, and give ear to his commandments and keep all his statutes, I will put none of the diseases on you that I put on the Egyptians, for I am the LORD, your healer.”
(ESV)Job 33:24 (Listen)
(ESV)Psalm 90:8 (Listen)
(ESV)Psalm 139:1–3 (Listen) Search Me, O God, and Know My Heart To the choirmaster. A Psalm of David.
139 O LORD, you have searched me and known me!
2 You know when I sit down and when I rise up;
you discern my thoughts from afar.
3 You search out my path and my lying down
and are acquainted with all my ways.
(ESV)Isaiah 1:18 (Listen)
18 “Come now, let us reason1 together, says the LORD:
though your sins are like scarlet,
they shall be as white as snow;
though they are red like crimson,
they shall become like wool.
 1:18 Or dispute
(ESV)Isaiah 53:5 (Listen)
(ESV)Isaiah 57:18 (Listen)
(ESV)Isaiah 61:1 (Listen) The Year of the Lord's Favor
61 The Spirit of the Lord GOD is upon me,
because the LORD has anointed me
to bring good news to the poor;1
he has sent me to bind up the brokenhearted,
to proclaim liberty to the captives,
and the opening of the prison to those who are bound;2
(ESV)Mark 5:34 (Listen)
(ESV)Hebrews 4:13 (Listen)
(ESV)Evening: Psalm 20:1–2; Psalm 20:5; Psalm 20:7–8; Psalm 118:6–7; Isaiah 59:19; Daniel 3:17; Romans 8:31; 1 Corinthians 10:13
The Lord is on my side as my helper.
May the Lord answer you in the day of trouble! May the name of the God of Jacob protect you! May he send you help from the sanctuary and give you support from Zion!… May we shout for joy over your salvation, and in the name of our God set up our banners!… Some trust in chariots and some in horses, but we trust in the name of the Lord our God. They collapse and fall, but we rise and stand upright.
He will come like a rushing stream, which the wind of the Lord drives.—No temptation has overtaken you that is not common to man. God is faithful, and he will not let you be tempted beyond your ability, but with the temptation he will also provide the way of escape, that you may be able to endure it.—If God is for us, who can be against us?—The Lord is on my side; I will not fear.—“Our God whom we serve is able to deliver us,… and he will deliver us.”Psalm 20:1–2 (Listen) Trust in the Name of the Lord Our God To the choirmaster. A Psalm of David.
(ESV)Psalm 20:5 (Listen)
(ESV)Psalm 20:7–8 (Listen)
(ESV)Psalm 118:6–7 (Listen)
(ESV)Isaiah 59:19 (Listen)
19 So they shall fear the name of the LORD from the west,
and his glory from the rising of the sun;
for he will come like a rushing stream,1
which the wind of the LORD drives.
 59:19 Hebrew a narrow river
(ESV)Daniel 3:17 (Listen)
17 If this be so, our God whom we serve is able to deliver us from the burning fiery furnace, and he will deliver us out of your hand, O king.1Footnotes
 3:17 Or If our God whom we serve is able to deliver us, he will deliver us from the burning fiery furnace and out of your hand, O king
(ESV)Romans 8:31 (Listen) God's Everlasting Love
31 What then shall we say to these things? If God is for us, who can be1 against us?Footnotes
 8:31 Or who is
(ESV)1 Corinthians 10:13 (Listen)
13 No temptation has overtaken you that is not common to man. God is faithful, and he will not let you be tempted beyond your ability, but with the temptation he will also provide the way of escape, that you may be able to endure it.
“We should not approach conflict as a nuisance, but as an opportunity to join Christ in his sanctifying work in our lives. God is not busy making us comfortable, making us wealthy, making us happy, He is busy conforming us to Jesus. So we can accept conflict as a tool through which he’s showing us our weaknesses, exposing our sinful tendencies, and training us in love and patience.” — Danielle Sallade
Date: April 2, 2019
Event: TGC 2019 National Conference, Indianapolis, Indiana
Bibliography for this talk:
- Resolving Everyday Conflict by Ken Sande and Kevin Johnson
- The Peacemaker by Ken Sande, www.peacemaker.net
- Relationships, A Mess Worth Making by Tim Lane and Paul Tripp
- Good and Angry by David Powlinson
- Why Marriages Succeed or Fail by John Gottman (see also his four horsemen videos)
- Notes from the Redeemer Presbyterian Church marriage counseling seminar
This helmet I suppose Was meant to ward off blows It’s very hot and weighs a lot So off this helmet goes, so off this helmet goes.
So sings one of the characters in Gilbert and Sullivan’s opera Princess Ida—right before entering a duel! I used to belong to a fencing club, so I can testify that the kit required for combat—even with blunt foils—certainly matched that description: hot, heavy, and uncomfortable. Yet if you know the risks involved in that particular activity, you’re more likely to take seriously the need for proper equipment to engage in it.
But what is the proper equipment needed to face life? The answer depends on what you expect life to be like. Many people, including Christians, expect life to be a walk in the park. Because that is their expectation, they’re mentally dressed accordingly, in a t-shirt and shorts, with flimsy flip-flops on their feet. They aren’t alert and on guard, moment by moment expecting the assault of a powerful adversary. Instead, they’re sauntering through their days, carelessly enjoying the sunshine, not dressed in proper spiritual safety gear.Helmet of Salvation
Let me give a specific example, what Paul calls “the helmet of salvation” (Eph. 6:17).
