When we are saved, we’re united to Christ by the Spirit. Our old self — our unbelieving, rebellious, sin-loving self — dies, and we live by the Spirit.
ABSTRACT: To many people, the word jealousy is laden with negative connotations. In Scripture, however, we read that “the Lord, whose name is Jealous, is a jealous God.” God is rightfully jealous for his own glory and for the devotion of his covenant people. Holy jealousy also characterizes the most godly men and women, from David and Elijah to Jesus and Paul.
For our ongoing series of feature articles by scholars for pastors, leaders, and teachers, we asked Erik Thoennes, professor and chair of theology at Talbot School of Theology/Biola University, to explain the meaning of godly jealousy in Scripture. You can also download and print a PDF of the article.
Hear the word jealous, and images of an insecure, abusive husband may come to mind. Indeed, sinful human jealousy has been the cause of countless difficulties and heartache in human relationships. For many today, the word jealousy is always a bad one.
It can be perplexing for Christians, then, when they come across a passage like Exodus 34:14: “You shall worship no other god, for the Lord, whose name is Jealous, is a jealous God.” How could a perfect, loving, patient God call himself jealous? Is God insecure? Do passages like this simply represent a primitive, Old Testament idea of God that is thankfully done away with by the time we get to the New Testament? Maybe this is just a human way of talking about God that should not be taken seriously, or perhaps jealous is a bad translation of a Hebrew word that could allow for a less troublesome English word?
Despite confusion and aversion to this attribute of God, we must not reject or neglect this important aspect of God’s character. The jealousy of God is an attribute that pervades the pages of Scripture and is an essential part of God’s covenant love. To understand why God would call himself jealous, and even intensify this description by turning it into one of his divine names, we need to see Exodus 34:14 in its biblical context. This is also true for the hundreds of other times God declares or displays his jealousy in the Bible.Jealousy and Envy
While all human words are frail and limited in describing God, we need to allow God’s verbal revelation to hold the power and meaning he intends for it to have. Jealous is actually a very good English word to translate the Hebrew word kana in Exodus 34. Kana (as well as the Greek equivalent zelos) could be translated as zeal or envy in other places in the Bible. Zeal is a general strong feeling to see something come about. Envy is a desire to gain possession of something that does not belong to you, and it is always sinful. Jealousy is a strong desire to maintain relational faithfulness that you believe does belong to you. Jealousy can be sinful if it is unwarranted or expressed in wrong ways, but it can also be an entirely appropriate and righteous emotion. We don’t usually make any distinction between envy and jealousy, which contributes to the public-relations problem jealousy has.
God’s jealousy is his righteous and loving demand of exclusive faithfulness from his covenant people. Because God rightly loves his own glory, and graciously loves us, he demands that we worship and serve him above all. In human history, God is most glorified by the undivided devotion of his redeemed people, and his ultimate jealousy for his glory demands this devotion. If he does not care when we love idols more than him, he would allow himself to be dishonored and let us settle for so much less than he intends us to have from life. God’s jealous love demands the best of us and our relationships.
In Exodus 34, God is giving Moses the central demands of relating to him as his covenant people — a covenant he compares repeatedly to a marriage (Isaiah 54:5; Jeremiah 2:2–3; Hosea 2:2). God is the husband of his people, and we are his bride. This metaphor only intensifies when we get to the New Testament (Matthew 9:15; Ephesians 5:22–33; Revelation 19:6–9). To worship any God but the true God is spiritual adultery, and any husband who does not care that his wife committed adultery most certainly does not love her. Right at the heart of the laws of the covenant, God wants his people to know that this covenant relationship is permanent and exclusive. He wants them to realize that he is a personal God establishing a personal relationship with his people, and that his people should relate to him as he is, not as a more user-friendly god of their own making.God’s Jealousy for His Own Glory
Throughout the Bible, God is rightfully jealous when he is dishonored, as we can see in the reason God gives for the second commandment:
You shall have no other gods before me. You shall not make for yourself a carved image, or any likeness of anything that is in heaven above, or that is in the earth beneath, or that is in the water under the earth. You shall not bow down to them or serve them, for I the Lord your God am a jealous God, visiting the iniquity of the fathers on the children to the third and the fourth generation of those who hate me. (Exodus 20:3–5)
God demands the fidelity of his people because he loves them, but ultimately because he is most glorified when they ascribe to him the honor that belongs to him alone. God achieves this goal of making himself known so that people will acknowledge, fear, worship, and obey him as the one and only Lord. Every key stage of salvation history points to this supreme aim. God’s covenant love and compassion are no less operational than his jealousy; he is jealous for the devotion of his people because he has the loving heart of a father, but ultimately because he desires to protect the honor of his name.1
God has a unique right to seek his own glory, a right none of us should seek to take for ourselves. Only God deserves absolute honor, worship, and glory, and he reacts with jealousy and anger when those he has created do not ascribe it to him, or when they desire it for themselves. God is righteous and therefore values above all else what is of ultimate value. He loves most what is most worthy of being loved, which is his own character, being, and perfections. Therefore, God’s jealousy for his glory does not conflict with his love. Indeed, his perfect justice and love necessitate his own self-exaltation.
We see the same jealousy for God’s glory in the ministry of Jesus. The portraits we often get of Jesus tend to be limited to his attributes that we find comforting, like his compassion and mercy. Jesus certainly is compassionate and merciful, and tells his followers to turn the other cheek and love their enemies (Matthew 5:39). But what do we make of Jesus flipping over tables in the temple (John 2:14–15)? That doesn’t seem to be the Jesus most hear about on Sunday morning! The godly jealousy of Jesus stands behind his righteous indignation as he drove out the money-changers with a whip. His disciples recognized this attitude as the same one that drove David. They recalled his words from Psalm 69 after Jesus cleansed the temple: “His disciples remembered that it was written, ‘zeal [zelos] for your house will consume me’” (John 2:17).
Jesus is often thought of as very different from the God of the Old Testament. But he spoke often of hell, and one of the last images we have of Jesus in the Bible is so terrifying that unrepentant people are crying out for rocks to fall on them rather than face “the wrath of the Lamb” (Revelation 6:16). Jesus is indeed gracious and loving, but his grace and love are ultimately driven by God’s glory. His jealous love caused him to hate sin and all that dishonors God so much that he gave his life to vanquish evil and idolatry once and for all.Jealous with God’s Jealousy
The prevalence of a consumer mentality and human-centeredness in contemporary society easily leads our agendas and takes greater priority than God’s glory. A desire to be relevant and attractive can encourage a marketing mentality in the church that lacks jealousy for God’s honor. The heavy influence of secular psychology, with its therapeutic, self-centered approach to ministry, also can detract from God’s glory being the supreme objective when Christians gather. These influences can lead the church to become a pragmatically oriented self-help group rather than a God-glorifying community.
On the other hand, when God’s people deeply desire that he be glorified so that nothing competes with him for our devotion and worship, they should experience a godly jealousy that mirrors his. The Bible includes many examples of godly people who are jealous for God’s honor. Whenever religious reform and revival was brought about in Israel, behind it always stood a jealous leader. Whether it was Hezekiah smashing the sacred pillars and cutting down Asherah poles (2 Kings 18:3–4; 19:15–19), Jehoiada tearing down the house and altars of Baal (2 Kings 11:17–18), or Josiah removing the high places (2 Kings 23:19), jealousy on behalf of God’s name, and his exclusive right to receive worship and covenant fidelity, was a primary motivating emotion.
Among the many examples and individuals who express godly jealousy, five of them stand out as the strongest: Phinehas, David, Elijah, Jesus, and Paul. The key passages that epitomize this attribute for each of them are Numbers 25 (Phinehas), Psalm 69:9 (David), 1 Kings 19:10–14 (Elijah), John 2:13–17 (Jesus), and 2 Corinthians 11:1–4 (Paul). Each shows his intense desire for the preservation of God’s honor in the face of a challenge to that honor.
Consider Phinehas, for example. Phinehas is not a well-known Old Testament figure today, but he should be. He killed an Israelite man and a Midianite woman who were flagrantly rebelling against God in the midst of Israel’s repentance for rampant unfaithfulness (Numbers 25:6–9). God responds by saying that Phinehas atoned for the sins of the people, stopped a plague, and saved many lives because he was jealous for God’s honor in a way that reflected God’s jealousy (Numbers 25:10–13). He stands as a Christ type when it is said that he is given a perpetual priesthood in addition to being a source of atonement (Numbers 25:13).Different Weapons
God calls Christians today to feel the jealous anger and indignation that all of the godly leaders in the Bible (like Phinehas) experienced. However, in this day of terrorist attacks in the name of God’s honor, we will be quick to acknowledge that there are significant distinctions between the Old Testament saint, operating under the law-based theocracy, and the New Testament Christian, operating under the new covenant and the lordship of Christ. In addition to the roles of men like Phinehas, David, and Elijah, their theocratic context was based on Old Testament law-covenant and direct commands of God. This limits the bloody expression of their jealousy to their historical situation. Phinehas’s killing of Zimri and Cozbi, David’s killing of Goliath, and Elijah’s destruction of the prophets of Baal were appropriate manifestations of their godly jealousy for their contexts, but they no longer represent God’s methods under the new covenant.
