Dear Future Church Leader,
I began seminary eighteen years ago, with my career path already mapped out. My goal was to become an influential pastor in a big church in a big city.
Perhaps it goes without saying that this plan was fueled, at least in part, by prideful desires for attention and applause. But here’s something less obvious and equally important: it was founded upon a deeply-held belief that bigger is usually better; that the place to go to make a difference is a world-class city; that, for a gifted person, ministry in a small place is somewhat of a waste. It turns out this view was shared by many of my peers and professors.
I would venture to say it is still the view of many aspiring to ministry. Who’s excited about the prospect of moving to a small town to pastor a small church? I wasn’t.
But God surprised me. He called me to be a pastor in a town whose name I had never heard of. You’ve never heard of it, either (for the record, it’s Pepperell, Massachusetts). I’ve been here for a decade and have no plans to leave. What I’ve come to believe, and what I’m passionate to commend to you, is that the equation of “bigger” with “better” is out of step with the very gospel we set ourselves to ponder and proclaim. In fact, the message and values of the gospel itself will send some (not all) of us to small places, and encourage us to stay there.
Please don’t misunderstand me: my goal is not to persuade you to go to a small place. It is to persuade you to be joyfully open to God persuading you to go to a small place if he chooses to do so. For the sake of your own soul, and for the sake of God’s glory in both the small and big places, I long for you to be excited if you receive God’s clear call to Nowheresville.
Pondering the gospel has taught me several things that call into question my previous assumptions. These are the building blocks of a theological vision for small-town and rural ministry that now sustains my ministry.1. Strategic isn’t always what we think.
A good part of the drive toward urban church planting and city ministry in the past generation has come from a desire to be strategic, to maximize Christian influence in the culture for the sake of spreading the gospel. Cities are full of young, educated, successful people. If we reach them, we will shape the broader culture, preparing the way for the gospel to advance. This view has borne lots of good fruit, and there is much to commend it.
But something important will be lost if this becomes our only way of thinking. As we reflect deeply on the gospel, we see how its message, values, and priorities might lead some of us in a different direction. One of the most precious things about the gospel is that it often appears so unstrategic, so lavish and wasteful, by worldly standards. Think of the shepherd who leaves his ninety-nine sheep to go after one (Luke 15:3–7). Think of Mary anointing Jesus’s feet with a pound of expensive ointment rather than selling it to raise money for the poor (John 12:1–8). Think of Jesus himself befriending the oppressed and the outsider, or the apostle Paul gathering those who were not wise, powerful, or noble according to worldly standards (1 Corinthians 1:26–31).
The gospel teaches us that strategic isn’t always what we think. The best “strategy” to reach someone you know and love with the gospel is not to influence someone else who will eventually influence them. It’s to spend time together, go deep in friendship, and serve them. And, in fact, the very nature of the gospel gives us permission and encouragement to invest in “unimportant” people — the gospel announces that God crushed his own Son for them.
I believe God does call some people, at some times, to big-picture thinking — to considering how to influence the wider culture and the greatest number of people possible. I’m thankful for those whom he has gifted to do such thinking. But we should be aware that strategizing of that sort can easily play to pride and is often best not done by recent seminary graduates and newly minted pastors.
A call to a small, unstrategic place is in fact the most strategic way of reaching that particular place. It is also a beautiful picture of the extravagant, sacrificial love proclaimed in the gospel itself, which changes people not because of what they can contribute (in leveraging influence with others), but because of what they can’t contribute (in saving themselves). A whole life lived in, and a whole ministry dedicated to, a small, unimportant place will embody and express precious aspects of the gospel that a fast-moving, highly-successful, “influencing the influencers” ministry cannot.2. Small is probably better than we think.
Our culture generally prefers and privileges big things to small things. This includes the size of the places where we live. Small places are often despised. Think of all those stereotypes of undereducated, gap-toothed, tobacco-spitting, inbred, backroads hillbillies and simpletons.
Sadly, this translates into Christian culture, too, often creating a sense of inferiority among small-place pastors. Rural pastors may observe the well-designed websites, large churches, and active social media platforms of their urban counterparts, and begin to feel dissatisfied with (and even embarrassed by) their own ministry, people, and place. It’s not surprising, therefore, when gifted seminary students feel that the place for them is a big church in a big city.