In order to put it on, you first need to know what this helmet is. Like the breastplate of righteousness, this piece of armor is borrowed directly from the description of the divine warrior in Isaiah 59:17. In fact, God’s righteousness and his people’s salvation occur together frequently in Isaiah. God’s righteousness—his reliable commitment to fulfill all his promises to his people—means he must act to deliver them from all their enemies, including the greatest enemy of all—their sin, and the separation from God it causes.
This firm promise of God provides the basis for their secure hope amid life’s trials and difficulties. That is why in 1 Thessalonians 5:8, Paul describes this piece of armor more fully as the “helmet of the hope of salvation.” The Christian’s helmet is his or her sure hope of salvation.
Many Christians seem to have mislaid their helmets.
Yet many Christians seem to have mislaid their helmets. Most people are “hoping” to be saved, perhaps, but that’s not what Paul means. As far as battle headgear, that kind of “hoping to be saved” is as useful as a floppy sun hat. It won’t do you much good when the conflict grows fierce. In the Bible, hope is never a vague optimism that everything is going to work out in the end; rather, it’s a settled conviction about where you will spend eternity. Biblical hope is sufficiently sure that you can give a reason for it (1 Pet. 3:15). Yet many can’t offer a good reason for their vague sense that they’re going to heaven.
One evangelistic outreach program suggests asking, “If you were to die tonight and God were to ask you, ‘Why should I let you into my heaven?’ what would you say?” Many don’t have an answer. Others reply, “I’ve tried my best to love people; I’m no worse than anyone else.” These people have an uncertain reason for their hope. If you’re relying on your own goodness to enter heaven, you can never know for sure where you’re going. Are you good enough for God’s standard? What if you do something dreadful later in life? When I look into my own heart and see all the wrong things I think and do every day, I know I don’t have any chance of entering heaven based on my personal record. Certainly, I could never be sure of going to heaven on my own goodness.Sure and Steady Hope
But the Bible tells us we can know for sure that we’re going to heaven. The apostle John says, “I write these things to you who believe in the name of the Son of God, that you may know that you have eternal life” (1 John 5:13). John wants us to know for sure we’re going to heaven, and he explains how: “This is the testimony, that God gave us eternal life, and this life is in his Son. Whoever has the Son has life; whoever does not have the Son of God does not have life” (1 John 5:11–12). If we have Jesus, we have life. If we don’t have Jesus, we don’t have life. Eternal life is God’s free gift, which comes to us wrapped up in his Son. We receive Jesus Christ and his righteousness, and along with him we receive life. Turn your back on Jesus, and in the same motion you’re turning your back on heaven.
We have our helmet of the hope of salvation firmly in place and are now prepared to face life’s storms.
That is why believers can be sure about going to heaven. If attaining heaven depends on our best efforts, it must always remain uncertain. But if heaven is received as a free gift, we can know we have it for sure. As surely as we have received Jesus’s perfect goodness and asked for all our failure and sin to be laid on him, so surely we have received heaven. Dressed in the breastplate of Christ’s righteousness, given to us as a free gift of grace, we can be utterly confident of our eternal future: we have our helmet of the hope of salvation firmly in place and are now ready to face life’s storms.
Life is hard. That’s normal for followers of a crucified King. We’re engulfed by difficulties and temptations on all sides. We must wrestle with our rebellious hearts, as well as external trials. All the more reason, then, to be properly clothed. For when we face trials in the armor God has given, and the forces of darkness have done their worst and the fog of war finally lifts, we will be found standing firm in hope, in the strength provided by the Holy Spirit.
Recently, I met with a young couple whose little boy had just been evaluated for kindergarten. Their son is brilliant. He began talking before he turned 1. He knew all of his letters and numbers at 1 and a half, and he started reading words around 2. He’s voraciously inquisitive, which affords his parents many opportunities to point him to Christ.
As I talked to this little one, I realized what a gift logical reasoning is, even to young children. A childlike faith isn’t at odds with intellectual curiosity. In fact, a child’s appetite for learning could be the conduit through which he is brought to a saving faith.Logic and a Rational Faith
R. C. Sproul characterized Christianity as a rational faith, the truth of which can be discerned logically. Logic, he pointed out, is a good gift—an aspect of the thinking of God himself—and must never be separated from faith:
[The laws of logic] were placed in our minds by the Creator during the act of creation. We speak because God has spoken. God is not the author of confusion, irrationality, or the absurd. Furthermore, his words are meant to be understood by his creatures, and a necessary condition for his creature’s understanding of those words is that they are intelligible and not irrational.
Logical thought applied to faith incites solid belief and great love. So, how can parents lead their children in the pursuit of truth and help foster a generation of thinkers who will use their God-given minds to lay hold of Christ? We begin with logic and reason—a set of tools we use ourselves every day, whether we know it or not.