In the New Testament, we still see God himself taking drastic, physical action on those who dishonor him (Acts 5:5–10; 12:23). But when it comes to humans, a shift takes place in the New Testament where jealousy for God’s honor is now channeled through gospel proclamation and is, in some measure, put on hold until God unleashes his final judgment (Romans 12:19–21). Jesus himself frowned upon violent reactions to behaviors that were dishonoring to God. He rebuked Peter when he cut off Malchus’s ear (Matthew 26:52). His response to James and John when they wanted to call down fire to consume the inhospitable Samaritans seems to teach the same idea. He rebuked them and said, “You do not know what manner of spirit you are of; for the Son of Man came not to destroy people’s lives but to save them” (Luke 9:55–56).
Paul provides the same perspective: “Though we walk in the flesh, we are not waging war according to the flesh. For the weapons of our warfare are not of the flesh but have divine power to destroy strongholds” (2 Corinthians 10:3–4). And again: “We do not wrestle against flesh and blood, but against the rulers, against the authorities, against the cosmic powers over this present darkness, against the spiritual forces of evil in the heavenly places” (Ephesians 6:12). The godly Christian hates idolatry no less than Phinehas, yet Christ calls him to fight with different weapons. Phinehas’s spear has been replaced by Paul’s epistles. The enemies of God deserve the same bold indignation David felt, but righteousness, the gospel of peace, and the sword of the Spirit have replaced his stones.
Christian leaders may think godly jealousy has little to do with most ministry endeavors, but central to our calling is that we abhor and denounce false teaching, even if we will be considered divisive, intolerant, and uncharitable (Titus 1:9; Romans 12:9). Any distortion of the truth of God’s word among God’s people amounts to idolatry and spiritual adultery. A faithful pastor will react with godly jealousy, among other virtues (2 Timothy 2:22–26), whenever the clear teaching of Scripture is violated. In a proper effort to be irenic, gracious, and fair, it nevertheless will be impossible to remain ambivalent when God’s word is ignored or distorted, especially by those who claim to be his covenant people. God, whose name is Jealous, demands that his people remain devoted to the true gospel without compromise. The church is to be “a pillar and buttress of the truth” (1 Timothy 3:15), and its leaders are to “guard the good deposit entrusted” to us (2 Timothy 1:14), so its theological gatekeepers must remain vigilant in these efforts.Faithful Bride
What a staggering and wonderful truth — that the God who is perfectly self-sufficient (Psalm 50:12; Acts 17:24–25) has chosen to enter into an intimate relationship with his people to the point where he feels jealous anger if we are unfaithful to him! And what a blessed joy to know that, by faith in Christ, the only perfect covenant-keeper, we can rest assured that one day we will be presented to our Lord pure and conformed to his image (1 John 3:2–3).
Until that day, may the God whose name is Jealous be honored through the surprising faithfulness of his bride, even when she is prone to wander.2
Some key passages that show God’s jealousy for his own glory are Exodus 10:1–2; Isaiah 48:9–11; Ezekiel 20:42–44; 36:21–23; 39:25; Matthew 4:10; Mark 8:38; John 12:28–29; 17:1–5; Acts 12:23; 2 Corinthians 4:7, 15; and Hebrews 1:4–14. ↩
For more on godly jealousy, see Erik Thoennes, Godly Jealousy: A Theology of Intolerant Love (Fearn, Scotland: Christian Focus, 2005); Erik Thoennes, “For the Sake of the Name: Godly Jealousy as a Foundation of Evangelism and Discipleship,” in Fulfilling the Great Commission in the Twenty-First Century: Essays on Revival, Evangelism, and Discipleship in Honor of Dr. Robert Coleman, ed. Lyle W. Dorsett and Ajith Fernando (Franklin, TN: Seedbed, 2015); Erik Thoennes, “Sinners in the Hands of a Jealous God,” interview by Matthew Barrett, Credo Magazine, July 1, 2015. ↩
Nearly all Christians are familiar with the armor of God in Ephesians 6:10–20. But fewer are aware that the armor Paul describes traces its roots back to the Old Testament. In fact, the armor given to the Christian for his fight against the forces of sin and darkness is quite literally God’s armor — armor designed for and worn by God first and foremost. We fight and stand firm against Satan only in the strength that comes from the victory that Christ has already won for us.
This is why each of the various pieces of armor points us to Christ. The belt of truth is the belt that girds the messianic King (Isaiah 11:5). The breastplate of righteousness and the helmet of salvation come from the divine warrior’s arsenal (Isaiah 59:17). The feet shod with gospel readiness are the feet of those who proclaim the arrival of Messiah’s kingdom (Isaiah 52:7). God himself is the shield of faith (Genesis 15:1). The sword of the Spirit, the word of God, is the weapon wielded by the promised servant of the Lord (Isaiah 49:2).Christ Our Conqueror
In other words, God clothes us with nothing less than his own armor, the same armor that Christ has already worn on our behalf in his lifelong struggle with the mortal enemy of our souls, Satan himself. Jesus is no armchair general, who hands out the equipment but then watches the fighting from a safe distance. No, he has himself worn the armor and won the victory in our place! You are called to wear the Christian armor not because that’s what Jesus would do if he found himself in a similar situation to yours; you are called to wear God’s armor because that is what Jesus already has done, wearing God’s armor all the way to the cross.
Jesus stood firm against Satan’s schemes throughout his earthly life and ministry. Each of those specific temptations to which we have given in this week — lust, gossip, anger, pride, self-exaltation, lying, coveting — is a temptation he faced and stared down in your place. What is more, Jesus laid his life down at the cross for you, thereby accomplishing the victory that pours out God’s sanctifying Spirit into your life. Because of his victorious life, death, and resurrection, the same power that raised Christ up from the dead is now at work inside you and me through the ongoing work of the Spirit, raising us from spiritual death to new life. (In Ephesians 6:10, Paul echoes a trio of Greek words that he uses in Ephesians 1:19–20 to describe God’s power in the resurrection.)Holiness Belongs to the Lord
However, the ongoing sanctifying work of the Spirit in your life is not ultimately under your control. In John 3, Jesus compares the process of becoming a Christian to birth. Just as a baby doesn’t have control over the time and circumstances of her birth, so God chose when to regenerate you and bring you to faith in Christ. But even after a child is born, he does not decisively control his own physical growth. He may wish to be taller or shorter, but wishing won’t make it so — or hasten the natural (slow) processes of physical growth. In the same way, we are not ultimately in control of the process of our spiritual growth. Sanctification is decisively God’s work from beginning to end (Philippians 1:6; 1 Thessalonians 5:23–24).
That perspective is enormously encouraging in our daily struggle with sin and Satan. We often imagine we are fighting on our own in our struggles against sin. Not at all. That is why Paul reminds us that prayer is such an integral part of spiritual warfare (Ephesians 6:18–20). It is not enough to put on the armor of God; we need to be in constant communication with the God of the armor. The reality is that your victory over sin is ultimately up to Jesus, not you. His struggle was the decisive one, not yours. His victory on the cross purchased your complete sanctification, your ultimate holiness before God (Ephesians 5:25–27). His Spirit is now at work within you, growing you toward his goal of your complete purity. Your spiritual growth may be much slower than you might wish, but if you are in Christ, God will sanctify you completely.Daily Struggle
That doesn’t mean that we’ll never have to struggle with sin, of course. Quite the reverse: Paul clearly expects us to be engaged in a daily life-and-death struggle with Satan in all of his awesome power. The imagery of armor and battle shows us that our fight against sin must involve blood, sweat, and tears — our blood, sweat, and tears, as well as that of our Savior. We too are to take up our cross and follow after our Master on the road of hardship and suffering (Matthew 10:38). We are to work out our own salvation with fear and trembling (Philippians 2:12). Yet Paul tells us to work out our own salvation precisely because God is at work in us (Philippians 2:13).
Christ’s wearing of God’s armor in your place and his triumphant victory over sin at the cross mean that your struggle against sin is never hopeless. God will ultimately sanctify you — he has promised to do so. On that last day, you will rise to new life in Christ and stand in God’s presence, made perfect forever. No Christian will be left behind, half-sanctified. Sin and Satan shall not have ultimate dominion over you (Romans 6:14).Distant Triumph Song
This means that in the midst of the pain of the frustrating daily struggle against sin and Satan, you can plead with God to continue to advance that process here and now, whether strengthening you to stand against Satan, or by sometimes allowing you to fall, in order to grow your humility and dependence upon him (see Westminster Confession of Faith, 5.5). The knowledge that God is sovereign over your sanctification gives you hope to keep on trying, even in areas of your life where sin continually seems to have the upper hand. It reminds you that even when you are seeing real advance in your life, it is nothing you have accomplished and gives you no reason to boast. God’s Holy Spirit deserves all the glory, not you.
And he will receive the glory on that last day, when all of God’s weary, battle-stained children enter into the gates of the new Jerusalem, with their warfare, trials, and travails now a memory of the past, and a new song on their lips — a song of praise to Christ, the victorious Divine Warrior, who won their redemption through his fight. As William Walsham How put it in his song “For All the Saints,”
And when the fight is fierce, the warfare long, Steals on the ear the distant triumph song, And hearts are brave again, and arms are strong. Alleluia! Alleluia!
But, lo, there breaks a yet more glorious day; The saints triumphant rise in bright array; The King of Glory passes on his way. Alleluia! Alleluia!
The golden evening brightens in the west; Soon, soon, to faithful warriors comes their rest. Sweet is the calm of paradise the blest. Alleluia! Alleluia!
If God stripped away our gifts — our income, our family, even our own health — would we curse him or bless his name?
There is something in the sheer act of defiance that can ignite us.
