Is there an ideal sermon length? Pastor John gives five factors to consider when trying to decide how long to preach.
Plurality. It’s a weighty word that reminds us that ideas have consequences. By plurality, I’m talking about shared leadership. It’s a way of referencing the consequential idea that leadership in the New Testament was a team enterprise, not one man’s genius. Thus, when leaders acted, it was together as a ruling body (Acts 13:1–3; 15:22–23).
Leading. Together. As one. That’s plurality. Pretty simple stuff.
It is simple, but not inconsequential. In my recent book, I proposed that the quality of our plurality determines the health of our church. Nothing too radical. I just meant that an eldership is a microcosm of the church. When elders share their leadership and life together, the church thrives. As the plurality goes, so goes the church.
And as I’ve been pondering that proposition, another consequential idea has surfaced as a beautiful implication: Where pluralities are strong, joy in ministry runs deep. What’s the connection between a healthy leadership plurality and joy in ministry?1. The Joy of Becoming a Team
Some men plant churches and slide into a plurality of elders through a slow and measured process. Not effortless, mind you, but these men have time on their side. The manuals by Strauch, Dever, or maybe Bannerman are companions to help guide their way. Others, like me, inherit a plurality almost overnight through a church crisis where my most attractive quality was that I was the only guy left to take the role.
Right away, I discovered that having a plurality of elders is not synonymous with having a team of elders. Our shared values, mutual respect, relational history, network affiliation, and constitutional responsibility did not magically make us into a band of brothers. For many, a plurality is nothing more than the names that appear in incorporating documents or under the “Elders” tab on the church website. But a team is different. It’s a leadership community that breeds the kind of culture where doing ministry together is joyful.
Recently, Christianity Today commemorated the passing of the remarkable Billy Graham. While Graham was more evangelist than elder, he understood the importance of leading as a team. One contributor cited it as a defining mark of Billy Graham’s ministry:
I learned from Graham to build your ministry on a team. He knew this, and he built a core team that was with him fifty years. Everybody on the team brought strengths to the table. When you build an effective team, you hire people who compensate for your weaknesses and who mobilize or reinforce your strengths, because nobody can be good at everything.
Here’s a statement you can trust in any church: Wherever two or more leaders are gathered, a culture will emerge. Sometimes that culture is marked by rivalry and self-protection and competing agendas; but when this culture fosters a healthy team and stronger church, ministry becomes a sweet experience.2. The Joy of Unity
Some people call it ministry silos — roles where the workers are often disconnected and the work feels like you’re manning an outpost on Pluto. Cut off from meaningful unity, expectations plummet. Ministry becomes pragmatic — a means to use my gifts, a path to satisfy my call, or just a way to pay the bills.
The apostle Paul knew this. That’s what he was getting at when he asked the Philippians to “complete my joy by being of the same mind, having the same love, being in full accord and of one mind” (Philippians 2:2). Paul knew that the Philippians’ agreement was a crucial component to the completion (or satisfaction) of his joy. His words remind us of a principle often true of pluralities: The greater the unity among the workers, the deeper their joy in the work.
There is a beauty when strong and diversely gifted people unite to serve the church. It’s a faint glimmer, a dim reflection of the triune God — coequal persons, distinct roles in creation and salvation, but always united in their delight for one another and all they accomplish together.
Diverse persons finding joy in agreement. That’s a healthy plurality.
But here’s the tricky part: preserving joyful unity in the midst of disagreement is healthy plurality too. Some assume that disagreement or dissent undermines the team and will always clog the flow of joy. But that common fallacy confuses dissent with disrespect or disloyalty. Humble leaders have healthy debates that uphold the law of love. And when they are able to disagree agreeably, this actually works to improve the unity and depth of the team. A healthy plurality must understand that mindless uniformity among the elders weakens the church. Healthy leadership is to comprehend that a misguided deference to the loudest voice or a naïve admiration of the lead pastor makes agreement superficial, even dangerous.
One can wish for a robust plurality that inhabits the delicate space between agreement and dissent, but it doesn’t come by wishing. Real unity requires something from everyone. “Being of the same mind” and “having the same love” requires a lot of work, but it also delivers deep joy.3. The Joy of Care
God loves elders, and he wants their souls to be nurtured and tended. So, he supplies sufficient grace to convert pluralities into teams. This happens when each man realizes they need the other men. They must experience and model Paul’s analogy of the body (1 Corinthians 12:12–27), which assumes the principle: To grow, I need your help.
When a team identity begins to form, the care of each member becomes even more important. As care flows, delight grows.
In a world where almost anything can be professionalized and outsourced, it’s easy for pastors to farm out their care for one another by finding the primary help for their souls outside of the eldership — sometimes even outside of the church. This is not a subtle attack on professional counselors, coaching, or parachurch ministries. I serve on the board of a counseling ministry and have benefitted from both counseling and coaching from outside of my local eldership. But those services must always supplement the care from the local church, and never replace it.
According to Jesus, it’s our love for one another, not our productivity and performance, that marks us out as distinct from the world (John 13:34–35). An elder plurality only experiences this joyful distinction when the shepherds are caring for one another as they are caring for the sheep.
Oh, and I believe deeply in the need for lead pastors, provided it’s understood that his role derives its warrant from the authority of the elders. So plurality adds another brain-teasing twist by asking coequal leaders to submit to another coequal leader whom they have empowered to lead.Indispensable Ingredient
Of all the ways God could organize local church leadership, why plurality? It is not about simplicity, ease, or efficiency. When one considers all of the polity options God could have chosen for governing churches, it’s easy to see that he gave the church a plural leadership with a different set of goals in mind. But I believe God chose plurality because he loves humility.
“This is the one to whom I will look: he who is humble and contrite in spirit and trembles at my word.” (Isaiah 66:2)
If I’m right, God chose this method of church governance because, to work well, plurality requires what God values. Humility, contrition, word-trembling leadership — these are the kind of leaders to whom God looks. It’s no surprise to discover that these are also the values he requires for an effective plurality.
God values both the ends and the means. He not only wants the mission to be accomplished, but God wants to see churches that flourish and last. Because humility remains an indispensable ingredient towards securing that future, God created plurality. Then he blesses our feeble and faltering attempts to faithfully practice it.
We don’t know much about demons. The Bible speaks matter-of-factly of them, but provides little detail about them or their history. And God has good reasons for this, at least for now.
We do know a few truths about demons. We know demons oppose the kingdom of God (Luke 11:14–23), that they seek to deceitfully ensnare humans and manipulate them to do their will rather than God’s (2 Timothy 2:26), and that it’s possible for them to gain such an influence over a person that they essentially “possess” them (Luke 8:26–39). And we know that, unless people are born again and live in the authority of the risen Christ, demons have “the power of death” over them and therefore use people’s “fear of death” to maximum advantage (Hebrews 2:14–15).
We also know there is a hierarchy of demonic power (Ephesians 6:12), and that there is a ruling evil being known since antiquity as “the devil and Satan” (Revelation 12:9) who was manifested as a serpent in Eden (Genesis 3:1–5; Revelation 12:9), was present in the divine council in Job (Job 1:6–12), and tempted Jesus in the wilderness (Luke 4:1–13).Why We Know So Little
Beyond these, we don’t know much about the demonic world, because God doesn’t tell us. Why doesn’t he tell us more? Demons seem rather dangerous and influential. Wouldn’t we benefit from knowing more about our insidious enemies?
No. Because when it comes to good and evil, God wants us “to be wise as to what is good and innocent as to what is evil” (Romans 16:19). Our best protection against demons is less preoccupation with them and more preoccupation with God — less understanding of deception and more understanding of truth.
Let me illustrate the danger I’m talking about with a reference from Tolkien’s The Lord of the Rings. The story is about the evil lord Sauron’s attempt to gain world domination, and the effort of men, elves, and dwarves to resist him. Two characters, Saruman, a wizard lord, and Denethor, a man governing the city of Gondor, obtained powerful “seeing stones” called palantírs. These stones allowed them to mentally communicate with Sauron, the owner of a third palantír, and glimpse goings-on in Sauron’s kingdom of Mordor.
Both Saruman and Denethor, renowned for their wisdom, thought this would increase their advantage in the struggle against Sauron. But they underestimated Sauron’s power to deceive them and overestimated their ability to resist it. Both were corrupted and manipulated by Sauron to their destruction. When another wizard, Gandalf, found himself in possession of a palantír, he refused to look into it, proving his superior wisdom.
