God may not reveal every detail we want to know about our future, but he does promise to walk with us and direct our steps.
Forty years ago, John Piper was not sleeping very well. It was October of 1979, and his brain hurt. For the past five months, he had been on a teaching sabbatical from Bethel College, just north of the Twin Cities in Minnesota. It was a scholar’s dream come true: apart from a few weeks of family vacation, his job would be to spend six days a week reading and writing and researching until a new school year began in the fall of 1980.
He was 33 years old. Back in January, on his birthday, he had written in his personal journal, “It was a decisive age for Jesus. Deep down I feel it will be for me too.” His first book was about to be published by Cambridge University Press — a revision of the doctoral dissertation he completed five years earlier at the University of Munich. His main focus now was writing an academic monograph on Romans 9, where Paul extols the glory and freedom of God in electing individuals to salvation. On days of heavy writing, he found it physically hard to sleep. “I get so wrenched in the brain,” he wrote in his journal, “that my head feels twisted and tight lying on the pillow.” Despite the mind-numbing work, however, he was emotionally and spiritually energized. It felt terrifically rewarding to produce written pages on the great things of God.
He was trying to plan out the rest of the year. The annual meeting of the Evangelical Theological Society would be held on campus at Bethel that December, and his deadline to submit his paper was just weeks away. In preparation, he was working through a book by New Testament scholar Peter Stuhlmacher. A slow but disciplined reader, John was averaging about forty pages a day of working through this German text, a pace he found frustrating.
Ronald Reagan, who had been governor when John was at Fuller Seminary out in California, was gearing up to challenge Jimmy Carter for president of the United States. But politics and cultural happenings were not the sort of thing John would have noted in his journal. That was reserved for spiritual resolutions, theological and exegetical observations, prayers from his heart, updates on his family, wrestling with decisions. He had been journaling faithfully, often every day, since his sophomore year at Wheaton.
But in the first two weeks of October in 1979, his journal suddenly went dark. He penned not a single entry.October 14, 1979
On Sunday evening, October 14, John went down to the basement level of their family apartment. The temperature in his study was cool, with the dehumidifier in the boys’ playroom going on and off to keep the basement from becoming too damp for him and his books. He usually wore a sweater shirt over a t-shirt, layered by a sweater shirt, and finally his “study sweater,” a thick brown and tan cardigan knit by Noël as a gift.
Diagonally across his study was an eight-foot-long former library table. A fluorescent light hung above it from the ceiling. On either side were two piles of commentaries on Romans, each open to chapter 9. There were two bookstands, one holding the Greek New Testament open to where he was at in his morning devotions, the other holding an open Revised Standard Version of the Bible.
Alongside the back edge of the desk was a row of books he was reading or regularly consulting: the works of Jonathan Edwards; Chaim Potok’s 1972 novel, My Name is Asher Lev; a French New Testament; a German work on Jesus by Adolf Schlatter; a Webster’s Dictionary; and a McGuffey’s Reader #4 (for when his seven-year-old son came in and sat on his lap to read). A card table in the study was covered with books on Judaism that he was consulting for his exegetical and historical research.
He had recently built his own four-foot-tall standing desk, hanging the sanded plywood by hinges from the wall, then adding two folding legs to support the front when it swung out. He also built himself a prayer bench with a shelf for the Bible that could be read in front of him as he knelt for regular times of prayer over the word.
Noël and the boys were long asleep, and the hour was growing late that Sunday night. As he sat at his desk, wrestling and praying, he eventually reached for his notebook and pen, ready to start journaling again. He often said he didn’t know what he thought until he wrote. That evening, he began with these words: “I am closer tonight to actually deciding to resign at Bethel and take a pastorate than I have ever been. The urge,” he added, “is almost overwhelming.”
The desire was taking this form in his heart and mind: “I am enthralled by the reality of God and the power of his word to create authentic people.”
That afternoon after church he had over to the house a dreadlocked Bethel College student named Mark. They ended up talking for four hours. It left John aching at how comparably rare it was to find such authentic men and women of faith in the church. He wrote, “I believe, I really believe, that God has made me a vessel of his Word which when poured onto people changes them in this direction.”‘Burning to Be Spoken’
It is remarkable how realistic he was that night. He knew himself well. “I know, really know, I would despair as a pastor. I would despair that my people are not where I want them to be, I would despair at ruptured study and writing goals, I would despair at barren administrative details.” But he asked himself, “Who shall shepherd the flock of God? People who love barrenness? People who feel no flame to study God and write it out? People who weep not over the tares and the choking wheat? Is the criterion for judging one’s fitness for the ministry that one feels no pain in the mechanics of ‘running a church’? Is the calling so managerial in our day that the Word burning to be spoken and lived and applied is no qualification?”
He wondered if he had been kidding himself about scholarship. Had he been foolish to think he had been destined to be an influential writer and teacher of college or seminary students? “Has not there been all along the simmering frustration that this Word — this unbelievably powerful Word — must be preached and spoken with tears to the dying and tears to the rejoicing? Has not all my occupation with the word broken out in an irresistible longing to sing its praises?”
For five years he had refused to “preach around” or “teach around” the Twin Cities. Instead, he had been devoted to one Sunday School class, week after week, year after year. This seemed to signify his burden to apply the Word to one flock over the long haul. “My heart is not in one time shots or one week shots. I am not a gifted evangelist. My heart leans hard to regularity of feeding. I believe little in the injection method to health. I believe in the long steady diet of rich food in surroundings of love.”What Would He Lose?
He was close to a decision. “I can taste the challenge on the horizon.” He thought about all that he would leave behind, including “the joy of long uninterrupted hours of thought in pursuit of theological problems.” But, he thought, “I have discovered more of living value in the fewer and more pressed hours of meditation for sermons and devotions than often in preparation for class.” What would be different from the scholarly realm is that it “would all have to be real, living, life-changing insight. All my energies would be on finding reality in the text for only what is real — deeply, movingly real — can be fed to the really hungry and the really needy. No more fence sitting.” John knew that when the divorcee approaches him, he must have an answer, or at the very least some word of help. He wouldn’t be leaving burgeoning theological insight for some sterile managerial slot. “The demands of the pulpit on me . . . would be the demands of God on my mind and heart to penetrate like never before to the heart of the word and to abound in understanding.”
What, realistically, would he lose? He was thinking, now, as he was writing, and his pen was flowing.
I would lose the simplicity of task and routine in the college. My life and time would be much less my own.
I would lose the serenity of undisturbed hours of study and self-imposed hours of study and self-imposed hours of leisure because the needs of the flock are unpredictable.
I would lose the quiet of the study and trade it for hours in the car on the way to the hospital, and to homes.
I would lose the uniformity of responsibility and be swamped by dozens of different tasks, many of which would no doubt be distasteful unless and until my palate changed.
I would lose the collegial stimulation of fellow theologians in return for a draining ministry to the hungry.
I would lose an almost total occupation with theological subject matter and inherit the press for programs and functions.
I would lose the ease of having to reckon with no visible failure (if I fail with students they pass on quickly). But in a church I must reckon with the possibility of nothing happening, people becoming discontented, no one being won to Christ, old animosities remaining unhealed.Magnify, Exalt, Display
Life would be so different. From kindergarten until today, he had known only the life of first being a student and then a teacher. But it seemed that almost every movement of his heart over the past five years had been toward the church. “Sometimes it comes surging up as a passion to be in seminary teaching. But we know what that means.” He was having a conversation with himself now. “It means you long to be as near the proclamation event as possible but have not been encouraged by anyone to be in it yourself. But of late — a year or so — that passion has passed right through seminary and into the pulpit. Why? What has been changing?”
He did not know for sure. What he thought had happened, though, was a gradually emerging clarification of what his highest values were and the most fruitful way to achieve them. “Those values are to see the Word of God produce people of great faith and great love.” The apostle Paul desired to stay on earth and minister “for your advancement and joy of faith” (Philippians 1:25). This was how he magnified Christ in his body by life. And that was John’s greatest goal as well: “To magnify, exalt, display Christ in the world and in heaven by seeing people transformed into new creatures of love and faith through His word and spirit.”
Yes, that happened some at Bethel. Yes, that would happen more if he were to teach seminarians. But he had a hunger to be the direct instrument of the Word. So much of what he saw needing to be done in the pulpit was getting lost along the way between the lecture hall and the sanctuary! John believed in the goals of a liberal-arts education and could defend it powerfully. But as he examined his heart, he believed it with nothing close to the same passion and intensity that he believed in the goals of preaching.Gifted to Proclaim
As John continued to think and write that night, he was reminded of another thing in his life that had changed. For the first time in his life, he had been an active, responsible member of one church for an extended period of time (five years now). “I have taught its adults and served on its board and spoken to its worship service. I have not hit and run. It is my church. I have no romantic notion of it. It is full of sinners. But it is precisely in that church over this long haul that the vision and the burden for preaching as a pastor has grown.”
When John went into a Sunday school class as a student, it was not long before he was thinking about teaching. He would watch and listen, and the longing would grow: “I must do this! No, no, not to replace this preacher or that preacher, but simply to do this work which attracts me with my zeal for the word and its power to change people.”
Another factor, perhaps more subconscious than the others, was his awareness that while he could hold his own in scholarly writing and in most conversations, he did not have some of the crucial gifts for greatness in scholarship, like speed-reading with comprehension or a good memory for recall. “These two deficiencies make me very narrow in my awareness and comprehension of broad sweeps of things. I do not fear being useless in scholarship. My books will bear witness to my competence. But my weaknesses often return to me and sometimes ask me: do you not see that your gift of penetration, intensity, and poetry lend themselves to moments of proclamation rather than years of research for books and seminars? Perhaps not. But perhaps yes!”Word, Words, and a Way
John concluded his journal entry in this way before he went to bed that night: “This moment of indecision is real and makes me feel on the brink of doing something that could be so revolutionary for me and for some group of people that I do not want to set it aside now and say, O it will pass. You have felt this way before and you get over it and realize it was a moment of dissatisfied fantasy. No. The recurrence is now too frequent and tonight (it is almost midnight now) too strong. I will seek counsel and pray. My last word is this. I cannot decide now. But I know which side I want to win — the pastorate.”
He had written 1,826 words across nine notebook pages. He closed his journal and walked upstairs, taking off the study sweater and hanging it on the back of the gray and black metal chair, where it would wait for him in the morning.
After crawling into bed with Noël, sleep proved elusive, as he considered and refuted several arguments in his head. Perhaps his brain hurt again. But this time his heart was full as he eventually drifted to sleep with a new dream.
Years earlier, contemplating his gifting, limitations, and future, he had written, “All I have is Word, words, and a way with words and underneath a heart. Oh, to make something with the Word, words, and a way with words — something powerful, full of glory, something to shake the foundations. A book to kindle a flame in the scholarly world, a short piece to make a thousand housewives and husbands sing, a sermon to save all the lost in the place, a tale to delight the children and teach them.”
John Piper had never been a pastor. He had never been to Bethlehem Baptist Church. Nine months later, he would be their senior pastor. The God of Romans 9 was about to help a thousand husbands and wives sing of their salvation in a whole new way.
What is a man?
Many continue to ask, and many offer new answers. Confusion blows across our land, exposing the feeble bridge between technological advancement and self-understanding. Mysteries of far-off galaxies unravel before high-powered telescopes while the face gazing back from the mirror lingers more distant than ever. With a world lying in his palm, modern man remains, to himself, a stranger.