The determination of refusal can stiffen our spine, tense our muscles, and amplify our resolve. Of course, defiance can be directed in a million sinful ways when driven by our pride — toward rebellion against parents, resistance to repentance, disrespect of authority, or any other rejection of God’s commands.
But there is also a holy defiance that fires us up to resist temptation, reclaim enemy territory, and refuse to curse God in suffering. These are the kinds of battles for which God’s blood boils. And by the blood of Christ that saves us, they can boil ours as well.Defy the True Enemy
Our enemy is cunning and dangerous. He prowls around like a roaring lion, seeking to devour us (1 Peter 5:8). But he is also a defeated foe — and he knows it. He is incapable of tempting with more than we can withstand (1 Corinthians 10:13). He is forced to flee from us as we resist him (James 4:7). And he and his demons tremble at the truth that even they rightly believe (James 2:19).
We are right to take him seriously — to be alert to his tactics, on guard against his methods, and sober-minded in consideration of him. But we are also right to remember that in Christ we have been given the power to demolish strongholds (2 Corinthians 10:4), and that we have joined ranks with the winning side who will soon crush him under our feet (Romans 16:20).
Trusting only in our own strength, we find ourselves cowering in fear, deceived by tactics, or fearfully fleeing the battle altogether in assumed defeat. But “strong in the Lord and in the strength of his might” (Ephesians 6:10–11), we can fearlessly look our enemy’s already-thwarted schemes squarely in the face, confident in our undefeatable King and the invincible armor he gives.Spirits Set to Boil
Paul admonishes us not to “be slothful in zeal,” but “fervent in spirit” (Romans 12:11), a command that carries the idea of boiling with passion — either in anger for what is bad, or love for what is good. Such fervency is in stark contrast to the unacceptable state of being lukewarm (Revelation 3:16).
But we can’t kindle that fire on our own. Rather, we must look to our God, the consuming fire (Hebrews 12:29), whose Holy Spirit heats up our own spirit to love what he loves, hate what he hates, defend what he defends, and refuse what he refuses. Contending with him against the true spiritual forces of our world, we boil with a defiance that shows itself hottest and brightest in all sorts of holy refusals.Defiance of Refusal
This defiance comes as we refuse to submit to alluring temptations by exposing them for what they really are — deceitful schemes to steal, kill, and destroy (John 10:10). Boiled to disgust, we can foil the enemy’s plans by rejecting his malicious invitations, turning instead to walk in the life of our God-given freedom from sin (Romans 6:6).
Defiance comes as we refuse to tolerate the lies we see taking ground in the lives of those we love — lies that they are unloved, without hope, or masters of their own fate. Boiled to jealous love, we can raise over them our shields of faith, quenching fiery arrows from the evil one (Ephesians 6:16).
Defiance comes as we refuse to be swept into our society’s irrational generalization of truth, as if such “relativism” is not based on an absolute truth claim of its own. Boiled to passion for the unchanging truth of God’s word, we resolve to remain steadfast and immovable (1 Corinthians 15:58) in our submission to its loving authority, standing always in fear of a holy God rather than mere men (Matthew 10:28).
Defiance comes as we refuse to be discouraged to inaction over the overwhelming global suffering beyond our human ability to combat — spiritual lostness, poverty, slavery, and the persecution of the church. Boiled to righteous anger over the dark forces behind those movements, we can begin by assuming the offensive stance of kneeling in prayer, waging war against the true powers of this dark world and “the spiritual forces of evil in the heavenly places” (Ephesians 6:12).
Defiance comes as we refuse to doubt God’s goodness when he doesn’t give us what we think we want — the relationship, the job, the house, the deal. Boiled to determination not to fall again for the enemy’s first lie, that God is withholding something good from us (Genesis 3:4–5), we instead assure our disappointed hearts that God withholds no good thing from those who walk uprightly (Psalm 84:11; Romans 8:32).
Defiance comes as we refuse to resent God’s sovereignty when he allows a diagnosis, natural disaster, persecution, or seemingly senseless tragedy. Boiled to faithfulness, we declare that no matter what the enemy takes from us — even our very lives — still he will not take the ultimate treasure for which we regard everything as loss: the surpassing worth of knowing Christ Jesus our Lord (Philippians 3:8).Tremble Not for Him
We may not always feel that fiery determination of resistance. Far more often, we may feel captive to discouragement, doubt, and despair. But in those moments, we can pray for faith to believe in our enemy’s defeat and clarity to see the way out from under his attacks (1 Corinthians 10:13). We can assure our anxious souls that God is still worthy of our hope — and that only he is (Psalm 42:11; 43:5). We can again bank our trust on the power of Christ’s prayer that our faith would not fail (Luke 22:32).
We can assure our hearts that if God is for us, nothing can ultimately stand against us (Romans 8:31). We can sound a battle cry to our soul — those songs of praise that we blast from our car speakers in triumph or whisper on our knees in tearful resolve or declare just as confidently in the darkest hour from a prison cell (Acts 16:25). We can call to mind how we overcome in the end: by the blood of the Lamb and by the word of our testimony (Revelation 12:11).
Even if we lose all earthly treasures, yet will we praise him (Habakkuk 3:17–18). Even though he slays us, yet will we hope in him (Job 13:15). Even if he does not deliver us from the fires of persecution, still will we bow down to him, and him alone (Daniel 3:17–18). Though the gates of hell seem mighty, they will not prevail against his church (Matthew 16:18).
The prince of darkness grim, we tremble not for him. In the name of Jesus, we defy him.
Jesus said, “Sell your possessions, and give to the needy.” Are we disobeying Jesus if we don’t literally give away all that we have?
They set out to get help from a higher power. The lion needed courage. The tinman needed a heart. The scarecrow needed a brain. The little girl longed to return home. But at journey’s end, they came to the unfortunate discovery: The Wizard of Oz was no wizard at all. He relied on screens and microphones. His wand was broken. He had only pins and needles to give.
Yet, all was not lost. Our four heroes realized that what each had sought, each already possessed. Along the way, Tinman loved, Lion risked, Scarecrow thought. Dorothy carried the ability to travel home wherever she went. They discovered that they did not need an all-powerful Oz behind the curtain. What each truly needed he already held within.
Whether or not Frank Baum meant it or not, Wizard of Oz is an apt parable of the generations-old self-help movement in our increasingly post-Christian West. The Oz, many say, has nothing to offer. God, the wisdom of modern man finally confirms, is a fraud. Yet, some rush to tell us, all is not lost. After sobering from the opiate of the masses, they tell us to awaken to reality: what we’ve needed all along already resides within each of us.Truth in Self-Help
Some professing Christians are promoting self-help resources at alarming rates. As can happen when biting into that pizza roll too quickly, we can lose the ability to taste differences. We chew pop-psychology’s ideology of self-reliance and discern no real difference from Christianity, which builds upon God-dependence. We swallow both indiscriminately and wonder why our stomachs hurt.
Before we look at the differences between the ideologies, first a question: Can we learn anything from the self-help movement? Why does this placebo help some? Many will line up to testify of its cure-all power. What’s in the snake oil?
At least one true ingredient: self-help acknowledges our personal agency. Self-help assumes that you can indeed do something to help yourself. It too rejects the deceit that we drift helplessly downstream from our past or current circumstances. We are not leaves floating down from trees. The me of yesterday doesn’t have to be the me of tomorrow. We can learn discipline. We can “take control” of various aspects of our lives, escape addictions, and overcome fears.
At least self-help affirms what God always has: we can, even now, reap a different harvest by sowing a different crop. It properly highlights the truth that we can — and must — own some measures of responsibility for our lives. We each can choose, as Luther once said, many things under heaven. And each decision will have consequences.
Self-help advice rescues some from the fatalistic, paternalistic, dehumanizing worldviews (so common today) that deny a crucial component of God’s world: “So God created man in his own image, in the image of God he created him; male and female he created them” (Genesis 1:27).Diagnosing the Difference
The ineptitude of the self-help philosophy becomes apparent when we contrast it with God-help. Note three differences, among others.1. On Whom Do You Rely?
Self-help gurus have little to sell us other than ourselves. In stopping at mere personal agency, they send us to build a new life while denying us straw for our bricks. Sure, they interject themselves to get us going (for a small fee, of course), but the real power resides within. The god they point to stoops down to fit into every mirror we see. Returning to our childhood optimism, “I think I can, I think I can,” this endless search to find your true potential borrows from the oldest heresy: “And you will be like God” (Genesis 3:5).
Claiming to be wise, these gurus exchange the glory of the immortal God for images of successful man. Believe in yourself. Clutch the scepter of your life. You can do all things through you who gives you strength. As if God, looking down from heaven without any mercy, thundered, “Just figure it out!”
Promoters of self-help have not been tutored in that school that Paul had:
We were so utterly burdened beyond our strength that we despaired of life itself. Indeed, we felt that we had received the sentence of death. But that was to make us rely not on ourselves but on God who raises the dead. (2 Corinthians 1:8–9)
The illusions of self-help shatter when suffering weighs so heavily on our backs that we despair of life itself. Pain reminds us that we are still but creatures — for the gods do not bleed. But all affliction is a choice friend when it teaches us to sing, “I lift up my eyes to the hills. From where does my help come? My help comes from the Lord, who made heaven and earth” (Psalm 121:1–2). The shoulders of him alone, who carried the cross and willingly bled for the treason of our self-reliance, can bear all of our further needs.2. What Help Do You Get?
