Only rarely do we find a person who is able to speak meaningfully about suffering at the very personal level of pain and loss, and also at the cosmic level of why the whole universe is the way it is. Most people, it seems, are wired either to be a wise counselor who can apply God’s goodness and power to individual need or to think globally about why the entire world is permeated, for all its beauty, with horrifying calamities. Finding both in one person is rare and beautiful. The apostle Paul was such a person.
Paul was not naïve about the vastness of human misery and suffering in the world. And the explanation he gave, as he probed this mystery, was both personal in its application to individual Christians and cosmic in its scope of redemption.Destined to Suffer
Within weeks after starting a new church and appointing leaders for the church, Paul prepared the new believers to suffer.
When they had preached the gospel . . . they returned to Lystra and to Iconium and to Antioch, strengthening the souls of the disciples, encouraging them to continue in the faith, and saying that through many tribulations we must enter the kingdom of God. (Acts 14:21–22)
Paul did not try to soften the claims that Jesus put on his followers. He did not use a bait-and-switch tactic by luring people with the promise of prosperity and then changing his tune when trouble arrived. He said plainly, “All who desire to live a godly life in Christ Jesus will be persecuted” (2 Timothy 3:12).
When tribulation began, he reminded the believers that they were not entering something unusual. They were not being singled out because of some sin. They were experiencing what God had ordained for his beloved children. So he urged them not to be “moved by these afflictions. For you yourselves know that we are destined for this” (1 Thessalonians 3:3).Paul’s Personal Empathy
Paul helped people see their suffering through the lens of God’s good purposes for their eternal good:
We ourselves boast about you in the churches of God for your steadfastness and faith in all your persecutions and in the afflictions that you are enduring. This is evidence of the righteous judgment of God, that you may be considered worthy of the kingdom of God, for which you are also suffering. (2 Thessalonians 1:4–5)
Paul helped individual Christians not just in the pain of persecution but in all their sufferings, whether disease or accident or loss or the ordinary burdens of life. He explained that the whole creation is groaning under futility caused by the fall (Romans 8:22), and then he added that Christians are not exempt from this groaning:
We know that the whole creation has been groaning together in the pains of childbirth until now. And not only the creation, but we ourselves, who have the firstfruits of the Spirit, groan inwardly as we wait eagerly for adoption as sons, the redemption of our bodies. (Romans 8:22–23)
In other words, Christians endure groans of almost every kind in this world until Christ comes to redeem our bodies. Life in the body — life in this fallen world — means groaning. So take heart, if you are trusting in Christ. Your suffering is not owing to God’s wrath against you. Your condemnation for sin has been taken away by the death of Christ (Romans 8:1). God will not let you be tested beyond what he gives you the grace to bear (1 Corinthians 10:13; 2 Corinthians 9:8). Your groaning is limited. Redemption is coming. “Weeping may tarry for the night, but joy comes with the morning” (Psalm 30:5).Paul’s Global Vision
Amazingly, Paul is eager not only to help us individually, with our personal suffering in the moment, but also with the big picture of why the whole creation is in such a mess. Here is the key passage from his great letter to the Romans:
The creation was subjected to futility, not willingly, but because of him who subjected it, in hope that the creation itself will be set free from its bondage to corruption and obtain the freedom of the glory of the children of God. For we know that the whole creation has been groaning together in the pains of childbirth until now. (Romans 8:20–22)
This subjection of the creation to futility is a reference to God’s act in the garden of Eden, after Adam and Eve turned away from God’s goodness and wisdom and authority. God did what he said he would do (Genesis 2:17): he introduced death into the world and put creation under bondage to corruption and pervasive futility.
In other words, God’s judgment upon the sin of human rebellion was the breakdown of nature’s beautiful functioning. Now things go wrong. Corruption and futility are shot through the created order with every manner of suffering and dying.A Picture of Sin’s Evil
We can shed some light on God’s purpose in this subjection of creation if we ask, Why would God’s judgment fall on physical creation when the sin was an act of the human heart? My answer is that the physical miseries of the creation are a visible and deeply felt witness to the moral ugliness and outrage of sin.
For most of us, the sins of our hearts (our preference for God’s gifts over God himself) do not cause great agony of soul. We do not feel the real outrage of the universe — namely, that the beautiful Creator and sustainer of the world is disregarded and dishonored. But just let our bodies be touched by pain, and we are full of indignation that this is happening.
In other words, God subjected the physical world to corruption to show us the outrage of sin at the one point where we really feel it. All physical pain and sorrow should scream at us, “This is how horrible sin is.” This is how serious our moral condition is before God. This is why the redemption of the world was not cheap, but cost the infinite price of the Son of God dying for sinners.For Your Comfort
It is beautiful and rare when a person can offer a global explanation for suffering, and then also make his own very personal suffering a means of our comfort. But Paul has done this for me many times. He wanted it this way:
If we are afflicted, it is for your comfort and salvation; and if we are comforted, it is for your comfort, which you experience when you patiently endure the same sufferings that we suffer. (2 Corinthians 1:6)
I take this very personally. I love him for the vastness of his global vision. And I love him for turning his own suffering into a means of my comfort.
“My girlfriend affirms homosexual love — is this a deal-breaker?” Yes. Pastor John gives five reasons why.
Jesus said some surprising things during his ministry. One of the most surprising is in the Gospel of Luke, just after he receives a report of the massacre of some Galileans. Some concluded that the Galileans suffered because they were particularly sinful people (Luke 13:2). If the Galileans had been more holy (their thinking goes), they could have avoided a grisly end.
Jesus disagrees. He responds, “Unless you repent, you will all likewise perish” (Luke 13:3). He says the problem is that everyone is sinful before God and therefore headed toward God’s eternal judgment (that’s the meaning of “perish” in this context, see Luke 9:24–25). And according to Jesus, the solution to this massive problem of divine judgment isn’t to improve one’s behavior, but to “repent.”