In ordinary conversations and daily observations, three simple principles can point children to a rational and saving faith in Jesus Christ.1. The Law of Non-Contradiction
Two contradictory propositions cannot both be true at the same time in the same relationship. Even young children can apprehend that 2 + 2 = 4 and can never equal anything else. A child can see that chocolate ice cream is always chocolate, and never vanilla; or that a dog is a dog, and can never be a cat; or that touching a hot stove will burn their hand every time.
When young children hear others dismiss God’s existence, or shrug off Jesus as just a man, or deny the truth of God’s Word, they encounter an opportunity for logic. Applying the objective reality of non-contradiction to faith can lead children to see that the God of the Bible is either who he says he is, or he is who unbelievers say he is. But he can’t be both.2. The Law of Causality
Every effect has a cause. As Sproul further explained, “There cannot be an uncaused effect.” There is no exception to this rule in the natural world. As we go through our days alongside our kids, we can notice effects and look for their causes. Is the sidewalk wet in the morning? It rained during the night. Is a frisbee gliding through the air at the park? Someone threw it. Are we feeling better? We’ve received medicine or a hug. Are we smiling? There’s an ice-cream cone in our hand.
Applying the law of causality to faith can lead children to conclude that something—Someone—made trees, and zebras, and spiders, and stars, and planets, and love, and the taste of sweet things on our tongues. No walk to the park or trip to the zoo can escape the necessary conclusion of the law of causality.
Inevitably, pondering causes will lead children to the inevitable question, “Who caused God?”
God is the preeminent cause. Again, Sproul explains:
We don’t have to have an antecedent cause for God. God is an uncaused cause. He is an eternal being; the self-existing, eternal being who is independent, underived, not contingent, not caused because he is not an effect. Only things that are made are effects.
Explaining the preeminence of the Creator to children can spark both deepened faith and a reason to worship Christ, who is “before all things, and in whom all things hold together” (Col. 1:17).3. Sense Perception
In the natural world, the only means of accessing anything outside ourselves is through our senses. We’ve been given gifts of sight, touch, taste, smell, and hearing. The invention of the microscope and telescope opened up even greater opportunities to observe—and marvel at—the breathtaking wonder, majesty, grandeur, minutiae, vastness, intricacy, opulence, and sublimity of creation. Though God is invisible, our senses enable us to see his handiwork all around us, so we are “without excuse” (Rom. 1:20).
Jesus appealed to sense perception when explaining the Holy Spirit to Nicodemus: “The wind blows where it wishes, and you hear its sound, but you do not know where it comes from or where it goes. So it is with everyone who is born of the Spirit” (John 3:8).
The softness of a feather, the smell of the rain, the wonder of a spiderweb, or the glory of a sunset are all opportunities to capture. Point children to their source. For when they’re taught to be aware of their senses, children can be led to see and know the genius and beauty of the Creator in whom “we live and move and have our being” (Acts 17:28).Seize the Opportunities
We must teach our children to agree with Romans 7:25: “Thanks be to God through Jesus Christ our Lord! So then I myself serve the law of God with my mind.” Knowledge of God secures our hope (Prov. 24:14), and pursuing it serves as the first step in fulfilling the Greatest Commandment (Matt. 22:36–38).
Every picnic at the playground and conversation with the neighbors provides children with an opportunity to use their young minds. Let’s seize these moments in the service of Christ.
“There is a way that seems right to a man, but its end is the way to death” (Prov. 14:12).
This verse can apply to many situations, but it applies most importantly to the way of salvation. We can think we’re living a good Christian life—all while barreling toward death.
I learned this through hard experience.
Thanks to my dear Baptist mother, I grew up going to church regularly. By the age of 13, I knew that hell is a terrible reality, and I didn’t want to go there when I died. I also knew that Jesus died for my sins and that by accepting him I’d go to heaven. After talking with the pastor, I made a profession of faith one Sunday morning and was baptized that evening. I was now sure I would go to heaven when I died.
But nothing could have been further from the truth. Actually I had passed through the wide gate onto the easy road that leads to destruction, which Jesus warns about in the Sermon on the Mount (Matt. 7:13). It was indeed “the way that seems right to a man, but its end is the way to death.”
Eventually I came to see that I was motivated by fear. Accepting Jesus had been a matter of intellectual assent, not repentance and faith. Unfortunately it took 10 years to discover that—years filled with much sin and suffering.Very Wrong Way
The way that seems right to a man can take various forms, many of them respectable. For me, it took the form of fighting for God and country. At first blush, that sounds admirable—like noble military service. But I was in the midst of the civil-rights era of the 1960s, and in my case “fighting for God and country” meant embracing far-right extremism, with its hatred of blacks, Jews, communists, socialists, and liberals. I adopted the views of the Christian Identity movement, a virulently racist, anti-Semitic cult. (This and other racist, anti-Semitic groups are alive and well today, and gaining adherents in these troubled times.) One old saint wisely observed that “the Devil is a master fisherman. He baits his hook according to the appetite of the fish.” He had used the right bait to catch me.
The road I was traveling led to increasing hatred for the “enemies” of America and the white race. They had to be stopped at all costs—the end justified the means. One night an accomplice and I attempted to bomb the home of a Jewish businessman in Meridian, Mississippi, but the house was staked out by a police SWAT team. My accomplice was killed, and I was shot four times at close range with shotgun fire. When I got to the hospital, the doctors said it would be a miracle if I lived 45 minutes.