When we look within for help, we receive only temporal solutions to what amounts to eternal problems. That alcohol addiction is not first and foremost a sin because it destroys one’s family and poisons oneself. All transgression, as we shall all soon discover, is against God: “Against you, you only, have I sinned and done what is evil in your sight” (Psalm 51:4). God has the first grievance, though the shrapnel certainly strikes others as well. Self-dependence may subdue some of the symptoms of sin — you stop drinking, overeating, or committing adultery — but a life of sin against God remains unaddressed and ultimately unaltered.
Whereas self-help can tidy a sinking ship, “godliness is of value in every way, as it holds promise for the present life and also for the life to come” (1 Timothy 4:8). Grace trains the Christian to say “No!” to theft, anger-issues, pornography, pride, laziness, and say, “Yes!” to self-control, uprightness, and godly lives in the present (Titus 2:11–12) — all while steering us home and preparing us for heaven, not hell.3. Who Gets the Glory?
When we trust in self — and actually succeed— we get the glory. I am smarter, more disciplined, better. When we become self-made men and women, and not God-made men and women, we run from disordered lives into the arms of pride. Having escaped the cobra, we encounter the bear. And this tempts the self-reliant to look down on others who aren’t successful, and, whether they ever succumb to temptation or not, they never bother looking up to God.
But the man who makes God his trust has a very different victory song:
Not in my bow do I trust, nor can my sword save me. But you have saved us from our foes and have put to shame those who hate us. In God we have boasted continually, and we will give thanks to your name forever. (Psalm 44:6–8)
The Christian, awake to the reality that he has no good apart from his God (Psalm 16:2), speaks repeatedly, “Not to me, O God, not to me, but to your name give glory” (Psalm 115:1). Christ is his boast. Christ is his refrain. He wants every triumph to add another jewel to the crown of his King.Make the Trade
Self-help gives me my own small, fleeting glory. God-help offers us deep, everlasting joy, secure in his unfading glory. Self-help offers a temporal good (at best). God-help gives eternal good with the temporal thrown in. Self-help relies on my discipline, my resolve, and my effort. God-help builds upon a child’s cry to his father, leaning on one’s eternal family, and trusting God’s unfailing promises. God-help sustains me with daily bread from heaven. Self-help cannibalizes me, for it can find no other food. God-help ends in salvation, glory, and the conquering of the world, the flesh, and the devil. Self-help addresses the coughs and sneezes of this life but leaves me, at the end of it, without hope, without forgiveness, and without God in this world.
So, trade self-help for God-help. God does not help those who, unmindful of him, help themselves. He works for those who wait for him (Isaiah 64:4). In the end, self-help is sheer folly. It sends us to work on Babel, rent a room in Gomorrah, eat grass with the mad king, and speak over ourselves, “Take up your bed and rise.” The placebo works only for so long, but all shall fall eventually — and “great shall be the fall.” But those who trust in Christ have Almighty God working in them, unsearchable promises to guide them, a heaven to journey to, and a Savior to glorify along the way.
If I feared less, I would love more — both God and people. But it is just as true that if I feared more, I would love more — both God and people.
I’ve been praying for a while for God to align my affections and desires with his. And, based on my decades of experience pursuing God, one of the tell-tale signs that he’s answering my prayers is that I’m forced to face numerous situations and decisions that incite fear — the kind of fear that makes me want to withdraw from the bold words and deeds of love in Jesus’s name that these situations and decisions require. I'm learning that facing such fear, as much as I dislike it, is precisely what I need.
I could almost wish I was a fearless Christian. But there is no such thing as a fearless Christian.No Fearless Christian
Faith and fear are often described as opposites. But in reality, that’s not how it works. The kind of fear the Bible most often addresses, whether positively (Deuteronomy 6:13) or negatively (Luke 12:4), is actually born out of faith. It results from a promise or threat we believe.
So it is not so much faithless fear that inhibits a more radical life of Christlike love, but rather misplaced fear — fear of the wrong thing. In other words, faith in the wrong thing produces the wrong fear. And faith in the wrong thing is at the root of so many of our problems, the worst of our miseries, and the heart of our sin: “For whatever does not proceed from faith [in God] is sin” (Romans 14:23).
That’s why there is no such thing as a fearless Christian. God designed us to experience fear, in some measure, because he designed us to live by faith (Romans 1:17). And the object of our faith is revealed in what fears most motivate us.We Obey the One We Fear
Fear preceded the Fall because living by faith preceded the Fall.
God designed mankind to live by “every word that proceeds from the mouth of God” (Deuteronomy 8:3). Misplaced faith, adulterous faith (James 4:4) was what the Fall was all about. “Did God actually say?” (Genesis 3:1) was the serpent’s direct assault on humanity’s faith in God’s word.
And the assault was directed right at the first woman’s and man’s fear. Would they fear missing out on God’s promise of uninterrupted happiness and blessing and fear suffering the dire consequences of disobeying God’s holy word and thus resist the temptation? Or would they fear missing out on the serpent’s deceptive promise of the experience of being wise “like God” (Genesis 3:5–6) and succumb? The failure of faith in the Garden of Eden was revealed in the failure of misplaced fear.
And now the misplaced fears we succumb to today are kinds of reenactments of that first Fall. It is believing (fearing) a promise or threat coming from a source other than God — which is a fall from grace. For God has always caused his grace that unites people to him to flow through the channel of faith (Ephesians 3:8). To know God and to love God is to trust him, which will be expressed by obeying him (John 14:8–11; 15). To not believe God — to not trust his word — is to not rightly know God (John 8:15–19). And to trust God is to fear him, since we obey the one we fear.Perfect Love Doesn’t Cast Out All Fear
If you know your Bible well, this phrase may have just come to mind: “There is no fear in love, but perfect love casts out fear” (1 John 4:18). But the apostle John wasn’t addressing the fear of the Lord that the Bible frequently commends. The rest of the verse explains what John meant: “For fear has to do with punishment, and whoever fears has not been perfected in love.” This kind of fear is the terror of God’s condemnation experienced by the unforgiven, the “fearful expectation of judgment. . . that will consume the adversaries” (Hebrews 10:27).
But the fear of the Lord that comes out of trust in him and produces obedience is a fear that we experience as joy: “Blessed [happy] is everyone who fears the Lord, who walks in his ways” (Psalm 128:1). This kind of fear is pure and clean (Psalm 19:9), the source of wisdom (Psalm 111:10), a “fountain of life” (Proverbs 14:27), and results in intimate friendship with God (Psalm 25:14), and hope (Psalm 33:18), and rest for our souls (Proverbs 19:23). Perfect love does not cast out this kind of fear out but causes it to grow in us.
That’s why one of the Spirit’s highest sanctification priorities in our lives as believers — both in the short run and the long haul — is to free us from the love-inhibiting, joy-dampening, fruit-impeding effect of misplaced fears and teach us the fear of the Lord. He does not want us living by God-belittling, deceptive faith in the wrong things; he does not want us living in the thin, grey world of fearing the wrong things.
The Spirit is extraordinarily patient with us, and he sequences his “battles” so as not to overwhelm us. But he is relentless, because “for freedom Christ has set us free” (Galatians 5:1), and he intends, in his perfect patience and timing, to help us live in the freedom that is ours.Don’t Avoid, Lean In
However, God doesn’t only work in spite of us, but also makes us willing participants in this Spirit-initiated pursuit of our liberation. And here’s the difficulty: when it comes to setting us free from misplaced fears, the Spirit typically delivers us from them by eventually directing us to face them.
Yes, we knew it would have to be that way, didn’t we? We knew when we prayed for freedom, we would be invited into the overthrow of tyranny. We might wish to sit out the battle, but misplaced fear, which in some measure reveals some place in us where we’re not trusting God supremely, is like our own altar to Baal. And God’s commitment to rid the deep recesses of our hearts and minds of such competitors is both for the sake his glory and the sake of our joy. So misplaced fears can become for us our own showdown on Mount Carmel where we increasingly learn that “the Lord, he is God; the Lord, he is God” (1 Kings 18:39).
And the “great cloud of witnesses” of saints down through the ages say, “Amen” (Hebrews 12:1). It has always been this way. And each member of that great cloud urges us not to keep ducking our fears, not to let them keep robbing God of the glory he deserves and stealing the joy Jesus purchased for us.
As the Spirit reveals our misplaced fears, we can learn to stop avoiding them, and rather lean into them. The impressive façade of lying promises or threats will not long stand before the real power of the real God when we trust him. These fears can and will be overcome. Dread can give way to peaceful, joyful confidence in God. For the Spirit will give us just what we need, in his unexpected timing, in the moment we need it (Matthew 7:7; 10:19; Philippians 4:19).
The less we fear what we ought not to fear, the more we will love — both God and people. The more we fear who we ought to fear, the more we will love — both God and people. For the sake of God’s glory, for the sake of love, let us grow determined; let us become tenacious. Let us not settle in or make peace with misplaced fear governing any territory of our soul.
I have long listened to Dr. John Piper, but it wasn’t until recently that I found myself laughing aloud as he said something like this: “You don’t have to read all of my books. Just read one of them because they all say the same thing: ‘Live for God’s glory!’”
I immediately recalled a similar conversation with my mother, known by everyone else as Elisabeth Elliot, whom I was apologizing to for not having read every one of her books. She said, “They all say the same thing, Val, so it’s not necessary for you to read them all. Besides, you don’t have time!”
I was busy with my brood of eight, and she knew how my time was consumed. A few years later, she gave me a package of letters from my father, Jim Elliot, to her from 1948–1953, and said, “You don’t have to read them now, but someday you’ll have the time when the children are gone.”An Unexpected Discovery
My delight in reading them started in 2011, after my last child left for college. Then, about ten months after my mother died in 2015, I found what I was truly not expecting. I discovered, tucked away in the attic, what I was sure were lost: my mother’s letters to my father. These letters had traveled with him throughout his time in Ecuador, and yet there they were, beautifully preserved.