Some imagine that two men can marry. Some see no problem with males acting like women or telling us that they are, in fact, women. Too few mourn the sink into egalitarianism distorting womanhood and attempting to dress man’s abdication in virtue’s garb. Some say that God is dead; others, man. Low standards in the family, and low visions even in some churches, let honor, righteousness, and holy dominion seep from our ideal like heat through old window panes.
We have ground to reclaim. The church, the world’s lighthouse, must not dim as the spirits of confusion wash over her shores. God calls his people to speak clearly, repeatedly, and without apology, for, as the men go, so goes the world.Dwell with Giants
The confusion indicates that we have forgotten our roots. Too many men live isolated — not only from each other but from our ancestors. We need not reinvent what a man is, but only rediscover him. How? By forsaking the uncertain sounds of society and hearkening to the war drum of Scripture. God calls us to fellowship with giants — or those who slayed them — great men who have run the race before us and offer their strengths, weaknesses, and sins to instruct us on how to walk before God this side of heaven.
Only recently have I realized how we (myself included) have been sawing at the branch we sit on. In an effort to avoid clichés and moralizing, we abandon men of old. Disavowing “Dare to Be a Daniel” sermons have effectively stolen Daniel from us. This is a mistake, not only because God preserved their lives with great detail in the Old Testament — which “was written for our instruction” (Romans 15:4) — but because the New Testament calls us to imitate those such as Abraham, Abel, Isaac, Moses, Noah, Enoch, Elijah, Job, Gideon, David, Samuel, Isaiah, and more.
In the absence of such men of old filling our minds and fueling our faith, we find different men to esteem — athletes, celebrities, intellectuals, musicians. Mel Gibson with a sword. Russell Crowe in a coliseum. But shrubs cannot replace the family tree. As Abraham’s offspring, we need to know our roots and wake the ancient giants that we might see clearer, and farther, standing upon their shoulders.
Most recently, Joseph has captured my gaze as one I want to emulate. His story has as many layers as his coat had colors, but let me highlight three ingredients, among others, that make up a godly man. Like Joseph, the men of God we need in every generation will learn to rule themselves, lead others, and bow before a mighty God.He Rules Himself
The godly man achieves mastery over his most unruly subject: himself. Paul saw it too: “urge the younger men to be self-controlled” (Titus 2:6). While Joseph displays rule over anger, greed, and vengeance, he displays mastery over self where many today do not: his lust.
Rising from the slavery sparked by his brothers’ betrayal, Joseph now rules at Potiphar’s right hand. Joseph, we learn, was “well-built and handsome” (Genesis 39:6 HCSB). His physical prowess did not go unnoticed, especially by the most powerful (and presumably beautiful) woman in the household, Potiphar’s wife. She looked longingly at him (Genesis 39:7). Blushing glances soon became fixed gazes; thoughts grew to fantasies. One day she purred seductively to the young Hebrew, “Sleep with me” (Genesis 39:7 HCSB).
He faced temptation many of us don’t experience. He did not go after her; she came after him. He did not flex; she enticed. She beckoned through a door on which he never knocked. Her whispered kisses threatened to caress his lust and his pride — a potent combination. In response to her invitation, God summarizes his response in three glorious words: “But he refused” (Genesis 39:8).
And he did not merely triumph once.
We read, “Although she spoke to Joseph day after day, he refused to go to bed with her” (Genesis 39:10 HCSB). Resisting such temptation once is admirable. To hear the Siren sing and plainly reject her promises of pleasure is commendable. But to withstand day after day, season after season, whisper after whisper, smile after smile, seduction after seduction is behemoth. Every day, with each passing hour, he faced a decision. And every day he halted her advances.
Man of God, have you resisted Potiphar’s wife? Are you, like Joseph, continuing to resist?
How many of us can learn from Joseph, not just in that he refused, but why he refused?
Behold, because of me my master has no concern about anything in the house, and he has put everything that he has in my charge. He is not greater in this house than I am, nor has he kept back anything from me except you, because you are his wife. How then can I do this great wickedness and sin against God? (Genesis 39:8–9)
He knew others trusted him, relied upon him, conferred good to him — and none more than God. How could he repay Potiphar with such cruelty — and his God with such treason? How can we repay our wives with pornography, our brothers with adultery, our God with homosexuality? We who have troubles with gusts and breezes have much to learn from him who withstood a whirlwind.He Leads Others
Eventually, the ruler of self became the ruler of Egypt. He who proved faithful with ten talents was entrusted with one hundred more.
Yet his promotion would take a horrible detour. Alone in the palace with Potiphar’s wife, the lusty mare burned with desire and harassed the young man, groping at his outer garment which he had to abandon to escape (Genesis 39:11–12). Evil she, in a similar ilk as Shakespeare’s Iago, took the forgotten garment and accused the innocent of treachery (Genesis 39:13–18). Incensed, Potiphar threw Joseph in jail (Genesis 39:19–20). Joseph sat in another pit unjustly.
But the theme continued: God showed him steadfast love, and he again ruled as the second in charge of the prison (Genesis 39:21–22). As with Potiphar, the warden had no anxiety concerning all that Joseph presided over, because God was with him (Genesis 39:23). Even from a cell, Joseph exercised dominion, blessing all in his trust.
After two additional years in prison, the cupbearer finally kept his word and told Pharaoh of Joseph. Joseph interprets Pharaoh’s dream and proposes a fifteen-year plan for Egypt’s flourishing amidst famine, to which the pagan ruler proclaimed, “Can we find a man like this, in whom is the Spirit of God?” (Genesis 41:38). Pharaoh then set Joseph over Egypt, to answer only to Pharaoh himself. By the time he turned thirty, the beautiful coat he received in Jacob’s house changed to the garment he left behind in Potiphar’s, which now was replaced with fine linens in Pharaoh’s.
Manhood that leads from the front has fallen on hard times. Our modern beatitude reads, “It is far more blessed for men to be led than to lead.” But Joseph stands in contrast. He exercised benevolent dominion in all the spheres God placed him. From Potiphar’s house, to the prison, to the right hand of Pharaoh, to his own household in Egypt, Joseph stewarded what God put in his charge. He administered. He made decisions. All were blessed under his care — including his long-lost brothers when they eventually came calling.
Like Joseph, God calls men to manage their affairs with equity and acumen. We need men like Joseph, filled with the Spirit and recipients of God’s steadfast love, to regulate their spheres for the benefit of others. Both elements are crucial: the willingness to rule, aimed at others’ good. We do not volunteer to be heads of our households and have our spheres of influence; we are heads that either bless or tear down, uplift or destroy, ignore or empower.
Few of us will rule an Egypt like Joseph did. Yet how many are prepared — being manifestly a man of God — to govern a household, a church, a community, a nation?He Bows Before a Mighty God
Joseph served a powerful Master. So do men who have truly “turned the world upside down” (Acts 17:6).
Joseph explains his journey to his brothers this way: “God sent me before you to preserve life” (Genesis 45:5). Twice he says this (see also Genesis 45:7), and then a third time, “It was not you who sent me here, but God” (Genesis 45:8).
Beaten and betrayed by his brothers: God was sending me. Resisted Potiphar’s wife and subsequently jailed: God was sending me. Received an unfulfilled promise, leaving him in prison for two more years: God was sending me. Standing before the men who sold him as a slave and stole from him years with his father and younger brother: God sent me here, not you.
This God exalted him as a “father to Pharaoh, and lord of all his house and ruler over all the land of Egypt” (Genesis 45:8). This God saved the nation by his hand. This God foretold all that was to come and moved an entire empire to make it happen. This God controls all things.
And this God fulfills his promises. In his last act of faith, Joseph instructs his bones to be buried in the land God has promised his people — centuries before they possess it (Hebrews 11:22). We have much to learn from this man who foreshadowed the greater Joseph to come. Here is one of the giants who can help a confused generation regain what it means to be a man.
We should pursue our fullest and most lasting satisfaction in God because to find that satisfaction anywhere else is the essence of evil.
Life calls us to do hard things. Athletes push through tremendous pain to gain victories. Doctors perform long, delicate surgeries to save lives. Soldiers overcome insurmountable odds to protect nations. Mothers endure excruciating pain to bring babies into the world.
And Jesus calls us to do even harder things — actually, impossible things. He commanded Peter to step out of the boat, and Peter obeyed and walked on water (Matthew 14:29). Jesus commanded Lazarus, who had been dead for four days, “Come out,” and Lazarus rose and came out, still wrapped in burial clothes (John 11:38–44). When Jesus commands, he also empowers believers to obey.
Now, consider Jesus’s call for you to be pure (Matthew 5:8). At times, does it feel impossible to win the battle for purity? We can feel so discouraged that Jesus’s question to a lame man might be asked of us, “Do you want to be healed?” (John 5:6). Seems like a strange question to ask someone who had been lame for almost forty years, right? But perhaps after waiting all those years, the lame man was losing hope of ever being made well. Jesus asked because he wanted everyone to know that as the Messiah, the Savior of the world, the Son of God, he could make anyone well. Jesus could do the impossible. Jesus then commanded the lame man to pick up his pallet and walk, and he did.
The point for us is clear: No matter how hard or impossible Jesus’s commands seem to us, Jesus as Lord can empower us to obey. This is encouraging news. So, if you are struggling to stop looking at porn, to finally quit masturbating, to repent of living in an impure relationship, Jesus wants you to honestly answer this question: “Do you want to be pure?” Because he can set you free. As a Christian striving to live purely, arm yourself with the following three biblical admonitions in your war against lust.1. Hate Your Sin
No one who still loves sin will genuinely ask Jesus to empower him to slay it. And Jesus doesn’t answer double-minded prayers. He hears and answers cries from broken, contrite hearts. So, pray that the Spirit will convict you (John 16:7–8) and show you the depth of your sin (Psalm 139:23–24). Pray that the Spirit will help you grow in hatred of what God hates: “Through your precepts I get understanding; therefore I hate every false way” (Psalm 119:104).
In his chapter of Secret Sex Wars: A Battle Cry for Purity, H.B. Charles tells the following story:
A little child was playing with a very valuable vase that he should not have even been touching. And, of course, he put his hand into it and could not get it out. His father also tried in vain to get the boy’s hand free. His parents considered breaking the vase until the father said, “Son, let’s try one more time to get you free. On the count of three, open your hand and hold your fingers as straight as you can, and then pull.” To their astonishment the little fellow said, “Oh no, Daddy, I can’t put my fingers out like that. If I do, I’ll drop my pennies!”
The Holy Spirit stirs in the hearts of believers’ hearts to hate our sin so that we renounce it. This hatred is not a hatred that leaves a person self-loathing and longing to do penance. This hatred of sin produced by the Spirit turns us from the grips of sin to the fountain filled with blood drawn from Immanuel’s veins. It is there that Jesus cleanses our hearts and affections so that we lose all our filthy stains.