But we should ask: is the preference for big a cultural value or a gospel value? We need our minds renewed through meditation on the gospel. God never disdains what is small and unimpressive. In fact, he frequently delights in it.
The Son of God came as a baby and gathered just twelve disciples during his brief life and ministry. The remnant theology of the Bible whittles humanity down to just one man, then says salvation is achieved through his one death, and that the end-time general resurrection begins with his one resurrection. The kingdom of God comes like a mustard seed, as a hidden bit of leaven. Each time we receive the Lord’s Supper, we declare our appreciation for what is small: we receive a tiny bit of bread and a tiny cup as the first foretastes of a great future messianic banquet. In gospel logic, small is often very good.
This does not, of course, mean that big is necessarily bad. The baby Jesus grows into a man; the resurrection of one leads to the resurrection of many; and the mustard seed grows into a mighty tree. Nor does it mean that small is always good. If a church is small because poor preaching and leadership is choking the life from it, or because there’s no sense of mission and no evangelism, that’s a bad kind of small. My point is that the nature of the gospel itself shows that small is not always or inevitably bad (as our culture, both secular and Christian, often seems to believe). Small is probably better than we think.
Future church leaders, please hear this: the smallness of a place may (or may not) be a reason to go there, but it should never be a reason not to go there.3. Slow is often wiser than we think.
Our culture prizes efficiency and speed, and prefers things done fast. And of course, things tend to happen faster in cities. Big urban churches may plan new initiatives and plant new churches with dizzying speed and success. Rural pastors, meanwhile, can feel stuck in first gear as they wait for the building committee to debate the color of the new toolshed.
In fact, many people living in small places actually prefer slow. One sociologist interviewing small-town residents discovered that their favorite part of small-town life was that things didn’t change. They valued trustworthiness and depth of relationship — things that only come slowly.
As you pursue ministry with a desire to impact the world for Christ, the speed of the big places will likely be very appealing. Because of our built-in, culturally-encouraged desire for fast impact, it’s especially important to slow down and study the gospel. The gospel sometimes spreads rapidly through a people group, and sometimes radically changes an individual overnight. But of course, that’s not the only (or even the main) way it works.
Consider how the gospel has impacted your own life. You were saved the moment you first believed, but we can all identify areas of our lives in which progress has come very slowly. My long battle with envy and slow growth in contentment have played out over time, not overnight. The gains have been hard-won — never hasty. The gospel works more often like a steady, soaking rain than a firehose spray.
So, the gospel itself demonstrates that slow is sometimes okay; it is often wiser than we think. Fast is not necessarily bad, and neither is slow. There is great freedom for restless pastors (and ambitious seminary students) in this knowledge.Think Bigger Than Big
What do I wish I could say to myself eighteen years ago as I entered seminary? Please think very big about things that are truly big: God’s character, God’s gospel, God’s mercy, God’s glory. Know, and firmly believe, and often remind yourself that these truly big things do not depend on the size of your place, your church, your ministry, or your reputation.
Focus on your ministry’s depth. Let God tend to its breadth. Remember that when we think too big in terms of ourselves or our place, we’re limiting how God may be pleased to surprise and use us, which means we’re not thinking big enough. So, think bigger than big. As you consider what comes next after seminary, please don’t limit yourself to big places. Open yourself to the leading of your big God and go joyfully wherever he calls you.
For the joy set before him, Jesus endured the cross. For the joy set before us, we press on to bring as many people into fullness of joy in God as we possibly can.
When I received word that Billy Graham died last week, I began to sing the two signature songs of virtually every one of his crusades, “Just as I Am” and “How Great Thou Art.” And as I did, I saw how the seeds of Christian Hedonism had been sown. I sang those songs hundreds of times growing up.
None of us knows all the roots of why we think what we think. I don’t mean to suggest we are mere victims of unknown forces. We are responsible to discern true and false, and to love what is true.
But I do mean to suggest that there are roots to what we think that we do not know. Their influence was too subtle to recognize at the time. Or we were not old enough, or thoughtful enough, to see what was shaping us. That is certainly true of how my view of the world was shaped — the view called Christian Hedonism.Pursue Your Pleasure — in God
Before I put my finger on the very words of these two signature songs, let me define Christian Hedonism and then tell you how it had roots (unconscious to me) in Billy Graham’s Crusade singing. Christian Hedonism has a vertical expression and a horizontal one. Vertically it relates to glorifying God; horizontally it relates to loving people.