Within these letters, the commitment of my parents is clear. They were focused on finding God’s will for their lives, pursuing it through prayer and devotion to the Scriptures. Both thought they were to be single missionaries and were completely content to find all their love and security in God alone. Their hearts brimmed with devotion to God and obedience to his command to go and preach the gospel to all nations.
After meeting in the foreign mission society at Wheaton College, my parents found each other to be a distraction from the Greek they were studying. As their attraction began to blossom, they were made to deal with this “expulsive power of a new attraction (or affection)” about which Thomas Chalmers wrote. This new attraction was a deep and turbulent heart issue interfering with their studies. As they pondered their own love for him and for each other, they thought their feelings had to die, and should be sublimated to the authority of their Lord.
Yet their letters began and continued from September 1948 to 1952, and through part of 1953, when both were in Ecuador, serving on opposite sides of the country. Over the following five years, my parents saw each other just five times, but they wrote beautifully (and sometimes turbulently) every two weeks to each other, always praying for the other, seeking to completely give him or her up to God.Love, a Devoted Thing
In the Old Testament, a “devoted thing” (Leviticus 27:28) meant something given up as a sacrifice, and this is exactly what Jim Elliot and Betty Howard did with each other. They were devoted to God first, and his glory, so their letters reflected their primary purpose. Verses that spoke to them about trusting and waiting were frequently studied and meditated upon, as well as written about.
One particular letter from my father to my mother says this:
You are his particular treasure, Betty, something he paid for at a terrific cost to his own person. . . . He is bound to display you to principalities and powers as a trophy of his searching. . . . Meanwhile he keeps you for himself, hidden away, forming you in secret ways that you don’t understand. Much the same as I keep your letters . . . so he keeps the pious for himself.
Here’s a quote from my mother’s diary as she ponders what had happened between them.
These have not been days of barrenness. But they are utterly inexpressible. God has taken me apart, wholly unto himself. He has let me see his face. No word can be written of it. I stand silent, and wondering. O blessed Lord “that will not let me go, I rest my weary soul in Thee.”
And then in closing this entry she wrote, “keep him thus, too, Lord Jesus.”On Bended Knee
Waiting, trusting, praying, and waiting again. How deep our prayer life grows, when we take God at his word, and meditate on words like these of Isaiah:
From of old no one has heard or perceived by the ear, no eye has seen a God besides you, who acts for those who wait for him. You meet him who joyfully works righteousness, those who remember you in your ways. (Isaiah 64:4–5)
And another of my favorites is Isaiah 30:15, 18:
“In returning and rest you shall be saved; in quietness and in trust shall be your strength.” But you were unwilling. . . . Therefore the Lord waits to be gracious to you, and therefore he exalts himself to show mercy to you. For the Lord is a God of justice; blessed are all those who wait for him.
My parents’ devotion to him played out in separate places as they wrote and begged God to send them to the mission field, and to show them clearly what they were to do with their love. Were they to lay it on the altar? Were they to wait?
Five years passed before my father knew whether he was to marry my mother. After a time full of discipline, agony, and tears, both preparing to be missionaries and serving among two different people groups, a catastrophe hit my father, and he realized his need for a wife. He asked her to marry him.We Have Waited for Him
They chose Isaiah 25:9 KJV as their answer from him:
Lo, this is our God; we have waited for him, and he will save us: this is the Lord; we have waited for him, we will be glad and rejoice in his salvation.
I want others to hear the love story I found in their letters, a story of my mother and father dying to self in order to bow to the authority of their Father — asking, seeking, knocking, and trusting God and his timing. I pray their unusual love, for the Lord and each other, will inspire and shape many.
What is godly devotion? It is the dying of self in order for the authority of a Person (God) to be followed and obeyed. Whatever (and whomever) God has called you to, be devoted first and foremost to him, and he will reveal himself to you while you seek and wait on him.
How can we forgive others who have hurt us deeply? Pastor John gives three practical suggestions for pursuing forgiveness.
Suppose you had an absolutely stunning supernatural experience, like being in a car accident and having an out-of-body experience so that you were sure you had died and gone to heaven for a few minutes before returning to your body and being brought back to life. How would you handle that experience?
Most of us would be consumed with telling others about it. We might even write a book about it, and go on a speaking circuit. It’s just too amazing to keep to ourselves. And more than likely we would feel empowered to use that very experience to authorize our views of heaven. We might feel as if this extraordinary experience gave us extraordinary influence. Who could contradict us? We had been there!To Heaven and Back
Paul did have an experience something like that. But here’s the amazing thing: He mentions it only one time in his thirteen letters, and he never once makes it the warrant for believing anything he says. In fact, the only reason he brings it up is to say that this kind of privilege is precisely not what he will boast in. Rather, he will boast in his weaknesses. Here’s the experience — he even describes it as if it were another person so as not to exalt himself:
I must go on boasting. Though there is nothing to be gained by it, I will go on to visions and revelations of the Lord. I know a man in Christ who fourteen years ago was caught up to the third heaven — whether in the body or out of the body I do not know, God knows. And I know that this man was caught up into paradise — whether in the body or out of the body I do not know, God knows — and he heard things that cannot be told, which man may not utter. On behalf of this man I will boast, but on my own behalf I will not boast, except of my weaknesses. (2 Corinthians 12:1–5)
We know he is talking about himself, even though he says, “I know a man . . .” because two verses later he says, “To keep me from becoming conceited because of the surpassing greatness of the revelations, a thorn was given me in the flesh” (2 Corinthians 12:7). So he himself is the one who had this extraordinary experience.
It is astonishing that Paul introduces this absolutely stunning experience of being “caught up into paradise” only to give it a passing “boast” and then turn all his attention to the real marks of an apostle — namely, suffering for Christ’s sake.Why Minimize the Marvelous?
Paul never mentions this experience again. He does not use it to pull rank. He shifts all the focus off of the dramatic and onto the painful reality of suffering with joy. Why? Because it is merely human to boast about extraordinary experiences like visions and out-of-body encounters with God. It requires no great grace or power of God to boast in things that seem to set you apart as privileged. But to boast about weaknesses, and to be content with insults and hardships and persecutions and calamities — that is not what ordinary sinful humans are like. That requires supernatural grace. This is what Paul wants to focus on as the evidence of his apostleship.
In fact, he says that the Lord Jesus gave him a thorn in the flesh (we never know what it is) precisely so that he would be hindered from boasting as a superhero of spiritual experience. When Paul pleaded that Jesus would take the thorn away, the Lord answered, “My grace is sufficient for you, for my power is made perfect in weakness” (2 Corinthians 12:9). So Paul concluded,
Therefore I will boast all the more gladly of my weaknesses, so that the power of Christ may rest upon me. For the sake of Christ, then, I am content with weaknesses, insults, hardships, persecutions, and calamities. For when I am weak, then I am strong. (2 Corinthians 12:9–10)
Instead of circling back again and again to his once-in-a-lifetime out-of-body experience, Paul mentions it once, and then shifts all the focus onto the truths that people can see and think about and test in his writing and his life.Rooted in Public Reality
In other words, the truth of Christianity is not rooted in mystical experiences that only a few people have. It is rooted in God-given revelation through writings that are open for all to see and study and test. It is validated in real lives that others can see and examine. So, instead of directing people to his private experience, Paul says,
We behaved in the world with simplicity and godly sincerity, not by earthly wisdom but by the grace of God, and supremely so toward you. For we are not writing to you anything other than what you read and understand and I hope you will fully understand. (2 Corinthians 1:12–13)
If you were to ask Paul, “How can we share your insight into the mystery of Christ?” he would not answer, “I’m sorry. Those mysteries are reserved for the select few who have rare mystical experiences.” What he would say is this: “When you read this, you can perceive my insight into the mystery of Christ” (Ephesians 3:4). His way of opening heaven was not by appealing to unsharable experiences. His way was by appealing to shareable truths written for all to see and understand and experience.Life on Display
Behind these writings he put his own life as evidence of reality. Not his life in the rare moments of mystical experience, but his life as a flesh-and-blood man who had to deal with all the hardships of life and ministry.
What you have learned and received and heard and seen in me — practice these things, and the God of peace will be with you. (Philippians 4:9)
Brothers, join in imitating me, and keep your eyes on those who walk according to the example you have in us. (Philippians 3:17)
Be imitators of me, as I am of Christ. (1 Corinthians 11:1)
In other words, Paul’s way of leading us into the truth and glory of Christ was not to talk about his privilege of an out-of-body experience of paradise. Instead, his way was to live an open life of total devotion to Jesus, through much suffering, and to write Spirit-given words (1 Corinthians 2:13) that are open to all — readable, public, ready for all to examine. This is a mark of humble, serious, personal reality. It is unusual, contrary to ordinary human proclivities, attractive. It has won my heart.
Job remained steadfast in his suffering and has left us with a model for how to trust God with our pain.
The atmosphere was electric. It was one of the most exciting tennis matches I had ever seen live. The stadium was roaring at the masterful back-and-forth exchange. I was there with my good friend, and we cheered with the rest of the crowd. But during one of the changeovers, I got up to walk toward the concession stand, and I tripped on a chain on the ground. I went flying forward and landed on my left arm. The pain was awful.