Calling people to repentance is the reason Jesus came (Luke 5:32) and the message he commissions his followers to preach (Luke 24:47). It’s the only way anyone can avoid God’s judgment (Luke 13:3). Given the supremely serious consequences of not repenting, it’s important to understand what repentance is.Heart of Repentance
To get to the heart of repentance, we need to dig deeper than sorrow for sin, apologies to God and other people, and changes in outward behavior. Repentance certainly leads to these — in fact, that’s the point of Jesus’s parable in Luke 13:6–9, which comes immediately after the teaching on repentance. The point of the parable is that true repentance necessarily results in changed attitudes and behavior. Earlier in Luke’s Gospel, John the Baptist calls for people to “bear fruits in keeping with repentance” (Luke 3:8). Similarly, this means that acts of obedience (“fruits”) flow from (and are therefore not the same thing as) repentance.
So, what is the heart of repentance? Repentance is a change of perception and direction. As John Piper notes, the Greek word for “repent” refers to “a change of the mind’s perceptions and dispositions and purposes. . . . Repenting means experiencing a change of mind that now sees God as true and beautiful and worthy of all our praise and all our obedience.”
As we see God for who he is (great, glorious, desirable), we also see sin for what it is (diminished, ugly, repulsive). This is why repentance is also a commitment to a profound change of direction, an about-face, a reorientation of our lives away from sin and toward God. This change of perception and direction is something we’re commanded to do (Acts 2:38) — and something that requires the supernatural work of the Holy Spirit if we’re to do it. We act the miracle.
Those with whom Jesus speaks in Luke 13 seem to think the problem with the Galileans is not enough holiness. But Jesus says the real problem is that everyone is blind to God’s glory and has turned away from him. What is needed is not a bit more holiness for some, but a total reorientation of life for all. The critical difference between those who are saved and those who aren’t isn’t how relatively good they are — it’s whether they’ve admitted that they’re not good, seen God as supremely glorious, and reversed the entire direction of their lives.Repentance for All of Life
The evening before I married my wife in Belfast, Northern Ireland, several friends and I drove into the center of the city to celebrate. Somehow, we ended up on the wrong road — the main road to Dublin, it turned out — and because none of us were very familiar with the British road system, we couldn’t figure out how to turn the car around.
The minutes ticked by as we looked for exits, all the while getting further from Belfast and closer to Dublin. The one thing that couldn’t possibly have helped us in that situation was going faster in the same direction. We had to turn around. Jesus’s solution to the problem of God’s judgment is radical. It’s not: “Improve your behavior.” Instead, it’s: “See God for who he really is and change your entire direction.” Obedience will (and must) follow.
Even after conversion, Jesus’s followers all too frequently struggle to see God as glorious and desirable, and to orient our lives fully toward him. We’re tempted every day in a thousand different directions. Therefore, we must constantly reorient ourselves back toward God, seeing him anew and pursuing him afresh. As Martin Luther noted, “When our Lord and Master Jesus Christ said ‘Repent,’ he intended that the entire life of believers should be repentance.”Repentance for Eternal Life
Trying to do good won’t save us from God’s eternal judgment. Nor will feeling sorry for sin, or saying sorry for sin, or becoming a more moral person. Those are all important to do (and they all flow from true repentance), but, on their own, none go deep enough. We need to hear Jesus say again, “Unless you repent, you will all likewise perish” (Luke 13:3). We need to see the beauty and love and holiness of the Triune God, perceiving him as the Treasure he really is. We need to turn from the false promises of sin and aim our lives toward him. This is repentance — and this is life.
A longing for heaven can’t help but eclipse longings for worldly pursuits because a longing for future glory produces in us a pursuit of glory today.
“Good sense makes one slow to anger, and it is his glory to overlook an offense” (Proverbs 19:11). In moments of calm, the wise man’s counsel sounds so right, so sane. Overlooking offenses is our glory.
Then the offenses actually come, and we often find them too large to look over. The actual size of the offense often matters little. A spouse’s consistent faultfinding, a boss’s unfair criticism, a stranger’s unaccountable rudeness — given the right circumstances, any of these may rise up in front of us like a son of Anak, its shoulders stretching to heaven (Numbers 13:33). Peripherals blur, tunnel vision ensues, and we have eyes only for The Offense.
Even if sanity swiftly returns, the damage is often already done. We returned tone for tone, passive aggression for passive aggression, jab for jab. Or we restrained ourselves externally, but only as a small volcano erupted inside of us. Or we quietly smoldered, playing the incident on repeat the rest of the day.Mindful of God
Peter, writing to Christians familiar with offense, comes alongside Proverbs to show us a different way: “This is a gracious thing, when, mindful of God, one endures sorrows while suffering unjustly” (1 Peter 2:19). In three little words, Peter shares one of the keys to overlooking offenses great and small: we become mindful of God.
In other words, we don’t focus on the offense itself. We don’t stare at something that merely distracts us from what’s really important. We certainly don’t look within ourselves. Rather, we overlook offenses by looking up to God, by becoming mindful of who he is for us in this very moment — in the office, at the dinner table, on the phone call, during the meeting.
To be sure, Peter’s readers were dealing with offenses more severe than the kind Westerners typically face: physical abuse (1 Peter 2:20), ridicule (1 Peter 4:4), fiery trials (1 Peter 4:12). But learning to overlook the biggest offenses usually begins with learning to overlook the smallest. Enduring slander begins with enduring a sarcastic remark. Enduring a beating begins with enduring a cold shoulder. Being mindful of God in everyday offenses trains us to be mindful of him when the worst comes.