The essence of vertical Christian Hedonism is that God is most glorified in us when we are most satisfied in him. Or, to paraphrase the Westminster Catechism, the chief end of man is to glorify God by enjoying him forever. Or, to express it in the way that captured me when I was 22 years old, God’s supreme passion to be glorified, and my unrelenting desire to be happy, are not at odds, but come to pass in the single act of worship. Therefore, since glorifying God is the purpose of the universe, pursuing joy in God is a divine command: “Delight yourself in the Lord!” (Psalm 37:4). “Be glad in the Lord” (Psalm 32:11). “Rejoice in the Lord” (Philippians 3:1).
The essence of horizontal Christian Hedonism is that satisfaction in God not only glorifies God; it overflows to meet the needs of others. This overflow is called love (in 2 Corinthians 8:2, 8). To be more precise, the essence of vertical Christian Hedonism is that joy in the God who sent his Son Jesus Christ to die for sinners has in its very nature an impulse to increase by drawing others in to share it. Therefore, since loving our neighbor is the second great commandment (Matthew 22:39), pursuing joy in God is a divine command.
The simplest, and most common, dictionary definition for “hedonism” is “the pursuit of pleasure,” or “a life devoted to the pursuit of pleasure.” That’s the way I am using the word. And by putting the word “Christian” in front of it, I mean that the largest and longest “pleasure” is found only in God through Jesus Christ. “In your presence there is fullness of joy; at your right hand are pleasures forevermore” (Psalm 16:11). “We also rejoice in God through our Lord Jesus Christ” (Romans 5:11).
If you ask, “Why is the world designed this way?” one answer is that God is this way. From eternity, God has been supremely happy in the fellowship of the Trinity. God could have said at any time (if there had been time), “This is my beloved Son, with whom I am well pleased” (Matthew 3:17). God has always had supreme pleasure in his Son. And the Son has had pleasure in the Father (John 14:31). Therefore, when salvation was designed by God, the aim of it was to bring redeemed human beings into that very pleasure. “Enter into the joy of your master” (Matthew 25:21, 23).All I Need in Thee I Find
Now to the signature songs and lyrics. Billy ended every service with “Just as I Am.” Millions of people could sing the first verse by heart:
Just as I am, without one plea,
But that Thy blood was shed for me,
And that Thou bid’st me come to Thee,
O Lamb of God, I come! I come!
In other words, there is no basis, no foundation for me to stand on in God’s presence except that Jesus died in my place. I come to him on that basis alone, not on the basis of my worth or merit or good deeds or heritage or church affiliation or baptism. Christ alone is the ground of my acceptance with God.
But there was another verse that goes right to the heart of Christian Hedonism.
Just as I am, poor, wretched, blind;
Sight, riches, healing of the mind;
Yes, all I need, in Thee to find,
O Lamb of God, I come, I come!
I don’t just come to Jesus because I find forgiveness in him but because I find all in him. “Yes, all I need, in Thee to find, I come.” I was poor. I was wretched. I was blind. Then, by God’s grace, my wretchedness was replaced by healing of the mind. My blindness was replaced by sight. My poverty was replaced by riches. What riches? Christ! “All in Thee I find.” Therefore, I come! I come for the healing that you are. I come for the glorious sight that you are. I come for the riches that you are.
Therefore, God was pushing deep into my soul — many souls — the truth that Jesus is not a ticket to heaven. He is heaven. That is, he is what makes heaven to be heaven. We did not sing: “All in heaven I find.” But: “All in Thee I find.” Jesus, you do not give all-satisfying riches. You are all-satisfying riches. And this is why I come. I come! You don’t tell me to suppress my newborn craving to find all my satisfaction in you. No! You say, “Come! Find your all in me. I will be glorified as you are satisfied in me!”My Burden Gladly Bearing
And in almost every crusade thousands sang, under the vast arm-reach of Cliff Barrows, “How Great Thou Art!” To be sure, it soars in celebration of “the worlds thy hands have made” and the “lofty mountain grandeur.” But the last two verses are the heart and climax. And they show that gladness is both the ground and the goal of our salvation.
And when I think, that God, His Son not sparing,
Sent Him to die, I scarce can take it in;
That on the Cross, my burden gladly bearing,
He bled and died to take away my sin.