It’s been thirteen years since I developed a nerve disorder in both of my arms that renders me mostly disabled and in constant pain. I can’t do “normal” things like shake hands, eat with a normal fork, put on my seat belt (much less open the car door or drive). So, when I fell on my arm — an embarrassing but otherwise insignificant experience for most people — I knew that the crippling pain could haunt me for weeks or even months.
The pain is intense — always. Depression comes and goes, but scattered dark clouds remain on the horizon. Ministry life is busy, and I’m often feeling overwhelmed. At times, my mind wanders into imagining, “What if?” What if I had more strength, more energy, and more time? What could God do in and through me if I had these particular resources?The God of Resurrection
The apostle Paul was no stranger to pain. He writes in 2 Corinthians 1:8, “We do not want you to be unaware, brothers, of the affliction we experienced in Asia.”
Paul doesn’t actually tell us what kind of affliction he was facing. We do know he had already gone through incredible suffering, which he describes later in the letter: lashed five times, beaten with rods multiple times, stoned, shipwrecked, imprisoned, starved, and constantly in danger (2 Corinthians 11:23–29). He knew affliction and human weakness.
Paul experienced all that suffering before he wrote. That’s not what he is talking about in 2 Corinthians 1. He had faced another affliction, in which he describes himself and his companions as “so utterly burdened beyond our strength that we despaired of life itself” (2 Corinthians 1:8).
Paul and his friends had thought they were going to die. On the other side of the trial, Paul understood what God was doing in his suffering. He writes, “Indeed, we felt that we had received the sentence of death. But that was to make us rely not on ourselves but on God who raises the dead” (2 Corinthians 1:9).
Paul and his friends had been on the precipice of death, but this trial was not meaningless. Even the apostle Paul needed to learn an important lesson. Paul’s sufferings were not good in and of themselves, but God was taking Paul from a place of inadequate human strength to a place of dependence on the God who raises the dead.The Advantage of Weakness
All of us are tempted to assume confidence in ourselves and not God. We could assume confidence in our physical strength, training, diet, sleep, education, gifting, or experience. We need a paradigm shift in our hearts: human weakness does not equal spiritual disadvantage. The truth is, we are all weak. But those who appear to be weak and rely on God are actually strong, because their strength comes from the almighty God!
Towards the end of 2 Corinthians, Paul writes (first quoting the Lord’s comforting word to him),
“My grace is sufficient for you, for my power is made perfect in weakness.” Therefore I will boast all the more gladly of my weaknesses, so that the power of Christ may rest upon me. For the sake of Christ, then, I am content with weaknesses, insults, hardships, persecutions, and calamities. For when I am weak, then I am strong. (2 Corinthians 12:9–10)
This is a complete paradigm shift from the world’s way of thinking. Contentment with weaknesses, hardships, persecution, and calamities — all for the sake of Christ — is strength. God doesn’t just use weak people despite their weaknesses; he demonstrates his perfect power through their weaknesses.
God has used my own weakness in countless ways. But this isn’t just Paul’s story, and it’s not just my story. It’s the story of the whole Bible. Joseph, Moses, Esther, Joshua in the battle of Jericho, David against Goliath. God uses our inadequacy to highlight his extraordinary power.Our Scars Point to His
This truth about God’s power being made perfect in weakness is most clearly seen in the cross. In the book of Revelation, when John catches a glimpse of glory and sees the resurrected Jesus, the nail marks on his hands and feet were visible. John says, “I saw a Lamb standing, as though it had been slain . . . who was seated on the throne” (Revelation 5:6–7).
Jesus became the sacrificial Lamb who was slain for our sins. The marks on his body were not a deformity. They were not an accident. They were not a result of defeat. The literal, actual scars on Jesus’s glorified body are a result of the work he did to redeem our lives that have been scarred by our sin. All of us have sinned against a holy God. None of us could do anything to pay for our debt against our Creator. But God provided a way — through weakness and suffering. And we await his return in power.
Until then, God never promises us a pain-free existence. In a fallen world, our reality will often be a pain-full one. We can embrace God in our trials with faith that God is doing a work in us and through us that is beyond our limited comprehension. Until final deliverance, it’s a privilege to point to Jesus’s scars through our scars.
Our broken bodies and trials can be a beautiful picture of God’s glorious redemption. God is accomplishing more for his mission in our suffering than we can see right now — not in spite of our weakness, but through our weakness.
The fall has made childbirth painful and dangerous. But in Christ, the deepest dangers of the curse have been removed.
I know a pastor whose church split over the color of the ceiling.
Black, as any good Christian should have known, is the color of evil. The devil may disguise himself as an angel of light, but he certainly keeps his office painted with the baleful hue. “Should we lift the devil’s dye in the congregation of the righteous? May it never be!” the faction declared. And when the demands were refused, they left. The body could not endure such colorful compromise.
When a church splits over the color of the ceiling, one must wonder: Why do we even go to church at all? To worship God? To be entertained? To have all of our preferences met?Why Do You Go to Worship?
Jesus asked people of his day the same thing when they went to hear the preaching of John the Baptist.
Jesus began to speak to the crowds concerning John: “What did you go out into the wilderness to see? A reed shaken by the wind? What then did you go out to see? A man dressed in soft clothing? Behold, those who wear soft clothing are in kings’ houses. What then did you go out to see? A prophet? Yes, I tell you, and more than a prophet. This is he of whom it is written, ‘Behold, I send my messenger before your face, who will prepare your way before you.’” (Matthew 11:7–10)
Surveying John the Baptist’s ministry and Jesus’s questioning of the crowds, God gives us five bad reasons to go to church.1. To Be Comfortable
What did you go out into the wilderness to see? (Matthew 11:7)
Church, if we’re not careful, can become a suitable backup for those who cannot afford a country club. Free childcare, beautiful people, motivating messages, an inviting place to belong, coffee, donuts, and all sorts of modern conveniences could even draw someone who doesn’t love God at all. Such conveniences need not be bad if they do not lull us to sleep or blunt our zeal.
Jesus reminds the Israelites that they went to the wilderness to hear John speak. They did not sit in plush auditoriums with fresh brewed coffee to hear God’s word at their convenience. They were willing to endure discomfort to hear from God. Would we go into the wilderness, sit in uncomfortable chairs, suffer through less than professional musicians (or children’s ministries) to worship with saints and hear the word of God declared? They went into the wilderness to hear John.
The party, fog, strobe lights, and palace did not draw them. They went to a place they would never go — unless the prophet were there.2. To Hear Wobbly Opinions
What did you go out into the wilderness to see? A reed shaken by the wind? (Matthew 11:7)
Jesus confronts what seems so prevalent these days: uncertain teaching. This prophet wasn’t the popular Bible teacher of today, who explains away the parts he finds problematic or makes a name for himself questioning orthodox belief. He did not rely on skepticism or suspicion to prove his authenticity and gain a following. He did not discuss; he preached. He did not question; he answered. He did not shake in the breeze; he stood firm upon the rock.
Jesus’s hearers went to hear a man of God speak on behalf of God. John, filled with the Spirit since birth, blazed. We, like those Israelites, should long to hear humble men whose “humility” doesn’t make them uncertain about revealed truth, but causes them to be all the more dependent upon it. Any whisper of self vanishes as he proclaims the word from the rooftops (Matthew 10:27). Self-proclaimed skeptics who “don’t have it figured out,” just like most of us, should not teach, just like most of us.3. To Be Entertained
They did not shrink back from a pastor who was willing to wound them with truth, and confront false teaching. They went to hear John the Baptist say,
You brood of vipers! Who warned you to flee from the wrath to come? Bear fruit in keeping with repentance. And do not presume to say to yourselves, “We have Abraham as our father,” for I tell you, God is able from these stones to raise up children for Abraham. (Matthew 3:7–9)
They did not have itching ears seeking to “accumulate for themselves teachers to suit their own passions” (2 Timothy 4:3). They did not go to see a man afraid to speak hard things for the good of their souls. He did not flatter them. He did not shoot at other people’s idols. He challenged their false hopes, and the hopes of the Pharisees and Sadducees, about an Abrahamic lineage.
Unlike so many who can see no place for fruit in their scheme of easy-believism and cheap grace, John called his hearers not merely to say sorry, but to “bear fruit in keeping with repentance.” He did not fear charges of promoting a legalist religion by antinomians in love with their sin. His listeners could not sit back and sip Starbucks while listening to motivational speeches filled with warm stories, and leave unaffected. The wilderness with the prophet was the wrong place to be passively entertained. It was the place to hear from the prophet, believe, confess sins, repent, and be baptized.4. To Be Shielded from Reality
Even now the axe is laid to the root of the trees. Every tree therefore that does not bear good fruit is cut down and thrown into the fire. (Matthew 3:10)
God had a common mantra he spoke over his false prophets and priests in the Old Testament,
They have healed the wound of my people lightly, saying, “Peace, peace,” when there is no peace. (Jeremiah 6:14)
John the Baptist proved not to be such a prophet. He warned that, if they had no fruit of repentance, they would be “cut down and thrown into the fire” — an “unquenchable fire” (Matthew 3:12). He did not heal the wound of his people lightly. He did not mumble about judgment or whisper hell away through fictions of annihilationism. He did not pretend to be more loving and forgiving than God. He did not treat eternal realities or immortal souls casually.