What, then, are we mindful of when we are mindful of God?1. God Sees Every Offense
Offenses have a way of turning us into momentary atheists. In our tunnel vision, we can think and feel and act as if there were no God in the world — much less in the room. Being mindful of God means, first, remembering that God is here, and he sees: “If when you do good and suffer for it you endure, this is a gracious thing in the sight of God” (1 Peter 2:20).
No offense happens offstage, in some unobserved corner of the universe. Being mindful of God pulls back the curtains, puts us in the spotlight, and reminds us that we live and move and have our being before the eyes of an audience more important than a thousand kings and presidents.
God’s all-seeing eye carries a warning with it, to be sure (Hebrews 4:13). But Peter makes the opposite application: God sees assures us that he whose smile matters most is watching. The world may look on a Christian’s patient endurance and see only weakness. God looks on and sees a precious child, a person for his own possession (1 Peter 2:10), a beautiful imitator of his beloved Son. Offenses are opportunities for the God of the universe to look down on us and say, “This is a gracious thing in my sight.”2. God Sends Every Offense
God does not, however, observe our offenses as a mere member of the audience, but as the director of the whole drama. In the theater of the universe, every offense — no matter how trifling — is part of the play. Every word, every gesture has been given its act, scene, and line by the one who sends “various trials,” including offenses, so that our faith might be tested, proven, and precious (1 Peter 1:6–7).
On this side of heaven, in fact, offenses are part of our calling as Christians: “To this you have been called,” Peter tells us (1 Peter 2:21). And why? “Because Christ also suffered for you, leaving you an example, so that you might follow in his steps” (1 Peter 2:21). Following Jesus means imitating Jesus, and imitating the man of sorrows cannot happen apart from trouble, distress, and offense. These are the stages where God calls us to proclaim his excellencies (1 Peter 2:9).
Therefore, as Calvin writes,
When we are unjustly wounded by men, let us overlook their wickedness (which would but worsen our pain and sharpen our minds to revenge), remember to mount up to God, and learn to believe for certain that whatever our enemy has wickedly committed against us was permitted and sent by God’s just dispensation. (Institutes, 1.17.8)
God sends every offense. Therefore, mount up to God — be mindful of God — and know that the daggers others throw your way will become in God’s hand chisels to fashion you into the image of Christ.3. God Will Judge Every Offense
We can overlook offenses not only because God sees our offenses and sends our offenses, but also because God will judge every offense. Christians follow the pattern of Jesus, who did not exact vengeance when he hung on the cross, though he could have called down twelve legions of angels (Matthew 26:53). Instead, he handed his handfuls of agony to his Father, and “continued entrusting himself to him who judges justly” (1 Peter 2:23).
We naturally consider the judgment of God in the context of the greatest of wrongs — as we should. The day is coming when the Son of God will descend to earth with a sword, casting down every proud oppressor and raising up the meek to inherit the earth (Revelation 19:15; Matthew 5:5). “Vengeance is mine” is a well deep enough for even the most mistreated to draw hope (Romans 12:19). But God’s judgment changes how we react to small offenses as well. If God will right even the biggest wrongs, then we do not need to take even the smallest into our own hands.
Whether the offenses against us are titanic or trifling, God’s judgment frees us to exchange bitterness for patience, retribution for mercy. The very word judgment brings to mind our own offenses against God, offenses that cried out for our blood until Jesus shed his own. It reminds us that our offender, if outside of Christ, deserves our pity and, if inside Christ, needs our brotherly love. It removes all self-righteousness from our mouths and replaces it with the Christlike plea of “Lord, forgive them.” It beckons us to release our “right” to get even, and to hand over our cause to him who judges justly.Where Is God in the Offense?
God sees every offense, God sends every offense, and God will judge every offense. Finally, those who are mindful of God go one step further: they trust that God himself can satisfy them in the midst of offense. Of all the refuges we can run to when offenses come — bitterness, revenge, fantasy, distraction, pleasure, self-justification — only one can fill us with joy unspeakable and full of glory (1 Peter 1:8). Only one can call us back from darkness (1 Peter 2:9). Only one cares for us (1 Peter 5:7). God.
If we repay offense for offense, we will have our reward. But if we learn to overlook offenses, we will lean into fellowship with “the Shepherd and Overseer of [our] souls” (1 Peter 2:25). We will hear his whispers of “Well done” here and now. We will find that God is able to invade our tunnel vision, enthrall us with his beauty and worth, and free us to overlook the offense.
God’s word and gospel message are like oxygen for our souls. We won’t last long if we try to hold our breath.
When Jesus says, “I never knew you,” he means, “I don’t recognize you as my disciple, as my follower. You are a spiritual stranger to me.”
Losing a sense of God’s holiness is the first warning sign of entering a spiritually dangerous place.
Externally, everything might look fine: Our families might be well, our ministries might be flourishing, we might be receiving recognition and walking powerfully in our spiritual gifts. But inwardly, we’re wandering.
External phenomena do not reliably indicate our spiritual health. Families and ministries can struggle and go wrong for reasons that have nothing to do with our spiritual states. And history is full of examples of men and women who exercised spiritual gifts with great power for a period of time — even when involved in gross secret sin. Besides that, externals are usually lagging indicators of spiritual decline. By the time our decline starts surfacing, it often has reached a serious state.What to Watch
The thing to watch is our sense of God’s holiness.
I don’t mean our doctrinal knowledge of God’s holiness. That’s something we might affirm and even teach when secretly we are in a place of decline. The doctrine of God’s holiness is real to us only when we have real fear of God. And one clear evidence of this is our fear of sin. The loss of the sense of God’s holiness always produces the loss of the sense of sin’s sinfulness. When God is not feared, sin is not feared.