Spirit-convicted Christians cry out to Jesus, like Paul, “Wretched man that I am! Who will deliver me from this body of death?” (Romans 7:24). From that well of despair, we find soul-rejoicing hope in the forgiveness and victory over sin won by Christ. There, we will exclaim with Paul, “Thanks be to God through Jesus Christ our Lord!” (Romans 7:25). So, don’t be self-deceived. No one can repent of a sin and cherish it at the same time. That is the eternal, profound difference between worldly sorrow and genuine, life-giving repentance (2 Corinthians 7:10).2. Satisfy Your Soul in Christ
The Spirit makes the good news real to convicted sinners. He convinces us that through Jesus’s death and resurrection, Christ has become our Lord, that he saves broken sinners, that his death atoned for our sin, that he does not cast away bruised reeds and flickering wicks. He convinces his chosen people that Jesus has saved us and that he empowers us to become more like him (Galatians 5:22–25).
He does this by satisfying us through worship. Jesus saved the immoral Samaritan woman, and in doing so, he gave her the living water that would satisfy her thirst so that she wouldn’t have to yield to the desire for immoral relationships again (John 4:13–14). This same Jesus is alive today. He sits at the right hand of the Father with all authority in heaven and on earth. He still gives his Spirit to all whom he saves (1 Corinthians 12:13) and through the Spirit satisfies the souls of repentant sinners.
Jesus says, “These things I speak in the world, that they may have my joy fulfilled in themselves” (John 17:13). Therefore, relish and delight your soul in Christ’s gracious, gospel-purchased gifts. If you are a child of God, delight that you have been reconciled to God. You are forgiven. You have eternal life. You have been born again. You have been delivered from the power of the kingdom of darkness. You have overcome the world. You are loved by God. You will never be left alone or separated from his love. You will be made like him when you see him as he is.
And in the meantime, you will be purified by fixing your mind on the hope he offers. “Everyone who has this hope fixed on Him purifies himself, just as He is pure” (1 John 3:3 NASB). The Spirit daily wants to fix your hope on Jesus and his gospel. He daily wants to satisfy your soul with the banquet of all these gospel blessings and more. So, eat at the banquet of the redeemed, freely.3. Put to Death the Deeds of the Flesh
The word of God commands that we “put to death . . . what is earthly in you: sexual immorality, impurity, passion, evil desire, and covetousness, which is idolatry” (Colossians 3:5). “This is the will of God, your sanctification: that you abstain from sexual immorality” (1 Thessalonians 4:3). But saying “No!” to sexual temptation might sound as easy as walking on water. So, we must believe that Jesus commands, and empowers, us to do the impossible.
Let the Helper help you. Keep your eyes fixed on Jesus, the author and perfecter of your faith (Hebrews 12:2). When Peter took his eyes off of Jesus, he started to sink. But dear saint of God, Peter didn’t drown. He cried out to our Lord, “Save me,” and “Jesus immediately reached out his hand and took hold of him.” Then rebuking him, Jesus said, “O you of little faith, why did you doubt?” (Matthew 14:30–31).
Don’t doubt that the Spirit empowers you to do what he calls you to do, and don’t believe he will reject you when you need his help. Fighting for your purity isn’t supposed to be easy; it is war. Picking up your cross and dying daily (Luke 9:23) is a slow, painful process. Yet born-again believers can (and will) because Jesus died our death for us (Romans 6:6–7) and gave us his Spirit to empower us (Romans 8:13).Our War Is Winnable
Let’s end by asking our opening question in a slightly different way: Do you believe that Jesus’s death and resurrection and the gift of his Spirit can make you pure? I pray that you do. In an infinitely greater way than D-Day, Jesus’s cross turned the tide for every believer in our war against sin. This is a winnable war — not perfectly winnable, but truly winnable — because of Jesus.
Therefore, seek to live by the power of the Spirit today, get accountability, and put to death the deeds of the flesh. Then bask again in Jesus’s gospel-grace tomorrow, and fight for your purity again and for every tomorrow that he gives you. You can win the war for sexual purity.
Our culture may celebrate sin and stifle truth, but that doesn’t mean we should lose hope. God can still grant an awakening.
If you only experience joy on your best days, you have not yet tasted the best joy. We tend to think of joy as a light and fleeting feeling that comes and goes as life allows. But the best joy is strong enough for the realities of life — all of life.
We also tend to think of joy as optional, as icing on the cake of following Christ. Some Christians get to be happy, we think, wishing we were one of the handful who do. Yet the apostle Paul says, plainly and unapologetically,
Rejoice in the Lord always; again I will say, rejoice. (Philippians 4:4)
Oh, that always — all at once so awe-inspiring, and so haunting. Awe-inspiring because that means always must be possible. What news! In Christ, we never have to be without genuine happiness. And yet also so haunting because of how often we lose our sense of joy — the joy that God, throughout the Scriptures, commands of his people.
Why would Paul repeat himself? “Rejoice in the Lord always; again I will say, rejoice.” He knew how hard such always-joy would often be. He wrote these words, as he often did, from prison (Philippians 1:13). Yet even in the loneliness and uncertainty of captivity, he had found real felicity. He could say always because he had suffered so much, and rejoiced even in those dark, lonely, and painful places.
Never settle for a god who cannot satisfy you in a prison cell. If you only enjoy God when life seems good, follow Paul’s joy with me through Philippians to something more precious than gold, even much fine gold, something sweeter than honey — and anything else you might enjoy in this life.Better Even Than Life
If our joy is rooted in how well life seems to be going, our joy will falter and fade when trials come. More often than we want to admit, our joy is rooted in our feeling secure, comfortable, successful, liked — and so real joy, the always-joy Paul writes about, can feel foreign and distant.
When his enemies preached Christ out of envy and rivalry, wanting to wound Paul and undermine his ministry (Philippians 1:15–17), he welled up not with anger, bitterness, or resentment, but with joy. “What then? Only that in every way, whether in pretense or in truth, Christ is proclaimed, and in that I rejoice” (Philippians 1:18). It takes more than human courage to rejoice when you’re mistreated, especially when you’re in prison where you can’t defend yourself.
Where was this courageous joy anchored? He writes in the next verses,
It is my eager expectation and hope that I will not be at all ashamed, but that with full courage now as always Christ will be honored in my body, whether by life or by death. For to me to live is Christ, and to die is gain. (Philippians 1:20–21)
He could have joy in life or death because he lived and died for Christ — and nothing and no one could take Christ from him. Because his faith, hope, and joy were firmly rooted in the honor and glory of Christ, the worst things that might happen to him could only ultimately serve him (Romans 8:37). Knowing Christ had made a friend even out of death.
Prisons may have kept him from speaking to crowds, but they only amplified the joy that he preached. Adversaries could make his circumstances miserable, but his gladness in God engulfed any short-lived misery. Satan threw everything imaginable at him — beaten with rods, stoned almost to death, shipwrecked and stranded, attacked by robbers, left without food and shelter, suffering danger from every direction (2 Corinthians 11:25–27) — and yet he rejoiced. Few have suffered like this man, and few have suffered with more joy.Better Than Any Other Joy
To have more joy in suffering than in peace and comfort, we have to want Jesus more than anything else, including peace and comfort.
Paul didn’t choose joy in Christ because he couldn’t find joy anywhere else. He had tasted and enjoyed the glory of success and popularity — the Hebrew of Hebrews, the Pharisee of Pharisees, the most zealous, the most blameless, the most recognized (Philippians 3:5–6). When he chose to follow Jesus, he surrendered the kind of life others would die for — and he surrendered that life for more happiness, not less.
After listing all that he had earned and accomplished, he says,
Whatever gain I had, I counted as loss for the sake of Christ. Indeed, I count everything as loss because of the surpassing worth of knowing Christ Jesus my Lord. For his sake I have suffered the loss of all things and count them as rubbish, in order that I may gain Christ. (Philippians 3:7–8)
When Paul found the treasure hidden in the fields of Scripture, his pearl of great price, all the other pearls had suddenly faded in color. He quickly sold them all to have just one. His love for worldly success and attention withered and fell away to make way for a new, more vibrant love. He wrote, “My desire is to depart and be with Christ, for that is far better” (Philippians 1:23).
In the end, we do not forfeit happiness to have Christ. Whatever we trade away (and we do trade away real joys to follow Christ), we receive back a hundredfold now, “and in the age to come eternal life” (Mark 10:30). Joy in Christ is far better than any other pleasure, achievement, or prize. We are fools to ever prefer what we enjoyed before him.How to Guard Your Joy
How do we guard the joy we’ve found in God? We can’t, and won’t, on our own. Two verses after saying, “Rejoice in the Lord always; again I will say, rejoice,” Paul writes, “Do not be anxious about anything,” — anything that might hinder or compromise your joy in the Lord — “but in everything by prayer and supplication with thanksgiving let your requests be made known to God. And the peace of God, which surpasses all understanding, will guard your hearts and your minds in Christ Jesus” (Philippians 4:6–7).
We preserve the joy we have in God by asking God to guard it. We pray. Any joy we have in Christ will be perpetually under assault — by Satan, by sin and temptation, by suffering, by life in a world still enslaved to corruption (Romans 8:21). We need someone stronger than all those forces combined to guard what we have found in God. We need God himself to guard our happiness in God.
We pray, but not just any prayer. “Do not be anxious about anything, but in everything by prayer and supplication with thanksgiving let your requests be made known to God.” The kind of prayer that thwarts anxiety and strengthens joy presses on in gratitude. Paul brings these three — joy, thanksgiving, and prayer — together again in another letter: “Rejoice always, pray without ceasing, give thanks in all circumstances; for this is the will of God in Christ Jesus for you” (1 Thessalonians 5:16–18). A sure way to combat the enemies of our joy is to relentlessly give thanks to God for all the graces, large and small, in our lives.
When the devil conspires to spoil your joy — and he will in more ways than you can predict or imagine — remember this: “The Lord is at hand” (Philippians 4:5). He is near to those who rejoice in him, supplying indescribable peace to us in the midst of whatever trials we face. His return is also at hand, when he will deliver all his children from every form of pain and suffering, and when he will punish everyone who rejected his Son and afflicted his followers. On that day, everything and everyone who made Christians miserable will come to an awful end.
So, take heart, wait yet a little longer, give thanks for the good you can see now, and pray for God to keep you until joy finally comes in full (Psalm 16:11).Finding Always-Joy
For the Christian, joy in God is not optional. It’s not icing for some to savor. It is central, and essential. We cannot glorify God as we ought unless our souls are satisfied in him. But we all have to learn the secret to always-joy. None of us is born, or even reborn, with this wisdom.
The apostle himself says, “I have learned in whatever situation I am to be content” (Philippians 4:11). Joy in God is not simply a switch that’s flipped the moment we first trust in Jesus; joy in God is a lifelong pursuit and discipline. We learn, over months and years and decades, how to rejoice in the Lord. The flower sprouts when we are saved, but it matures, grows, and blossoms over time, while its roots grow deeper, wider, and stronger.
“I know how to be brought low,” Paul continues, “and I know how to abound. In any and every circumstance, I have learned the secret of facing plenty and hunger, abundance and need. I can do all things through him who strengthens me” (Philippians 4:12–13). The secret to his contentment was his relentless always-joy in Christ (Philippians 3:8; 4:4, 10). And it wasn’t only his secret to contentment in hunger and need, but also in plenty and abundance. John Piper says about these verses,
When we have little and have lost much, Christ comes and reveals himself as more valuable than what we have lost. And when we have much and are overflowing in abundance, Christ comes and he shows that he is far superior to everything we have.