But God had mercy on me and miraculously spared my life. If ever there was a time to repent of my sins and turn to Christ, it was then. But I was dead in trespasses and didn’t think what I was doing was wrong. After all, I was fighting for God and country.
I was sentenced to 30 years in the Mississippi State Penitentiary, said to be one of the worst prisons in America at the time. I went there with one thing in mind: to escape and return to my activities. It took six months to work out a plan and recruit two other inmates, but we pulled off a successful escape. Two days later, however, the FBI found us in a wooded area, and one of the inmates was killed in the ensuing gunfire. Had he not relieved me from standing watch 30 minutes earlier than planned, I would have been the one killed.
I was taken back to prison—this time to a solitary cell in the maximum-security unit. It was the lowest point in my life, since any hope of escape was gone. Rationally speaking, this would’ve been another propitious time to repent and turn to Christ. But I still saw myself as a patriot fighting for God and country. When someone is blind and dead in sin, rational considerations alone can’t bring them to life.
It takes something more. Something supernatural.New Way
To keep from going crazy, I occupied my time with reading. Top priority was catching up on all the racist and anti-Semitic books I hadn’t devoured before. I then read a book on neo-fascist political theory and cultural analysis, which exposed me to a much more sophisticated intellectual approach to the issues of race and culture. Many Western philosophers were referred to, and they were intriguing to me. I had never seen anything like this before, and it awakened in me an interest in philosophy. I read Hegel’s Philosophy of History and then Oswald Spengler’s Decline of the West, both of which were challenging for someone with no philosophy background. Plato and Aristotle were mentioned, and around that time I saw a mail-in advertisement for the works of Plato, Aristotle, and Marcus Aurelius. I had been interested in Western Civilization in high school and in my first semester at college, so this seemed like a good place to start a proper study.
I had no idea that such a study would take me away from my racist, anti-Semitic, far-right ideology. In retrospect, I see it as the Holy Spirit’s pre-evangelistic ambush. It liberated my mind and gave me a desire to seek truth, wherever that might take me and also to examine my life, as Socrates urged. Since philosophy didn’t possess the truth I was seeking, I was drawn (I now realize, by the Spirit) to read the Gospels, where I was encountered by Truth Himself (John 14.6).
Unbeknownst to me, a group of women had read about me in the newspaper—and had been praying weekly for two years that God would save and use me for his glory. The leader of this prayer group was the wife of the FBI agent who orchestrated my capture in Meridian. Not long after I started reading the Gospels, my eyes began to be opened—“a divine and supernatural light imparted to the soul,” as Jonathan Edwards said. My many sins began flooding to mind—and with them conviction, repentance, and tears of confession. One night, I knelt on the floor of my cell and prayed a simple prayer to Jesus, asking for forgiveness and offering my life to him if he wanted it. It felt like a thousand pounds had been lifted from my shoulders. Something changed inside of me, and I haven’t been the same since. I had left the road of easy religion that was leading me to destruction and stepped onto the narrow path that leads to eternal life (Matt. 7:14).
I awoke the next day to find that I was now spiritually alive, and God was real to me! I had an immediate appetite to read the Bible, pray, and live for God. The more I read the Bible, the more I grew. God gave me love for people I once hated and has helped me to change in many other ways. Miraculously, I was released from prison in 1976, after serving eight years. And from 1978 to the present, I have been active in ministry.
As I look back over the 50-plus years since that night in 1968 when I was given 45 minutes to live, all I can do is marvel at the goodness and love of God, who sent his Son to rescue me from the way of sin and death. He has been a gracious Father to me over the years as I have sought, however imperfectly, to walk the narrow road to eternal life. He has been kind and patient, convicting me of sin where needed, forgiving me as I repent, strengthening me for fresh obedience, showering me with blessings, and steadily fulfilling his purposes through my life. It hasn’t always been easy, of course, for Jesus said it wouldn’t be. But God has been faithful and carried me through the trials and tribulations of life—some very painful—using them for my good.
Sadly, many don’t know this grace. They still walk in darkness, even in the church. The road they’re on seems right, but it leads to death. As C. S. Lewis observed, “If you have not chosen the kingdom of God, it will in the end make no difference what you have chosen instead.” We’re called to bring such people the light of Christ. The same grace that’s been so abundant in my life is available, today, to anyone who truly wants it. Simply embrace the gospel and turn to Christ in repentant faith.
“I wonder what sort of a tale we’ve fallen into?” So wondered Samwise Gamgee to his dear friend and master, Frodo Baggins, in Tolkien’s beloved epic, The Lord of the Rings (The Two Towers, 362). And what a tale it is. It is beloved by so many because it has all the elements we love so much in a great story.
Now, in some sense, it’s true that what makes for a great story has as many descriptions as there are people. That’s one of the almost incomprehensibly glorious things about humanity: billions and billions of unique facets of expression and preference. But many of the greatest stories have similar elements in common, even as they span different cultures and generations. And there’s a reason for this.What Makes a Story Great?
At the core of nearly all the great stories is a desperate struggle between good and evil. This struggle provides the context and foundation for understanding everything else in the story. It defines who are the heroes and heroines and who are villains.