A tolerance of habitual indulgence of sin — a lack of fear over what slavery to sin might imply (John 8:34) — is an indictor that the fear of God is not governing us. And when we are in such a state, Jesus tells us what we need to do: cut off our hand.Absolutely Terrifying Reality
Matthew 18 is a sober read. Jesus gets very serious about the extremely horrible consequences of sin. And he says this:
Woe to the world for temptations to sin! For it is necessary that temptations come, but woe to the one by whom the temptation comes! And if your hand or your foot causes you to sin, cut it off and throw it away. It is better for you to enter life crippled or lame than with two hands or two feet to be thrown into the eternal fire. And if your eye causes you to sin, tear it out and throw it away. It is better for you to enter life with one eye than with two eyes to be thrown into the hell of fire. (Matthew 18:7–9)
Note the words eternal fire in verse eight. For most of the history of the church, some have asserted either some form of ultimate universal salvation for everyone or ultimate annihilation of the lost. But for the entire history of the church, the vast majority of Christians and the vast majority of the church’s most eminent and reliable theologians have affirmed that what Jesus and the apostles taught about hell is eternal, conscious punishment. Those three words describe an absolutely terrifying reality.Metaphor, But No Hyperbole
I used the words “extremely horrible” and “absolutely terrifying” very carefully and intentionally. They are among the only fitting words we have to describe hell, the eternal death that is the wages of sin (Romans 6:23). No one wants to experience this. And it will be the reality experienced by everyone who is a slave to sin and not set free by the Son (John 8:36).
That is why Jesus uses the extreme metaphor of cutting off our hand and tearing out our eye. Extreme danger calls for extreme measures of escape. Yes, the mutilation imagery is a metaphor, but it is not hyperbole. We know it is a metaphor because the literal loss of a hand or an eye doesn’t get to the root issue of sin. But radical and painful amputation of stumbling blocks out of our lives may be the only way to escape falling headlong into sin’s insidiously deceptive snare.
We may need to “mutilate” — chop off — a habit, a relationship, a career, certain personal freedoms, whatever is causing us to stumble. Because far better that we enter life having lost those things than kept them and lose our souls (Luke 9:25).Cut Off Every Hand
When we lose the sense of God’s holiness, Jesus’s warnings in Matthew 18 land lightly on us. We reason that such a warning is for someone else. We don’t seriously think it applies to us. Nor do we seriously think it applies to other brothers and sisters who are characterized by worldly concerns and pursuits and are rather numb when it comes to sin.
We might take consolation that our affirmation of orthodox doctrine, external affirmations, and “fruitful” labors demonstrate we’re on the right path. But if in the secret place, we’re tolerating sin, tolerating relative prayerlessness, tolerating a lack of urgency over lost souls, it is an indicator that something is wrong. If we don’t reverence God as holy in our private lives, we are on a perilous path that leads to destruction (Matthew 7:13).
Jesus provides us the cure to this deadly infection: cut off every hand that is causing you to stumble. And he really means it. “Today, if you hear his voice, do not harden your heart” (Hebrews 4:7). Whether we have just ventured on to this road or been on it way too long, the time is now to repent and take the extreme measure to amputate whatever is entangling our feet in sin (Hebrews 12:1). We must plead with the Lord and do whatever it takes to see the fear of the Lord restored in our hearts.Choose Life
For the Christian, the fear of the Lord does not compete with our joy in the Lord. Rather, it’s a source of our joy in the Lord. Isaiah prophesied this about Jesus: “And his delight shall be in the fear of the Lord” (Isaiah 11:3). Jesus delighted in the fear of his Father, and God wants us to enjoy this delight too. Because “the fear of the Lord is a fountain of life, that one may turn away from the snares of death” (Proverbs 14:27). And “the friendship of the Lord is for those who fear him, and he makes known to them his covenant” (Psalm 25:14).
“The fear of the Lord is the beginning of wisdom” (Proverbs 9:10). Conversely, losing the fear of the Lord is the beginning of foolishness. The reward of such wisdom is eternal life (John 3:16) and fullness of joy (Psalm 16:11). The reward of such foolishness is absolutely terrifying.
When we notice a diminishing of our healthy fear of God, the loss of a sense of his holiness, that is the time to take action. Let us repent by cutting off every foolish hand and, as Deuteronomy 30:19 says, choose life.
Correcting children can be a matter of babies and bathwater. How do we preserve the phenomenal God-given potential these children possess, without condoning the defiance that boils over from the cauldron of their sinful little hearts? How do we love the baby well and hate the dirty bathwater?
While Christian parents know it is necessary to correct young children (Proverbs 22:15), good and wise parents also earnestly desire to guard themselves against crushing their spirits (Proverbs 15:13). We don’t want to destroy the morale and mettle of these potential heroes who currently happen to be packaged in the appearance of unholy terrors.
Our aim is to redirect them, not squash them. But when little Johnny has done it again — disobeyed, defied your instruction, sassed, thrown a hissy fit — what’s a mother to do? How can she respond to this naughtiness without abandoning tenderhearted love? How can she hate the sin (it is sin) and love the little sinner? And how can she avoid over-reacting? How can she build up a child who disobeys?Affirm, Then Correct
Before tackling how to do it, recognize the indispensability of understanding why we must first lay down a foundation of affirmation. Why affirm a child who has just mouthed off, blatantly defied your instructions, willfully disobeyed you, or stubbornly stunk up the house with an attitude that reeks of selfishness?
First, because if you don’t make “commendation of the commendable” a way of life, you lose your child. That is, he tunes you out. You don’t mean to push him away, but you do. He eventually doesn’t listen to you anymore, because you’re always on his case. He gets the impression he can’t please you. So, make it clear that he does please you when he obeys promptly, or when he demonstrates the slightest echoes of Christlike character such as kindness, generosity, alertness, or sensitivity to others (Philippians 4:29).