None of us is a match for Satan and his demonic underlings. Increasing our wisdom in evil would be the path Saruman and Denethor chose, and we would likely share a similar end. Remember, desiring knowledge of both good and evil is what got us in trouble in the first place (Genesis 3:4–7). We are far better off to “be wise as to what is good and innocent as to what is evil.”Our Spiritual Armor
When the apostle Paul described our spiritual war against our supernatural foes, note how he described our armor and weapons in Ephesians 6:14–18:
- The belt of truth: what holds our “uniform” together and keeps our “limbs” free is knowing God’s truth.
- The breastplate of righteousness: understanding how we are clothed with Christ’s righteousness (Philippians 3:9) is what guards our vitals.
- The shoes of the gospel: what enables us to traverse difficult ground during battle is knowledge of the gospel of peace.
- The shield of faith: trusting God’s promises is what extinguishes darts of deception, not detailed knowledge of the darts or their shooters.
- The helmet of salvation: our head (our brain) is protected by clearly knowing who saved us and how.
- The sword of the Spirit: the word of God is our most powerful, effective offensive weapon against a powerful spiritual enemy.
- Pray at all times in the Spirit: speaking to demons is not something the Bible commends. The only speaking to demons we see is rebuking them in Jesus’s name. Praying to God is what we are mainly commanded to do when confronting demonic powers.
Every aspect of the armor and weapons of our spiritual warfare has to do with being wise as to what is good (and innocent as to what is evil). God is our best protection from the ravages of our evil enemy — God’s truth, his righteousness, his gospel, his promises, his salvation, his word, and our prayerful orientation to him.What Makes the Devil Flee
When the Bible instructs us how to send devils scurrying away in fear, it says, “Submit yourselves therefore to God. Resist the devil, and he will flee from you” (James 4:7). This is powerful spiritual warfare.
Here’s the key: we grant authority to whomever we trust. The devil has no authority over any Christian, except the authority we grant him by believing him. The more we believe him, the more influence and control over us we give to him — the more he gets a hold on us. This is not some mysterious spiritual secret. This is the way influence or control works in any relationship we have.
When it comes to demons, we do not need to claim any authority over them. Words don’t act like spells with demons (Acts 19:15). Demons only recognize God’s authority and they tremble before it (James 2:19). When we submit ourselves to God — come under his authority by trusting, obeying, and enjoying him — demons get the hell away from us. This act of faith releases great spiritual power, and demons cannot withstand it.
Demons are real — powerfully real. They wreak more havoc in our lives and society than most post-Enlightenment Western Christians are aware of. We must take God’s words more seriously than our culture’s ridicule. But we do not need to know more details about demons or their strategies than God has told us. We do not need to be wiser in evil things.
We need to know God. The more we know God and his word, the more we trust him and live in obedience to him, the wiser we become as to what is good, the more dangerous we become to demons. Because our submission to God brings his kingdom to bear in the world and is how “the God of peace . . . crush[es] Satan under [our] feet” (Romans 16:20).
From alliteration and assonance to metaphors, imagery, and illustrations — what role does creativity, imagination, and rhetoric have in preaching?
God made the world to show and share his glory. He not only wants you to see his glory and know about it — he wants you to taste, enjoy, and shine with it.
Early on, my Christianity was very duty-oriented. My grandfather lived duty at its best as a WWII vet, and my dad diligently taught me to do what life demanded, whether I wanted to or not. My heart and my happiness seemed second-best, at best, and in my latent unbelief, I assumed the same about Christianity. My ache to be happy, I suspected, was more a liability than an asset.
You too want to be happy, and you know it. Like me, you’re a hedonist at heart and can’t escape it. All your life you’ve been trying to satisfy some deep-down longing for real joy by finding that perfect spouse, enjoying good food and drink, knowing popular people, collecting reliable friends, traveling to scenic places, winning at athletic competitions (whether as a player or a fan), achieving success at school or work, and getting your hands on the latest gadgets. Our unsatisfied longings gnaw at us late at night as we scroll through social media and flip from channel to channel.
Most of us aren’t endlessly miserable. We find measures of satisfaction in the moment, but we don’t stay satisfied. We can’t. We still haven’t found what we’re looking for — at least not yet. Why did God hardwire us for joy? Why this universal search for satisfaction?Surprised by Joy
I remember as a college freshman feeling a kind of fascination with joy. As a kid, we had sung, “I got the joy, joy, joy, joy down in my heart.” Joy, when mentioned in church, often came off so light and flippant. And yet that one fruit of the Spirit’s nine (Galatians 5:22–23) connected most with my deepest longings for happiness I was just beginning to realize as a college freshman, living away from home for the first time.
My parents and home church had taught me I could trust the Bible, and that made all the difference. As a college student, in search of stability and roots on a secular (even anti-Christian) campus, I learned to get my bearings from the Bible, and when I opened its pages, I was amazed by what I found about joy and delight. It was the Psalms in particular that awakened me to the possibility and promise of real joy — that joy is no icing on the cake of Christianity, but an essential ingredient in the batter.Soul-Thirsts for God
“Delight yourself in the Lord,” says Psalm 37:4 — and not just this command, but then this promise — “and he will give you the desires of your heart.” You mean God isn’t suspicious or frustrated by my desires? He made my heart to desire, and means to satisfy, not smote, my deepest longings?
And where will that happen? In him. “In your presence,” says Psalm 16:11, “there is fullness of joy; at your right hand are pleasures forevermore.” Real joy comes not only from God as a gift of his hand, but in seeking his face. He himself — knowing him, enjoying him — that’s what he made my desires for. He made my restless human heart for real satisfaction — in him. He made my soul to thirst, and he meant for me not to deny my thirst but slake it, in him. “O God, you are my God; earnestly I seek you; my soul thirsts for you; my flesh faints for you, as in a dry and weary land where there is no water” (Psalm 63:1).
Again and again, the Psalms tapped into the soul of God’s people, discouraged the motions of mere duty, and highlighted the central place of the heart — both in honesty about our many sorrows in this life, and in hopefully commanding us to “rejoice in the Lord” (Psalm 40:16; 64:10; 97:12; 104:34; 105:3; 118:24).
To discover that my undeniable longing to be happy wasn’t just okay, but good, and that the God who made me actually wanted me to be as happy as humanly possible in him — it was almost too good to be true. Almost. To learn, and then begin to experience for myself, that God wasn’t the cosmic killjoy I had once assumed, but that he was committed, with all his sovereign energy and power, to do me good (Jeremiah 32:40–41) — it took weeks, even months, for such good news to land. And I’m still not over it today.
But better news was still to come.All to the Glory of God
I knew from growing up that “the glory of God,” which often seemed like a throwaway Christianese phrase, was real — and important. Turning pages in my Bible, I found it everywhere, like 1 Corinthians 10:31: “Whether you eat or drink, or whatever you do, do all to the glory of God.”
God made the world, and made us (Isaiah 43:7), that he might be glorified. It’s clear, and it creates a crisis for many Christians. Does God mean for us to pursue his glory or our joy? Are his honor and my happiness two tandem pursuits in the Christian life? If so, how do we pursue both?
Then came the most remarkable discovery, through reading John Piper’s Desiring God: our happiness in God glorifies God. God’s design to be glorified and my desires to be happy come together in one — not two — one amazing pursuit: the pursuit of joy in God. Because, as Piper champions, “God is most glorified in us when we are most satisfied in him.”
We cannot suppress our new-born hearts and hope to fully honor God. He’s only partially honored by duty.God Wants You to Be Happy
God is not honored when we pay tribute to our own iron will by saying to him in prayer or in church, “I don’t even want to be here, but I’m here.” No. What honors him, what glorifies him, is our joy, our satisfaction in him. God is most glorified when we say with the psalmist, “You are my God; earnestly I seek you; my soul thirsts for you; my flesh faints for you.” “In your presence there is fullness of joy; at your right hand are pleasures forevermore.” Nothing makes me happier than to know you, Father, through your Son, Jesus, and to be here with you over your word and in prayer and in corporate worship. You are my joy. You are my treasure. You are my delight. And in those words, and in the heart behind them, with my soul satisfied in him, my God is glorified.
Joy, then, in the Christian life is not optional but essential. God means for us to be happy in him — not perfectly yet, in this fallen, sinful age, but real tastes of the perfect joy to come — and in our happiness in him, he is honored. He is seen to be supreme when we enjoy him as supreme.