And though these stories can vary significantly in time and plot, there is a remarkable consistency among them when it comes to the nature of good and the nature of evil. Heroes, while typically flawed, are admirable and courageous, and pursue the good of others — often at great cost to themselves. Villains are despicable and view others as a means to their self-exalting, others-dominating ends.
And there are common, transcendent moral themes present, in greater or lesser degrees, in these stories that resonate deeply inside us: truth, righteousness, justice, mercy, grace, faith, integrity, and always various expressions of love. Romantic love (eros), yes, especially in the stories of the past few centuries. But there’s also deep love of friends (philio) and often familial love (storge). “But the greatest of these” expressions of love in the greatest stories is when someone puts the good of others before themselves (agape) (1 Corinthians 13:13). We are especially moved and inspired by sacrificial love, when “someone [lays] down his life for his friends” (John 15:13).A Tale as Old as Time
And these stories frequently follow a similar narrative arc. Think of recent epic stories, besides The Lord of the Rings, that have captured the imaginations of collective billions around the world: The Avengers, Star Wars, Harry Potter, and The Chronicles of Narnia. What’s the essential story?
An evil force, seeking to subject people under its domination, gains power and resources, and look invincible, while good finds itself in a weak position, outmanned, outgunned, and nearly out of time. And just when evil is about to deliver the final blow, and achieve its desire, against all apparent odds, the good finds an unexpected way through unexpected events to overcome and overthrow the powerful evil threat and deliver those who were imperiled.
This is a story told over and over and over again. And it has been told for ages. This narrative arc is in the biblical story of Esther, which is some 2,500 years old.How to Gut Good Stories
But there’s one additional element I haven’t mentioned yet. And this element is ever-present, an indispensable component that holds the whole weave of these stories together: providence.
Toward the beginning of The Lord of the Rings, the wizard Gandalf was explaining to the troubled hobbit, Frodo, why first his uncle Bilbo and now he suddenly found themselves in possession of the Ring of Power. Dark forces surrounded them as Sauron, the Ring’s maker, desperately tried to obtain it. But Gandalf reminded:
There was more than one power at work, Frodo. The Ring was trying to get back to its master. . . . Only to be picked up by the most unlikely person imaginable: Bilbo from the Shire! Behind that there was something else at work, beyond any design of the Ring-maker. I can put it no plainer than by saying that Bilbo was meant to find the Ring, and not by its maker. In which case you also were meant to have it. And that may be an encouraging thought. (The Fellowship of the Ring)
What we really love about these great stories is that the seemingly improbable turn of events and the apparently unlikely deliverances occur because, whether or not it’s explicitly mentioned, there’s a providence at work aiding the good and guiding the outcome. However it’s represented, providence is the iridescent moral backlight to the scenes in these stories that provides the good its beauty and makes its triumph meaningful.
In Western culture, the dominant narrative about human origins and destinations is Darwinian: that we and all that occurs in our experience are products of mindless, meaningless, moral-less forces. But deep down we know better. Our most beloved stories betray us. Remove providence and replace it with random chance, unguided coincidence, and all the beauty we love, all the meaning we need, is gutted out of the stories. Remove providence, and a story ceases to be a story.
Something deep inside us knows that good is supposed to ultimately defeat evil. We know this in our heart of hearts.Echoes of the Real Story
Why do we know this? Why do we love these kinds of stories so much? I believe it’s because in them we hear echoes of the Great Story, the story of God’s redemption of fallen humanity. The narrative arc that our hearts recognize as glorious is the narrative arc of the Bible.
The Bible tells an epic story, but not in the way most of our epics are told. It is wholly unique — an odd, counterintuitive mixture of genres and authors and perspectives. We come away from it with sufficient understanding of the story’s origin and goal, but not anything we’d consider comprehensive. And the story is incomplete. It’s incomplete because the story is still being told — right now. It’s the Real Story being told in real time; the story we’re all a part of.
And the reason we love a story like The Lord of the Rings so much is because it taps into the deep places of our heart, where we long for real hope — the real “blessed hope” of the real return of the real King (Titus 2:13) and the final real overthrow of the dreadful evil in real life whose dark shadow we really live and languish under (1 John 3:8; 5:19).What Chapter Are You In?
Perhaps, where we find ourselves right now in the Real Story, we feel like Frodo did in that conversation with Samwise Gamgee about the tale they found themselves in:
“You and I, Sam, are still stuck in the worst places of the story, and it is all too likely that some will say at this point: ‘Shut the book now, dad; we don’t want to read any more.’” (The Two Towers, 363)
Some are experiencing this in more excruciating ways than others, though, in truth, we are all living here, on the outskirts of Mordor. The great fictional epics have horrible parts to them because the Real Epic has horrible parts to it, sometimes unspeakably so.
But Sauron’s days are numbered, the White Witch’s wintry spell is melting, light is breaking into the Dark Side, Voldemort’s control is weakening, Thanos’s snap is being undone, and Haman will swing from his own gallows. Jesus has come “to destroy the works of the devil” (1 John 3:8).