Don’t overlook this tactical advantage: your even-handed kindness and willingness to objectively acknowledge in your child’s behavior and attitude whatever is good, true, honorable, just, pure, lovely, commendable, and worthy of praise (Philippians 4:8) will gain you a hearing. Children (of all ages) are more willing to listen to those who praise them. So, if it’s worthy of praise, then, well, don’t omit the praise! You gain a hearing.
The interplay between correction and affirmation is like a checking account. Be sure to make ample deposits (affirmations) before drawing on the account (corrections). Corrections bounce when the account is overdrawn.God Is Doing Something
The second reason to correct in an atmosphere of affirmation is that God is always doing good things everywhere. Some call it “common grace.” Of all the good he is doing, some of the good is in your child, even at the precise moment your child defies you. God gets more glory when we point out what he is doing, and he is always at work, even during the tornadic tempest of a child’s tantrums.
What exactly is God doing? For one thing, God is restraining your child. Even as sinful as a child’s heart is, the tyke does not carry out all the wicked plans that are conceivable. In fact, the child doesn’t even conceive all the wickedness that’s conceivable. God hasn’t let him. God has not allowed your toddler to kill himself, or launch a nuclear strike, or commit the unpardonable sin. Praise God. Seriously, give God explicit honor for the specific good he is doing in the moment. Name it. Tell God you see it, and thank him.
Keep in mind, each sin of your child doesn’t obliterate all the other developmental progress he or she may have made up to that point. Just as one misspelled word doesn’t imply the child has to learn the alphabet all over again, one display of defiance doesn’t mean all is lost.Six Steps for Healthy Correction
So, what can you do when a child disobeys? When your child defies you, first pray. Ask God to move the heart of your child (Romans 10:1).
Second, focus on the heart. Good and wise parental correction is not a matter of finding the right formula, as though it’s a mere mechanical operation. The right kind of thinking and practicing requires the right kind of heart. Ensure that you love your child with God’s love. This is different from human sentimentality or possessiveness. Our children don’t belong to us, but to God. We are to treat them as God would have us treat them. In order to treat children wisely, to love children (or anyone) well, we need continuously to be filled by the Holy Spirit who produces the fruit of love. Failing to be Spirit-filled jeopardizes the entire enterprise.
Third, precede correction with a diet of affirmation. It should be obvious by now that I commend commending the commendable. Then, correct. The correction is best when it has taken place in a broad context of steady affirmation. “We affirm good things around here” is a good banner to hang over a home. And it makes correction more palatable (Colossians 3:21). But don’t wait too long to correct, when pressure builds to unmanageable proportions and you explode, or so much time has elapsed that the child does not make a tight connection between his misbehavior and your correction.
Fourth, put a pause between the affirmation and the correction. Separate the two. “You told the truth to me about breaking the lamp by throwing the ball, and that honesty is so commendable. I thank God for your integrity. Now (pause) we have to address the clean-up, maybe restitution, and appropriate consequences for this misbehavior when you were clearly told not to throw a ball in the living room.”
Fifth, ask how God affirms us while correcting us. Answer: he receives us as his own children. Hebrews says, “The Lord disciplines the one he loves, and chastises every son whom he receives” (Hebrews 12:6). Describe for the child how God corrects you. Explain that he does it because he receives you as part of his family. And you correct your children because you receive them in your family: it establishes belongingness, which is so important to healthy development.
Lastly, humbly persevere (Colossians 4:2). Practice consistency in the strength God supplies, and be ready to lovingly correct for the long haul.
He is before all things, and in him all things hold together. (Colossians 1:17)
At Bethlehem College & Seminary, where I teach, the primary goal for our students’ education is not technical or professional, is not merely career or skills oriented, but is rather aimed at shaping a certain kind of person for a lifetime. To that end, we teach not only Scripture and theology, but also history, literature, and philosophy.
One way to express the vision for our college, and liberal-arts programs like ours, is this: We aim to educate students who graduate as mature adults rooted in the Scriptures, enriched by the humanities, and passionate for God’s global glory in Christ. Or, to put it another way, the aim of our college is Christian discipleship, the formation of mature Christian adults.
Why emphasize the liberal arts and humanities alongside Scripture? Because a liberal-arts education, received under the lordship of Christ, uniquely prepares students to live as broad-minded, big-hearted Christians in the home, the church, and the world.Personal Formation
Begin with the individual student. In an age of extended adolescence, a liberal-arts program like ours does not aim to entertain boys and girls but to establish stable men and women in faith through challenge. Generally speaking, most incoming students at Bethlehem College have a good grounding in Christian belief and practice. While they are by no means perfect in either, most of them tend to come from good Christian homes and churches that have done a decent job of grounding them in the faith before they arrive at our doors. Thus, our college students tend to have assumptions about Christian belief and practice that we largely, if not completely, agree with.
What then do they gain from their education? One of the effects of our curriculum on students is to challenge many of their (good and biblical) assumptions. In other words, the aim is to subject the students’ beliefs, assumptions, and practices to stress testing in order to build resiliency. In most universities, such challenges often come with the aim of undermining or overthrowing these beliefs and assumptions. But the goal of a Christian college is to strengthen, solidify, and (sometimes) correct these assumptions, beliefs, and practices. Strengthening a student’s faith requires subjecting them to a process of engagement with authors and texts that articulate beliefs and ideas that differ from theirs.
This process, while often uncomfortable and difficult for the students, is good for them and the solidity of their Christian convictions. A liberal-arts education forces them to think about why they believe what they believe and to explore the deeper reasons for their faith, thereby shaping their overall orientation to the world. While such an education has value in enabling students to commend the faith to others, the first aim of the education is not apologetic or evangelistic, but formative and personal. We want our students to be real Christians, all the way down. To use Walter Hooper’s description of C.S. Lewis, we want them to be “thoroughly converted” (God in the Dock, xiv). The contemporary world poses significant intellectual, moral, and affectional challenges for Christians. Standing firm in the evil day demands deep Christian convictions that have been tested and tried (Ephesians 6:13). Our college delivers that testing and trying through broad exposure to the riches of a liberal-arts education led by wise and faithful professors who care about the outcome of our students’ faith.