Some call it “Christian Hedonism.” Some just call it Christianity. This is how God designed it all along, and how the Bible taught it all along, and what you’ll see throughout church history if you have eyes to see it. And this is a pressing and powerful paradigm in our duty-driven day and increasingly post-Christian society.
Don’t try to escape it: God intentionally and lovingly hardwired you for joy. The powerful allure of pleasure, the search for satisfaction, your endless ache to be happy, the ceaseless factory of desires inside of you, is indeed leading you somewhere: to God himself.
From alliteration and assonance to metaphors, imagery, and illustrations — what role does creativity, imagination, and rhetoric have in preaching?
Jesus ascended from earth to heaven, from lowliness to a throne, from humiliation to exaltation, from a cross to a crown.
God has promised his people supreme, unending, unshakeable happiness. Contrary to the claims of popular prosperity preachers, however, the supreme happiness God promises his people will not be realized in this life. Ours is a life characterized by sorrow in many ways. For now, we rejoice only in part.
There are two reasons for this. First, though the Father’s will to make us happy does not change, and though the Son’s work of securing our happiness is complete, the Spirit’s work of showing and bestowing happiness to us and upon us has only begun. By God’s triune mercy, we have been reconciled to the order of beatitude, what Augustine calls “the perfectly ordered and harmonious enjoyment of God, and of one another in God.”1 However, as Augustine goes on to tell us, ours is a happiness “we enjoy now with God by faith, and shall hereafter enjoy eternally with him by sight.”2
Second, having been reconciled to God’s order of beatitude, we have been brought into a state of conflict with the order of sin and misery, which wars against the happy God and the people who find their happiness in him. As William Perkins observes, “True happiness with God is ever joined, yea covered many times, with the cross in this world.”3 Our happiness has not yet fully arrived. Our happiness is not yet without opposition. For these two reasons, “sorrowful, yet always rejoicing” (2 Corinthians 6:10) characterizes the happiness of the people whose God is the Lord as they make their pilgrimage to the happy land of the Trinity.4Happy Now and Not Yet
In his Sermon on the Mount, our Lord Jesus Christ instructs pilgrims on the path to God’s eternal kingdom regarding the way of happiness.5 In contrast to “the error of all philosophers,” who locate happiness in “pleasure,” “wealth,” and “civil virtue,” God’s Wisdom incarnate sets out the “the nature and estate of true felicity.”6
Jesus addresses his “Beatitudes” to his disciples, to those who have heard his announcement of the good news and have responded in faith and repentance (Matthew 4:17; Mark 1:15). Jesus assures his disciples that, having been “justified by his grace” through faith apart from works, they have “become heirs according to the hope of eternal life” (Titus 3:5, 7). The kingdom of heaven belongs to them by right: “theirs is the kingdom of heaven” (Matthew 5:3, 10).
Jesus also teaches his disciples that, although the kingdom of heaven belongs to them by right, they do not yet possess the kingdom of heaven in all its glorious fullness. Their possession of the kingdom is certain, but it lies ahead of them in the future: “they shall be comforted,” “they shall inherit the earth,” “they shall be satisfied,” “they shall receive mercy,” “they shall see God” (Matthew 5:4–8).
The disciples of Jesus are thus happy “now and not yet.” Their circumstances are truly happy. Therefore, they can “rejoice and be glad” (Matthew 5:12). But their happy circumstances, for the time being, are also mixed with sorrow and suffering. Therefore, they will mourn, they will hunger and thirst, they will be reviled and persecuted (Matthew 5:4, 6, 10–12). They are happy now by virtue of their right to the kingdom of heaven through faith; they are not yet happy by virtue of their possession of the kingdom through sight.7Reversals and Fulfillments
As they await the consummation of the kingdom, Jesus pronounces blessings — “beatitudes” — that indicate either reversals or fulfillments of the disciples’ present circumstances. In their present circumstances, Jesus’s followers are characterized by poverty of spirit and meekness before the Lord. They hunger and thirst for God’s righteousness to be revealed. They have many occasions to mourn due to the verbal scorn and physical persecution they endure, even while the proud and insolent seem to flourish without consequence (Psalm 37:7; 73:3–13). To these, Jesus promises reversals of their present circumstances. The happiness that is theirs now in the midst of sorrow and suffering will one day replace and displace all sorrow and suffering. Those who mourn shall be comforted, the meek shall inherit the earth, those who hunger and thirst shall be satisfied (Matthew 5:4–6).
Despite their present circumstances, moreover, Jesus’s followers are merciful. They have compassion upon those in need and seek to restore them to a state of fullness and flourishing before God (Luke 10:29–37). Jesus’s followers are pure in heart. They do not lift up their souls to what is false, and they do not swear deceitfully (Psalm 24:4). Instead, they set the Lord alone before them as their heart’s holy appetite (Isaiah 8:13; 1 Peter 3:15). Jesus’s followers are peacemakers. Rather than extending the disorder of sin and misery, Jesus’s disciples extend the order of beatitude by seeking to reconcile sinners to God and neighbor and by seeking to preserve “the unity of the Spirit in the bond of peace” (Ephesians 4:3).
To these, Jesus promises crowning fulfillments of their present practices and aspirations. The happiness that is theirs now in seed will one day reach its full fruition. The merciful shall receive mercy, the pure in heart shall behold the object of their holy desire, the peacemakers shall be called sons of God, the supreme peacemaker (Matthew 5:7–9).8Sorrowful and Rejoicing
In all these circumstances, the disciples are disciples of their Lord, “who for the joy that was set before him endured the cross, despising the shame, and is seated at the right hand of the throne of God” (Hebrews 12:2). Having found in him the treasure hidden in a field and the pearl of great price (Matthew 13:44–46), Jesus’s followers are willing to suffer the loss of all things for his sake (Matthew 5:11; 11:6) in order to gain what is already theirs in him by the righteousness of faith: the happiness of the kingdom upon whose throne the King of happiness rests (Philippians 3:7–21).
Those who have been granted citizenship in the happy land of the Trinity thus walk on the path laid down by Jesus in the Beatitudes, suffering the hostility of sinners (Hebrews 12:3), struggling against sin (Hebrews 12:4), enduring God’s fatherly hand of discipline with patience (Hebrews 12:5–14; James 1:3–4), all the while assured that “theirs is the kingdom of heaven” (Matthew 5:3, 10), that they will see his face (Matthew 5:8), and therefore all the while encouraged to “rejoice and be glad” (Matthew 5:12; Romans 5:3–4; James 1:2).9
This article continues the “theology of happiness” begun in Scott Swain’s “That Your Joy May Be Full.” In addition to the online version of that feature article, you can also download a PDF or listen to a recording. One forthcoming article remains in the series.Footnotes
1 Augustine, A Select Library of the Nicene and post-Nicene Fathers of the Christian Church, ed. Philip Schaff, vol. 2, St. Augustine’s City of God and Christian Doctrine (Grand Rapids, MI: Eerdmans, 1993), XIX.13.
2 Augustine, City of God, XIX.27.
3 William Perkins, The Works of William Perkins, vol. 1, A Godly and Learned Exposition of Christ’s Sermon on the Mount (Grand Rapids, MI: Reformation Heritage, 2014), 179.
4 This happy turn of phrase comes from Fred Sanders, The Deep Things of God: How the Trinity Changes Everything, 2nd ed. (Wheaton, IL: Crossway, 2017), chap. 2.
5 For a rich and extensive treatment of the Sermon on the Mount that is attentive to its eudaimonistic dimensions, see Jonathan Pennington, The Sermon on the Mount and Human Flourishing: A Theological Commentary (Grand Rapids, MI: Baker Academic, 2017).
6 Perkins, Sermon on the Mount, 183.
7 Perkins, Sermon on the Mount, 183.
8 William Perkins reminds us that the rewards promised by Jesus to his disciples are “given by promise, and of mere mercy” rather than merit (Sermon on the Mount, 220).
9 Helpful discussions of the place of suffering in Christian discipleship may be found in Oliver O’Donovan, Ethics as Theology, vol. 3, Entering into Rest (Grand Rapids, MI: Eerdmans, 2017), 202–7; and J. Todd Billings, Rejoicing in Lament: Wrestling with Incurable Cancer and Life in Christ (Grand Rapids, MI: Brazos, 2015).
Jesus died to forgive us, to rescue us from hell, and to give us eternal life — but most of all he died to bring us to God.
“Well, that seems depressing to believe about yourself,” he said with a slight wince. “Are you happy having such a negative perception of yourself?”