No matter what we face, there is real hope because The Story is real: “For whatever was written in former days was written for our instruction, that through endurance and through the encouragement of the Scriptures we might have hope” (Romans 15:4). Therefore, “may the God of hope fill you with all joy and peace in believing, so that by the power of the Holy Spirit you may abound in hope” (Romans 15:13).
God’s priorities for efficiency in this life are not ours. His aim is not to provide the most direct route, but to sanctify the traveler.
September 12: Exodus 23:2; Romans 12:2; 2 Corinthians 6:14–16; Ephesians 2:2; Ephesians 4:20–21; James 4:4; 1 John 2:15; 1 John 2:17; Genesis 3:19; Psalm 104:23; Ecclesiastes 9:10; Isaiah 28:12; Matthew 20:12; John 9:4; 1 Corinthians 15:58; Galatians 6...
Do not be conformed to this world, but be transformed by the renewal of your mind.
“You shall not fall in with the many to do evil.”
Do you not know that friendship with the world is enmity with God? Therefore whoever wishes to be a friend of the world makes himself an enemy of God.—What partnership has righteousness with lawlessness? Or what fellowship has light with darkness? What accord has Christ with Belial? Or what portion does a believer share with an unbeliever? What agreement has the temple of God with idols?—Do not love the world or the things in the world. If anyone loves the world, the love of the Father is not in him. And the world is passing away along with its desires, but whoever does the will of God abides forever.
In which you once walked, following the course of this world, following the prince of the power of the air, the spirit that is now at work in the sons of disobedience.—That is not the way you learned Christ!—assuming that you have heard about him,… as the truth is in Jesus.Exodus 23:2 (Listen)
(ESV)Romans 12:2 (Listen)
(ESV)2 Corinthians 6:14–16 (Listen) The Temple of the Living God
14 Do not be unequally yoked with unbelievers. For what partnership has righteousness with lawlessness? Or what fellowship has light with darkness? 15 What accord has Christ with Belial?1 Or what portion does a believer share with an unbeliever? 16 What agreement has the temple of God with idols? For we are the temple of the living God; as God said,
 6:15 Greek Beliar
(ESV)Ephesians 2:2 (Listen)
(ESV)Ephesians 4:20–21 (Listen)
(ESV)James 4:4 (Listen)
4 You adulterous people!1 Do you not know that friendship with the world is enmity with God? Therefore whoever wishes to be a friend of the world makes himself an enemy of God.Footnotes
 4:4 Or You adulteresses!
(ESV)1 John 2:15 (Listen) Do Not Love the World
(ESV)1 John 2:17 (Listen)
(ESV)Evening: Genesis 3:19; Psalm 104:23; Ecclesiastes 9:10; Isaiah 28:12; Matthew 20:12; John 9:4; 1 Corinthians 15:58; Galatians 6:9; 1 Thessalonians 4:11; 2 Thessalonians 3:10; Hebrews 4:9
Man goes out to his work and to his labor until the evening.
“By the sweat of your face you shall eat bread, till you return to the ground.”—We would give you this command: If anyone is not willing to work, let him not eat.—Aspire to live quietly, and to mind your own affairs, and to work with your hands.
Whatever your hand finds to do, do it with your might, for there is no work or thought or knowledge or wisdom in Sheol, to which you are going.—“Night is coming, when no one can work.”
Let us not grow weary of doing good, for in due season we will reap, if we do not give up.—Always abounding in the work of the Lord, knowing that in the Lord your labor is not in vain.
There remains a… rest for the people of God.—“To us who have borne the burden of the day and the scorching heat.”—“This is rest; give rest to the weary; and this is repose.”Genesis 3:19 (Listen)
(ESV)Psalm 104:23 (Listen)
(ESV)Ecclesiastes 9:10 (Listen)
10 Whatever your hand finds to do, do it with your might,1 for there is no work or thought or knowledge or wisdom in Sheol, to which you are going.Footnotes
 9:10 Or finds to do with your might, do it
(ESV)Isaiah 28:12 (Listen)
(ESV)Matthew 20:12 (Listen)
(ESV)John 9:4 (Listen)
(ESV)1 Corinthians 15:58 (Listen)
(ESV)Galatians 6:9 (Listen)
(ESV)1 Thessalonians 4:11 (Listen)
(ESV)2 Thessalonians 3:10 (Listen)
(ESV)Hebrews 4:9 (Listen)
Many believers are familiar with only two verses in Micah—the prophecy that a ruler will come from Bethlehem (5:2), and the answer to the question, “What does the LORD require?” (6:8). In this conversation, Stephen Um—senior minister at CityLife Church in Boston and author of Micah for You—helps teachers understand the legal setting of the book of Micah with its charges, witnesses, evidence, verdict, sentence, and mercy. Um explains the difference between biblical justice and modern understandings of social justice, as well as key themes and images in Micah such as shepherds, kings, and mountains.Listen to this episode of Help Me Teach the Bible.