But the aim of a liberal-arts education is not merely defensive; it also aims to broaden the mind and enlarge the heart of the student. We want students to lean into reality, to have eyes wide open in wonder at the world that God has made and that man has cultivated and adorned (Psalm 19:1; 104:14¬–15). A liberal-arts education helps students to grow in wisdom, to attune them to reality so that they are able to walk wisely and joyfully in the world.The Home
The benefits of a Christian liberal-arts education do not stop with the individual; they extend to the home, to marriage and family. Everyone recognizes that we make many of our pivotal life decisions from the ages of 18 to 25. During these years, young men and women will lay foundations, set life trajectories, and settle on vocations, and many will also choose spouses and begin families. A Christian liberal-arts college is not only an ideal place to find a suitable and fitting spouse; it is designed to cultivate habits of imaginative honesty and inquiry that will serve marriages and families over a lifetime.
A Christian liberal-arts education is a humane education — that is, it trains the student in ways of being human, in grasping the tendencies, trajectories, and boundaries of our created nature (Genesis 1:27–28); in making them aware of the distortions, corruptions, and temptations of our fallen nature (Romans 3:10–18); and clarifying for them the gospel-grounded hope of our redeemed nature (2 Corinthians 3:18). And the first place that this understanding of human nature in all of its facets will be applied is in the home.
A liberal-arts education that produces stable, godly men and stable, godly women will inevitably foster stable, godly marriages and stable, godly families, which form the backbone of earthly society. One Christian liberal-arts college with a similar vision to Bethlehem’s uses the longevity of marriages and the low incidence of divorce among its alumni as a key measure of its success. In short, the faculty of Bethlehem College know from personal experience and from the initial results of our educational paradigm that an education in the humanities can be a significant means of strengthening marriages and families.The Church
But not only marriages and families and the home. A Christian liberal-arts education serves the church. It does so, first, by creating men and women who love the church of Jesus Christ. Our curriculum studies all of history as redemptive history, as God’s works of creation and providence which climax in Christ and which issue forth in God’s mission in the world through Christ’s body (Luke 24:44; Matthew 28:18–20).
As we consider the future of the church in America and beyond, we ask ourselves: Who will be leading small groups in twenty years? Who will be teaching Sunday school? Who will be serving as non-vocational elders, and leading women’s ministries, and counseling the broken and hurting in dark nights? Bethlehem College aims to fill the ranks of lay leadership in churches around the country. And we believe that the best leaders will not only be rooted and grounded in the Scriptures as the ultimate source and standard of truth, but also enriched by the humanities and able to faithfully appropriate and apply wisdom from any area of human knowledge.Piper-Like Preachers
In addition to cultivating lay leaders in the church, a Christian liberal-arts education also provides an ideal foundation for pastoral ministry. To begin with, a significant portion of the great texts that we study were written by Christians. In reading them, we engage in historical theology and learn to read the Bible with the saints throughout history. But the value of the liberal arts for ministry extends beyond the reading list. One central aim of Bethlehem Seminary is to produce John Piper–like preachers and heralds of the word of God — God-entranced, Christ-exalting, Bible-saturated, missions-mobilizing, inflamed by passion and joy and zeal for the glory of God. But consider where John Piper himself came from. The humanities are an essential part of Piper’s and therefore Bethlehem’s DNA. One version of his biography reads this way:
At Wheaton College (1964–68), John majored in literature and minored in philosophy. Studying Romantic literature with Clyde Kilby stimulated the poetic side of his nature, and today he regularly writes poems to celebrate special family occasions. As pastor of Bethlehem Baptist Church, he would also compose story-poems (based on the life of a biblical character) for his congregation during the four weeks of Advent each year.
Without Wheaton and the Christian liberal-arts education offered there, John Piper would not be the preacher that he is. At Wheaton, he met C.S. Lewis (through his books) and learned to love beautiful words and penetrating logic. At Wheaton, Piper’s education in literature and philosophy gave him the habits of heart and mind that prepared him to receive and recognize the value of arcing as a method of representing an author’s flow of thought and analyzing an argument in the Scriptures.
If we want to fill pulpits with Piper-like preachers, it is not enough to have a seminary that equips pastors with the tools of rigorous biblical exegesis and God-besotted theology; we also must produce men who love beauty, who are moved by poetry and the power of words, who are able to carefully and logically construct good arguments and expose bad arguments, and whose imaginations are aflame and ready to be employed in the cause of God and truth.Renaissance Men in the Pulpit
But the importance of the liberal arts for Christian ministry extends beyond the ministry of John Piper. Almost every model of pastoral ministry that we set before our students was liberally educated. Augustine studied classical literature and rhetoric, especially the works of Virgil and Cicero, and then as a Christian taught us to plunder the Egyptians in order to build the house of God. Luther wrote tracts advocating for the reform of education, since the longevity of a faithful and educated clergy depended upon a faithful and educated people. He commended the establishment of schools that would include training in Latin, music, literature, and philosophy, as well as the Scriptures and theology. Such schools “must be second in importance only to the church, for in them young preachers and pastors are trained, and from them emerge those who replace the ones who die” (“On the Councils and the Churches,” 263). John Calvin was classically trained in law and philosophy; his first book was a commentary on Seneca. Jonathan Edwards received a classical and humane education at Yale. While Charles Spurgeon had no formal education beyond one year at Newmarket Academy, he was widely read in theology, natural history, Latin, and Victorian literature.