The comment was not what I expected him to say. While my wife and I shared the gospel with Ryan and Meg — strangers we met at the restaurant’s bar — we were discussing the bad news which made the good news good: that, by nature, all men and women were spiritually dead in their sin and found guilty before a holy God. Ryan did not protest against the indictment against him; he only questioned how one can go on with a healthy self-image while acknowledging it.
To him, being “reborn” didn’t solve the problem. To him, Christianity meant signing up for a perpetual guilt-trip and a negative self-image. It was not a freeing and joyful existence, but one of looking down, avoiding mirrors, and mumbling apologies under one’s breath. It was a groveling life haunted with “should-have-done-betters”; a bemoaning existence devoid of self-worth as one self-deprecatingly crawls into glory.
And sadly, I don’t think he is far off in some cases. Some hang their heads and talk about themselves as if they are essentially wretched. They carry around their “chief of sinner” card like a driver’s license. Their experience of struggling with sin defines how they view their identity and how they hear what God says about them.
In an effort to articulate man’s plight before a holy God, in an attempt to campaign for humanity’s sinfulness in a culture that no longer believes in sin, and, endeavoring to remain humble before God and serious about our own remaining corruption, we have forgotten what God says about us as Christians. We have been, as Anthony Hoekema says, “writing our continuing sinfulness in capital letters, and our newness in Christ in small letters.”Healthiest Self-Image on the Planet
Simply put, Christians should have a positive view of themselves — in Christ. As the secular world lays in the sun of ignorance and licks itself with self-help gurus cheaply affirming their self-worth, the born-again Christian should have the most concrete, positive, confident self-image on the planet. Not because he is sinless. Not because he wakes up every morning and reads his Bible. Not because he is more selfless than his fellow man. But because God has made him alive, forgiven him all of his trespasses, adopted him into his family, and dwells in him. If any man desires true self-worth, he should see all he can hope for in the shining faces of the church of God.
As Christians, we are not to scrape the gutters of depravity for our identity. “Totally depraved, wretched, naked, pitiable, blind, beggars, orphans, sinners,” no longer describes the church nor the Christian at their core. Now we are not spiritually proud because, as C.S. Lewis states, “The true Christian’s nostril is to be continually attentive to the inner cesspool.” But we must always remember that the smell of our sin does not out-perfume the aroma of Christ that is upon us (2 Corinthians 2:15). The Christian can look himself in the eye and not grimace.Who You Are in Christ
If you are truly born again, your history and self-perception does not define you. What God says defines you. How God sees you is who you are. The eyes of faith look not only to Jesus, but also must look to ourselves and see what God does. Although Satan cannot snatch you from God’s hand (John 10:28), he can steal your identity, convincing you that you are still inherently wicked, orphaned, and merely tolerated by God.
But God says otherwise. God says:1. You Are Light
At one time you were darkness, but now you are light in the Lord. Walk as children of light. (Ephesians 5:7–10)
Who would be so bold as to look his brother in the eye and tell him that he is light? But the apostle Paul, writing by influence of the Spirit, says something shocking: “now you are light in the Lord.”
The church and the Christian are not partially light and partially darkness. In the Lord, they are light. And knowing this proceeds his call for them to walk as children of light. We do not walk as children of light to become light. We are light — and know it — and then live as children of light. Identity for Paul is crucial for how we fight the flesh. Identity first, then fight.2. You Are His Child
To all who did receive him, who believed in his name, he gave the authority to become children of God, who were born, not of blood nor of the will of the flesh nor of the will of man, but of God. (John 1:12–13)
Has being a child lost its warmth? Has it merely become a Christian cliché? The holy angels are not sons and daughters of God, but we are. We no longer are orphans clothed in rags, raising our cracked and dirty bowls up to God wondering if we could have just a little more stew. We are children graced with our Father’s name, to sit at his table, to laugh in his house, to feel his embrace. We now have authority to be called sons and daughters of the Most High.
We must not sell our birthright to return to our jail cells and write, “I am guilty,” repeatedly on the walls. We have not received the Spirit of slavery, but one of adoption (Romans 8:15–17). Jesus did not teach us to pray, “Our Warden who is upstairs”; he taught us to pray, “Our Father who is in heaven” (Matthew 6:9, NASB). And our Father, to whom we pray, “Forgive us our debts,” loves us with the warmth of a million suns (Matthew 6:12).3. You Are Holy and Loved
To all those . . . who are loved by God and called to be saints: Grace to you and peace from God our Father and the Lord Jesus Christ. (Romans 1:7)
Paul wrote to saints, not scoundrels. God calls us beloved, not be-tolerated.
Although some segments of the church may try to steal “saints,” reserving it for miracle-working, super-Christians, the title literally means “holy ones,” and Paul addresses whole churches with the name (1 Corinthians 1:2; 2 Corinthians 1:1; Ephesians 1:1; Philippians 1:1; Colossians 1:2). All born-again Christians are addressed as set-apart ones, righteous ones, sanctified ones. In Christ, you are holy.
Although you may feel like anything but a “holy one,” this is how God addresses you. Your muttering self-assessment is swallowed up by the voice of him who spoke the world into existence and later declared, “It is finished!”Be Who You Are
It is sad when professing Christians, heirs of Christ and the universe, undersell their God-given identity in Christ because they are scared that if they get too comfortable, they will get careless about sin. But the exact opposite is true: the more you know who you are in Christ, the more you will hate all that does not conform to your identity.
When we think of ourselves as dirt, are we more likely to be alarmed when filth proceeds from our mouths or is enjoyed on our screens? When we consider ourselves unholy and unloved, are we more likely to punch back against the flesh, to stand in the victory of Christ, or to advance the cause of God in the world? When we are convinced that all our works are disgusting to our Father, are we zealous to bring him more? No. We mumble and moan in our sickbed instead of taking up our beds and walking forth in Christlikeness.
But when we know we are light, we walk by the Spirit as children of light. When we know we are beloved, we joyfully imitate our Savior. When we know ourselves as an adopted child, we live in a way that desires to please our Father. When we understand that we are truly new creatures at our core, we will walk increasingly as new creatures. “Cleanse out the old leaven . . . as you really are unleavened” (1 Corinthians 5:7).
We must not take the robe off our backs, the rings from our fingers, and sandals from our feet and return to live in the pigsty. Our Father has brought us into the family, into an eternal celebration, into a new identity, from which we fight and defeat sin in the power of his Spirit.
Good sermons and good Bible reading push into a writer’s words, grammar, and logic to embrace all the glorious realities behind them.
There is a beauty in simplicity. And there is a greater beauty in harmonious complexity. Referring to Jesus, Jonathan Edwards said that there is in him “an admirable conjunction of diverse excellencies.” That’s a quaint way of saying that sometimes things that seem contrary to each other come together in beautiful harmony.Simplicity That Is Complex
My mother, Ruth Mohn Piper, was like that. She was the more beautiful for being utterly free from duplicity in her complexity. My father’s tribute to her, after she was killed at age 56 in a bus accident in Israel, included this:
Her beauty knew no vanity. She disdained the cheap, the tawdry, the make-believe. She loathed everything farcical and hypocritical. Her genuineness was transparent. She radiated reality. Life to her was neither a mummery nor a charade but a daily expression of untainted sincerity.
So, in a sense, there was utter simplicity. Not because of the absence of complexity, but because of the presence of unity, concord, integrity. Like the pure simplicity of an impartial judge whose verdicts have perfect harmony, though one defendant goes free and another goes to the gallows.
My mother’s “diverse excellencies” were woven together in such harmony that I was never off balance. She was predictable — like the rising sun. Which brought brightness and stability and security and restfulness into the hearts of her children. Her smile and her frown, her affirmation and her anger, her yes and her no were never enigmatic. They always came from the same root of truth and faithfulness and consistency. She was never a wild card, never erratic, random, capricious, arbitrary. She was a rock in the stormy waters of my life.1. Laughter and Labor
The first pair of “diverse excellencies” that dominated and pervaded all the others was her joy and her industry. Her laughter and her labor. Her singing and her diligence. I know that Snow White and the seven dwarfs whistled while they worked. But my mother took this to a new level. Because she was almost always working. And she was the happiest woman I have ever known.
“She burned the midnight oil. Her hands were never idle.” Those are my father’s words. But my testimony is the same. I would go to bed with mother straightening the living room, and wake up — on Saturday — to the sound of the chamois (pronounced shammy) squeaking, as mother polished the glass table in the dining room. No smudges. Ever.