- Micah for You: Acting Justly, Loving Mercy by Stephen Um
- Obadiah, Jonah, and Micah (Tyndale Commentaries) by T. Desmond Alexander, David W. Baker, and Bruce Waltke
- Micah (EP Commentary) by Dale Ralph Davis
- Jonah & Micah (Reformed Expository Commentary) by Richard D. Phillips
- Jonah, Micah, and Nahum: A 12-Week Study (Knowing the Bible) by Kristofer D. Holroyd
- ESV Expository Commentary: Daniel-Malachi by Iain M.Duguid, James M. Hamilton Jr., and Jay Sklar
How can I be right with God? That’s one of the most important questions we could ever ask. The answer not only reveals what Christ accomplished in his life, death, and resurrection, but also explains how his impeccable righteousness is given to the ungodly.
Unfortunately, Christians struggle to answer that fundamental question due to the many voices challenging the biblical view of justification today. But if we return to classic treatments of the doctrine, we will find both clarifying relief and also fresh expressions that will equip us to respond to new opposition.
Here are five to kick off your studies.For the Christian in the Pew and the Pastor in the Pulpit
1. Justification by Faith Alone by John Calvin, edited by Nate Pickowicz
Few reformers were so gifted at communicating the evangelical doctrine of justification as John Calvin was. With memorable prose, scriptural fidelity, and theological acumen, the Institutes of the Christian Religion shed light on the doctrine of justification where previously there had been dark ambiguity. “We define justification as follows: the sinner, received into communion with Christ, is reconciled to God by his grace, while, cleansed by Christ’s blood, he obtains forgiveness of sins, and clothed with Christ’s righteousness as if it were his own, he stands confident before the heavenly judgment seat” (3.17.8).
Forgiven and clothed in the righteousness of Christ, the sinner no longer had to fear the fires of purgatory, question the certainty of salvation, or attempt to do his or her best to somehow merit grace and remission of sins. Righteousness is a gift, Calvin insisted, given to all who simply trust in the righteousness of Jesus Christ rather than their own. Nate Pickowicz has made Calvin’s treatment on justification accessible in a single volume. Here is a book to be read and re-read throughout your Christian life, lest you forget the warmth the robe of Christ’s righteousness gives to those trusting in him alone.For the College and Seminary Student
2. Faith and Its Evidences by John Owen
This work may be one of the greatest treatments of justification, though you wouldn’t know it by how little it is read and engaged by evangelicals today. Facing challenges from Socinianism and Roman Catholicism, the Puritan John Owen articulates justification with the type of precision that’s so rare among contemporary thinkers. He not only lays down a biblical and theological foundation, but also displays the endless consequences the doctrine has for the Christian life. For this reason I devoted a whole chapter to Owen’s doctrine of justification in Owen on the Christian Life: Living for the Glory of God in Christ (Crossway, 2015), co-authored with Michael Haykin.
3. Faith Alone: The Doctrine of Justification by Thomas Schreiner
Thomas Schreiner summarizes the history of the doctrine, looking at the early church and the writings of several reformers. Then he turns his attention to the Scriptures and walks readers through an examination of the key texts. He discusses whether justification is transformative or forensic, and he introduces readers to some contemporary challenges to the Reformation teaching of sola fide, with particular attention to the New Perspective on Paul. Schreiner’s response to N. T. Wright is worth the price of the book.
Schreiner’s response to N. T. Wright is worth the price of the book.
No one knows the apostle Paul like Schreiner does, which makes him the ideal New Testament scholar to respond to Wright’s reinterpretation of Paul’s doctrine of justification.For the Advanced Student and Scholar
4. Justification (2 vols.), by Michael Horton
In every century since the Reformation, the doctrine of justification has come under fire. But in our century the threats have become legion, sparking theological confusion. For that reason, Michael Horton’s two volumes are a Godsend. He retrieves the historical pedigree of justification and, with exegetical rigor and theological precision, reminds evangelicals why this doctrine still remains the hinge on which the Christian faith turns, as Calvin put it. Here is a work on justification that is as comprehensive in scope as it is faithful to Scripture.
Here is a work on justification that is as comprehensive in scope as it is faithful to Scripture.
Edited by yours truly, I had to put this tome on the list because the scholars who contributed to it have labored hard to provide first-class scholarship from every field. This volume of 26 essays explores the doctrine of justification through the lenses of biblical studies, systematic theology, historical theology, and pastoral practice—revealing the enduring significance of this pillar of Protestant theology. My hope is that this volume will give both students an entryway into the doctrine of justification no matter what their field of expertise, and also scholars the tools they need to answer the most pressing challenges to the doctrine today and in the future.Most Importantly . . .
The reformers believed the doctrine of justification is something on which the church either stands or falls. Five hundred years later, history has demonstrated just how right they were. Whether you’re a churchgoer, a pastor, or a scholar yourself, it’s crucial to get justification right. But to do so, you must be prepared.
The most important book you can read is the Bible itself.
While these books will instruct you as interpretive guides, providing you with theological clarity you otherwise would lack, the most important book you can read is the Bible itself. For it is there that God himself reveals his Son’s righteousness as a gift imputed to all those who trust in Christ alone. That is good news not only worth studying, but also celebrating.
I’ve been told I’m the guy who hates short-term missions.
Seven years ago I wrote a series of articles on short-term missions, but one in particular struck a chord: “Why You Should Consider Canceling Your Short-Term Mission Trips.” I sought to slay one of the golden calves of American evangelicalism, and quite a few folks weren’t happy about it.