Suffice it to say that until the eighteenth century, essentially all pastors were “Renaissance men,” rigorously steeped in history, philosophy, literature, and Latin. That shaped the way they pastored, articulated, and expressed their faith. If we wish to produce preachers and pastors who shape the future of the Christian church, it is essential that we graduate men who are not only deep in the Scriptures, but also broad in the humanities.The World
Finally, a Christian liberal-arts education is not just good for the church; it’s good for the world. Christendom was built largely on the liberal arts as universities emerged out of the church during the Middle Ages. The Protestant Reformation accelerated and broadened the reach of this education by extending it to the masses. Zacharias Ursinus, a German Reformed theologian, wrote, “The maintenance of schools may be embraced under this part of the honor which is due to the ministry; for unless the arts and sciences be taught, men can neither become properly qualified to teach, nor can the purity of doctrine be preserved and defended against the assaults of heretics” (Commentary on the Heidelberg Catechism, 1007). By schools, Ursinus meant universities and academies that taught both the Scriptures and theology, as well as the arts and sciences.
Time would fail to consider the full impact of the Reformed tradition on education in both Europe and America, but one only needs to consider the education of men and women like John Milton, William Wilberforce, Hannah More, Jane Austen, and Anne Dutton to see that many of the Christians who have had the greatest impact on the world received a robust liberal-arts education. And, of course, how many Great Books did C.S. Lewis have to read in order to be able to write Mere Christianity, The Screwtape Letters, and The Chronicles of Narnia, not to mention the countless other essays, sermons, and books that have enriched the church over the last seventy years?Listening to the Great Tradition
Aside from the historical precedent in the Reformed tradition, a liberal-arts education is especially useful in a diverse and multicultural society. In fact, a Christian liberal-arts education does what multiculturalism and diversity initiatives attempt to do: it helps us to recognize that our assumptions about what’s normal aren’t always universal, while also helping us to identify what is truly universal and human. In a liberal-arts education, we are brought into conversation with what Chesterton called “the democracy of the dead.” In attending to the Great Tradition, we give voice to our ancestors, and thereby refuse “to submit to the small and arrogant oligarchy of those who merely happen to be walking about” (Orthodoxy, 43).
In studying Great Books, we avoid the error of chronological snobbery and the parochialism of the present. As C.S. Lewis wrote, “A man who has lived in many places is not likely to be deceived by the local errors of his native village; the scholar has lived in many times and is therefore in some degree immune from the great cataract of nonsense that pours from the press and the microphone of his own age” (“Learning in War-Time,” 58–59). Or as the novelist L.P. Hartley said, “The past is a foreign country; they do things different there” (The Go-Between, 17). Thus, a Christian liberal-arts education is ideally suited to prepare students to live in a connected and globalized world in which they will regularly encounter the vast differences of culture, custom, and religion.Lifelong Learners
Additionally, because a liberal-arts education aims to equip students with certain fundamental habits of heart and mind, our graduates are lifelong learners who are able to acquire new skills and serve Christ in a great variety of educations. The rigor of our undergraduate education is ideal preparation for graduate studies and law school. By studying great works of literature, which give us windows into human nature, we prepare students who desire to pursue vocations in psychology and counseling. In forming mature Christian adults who can think critically and creatively as well as communicate clearly and compellingly, we help them to become the kind of people that employers want to hire, and who can rise in the ranks of businesses through their fidelity, stability, and ability to learn.Broad-Minded Missionaries
Finally, we must not underestimate the value of a Christian liberal-arts education for the cause of global missions. At Bethlehem College, we not only offer a program in cross-cultural ministry, but we see our foundational curriculum in the humanities as aiding the cause of world missions. Just as our rigorous biblical and theological education seeks to stand out among the pragmatic mindset of many missionaries, so also our humane education seeks to stand out amid the narrowness of much missionary training. We want to produce missionaries like William Carey, who was a self-taught “Renaissance man” whose education enable him to engage and benefit the Indian culture from multiple perspectives so that he is still regarded by many Indians today as a pioneering linguist, botanist, and advocate for social justice. The breadth of his education enabled him to serve as mediator of knowledge in two directions, bringing the gospel to the Indian people, as well as helping the English to understand the situation in India.
A robust education in the humanities provides incalculable opportunities for anthropological insight that can serve cross-cultural efforts. Students who learn to understand great authors and great books from the inside out are better able to immerse themselves in other cultures and understand them from the inside out for the sake of gospel witness (1 Corinthians 9:19–23). Students who develop a deep sense of gratitude for their own cultural heritage are better equipped to enjoy and love the cultural heritage of others. Finally, in receiving a liberal-arts education, future missionaries are bringing together a felt sense of the urgency of the missions task with the proper patience to be well equipped to fulfill it.Wisdom and Wonder
In conclusion, we know that not everyone can receive or should receive a Christian liberal-arts education of the kind that Bethlehem offers. Nevertheless, it is essential for the health of any movement or society that some receive a broad and liberal education. In this respect, Christian Hedonism is no different. The future of Christian Hedonism demands institutions capable of producing leaders who are broad-minded and big-hearted, with firm, Christ-exalting convictions, who are ready to pursue wisdom and wonder for the rest of their lives.
God may use you to change your spouse. But if you press in to him, no matter how disappointed you are in marriage, he will certainly change you.
Never since have so few words haunted me.
In the dream, I sat in a balcony before the judgment seat of God. Two magnificent beings dragged the man before the throne. He fell in terror. All shivered as the Almighty pronounced judgment upon him. As the powerful beings took the quaking man away, I saw his face — a face I knew well.
I grew up with this man. We played sports together, went to school together, were friends in this life — yet here he stood, alone in death. He looked at me with indescribable horror. All he could say, as they led him away — in a voice I cannot forget — “You knew?”