One of my stereotypes of Germanic DNA (her maiden name was Mohn) is sauberkeit (cleanliness)! During the three years I lived in Germany, I saw part of what made my mother (and me) tick. The women, with pails and rags in hand, daily washed the stone steps leading up from the sidewalk to their front doors.Go to the Ant
As you might expect, her favorite book in the Bible was Proverbs. At least that’s the one she quoted most often to me. It’s practical. (It is also mainly about trouble-prone boys.) And it celebrates industry! “Go to the ant, O sluggard; consider her ways, and be wise” (Proverbs 6:6). “Her ways?” No surprise to me.
The hand of the diligent will rule,
while the slothful will be put to forced labor. (Proverbs 12:24)
The soul of the sluggard craves and gets nothing,
while the soul of the diligent is richly supplied. (Proverbs 13:4)
Whoever is slack in his work
is a brother to him who destroys. (Proverbs 18:9)
My mother would spare me being put to forced labor, and abetting the destroyer. So she taught me how to work.
And I mean she. My father was an evangelist and was away from home about two-thirds of every year. I was raised by two German women — Ruth Mohn Piper and her mother, MaMohn, who lived with us during much of my growing-up years. So when I say she taught me how to work, I mean she. Daddy taught me to fish and golf — and set a great model of powerful preaching and praying. But as far as practical work goes, mother taught me just about everything.
- “Hang up your clothes when you take them off, and you’ll never have to clean your room.”
- “Overlap with the lawnmower the part you already mowed, and you won’t have skippers.”
- “Change the oil, and the motor will last longer. Do it yourself. There’s a special wrench for the filter.”
- “When you weed the flower bed [which we did continually], grab the Bermuda grass at the roots; otherwise it will be back in a week.”
- “Be sure the cooking oil is boiling when you put in the sliced potatoes, else the homemade fries will be soggy, not crispy.”
- “Turn over the pancakes when you see the bubbles around the edges.”
- “Run cold water over the pressure cooker before you turn the lid (or you’ll get your head blown off).”
I never heard a philosophical word come out of her mouth. What could you do with something philosophical? You can’t clean it, or fold it, or stack it, or put it away.
I heard one time that women don’t sweat — they glow. Not true. My mother sweated. It would drip off the end of her nose. Sometimes she would blow it off when her hands were pushing the wheelbarrow full of peat moss. Or she would wipe it with her sleeve between the strokes of a swing-blade. Mother was strong. I can remember her arms even today, sixty years later. They were big, and in the summertime they were bronze.A Matrix for Merriment
For all this work, as far as I could tell, life was joy. She was the happiest woman I have ever known. And I don’t mean she coped well. I mean she smiled, laughed, and sang. My dominant memory of her is a smiling face. Work was not drudgery. It was a matrix for being merry.
Whether it was her mother, sitting at the grand piano (which tells you something about our home), singing with full-throated, silver-haired vibrato a 1906 parlor song like “I Love You Truly” — the kind of sound teenage boys love to imitate with hilarity — or whether it was my mother humming “Heavenly Sunshine” while she ironed underwear (!), or my father and mother together singing “When We All Get to Heaven” in the front seat of the car heading for vacation nine hours away from Greenville, South Carolina, at Daytona Beach — my life was embedded in music.
This makes it hard for a young fellow to distinguish where work ends and play begins. And yes, my mother could play. She and Daddy drew my sister and me into their Scrabble games as early as they could. And when guests came over, the games of Rook or Pit or charades were raucous, with my mother’s laughing voice above them all.Vision of Health and Joy
Never did she laugh more than when my father came home from being away for three weeks, or four weeks, or two weeks. It would be Monday night (since his meetings ended on Sunday evening). Daddy flew home in the afternoon. There was a special meal prepared. And at the table we would hear tales of the triumph of the gospel, and we would hear the new jokes that he had learned.
It didn’t matter whether they were funny. My father laughed so hard at his own jokes that the rest of us could not help but join in — mother leading the way. It would start with a short, soprano burst (at the punch line). Her silver head would toss back, and her long white teeth would flash under her sharp nose. Her tanned neck would redden as the tendons flinched. She was a vision of health and joy.
And not just in domestic settings. Once, on a deep-sea fishing trip in Florida, she hooked a seven-foot swordfish. The kind that cause boat captains to fly special flags as they dock. It took over an hour to reel it in, with everyone in the family taking turns at the reel. But it was her fish. Instead of having it mounted, she had salted steaks prepared and shipped to us on dry ice.
So the diverse excellencies of work and joy, laughter and labor, singing and diligence pervaded my growing up. The effect of that on me has been, I suppose, incalculable. Only God knows. But I am thankful.2. Omnicompetent Complementarian
The second pair of diverse excellencies that made me stand in awe, especially as I grew older, was her omni-competence combined with a deep commitment to complementarian choreography in marriage — before anybody ever heard of such a clumsy adjective. What filled me with wonder was not just that Mama could do everything better than my father (except preach and pray and tell jokes), but that she did do everything better.Submission’s Dance
Since my father was away two-thirds of the year, I knew my mother as both an omnicompetent single parent, and as a complementarian wife. You might think: this is a prescription for disaster — the man comes in and out of the home. But to mother’s astonishing credit, it wasn’t a disaster. When he was away, she did everything, and did it with ease and excellence. When he came home, she genuinely loved his leadership. He gathered us to the table. He got us to church. He called us for family devotions. He spoke the first and firmest word of discipline. He initiated going out to eat at Howard Johnson’s. He showed the kind of manly courtesies which today are despised. And in all this mother beamed. She loved it. Later I would learn that the Bible calls this submission.
And of course, the fact that she loved Daddy’s leadership had nothing to do with her incompetencies. As far as I knew, she didn’t have any. It had to do with a deep sense of fitness about the way God has choreographed the dance of manhood and womanhood in marriage. I was blessed with a front-row seat at the drama of marriage in which my mother took the Oscar for omnicompetent womanhood as a complementarian wife.Training Me How at Every Turn
While Daddy was away, I watched her handle all the finances: paying the bills, dealing with the bank and the creditors, running a coin-operated laundry on the side, and teaching me at every turn how it’s done. I watched her lead the community garden club, manage an Amway franchise, administer real-estate holdings, and deal with the contractors when we added a basement, more than once putting her hand to the shovel. And she served as the superintendent of the Sunday School High School Department.
When I needed help in school, we didn’t hire a tutor. There was Mama. She helped me with the maps in geography; she showed me how to do a bibliography and work up a science project on static electricity. She guided me through Algebra II, and convinced me it was possible. I doubt that my father could have done any of these things — surely not as well as Mama.
But for all her competence, it never occurred to me to think that the manhood of my father and the womanhood of my mother were functionally interchangeable. Both were strong. Both were bright. Both were kind. Both would kiss me, and both would spank me. Both were good with words. Both prayed with fervor and loved the Bible. But unmistakably my father was a man and my mother was a woman. They knew it and I knew it. And it was not only a biological fact. It was more deeply a matter of God-given personhood and relational dynamics.3. Moral Backbone and Merciful Care
The third pair of diverse excellencies is moral backbone and gentle care — an unwavering sense of right and wrong mingled with merciful tenderness. I said above that she seemed to do everything with ease. Not quite. This was not easy. Two parents are God’s idea. Not the least because at fourteen I was six inches taller than my five-foot, two-inch mother. And I still needed the firm hand of a father — if necessary on my backside.Belt, Soap, and Police
But she did what she had to do. She gave the law and she enforced it. I recall only once being whipped by this little woman with a belt. I skipped Sunday night church when I was about fourteen. That was a double offense. Delinquent attendance and deceit. What made this whipping so memorable is that I stood there like a stone, as if to say she could not hurt me. When she left my bedroom weeping, I felt low and despicable for treating her so badly.
Then there was the time she actually washed my mouth out with soap. Not a metaphor. Took hold of my hair, bent me over the sink, and stuck a bar of soap in my mouth. (I think it was Ivory.) What had I said to bring down this wrath? I had said, “Shut up!” to my sister.
Then there was the night in my mid-teens when she let me take the car out with some of my friends. In those days you could get your driver’s license at fourteen. On the way home, I got pulled over for speeding on Church Street. All I could think about was mother. Home alone with no man to back her up.
I walked in and told her I got a ticket. She wept like I’d shot somebody, marched me out to the car, and made me drive straight to the police station at 11:00 at night. She waited in the car while I went in, apologized, and paid the fine. Unforgettable.Alone Against Racism
And then there was that regrettable vote at our church on a Wednesday night when mother stood entirely alone. I mention this just to show the kind of backbone she had, even when it was not a matter of shepherding her son, but instead of standing for justice. Racial issues were explosive in Greenville in the early sixties. White churches were being visited by African Americans to expose the racism of the responses.