So, rejoice always in the Lord. Again, I say rejoice. Do not believe the lie that joy will only come when the clouds in your life finally clear, and the sun shines through. Don’t settle for a religion or god that cannot promise joy even in the darkest, most difficult days. If you rejoice in the Lord, you never have to be without real happiness again.
When we lose our wonder, we are prone to wander.
Not only are we prone to lose the wonder that God made the world he did — with clouds and canyons, mountains and mammals, nutmeg and noses — but also that Jesus is the Lord and Savior he is. We are prone to lose a sense for the glory of the new covenant, the one we enjoy now “in these last days” (Hebrews 1:2). We grow blind to the miracle of Christianity in our specific culturally conditioned manifestations of it — until we compare those experiences to something else.
Simple comparison can be a powerful tool for keeping (and even deepening) the wonder of our faith. The epistle to the Hebrews was written to a group of Christian Jews who had lost the wonder — or perhaps never quite seen the wonder in the first place. Hebrews challenges its readers to “pay much closer attention” (Hebrews 2:1) and not neglect (Hebrews 2:3) the magnitude of the salvation we have received in Christ.
Comparing Christianity to other world religions can give us fresh love and appreciation for Christ — how the God of the universe has revealed himself to us and what he expects (and doesn’t) from us. And one of the most powerful comparative controls for Christianity is not pagan religion but the God-given, pre-Christian religion of the old covenant.
The Scriptures are full of important flashpoints of comparison for how God once appointed for his people to engage with him, in preparation for the coming of his Son, against how he now directs us to live, and draw near to him, since the climax of history has come in the life, death, and resurrection of his Son. Whereas the contrast with pagan religion is essentially bad versus good, the comparison with old-covenant religion can be illuminating because it is good versus better.Jesus Is Better
Of the many places in the New Testament that make such comparisons implicitly and explicitly, the book of Hebrews does it most extensively and in the greatest detail. This is, in fact, the essential focus of the letter.
A group of Jewish Christians, perhaps persecuted by non-Christian kinsmen, are tempted to return to Judaism apart from Christ. The author to the Hebrews writes to warn and persuade them against such a (foolish and perilous) course. He argues not only that returning to Judaism isn’t actually possible (because old-covenant religion has been fulfilled in Christ and is no longer a valid approach to God apart from him), but also that Jesus is better than anything they could return to apart from him.
The superiority of Christ over all that came before him (not just pagan but also God-given, first-covenant practice) is the theme that runs throughout the letter from the opening declaration (Hebrews 1:4) to the concluding lines (Hebrews 12:24). Even though what came before was “holy and righteous and good” (to borrow the language of Romans 7:12), Jesus — and the new covenant he brings — is better. The line of comparison, then, is not bad versus good. Nor (beware) is it good versus just as good. It is good versus better. Old was good — and Jesus is better.Five Crucial Contrasts
Hebrews chapters 9 and 10 serve as the culminating argument of the letter. All that comes before (and after) sets the table for (and extends application from) this climactic exposition about the work of Christ. In particular, Hebrews 9:11–14 is the crucial paragraph. Here at the very heart of the letter is the comparison of five (good) facets of old-covenant religion versus five (better) aspects of the new.1. Superior Place
The old covenant had a ground zero in this world, “an earthly place of holiness” (Hebrews 9:1). God instructed his people, through Moses, to build a tabernacle with two sections. The first was “the Holy Place” into which the priests went daily to perform their duties (Hebrews 9:2, 6). The second was “the Most Holy Place” into which only the high priest went, and only once a year (Hebrews 9:3, 7). Given as it was by God, this tabernacle was still an earthly locale. It was a good arrangement, enduring for a millennium and a half as it was incorporated into the structure of the temple.
However, the place of Jesus’s work is better. When Jesus had accomplished his cross-work, and risen from the dead, he ascended bodily and entered into the ultimate holy place (“heaven itself,” Hebrews 9:24) “through the greater and more perfect tent (not made with hands, that is, not of this creation)” (Hebrews 9:11). An earthly tabernacle, as the dwelling place of God, was only “a copy and shadow of the heavenly things” (Hebrews 8:5). Which is why God instructed Moses, “See that you make everything according to the pattern that was shown you on the mountain” (Hebrews 8:5; Exodus 25:40).
The tabernacle was a precursor of, or pointer to, the true dwelling place of God. But it wasn’t the presence of God himself. By design, it was inadequate and incomplete. And now the place of Jesus’s mediatorial work is better: he represents us to his Father in heaven itself.2. Superior Priest
Essential to God’s first arrangement with his people was human mediation: the priests (Hebrews 9:6). God set aside one of Israel’s twelve tribes (Levi) to serve at the altar, performing the specified daily rituals and duties. Among the priests, only the high priest entered annually into the Most Holy Place (Hebrews 9:7).
Jesus also is a priest, and a high priest at that. Hebrews has claimed this from its outset (Hebrews 1:3; 2:17; 3:1), and then argued it at length (Hebrews 4:14–5:10; 6:20–8:1). However, Jesus’s priesthood is of a different (and better) order than Aaron’s. Jesus would not be a priest under the terms of the old covenant (he is from Judah’s tribe, not Levi’s). He is not a priest of the good things that have been (in the past). Rather, he is now (in the present) “a high priest of the good things that have come” in the era of the new covenant (Hebrews 9:11).3. Superior Access
At the center of the old-covenant arrangement was the presence of God (typified) in the Most Holy Place. The high priest alone was instructed to enter into that holiest of places one time each year (Hebrews 9:7).
Jesus’s frequency of approach is better. He comes into the presence of his Father not once a year but once for all. “He entered once for all into the holy places” (Hebrews 9:12). And having entered once for all, he stayed there. He remains there, dwelling continually in the presence of God, not standing as the earthly high priest did while he performed his duties and then left, but sitting permanently at God’s right hand on the very throne of heaven (Hebrews 10:11–12).4. Superior Price
The old-covenant high priest would dare not enter the Most Holy Place apart from a covering for his and the people’s sins. He entered “not without taking blood, which he offers for himself and for the unintentional sins of the people” (Hebrews 9:7). And the blood he took was that of sacrificial animals, entering “by means of the blood of goats and calves” (Hebrews 9:12).
Christ’s means of drawing near to his Father, however, is better by far. He enters “by means of his own blood” (Hebrews 9:12). All along, the blood of bulls and goats had been a God-designed temporary measure. All should have known that “it is impossible for the blood of bulls and goats to take away sins” (Hebrews 10:4). Human death (symbolized by human blood) was the just punishment for human sin, which is cosmic treason against God Almighty.
Jesus, who had no sin of his own, offered his own blood to make the better sacrifice, the final sacrifice, for the sins of his people. And Jesus’s blood is also better, as Hebrews 9:14 adds, because it was offered voluntarily (“through the eternal Spirit [he] offered himself”), unlike the blood of animals.5. Superior Effect
Finally, the old-covenant arrangement had an effect on the worshipers, those who sought to approach God through the tabernacle, its priests, and its sacrifices, but it dealt “only with food and drink and various washings, regulations for the body” (Hebrews 9:10). The effect on the worshiper was limited to the external: “for the purification of the flesh” (Hebrews 9:13).
However, the effect of Jesus’s work on his people is better. It affects us heart and soul. Jesus’s work will “purify our conscience” (Hebrews 9:14) in a way repeated animal sacrifices could not. Jesus’s death “put away sin” (Hebrews 9:26) like the first covenant did not. Old-covenant sacrifices, by divine design, “can never take away sins” (Hebrews 10:11).
Only Christ’s new covenant can “make perfect those who draw near” (Hebrews 10:1), that is, to cleanse the worshipers from “any consciousness of sins” (Hebrews 10:2) — meaning they have been dealt with totally, not merely pushed forward to be reckoned with at some future time. The heart of the worshiper (this cleansing of the conscience) is right at the heart of the argument of Hebrews. The author wants to persuade his readers with objective truth that their subjective sense of needing cleansing now has been dealt with, decisively and for all time, in a way that the old covenant could not (and did not attempt).
The effectiveness of Christ’s work not only extends the external to the internal, but also the temporary to the eternal. His work secures “an eternal redemption” (Hebrews 9:12). The first covenant, with its earthly location and priesthood, was good and effective for a season, as God intended. Through animal blood, it brought God’s people, represented by the high priest, into his presence each year. However, the new covenant is better. Through Jesus — the superior priest, who cleanses us fully (inside and out), by means of his superior blood — we are invited to approach the very throne of God himself not just annually but weekly, daily, and at any moment (Hebrews 4:16).Not Your Mama’s Religion
The desired effect on Hebrews’ original readers was to show them that all that had come before had anticipated this new arrangement in which Christians would be offered direct and unending access to God himself in the person of his Son. The cumulative point, then, of Hebrews 9:11–14 is clear enough but too glorious to go without explicit expression: “Therefore he is the mediator of a new covenant” (Hebrews 9:15).
Jesus did not update, renew, or renovate the first covenant. It is not the same as the old, or an extension or adaptation of the old. It is new. In other words, for the first readers, this is not the religion you grew up with. This is not your parents’ covenant. It is distinct and different. Jesus is not the latest in a long line of covenant mediators. He mediates a new covenant — and he alone mediates this covenant.
He completed his work. In the language of Hebrews 1:3, he made purification for sins. Done. Finished. And Hebrews’s first hearers, as lifelong Jews, needed to know that Christ’s work for them (unlike the old covenant) is “for all time” (Hebrews 10:12, 14). And they, of all people, should have been ready for this message. After all, God had promised in their Scriptures (through Jeremiah) about this coming new covenant, “I will remember their sins and their lawless deeds no more” (Hebrews 10:17; Jeremiah 31:34). Jesus’s single sacrifice is final. There’s no need for more, and no going back to before. And — this is key for Hebrews — why would you even want to go back if you could? Jesus, and his work, and his covenant, are better.
If the newness and superiority of Jesus’s new covenant doesn’t strike us with awe and wonder, perhaps it’s time to get to know the old covenant better. God designed it to help us see and savor the glory of Christ. The better we know it, the more we might stand in awe of him.
If we believe in the sovereignty of God, then how do we explain friends or prominent leaders who turn their backs on Jesus?
In recent years, I have had the opportunity to experience the wide world of vintage toys. One experience in particular stands out in my memory. I drove to someone’s house to look at some vintage Transformers he had for sale. As I talked with him, I discovered that we grew up in the same era. We had a similar background in that our childhood toys followed the same trajectory: from He-Man, to G.I. Joe, to Transformers.
Suddenly, he said, “I will be right back. I have to show you something.” He left me in his garage with his kids as he ran into the house and down in the basement. He came back proudly holding a vintage G.I. Joe Combat Jet SkyStriker in the original box. He had to show me the excellent condition of the box. He had to show me how well the landing gear still worked. He had to show me that all the missiles and weapons were still there. He demonstrated how well the landing gear worked and the pristine condition of the guy with the parachute.
Now, I have to admit that I was not a passive spectator. I may have geeked out a little as well, because it brought back a flood of memories for me. I said, “Whoa, I remember that guy with the parachute! I can even remember getting this for Christmas and opening the box and putting all the stickers and missiles on the jet. Then I immediately used this jet to take down the evil Cobra Rattler Plane. This is so cool!” Then he exclaimed in response, “Yes, isn’t it great?”