The two quivering words held both a question and accusation.We Know
A recent study reports that nearly half of all self-professed Christian millennials believe it’s wrong to share their faith with close friends and family members of different beliefs. On average, these millennials had four close, non-believing loved ones — four eternal souls — that would not hear the gospel from them. What a horror. “How then will they call on him in whom they have not believed? And how are they to believe in him of whom they have never heard?” (Romans 10:14). Incredibly, the eternity of human souls, under God, depends on the instrumentality of fellow human voices. Voices that increasingly will not speak.
But what about the rest of us? How many people in our lives — if they stood before God tonight — could ask us the same question? We’ve had thousands of conversations with them, spent countless hours in their presence, laughed, smiled, and cried with them, allowed them to call us “friend” — and yet — haven’t come around to risking the relationship on topics like sin, eternity, Christ, and hell.
We know they lie dead in their trespasses and sins (Ephesians 2:1–3). We know that their good deeds toward us cannot save them (Romans 3:20). We know they sit in a cell condemned already (John 3:18). We know they wander down the broad path, and, if not interrupted, will plunge headlong into hell (Matthew 25:46). A place of weeping and gnashing of teeth. A place of outer darkness. A place where the smoke of their anguish will rise forever in the presence of the almighty Lamb (Revelation 14:10–11). “And they will not escape” (1 Thessalonians 5:3). We know.We Say Nothing
More than this — much more than this — we know who can save them. We know the only name given among men by which they must be saved (Acts 4:12). We know the only Way, the Truth, the Life (John 14:6). We know the one mediator between God and men (1 Timothy 2:5). We know the Lamb of God who takes away sins. We know the power of the gospel for salvation. We know that our God’s heart delights to save, and takes no pleasure in the death of the wicked (Ezekiel 33:11). We know that Jesus’s atoning death made a way of reconciliation, that he can righteously forgive the vilest. We know he sends his Spirit to give new life, new joy, new purpose. We know the meaning of life is reconciliation to God. We know.
But why, then, do we merely smile and wave at them — loved ones, family, friends, co-workers, and strangers — as they prepare to stand unshielded before God’s fury? What do we say of their danger, of their God, or of their opportunity to become his children as they float lifelessly down the river towards judgment? Too often, we say nothing.How Christians Murder Souls
I awoke from that dream, as Scrooge did in A Christmas Carol, realizing I had more time. I could warn my friend (and others) and tell him about Christ crucified. I could shun that diplomacy that struck so little resemblance to Jesus or his apostles or saints throughout history who, as far as they could help it, refused to hear, “You knew?” I could cease assisting Satan for fear of human shade. My friend needs not slip quietly into judgment.
And my silence needs not help dig his grave. I could avoid some of the culpability that Spurgeon spoke of when he called a minister’s unwillingness to tell the whole truth “soul murder.”
Ho, ho, sir surgeon, you are too delicate to tell the man he is ill! You hope to heal the sick without their knowing it. You therefore flatter them. And what happens? They laugh at you. They dance upon their own graves and at last they die. Your delicacy is cruelty; your flatteries are poisons; you are a murderer. Shall we keep men in a fool’s paradise? Shall we lull them into soft slumber from which they will awake in hell? Are we to become helpers of their damnation by our smooth speeches? In the name of God, we will not.
God said as much to Ezekiel. “If I say to the wicked, ‘You shall surely die,’ and you give him no warning, nor speak to warn the wicked from his wicked way, in order to save his life, that wicked person shall die for his iniquity, but his blood I will require at your hand” (Ezekiel 3:18). Paul, the mighty apostle of justification by faith alone, spoke to the same culpability of silence: “I testify to you this day that I am innocent of the blood of all, for I did not shrink from declaring to you the whole counsel of God” (Acts 20:26–27).Am I an Accomplice?
We warn people in order to save their lives. Paul did not allow his beautiful feet to be betrayed by a timid tongue. He “alarmed” men as he “reasoned about righteousness and self-control and the coming judgment” (Acts 24:25). The fear of people-pleasing did not control him — lest he disqualify himself from being a servant of Christ (Galatians 1:10).
Now today we are not first-covenant prophets, or new-covenant apostles. Many of us are not even pastors and teachers who “will be judged with greater strictness” (James 3:1). But does this mean that the rest of us will not be judged by any strictness? Do not our pastors and teachers train us “for the work of ministry” (Ephesians 4:11–12)? Should I appease my own conscience by merely inviting others to church, hoping that someday they might cave in and come and there hear the gospel?
My pastor did not grow up with my people, live next door, text them frequently, watch football games with them, and sit with them in their homes. But I did. And as much as some of us may throw stones at “seeker-driven” churches, the question comes uncomfortably full circle: Do I shrink back from saying the hard truth in order to win souls? Is my delicacy cruelty? My flatteries poison? Am I an accomplice in the murder of souls?If Not You, Then Who?
Recently, a family we care about nearly died. They went to bed not knowing that carbon monoxide would begin to fill the home. They would have fallen asleep on earth and awoke before God had not an unpleasant sound with an unpleasant message startled them. We, like the carbon detector, cannot stay silent and let lost souls slumber into hell. If they endure in unbelief, let them shake their fists at us, pull pillows over their ears, roll over, turn their back to us, and wake before the throne.
If we have been unfaithful — where our sin of people-pleasing and indifference abound — grace may abound all the more. Repent, rise, and sin no more. Mount your courage and ride like Paul Revere through your sphere to tell them that God is coming. When the time comes to speak, tell them they stand under righteous judgment. Tell them they must repent and believe. Tell them that Jesus already came once. Tell them he bore God’s wrath for sinners. Tell them he rose from the dead. Tell them he reigns over the nations at the Father’s right hand. Tell them that, by faith, they may live. Tell them that they can become children of God.
If we, a chosen race, a royal priesthood, a holy nation, his people left here after conversion to proclaim his excellencies (1 Peter 2:9) will not wake them from their fatal dream, who will? God, save us from hearing those agonizing words, “You knew?”