Our church decided to vote that no black people be allowed into the sanctuary. Mother was the only no vote. She was heart-stricken. Not long after that, my sister’s wedding was held in the church, and when the black guests that came to the wedding were about to be directed to the unused balcony to avoid a scene, my mother took over for the ushers and escorted these friends into the sanctuary. She may have been barely over five feet. But on the landscape of my moral formation, she was towering.But It Was Not So Simple
The rules were clear. Break the rules, pay the price. This was bracingly clean and clear moral air to breathe growing up. One did not wonder about right and wrong. And consequences were clear. But as I grew older, it wasn’t that simple. She knew it. And soon I would know it. For example, I knew that our family did not go to movies. And we did not go to dances. If you think this sounds stifling, it wasn’t. Remember, I had the happiest family that I have ever known.
Well, in the seventh grade, Mrs. Adams’s home room won the prize for attendance. Mrs. Adams was the English teacher from whom I learned almost everything I know about English grammar. But that’s not the point. The point is that our home room got to skip school and go to a movie as a prize. So I told Mama and asked her what I should do. She said, “I suppose you should do whatever you think is best.” Whoa! The lawgiver and law enforcer just handed over the moral reins to a thirteen-year-old.
The same thing happened in the eighth grade. There was a pretty girl in my class who belonged to a group that annually held a Sadie Hawkins dance, where the girls invite guys. She called me and asked me to go. I fumbled around awkwardly with something like, “I don’t know how to dance.” To which she just as awkwardly said, “Well, we can sit and talk.” I excused myself to ask Mama what to do. Same response: “Whatever you think is best.” Oh no. A new world of moral responsibility was falling on me.
You’re probably wondering what I did, right? Well, that’s not the point. The point is that this happiest of all fundamentalist mothers, who could wield her authority with belt and soap and police, knew she was raising a man who would have to stand on his own convictional feet. And she knew me.
Yes, I did go to the movie. No, I didn’t go to the dance. As I recall, we were going out of town that night (mercifully).Ceaseless Care
Perhaps one of the reasons I happily embraced the moral wisdom of my parents, including a high view of happy holiness and separation from worldliness, is that my mother was not mainly a lawgiver and law enforcer. She was mainly a tender, caring, merciful helper in my struggles. The biggest struggle was that I was paralyzed in front of any group where I had to speak. We are not talking here about butterflies of nervousness that people joke about. This was no joke.
I could not — could not — speak in front of a class. In the tenth grade, Mr. Vermillion required an oral book report in his civics class. I told him I couldn’t. He had no idea what I meant. I didn’t do it. My grade in that class reflected the failure. This misery all through junior and senior high school caused deep anxiety and many tears.
Mother took me to a psychologist at one point. After some Rorschach tests, the psychologist hinted that the problem might be my mother. I thanked her, left the office, and never went back. I did not understand many things in those days, but I did understand one thing: My mother was the one person in the world who was patiently, tenderly, lovingly helping me through those terrible years. And I was not about to blame her for anything.
Her care for me never stopped till the day she died when I was 28. Letters. Letters. Letters. For example, the last letter she wrote to me was from the airplane heading for Israel on December 10, six days before she was killed in a bus accident outside Bethlehem. In the ninety days leading up to that last letter, when I had just arrived in Minnesota, she wrote me fifty pages (I still have them) of news, encouragement, and advice.
I know God better because my mother embodied, with seamless authenticity, both an unwavering sense of right and wrong mingled with merciful tenderness. She was a lawgiver, and a law enforcer, and a gospel-saturated sage. How else will a child ever be prepared to know the true God of Scripture?The Word of God
Scripture. What a glorious foundation for life — and eternity. Daddy preached it and prayed it. Mother worked it out in a life that must have been very hard. The older I got, the more I realized the sacrifices and the pain. Which made the joy all the more amazing and sweet. Under it all was the word of God. It’s the only book I ever saw her read. She was not a reader. So she saved almost all her reading for the most important book.
I have in front of me the black, leather-bound Scofield King James Bible that my parents gave me for my fifteenth birthday. On the inside, in her unmistakable handwriting, are the words,
Happy Birthday, Son
January 11, 1961
“This Book will keep
you from sin
Or sin will keep
you from this book.”
Mother and Daddy
Both their names. But it was her hand. Daddy was probably not home. That’s the way it was. The fact that I have always held my father in the highest esteem, and loved him deeply, and admired his ministry, is no doubt owing to my mother’s unwavering joy in supporting him. At her funeral, a man who was on that last trip to Israel said he saw them holding hands in the Promised Land.
Thank you, Father, for this marriage, these diverse excellencies, and this great woman.
The Father and the Son were not in a Civil War to redeem humanity. They were in perfect harmony. The Father sent; the Son gladly went.
As another Mother’s Day rolls around, we find ourselves floating in a sea of sentimental, loving, and sweet words on the things that mothers do for us. It is good to recognize, appreciate, and honor all of that, but it is not what I want to do today. I want to pull back the sentiment and look at the unbelievably powerful position that God has called his women to.
Yes, I intentionally said “his women,” and not just those women who are mothers. Womankind in this sense is the same thing as motherkind. If you are a woman in Christ and obedient to him, you are just as much a part of this archetypal feminine power as those who have borne children.
I once spoke to a room that was crowded with pregnant bellies, nursing infants, and fat toddlers. You almost always see this kind of power thinned out in a crowd, but not in this room. Looking at it head-on and packed together was breathtaking. I was reminded of this glorious passage in Song of Solomon where the husband says of his bride, “Who is she that looketh forth as the morning, fair as the moon, clear as the sun, and terrible as an army with banners?” (Song 6:10, KJV). The loveliness and fearsomeness only compounds when the bride becomes a mother.
It’s no wonder that the world is so unsettled by Christian women bearing children — it is a fearsome thing.Babies Change the World
There is a nineteenth-century poem that ends each stanza with this high-octane refrain: “For the hand that rocks the cradle is the hand that rules the world.” The second verse of Psalm 8 gives us a surprisingly similar take on how God views motherhood. It tells us what he thinks of the babies themselves.
Out of the mouth of babies and infants,
You have established strength
Because of your foes,
To still the enemy and the avenger.
If the purpose of our infants is this God-ordained strength, which he is using to silence the enemy, then motherhood is hardly beside the point to womanhood. It is hardly beside the point to kingdom work, or to cultural transformation.
Motherhood is central to the calling of women because it is central to the creational power that God has bestowed on us. This is our strength, this is our glory, and this is our true power. We make babies, and babies change the world.The Modern “Woman”
Modern women are starving for power. They are marching, demanding, and fighting — doing everything they can do — to try to obtain a sense of power because they are painfully aware of a feminine power shortage. The horrible irony is that they trample on the bodies of infants — demanding abortion rights as essential to feminine strength. But it is all a perverting of the truly shocking feminine power — that of childbearing, that which they are discarding.
We have been slowly brought to believe that empowered women are those who have detached themselves from fertility. We stand by feeling embarrassed of our bellies, while intentionally infertile shells of women despise our childbearing, as though it was a hobby for the low-achieving and undereducated. They take the glory and the awe out of sex, both the act itself and the incredible archetypes God wrote into human sexuality. Love that is creational. Mankind and womankind, constantly creating new men and new women.
They have persuaded us that there is no fight in motherhood, no value to children in marriage.Your Part in Ruling the World
“Did he not make them one, with a portion of the Spirit in their union? And what was the one God seeking? Godly offspring” (Malachi 2:15).
Your work with your children matters. Your pouring out of your life for theirs matters. They matter. Because God made it so. He ordained strength to come into the world in this way. He seeks godly offspring. That growing belly, those hungry cries in the night, the comfort of your breasts, the arms wrapped around your leg, the child on your hip, the teen in the car with you, the smile around freshly lost teeth, the weight in the stroller you are pushing — this is your strength, this is your power, this is your hand doing its part in ruling the world.Far More Than Biology
I can already hear all of the objections coming at me — all of the horror that I would say the power of women is in bearing children (as though that was not amazing). Can we really only have power in our biological functions? Of course not. Isn’t there more to our lives than cranking out babies? Absolutely.