Isn’t it great? That phrase triggered another memory in my mind that made me realize what was happening in that moment. I realized C.S. Lewis was right.World Rings with Praise
Lewis wrote a short essay titled “A Word About Praising” in his book Reflections on the Psalms that highlights a problem he felt as he read the Psalms before he was a believer. It troubled him that God was always calling for praise. It sounded to him like a vain woman always demanding compliments.
But then something struck him that changed his entire perspective. He began to realize that the whole world “rings with praise.”
The most obvious fact about praise — whether of God or anything — strangely escaped me. I thought of it in terms of compliment, approval, or the giving of honor. I had never noticed that all enjoyment spontaneously overflows into praise unless (sometimes even if) shyness or the fear of boring others is deliberately brought in to check it.
The world rings with praise — lovers praising their mistresses, readers their favorite poet, walkers praising the countryside, players praising their favorite game — praise of weather, wines, dishes, actors, motors, horses, colleges, countries, historical personages, children, flowers, mountains, rare stamps, rare beetles, even sometimes politicians or scholars. I had not noticed how the humblest, and at the same time most balanced and capacious, praised most, while the cranks, misfits, and malcontents praised least. . . . I had not noticed either that just as men spontaneously praise whatever they value, so they spontaneously urge us to join them in praising it: “Isn’t she lovely? Wasn’t it glorious? Don’t you think that magnificent?” The psalmists in telling everyone to praise God are doing what all men do when they speak of what they care about.
My whole, more general, difficulty about the praise of God depended on my absurdly denying to us, as regards the supremely Valuable, what we delight to do, what indeed we can’t help doing, about everything else we value. (109–110)
The climactic line from the vintage-toy owner (“Isn’t it great?”) reminded me of the phrases Lewis identified as the language of praise: “Isn’t she lovely? Wasn’t it glorious? Don’t you think that magnificent?” The dynamic of praise was on display once again, exactly like Lewis had described it: “All enjoyment spontaneously overflows into praise.” Our enjoyment of the toy led to a call for praise. So we can officially add to Lewis’s list “praise of rare toys” alongside “rare stamps and rare beetles.”Language of Hedonism
Lewis observed that the language of hedonism is everywhere in the Psalms. It is common for the psalmist to enjoy some aspect of God and have it lead not only to personal praise, but a call for corporate praise. Out of the hundreds of examples, I will limit myself to four passages that illustrate the dynamic Lewis describes.Psalm 5:11
Let all who take refuge in you rejoice;
let them ever sing for joy,
and spread your protection over them,
that those who love your name may exult in you.
Note the connection between enjoyment and praise. Those who rejoice and sing for joy are those who first enjoy God as refuge when he spreads his protection over them. Those who exult in God are those who love God’s name.Psalm 9:1–2, 11
I will give thanks to the Lord with my whole heart;
I will recount all of your wonderful deeds.
I will be glad and exult in you;
I will sing praise to your name, O Most High. . . .
Sing praises to the Lord, who sits enthroned in Zion!
Tell among the peoples his deeds!
Psalm 9 testifies once again to the connection between enjoyment (“be glad,” “exult”) and praise (“give thanks,” “sing praise”). The enjoyment and the praise flow from a specific recounting of God’s deeds. But note that these deeds are so enjoyable that they are called “wonderful” (v. 1). If someone can recount the landing gear, parachute, and cardboard box of a vintage toy, then each of God’s wonderful deeds can be recounted and enjoyed as well! Later, the psalmist calls others to sing praises to God and extend the telling of his deeds to all the peoples (v. 11).Psalm 96:1–4
Oh sing to the Lord a new song;
sing to the Lord, all the earth!
Sing to the Lord, bless his name;
tell of his salvation from day to day.
Declare his glory among the nations,
his marvelous works among all the peoples!
For great is the Lord, and greatly to be praised;
he is to be feared above all gods.
Psalm 96 gives voice once again to the expansive language of praise as the call to sing extends to “all the earth” (v. 1). This praise arises from the enjoyment of God’s salvation (v. 2), glory (v. 3), and marvelous works (v. 3). The praise and the enjoyment are grounded in God’s unsurpassed, unparalleled greatness. Because he is great, he is greatly to be praised (v. 4).Psalm 148:1–6, 13
Praise the Lord!
Praise the Lord from the heavens;
praise him in the heights!
Praise him, all his angels;
praise him, all his hosts!
Praise him, sun and moon,
praise him, all you shining stars!
Praise him, you highest heavens,
and you waters above the heavens!
Let them praise the name of the Lord!
For he commanded and they were created.
And he established them forever and ever;
he gave a decree, and it shall not pass away. . . .
Let them praise the name of the Lord,
for his name alone is exalted;
his majesty is above earth and heaven.
Psalm 148 is an example of one of the most striking features of the Psalms. The psalmist is not content to call only people to praise. All creation must join the symphony of praise because God’s greatness is so great and God’s name and majesty are so elevated and exalted over earth and heaven (v. 13). The psalmist calls heavenly beings (v. 2), the physical creation (vv. 3–4, 7–10), and all humanity (vv. 11–12) to answer this call to praise their Creator.Holy, Happy, Healthy
This key biblical observation about the call to enjoy God and praise God reminds us that rejoicing in God is not optional; it is essential. It is essential as the chief end of our existence. We were created to glorify God by enjoying him forever. But what Christians often miss is the relationship between divine worship and spiritual health. God’s commands to praise are an expression of love, not the expression of an egomaniac. Praise is good, and it is good for us.
It would be spiritual suicide if we began to praise lesser things more than the One who is supreme over all. We are healthiest spiritually when we supremely value the supremely valuable. If the world rings with praise of lesser things, then we would be spiritually sick if we lacked praise for the One who is truly great and glorious and magnificent. It is not wrong to look nostalgically at a toy valued at $150 and say, “Isn’t it great?” But it is wrong in the extreme if someone can look at the supremely valuable God with a blank expression.
Praising God is the surest sign that we are enjoying God as we should. If we rejoice in him and drink deeply of his rivers of delights, we can’t help but praise him. The Bible does not absurdly deny us the chance to do with God what we do with all things we value: praise. The difference is that only God can offer the greatest enjoyment and thus spontaneously call for the highest praise.
It is our duty, not just our opportunity, to pursue God. And he underlines this reality by threatening judgment if we will not seek happiness in him.
“The word prune in John 15:2 doesn’t mean what many of us think.”
The pastor was preaching from John 15:1–11, the passage about the vine and the branches. Our English translations may include the word prune, the pastor said, but the historical context and the original language yield a different interpretation. Two hundred souls listened.
“Prune actually has the idea of lift up, like a gardener who gets his hands in the dirt to raise a drooping vine. And abide has less to do with our obedience and more to do with how God is already holding us up; we abide when we realize that we are already embraced, already upheld by the divine.”
The pastor descended the platform, and the congregation rose to sing of a God who never prunes his people, nor lays on them any strong command, but rather embraces them always, no matter what.
The problem, of course, is that this god does not exist.Prone to Wander
I intend no mockery with the above story. This pastor’s exegesis, though fanciful by any objective standards of interpretation, finds its origin in a temptation common to man — a temptation common to me. I too have felt the impulse to dull the two-edged sword of truth until it no longer cuts so deeply.
I can’t pretend to know all the reasons why this pastor (or anyone else) wandered from biblical authority. Every story contains its own significant moments: small doubts that stuck to the soul, conversations that shook confidence, relationships that challenged the truth. Whatever the reasons for the drift, I don’t have a hard time imagining how it could happen.
I have left many a quiet time more disturbed than comforted by God’s word. I have laid my head on my desk, battling to embrace the truth. I have felt the phantom of doubt following at my elbow, asking, “Will you really believe that?”
But I also have learned, from the Bible itself, to expect this experience. All throughout Scripture, God’s word not only comforts and uplifts his people; it also unsettles them.Unsettling Words
Abraham sat with his promised Isaac, perhaps imagining that his trials were over, his waiting rewarded. Then he heard a command he never expected: “Take your son, your only son Isaac, whom you love, and go to the land of Moriah, and offer him there as a burnt offering” (Genesis 22:2).
Moses led his sheep to Mount Horeb, a contented shepherd with a wife and children. Then he heard words from the fire he could not escape: “Come, I will send you to Pharaoh that you may bring my people, the children of Israel, out of Egypt” (Exodus 3:10).
Hosea lived among the northern kingdom of Israel, fearing God and keeping his commandments. Then he received a command unlike all the others: “Go, take to yourself a wife of whoredom and have children of whoredom” (Hosea 1:2).
The mother of our Lord took her child to the temple, in awe of all the prophecies. Then she heard a prophecy that felt like a blade: “This child is appointed for the fall and rising of many in Israel . . . (and a sword will pierce through your own soul also)” (Luke 2:34–35).
Need we mention the ministry of Jesus? His words bound up many a bruised reed, to be sure. But they also rebuked his disciples (Matthew 16:23), offended his neighbors (Mark 6:2–3), embarrassed the scribes (Matthew 22:46), and sent his foes searching for stones (John 10:31).
Were we to excise every unsettling word from the Bible, we would be left with less than cliff notes.Great Iconoclast
Why all the trouble? Why such scandal and offense? Not because God delights merely in ruffling feathers. God’s word unsettles us because reality always unsettles the delusional. And sin has made all of us, to one degree or another, delusional.
We have, all of us, tried to scrub the living God out of existence and paint a different god in his place (Romans 1:18–21). If God leaves us to ourselves, therefore, we do not welcome the truth. We cry, “Foolishness!” We shout, “Offense!” And if given the opportunity, we lead the Truth to a hill outside Jerusalem and hang him on a tree (1 Corinthians 1:23; 2:8). Comfortable words cannot break this spell. We need to be unsettled.
“Yes,” someone might say, “God’s word always unsettles his enemies. But Abraham, Moses, Hosea, and Mary were his friends. Why must his word unsettle his own people?”
Because even after God saves us, he must snap up back to reality time and again. C.S. Lewis spoke for all Christians when he wrote, “My idea of God is not a divine idea. It has to be shattered time after time. He shatters it Himself. He is the great iconoclast. Could he not almost say that this shattering is one of the marks of his presence?” (A Grief Observed, 66). The word of God comforts and confronts; it restores and rebukes; it saves and shatters. And until we see him face to face, we will desperately need it to do all of the above.To Whom Shall We Go?
What, then, shall we do when we sit before an unsettling passage of Scripture? We find our two options illustrated in John 6, just after Jesus has given that most unsettling of teachings: “Unless you eat the flesh of the Son of Man and drink his blood, you have no life in you” (John 6:53).
We can murmur, along with the crowd, “This is a hard saying; who can listen to it?” (John 6:60), and begin saying things like, “My God would never . . .” But in such a case, “my God” has become “my god” — a small wooden figure in our imagination. Polite, tolerant, safe.
Or we can take our stand with Peter, and say, “Lord, to whom shall we go? You have the words of eternal life” (John 6:68). We need not, in this moment, understand all that Jesus means. We need not feel a settled peace in our heart. We simply need to know, as Peter did, that Jesus Christ has the words of eternal life. And because this same Jesus upheld every jot of his Old Testament (John 10:35) and commissioned every word of his New Testament (John 14:26), we come back to the same question no matter where we are in our Bibles: Will we trust him?