Jesus’s forerunner sounded sirens to prepare them for the Lamb of God. Because, as should be unmistakable in Scripture, this life alone sets the course for eternity. Sink in a leaky vessel now, and you shall be lost forever. If he preaches as if nothing were at stake — as if hell’s mouth did not gape open or heaven stands beckoning before us, if he giggles about evil in the pulpit or tells soothing stories to motivate better living but never addresses those secret loves that threaten to undo us or the Christ that offers to save us — he is a scandal to his post.5. To Hear Mainly About Ourselves
What then did you go out to see? A prophet? Yes, I tell you, and more than a prophet. This is he of whom it is written, “Behold, I send my messenger before your face, who will prepare your way before you.” (Matthew 11:9–10)
John the Baptist’s ministry epitomizes what all true Christian ministries do: they point incessantly to Christ. They are not the light, but they stand as a witness to the light so that all might believe in him. They say with John, “Behold, the Lamb of God, who takes away the sin of the world!” (John 1:29) and, “He must increase, but I must decrease” (John 3:30). They make much of the Christ whose sandal they are unworthy to untie.
They do not proclaim man’s glory, but Christ’s. They do not point to us, but to Christ. They do not preach the Scriptures sanitized, but Christ crucified. John’s hearers went to hear from God and heard about the coming Messiah. The greatest of men lived to herald another (Matthew 11:11).
If the man of God preaches the excellence of Christ boldly, paint the ceiling black, give tree stumps for seats, speak hard words in love about sin — all that we might have more of him.
I’ve found that many Christians, post-conversion, tend toward legalism or antinomianism in their pursuit of sanctification.
I’ve seen this trend both in churches I’ve pastored and in Christian friends. One woman grew up in a strict Reformed Baptist home. She always tended toward legalism, and fought it biblically for years. Another friend was converted in his mid-thirties after spending many years searching for joy in bars and honky-tonks. He has battled an antinomian impulse for many years. Others pendulum-swung after conversion: from legalism to license, or vice versa.
Not all Christians struggle deeply in one of these areas, but the tendency is widespread. That’s why we so desperately need Galatians.Give My Life Back to Jesus?
My discovery of the spiritual riches in Galatians came at the end of a long road. For more than a decade, I tried to follow Jesus by “rededicating” my life to him over and over and over again, maybe two hundred times. I was converted at age 10 and was fortunate to grow up in church. That church preached the gospel pretty well. My sin. His grace. Repentance. Faith. Forgiveness. Reconciliation. God’s anger at sin and sinners was always present.
But discipleship and sanctification? Not so much.
Although my childhood church helped me understand how to become a Christian, it took me a lot longer to learn about the pilgrimage that follows salvation — the need for daily repentance and killing sin, praying for the fruit of the Spirit, and other crucial elements of sanctification. I lived as if justification came by grace through faith but sanctification came by law.
My life was a frustrating merry-go-round of sin — rededication, law-keeping in my own strength, sin, rededication, law-keeping — you get the picture. I had to keep proving to God that I was serious about him. Practically, it was a strange brew of Baptist nominalism and Roman Catholic formalism.Sanctified by Grace
Then, at a national conference for Christian men in 1995, I heard a plainly worded sermon on Galatians 2:20:
I have been crucified with Christ. It is no longer I who live, but Christ who lives in me. And the life I now live in the flesh I live by faith in the Son of God, who loved me and gave himself for me.
Through the preaching of that passage, God worked in my heart. The gates of paradise swung open (to use a phrase from Luther), and I walked through. At age 28, I understood (perhaps for the first time) that both justification and sanctification are by grace — I was saved by grace and am now being sanctified by grace. Though I hadn’t yet begun to study the Reformation in any depth, I comprehended more clearly two vital solas: sola fide and sola gratia.
I understood how they applied to my daily walk with Jesus: I was saved (justified) by grace through faith alone, and I am being saved (sanctified) by grace through faith — the life I now live in the flesh, I live by faith in the Son of God. For all the effort involved in the Christian life, we grow, at bottom, by faith in Jesus Christ, as we rest on the grace he gives us. The cycle of rededication, sin, and rededication stopped; my growth in the Lord accelerated, and I eventually entered the ministry with a heart to help others.
And I fell in love with Galatians. Nearly 25 years later, I have preached or taught through Galatians five times and have read meditatively through it dozens of times. Still, I haven’t grown past my need to walk on a path paved with the grace-saturated words of this letter. I suspect I’m not alone, so here are six reasons I’ll never be able to leave Galatians behind.1. Good works, however good they may appear, do not justify us.
I know, this is Christianity 101, an obvious truth, particularly for those of us of a certain theological persuasion. But I’m a fourth-class legalist at heart, and my inner Pharisee is often the preacher I am most eager to hear. The system of rededication I operated under for so many years gave me security because I was constantly doing something, then checking the box. Done. But Paul corrects this impulse: “Let me ask you only this: Did you receive the Spirit by works of the law or by hearing with faith? Are you so foolish? Having begun by the Spirit, are you now being perfected by the flesh?” (Galatians 3:2–3).
While genuine saving faith will show itself in spiritual fruit (as James 2 makes clear), I am regularly tempted to make my works — rededicating myself to God, doing evangelism, feeding the hungry — the ground of my acceptance with God. But in Galatians, Paul reminds me that justification is through faith alone, by grace alone, in Christ alone. I never grow past my need to be reminded of the gospel.2. Confusing law and gospel is a pathway to misery.
Sadly, many Christians walk this difficult road every single day. A pithy saying often (falsely, I think) attributed to John Bunyan captures this potential misery well:
Run, John, run, the law commands, but gives us neither feet nor hands.
Far better news the gospel brings: it bids us fly and gives us wings.
The law as power for Christian living is a terrible taskmaster. For years, I tried to earn for myself what Christ had already bought. For years, I was a joyless, tired Christian. I’ve met far too many Christians over the years who are in the same condition due to an unbiblical understanding of law and gospel. Instead of seeing the law as a guide to their sanctification, they saw the law — and not the gospel — as the means of achieving their sanctification. Grace is the tracks on which both justification and sanctification run.3. Christ has set us free from sin, but not free to sin.
For all the years I spent struggling with legalism, I also spent a lot of time as a practical antinomian. I loved the part where Paul says we are set free from the law. I sinned. God forgave. That was his job. While I would have never agreed that this was true, I lived as if it were. I’m probably not the only Christian in church history who has lived this way for a season until God’s truth corrected this deadly untruth. Grace not only pays the penalty for sin; it also disables the power of sin. God’s grace not only pardons but empowers. A Christian is a slave to Christ, free to no longer submit to the chains of sin (Galatians 5:1).4. The Holy Spirit is not the junior-varsity player within the Godhead.
Here’s one often overlooked fact about Galatians: references to the Spirit outnumber the terms related to justification. Galatians taught me to walk in step with the Spirit and liberated me from any need to be constantly re-upping my commitment to Jesus. It helped me to see the vital role the Spirit plays in my sanctification and corrected my naïve theology that practically assumed the Spirit was only for Pentecostals. All Christians should write Galatians 5:16–25 over the door of their hearts.5. The Christian life is the crucified life.
Paul reminds us that if we are in Christ, then we are crucified with him (Galatians 2:20). Our sin — not in part, but the whole — is nailed to the cross, and we bear it no more. Our old man is nailed to the cross, and we are free to take up our crosses daily and go hard after Jesus. We are set free from love of self, liberated to love and serve others. Central to orthodox Christianity is give, not get. For years, I lived as if the reverse were true.6. God calls us to reassert the gospel in every generation.
Paul’s strong admonition in Galatians 1 helped spur Luther and other Reformers to recover the true gospel in the Reformation. The same gospel must be asserted and reasserted in every generation. Peter sought to stir up our minds by way of reminder because we are a forgetful people (2 Peter 1:13). And the first thing to go, usually, is the gospel. But the gospel we reassert must be the gospel of God’s grace in Christ. As Paul points out in Galatians 1, all other so-called “gospels” are the broad road that leads to destruction (Galatians 1:6–9).Find Freedom
Do the tendencies to legalism and license sound familiar? Then flee to Galatians and find glorious freedom from the bondage of continually proving your goodness to God, or find joyful liberation from your desires for liberty to chase after the world.
For every Christian can say with Paul, “I have been crucified with Christ. It is no longer I who live, but Christ who lives in me. And the life I now live in the flesh I live by faith in the Son of God, who loved me and gave himself for me” (Galatians 2:20).
No one starts as a mature Christian. Keep seeking God. Keep laboring to grow. And keep trusting that God will bring about our maturity.
Revival means many things to many people. I mean it to describe a situation where large numbers of people are fired up to seek God fully, yearn for obedience, confess sin in their life, and experience the joy and freedom of walking with God.
History shows us that there is no exact prescription for revival. It is an act of the sovereign God, and we can’t dictate what he should do and when he should do it. I have been praying for revival in Sri Lanka since 1975. Only once, while attending a conference, have I seen something close to revival. But I continue to pray that, in my lifetime or after, the Lord would send his showers of blessing upon our people through revival.Seven Marks of Revival
While we cannot dictate to God what he will do, history shows us that there are some things that happen before and when revival comes that are worth noting.1. Faithful Preaching
As all the revivals in the history of the church show, the preaching of God’s word is a key ingredient. The Holy Spirit often lights the flames of revival when pastors systematically and faithfully preach the word. Often, pre-revival preaching is characterized by a call to total commitment to God, repentance, and the extolling of the beauty of holiness.2. Unceasing Prayer
The great historian of revival J. Edwin Orr has made famous the statement, “No great spiritual awakening has begun anywhere in the world apart from united prayer — Christians persistently praying for revival.” This is what the disciples of Christ did before the outpouring of the Spirit at Pentecost (Acts 1:14). People with a burden recognize others with a similar burden, so they join in and pray. Many of the great revivals were preceded by united, persevering prayer by people who shared a similar burden for revival.3. Precious Unity
Unity is often the trigger for revival, and sometimes the result of revival. Once, when Ugandan Bishop Festo Kivengere was preaching in South India, his interpreter, Samuel Ganesh, felt convicted of the need to make peace with a person in the audience. He took leave from the preacher, went to the audience, and made peace. This triggered a process of person after person making peace with each other. Revival had come; there was no need to complete the sermon. Bishop Festo left room for the Spirit to do his work.