Bearing our sin was not a begrudging obedience to his Father. “For the joy that was set before him [Christ] endured the cross” (Hebrews 12:2). And “How Great Thou Art” is right to infer that this joyful hope surged back into the present horrors to sustain Jesus on the cross. Do not dream that it was impossible for the Lord of all to feel agony and gladness in the same act. This obedience-sustaining, agonized gladness was the ground of our salvation.What Joy Shall Fill My Heart
Then in the last verse of the song we reach the climax of salvation and history.
When Christ shall come, with shout of acclamation
And take me home, what joy shall fill my heart,
Then I shall bow, in humble adoration
And then proclaim: “My God, how great Thou art!”
Heart-satisfying joy expressed in humble adoration. Because joy in God is the essence of adoration of God. All of history and all of salvation comes to climax in the God-centered happiness of God’s people overflowing in adoration. Because God is most glorified in us when we are most satisfied in him.
Thank you, Billy Graham. Thank you, Cliff Barrows. Thank you, George Beverly Shea. You taught us to sing the greatest truths in the world. And little did I know you were teaching me the precious truth of Christian Hedonism. Thank you.
Protestants have long championed justification by faith alone. But we distort this truth when we confuse justification and final salvation.
Billy Graham died on Wednesday, February 21 at the age of 99. That morning we asked John Piper to reflect on his ministry and legacy.
I once asked a college class to give me the definition of “the perfect woman.” Immediately, one of the girls blurted out, “a cute, chaste, cooking, cleaning, childbearing Christian who is clever (but not too clever).” And then she added, “Not that I’m bitter, of course.”
In their search for love, men suffer from similar frustrations. The whole process can be deeply confusing. In God’s providence, there is a whole book of the Bible, the Song of Songs, which addresses the deep desire and longing in our hearts to love and be loved.One Thousand Lovers
Many fine commentators see Solomon as the hero of the Song of Songs. In my commentary, however, I disagree, seeing Solomon as part of the problem, not the solution. After all, in 1 Kings 11, the Bible does not depict Solomon as the sort of person to advise you on love and marriage.
Solomon had deep patterns of sin and failure in his life — perhaps especially in the realm of his sexuality. Deuteronomy 17:17 forbade the king from multiplying wives, lest they turn his heart away from the Lord. Yet Solomon acquired no fewer than one thousand wives and concubines (1 Kings 11:3). In the ancient world, polygamy was a way to flaunt your wealth, ensure many offspring, and cement strategic alliances. On a human level, those reasons seemed wise, designed to give security to the royal house. But acquiring one thousand lovers is a sign of a heart determined to be self-sufficient and independent of God.A Flaming Fire
Solomon paid a heavy price for ignoring what God had said in favor of human wisdom. Like Solomon, we often face the temptation to substitute human wisdom for the apparently restrictive wisdom of God’s word. Human wisdom tells us that our sexuality is just another natural appetite to be fulfilled, like eating or drinking. Who wants to be sexually anorexic? Human wisdom says, “God is against sex and is trying to restrict you from finding true fulfillment.”
God’s word actually tells us that sex is a beautiful and wonderful gift of God within marriage. Yet outside of marriage, sex is destructive and harmful. The Song of Songs explains that sexual love is like flaming fire (Song 8:6): something beautiful and warming in its proper place, but terrifying and destructive if unrestrained.
For us, just as for Solomon, sex is never just about sex. Solomon’s wives were about his search for significance and security. So too, we may use sex to find security: “If I have sex with my boyfriend, then he’ll want to marry me.” Or significance: “If I can find a girl who wants to sleep with me, I will feel attractive.” Or intimacy: “Sex will move our relationship to a whole new level.” Or we seek fake security, significance, or intimacy through solo sex or porn.Temple Builders
Using sex in a way for which it was not designed leaves us feeling guilty, battling shame and isolation. It doesn’t help that in our churches we often have a conspiracy of silence, in which sex is never mentioned. Or if it is, we make it seem as if you are the only person in the room to struggle with your sexuality while everyone else is as pure as the driven snow.
The truth is that we are all deeply broken people. We are all captivated by false idols for whom we are busy building temples. Because our sexuality is such a deep part of our identity, that false worship is going to appear clearly in our sexual brokenness. That’s why the standard moralistic approach to sexual sin — “Just stop it!” — is so powerless to change us. If our sexual brokenness reflects our idolatry — false worship — then healing in this area will come only as we grow in our love for the gospel — true worship.