Will we trust the man who not only spoke unsettling words, but also raised paralytics, welcomed children, cheered widows, and sought outcasts? Will we trust him who was crowned between criminals, and conquered the world from a cross? Will we trust him who trampled death, who reigns in glory, and who will one day make all things new? We can run from his unsettling words to find words more comfortable and affirming. Or we can look at Jesus and say, “You alone have the words of eternal life.”Come to Be Unsettled
David Gibson writes, “You will know that you know God when sometimes he makes you weep as he humbles your pride. Reverses your expectations. Upsets your priorities. Offends your behavior” (Living Life Backward, 159).
Submitting our finite, fallible wisdom to God’s infinite, infallible wisdom is not a painless process. Sometimes it may hurt as much as setting a bone. But God never speaks a wounding word to his people except to heal us (Hosea 6:1); he never speaks an unsettling word except to give us peace.
As you come to your Bible, then, expect God to do just what he says he will: teach you, reprove you, correct you, train you (2 Timothy 3:16). Might we even be so bold as to pray for him to do so? “Whatever idols need to be shattered, shatter them. Whatever lies need to be broken, break them. Discomfort me, rework me, unsettle me — whatever it takes to bring me to you.”
Such a prayer is worth the pain. For after God has stripped us of our pride, self-sufficiency, and comfortable illusions, what will be left? Joy. Freedom. The hope of glory. Christ himself.
He grew up a misunderstood child. His mother, rigid and harsh, was incurably critical of the boy. Everywhere he went, everything he did, nothing ever pleased her. If she met him with a kind word, he couldn’t remember it.
But as crushing as his mother’s mean spirit could be, he much preferred her to his father. How Simon could have shown greater distaste for his son, few could tell. But one could tell, by the more-than-occasional bruises on the child, that Simon was not unafraid to lay hands on him (or, as rumor would have it, his neighbor’s wife). Life taught the boy early on to look out for himself — for no one else would.
As a young man, he kept company with those who also had been taught this lesson. He and his fellow outcasts did what emotional orphans often do — they stole things. He once had a best friend — if men who were unified by distrust and criminal behavior could have “best friends” — whom he watched get stabbed to death after he, of the two, was caught stealing. A loaf of bread and a bag of denarii ended up costing him the life he was trying to sustain. Stale, the young man wandered the streets again, alone.Devil in the Details
How one tells a story, whose perspective he highlights and whose he omits, can endanger hearers. Details, carefully selected, can hide devils. One might carry on this apocryphal backstory of Judas Iscariot’s life to induce a sense of investment in the character. The more screen time he would get — the more we see his pain, his struggle, his flirtations with both the light and the dark — the more our protagonist he would become.
We could watch his embarrassment at his Master reproaching him in front of everyone for his “innocent” question about spending the perfume money to help the poor (John 12:1–8), and his ensuing mistake might seem less heinous, more human. We’ve all done things we regret when hurt. Besides, he didn’t know what they would do to him — he tried to return the money. He felt remorse unto suicide. Was he really a villain or more a victim of a cold life? We root for him as we might, well, ourselves.
Wisdom will be mindful of how we hear the story. While the movie Iscariot could feature the tattered life of a neglected boy who grew to die a tragic death, Jesus instead casts the story of Judas, the devil in the fold, the betrayer spoken of before his birth (Psalm 41:9; 109:8), a wicked man whose treachery made nonexistence more preferable than life (Matthew 26:24). No personal history, no wrongs committed against him negates this. We must beware that tales, expertly woven, can endear us even to devils.
And this is relevant today: Have villains ever been in greater demand? In this growing genre some call “anti-villain,” millions consume stories that feature murderers, drug dealers, cannibals, mob bosses, serial killers, serial adulterers. They are the moral monsters we hate to love. Or, just love. Past are the days of predictably boring good guys and two-dimensional villains; we increasingly prefer our heroes more in our own image than in God’s.
The trend continues with the release of the new Joker movie. Wisdom will be wary of this sort of art. It can beautifully and movingly and compellingly get us to embrace, ever so slowly, what God hates. To recast the story to favor the wicked. The first step to indulging in evil, we must remember, is to smile at it.
Such a movie, should it feature the devil as prominently as advertised, can tempt us toward several dangers worthy of discussion — among them, calling evil good, locating the source of wicked behavior primarily outside ourselves, thinking liberation comes from giving in to the darkness, and assuming that vengeance is rightfully ours.Mistake Dark for Light
“The movie,” as one Rolling Stone critic laments, “lionizes and glamorizes Arthur [the Joker] even as it shakes its head, faux-sorrowfully, over his violent behavior.” It does not merely report brutality and gore, which the Bible also paints with bloody realism; the critic claims that it glamorizes the wicked character. So also, according to The New Yorker, the movie welds together the comic and the tragic in such a way that “we can’t tell the light from the dark.” Satan grabs the pen to tell the story. The movie, and many shows like it, do not merely report evil; it advertises it. If taken to its natural consequence, it invites the curse of God to all who buy in and beautify depravity:
Woe to those who call evil good and good evil, who put darkness for light and light for darkness, who put bitter for sweet and sweet for bitter! (Isaiah 5:20)
But how do they do it? How do they get us to applaud a villain? They rely on the fact that evil, when committed by a complex individual, is no longer as evil. The secret to endear us to the deplorable is to portray the culprit as a victim to be pitied, not a lowlife to be protested. Few have categories for victims of one crime being perpetrators of other crimes. Once the first domino of evil falls, how can we be blamed for what happens next?
So our villains get fired from their jobs, cheated on by their spouses, assaulted by a corrupt cop, made to witness the murder of a loved one, despised by their parents in favor of their siblings — the vicious begin as a victim. As with the Joker. The trailer alone shows him getting embarrassed as a comedian, assaulted by civilians, with someone he loves on a respirator. Unlike young Bruce Wayne, who experienced the tragic murder of his parents and seeks to establish order as a result, Arthur paints his face and embraces moral chaos. His pain leads the Joker to accept nihilism: the rejection of morality and the acceptance that all is ultimately meaningless.
He lives as an evangelist for this message: life is a joke. Various renditions show a character who cares more for converting Batman to his worldview than actually killing him. He walks the streets of Gotham, as someone observed, communicating what the Punisher did to Daredevil: “You’re just one bad day away from being me.” He desires to create that bad day to make Batman (and us?) see the world as he does.
These anti-villain stories often capitalize on a sad backstory to get us to cheer for what our conscience squirms at, at least in the beginning. But compassion is a poor excuse to overlook corruption.Mistake Sin for Psychology
Culture is not biblically literate enough to be half as fussy as it otherwise would be. If it knew better, it would protest Jesus’s words outright:
What comes out of a person is what defiles him. For from within, out of the heart of man, come evil thoughts, sexual immorality, theft, murder, adultery, coveting, wickedness, deceit, sensuality, envy, slander, pride, foolishness. All these evil things come from within, and they defile a person. (Mark 7:20–23)
Jesus claims that out of a man’s heart — not out of his childhood or environment or personal suffering — comes his murder, lust, wickedness, pride, sensuality. He is defiled, not by what he eats, with whom he eats, where he eats, or if he eats, but by what is already within him. These factors contribute to expressions of sin, but they never acquit us of that sin.
To be made in God’s image is to be given the glory and inescapable burden of personal responsibility. We are too noble a creature for our sufferings of evil to exonerate us. But as children of Adam, we are too wont to explain away our sin. It was the woman God gave me. It’s the childhood I experienced. It’s the parents I had (or didn’t have), the unhappiness I felt, or the string of unfortunate events — these, not my heart, stand ultimately to blame. They made me do it.Mistake Wrath as Liberation
Such stories display humans under the active wrath of God. This may be surprising. They make it look appealing to be given over to sin — which Paul describes as the inauguration of God’s wrath upon the wicked. Arthur, I’m guessing, tries (however feebly) to walk the narrow road for a time. Until finally he snaps. And then we see lightness of countenance, singleness of resolve. We may express it similarly as our de-conversion stories: I once struggled with fighting against X. I was taught that X was bad — it wasn’t who I was meant to be. But it wasn’t until I had the courage to be myself that I forsook the church and found true happiness.
The slow entrenchment into depravity is not liberation; it’s called the searing of the conscience and the activation of God’s wrath. “The wrath of God is revealed from heaven against all ungodliness and unrighteousness of men, who by their unrighteousness suppress the truth” (Romans 1:18). When Jekyll transforms fully into Hyde, he does not cast off God; God has cast him off into darkness. “Although they knew God, they did not honor him as God or give thanks to him, but they became futile in their thinking, and their foolish hearts were darkened. . . . Therefore God gave them up. . . . God gave them up. . . . God gave them up” (Romans 1:21, 24, 26, 28).
Stories like these tempt the heart to loosen the lock, pry open the door, and let the caged creature loose. They promise no more war — for the convenient fact that one side has surrendered. They promise a freedom when one is liberated from God’s righteous law. But the only freedom attained is the only one not shown: the freedom to walk toward destruction without any conflicting thoughts of turning back.Mistake Our Vengeance for God’s
Finally, something about this villain-porn tempts us to grasp for that which is rightfully God’s. “Vengeance is mine, I will repay, says the Lord” (Romans 12:19).
When we watch the bullying, abuse, and oppression of anyone, the right response is a cry for justice. When the suffering transcends human arbitration, we cry out for vengeance. And when we do, we ought to refuse painting our faces and reaching for grenades and handguns — for God has his own. He is not the divine pacifist, unmindful of malevolent deeds. He is the God who stores up wrath against the unrepentant (Romans 2:5). We are not the avenger; God is.Bored with the God-man?
Maybe our love for such a plainly sadistic sociopath who desires nothing more than to watch the world burn is owing to our already having taken too many steps his direction. Perhaps we love the darkness rather than the light because our deeds are evil (John 3:19).
Yet when we see sin as sin, villains as villains, lies as lies, and hell as hell, true Christianity begins to come into focus. Salvation no longer is an option; grace no longer a lyric we merely sing. Forgiveness becomes relevant, and Jesus unspeakably glorious. “He committed no sin, neither was deceit found in his mouth. When he was reviled, he did not revile in return; when he suffered, he did not threaten, but continued entrusting himself to him who judges justly” (1 Peter 2:22–23).
Our heartbeat becomes to watch this God-man in his word, over and over again, teach, act, love, die, rise, ascend, and empower his church to storm against the kingdom of darkness. Our portion is to meet with him and worship with his people.
God watched all of us, in one way or another, play the villain, and sent his Son to be brutalized to make us new. When we see it, he demands our utmost, which we gladly give. And should we think that this reality is vanilla, unexciting, and boring, while the world of R-rated films holds the real intrigue, then the joke — indeed, the horror — is on us.
Our song choices influence our churches nearly as much as our sermons. If we don’t choose our music with care, we aren’t shepherding well.
“Never be ashamed of letting men see you want to go to heaven,” J.C. Ryle once said to those tempted to creep from bush to bush along the narrow path. He did not address those who were facing persecution — whose slight showing of the uniform would get them and their loved ones shot at. He addressed young men who were tempted to sneak quietly from this world into heaven for fear of the scorn shouted from those on the broad path. He addressed the Nicodemuses among us, and in us, who would seek to visit the Lord under cover of night.