Do I still believe it, seven years later? Yes—but 10,000 times more strongly. I’ve seen, experienced, and hosted trips, and I’ve watched the reporting back home (and not just from American teams) in the local church. If I had the power, I’d wipe out the majority of short-term mission trips with the wave of my hand.
What’s my rationale for this bold contention? Several things.Research at the Mercy of Testimonies?
Our culture primarily communicates in images and stories. When many Americans see something sad, our response is, What can I do? This is honorable. We see pictures of malnourished children or orphanages that need repair or refugees that need help. So we go, and the stories seem to come to life.
We also hear stories from people who have gone on such trips. They report a renewed love for Jesus, a new passion for missions, even a call to long-term service. The impact seems enormous.
But it’s not.
- They don’t change participants’ lives.
- They don’t cause more people to commit to long-term missions.
- They often harm both local economies and orphans.
But here’s the problem: research rarely trumps the anecdotes that participants recount after their cross-cultural experiences. With an outsider’s view of complex cultural dynamics, we’re left evaluating short-term cross-cultural experiences based on felt needs and personal testimonies. It’s like a pastor evaluating his sermon based on how he felt about it.But Won’t We Send Fewer Missionaries?
One faulty assumption that often drives short-term missions is that people make long-term commitments as result of short trips. I’ve heard this anecdotally recounted in my friends’ lives. This is how we often recruit people, but it’s a poor approach to mobilizing missionaries. Statistics show that while short-term missions have exploded, the number of full-time missionaries has remained the same or even decreased.
Perhaps we should at least pump the breaks on our assumptions that short-term trips are needed to recruit missionaries. Let’s say 500 go on short-term trips and, out of them, one commits to a long-term calling. Is gaining one missionary worth the cost of sending that many on short trips?
There is a similar argument that says going on a short-term trip will instill in participants a lifelong interest in missions—even if they don’t go long-term, they’ll be more likely to support those who do. But again, despite the explosion in short-term missions, giving to missionaries has not increased.
Our presuppositions seem to be flawed.Stealing Resources?
Imagine you’re a missionary. You’ve spent years getting trained. You’ve raised money and asked hundreds of friends for support in awkward face-to-face meetings. You move overseas and then spend two years learning the language. It’s hard work, but you and your spouse become conversational, and your kids are way ahead of you.
Then your home-church network, an outside-church network, and a parachurch ministry call in succession. They want to send short-term trips to your location. They’re excited about your ministry, so they start sending teams—one per month. All of a sudden your job is to facilitate trips and serve as a translator for eager college students. The roles of discipler and evangelist are out; tour guide is in. The pressure to play host is enormous. You don’t want to be a lone ranger. You don’t want to snuff out the passion of earnest people boarding a plane.
This scenario is the experience of numerous overseas missionaries.
Here’s another situation I’ve often seen. A church struggling to support a skilled and trained long-term missionary for $200 a month won’t question raising $40,000 to send many untrained workers for a week. Churches are less likely to support a long-term missionary than to send a group of teens to paint a house or put on a VBS in a country where they don’t speak the language.
American churches often send untrained individuals from among the financially privileged on short-term trips as a means of discipleship. In doing do, we swamp long-term workers with people who have flexible schedules and eager hearts, but not a lot of skill.
Many missionaries wish they could tell you the same thing, but they’d lose support from churches if they publicly expressed this view.Are All Short Trips Bad?
So are all short-term trips bad? Absolutely not. In another article, I’ve offered some ways forward. Having served for a decade as the leader of a missions agency that takes short-term trips, I offer eight brief ways to make them more fruitful.
1. Take short-term trips to meet crisis needs. Some needs, such as natural disasters or an influx of displaced people, long-term workers can’t handle alone. Send trained workers who will help, not hinder, their efforts. If you don’t send trained folks, you could create a second disaster.
2. Invest in long-term workers first. If you’re a smaller church with a missions budget of $12,000 and you send a short-term team for $40,000, you have things backward.
3. If you’re interested in poverty alleviation, read everything by Brian Fikkert. Then make your plans.
4. If you’re building anything without local participation, then in almost every situation, get out. The thing you’re building will most likely never be used or will be torn down. Most likely it’s a project created to give short-term teams something to do.
5. Consider sending smaller groups of the church’s most experienced, godly, and skilled members. Some of the most effective trips are elders and their wives going to encourage missionaries.
6. If you’re sending teens and college students, send smaller numbers to work with a veteran missionary who wants to disciple them. The key word for the young short-termers shouldn’t be impact, but rather learn.
7. If you’re visiting an orphanage to hold babies and play with kids, there are probably better ways to help them. The short-term team may be harming the children’s development. Instead, raise money to hire long-term staff or invest in community-development projects so that parents will be less likely to place kids in orphanages.
8. If you’re working outside the sphere of people who will be there long-term, especially national leaders, your impact will be minimal. Or it could be nonexistent, if not downright harmful.
With the financial resources to make it happen, American churches send out excited believers who desire to obey Christ. That’s a beautiful impulse. However, we need to re-evaluate if the entire enterprise is more about our felt growth, and desire to be seen as godly and self-sacrificing, than it is about supporting the long-term labors of the host team and the country they’ve been called to serve.
There are many superior ways forward. Let’s do better.