Perhaps some reading this are quite sure that none of this applies to you. You are not sexually broken: you have made pledges, formed accountability groups, and sworn to remain pure. It is certainly a wonderful goal to strive for such things. Yet if your trust is in your own strength and determination to be sexually pure until marriage, you’ve simply created a different idol. True purity of heart never boasts in being pure, for it flows out of a deep awareness of our own weakness without the Lord’s protection.
For myself, I know that the fact that I remained a virgin until I was married had absolutely nothing to do with my strength of character and everything to do with God’s kind gift of social ineptness. I also know that for others, God’s sovereignly allowing them to sin in this area was precisely the means by which he began to open their eyes to the true depth of their need of him. We are all broken.Someone Greater Than Solomon
For broken people, the fact that the biblical song about love and sex is connected to the name of Solomon is paradoxically good news. Unlike many contemporary love songs, the Song of Solomon does not pretend that we live in a world untainted by sin and brokenness. Of course, the Song does celebrate what is good and wholesome in sex. It intends to leave you panting with desire for a true love like this. It invites you not to settle for a boring marriage, but to hold out for someone with whom, with God’s help, you can write a song that really sings.
But by connecting the song with the name of Solomon, with all his sexual brokenness, the writer reminds us that there are many dangers associated with marriage and sex. It is not easy to find the right person, or to be the right person, and faithfully waiting for that person is perhaps the hardest part of all.
Solomon’s story shows us that if you are holding out for a human hero, you are bound to be disappointed. Solomon, the wisest man in the whole world, became obsessed with money, sex, and power. Nor was this a brief struggle in Solomon’s youth, from which he soon emerged victorious: it was a lasting obsession that latterly drew him away from wholehearted worship of the Lord.
Yet God would not relinquish his promises because of Solomon’s sin. Instead, he sent us the true hero for whom all our hearts are waiting. The reason that we all have a deep longing for the kind of love and intimacy that we glimpse in the best of human marriages is that we were made for an even better marriage: the marriage between Christ and his bride, the church. That is why the church has not been wrong to see in the Song of Songs a message about Jesus and his people. A depiction of the best of all loves and the most wonderful of marriages will inevitably turn our hearts toward Christ, who has truly loved us and is the answer for our deep brokenness.Your Wedding Garment
Jesus came to a world of sexually broken people who were drinking stale water from broken cisterns instead of seeking the fresh, clean, living water that comes from loving and obeying God. In the process, he set aside the security, glory, and intimacy that he had enjoyed with the Father from all eternity, laying himself open to abuse and assault.
Jesus did not experience the joys of earthly marriage, family, and sex that we so easily regard as our rights. Instead, he set aside his rights for the sake of his bride, the church. For her — for you — he went to the cross and laid down his life so that he could clothe his sin-stained bride in beautiful garments of his spotless righteousness. When the Father looks at you, he doesn’t gaze upon your ugly record of sexual sin, nor on your prideful trust in your own strength to maintain purity in your walk through life. Instead, he sees you clothed in Jesus, and he welcomes you in for Jesus’s sake.
Return your eyes to Christ’s beautifully scarred face. See again what he has done for you. Look back in time to Jesus on the cross, his blood shed to atone for your wandering heart. Look upward at Jesus now exalted in heaven, given the name above every name, before whom all nations will bow. And look onward, straining your eyes for his return, on the day when he will come to claim his bride, and our longing will finally be satisfied.
You tell me that you’re nowhere near the path of adultery. You and he are just friends. You both love the Lord and desire to walk in obedience to his word. In fact, it was your shared commitment to Jesus that connected you.
As you served at the Christian conference, chatting over the course of long days and boxed lunches, your conversation was filled with Christ and a zeal for the faith. A group of you got connected on social media, so once the conference was over, moving your dialogue to the inbox was easy. And from there, text messaging made more sense. Now, months later, you’re in touch every couple weeks, with an occasional phone call.
“But nothing about our conversation is improper,” you added quickly. “We talk about our families and ministries. We might touch on something we read in our devotions that morning. He’ll even listen to thoughts about my upcoming blog posts. If anything, at the end of our calls, I’m encouraged and edified in what God has called me to do.”
“Does your husband listen to your thoughts about upcoming blog posts?” I asked.
“Oh, he’s got so much going on,” you said. “I don’t mind that he doesn’t have time.”
“What about spiritual growth?” I asked. “Do you and your husband share what you’re learning as well?”