This tiptoe Christianity does all to not disturb a sleeping world. It may appear valorous at times, but only on topics that it is fashionable to be valorous about. With causes out of cultural fashion, it dresses in civilian clothes. Very different from our forefathers who “turned the world upside down,” these tiptoe Christians do not desire to make it clear that they are seeking a homeland — no need to cause a fuss. The modern words employed are “tolerant” and “inclusive.” The old word was cowardice. We have need for Ryle’s admonition.Joy Set Before Him?
While we are all tempted to hide our true aim in life, at different times and in different ways, we now are tempted to hide our desire to go to heaven by denying we even consider heaven at all. We seek to be servants of men without any regard to heavenly compensation, and call it virtue. We read texts like Matthew 6:1 with a dyslexic trouble with the sequence of words, “Practice your righteousness before men, and expect no heavenly rewards from your Father.” Trailing in the wake of Immanuel Kant, we try to make self-denial, stripped of self-interest, an end in itself. Heaven, the supreme place self ought to be interested in, is rarely glanced at.
So, some venture on as ships sailing to nowhere, soldiers fighting for nothing, runners pursuing no trophy, farmers plowing but expecting no crop. The old self-denial of lesser pleasures for supreme ones has been replaced with just the denial of pleasure for its own sake. The sweat, blood, and toil is its own reward. We think ourselves the more virtuous for enduring the company of so-and-so with a smile, without ever considering how “love . . . for all the saints” could be “because of the hope laid up for you in heaven” (Colossians 1:4–5).
A film I saw some years ago serves as a good illustration. The premise showed a man who spent the entire story in search of seven people he could drastically help by donating body parts to them — when he eventually committed suicide on their behalf. The heart went to one. The liver to another. The lungs and bone marrow to still others, and so on. Perhaps partially motivated by guilt from a car crash, one motivation remained clear: self-sacrifice for the good of others without reference to self. He entered death for them — without any joy set before him to defile the benevolence. This man, unlike our Savior who had two eyes beyond the cross to the reward (Hebrews 12:2), serves as a modern ideal.Far Too Easily Pleased
In his paramount sermon, “The Weight of Glory,” C.S. Lewis addressed the same ideology in his day:
The New Testament has lots to say about self-denial, but not about self-denial as an end in itself. We are told to deny ourselves and to take up our crosses in order that we may follow Christ; and nearly every description of what we shall ultimately find if we do so contains an appeal to desire.
The righteous seek heaven unashamedly. They do so before their religious neighbors who might consider the idea mercenary. And the holy man seeks eternal life with a passion not to be derailed by cheap thrills of his unreligious neighbor. He does not have the half-hearted, whimsical pursuit of happiness that contents itself with appeasing appetites no higher than a gerbil’s. He is a man, not a pet. He will not be distracted from heaven by the mere scratch of his lust’s belly. His desires have broad shoulders. And his master offers to place a weight of glory upon them — “Well done, good and faithful servant” — and he is fueled by Christ’s promises.
Indeed, if we consider the unblushing promises of reward and the staggering nature of the rewards promised in the Gospels, it would seem that our Lord finds our desires not too strong, but too weak. We are half-hearted creatures, fooling about with drink and sex and ambition when infinite joy is offered us, like an ignorant child who wants to go on making mud pies in a slum because he cannot imagine what is meant by the offer of a holiday at the sea. We are far too easily pleased.
What has a child of God to fool around with drink? “You have put more joy in my heart than they have when their grain and wine abound” (Psalm 4:7). Why ambitiously build mud pies in Babel’s image when we have this promise: “The one who conquers, I will grant him to sit with me on my throne, as I also conquered and sat down with my Father on his throne” (Revelation 3:21)? Why be detoured by Delilah’s wiles when the New Jerusalem awaits?He Offers Us Heaven
Jesus does not give as the world does. To incentivize our fealty, he does not merely offer greater earthly joy; he offers us his own joy. We do not just need an alien righteousness; we were made for alien joy — a joy that when received will make our joy full (John 15:11). The righteous will not deny their conscious belief in God’s unblushing rewards, nor can they:
Without faith it is impossible to please him, for whoever would draw near to God must believe that he exists and that he rewards those who seek him. (Hebrews 11:6)
Like Daniel, Christians conduct their pursuit of heaven with the curtains drawn, accepting the king’s wrath, because we know that a lion’s den is “not worth comparing with the glory that is to be revealed to us” (Romans 8:18). We will endure the cost of suffering because we are “sure that neither death nor life, nor angels nor rulers, nor things present nor things to come, nor powers, nor height nor depth, nor anything else in all creation, will be able to separate us from the love of God in Christ Jesus our Lord” (Romans 8:38–39). Our Lord finds our desires for happiness not too strong, but too weak. We are half-hearted creatures, fooling around with a passing world, when heaven is offered to us.Not Ashamed to Seek Him
It is the great error of mankind to pretend to be more holy than God. Living life from sheer duty, gritting one’s teeth on the way to glory, is not Christian. We lose our lives, not as martyrs for the mere benefit of others. We lose our lives to gain them.
We can lambaste “the prosperity gospel” so much that we forget that our gospel very much has to do with prosperity. God’s Book woos us with talk of fullness of joy, eternal life, crowns, thrones, crystal rivers, unfading inheritance, white robes, laughter, mountains, songs, angels, feasting, fellowship, eternal light, the undoing of all wrong, the ensuring of all right, and, of course, of God himself resplendent in all his glory. We do not close our eyes to this in the name of duty. Rather, we listen to the music playing through the cracked door, and take hold of it with holy aggression, letting all know that we wish — more than anything — to be with our King forever.
Jesus’s resurrection not only guarantees that we too will rise, but that we can taste steadfast, heavenly joy here and now — even in suffering. John Piper preached this sermon at the Sing! Conference in Nashville.
Perhaps one of the more obvious discoveries of my life is that the majority of the thinking that I do is passive, not active. When I read my Bible each day, I am often actively holding up specific beliefs against the light of God’s word to see if I believe anything wrongly. Simultaneously, through the mere act of reading well, a hundred other truths are making themselves at home in my mind, even if I’m not wrestling with any one of them in the moment.
Active learning or active thinking is not the type of thinking most of us are doing the majority of our time each day. And yet, we are all thinking about something all day every day. Thinking is something we do when we’re conscious. It’s something we do even when we’re vegging out in front of YouTube or Netflix.
J. Gresham Machen says, “When any new fact enters the human mind it must proceed to make itself at home; it must proceed to introduce itself to the previous denizens of the house. That process of introduction of new facts is called thinking. And, contrary to what seems to be quite generally supposed, thinking cannot be avoided by the Christian man.”
Whether we are reflecting on a fact at any given moment or not, we are always thinking, and that thinking shapes us in profound ways.What Tutors Have You Hired?
As we casually scroll social media, or watch the cult-classic sitcoms, or binge on the latest British drama, or entrance ourselves in 24/7 news coverage, we have hired tutors to instruct us.
These tutors are continuously presenting facts and knowledge of varying disciplines (sociological, political, theological, scientific, and more). As we listen, we welcome into our minds whatever teaching they have on the docket for the day. And, often, when we’re watching television or listening to podcasts, our mental guard is down, and so the “teaching” can get a stronger and more subtle foothold.
These tutors don’t teach for free either. They require payment, either directly through your paid subscription to their service or indirectly through the information they obtain about you. Just as college students pay tuition to sit in a classroom and learn from teachers and professors, so we pay “tuition” every time we enter a movie theater or pay for Hulu or DirecTV. The only difference is that rather than calling the shows an education, they are called “entertainment.” By thinking of shows as entertainment rather than education, we assume that we are entering a space free of thinking — a space where we can suspend reality in favor of enjoyment.
But just as Machen says, whenever new facts enter our mind, we are engaged in a type of thinking — whether we want to be or not. Watching shows is one of the most passive forms of thinking, which makes it one of the most powerful. Because we are not engaged in active thinking, we allow any number of morally suspect thoughts to enter our mind unhindered. These thoughts immediately get comfortable in their new home — they start settling in and hanging drapes.
To say this is a cunning move by our adversary is an understatement. Under the guise of entertainment, evil thoughts often move into our minds and entrench themselves unopposed.Passive Thinking’s Vital Role
When most of us think of becoming more holy, especially regarding our mind or our thoughts, we probably think of an active battle like the one Paul describes: “We destroy arguments and every lofty opinion raised against the knowledge of God, and take every thought captive to obey Christ” (2 Corinthians 10:5). Taking every thought captive to Christ is how we wage war in the mind. We actively isolate and identify our thoughts so that we can take them hostage. We hold our thoughts up to God’s word. Do we agree with what God says, or are we arguing with him? Do we love what he loves? Do we hate what he hates?
Whenever we find ourselves out of step with God’s word, let the killing begin. Destroy that argument; wage war on that opinion; take captive that thought. This is an essential battle tactic for every Christian to learn, but it is not the only battle tactic.
Whenever we read the Bible well, far more is happening than we perceive in the moment, just like when we watch our favorite shows. God’s thoughts are entering the human mind — more than we can count, much less isolate — making themselves at home, and introducing themselves to whatever ideas they find. While we may focus on a verse or two while reading a chapter, we are standing under a waterfall of teaching, and absorbing much more than we realize.Where Righteousness Feels at Home
We want our minds to be a hospitable place for righteousness to dwell. How do we do that? We do it in the same way the immoral entertainment industry tries to educate and acclimate our minds to unrighteousness. Our minds become a home for righteous thinking when we regularly and submissively soak ourselves in God’s word — either by reading or listening — and let God himself (through his word) be the tutor that shapes and transforms us most. God’s word is more powerful than a movie. It is more insightful and compelling than social media.
Fill your mind with God’s thoughts by acclimating it first and foremost to the stories and laws and letters and poetry of the Bible, rather than the stories being sold to you by the world. Put yourself daily in the stream of his cleansing and purifying waterfall of holiness and grace in Scripture. Reading is often passive, just as watching is often passive. But reading is also a form of thinking, just as watching shows is a form of thinking. Both affect the atmosphere of our minds, either for good or ill — for clean air leading to pure thoughts or polluted air leading to perverse ones.
The Bible isn’t the only place we can go for this kind of sanctification, although it is far and away the very best place. There are also stories and biographies and movies and documentaries and nonfiction and poetry and sermons that all help us to think better. They put thoughts in our mind that we very much want to settle in and put up drapes. They change us and sanctify us in ways we don’t always understand in the moment.What Stories Are Shaping You?
When I read Andrew Peterson’s “Wingfeather Saga” with my children, I am putting myself in a stream of good water, allowing it to wash off some dirt that has built up in my mind. Reading of Nia, the strong and gentle mother, strengthens my arms with endurance. The saga reminds me of why God made me. It expands my imagination so that loyalty, honor, sacrifice, and truth are habituated into my mind — righteousness becomes the normal air for my thoughts to breathe.
Destroying evil thoughts and lofty opinions really begins with passive thinking. It begins by refusing to put ourselves in the polluted streams of entertainment, and acclimating and habituating our minds to righteousness through God’s word and the echoes of his stories we find in other stories. We know when to destroy the strongholds of wrong thinking when we’ve tasted what right thinking tastes like, when we’ve fed on it, when it’s nourished our thoughts and imaginations.
We will learn, again and again, that his thoughts are not like our thoughts (Isaiah 55:8), and then experience the absolute joy of surrendering to his superior ones.