You need to follow up that glorious act by raising them up to fear the Lord, to love him with their whole hearts and minds and souls and strength. And how are we to do that? We will do it first by loving him with our whole hearts. We will love him with our whole minds. We will love him with our whole souls. And we will love him with our whole strength, including the strength of making babies.
Spurgeon says, “Those who think that a woman detained at home by her little family is doing nothing think the reverse of what is true. . . . Mothers, the godly training of your offspring is your first and most pressing duty.” If you don’t have children, or aren’t married, you are still called to live like you are part of this glorious archetypical motherkind — you are called to live like a woman who would honor God in her mothering, because you honor God in your whole life, embracing his design and purpose for women as a whole, and for yourself as a woman.Fit for Nothing Less
Imagine all the playgrounds in your city. Imagine all of them full of children who know what it means to be loved. They know God and know his people — hearts full of the stories of his faithfulness. Swings weighed down by children who are living in the joy of the Lord — children who know who they are and what they are for. Now ask yourself: in what kind of a city would that be the case? What would it mean if every playground in our country was full of Christian children? It would mean you were in a Christian country.
When Paul describes the duties of Christian women in Titus 2:3–5, he is not describing some kind of retirement home for the delicate — where we are to be discreet and chaste and love our husbands and love our babies because we are fit for nothing else. He is describing our battle stations. He is saying we are fit for nothing less.
Paul is describing the role of a good woman in making the kind of children you just pictured on that playground. He is calling women to their powerful, and glorious, and world-changing work — the great good work, his work, of silencing the enemy and the avenger.
God imparts the unshakable, indestructible wisdom of his eternal plan to everyone who trusts him by faith.
Why do you spend your time doing what you do? Why do you say yes to doing some things and no to doing other things? Are you saying yes and no to the right things? These are unnerving, exposing questions to ask.
Most of us would like to believe we say yes and no to our time commitments based on objective, logical assessments of what appears most important. But that is very often not the case. Very often we make these decisions based on subjective assessments of what we believe others will think of us if we do or don’t do them.
How other people perceive us — or how we think they’ll perceive us — has an extraordinary influence on how we choose to use our time. Coming to terms with ways we seek people’s approval or fear their disapproval will force us to face humbling truths about ourselves and may require repentance and uncomfortable change.
But given how brief our lives are, and how limited our energy and other resources are, we need to heed what God says to each one of us through the apostle Paul:
Look carefully then how you walk, not as unwise but as wise, making the best use of the time, because the days are evil. Therefore do not be foolish, but understand what the will of the Lord is. (Ephesians 5:15–17)
And one way to carefully examine our use of time and energy is to invite the Holy Spirit to search our hearts and see if and where we are inordinately influenced to say yes or no out of a fear of man.A Surprisingly Clarifying Question
I attended a conference recently where ministry leaders on a panel were asked to describe how they remain focused on their core calling while deluged with demands. One of the speakers posed this question to us: “Who are you willing to disappoint?”
At first this might seem like a negative and perhaps unloving way to decide what we should or shouldn’t do. But it really isn’t. It’s actually a clarifying question. It isn’t asking us who are the people we will choose not to love. It’s asking us what we are really pursuing in our time commitments. Whose approval are we seeking? God’s? Other people’s? Of those, whose?
I think this is what Jesus was getting at with Martha in Luke 10:38–42. Martha was “distracted with much serving” (Luke 10:40). I imagine nearly everyone in her home that day thought she was doing a good thing. Martha herself thought this, which is why she requested Jesus’s support in exhorting Mary to get busy helping. She didn’t seem to be aware of her own motivations. But Jesus was. He saw the deeper motivations in both Martha and Mary.
Martha was “anxious and troubled about many things” (Luke 10:41). Martha’s time commitment was being motivated by anxiety, not love. Given the context, it’s reasonable to assume her anxiety stemmed from what all her houseguests would think of her if she stopped waiting on them and did what Mary was doing.
Mary had “chosen the good portion” (Luke 10:42). Superficial observers of the situation might have concluded Martha chose the good portion and Mary was being inconsiderate. I would guess Mary felt this irony. She knew Martha very well. I imagine she knew she was disappointing Martha by listening to Jesus instead of helping serve the guests. But in that moment, Mary was more willing to disappoint Martha than to disappoint Jesus. And Jesus commended her.
The exposing question for Martha was, who was she willing to disappoint?We Serve Those We’re Unwilling to Disappoint
And that’s the question for us too: who are we willing to disappoint? Or, who are we unwilling to disappoint?
We all choose to serve those we’re unwilling to disappoint. And that’s not necessarily a bad thing, though it certainly can be a bad thing. God actually designed us to function this way. He made us to be motivated by what we love, and we always fear to disappoint the one(s) we love.
Now, I know the apostle John said, “There is no fear in love, but perfect love casts out fear” (1 John 4:18). But he was addressing a different kind of fear, the fear of “punishment” or condemnation. John meant that God’s children no longer need to live in terror of God’s wrath.
But perfect love does indeed produce a certain kind of fear:
“And now, Israel, what does the Lord your God require of you, but to fear the Lord your God, to walk in all his ways, to love him, to serve the Lord your God with all your heart and with all your soul.” (Deuteronomy 10:12)
This kind of fear is not merely the terror of wrath, but the fear we have when we don’t want to disappoint the one(s) we really love. The kind of fear that “serve(s) the Lord with gladness” (Psalm 100:2) is the fear that comes from the thought of disappointing the one we treasure most. We fear to lose the treasure.Choose This Day Whom You Will Serve
But serving those we’re unwilling to disappoint can be a very bad thing, even a tyrannical thing, if our loves are idolatrous. If, whether out of anxiety, selfish ambition, narcissism, or some other sinful love, we are motivated by someone else’s approval over God’s approval, our service can become our destruction.
And the thing is, like Martha, we might not be fully cognizant of our own motives. We might think we’re doing good things when we’re not. One indicator to look at is how often we feel “anxious and troubled.” Notice I didn’t say “weary.” It’s clear from the New Testament that a heavy workload, and even suffering and persecution, can be given to us by God. But an anxious, troubled spirit might mean what’s motivating our busyness are efforts to please the wrong persons.
If that’s true, we’re likely due for a reevaluation of our time commitments. We should ask the Holy Spirit to search our hearts and try our thoughts (Psalm 139:23). We should ask ourselves the hard question: who are we willing to disappoint? Or who are we unwilling to disappoint? Are we unwilling to disappoint God? Are we unwilling to disappoint others? Are we unwilling to disappoint our own selfish preferences? These questions can help us untangle motivational knots.
And if we’re tempted to avoid facing the answers, let’s remember that life is too short and God is too precious to give our years and our strength to the fear of man. Joshua exhorts us from the ancient past: “Choose this day whom you will serve” (Joshua 24:15). Let’s respond with him, “We will serve the Lord” with all our heart and soul in the gladness of love-inspired fear (Deuteronomy 10:12; Psalm 100:2).
After writing over fifty books, Pastor John explains his six-stage process, from gathering the initial idea to seeing the project come to life.
During my first seven years in the pastoral ministry (1980–1987), I felt very green — inexperienced, and in some ways unprepared. Before coming to Bethlehem Baptist Church at the age of 34, I had never been a pastor. I was in school full time till I was 28 and then taught college Bible courses until God called me to the pastoral ministry.
In seminary, I had avoided pastoral courses and taken as many exegetical courses as I could, not at all expecting to be a pastor. When I came to Bethlehem, I had never performed a funeral, never stood by the bed of a dying person, never led a council of elders (or any other kind of council or committee), never baptized anyone, never done a baby dedication, and only preached a couple dozen sermons in my life. That’s what I mean by green.Ear to the Past
During those first seven years, one of the ways I pursued wisdom for the pastoral work in front of me was the reading of pastoral biographies. For example, I devoured Warren Wiersbe’s two volumes Walking with the Giants: A Minister’s Guide to Good Reading and Great Preaching and Listening to the Giants: A Guide to Good Reading and Great Preaching. Together they contained over thirty short biographies of men in pastoral ministry.
But one of the most enjoyable and inspiring things I did to deepen my grasp of the pastoral calling was to listen to a master life-storyteller, Iain Murray. Murray had been a pastoral assistant with Martyn Lloyd-Jones in London and had served as a pastor in two churches in England and Australia. He is a co-founder of the Banner of Truth Trust, and has devoted a great part of his life to biographical writing.