“Again, it’s just a time issue,” you said. “His job is demanding.”
Friend, I know you’ve said that the mere thought of adultery is repulsive to you, and that you could never see yourself taking that path. But it is my hope and prayer that you see the truth: you are already on the path.Sin Makes Our Heart Sick
You think you can determine the boundaries of your heart — “This far I will go and no more.” And you attribute goodwill to your heart — “This is only a friendship, and an edifying one at that.”
But you know I love you, and I need to remind you that sin is deceitful, and your heart is susceptible. Scripture says,
Take care, brothers, lest there be in any of you an evil, unbelieving heart, leading you to fall away from the living God. But exhort one another every day, as long as it is called “today,” that none of you may be hardened by the deceitfulness of sin. (Hebrews 3:12–13)
Can we break that down? Sin is deceitful — it leads you to believe things that are not true. Who does it deceive? You. It would have you think that you are in control, that you can set the course of your emotions and even confine them at will. It would have you believe that your intentions are perfectly pure. Sin would tout the “good” in having “godly conversations” with this man, while suppressing the truth — that your heart is being drawn to him. You’re taken with the time and attention he gives you. Wooed by the shared attraction to spiritual things.
Sin can make the heart sick. And not a “slight fever” sick, but desperately sick. It treats nothing as sacred. It would use even your love of Christ to lure you into infidelity. While you insist you’re not on the path to adultery, your feet are mired in emotional infidelity. A man who’s not your husband is the one to whom you turn for support and encouragement. He’s the one with whom you seem to be growing spiritually. Far from “edifying,” your communications with this man are leading you headlong into full-blown unfaithfulness.
You cannot begin to understand all that’s happening in your heart, but God knows. Ask him to search your heart, to expose every evil longing that lurks within. And then, ask for forgiveness and for strength to end this “friendship.”The Flesh Is Weak
Yes, my friend — you have to end it. We cannot fully understand or control the goings-on in our hearts, but God tells us what we can do — guard it. In his infinite wisdom, he says, “Watch over your heart with all diligence, for from it flow the springs of life” (Proverbs 4:23, NASB).
Every text message heightens your interest. Every conversation engages your affections. Every sighting on social media consumes your mind. You must disentangle yourself. Put a complete end to communication. Block him on your phone and on social media.
“But that’s so extreme,” you say. “Does it really require all that?”
My friend, your measures have to be extreme. The nature of sin and the devices of the enemy require no less. The goal is your destruction. While the gift of eternal life is yours in Christ, you stand to lose your marriage and family, your ministry and witness, and so much more.
Lesser measures leave the door open. You may think it’s enough to decide that you simply won’t reply to his text messages or answer his calls. But Jesus, knowing our makeup intimately, warned, “The spirit indeed is willing, but the flesh is weak” (Matthew 26:41). This warning was given as he spoke of temptation.
We must recognize not only the weakness of our flesh, but that it bends toward evil (Romans 7:18). “Make no provision” for it (Romans 13:14). Practically speaking, that’s tantamount to telling your flesh, “No, you won’t even get the occasional gander at his Facebook page.”Cling to the Savior
Being entangled in sin causes you to lose the sweet fellowship of the Savior. I know you don’t want that, my friend. Whatever fellowship you are seeking in this other man, whatever need you think he fills, seek it in Jesus. He is your portion. He is your Friend. He listens and understands, and he is able to minister to your every need — and the needs in your marriage. Cling to him.
Our hearts are deceitful and desperately sick. Don’t let your heart trick you into thinking that you can find greater pleasures anywhere but Jesus.
How do we know if we really love Jesus? The Bible’s answer might surprise you.
We know if we love Jesus by what we consistently (not perfectly) do and don’t do. We know this because Jesus said, “If you love me, you will keep my commandments” (John 14:15). And the apostle John echoed Jesus when he wrote, “This is the love of God, that we keep his commandments” (1 John 5:3).
At face value, these statements should make any lover uncomfortable. We all know intuitively that the essence of love is not merely its actions. Love cannot be reduced to a mere verb. That’s why everyone laughs at John Piper’s illustration of a husband handing his wife a big bouquet of flowers on their wedding anniversary and then telling her he’s just fulfilling his obligation as a dutiful husband. It’s why everyone understands Edward John Carnell’s illustration of a husband asking, “Must I kiss my wife goodnight?” Because we know the answer is “Yes, but not that kind of must.”Not That Kind of Must
Neither Jesus nor John meant that obeying Jesus’s commandments is the same thing as love. What they meant was that love for God, by its very nature, produces the consistent characteristic of “the obedience of faith” (Romans 1:5). So, on earth, love for Christ tends to look like obeying Christ.