God cares more about your happiness than you do. He is so serious about your joy that he threatens hell if you refuse to find it in him.
What do you pray most often for the people you love most? The question reveals an uncomfortable amount about us (and our prayers).
First, do we pray for those we love? Prayer is one of the most powerful, thoughtful, loving ways we can love anyone we love. Yet we still often struggle to persevere in prayer for others. With countless compelling reasons to pray — to ask the God of infinite power, wisdom, and love to move in the lives of our friends, family, and neighbors — we find a thousand excuses not to. What some of us need to hear most is simply a reminder to stop and pray for the ones we love.
But if we do pray for them, what we pray really matters. And we often ask God for less than we should. At least I know that I myself have sometimes asked for less than I should — for my wife, my son, my parents, my church family. When we think to pray for others we love, our minds can default to practical, earthly concerns — that God would guard or improve their health and safety, or that he would prosper what they do at work, or that he would protect our relationship with them, or for whatever other daily or weekly needs that immediately come to mind.
Prayers like these, while good and even important, fall short of the mountain-moving prayers we might pray — prayers like the apostle Paul prayed. If we prayed more like he did, and God answered, we wouldn’t be able to keep ourselves from praying more for the ones we love.Why We Pray for Less
Tim Keller observes, “It is remarkable that in all of his writings Paul’s prayers for his friends contain no appeals for changes in circumstances” (Prayer, 20). Think about that. From his thirteen letters, we know literally dozens of ways Paul prayed for Christians, and yet he never asks God to change their circumstances. Yet that is what many of us pray for most.
Why do we default to smaller prayers for circumstances, rather than praying for the bigger, deeper, longer-lasting spiritual realities under what we see and experience? For many reasons, of course, but we can try to isolate a couple.
First, smaller prayers come easier. We naturally, even apart from knowing Christ, think (and worry) about health, work, safe travel, and relational conflict. It doesn’t take spiritual sensitivity to want a sick person to get well (or a healthy person to stay healthy). Even those who hate God may wish a good life for one another. Big, Paul-like prayers, however, do not come naturally. God-hating people do not stumble into prayers like these. To pray these prayers with real focus, desperation, and hope requires the Spirit to work that focus, desperation, and hope in us. He opens our eyes to the awesome and terrifying realities below our everyday circumstances.
Second, God’s answers to our biggest prayers are often slow and less visible. If we pray for someone to heal, they may get better in just days or weeks. If we pray for someone to travel safely, we know how God answered in a matter of hours. If we pray for a successful interview, we can find out very soon how it went. But if we pray for God to make a brother more like Jesus, we may not see real, reliable fruit for years. If we pray for God to protect our child from Satan and all his temptations, we likely will not witness thousands of ways he has done it. If we pray for God to keep our pastor faithful through to the end, we will not know for sure if, or how, he has done it until that man finally hears, “Well done, good and faithful servant” (Matthew 25:23).
Big prayers require more grace, more faith, and more effort because spiritual realities do not naturally come to mind, and because the answers to bigger prayers are often harder to recognize — at least for now. For hundreds of thousands of years to come, though, we will taste and see and witness the preciousness of the big prayers we prayed — prayers that moved mountains in people’s hearts, causing earthquakes at their spiritual cores, and changing the course of their eternities.Seven Daily Prayers
Because Paul wrote to churches, almost all of the prayers we have in his letters are for believers. We can be sure he prayed persistently and passionately, with many tears, for the lost (Romans 9:2–3; Philippians 3:18–19). But most of what we know about Paul’s prayer life centers on what he prayed for his brothers and sisters in the faith, including these seven big prayers — prayers we can regularly pray for the followers of Christ we love most.1. Open their eyes even wider to you.
Prayer is one of the most powerful, most thoughtful, most loving things we can do for those we love. And the most powerful, thoughtful, and loving prayer we can pray for others is that they would enjoy more of God. Again, Keller writes, “Paul does not see prayer as merely a way to get things from God but as a way to get more of God himself” (Prayer, 21). Paul prays,
Because I have heard of your faith in the Lord Jesus and your love toward all the saints, I do not cease to give thanks for you, remembering you in my prayers, that the God of our Lord Jesus Christ, the Father of glory, may give you the Spirit of wisdom and of revelation in the knowledge of him, having the eyes of your hearts enlightened. (Ephesians 1:15–18)
Because he had heard of their faith, he prayed for them to see God. Do you pray like that for believers you love? Paul knew that we need supernatural inner strength to experience the breadth and length and height and depth of God’s love for us in Christ (Ephesians 3:16–19) — not just to receive it, but to experience it, and grow in experiencing it. We need fresh grace to enjoy God again today.2. Fill their hearts with love for others.
If God has answered our first prayer for those we love, that grace will begin to show in their love for people.
It is my prayer that your love may abound more and more, with knowledge and all discernment, so that you may approve what is excellent, and so be pure and blameless for the day of Christ, filled with the fruit of righteousness that comes through Jesus Christ, to the glory and praise of God. (Philippians 1:9–11)
Paul appeals to God for this kind of extraordinary, contagious, full-to-overflowing love elsewhere as well (1 Thessalonians 3:11–13; Romans 15:5–6). He did not assume that followers of Christ would love one another well. He asked God to make them more and more loving.
It should be no surprise that these first two prayers echo Jesus’s two great commandments to love God and neighbor (Matthew 22:37–39). When we go to pray for our spouse, our children, our church family, our neighbors, these are two great pillar prayers: God, open their eyes wider and wider to you, and fill their hearts to overflowing with love for people.3. Teach them the wisdom of your will.
Our prayers for one another should begin with a growing love for God, and an overflowing love for people, but Paul does not settle for those two great prayers. He climbs other mountains in prayer for those he loves. He prays for spiritual wisdom and understanding:
We have not ceased to pray for you, asking that you may be filled with the knowledge of his will in all spiritual wisdom and understanding, so as to walk in a manner worthy of the Lord, fully pleasing to him: bearing fruit in every good work and increasing in the knowledge of God. (Colossians 1:9–10)
We will not walk in a manner worthy of God merely because we want to. We need God to teach us how. That we want to and why we want to matter massively to God, but we still have to learn to walk. No matter how long we’ve been walking, we all are somewhere along the path to “fully pleasing,” encountering new opportunities and challenges each new day. However far along we are, the next steps require spiritual wisdom and insight, not just human discipline and resolve, so we pray and ask God for what we need to know now.4. Give them boldness to speak about Jesus.
The commission Jesus left for us could not have been clearer (Matthew 28:19–20). We may forget it or neglect it in seasons of our lives, but it will not be because the charge is ambiguous. God calls every follower of Jesus to win followers for Jesus, and teach them to obey all that Jesus has said. To this end, Paul writes,
Continue steadfastly in prayer, being watchful in it with thanksgiving. At the same time, pray also for us, that God may open to us a door for the word, to declare the mystery of Christ, on account of which I am in prison — that I may make it clear, which is how I ought to speak. (Colossians 4:2–4)
And he asks for prayer elsewhere “that words may be given to me in opening my mouth boldly to proclaim the mystery of the gospel, for which I am an ambassador in chains, that I may declare it boldly, as I ought to speak” (Ephesians 6:19–20).
God acts in three miraculous ways to answer prayers like these. He first gives us words to say, then boldness to say them when we might be rejected (or worse), and lastly he opens the spiritual eyes of our hearers to see and understand the gospel of his Son. When we pray for fellow believers today, we can pray for the same gifts of grace to witness well.5. Send them good friends in the faith.
Over and over again in his letters, Paul prays that God would allow him to be with other followers of Christ. For example:
What thanksgiving can we return to God for you, for all the joy that we feel for your sake before our God, as we pray most earnestly night and day that we may see you face to face and supply what is lacking in your faith? (1 Thessalonians 3:9–10; also Romans 1:9–10; 15:30–33)
Many of us, in the context of healthy churches, have never been so desperate for fellowship, never lingered late into the night praying earnestly to finally see believers face to face. We’re so used to seeing our church family Sunday after Sunday (and more), we may have forgotten just how vital fellowship is to the Christian life.
Apart from the mercy of God and the prayers of others, however, any of us could “be hardened by the deceitfulness of sin” (Hebrews 3:13) and wander off in love with this world (2 Timothy 4:10). So, one of the most important prayers we can pray for those we love is that God would give them a healthy, faithful church and a few godly, steadfast friends.6. Protect them from enemies of their soul.
When we pray for God to grow our loved ones’ joy in him, and deepen their love for others, and embolden their words about Jesus, we need to know that they will meet resistance and hostility. Paul faced that kind of opposition everywhere he went, so he asked for prayer:
Brothers, pray for us, that the word of the Lord may speed ahead and be honored, as happened among you, and that we may be delivered from wicked and evil men. (2 Thessalonians 3:1–2)
As we pray for one another, we remember that “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). Satan and his armies do not attack randomly and sporadically, but specifically and relentlessly. One of the most effective ways to pray for our loved ones is to pray against the enemies of their souls.
We pray with Jesus, “Lead us not into temptation, but deliver us from evil” (Matthew 6:13). Not just me but us. Jesus teaches us to pray not only for our own interests — our own temptations, our own struggles, our own besetting sins — but to pray regularly and passionately for the interests of others, to count others even more significant than ourselves (Philippians 2:3) in our war against evil.7. Make Jesus look good with their life.
Finally, pray that Jesus would be glorified in all that they do.
To this end we always pray for you, that our God may make you worthy of his calling and may fulfill every resolve for good and every work of faith by his power, so that the name of our Lord Jesus may be glorified in you, and you in him, according to the grace of our God and the Lord Jesus Christ. (2 Thessalonians 1:11–12)
Paul wraps three great prayers in one. First, ask God to focus and purify their ambitions. These are not just any resolves, but resolves for good, and not just any work, but works of faith. Our prayers will help guard them from bad resolves and works of self.
Second, we ask God to give them not just strength for their work, but his strength for their work. If these resolves and works are going to glorify God, they must be “by his power,” not their own. We want divine energy and ability pouring through them while they work and serve.
Lastly, and most clearly, we need God to fulfill his work through them — to complete it and make it fruitful (Philippians 1:6, 11). In short, we need him to glorify himself in all that they (and we) do.Thank God for Grace You See
If God answers these prayers, we will see the fruit over time — and we should thank him as often as we see it. One of the best ways to stoke the fires of our big prayers for others is to praise God for what we see him doing in and through them.
This is the prayer Paul wrote as often as any other: “I thank my God for you.” Because your faith is growing (2 Thessalonians 1:3). Because you have loved the saints well (Ephesians 1:15–16). Because of your partnership in the gospel (Philippians 1:3–5). Because he has gifted you and given you greater knowledge of himself (1 Corinthians 1:4–7). Because the gospel is spreading through you (Romans 1:8). Because you have not lost your hope in Jesus Christ (1 Thessalonians 1:2–3).
How often do we take evidence of spiritual fruit for granted, thanking God instead for smaller, more-circumstantial blessings? The greater, more valuable, more lasting works of God (like the seven above) do not fit neatly into a day or week. To notice them, we have to be looking more closely and over months and years. But when we see, really see, the hands of God at work in the heart of someone we love, few realities will inspire our faith, intensify our joy, and strengthen our prayer lives like these answers to prayer.
False teachers threaten churches all over the world. Every Christian, and especially pastors, should know how to respond to their danger.