The Bible speaks of the urgency of believers being united (John 17:21, 23; Ephesians 4:1–3). One of the most important callings of leaders is to yearn and pray for unity and do all they can to facilitate it. The Holy Spirit can use a leader’s yearning to trigger revival. Those who pray for revival should make sure that they have done all to be at peace with others.4. Earnest Seeking
The famous revival prayer, “Will you not revive us again, that your people may rejoice in you?” (Psalm 85:6) suggests a tone of earnest desire. Revival is preceded by people seeking God with all their heart and wanting to see God’s glory among his people.
My favorite example of such praying is the students at Pandita Ramabai’s school in India. The students prayed fervently, and God answered by reviving them and many others through them. The young Evan Roberts, whose ministry triggered the Welsh Revival, often prayed, “Bend me, O God.” We are open to whatever it takes for God to be totally in control of our lives!5. Pervasive Repentance
Some so-called revivals have been characterized by exotic experiences without much emphasis on repentance. People go like tourists to such places to see what is happening. I wonder whether we could call that revival. After the revival at Asbury College and Seminary in 1971, many students came to the bookstore to return things that they had taken without paying. That is a powerful sign that they had become right with God.
Preaching against sin before the revival often contributes to revival and influences what sins are confessed. In the history of the church, there were times when some sins were neglected in revival preaching — like sexual impurity; exploitation; and race, class, and caste prejudice. This has resulted in revived churches perpetuating sins that the revival should have addressed. In other revivals, like the eighteenth century Wesleyan revival in the UK, revival helped influence social reform and attack injustice.6. Spectacular Phenomena
The revivals associated with the Wesleys and Jonathan Edwards had people falling down with somewhat violent reactions under deep conviction of sin. We need to be open to God’s surprising works and be careful about stifling them. But we also need to remember that, after some time, these phenomena can become rituals that have lost their original meaning. Sometimes these phenomena can be taken to extremes that make them unbalanced and unbiblical.7. Effective Evangelism
While revivals usually result in the awakening of Christians, they are also accompanied by a powerful witness to those outside the church. Unbelievers see the power of God at work in the revived Christians, and these Christians are emboldened to share their faith. The result is that large numbers of people are saved. So, effective evangelism generally accompanies genuine revival.Surprising Beginnings
In Wales, it was a group of young people under seminary student Evan Roberts, who came home from seminary to seek God, sensing that he had lost his fire. Roberts started a prayer group that grew and grew and became a nationwide movement, resulting in about 100,000 people being converted and joining the church.
In the Hebrides Islands of Scotland, two single, housebound ladies in their eighties prayed earnestly for revival. At the same time, in another part of their island, seven young men met regularly to prevail in prayer until revival broke. In Korea in the early 1900s, God spoke to the leaders of the church and revived them first, which then led to a national awakening. In an Indian girls’ school, it was the prodding of a devout leader, Pandita Ramabai, that fired up students to prevail in prayer and trigger revival. Five university students in the United States gathered at a haystack and prayed for missions and helped give birth to the great missionary movement of that nation.
Do not lose heart, dear friends. Keep yearning for a great visitation from God. The seven young people in the Hebrides Islands made Isaiah 62:6–7 their watchword as they prayed for revival: “You who put the Lord in remembrance, take no rest, and give him no rest until he establishes Jerusalem and makes it a praise in the earth.” Let us take no rest, and give no rest to God until he sends revival to our people.
God keeps his children through midlife crises by empowering them to keep fighting to be kept.
How we respond to temptation this week will affect the spiritual life of someone we know. Every time we choose to sin, the tentacles of that decision crawl, often imperceptibly at first, into the precious hearts and lives of those we love. In the same way, holiness is wonderfully contagious, wreaking blessing in every direction, often quietly below the surface of what we can see.
If we could see all the subtle effects of our obedience (and sin), we would be even more motivated to work out our salvation with fear and trembling (Philippians 2:12–13). What if we could see everything that happens in our child’s mind and heart when we love our wife with strength, tenderness, and conviction? What if we could see our neighbors’ thoughts when they see us loving our children with patience, sacrifice, and loving discipline? What if we knew the ripple effects in our church of the creative and intentional ways we’re caring for lost neighbors? We simply cannot see even a fraction of what God does when we love one another well.
Our personal holiness — how well we love God and others — carries the stunning power to enliven the souls of others, or to deaden them. He gives us a stunning power in this fallen world: the ability to refresh the human heart.Hearts Need to Be Refreshed
God addresses this powerful dynamic in the 25 short verses of Philemon. The apostle writes to his friend to advocate for Onesimus, a bondservant who fled Philemon and may have stolen money from him (Philemon 18). While I believe Paul was laboring, even in this very short letter, to undermine and eventually overthrow slavery, I will not address that here (but encourage you to read others who have). What caught my attention were five words in Paul’s heartfelt appeal:
Refresh my heart in Christ. (Philemon 20)
First, the plea is uncomfortably direct — a command even. Paul commands Philemon to refresh the apostle’s heart in Christ, to invigorate his love for the Lord. Second, Paul is commanding Philemon to do something he cannot do — at least not alone. This kind of refreshment cannot be controlled or manipulated by man (John 1:12–13; Ephesians 2:8–10). If he refreshes anyone’s heart in Christ, God must do it. Third, the command reveals a wonderful and mysterious reality: our communion with Christ genuinely leans on other people.
Even an apostle needed others to stoke his love for God. You and I have the power to refresh hearts — and we have the need for our hearts to be refreshed by someone else.How to Refresh a Heart
How, more specifically, could Philemon refresh Paul’s heart in Christ? What was Paul really asking him to do? He states himself clearly: “Receive [Onesimus] as you would receive me” (Philemon 1:17). How Philemon loved Onesimus would ripple beyond Onesimus to Paul, and then through Paul to countless others. In the previous verse, he clarifies how he hopes Onesimus will be received: “No longer as a bondservant but more than a bondservant, as a beloved brother” (Philemon 1:16).
Philemon, when you might be justified to seek retribution, I want you to welcome your brother with scandalous affection. When you could turn him over as a criminal, I want you to offer him something even deeper than friendship.
You can feel Paul’s heart being refreshed by the very idea of Philemon responding this way — a response the world could not explain. What if he forgave him, and with nothing in return? What if instead of treating Onesimus worse than before, he treated him far better — like his own beloved brother? What if the new bond between these two men were another seed that helped to bring down slavery? What if Philemon’s lost neighbors, appalled by his patience and forgiveness, received Christ in the light of his witness? How marvelous Jesus Christ would look on that day.
Paul let his heart enjoy, for a moment, the unfolding possibility of that mind-blowing scene — of all that Christ might do through this one startling act of obedient mercy — and then he asked Philemon to make it true: “Refresh my heart in Christ.”How to Stifle a Heart
When Paul says, “Refresh my heart in Christ,” he could have pled the opposite: “Please don’t stifle my heart by abandoning Christ.” Paul knew what it felt like to expect refreshment and receive betrayal.
Paul mentions his friend Demas in this very letter: “Epaphras, my fellow prisoner in Christ Jesus, sends greetings to you, and so do Mark, Aristarchus, Demas, and Luke, my fellow workers” (Philemon 1:23–24; also Colossians 4:14). Only a few short years later, Demas deserted him — and in a time of serious need.
Later Paul writes to Timothy, “Do your best to come to me soon. For Demas, in love with this present world, has deserted me” (2 Timothy 4:9–10). Paul needed Timothy, and soon, because Demas had suddenly abandoned him. Surely Demas wasn’t the first. When Paul pled with Onesimus to refresh his heart, he knew the agony of having professing believers betray his trust and renounce the faith.
When he had the power to refresh Paul’s heart, Demas walked away. He chose earthly pleasure and comfort over bearing the cross of costly love. We will face the temptation to do the same — to retreat back into the world when Christ asks more of us in love.A Hundred Hearts Are Yours
One way Satan tempts us into lovelessness is by convincing us that the consequences are few, insignificant, and confined. He wants us to think that no one else’s life will really be affected by our decisions. You can almost hear him whispering, “How much damage could this little sin really cause, anyway?”
When you’re tempted to be unkind with your spouse or impatient with your children, when you’re tempted to indulge a lustful thought or harbor anger toward a friend, when you’re tempted to ignore the glaring need (however large or small) in your local church, when you’re tempted not to forgive, think about the dozens of hearts waiting to see Christ in you. Remember that the consequences will reach further and deeper than you can think or imagine. Ponder how many unseen needs might one day be met because you planted another seed for God’s kingdom.
The sobering (and inspiring) reality is that far more is at stake in our obedience than our own relationship with Christ. A hundred hearts hang in some real way on how we love (or not). And through them, hundreds more — now, and for years and years to come. God has made our faithfulness a catalyst for others’ perseverance. Obey for God’s sake, for your own sake, but also for their sake. Refresh their hearts in Christ.