Now, love, faith, and obedience are not the same things. Love is our cherishing or treasuring Christ, faith is our trusting Christ, and obedience is our doing what Christ says. The essence of each is different. Bad things, like dead orthodoxy and legalism, happen when we make them the same thing. We must keep Christ’s commandments — but not that kind of must.
Though they are distinct, they are inseparable. We cannot love Christ without trusting (exercising faith in) him (1 Peter 1:8). We cannot trust Christ without obeying him (James 2:17). So, naturally, we cannot love Christ if we live in persistent, conscious disobedience to him (1 John 1:6; Luke 6:46).Wearing Our Love on Our Sleeves
This is an elegant, devastatingly simple design. God made us to wear our love on our sleeves. He wired us to serve what we treasure. How we love ourselves is evident by how we serve ourselves, for good (Ephesians 5:29) or for evil (2 Timothy 3:2). How we love our spouse or children or friends or pastors or co-workers or pets is evident by how we serve or neglect them. Whether we love God or money is evident by how we serve or neglect one or the other (Luke 16:13). In the long run, we cannot fake who or what we really serve.
It’s true that we sometimes can hide our sleeves from human view — sometimes even from ourselves — at least for a while. But God has a way of exposing our sleeves eventually.
This is what the parable of the good Samaritan was about, which nearly all of us are granted the opportunity to live out in different ways and at different times. The priest, the Levite, and the Samaritan all outed their sleeves by the ways they responded to the injured man (Luke 10:31–35).
It’s also what the story of the rich young man in Mark 10 was about. He seemed at least partially blind to the love on his own sleeve, because though he thought he had done lots of obedient things (Mark 10:19–20), something was troubling his soul — which is why he came to Jesus. But Jesus saw the man’s sleeve clearly and with one sentence drew everyone’s attention to it: “You lack one thing: go, sell all that you have and give to the poor, and you will have treasure in heaven; and come, follow me” (Mark 10:21). Then it was clear: the man could not obey Jesus because he loved and trusted money more than Jesus.
We see this all over the Bible: love for God or love for idols is made visible by obedience or disobedience to God. We see it in Cain with Abel (Genesis 4), Abraham with Isaac (Genesis 22), Reuben with Bilhah (Genesis 35), Joseph with Potiphar’s wife (Genesis 39), David with Saul in the cave (1 Samuel 24), David with Bathsheba (2 Samuel 11), Judas with his silver (Matthew 26), Peter with his denials (John 18), Peter with the Sanhedrin (Acts 4), Ananias and Sapphira with others’ admiration (Acts 5), and Demas with Thessalonica (2 Timothy 4) — just to name a few.By This We Know Love
But the most important place in Scripture (or anywhere else) we see love demonstrated through faith-empowered obedience is in Jesus:
- By this we know love, that he laid down his life for us (1 John 3:16).
- God shows his love for us in that while we were still sinners, Christ died for us (Romans 5:8).
- Greater love has no one than this, that someone lay down his life for his friends (John 15:13).
Supreme love was made visible in Jesus’s death on the cross, where “the founder and perfecter of our faith” (Hebrews 12:2) pursued his, and our full, eternal joy (John 15:11) through his obedience in the midst of the greatest suffering (Hebrews 5:8). God wore his love on his bloody sleeve. Jesus did not merely “love in word or talk but in deed and in truth” (1 John 3:18). “By this we know love.”
How do we know if we love Jesus? By what we consistently (not perfectly) do and don’t do. All lovers of Jesus keenly know we don’t love him perfectly. “We all stumble in many ways” (James 3:2), and “if we say we have no sin, we deceive ourselves, and the truth is not in us” (1 John 1:8). But “if we say we have fellowship with [Jesus] while we walk in darkness, we lie and do not practice the truth” (1 John 1:6).
We know what love is by what love does. All lovers of Jesus refuse to walk in persistent, conscious disobedience to him. Our faith-empowered obedience in public and private places is the God-designed evidence of our love for Jesus.
What encouragement does God give to those who are the product of reproductive technology and feel like they were abandoned by a biological parent?