He is well known for his biographies of Martyn Lloyd-Jones and Jonathan Edwards, to mention only two. But not as many people know that Iain Murray is a master at taking an hour in a ministerial conference and telling the story of a great Christian in a way that instructs and inspires. For example, even today you can go online and find the (forty-plus-year-old) audio stories of Charles Spurgeon, Robert Dabney, William Tyndale, Ashbel Green, George Whitefield, John Knox, John Newton, William Jay, Thomas Hooker, and more.Man with His Walkman
The latest technology in the early 1980s was the Walkman — a small cassette player that let me take Murray with me on my morning jogs or in the car. I listened to everything biographical I could get. This stoked the embers of my affections for biography.
It has always felt to me that biography is one of the most enjoyable, edifying, and efficient ways to read history. Enjoyable because we all love a good story, and the ecstasies and agonies of real life. Edifying because the faithfulness of God in the lives of contrite, courageous, forgiven sinners is strengthening for our own faith. Efficient because in a good biography, you not only learn about a person’s life, but also about theology, psychology, philosophy, ethics, politics, economics, and church history. So I have long been a lover of biography.
I could be wrong, but my own opinion is that my book 21 Servants of Sovereign Joy would not exist without the inspiring ministry of Iain Murray’s audio tapes. In 1987, it seemed to me that there was a need for a conference for pastors that would stir up a love for the doctrines of grace, a zeal for the beauty of the gospel, a passion for God-centered preaching, a commitment to global missions, and a joy in Christ-exalting worship.A Series Is Born
The first Bethlehem Conference for Pastors took place in 1988. Inspired by Iain Murray, I gave a biographical message every year for the next 27 years. That is where the mini-biographies in 21 Servants come from (which means that all those chapters, and six more, can be heard in audio form at desiringGod.org).
Throughout the year before each conference, I would read about the life and ministry of some key figure in church history. Then I would decide on some thematic focus to give unity to the message, and I would try to distill my reading into an hour-long message. The messages — and the edited versions — are unashamedly hortatory. I aim to teach and encourage. I also aim never to distort the truth of a man’s life and work. But I do advocate for biblical truths that his life illustrates.
My short biographies were published under the series title The Swans Are Not Silent, which comes from the biography of Augustine. When Augustine died, his successor felt so inadequate that he said, “The cricket chirps, the swan is silent.” The point of the series title is that, through biography, the swans are not silent! Augustine was not the only great voice that lives on. Thousands of voices live on. And their stories should be told and read.Biblical Mandate
It would be wonderfully rewarding to me if I heard that your reading of biography brought you as much joy as I received in researching and writing them. If you need a greater incentive than that prospect, remember Hebrews 11. Surely this chapter is a divine mandate to read Christian biography. I wrote a chapter in Brothers, We Are Not Professionals that tried to make this case. It was titled “Brothers, Read Christian Biography.” I commented on Hebrews 11,
The unmistakable implication of the chapter is that if we hear about the faith of our forefathers (and mothers), we will “lay aside every weight and sin” and “run with perseverance the race that is set before us” (Hebrews 12:1). If we asked the author, “How shall we stir one another up to love and good works?” (Hebrews 10:24), his answer would be: “Through encouragement from the living (Hebrews 10:25) and the dead (Hebrews 11:1–40).” Christian biography is the means by which the “body life” of the church cuts across the centuries.Swans Not Silent
I think that what was said of Abel in Hebrews 11:4 can be said of any saint whose story is told: “Through his faith, though he died, he still speaks.” It has been a great pleasure as I have listened to the voices of the saints from the past. But not only a pleasure.
They have strengthened my hand in the work of the ministry again and again. They have helped me feel that I was part of something much bigger than myself or my century. They have showed me that the worst of times are not the last of times, and they made the promise visible that God works all things for our good. They have modeled courage and perseverance in the face of withering opposition. They have helped me set my face to the cause of truth and love and world evangelization. They have revived my love for Christ’s church. They have reinforced my resolve to be a faithful husband and father. They have stirred me up to care about seeing and savoring the beauty of God. They have inspired the effort to speak that beauty in a way that it doesn’t bore. They have quickened a love for Christian camaraderie in the greatest Cause in the world. And they did all this — and more — in a way that caused me to rejoice in the Lord and be glad I was in his sway and his service.
I pray that all of this and more will be your pleasure and your profit as you read or listen. For the swans are definitely not silent.
It was one of the goriest things I’ve seen on television. There was blood everywhere and visible agony. It wasn’t Game of Thrones, but a BBC natural history program, and the protagonist was a crocodile. Its victim was a wildebeest.
During their annual migration — a movement of an astonishing number of animals — wildebeests cross a river while the crocs lie in wait. It is the biggest feast of the year for them. It’s not as if wildebeests are easy to take down. They weigh up to 600 pounds and have considerable strength. But that’s where the jaws of a crocodile come into play. Watching crocodiles fell, drown, and tear apart such huge animals with their mouths was horrifying and awesome.
At another point in the show, we saw the same jaws caring for their eggs. The jaws that were strong enough to fell and crush an enormous wildebeest were also gentle enough to hold a delicate egg between their teeth without breaking it. This gets us close to what the Bible means by gentleness. It is not the absence of strength, but the application of strength to a tender situation.Meekness Is Not Weakness
Only Jesus can demonstrate ultimate strength and then apply that same unique strength in the most tender ways. The same Jesus who has the power not only to throw down tables in the temple courtyard, or to expel demons from the possessed, or even to call a dead man out of a grave — this Jesus also has the capacity to show tenderness to those who are most delicate and fragile. We’re told in Matthew’s Gospel:
“He will not quarrel or cry aloud,
nor will anyone hear his voice in the streets;
a bruised reed he will not break,
and a smoldering wick he will not quench,
until he brings justice to victory;
and in his name the Gentiles will hope.” (Matthew 12:19–21)
There was none stronger than Jesus. He was fearless before those who opposed him. He never once hesitated to say what needed to be said, even when he knew it would provoke violent opposition. He confronted those who needed to be called out. And he claimed victory over sin and death. This was no weak man.The Almighty Arm Carries
And yet, in Jesus, enormous strength does not lead to insensitivity. The capacity to challenge and confront doesn’t lead to unnecessary conflict. He doesn’t stomp over people. He can crush a serpent, but he can also hold the most delicate in his care. We are reminded of what Isaiah said about the God who would be coming for his people:
Behold, the Lord God comes with might,
and his arm rules for him;
behold, his reward is with him,
and his recompense before him.
He will tend his flock like a shepherd;
he will gather the lambs in his arms;
he will carry them in his bosom,
and gently lead those that are with young. (Isaiah 40:10–11)
The arm with which this God effects his mighty rule is the same arm which gathers up the lambs. The God who can level mountain ranges and topple superpowers is the same God who carries the weakest and most tender close to his heart.For Bruised Reeds
Isaiah’s prophecy looks forward to one who will not break a bruised reed (Isaiah 42:3). That is not because Jesus is a pushover. He is not soft. He knows how to apply strength to vulnerability. Think of all the things he could break and you begin to see the wonder of what he won’t break.
Or think of the smoldering wick. Barely a flicker left in it, a mere speck of orange light, the tiniest disturbance of which would certainly snuff it out. And yet Jesus is able to deploy his care with such surgical, forensic precision that the most delicate and fragile of things can be taken and nurtured with utter care and protection.
Part of the wonder is that Jesus is able to combine what we so easily separate. In our experience those who are gentlest tend to lack strength and force when it is called for, while those who are strongest tend to lack the capacity for gentleness and restraint. But Jesus exemplifies perfect gentleness and awesome strength. No one is crushed by mistake. There is never any friendly fire or collateral damage.He Loves You More
This combination is why he is such a good Savior to turn to. He is strong and mighty to save: he can take on the strongest of our foes and always be certain to prevail. No spiritual force arrayed against us stands a chance of surviving. And yet he is unspeakably delicate and careful with us. There is no wound or vulnerability he doesn’t understand or handle with the utmost care. He is someone we can trust with our most tender bruises and fragility. He will not be clumsy with us. He won’t steamroll us. He can apply his unimaginable strength to us with affection and sensitivity.
In a fallen world like this, all of us are people who have both sinned and been sinned against. Some of this will have left us with deep wounds that seem unfathomable even to us, let alone others. But Jesus knows us fully and understands us entirely. He loves us more than we love ourselves. He is even more committed to our ultimate joy than we are.
In our pain and confusion, in our weakness and mess, we come to him assured that he alone is trustworthy. He has the power and capacity to help us, and the tenderness and care to want to. We can trust him with our deepest pains and bruises. There is none more fearsome, but none gentler.